No One Dies in Rochester

Ostensibly, two lifelong friends are simply shopping at an antiques market, but each holds a deeply personal secret — including the real reason they’re there.

Walnut

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The grass is supposed to be greener, for sure, but on this day the grass is brown and wet, soggy with heavy dew — and it’s not because Lynnie has a healthy body and a perfect husband and is so insanely elegant that she pulls off cream-colored pants and a matching coat even in Rochester’s suburban hinterlands. I’m not remotely bitter about that. No, it’s because it’s one of those crisp mornings where pumpkins are the decorating choice du jour, and the fog is rolling thick along the roads, and my life is a dumpster fire.

Even now, wispy tendrils of fog are curling around the ankles of my yellow boots, seeping into decorative wicker baskets, filling them like ghost fruit. Decorative baskets are definitely a thing at the antiques market. They’re no more antique than I am, at 30, but the pink-cheeked, plaid-wearing ladies who perch in their folding chairs and make jokes about giving women with curls a discount that morning while pointing at my mop of hair want me to believe the basket with the cheery gingham lining was really the place where a flapper hid her bootleg hooch back in the day.

And, you know, I smile appropriately and quasi-nod over the ugly baskets because that’s better than accepting the fact that my right breast has a tumor in it the size of a walnut. I’d rather pretend everything’s fine. That it’s totally normal to be in the middle of nowhere on a Saturday morning with my best friend, slogging through damp grass and fog to paw through a pile of cracked plates that were probably the dinnerware of some other woman who’d once been healthy.

I suddenly can’t will my feet to move.

Lynnie waves at me from the next booth — a little flick of her perfect manicure. Charming. She doesn’t even look weird with a doily in her hand, but why would she? Even in college she stood apart. Taller, nicer, smarter, more comfortable in her own skin. I could never borrow her clothes because I was awkward in her pale knits and bland silks. She, of course, came off as natural and graceful.

Even the plates her mother-in-law gave her and Christopher for their wedding. They were these ridiculous yellow-and-blue Versace plates, which Lynnie fussed over with the kind of poise I could only dream about. Maybe she really liked them, but actual food has never come within three inches of them, as far as I know. I’ve only ever seen them displayed like rare dolls in a cabinet. When I tease her about them, she always laughs and says, “Morgan, don’t be a Miss Pissy Pants,” which in turn makes me laugh, too, no matter how bad of a mood I’m in, because it really means she doesn’t want to talk about it.

Maybe when everyone finds out I have cancer, I should adopt her “Pissy Pants” thing — because I sure as shit won’t want to talk about it and have to deal with the sympathy and the pity and the fake positivity. Or maybe I’ll just randomly tell people about Lynnie’s god-awful plates, just to change the subject.

I’m just not a decorative plates kind of a woman. I have stark black plates that I use for everything, but now I’m picturing them heaped high with walnuts, which strikes me as gruesome given the circumstances. Maybe my surgical oncologist will give me my tumor, and I can — .

I grimace and look up, even more so when a squat little woman with white poodle ringlets springs from her folding chair and shoves something furry and brown and stinking in my face.

“A fox stole will look perfect on you!”

Its dead eyes stare up at me, and I can almost hear it shouting at me, “Yes, this is an omen!”

 

I drop the lace doily and grasp the collar of my cream-colored coat. How can that vendor woman not see Morgan isn’t the kind of woman who would buy a fox stole? Morgan is standing there, eyes bugging out in horror. Even her appearance should be an indicator that’s not the target audience for old money fur. She’s wearing her bright yellow combat boots and the sweater I bought for her when Christopher and I were in Reykjavik a bunch of years ago. Even if she weren’t an animal rights activist, that stole reminds me of the animal version of that Human Centipede movie my Christopher loves to watch on Halloween each year.

I pull my collar tighter around my neck.

Morgan turns away from the fox stole and beelines right for me. Her face is a tornado, and for just a second the urge to run away makes my feet itch. She’s fiddling with the button holes of her sweater. I’ve always loved that sweater. It’s a blue and gray Lopi cardigan with black buttons. I’d wanted it for myself, but Christopher said it was an old lady sweater. I did the next best thing — and it really is perfect for Morgan. She’s always been completely at ease with herself, no matter what. With the fog breaking up, she looks as though she grew right out of the dying grass.

“Jesus, Lynnie,” she mutters and steers me away from the doily booth with her hand firmly pushing the small of my back. “This place is full-on crazy. Are you turning over a new decorating leaf or something? I think I saw one of those mounted deer heads back there. It would really go great with your hardwood floors.”

