irina popescu winner nonfiction

“Soulstrings” by Irina Popescu, 2019 Non-Fiction Fall Contest Winner

I sit on the couch reading for a long time, unwilling to move, feeling satisfied as I read a story about a Midwestern man who used his Domino’s app to order pizza for hungry families on a Wednesday night. I want to call her. I worshipped our ongoing debates about technology’s relationship to human kindness; a marathon held between two inherently stubborn women; virtue, weakness. Technology, she told me a few years ago, is a senseless web of aggression that turns empathy into carelessness. Are any of us really empathetic, I thought? Am I? Is she? Was she?

Another point in my favor, I think, as I finish reading.

But you can’t call the dead. Not now, anyway. I guess technology can’tsolve everything. Another point in her favor. I like keeping tabs.

Her green and white hairbrush is still in the bathroom closet at my parents’ house. Sprinkles of greyish white hair burrow within the small plastic bristles. I used it right after she died and felt pieces of her sprinkling into me with each stroke. I still use it every time I visit my parents. Now, years into the future, I brush my son’s hair with it hoping those same sprinkles can make him dream of his great-grandmother as they meet in an extraordinary portal only they know how to find.

I am still pretty mad at her about dying on the first Sunday in February. That was three years ago, and I still haven’t convinced myself that her death is permanent. My son is sleeping upstairs and I often think about how she will never meet him. The thought still unsettles me and I return to it often, watching it take shape around me. In my throat it takes shape. And in the lining of my stomach. For years, she convinced me that nothing bad could happen on a Sunday and that February is a sacred – even saintly – month, since it’s when the plants take their first anticipative breath toward spring. When I was five and feared she’d leave forever one day, she told me not to worry because we were connected by our soulstrings and that my soulstring would jiggle to let me know when hers was stepping out of time and space. I believed in her and those strings, because why not believe in something?

Though I’ve tried reinventing the past, my soulstring didn’t jiggle moments before my father called to tell me she died of a stroke. I tried to hear the thud. I still try going back in time to see if there was any jiggling anywhere because honestly, I have no idea where I store my soul anymore. Did my heart or lungs or brain instinctually know that pieces of soul-flesh stored deep within my body were breaking off in that instant and would stay broken until I made my own thud? Do adults have souls? We’re meant to lose our grandparents. I know and I know and I know. A rose is a rose is a rose or whatever it was that Gertrude Stein wrote because she too was dealing with her own version of loss since it’s what all writers always deal with even though readers selfishly like pretending that the page squiggles mean something beyond death.

But my soulstring didn’t jiggle when the phone rang three years ago. It didn’t jiggle when my father’s voice transformed life into death. Words are sickening in their ability to kill things through grammar. As my father spoke, I remember that my body no longer felt it necessary to perform standing up, stunned piece by piece: ears, throat, stomach, each extremity, words tear flesh, making unnecessary exits, using my body as a sinuous road for their cruel journey. I slid onto the floor, listening, silent.

*

Urns are creepy, you told me once.

Yours hung out in your daughter’s living room in Texas for four months. We decided to take you back to Transylvania in June so you could be next to your husband, sprawled on top of that quaint hill you loved, that way you could overlook the home you missed so much for seven years. I never saw you inside the house. On the day they left Texas, Mama put you in a blue cloth bag covered with a darling pink ladybug and sunflower pattern. She held you on her lap for the entire flight, feeling her legs numb underneath your weight, terrified that you would spill if she closed her eyes. She couldn’t stomach risking a scenario where pieces of you got lost inside the Delta Boeing 767-300. Lost until the crew did a detailed cleaning of the aircraft days later, in preparation for their overnight flight back to Boston from Munich, where they’d finally vacuum your remains, dumping them in a country you never trusted because you secretly thought our family was Jewish. I wonder what TSA is like for ashes.

J and I traveled from San Francisco to Romania to help your kids prepare for the funeral before the rest of the extended family arrived. He missed you too. He told me that at least four times on the way to the airport and then three more times when we flew across the Atlantic. He told me he couldn’t believe you’d miss our wedding, scheduled for the next year. I told him I couldn’t cry on the plane, like I needed to store my grief for you for the right moment.

