The Heitz Wake
by Steven Comstock
art by Eugene Gryniewicz
Caliope heard the legend that you’d never been to a party until you went to a Gamma Friday party, and by the number of smashed college students pressing in on her, she was convinced. The frat house, overrun with cap-wearing boys and speech-slurring girls, lived up to its reputation, or down to it, based on the fights, puking and thundering rap music. Another Friday night and the campus partying itself into a police showdown. Cali came to Gamma Friday with her friend Jade, both of them not the type to join Greek life but willing to use their looks for free beer, a couple hits of weed, and the attention of the boys. They always stayed together, skirting the parties and denying the pride of being an Uncell Phoenix, but sometimes dropping in to take advantage of college excess.
She and Jade stood on opposite sides of the frat’s living room, throwing each other a look of disgust or delight while they celebrated the end of the week. Cali had her back to the wall, five beers deep, and a jock lightly pulling the strands of her black hair in some kind of courtship pattern.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said. She smelled Natural Lite on his breath. From the speakers, Lil’ Buck rapped aggressively about checking your ho’.
“What else?” Cali said, looking down to her cell and texting the encounter to Jade.
“Your eyes,” he said. “They’re gorgeous. I got total wood right now.”
Cali laughed so hard she doubled over. She felt bad about doing that to him but she bet Jade before getting to the party that at least one guy would use the eye line on her. He stood there waiting for her to recover.
“I’m sorry,” she said, patting him on the arm. “Juh.” What was his name? “Juh.”
“Cort,” he said. Cort drank his beer and scanned the tangle of drunk girls trying to dance to the music. He went to join them. Cali looked for Jade but didn’t see her. Her phone buzzed with another text: upstairs w/Brett. Brett was the lead running back on the football team. Cali texted Jade: slut – with a winking face after it. Then she flowed from group to group, drinking and smoking, and Gamma Friday marched on until 2:15 a.m., when the cops broke it up. Lil’ Buck rapped his final words about life and death. Kegs drained, kids blitzed and Gamma was done for the night.
Cali and Jade rejoined at the front of the frat house. Jade staggered ahead, slipping to the left and righting herself, singing about Brett. She and Cali talked about the party on their way to the car. Jade teased Cali with “He was too good to say” when she asked about Brett. They got in Cali’s Civic. She looked at the keyhole but couldn’t steady her hand to insert the key. Jade was already out. After a few keyhole attempts, Cali started the car, driving to their apartment. She opened her eyes wide to concentrate and had both hands fixed to the wheel.
The Civic plowed sideways through rotten wood guard rails. It tumbled down the slope. Car metal deformed into new shapes. Glass exploded outward and inward. The driver and passenger rolled to the bottom where the car landed upside down and its hood crushed, snuggled up against a tree. Cali and Jade did not awake.
Cali’s scratched face was bruised purple and red around her right eye, but besides that, she was physically all right. The doctors kept her in the hospital overnight, and she dreamed about being inside a machine, like a dryer. Jade bounced around inside the machine too without any expression on her face. Her eyes were closed. They tumbled in silence together.
October 22, 2011: Francesca, Vincent, Peter and Caliope Dreesen showed up at the Summerfield Funeral Home. Inside, Cali asked the attendant where the Heitz wake was. He directed the family to a room filled with sobbing people, flowers and a white casket, for Jade Heitz. Cali dried her eyes. The entrance displayed a board overflowing with photos, poems and drawings from Jade’s family and friends. On a nearby chair, a stack of more poems and photos was growing. While admiring the photos of Jade, Cali blocked out the death of her friend. She knew that Jade was still alive. She really knew it.
Fran put her arm around her daughter.
“Sweetheart, I know how hard this is for you now,” her mother said. Cali stayed silent. She liked putting her head down on her mother’s chest. A pillow to dream away reality. Right now, reality was too much for her. Her mother continued soothing Cali. She lifted her daughter’s head to meet her eyes.
“Whatever you do, do not touch her,” Francesca said. Cali looked down, and her mom tried to re-establish contact. Off to the side, her father watched them.
“Mom, I wouldn’t do that. I remember,” Cali said.
“Good. You should remember. I can’t have you doing that - whatever it is any more. I just can’t have it, Caliope.” Cali nodded.
“I haven’t done that in years,” she said.
“I hope so,” her mother replied. “It’s nothing you want to engage in, ever.”
