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Painting Faces

by Maria Kontak


When I walked into the room, the tightness in my chest was solid as a rock and my brain was swirling, but I knew I had not been rash. Velma was lying beneath a thin hospital sheet, a long slender frame not hooked up to anything, sallow and small.

The ‘friend of my heart’ as I had written in the boomeranged note was barely here. Her eyes remained closed and the nurse was telling me that she was likely unconscious, that she had been muttering about cutting Jesus’ hair, but when I squeezed her hand, Velma opened her eyes slightly, or had I imagined this?

The sturdy hand that had dispensed dreams in a small town through which cars, headed for somewhere, would pass without notice, rested softly in my own. It felt so soft now, and mine so hard, and I clutched it trying to stir up what I couldn’t.

I was no longer afraid of sounding foolish. “I’ve come to keep my word, Velma, and to thank you.” I swallowed to steady my voice in case she could hear and I thought that I had felt her stir, but it was only me. ‘Beloved Velma’ felt even frailer when I embraced her, and I had a flash of broken sea glass at our feet, a shattered little earring, rolling laughter and an otherworldly absence of scent as I brought my lips to hers and kissed as if in some ancient forgotten rite of life meeting death.

There was no protest, no shame, nothing, only my whispers of her name. Velma seemed out of reach. Suddenly, though, her breathing picked up. I could see it in the quiver of the bed sheet. A throaty sort of sound, familiar, like a growl in a cave that I seemed to recognize from somewhere, and I wished that she could sense my presence if only for a second, would open her eyes and look, but Velma did not. The uneven rasping returned, and I knew where I’d heard it before as I released her hand.

Others came into the room. They told me things that I had wanted to know before but had little meaning now. I listened politely and left, and the next day I followed Velma to another address.

A dapper man with a moustache led me to her. She was dressed in her favorite purple, resting serenely, at peace. Ready for the last rites. My last rites. Our last rites. The man left and I was alone with Velma in a chilly space smelling of formaldehyde, but I was not afraid. Not afraid to touch her, not afraid to smooth powder across her cheeks, to trace a coral arc at her drawn lips. I filled in the brow line with soft auburn, taking my time, humming a lullaby that popped into my head. A tune from my crib days. I twisted the dark curls at her temples round my fingers, curls not her own but close enough, as glossy in death as hers had been in life. Then I rested my palm over her folded hands, brought my cheek to hers, pleased at our joint handiwork.

“Make the angels glow. And give Dad a big hug from me and tell him, please, how sorry I am. Godspeed, Velma.”

I didn’t stay for the wake. That was not why I had come.

Copyright © 2011 by Maria Kontak

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