Erika D. Price is a writer and social psychologist in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Rumpus, Literary Orphans, decomP, Bacopa Literary Review, and others. A performer in Chicago's live lit scene, she has appeared in Essay Fiesta, The Paper Machete, and has won at Write Club. When she isn't teaching at Loyola University Chicago, she's wandering Chicago's many historic cemeteries.
by Erika D. Price
March 25, 2016
It was a marvel how they got any ashes into the necklace at all. It was a dainty thing with a square amethyst stone on a cheap chain. If you flipped it over, you could see the tiny screw at the base where they poured it in. Sasha turned the necklace over in her hand to show it.
The kids were sitting around the lunch table after school, watching the cross country team come in, shaking rain and sweat from their ponytails. Sasha, Timothy, Nilofar, and Nilofar's boyfriend Chad or Chaz or something. They were all former relay runners on academic suspension, except for Nilofar's boyfriend, who went to an overpriced Catholic school across the river.
The suspension wasn't a great loss. Individually, they were fast, but each was terrible at passing a baton. It was the same lack of precision that dammed their grades--in Chemistry, in Journalism, even in Communications. When they stopped training, they got even thinner, somehow. Youth.
Sasha wasn't normally the alpha dog, but the death had changed things. The girls rallied around her, offering to decorate her locker, her bedroom, her worn bag. They organized a surprise birthday party, which Sasha's mom ultimately did most of the footwork on, but still. The kid used to sit at the ends of the tables, or stood behind, hovering. Now she sat by the hinge.
"Dude," Nilofar said. Heads turned. She swallowed some gum-spit; the tension mounted. "What if some of his dick is in there?"
She extended a bony finger at Sasha's necklace full of ashes. Timothy and Chad (or Chaz) guffawed and leaned back a little.
"Hey, dude, not okay," said Timothy.
Sasha rolled the pendant in her hands. "Yeah, no, I've wondered that too. All the ashes get all mixed together...there's no way of knowing which parts I got."
The foursome stared out the windows. The rain was letting up but the sun had fallen from the sky. A senior cross country boy pushed his way into the cafeteria and shook the water from his hair like a dog, flooding the space with his oniony BO. Nilofar leaned into Chad or Chaz and put a sweatshirt sleeve over her nose and mouth.
"Hey," I called.
Their ears were more sensitive than mine, being younger, but they were insensitive to my pitch. I walked up and thwacked Timothy on the head with my roster. He flinched violently.
"Hey! Jeez Lynn, you terrified me!"
"Watch your attitude, mister!"
He delivered a snaggle-toothed smile. Then, conspiratorially, he said, "These girls, there's something wrong with them."
Chad or Chaz cut him off, "Just saying nasty things. Not ladylike."
He nibbled Nilofar's ear and a peal of giggles rushed from her still-covered mouth.
"I heard. I think that as long as Sasha's okay with the discussion, they have every right to discuss dick-ashes."
The boys reddened and Nilofar flung the shirtsleeve from her mouth, roaring now. Sasha swatted at her from across the table, playfully. The necklace swung a few times then settled against her clavicle.
"Guys," I said, pushing my voice into Authority Register, "Back to work."
They pantomimed opening their books and laptops and I pretended to believe them, and wandered to the end of the table. I took a seat and nodded at the beleaguered runners as they came in, sweat-stained and flushed.
This was my third year as assistant coach, and the allure of these perfectly taut proto-adults had entirely abated. Only five or six years separated them from me, but those years were pregnant with purpose and suffering, so they felt more like my children than my peers. Or perhaps my nephews and nieces.
The last of the runners came in, then one of the janitors squeaked by with an old trashcan and a broom. I turned around.
Nilofar was reading, her lips murmuring as if reciting a prayer, but her hand was in Chad or Chaz's lap. He had a Gameboy out and his lips parted in a somewhat girlish way. Timothy was on MySpace, but navigated quickly to the Oxford English Dictionary, of all things, when he caught my gaze.
And Sasha. She had a wide array of books out, cracked open and held in place with her cell phone, her day planner, and her house keys, and she was writing with a purple pen in the margins of an English text that belonged to the school, not her. The chain of the necklace was in her mouth, and her free hand was moving it back and forth.
If Nilofar had caught this, she might've said something Freudian, or slapped her former teammate right on the cheek, the closest thing to a kiss she was equipped to deliver. Instead, Timothy noticed first, and noticed my zoning out, staring at Sasha.
