This excerpt comes from Kate McIntyre’s short story collection, Mad Prairie, published this month by UGA Press. We follow Elizabeth, whose “wardrobe had run to modern windswept-moor wear,” as she assumes custody of the ashes of her friend Miriam and boards a Caribbean-bound cruise liner. As a meditation on the arbitrariness of both death and the future of the departed, McIntyre's story feels wise and true. As a propulsive trip down a strange path of causation, it sits among the other well-crafted and funny stories in this collection.
The cruise line had loved Elizabeth’s ad agency’s work on their European Adventure campaign so much that they’d offered her four days and three nights free. Elizabeth and the other three thousand passengers on the Aria of the Tides would disembark from Fort Lauderdale and cruise to Saint Kitts and Saint Lucia. She’d asked to go on the Regal Adventuress, the ship that steamed up the Rhine, but they’d balked because the river cruises cost much more.
A few weeks before Elizabeth left, Miriam’s old neighbor Patty had called to see if Elizabeth wanted Miriam’s ashes: “I’ve had her in my spice cabinet, but I thought it would be nicer if she went to a friend her own age.” Her son, Clay, was headed to D.C. to intern with a congresswoman and could pass Elizabeth the box.
Elizabeth met Clay at a piano bar called Keyed Up in the middle of the afternoon. She picked the venue precisely because Chef Dave would have found it appalling—the candy-colored cocktails, the show tunes, the stained-glass lampshades above each high top. Based on Clay’s name, Elizabeth had imagined a young Republican in a shiny-buttoned blazer, but Clay wore a striped Comme des Garçons T-shirt Elizabeth remembered coveting for herself during a monthlong tomboy phase when she’d chopped jeans into jorts and rode a longboard to a class called Moral Reasoning: If There Is No God, All Is Permitted.
Clay smiled apologetically, as if he didn’t want to intrude on Elizabeth’s sadness. The piano player, a very small old woman on a pedestal ringed by ferns, hammered out a baleful “Wichita Lineman.”
“This one’s an Arpeggio, and this is a Glissando,” Elizabeth said, gesturing at a yellow and a blue cocktail sweating on the table. “You choose.”
Clay pulled the blue liquid close. The piano transitioned to a bluesy “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Clay and Elizabeth were the only customers. The bartender polished bottles with a white cloth. He sighed.
“We’ll tip well,” Elizabeth called. “So, Clay. You grew up with Miriam.”
“I did,” Clay said. “We lived next door. When we were little, we’d play school, and she was always the teacher. She’d mark right answers wrong on my quizzes to see if I was paying attention. Mostly she liked the red pen.”
“That’s funny,” Elizabeth said. “That sounds like her.” It didn’t, though. The Miriam that Elizabeth had known would have let wrong answers slide.
“What was she like in high school?” Elizabeth asked.
“I don’t like to think about high school,” Clay said. “It wasn’t a good time for me.”
“You didn’t get that shirt in Kansas,” Elizabeth said.
“Actually, I did,” Clay said. “It’s a knockoff. It took two months to ship from China. The bottom seam is crooked, so I have to keep it tucked.”
“Globalism,” Elizabeth said.
“Right,” Clay nodded. “Anyway, this is awkward.” He held up a bulging canvas tote bag, singed black at the corners.
Elizabeth took the bag and peered inside. The bag smelled like a bonfire. She withdrew a pine box, too big to fit in her palm. The pianist hit the opening chords of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
The box was heavy, but wood weighed a lot. “Do you really think Miriam’s in here?” Elizabeth asked Clay.
“I’ve read that pets get all mixed up together when they’re cremated. So you might get part of your pet back, and bits of everyone else’s. I would assume more care gets taken with humans.” Clay stirred his second cocktail, a B Sharp.
“Well, the corpses are larger, so they can’t fit more than one in the oven, I’d assume,” Elizabeth said.
“What are we talking about?” Clay asked.
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth said. “I really don’t.”
