Among the Mourners
© 2010 by Orin Hargravesall rights reserved
“Welcome,” intoned the slickly groomed Mr. Grenze, offering a pudgy right hand for greeting while the left smoothed his lapels. “There are refreshments downstairs, and the viewing is through the room on the right.” He could hardly suppress a note of pride, for this was after all his moment, the summation of all his preparations; and if this were an exhibition opening rather than a funeral it would be reasonable to expect accolades, for nothing had been spared on this one. The widow had gone for top of the line in everything.
A tall man in a dripping raincoat appeared at the back of the line of incoming mourners and Grenze noted, with some distress, his striking resemblance to the deceased; not as he was now by any means but as he once was, in his prime, judging by the pictures he’d requested of the widow to help him bring off the challenging post-mortem makeover. Grenze affected a somberer air when the man in the raincoat reached him. “Welcome,” he said. “You must be the Other Son.” The label had become fixed in his mind during the preceding week of preparations, when it became obvious through dealings with the widow and her irritating children that there was this problematic figure from the past, whom no one was quite sure how or whether to contact. Funerals were like this. Odd characters turned up. “Maynard,” Grenze ventured falteringly, for the family never used the name, and he was remembering it, accurately he prayed, from the obituary that he had scanned over coffee and danish half an hour ago.
“Malcolm.” The man’s hand was limp and freezing. He gave a sad, watery stare out of pale blue eyes.
“I must apologize,” said Grenze, flustered, for wasn’t Malcolm the deceased? Or was he Maynard? But by now the tall man had drifted past him, into the scattering of darkly dressed, murmuring mourners, and others arriving required his attention.
The tall man experienced the quiet isolation of not being recognized. After all, he was unknown to most people in the room and those who knew him had not seen him for thirty years, when he was a teenager. It was easy for him to spot the family cluster: they occupied a circle of folding chairs in a corner of the room and talked among themselves, seeming to ignore the few other guests present. In their midst he picked out Darlene, the widow. From this distance he thought she was unchanged since he’d last seen her, only white-haired now rather than blonde. It was obviously a wig, as the blonde had also been. He didn’t bother sorting out which of her children was which, though he thought if he’d set his mind to it he probably could. They looked like they were probably all married now with families, there were children here and there in the room, amusing themselves as noisily as they dared to.
On the side of the windowless room farthest from where the family sat was the open casket, which Malcolm had caught briefly out the corner of his eye and then carefully avoided looking at directly. It was surrounded by modest sprays of flowers, clustered to give the illusion of plenty though they were few. They all seemed to clash against the background of the walls, which were painted a vibrant coral. At the side of these were two easels, filled with pictures from happier times, all contributing to the general theme of Maynard, life of the party: the Army Air Corps pilot, early years with the children, backyard barbecues, fishing on the Saginaw River. This display enjoyed the biggest audience in the room and he joined it, standing at the back where he could easily see over the heads of those in front. There were no pictures of him, no pictures of his mother, only a gap between the young, strapping Maynard and the groom of Darlene.
An organist made her presence known with a few muted chords that, while not pleasing, were at least not disconcerting because they were exactly the kind you would expect to hear in a place like this. In her other role, as Mrs. Grenze, the organist gave her husband a reassuring nod. He returned it and then directed her attention to the tall stranger, with an inquiring shrug of his eyebrows. She nodded again, indicating that she’d noticed him, and he began gently marshaling those present across the expanse of florid carpet toward the rows of folding chairs arrayed in front of the casket. The row of family chairs in the front had mantles of purple velour draped over their backs. Darlene, now concealed behind a perfectly arranged black veil, took one of these while her children filed into the row behind her. They were, after all, not Maynard’s children anyway, and were attending only under duress; they’d fought like cats and dogs with the late Mr. Wycoff most of their lives. Darlene was joined only by Kenneth, her son by Maynard, when he was pushed forward by his half-siblings. Malcolm waited till everyone had found a place and then sat down quietly on the next-to-the-last, undraped seat in the front row. No one seemed to take any notice of him.