Did you know that dying in the United States and trying to get buried in Romania is as simple as re-growing an amputated foot by watering, fertilizing, and then praying it grows back only to get angry at your version of god upon realizing it won’t grow back and all you can do is become a one-footed atheist? Well, that’s what it was like. The priestdidn’t want to bury you because we cremated you. You never did like him, but we had no other choice. Are you mad we cremated you? I know you don’t care but figured I’d ask. I miss asking you things. There was no other way, but I know you know that. These strict Orthodox beliefs that the body should enter the ground whole, in the same flesh provided by God in your beginning are a bit outdated, don’t you think? Baby flesh isn’t the same as your flesh at 80-years old. I thought of mentioning that to the priest, but didn’t, don’t worry. I couldn’t imagine him laughing, so I minded my stubborn tongue. You always taught me about which battles were worth picking. I did devise another plan of bribery that would have made you proud – but that’s coming a bit later.

The cemetery, as you know, was quite the undertaking. It still looked like, what did you call it once, a dirty rainforest? Hundreds of giant weeds covered the plots, a hideout for the deathly critters you read to me about as a child. Also, I was so terrified of the post-funeral gathering. Your entire family of alcoholics-religious-fanatics-angry-uncles-gamblers-divas-aunts together for the first time in years drinking and eating and mourning in one not-so-big room at an isolated restaurant near a cemetery?

When I was twelve, years after our move to the United States, and I came to visit you for the summer, you told me to think of all my problems in steps. Steps, you said, help organize even the worst messes of life. Do you remember the two big messes in my life at twelve? One was wanting to move back to Romania because living in the United States as a poor immigrant seemed really dumb and I had no idea what to do about these “dreams” people kept talking about. My other big problem was wanting to quit playing the piano because my Russian teacher terrified me and I thought the bulgy veins in her hands would explode one day and I’d leave the lesson with caked-up blood all over my face and arms. As I began planning your funeral with Mama, I remembered how the steps helped to solve the piano problem and many other problems that kept appearing throughout my life.

*

Step One. Finding a decent restaurant for your post-funeral gathering. Reception? I honestly don’t know what to call it. We found one I knew you’d love because they had giant sunflowers, your favorite, outlining their garden. We ordered the food, limited the amount of drinks, paid ahead of time, made sure to bring our own toilet paper because you honestly never know and can’t wind up wiping your butt with your hand and then washing your hand only to pretend that you didn’t do anything out of the ordinary as you continue with your soup and salad course – like we had to all those years ago at a neighbor’s funeral and still brought up in causal and not-so-casual conversations.

Step two. Preparing the ground for you.

            In Romania having a cemetery plot is prime real estate. When my uncle died, his wife had her tombstone built right next to his. It had her name, the engraving, her birthdate, a dash, and a gap where her death date will be. That’s how my grandmother’s tombstone was set up as soon as her husband died. Name, birthdate, emptiness. Yet, looking at the empty space following the dash, I thought about the engraver that comes to fill that date in. What an odd job to have, the writer of death dates, a post-Grim Reaper arriving to etch death onto marble. It always seemed that she could live beyond the dash.

 The neighbor gave J and I a medium and a large pair of pruning scissors, trash bags, two bottles of water, one and a half pairs of gloves, and sent us on our way up the hill, to the entrance of the cemetery, where a rusty sign swinging between two nearly parallel poles welcomed us, as if we needed a setting reminder. My grandparent’s plot was near the top of the hill. The dilapidated steps leading up were ferociously cracked by giant prickly weeds I couldn’t name and gray thistles poking their way through the cement, rendering the path impossible in a post-apocalyptic sort of way. It’s the stuff one imagines when reading Cormac McCarthy. I never thought that Gertrude Stein and Cormac McCarthy would be the two writers I turned to as I came to terms with loss, but there they were, possibly for the first time, unless some other person is writing about a post-human rose plantation. We made it to the top, sweating as the morning sun tiptoes along the horizon, teasing us with its warm rays. I took out the medium-sized shearing scissors and the complete set of gloves, placing them on my grandfather’s grave. I gathered my hair in a high ponytail and began attacking the large thistle growing right in between my grandparents’ graves, fearing that somehow my determined strength would accidently open his and I would finally meet the boney version of the man that died three months before I was born.

