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Mourning the Departed by L. Annette Binder

 

L. Annette Binder was born in Germany and came to the U.S. as a child. She has an A.B. in Classics from Harvard, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Berkeley. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Rosebud, The Fiddlehead, Storyglossia, Oklahoma Review, and Clapboard House. She has just finished her first novel and is working on her second. Find her at www.lannettebinder.com

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Filipina ladies made the best funeral dishes. Sausages and beef with bananas and garlicky noodles, and once he went to a funeral where they cooked a pig up whole and people stood around and fought for the cracklings. The German widows did a nice job, too, with all their butter cakes. His choice today was limited, though. Mexican and Korean, and he wasn’t going to eat that spicy Korean food again. He’d gone once to a funeral at their Baptist church up on Academy, and all they had was fishy balls and little silver fish that still had their heads. He was sick afterwards for days, and he’d go to his own funeral before another Korean one that much was certain.

He stood by the buffet and plucked tamales from the pot with a dented pair of tongs. It was a teenager named Marco who had died. The driver was drunk probably when he hit the boy. It happened at three in the afternoon right by the Citadel mall, and he kept on going and didn’t stop, and all the police were searching for his truck. The young ones were the hardest. They were students, some of them, or newlyweds. They left babies behind and pretty wives who swayed beside the coffin. It was easier with the vets from his Korean War group. They were dropping every other week now, and people were sorry but they weren’t surprised. He looked around the room, at the high schoolers in their dress shirts and the parents who couldn’t be forty yet judging from their faces. All those funerals he’d gone to, for kids and old soldiers and mothers who died too young, and those grieving relatives who filled their plates but didn’t eat. He took it all in. He swallowed their sorrows whole, and sometimes he tried to cry but the tears didn’t come.

He found a chair in the back of the hall. They’d set up card tables near the front, and that’s where the family sat and the mother was weeping again and the other ladies gathered around her to rub her shoulders and stroke her curly hair. They weren’t at the funeral hall this time, and there’d be no graveside ceremony either, not with the snow still coming down and the ground harder than marble. They’d need jack hammers to break through. He balanced a paper plate across his knee, and another lady sat down beside him and fumbled in her purse. She pulled out a wrinkled Kleenex. She looked at him while she blew her nose. Loud as a trumpet the way she sounded. She eyed him like a bill collector, and for a moment he wanted to stand and leave.

“It’s a shame,” he said. He shifted in his chair. “Not even eighteen and he’s gone.”

“I was his teacher,” she said. “Three years I taught him piano.” She set her purse down.

He looked at her fingers. They were long as a surgeon’s, but the knuckles were already beginning to show and they’d be knobby before she was old. They’d be crooked like his mother’s were. That’s why she’d worn gloves every day, even in summer time. Thin white cotton ones with lace around the top, and he didn’t go to her funeral, but his sister told him that’s how she was buried, too. In her prettiest summer pair. “It’s a shame,” he said again.

“I taught him on the day he died.” She pulled another tissue from her pack. “I was running late. Three years and I was always on time and that Tuesday I was late.”

“Let’s hope they find the driver.” He poked around the tamale and found a stringy piece of pork.

“If I’d been on time that day, he’d be here still. He’d be home with his mother.”

“That’s not how things work,” he said. “If his time was up, then it was up for sure and it didn’t matter when your lesson ended.” The car would have found its way to him, he wanted to say. If not that one, then another one and the ending would have been just the same.

She looked at him but kindly this time, and her eyes were pale as his Evelyn’s. “You look familiar. Are you a teacher from the school?”

“I’m retired,” he said. “On Thursdays I volunteer at the DAV.”

“I have a memory for faces.” She tilted her head a little and squinted. “I remember yours.”

“You might have seen me at Safeway,” he said. “Every Wednesday I go for the coupons.” He looked at his plate and not at her. It was time to move to another chair. Time to leave and soak his feet because they were beginning to burn again. Another half hour and he’d be limping to his car, but he stayed where he was because he wanted to hear her voice some more. She was a music teacher, and he wanted her to sing.

She looked over his shoulder at the streamers and balloons that hung from the ceiling tiles. “It’s strange having balloons at a funeral.”

“Maybe that’s how they do it down in Mexico. Maybe they like it festive,” he said. “I went to this funeral once where they had sparklers and firecrackers and a bar with champagne.”

