Regardless of how he felt about Gladys, Toby had to hand it to her: after all she'd been through—the early pregnancy, an unwanted event resulting from a drunken binge, leading to more binges as a result of an unwanted marriage, the beatings, the midnight cries, the divorce, the pain of raising a colicky child all on her own, and now the looming end from years of one cigarette after another—she still had a lot of fight left inside. Maybe she had been born with it, one clinched fist in a mound of fiery hair, pulling herself through the pelvic gate of life, screaming all the way like a viking goddess marching to the sea for war. Maybe she inherited it from her own nagging mother, or maybe it grew out of the bed of bitterness and hatred that festered from the constant wounds a soulless, grunting father gave her. Whatever it had been, whether just one thing, or, more likely, multiple trespasses upon her heart, Gladys Lynne McCreedy could still hold her own, even at seventy-two with one lung completely gone and the other gasping its way to the finish line.
She squeezed tears from her eyes as the latest blast of coughing racked her tired body. Snatching a tissue from the Kleenex box, she hawked once, spat, and then looked at the gooey mess she had just given life to before wadding it up and tossing it away in the waste can next to the end table.
"Promise me," she said, her voice as thick and deep as a man's. She took a couple short breaths, and the oxygen tank beside her recliner hissed. "Promise me I won't fry."
Toby glanced at her, thinking: Geez, woman, give it a break, will ya? Instead, he said, "Gladys, I already told you once, didn't I?"
He called her Gladys instead of Mother or Ma because she liked it that way. She'd read somewhere that children who grew up too nurtured in old traditions were less likely to think for themselves, less likely to be independent. He didn't know about any of that, but he probably would have use her first name anyway.
Gladys said, "Well, tell me again, then."
He looked away and sighed. She really was going to press him on this.
She had already made him promise not to put her through the crematorium, but that wasn't enough. He had to hear why because she believed he didn't know what happened in there, what it did to people. She did, of course; she'd read up on it. First, the skin boiled up—boiled and sizzled like some hog's backstrap. "Then, they turn up the heat," she said. "Turn it up so high, it literally vaporizes the tissues. Skin. Muscles. Organs. Everything. In fact, the only thing left when they's done with ya is nothing but a dried up skeleton, which they then pulverize. That's what you get in them urns," she added. "Not actual ashes, but powdered bones."
He tried to reason with her once, show her how much it cost to bury a body, and how the body slowly decomposed over time rather than out-and-out destruction in a matter of hours. All his efforts failed to cut through her defenses, though; Gladys only hardened her tone and reminded him that she, not he, had the right to say what happened to her remains.
Her voice pulled him back to the present. He looked at her and saw that she was still waiting for him to repeat his promise. In fact, if she were still allowed to smoke, she probably would have pointed at him with two fingers, a burning cigarette scissored between them, as if to say: That's right. I'm talking to you.
"Of course, Gladys," he said. "I promise not to put you in the crematorium."
"And the house?"
What he did with her remains wasn't the only thing she made him commit to. Not only did he promise to keep her out of the fire, she also made him promise not to sell the old house.
Toby sighed again. Looking around, there was nothing here he wanted. Not the photo-op pictures. (They were nothing but a load of crap) Not the furniture. (The stuff smelled as bad as her ashtray). Not even the cheesy herons sculptured out of glass. (Those things creeped out everyone else who stopped by to visit. It was no wonder he could never find a girl).
Even the house itself held nothing for him. The old place was just a reminder of his life growing up, living in the high court of retribution, always paying the price for the failures of his father—and all the other men who ran out afterwards.
He opened his mouth to give her what she wanted, but just then another coughing fit racked her body. After she finished, her breaths coming in and out in shallow wheezes, she looked at him, ready to hear the words.
Good God, he thought.
"I promise," he said, and hated her for the words. She always had to be in control. She always had to have her way. "I won't sell the house."
With that, Gladys leaned her head back. She closed her eyes and slept.
An hour later, or maybe it had been more, he noticed that her breathing finally stopped. He looked at her, saw the waxy complexion of her face, and knew it was finally over.
From his pocket, Toby pulled out a pack of Winston Lights, her favorite. After lighting the cigarette, he gently placed it between her cold fingers. It fell in her lap, smoldering on her clothes.
Gladys wasn't allowed to smoke anymore. The doctors had told her as much, but everyone who knew Gladys also knew she did things her way. As Toby left the house, he could smell the faint hint of burning clothes. He smiled. At least he kept his promises.