“Deirdre, hello,” Father Duncan said. He’d come across the street holding his Bible. He didn’t often do that. Now he leaned on the glass counter, looking at me. The girl with him was young, thirteen perhaps, with rich red hair like poinsettias. She bounced on her toes through the funeral home storefront, smoothing her hair back with one hand and fingering catalogues and merchandise with the other. Father Duncan cleared his throat, tried again: “How are you today?”
I fidgeted behind the counter, a display case modeling sample urns. Father Duncan was my first friend here. This was a big deal. “Same as usual,” I said, “The cramp in my leg is severe. Maybe a pinched nerve.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” He nodded seriously. “Have you tried walking? There’s a nature preserve near Kennedy Space Center with lovely paths.”
Father Duncan was repetitious. Like my doctors, he suggested solutions for ailments that can’t be cured. “The weather,” I said, “So damp.”
“Ah.” He paused and I stared at the urns below me. There are numerous styles for various personalities: biodegradable clay urns that decompose within half an hour; pet urns poured in molds to shape paw prints (easy to engrave, cheap to make); unfinished urns that can be glazed with human ashes (signed waiver necessary, extra for colors); porcelain vases, fragile vessels like the kind I used to make. “Deirdre.” I looked up. Father Duncan motioned to the girl across the room, putting his Bible on the counter so he could use both hands. “This is Audrey. I forgot to introduce you. She’s one of our active young members—choir, youth group, helps out her aunt—” Father Duncan trailed off.
We both stared at her oblivious on the other side of the room, flipping through a binder of suggested epitaphs. “Hey, Father D.” Audrey said, “Where are the flowers?”
“They’re downstairs,” I said. We’re a multi-functional funeral home, performing lots of tasks for both living and dead, including providing the church’s flowers. “We can deliver them.”
She turned to me and nodded. By the flashes of silver in her mouth I guessed she had braces. And gum. She blew a bubble and popped it with her finger. “Cool,” she said. “So the order’s in? I gotta go help my aunt, Father D.”
“The regular?” I asked. “I’ll put in on the church account.”
Father Duncan nodded. “Yes, thank you.” Audrey stared at us in a teenager’s failing attempt at manners. Father Duncan turned to go, hesitated. “Deirdre? I wanted the two of you to meet." Audrey popped her gum again and waived. "There’s a group at the church you might like. Some people that get together and talk. If you want. Not affiliated or anything, no pressure.” And he left, rushing Audrey through the door. All I registered were the backs of their heads. He forgot his Bible on the counter, he left so fast.
I first met Father Duncan at Sunday tea after church. I went every Sunday, not because I was religious but because it was across the street from where I work and a place to go sit among the living. As far as churches go, it’s small: there’s no microphone and I could still hear Father Duncan from the back. The choir’s decent and there are pads on the kneelers. My right knee is unreliable and aches all the time. I think it’s a crack in my patella. I can feel it spreading. I can feel it growing, consuming me cell by cell until I radiate sickness. It’s all I can think about. I’m sure it shows. No one wants to be near a person like that, but Father Duncan talked to me anyways. He’s good at what he does. He gets you to admit things you wouldn’t usually, just by listening. Like, I moved to Florida for my health. Like, I miss Brattleboro, where I’m from, where I lived for forty-five years. Like, my body is too frail for cold weather.
That day, I stood in the corner drinking lemonade, watching a little girl in a white dress kick some poor boy in the shins. Her mother was preoccupied by cucumber sandwiches. I saw Father Duncan approaching long before we spoke -- I had time to see the boy yank the girl’s hair until her scalp pulled back and she subsequently burst into tears -- with his long frame clinging to his robe and sweeping towards me slowly. He stopped to get a drink and to rest his hand on top of the little girl’s now abused head. And then he came over. “I’m Father Duncan,” he said, reaching out his hand, “are you new to the congregation?”
“I just moved from Vermont,” I said, “Brattleboro. Deirdre.” Normally I don’t shake hands but his stayed hanging in the air. I took it and he smiled.
“We hope to see more of you, Brattleboro Deirdre.”
I laughed. “Brattleboro’s the town. I’m Deirdre.”
