|06/01/07: Issue 1
With Pride and Dignity Since 1976
There were five people in the room, if you counted the body.
Lynne, a woman of a certain age, was closest to the casket. Her son sat beside her. They both wore navy. Patrick, who was past pimples but not yet living on his own, fidgeted in his chair and rolled the prayer card back and forth in his fingers. Lynne put a hand on his knee, left it there longer than she should have. Lynne and Patrick were the only blood relatives at Jane Durney’s funeral.
The other man in the room was Christopher, in his forties, and his face was sweeter than would be expected of a man who wore a brown suit to a funeral. He had told Jane, years ago, that she was the tiger burning bright, and she had laughed and accepted a date with him.
Amy hovered by the door like she was planning a quick escape. Her black dress was too big for her, and she pushed up one cuff and then the other nervously. She was a stranger to everyone there, and she carried a violet spider mum that was quickly wilting in the stale air conditioning. Her cotton handbag was embroidered with two ladybugs, and she flipped it around so no one saw.
* * *
Jane Durney had drowned in the river two miles from her house, during the company picnic. She had been splashing to encourage others to join in. No one had taken her up on the invitation, and it had taken too long for anyone to realize that the silence in the water wasn’t because Jane had gotten out.
Amy, the most junior employee, showed the coroner where the body was. When they put the body in the truck, Amy had gotten in also, because she wasn’t sure what else to do.
Amy had been the one to call Christopher and tell him, and wait for him to cry himself out on her company cell.
“It’s a weird situation,” he said. “I’m between wives right now.”
The second phone call had been to Lynne, who had called her back from her son’s varsity league soccer game, and said she would be there to take care of the arrangements shortly, but there was no way she was leaving her son in the lurch when the championship was at stake.
When the paramedics had asked for Jane’s history, the girl had shrugged.
“She brought donuts on Friday.”
* * *
Christopher rubbed his nose with the side of his finger and sighed, and Lynne’s son looked up like he had been caught at something.
Jane had told Christopher over breakfast one morning about her family. It was as rushed and as sudden as everything she did, and as thorough. He had folded his newspaper and listened, though he had been watching her face more than listening, and only standing in a room with her survivors did he remember something she had said.
“And Lynne is a joke. She has it bad for Patrick, worse than she did for me after Mom and Dad died and she was stuck with Cindy and me. She said I was jealous when I brought up what she was doing to him. I slapped her so hard she had a bruise for a week; she had to explain it to her clients. Poor Patrick. There’s no hope anymore for that kid, unless something happens. Lynne’s love is like cancer. Takes you over and won’t let go until you cut yourself to pieces.” She nodded, satisfied with this analogy.
“What did Lynne do with you?”
“What?” She had looked up from her cereal. “Oh. Play doctor. But that’s not the point.”
When Jane was angry, she’d ask him why he couldn’t find a woman his own age who burned bright, why he’d moved down a demographic, what he had to prove. But he wasn’t given to anger, and never answered, and she would eventually apologize and invite him over for a look at her tiger-print bra.
* * *
Amy looked at Christopher across the room, and thought how different he had sounded on the phone. Older. But maybe that was just the shock; she didn’t know. Maybe her voice had sounded older, too.
Lynne was exactly what she had sounded like. Under Amy’s eyes, she crossed her long legs like a mantis and rested her hands in her lap.
The funeral home director stepped into the room, and Lynne met him in the doorway. “No one else is going to show,” she said thinly, “and Patrick has an exam in the morning. Let’s get started.”
Amy looked over at the boy, who didn’t meet her eyes.
The funeral director gave in to Lynne in the end, as most people did. And she was right; he had sent out the usual notice to the community paper, and the obituary writer had received two sympathy phone calls, but that was it. Frankly, he couldn’t understand why such a good-looking lady didn’t have more people at her wake.
But Lynne knew better. When her husband died, everyone who came was on time.
