It's a shame you have to see it this way, M says, sighing through the telephone.
And I: What way is that?
And M: Without me.
Give me a preview, I tell her.
M: Train whistles and frozen custard—a waft of it through the pickup window. Malt dust. Cold fudge. Then the chloramine–reek by the poolside. Will was the one who told me it wasn't chlorine in the first place. Just feces and face powder having chemical reactions.
My first time in Merlin, and that's the whole tour?
That's all there is. The Club, the Custard Cup, and a mess of half–active train tracks.
Woman at the florist's: Lilies and limonium? It's the sympathy special.
And the card? I ask M, afterward.
Put, To Will Scarlet, M says.
Will Scarlet, I write. Does that make you Robin Hood?
Because you were the girl?
Because my name was Mary.
Mother, I say, the last time I checked, your name was Catherine.
Mary Catherine. Everyone was Mary–something.
The promise of a storm creates a clamor on the news, so I drive down a day early, without calling. M was right, it isn't far, though with Gram in Bonita Springs and M's siblings variously scattered, there had never been much reason to visit. And instead of the granite courthouse and hunched hickories like I was promised, I'm welcomed by motel marquees, the soporific blue glimmer of the Moon–Glo Diner, and the flashing proclamation that Gold Rush Pawn is open all nite. Nothing nice has lights.
It didn't used to be like that, M says. Just wait until you taste the custard.
That night, it snows all across the state.
Will would've liked that, M says.
I don't have to look to know my rented red sedan lacks four–wheel drive.
I'll find you a ride, M says, sit tight.
I begin to forget she is my mother, think of her, instead, as a switchboard operator. Guide, gossip, griever five–states–removed. I purchase a Merlin Flyer from the lobby dispenser for seventy–five cents.
William Joseph Slater, 57, only son of Dr. and Mrs. Joseph Slater, of Merlin, IL, and Jupiter, FL, went to be with the Lord on Dec. 4, 2014. He is survived by his parents; his wife, Robin Callahan Slater, formerly of Templeton, IN; and his two daughters, Rose and Emily.
I think of balls in Jane Austen novels, of bewigged criers crying: Sir William Slater, son of Sir Joseph Slater, First Baronet of Merlin, Jupiter, and the Savoy Condos, lately of Beechwood Street, and cousin of Lord So–and–So.
The other obits are similar, like there's a form for the grieving, a sort of Sad Lib: name, age, drop–down menu [passed away; went to be with the Lord; transitioned to Glory; left his/her physical form and entered his/her vision of Heaven; lost his/her battle with . . .].
He/she was an avid [hobby 1] and a [hobby 2] enthusiast.
Will was an avid Cubs fan and a golf enthusiast.
She was an avid fact–checker for the Chicago Tribune and a Sunday crossword enthusiast.
She was a single white female of no property who lost her battle with loneliness.
[Note to self: do not transition to Glory before becoming worthy of a more compelling nut graph.]
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