The Other Wife
Memorial Weekend when Julie was a little girl meant a long Sunday afternoon drives that looped through the countryside ferrying her grandmother from one church cemetery to another. Her favorite was North Garryowen. The church was long shuttered, even when she was a child, but the cemetery teemed with a shadowy life that reminded Julie still of a children’s novel she’d read in the fifth grade. The story took place in an abandoned castle where the inhabitants still lived though the only evidence of their existence were their shadows. Julie regarded her long lost relations as shades still casting influence through the stories their names pulled from her grandmother and sisters.
Even as an teenager, Julie loved walking through the cemeteries with Granny Fagan on her arm, the old woman pointing her cane at this petrified tree or that granite angel, chuckling and gossiping as though they were strolling among relatives at a reunion and not a garden of stones.
Bluffs topped with a gaudy metal crucifix that cast an alien green glow over its western edges at night on the far southern edges of town, overlooking the highway and over shadowed Mount Olivet. The cross was all that remained of a Baptist bible camp that never stood a chance of catching on with the mostly Catholic locals. Abandoned to its fate in the woods, the cross was the subject of regular fundraising drives in an effort to keep it glowing like some cheap dashboard decoration. Jimmy had loved the idea of its cheesy neon light illuminating his eternal resting place.
The late May air was a bit cooler than usual and Julie hugged herself inside the red and black plaid flannel she’d inherited from her husband. The elbows needed mending and two buttons were missing, but Julie wore it anyway, dreading the warm weather because she didn’t know how she would cope without its soft comfort wrapped around her.
The stone bench near the gravesite radiated with the kind of cold Julie expected from a cemetery where everything resided in stasis. The granite chilled her backside and she was glad she’d opted for sweatpants instead of jeans.
Jimmy’s grave was still bare but for the memorial tokens strewn over the last few week by family and friends who’d come by out of respect, longing or simple curiosity after hearing the news of the headstone’s arrival. Not knowing the proper etiquette for such an announcement, Julie opted for emails and phone calls to anyone she thought might care to know.
“Why don’t you just put it in your Facebook status?” Brecca asked when a spate of phone calls left Julie too teary and choked up to eat supper one evening.
“Facebook?” Julie asked. “Seriously? I might as well go to the party store and grab invites to the unveiling then?”
“Don’t be snarky, Mother,” Brecca said. “It’s just everyone we know is our Facebook friend and if you are going to get all weepy every time you need to let people know something about Dad, it’s a better way to go. No face to face.”
Julie didn’t bother to point out that everyone she knew was not on Facebook unless they’d been coerced during a high school reunion drive or driven to sign up in a parental form of self-defense, but she bowed to the wisdom of youth when it came to angst and posted the status of Jimmy’s new status on her status bar.
In fact the strategy worked so well that it became her default way of dealing on days when she simply couldn’t deal in fleshy encounters.
“Perhaps you should just register an account for Jimmy and be done with it,” Gemma remarked in the comment box when Julie had updated the status of her grief for the third time.
Julie was offended and wouldn’t talk to her sister for a week after but Brecca thought it was funny.
“Dad always said it would be over his own dead body that he signed up for Facebook,” she chuckled, and Julie was struck yet again at the differences between her and her child’s grief.
Grief dogged Julie from the first rays of morning consciousness through her dreams every night, but Brecca lived her fifteen-year-old life the same as she had before and during her father’s illness. Her tears were brief like late afternoon summer showers that arrived without warning and flooded the side-yard before disappearing over the rainbow and draining away into the storm sewers. She grieved like she grew, suddenly and always at the most inopportune time.
Memorial Day coincided with Jimmy’s birthday that year. He loved it when that happened. The weekend would be one long gathering that ebbed and flowed from one meal to the next and one day over to another. Maggie had wanted to commemorate the day with a barbecue at her home with family and friends.
“And a pony keg,” she complained to Karen.
“It is Jimmy’s family,” Karen said, as if Julie needed reminding.
“But she expects me to pay for it!” Julie said. “Cater it too. She wanted to know if I could talk to my brother-in-law about a discount at the store.”
