A Nice Wake
by Katharyn M. Privett
Kate was only thirty-eight years old the night she drove into Florida to scatter her father’s ashes off of St. Augustine’s historic pier where they had spend every summer, fighting and spending too much money and not knowing that summers always end. She turned onto A1A Parkway, the strip that ran along St. Augustine’s coastline separating sea from weekend civilization, just before the sun sunk over the ocean and bathed the dash of her car in a hellish red. Her mother was waiting in one of those monstrous gray condominium clusters, Pier Point South, pretending normalcy with a glass of wine in one hand and the sliding glass door overlooking the ocean already open when Kate and the boys knocked on the door. It was going to be nice, her mother had told her that night over the third glass of wine, we can walk the historic district, and go to that ice cream shop with the balcony, and as she smiled reassuringly her teeth gleamed white-blue in the dark. Kate laid awake until the room stopped spinning that night and fell asleep without taking off her pants.
The next day Kate walked with her mother down Ferdinand Street, over blocks of sunken brick road that ran between the sixteenth-century Spanish storefronts that smelled of bread and dust and old summers. And there were ghosts there, but her mother didn’t notice the way they lingered over cobbled doorways that now sported Tommy Bahama outlets and art shows and whispered things that her mother had forgotten. Before the afternoon forced them to find food, her mother had bought a jar of rose hand cream and souvenir shells for the boys and had not once mentioned the pier. Over a Cuban dinner of lime steak and rice her mother bravely decided the prayer she would recite, the boys should of course say something nice about their grandfather and Kate would be in charge of pinching out just enough ash for the children so that they wouldn’t spill any on their Sunday clothes. Kate ordered two margaritas and wondered about the color of ash while her mother penned out the details on her travel memo pad she had picked up that day at Short Surf Totes n’ Stuff. His hands, she remembered, blue inked lists tattooed with daily trivialities, check lotto, 10 inch bulb, hoagie rolls.
Her mother’s voice rolled over her memory, complaining about how long the waiter had taken, something about wasted time. As they stood to leave, Kate caught the eyes of the waiter, familiar and dark, then suddenly alien when the door opened and the room flooded with 98 degree light. Her mother never looked back, her heels firmly puncturing the sandy walkway in rhythmic urgency. Kate walked in her wake, the scent of roses and dust rising from her mother’s body like steam.
Before the sun went down, Kate and her mother and the boys walked to the pier past the scaffold where the slaves had been sold and Ponce de Leon’s Fort and the ship that had been turned into a restaurant. And there were ghosts there, but her mother couldn’t hear them over the drone of late Saturday traffic that was taking all the tourists back down 312 East. When her mother took her hand, it felt cold and soft and Kate focused hard on the sound of the tide coming in, and as her mother began to recite “Thou art my Lord, My God, Thou Art With Me,” someone on the pier laughed, but her mother didn’t notice. On the way back her mother found a tissue in her purse and wiped the ash from her bright red fingernails and adjusted her wedding ring.
It’s nice, isn’t it, she assured her daughter. An antique, you remember, Kate. He loved old things. I suppose it’s very old. The harbor bell began to sound, its echo weaving through the humid air as if alive, holding its sound like a cry from the past, sorrowful and deep. Kate’s mother straightened her hair with her fingers, reapplied her lipstick with a little smack, and smiled reassuringly. I do believe we will miss the rain. Kate agreed.
The next day, Kate kissed her mother and belted her children in and drove away just as it started to rain. In the rearview mirror, the arches of St. Augustine Bridge seemed almost transparent in the fogged glass, and she knew there were ghosts there. She could almost see their forms, they took the shape of trees, bending their bodies toward her in the first sheets of the storm. The sound of thunder reverberated over the water, an echo that lingered for almost a mile down A1A parkway. Kate smiled and turned the radio on and thought about where to stop for lunch. Someplace nice, she thought, as the brick arches faded out of sight.
The rain followed her almost to Valdosta, Georgia, clearing suddenly as she passed the first peanut farm on I75. Kate and the boys ate catfish and sweet slaw, and played the lottery with a one dollar bill, and crossed the Alabama state line just before the sun went down. The boys had drifted off, the sound of their breathing evaporating into the night air as she lowered the window, the smell of honeysuckle vines almost too sweet. It was a nice wake, her mother had said, one tear coursing down her cheek, washing a clear path over her perfectly powdered skin. Kate had agreed with her, nodding her assent in rhythm with the shadows on the pier, and there were ghosts there.
Kate turned the radio off. Twenty more miles, she said out loud. Somewhere ahead heat lightening marked the sky, illuminating the tops of the pines for an instant as they waved in the night air—and then it was gone, leaving only a burning image of itself that faded as fast as it came. Kate rolled down the other window and waited for thunder.
Katharyn M. Privett is finishing her doctorate at Auburn University in Alabama in Feminist Studies and American Literature. She currently holds a position at Auburn University as an English instructor, and has taught there for six years. Katharyn has three children, ranging from age nine to twenty, and writes short stories that represent the unique experiences of the single mother.