the short story project


The Greyest City (2010)

I am sleeping in a dead man’s bed.

This is the first thing I think as I lay down for a nap in my grandfather’s bed. My mother and I have just driven to Tallahassee for his visitation and funeral, my father and my younger brother are already there. They sleep in the guest room and living room, which leaves me Papa’s room. I look around the tidy chamber; the pictures of me and my two brothers and sister on the walls, the multiple clocks (the man loved to know what time it was), a portrait of his wife. The desk is organized, the blinds are drawn, and the ambient light is a soft blue-gray. I curl my knees up toward my chest to keep my feet from hanging off the end of the narrow bed. Was he really that short? As I close my eyes I wonder absent-mindedly if I will have nightmares. I do not. When my mother knocks on the door thirty minutes later to wake me I am in the exact same position as when I fell asleep.

As I change my clothes and straighten my hair I can hear my older brother and sister arrive. My brother’s rather vapid wife is trying somewhat desperately to make cheerful small talk with my sister, who has taken my grandfather’s death very hard. She is as beautiful and remote as a glacier today, and I silently will my sister-in-law to read the cues and just be quiet. My younger brother is dealing with the grief in his own way, the primary means of which seems to be avoiding the family and smoking pot. I’m envious, truthfully. I go out into the living room to greet my siblings.

“Layla,” I say to my sister, “you look very nice.” She gives me a small, distant smile that does not reach her eyes.

“Thank you,” she replies. Her arms are folded across her narrow frame and her shoulders are slightly hunched, as though protecting herself from a draft. I smile at my big brother and call him “old man” and listen politely while his wife Jen babbles on about her job in pharmaceuticals and the difficulty she has flat-ironing her hair. Ugh, shut up already. My father enters the room. His jaw is set and he doesn’t really look any of us in the eye.

“It’s time to go,” he says. He and my mother take their car while my younger brother John, Layla, Jen and I contort ourselves into fitting in my older brother’s back seat. We leave the front seat open for my grandmother, of course. John is forced to put his arm around my shoulders in order to close the door.

“Awesome,” he mutters, rolling his eyes. In spite of the fact that we’re on our way to a funeral home, I can not help but burst out laughing. The giggles soon spread to John, and before I know it I’m laughing myself into stitches like some sort of lunatic. My sister’s mouth remains set in a tight line. I don’t really know what it is I find so funny. I imagine it’s tension, a way for my brain to deal with my first death of a close family member. I struggle to remember the term for when you feel one way and act another. Is it reaction formation? Some psychology minor I am. My first response to hearing that my grandfather had passed away was relief. His health had been declining steadily for the past two years and he had spent the last two months or so in hospice. Taking care of him was proving too much for my grandmother, and I knew how hard it was for my father to watch. For a man who liked to poke fun at the church as much as he did, my grandfather had a strong sense of fate, and had specified in his will that he did not want a feeding tube or to be resuscitated should his breathing stop. 

“Your perfume smells nice,” Jen chirps to my sister. “What is it?”

“Flower Bomb, by Viktor Rolf,” my sister answers without inflection.

“Oh! It’s very pleasant, not too sweet, you know? I smelled a perfume the other day that I liked a lot. I can’t remember what it was called, but it smelled really good. I think I’ll buy some for myself.” Riveting, Jen, really. You should tell that story at parties. The sun is low in the sky when we arrive at the funeral home. By now we’re all quiet, and I notice that there are no people about; no one on the sidewalks, nothing. We approach the small white building and a cold wind bites through my clothing. I hate Tallahassee. No wonder all my friends who live here drink so much. The door opens into a foyer with a desk on one side and couches and chairs on the other. A woman with cropped hair and glasses sits behind the desk and smiles at us sympathetically. There are old sepia photographs of the founders on the wall behind her. To the left is the entryway to the chapel, and I know what waits there. A lump forms in my throat. We all walk towards the chapel, the back wall of which is latticed wood. I can see what used to be my grandfather encased in a fancy box with a flag over one end. Having been under the impression that the visitation would be closed casket, I quickly look away. I am not ready.

“Zach,” my mother says softly to my big brother. He puts his arm around my grandmother, who clutches her handbag tightly as they walk down the short aisle of pews. Meanwhile I stand awkwardly with everyone else on the other side of the latticework, not quite in the chapel and not quite in the foyer, unsure of what to do with ourselves. I can see my grandmother’s shoulders shake, and her subdued sobs resonate throughout the room, knocking the wind out of all of us. It’s quiet enough for me to hear my tears striking my shirt and the thick, wine-colored carpet. Pith, pith, pith. My sister begins to weep and I rub her back in an effort to be comforting. She trembles slightly, and I can feel her ribs and shoulder blades. When did she get so thin? She’s like a bird. My brother and grandmother return, and my mother is by her side in an instant. My grandmother dabs her eyes with a tissue.