At this point he could no longer avoid looking at the casket. It was really the most appalling spectacle and he couldn’t imagine what had possessed anyone to have it open; surely only someone who had not been through this experience before. Hollywood could not have created a more ghoulish figure. It was bad enough that the man had spent the past ten years becoming a shadow of himself in a nursing home, but now a week had passed since his death and no amount of makeup could give his sagging flesh any suggestion of the quickness it had long ago possessed.
The chords of the organ welled, rather poignantly, then muted. A gray-haired figure in black slipped up to the podium with a Bible in his hand. Malcolm looked around at the small assembly as if searching for someone in particular. All eyes were on the preacher, and all of them were dry. He turned back to face the front and then noted a figure at his side, in the empty chair at the end of the row: his father.
“Dad,” he whispered.
It was really no surprise, in fact he’d been expecting him. Because he’d seen him before, just about a week ago. He’d caught a glimpse of him passing in the midst of a crowded throng — what did they call it, a wraith? — at the waterfront in New Orleans, of all places, and Malcolm knew that the old man’s number was up. It was then merely deduction and investigation that led to locating the funeral.
“Just in time! He’s just starting,” Malcolm said.
His father was staring at the coffin, transfixed and horrified.
“Lousy makeup job,” Malcolm observed. He couldn’t resist noting that his father was not amused by the remark. “Who’s the preacher?” he murmured, hoping to distract his father from the gruesome display.
“Confirmation classes for Kenneth. He was in charge.”
So it was a small step up from a rent-a-preacher, Malcolm thought. He was sure his father hadn’t set foot in a church in decades, except perhaps to attend his stepchildren’s weddings.
“We’re gathered here to cherish the life of Malcolm Wycoff, who passed on to his eternal rest a week ago today,” the preacher began.
The family stirred and whispered. Somebody said, “It’s Maynard.”
“I beg your pardon?” the preacher said.
“The dead guy is Maynard,” one of the children said, matter-of-factly. Darlene choked on a loud, involuntary sob.
“I beg your forgiveness,” the preacher said. “I’m only reading . . .” he paused and collected himself. “We celebrate the life of Maynard Wycoff, who passed on to his eternal rest a week ago.”
Malcolm looked at his father, who was fidgeting and bobbing his head up and down spastically. “There were a lot of mistakes in your obituary,” he said. “I guess you didn’t get a chance to look it over!” The droll irony was lost on Maynard.
The preacher carried on with a retrospective, cribbing regularly and nervously from the obituary because it was his only source for the main material. The gap that appeared in the picture record, Malcolm noted, was also in the eulogy; there was no reference to his father’s first marriage or to him. There were other little errors and inconsistencies in the delivered text, but after a short time anyone who noticed them got used to them, and didn’t really care anyway. Only Maynard was having a hard time with it; he grimaced and flinched at every small detail, whether accurate or wrong. His waning years, after all, had consisted of little but remorse, punctuated by startling panic about what, if anything, lay ahead.
“I remember when Kenneth here was taking his confirmation classes and Maynard would come to pick him up afterwards,” the preacher recollected, in a slightly more relaxed tone since it was only here that he could trust the veracity of his material. “We didn’t speak much, we just exchanged a few pleasantries, but he always had a twinkle in his eye and a kind word to say or a joke to tell.”
That’s because he was drunk, Malcolm thought uncharitably, but then admonished himself: thoughts such as these would not lead to anything beneficial. He looked at his father, miserable shrunken creature whether viewed in the chair or in the box, and felt some pity, which he was not able to separate completely from derision.
“You spent a lot of time with Kenneth,” he said, as a way of directing his father’s mind to something that he could reflect on with contentment or satisfaction. But he couldn’t really keep the tone of resentment out of his voice and his father took it as an accusation, as if the unsaid part were but you never spent any time with me. Maynard flinched and fidgeted some more.
The preacher was now droning on with some reading from the Bible. There was an air of distraction and disconnection in the room; everybody seemed ready for the ordeal to end. The children were trying to get out of their seats, their parents were holding them down, and Mr. Grenze was looking at his watch. Finally the preacher said, “Let us pray.”
