Fiction Jessie Atkin
The Seven Days
When you die there are rules. Your body cannot be left alone until it is buried. You must be dressed in a shroud only. Shrouds have no pockets. Your coffin must be made of wood so it will decompose. You must be buried within three days. Those of us who are left behind have to sit for seven.
Or we used to have to sit for seven, my parents have decided to split the difference and go for four. Four days hunched in our living room without television or music, waiting for people to knock on the door. Knowing they're coming whether or not we want to see them. Knowing that this is only the third day, and already it feels like a year. Except where my grandmother is concerned. I keep expecting her to walk in the door too. "What are you all moping around for?" she will say. And my mom will be angry at her for putting us through this. And my dad will cry. And my grandmother will tell us, "I told you not to make a fuss."
But when the door opens (people knock now, but they no longer wait for a reply) it is a middle-aged woman with too much mascara and her rapidly blinking husband, as if he is unsure they have come to the right place. "I'm Alice," she says, leaning down over my chair and offering a gloved hand. "I grew up with your aunt. Your grandmother was always so dear."
"She had a good run," I say, the same thing I've been saying since the day of the funeral, as if it's my job to make other people feel better. As if I'm worried about them feeling comfortable around me. Alice fumbles with her expression, like everyone else, unsure of how to look at me, because she doesn't know me, because what she's really sorry about is that we have just met. I promise myself I will move farther away from the entrance before more people arrive.
Shiva means seven, if you translate it from Hebrew. Traditionally it is a time first degree relatives gather to mourn in one house for seven days and receive visitors. In reality it means sitting in your house while complete strangers come to stare at you as if your home is a zoo. They come to peruse your belongings and your bathroom. To check out your possessions and your residence that, due to the fact they have no relationship with you in real life, they have never been invited to view before.
I'd been drunk when I found out. Like, not just buzzed, real drunk. I couldn't pick up my younger brother from a friend's house and he had to walk home. He found me passed out on the sofa in the living room. When I woke up I found him passed out in the easy chair, his coat still on. It was about four in the morning and our parents weren't home. That was how I knew. If everything was fine they'd have been back by then. It was their absence that sent the message. It was absence that was going to send the message for awhile.
So I move from the chair by the door to the sofa I'd been stunned on four days previously. Rusty, our dog, sits at my feet, exactly where he'd sat between my brother and I the night it happened. It wasn't the safest retreat, people can sit next to you on the sofa, but at least Alice had moved on. My brother hovers near the three-day-old hummus on the side table. I never want to see hummus ever again. I never want to eat bagels, or cold-cuts, or drink store brand cola again in my whole life. But they are staples of the seven days it seems. I can't say for sure, I have never done this before.
The doorbell rings, and I jump. I'm not used to anyone announcing themselves these days. I know whoever's out there isn't Jewish. My mother's friend Emma, who has shown up everyday to set up the food on the side table and answer these confused calls to the door, hurries to respond. It's good she's around. Loss is everywhere after a funeral, and one of the things you lose is your ability to function as a normal human being. I know I wouldn't answer the door, and my brother never does anyway. As for my dad, I think he'd look up, which he does now, but I know he wouldn't move. What is he supposed to be doing again? We're like stunned animals, deer in the headlights, except the crash is already over.
It is only my parents, my brother and I now, greeting guests. All the out of town relatives fled by day two. Shiva was a tradition invented before automobiles and airplanes. Everyone lived and died in the same location. When you have cousins in Colorado you're lucky they make it in for a funeral in the middle of December, but there's no way for them to hang around. So Alice, and a couple who my mother refers to as "The Binders" mingle around the fruit tray, which is down to mysterious melon slices and the rougher looking strawberries. My brother has abandoned the food and the company and stands in the middle of the floor, staring as if he's never seen the room before, as if he hasn't lived here his whole life, searching for somewhere to hide. But it's been three days, and we both know that hiding places do not exist. I absently pet Rusty behind the ears because it gives me something to do with my hands and I know it's inappropriate to pull out my cell phone.
I had my cell phone on my stomach when I passed out on the sofa. The massage of its vibration against my abdomen was what woke me up. It was like my mom wanted to disturb us as little as possible with the news. It was smart of her to call my cell phone and not the house. But I was afraid when I answered, I knew why she was calling, there was only one reason to call at four in the morning after a late night run to the hospital, but there were still reasons to be scared. It was thoughtful not to call the house, less jarring, less noise, but it also meant this message was just for me. And I was afraid I would have to pass it along to the lanky lump in the parka across from me.
I get up again because I'm sick of sitting still, and I'm still paranoid someone is going to want to sit next to me. Rusty doesn't even lift his head to watch me go. He's just as drained as I am. He doesn't even bark at the sound of the door anymore. I walk to the window, away from the entrance, partially blocked from general view by a bookcase. It isn't snowing now, but that just means the ground is gray instead of white, dirty instead of clean, old instead of new. I can't tell if I want a sweatshirt or if I'm about to sweat my way out of my t-shirt and be completely uncomfortable until I'm stripped all the way down to my underwear. I fold my arms across my chest instead and decide that this is not a very good compromise. I shift my feet, sure I would run laps if there was room, or I was allowed out in the open. But it's cold, and not socially appropriate for me to leave.
