People will say anything at a funeral. Take the Reverend Griggs. He hands me a tissue and says, “There, there, don’t cry. Your mother is always with you, even in the Hereafter.”
I sigh. “I wish, Reverend. There’s something I meant to ask her.” I blow my nose. “But we both saw that ebony wood casket—my six-thousand-dollar last effort to please—disappear into the ground. Wherever she is now, it’s not with me.”
Later that night, I am watching The Joy Luck Club when my mother climbs out of her grave and stands at my bedside. The clock says 3 a.m. Richard snores loudly next to me. “Doris,” she says, “Did you really pay six thousand dollars for an ebony wood casket? And upgrade my burial plot to the ‘deluxe water view’? My God, you are wasteful!”
Although she is semi-transparent and waxy from the embalming fluid, she looks surprisingly good. I put out my hand and it passes right through her midsection. She swats it away. “Don’t.”
I nearly drop the remote. Sitting up, I ask her what it’s like in the Hereafter. She begins to change shape, turning into a mule, a mouse, then a turtle with a hard, scabbed shell.
“Hmph,” she says after she changes back to herself. “It’s great. The cherubs fight to hold my hand. The angels give me harp solos because I’m the only one who can do glissandos. All the souls ask me for advice. Something you might have tried doing once in a while.”
I roll my eyes. I can guess what’s coming next.
“Think—” she pauses. “It’s not too late to give up writing and go into pharmaceuticals.”
She is the same as ever. Still, I decide to tell her what’s been bothering me. Mothers, I say, are supposed to provide closure before they die. They are supposed to tell their daughters they’re proud of them—tell them they love them. That’s what happens in The Joy Luck Club. I clear my throat and give her a nudging look. Perhaps there is something she forgot to tell me before she died? Something she would like to tell me now?
But, as usual, she isn’t listening. She flaps her arms and flickers with a murky light, a firefly at the bottom of a pond. “Get up,” she says. “We’re going to cut coupons.”
I slump under the covers. Then I brighten—maybe we’ll have a heart-to-heart over coupons. That’s something else that happens in The Joy Luck Club.
So I get up, follow her to the kitchen, and dig through the recycling bin for circulars. My mother floats around the table, pointing out the extra good deals and remarking on my sloppy use of scissors. She says, “Idiot, why buy a Starbucks latte every day? That’s one thousand eight hundred twenty-five dollars you could be saving in one year! Which will come in handy when Richard dumps you because of your cooking.”
I throw down the scissors. Looking at the clock, I pointedly suggest it must be time for her to be getting back to the Hereafter, it being so wonderful and all. Besides, her angel friends were probably looking for her. “Right,” she says, “They miss me terribly when I’m gone. They weep deluges. But it’s your fault. I wouldn’t have come back at all if you weren’t so incompetent.”
That steams me. I grab the coupons and throw them into the garbage. I’m about to go back to bed, slamming the door behind me like a fractious teenager, when she transforms again, into a sparrow, a broken nestling flapping helplessly on the kitchen floor.
When she becomes herself again, she is crying. “I hate the Hereafter. I’m so lonely. God says I’m controlling and narcissistic and that’s why none of the other souls wants to be my friend. That God is a know-nothing loser.” Her angry tears dissolve into vapor.
I have never seen my mother cry before. She grows smaller, dimmer, and soon she is a nothing more than a wisp glistening wetly on the linoleum. In a minute she’ll be gone forever.
I fish the coupons out of the garbage and stack them into a pile. I stumble to my knees. “Don’t cry, Mom. I’ll always be with you,” I say. She is nothing more than rippled air, the intake of breath after a sigh. Before it’s too late, I reach out for what particles of her I can find.
Doris Cheng received an MA in English Literature from Columbia University and currently teaches creative writing at The Writers Studio in New York City. Her fiction has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, TSR: The Southampton Review Online, CALYX Journal, Apeiron Review, and Epiphany’s anthology The Writers Studio at 30.