Julie’s younger sister worked at the local Hy-Vee grocery as a butcher and her husband was the assistant manager. They’d arranged for the funeral dinner and Maggie had guilted them into providing Easter dinner for the immediate family through their employee discounts and connections, but Jen had complained to Julie about it later and Julie found herself in the uncomfortable position of having to set her mother-in-law straight about limits and the propriety of using one’s loss for monetary gain.
“Well, let’s just have a little party of our own then,” Karen said. “You, me and Gemma. Brecca if she wants. We’ll have a picnic at Jimmy’s place. How does that sound?”
Jimmy’s place had become the euphemism for his grave.
“I spent the afternoon at Jimmy’s place,” she would say if anyone came around the house looking for her on the rare occasions that anyone aside from Karen or her sisters looked at all.
She was not always at the cemetery but found it a useful alibi when people pried or harangued her about needing to “get back out there” or “pull herself together” with all the boot strappy connotations that usually rode shotgun with such advice. Well meaning as it was, Julie found it irritating and having a handy catchall phrase to put people into an ill-at-ease frame of being was a surprising comfort.
Since going on leave, Julie spent her days in a life of Riley limbo. Once Brecca was seen off to school, she might head back to bed for nap as it was easier to sleep during the day than at night or she would walk over to the health club for a swim and sauna. Afternoon diversions included errands or yard work or she might wander the mall with a Starbucks in hand, shopping in her mind’s eye for things that she’d always meant to acquire but now that she had money suddenly wondered why she thought she needed them in the first place. But at least once a week, Julie found herself perched like a little wren contemplating flight on the stone bench near her husband’s grave, watching spring slowly overtake the bare earth as tufts of new grass fought with the weeds for supremacy.
A simple light grey granite marker marked the spot now. It matched the weathered one just to its right, lined up as perfectly as x’s on a tic tac toe board which reminded Julie of her own unmarked grave on the other side. The inscription was plain. Jimmy had insisted.
“Nothing Shakespearean or biblical,” he said. “Just the facts. Here lies James M. Cox. Husband, father and son.”
“No mention of your beloved nature or extraordinary love and devotion?”
“No,” he said, his voice flattening with emotion and the mounting effort it took to breathe while remaining on his feet. “I wasn’t practically lovable and my devotion, being a given, hardly needs mentioning.”
“Why the change?” Julie asked.
“Change?” he said and then followed her gaze before nodding in understanding. “Mary E. Cox, Beloved wife and mother.”
He began to cough and Julie held him close to her side as he struggled to expel a blood tinged wad of mucus which he spat on the ground in front of him before pulling a tissue from his coat and wiping away the evidence from his lips.
“Wives deserved no less,” he wheezed a bit as he spoke. “If I’d been fixed better, there’d be a boulder with a short novel on it sitting there.”
“What would you put on mine?” Julie asked. She struggled with curiosity where Jimmy and Mary were concerned, and for the bulk of their nearly eleven years of marriage, she’d resisted comparing herself or asking Jimmy to do so, but the likelihood of a threesome for eternity was right there in front of her and hard to ignore or rationalize.
“Julie Ann Cox, beloved other wife,” he said without cracking the smile she could hear over the wheeze in his voice and see in his dancing blue eyes.
Julie back smacked him flat across the chest, forgetting for an instance that he was twenty pounds lighter than he’d been just six months earlier. Horrified her hand flew to her mouth and tears welled, but Jimmy laughed and hugged her around the waist.
“You couldn’t damage a fly with those weenie arms of yours,” he assured her and kissed her cheek. “About as lethal as a sparrow’s kneecap, those guns of yours.”
“Where are you?”
Julie started at the sound of her sister’s voice. Before looking up, she wiped away tears that had somehow dripped the length of her face and hung like droplets on the eaves on dewey mornings.
“Remembering,” she said.
“Productively too I see,” Gemma remarked, pointedly eyeing the salt tracks on Julie’s cheeks.
“So, I cry,” Julie shrugged. “It’s what widows do.”
Gemma ignored her and waved her over to help with the portable camping table.
“Didn’t this belong to Dan?” Julie asked as she grabbed an end and steadied it while Gemma crouched underneath.