Heads were bowed; a few hands came together, others were folded in laps. Malcolm watched his father drop to his knees and incline his head toward the preacher with hands clasped together. He had always had this naive belief, and yet no discipline or practice whatever. As if that would get you anywhere. And look where it had got him.
Mrs. Grenze, taking her cue at the “Amen,” delicately fingered a few more hymnlike chords. The mourners gathered themselves; all but the family were making for the door. The preacher approached Darlene with apologies for whatever inaccuracies may have been uttered, and then other words intended to comfort and console. Malcolm stood off to one side; his father followed him. Grenze’s functionaries came in from a side door and approached the casket. One of them operated a crank that lowered the corpse into the box, like a hospital bed; the other stripped away the Velcro-attached crepe around the base of the box, revealing the gurney it was resting on. Maynard gaped in horror as Mr. Grenze began to close the lid.
“Nothing to get upset about,” Malcolm said. “Only skin and bones.”
The rain, unrelenting the entire morning, continued to pour down in a steady stream as the cortege lumbered out of town. Darlene had chosen one of those small private cemeteries in the countryside some time ago, when the present developments began to seem inevitable; this one was in the middle of a field, on a grassy knoll planted all over with pine trees and accessible only by a little lane that ran between tall rows of corn. There was no clear place to park. All the cars just lined up behind each other in the paths between the graves, each trying to get that inch or two closer to minimize their distance to the gravesite, protected under a marquee. An impromptu support committee had assembled itself to accompany the pallbearers, who would otherwise have been soaked; they all walked alongside, each one shielding a man with an umbrella.
Everyone was gathered under the marquee by the time Malcolm arrived. His father was still steadfastly at his side, and though he wasn’t trying to shake him, he was beginning to wonder if he would be able to: the clinging was remarkable and something he had certainly never experienced in life, when it had been unusual to get more than a few minutes of his father’s scattered attention. The two of them stood at a little distance, just beside the hearse, sheltering under a tall old pine tree with a good view of the proceedings, albeit through the curtain of rain that cascaded down the awnings of the tent. The preacher stood behind the coffin; Darlene stood front and center on the other side, flanked by Kenneth and her eldest son, with all the others behind them, all heads bowed.
Malcolm looked at his father, who had the same horrified glassy stare that he’d seen earlier at the funeral parlor. “There’s really nothing to it now,” he said quietly, “they just lower the box very gently and throw dirt on top of it. Requiescat in pace.”
His father looked at him angrily and accusingly, as if this were some form of needless torture. Then his face softened and he looked only quietly despairing and lost, not so different than he had looked in the last years of his life. Malcolm felt compassion and hoped that some of it showed in the face he turned to his father, though he was never sure if anyone saw past his habitual gloom, regret, and resignation.
“What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to stay here or something?”
Malcolm shrugged, as if to say, how should I know?
“I’m so hungry. And cold. All the time.”
“Florida, perhaps. You always liked to travel.”
The coffin was descending, on silent pulleys, into the grave. A few of those present tossed carnations on top of it. Darlene’s sons were each holding one of her arms while the preacher made signs with his. Then the rain, for no apparent reason, stopped. Those under the edge of the marquee, who were only marginally engaged all along, began to head for their cars now, shaking their umbrellas as they went, as if the end of the rain, rather than the end of the service, were the signal to leave.
Eventually only Grenze, the preacher, and a few family members were huddled next to the grave. Cars that were not blocked in left, and others waited, their engines running. The clique under the marquee began to break up and Grenze gestured with his head to Malcolm and Maynard towards a family mausoleum nearby. He started walking that way and then disappeared behind it. Malcolm and Maynard went to meet him there. He was just zipping up from relieving himself when they arrived.
“There’s a meal being offered now at St. Mark’s Lutheran, but I don’t think it’s anything you would enjoy,” Grenze said. “I apologize for the obituary; I guess there were a lot of mistakes and omissions. It was all that the family supplied and I think the newspaper made a hash of it.”
Maynard said nothing but appeared to be sincerely trying to absorb this.
“I would at least have expected a mention in the ‘preceded in death’ section,” Malcolm said with arch umbrage.
“There was really no time to . . . you see, I only . . .”
