Rumpus Book Club Excerpt: Animal Bodies by Suzanne Roberts


An excerpt from Suzanne Roberts’ Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, & Other Difficulties

forthcoming from Nebraska Press, March 2022

Mother Keeps Daddy on the Shelf


Mother places Daddy on the bookshelf between Dante and Shirley MacLaine. I go to my old room, where Mother keeps teddy bears, Dr. Seuss, Barbie’s Dreamhouse—for your children, she says. I am twenty-four, and I lie on the narrow bed, stare at the sea-foam ceiling, try to ignore my beating heart.

Later Mother asks me if I want him. I imagine breaking the seal of the smooth wooden urn. The wind scissoring through the seagrass; the air tasting like brine; the echo of memory like the wheels of my girlhood wagon over the wooden planks of the Fire Island boardwalk.

When I was little, we had a small house in Fair Harbor, and Daddy taught us how to swim and dig for clams there. It was the place he would collaborate with other writers from New York City. Where—for a few sunlit moments—he could dip into the ocean and escape the black hole of his depression.

I imagine sifting through the fragments of gray bone, offering him to the sky, watching him float over the Fire Island dunes, settling among the driftwood, shells, and beach glass. Released to the eastern sky and the Atlantic Ocean.

Mother said no, absolutely not. “You aren’t taking him anywhere. He’s just fine here with me.”


When I come back to visit Mother, I look for Daddy, but he’s no longer on the shelf. “Hey, Mom,” I shout to her through the walls of her townhouse, “where’s Daddy?”

She walks into the den, ignores my question, is humming the melody from “The Music of the Night,” occasionally singing the few words she knows.

“What have you done with Daddy?”

Mother walks past me and to the cupboard, opens it, and says, “He’s right here. He’s fine.”

“What’s this?” I ask, pointing to a Filofax on top of Daddy’s urn.

“Oh, those are divorce papers from all of his ex-wives.”

“You mean both?”

“That’s right.” Mother sings, “La dee da doo,” her mouth like a peony, opening and closing.


Later I sneak into the den to steal Daddy. Not all of him. Just some. Daddy, I decide, has done enough time on shelves and in filing cabinets.

I open the box, scoop out a few spoonfuls of ash into a ziplock baggie, and stuff it into my suitcase. At airport security I wonder if anyone will see the bone fragment and ask me what it is, but they don’t.

I bring the baggie of ash to Mammoth Mountain. When I announced at age six that I wanted to learn how to ski, it had been Daddy who brought me to Mammoth. Now, all these years later, he is tucked into the pocket of my ski jacket. All day I feel invincible.

At the end of the day I stand in the afternoon light atop the cliff’s edge, looking out at the Minarets. Three of my girlfriends look on. I take out the baggie and wait for a gust of wind. I shake the baggie into it, watching the ash swirl over the edge. My throat tightens, and my eyes water beneath my goggles, which takes me by surprise. Christine and Jen lean on their ski poles. After a few seconds Brenda says, “Say a few words?”

But I can’t, so I shake my head and smile. I wave my ski pole to my friends, as if to say, “Let’s go,” and we drop into the chute. We cut fast turns in the wind-buffed snow behind me.

When I return home from Mammoth, I call my mother and say, “You know, I stole some of Daddy.”

“I know you did.”

“Do you care?”

“No, but he wanted to be spread under the rosebush.”

“So why don’t you put him there?”

“It’s cold out there at night. Besides, if I have to have my fence redone, they’ll dig him up.”

I think about this, and it seems like she has a point.

“I took him out of the closet, and he’s back on the shelf,” she says. “I told you. He’s fine where he is.”

“What about spreading Daddy’s ashes at Fire Island?” I ask again. “With Cathy and Cindy. The four of us. He would like that.”

“I thought you already threw away your part on top of a mountain.”

“I didn’t throw it away, and it was just a tiny bit.”

“Fire Island’s not the same as it was. It’s all mansions there now,” she says.

“Everything changes, but Fair Harbor still has some of the original houses. Wouldn’t you like to see it again?”

“We’ll see,” Mother says.


My parents had always wanted to travel to Hawaii together. When they planned to go, Daddy was too sick, so soon after he died, Mother and I went together.

Many years later we are planning another mother-daughter Hawaii trip, but the week before we are to leave, Mother ends up in the hospital with lung cancer. She says, “Go with your husband.”