“Hey, promise me something,” J yelled to me from across several graves, pulling up his sleeves.

“What?” I shouted back.

“Don’t bury me. If you have a hand in choosing, don’t. Promise me. I want my ashes to be tossed somewhere, in the ocean, on a hike we love, near a volcano even if you can’t get there,” J said.

“Seriously?” I called, walking closer to him. “Let’s not talk about this.”

“Yeah, I’m just sayin,’ I mean there’s never a good time to bring this stuff up so I just… It’s said now…”

“Wait also, if I have a hand in choosing?” I ask, walking a bit closer to him. “Roll down your sleeves and take this,” I say handing him a glove. “Wait, so you think you’re dying first? That’s a little unfair. I mean I could die first. Or maybe you’re thinking that we won’t be together in the long run? Or maybe…”

“Whoa…okay, okay, look I just mean that if I…”

“I got it. Can you just stop?  I mean, seriously. We can talk about it later, but right now…this isn’t about us or you, not now.”

“I’m just saying. Look, I know it’s not about me, don’t get mad at me.”

“I’m not mad. Let’s just get to doing all the stuff we need to do here ok?”

I was so pissed. And really wanted to hit him. I loved him, but can love and grief exist together equally in one person? Perhaps I could’ve blamed my anger on my inability to deal with loss or one of the stages of grief? Is hitting someone one of them? It should be. Right in the jaw or the bottom lip maybe so my hand doesn’t hurt. I don’t want to imagine tossing his ashes somewhere. Getting older and watching him…not then, not now, not ever. I gave him an angry glare but he’s too busy weeding to notice, then I went back to the shears and my stubborn thistle. At first, I felt guilty for taking the complete set of gloves, but when we met ten years ago, I never thought we’d spend the summer before our wedding burying my grandmother.

As I tugged and pulled at the meter-long thistle with all my force, I was anxious that the grave would pop open to welcome her, mocking me in my reluctance to believe she’s gone. I yanked and jerked, frustrated at the stupid weed that I was convinced needs to pay for these painfully raw thoughts. I pulled and pulled and pulled, until it finally snapped in half and I fell off the tombstone, rolling down onto the next plot.

I landed sprawled out on the grave of a man named Andrei who died in 1956. He was forty-two years old. My body trampled his dried-up flower arrangement and brown water dripped all over the side of my left arm and alongside his grave marker. A bulky, invisible “NO TRESPASSING” sign marking the borders between graves reminded me that I have insulted the dead. What rights do the dead have? Surely some. Surely we don’t just evaporate. Surely it is not okay to step all over a man just because he died in 1956.

Andrei is pissed. He’ll come for me in nightmares or haunts, or maybe he’ll just hurt others I love. He could get his dead friends to haunt me, too. Shit. I couldn’t get these thoughts in my head. It didn’t matter whether I really believed them or not. I jumped off the grave, frantically searching for innocent ground, as J stared back from his weeding, seemingly amused, even though his skinny forearms were bright red and speckled with even redder dots from the slightly poisonous plants fighting him for survival. I told him not to pull up his sleeves.

“Are you ok? Did you hurt yourself?” he called, walking a few steps in my direction.

“Um…fell over a tad, just tripped… No, not hurt. Just pulling at this one weed and the damn thing sent me back. Stupid weed. Hate that thing. Stupid thistles are so tough…so pointless as plants, they just grow for nothing.”

“People make soup from them or something, right? Or salad?” he asked.

“Do they? Out of thistles? Never heard of that. Probably tastes nasty. Still relatively pointless plants then…but hey, be careful not to…don’t step on graves, okay? I mean you shouldn’t step on someone’s grave if you can help it. Go around them. The graves, I mean. It’s really bad luck. Like really really bad.”

