My best friend Mickey’s mom drives a hearse. A 1989 Lincoln, black on the outside—which seems obvious but I have seen silver ones—and black on the inside, with headrests in the front seat that you can pull off and put under your feet as a cushion. A window divides the front seat from the back section, and you can slide it open or closed. When it was used as a hearse, I imagine it was usually closed to provide the family privacy, and sometimes if Mickey and I want to talk, we’ll sit in the back seat and close the window. Usually, though, we want to talk to Mrs. Tennyson, so we sit in the front on the bench—Mickey in the middle between his mom and me. The hearse stretches so long that people honk when Mrs. Tennyson makes turns because she ends up taking two lanes, and when she parks it, the end sticks out halfway into the street. Not many people have been inside the hearse, and even fewer know why she drives it.
When it’s nice outside, Mrs. Tennyson drives around Piedmont to do her errands with the windows down and her long, clawlike hand hanging out. She doesn’t tie her hair back, and it blows around her face and she shakes her head back and forth and smiles and waves, though it’s rare that anyone waves back. In summertime she parks the hearse on the driveway and turns the key halfway in the ignition so she can listen to the radio while she washes it until its black finish glistens on top of a silver, soapy pool filled with tiny rainbows. She washes the car wearing the same red swimsuit with the loose linen dress over it each time, and when the linen gets wet it looks pink. Sometimes she tells Mickey and me to put on our swim trunks, that she needs some strong men to help her with the job. Mrs. Tennyson throws soapy sponges at our bare chests and sprays the hose in our direction, laughing and showing her big square teeth. In the winter she puts chains on the tires, and salt stains the exterior, leaving marks on my black coat when I accidentally rub against it.
I ask Mickey why sometimes his mom drives around the neighborhood in circles, and he tells me she’s homesick for the road.
On most school days Mrs. Tennyson drops me off and picks me up from school in the hearse. The teachers think it’s strange, and the other kids in the sixth grade call us zombies, running, screaming, arms outstretched and big heavy Frankenstein steps in the playground, while the older boys call Mrs. Tennyson names I should not know, but learned from my dad. Mrs. Tennyson tells us people are always scared of something a little different, but this doesn’t stop the kids from trying to stuff our lockers with their lunch leftovers on Fridays so that they rot over the weekend and stink up our gym uniforms.
They wouldn’t know a good deal if it smacked them over the head, Mrs. Tennyson says as I pull the door shut behind me and nudge Mickey in the ribs so he’ll scoot closer to the center of the front bench.
I know, Mom, Mickey says.
Mrs. Tennyson always has two cold Cokes with straws opened and waiting in the cup holders of the front seat when Mickey and I get in the car. She leaves the little top of the wrapper on the straw like they do in diners, and she buys real Coca Cola instead of the fake stuff my mom buys. She lets us listen to whatever we want on the radio and she knows the words to the songs. Sometimes she asks me to light her lighter and she leans her face in real close to my hands until her cigarette catches. She doesn’t really care if we swear, but it makes me feel funny to swear around her so I usually don’t.
One day on the way home from school I point to the car in front of ours.
That’s Aubrey’s mom’s car, I say. Aubrey is a girl with two reddish brown braids and long fingernails who Mickey likes, but who doesn’t know Mickey exists.
Who is Aubrey, Mrs. Tennyson asks.
No one, Mickey says, his eyes in his lap. Mrs. Tennyson turns her head from the road to look at me. She winks one of her blue-green eyes.
She’s a girl Mickey likes, I say. Mrs. Tennyson throws her head back and laughs.
Station wagon, she says, staring right at me and rolling her eyes. I giggle, and then she reaches across the front seat, her stomach and chest grazing the top of my thighs. I sit as still as I can and feel the blood rush to my ears. She cranks the window down and turns the music up so loud I can’t hear what Mickey says, I can only see his head shaking no, no, no. We speed up and pull past Aubrey’s car. Mickey stares out the window and, as we pass, Aubrey smiles and waves.
Boys, Mrs. Tennyson says. Two things to always remember. Girls love fast cars and dangerous men.
Sometimes in the hearse on the way home from school, people slow down and let us pass because they think we’re carrying a dead body. Sometimes Mrs. Tennyson runs a red light because a hearse can. Usually people look out the windows of the cars with sad faces until they see Mrs. Tennyson’s painted fingernails hanging out the driver’s window, or her big square teeth smiling at them in the rearview mirror. There she goes, driving around in the hearse she bought cheap when the Purcell Funeral Home upgraded to a shinier one with silver rims that had their name stamped in white script on the trunk.
