Inappropriate Behavior at a Funeral
I come home on a particular Friday late afternoon and Lucky’s sitting forward on the sofa, TV off, gazing out the bay window with faraway eyes. She’s gone to a private place where her memories languish, memories that predate me, now with another link to them permanently severed. She’s economic with what she tells me, too much trouble to explain, emotion lost in translation. Like a melancholy instrumental, sunset trumpet, twilight wind section, raspy tenor sax in a smoke-filled room in the wee hours, touching her in a way it doesn’t anyone else.
“Yvette’s died.” I’m not sure I’m supposed to know who that is. She tells me before my ignorance is revealed, “My aunt.” My first reaction is to ask how old she was.
I employ the present tense, “How old is she?” Purposefully, so it won’t seem so final.
“Oh,” as if I’m relieved. Good, I almost say. No dying before her time, no one can say she got cheated if she made it to 84. Even better if she’d been sick for a while, health steadily declining. Lucky takes her phone and ventures out on the patio. She comes back in and her eyes are red and her voice unsteady.
“Tom started crying and thanked me for calling and asked if I was coming to the funeral. I’m like of course we are.” I tell her it was good of her to call, an obvious platitude, she responds with one of her own, “People need to hear from family in times like this.”
I’m not sure who Tom is but suspect he’s the widower. Better not to wonder in case she’s told me and I wasn’t paying attention. I have a full magazine of perfunctory questions locked and loaded, along the lines of emotionally neutral, slightly north of indifferent and I’m ready to start spraying. I’m checking the guide on the TV to see what’s on. I’m ready if she says anything about this. I’m a serial multitasker. I’ll remind her of this if needed.
“So Yvette’s your Mom’s or Dad’s sister?”
When was the last time you saw her?”
“How’d she die?”
“Congestive heart failure.”
“When’s the funeral?”
“We don’t know yet.”
“Have you talked to your Dad?”
She holds up her phone, “My next call.”
And she’s back to the patio. When she returns I ask, “How’s your Dad?”
“Okay, I guess. You know how dads are.”
“Dads or men in general?”
“Remove the question mark and you’re left with a statement.”
When Yvette’s obituary is published Lucky is upset. In the obit Lucky’s father is listed as someone Yvette is survived by referred to as, “A brother and his family.” Lucky contemplates signing the guest book as “A brother’s family member.” Apparently Lucky’s father and Yvette were estranged in later years and Yvette has reached out from the grave to orchestrate this parting slight. There’s more scoffing from Lucky because Yvette has chosen to describe herself posthumously as, “An award-winning artist.”
She gets a text from her brother Seth, “What’s wrong with your aunt?”
She howls at this, responding with a question, “So, what, sculpture? Paintings? Photography? Who knew?”
He replies, “IDK. Something rustic?”
Lucky replies, “Some old car or tractor covered with bird shit in an overgrown field.” She shows me the thread, delighted. She calls her Mom next and I can’t hear exactly what’s on Mom’s mind but something is. Whatever Mom’s saying Lucky isn’t getting a word in.
“It has to do with my Grandma,” Lucky explains afterwards, sentence trailing off like she’s not up to delving. I prod anyway, curious, and up for some intrigue.
“Well, my Mom took care of Grandma when she was sick and dying, Yvette wasn’t around and then Yvette had Grandma change her will which was a slap in the face. Grandma was really out of it by then.”
“Mentally incompetent?” Hinting at a possible legal remedy that might have been overlooked.
She holds up her hands, palms up, helplessly. “Yvette had power of attorney. Yvette basically did nothing to help with my Grandma.”
By now, I can paint my own picture of what Lucky would rather not delve into: Lucky’s Mom helping Grandma manage rudimentary bodily functions, giving her rides to the supermarket or running these errands in her stead, assisting with basic hygiene, administering medicines, trips to the doctor or hospital, cooking for her, doing laundry. In the midst of which Yvette had the will changed, rather than lending a hand or being grateful.
“No good deed…”
The front of Holy Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church looks like the bowsprit of a large glass seafaring vessel. The back is as the front is, identically, as if Holy Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church is independently reversible like a ferry that crosses the same channel back and forth without ever turning around.