“I’m just the delivery boy,” Clay said. He shifted his weight to the front of the barstool. One foot out the door.
“I’m sorry I got morbid. Patty said you lost your father recently,” Elizabeth said.
Clay sank back on the stool. “Don’t be sorry. It wasn’t so much a loss as an unburdening. For my mom and me,” Clay said. He circled his straw to get the last few drops of the B Sharp. “It’s weird you spend so much time with a person, then when they’re gone, you don’t even miss them.”
“How about another drink?” Elizabeth said. “They have a scorpion bowl, but they call it Boogie-Woogie.”
“You be well, Elizabeth,” Clay said. He slipped off the barstool. “Wait,” Elizabeth said. “What should I do with Miriam now? What do you think, I mean?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Clay said. “We got her out of Kansas.” “I’m going on a cruise. I’ll take her,” Elizabeth said.
The first lonesome strain of “Home on the Range” followed Clay out into the bright sunlight. He hadn’t even remarked on how Elizabeth had requested all Kansas-themed songs for their meeting. She paid for their drinks (Clay hadn’t offered) and tipped the piano player. She slung Miriam over her shoulder and headed to the old cemetery one last time.
Elizabeth had first found the cemetery close to her apartment shortly after Miriam had died, when she’d go on long walks in sunglasses that hid her red eyes. All thin crooked headstones from the 1800s and wrought iron gates and weird little death cottages—crypts, the groundskeeper had called them. Real estate was so expensive here they seemed like a waste. Kansas hadn’t had crypts. She could live in a crypt. Happily!
Elizabeth liked to read all the gravestones. Sometimes she sent friends pictures of gravestones if she found their names on them, especially an unusual spelling. She’d comment, too, on the decedent’s lifespan: “Just eight years old! You’re already doing better than her.” Or: “Eighty-one! Still a long way to go before you sleep.” Her friends would text back “LOL” or “Oh, wow” or a surprised emoji or nothing at all.
Certain inscriptions filled her with something joy adjacent, especially the most self-pitying: “How many hopes lie buried here!” Her favorite—so fitting that she planned it for her own apex-top stone of Tropical Green granite—in Copperplate Gothic font: “She hath done what she could.” Didn’t we all.
Once, Elizabeth had darted down a strange path to avoid the groundskeeper. The light was different here, dappled by the leaves of the trees, and the stones were older and more ornate. Lots of double stones marked “Mother” and “Father,” which reminded her of Miriam’s dead parents, and right in the middle of the line, beside a couple discolored and badly weathered granite lambs, she spotted it: a plain gray stone, straight top, straight ends, no name, even. Just an inscription: Waiting by the Shore.
She’d tried to take a photo but her phone battery died. She never found that gravestone again. She circled the cemetery every day, searching. A few stones had tipped over, so she tried to pry them upright and got kicked out by the groundskeeper. “Have some respect,” he’d told her as he pulled the wrought iron gate shut. “Stop being weird.” But she wasn’t being weird. Just sad. It wasn’t weird to be sad.
Today Elizabeth wore a long dark flowing dress made of linen, which suited the scene. Lately her wardrobe had run to modern windswept-moor wear. She’d even prepared a line she never got to use, since no one but the groundskeeper paid attention to her mooning in the fake wreaths. Her line was, Don’t mind me: I’m in deep mourning. She had a response ready, too, when the imaginary interlocutor suggested she hang out in a more cheerful place: It’s not morbid if it makes me happy.
Elizabeth wound for hours through the gravel paths. At each fork she chose the less familiar route. Waiting by the Shore. Why couldn’t she find it? Her buzz was wearing off and a headache blossomed behind her eyes. The light faded from yellow to green to purple. Her knees were aching. She decided to give up.
At the cemetery exit, the hoarse caws of crows stopped her. Five large birds perched in a maple tree with budding leaves. A few dived to the ground. Elizabeth wended toward the crows, where she found the Mother and Father stones, the lambs, and then, hidden by a shrub that had leafed out in the last month, her and Miriam’s stone: Waiting by the Shore.
