Cooley never expected to cry when her mother died. Her death wasn’t expected either, although Cooley must have wished her mother dead a thousand times. A million. But her mother never died until now, when Cooley was thirty-two years old and didn’t expect anything of her mother anymore.
Cooley certainly never expected news of her mother’s death to be delivered to her by a police officer. In the middle of the day, in the middle of nowhere, Iowa. It was a Wednesday. For some reason, the day of the week immediately struck Cooley. A rhyme streamed across her memory like a hidden river. “Monday’s child is full of grace…” Wednesday’s child was full of woe. In death too, like birth? Was her mother full of woe?
“We found your mom in her house,” the policeman said. “Neighbors called. She probably passed on a week or so ago.”
Cooley no longer wished her mother dead, but she didn’t wish her alive either; she never wished her at all. Cooley was removed from her home at sixteen, and then for sixteen years after, she never spoke to her mother. Her mother never spoke to her. For sixteen years, Cooley knew where her mother was and her mother knew where she was, yet they never laid eyes upon the other. In a town as small as What Cheer, Iowa, this could only happen by careful design. Cooley definitely designed; there were many peeked-around aisles at the grocery store, and fast glances down town streets and in parking lots. She assumed her mother did too. Their being in homes at opposite ends of What Cheer probably helped some, though the fact that there was really only one of anything in What Cheer made the sixteen-year separation a challenge. One grocery store. One diner. One post office. One salon. One liquor store, though there was more than one bar. But Cooley didn’t drink.
Her mother did.
Cooley lived in a clock museum, The Home For Wayward Clocks, the exact place she went on that day when she ran out of her mother’s home for the last time. She left at the insistence of an old man, the owner of the museum, James Elgin. An old man, a clock man, who wanted nothing more than to help her. Cooley knew he’d saved her life.
Her mother was, Cooley thought, a monster. Evil. And Cooley had the scars to prove it. Wispy gray lines ran like filigree up and down her arms. They looked like cigarette smoke sketched onto Cooley’s skin with a delicate brush and a fragile color. Cooley still remembered when the cigarette smoke was real, the red glowing ember was the brush, and it wasn’t delicate at all. Oh, the smell of a cigarette. The stink of burning skin.
James died first, and when he died, Cooley expected to cry, and she did. He wasn’t a boyfriend or husband or lover. He wasn’t her grandfather or father or brother or uncle or even a distant cousin. But he was family. He was safe. When Cooley moved in with him when she was sixteen years old, moved into the crazy clock guy’s house in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of What Cheer, Iowa, she’d never known what safe was. James was safe. These walls and all of these clocks were safe. There were always arms around her and a heartbeat to press her ear to.
James died when Cooley was twenty-nine. And now, at thirty-two, her mother was gone as well. Her father was gone years before. The only things that seemed to endure were the clocks in James’ museum, Cooley’s home now. The clocks told time for James, and now they told time for Cooley.
So it was mid-morning on a Wednesday when Cooley heard the doorbell, which was odd. The door was always open, to allow in visitors to the museum. No one rang the bell. A special electronic Westminster alert chime went off in the museum’s control room whenever the door was opened, and that was all the notice Cooley needed to prepare for visitors. When the doorbell rang, a loud and foreign ding-dong, she froze. She wasn’t even sure what it was at first. When she looked on the security screen and saw a policeman standing on the porch, his hand still on the old-fashioned doorbell, a strange metallic thing that always reminded her of an antique breast, the buzzer an erect nipple, she froze further. Her first thought went to James, which was silly, since he’d died three years before. But whenever Cooley was afraid, her first thought always went to James.
She was heading toward the front door when it swung open and the policeman called in, “Anyone here? Hello?”
“Here I am,” Cooley said. “Can I help you?”
What Cheer wasn’t big enough to have its own police department, so Cooley figured this was someone from the county. He was probably about her age, though it was hard to tell with the short haircut, the pressed and crisp uniform. The gun at his waist. He gave her a quick smile, then seemed to concentrate on adjusting his face into solemnity. “Are you Amy Sue Dander?” he asked.
Cooley blinked at the sound of her legal name. She wasn’t sure when the last time was that she’d heard it in this house. Ione, her longtime friend, James’ friend first and now hers, was the only person who ever called her that anymore, and Ione was in the Haven’s Rest progressive nursing home. She was in the first unit, the retirement village, and it was more like a flashback to dorm life, but for old people. Now, Cooley’s real name coming out of the mouth of a policeman raised alarms of all sorts and Cooley’s fear went from James to Ione. “Yes, that’s me. Is something wrong? Is Ione okay?” She wondered why Haven’s Rest would send a policeman instead of just calling.