I give her shoulder a light slap. “I know, I know. This is … but someone from my book group said she’d be selling her jewelry here.” The lie must be as transparent as the dying fog, but the expression on Morgan’s face doesn’t change. “I just want to support her, you know?” I finish lamely.

“I get wanting to do your friend a solid, but wow. Is her jewelry made from road kill? Or — ” She glances at the nearest table and grabs a dented silver shrimp fork. “Something like this? Wait, I know.” She tosses the fork back where it came from. “Jewelry made of old plates.”

My chest feels tight. I force my mouth into a smile. “No, Miss Pissy Pants, it’s not any of that.” And then we both get the giggles, the kind that start in the stomach and fizz up and out until your throat feels bubbly and raw. For two seconds the reality of my situation seems so … idiotic. My house will still be empty when I get home. Maybe I should just leave.

My teeth grind together. I’m not going anywhere. When I can catch my breath, I say the only true thing: “She makes Victorian mourning jewelry.”

 

And suddenly I’m thinking about walnuts again. My mouth is dry as matches, but my palms feel as though I licked them. “Mourning jewelry?”

Lynnie shoves her hands in the pockets of her cream-colored coat and smiles like a game show hostess. “Apparently when someone died in the Victorian era you wore special jewelry. As a remembrance, I guess? Or maybe to let everyone know you weren’t wearing black as a fashion statement. Anyway, some of it was regular jewelry, but it was just that it was black. This woman — my book group friend, I mean — prefers hair jewelry, though, from what I understand. You know, hanks of hair cut from the dead person’s head set into lockets or made into bracelets.”

My right breast feels as though it’s lit by spotlight, and I’m wearing a sign that says, “I might be dying. Ask me how!”

“Where does she get the hair?” I ask, feeling it in my knees.

Maybe it’s not such a horrible thing that I’m tromping through a crappy market when I should probably be reading up about how to tell your loved ones that death is likely imminent, and they better come up with something nice to say at your funeral. I covertly look around to see if there’s a pair of scissors — oh, excuse me, antique shears — lying around so I can cut off one of my curls and slip it on the down-low to Lynnie’s friend with instructions to turn it into a nice pair of earrings so Lynnie will have something appropriate to wear while still mourning her oldest friend.

Lynnie shrugs like a bird wing flutter. “I don’t know. Maybe she hangs out at mortuaries and begs families to let her give haircuts.” The corner of her mouth lifts into what I think is going to be a smile but turns into a tight grimace. “Maybe she steals hair while people sleep. You know, break into a house in the dead of night, and in the morning everyone is bald and crying.” Just as quickly as her expression came, it smooths into nothingness.

“That is oddly specific, Lynnie. Did you have too much coffee this morning?”

“Maybe.” She picks her way around a beat-up wagon the color of old bricks and runs her manicured hand along a row of dingy white platters.

“Twenty percent off the marked price.” The guy in the booth is tall and gaunt, eyes pinned to Lynnie’s pale blonde ponytail. I’m half convinced he’s going to flirt with her a bit, when he turns away and starts digging through a cardboard box, mumbling to himself.

 

I’ve imagined what this woman must look like a million times — this mourning jewelry woman. I overheard Christopher once telling one of his fraternity buddies that he thought I was pretty in a way that made other women wonder about the size of his dick. His words, not mine. The word dick just seems so … aggressive. I never asked him what he meant by it — the thing about me being pretty. Mostly because I thought he was just being a guy. Tough macho guy talk with his guy friends.

In the end, it never seemed worth it to call him on it. We’ve always had love. We have nice things, like those Versace plates that Morgan hates. I fully admit that I’m not as fond of them as Christopher is. He wanted to use the plates for the Christmas dinner for his family that he made a big production of last year, and I talked him into leaving them in the cabinet. Now, though, I’m thinking that the plates and I have something in common — if Christopher couldn’t take us both out to show us off, how would anyone have an opportunity to think about what’s in his pants?

I can feel Morgan’s eyes on me. I keep inspecting the chipped platters, one after another. The vendor’s head brushes the top of his tent, even stooped over. He hovers at the opposite end, peeking at us out of the corner of his eye. Does he think I’m pretty in the same way that Christopher does? Or did?

And so yes, I want to know what this mourning jewelry woman looks like. I want to know what about her is different or better than me. Is she prettier? Is she thinner? Does she love the Versace plates in a way I never could?

