After the funeral is over—the bee hovering around the lilies shooed outside, the hands shaken, the image of her grandmother lying on satin and wearing the wrong shade of blush slowly dissipating—Susan thinks about the last of the blackberry wine. She has half a bottle in her refrigerator, the same bottle her grandmother had been coming over to help finish before she’d had her stroke and Susan found herself suddenly making decisions about caskets and cremation. The responsibility shouldn’t have fallen to her, but her grandmother’s children were all dead or in prison or simply… gone, like Susan’s father. Susan was the oldest and the favorite. It was her burden to shoulder.
She hadn’t regretted that decision as she’d made choice after choice—Would her grandmother want this? Like this? Laugh at the spectacle of it all?—but the need to get it right had pressed inexorably down on her in the endless strain of days before the viewing. When her grandmother left, it was as if she’d taken all the certainty in the world with her. Without a will, even the arrangement to have a viewing followed by cremation felt like a compromise Susan couldn’t help but fumble.
It was difficult enough to do right by someone when they were alive. Gone, it felt more like an impossibility.
The sun is setting by the time Susan gets home and grabs the half-drunk bottle of her grandmother’s wine, and she walks out the back door still in her funeral clothes, leaving her husband to deal with the casseroles from the neighbors. It’s darker in the woods behind the house, the tree cover dimming everything. She keeps moving until the blister on her heel becomes too painful and she has to stop and sit down. The grass prickles her calves where her dress doesn’t cover, and it hurts to breathe, like the air is too heavy for her lungs. The glass bottle is cool under her hand, and she focuses on that instead.
Her grandmother was always making something—beer or wine or moonshine, once. They’d open a couple of bottles at the monthly farkle game with all the cousins, the six die clattering off the vinyl top of the card table, everyone gossiping and heckling while their grandmother smoked a cigar on the wrap-around porch and the bug zapper snapped.
Susan opens her eyes, and everything is going up in shadows as the frogs sing somewhere in the distance, cicadas quieting down for the night. She and her husband and the cousins will scatter her grandmother’s ashes out here, the closest thing to sanctuary Susan knows how to give, but it still feels like something’s missing. People in movies always pour one out for the dead, she thinks, and uncorks the bottle. She wants to say something, but she’s not sure there are words for this, so she just pours. The sound of liquid hitting the leaves is soft and mundane, and that will have to do instead. For the first time that day, Susan feels the tension begin to ebb from her shoulders.
Something’s wrong, though. The wine smells sharp in a way it’s not supposed to, and Susan takes an experimental swig and starts sputtering, coughs it up through her nose. It tastes like burnt applesauce and vinegar, and it burns. She wipes her face on the hem of her dress, sucks in a breath that doesn’t remind her at all of her grandmother, and feels her eyes sting. The woods tighten around her, suddenly oppressive, and Susan clutches the neck of the bottle, resists the urge to throw it, to slam it against something unyielding until it shatters. She wants to scrub the ground clean of the spoiled wine, wants to suck the moisture back up from the earth.
She wants an uncontaminated resting place.
Susan takes another sip—penance, maybe—and attempts to hold it in her mouth but almost gags. She can’t bring herself to swallow, spits it messily to the side and tries to ignore the aftertaste. She thinks if her grandmother were here she’d laugh in her smoker’s burr and tell her about the disaster that was her first time making whiskey. She’d offer again to teach Susan how to make blackberry wine herself, and they’d mark down a day. And then life would happen and a month would pass and the dice would roll and another bottle would get opened and they’d be back in the same place, making the same promises.
Susan lies down, leaves from last autumn crunching in her ears, and stares at a sliver of sky. Maybe in a couple of months or a couple of years, she’ll open her grandmother’s stained recipe book and the messy scrawl of handwriting won’t make her ribs ache. She’ll read the ingredient list with composure. She’ll sterilize the bottles and pick berries until her fingers stain into bruises. Maybe she’ll follow the recipe to the letter and fail. Maybe she’ll try again, and fail again, and try again until she’s close enough. Maybe. For now Susan sits on the ground, stuck on the wrong side of twilight, and holds the half-empty bottle of wine—unable to take it back to the house, unable to drink it, and unable to pour it out—the scent of vinegar eating away at the night.
© 2019 Carrie Johnson