“Ione?” The policeman frowned, then shook his head. “I don’t know anything about someone named Ione, ma’am. This is about your mother.”
Cooley stepped backwards. She never wished for her mother anymore.
“Your mother is Mara Rose Dander? Ma’am?”
“Neighbors called us this morning. No one had been picking up the paper or the mail and they were worried. We went inside and, ma’am, well…your mom passed away. Probably a week or so ago.”
Cooley’s immediate reaction, after thinking about the day being Wednesday and full of woe, was relief. It wasn’t Ione; it was only Cooley’s mother. “Okay,” Cooley said. “Well, thank you for letting me know.” She nodded, then turned to go. There was work to be done, clocks still left to wind, and later that day, she needed to make a trip to the grocery store.
“Ma’am?” The policeman stepped forward and Cooley felt his hand on her elbow. “Arrangements need to be made. For the body.”
The body. “Where is it?”
“She was taken to the hospital in Sigourney.”
Cooley moved just enough so that his hand fell away. “Do I have to go there, or would a call do?” A thought hit and she froze again. “Oh, no. Are you here…are you here because I have to identify the body or something?”
He shook his head. “We found your mom’s purse by the back door. We were able to identify her from her driver’s license, and then one of the neighbors came over and verified. She’s the one who told us about you. So you don’t have to identify her, but…something has to be done, you know. With your mother. She has to be taken care of.” His eyes were wide and his voice rose, but then he cleared his throat and wrote down the hospital’s information. “You have to call the hospital. They’ll let you know what you need to do.”
Cooley thanked him. She smiled, hoping it would make the whole conversation less strange.
She started to open the door for him, but he stopped her. “Ma’am?” he asked. “Are you going to be okay? It’s…well, it’s your mother, you know. You understand? It’s real important that you call the hospital.”
“I understand,” she said. “I’m fine, really. I’ll go and call them right away.”
So he left. Cooley watched him through the door’s window, thick and milky with old leaded glass. He paused by his car, took off his hat, held it, looked at the front door, then put his hat back on. When he finally drove away, Cooley looked down at the card in her hand. Someone was waiting for her to call, on the other end of this number. She had to deal with her mother’s body.
Cooley returned to her desk and sat and stared at the phone. What would happen, she wondered, if nothing happened? What if no one claimed responsibility and her mother just stayed there, not breathing, in that hospital? What would they do with her then?
Cooley considered it. She knew about paupers’ graves. Did they even still do those? She didn’t remember ever seeing a pauper’s section in the What Cheer cemetery. James was buried there, in a nice spot, close to the town’s clock tower. Cooley picked the site out herself. She figured he’d like it, even though he never liked the clock tower, which forever ran ten minutes late. She even considered buying one of the available plots on either side of James for herself. She would choose his right. She was his right hand man; he told her that often enough. It made her smile every time. She didn’t buy the plot, not yet, but she kept an eye on it, when she visited James every week. For now, he was pretty much alone in that section of the cemetery, though he had friends close by. He would have liked that, their proximity, but still a bit of isolation.
Her attention swung back to the phone and her mother. It wasn’t like she and her mother were involved in life, so why should Cooley be involved in her death? There’d been nothing for sixteen years. Cooley graduated high school without her mother in the audience; she left for college without a mother to help her set up her dorm room. James was there both times; she had a private room in college and James sent her with four clocks, including two that chimed, though softly. Cooley came home as often as she could during those four years away, but when she did, it was to James and the Home for Wayward Clocks. It was never to the Dander house. When Cooley’s father died, it was James that let her know. Her mother slid a note under the museum’s front door. She didn’t even ring the antique doorbell.
“The note just said that she figured you might want to know that he’s gone. She didn’t say when he died, or how. There wasn’t even an obituary; I looked. I guess, with his parents gone, there was only her to deal with it, and that’s how she chose to do it. I’m sorry, Cooley,” James told her over the phone.