The parking lot is half-filled, decent parking spots still available if not the premium ones. The handicapped spots are spoken for. Lucky’s sister Harper and brother Seth are sitting wide apart on a bench out front and to the left of the entrance. The only other people in sight are two shamed smokers outside the front entrance. We make straight for Harper and Seth. We’re here together, we members of a brother’s family.
“Hey,” Seth looks at his watch; “You’re late,” he says. As the oldest he’s the smart-alecky tension buster. Lucky shrugs,
“Yvette’s not going anywhere,” Harper squeals loudly for a second or two and then glances around, horrified-amused. The two smokers over by the entrance glance warily in our direction, inhaling in unison; “Where are Mom and Dad?”
Seth holds up a hand as if to say, “Who knows?” He has a Civil-War-veteran beard that makes him look like he could be fresh from Appomattox. He’s thin, angular, and his clothes fit as if he’s been subsisting on hardtack and lentils and distilled creek water.
Harper says, “They left a while ago but Dad’s driving.” Seth stands long enough to shake my hand and sits back down.
Lucky suggests, “Hopefully, they’ll get here before the wake’s over.”
Seth looks and me, “You know, he was once a lead foot. Didn’t he have his auto insurance revoked at some point?” The sisters laugh at the obvious longstanding family joke. Dad’s driving is safe ground in this uncomfortable moment, “Is Ken coming?”
Harper nods unenthusiastically. A rumbling motorcycle pulls in from the street and carefully negotiates the parking lot, “Speak of the devil. That’s his new bike? That’s it,” Harper says with both disdain and a glimmer of pride. Ken finds a parking space, pulls his helmet off gingerly, and props the bike off to one side, leaning half-kilter on its chrome kickstand. He heads toward us, carrying his helmet like he’s returning from battle with the head of a vanquished foe in the crook of his arm. In his riding gear, he’s badly overdressed for the weather. It’s late summer and humid and the riding gear, jacket, pants, boots, all are black. And Ken’s hair is a semi-wild wreck. His face is shiny. He grins when he’s close enough. He has a white van dyke and he seems to be aging from the torso upward. He shakes hands all around. Seth.
“You’re sweating like a pig,” Harper tells him, and at this Ken begins tugging at his riding coat as she adds, “I can’t believe that’s what you’re wearing.” Ken looking at her with an open-mouthed amused look, removes his black nylon padded riding jacket and matching pants with a flourish, throws them on the ground in a heap by his side where he’s left the helmet, and there he is in a rumpled dark suit, tie askew, extending his arms, presenting himself. Lucky leans in and straightens his tie.
Some kids are playing nearby on a jungle gym around to the side of church, though they aren’t on it as I notice but running around it, using it as cover, taking turns blasting each other with plastic assault rifles, making the sounds of automatic gunfire and expectorating gratuitously. “Take that you animal,” says one following an obliterating salvo.
“Forget you,” the other responds, returning fire.
“They’re only allowed to watch movies edited for television,” I point out. Seth and Ken think this amusing. Lucky and Harper look at us, Lucky smiling gratefully because I’ve been funny and Harper regarding Ken with a pinched brow. There’s quiet while we watch the children.
“Shall we?” Seth stands up.
“Not yet,” Lucky replies.
Harper pleads, “Wait for Mom and Dad.”
“They’re not here?” Ken asks
Harper holds out her arms to encompass all that we can see, an exaggerated gesture. They could be inside for all Ken knows but he gets no margin for error. Lucky explains, “Dad’s driving.”
Just then, Lucky’s phone rings, “Where are you guys?” She’s staring vacantly at the grass, “Okay. O…O…Okay, Mom…We’re out front…” She starts rubbing her forehead furiously, “No idea; we haven’t been inside. Okay. See you in a minute.” She brushes her phone with the tip of her folded-over thumb, ending the call.
Ken asks everyone’s question, “What’s up?”
“Oh, you know, Dad’s driving too slow, took a wrong turn. Mom doesn’t know why he didn’t let her drive.”