My mother went to college with Mrs. Tennyson when she was a redhead and didn’t smoke cigarettes. They would study together in each other’s dorm rooms and go to movies with their boyfriends. I can’t imagine my mother with a boyfriend. My mother once told me Mrs. Tennyson was popular then, and I sometimes try to imagine her with whiter teeth and redder hair. My mother and Mrs. Tennyson used to volunteer together at the Piedmont Community Food Pantry sorting cans, but Mrs. Tennyson stopped showing up for her shifts.
It’s better, my mother says. She flirted shamelessly with Ted who runs the place, even though she very well knows that he’s married. Ted calls Mrs. Tennyson his Sugar Do Gooder. He calls my mother Esther. My mother is always neat and clean with painted nails and soft pink lipstick. She says it’s a disgrace how Mrs. Tennyson goes out with her hair all a mess and her tight clothes wrinkly. You get to a certain age where it’s best to leave more to the imagination, she says. She says she has half a mind not to let me drive in the hearse to school anymore, but for Mickey’s sake she allows it.
After my father left, some of the ladies started to talk about my mother, and she would cry all the time. Mrs. Tennyson never cared what the ladies thought. She would come and sit on the driveway with my mother after picking us up from school, and they would drink spiked lemonade and laugh. Mrs. Tennyson would paint my mother’s nails the red of her own, but it looked funny on my mother.
On Fridays sometimes Mrs. Tennyson forgets to come home, and my mother sends me across the street to get Mickey so he can spend the night. On those nights she makes pot roast or turkey or potpie instead of something frozen, and she gives Mickey seconds if he asks, which he usually does. She lets us go play catch in the yard without asking us to help clear the table. After dinner, when Mickey and I play outside, the women come over and play mahjong and we can hear them talking from the yard.
It’s really a shame, my mother says. And of all people, I should know, living without Jim for so many years and being on my own with the boys. So any way I can help that poor soul out, I will. The women click their tongues against the roofs of their mouths and tell my mother she has a helping spirit.
It’s nothing really, my mother says, and I imagine her flicking her wrist. I know you’d all do the same for me.
When we are tired of playing catch but not tired enough for bed, we tell my mother we are going to play kickball with the other boys on the street, and Mickey and my brother Kyle and I go to Mickey’s house. Mrs. Tennyson never takes the hearse when she goes out for the night, and she never locks it. When Mrs. Tennyson bought the hearse from Purcell’s, she negotiated for fifty dollars extra that they install two benches in the back that run the length of the car, facing the center. For extra seating, Mrs. Tennyson said, though I have never seen her drive anyone but Mickey and me.
Mickey, Kyle, and I take turns lying in between the two benches on the cold metal track Mickey says used to hold the caskets. We chant songs and make the sign of the cross over one another and try to make ourselves cry by slapping at our cheeks. I lie in the middle first and look up at the gray-pilled fabric that covers the walls and ceiling.
Here lays Benji Henderson, Mickey says. He will always be remembered for his love of rocky road ice cream, his inability to talk to girls, and his good throwing arm.
Mickey lies on his back. Kyle and I start fake-crying. I have a pretty good heave going, and with his eyes closed Mickey gasps and holds his breath so long he starts to turn blue, and Kyle starts to actually cry.
Mickey is still on his back in the middle when we hear the familiar burping sound of the pickup truck that sometimes picks up Mrs. Tennyson. We hear the car pull up to the driveway, and Kyle and I get down on the floor of the hearse next to Mickey and press our knees into our chests. Kyle squeezes his eyes shut. Mrs. Tennyson knocks with her bony red knuckles on the window, and I can hear something scratching against the side of the car as she moves toward the door. When we don’t answer she pulls the door open and sticks her head in.
Ah, well, they must be dead, she says in a voice that sounds like she’s swallowed nails. She’s wearing a thin pink dress, and the straps fall off her shoulders and I can see she has nothing on underneath. Veins spread across her eyeballs like red spiderwebs and her hair sticks up in a funny way. She has bright red lipstick smeared across her big square two front teeth. Her eyelids look heavy and droop lazily.
She closes the door, and we stay on our backs on the floor of the hearse with our legs pulled into our chests until we see the light in her bedroom flick on.
Tramp, Mickey says quietly. He sits up and climbs toward the door. Spooked, we get out and run as fast as we can back to my house.
Now we don’t play in the hearse at night because we never know when Mrs. Tennyson might come home. Mickey doesn’t like talking about that night, and Kyle still sleeps with his light on.