The crows clustered in front of the stone. The wind shifted and she smelled a whiff of ripe decay. She edged toward the stone to take a photo, and the crows flapped back to their tree, revealed what they’d surrounded, a dead cat with orange fur.
Elizabeth held her breath as she took the picture.
She ran from the cemetery, Miriam swinging hopefully and helpfully at her shoulder. Miriam’s message was clear. She wanted to come on the cruise. Or Elizabeth would find her during the cruise. Maybe Miriam’s message wasn’t so easy to grasp.
Weeks later, on the cruise ship, Elizabeth lifted Miriam in her pine box to the railing. The wind whipped Elizabeth’s hair into her mouth. “See?” she said. “The ocean. Water, water everywhere, and luckily, plenty to drink. Am I right?” Miriam loved when Elizabeth amended the classics. Elizabeth intended to make this trip all about what Miriam loved. Then, when the time seemed right, Elizabeth would dump Miriam overboard. Heave ho, old friend. To the briny depths with ye. Yo ho ho, and yes, certainly, a bottle of rum.
In Elizabeth’s other hand she clasped a tall flamingo-pink cocktail with a crown of pineapple fanned over strawberry slices like a fancy hat. The crushed ice stung her palm. A loud foghorn blew, which made her laugh, because it sounded exactly like a cartoon ship’s horn. Who knew that the sound, like a fart autotuned way down, existed in reality? There was so much Elizabeth had to learn.
Elizabeth moved from the railing to a deck chair. Behind her, drunk women in their forties and fifties danced the Electric Slide perilously close to the swimming pool. A conga line of gravestones: “They loved to dance!” A man with a belly domed like a turtle shell diligently worked his way through a plate laden with shrimp cocktails. “Always the life of the party.” Children shrilled from the wave pool. “Lilies gathered too soon.” Elizabeth had imagined that the whole trip might be a little quieter, a little more dignified.
She set Miriam on a side table next to her empty drink. “So Miriam,” she said, “drinks now or drinks later? Both? I agree. Did you know that employees on these ships frequently work ten- or twelve-hour days for scant wages? I never would have gone if the trip wasn’t paid for.” A waiter removed her empty drink and tried to pick up Miriam as well, but Elizabeth stopped him. She held her hand on his a second too long as she took the box back. He had pretty eyes. “Easy on the ice this time, please,” Elizabeth told him.
Elizabeth balanced Miriam on her shoulder like a parrot. “I have to tell you about Chef Dave, Miriam. He’s the reason I only packed one-piece swimsuits. Well, that’s not fair. He’s the reason I’m still alive to select a suit at all. He found me mostly exsanguinated on his splendid cowhide rug and saved me by clasping a hand towel to my torso until the ambulance arrived. Then he never called again, which was fair. Anyway, I nearly sprung for a Missoni tankini, secondhand, but then I said, ‘Elizabeth, will you really wear it when the scar heals, or will you go straight back to triangle-cut bikinis?’ I think we both know the answer.”
The waiter, who had pouty lips in addition to his nice eyes, said his name was Manny and he only worked eight hours per day. “They treat the Americans better,” he told her. Elizabeth’s hand brushed his as she received the second big pink drink. This one hit harder than the first. Manny was good as his word about going easy on the ice.
Elizabeth cradled Miriam in the nook of her elbow. Poor Miriam. Burned up in a freak apartment fire during a tornado in the heart of nowhere. She cried quietly for a few minutes and pushed her large black sunglasses hard against her nose so no one could see the wetness underneath, a sort of reverse snorkel. “I miss you, friend,” she said.
