the honor of your presence
on this August afternoon at the
Stannis Funeral Home
Fourteen-year-old David was now the very last Hummel. He clung to the wall like a snail, wrapped in shadows at the top of the stairs-pale, peering down at people. He could see, among the crowd, Aunt Mable and little Mr. Talbot, Wanda, the attorney Witherspoon.
Many people stood in the lobby below. Like a black and white chequer board, their powdered white faces and obsequious black dress crossed and crossed again in hearty hand shakes. A funeral party. In little Haleytown. Their irreverent laughter stretched its neck up to David, pecking at his head and the tall kind wall.
David brushed at his crew cut with the palm of his hand, as if that would shoo the laughter away. He straightened his shirt as he heard Harold Stannis calling from the bottom of the stairs. “David, David, it’s time now,” he said in a whisper that rolled from his soft round face.
“David? David! You must come down!”
David ran a sweaty hand across the buttons of his shirt, incidentally checking his zipper. He rubbed one shoe against the back of his pants. He watched Mr. Stann smooth his tired gray hair with neon hands. “White,” David thought. “White hands and tiny white nails.”
The round white eyes of Harold Stannis turned up to David. His mouth opened, revealing wide gaps between his teeth. “David, in a little while it will all be better. But you must come now or it will always be bad.”
David moved on the smile of Harold Stannis, across the red fluff floor, down one step, down another, down, down, unable to go back. The hand of Mr. Stannis touched his elbow and a sea of humming people surrounded him at once.
Helplessly he stood and knew the terrible slapping of endless words and faces.
“How are you, David?”
“It is such a pity.”
“My dear, dear boy, I am so sorry.”
Great beaked noses bobbed in the air.
Eyes were streamed with water. Mouths were pursed and then they chattered with their tongues flapping crazily within. And from some kind of love he could not recall, there was the endless noise of pattings and hugs
But at last it ceased, and he came alone to the curtained pink and velvet bed.
He saw the flowers and the gun metal bed. He saw the tufting and the flowers, the tufting and the flowers, and within, unbelievably, was something Dwayne. The mocking smile was stupidly serene. And the idiot joy had been wiped away. But again David looked and the face of Dwayne exploded into laughter. He soared overhead with a marvelous cackling. Joyously he spat at the sea of upturned noses.
“Up yours!” he rejoiced and he peeked down the dress of dear Aunt Mable. Finally, relieved, he kicked at the silly red fluff floor and miraculously again fell asleep in the bed.
But now David saw a bubble nose that seemed to float through the air. It hovered over David. Close behind it Mr. Witherspoon came, his eyes two great red-rimmed saucers. He patted David, “He was a good man. He was fond of you.”
“What will you do now? Where will you go?”
A stupid song strung out like wet spaghetti across the sky.
David watched the nose, a purple-blue basket of veins sniffing and snorting in the endless strands of battering words. “You’ve nowhere to go! You’re underage. What will you do?” the purple-blue basket wiggled at the question mark and turned it upside down. “I am your attorney,” continued the nose, clapping up the letters with one great sniff. “And as your attorney it is my duty to see that you are set within the week. I must know this week with whom it is you wish to stay.” There was a dead flower laugh, pressed between the books, coming from somewhere underneath the nose. “What will you do?” The question went on and on and on. What will you doo? What will you dooo? WHAT WILL YOU DOOOOOOOOO?
In the sea of O’s David struggled for his breath. “I shall drown forever,” he worried and with his mind’s last breath he screamed in marvelous explosions of red and black,
I SHALL SHIT FOREVER!!!!!
The O’s fell simpering away. But the purple-blue basket was still there and Mr. Witherspoon stood behind it politely waiting as if he hadn’t heard.
“I don’t know,” David answered. “I don’t know.”
He hurried away through the hips and elbows toward the rose bush in the corner. It was absurdly round and its tiny pink blossoms were so very round and perfect that he should have guessed, but he didn’t. With great anticipation he went to that rose and it was with real joy that he reached for a very long thorn to stab himself and stop that Witherspoon from shouting in his head. But there was rubber in his hand! A plastic thorn! A goddamned whole plastic bush!
In the middle of his horror Aunt Mabie shrieked. “Davy! Davy!” she sobbed, crushing him to the open V of her dress. It was there that he bit her. Angry with the bush and its plasticness, he bit her hard. “Oh,” she gasped in weak surprise. But stupidly she continued to cry, rubbing Davy’s shoulders quietly, as if she really understood the meaning of that bite.
Biting her had helped. Gradually he settled down, finding some comfort in all of this. He huddled there quietly as a boy. But as a man he remembered Tess, his brother’s Tess.
When he had walked into the house that afternoon, it was too dark to see. He fell stupidly over a kitchen chair and landed flat on the floor. As he lay there, cursing his clumsiness, he noticed a white thing just a few feet beyond him-a paper cup Dwayne had thrown on the floor. His hand reached out for it, but it was soft.