“Only joking,” Malcolm said. “Really it was fine. No harm done.” The living. They had no real appreciation of irony.
“I’ll leave you now,” Grenze said. “Good luck,” he added over his shoulder as he walked away.
Malcolm and his father stood in the shadow of the mausoleum and looked at the slowly brightening sky. Maynard pointed to the stone bench behind them; they sat down.
“What happened to you anyway?” Maynard asked.
“Boating accident. A few years ago. I drowned.”
“Just like that. Suddenly.”
“I wasn’t really trying. I might have made it back. I didn’t know at the time that this was what was waiting for me,” Malcolm said wearily.
His father looked at him, full of pity. “I’m so sorry. We didn’t know. We never heard anything.”
“Darlene knew. We were in correspondence about your estate from the time you went into the Veteran’s home.”
“She never said anything.”
And you never inquired, Malcolm thought, but again admonished himself, and reminded himself that he must try to leave the past behind. His father had been pretty much out of it in the nursing home; Darlene had probably judged correctly that the news would have been either disturbing or incomprehensible.
“I almost died once, suddenly like that. In the war. I think until now I never realized how close I had been. But I got a glimpse then.”
“Really?” Malcolm asked. In his whole life, his father had never talked about the war, though Malcolm was convinced that it was his defining moment and the greatest influence over all that followed. Was this progress in their relationship? Better late than never, he thought, with his habitual sardonic twist.
“I was flying back from a mission to bomb a bridge, near Cologne I think. We missed the target completely and took at lot of flak trying to get out but it didn’t seem to disable the ship at first. But the closer we got to England, the worse it got. We had to land at the first opportunity across the channel. As we were coming down the cockpit began to fill with smoke and I must have blacked out. I was sure we were all going to die because we were just going down. And I had a kind of dream — where everything was light, just ahead. I thought I saw mother. But I couldn’t get there.”
The pause lengthened, until it could only be concluded that the story was over. “Then what?” Malcolm asked.
“I woke up in a hospital bed. The copilot had managed to land us somehow.” Then after another pause, he added. “And what I saw ahead of me then was nothing like this.”
“If previews were provided for this feature, people would surely try to stay away in droves,” Malcolm said, and then added diffidently: “You never talked about the war when you were alive.”
Maynard looked at him with an incomprehensible look. “There was no way to talk about it. I never sorted it out. I think I could only have talked about it with other guys who were there, and I never saw any of them. Because I wanted to forget. All the bombs. All the booze. All the people.”
“The ones the bombs fell on.”
“It wasn’t anything you had a choice about.”
“I used to see them sometimes, after I went in the VA. I think they came because of all the old soldiers there. Sometimes they would sit on the other bed in my room for hours, like they were just waiting for me to do something. And then if I’d sneeze or cough they’d jump up, like I’d shot them or something.”
“How do you know it was them?”
His father looked at him like this was a no-brainer. “Did you ever see somebody that a bomb fell on?”
“Do you see them now?”
“Not since last week. All I’ve seen is people and guys like you and me. And sometimes these really mean-looking bastards. I stay out of their way.”
“It takes a while to see everything that’s going on. You have to look up,” Malcolm said, with the air of the long-experienced.
“What do you mean?”
“Some folks do better. Like Mom. She’s an angel.” Malcolm’s face brightened for the first time. “I see her sometimes. I think she tries to help me.”
“Yeah, well she was someone special.”
Maynard looked forlorn and pensive; Malcolm imagined he was on another remorseful retrospective — an activity he had had the opportunity to hone to perection. At last: something we can do together!, he thought, ruefully.
“Are you going to stay around here?” Malcolm asked after a time.
“I don’t know. What do you do?”
Railroad engineer!, Malcolm thought, but said “Nothing. There’s nothing to do.”
“I mean what do you do every day? Do you stay in one place?”
“I mind my own business. You can get into bothering people, or socializing, such as it is, but I don’t. I observe. I think a lot.”
“You were always one for thinking.”
Like there’s something better to do, Malcolm thought, and said, “There’s plenty of time for it.”