She knew the whatever it is vividly but rarely practiced it now; in fact, her mom could do the whatever it is too. Mom had a talent she was ashamed of. Cali didn’t think she should ever be ashamed of her talents, even if they had a dark edge to them.
“Promise me,” Mom said. Her eyes glistened. She tightened her hand on Cali’s arm.
October, 2000: Caliope was ten, skipping around her swing set world in the backyard and teasing her brother Peter, eight years old, who sat in his Castle King sandbox scooping fine white sand into a bucket.
“Let’s go into the woods, Petey wheetey,” she sang. “We can play Pirate Treasure at the stream.”
Peter stopped his sand-gathering task, running after his sister toward the stream behind the house. He yelled to her to wait up. Pirate Treasure didn’t happen everyday. Peter neared the stream, looking around for Cali. By this time, she would be standing on the cliff and announcing that all the forest was hers, but now Peter didn’t see her. He walked a bit farther until her saw his sister bent down on one knee with her back to him. Peter snuck up on her, spread his little hands apart and readied to clap them together over her head. Something was different. Peter put his arms down. He said Cali’s name, but she didn’t answer. She looked stuck in time, paralyzed, inanimate.
Peter stood in front of her. Cali had her hand upon a dead squirrel. He waved his hands in her open eyes, getting no flicker or blinks back. He touched her shoulder, nudged her, until finally he took the hand resting on the squirrel and lifted it off. Cali screamed, then Peter screamed, wetting his pants and bolting back home with the word ”Mommy” repeated infinitely.
Mom asked Cali what happened in the woods. Cali said she’d found a dead squirrel and that Peter was a baby. Mom asked Cali what she did with the squirrel. Cali wrapped her black hair around her fingers.
“It said hi to me.”
Mom sat Cali firmly down on her lap. Cali hadn’t sat on her mom’s lap in years. Francesca guided her daughter’s head to rest on her chest. Cali was so close to her mother’s crucifix she could see the despairing eyes of Christ. Mrs. Dreesen attended Church three times a week, on Sunday, Tuesday and Friday, but she never made Cali go if she didn’t want, which she didn’t, instead choosing to stay home with her father. Francesca told Cali never to touch any dead animal – again. Caliope swore on it, but she wanted to know why.
“They’re dirty, sweetheart. You could get sick,” she said, but Cali knew she was lying.
October, 2001: Peter ran huffing and puffing into the house. He called for Cali, who was watching Spongebob. She didn’t like him much but no other show did any better. Peter said that the Bayers’ cat was dead. Cali watched Spongebob catch on fire, to which she argued, “That’s so stupid. He’s underwater for god’s sake.” Peter jumped in front of the TV. He repeated the news while Cali tried to stare through him into Spongebob’s next disaster. “Shut up,” she said. Peter walked away complaining about his sister. After the cartoon, she found Peter in his room. “Where?” she said.
She promised her mother not to touch another dead animal. Mom will never know, she thought. If the squirrel can talk, maybe Ziti can talk too. She recalled the incident when she talked with the squirrel. A sudden bond between formerly incommunicable beings, like aliens and insects discovering a hidden bridge between their absurd worlds that allowed them to combine their absurdness into one big stupid. When she put her hand on the squirrel, it showed an image she could see. It was an acorn but the biggest acorn ever, and gold, beautiful, massive. An acorn like that would make a king of a squirrel. The image changed to a tree. The tree floated in white space like in a child’s drawing. It changed back to the acorn.
White and orange Ziti rested sideways against the Bayers’ fence they’d built around their pool. She didn’t see any blood. His legs looked all right, no broken bones. Ziti was an old cat. He’d stalked around the neighborhood since before Cali was born. She picked up a stick and pressed the tip against his ribs. Since he still lay there, she tossed the stick away. The squirrel told Cali its secrets. What, she wondered, would an old cat say? She placed her hand on Ziti’s side.
It was different than the squirrel. Maybe because the squirrel was dumber and the cat smarter. She didn’t see images this time as much as live them. Cats mewling in the night to ward off intruders and competitors. The stirring of a shrew or mole and the pleasure of tacking their fat bodies down to eat them. The experience shifted into the Bayers’ kitchen. Crying for food but no one doing anything about it. A large person scooped cat food into the bowl. Eating, eating, eating. Drinking water, then a hard kick to the sides accompanied by the angry voice of Kimmy Bayer, their only daughter. Instantly springing away to hide under a bed. In this current of Ziti’s life, Cali could also stand outside to see the cat just like seeing him on any day of the week. She had the awareness to know she and Ziti were two, not one, beings. Standing away from the cat, she imagined pushing herself away from him.