My mother is positive that Mrs. Tennyson is drinking now, and that she is in no state to be driving a car-hearse or any other, for that matter. Those black circles don’t come from nowhere, you know. And to think in college I would have killed to look like her. That’s what my mother says on the phone to the other women when she thinks I’m not listening. My mother calls Mrs. Tennyson and tells her that she wouldn’t mind driving Mickey to school for the rest of the year. That Ted said it would be just fine if she came in at 9:30 instead of 8:30. Mrs. Tennyson screams that she does not need anyone’s charity thank you very much. Now Mickey and I ride separately to school.
I wait for Mickey under the flagpole every morning, because now that my mother drives me to school I am always early. Every time Mrs. Tennyson swings the hearse out wide to make the right turn into school, cars honk and Mrs. Tennyson smiles and waves with her fingers pressed together like a beauty queen. When she sees me waiting for Mickey, she rolls down her window, flashes me her boxy teeth and shouts, who’s that handsome fellow waiting for my son? Sometimes she puts an extra Twinkie in Mickey’s lunch for him to give to me.
May, the nights are long and the grasshoppers cause the house to vibrate with their singing. Mickey has spent the last six nights in the top bunk of my bedroom. We sleep with the windows open and the overhead fan whirling, and each morning as the sun rises the slamming of a car door wakes us. We get up and lean out the open window and watch as Mrs. Tennyson slips out of the car and lopes up their driveway and in by the unlocked front door. It’s a Sunday and Kyle comes running into the kitchen all red-faced and bulgy-eyed, screaming that the police are taking Mrs. Tennyson away. My mother goes running outside and tells me to stay with Kyle. Kyle and I pull kitchen chairs over to the open windows and kneel as our mother talks with the police.
Mrs. Tennyson sits on the roof of the hearse with a gray wooly blanket wrapped around her even though the summer air makes it warm enough to wear shorts. Her long bronzy legs poke out from the blanket and hang over the side of the car, knocking against the windows. She kicks them forward and back, leaving an oily residue on the windows. She smiles, holding a giant purple tube of sunscreen. Her big white perfectly circular sunglasses cover her eyebrows and half her cheeks.
I don’t think she is wearing her red swimsuit under that blanket. I don’t think she is wearing anything at all.
Kyle and I crack open the window and hear the officer say something about public indecency. Mrs. Tennyson still smiles, but my mother does not. My mother speaks with the police officer and bobs her head knowingly. It’s the same face she uses when she talks to my teachers, or like she used to have when she talked to my dad when he lived with us and he forgot to tell the laundry extra starch. I’ve got it under control, my mother says to Mrs. Tennyson, but Mrs. Tennyson doesn’t look concerned. She sits on the roof with a big toothy smile waving her beauty queen wave to the crowds that have gathered. The groups of people watch as my mother helps Mrs. Tennyson down from the roof and puts her arm securely around her waist, even though Mrs. Tennyson is perfectly healthy and looks stronger than my mother. You should be ashamed of yourselves, my mother says to the neighbors.
Mickey has slipped out of the house without Kyle or I noticing and gone home. He sits on his bicycle in the shade of his garage. He looks like he is deciding whether or not he should take off.
In only a few minutes the police finish asking my mother and Mrs. Tennyson questions in our driveway. The neighbors have all wandered back to their homes. My mother walks with her arm still around Mrs. Tennyson’s thin waist toward our house and beside her my mother looks short and wide. Inside she sends Mrs. Tennyson upstairs to take a shower and tells Kyle and me to go outside and play with Mickey.
Mickey has left the garage, but his red bicycle is there, tipped over on its side, and so we know he hasn’t gone far. We walk over to the hearse and pull on the doors but they are locked. I walk around to the other side and knock on the window, and Kyle sticks his nose up against it for a few minutes. We give up and sit on the driveway with our backs against the tires.
Do you think she was naked, Kyle asks me in a whisper.
Gross, he says.
Eventually Mickey comes out and I can tell he has been crying. His cheeks are splotched and his skin looks sticky, but I don’t say anything.
You know how many dead people were in that car at one point? he says. I do not know, but I nod like we share a secret.
We stand there in the quiet looking at one another and Kyle yawns and we walk slowly back to my house. Kyle sleeps on the floor of my bedroom instead of in his own because he doesn’t want to miss any secrets Mickey might share. Mickey and I have the bunk beds.
In the morning my mother and Mrs. Tennyson sit at the kitchen table sipping coffee and eating English muffins covered in dark purple jam. Mrs. Tennyson has on her big white perfectly circular sunglasses that cover her eyebrows and half of her cheeks. She wears my mother’s bathrobe, but it’s much shorter on her and reveals her bronzy knees. Her hair looks greasy around her forehead. Neither of them says anything when we walk into the kitchen, but my mother looks up and smiles. She has set out three full plates of eggs, bacon, and toast.
