Monday, January 9, 2012

#15: "Washing the Dead" by Michelle Brafman

~~This piece previously appeared in Gargoyle (2010)

No melodrama here, my grown daughter needs to know what I’ve done, and she needs to know now, today, this second, to save her from her genetically flawed impulses. Since there are no words for my shame, I dream up my biopic while I wait for her outside the Great Wolf Lodge, the premier waterpark of the Wisconsin Dells.
 I map out an establishing sequence for my movie. I’ll start with a simple exterior shot of the lodge; I’ve produced enough marketing videos to exploit the way winter light casts shadows in all the right places. I’ll build a montage of weary parents and children tumbling out of minivans, their fists buried in bags of Doritos, and the eager employees in fake park ranger outfits who greet them with invitations to decorate wolf-shaped sugar cookies.
It’s cold in Wisconsin in February, so I go inside and snag an overstuffed chair next to the fireplace, to the left of the concierge. I’m too preoccupied with casting my indie film to attempt to finish my copy of The New York Times crossword puzzle I began this morning (my husband buys two papers from the pharmacy every Sunday so we don’t have to share; such small kindnesses have cemented our twenty-five year marriage.)
I decide to cast Lili Taylor as my daughter. Think Lili in her mid-twenties (Mystic Pizza or Say Anything), before the fierce optimism cloaking her vulnerability shifted from determined to desperate. Barbara Hershey will play me — not the Barbara of Beaches, soft and introverted — the Babs of Lantana, overtly serene yet damaged, her snout distorted by too much plastic surgery. Barbara grabs hold of me, and I become her ghost or the camera or something in between.   

The camera follows Barbara to the cashier where she purchases a wrist band granting her access to the waterpark.  She waits some more, wondering how Lili, now old enough to look after children herself, will react to the surprise visit. Barbara, the parent who never believed in curfews, the first mother to permit mascara, froze when she heard the coyness with which her daughter had talked about her upcoming trip to the Great Wolf Lodge.    
I stay wide on Barbara and record the slow gush of the Lazy River and the buckets the size of Pennsylvania periodically dumping one-thousand gallons of water from the top tier of a Swiss Family Robinson-style tree house. Second track of audio: the din of children’s laughter and squealing, acoustics magnified by the glass dome. Third track: Billy Joel singing “Only the Good Die Young.” I go with the natural sunlight streaming through the glass, and grab a few shots of water-logged teens scurrying off to hunt down fries, juice-boxes and ice cream dots the size of spitballs.
By the time Lili arrives, Barbara’s cheeks are flushed from the heat, her eyes bloodshot from the chlorine fumes, and she looks both defeated and eager. Cut to a long tracking shot of Lili entering the park, draped in towels and the three-year old boy she is raising for twelve dollars an hour. Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under, but medicated Billy, not seduce-the-sister Billy) will play the boy’s father; I’m impressed with his acting ability, specifically the way he can coil his energy around anger and failure and hope. Jeremy’s a set designer with erratic hours, perhaps a small drinking problem, and too much time to pay attention to Lili, while his wife collects a steady paycheck and health insurance from her nine to five administrative job at the university. (We never see Jeremy’s wife in my film, but her existence demands acknowledgment, if only symbolically, so Parker Posey will play her. How can you make an indie without Parker?)    
The camera captures Lili leaning into Jeremy, her T-shirt climbing up her flat belly and then zooms in tight to Barbara, half-smiling.
“Surprise.” Barbara walks over to hug Lili, who upon encountering her mother looks confused, slightly annoyed, and maybe a little relieved too. Cut to the bucket dousing a cluster of parents — half of them doughy, the rest eager to show off what they’ve been up to at the gym — and their children, mouths open, as if it were raining lemon drops and gumballs. Water. More Water. Dip to black.

The next scene opens with a title card: La Jolla, California, April, 1983. Cross- fade the children’s squeals from the waterpark with real waves, and panting – his and hers. Dissolve to a shot of a nicely shaped shore-breaker cresting mercilessly against the sand, to the young Barbara (Nan Chi in Kung Fu), facial elasticity intact, gazing up at the stars. A breeze blows a strand of hair against her cheek. Close-ups of: her white jeans bunched around her ankles, his bare rump, her tongue on his neck, his hand in her hair, her grabbing his fingers, his gold wedding band refracted by moonlight. Back to the waves. Fade to black. 

