My great-grandmother smoked two or three packs of Camels a day and lived to be ninety-four. A rank, collapsed, shambling ninety-four with a mole smack in the middle of her cheek, like a worry stone, but she had a full head of blue-white hair in big natural curls and waves, like its own smoke from the head of a pipe blown through briefly, thick curls aromatic with hair spray brimming out until they disappeared into the room, her face like the jaundiced shavings of leaf tobacco packed into the bowl. She was perpetually judgmental, and skepticism was her chief form of entertainment. She often started her part of a conversation with, “Well, I don’t know about that.” She cursed and snored, drank Maker’s Mark from a jelly jar, and she loved lemon meringue pie.
I was a kid of maybe nine, and one of my pastimes when the adults were boring and it rained outside was to watch her nap on the sofa. It was repulsive to the point of being sublime, like a horror movie — the smell of her breath, sometimes drool, the texture of her skin and the wild unearthly crown of hair. Her body as fragile as pickup sticks. I sat on the floor and watched her over the top of the low coffee table, the newspaper roughly folded back to a half-finished crossword, the tissue of a sewing pattern and its cardboard packet. I would listen in to the conversations in the kitchen and dining room under the occasional ratchet of her snoring. One day I heard, “When she was a kid…” followed by laughter, and that was the day I knew that I would be old and asleep on a sofa with my knobby feet and yellow nails under an afghan.
My great-aunt made blueberry kuchen that she served at ten, after the card game, with coffee that filled the house with deep autumn and erased the world outside, that pulled us away from the investigation and the impeachment hearings. A thin blond man in little glasses, the first man I thought looked really cool to me, with good skin and a perfect knot in his tie, was talking about the president on the television in the lavender room. My great-grandmother wanted lemon meringue pie but smelled the kuchen coming out of the oven. I loved all things blueberry, down to the pattern on my pillowcase, and my great-grandmother said, “I asked for a goddam pie.” Our family’s last name is Angel. The man on the television, I learned much later, was named Dean.
One day I heard them say about my great-grandmother as she slept, “We’re going to have to make this work ourselves. Bill can’t afford insurance now, and vets benefits won’t cover it all.”
I heard the words, “die with dignity,” and when one of the women said something about God, I heard my uncle’s voice: “Not in this house he doesn’t.”
My great-uncle Bill rose at four thirty every morning, habit after the war during which he had eaten rat and broth in a bamboo shack for a year in the Philippines after jumping out of airplanes for two years, shooting men, running long distances, and then flying away again in airplanes. From my bunk bed I would hear his barber clippers running in the bathroom and peek out the door into the hallway to see the tall unhurried shadow of him from shoulder to shoulder between the narrow walls, rubbing the flat burr of his hair gently with his hand and walking to the kitchen. I had been instructed not to speak at that hour of the morning, but I could cut myself a slice of kuchen left from the night before, where it sat on a white Formica counter over a blonde linoleum floor, the bees not yet awake in the yard, the corrugated plastic wall of the pool out back that when I saw it through the screen door made me feel chlorine in my nose, made me scratch the old bee stings from when we ran across the clover to get to the flimsy bend of blue plastic wall. I could sit next to him in the dark of the dining room where we would eat and look down at the table. He smelled of sleep and the lavender water my great-aunt used to wash the sheets. I heard only the clink of our forks on the plates, now and then a bird outside, saw his hands that were each larger than my head — one flat on the table and the other holding the fork as a small and delicate thing — and I loved my great-uncle and feared him.
“I’ll take care of it,” I would often hear him say, about the lawn, the juniper bushes, the pool, the car. She would say, “Thank you, Bill.” Whatever the chore, it was finished by day’s end if possible. He shingled the roof in three days once and fell asleep reeking of sweat and asphalt in the chair next to where my great-grandmother stretched out under her afghan, but not before draping a beach towel over the chair first. I sat on the floor with a slice of pie and watched them sleep.
“Fascinated,” I heard my mother say, and the women in the kitchen laughed, which made me feel both safe and full of wonder about how we die, about whether a woman dies differently than a man. About sleep as a fake death, to play dead, to play possum, to rest in peace.