Now when was the last time you had a real hearty breakfast to start out your day, she says. Mickey doesn’t respond.
My mother drives us to school in the station wagon. We don’t turn on the radio and we don’t talk. My mother pulls into a parking space at school, and we follow her in.
I’ll be here to pick you up at 3:00, she says, and turns left to head to the principal’s office. I look at Mickey, but he has already begun walking down the hall toward his locker.
Mrs. Tennyson doesn’t seem to want to go home, and my mother thinks it best she stays. So now Mrs. Tennyson sits in our living room all day in my mother’s clothes she is too tall for and stares out the window at the front yard. My mother forbids smoking in the house, and instead Mrs. Tennyson taps the tips of her fingers against the arm of the couch, the windowsill, her sharp collarbone. My mother tells her she’ll be just fine in no time, that she never doubted her for a second, and Mrs. Tennyson just nods. Once in a while she holds an imaginary cigarette between her index and middle finger. She motions me over and I light a fake lighter for her and she takes a long drag, blowing air through the tiny hole in her pursed lips. She tells me that while she lives with us I can call her Susannah, but the name feels strange on my tongue so I go on calling her Mrs. Tennyson.
My mother spends her afternoons asking Mrs. Tennyson if she needs anything, and calling her friends. I can hear their voices crackling and scratchy on our end of the line.
She’s taking advantage of you, one friend says. You’re going to regret this. It’s really no trouble, my mother’s favorite line, and she repeats it like a fanatic repeats hallelujah.
When Kyle and Mickey and I watch TV in the living room, Mrs. Tennyson doesn’t turn around to face the TV. We wonder if she can even hear the noise. Mickey doesn’t like being in the room with his maybe deaf mother, and so we play outside a lot. He no longer wants to play in the hearse.
We are playing football in the backyard when Mrs. Tennyson calls my name. I try to ignore her because she has started to scare me with her fake smoking and her dead eyes, but she continues to call, Benji! Mickey and Kyle don’t seem to hear her, and I head in through the sliding glass door to the kitchen.
Mrs. Tennyson sits on the white countertop in white underwear and a men’s undershirt. I don’t know where she got the shirt because my dad doesn’t have clothes here anymore and the shirt is too big to be mine. Her green skirt is thrown on the floor beneath her, and her feet rest inside the sink, her legs covered in thick shaving cream. She laughs so hard tears run down her face, and I am not quite sure if she’s happy or sad.
I cut myself, she says, pointing to the bump of her ankle where red blood mixes with the white shaving cream forming a pinkish foam.
I stand in the doorway. She makes no effort to move. She just stares at me. Her eyes are wet. Her thighs are bare and aren’t covered in foam, and they look thin and smooth and dark. They don’t have the tiny blue veins that I can see on my mother’s legs when she goes to play tennis in her white, pleated skirt. Her skin hangs loosely on her thigh, and I can see a defined muscle line. I think of her red swimsuit and the way the white linen dress turns pink when it gets wet.
Turn the sink on, I say, my eyes not leaving the spot on her ankle. She holds her hands up to me. They are covered in thick white foam.
I walk over to the sink. Mrs. Tennyson looks at me, and I can see a dusty black line under her eyelids where her makeup has smudged. I quickly lean over her legs and turn the sink on. I let the water warm up and then turn the faucet head toward Mrs. Tennyson.
Put your leg under it, I say. She does.
I am standing a few feet from Mrs. Tennyson holding a paper towel for her to put on her ankle when my mother walks in. My mother drops her grocery bags, and an onion rolls to the dishwasher and stops.
Susannah, get out! my mother shouts. Get the fuck out of my house!
I drop the paper towel and run to my room. From upstairs I can’t make out words, but I can hear my mother stomping around, something crashing against the wall, and Mrs. Tennyson laughing that belly laugh that makes everyone uncomfortable when it should make them happy. The noise stops after a few minutes, and I lie on my bed pretending to read a comic.
My mother knocks on the door of my bedroom and asks me to go grocery shopping with her alone, which I haven’t done since before I was in school, before Kyle was born, back when she took me along on all her errands. What about Kyle? I ask. She tells me Mickey will watch him and to get a move on it.
While we are driving in my mother’s station wagon, she tells me about how Mrs. Tennyson used to be, even though she has already told me. I ask her if Mrs. Tennyson is going to be okay.
I really don’t know, she says.
Will Mickey live with us forever? I ask.