            Water. It runs from the tap in the basement of the Abramowitz Funeral Parlor, where the evening before Barbara visited the waterpark, she had fulfilled her duty as a member of the Chevrah Kadisha, her synagogue’s burial society. Barbara Hershey, formerly known as Barbara Lynn Herzstein, still might not know from burial societies, so during a preproduction coffee she’d have hosted in her lovely Connecticut home, we’d have lounged on her white couch and petted her cats, and I’d have described the haunting article I’d read in Hadassah Magazine about tahara, the Jewish burial ritual of washing the dead. Jews consider this the noblest form of kindness since the recipient can’t acknowledge or return the deed. After I read that article, I felt like I would drown in the need to perform this ritual. Barbara will get this. She chose to live in Connecticut instead of Hollywood; she must be deep.
I’d start this flashback with a medium shot of Barbara standing over the sink in the harshly lit preparation room washing her hands. Cut to two women entering, wearing white gowns, sensible shoes, and matching necklaces with gold hands warding off the evil eye. Wider shot. Barbara embraces the two women, and the three of them put on gloves and surgical gowns. They cover their heads to remind themselves that God is watching over them.
Cut to medium shot of room. A body covered by a crisp white sheet rests on top of the gurney.
Barbara removes the cold hand from under the sheet. The skin is unlined; the fingers tapered, and the nails painted a light purple. I’d direct Barbara to look upset when she discovers the hand belongs to a young woman. (I’d have told her while stroking her tabby that I’d never washed a body younger than eighty-years old before, that knowing this woman had died in a car accident made me nauseous when the smell of rotting flesh never had.) The camera moves slowly toward the fingers, stiff as a mannequin’s. Barbara clenches her teeth as she soaks a cotton ball with nail polish remover and wipes away the enamel, one finger at a time.

The waterpark is growing crowded. Cross-fade laughter with the sound of swishing water.
“Daddy, watch me!” Jeremy’s son shouts.
Jeremy scoops up the boy and grins at Lili as if the child belonged to the two of them. Lili looks pleased. Cut to Barbara giving her classic placid smile that masks some enormous emotion. Bring down the nats (natural sound) of the water and the kids screeching in a wind tunnel. She’s got something to say. Thought track her whispering, Don’t. Don’t.   
Cut to Lili diving into the overly chlorinated water like a dolphin.

La Jolla, California. June, 1983. Young Barbara is splayed on the floor of the laundry room blanketed with blue sheets, toddler shorts, and overalls fresh from the dryer. Her lips, luscious without the collagen, travel up and down the torso of her lover — the married man from the beach, her boss, the father of the toddler she cares for, provider of the spaghetti she boils and the clothes she washes.
Slow zoom to reveal his face. Daniel Day-Lewis (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, not My Left Foot). Pan to the window, where the sky is darkening over the Pacific. Daniel is grabbing a handful of breast and pressing into her. The sky opens, pouring endless water onto the waves and the sidewalks and the speeding car of Daniel’s wife, who delayed taking their son to visit her parents in Irvine and instead rushed home from her OB appointment to tell Daniel that by next Valentine’s Day they will have another child.  

Barbara emerges from the waterpark locker room wearing a black bathing suit and an aqua gauzy sarong. The camera tracks her walking along the pool, slinging her bag over her shoulder. 
Jeremy leads his son to the orange Guppy Gorge waterslide.
Barbara looks over at the slide and then at the little boy and purses her lips.  
“They wear life-vests.” Lili smiles, revealing that delicious dimple. “Worry wart.”
Barbara sits next to Lili. “I worry about you.”
“I’m okay, Mom.” She rests her head in the crook of Barbara’s neck. Shot of the two of them dangling their feet in the Lazy River. Their backs are narrow, and Barbara’s hips are only slightly wider than Lili’s.
            “He’s someone else’s husband.” Barbara nods her head in Jeremy’s direction.
            Lili yanks away from Barbara. “Kind of late for the sex talk, Mom.” Lili’s sass comes out snotty.
            “You can quit working for them. I have enough money to pay for graduate school.” Barbara’s voice is gentle.            
Jeremy sneaks up behind Lili and pushes her into the water. She arches her back and giggles. 
Up the nats of the water. The water. The fucking water. Tight shot of Barbara opening her mouth to speak, but no words come out.