Part of me hopes everything in the house will be gone when I get home. Not just Christopher’s things, but all of it. The furniture, the plates. Everything. Maybe I’ll insist that Morgan come back to the house with me after all this, and I’ll pretend we were robbed. It’s true in a way. I feel robbed. Sort of.

“Don’t tell me you want to buy that.” Morgan stares at me, one brow raised. She looks as though she might start laughing and crying.

I look down. I’m holding a white plate with a painting of a clown right in the middle. It’s terrifyingly hideous, with red curly hair and a red nose. Its mouth is blue and leering. Underneath the clown are block letters that spell out “Ogden Clown College.”

I love it.

“Yes, you know, I think I am.” I dig a ten note out of my wallet. “I’m thinking about making a change, getting new dinnerware.”

“For what?” Morgan’s face has gone comically blank. “A hellscape dinner party of the damned?”

I laugh. “Yes, maybe. Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if you could just start over?”

She takes the plate from me and studies it. Her thumb drums an erratic beat on the edge, like a moth caught in a too-bright light. “Who hasn’t? I think I would have found a way to become a professional rabble rouser instead of a graphic artist. You know, fight the man for a living.”

“Do you remember when you asked me to always have bail money set aside for you?”

“Of course. I still consider you the first person I’d call if I got arrested.”

“I’m touched.”

The corner of Morgan’s mouth turns up for a moment. “You should be.” She winds her fingers through mine and squeezes twice. “You’re the first person I tell when anything is going on with me.” She releases my hand and hurries away to the next booth, leaving me with guilt the size of a universe.

 

Thank god I’m probably dying because Lynnie is clearly having some kind of early midlife crisis — or maybe a late quarter-life crisis. Something. But she’s into the fugly clown plate, and I don’t feel like doing anything other than pretending everything is fine while visualizing my walnut tumor on the clown’s face.

She catches up to me and shakes the bag with the plate in it at me. “Mission accomplished.”

“Let’s lean into this,” I say. “You’re looking for new dinnerware, and I’m here for you. Let’s find you the most different plates imaginable.”

Lynnie’s entire face lights up when she laughs. I haven’t seen that particular expression on her face in years, maybe since we graduated from college — she used to be more party and less elegance, more wild abandon and less control. I remember one time when we were seniors, she’d been drunk on bad gin and yanked me onto the dance floor at some shitty club, red and blue lights bouncing off her face and bodies bumping into each other, and she yelled into my ear, “We are going to live forever!” I couldn’t hear right for a week after that, but I believed her until a few days ago.

I may not have long, so why not make a set of crazy-ass plates my legacy, and if it helps her deal with whatever crisis she’s got brewing, great. Especially since I’m probably going to be too busy dying to give her much help with it. Lynnie could have anything she wants — but maybe that’s the point. Maybe she has everything, and the only way to live is having everything she doesn’t want.

Like the plates.

For one terrible moment, I think the words: She can have my tumor if she wants it.

I clutch at a plate and set it aside with a clunk. “This one isn’t right.” My voice is too high, sharp as torn metal. I would never wish my tumor on anyone, let alone Lynnie. She has everything, and I have a cat and … well, I have a cat.

But I will be damned if I can’t help her find the perfect set of ugly plates.

She laughs as I sort through plates, faster and faster. The vendor is overseeing all of this with her eyebrows raised, like I’m about to start hurling her precious porcelain and china into the grass. The fog is completely gone now, so there would be no hiding how the plates would shatter when they hit. I can’t be concerned about that now because no matter how cracked the plate, no matter the pattern, I have a choice to make. Yes or no? Awful or just average? Is it grotesque enough to join the clown? What will it look like all covered with the gore of my tumor?

 

Morgan thinks I’ve lost my mind. I can see it in her eyes, even if she is playing along. I wonder what she’d say if I asked to move in with her for a while. Every once in a while, when Christopher was out of town for work (probably having an affair with the mourning jewelry woman, now that I think of it), Morgan and I would have sleepovers at her apartment, and it was always like taking a step back into who we were in college. She always knew exactly what she wanted, even then, her big plans to be an artist and never get married.

If all I have is a plate with an ugly clown on it, I won’t take up much space.

She gestures to me from the next booth. She’s smiling her big wide smile with lots of teeth and clutching a gray-and-silver plate. She holds it up — it’s designed to look like a flounder, complete with gaping mouth and panicked, dying eyes.

She laughs, but would she really welcome a plate like that in her house — along with me — even if it is just until things get back to normal?

