A Light in the Cupboard

There were no rules against applying your own mother’s makeup for your own mother’s funeral. It wasn’t like representing your father in a trial or operating on your son or anything like that. And besides, who else was there to ask in a town of 4,082 where there was only one mortuary makeup artist? And besides, who’d know how to make her up better than her own daughter? And besides, there were no rules against it.

In some tiny cupboard in the darkness of her brain, Lula allowed herself to believe that if she got the look just right, she could be back there with her mother. With her. Not stuck in layaway in a city five hundred miles away. Not eating a cheeseburger at a crappy airport restaurant as she breathed her last.

Laying in her casket’s faux-velvet (all they’d been able to afford), she could be sleeping. Flu-ridden maybe, pale from her immune system’s effort, “resting her eyes” like childhood days when Mom was worn out from her second shift and it was always just something: “just set for a while,” “just five more minutes,” “just resting my eyes.” It always ended on that one, even now.

Hair: Coiffured, hairspray applied and false-fruity smelling, the stuff always announcing Mom’s presence before she entered a room, gag-worthy usually, but not now. The smell somehow different, like it was extracted from real fruit this time. Gentle teasing to hint at fulness, hide the bare spots where Mom ripped out clumps and ate them, moved on from eating rocks when Lula stopped her and ate the hairs dry, split ends sometimes dangling over her bottom lip, fresh white follicles catching light and saying, “Look over here, Lula, here’s one you missed.”

Lips: Bad Motherpucker to give them the look of life, Mom not able to put her hand out and say Lula in that way she did at “motherpucker.” Her lips like a popped tire, rubber gashed. The lipstick she’d apply spread from the center out, like a flower, like when Mom would try each shade one at a time, test kisses on Lula’s arm and then wipe them off, but the stain would stay for a day or two and Lula would spit and scrub but secretly hope it wouldn’t fade.

Cheeks: Blush fingerpainted on, concealer to cover the scars from her many falls, always falling and bruising her eyes, chipping her teeth, bloodying her nose. Always so clumsy when Dad was around, and blushing just like this, ashamed to be around him, then again when the Alzheimer’s swam through her, the color in her cheeks a permanent rose. The same brand Mom used to instruct Lula in the cosmetic ways. “Make me up, Mom,” she’d say. Make me up.

Eyes: More concealer for the puffiness. Always crying after the diagnosis. Crying after being fed, crying after being changed. Eyes’ whites fading to red, blues graying, like smoke over the fire inside her, flames bursting not through windows but tear ducts and vocal cords. Lula putting on Dad’s going away 45s, the ones Mom would play each “last time” he’d leave, mouth dancing around chori, gray eyes going blue again, tiny oceans to put out the flames inside.

Lula could dance to those old 45s, dance and sing like she would with Mom, cheek to cheek, hands in tango position. Lula led herself around the room in delicate swoops, around and around we go, tango hands grasping air but out still, and warm, warm like they’d be when she hardly reached Mom’s hip, warm again with those gray-blues across from her, the flame of recognition replacing the one of identity loss. So Lula spun and she spun and somewhere, somewhere deep inside, a light went on in an otherwise dark and tiny cupboard.

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