“It doesn’t even look like him,” she says. “They got his mouth all wrong.” My mother places an arm around her shoulders and focuses her eyes on a distant point.

“It isn’t him, that’s why. His essence is gone. What’s in there is only a shell,” she gently replies. My grandmother nods.

“Rick didn’t go in?” she asks, referring to my father. My mother shakes her head.

“No. It bothers him to see his daddy like that.” Silence settles like snow until Jen pipes up.

“I can’t believe how cold it’s gotten.” Jesus, Jen, shut up. We move back into the foyer where my father is waiting. He embraces his mother and everyone sits and begins talking about something. I think it has to do with my father’s cousin arriving, but nothing is really registering. My sister gets up and walks back toward the chapel. I peek through the doorway after her and see her sitting on a loveseat alone. Her hands cover her face, she is grieving in earnest. No one else moves to so much as check on her and this strikes me as somehow obscene. I rise, grateful for a reason to remove myself from the mindless chatter. I sit down next to her and put my arm around her petite shoulders. For a while, neither of us says anything. She speaks first.

“Sorry,” she murmurs, sniffling. “I don’t really feel like talking.”

“It’s alright. You don’t have to say anything,” I assure her. My father’s cousins arrive as well as his ex-wife and her husband. His ex-wife is Layla’s mother, and were it not for Layla’s blue eyes, they could be twins. I have only a vague memory of her from early childhood, some chance meeting, but she embraces me nonetheless. How curious the bridges death builds.

“You alright, hon?” she asks Layla.

“I just can’t believe he’s really gone,” she replies, fresh tears running down her face. Her mother pats her leg. 

“I know, sweetheart. But when you think about it, he’s been gone for a while. We said our goodbyes a long time ago. I’ll see you at home, alright? We’ll bake cookies.” She smiles.

My father’s cousins come in and hug us, asking how we are, performing the uncomfortable dance of empathy. I stay seated next to my sister and watch them approach the casket. I find my lip curling at one of their outfits. Who wears denim to a visitation? With clogs? Christ. One of them nudges the other and whispers something. Then they start laughing, laughing! There is a dead man less than an arm’s length from them and they’re telling jokes? What the hell is wrong with them? Rage brings a flush to my cheeks; I can feel my neck get hot. How dare they disrespect my grandfather this way? He trained soldiers who would later storm the beaches at Normandy, he served in the Coast Guard, he is to be buried with military honors at his funeral tomorrow. How dare they. I could slap all of them, and I am glad when they leave.

The visitors continue to thin, and my sister gets up to leave with my older brother and his wife. John goes with them, and I am suddenly very aware of the space between me and the casket. I wipe my palms on my pants and stand up. My heart races, I take a few deep breaths to steady myself. I step through the latticework doorway, unsure of what to expect. In the week prior to this trip, this moment, I had been diligently working on a Zen-like state of mind. It was his time to go, he was no longer suffering; there was no need to address his corpse. It was only bone and tissue, nothing to be afraid of. I was raised in the church, I know that his spirit was what I knew, and that part has left. All of this flies out the window as I find myself standing at his coffin. The lump returns to my throat, choking me. My grandmother is right, it doesn’t look like him. The lips are too pink; his brow is furrowed as though he is worrying about something. After weeks without eating, his cheeks are sunken, making his face look sharp and angular. Only his hands are recognizable. They are builder’s hands, the hands of a working man. We still have chairs and toy chests he made for me and my younger brother when we were children. I briefly consider touching his hands, but decide against it. I know I won’t like it. Tears are streaming down my face, and soon I am gasping for breath. I begin thinking about what a crock of bullshit the funeral industry is. For all the money you pay to have your beloved pumped full of chemicals and placed in a pillowed box, it sure doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. They are still dead, their body will still rot, and they won’t know one way or the other if you bury them in silk or sawdust. All the euphemisms in the world won’t change what’s in front of me in this funeral home in a wretched city. My grandmother is still a widow, and my father will still mourn. I dig my nails in my palms, trying to calm myself. I wish I had visited him more, asked him more about his life, known more of his stories. How much has been lost now? It’s like watching a book burn, and I hate it. I shake my head and grit my teeth. All this anger and regret is too much, I am not ready. I look at my grandfather’s body and say the only fitting words I can think of.

“God damn it,” I whisper, wiping my face. “God damn it.”


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