The Life Store
by Michael Hickins
A few months after my mom died, Laura and I go out for dinner with her parents in Kingston, the upstate New York town that is trying to become Brooklyn North. We have Max with us, and he gets a little restless between the main course and dessert, so I take him on a walk around the neighborhood.
“Is that a park?” he asks after we’ve gone a few feet.
“No, that’s a parking lot,” I say.
“Is that a park?” he asks when we’ve gone another few feet.
“No, that’s another parking lot.”
He’s quiet and we walk hand in hand. I love feeling his little hand in mine; it’s the best feeling in the world, even better than sex.
“Is that a park?” he asks as we cross the street.
“No, that’s a graveyard,” I say. I immediately regret my choice of words. Why couldn’t I have just said churchyard?
“What’s a graveyard?” he asks.
“It’s where we plant people when they’re dead,” I say.
Again, I want to stuff the words back in my mouth, but it’s too late.
“We plant them?”
“Yes, when people die we put them in boxes and then we plant them in the ground.”
It just gets worse and worse.
We stop at the wrought-iron fence and peer into the darkened graveyard. Tombs from the Revolutionary era loom gray and undecipherable to the naked eye. He stares quietly for a while.
“Is Dolly dead?” he asks about our recently deceased, geriatric cat.
“Yes, she’s dead,” I say.
I’m helpless now, trapped in a brutal reality of my own wording.
“I miss Dolly. Can we see her again?”
“No, she’s dead. She’s gone,” I say.
“Is she in a graveyard?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Did we plant her in a box?”
“No, we only plant people in boxes. Well, some pets too, I guess. Some people plant their pets in a box, but it’s dumb.”
“Why is it dumb?”
“Because. They’re gone.”
“What happens when they’re gone?”
“Nothing. They’re just gone.”
“Can we see them again?”
“No, they’re gone. They’re dead, and when you’re dead, you’re gone. That’s why it’s important to be careful when you cross the street,” I say, desperate to get something positive out of this conversation, something Laura won’t absolutely kill me over.
“What does dead mean?”
“It means you’re not alive anymore,” I say. “You’re gone. No more life.”
“Why can’t you go to the life store?” he asks.
I am struck dumb.
“There’s no such thing as the life store,” I say finally.
“Yes there is,” he says. “I saw it a long, long time ago, when I was a little baby.”
“Mommy’s probably worried about us by now,” I say. “We should go back.”
When we get back to the restaurant, Max runs over to our table.
“Mommy,” he announces in his best teacherly voice. “When people are dead we plant them in the ground!”
Laura looks at me and mouths “what the fuck?”
I shrug, palms upward. She shakes her head at me.
When we get home, I look for a moment at my mom’s 1960s–vintage red-and-yellow can of Swee-Touch-Ne Tea, which holds her ashes.
“What am I going to do with you now?” I ask.
Michael Hickins is author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, The What Do You Know Contest, Blomqvist, I Lived in France and So Can You, and other books. "The Life Store" is an excerpt from In a Different Light, a novel Hickins has just completed.