“Bad luck? You know I don’t really believe…”

“Look, I get it. But doesn’t matter what you believe in. You still shouldn’t out of respect… you don’t have to believe in all that stuff, but better not to. Just don’t, okay?” I tell him.

“Ok…” he replies simply, sweat dripping down his face and arms. I feel bad for his one violently red ungloved hand, and admire him as he uses it to hack at the colossal weeds creeping around his knees and hips.

“I wasn’t planning on stepping on any graves. You have that under control,” he joked.

“Funny.” I stare back with a slight eye roll.

“Come on! It’s kinda funny! Also, what are these things? What’s wrong with these plants?” he asks tugging at the weeds. “They’re hurting me, it’s like they have stingers or something. My skin itches so bad, crazy bad, and, look…look at these red bumps I got everywhere.”

“Man, that’s pretty bad. Yeah…those plants next to the thistles are kinda poisonous.”

“Kinda poisonous?” he asks, sounding a bit alarmed.

“Not like deathly poisonous – just irritate the skin a bit. Don’t worry, the bumps will go away in a day or so. They got these little stingers on the edges… it’s just how they protect themselves,” I tell him between breaths, as my battle with the thistle root continues. “They leave these little itchy bumps, but after you shower you’ll be okay, itch-wise. After a few days the redness goes away entirely. Don’t know the English name… you can also just cut them at the root and don’t worry about plucking them if they hurt.”

“Don’t they hurt you? I mean they’re all over…. such unkind plants.”

“They don’t do anything to me.”

“Maybe it’s in your blood,” he jokes.

Or just my extra glove, I secretly think. I smile back at his sweetness. When my grandmother first met him, she told me if I didn’t marry him she would. Then she laughed and told me their marriage would never last because she was old enough to be his grandmother. She was funny like that.

As J walked further from me, I looked down at my own arms and I realized they too were strikingly marked with red patches. I stood amazed and silent, a witness to the damage I had no idea I was inflicting upon my body. All of a sudden, I felt terribly itchy. I obsessively began to tear into my skin, convinced that my grave-stepping had something to do with my new state of discomfort. I liked to think that I was protected somehow, by this place, by the spirits here, by the dirt I stood on. Or maybe I just couldn’t feel the plants, numbed by their multitude, numbed by mourning and the preposterous nature gathered around our knees. After five minutes of scratching, moaning, and quietly complaining, I repositioned my disheveled hair on the top of my head, returning my energy to the weeds, finally nipping the stubborn thistle at the base, giving up the battle for root removal.

The areas around the grave were hard to weed, as the slugs and spiders residing underneath came up for air, furious that someone’s poking at their home, exposing them to the sun they spend their lives avoiding. I watched as the sunlight hits their slithering bodies and they began to scurry frantically, some slower than others, but all moving towards the darkly un-weeded territories our hacking had not exposed. With each pruning, dozens of white and black dots hysterically ran from daylight like small vampire embryos searching for a coffined solace. This was Transylvania after all. I felt them crawling all over me, in my mouth and hair, in my shoes, near my temples and eyes, inside my ears and nose. Soon, I no longer breathed or saw anything but blackness. I witnessed my body get slowly taken over by these critters. Slugs settled inside my eardrums, creating colonies of torture in each dark crevice of my decomposing body. I was the exploited host for these creatures of shadow, a dark shelter in a world of light I forcefully created for them. I tried to continue with the weeding even though I couldn’t see anything in front of me. I tried concentrating really hard so that itching sensations could slowly subside and, after a few minutes, I began seeing the fuzzy contours of the graves and J’s body several meters in front of me. I couldn’t fully shake the feeling of hundreds of tiny creatures crawling up my legs and arms, demanding my attention, yet, as I continued focusing on weeding, I began gaining my strength back and used it to whack, pull, tug and destroy the world of death around me.