Mickey is meant to live with his mother, she says.
But what if his mother leaves without him?
Why do you think she would do that? my mother asks. She has turned toward me, and I am worried we are going to hit the car in front of us. I sit silently and squint my eyes so it looks like I am trying to see something very far in the distance because I do not know why I think she will leave without him, but I do. My legs sweat behind the crease of my knee. I can feel them sticking to the leather of the seat. I see Mrs. Tennyson’s bloody ankle, the color the exact same pink as my mother’s lipstick.
It hasn’t been easy since the basement flooded and Mr. Tennyson left them, my mother says.
I know, I say, although I have always thought a flood was a silly reason to leave your family.
It is very difficult to raise a child alone in this world, she says.
You did it with Kyle and me, I say. My mother smiles and rubs the side of my cheek with the back of her hand. It smells like mint.
Thank you, she says, but I’m not sure why she’s thanking me.
When we get home Mrs. Tennyson is not sitting in the living room smoking a fake cigarette. I go upstairs and find Mickey reading a comic on the floor of my bedroom.
Where is your mom? I ask him.
At your home?
I go downstairs and tell my mother, because this seems important. My mother told her to get out, but for some reason she still seems surprised to learn she has left, and she goes over to the Tennysons’. She doesn’t come back for a long time. She comes home and tells Mickey the time has come for him to go home, but to call if he needs anything. Any single thing.
Summer comes, and Mickey never comes outside to play. Kyle and I build a fort out of cardboard boxes my mother brought home from the food pantry, but one night we forget to drag it into the garage and the rain soaks through the boxes, revealing the corrugated lining. We discover that we can get to the top of the swing set by first climbing on the railing of our deck, then grabbing onto the rope wrapped around the top beam of the swing set for this purpose, and finally scooting up the rope to the top beam. This will be useful for when I join the Marines, and I begin to have Kyle time how long it takes me to get to the top. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Kyle falls when he tries to break my record—the rope comes untied—and he breaks his arm. For the rest of the summer I stay inside and read comics with Kyle because the rope was my idea.
My mother sends me over to the Tennysons’ with food she makes for them and puts in Tupperware containers. They never answer the door, and so I leave the food on the porch. Sometimes someone takes it in. Sometimes, three days later, I go back and pick it up. Mrs. Tennyson has pulled the hearse into the garage and I haven’t seen it out in months. Their driveway looks big and bare without it, the blacktop darker black in the shape of a rectangle where the hearse used to be parked, the surrounding blacktop a sad, sun-bleached gray.
One early evening the week before school reopens, I hear the Tennysons’ garage creak open. I can hear the engine of the hearse starting, sputtering at first but gaining its familiar steady breath. Mrs. Tennyson pulls the hearse out onto the driveway and leaves it running. Through our open windows I can hear music blasting, and Mrs. Tennyson carries boxes into the back where we used to play, singing along to the songs. Mickey comes outside and helps her, and I consider going out to help, too, but instead I stay by the kitchen window. Mickey sees me, but he doesn’t wave. My mother is not home, and I do not think I would go get her even if she was.
Mrs. Tennyson and Mickey stuff boxes into the long berth of the car until the windows turn cardboard-colored and the two back doors barely close. Mrs. Tennyson wears a floral printed dress with orange and yellow poppies that clings to her hips, and she has on her white sunglasses. Her hair is wrapped in a red bandana. Mickey wears his favorite Batman tee shirt. He climbs into the front seat, and I watch as he detaches the headrest cushion from behind him, puts it between his cheek and the window, and leans against it. Mrs. Tennyson pulls the hearse with the black outside and the black inside out of the driveway, pausing parallel to the curb.
We’re hitting the road, babe! she shouts in my direction over the blare of the radio, her voice strong and loud. She flashes me her toothy smile. In her bright dress her hair looks redder and her cheeks have a flush that makes her look happier than I’ve ever seen her. She throws her head back, and with her closed eyes she takes an exaggerated deep breath. I want to run down the street and after the hearse, but instead I stand by the window watching until Mrs. Tennyson takes a fast left and the hearse disappears behind the pink of a magnolia tree in full bloom. I can hear the radio long after the hearse is out of sight.
When my mother gets home from work, I tell her the Tennysons have left, and she sits on the couch rubbing the soles of her feet. That night the women come over, and from upstairs I can hear their dice rolling on the card tables my mother has set up.
I walk across the hall into my mother’s room and dig through her hamper until I find the floral robe she lent Mrs. Tennyson. I bring it back to my room and sit on the carpet, inhaling her scent. A woman shouts mahjong and the others cheer.