            Fade up from black to La Jolla, a pro-mist filter creates a hazy effect. Barbara and Daniel have migrated from the laundry room to Daniel’s smoky study. Open with news footage of a sun-worn weathercaster with nice legs warning San Diego commuters about floods. The television doesn’t drown out the sound of Daniel reading Pablo Neruda in his perfect Spanish. Toes painted with purple polish Barbara had borrowed from Daniel’s wife, she sits on his lap, naked, eyes glassy from sex and good weed.
            The winds pick up, and Barbara strains to hear Daniel’s soft voice through the sounds of the storm. She sits perfectly still so that she won’t miss one syllable that comes out of his mouth.  
            Cut to Daniel’s wife —  a breathless Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie) — the rain dripping down her asymmetrically beautiful face, to her chest flushed against her pale green sundress. Her three-year old son rubs his sticky fingers in her hair. She places him on the living room rug in front of a bucket of Legos. The camera follows her through their living room, littered with dirty cereal bowls, stuffed animals, and puzzle piece widows; to their bedroom, their nightstands stacked with novels and final exams in need of grading; to their bathroom, a black camisole hanging on the doorknob and their tiny vanity scattered with toothbrushes, contact lens solution and a bottle of Emily’s nail polish. Static shot of the snapshot on Daniel’s dresser of Emily, Daniel, their son, and Barbara wolfing down soft pretzels in Central Park (Barbara watched the baby while the couple gauged their worth at an academic conference.)
            Toward Daniel’s study and the Neruda and the bare breasts. And the rain.

Fade up to the Abramowitz Funeral Parlor, to a long shot of Barbara running a toothpick under the fingernails of the young woman’s hand. After she finishes, Barbara and one of the sensible-shoed ladies alternate pouring water over the dead body while the third woman arranges the sheet to preserve the young woman’s modesty. Barbara pours and pours, an uninterrupted flow of twenty-four quarts of water rolling off the body into the drain.
            Cut back to La Jolla at dusk. Emily grabs a warm bottle of their wedding champagne and two flutes from the pantry before she discovers her Daniel and her nanny dozing, naked. Go tight on Emily’s eyes, wide, too shocked for tears. Pull back. Daniel and Barbara awaken to an animal sound coming from Emily’s throat and the little boy calling for his mother. Daniel leaps up over Barbara, who tumbles onto the Persian carpet. The camera follows Emily snatching up her son. The boy, green Lego in hand, wraps his chubby legs around her waist, and she runs awkwardly down the driveway. The rain grows louder and louder.
            Pulling her dress over her head, Barbara walks to the front of the house and watches the whole thing through the window. Emily disappears into a grove of torrey pines on the side of the house. A shirtless Daniel opens the front door and yells her name, but she doesn’t respond. He gets in their VW van and begins backing out of the driveway, sleek from the overdue rain. He’s still high, and he’s driving too fast. The child emerges from the grove, screaming “I want Daddy,” and Emily chases after him. Barbara opens her lips, cracked and tingly from rubbing against Daniel’s stubble, and tries to scream. No sound comes out.
Emily shields the boy from the impact of the family car, which knocks her down. The boy runs across the driveway, and stoned and hysterical Daniel pushes the gas instead of the brakes, plowing into Emily’s torso, snapping her neck like a wishbone. The van blocks most of Barbara’s view of Emily, leaving only the slender sight of her arm, her fingers limp, painted with the polish she’d loaned Barbara the day before.

