BEFORE WE GET TO LET OUR TV SHOWS ABSORB THE REST OF WHATEVER’S LOOSE IN US, a TV Movie commands our attention.
We are watching it in the room behind the room where it was filmed. Some of the stars are present.
It’s about a woman whose husband is killed In The Pacific during WWII behind the opening credits. With the help of a flash forward, she finishes the 20th century without him. She’s ready for that to be it, except for a connection she happens to develop with the owner of a Pacific restaurant in Dodge City, whose sister, we find out, still lives In The Pacific.
“Would you do a thing for me?” she asks the owner of this restaurant, suddenly alive to the idea that something is still possible before she dies. “Would you see if your sister might be willing to seek out his grave and put a flower on it, and photograph that flower for me? I’ve never been able to go there in body … but maybe in spirit it’s not too late.”
The restaurant owner says she will do this thing. The next time we see the woman — whose name, we learn at this point, is Mrs. Else — dining at the restaurant, the owner reports that her sister has begun researching the grave’s location, and will soon find it.
Time passes in a normal vein.
After more of it is gone, Mrs. Else returns to the restaurant and is given the surprise she was hoping for: a manila folder labeled GRAVE FOTOS. The restaurant owner says her sister is overjoyed at the service she was able to provide and refuses to accept any money, which Mrs. Else hadn’t thought to offer, realizing now that she should have.
She takes the folder to the cafe next door, not wanting to be in the restaurant when she opens it. “Okay now … okay now … ” she huffs, undoing the clasp. She pulls the photos out and leaves them facedown on the table for a moment, looking around to make sure no one she knows is nearby.
Then she turns them over, ready for the fact of his grave to land on her face.
The first photo shows a young Pacific woman with onyx earrings with her arm around Mrs. Else’s husband, who looks to be in his mid-40’s, still very handsome, very fit. The caption: GRAVE, NORTHWEST VIEW.
The second photo shows this Pacific woman and Mrs. Else’s husband holding hands and looking at the sunset over a harbor full of yachts. The caption: GRAVE AT SUNSET.
The third shows the Pacific woman and Mrs. Else’s husband in a convertible in front of a club with palm trees and a velvet rope. The caption: GRAVE WITH PALM TREES AND VELVET ROPE.
The fourth through seventh photos are too much. She throws them in the trash along with her coffee cup and muffin wrapper, walks half a block toward her car, then turns around and re-enters the cafe, taking one long breath before pulling them out of the trash and stuffing them into her coat pocket despite their being clotted in coffee grounds.
They’re so heavy she can barely walk. She has to sit on a bench halfway to her car, wondering if she’ll ever stand again.
AT HOME, she reaches inside her pocket and finds only coffee grounds. She pushes farther in than she imagines the pocket goes, so deep into the coffee grounds she thinks I’m touching its root …
Down there she finds the seven photos.
She washes them one by one in the sink, wearing thick rubber gloves, and hangs them on a clothesline in the basement, like she’s developing them.
SHE SLEEPS FOR SEVENTEEN HOURS HAVING PRAYED TO SLEEP FOR TWENTY-FOUR.
She returns to the basement, still wearing the coffee grounds coat, which she understands has become her uniform. The photos are all the same, her husband looking happier in them than she can remember his ever having looked in reality.
That’s right, she lets herself think. The place I knew him in was reality. This is … another thing.
SHE RESOLVES never to return to the restaurant, but finds herself unable to do anything else. Time peels off her so fast she’s afraid her life will end without even one final experience.
So she goes back.
Everyone in the restaurant seems happy but not surprised to see her, like no unusual span of time has passed. She orders a Pacific Plate and tries to eat as much of it as she can before the owner comes out of the kitchen to ask how she liked the pictures.
“Can I talk to your sister?” she hears herself asking in a gulped, babyish voice, her hand deep in the coffee grounds in her pocket.
She’s in the lot behind the restaurant, holding the owner’s cell phone away from her ear.
“You like pictures of grave?” the sister asks, in an accent that sounds like she’s used to speaking but not reading English.
Mrs. Else means to spew anger, but instead says, “Yes … they’ve been a huge solace to me. Could you send more?”
“You want me send more?”
“Yes,” confirms Mrs. Else, and begins to wait.
It doesn’t take long: another period of peeling-off time.
She’s back home with the next manila folder, likewise labeled GRAVE FOTOS, without even a #2 to distinguish it.
She sets the oven timer for three minutes: this is how long she’ll allow herself to believe that they might be photos of an actual grave. She pictures the grave, alone in its cemetery, the name of her husband and the year of his death etched into it.
When the timer goes off, she opens the folder and fans out the photos on the table, flipping them all at once like a hand of cards: seven more images of the Pacific sister and her husband in various chic locations, this time holding a baby who looks exactly half-Pacific. It wears a bib that says RYAN in embroidered calligraphy.
Is it my son or grandson? is what Mrs. Else falls asleep at the table thinking, the oven timer still going off.
“Who is Ryan?” she shouts into the phone behind the restaurant the next day, wearing her coffee grounds coat, certain that things have gone too far.
“Ryan? I thought you husband name Frederick,” says the owner’s sister, groggy due to the time difference, the confusion in her voice hard to discredit.
Mrs. Else shuffles through a series of possible utterances, arriving at, “Just stop seeing him, ok? Stop whatever you two are doing.”
The sister sounds confused again. “You want me stop visiting grave? He tell me he no see you many years … he say hi from grave. He say if I no visit, he no be real. He go back to sleep.”
Mrs. Else sits down beside the dumpster as the busboy heaves out a leaking sack of trash.
She looks at its trail across the asphalt and at the cell phone, still connected to the Pacific in her hand, and puts it back to her ear. “No,” she says. “No, that’s okay. You keep visiting his grave, just … just make sure he doesn’t go back to sleep.”
The sister makes a sound like she’s nodding.
Then Mrs. Else, though she knows she’ll regret it, can’t keep from asking, “But Ryan? Can’t I talk to Ryan for one minute?”
“Who Ryan?” repeats the sister. “I thought you husband name Frederick.”
Mrs. Else hangs up just as the busboy turns from the dumpster to start back toward the kitchen. He puts his cigarette in his trash-wet hand and helps her up with the other.
ON THE DRIVE HOME, she receives a text message on her own cell phone, which she always leaves in the glove compartment. She pulls over at a bus stop and opens it. From an unlisted number, it reads:
“just so u no, u have 2 b mothr b4 u can b grndmothr.”
She buries the phone in a crack in the wall in her basement and lies down under a sawhorse.
Still wearing her coat, she starts to hear a voice whispering out of the coffee grounds.
“Ryan?” she whispers back. “Ryan? Is that you?”
She wants to shout but is afraid of obscuring its voice with her own, so she lies very flat, easing into a fuzzy bath of end credits.