I can’t eat with a corpse staring at me.
It’s strange to nibble on pigs in a blanket and stuffed mushrooms when there’s a dead body in the room, but I’m not Catholic and this is my first wake so maybe it’s customary or most likely, Mrs. Podesta wanted to shake things up a little, have herself an atypical service in her house–not a funeral parlor. I didn’t know the deceased well. She lived two houses down, across the street. Widow. No kids. She’s the type of neighbor who never waved when I pulled out of the driveway or checked my mail. Never let me borrow her snowblower or agreed to water my plants when I was out of town. Me, I observe the social niceties. I’ve lived on Utopia Parkway for thirty-seven years, and when Mrs. Podesta moved in, I brought over a peach tart (still warm) and invited her to join our weekly bridge game. She made a face and said, “Do I look like the type of person who plays bridge?” Honestly, I couldn’t tell. She was a petite lady, about my age, early 70s, with hair dyed brassy red and a row of silver studs in one ear.
“I’d love some tea to go with that tart,” I said. So she had to invite me in.
The layout of the house was identical to mine. Only there were open moving boxes everywhere, most nearly full, as though she’d started to unpack and wasn’t sure she was going to go through with it.
I was chattering on, welcoming her to the neighborhood and asking questions, like where’d she live before and why’d she move here and how she liked Queens, and she stared at me with eyes like black ice, the nasty kind you can’t see until you slip.
There was a pack of Tarot cards on the kitchen table, and I asked if she knew how to read them. I’d been to a fortune teller once. The lady said I would meet the love of my life within four months, and two days later I bumped into Harold at a dance and that was the end of that.
“You want to know the future?” she asked.
She shuffled the cards a few times and laid some of them in a semi-circle, face up. Then she put on a pair of glasses that she wore on a chain around her neck and drummed her aquamarine fingernails against the table.
I studied the cards. There were seven, in all: The Nine of Cups. The Ace of Wands. Judgment. The Fool. The Page of Swords. The High Priestess. The last card was The Tower. It showed lightning striking the top of a tower, with flames shooting out of it and a man and a woman falling from the windows
“You will have a long and happy life,” she said.
“That’s it? I was hoping for something more specific. What about this one here? It doesn’t look so good.”
“If you want a different reading, I suggest you consult a professional.”
I took a sip of my tea and smiled, but inside I was fuming. I was tired of her attitude. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and I could tell neither of us had anywhere better to be. “You know,” I said, “I’m just trying to be neighborly here. That’s what’s wrong with the world today. People can’t be bothered to act polite.”
She picked up the Ace of Wands and flicked it across the table at me. A corner of the card landed on my plate and some peach tart got on it.
“That’s not what’s wrong with the world.”
She got up and rummaged inside a box until she found a manila folder, which she handed to me silently. Inside were dozens of pictures showing the fourth grade class at P.S. 106 in Far Rockaway. I’d read about that school. Kids sat around watching movies all day in rat-infested classrooms that smelled of animal urine. She must have seen the look on my face because she said: “Don’t believe everything you hear. It’s a good place. Great kids. Great teachers.”
I studied the photos. In some of them, the children’s faces had been circled in red. The earliest picture was from 1965. Mrs. Podesta was in the last row. She looked young and pretty. It was the first time I’d seen her smile.
“Did you like being a teacher?” I asked.
“I loved it.”
“What are all the circles for?”
“Each one of those children was shot and killed.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Everyone’s sorry. I’ve written letters to the mayor, our state senators, congressmen, the NRA. I’ve gone to Washington for marches. It’s happening everywhere. I thought after Sandy Hook they’d do something. More background checks. Reinstate the assault rifle ban. We all did. But nothing’s changed. Each day, 89 people in America are shot to death. You see this boy?”
She pointed to a smiling child, in a pale blue shirt and pressed slacks from a class picture taken in 1991.
“Rodney Smith. He was killed last August. Playing basketball with his friends. They weren’t even aiming at him. It was a mistake.”
Her voice was flat but her hands shook as she reached for her tea.
After that, she didn’t say much. It was just me talking, telling her about how she could join our Civic Association. I wrote my number down on a pad she had by the telephone and told her to give me a call if she changed her mind about the bridge game, even though I knew she wouldn’t. She probably thought I was just another silly old lady, puttering around my garden, getting together with friends, doing occasional water aerobics at the YMCA. I guess she’s right. Terrible things happen all the time. Kids getting shot in college, at the mall, in movie theaters. Babies, too, as young as two years old. The world is a scary place.
Last Tuesday, Mrs. Podesta was walking to her car in the Target parking lot in Elmhurst when a 23-year-old man backed into her. It was a foggy night, her niece said when she told me what happened. She’d discovered the slip of paper with my phone number on it in a kitchen drawer and figured I was a friend. “My aunt didn’t have many friends,” she said. “I’m glad I found you.” I thought back to that morning in Mrs. Podesta’s kitchen. All the kids with circled faces in those class pictures of hers, the stories in the paper I barely glance at anymore because they happen so often I’m used to it, and I know I should try harder to be a good neighbor, a good person, but then I think, if no one else can stop it, what am I supposed to do?
And I go back to what I was doing before.
Beth Sherman has an MFA in creative writing and an MA in English from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has been published in Portland Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, KYSO, Blue Lyra Review, Sandy River Review, Gloom Cupboard, Delmarva Review, Compose Journal, Panoplyzine, Sinkhole and Sou’wester. She is also a Pushcart nominee and has written five mystery novels.