“Well,” he said, “Please come back. It’s always nice to see new faces.” He had a manner about him that was both relaxed and eager, as if at any moment I would state something truly enlightening; a way of resting his slender body on one foot and talking with gestures that made him appear completely vulnerable.
“I work at the funeral home across the street,” I said, and he smiled again as if this was genius.
“What?” he said, “Peterson’s? We will be seeing a lot of each other then. The church orders its flowers from there.”
He stared at me and I started to sweat. “I run the website,” I said, “www.urnsbydesign.com? Although as a Catholic you don’t do urns, do you? I’m in the office a lot. I mean, I’m not usually out front. But sometimes I’m a cashier behind the counter. If you come in. Maybe we’ll see each other.” Exhausted, I stopped. He looked at me as if he and I were of the same mold: pure, untarnished or at least new, as if I were still capable of any of these things. I didn’t know what to do with expectations like that. I still don’t. “Some urns are biodegradable,” I added, “that’s almost a coffin.”
He laughed. “Close, I suppose. And both important jobs, caring for the unfortunately many people in grief.”
He looked so sad I felt I should match his intensity. I nodded slowly, pursed my lips to look more solemn. “There are a lot,” I said.
Urns are the only pottery that makes money. That’s why I started. And I like working with clay, the control in it. Crushing and purifying ingredients, mixing paste, using soft plastic forming to create a vase manually on the wheel -- most people use molds now, it’s faster they say, less expensive, but the art’s in the wheel in my opinion -- and then firing the urn so it’s firm, glazing it so it’s pretty. I like the way clay feels under my fingers, like wet, dead skin. The thick smell it leaves in the air, like mud, or water after a long drought. And porcelain is the truest form of clay, the purest, the most elegant, the hardest, impossible to cut with a file, useful in both medical appliances (think of teeth, of crowns) and kitchenware. It’s not china, like most people think. China is pliable and weak, useless as anything other than ornament. And it’s opaque, china, cloudy in construction and vision; porcelain, if it’s purebred, is always translucent. An urn of true porcelain is an urn that lets you remember what’s in it.
I was good at working with porcelain. I was good at making each vase unique, addressing the person in it, allowing the family members to know I understood and cared. People don’t talk to the person who packages their grief, the conduit between what they had and what is there now. They want her to be invisible. They want a perfect vessel without acknowledging its production or its creator. Isolation is a prerequisite for the job: an urn potter is gifted by her sense of what is wanted without the need for communication or still-living human contact. I could feel it somehow. Their desires changed by the season of death. Straightforward rectangles for autumn. Squat cushions for winter. Curvaceous hourglasses for spring; for summer, a toss-up.
I made urns in Brattleboro until last year. I can’t anymore. I’ve moved. What started in my wrist has spread up my arm into my shoulder, an ache I can’t explain. My sense is off, my ability to create products by a glance at my customer’s face or the structure of his sentence in an email. What started with the need for words has moved to whole sentences, conversation. It hurts too much now, how heavy the clay is at first, unshaped, and the speed and heat of the wheel. It’s too fast for my fingers. Here, it’s painful too—standing on my feet, operating the website. Answering replies, updating style quantities, adding new design pictures, changing the background color, it hurts, but not as much as controlling the wheel.
Father Duncan’s Bible waited on the counter at Peterson’s for him until my manager ordered me to take it off. Bad for business he said, having that prominently displayed. Texts like that are meant for a specifically themed corner. For decoration, you know, or to give away. We can’t sell that. And he was right—Father Duncan’s Bible had a worn leather cover with folded pages aged yellow that looked read and abused. A grocery list was stuck in the back. Inside, there were occasional coffee stains and notes in faded blue ink: good for Mrs. N said one; Read only if Mr. S isn’t there said another. The Bibles we gave away had shiny green or orange covers with gilded pages that cracked when turned. We got them for free occasionally and stacked them to gather dust in the corners. I took Father Duncan’s Bible off the counter and carefully put in on a hidden shelf below. Two days later, a dust layer formed on it too.
