We were in the car, me in the back, mom up front driving, and dad beside her. I had my window cracked so I could smoke, and because it was hot. Summer had turned stale back in June, and the air was stagnate. I tried to ignore the heat, tried to keep my focus on the mountains and the brown-patched fields we drove past, tried to keep from looking at my watch, tried not to think. It was a bad day, the last day of a bad week of viewings, condolences, and funeral arrangements. The end of a bad summer vacation.
Dad leaned his head on the side window with a clomp. The sun shined through his grey complexion and reflected off his thin, white hair. He was hopped up or knocked down on some drugs he had self-prescribed. He tried to fiddle with the radio for a second, but quit after mom gave him a look.
Outside somewhere, a farmer had spread chicken litter and the ammonia tore at the small pleasure of an open window. It was only thirty minutes to the grave site, but I remember it going on longer.
After a while, I’d stopped paying attention to outside, stopped paying attention to the inside too. I just sort of sat there tossing out spent cigarettes, and lighting new ones. I hate smoking.
The church’s parking lot was packed just like the funeral home had been, and the hospital room before that (at least that’s what I heard, I never visit hospitals). Mom said in her sweet old lady voice, “Son of a bitch. Will you look at this shit? I don’t believe it. We’re early too.” She had just started cursing, or at least had just started doing it around me, I smiled but I shifted in my seat so she couldn’t see me smiling.
Dad shrugged his shoulders, “It’s Andy’s funeral Eliza. This is just the start. Road could get backed up a good ways. People will have to park up on the shoulder.” Dad sounded alright, not really sad anymore, not like he did for the past couple of days. He looked across at the old church, which was closed for renovation, “He knew a lot of people.”
Mom needled the station wagon through the tightly packed cars. She stiffened her back and gripped the wheel a little bit harder, and looked stressed. “Don’t worry.” I said, “It’s not like he’s going anywhere.”
They didn’t say anything. They didn’t need to. Saying something asinine is sort of like running a red light; you watch the car getting ready to hit you, but you can’t do anything about it, you just sit there and say, “Well, shit”.
Mom pulled off to where the grass and the gravel met and we got out wearing much more rumpled clothes than we had on when we had left. I tried to straighten myself up as best I could, but the heat had steamed wrinkles in. I had just bought the suit. I flicked my cigarette on the ground, rubbed it out with my heel, and watched the orange sparks fluff and ash on my sock. I thought about lighting another one--I didn’t.
We were in the mountains, near where dad grew up, where the family’s buried. It’s high enough there for wind. It funneled through and blew an occasional gust that moved the top of the canvass gazebo, which sat out where Andy’s plot was, to-and-fro like a bright, white wave.
From where I stood in the parking lot, I could make out the mourners seeking shade and settling down under that gazebo. Most, like us, wore black; which amounted to flagellation in the heat, but a few were smart enough to wear blue or grey. Andy’s wife, Patty, was the smartest. Even from the distance, I could recognize her small frame decked out in pink and a matching hat. She had always been a belle, like how I thought Vivian Leigh would’ve looked if she had gotten old. She stood next to the big box where Andy was, and behind her, the graveyard stretched out past the horizon. It was a wide, rolling place with well tended grass, and neat little headstones all lined up. I couldn’t look at it for long though; the sun beat down into my eyes and aggravated my headache.
We started walking away from the car and towards the congregants. Dad coughed up some phlegm and spat on the ground. Mom grabbed his hand and held it on her bony face. She had worked hard with her makeup to soften her features. But, it was like dulling a knife.
They kept a few steps ahead of me as we walked down to that gazebo. I was slowed down by trying not to step on anybody, and kept my distance from the headstones. I wanted to say something to my parents to make up for what I said in the car, but I was pissy. Besides, I knew it wouldn’t help.
No one talks at funerals anyway. I don’t really know why. I guess it’s disrespectful to do things that live people do. Maybe that’s where zombies come from. Just a bunch of pissed off dead people wanting to ruin everyone’s fun.
We weaved our way through to the seats marked “Family” and settled down next to some people I didn’t recognize. A rail-thin man and his fat wife sat up front and faced us. He had a mustache like Clark Gable, and she had big, Marilyn Monroe hair. Both Gable’s and Monroe’s last movie had been The Misfits.
With his well-cut suit and oiled hair, the thin man looked the part of a Pastor. I found out later that his name was Ron. Don’t know if that’s a first or a last name, everyone at the church just called him Preacher Ronny.
At 3:00 Preacher Ronny stood and sauntered with cowboy clomping to the white wood podium that had a gold painted cross inlaid.