They arrive and we’re Inside Holy Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran. First order of business is the guest book on a podium outside the room where Yvette’s body lies. Lucky’s Dad leads the way, ambling up to the guestbook and signing first, then Seth and Lucky, who signs for her mother, granting her request, “You sign it for me.” Mom surveys the room with a locked jaw and darting eyes. Lucky and Harper exchange looks. Dad ventures into the wake room, Lucky, Harper, Seth and Ken follow, toward Yvette.
I’m not quite ready for the gauntlet and coffee seems like a good idea. I’m suddenly heavy-eyed and lethargic like I’m 80-ish by association and days with mandatory events require lengthy recuperation. The coffee is rich brown and steaming as it streams out of the spigot, strong and bitter to the taste, even with a thick splash of half and half. Coffee at funerals, the bolder the better.
Donny and I strike up a conversation by the coffee pot. I ask how he knew the deceased and he’s apparently one of Tom the widower’s nephews. We drink our coffee in china cups with dainty little handles and he’s no more anxious for the visitation than I am. After introductions we get around to what we do. He’s retired from the local police department, most recently as a homicide detective. He’s thick in the middle, tanned, with bristly white hair, an overgrown crewcut, brow heavy atop squinty blue eyes.
He segues almost immediately to his plans to write a book about a cold case he cracked along with his partner, how with DNA evidence they were able to solve an open sexual assault investigation from the 1950’s, tying the assault to a known sexual deviant who did several stretches both before and after the assault in question. I think, but don’t say, this might be more of a discovery if this particular deviant weren’t a known offender. Add to that, he’s long deceased. Maybe embellish the facts, I propose, maybe say the perpetrator is still alive and cracking the cold case gets him his just desserts. He doesn’t love the idea. He’s of the opinion the story can stand on its own.
Lucky’s Mom hasn’t made it to the visitation. She’s stalled right outside the door, bending the ear of an acquaintance, “No one knows exactly how she did it. Oh, but she sure did. She got everything.” The woman she’s talking to looks around for someone else she can latch onto, “We didn’t find out until after she died. The attorney sprang it on us.” People wander closer, catch the gist of the conversation and quickly move off. An elderly man glances over his shoulder to put the voice with the person then keeps going, disappearing inside the wake room. “She had dementia toward the end when Yvette convinced her to change the will. Legally, we could have made an issue of it.” She’s now talking to a different woman who seems more interested and less concerned with surrounding perception. The woman prods her along. “Well that’s right. We could have challenged the will. He didn’t want to. Why not? You’d have to ask him.”
Lucky and Harper emerge from the wake room, Harper gives Mom a look, leans toward her and whispers loudly, “Mom, are you kidding me?” At this, Mom’s face returns to locked jaw.
Lucky leads me by the hand into the wake room to introduce me to a few people. Easels surround the edges of the room with pictures of Yvette tacked to them — some in black and white, some in color, and a couple of faded Polaroids. The easels are positioned chronologically so one can see what Yvette looked like during the various stages of her life from little girl to older woman. Beyond her formative years most of the pictures are of Yvette and Tom, beginning with wedding pictures when they looked young and optimistic. Other than a few spontaneous shots from barbecues or sporting events, most of them are of the Sears Portrait Studio variety, Tom in suit and tie, Yvette in formal wear frilly to her chin, both smiling pleasantly the same way each time. Yvette had dark hair for most of her adult life worn just above the collar. In later years, the shade of a permanent early frost settled in.
Lucky introduces me around. Some are pleased I’ve come; others are too old to care but cordial anyway. At least I can say I met them.
Almost at the open casket we get to Tom, and Lucky introduces me, “Pleasure. Thank you for coming. Take good care of this one; she’s a keeper,” he tells me with a wink toward Lucky.
We finally make it to Yvette. As I approach the casket, I can feel her many smiling eyes on me. She got what she wanted, I thought: The will, the obituary, the scripted funeral. I turn around to leave and I’m in her sights — all of them — Yvette smiling everywhere like she’s eminently pleased.