I knew he needed it. Father Duncan offered Bible Study on Wednesdays in the Sunday school building adjacent to the church. He always kept the door open. The regulars were five teenage girls, including the gum-chewing Audrey, dressed in uniform, pleated skirts and white socks covering all skin but the knees. They sat at a table in plain sight of the road, unaware of their clothing, stretching over each other, kicking legs, knees like flashlights under the table. And Bible Study without a Bible seemed worrisome. Maybe he thought I’d stolen it. Or that I was keeping it as an excuse to see him. That I was waiting for the perfect alone time to return the Bible to him. If I brought it back, it wouldn’t be sitting on the shelf like a statement.
The front step of the church creaks. Sunday is too noisy to hear it but on quieter days it makes entering the room an announcement. It was loud when I entered. The girls, still for once, stared at me holding Father Duncan’s Bible gingerly to my chest. Father Duncan, rifling through another Bible in search of a passage, only lifted his eyes and smiled. “Deirdre,” he said, “I’m glad you could come.”
“Hi.” And, because the girls were watching, mouths open, I added, “The weather’s nice. I have your Bible.”
It was a cue. The fidgeting began again. Audrey whispered to the girl to her right and snapped her gum. “Thank you,” Father Duncan said, “I thought I lost it. Why don’t you join us?”
“She can sit by me.” Audrey patted an empty seat to her left. In the afternoon sun her hair looked like fire. She was beautiful and not just because she was young. She had a look I’ve only seen once or twice, one so full of breath and energy that she seemed strong enough for anything. If I had a quarter of her vigor I would never break. She patted the chair again and the other girls started giggling.
I shook my head. “The Bible,” I said, “I just came with the Bible.”
“Stay,” Father Duncan grabbed my hand, “you don’t have to go. I’m about to read. Stay.”
Father Duncan is impossible to say no to. His hand guided my hand to the empty chair, between him and Audrey. I couldn’t help sitting, remaining near. And as he read, those tiny sprigs of girls watched me falling apart slowly. Under their gazes I dissolved particle by particle. I tried to look away, to stare through the door and ground myself in anything stationary. Something natural that lasted forever, like a tortoise or a tree. An oak, maybe, a big one. “I’m an oak,” I whispered, and the girls, sensing victory, giggled.
Father Duncan continued reading. I looked out the window for my tree. An oak wasn’t available so I picked a palm. The street was two lanes and traffic moved slowly. In flashes of clear space I could see Peterson’s across the road, through its window a woman breaking down at the counter. Outside, there was more sand than dirt, more crab grass than actual turf. Cars arrived for an afternoon group at the church, and people getting out were worn like me. Their eyes darted from street to church. They never looked across the road. They walked carefully like they could break at any moment. The girls passed notes under the table. Audrey blew a gum bubble and popped it with her finger. It was Brattleboro all over again; I was sandwiched between what was coming and what was behind me and was catapulting forward. “I have to go,” I said. Father Duncan, mid-sentence, looked up. “My break is over.” I was across the street before those shades of people hit the church step.
Titusville is the first time in years I don’t have clay dried in the cracks of my palms and under my nails. I don’t know what to do with skin this smooth. It’s the humidity in the air, so good for you as my doctors say, the salt that ends up everywhere as a byproduct of living near the ocean. It gives everything a face of shabbiness and decay, old or not, which is appropriate for Titusville. Shopping malls are abandoned, houses held together more by desperation than finances. There’s a highway that cuts right through on its way to Orlando. Twenty minutes closer to water and you get Cocoa, which covers its poverty with beaches of young girls and tourist trap villages. Twenty minutes the other way and you hit Christmas, a trailer town that keeps fake trees, plastic Santas, and lights by the highway all year round. By the road it looks closed off and quarantined, a confinement for those no one knows what to do with and therefore don’t acknowledge. Father Duncan only goes there sporadically; oh, he says, it’s hard to choose but I try to stay in town. Good work will spread. From what I can tell, it hasn’t spread yet.
I’m not sure what my illness is, but I can feel it. “Chronic,” my doctors say. They have yet to call it anything else. I call it a state of being. I’ve been like this for years. It’s hard to pinpoint the date it began, not like I was bitten by a bug or was sneezed on by a passerby. And I’ve dealt with the end result of sickness and time for so long it’s difficult to say if it was first a side effect of the job or a cold. But I feel it in my bones and it haunts me; what was first along the periphery -- when I got out of the shower, or was walking home from work, putting on my pajamas to go to bed -- is now at my core and I can’t live without it. I put off seeing doctors as long as I could but now I go frequently; they, who will touch my body and find out where it hurts.