After she dies, Tom and I leave for Kauai, and I bring my parents—not the big bags of ash, just enough.

On our way to release them at the edge of the cliff on the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail, we pass a rooster with a crushed foot and a woman who is chemo-bald. Newlyweds pose on the rocks below, taking wedding photographs. As the wind takes the bone fragment, the light reflects silver on the ocean and two white-tailed tropic birds soar above.

It is all there: suffering and beauty, love and death, endings and the flight of new beginnings.


My sisters and I book the trip to Fire Island. I pull the big bags of bone fragment out of their respective urns—a cedar box for Daddy that the lady at the mortuary shamed us into buying and a broken plastic box for mother—the cheapest option, which is what she would have wanted.

I put Daddy in first. When I try to place Mother into the suitcase, ash spills out all over the bottom of my case. I pull the bag out, and even though I have double-bagged her, ash scatters everywhere. By the time I hurry the bag into a third jumbo freezer bag, my suitcase, bedroom floor, and clothes are covered in ash. “Mother!” I say, “I know you’re doing this on purpose. But I don’t care what you say. You’re going to Fire Island.” I shove her in next to Daddy, who is sitting at the bottom of my suitcase, neatly behaved.

Before she dies, Mother says, “If I pop off, you can keep me and Daddy in your closet.”

“No way,” I say. “You’re going in the ocean. Or coming with me to Burning Man.”

“No water,” she says. “And you better not take me to the desert either. Maybe I can go on top of that mountain with Riva, so I can look over you?” But then she says, “But that would be too cold in the winter, wouldn’t it? The closet is better.”

As it turns out, I take both parents to Hawaii and Burning Man. I let a bit of her go on top of Mount Tallac and in the same place as Daddy at the top of chair 23 in Mammoth too.

And every time, my father’s ashes float away. But when it comes to Mother, the wind picks up or shifts every time, coating me with her ash. In this way we continue our arguments long after she’s gone—and she always gets the last word.

I set my clothes on top of my parents, zip up my suitcase, and say, “Off to Fire Island.”

At airport security my luggage is pulled from the conveyor. The agent points to my suitcase and says, “Is this yours?” I nod and follow him. He brings up the picture on the screen and points at the two plastic bags of ash. He tells me he is going to open my bag, and I nod again. He unzips my suitcase, pushes aside my clothes and toiletries, and there they are. “What is this?” he asks, but it seems like he already knows.

“Those. . . are my parents.”

He looks me in the eye, and he says, “I’m supposed to go through these.”

I start to cry, which surprises me, though I have learned that the waves of grief can come anytime. And then I hear Mother saying, Well, if I’ve got to be fondled, at least he’s cute. Now I’m standing there with tears on my face, trying not to laugh. This, more than anything, defines those who are grieving: crying but trying not to laugh. Laughing and trying not to cry. Always, always feeling everything alongside its opposite.

He pushes my clothes back over my parents, closes the lid of my suitcase, and says in a very quiet voice, “But I’m not going to. I’m sorry for your loss.”

I zip my suitcase, pull it onto the ground, thank him, and roll my bag toward the terminal.

When I tell Cathy and Cindy my mother’s ash spilled all over, that I was stopped at security, they say, “That’s so Sheila,” meaning my mother. They have known her since our father married her when they were fourteen and seventeen.

We decide to spread the ashes at dawn, when the beach is empty. I carry both bags in my backpack, and they feel heavy, but something about that feels right too. We walk along the beach until the first rays of sunlight appear on the watery horizon. It’s time. We walk to the water’s edge. I unzip my pack and hand over Daddy to my sisters. I pull out Mother.

We look at each other, open our bags, which takes me longer because now Mother is triple bagged, and we dump the ash into the water. There is no wind, carrying them away, as I had imagined. There is only a cloudy swirl in the dark-blue ocean and gray specks in the white sea-foam. I can hear Mother say, No water! But I know this isn’t for her. This is for me and my sisters. We needed to let Daddy go there, and wouldn’t she be angrier if we hadn’t brought her along?

I pull my empty backpack over my shoulders. My sisters and I walk along the beach for a long time in silence; dawn flickers into day, and our shadows stretch across the wet sand before us.

And because Mother always gets her way, I had held back a thimble of her ash and stored it in my jewelry box, among the rings and pins she left me. She’s tucked away safely in my closet, where she always wanted to be.

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