At the Abramowitz Funeral Parlor, Barbara has combed the young woman’s hair and dressed her in a white shroud, tied the three ends into the letter shin, the initial letter of Shaddai, a name for God. She sprinkles dirt from Israel over the woman’s eyes, heart, and genitals, and then places a mixture of egg-white and vinegar in the casket, all to hasten decomposition and lessen the anguish suffered by the departed soul. “For dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19)

Barbara is doing a yeoman’s job with my quiet angst and frustration, and I should reward her with a grand climax, an enormous moment with Lili. But I can’t. Or can I?
I pull Barbara aside and whisper to her maniacally. Find your own words, Barbara, to tell my daughter that I chose flight over fight. I ran out the front door in my bare feet, past Daniel and his son, through the same grove of torrey pines as Emily had. I didn’t hear sirens, only rain and wailing.
Barbara hugs me, and then pulls back and strokes my shoulders with both hands, her almond-shaped eyes burrowing into me. “And what do you regret most?”
That a woman died because of my recklessness? That a boy has grown up motherless? That I ran? That I’ve second-guessed every decision I’ve made ever since? “Everything.” I wiggle from her kindness; I don’t deserve it.     
Fluorescent light has replaced the sunshine, and the roar of the children has turned into a low din. Lili stands with the toddler on her hip, smiling as if this is her place, on the deck of a family vacation destination, with this man and his child. Jeremy takes the boy from Lili, who follows Barbara to a lounge chair at the other end of the waterpark. Very long shot, with Guppy Gorge in the foreground.  They’re wearing wireless mics, which record Barbara speaking my truths and Lili asking the expected follow up questions. Huddled in their towels, Barbara and Lili leave the chairs as they might a crime scene, but it’s hard to tell who is the escort and who is the perp.

It’s getting late at the Abramowitz Funeral parlor. Before Barbara closes the casket, she places two pieces of wood the width of ski poles in the hands of the young woman. These will help her soul rise from the grave.
Barbara washes her hands, three splashes of water alternately on each hand, and then recites a prayer. Baruch atah Adonai . . . She walks out into the night, the cold air drying her fingers as she emerges from washing the dead.

My legs are growing stiff from sitting on this lounge chair for so long. The crowds have shifted from the slides to the buffet, Mexican theme tonight.
I’m not wearing a black bathing suit or a sarong; I don’t own such items in real life. I take off my shoes and worn socks and roll up my jeans. The water cools my sweaty feet. I stand beneath the Swiss Family Robinson tree house, and wait: for my daughter to show up, for the words to tell her my secret, for the chance to insert myself between my history and the hope she will not repeat it, for the bucket the size of Pennsylvania to spill one-thousand gallons of water over me.    


I wrote this story in one day. Well, kind of.
Ten years ago, I tried to launch a novel based on my obsession with my neighbor's prison sentence for swerving off a dimly lit suburban highway and striking and killing a teenage girl. We were both pregnant on the day she was convicted. I'd shared my vision of our kids riding their bikes on the street that separated our houses, and she'd invited me over to meet her college friends, corn-fed sorority sisters with Midwestern accents and warm smiles. They reminded me of the girls with whom I'd gone to high school.
I write to find answers to things I don't understand, like how my neighbor -- familiar and kind -- had found herself in prison or how the teenage girl's family could survive this tragedy. My questions failed to yield a path into this story. Then a friend casually mentioned the tahara, the Jewish body washing ritual which is regarded as one of the noblest acts of kindness. I became enthralled with every detail of this rite and its potential to explore the theme of redemption. Over time my neighbor morphed into the narrator of "Washing the Dead," but I still had no story. 
The clarity I sought arrived via a ruptured ear drum, a subsequent manic reaction to Prednisone, a family trip to The Great Wolf Lodge, and my discovery of Jill McCorkle's short story "Departures." The story emboldened me to experiment with a fragmented narrative, returning me to some of my filmmaking habits I'd been trying to break.  In the course of a day, amidst the heat and noise of the waterpark, I scribbled the story onto paper napkins and placemats.  
My neighbor moved shortly after she was released from prison, and new neighbors planted a weeping cherry tree in their front yard. Every spring the tree flowers, drawing my attention toward their house. It now frightens me to ponder the scope of what was lost on that highway, and I don't know if I will ever write about it. Maybe pieces of this story will attach themselves to a different tale. "Washing the Dead" ultimately launched a novel that took root around other questions that had been marinating for decades. I don't believe that my stories can be written in a day or a week or a year. ~Michelle Brafman
Michelle Brafman's fiction has received numerous honors including a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Past winner of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story prize and the Lilith Magazine Fiction contest, her stories have appeared in the minnesota review, Blackbird, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and other publications. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program and George Washington University. Michelle is also an award winning filmmaker. "Washing the Dead" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and highlighted in a New Pages.Com review of Gargoyle. For more information:

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