There are nightmares. Beyond that, there are my knees, popping and swelling; my eyes, which may go at any moment; my fingers, clenching spontaneously then aching for hours afterwards. The knowledge that I am deteriorating faster than my mind can keep up made my job impossible. I’m crumbling. What will happen when I’m finally down to dust, I don’t know. I could merely be my stamp, a mark of ownership, on the bottom of urns. In Brattleboro, my plant died. My remaining family, a brother, moved to Colorado. I got a cat but it ran away. What was left of my friends, potters themselves, were busy with my clients. It became hard to breathe—you need a more predictable environment a doctor said. I found a job on the internet, a funeral home, and had enough experience to be hired immediately. Here, at least, there’s a work schedule, someone who knows where I live, a person to find me if I don’t show up. I have Peterson’s on speed dial.
I was in the office when Father Duncan showed up after Bible Study. I heard him ask for me out front but I stared at my monitor, focusing on updating quantities of our merchandise. There was a soft knock and when I didn’t respond, a knock again. He wasn’t the kind of person to come in uninvited but at the slightest sound of encouragement (hmm?) he was through the door. “Deirdre,” he said, “Deirdre.” He was paler than I’d seen him and his hands were clasped so hard in front of his stomach that his knuckles were white.
“It’s the chairs,” I said.
“You understand, girls—”
“The chairs,” I said. “They hurt my back. And Peterson’s doesn’t like me to be late.”
“But you’ll be coming back? You have to understand.”
“To Bible Study?”
“Well, to church.”
“Oh.” He was visibly upset. I’ve never felt so important. He released his hands and they shook by his sides. He stared at me with the same intensity he always did, like I was the sole reason he was standing there in one piece. The look that reminded me I was still there no matter what I was feeling. I nodded. “I’ll be there.”
Father Duncan smiled and I noticed for the first time that he had terrible teeth—yellow and slightly crooked. There was dark film in the cracks showing he never bothered to floss. I didn’t care. “So I’ll see you after Mass at tea then?”
“Yes,” I said.
It was four days until Mass and I only worked two of them. I arrange my calendar this way so I can get my doctors appointments done before Sunday and another week start. But I was too antsy to sit and listen to doctors, to have them prod me to discover if anything was wrong. They might tell me that I had to stay home on Sunday. I cancelled the appointments and cleaned my apartment instead. Twice. Then I went shopping.
It’s a great risk, shopping, and I usually don’t take it. I buy everything I need on the internet, including groceries, which arrive in front of my house. I’m not used to the fluorescent lights, the movement, the fact that my car could be crashed into at any moment. And the items, fondled frequently, harboring germs, stinking with the new-from-the-store smell. It’s overpowering. But this time I went, and I bought clothes. A skirt, specifically, deep pink and a new blouse that was the only off-white I’ve ever seen that didn’t make me look like death warmed over. I stood in the dressing room in stocking feet, and even under those lights it wasn’t horrible. I’m short, but the skirt seemed to flow off me like water. It reflected and brought color to my cheeks, made my eyes visible under thick bangs, made my brown hair look almost shiny in its ponytail. Sure, my face was thin, the bags under my eyes like thick smudges of wet clay, but I was definitely there and breathing. Even the girl behind the counter took my credit card, looked directly at me and smiled. I made it home safely and tried on my outfit again. I stood in the kitchen so I had the best view of the mirror over my bathroom sink; even in my apartment, next to my new plant, a tiger lily, I liked the clothes.
I wore them on Sunday. I came to Mass early and found a spot in a middle pew where I was sure Father Duncan could see me. As people filled in I caught them glancing at my pretty skirt. Then Father Duncan appeared, took the pulpit and looked directly at me. We shared a smile, the two of us, a secret union even stronger than porcelain. After the service, I took lemonade and a cucumber sandwich, stood in the corner and waited. Father Duncan made his rounds, slowly working from one corner to another. He had a formula to it that I’d never noticed, a preset path to where he would go next. I caught snippets of his conversations but nothing seemed special. Then he came and stood by me. “How are the sandwiches?” he said.