Cali sat near the fence with Ziti dead and silent again. She wondered how the cat could be dead but also alive. She wondered how the cat could reveal its life to her. He’s not really dead, she thought. She liked her newly found talent. Cali could watch the movie of any dead thing’s life or be a star in the show.
October, 2002: Caliope tried them all, dead flowers, insects, birds and even a pig one time when the family went to Grandpa Dreesen’s farm. Grandpa found the pig dead and yelled at Cali for touching it. “Damn thing’s sick,” he scolded her. Her touch opened a door locked to all the rest of humanity.
Flowers bored her. A faded, lifeless rose was duller dead than when alive. Cali’s talent, which she called “rooming,” let her open the door to the rose’s existence in death. She “roomed” with the rose. The rose’s room flowed around her in wisps of darkness, and she heard a sucking sound like someone drawing liquid through a straw but doing it forever. She pushed off back through the door into herself again. She stopped rooming with plants since she got the same room from every dead flower or tree.
Insects intrigued her. A dead bumblebee, for example, roomed like a magical realm. She flew in the shade of giant, glossy leaves dancing with ants and wary spiders. The Sun’s rays glanced off deep blue puddles, bounced off the backs of glowing grass stems, and christened the kingdom in light everlasting. She met the residents of a thousand bumblebee nests. They were pleased for her coming, for no one had roomed with the bumbles before. And Caliope pushed off from the bees’ room once more.
Dogs scared her. A dead golden retriever’s room smelled like a basement stuffed with rotten cardboard boxes and oily machines. She could move but slowly, and human voices attacked from all directions, commanding to come, go, sit, shut up, endlessly. Cali felt invisible hands on her too, rubbing over her arms, back and legs. The feeling made her angry. The hands didn’t know how to move right, so she pushed off. Dog rooms always went that way.
She told Peter about her talent while he played a video game.
“Yuh, uh-huh,” he said, “a room.” His hands slipped over the controller. “Hold on Cali, I’m beating this level.”
“I can see the rooms of dead things, Pete,” she said proudly. Peter frowned. “Remember last year at the stream and Pirate Treasure?”
“Oh. Yeah?” more button pressing. “Wait. I hate this guy.”
“Yes,” now she blocked his view of the screen. “I call it ‘rooming.’ Listen to me, you jerk.”
“I am. Get out of the way. Mom, tell Cali to move!”
Peter didn’t care. Cali decided to stop trying to talk to him about it. She was a smart girl. Peter was one thing, but kids at school were another. She never let anyone at school, except one person, know about it. That was asking for trouble.
At the dinner table the same night, Francesca put down her fork and knife to signal talking about your day time.
“Tell me about your day in school, Cal. Our dinner rule is you have to say one good thing about your day or you can’t get dessert.” Vin and Peter kept eating. Caliope flipped through the day’s events.
“We used our microscopes to see a paramecium,” she said. “The microscope’s so cool. I can see things that were invisible. The paramecium is like a jellyfish. They live in water.”
“I remember those,” Vin said. He sang the words: “paramecium , um, um, um.” Fran and Peter laughed.
“Cordata, ata, ata, ata,” Cali completed the song.
“Is that your favorite subject?” Fran said.
“Definitely. It’s like seeing things that no one else can.”
“Like rooming?” Peter said. “She’s saying the rooming thing again.”
“What’s ‘rooming’?” Fran said. Cali burned her gaze into Peter, who raised and lowered his eyebrows like a cigar-smoking comedian. She raised her chin up to address her mother.
“It’s a talent I have. I don’t think anyone else has it. I can go above and beyond.” She circled her hands outward for dramatic effect. “If a thing is dead, I can talk to it.” She said it like a person who could sing like a star, and knew it.
Francesca bit her lip.
“Wait, what?” Vin said. Fran halted Vin with her hand. She shook her head at him. Vin stood up, leading Peter out of the kitchen. Fran and Cali talked for an hour about her talent. Fran asked Cali whether she remembered the time about two years ago, when she said she had to go help grandpa and gramma out on the farm. Cali recalled it. She was only nine at the time, but she did remember her father acting distant. He was angry too, and even spanked Peter a couple times. She remembered her father chasing her brother around the house, yelling for him to stand still.