The sun was shining down hard. I was hot and sweaty and thirsty. As I felt the beginning stages of heat stroke settling in, I stepped outside of myself again as I did with the bugs and saw two dirty, sweaty thirty-something-year-olds, wearing long-sleeve shirts and oversized sweatpants in the middle of summer. The shirts had something to do with the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s – a house divided, but one that still ran on love and multiple cups of morning coffee. One was missing a glove. The man’s left arm looked like a watercolor painting of poppies or a slaughter of goats somewhere in a Patagonian desert. He had kind and searching eyes as he tugged at the grasses crawling up his over-extended body. The girl looked just like one of the slaughtered goats, awaiting her spirit trial for grave trespassing. Her black and pink jogging shoes were caked over with mud and insects she can’t name in English. Layers of sweat dripped down her face and mixed with the dirt buildup around her forehead and temples, creating a grey hue – a dirty ghost.

After hours of weeding, pulling and hacking, I couldn’t stand up straight; my curved spine urged me to place my tool down and slide onto my grandfather’s freshly cleaned, and now visible, tombstone – the date 1986 filled in after the month of April. The gentle heat radiating from his spot oddly comforted my overheated body, making me feel soft as I numbingly watched J clearing the path at the top of the hill. Swish, swoosh, swish, said the shears as the grasses fall to the ground. Some uprooted, some not, sounds of a quiet symphony playing in the middle of a swamp. “Tomorrow they bury her,” I thought aloud, wrapping my mind around the event, trying to picture it: tombstone open, dirt outside, urn inside, she’s where, slowly covered by dirt, money thrown in, following tradition, but she’s where?

 “I’m done,” I called to J. “You should finish too. It’s enough. Looks pretty decent all in all. Not much else we can expect with these shitty tools.”

“Just a few more minutes,” he replied, not looking up.

My grandmother thinks she ruined our summer by dying. I started laughing to myself, feeling tired and sore as a feeling of tenderness takes over an uninhabited corner of my heart, making the softness stick. The same feeling that I recognized years later when I read about a man buying pizzas for strangers in need.

I packed up the shears, took three large trash bags down to the dumpster and removed my gloves, while J continued working one tiny patch leading away from the gravesite. Once he finished, we took the last of the trash down and didn’t look back to admire our labor.

“Man, it’s hot. Feel like parts of me have melted,” J said, tossing the last bag in the dumpster.

“Yeah, gets pretty hot here. We need so much beer.”

“So. Much. Beer.”

 “Thanks for helping,” I said.

“Don’t thank me. It’s…of course. I love her too.”

“Loved,” I correct him. “I know, but still, take a thank you.”

“Maybe love can never really be in the past tense,” he whispered.

“I like that. I really like that,” I replied.

“Weird that they don’t have grave keepers to do this work, huh?”

“I mean they do. Just chances of you paying and them not doing it are higher than them actually doing it so…here we are. You know grandma would have been so pissed to see us do this for her, right?”

“Oh man, I thought of that too,” he said, a slight smile emerging from the corners of his mouth. “Yes! I’m sure that wherever she is, she’s angry.”

“She was something, wasn’t she?”

“Yeah, she was a firecracker. But also like a tender bear,” he said.

“Tender bear?!” I laugh. “Virtue and weakness. Yeah, tender…soft, stubborn, tender, woman-bear.”

                                                            *

Step three: the priest.

I bought out the priest with American dollars. The exchange rate was fantastic that year, so he really took no extreme levels of convincing. Even time was on my side. It took exactly twelve minutes, give or take twenty-seconds. Ancient Orthodox beliefs were important, but money buys things, and Romanians tend to like things, and priestsgenerally prided themselves on having less, but still secretly enjoyed a few slices of delicious materiality. Unlike the Catholic priests, ours could marry and have children, which basically meant that they needed to buy shit constantly. The problem was I didn’t realize I could bribe him until a few days before the funeral, when we were priest-less and church-less, which, when planning a funeral, is a homelessness for the dead. The idea came to me in the market one day while watching townspeople fiercely exchanging money for tomatoes and dill, loudly haggling over prices with a mixture of stubbornness and articulation seen only in made-for-TV courtroom dramas I religiously watched in the U.S. Upon seeing the market scene, I urged my mom and uncle to go back to the priest’s house and pony up some cash, but they refused. Something about ethics and morality. I studied ethics in college but I didn’t see how that was going to get my grandmother buried, so I went down there myself. When I came home, I told them everything was taken care of.