He reached over to pluck the pendant away from her mouth. As he did this, Sasha jerked with surprise, her blindingly quick runner's reflexes betraying her. Timothy's fingers caught on the chain and it snapped in pieces; Sasha's head went back and the pendant bounced off the table, pinged against the glass window, and crashed to the ground.
We all stood silently and went around the table. The pendant was laid flat, the fake jewel on its face shattered and separated. I took a knee to confirm. It wasn't cafeteria filth surrounding the pendant in a perfect little arch. It was ashes, which had gotten all wet in the rain-drippings.
"What did you do," Nilofar said.
They were all staring down at the mess except for Timothy. His freckles were bright orange from the blushing. Nilofar joined me on the ground and picked it up. She tried to give it to Sasha but the girl just shook her head. It didn't look like she was going to cry, but she wouldn't speak, either.
"Should we get a broom?" Chad or Chaz asked. "And a dustpan?"
I pinched at the ashes like a moron. They were strangely gummy, yet thin, and wouldn't stay in my palm no matter how delicately I sprinkled them. The kids watched me for a few minutes as I tried to scrape and scoop, then Sasha made a big, low sigh and walked away. She sat, her back to us, and returned to her book.
One by one, the kids walked away from me to join her. Finally Timothy collected himself, looked down at me warily, and mouthed that he was so so sorry Ms. Scheffield. Then he trudged to the bathroom and didn't come out for twenty minutes.
There was still another forty-five minutes until detention was up. I couldn't sit there on the floor, staring at their backs and feeling like a fraud. I used to stand at the sidelines with a timer and scream at them. The infallibility of the timepiece lent me authority and reliability, and now it was slipping, disintegrating like Sasha's brother's ashes.
So I stood up, brushed my hands on my pants, and announced the solution. "Pack up your things. We're going to Woodvale Cemetery."
Chad or Chaz drove a lime green minivan with a Tazmanian Devil decal on the back, and there were too many of us to fit into my Smartcar, so the decision was unanimous and automatic. I sat in between Nilofar and Timothy in the back row. Since this mission was ultimately Sasha's, it made sense that she would be copilot.
She sat in the front and seemed to study her reflection in the rearview mirror. Her feet were on the dash and she tapped her toes to the bland top 40 station that was playing.
"Radio's broke," Chad or Chaz explained as a year-old Franz Ferdinand song buzzed out. "It's this or talk radio."
"I make him play NPR sometimes," Nilofar offered. "I like The World, and Diane Rehm."
I scrunched up my nose. "Puts me to sleep. And why are you failing Journalism?"
Chad or Chaz said, "She tried to run an interview with Kaylin, the cheerleader that got kicked out for being a stripper."
"Shut up Chaz!"
"No," I said. "It's okay. I thought it was horrible, what happened to her. You totally should have interviewed her."
"Don't encourage her, Lynn," Chaz said. "She'll get the wrong ideas."
All of a sudden he sounded like half the guys I'd dated in the past few years. He sounded like he was trying on mature masculinity like a suit he couldn't pay for. Maybe if he scrapped the van and traded in his private school tuition.
Chaz pulled around the corner and into the cemetery. The lights on the drive were much spottier, and dirty compared to the streetlamps that had hovered above us for most of the drive. He put the car in park, next to the visitor's center.
"I'm surprised the gate is open," Timothy said.
I said, "It's six pm. They wait till nine, at least."
When I had roommates, I’d used the cemetery as a good place to park the car and have sex. That was before the boy died. When it happened, the grounds were temporarily flooded with balloons, cheap toys, and flowers. It put me off visiting there, and it was the only reason that I knew where Sasha’s brother was.
Sasha popped the door open, said, “Woodvale doesn’t close till eleven," and slid out.
We followed her in single file. The grass squashed under our feet and ruined our shoes. The markers made us slip and stub our toes, myself and Timothy especially. Though Sasha led the way through the wet dark, her hands wandering a few feet from her chest, she never stumbled or made a misstep.
The plot was in the far west corner by an irregularly shaped bush and some upturned turf. The holes in the fence overlooked the train yard and the cheap old folk's home; it was not a pretty spot. There were fresh flowers in the plot. When I got closer I realized they were plastic.
"So this is where it is," Nilofar said. "I wanted to pay my respects before, you know."
Sasha said, "Don't take it personally. I didn't tell anyone."
I do not know what Sasha's brother died of. He was a middle schooler at the time. He still would have been. In the pictures that were in the newspaper, the boy had a perfectly round face and glinting, intelligent eyes. In the photo I remember best, he was holding up a train made from Kinex.
Sasha rolled up her sweatpants and dropped her knees and shins into the clammy, wet earth. The noise was disgusting. She kept her hands above the ground by a few inches.