Cooley visited the cemetery on her next trip home. She had to stop in the little house-like office just beyond the gates to ask for her father’s location. He was cremated and his remains were tucked into a little square on a wall filled with little squares, in what they called the Cremation Garden. His square was engraved with his name and his dates. That was it. No mention of his wife. No mention of his daughter. He was in the wall at about eye level, and there was a little vase for flowers screwed right into the marble. Cooley brought carnations. Carnations were a generic sort of flower. And her father was a generic sort of dad.
Standing there, in front of a twelve by twelve inch marble square that contained her father, surrounded by others like a morbid Scrabble game, Cooley cried. She hadn’t seen her father over the years either. But he’d never really done anything to hurt Cooley. He just never really did anything. He never stopped her mother from the cigarette burns that dotted Cooley’s arms like a strange set of measles. Never held back her mother from the “spankings,” which involved fists and all of Cooley, not just her bottom. He never dammed the acid which flowed from her mother’s mouth. In the end, Cooley supposed that his not doing anything was a way of hurting her. In a generic sort of way. But Cooley cried anyway.
Now Cooley didn’t know what to do. The only person she could talk to about this, really, was Ione. Ione was the only one left who had anything to do with her upbringing. Ione and her husband, Neal, used to run the gift shop in town, filled with battery-powered clocks and knick knacks and postcards for the tourists who stopped by. Neal died of a heart attack about ten years ago now, Cooley figured, and Ione ran the shop with Cooley’s help for another eight years after that. During those years, Cooley spent all of her time divided between James and Ione, helping James keep the old clocks alive and helping Ione peddle the cheap. Ione had to sell the business when it became too much for her, and now she was in Haven’s Rest on the edge of town. Her mind wasn’t always there. She didn’t have Alzheimer’s, which everyone always assumed, but rather a garden-variety dementia. At least, that’s what her doctor called it. Somehow, that was supposed to make it easier to bear during the steadily increasing times when Ione suddenly sat still and stared straight ahead and wouldn’t respond to anyone. For those moments, time froze for Ione, though Cooley had no idea where Ione went. Cooley pictured a garden, the garden of dementia, filled with the weeds and flowers of memory. Eventually, Ione just snapped back into the present and carried on as if no interruption ever occurred. It didn’t happen every day, it didn’t even happen every week, but when it did, it was more disorienting for Cooley than for Ione. Ione never seemed to remember the episodes, but Cooley did. They happened with so much time in between that Cooley would be able to convince herself that it was over, it was a brain virus, maybe, that cleared up on its own, but then it would reappear and set fear on Cooley’s shoulders again. She was so afraid that Ione would disappear into her garden of dementia and never come back.
But at least it wasn’t Alzheimer’s. The doctor told Cooley and Ione that they should feel grateful for that, but neither of them was clear on why.
Cooley took a deep breath and picked up the phone. The best thing she could do, she decided, was to find out her options. So she called the hospital. She explained who she was, who her mother was, and that her mother was apparently in the hospital somewhere, dead.
“I’m so sorry, honey,” a woman said, and introduced herself as Bernice. “I know exactly where your mom is. We’ve just been waiting for you to tell us where you would like her to go.”
Straight to hell, Cooley thought, but she didn’t say it. “Well, I was wondering…I mean, what are my options? What am I supposed to do?”
“Oh,” Bernice said softly. “You’ve never been through this before.”
Cooley had, with James, but she’d had lots of help there. Ione was only just beginning to get drifty then. There were just a few flowers in her garden of dementia. The weeds hadn’t sprouted yet.
“Well, the usual thing is for your mother to go to a funeral home. They can prepare her for whatever type of service or burial you’d like.”
“No service,” Cooley said quickly. There’d been no service for her father. There was no obituary. There was nothing for the man who did nothing. Why should there be something for her mother? “See, there’s no one but me. So I just need to…to…” Only one word popped into Cooley’s head, and she knew she shouldn’t say it, but no other choice appeared. “I need to dispose of the body.”
Silence. When Bernice came back, her voice was a tad cooler. “I see. Well, you will still need to send your mother to a funeral home. They can…prepare the body for its final resting place. Where are you located? Where is your mother from?”
“I’m in What Cheer,” Cooley said. “My mother…well, she lives here too.”
“There’s no funeral home in What Cheer,” Bernice said.
Cooley already knew that. What would they call it? When James created The Home For Wayward Clocks, the rest of the little town fell in with the theme, in case it was a possible gold mine. There was the bed and breakfast across the street, the Time To Sleep Inn. The diner was the Tick-Tock Quick-Stop. The grocery store was decked out in neon and called the Shop Around The Clock. Ione’s gift shop, no longer Ione’s, still bore the name About Time. So if there was a funeral home in What Cheer, it would have to match up with the rest of the town. Time’s Up Funeral Home?