He stopped then, and his cheeks went hot. It wasn’t right to talk about his hobby, how he went to funerals instead of visiting Evelyn, who lay alone in a private room. Just last year she’d stopped recognizing him, and she loved another man in the unit anyway, a retired policeman who still had all his hair and was as forgetful as she was, God help him. They were perfect together how they sat in their wheelchairs and held hands over the lunch table. Those pale eyes she had were clear again, and she laughed at all the old policeman’s jokes. It was easier going to funerals than visiting her, than reading paperback books or calling his sons, who didn’t want to hear from him and were never home anyway. He went to funerals and comforted the mourners and ate their food, and when he came home, the tightness was gone from his chest. He was content again, and he sat in his kitchen and soaked his feet in Epsom salts to keep the sting away.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It sounds like you’ve lost a lot of friends.”

Even his ears were burning now. “I’ll be eighty next March.” He looked at the window, and the wind was blowing flakes sideways against the glass. It was cold as Korea outside but not as damp. All those nights along the reservoir and the sky was bright with flares, all light and no warmth, and almost sixty years later his legs were still wrecked from the cold and from those shoe pacs that had frozen and torn away his skin. “We’re dropping like leaves.”

“I suppose that’s true,” she said. “But look at Marco. There are no guarantees, not even for the young.”

He looked at her hands again, at her ring finger. She wasn’t wearing any band, and he looked at her face and that’s when he saw the two hammered bands on a chain around her neck. He straightened up in his chair. He drew his shoulders back. “Are you married?” He asked the question without meaning to. He was watching those two yellow rings, and he needed to know.

“My husband died,” she said. “It’s been four years.” She reached for the bands and clasped her hand around them.

She’d changed her hair since the funeral, he could see it now. She’d let it go to gray and her face was thinner and not as round, but even from the back of the funeral home he’d seen those eyes, and he remembered them still. He felt a little queasy. His stomach rumbled, and he regretted eating the pork and especially those greasy beans. “I’m sorry,” he said.

She tilted her head again and looked at him, more closely this time. “What about you,” she wanted to know. “I bet you’re a grandpa.”

He nodded. “Two sons and four grandsons I never see. They’re out in Wisconsin and too busy to visit.”

“Well maybe you should visit them.” She was smiling a little now. “If those folks at the DAV will cut you loose for a Thursday or two.” She got up and straightened out her skirt, brushing it with her palms. She went to the mother and crouched beside her chair. She stayed there for a long while, and the mother began to rock again, but without sobbing this time or making any sound. The teacher stood back up. She set her hand on her hip and stared at him.

He needed to stop with the obituaries. Start up his trains again or the radio Evelyn had bought him years before. His antenna was still up, though old Schneider next door fussed about how it took away his mountain view. I don’t want to see wires and metal, he’d say, I just want to see my Pikes Peak. They stopped talking after that, and he let the weeds grow in the back alley just to spite Schneider and his wife, the chickweed in the spring and the carpetweed and curly dock in the summertime. All the sprays and fertilizer they used couldn’t stop the spread.

She came back to him, carrying two cups of punch. “Just look how it’s coming down,” she said. “No wonder people get sad this time of year. They need those special lamps to remind them there’s a sun.”

“Nothing wrong with the cold.” He took a cup from her. “So long as you’ve got the right clothes for it.” His feet were starting to tingle now. He couldn’t feel his toes.

“I went to India once,” she said. “Everything was brighter there. The sky and the clothes and even the food. Three weeks and I didn’t see any gray.”

“I’ve been to Korea. That was enough for me.”

“My husband liked to travel. Every year we took a trip.”

He nodded. He remembered all those slides she’d had at the service, from India and Egypt, too, and even Vietnam. They were drinking from coconuts and swimming on beaches where soldiers had died thirty years before, and the water looked beautiful, he had to agree. It was as blue as Evelyn’s eyes.

“Even the funerals are bright there. The ladies wear colors and not black.” She drank from her cup. “And there are these mourners that the family hires. Strangers who come to pay their last respects.” She smiled at him, and he was certain that she knew.

“I’d better be going,” he said. “I’m hobbling already.” He was distracted when he said good-bye, and he took the wrong way home. He took Academy, which he never did because he didn’t like the traffic and the lights weren’t synchronized right. He was home already before he realized he’d never learned her name.

He filled his soaking tub right away. He poured the salts in and sat on his chair, and after a while the numbness turned to burning just like it did the first time he froze his feet. He looked at the phone and the curtains Evelyn had sewn years before for the narrow window above the kitchen sink. It’s no work doing the dishes when I can see the mountains, she always said. Those millionaires in Kissing Camels don’t have a better view. His sons were probably home already and watching their evening shows, and Evelyn was laughing with her policeman in the nursing home, and somewhere in the city the music teacher was thinking of India where it didn’t snow and the sky was never gray.

Slowly, slowly the feeling came back to his feet. The burning became a tingling, and he could move them now in the water. He reached for his towel. He reached across the table and saw his reflection in the dark window glass, and he cried.