“How long does this last anyway? Is it like life? I mean are we looking at 75 years or what?” Maynard looked horrified at the prospect.
“Five so far for me. As people reckon years, with seasons and so forth, but that doesn’t really mean anything. I don’t really know. Some seem to appear for only a day or two and then you don’t see them again. I think some have been around for ages. You see civil war types, and so forth.”
Maynard sat still for a long time, as if trying to take this in. He studied his son occasionally, then looked off in the distance. Malcolm was also lost in thought, staring off at some place very far away. They sat like this for a long time without speaking, and a kind of peace settled on them.
After a time the clouds finally parted. The bright autumn sun cast a sparkle over every wet thing in sight. Malcolm and Maynard were nudged out of their reverie by noticing that they had company. The place was suddenly crawling with their fellows, all locals, Malcolm judged, with his superior experience in these matters. He noted that his father had that old look in his eye: craving. The same look he’d had when he invited you to join him at the bar. He wanted to chat them all up, Malcolm thought. Maybe he didn’t yet realize that they were all wretches, just like him, and that the main experiences they had to share were misery and regret.
“I’m going to go now; this is not really my scene,” Malcolm said, and stood up.
“Sure you don’t want to stick around for a while?’
Malcolm shook his head, distastefully.
“Let’s get together some time,” Maynard said.
Now he has to leave off the I’ll buy you a drink part, Malcolm thought. But had anything else really changed?
“Sure. Whenever,” he said dismissively, in the same way that he used to, before he had stopped seeing his father all together.
Maynard looked at him. He stood to join him, with an impulse to give him a hug, but Malcolm withdrew.
“I’m so sorry,” Maynard said. “I’m sorry that we’ve ended up like this. I’m sorry that we couldn’t do any better. And I’m really sorry that you still judge me.”
Malcolm just looked at him with his big sad eyes. He couldn’t say otherwise.
“You could never see,” Maynard said sadly. “And you still don’t.”
“That I was doing my best. What you saw was all there was. And I never thought that it was good enough. I wasn’t blind to the way other fathers were with their sons. What they had was what I really wanted. It was something I never had myself. So what I did was really the best I could do. I failed you, I failed your mother, I failed Darlene. Now here we are. But I tried and it was the best that I could do.” He shrugged his shoulders and turned up his hands, looking for some sign of acceptance. Then he sat down again.
Malcolm sat down again beside his father. They watched the sunlight and the breezes play on the corn. A few of the others present made gestures to them: some of them friendly, some of them challenging, some of them obscene, but for the moment the father and son just ignored these and no one approached them. Maynard was looking at something very far in the distance, and Malcolm noted that he looked considerably brighter.
“What are you looking at?” Malcolm asked.
“I see what you mean. There’s really a lot going on.”
“I don’t see it now. I have to be in the right mood and it doesn’t happen very often.”
Something was happening to Maynard. He was getting very bright around the edges and it almost felt like warmth was coming off of him. Real warmth! Something you almost never felt.
“What’s happening?” Malcolm said with alarm.
“I don’t know, but I don’t think I’m going to stay here very long.”
“Where are you going?”
“I think I’m going to see mother. And join your mommy.” Maynard was beaming from ear to ear.
“What do you mean?” Malcolm shrieked, suddenly feeling all twisted and confused, overwhelmed by an old and very familiar feeling of jealous rage at being the one left out. His father was becoming a beaming ball of bright light.
“You don’t have to stay there,” Maynard said. “You have to choose.”
“Choose what?” Malcolm said, with a bitter grimace. “Choose what?”
“The way you are.”
Maynard started to drift upwards and suddenly seemed to consist of nothing but a bright smile surrounded by an illuminated cloud.
“Come with me,” he said to Malcolm, and reached his hand down. Malcolm stood up and took the hand offered him. It was warm and glowing, and a little bit frightening.
“I can’t,” Malcolm said.
“Sure you can,” Maynard said. He reached down with his other hand. “Just let go. Only try.”
Maynard hovered, beaming at his son. Never in my life, thought Malcolm, and tears came to his eyes. He relaxed into the embrace of his father. The light began to surround him and take him in. They drifted away together.