“The closest one to you is in Thomburg,” Bernice continued. “Would you like me to arrange your mother’s transfer there?”
“Sure, I guess. But…well, I just need to ask something.” Cooley waited, but didn’t receive any encouragement from Bernice. Apparently, the comfort door was closed. “My mother and I were estranged. We haven’t seen or talked to each other in sixteen years. So what would happen if I just didn’t do anything?”
There was a sharp intake of breath. Cooley felt it like a slap.
“That would be very unusual, Ms. Dander. Most people feel some sense of responsibility for their parents.”
A slap to the other cheek. Stinging, Cooley sat up. “And most parents feel some sense of responsibility for their children, Bernice. I was removed from my mother’s home. I was taken from her.” James took her. James rescued her. But there was no need to explain that.
There was a breath again, but this came out more as a sigh. Bernice’s soft voice came back. “I’m sorry to hear that, Amy Sue. And under those circumstances, I guess I can understand. If you choose not to do anything with her, she would be removed to a funeral home of the hospital’s choice. They would find a cemetery somewhere in the area that still has what are called paupers’ graves. She would be buried there. No headstone, no marker of any kind. Nothing.”
Cooley thought again of her father, in his twelve-by-twelve inch Scrabble square. He and James were in the same cemetery, here in What Cheer, though they were very far apart. But Cooley knew where they were. Anyone who wanted to find them could find them. Visitors only had to ask. “Would they tell me where they put her?”
“Honey,” Bernice said. She spoke firmly, but Cooley didn’t shy away. She didn’t feel any kind of judgment or condemnation. “Honey, if you want to know where your mother is, then you should just take care of her yourself. You don’t have to give a fanfare. You don’t have to do anything fancy. You won’t even have to visit her. But if you want to know where she is…then you put her there.”
It made sense. “Okay,” Cooley said. “Send her to Thomburg. I’ll call them and tell them what I want. And Bernice…did anyone say what she died of?”
Cooley heard some papers rustling. Then that sigh again. “Oh, sweetie,” Bernice said. “Your mother was a drinker, wasn’t she.”
Cooley didn’t say anything. She was too busy remembering all the bottles in the recycle bin every week. Beer bottles. Wine bottles. An occasional whiskey or vodka. In the bin and around it. There was never enough room. It was Cooley’s chore to take the garbage out and she did so late at night. She would slip down the street to the neighbors’ curbs, adding a bottle or two to each of their bins and hoping she wouldn’t get caught. Eventually, her father brought home two big plastic tubs to hold what didn’t fit. Cooley hated garbage day, when phantom liquor bottles showed up in her neighbors’ recycle bins, and then because those two tubs sat on the curb for everyone to see.
“The doctor said she died of internal bleeding, the result of complications from alcoholism. Her blood alcohol level at death was—“ Bernice stopped.
Cooley wondered if they’d been cut off. “Hello?” she said. “Bernice?”
“I’m here, honey. It’s just…well, according to this, her blood alcohol level was over .75.”
Bernice pronounced the number as point-seven-five, and Cooley considered that for a minute. Point seven five. Point seventy-five. A decimal and two numbers was percent, if she remembered her high school math right. That would put her mother’s blood alcohol level at over… “Seventy-five percent?” she asked out loud.
Bernice stayed quiet. But Cooley didn’t question if they’d been cut off.
“Her blood was more than seventy-five percent alcohol? Is that what point-seven-five means?” Cooley whispered. She thought of all the bottles. She wondered who’d been taking the trash to the curb for the last sixteen years and how many bins her mother was up to now.
“I don’t really know,” Bernice said. “I’m not a doctor. I don’t know if it means percent. But I know it’s high. I don’t…I don’t remember ever seeing that level so high before.”
They sat silent; Cooley could hear her own breathing, and she could hear Bernice’s.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Bernice finally said. “I’m so sorry.”
Cooley nodded. “All right. Thank you. I’ll take care of it.” She flinched, figuring she should have said “her” instead of “it.” Cooley would take care of her mother.
“You take care, sweetheart.”
Exactly. Cooley would take care.
And then the phone line, like everything and everyone else, it seemed, was dead.
If you would like to read the rest of Learning to Tell (A Life) Time, order today.