Emily reached out, turning the radio’s knob with a snap. “Happy?”
Her mother chuckled. “Happier,” she said.
Emily shifted the gigantic Impala into reverse. She hadn’t driven her mom’s car for at least a year, and the three-on-the-tree gearshift made her nervous. She backed out of the driveway smoothly, but when she shifted into first the car groaned in protest.
“Careful!” Jo said. “Don’t hurt my baby.”
“I thought I was your baby?” Emily shot back. She pushed in the clutch, re-engaged the gear, and eased the behemoth down the street.
“Better,” Jo said.
They drove through town and turned onto the two-lane highway from Estacada to the Oregon Coast before either of them spoke again.
“It’s odd, don’t you think?” Jo ran her fingers along the smooth top of the urn nestled between them on the bench seat. “That a human being can be condensed like this. That in the end we’re able to fit in such a small container.”
Emily didn’t say anything, but her palms itched with the discomfort of it.
“You know I read somewhere that the bones don’t burn,” Jo said. “They have to grind those up afterward to make them fit in that little bag.”
“Mom, please, don’t.”
“Sorry. I just find it fascinating. I did a bunch of research before …” Her voice trailed off and she turned her head, staring out the window. Emily hoped she wasn’t getting maudlin. She much preferred morbid-research-factoid Mom to weepy Mom.
“So,” Emily said. “It’ll take us three hours to get to Newport, then 15 minutes to the Devil’s Punchbowl. We’ll definitely make it by sunset.”
Jo nodded. “That’s how I pictured it.”
“Is there anywhere you’d like to stop on the way?” Emily asked, dropping her left hand into her lap and crossing her fingers that her mother would say no.
“Two hands, please!” Jo scolded. “That’s my baby you’re driving.”
Emily gripped the wheel. “I thought I was your baby,” she muttered.
“Now that you mention it,” Jo said. “There’s a wonderful diner in Dallas. Your father and I used to go there. The Bright Spot. I wonder if it’s still there.”
Emily’s stomach twisted at the thought of stale grease and diner food, but she’d asked, so they’d go. “Anywhere else?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“If we take too many stops we’ll miss the sunset, and isn’t that the whole point of –”
“Emily.” Jo’s gentle voice stopped her unspooling objections. “The point is to make the journey.” She rubbed her thumb along the smooth curve at the top of the urn. “Besides, maybe I’m not as anxious to say goodbye as you are.”
Emily winced. “It’s not that –”
“It’s OK.” Jo turned to the window again. “I know it’s a tough day.”
Emily resisted the urge to pull the car over, lean her heavy head against the steering wheel and weep. She searched for a distraction.
“Tell me about the Bright Spot,” she said. “Was that when you and Dad were dating?”
“Oh, heavens, yes. And after.” Jo smiled. “It was our place. When we were dating we’d go early in the morning, before your dad took me home, and after we were married we’d skip church sometimes and go on a Sunday. Patrick would order eggs and bacon, and I’d have the blackberry dumplings.”
“You ate dumplings for breakfast?”
Jo grinned. “I couldn’t help myself. These dumplings were – I had to have them.”
“Why didn’t you ever take me there?”
“It was our place, Patrick’s and mine.” She shrugged. “When you have kids it’s sometimes hard to remember who you were when it was just the two of you.” She touched her fingertips to the urn. “I’d give anything to have breakfast with your father again.”
Emily felt pressure at the back of her eyes. She thought if she started crying she might never stop, so she pushed the tears back down. She nearly choked on them.
“Sorry. Sorry.” Jo flapped her hands as if to dispel the miasma of grief she’d brought into the car. “I’m just a sentimental old woman – Oh! Oh! Stop! Pull over here!”
Emily braked hard, pulling off the road.
Jo peered down the bank to the river below. “Bring the urn.”
Emily eased out of the car, reaching back for the urn before following Jo down the bank. The blackberry vines and nettles that grew over the path clutched at her arms and ankles.
“Your dad and I used to swim here,” Jo said.
Emily took in the inward curve of the sandy shoreline, the old oak shading the small bay.
“You go swimming,” Jo said.
Emily stared at her. “What? Now? No! Why?”
“Because your father and I can’t anymore.”
Emily closed her eyes. “Mom, no. I don’t even have a swimsuit.”
“Oh, Emily. I told you to always pack a swimsuit. Just in case.”
“As you’ve often pointed out, I never listen to you.”
“Well, you don’t,” Jo said. She sighed. “It’s a shame, really. Such a perfect day for a swim.”
Emily closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then she put down the urn and began to strip off her clothes. She glanced at Jo, who had settled herself in the sand next to the urn. Emily stepped gingerly into the cool water of the river, then relaxed into a back float in the dappled shade, ears underwater, eyes toward the sky, relishing the momentary solitude. This trip with her mother was not easy. But Emily knew it was something she had to do if she was ever to feel easy again. After a few minutes she stood and waded out of the water, dripping and refreshed.
“It was good?” Jo asked.
By the time they got to Dallas it was midafternoon.
“It should be here on the right somewhere.” Jo peered out the window as they drove through the tree-lined streets. “There! Turn in!”
Emily pulled the car in front of a small brick building with four tiny parking spaces on the side. Three of them were occupied. Emily shuddered at the thought of trying to fit the Impala into the fourth.
