We drove past a line of people that stretched down the block, past the parking lot, and around the corner. A little boy pointed at us. "There they are!"
A dozen sets of eyes turned toward us.
I shrank back from the window into the relative privacy of the backseat. "Who are they?"
My mother gripped her purse, tears streaking her pancake makeup. I looked at my father, but he ignored me too.
Strangers peered into the window of our car as we pulled up to the funeral home. A dark-suited man resembling a crow opened the door and I got out, smoothing my skirt and adjusting my hat. A woman with a big camera took our picture. My parents walked past me, arm in arm. I stared at the faces surrounding me until the crow nudged me and I followed him up three steps. At the threshold of the chapel, a small tile and cork sign advised that this was the service for Harold Slate, my maternal grandfather.
The crow escorted us to a private, glass-enclosed room overlooking the sanctuary. As soon as the door closed behind him, agitated family members surrounded us and engaged my mother in noisy whispers. Daddy stood beside her, his arms by his sides, fists clenched.
I backed away and found a seat at the end of the first row, facing the window to the chapel. I'd have to leave the room to get further away from them. I looked down. A beautiful long box sat in front of the altar below me. Red roses covered the lower part of the coffin. Chrysathemums on tripods stood beside and behind it. Arguments over whose flowers should be included in the display had gone on for hours. Even now, no one was happy with how the crow had arranged the tableau.
I tried not to see the contentious flowers and focused on Papa. I couldn't quite make out his face from where I sat so I closed my eyes and remembered sitting on his shoulders watching Gorgeous George wrestle when I was five -- and digging into the couch for his pocket change after he left our house on holidays -- and his dapper outfits and fancy cars. My eyes burned.
"Did it hurt, Papa?"
Aunt Harriet's frown scorched my cheek. Had I said it out loud or was she hearing my thoughts now? I coughed into my proper-white glove and kept my eyes on the congregation inching up the side passageway, past the coffin, and then down the center aisle back to their seats. The organ mourned. Once all the seats were filled, the crow tried to close the wooden doors. Protests from those still waiting to enter buzzed in the distance. Who were all those people and what did they want?
I leaned forward to watch the crow deal with the angry bees. A hand touched my arm.
"It's time," my father said.
My great Aunt Harriet, her improbable red hair blazing like a beacon, led us out of the private room to the end of the visitation line. She took in the assemblage -- recording who was there and who wasn’t, those whose sorrow was on display, those who didn’t cry. Most of the city was there and properly grief-stricken. She was satisfied. Everyone else followed her. They always did. I hung back as long as I dared. I knew they would all be watching and I would pay a price for my reluctance later.
I moved to the end of the queue. There was no way out of it. As I reached the pews and started up the side aisle, the movie inside my eyelids began. I had had this nightmare many times before, only this time it was real. It had happened.
As I passed the fifth pew from the front, I saw my younger cousins. Their mouths stretched wide. Their wails must have been loud. How odd! I didn’t hear anything but the sobbing organ. I wondered why they were crying. They were my father’s nieces. They didn't know Papa.
My mother’s Slate relations, dressed in expensive silk suits and glossy shoes, were in the second row. I wondered why they weren't allowed up into the private room with the rest of us.
My grandmother, Papa's first wife, was just ahead of us. She reached into the coffin and touched his hand. I saw her mouth move. He can't hear you, Nanny! I choked back the impulse to yell at her. I knew she knew.
Willow, Papa’s second wife, was next. She stood in front of the pedestal, her freckled hands clutching the coffin. Even though they were separated when he was killed, she was crying. She seemed small and gauche. Her dark auburn hair was long and curly when everyone else was wearing smooth, short Jackie Kennedy hairdos. Her black suit fit her perfect body perfectly. The elegant Slates ignored her. My mother shunned her too.
I loved her -- she was my Nana, my grandmother as much as my other two. Since babyhood, her scent had warmed and calmed me. I longed to comfort her, but didn’t dare.
She sat down in the pew in the front row -- unwilling to leave, enduring the hostile stares of her husband’s family.
Then, we were there. I didn’t cry. Three days of constant weeping had drained my tears. A rubber dummy resembling my grandfather held court from a golden-oak box on a carpeted pedestal. My mother and father stepped up to pay their respects first. She was tall, dark-haired, plump -- a feminine version of the deceased. My dad was much shorter. He put his arm around her shoulders. Was he comforting her? Controlling her? I couldn’t tell. Their clothes were not as grand as the rest of the family, but they looked nice. I imagined her agony, his relief.
While I waited for them to finish, I glanced around the crowd of mourners. I didn’t see my little sister. For a minute, I panicked, looking this way and that, and then I saw her with Aunt Mary, my dad's sister. She seemed okay. We weren’t close. I just didn’t want anything to happen to her. She was only seven-years old and she adored Papa. He left fresh watermelons on our front porch for her to find -- and sent her cherry-red dresses and dolls with eyes that blinked.
I was tired. We had lived with tension for years -- an undercurrent of anger and fear -- a world of shifting sides, of pain, of confusion. My sister and I understood the adults in our lives didn’t get along, but most of it was a mystery to us. Now it had happened -- the one act that couldn’t be undone. He was dead and not coming back. Someone shot him. It must have been someone I knew. That hurt more than the loss -- and the loss was devastating. Papa had been my safety line, my hope. I never once doubted his love and constancy. Standing there -- waiting to see him for the last time, I understood no one would or could ever take care of me but me. I was thirteen. I should have realized it sooner.
When it was my turn to view the body, I knew what I would see. I had dreamed it many times. Queasy, I stepped up to the coffin. He lay on satin with his hands crossed at his waist. I searched for the wound. There it was -- a small hole behind one ear. I stood on tiptoe, craning my neck, trying to get a better look.
Iron fingers dug into my right shoulder. I startled. Was I doing something wrong? I never knew when the rules might change. A piercing cry filled my ear with breathy moisture. “I’m so sorry! Dad, forgive me, I’m sorry! Mama, you know I’m sorry!” The weeping rose and I shrank back from my twenty-six-year-old step-uncle, Ben Slate. He'd been shot in the same dark basement with Papa. His orangey hair seemed to have sucked all other color from his face. One arm was bound close to his body with a tight sling. His grief and horror echoed throughout the chapel.
My father pulled me away. I flinched -- expecting a blow, but he simply retrieved me, pulling me from the path of the storm. Willow sprang to her feet and put her arms around her son. I figured Bennie had left the hospital too soon. His gunshot wound must hurt. Other figures rushed to help Willow deal with him.
I turned away shaking -- and caught the looks of breathless excitement from the congregation. They are getting what they came for, I realized. Drama.
“Are you okay, Hope?” Red webbed through the whites of my father's eyes.
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
“It’s a cruel world. You can’t trust anyone.”
To avoid looking at him, I scanned the room and shuddered. “I know.”