The water in the distance flushed the color of a new bruise. Waves filed across the sea in the same appallingly long lines as the fields of wheat back in Kansas. Elizabeth’s arms were very cold, despite the sun. She shrugged her silky caftan over her shoulders like a royal cape. The blankness of the ocean, its vast empty horizon, sickened her. Elizabeth had never seen much ocean. Neither had Miriam. Clay’s words returned: We got her out of Kansas. Elizabeth could not in good conscience distribute Miriam here in the wide wet prairie. That much was clear.
Here’s what she did instead:
- Throw a handful of Miriam in the air right as a low-flying jet buzzed close to Elizabeth and other onlookers.
- Spread Miriam all over the lettuce used to feed the iguanas during the iguana-feeding outing. The iguanas gobbled her right down.
Lick some quarters, dip them in Miriam, and play the slots at the casino. She won fourteen dollars.
Load her into the confetti cannons at the disco.
Manny had a soft face, a sweet face, which surely belied a truly ripped body. He carried himself with grace and confidence, like a dancer. And they did dance, at the disco with the light-up dance floor after he helped her pack Miriam in the confetti cannon. Here Elizabeth was, back on the prowl. Did the whole process seem a little repetitive, a bit rote? It did not. Elizabeth had located one really great guy. She could find others and not bleed on anything expensive this time.
Manny danced well, unselfconsciously feeling the music with his whole body.
“I’m thirsty,” Elizabeth shouted in his ear. “Want to get a drink?”
They settled into a table far enough from the dance floor that they could hear each other.
“So where are you from?” Manny asked. “D.C.,” Elizabeth said. “Kansas originally.”
Manny smacked the table as if displaying a winning poker hand. “Me too,” he said. “I knew there was something familiar about you.”
“She was from Kansas, too,” Elizabeth said, gesturing toward the confetti cannon.
“That’s wild,” Manny said. “I left at seventeen. Never been back.”
“I read this story once where this couple meet on the Titanic, and she knows the boat will sink and he doesn’t,” Elizabeth said.
“Does she tell him?” Manny asked.
“She still got on the boat. Why would she do that?” Elizabeth said. “Ship,” Manny said. “Big boats are ships. You should know that if you write about them. Maybe she wanted to die.”
“Do you ever get tired of yourself? Like your own body and your own bullshit?” Elizabeth said. “I mean, look at me. I look stupid. I look like a blow-up doll. Not like a Macy’s float. A sex doll.” She jerked her hand to indicate, and a pain from the scar shot up her side.
“What was it you said she said?” “What?”
“On the grave.”
“Oh, Waiting by the Shore?”
“Have you thought that maybe that message was a metaphor? Like you’re separated by an ocean now, but it’s like the ocean between life and death, and when you die, you’ll find her waiting?” Manny said. The lights from the dance floor pulsed blue on half his face.
“What if the message was a trick to lure me on this ship, which will sink?” Elizabeth said.
“That’s an elaborate trick,” Manny said, “and kind of mean. She was your friend?”
“I thought she’d actually be at some port waiting for me, waiting and waving. Isn’t that stupid?” Elizabeth said.
Manny said something, but it was too quiet. The bass pumped like a heartbeat.
“What?” Elizabeth said. “What did you say?”
“It’s nice, doing this for a person you loved and lost. Doing this even though you don’t know what you’re doing.”
He lay his hand on hers. It felt warm, smooth, and strong. He said, “Let’s dance.”
When Elizabeth and Manny parted the next morning, he took a vial of Miriam, which he promised to sprinkle on dry land at each port. “Keep an eye out, too,” Elizabeth said. “If you see someone who looks familiar but you aren’t sure why, please say, ‘Hello, Elizabeth loves you,’ just in case.” Elizabeth had done what she could.
On the last day of the cruise, on the beach at Fort Lauderdale, Elizabeth set the box with the last crumbs of Miriam in the sand. Perhaps a very large hermit crab might find the box and use it in lieu of a seashell. Miriam had always loved animals, and Elizabeth imagined sheltering a crustacean in her afterlife would please Miriam. The crab could claw its way inside and make itself at home.