I barely take a step toward her when she sprints over to the vendor and pays for the plate. When I reach her, she passes the plate to me. “My gift to you, Lynnie,” she says, and she’s laughing again, but her eyes are wooly. “It’s perfect for your collection. You can’t say I never gave you anything.”

“Oh, please,” I say, wondering what she’s thinking. “I still have the necklace you gave me when I turned twenty.”

“Well, this delightful flounder plate is way better than that.” She looks around. “This is going to be fun to put together. A stellar collection of ridiculous plates.”

It’s almost like we’re picking out wedding china. In a way, I guess we are — not for a wedding, but for a divorce. Is there such a thing as divorce china? Suddenly, I really want a full set of divorce china.

Lynnie is going all in on finding another four hideous plates to add to her collection, and I’m trying to imagine where she’s going to keep it in her house while also trying not to picture each plate bloody with my tumor, because enough is enough — and even I recognize that. And really, Christopher will pitch a fit if she replaces the Versace china in the cabinet. He’s a momma’s boy, through and through, but he’s also absurdly proud of those plates, like he made each one by hand. Not that he would ever get his hands dirty. Whatever. Lynnie’s new collection would look amazing showcased in their fancy china cabinet — and the thought of it makes me snort, especially when Lynnie discovers a small bread plate with a man’s bare torso emblazoned across it. The outer rim of the plate reads, in tiny gold letters, “Leroy All-Male Revue.”

The next booth is a frothy pink thing of my nightmares, full to the brim with breast cancer awareness ribbons — like I could not be aware of the cancer destroying my body as we browse — and wooden signs loopy with cursive that encourage me to, “hang in there!” and “kick cancer’s ass!” and tell me, “you’re a warrior!” An angry army marches up through my stomach and threatens to flail out through my arms because I seriously want to rampage through the booth and ruin the neat rows of pink sparkly T-shirts and happy pink socks. I’m a warrior, all right — but it’s cancer merchandise profits and the chirpy jerk selling this crap whose ass I want to kick.

Even my tumor seems to want a piece of the action, which worries me a bit because what sane person thinks the walnut in their breast is talking to them?

“What’s going on with you?” Lynnie asks. “You look like your eyes might pop out of your head.”

“Nothing. Too much pink.” Right.

“Eh, the vendor’s heart’s in the right place.”

“Whatever.” My foot will be too if we stay put any longer. I yank on the sleeve of Lynnie’s perfect coat and haul her away from all that death. There’s another set of vendor booths up a small hill, and I stomp up a paved path toward them. Lynnie is running after me, huffing. The heels of her black boots are clicking along the macadam like a clock set too fast. I know I’m acting like a lunatic, and I can’t help it.

“Where’s your friend’s booth supposed to be?” I ask when we get to the top of the hill. I want to keep moving. Every vein in my body feels like it’s filled with lava.

“Oh, I don’t know. She didn’t tell me.” She smooths her coat with fluttering hands.

“Well, let’s find it. I’m getting hungry.”

“I think I saw a food truck near the parking lot.” Lynnie gestures to her right. “You know, why don’t we go get something. A tea, maybe. Or I bet we can get a bagel.” She takes a step in that direction.

“Eh. Let’s just go find your friend. Something tells me I’m not getting a decent bagel out here. This seems more like a fried Snickers kind of a place, and hey, I’ve got nothing against fried candy bars, but I have to start eating healthier now. I think I saw place on the way here with smoothies.” The words feel like I’m dropping anvils on her head, but of course she has no idea what I’m really saying or that I’m probably coursing with cancer or that picking these plates might be the last thing we do together. She’ll never have a chance to bail me out of prison.

Lynnie drapes her hand in the crook of my elbow and walks me along the path, forcing me to slow. “Wow, you’re going on a diet? That’s a big deal. You hate that kind of thing.”

“I really don’t want to talk about it.” I step away from her and into the nearest booth.

The vendor is smoothing doll clothes when she sees me and trills, “What kind of dolls do you collect, sweetie? I’ve got clothes for all types.”

“Oh, no — I mean, we’re looking for a woman selling mourning jewelry.”

 

Cream was a dumb choice for tramping through the grass and gravel, but I’d felt strong this morning when I got dressed — all that perfect cream was like armor. Now I just feel conspicuous. Stealthily tracking this other woman down isn’t even a speck of a possibility. Everyone seems to be staring at me, even Morgan.

“Well?” she says.

“Well what?”

“That lady says she’s a few rows down. Your friend. The mourning jewelry lady. Let’s go. I’m two seconds away from being hangry. You know what that’s like.”