“Brothers and sisters, old friends and new…”
I lost interest after that. Instead, I looked around at all the faces (a lot of ugly) and all the figures (mostly fat). I turned my head slowly, hoping to see a familiar face, but wound up looking at dad. He was hunched over beside me. His shoulders were sloped. His ropy muscles had started to turn to fat, his face fallen in carved folds. He turned and looked at me for a minute and managed a weak smile that somehow made him seem worse off than before. I smiled back, but turned away. He had Andy’s block shaped head, the same pointed nose.
Preacher Ronny crackled on, tears gushed out his eyes as if by command. Jesus this, saved that. Uncle Andy never went to church when Preacher Ronny was around; dad said that he always called him an ass. Andy was a smart man.
I sat there. I smelled the smell of the close bodies, and sweated. The fresh shirt was a memory on my skin as the sloppy mess of cotton clung on me like dead weight. I looked down at my polished feet and thought how serene the green was.
Preacher Ronny’s sermon had picked up on Jesus’ glory. People murmured Amen, and nodded at things they already knew. I leaned over to dad, “Is he going to talk about Andy on Sunday instead?”
Dad elbowed me a little, but not as much as he could have.
An hour went by, my ass had turned numb, the birds had stopped their chip-chirping, and the wind had died down. This was worse than the viewing. There I could stand, move about, eat the mints that hid in the bottom of the thick, glass bowls.
I clicked my tongue and fingered the cigarettes in my pocket. I wasn’t there when he was diagnosed, wasn’t there when they drilled holes in his skull real neat like and poured the chemo in rat-tat-tat, wasn’t there when he died.
After Preacher Ronny had finished up, paper fans flipped closed in the crowd and everyone looked a little more gaunt than they had before. Ron wiped his eyes with a big bandanna and got ready to step down.
“Preacher,” said an old woman, as old as Andy. She wore a black dress, but had on a yellow slip that showed stark on her spindly legs.
“Yes sister.” Said Preacher Ronny, sweat dripped down his forehead and collected in his pencil mustache.
She stuttered a moment, her feet knocked in a jerky reflex, two big guys with block heads and crew-cuts, probably her sons, cropped up to steady her. “30 years ago when Tommy died, the boys were little. I had nothing.” She paused to let the theater sink in. Eyes turned to her. Patty cocked her head, her eyes narrowed “Andy, he come to me and he said ‘Gladys, don’t you worry, I’ll take care of you, no matter how long.” She took a long breath, “Now I’m not saying Tommy was a bad man, he did a lot of good, made me happy. I ain’t never said I wasn’t happy. But, he was a careless man. Not a good worker. At least not in the kind of work he did.” She motioned with her head at the casket that sat behind the Pastor, “Andy didn’t have to do anything. He didn’t owe us anything. But, he was a good man. I just wanted everyone to know that. He kept his word.” After that, her boys sat her back down and the gazebo went dead. Well, not dead, but quiet.
I look over at my dad, his eyes were wet, his lip jutted, his hands were clinched and beat against his knee. I felt the stone in my stomach creep up. I swallowed hard, tried to push it back down, but it came up too fast. It hit my head and knocked some tears loose. I was crying, not a lot mind you, Preacher Ron won that race, but I felt my eyes water up and I didn’t know why. Don’t know why.
When it was all said and done, and Andy was being covered up with dirt I wandered in between the gravestones away from the other mourners. Clouds had started to gather and it smelled like rain was coming. My eyes were still stinging which must be why I tripped on a foot stone and fell on top of some guy six feet under.
I felt a hand wrap about the crook of my arm as my dad pulled me up. He still looked bad, but better than before like a weight had been lifted off of him or some other clichéd analogy.
He kinda half nodded at the headstone, and stood there for a minute. “You know” he said “I was about your age when my dad died. First year in college, first little bit of freedom.”
I tried to cut the grass with the edge of my shoe. “I know.”
Dad nodded, he knew I knew. He had told me this story before. “I just wanted…”
I didn’t really hear him after that; I felt my head get hot, like something was boiling inside my skull. I kept repeating “I know, I know” over and over as my hand moved up and down until he stopped trying. I fingered around in my pocket and found my cigarettes. In the distance I heard the crackling of thunder. Warm rain fell, and turned my cigarette limp. Dad pulled it out of my mouth and tossed it, grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me close. We didn’t say anything, just meandered back to the car where mom stood unfazed by the rain. Her face had melted; the makeup washed away and showed the sagging skin and thin cheekbones. She raised her voice over the sound of the rain, “Peter, I need to go to the grocery store. We need some milk.”
Dad’s thin hair stuck to his wide forehead as he nodded, “All right, all right, we’ll do it after we stop off to see Patty and give her the cake. Is that okay Kevin?”
I heard him, but I didn’t say anything. I was looking back at the graveyard.