“Hi!” his brother had grinned, pulling back the curtain around his bed and looking down at David. His grin was vaguely toothless in the dark and one huge hunk of hair stood straight up on his head.
“That’s mine,” said another voice, and David saw that the soft white thing was a bra. Tess, for that was her name, sat up in bed, pulling the sheet up around her naked breasts.
“How was school?” she must have asked, but David couldn’t answer. He only stared as she curled long brown strands of hair around her fingers. “Cat gotshur tongue?” she chomped through her gum, her lips pouting and relaxing with every chew.
Again there was silence. She shrugged and dropped the covers. He watched her sink back into the shadows. He saw the fullness of her breasts subside. She lay there pulling at Dwayne’s back and the hair on his arms.
Dwayne grinned at David, winking as he closed the curtain.
“Come here, you,” David heard her say. In his mind he could feel her long limbs stretching in the bed, her arms pulling Dwayne to her open mouth.
In the rustling dark he finally dared to get off the floor. Fumbling to the kitchen sink, he found this morning’s cup and mixed a cold syrup of instant coffee. Quietly he opened the door and crept out onto the porch. He had his coffee there. Then he walked around the block. When he returned they were gone.
But here and now Aunt Mabie was talking and crying. She pulled David’s face to the light. “He has gone to Jesus,” she blubbered, her makeup running down her face in a dirty trickle. “Jesus cares for the blood of the lamb. Jesus! Jesus!” she cried to the ceiling of the Stannis Funeral Home.
David backed away and mentally kicked her high in the air. She rose beautifully like a blue and black balloon, tumbling through the air, her great breasts flopping and her large behind bumping and thumping on the heads of the people.
But little Mr. Talbot, in his balding, silent way, only handed her his handkerchief and snaked his tiny arm around her great handsome shoulders. She touched David’s cheek, wiped her eyes and left.
“Yech!” David growled, fiercely, unconsciously digging his nails into the palms of his hands. He was sick to his stomach, sick of the world, sick for the world. “Fuck you!” he grumbled under his breath, through his ears and his teeth.
“O,” a little voice rose in front of him, and it was Wanda. “You’ve hurt yourself. How did you do that?” she looked up at him in wonder and disgust. But he didn’t answer. (He couldn’t remember how he had hurt his hands. He really coudn’t.) “You can’t be mad at the world,” she said, pawing to the bottom of her purse … “just because Dwayne’s dead,” she added, in a smaller voice, flipping back strands of pale brown hair. He watched her, the faded dotted blue swiss hanging limply from her shoulders, telling him nothing of what was there, or what might possibly be there in the future.
At last she pulled out a clean hanky and several band-aids. Gently she dabbed at the jagged wounds in the palms of his hands.
“I love poetry,” she had said when they had talked over the fence one night last summer. And she had quoted,
“Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.”
Alone, alone, all, all alone-he remembered it now as it rang through his mind and the substance of his life-through the crowding of the broken-down cars around the little house, to the stink within, to the bed of Tess and now to the death bed of Dwayne. It came with the sand-blue lake of Wanda’s eyes, with her wide tossing smile, with a drop of pearl and lemon rain. Alone, alone, all, all alone. In a hollow-eyed dream he stood, watching her talk, hearing her leave.
And now he sat, letting the preacher say the very last to the last of Dwayne. “The bridge,” the man was saying. David saw the narrow country bridge as it leaped in front of Dwayne and his wonderful Tess. The bridge flipped them soundlessly into the creek, sharp rock edges tangling with the car and Dwayne’s head. They both were dead.
The word dropped to the bottom of his body with a ripping finality, crashing through his bones, screaming in his head. David looked at the person lying quietly before him and it really was Dwayne. It was his hair, matted and blond from the sun. His hands still showed some black grease from his eternal tinkering with cars.
David looked again at the face, silent as before. Dwayne had not laughed. Laughter was not in the taut, thin lips. But it lay in the past, a rich earthy laugh, dark green and brown. It had a sour smell like the smell that grows far under the layers of wet moldy leaves. It was a laugh growing in the roots of things, not high in the trees.
The service ended and the funeral party trouped across a field behind the funeral home to a small cemetery. Dry weeds rustled around the metal box. They set Dwayne in the dimestore grass and stepped back while the reverend spoke.
The box glared in the light.
Dwayne was dead.
But the birds were singing.
David heard their singing, not the preacher’s drone. He looked up and was filled with the freedom of the sky. The breeze touched his face. He felt the heat of the afternoon sun.
Aunt Mable sobbed. Mr. Talbot patted her consolingly. Witherspoon studied the ground and the tops of his shoes.
But Harold Stannis studied David, and David looked at him. Mr. Stannis nodded and David understood.
“Amen,” said the preacher.
Joellyn Thomas is a free-lance writer especially interested in illustrated children’s books; many periodicals have published her stories, including Scholastic Magazine and Avant-Garde Journal.