My brother could leave if he wanted. He's been given permission. At fifteen he is the youngest, and no one knows how he's really feeling. But if you're old enough to be in college, you're old enough to cope. So I have to stay. I have to be polite, because, after all, people really are here to make me feel better. They mean well. It's easy to keep me confined when there is nowhere for me to go. My backpack is upstairs on the couch in the exercise room. I used to have a bed here, but now the elliptical welcomes me to a house that once was also defined as home.
I guess I'm lucky it took them until Christmas break to make the renovation official. At Thanksgiving I still had a bedroom. At Thanksgiving I still had a lot of things. I guess I'm lucky I don't have to take off from classes to be here. Perhaps Grandma was being considerate, that would be just like her. I guess consideration wasn't hereditary. I still can't tell if they needed the elliptical to have its own space because they were thrilled at my absence or needed to mask that my disappearance had occurred at all.
My brother didn't notice my absence when his own cell phone rang. I couldn't tell if he was hung over when he answered his own call. His head hung down like he was, but he was probably still tired, or reacting to my mother's voice on the other end of the line. I was drinking orange juice out of a coffee mug because I was in no shape to empty the dish washer and I knew I was in no shape to actually be drinking coffee in that moment. The last thing I needed was jitters, and a clear head. But I could see him from my station next to the fridge. He didn't look nearly as tall as he really was. He had bad posture, but he was still enormous. But there, in that seat, he could still be smaller than me. He could still be the baby everyone thought he was.
I turn around to see Joey standing a few feet back. It's the most respectful I've seen anyone in almost four days. He's not even a stranger, but he knows better than to rush and grab me around the neck and whisper apologies into my ear. His white earbuds are draped around his neck and I know his iphone is in his pocket.
"Hey," I say back, glad I don't have to give my rehearsed spiel about how it's all right that this happened and thank you for coming.
"Sucks when all these people show up and you don't know anyone," he says, taking a step toward the window and staring out at nothing near my right shoulder.
"Yeah," I say. "Gotta make sure they're not robbing us blind."
He laughs and I appreciate that someone thinks it's okay to laugh. "They all grab at you like they know you."
"And you just smile and wave." I mime the action for him, my eyes round and unblinking.
Joey's grandfather died when we were both my brother's age. I remember sitting with him in the corner of the nursing home lounge where his parents had decided to sit shiva. A woman had just finished hugging him and I'd asked who she was. He had shrugged and I had laughed. Then I had pulled out an old datebook my father had gotten from a credit card company that I had taken to carrying in a back pocket. We played about a thousand rounds of cages and tic-tac-toe before switching over to M.A.S.H where we learned that Joey was going to live in an apartment with his crush Sophia and their twenty children, but he'd have to drive a school bus and work at a KFC.
He's only my friend because our parents are friends. But that's as good a reason as any. I mean, how do you make friends? You get stuck next to them on the bus, or you’re born in the same month. It's all arbitrary. Just like lots of things.
He holds out an earbud and I take it. I don't even mind that we're listening to angry boy music. I don't care that I know the band (The Red Hot Chili Peppers) but not the song. I just appreciate that we don't have to talk, and that he knows enough to know this.
When I'd finished my orange juice I refilled the mug and went back to the couch. My brother still had his head down, but I'd seen his hand drop, so I knew the conversation was over. I handed over the mug, holding it up under the brown fringe of hair dangling down to cover his eyes. He took it and sipped, coughing. He looked up at me with dry eyes and then blinked at the mug.
"I thought this was coffee."
"I'm too hung over to make coffee," I said.
He nodded and took another swig of juice, as if it were bourbon or whiskey instead of coffee or juice. Then he looked at me again, and we stared at each other, because there are no rules when it comes to learning about death. There are no ways you are supposed to say it. So we didn't say anything.
"By the Way" is pounding in my right ear. No one comes over to tell me I'm being rude. I'm sure I have Joey to thank for that. I know I have Joey's dad to thank for the first plate of hummus we received this week. I know it was his mom who called the rabbi for my father when he was still with my grandmother at the hospital. I know it was Joey's car in the driveway that second night when my mom answered the door and came back with Chinese takeout in her hands instead of another casserole. I know that some people cared about my grandma, and us, before she was gone. I begin to air guitar to "Storm in a Teacup," which is a song I have no right recognizing. I follow the beat with my right foot, careful to keep my head still so as not to disturb the balance of the headphones. Joey watches me out of the corner of his eye before taking up the drums.
I can feel people watching our backs now. I have become an expert in the last few days at knowing when I am being watched. But I don't know, in this moment, what rules there are left to follow.
Jessie Atkin received her MFA in creative writing from American University in 2015. She has had short work featured in the Young Adult Review Network, Digital Americana, Quantum Fairy Tales, and The Rumpus. She has also had two plays honored and produced as staged readings through Rochester New York's Geva Theater Regional Writers Showcase, and the Washington University in St. Louis A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Competition and Festival. She published her YA novel, “We Are Savages,” in 2012. Visit her online at jessieatkin.com