Photo by Mateus Lunardi Dutra
Tommy said he would be dead by forty so many times, I wasn’t sure if it was a premonition or a promise. When the cops came knocking a few weeks before his birthday, I don’t think either of us were surprised. Jemma didn’t cry until I was tucking her into bed.
“What do we do now?” Her lip shook.
It’s easy to forget she’s only nine. She’s wearing the Bon Jovi t-shirt Tommy gave her last summer, the one from the New Jersey Syndicate tour. I was afraid I’d tossed it, but it was just hiding in the back of her dresser.
“Well,” I say, “the next thing will be the funeral.”
She sits up, wadding the shirt in her fists. “No, I mean what do we do now without Tommy?”
She hasn’t called him Dad since he moved out, when she was four. We haven’t seen him in weeks, since Jemma’s dance recital. He showed up sober, which was good, but with Gina, which was not good. As usual whenever he brought his wife around, the day ended in tears for three out of four of us.
Jemma’s convinced Tommy married Gina because of her name. Her main quality seems to be that she can complain more than any other human on the planet. She hasn’t held a job in the five years we’ve known her, so it’s safe to say she’s not bringing home her pay for love.
Jemma used to love that song, sang it to her reflection every night before bed, little pink hairbrush clutched in her hand and frizzy hair in a ponytail on top of her head. Then Gina showed up and ruined everything for Jemma, including her favorite song.
I should say that Gina isn’t really Tommy’s wife, because for that to be true, he’d have had to divorce me first, which he never did. That’s why the doorbell rang at quarter to ten on a Wednesday night, waking us up. Bad news never knocks in the daytime, have you noticed that?
Tommy didn’t have a lot of friends, and almost no family, so most of the people at the cemetery were there for me and Jemma.
“Why is she even here?” Jemma whispers, picking a scab on her shin.
“She’s his widow. Basically.”
“His window?” Jemma says, too loud, and I try not to laugh.
The service is over. Just a handful of us mill around while they lower the coffin into the grave. Gina’s across the hole from us, wearing an honest-to-goodness veil. She sobbed loud during the sermon, snuffing back snot for good measure. Jemma squeezed my hand so hard, her fingertips went white. We’re supposed to go to the VFW after. There’s going to be coffee and a cake made by Gina’s sister. I’ve had her cakes before, and it would definitely be worth more time with Gina to have a piece. When we get in the car, our dress shoes covered in fresh-mowed grass, Jemma says she’s changed her mind and doesn’t want to go. I think about mentioning the buttercream frosting, but instead I say, “Where do you wanna go, pumpkin?”
I put my sunglasses on to hide my surprise. Jemma hasn’t wanted to go to there since Tommy threw her record player down the basement stairs. The morning after, she dragged her crate of records into the kitchen and asked me to take them to the Goodwill.
I bought my first record at Baldwins–Even Now by Barry Manilow. Laugh if you want, but “Copacabana” is a great song. Mr. Baldwin’s there behind the counter every day. He doesn’t get much traffic anymore, what with electronic music being so popular. Jemma says it doesn’t sound the same.
“Well, Miss Jemma, what a surprise!” Mr. Baldwin was ancient when I was Jemma’s age. He reaches under the counter, jangles a box. He hands Jemma a button. She has dozens of them: Beatles, Turtles, Monkees. She asked me once if it was a law that 60s bands be named after animals.
It’s the first time she’s smiled since the cops rang the doorbell. She shows it to me. “Who is it?”
She doesn’t recognize the Boss’s jeans and baseball cap. “Springsteen,” I say, and pin it to her shirt. Tommy only had ears for one 80s band, and it wasn’t from E Street.
We wander up and down the aisles. Jemma runs her hands over the records but doesn’t pick any up. Tommy used to bring her here on Saturday afternoons, after ballet. He’d buy her one record, anything she wanted. The crate she asked me to donate had everything in it from Harry Chapin to Queensrÿche. She picked them by their covers, which is as good a reason as any, if you ask me.
Jemma stops at the end of the Country and Western aisle. She looks so grown up in her black dress and shoes, a little gray cardigan with bows for buttons. I say a little thank you prayer to Tommy for giving her to me.
“Mom, I need a minute.”
So serious. I laugh, but she doesn’t.
“Go talk to Mr. Baldwin. Just for a minute.”
I tell her sure. Mr. Baldwin and I take turns complaining about the state of the world for a while, and then Jemma’s there at my elbow, hugging a record to her chest. Her eyes are red.
“This one,” she says. She puts a Slippery When Wet record on the counter carefully, like it might shatter.
I don’t tell her that her crate of records is under the stairs in the basement, her favorite right there on the top. We pay for the record and drive home. That night, after we’ve brushed our teeth and changed into our pajamas, we put our frizzy hair in ponytails and sing into our hairbrushes. We know all the words.
Bethany Snyder’s fiction has appeared in Spectacle, Petrichor Machine, Kindred, Geek Force Five, Lost Coast Review, Commonthought Magazine… and in The Olive Press! In addition, work is forthcoming inn The MacGuffin. She has twice received the Charles McCorkle Hauser Prize for prose from the Chautauqua Literary Arts Friends at the Chautauqua Institution (2015 and 2016).