In Memory Of
It was small at first. A bouquet of supermarket flowers still wrapped in plastic, sitting at the blind turn near Theresa’s house. She noticed them on the way to work, a flash of white and yellow that she barely registered as being connected to the ambulances she’d heard the night before. By that evening, another bouquet and a large stuffed bear were added to the pile.
Theresa used to find these public memorials a little tacky until she drove through Mexico. Theresa had been taught to grieve privately and quietly. When she was just eleven her mother died of ovarian cancer unexpectedly and swiftly, and her father had never once cried in front of her, refusing to speak about her mother in the ensuing years. In Mexico, however, she encountered public mourning everywhere: rosaries, wooden crosses, flowers of every color, candles with the glowing faces of saints. Theresa cried every time she passed a roadside memorial during her trip. A distant memory resurfaced, her mother softly singing to Theresa, comforting her after a nightmare. She could almost remember what her mother smelled like, lemon and chamomile. Theresa cried for the saints and the bereaved and her mother. Her body hummed with this mournful explosion of love and memory.
When she crossed the border, heading back to the small Southern California town she had fled to after her father remarried, the humming slowly ceased until she could not hear the saints anymore. This was better, Theresa thought, to have shed all her sadness in one go. Since that trip, though, Theresa routinely woke to find her pillowcase and cheeks soaked with salty tears. She always had her lovers leave before sleep took hold, in case her body betrayed her with another nightly lament.
Theresa was not bothered when the pile of flowers by her house began to grow. She had seen the news and saw a 15-year-old girl had been killed. Within a week, though, the pile of trinkets, flowers and photos had grown to an enormous size. Things were spilling onto the road. Theresa accidentally ran over a small stuffed giraffe one afternoon. She was horrified to see the headless toy animal fly out from under her car and hit the windshield of the car behind her.
The first serious accident came about a week later. Theresa wasn’t home at the time but heard about it on the news later that night. A couple swerved hard to avoid a large framed photo that had fallen off the memorial and into the road. They careened into a billboard touting an advertisement for Borax soap and didn’t make it out of their car alive.
In light of the couple’s death, the town came in and cleaned up the site. The fifteen-year-old girl’s parents made tearful, on-camera pleas to have the things returned. Theresa watched the crying parents on her small television, drinking cup after cup of strong licorice tea, trying to settle her nervous, aching stomach. When she read online that the city council voted 4-3 in favor of the roadside memorial being resurrected, she felt oddly relieved.
The problem was, Theresa realized later, that with three deaths having taken place, there was three times as much grieving to be done. It would take two more accidents and a total of four more deaths before the city shut the road down entirely and set up a large stretch of fence netting, normally reserved for landslides. They were reluctant to remove the site entirely, faced with a grieving town and the influx of tourists coming to see this ever-growing attraction. An overpass was built, ensuring the preservation of the site while providing safe passage for drivers.
Theresa watched from her small house on the hill. The memorial was visible from her porch now and she would drink her morning coffee and watch as more and more people brought things to leave there. She could swear some evenings she could hear people weeping. She called her father and held the phone up to the grieving night sky but he said he couldn’t hear anything. She took to sleeping outside, listening to the collective mourning as she drifted towards slumber. She stopped crying in her sleep. Theresa thought this would be a relief but realized that without those unconscious tears, the humming of grief she thought she’d left in Mexico crept back into her body.
The suicides came soon after the overpass was finished. Theresa thought she saw one of the first from her house, a small shadowy figure leaping into the sea of flowers below. There would be over a dozen more until the city decided to shut the overpass down. One by one, Theresa’s neighbors packed up and moved, away from the deathly canyon and ever-growing pile. As the last neighbor drove away, she called her father. Before he could say hello, she asked him if he ever missed her mother. She heard only a small sigh and the click of the phone as he hung up.
Once she was alone, a single body among the mountain of objects, she hiked down into the center of the site. It was quiet, already dark with nothing but a sliver of a moon to light her way. She lay down and spread her arms and legs as wide as she could. She made death angels in the flowers, candles and soft stuffed animals, moving her limbs back and forth in the enormous pile. With every movement of her limbs, the hum inside of her grew until it was a roar.
She began to sink. She tried to recall the sound of her mother’s voice. She moved her body more urgently, burrowing deeper into the memorial with every measure. She thought of her father and his new wife whose toothy, white smile made Theresa uncomfortable. Things began to fall on to her. She could smell gardenias and beeswax. She could no longer see the moon. She cried into the photographs of all the dead. She sang out for a family that could not hear her. She sank into the longing of thousands of loved ones. The pile shifted.
Rose Andersen is currently pursuing an MFA at CalArts, where her thesis will be completed just as soon as she finishes that next cup of coffee. She writes to the dulcimer snores of her Boston Terrier Charlotte, and completes her stories despite the endless barrage of puns from her partner, Josh. She is published in Gone Lawn and Ghost Parachute.
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