Fran touched her hand to her crucifix. She told Cali that going to grandpa’s wasn’t really true. She had actually been to see a doctor. Cali waited for her mother to continue. The doctor was a special kind of doctor who helped people deal with bad emotions, like sadness or fear. Her mother explained that she too had the talent. Cali hugged her mother. She said it was okay. Fran used her napkin to dry her eyes. She prayed from Cali’s birth that her daughter never would have that curse put upon her, but here it was alive and inside a healthy, innocent girl.
Cali, not frightened at all, asked her whether she had seen the beyond-world. She didn’t understand the problem. All you had to do was push off back to here. Fran told Cali that she was just like her when she was young. She touched everything – almost everything – until one time, at her Great Uncle Joe’s wake, Fran learned a fact she could never forget no matter how hard she tried and no matter how hard Dr. Able tried to convince her of its falseness. At the wake, Uncle Joe lay in his casket, dressed like a businessman. Fran told her mother that it was weird to see him, a plumber, dressed like a banker. His hands were crossed over his stomach, holding a wooden rosary. Kneeling before him, she got curious because she’d never been this close to a dead person. She reached out to touch his cool, white hand.
“I went to touch Uncle Joe’s hand,” Fran said.”I was like you. I wanted to know.”
“What did you see?” Cali said.
“I didn’t see anything. I heard a voice but didn’t know who said it. The strange thing was that the voice spoke no words. I know that sounds impossible but I understood exactly what it meant. I felt a force push me backward from his body. It was gentle, like a mother leading her child away by his hand to bed time. I thought maybe God was speaking to me. He wanted me to not do that.”
“It was God?” Cali said.
“Yes, I know it was. He let me know that my great uncle’s life was sacred and that I should never try to disturb his rest.” Fran put her hands on Cali’s shoulders. “You have to trust me, Cali. Promise me you’ll never touch a dead person. This is a dangerous thing we have.”
Cali promised, although she thought, Why would God give me a gift like this?
October, 2008: Jade’s ways had always put Cali in a trance. She wanted to be like her. The two girls, honors students enjoying free time, stood outside the high school opening a pack of Camels.
“Watch me,” Jade said. She tapped the cigarette against the pack. “You look like you know your shit when you do this.”
“Why do you do it?” Cali watched the side doors for the hall monitor. Jade lit up.
“I don’t know. Just do it anyway.” She exhaled into Cali’s face.
“Ah, you asshole, stop. Now I’ll smell like smoke and get suspended.”
Cali took a cigarette. She sniffed it. Smelled like raisins. She put it in her mouth, and Jade lighted it for her. Cali inhaled, then coughed violently, bending over while Jade laughed.
“Amateurs,” she said. Cali had trouble standing. She sat down on a bench, feeling nauseated and weak.
“Jesus that sucks,” she said. “I think I’m gonna puke.”
“Just breathe,” Jade advised her. “You’ll be fine. It’s like that the first time for everyone. Then you get used to it.” She and Jade mimicked the best way for holding a cigarette until the bell rang.
October, 2010: Cali was on the phone with her mother. Jade entered the dorm room carrying her books and a white plastic bag. Sitting down, she lighted the last bit of a joint and put Dr. Phil on. Cali had noticed, since they started college, Jade’s drifting from here to there, a clueless look on her face, and she tended to skip classes, especially if they started before 11:00 a.m. Jade could do anything she wanted, but didn’t want anything she could do. A fish in water hating water.
“I know, Mom, I know.” Cali avoided looking at Jade, and she sat straight up in her chair. “I’ve never done it since you told me.” She tried to whisper but Jade heard everything. Jade waved the bag in her face. “Okay, Mom. Yeah. Bye.” She sighed after hanging up.
“Never done it,” Jade echoed. Cali checked her phone for updates, ignoring that her roommate often commented on her no-go sex life. Jade turned back to Dr. Phil’s attempts to help an angry teen. “I was thinking we should move our asses to a better dorm,” Jade dreamed aloud. “We’re in the ‘art’ dorm with all the fags and fat guys. We need to get in with some men.” She held the joint out to Cali.”Do you have any of those Fritos left?” Cali waved it away.
“I know,” Cali brightened up. “Let’s get an apartment!” She presented the open bag of chips to Jade, who smiled her smile of everything being cool. She snuggled down on the couch and examined a Frito chip as if it were so complicated. Then she ate it.
“I like that idea,” Jade said. “This place is dead. Speaking of which…”
She opened the bag for Cali to see a dead rat inside. “Found her near the agriculture lab. Probably she liked all the free handouts.”
