When the Moon Turns Blue
Butter and Marietta
Butter Swann sat listening to the eulogy from a pew five rows back from the front. She could see the side of Marietta’s face clearly. She saw her reach a black-gloved hand up to her neck and rub it hard in a little circular motion that left a bright red blotch on the whiteness of her skin. Marietta still had perfect skin, even after all these years. Butter couldn’t help but notice. Hardly any gray in her hair, either. Still as auburn as it had been when they’d first met in kindergarten. Butter could tell when it was natural and when it wasn’t. She watched as Marietta shifted in her seat on the front row of the church, bending her head sideways, stretching her neck. Butter knew what this meant, she’d seen it happen to Marietta many times before, though not, she realized now, in a long, long time. Age had its small concessions; migraines usually went for younger prey.
Yes, she was sick, Butter thought, as she watched Marietta open her purse and pull out a flowered handkerchief—an old one from her mother, probably, still smelling of that lilac perfume Caroline had always worn—and hold it to her mouth. Even from here you could see how pale she’d suddenly gone. Butter felt a needle prick of panic for her once close friend. They’d not had a conversation of any consequence in years, not since Marietta had called Butter—Butter would never forget the word—“crass.” Crass! All because Butter had complained about those emergency room doctors seeing that Mexican boy before her grandson, Peter, when he broke his leg skiing on their family vacation in Park City. No insurance, you could tell they weren’t even American,
for God’s sake, and Peter having to wait on a gurney in the hallway of that little hospital for two whole hours while they went before him. If she thought about it now, the anger could still come before the guilt. Well, she’d been upset. Couldn’t Marietta have understood that?
“Harry Cline was one of the last of the great gentle men . . .” Reese Pearson was speaking now, his eyes glued to the typed-out speech in his slightly shaking hands. Butter’s eyes traveled back down to the front row. There was Marietta’s brother, Macon, sitting beside her, his wife, Glinda, in a forest green suit and hat. Who wears a hat anymore, Butter asked herself. She crossed her legs, smoothing down her dress. Even though she’d told herself she wouldn’t do it, she couldn’t help but remember her own husband’s funeral. It had taken place right here, nine years earlier come May; and she’d been sitting right there where Marietta was now. Lord, the stress. Everybody staring, watching her, just like she was watching Marietta.
Of course, that funeral hadn’t been the same for Butter as this one was for Marietta, what with her and Joe practically divorced when he fell off the roof and died. Butter shook her head a little at the memory. He’d never pay the money to hire that towheaded neighbor boy to clean his gutters like the rest of the men on the street. She’d told him. Well, at least it was quick. His head hit the corner of the window box on the way down and that was that. There’d been a wren’s nest in that window box. Not one of the tiny blue eggs had broken.
Her son, Christo, had wanted her to have Joe’s funeral at his church; they’d had a row about it. Christo and Jen went to Sanctorium, one of those modern churches that eschewed denominational labels, preferring, Butter supposed, to make things up as they went along. She and Joe had visited with them there one Easter. She’d bought a new suit for the occasion, just as she’d done every Easter of her life, and walked into the dark, windowless place only to be met with people in jeans and T-shirts. The music sounded like the stuff she heard on the radio, and the ministers, all wearing robes—the one part of religious tradition they seemed to approve of—bobbed and bounced around the stage like car salesmen. She’d left that day, squinting in the noontime sun, feeling like she’d just sat through some sort of spiritual action movie. There was no way on earth she’d have launched Joe on his final journey from that place, no matter how much Christo wanted her to.
Joe’s fifteen-year-old cat, Marvel-Ann, had dropped dead two weeks before her master. Of old age, the vet said. Privately, Butter had always thought the thing simply wanted a head start. That cat hated her. Marvel-Ann would’ve had no intention of living with Butter in her new condo in Windward Oaks, which was where she moved after Joe died. Thank goodness they hadn’t signed the divorce papers before he went. Not having to split everything down the middle meant she could afford to upgrade to a bigger unit, right by the pool. All things work together for good, Butter thought, which was, she supposed with an inward smirk, another opinion that Marietta Cline would’ve called “crass.”
That one conversation over chicken salad down at Mama’s Way Cafe five years ago had effectively ended their friendship. Butter could never find a way to start it up again, and Lord knows, Marietta had never even tried. Still, they’d known each other since childhood, and Butter wouldn’t have wished a sick headache to fall on the woman right in the middle of her husband’s funeral, no matter how Butter’s face still burned at that memory of their last lunch together. As Reese finished his eulogy, she saw Richard Kyle get up from his seat on the second row and walk toward the pulpit. He bowed his head, and everybody else followed suit. Butter watched as Marietta dug her fingers into her neck again. You can’t pray away a migraine, she thought, with a sympathy that surprised even her.
A shadowless glare pierced Marietta’s left eye like a drill as she sat at the end of the front row pew. Already the flowers were fading—red into mauve, yellow to beige, green to a papery gray. Soon every wreath, bouquet, and spray would look like a black-and-white photograph, all color erased by the pain that was, even now, beginning to creep down from the crown of her head like hot lava, settling hard behind her eye. Then the nausea would come. As sure as she was sitting here now—back stiff and straight, legs crossed at the ankle—Marietta knew a wave of sheer sickness was going to douse her in cold sweat and knock her sideways. Experience told her she had about fifteen minutes. And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea
. . . Harry’s old friend from college, Richard, was reading from Revelation now, his voice faltering only a little when he looked out over the crowd. The church was full, even the balcony. Marietta wouldn’t have expected anything less; Harry had been one of the nicest men anywhere near Wesleyan, a lot nicer than she was, she thought to herself. She’d lived with him for thirty-six years, so she ought to know. Harry Cline treated everybody like he’d known them forever, would help anybody with anything, anytime. He allowed people second, even third, chances. Marietta had learned early on to never leave him alone in the shop; he’d practically give stuff away. It still rankled a bit every time she passed by that mahogany highboy that sat in Richard and Becky’s foyer. Harry had sold it to them for about thirty dollars more than he paid for it. The thing was worth a fortune. “Now, Marietta, we’ll never miss that money,” he’d told her. And he was right, as usual. They hadn’t. Marietta placed a gloved hand over her closed eyes.
He’d always said her headaches could more accurately predict the weather than the barometer that hung on the porch. At this early hour the forecasted winter storm was still advancing across Alabama, an inexorable line of pink on the meteorologist’s map that promised ice would fall in Wesleyan at dusk. Couriers of dense white clouds covered the January sun, flooding the church with a bright, bloodless light. She put her handkerchief to her mouth and tried to relax the muscle in her neck that felt as rigid as the handle of a hammer. She searched for something to take her mind off the pain. She searched for Harry.
His alabaster urn sat on a wooden pedestal in front of the altar, looking like the one warm place in the church. Roman in design, its stone the color of honey, the urn was a treasure Harry found at a London auction twenty years before, when death seemed like something that always happened to other people. They’d laughed when he told her he wanted to make sure she’d always have someplace pretty to live. Turned out he’d been house hunting for himself and didn’t know it.
Pancreatic cancer wastes no time. The doctor told him nine months in April, and nine months it had been. Harry hadn’t wanted to tell anybody he was sick, a decision that suited them both, and he’d gotten away with it, too; they’d taken two trips to the beach; he didn’t even start to look ill till the final few weeks. But Marietta hated that he’d died in winter; she’d wanted him to see another spring. She also knew some people might never forgive her for keeping them in the dark, and one of them was sitting right beside her.