by Robert Quinn
Some flash-fiction I wrote last year. Inspired by my great grandfather's funeral.
The boy cast one last look into those hills as he stepped under the overhang, deciding to leave his contempt at the door. But that meant all he was left with on the opposite side of the falsely inviting foyer was sadness. West Virginia was wrong. He’d told his mother, and his aunts. But the women of the family were set and determined, fastidiously so, on a mountain burial. A family burial.
“He’ll be good and comfortable next to his kin,” his mother had said when showing him a map of the available plots. “Our family has always used this lot right here.”
“Grandpa told me he wanted to be scattered into the Atlantic,” the boy said. And so he had. His grandfather had used to take him fishing along the coast near his home in South Carolina when the boy came to stay.
“This is what I imagine Heaven to look like,” said the old man, placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder as the sun sank blearily into the ocean. The boy looked at the sun disappearing, seemingly into a mass of water. But instead of dampening it’s rays, the water gave the sun new life. The light became red and orange, streaking to green and finally to purple as the darkening sky lumbered after the failing light, like a tired shepherd sallying forth after his flock, never abreast, but always within hailing distance.
The man had seemed eternal. The dust, thrown into the air by stamping feet and laboring hands during the building of the world, seemed to be caked into the lines and creases of his face, underneath the broad fingernails. He was a man, and to a young boy, all men are the giants of hearts and history. But his grandfather had been a cog of the world. Perhaps not the biggest one, or by any means the essential mechanism, but a cog nonetheless, a strut in the frame of reality.
Men who know the world, who love life’s borrowed enchantment, that bring in as much as they take. Those men deserve peace in whatever form the world can offer it. For his grandfather, it had been that sunset.
The main room of the parlor was filled with relatives. Some were sitting. A procession of viewers passed along two tables at the end of the room which had been set up with pictures and flowers, at the center of which sat a polished wooden box the size of a toaster. Moving up to it, the boy looked closer and saw that it was embossed with his grandfather’s name and dates of birth and death. It intrigued him that they had spent extra money to engrave a box that would never be read again after being placed six feet under. He touched the box with the palm of his hand, and stood there, looking for something. He felt it inside himself, but it was still wrong. All wrong. His grandfather would suffocate under this matted earth. The dirt and the trees, and even the air were so dense that breathing felt far too labored, the air far too close, pressing in and down.
The boy took a seat near his mother in the front of the room, and he listened to her talking to her sisters. Idle gossip and mechanical phrases poked through the dull murmur. The type of chat that asserts itself at funerals, thriving in the empty space left by the departed, until the speaker is able to find a less driveling coping method.
A woman stood up. It was his grandfather’s sister. More people began to meander towards the chairs. She went to the front of the room, and began to speak to the now-silent mass.
When the short service was over, the gathered broke into groups or pairs and began to leave. Soon his grandfather would be alone in this musty fake-pretty room, filled with fake-pretty flowers. Flowers are never beautiful at a funeral, the boy thought. They are mockingly arranged, sneeringly perky and straight and perfect in their crystal vases, as if to say, ‘look, your fancy jar is full of ashes and mine is still green and fresh.’ Or perhaps that was just the contempt he’d left at the door, inching its big toe over the threshold.
There would be no attended interment ceremony. Most relatives were heading back to their hotels, and then home, wherever that might be. Soon the room was empty, save for his mother and one aunt. They were preparing to go.
“All right, mom,” the boy said, stepping towards the door. “I’m going to head home now.”
“Okay honey,” she said, a sad smile on her lips. “I know it’s been a rough day for you, for all of us. But at least grandpa is in a better place now.”
He resisted the impulse to say that West Virginia was hardly a better place, but instead gave her a hug, and turned to leave.
He sat in his car, parked in front of a carry-out two block away from the funeral parlor. He saw first his mother’s and then his aunt’s car go by, and then pulled onto the main road and went the opposite direction. In a few minutes he was again crossing the falsely inviting entrance hall of the funeral home, a bag in his hand.
The box had been moved from its display, the flowers cleared away. He looked around and spotted a cardboard box on a table near a door that led to another room. It was marked Callahan.
He untied the twine holding it shut, slid the top off, and again put his hand on the polished wooden box, before lifting it out and placing it gently into the bag. When he withdrew his hand he was holding a shoebox that contained a quantity of dirt. He placed this into the wooden box’s vacated sheath, slid the cover back on, and hurriedly tied the knots.
Ten minutes later the lines on the road were zipping past him as he drove South. He looked into the passenger seat at the bag, across which he had strapped the seat belt.
“It’ll be a close call, grandpa, but I think we can make it before sundown.”