“You can do it, Sweetie,” Jo said.
Emily braced herself and somehow wedged the giant car between a dusty pickup and a VW Bug. She started toward the café.
“You’re not going to leave the urn in the car, are you?” Jo’s voice was tinged with panic.
Emily stopped, stared at her mother. “I can’t take human remains into a diner.”
Emily opened her mouth to argue, but she couldn’t think of a single reason. She lifted the urn and carried it into the Bright Spot.
“Sit anywhere, hon,” the waitress called as she sliced pie.
The dinner was nearly empty. Emily ducked into the first booth, sliding the urn next to her on the seat, hoping the waitress wouldn’t be horrified to have a dead person in her café.
“You’ll have the dumplings of course,” Jo said.
“I was thinking grilled cheese –”
“I didn’t bring you here so you could eat grilled cheese.”
Emily smiled as the waitress, her nametag said Sally, approached. Sally’s eyes slid over the urn, but she didn’t even flinch.
“Coffee?” Sally asked.
“Yes, please, with cream,” Emily said. “And I’ll have the blackberry dumplings.”
Sally stared at her. “Blackberry dumplings? We haven’t had those on the menu for years.”
Emily’s face fell. She didn’t think she wanted the dumplings until she found she couldn’t have them.
Sally tapped a finger on her chin. “You know, let me see what I can do. Hang on just a sec.” She disappeared into the kitchen, then poked her head back out of the swinging doors, giving Emily a thumbs up.
Emily looked out the window, humming to herself.
“That’s pretty,” Jo said. “What is that? It’s familiar.”
“I’m not sure. They played it at the ballroom studio the other night.”
“Your dad and I used to dance.”
“I remember. You guys were really good.”
“I’d do anything to dance with him again.”
Emily felt the push of tears once more, but she also felt a small bit of something else, something that felt more like the cool water of the swimming hole, or the buzz in her chest from humming the song.
“I know, Mom.” She touched her palm to the urn and they both smiled a little. Just then, Sally returned, triumphant, with coffee and a large plate of dumplings, vanilla ice cream on the side.
“We’ve got chicken and dumplings on the menu,” Sally explained. “So the dough was made, and I’d kept back a few jars of the blackberries my Mom canned last summer. So here you go, hon. Enjoy.” Sally set the plate down in front of Emily, who dove her spoon into the deep purple berries, scooping them out with part of a dumpling. She offered it to her mom.
Jo shook her head. “I’ve eaten enough dumplings for a lifetime.”
Emily shrugged, scraping the mixture off the spoon with her teeth, savoring the tart, sweet berries, the doughy starch, the melty combination that tasted like perfection and sadness, and a life well-lived.
“Try it with the ice cream,” Jo said. Emily took a bit of ice cream, adding berries and dumpling to the spoon, put the whole thing in her mouth. She groaned.
“Now you’re beginning to understand,” Jo said.
Emily took another bite, and another and when she’d eaten her fill she leaned back and sighed.
“You want anything else?” Sally asked, topping off her coffee.
Emily shook her head.
Sally nodded at the urn. “Where you headed?”
“To the coast,” Emily grimaced. “I’m sorry; I didn’t think I should leave it in the car.”
“It’s OK.” Sally gave her a sad smile. “I made that same drive with my Mom in the fall. Let her go just south of Florence.” She placed a hand on Emily’s wrist. “You ever need dumplings again you just ask for Sally, OK? These are on me.”
Emily nodded but couldn’t speak. She left a $20 for Sally, then walked back to the Impala hugging the urn. Emily glanced at the dashboard clock. “We should probably get going.”
Jo nodded. “I’m ready now. No more stops.”
They drove over the winding coastal range, through thick oak forest dripping with moss. As they dropped into Newport and turned north, the sun was sagging toward the horizon. The parking lot at Devil’s Punchbowl was nearly deserted. A family in a Dodge Caravan packed up the sandy remnants of their day, and an older couple tottered toward their Prius from the overlook.
“We’re here.” Emily eased the urn out of the car, carrying it to the trail along the edge of the cliff. The breeze wasn’t strong, but it would be enough to carry the ashes out over the churning water below. The sun sank lower, the light going quickly.
“You ready to say goodbye?” Emily asked.
“Are you?” They looked at each other. “Take care of my baby.”
“I thought I was your baby.” Emily smiled.
“You are,” Jo said.
Jo looked out over the water, Emily’s eyes following her gaze. The sun reached out with its final rays of light. Emily pulled the lid off the urn, angling it into the wind and watching as the ashes streamed and swirled away from her and toward the water below. A shift in the wind pushed some ashes back into Emily’s face and her mouth opened in surprise. Their grit scraped her throat raw as she swallowed them down.
“Now you’ll never be rid of me.” Jo laughed. And then she was gone.
Emily tipped the urn upside down, shaking it gently until the wind carried all the ashes out over the sea. She returned to the Impala, placing urn in the trunk next to a box of her mother’s books and a basket of family photo albums.
For a few minutes, Emily sat in the driver’s seat, waiting as dark blue sky replaced the red and purple hues of the in between time. When the light was truly gone, she shifted smoothly into reverse, then first gear, the rhythms of driving the car more comfortable now. She turned a wide circle and headed for home, her headlights illuminating tiny islands of whatever came next.
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