Barbara Stuber

Crossing the Tracks

Prologue
Atchison, Kansas – November 1916

I’m under Mama’s coffin. My little house in the center of the parlor has silky black curtain walls and a hard ceiling that I can touch with the top of my head if I sit cross-legged and stretch my neck. They moved all the furniture against the walls except a little round stool right by the coffin box, so even short people can see Mama this afternoon. That’s why I’m wearing my scratchy church dress with the purple bows.

“Iris!” Daddy calls from the hall. “Where are you?”

I am invisible. I lie down with my knees bent. His footsteps scrape across the rug toward Mama and me. They stop right on the other side of the curtain.

“IRIS!”

I hold my breath and lift the hem. The shiny toes of his black boots are so close I smell shoe polish. My ceiling jiggles. The lid of the coffin creaks open. Daddy takes a deep breath and holds it forever. It’s so quiet. Just the three of us at home together until the doorbell chimes and Daddy turns and walks away.

I reach under the curtain and pull the stool into my playhouse. I try to sit on it, but I’m too tall. So I drag it out, stand on top, and look into the creamy box with thick silver handles that has Mama inside.

She’s wearing her dark green dress with covered buttons. Her eyes are shut. I know she can’t play our game now, but I lean down anyway and blink at her like we did at the sanatorium when her throat got too sore for her to talk. I’d blink all different ways and she’d blink back exactly the same. We thought it was funny. You can just tell from a person’s eyes if they think something is as funny as you do.

When Mama got so sick that breathing made her cough she quit that too. I tried to stop breathing like her, but I couldn’t. A person can’t make her own heart stop beating either – God has to help you do that.

It’s good now because Mama isn’t coughing. She must be so glad.

Her fingers, folded on her chest, don’t move when I poke them. Her shiny hair, the same dark brown as mine, is tucked under her head. It looks lumpy to lie on but I don’t tell her because dead people can’t move anymore.

Her feet are under the part of the coffin lid that won’t open. I can’t see her shoes which is bad because Daddy sells shoes. A person wearing the proper shoes for every occasion is real important to him.

I need to know which pair she is wearing for her walk into heaven. I sneak into Mama’s empty bedroom. A sachet of dead rose petals hangs by a silver ribbon on the wardrobe knob. I count her shoes – black pumps, black boots, tan and white, brown with high heels and elastic sides, gray, and ivory with buttons. All six pairs are here – one for every year since I was born.

“IRIS!”

My hand jerks. I knock Mama’s shoes from their neat row.

Daddy marches up to me, his watch chain bouncing on his coat. I smell his pipe. He closes the wardrobe almost before I can get my fingers out of the way. “You made a mess.”

I feel hot. I don’t look up. “Is Mama… barefoot?”

“The guests are here. Get off the floor.”

“But…”

Daddy turns and points at me with his pipe. “And be polite.”

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