I hadn’t taken a bite. “It looks good,” I said.
“It’s nice to see you here, Deirdre.” He gazed at me and smiled. He was so near I could almost touch his robe, so tall I was eye-level with his chest. Thin—I’d never been close enough to see how slender he was under his habit—and pale enough for me to see the veins throughout his arm that was almost touching mine. They ran blue and full of life. Someone else would have looked breakable, but not him. He could have lifted me up, made me new at any moment. He was a tower crane hoisting weights well beyond his capacity, creating skyscrapers from ordinary people. He still is. “How are you doing today?” he said.
“Okay,” I said, “Not bad really. Good. It’s only my wrist and that’s bearable.”
“I’m glad to hear it. It’s nice to see you—” and he looked down at my skirt—“so lively. Cheerful, I mean. Happy. You look nice.”
“Do I? I’ve had it for awhile, but I never wear it. Not right for Peterson’s. Too bright.”
“I see,” Father Duncan nodded and placed his fingers on his lips. “Deirdre—” he stopped.
“Oh it’s nothing. I was just—”
I nodded, excited. His breath came down and landed on my collarbone. It had a strong, wet odor like a compost pile. The heat of another person made me shake; I could feel my fingers fidgeting under my plate and had to check myself, breathe, before I spilled food down the front of Father Duncan.
“I was just wondering,” he said, “if you’ve thought more about that group I told you about? It’s just people, like I said, who like a time to talk.”
“Oh. No, I hadn’t thought of it. I could, though.”
“Good, Deirdre, I think it might be good. I’ll bring a brochure by.”
I took a sip of lemonade. I watched my hand, now so still, as I lowered my glass. “Okay,” I said.
Father Duncan brought the pamphlet to Peterson’s the next day and left it on the counter. A Place for Support, it read, A Space for Awareness. “Don’t worry,” I said when a customer looked down at it while I checked her out, “it’s mine.”
I didn’t want to go. He was supposed to understand me, what I was afraid to say. I’d never wanted to go. But I didn’t want to let him down or think less of me. He was so excited when he brought the brochure, flashing me those horrible teeth and chatting for what seemed like hours about support and understanding. “It’s an awareness group,” he said, “It’s a good place, you know, for sharing.” I thought we’d never talk about anything else. He was trying to make me friends, I knew it. He didn’t want me to stand alone at Sunday tea. He didn’t want to have to come talk to me.
The day the group met just changed and Father Duncan made sure to neatly black out the old time and replace it with the new: Tuesday, two pm. It was held in the same place as Bible Study. I thanked him when he did this and he clutched my hands, gave them a squeeze. His fingers were rougher than mine, now cleansed of clay. “I’m so proud of you,” he said and then left. I kept the booklet on the counter all day, hoping it would disappear.
When I got there I was ten minutes late. The door was closed but through the window I could see the backs of heads—middle aged, although that’s hard to tell with the dye jobs and hair cuts and gel. There were hands gesturing wildly, shoulder blades moving up and down, one manicured finger tugging at newly highlighted hair, strand by strand. From outside in, they seemed like animated cut-outs working very hard to be noticed. I had that feeling in my stomach like the first time I made an urn and realized I may never connect to anyone else again. But I promised him. So I went.
The front step creaked. No one paid attention, either to me or anyone else. There were five of them, each discussing the need to come together in times like these, each talking over the others in separate streams of thought. Audrey sat next to her aunt, a small woman in the back who stared at the floor and was silent. There was an empty seat on Audrey’s other side. Amidst these people, she looked lost, like she’d come to order flowers and ended up with gravestones. She twirled her hair in and out of her fingers. Around her, people clasped hands occasionally, patted each other on knees. There was one hug, but it was all impersonal: they might as well have touched dirt or rock. And they stared, but not as much at each other as beyond, at the wall or the ceiling, the one picture -- a saint, I think -- that hung near a window, or their shoes, their fingernails, the split ends in their hair. I’ve seen this kind of comradeship before; in Vermont, when strangers converged in my studio to discuss their needs for urns with me. While they waited their turns, they somehow became a group, each isolated in her own private grief.