I don’t want to see her. The Other Woman. I hate that phrase. It’s so stupid. I duck into a booth and pick up the first thing I see — which is an old silver baby rattle. I bite the inside of my lip until it hurts too much and drop the rattle like it’s burning my fingers. Maybe it doesn’t matter who this woman is and what she looks like. What’s done is done, and I have half a set of new dishes. I can be anyone I want.

“You trying to tell me something?” Morgan says, tilting her chin at the rattle.

“What? No.” Definitely not.

“Then what’s going on? I’m ready to eat my own arm over here.” Morgan stabs at the rattle with the tip of her finger and frowns. “We can come back after we eat, you know. We can finish up buying your plates then.” She seizes my hand and pulls me along between booths. I trip over an old woman in a striped housedress, but Morgan is relentless.

Maybe she knows. Maybe Christopher called and told her the whole story already, and she’s helping him keep me out of the house while he packs. She’s tugging again on my coat sleeve. I stare at her. Her eyes are dull as the overcast sky. She would never in a million years not tell me if that’s what was going on. I had to talk her into being my maid of honor because she has always found Christopher annoying. And Christopher would never call her. What am I thinking?

“There’s the booth,” Morgan says. She goes stock still, and her eyebrows are halfway up her forehead. “Jesus, you’re in a book group with her? She looks like she’s very into crystals. I didn’t even know you’re in a book group.”

“I’m …” Frozen. There’s a woman showing off an enormous silver necklace with a black cameo attached. I don’t know for sure it’s her, of course, because I have no idea what she looks like. After Christopher told me he was leaving me, he’d let her name slip, and I googled her. I found the business but not a photo.

I study the woman’s face. She might be a few years older than me, but it’s hard to tell for sure — it might be the hurt talking. She’s pretty enough, though. Pale brown wavy hair to her waist, a black sweater and black pants, all very flowy. She could be anyone, maybe not my replacement. But is she the kind of pretty that makes women wonder about the size of Christopher’s dick?

I’m a woman, and I am not thinking about any part of his anatomy.

“Aren’t you going to say hey?” Morgan edges closer to the booth and sidles up to a table draped in a black cloth. There’s a rack of braided bracelets made of all colors of hair, including one that looks like my ashy blonde. Maybe that woman really did sneak into the house one night and take it, like she took Christopher. But she hadn’t taken him — he went willingly.

I catch Morgan’s wrist and pull her back. “Hey, stop. She’s not really in my book club.”

Her head tilts, like it does when she’s sure she’s heard something wrong. “Oh.”

“Chris and I are splitting up. She’s the reason.” I gesture toward the woman. “Well, that’s probably not true. He said he wants kids, and I … I can’t have them.”

She lets out another “Oh!” but softer this time. “Are you okay?”

“Yes and no.”

“You can’t have kids?” She’s holding my wrist now too. “When did you find out?”

“About a month ago. Polycystic ovarian syndrome.”

Her mouth tightens. “You’re okay, though.”

“Yes. Really, I am. I just … I felt like I had to see her.” I raise my eyes to the woman, who is now laughing, the sweetest smile on her face, and counting money from a sale.

“But that’s why we’re here, and that’s why you’re buying ugly plates?”

I nod, and Morgan laughs, quietly at first and then so loud that everyone stares at her.

“What’s so funny?” I ask. I clutch my plates against my chest.

“Does this mean I can go key Christopher’s car now?”

I laugh, incredulous. “No, Miss Pissy Pants. It does not. I need to move in with you for a while. Your bail money is ready still, but I’d rather my best friend isn’t a felon.”

“Show’s how much you know — keying a car isn’t a felony.”

“No?”

She shakes her head. “No. But having breast cancer sucks.”

“Am I having a stroke? I don’t have cancer.”

“I do,” she says. “And I’m having a total mastectomy next week. How’s that for a shit sandwich?”

My heart stops, and tears spring into my eyes. “Oh, Morgan.”

“Okay, Miss Pissy Pants,” she says, deadpan.

And then her arm’s around me in the dying grass and we both get the giggles, the kind that start in the stomach and fizz up and out until your throat feels bubbly and raw.

Featured image: osh / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Wonderful short story, vivid descriptions. I enjoyed this immensely. And felt like I was there at the antiques market witnessing it all.

  2. This is QUITE a story, Nicole. It covers all ranges of emotions, darting back and forth between all of them. I loved the ending of the 2nd sentence “…where a flapper hid her bootleg hooch back in the day.” The realistic conversational style too, and the very unexpected surprise ending.

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