“Yes, I got all the camping stuff and he took the electronics,” she said, “and that I feel screwed goes without saying because I would never have spent a millisecond in the outdoors but for him, and in the end, it was all a façade. He hated camping as much as I did.”
The table was up and she dragged it back and forth in search of the most level part of the ground. Not finding it, Gemma gave up and sat down. Julie slid in across from her.
“I brought cake and your favorite wine despite the fact that they clash from a gourmet perspective,” Gemma said. She reached over into a small red cooler and produced a bottle of Riesling and then a small cake box. “And I can see you brought nothing.”
“Karen told me to just show up,” Julie said.
“And you’re getting really good at that too,” Gemma replied.
Julie felt the earlier sadness lift like fog as the heat of her anger rose to claim its place. She bit back a reply because she was beginning to suspect that her sister deliberately baited her in an attempt to force her out of the comfortable funk widowhood was becoming.
“I hope Karen is bringing cups, plates and the like because I can share a bottle but eating with fingers is just too gross for me.”
While she was pontificating, Julie saw Karen’s minivan pull up behind her truck. She waved and Karen returned it, emerging from the vehicle with a picnic basket that Julie didn’t doubt was the Martha Stewart interpretation of “always prepared”.
“So, what have I missed?” Karen asked as she plunked down the basket and began unloading plates, flatware and green plastic wine glasses from Target.
“Julie was grieving as usual,” Gemma informed her as she set the table.
“And Gemma was being a bitch about it,” Julie said.
“Wow,” Karen said, “you guys are a Dr. Phil episode and that is scary on levels I don’t want to explore. So, Gemma put your jealous inner rat terrier back in its cage, and Julie? Suck it up and have some cake.”
“Jealous? Moi?” Gemma asked as she placed a slice of white-layered cake drowning in butter cream on summer themed paper plates.
“It’s the widow thing,” Karen explained. “Speaking from a hierarchy standpoint, widow trumps divorcée just like married trumps single and stay at home trumps working mom.”
“Hmmm, but having been married at all trumps spinsterhood,” Gemma said.
“I don’t think spinster is the sensitive person’s term,” Karen corrected.
“Which is why Gem used it,” Julie pointed out.
“Exactly,” Gemma agreed through a mouth full of cake, “if I can be a cunt to my poor widowed sister what do I care about lonely cat ladies?”
“My point is,” Karen said, pouring the wine as she continued, “that you are jealous because Julie is looked upon with sympathy and you are scorned as a failure.”
“Julie’s pitied,” Gemma said. “I’d rather have people cluck their tongues and whisper about what a mess I’ve made of my life than have to put up with poodle eyes and sympathy that’s just one step up from horror.”
“It’s not pity,” Karen said.
Julie shook her head and put down her fork. The cake was too sweet and she wasn’t sure she could gag down a second mouthful.
“It is pity. They feel sorry for me and are glad it is me and not them,” she said. “It’s all over their faces and in the way they pat you like you were covered in something smelly and step back quickly afterward as though you were a plague carrier.”
“I’ve never done that,” Gemma said with a smugly prideful note.
“Well, you’ve never been nice to me a day in my life,” Julie said.
“And I never will,” Gemma assured her. “Isn’t it a comfort to have one real person in your life?”
“Gemma, down,” Karen said.
Julie didn’t reply. In some ways her sister’s refusal to be other than herself through the last months was as welcome as it was maddening. Gemma was the last to offer a shoulder but her shoulder was more authentic and interested in Julie than just about anyone else.
“Oh, Julie knows I love her,” Gemma replied without looking up from the rapidly disappearing cake on her plate.
Karen broke the silence that followed with a nod towards the graves.
“We haven’t toasted the birthday boy.”
“Can you technically be said to age once you are dead?” Gemma asked.
“His mother seems to think so,” Julie said.
“Well, Mags is a fountain of wisdom,” Gemma conceded. She lifted her glass. “A toast to Jimmy. Happy birthday brother and a long eternity to you!”
Julie smiled and raised her glass. Jimmy would’ve wanted a dark ale and one of those oversized cookies they made at the mall, but his preferences didn’t matter anymore she supposed.
“Happy birthday, beloved,” she said because she decided it really shouldn’t go without saying after all.