I had long enough to stare into each of their faces before they looked up and saw through me. They were what I expected: eyes moving nervously, skin sagging and dry, paths of veins in visible places on arms and legs. Audrey glanced at me, made sure the seat next to her was still empty. She was bracing herself for the weight of another body. Even now that my sense is off, I could feel their sadness, unified and overpowering. I’m still drowning in it.
“Come sit down.” I shook my head. “It’s okay,” they said, “Why are you here?”
“I’m not,” I said, “I’m going.”
“You don’t need to be ashamed. Come in.”
“I have to go.”
Audrey’s aunt spoke. She looked right at me, coloring in my person with time and observation. She was almost pretty. We had the same color hair. Audrey reached over and clasped her hand.
“Why are you here?” she asked, “Can we help you?”
My hand was on the door and opening it. The front step creaked. “I’m just sick,” I said. They didn’t stop staring.
The next time I see Father Duncan I’m helping a customer pick out an urn for his dog. “You have to understand,” my customer says, “he was a member of the family, like my son.” His bottom lip starts trembling and he looks down at his shoes. Father Duncan is by the door, near the catalogue of coffins. He’s either looking at me or at one of the sample engravings behind my head. He blocks the door with his body and for a moment I feel closed in and safe. We almost share a smile but one of us looks away. There is still a brochure in his hand, behind him a flash of blazing color. As if interaction with someone else’s youth could cure me. He hasn’t come alone, or for me. Then he moves. In front of me, my customer talks to his shoes. For him it’s not what I say, I can tell, but finding a solution quickly. I tell him I understand. I tell him we can pick out an urn that is right for him, a dog bone perhaps, and can engrave the dog’s name—“Flea,” he says to his feet, his lip still trembling—on it by the next day. Then he can take it to the vet’s and have the dog separately cremated.
“Remember separately,” I say, leaning closer to him to show that I care but not near enough to hit his forehead—he doesn’t want to be touched, not by me—“because the standard procedure at a veterinary clinic is as a group.” My customer looks up at me and it takes one whole minute before he’s found words again. By the time we pick out the proper mold for Flea, a paw print, Father Duncan is gone.
I checked the paper and Father Duncan is on every volunteer committee, working with every organization possible: Titusville Soup Kitchen & Shelter, Cape Kennedy Halfway House, Shelly’s Center for Abused Women & Children. You can tell when a person needs help, he’s quoted as saying, you can feel it. You can’t give up on them, even if they don’t know what they need yet. It must be lonely, all that trying. But Father Duncan is a helper. It’s the way he connects to people. How he avoids isolation. We all use our own methods. He has one of those constitutions that could survive anything. He never gets sick so he can’t understand it, or me. I want to drink him up, suck him dry until all that’s left is a pile of shriveled skin, but I want to spit him out too.
When I stand behind the counter at the funeral home, I still hear the whir of the wheel. In my head, I’m making urns, spinning vases that have the strength to hold what’s inside them. I try to make them self-contained, like I once wanted, simple vessels that despite the content are normal and beautiful in any room. All these stories are so difficult: why people end at my doorstep in the first place. It’s the translation that makes interaction with others impossible. This knowledge. I’m like a plastic surgeon or a debt consultant: necessary, revered, and isolated. No one wants to be near the person who transfers a loved one from this world to the next. I’m a constant reminder of their own mortality, an image what it’s like to be sick, really; I give them a picture they’d rather not see. And it’s hard, the way they look at me, the way I see myself, the weight of the clay in my hands.
I don’t go to Sunday tea. Now, it’s easy to avoid. And as I stand behind the counter, I miss the music most: the way it vibrates against the floor, how it bounces off the stained glass windows and curves back in on you. It’s a capsule itself. I can almost hear it from across the street. Occasionally, I listen to Father Duncan on the pulpit. He’s taken to leaving the door open and by my spot at the counter I see him through the window and straight up the nave of the church. He stands under a rose window. I can hear his voice reciting fragments of the sacrament as the Mass performs communion: Amen, they all say. People line the pathways, slowly moving towards him, more for his eyes than the bread or wine I think. I can see arms genuflecting, heads bowing, and his smile, resting on each person as they pass. From my position across the street, I hold their chant, their collective wishes. It’s a song of health, lucky people, a song of strength I’d do most anything to be apart of.