* * *
Patrick had guessed right away who Christopher was; last time Jane had managed to call him when his mom wasn’t around, she had said it was real love. She had told him that it could happen, eventually, no matter what. “It’s never too late, even for us,” she said. “How great is that?”
He wanted to believe her, or argue, but he had just nodded like she could see him on the other end of the line. And now he looked over at her coffin. Half an hour he had been here, and he still hadn’t looked in. Aunt Jane had been the one who laughed like a donkey in public. She would have hated the coffin Lynne had chosen, he thought. Too heavy, too expensive. Lynne had bought it from the director out of the showroom as it was, no bargaining. “Don’t tell your Aunt Cindy how much it was,” she had said. “I want her to get her half of the bill when she gets back from her trip.”
* * *
Lynne said something about transport arrangements, and Patrick felt her knuckles like ants on the hand at his side; he brushed back against them without thinking, before he remembered where they were, who he was.
Amy watched the boy freeze and blanch as his mother touched him, and she gripped her flower harder. The stem pinched off under the pressure of her fingers.
Christopher watched the awkward woman and wondered who the hell she was. Jane had never mentioned her, and she had a tendency to mention any single woman she knew.
“Just so you can keep your options open,” she would say.
“I don’t want any other options.”
“I bet that’s what you told your wife before you walked out on her.”
* * *
Lynne took the funeral director out of the room when the service was brought up, and the three remaining people stood awkwardly. Christopher was the one who broke the moment, who moved to the coffin, who gripped the edge with his hands and cried.
Patrick moved as softly as his mother, and Amy jumped at his proximity when he spoke. He kept his hands folded and resting on his chest, an apology for the intrusion. “How did you know my aunt?”
There was a hunger in his voice, and loneliness. “I made the phone calls, afterwards.”
He blinked. “That’s it?”
She nodded, and Patrick looked at her a long moment before Lynne came back in alone and motioned for him to pay his respects.
Christopher had stopped crying, but he was staring at Jane’s face against the white satin. Her nose was crooked, broken twice in her youth by Lynne: once when she had said no, and once when Jane had said she was leaving and Lynne had collapsed, sobbing, on the kitchen table and motioned for Jane to go ahead and leave. Her hand had caught Jane’s nose by accident. Jane’s nose had always made her face uneven when she smiled. It was less noticeable when her face was still.
Lynne coughed from behind Christopher, but he tightened his grip on the wood and didn’t move. She waited another thirty seconds before taking a place further down the expanse of dark wood. She moved her lips in small words, and it looked like a prayer to anyone who didn’t know her. Patrick knew her. It was a love poem. He’d heard them too when he was young, and when he was older and knew the words meant something deeper, and darker, and afraid to be left.
Patrick was the farthest down the coffin, almost where the half-panel folded over the still body, and he looked down into the coffin. Lynne bit back a sob, and brought a fist carefully to her chest.
Something inside Patrick settled, like a sandbar, and he looked up sharply, glancing around the room as if for proof.
When Lynne reached out her arm for Patrick, he pretended he hadn’t seen and wandered towards the door. Lynne’s outstretched arm trembled, and Christopher tried not to look.
Amy watched Christopher and Lynne, and Patrick moving away from his mother’s pale long hands, and realized this wasn’t her fight.
When Patrick was close enough, she held out the flower she’d brought.
“I’m sorry I got your mom on the phone, and not you,” she said.
After a long time, he looked up at her. “Thanks for coming.”
He seemed on the verge of asking something Amy couldn’t answer, and Amy wanted to say, your aunt brought us donuts, and stole my nice black pens from my top drawer. Your aunt wasn’t a very good swimmer. She wanted to tell Patrick to get in the nearest car and start driving.
She gave him the flower and left.
Christopher followed the coffin to the funeral, and stayed until the grave was filled.
That night, when Lynne came to drown her grief, she found a rose in the hallway and Patrick’s door locked against her.
Genevieve Valentine is a writer living in New York. She is 1/3 of the editors of Defenestration Magazine. That is the extent of her math ability.
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