Cali swallowed. “No, Jade. Get rid of it.”
“Let’s room together.” she took Cali’s thin wrist. “Do that thing you do, girlfriend.” Cali snatched the bag from Jade, opened the window and threw it outside. She sat down and opened her laptop when she heard Jade suddenly crying. Cali opened up a science paper document she’d worked on for weeks as Jade cried on, turning back to see her lying on the couch with her face wet from tears. She returned to the open document but didn’t do anything, although she tried. She hoped Jade would stop so they could just move on without a big life lesson to talk about. Cali never saw Jade cry before.
“This place is hard for me, Cali,” Jade said, “but that thing you can do is a miracle. I realized I didn’t have to accept the world anymore. It offers only once choice. It says you have to live no matter what, but you offered another.” Jade’s developing obsession with Cali’s power had gotten worse since they started college. Cali learned that she could bring other people into the room with her by touching them as she touched dead things. It was like an electric current. The problem was, Jade didn’t want to leave the room that Cali could open. She liked experiencing all that death had to offer. Jade didn’t do much lately except try to force Cali to open the door to the land of the dead.
“You can’t stay there forever, J,” Cali said. “I don’t know why God gave it to me, but I believe he wouldn’t want me to use it like this. Maybe one day when you’re feeling better we can do it again, but not now.” Cali came over to sit with Jade. She pulled her friend up from the couch. “I think you need help.”
October 22, 2011, The Heitz Wake: Jade’s family stood near her casket, receiving guests reluctantly. Mrs. Heitz broke down several times. She regarded Caliope with an attempted smile. Cali knelt before Jade. She knew her mother was watching her every move and hoping Cali would not reach out for her friend. Cali stared at Jade’s peaceful face, like Sleeping Beauty, radiant and delicately smiling as if Jade knew the prince was on his way to take her to a better place. Maybe Cali was her prince now. Like the man himself, she would awaken the dreamer. It seemed that if she put her hand upon Jade’s forehead, she would awake, and everyone there would laugh and clap for joy. Fireworks would proclaim the good news. The beauty would live again. And the tale would end happily ever after. Cali went to touch Jade’s hand. She hoped to rejoin with Jade in her room beyond.
The last words she heard were her mother’s: “Cali, no.”
October 22, 2011: The Heitz family showed up at the Summerfield Funeral Home. Inside, Jade asked the attendant where the Dreesen wake was. He directed the family to a room filled with sobbing people, flowers and a white casket, for Caliope Dreesen. Jade dried her eyes. The entrance displayed a board overflowing with photos, poems and drawings from Cali’s family and friends. On a nearby chair, a stack of more poems and photos was growing. While admiring the photos of Cali, Jade blocked out the death of her friend. She knew that Cali was still alive. She really knew it.
Jade’s mother put her arm around her daughter.
“Sweetheart, I know how hard this is for you now,” her mother said. Jade stayed silent. She liked putting her head down on her mother’s chest. A pillow to dream away reality. Right now, reality was too much for her. Her mother continued soothing Jade. She lifted her daughter’s head to meet her eyes. “Cali’s in Heaven now,” she said, but Jade didn’t know.
When it was her turn to pay her respects to Cali, she knelt before her, crossed herself for Mrs. Dreesen’s sake, and spoke a prayer she made up herself. She imagined herself and Caliope leaving the Gamma party, and then darkness closed upon them. Part of her felt guilty. She wanted to exchange places with Cali. After all, not only did Cali do well in college, she also had a miraculous power that was now lost forever. Cali told her that God had given her the gift, but why did he let her die? That’s like taking the gift away, or playing a trick. Jade would never understand that. It was an aspect of religion, its contradictions, that made believing difficult for her.
Finished, Jade went to the receiving line to console Mrs. Dreesen and her family.
“I remember meeting Cali in high school. She was sitting in the back of Mr. Howsen’s English class. She was so funny. We would make fun of his plaid pants.” Mrs. Dreesen put her hand on Jade’s shoulder as she wept. Jade thanked Mrs. Dreesen for letting her be friends with Cali, and then she left the service with her family. One thing she left out of her talk with Cali’s mother was the first time Cali showed Jade her gift. It was the August before their freshman year of college began, and Jade told Cali how depressed she felt about going away. Cali decided to reveal her gift to Jade to make her feel better.
“Come on over to my house,” she said, “I have something to show you that you’ll never believe.”