by Wendy D. Walter
Sadie awoke from her dreams of Heaven and Hell and was relieved to find the world had stopped. It had finally come, the end of time. Or rather her ending had come. The breeze, whuffling the sage outside her trailer, stilled as if to honor the occasion and the desert sun froze at the horizon, just on the edge of first light. It flushed the desert rocks with pink and silvered lavender. She let a luscious moment of anxiety bloom—a feeling of leaning too far over a cliff, slightly unbalanced. And then she let it go as she swung her legs out of bed and swayed to her feet, delighted to stand tall once again. Gravity had laid a heavy hand on her since cancer had hooked, then reeled her in. She felt the carpet, soft and scrabbly, between her toes as she put one foot out and then the other.
The screen door whispered open. Beyond it, the path was strewn with stones frosted with the dawn. It wended through the scrum of Mad Dog’s trailers, and around a collection of plastic chairs arranged companionably around a discarded engine block.
A shiny black stink beetle saluted her by raising its abdomen to the sky before it set off with her. It left a scrawling zigzag in the gravely sand. Sadie’s steps followed slow but steady.
She had offered her soul to the devil as well as pledged herself to every God she could name for this release. They had all ignored her until now. Perhaps they had enjoyed watching her writhe when the pain came so thick and fast it overwhelmed her medication. So Sadie being Sadie, let a sweet, self-righteous anger fill her. Why had she suffered? What brand of benevolent God had chosen this life for her? She felt just as confused as when she’d attended church with Mameau, back when she’d been so young her feet dangled a foot off the floor and kicked the hymnals with her shiny black shoes. Mameau had stilled her with her warm, brown hand. She made her sit straight and keep her eyes on the preacher, no matter how much Sadie wanted to admire Mameau’s yellow flowered hat or play with the daisy she had secreted in her pocket. Sadie had to listen to the preacher damn the unbelievers by name, and watch as he expertly cast all of them on the plush carpet and then stomp them into Hell with his trademark joyous wrath.
Sadie knew many of those sinners: the baker with his generous smile and tasty cakes; the dark woman swathed in lovely scarves and the kids on the corner who didn’t speak English but wanted to play with her anyway. Why were they going to Hell?
When she asked, Mameau had loomed in the doorway of Sadie’s darkened bedroom, her flowered hat bristling with indignation. The light from the hallway shone around her so bright, Sadie had to squint. “Don’t you go questioning a man of God now. We follow the right path, child. Reverend Johnston, he knows all of us are sinners, just some of us know’s more about keeping to that narrow way to the light.”
“But Mameau, you ain’t no sinner. You know the way.”
Mameau’s rumble of a laugh gave her shivers. “Sugar, I know’s when I takes my walk to the other side, it ain’t gonna be over sweet, spring grass. It’s gonna be rough and harsh, just as I’s deserve.”
This had poked and pinched at Sadie’s idea of Mameau’s straight and narrow ever since. Who would punish Mameau? Mameau could make pies that made all the church ladies swoon. Her frown even cowed the crocodiles-in-suits, who strutted up and down the shabby side of Main Street where they lived. Sadie figured Mameau had earned her easy path to heaven on the Sundays when she fixed the preacher the finest meal her hard-earned money could buy. Sometimes they went hungry for the rest of the week, but the preacher always ate well.
Mameau kept a firm hand on Sadie all through her childhood. But after that day, the preacher’s words had never set right in Sadie’s mind. So, when she went away to college, she stepped off Mameau’s narrow path, and went farther afield when she settled in a place where self-help and awareness took the place of Heaven and Hell. But Mameau wouldn’t give up. Years of enduring her pauses on the other end of the line and submitting to her carefully worded judgment scrawled at the bottom of every birthday card eventually brought Sadie’s feet back to Mameau’s way to the light.
The desert rocks tore at her soft, sallow toes. After so much time in bed, she felt every burr and sharp stone. A teacher’s pension hadn’t been enough to cover the custom drugs and experimental surgeries she had needed. She sold her home and her car. Then a friend of a friend told her about Mad Dog and his collection of lost souls out in Hell’s Canyon. When she was down to her last hundred, she had asked for his help. Sure enough, Mad Dog had taken her in. No payment needed, except for a beer and a little conversation, every now and then.
Thinking about Mad Dog slowed her steps. He was no catch. His hippie hair had thinned on top but he had a wide, bristly grin, which tipped sideways in a devilish way. And there was something about the honest way he went about living, which intrigued her. At first, their conversations had been stilted. But over time, they began to talk about the difference between being Right and doing right; about the absence of love and how it hollowed out your soul and what might lie beyond the backend of life.