"Shit, we should have brought a shovel," said Nilofar.
"There's plenty snow shovels in the shed by the track." I told them.
Chaz stretched and yawned until the bones in his elbows popped. He lumbered away, disappeared into the green, shady dark, and returned surprisingly swiftly, holding an ice scraper from his car. Sasha took it and plunged the corner into the dirt.
We watched her. Timothy found a flat slate stone near the fence and joined her; he let the mud drench his light jeans. Nilofar dug a flashlight from her gigantic purse and cast a beam down on them while Chaz held her waist. My job, I decided, was to be on the lookout, and to provide a believable excuse if we were discovered. The blame, after all, would be levied on me.
They don't bury urns as deep as bodies, but they go pretty damn far. Three feet, maybe. It took an hour and a half, after Sasha finally flipped the marker over and went after the right spot. I started to shiver and Timothy, poor Timothy, offered me his sweatshirt. He threw it off, into the grass, and dug with renewed energy to keep his body temp up.
I also learned that burial urns are by no means as pretty as the urns people keep on mantles. Sasha pulled it out of the ground with one splayed hand, a brass pill about half a foot long and sealed tight, with the boy's name etched on the top. It waited in her lap with Nilofar's light on it.
"I have the pendant," Nilofar finally said. Then there were crickets.
Sasha twisted and flexed but the urn would not budge. She asked Nilofar, then me to help. It was no use. Even Chaz couldn't do it. Timothy was obviously weaker, but he made an attempt too. We all feared the lid would come flying off, and ashes would stick to all of us. It was Sasha who stood up, stared at the moon, and told us what to do next.
Back at the school, the woodworking room had a tight clamp that we screwed around the base. We stood behind Sasha and watched her twist; now the lid popped off without complaint. She tipped the mud-colored cylinder back, her hand cupped around the opening. The lid was in the crook of her arm.
"Awesome," Chaz said to no one.
Nilofar handed Sasha the busted pendant.
"It won't work," she said.
Timothy found a carved wooden box about the size of a deck of cards, lacquered and everything, sitting on a shelf above the teacher's desk. He held it open and didn't flinch as Sasha poured the ashes, quickly, like it was Bisquick.
"Won't all fit," Chaz warned.
How did he know? He never held the urn. He hadn't felt how heavy it was with the weight of Sasha's brother. None of us had. I realized why he had a Looney Toons character on his car: Taz for Chaz.
Sasha lightly tapped the bottom of the urn and filled the box to the edge, and closed the lid. "I'll rebury the rest of it. Can I get a ride?"
"Chaz is taking me home," Nilofar said. She shrugged and pulled her sweatshirt zipper up and down, up and down.
Sasha looked at me. "Can you drive?"
"Sure. I think Timothy should join us, though."
"Why?" Sasha's eyes darkened and glinted. "Oh, I get it. So none of is can say you molested us."
Timothy withdrew his hands from the box and went fish-belly white, and looked at me in terror. Nilofar cackled and slapped Chaz on the knee.
"Of course, you dumb-dumb," she said. "Doesn't Lynn look like the biggest pedo ever?"
Sasha grinned. Then she said, "What do you guys think now, what are the odds some of his dick are in this box?"
Nilofar scrunched up her nose. "Zero. Know why? Guys in your family got no dicks."
"Hey!" said Timothy.
"Oh they don't?" said Sasha. "Oh yeah? Kinda like how all the girls in your family are titless?"
They guffawed all the way to the parking lot, the urn in the crook of Sasha's arm, the box cradled in both of Timothy's hands, the remains of the necklace in Nilofar's pocket, and Nilofar's hand in Chaz's. I pulled my keys from my fanny pack and told the kids to get home safe, get some sleep, and bring their brains to detention the next day.
Later, after we’d lowered Sasha’s brother’s urn back into the ground, I dropped Sasha off at her house. She gripped the door handle tight and held the box to her chest and said, 'Billy says thank you.' I drove in silence with Timothy in the back seat, and dropped him off at his mom’s house. I told them each the same thing. Get home safe, sleep, bring your brain tomorrow. But I knew they'd be even less productive than before.
I knew I'd bring them old board games and a big box of donuts to share, that I’d let them play music and maybe, if the weather was amenable and no one else was around, I would take them out on the track. I’d watch them run, bouncing to and fro, wasting so much energy, so youthful, and the stopwatch would be in my hand, and my voice would be climbing, saying harder, faster, extend your hand, wait, now, pass the baton, hold on, you’ve got it.