And Marla is sitting behind the wheel of the old four-by, driving past her now. It is dusk on the eastern outskirts, and way out past the three curves where my brother lives are the first stars. Adona is buried somewhere in the golden light of end day, in the dregs of sunlight that are still seeping into the basin of the river valley through the clouds. The family lot at Mount Ararat Cemetery is burning its low, hot embers.
Tuck and Marla are up front, and I am crammed up in the back, my long legs hedged between my niece’s booster chair and a Styrofoam cooler half full of beer and half full of deer sausage. A comfortable, boozy silence fills the air of the truck. Until Marla breaks it.
“Some day it’ll by us on Ararat,” she says, twiddling her calloused thumbs against the wheel like her eminent demise is no big deal. “We were talking a month ago, before you got back, about our stone.” Tuck and Marla, ragtag parents extraordinaire, ready to die at fifty. The curveballs never stop.
She goes on. “A joint marker we were thinking. Maybe two little hearts that intertwine in marble, kissed with doves. What do you think?”
“I think it’s time to have you committed. We all know I’ll be dealing with your drunk and senile asses for the next forty years.”
“Knock on wood, Son #2,” Tucks says in that way he is so good at, coming in at the last second with the simplest little rejoinder, letting you know he was listening all along. He knocks a broad fist against his skull a few times, and it ka-thunks like a dried-up church bell. We share a laugh.
Marla, suddenly serious, catches sight of the booster seat through the mirror. “I hope you’re right, kiddo; I’d love to watch the little one grow yet.” My brother’s kid, she means.
We’ve gone by the family lot now, the flats that lead back to town laid bare before us. And like Lot’s wife I steal one last glance, toward Adona’s bed. But she’s the one behind the wheel as I turn back to face the road, sober as a cold shower and as lively as ever. And I am five-years-old, all forming emotions and nerve endings in training underwear. The bar on 18th hasn’t burnt down yet, and is still making a killing with my parents’ money. Before Marla and Tuck left for the evening, Adona had, once again, swallowed the car key so they couldn’t crash it. And now Adona was answering a call in the pit of night from the old bartender, Patsy Light, telling her she’d need to come down to pick up her burden.
They’ve gone too far this time, Patsy’s voice gargled through the rotary phone. Too far.
So Adona would bundle my brother and me up in woolen wrappings and have the car defrosted and boiling—nobody knew where she kept the spare key when she was waiting for the other to return. In the car, she would play a Pavarotti cassette. The lilt under her breath was perfumed with springtime from a country we had never known but had come to understand through her, all fresh lemon blossoms and wisteria.
Rides from the bar were my earliest memories, Marla and Tuck smeared and sweating next to us in the scalding Lincoln Continental, the neon clinging to their skin. Adona would be hunched over the wheel and sulky—the cassette switched off, winter once more—at the first sight of them smoking outside, all ripped hosiery and baggy flannel, muttering backpocket Italian slurs at them from the stockpile she had learned from her filthy uncles on the bocce courts of Perugia. This is family, my childish wisdom then told me, as we skidded our way home.
And as soon as the car rolled to a stop, my parents would hit the pavement, waking the neighbors as they sprinted and caterwauled into the house, down the stairs to the basement bar they had built for themselves like prohibition mafiosos with fat cigars and axle-greased hair. Adona would trail behind with us, gesturing a shoo-shooing wave to the neighbors’ lamplit windows, then up the stairs to the better half of the split level, pushing us into her bosom to keep us safe from the winter’s cold.
When she’d nestle the two of us into bed together, she would whisper words that we could never hear. A prayer? No, not the right tone. It had to be advice — delivered to our guardian angels? To God? We’d gossip about it long after she left, making her way down the stairs to cry into a cup of tea while she listened to the thump of music and peels of laughter bleed through the floorboards, lost in her thoughts and the swirling of cream into hot liquid.
The memory ends, the reverie of those once-submerged memories, and I am back, back with an older Marla and Tuck who, though they might not look it from the subtle booze cruise, mellowed out in the end, had made their peace with Adona.
Oh, Adona. I’m sorry for them, as much as I can be.
Adona is buried on Mount Ararat with the others who share my DNA, the aunts and uncles whose hands you shake and whose perfume fills your nose during family reunions, the shadows unfamiliar when looking through family albums, those mannequins in gingham dresses and starched button-ups. A few cousins lost too early on, and the unetched shadows of those to come. Buried history.
“Maybe you ought to pay her a visit or lay some flowers while you’re back.” Tuck saw my craning neck through the rearview mirror, not knowing I just had, in a way; he looks thoughtful and dopey-eyed with drink. He is my father, and Marla my mother — so it only makes sense that they care, right, Adona?
Mount Ararat is all our final resting place whether I want it to be or not. In boxes that will crack in the dead of winter and let in the melting snow come spring, and again and again until our bodies are summertime pudding and we seep toward one another in death, mixing and dissolving into the earth.
I am suddenly overcome, emotionally drunk, lost in thought. Our three very alive hearts pulse onward, lurching ever-forward with the advancing crawl of a DUI arrest waiting to happen. Small, beating creatures that live inside us, held up by wings of lead. I can feel the strange weight in my chest, the decision to return after so long an absence, the missing faces at Christmas Feast, the crinkling eyes of my foolish parents, our messy array of mistakes, Adona’s resting place, pressing me in on all sides, indenting me to the countryside. Reminding me. This is family.