One night, Mad Dog had screwed up his face and said. “Here’s what I think. There ain’t nobody up there paying particular attention to our doings. I see God as some lazy-ass government worker who takes too many coffee breaks. There’s just too many bad folks in the world sailing along, having no trouble, and too many good folks toughing it out for no reason.” Then he had leaned back so far, the legs of his plastic chair had almost given way. “I knows I’m goin’ to Hell, anyway. If I find that God is wanting me to thank him for living in a world where my best friend’s boy dies, just up and dies, one month before his eighteenth birthday—well, I won’t be able to stop myself. I’ll climb right up on that pearly throne of his and slap him silly. Then, of course—he’ll send me to Hell.”
Sadie had laughed at this and agreed. There was no justification for kids dying young. What moral lesson could possibly be gleaned from AIDS, Ebola and yes, now that she thought of it, cancer? Theses were torturous things, inflicted on everyone whether they were rapists or saints. Even those who were just trying to get down the right path.
The stink beetle rounded a bend and came to a stop in front of a giant Saguaro cactus. Twenty feet tall, it sported a crown of yellow-throated flowers. Dawn’s light behind it made Sadie squint. She shaded her eyes. It couldn’t be…
“Mameau, it’s you!” Of course it would be.
Mameau stood in watchful judgment. One arm of her cactus form pointed on. The stink beetle scrambled over the rocky scrub, to where the shadows lay down dark despite the morning light.
Cactus tines, strewn all around the foot of Mameau were merciless. Her feet left bloody smudges as she picked her way down the path. Sadie wasn’t surprised. Mameau had felt nothing but disdain for her lifestyle, her friends, and her lack of belief. No sweet, spring grass for her. Painful though it was, Sadie slowed to savor the feel of the stones under her feet and the brittle snap of sage, as she brushed past. Feeling…is it different on the other side?
As she rounded the great Saguaro, she discovered her end of life. Pinned under the shadows was a flutter of lace. It seemed to be made of moth wings and spider webs, which shimmered when they caught the early dawn light.
So tempting, so easy. It seemed all she had to do was shroud her tired, old body with it and be done. It was her exit from the sordid adventure of living. She pulled it to her and lifted it up to the light. It was made of a patchwork of captured moments, stitched together with all her hopes and regrets. There were many moments with Mameau, who seemed to grow smaller as Sadie aged. And there was that boy in college in their funky first apartment together. Mameau hadn’t liked him. Her disapproval pulled the moment down at the edges in a frown. Then a long parade of snapshots of the children she had taught, her friends, her fellow teachers and the crooked, little street in San Francisco where she had lived. Mameau had never visited. She had always thought Sadie’s time would have been better spent at home. Sadie discovered that almost every moment was hazed with Mameau’s judgment. Except for one, right at the end, where Sadie found Mad Dog in front of her juddering air conditioner, smiling his softest smile and letting his eyes dance in the light from a campfire. Her eyes lingered there. This moment was brighter than the others, free of Mameau’s opinion because Mameau had never met Mad Dog.
Standing in the shadow of Mameau at the end of her life, something shifted in Sadie. She looked at Mad Dog’s sideways grin and longed for more bright moments. Moments that might not be on Mameau’s narrow path but would feel right just the same. She suddenly thought of teaching again.
She planted her feet squarely on her harsh, rough path and poked holes in her escape, until the dull ache of feeling beaten by pain; by other people’s judgment and her everyday failures gave way to something stronger. It would mean more pain and struggle, but if she managed to make a few more bright memories, perhaps with Mad Dog at her side, life might be worth it. She balled her private ending in her fist. Pulling herself up, straight and tall, she stood with the dawn’s light in her eyes and stared down her Mameau until the air around them shimmered.
“No offence Mameau but this isn’t right. This is your path and not mine. I need more time to find my own way to the other side.”
She turned to make the long trek back to her trailer. She would rest and then spend the day picking cactus prickles from the soles of her feet. After that, she would do something she hadn’t done in a long time. She would think about her future. The next time she walked her path, whether she found it planted with sweet, spring grass or not, it would be a path of her own design.
Wendy D. Walter
Wendy, who loves to write almost as much as chocolate, was nominated for a Pushcart in 2013 and has been published in The Sand Hill Review and Fault Zone. She is currently at work on a novel set in San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum about a tapestry. She has also written and illustrated two children’s fantasy books and created several book covers.
An Interior Architect, Wendy lives in near San Francisco with her husband, daughters, cat, and ball-obsessed border collie. wendydwalter.com.