A pie tin of uncut lemon meringue is a lie. The name is not even pronounced as it is spelled. Filling the tin is the landscape of another planet, like the ancient remains of a lava flow with the old burned surface in its last stages of being scoured away by a salt wind, or like the waves of a poisoned sea, and just under the crust the surprise of nothing more than trackless, formless cloud until it is cut. You find a sick kind of sunlight and equally unearthly texture of the thing, quivering there like a slab of alien flesh. How does it stand up on its own, or why anyone bother to put any of this into a crust instead of a bowl or a cup like pudding? The pie seemed unlikely, a perversion of chemistry. Even the taste wasn’t quite marshmallow and wasn’t quite lemon, and this made the crust seem lost, wrong, abandoned by all the fruit it could have held. An apple pie is perhaps the most honest of them — sure, fine, okay, what America used to be when people ate from their own gardens and suffered bruises and worms. There are other pies more dishonest than lemon meringue, more dangerous — like chess pie or mince pie — but those pies are red herrings. Lemon meringue drinks too much and swims in the nude where people can watch from their hotel windows. It lies about its age and weight, as if any moment it could just rise from the table and hover there two feet up, smiling and then disappearing.
One morning at five, standing by the toaster oven where Uncle Bill was heating the two cinnamon rolls left in a crusted tin, I felt his hand take mine. He said, “While we eat these I want to tell you some things about how life works. You want to listen. Can you do that?”
I didn’t want to think about where we go after we die, but there was church, and there was my great-grandmother who had lived my life more than ten times, who knew everyone on television and at the Elks Club dinners but was so often asleep. My mother glowed. The girls down the street who liked my cousin and rode their bikes in hot pants and halter tops glowed. Women glowed. My great-grandmother did not, and I thought that was a sign, and it terrified and riveted me to that sofa, to my place on the floor in vigil. My great-aunt baked and baked.
There it is, good god, levitating at the table, a lemon meringue pie, as if you are in an airplane just above a smoggy low cloud cover, and you are clutching the straps of your packed chute, and a sergeant yells at you over the grinding roar of the engines as you watch for the light on the wall to turn green. Right in front of you, on your level, is a yellow voodoo moon. My Uncle Bill is gone. My great-Aunt Angel and my great-Grandma Angel (who was the last of them to go, and in a rage on a bed wheeled into her own room at home, shaking her fist at the textured white ceiling as if it were the parting clouds).
From the edge of the pool, where my uncle had been stern and exacting when he taught me to swim, I could see the bees on the clover, some of them flying, some twitching in little business on the worlds of a constellation, as if each bee were as big as the side of a moon turned toward the sun. I held myself up by my elbows on the hot plastic edging, my trunks cold against the part of me I had not yet discovered, my feet treading the insubstantial — the deadly, until I learned to tread water and then pull myself through it — and I imagined flying higher and higher into the clouds and looking down at tiny little pools with a child in each one, each child looking at a yard full of bees who were looking at constellations of clover. Then I returned to my body, to the cold water and hot sun, and felt the wall of the pool buckling a little under me, crinkling, and imagined the pool breaking open and the flood sending the bees up into the summer air, angry, where they would sound like my great-Grandma Angel when she snored.
“That’s how it works,” he said. He set his fork on the plate among the crumbs and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “You can ask me anything you want to ask me.”
I’d come to enjoy not speaking at breakfast with him. I liked that he fixed what was broken, that he seemed not to love anything or anyone but must have because it only made sense. I liked that he had taken my hand and told me in his fashion what, in mine, I already knew. I smiled at him and nodded.
He said, “Do you understand what I told you?” And I nodded again in a way he accepted.
Uncle Bill stood from the table with his plate and then mine on top of it, and I said, “I want to try coffee.”
He smiled at me for the fifth time. I’d kept count for two years. He said, “I’ll get you a cup. It’s better with cream and sugar.”
When I ate lemon meringue pie I enjoyed it the way Grandma Angel must have felt about a cigarette — conditioned to it, reluctant at the bitterness, the inhuman consistency, and the little moment of conscience afterward. When I asked her about smoking she’d said, “It’s like coffee or firing a gun. It’s an acquired taste.” The next day I saw my great-aunt Angel’s lemon meringue pie, in a gloomy gray tin, one slice missing to expose the meaty golden glow of it, and I thought of it as a food the holy seraphim would eat after a guard shift before the pillars of the sky, standing for centuries at a time, how night in heaven must have felt when they were tired and hungry through to the darkness before dawn, when the armies were called by trumpets to their giant white marble tables, where they cut gently and greedily through the clouds with their silver knives and ate the souls given to them by the world that day in silence.