The morning of the funeral, dozens of rain clouds greeted me as I poured my morning coffee and started praying for sunshine. Praying even though I bribed the priest for goodness sake, and, in fact, I was a hypocrite who couldn’t stop praying until I started to see a glimpse of the sun in the deepest corner of my wounded imagination. The morning hours passed quickly as my parents, uncle, cousin, J, and I shuffled in and out getting things ready, but really doing nothing but walking from one room into the next while holding objects in our hands, waiting for ten o’clock. The front door opens and closes, family members poured in, making the apartment look foggy, with lines of sweat marking the living room walls, and black-wearing beetles kept telling me they will miss her. Young children I didn’t recognize gathered near their parents with no idea of what to do with their hands or feet, as their dumbfounded eyes vacantly stared at the urn as if it were an indecent toy; a Barbie doll with her parts exposed on the dining room table.

I began to think of the things occurring in front of me not in steps, but as scenes from an absurdist play.

Most people were in the living room and the kitchen was a quiet space where few people came to refill their coffee and tea, grabbing croissants and other baked goods to take back to the congested living room. A blue clock with giant numbers rested above the walk-in pantry. My grandmother’s cousin opened the door of the pantry, walked inside, and closed the door behind him. He began drinking a half-liter of white wine. In a frantic search for sugar cubes for her espresso, his wife opened the pantry door and, finding him inside, she began to yell. Upon interrogation, she discovered that he sent his youngest nephew to the corner market to buy it for him when they arrived. She got furious and then enraged when he told her he thought it was water, in that sincere way that only a man married thirty years to the same woman can muster.

The hallway leading from the front door to the living room held a small cabinet. On top of the cabinet, a porcelain basset hound rested on top of a crocheted ivory coaster. Ten minutes before the taxis were scheduled to arrive to take us to the church, my godmother, who is also my grandmother’s youngest sister, cornered me in the middle of the hallway next to the cabinet to ask me about my prayer habits. “Actually, yes. I did pray this morning,” I told her, as I stared into the basset hound’s sad eyes. “How are you doing?” I asked her. As she continued to drill me on my prayer habits, I gently directed her to the airless living room. I took a deep breath and looked around. This is the family reunion we have talked about and dreaded having for years. I kept waiting for my grandmother to appear, expected her to walk in the front door, greeting her family and friends, smiling her warm smile and giving everyone bear hugs. A tender bear. Guess J was on to something.

The unsettled feeling of loss came over me as Marcel, the pantry-wine-drinker, began telling us, in his roughened voice, that we need to get everyone outside at once because the taxis have arrived and we needed to get to the church on time.

“CACA!”

“Right now, Vero? You have to poop right now? Are you sure?” I asked my little cousin as we approached the front door so that the taxis parked outside could stop their mad honking.

“Yes!”

“Okay, I’ll take Vero to poop, everyone else get going, let’s go.”

“Where’s Marcel?” his wife asked my dad.

“He’s outside, see, right there…it’s okay, let’s just all go outside and we can get going,” my dad replied calmly.

“I’m still hungry – gonna get me more croissants for the road,” my great-uncle announced.

“Okay,” I heard J say, and in his best Romanian, “Here you go.” He also offered him a giant smile along with the two croissants for the five-minute road-trip to church. In the bathroom, I smiled at Vero and told myself to keep breathing, remembering Step One. Two. Three.

                                                                        *

We were fourteen minutes late to your funeral, hustling and bustling, filling the church completely. The immediate family sat close to the altar where you were, a decision I instantly regretted when the priest flung the thurible of incense in my face as he began his chants. The smoke swarmed around me. I prayed for the second time that morning: Please don’t let me throw up, please, please, please. I am not sure I pray to god. I pray to you. I looked around for the nearest exit. Would your sister think I was possessed by a demon if I threw up at your funeral? Was I? I couldn’t take the sermon seriously knowing I bribed the priest only days earlier. Did you take it seriously? Each word, a thread of feigned sincerity as he praised the Virgin Mary, suggesting that the name Maria, your name, is blessed. I couldn’t regulate my sinful thoughts during the forty minutes he spent wildly flinging smoke while mentioning you, abstractly. Parts of me struggled to push back laughter, while others continuously swallowed vomit; another tried to be respectful, while my last particle cried incessantly.

