An Abecedarian of Loss

By Sherry Shahan

abecedarian    twenty-six letters, each one a compact unit of communication, a twisted riddle, a maze of red tape from well-lit offices; the only means of containing my sorrow now that all I have left of my brother are memories and letters.

brother     at five, wearing a fringed cowboy shirt, he fires at stink bugs with a dime-store six-shooter; as his older sister, I stick out my tongue and wish he’d wear something more Steve McQueen in Wanted Dead of Alive. [see: s, below.]

certified mail     provides the sender—Bullhead City Police Department—with a mailing receipt for $9.28 and an electronic verification that an 8×10 padded envelope was delivered; inside, I find two plastic bags: one with key rings to a mailbox and house and a key-fob for a car, and another containing a cheap bi-fold wallet. [see: w, below.]

demon     fiend, monster, diabolical tormentor; our father who drank cheap beer bought with rent money until he was sloppy drunk and cruel (why couldn’t he just put a lampshade on his head and tell dumb jokes like that lush on TV?); in the case of my brother: alcoholism, gambling, and the perennial avoidance of employment. [see: g, below.]

edge     jagged, sharp, single-sided; on the brink, as in the precarious state right before something unpleasant occurs; a letter that arrives on my doorstep with a list of detectives investigating my brother’s claim that I poached from Mom’s estate; You’re a sad story, Sherry, and I hope you get the help that you need. Love allways, your brother (far from oblivious, in Arizona)

flies     winged insects of the suborder Cyclorrhapha, most likely evolved during the Cenozoic era; driven to lay eggs in decaying matter in order to provide their soft-bodied legless offspring a food source; a black curtain of them on the inside of the living room window of my brother’s mobile home. [see m, n, below.]

genetics     the study of heredity, or how the characteristics of living things are transmitted from one generation to the next; by which our father passed the monkey on his back to his firstborn son sixty-five years ago. 

hyperthermia     a physical state in which the body can no longer release enough of its heat to return the temperature to normal; cause of death, according to the police report, which cites the temperature inside his mobile home as between 110 and 114 degrees. [see: j, m, below.]

investigation     a systematic inquiry carried out to discover and examine the facts so 

as to establish the truth; How does a person remain in a body bag in the drawer of a mortuary for eighteen months? What else is going on that I don’t know about? [see p, below]               

july     the hottest month in Bullhead City, Arizona, with an average of 112 degrees. [see: f, h, above.]

kafkaesque     surreal or nightmarish; the conversation with an employee at the funeral home who tries to explain why they filed for a “Special Administrative Appointment” requesting $12,000 from my brother’s sparse estate. “You don’t understand the cost of preservation.” [see: i, above.] 

lament     mourn, grieve, weep, wail; not how I feel opening a bottle of wine at 2:13 am. 

mobile home     able to move or be moved because it isn’t permanently grounded—though it has a mailbox where letters and bills stack up, a 1994 white Buick LaSabre in the carport, and a rock garden with driftwood from the Colorado River. [see u, below.]

neighbor     a person living near or next door, who is almost always better than their fellow neighbors believe them to be; a part-time resident who watches my brother pull weeds from his gravel driveway and warm up his Buick each morning before going to the store for a newspaper and bottle of booze; a good Samaritan who calls the police after seeing a mass of flies crawling on my brother’s front door. [see: f, above.]

overwhelming     overpowering, paralyzing; the thought of tracking down his birth certificate from September 16, 1954, as requested by the funeral home, to prove that I’m his sister and therefore have the right to have him removed from the refrigerated drawer. [see: i, k, above.] 

perplexed     unable to grasp something clearly or think logically and decisively about it; puzzled, like when the Department of Code Enforcement explains that my brother’s mobile home has been taken from the property—“Neighbors complained of an odor”—and all of his personal property crushed by a giant claw before being dragged to the city dump. 

question      what does this all mean? [see: i, above.]

remembrance     the ability to bring to mind past experiences; things kept; recollections; blowups with my brother over our father’s ashes. Him: I want my half. Me: No way I’m dipping into the canister; our father’s ashes subsequently making a fourteen-hour Greyhound ride across state lines; my brother and I joking, after the fight, that we hoped Dad sat next to someone interesting. [see d, g, above.]

shame      remorse, guilt, regret; my soul slowly nibbling itself because I felt superior to my brother, because I own a permanent home, because I didn’t go see him in the last 40 years. 

truth     that which is in accordance with fact or reality; honesty, correctness, veracity; a certainty that his fucked-up life is somehow my fault. 

underestimated     regarded as less capable than one really is; an assessment that is too low; I believed my brother lived in a trashy trailer park but a satellite image shows a mobile home on a self-contained lot; a clerk at the county assessor’s office says my brother paid cash for the property and owned it outright. [see m, s, above.]

value     the importance, worth, or usefulness of something; “your value does not decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.” 

wallet     a flat, folding holder for money, identification, and credit cards; the last of my brother’s life force, containing: a neatly-printed list of phone numbers, his Arizona driver’s license (height: 6-1, weight: 190, expiration date: two months after his death), an AcePlay casino card (‘real rewards for real people’), assorted business cards for taxis, and a library card, all bathed in the funky stench of cigarette smoke. [see c, above.]

x      in childhood, XOXO, and Xmas; in adulthood, the way to identify a person who is not known, not really. 

yardstick      a barometer or touchstone; a standard for making judgments or comparisons; my brother’s report card: no marriage, no children, no life; I filled in the blanks with two daughters who slid class photos into birthday cards for their uncle. 

z      alphabetical position 26; the final destination from A to Z; a vocal consonant shaped like the zigzag of our messed-up relationship; ceaseless battles to be kinder to each other, botching it up time and again; the last of our phone calls, It’s just the two of us now, sis.  [see b, above.]


Sherry Shahan’s personal essays have appeared in F(r)iction, Critical Read, Exposition Review, Normal School and are forthcoming from Fiddlehead, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught a creative writing course for UCLA for 10 years.

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