You’re gone, concretely.

I stared at your photo on the urn. A photo I took on New Year’s three years ago. You wore a blouse J and I gave you for Christmas, with that dazzling blue, purple and green design. You sparkled. Ashes in a box. Your bones, your nails, your fingers, your beautiful skin, the cute freckles on your left hand, your luscious white hair – all of you in a box. I approached the bareness.

                                                            *

Moonshine plum brandy: a drink to the dead, for the dead, a goodbye tonic etching the dead deep inside live bodies with its sixty-proof strength served at every Romanian funeral gathering. It rested on each plate, delicately full and patient in its shot glass. Thirteen tables, adorned with charming white linens, silver cutlery, freshly baked bread, silver plates and candles awaited our arrival. We made reservations for more people than actually showed up, so the leftover food would be donated to a shelter for the elderly where my grandmother spent most of her free time volunteering. The excess plum brandy had two fates: it would either be ingested by certain members of the funeral party or tossed down the sink. A waste is a waste is a waste. And drunks at a funeral are drunks at a funeral are drunks at a funeral. Wasting it seemed dangerously ungrateful. I fear the dead; they have rights we can’t imagine.

The drinking would not happen right away of course – it would happen over the course of hours and last years. They would eat first, start taking pictures, and then slowly, when no one was watching, they would sit by one of the abandoned glasses and begin their journey. Then another one would sit near, smile, laugh, and start rehashing some part of the past no one remembers correctly because to remember is to go back to pain, and pain, while taking years to forget, is quite easy to remember under the perfect circumstances. Step four.

After eating food I hardly tasted, moving senselessly from griever to griever, I finally settled at a table with my mother’s best friends, Moira and Iren, who were close to my grandmother. I am withered and determined. I chose their table because they are two of the most stubborn women I know. As I joined their table, I felt myself piecing back together. Moira, Iren, and Moira’s husband listened to my worries about curses and drunkenness, nodding in unison as I suggested pouring the remaining plum brandy into two plastic bottles and taking them home. Iren and I went to Moira’s car discretely and grabbed two small plastic Coke bottles, emptying them onto a patch of thistles near a bush outside the back of the restaurant. I placed the empty bottles in my oversized purse and we walked back inside, unnoticed.

“How are we gonna get all this inside?” Iren asked.

“What do you mean?” I asked her.

“I mean, look, there’s like twenty different shot glasses sprawled all over those last two tables and people can see us. It’ll be kinda weird to just do it so everyone sees,” Iren said.

“Shit. You’re right. And it’s not like we have a funnel to get all this in.”

“Okay, girls. We’ll handle this,” Moira started. “Honey,” she says to me, “you’re so tall, so just be Iren’s shield as she pours the glasses into the bottles. She’s got a good hand, no shakes in that wrist. We’ll just be discreet about it and if people look, who cares? Who’s gonna say anything?”

Everyone, I think, imagining the men in my family stampeding towards us. Iren managed to fill up one bottle without problems. I stored the now full bottle back inside the confines of my purse and wondered if the brandy would taste a little like cola now. As she began filling the second, I lost my balance as we glided to the second table, bumping into her hips, I felt one glass spill over my dress, and fall to the floor.

            “Fuck me!” I whispered. But no one turned, except J who looked perplexed at first, then nodded.

            “Well, as tradition goes, the dead demand theirs. You know your grandma liked to down a few sometimes. Especially with honey. That woman loved her honey,” Moira joked. 

No shame, keep funneling.

I heard you say it.  

Then I felt them. Tender all around me. Soulstrings.

No shame, keep funneling.


Irina Popescu is a mama, a writer and a professor of Latin American studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. She lives in coastal Maine with her family and is originally from Romania. 

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