Pre-Funeral Duty, by Kyle Manning

When Bobby Romanelli’s father dies quietly in winter, his friend Jackie from back home is there for him. Jackie is the first of his friends to give him a call, to offer condolences, to offer anything that Bobby might need. Jackie changes his teaching shift at the mountain so that he can be there for both sessions of the wake. On the cold Friday morning of the funeral he stands outside on the steps of the Lady of Fatima, waiting to drive Bobby over to the family repast.

Bobby has other friends, those from the distant city where he lives in now, who do not have time to make such a long trip. But Jackie is still here, a five-minute drive away. Even though they have hardly spent much time together in years, Jackie acts as if Bobby never left for college.

And so of course Jackie is at the Romanelli household the night before the funeral, too, that Thursday night after the wake. He’s there to deliver a sympathy card along with a platter of his mother’s lasagna, to offer regards from his parents, and to make sure that Bobby is pulling through after what was surely a very long day.

He is not the only one: the kitchen and dining room are both full of family and friends, a crowd that upon his arrival Jackie must navigate through in order to give Bobby’s mother yet another hug. Jackie had expected the house to be quiet and dark, and now wonders if this bustling atmosphere is the norm. He is not familiar with a grieving home; he can hardly remember the death of his grandfather.

Jackie gives the card to one of the friends, the food to another, and takes two beers from the fridge that has been packed full. He finds Bobby standing in the living room and hands him a beer. More people have arrived, and now even the sofas around the undecorated Christmas tree are full of newcomers. These are mostly younger people, children of the begrieved, some only teenagers but some second cousins who are even older than Jackie and Bobby. Jackie had pictured he and Bobby alone, talking, but still stands in his position at Bobby’s side without a word.

Jackie spends some time asking Bobby questions, some small and insignificant questions that he might ask a friend while catching up over a drink. Seeming neither too overwrought nor enthusiastic, Bobby answers them with short phrases and quick head nods.

They enter a long silence once Jackie runs out of things to ask. The young people keep up the noise. Even before his father died Bobby never had much to say, on those occasions when Jackie saw him again. It’s known between them that Bobby would never want to talk much with Jackie about how the skiing is on the mountain, just like Jackie would never show much interest in what Bobby does with his newer friends in his newer city. When they do hang out they go to parties or to the bar, and their random and spontaneous conversations have little to do with either of their own lives.

In an attempt to find something that will stimulate Bobby, Jackie eyes the coffee table where a crowd of people have begun to look through old pictures of Bobby’s father. Soon the entire living room is engaged, flipping through both albums and large stacks of loose photos.

Jackie looks over to Bobby. “Want to take a look?”

Bobby looks over to the table and visibly considers the question. Finally he shakes his head. Jackie nods in understanding; of course, he has probably seen all of these photos many times. Jackie loses himself for a moment watching some of Bobby’s young cousins laugh at an old photo, but then quickly returns to his vigil besides Bobby.

It reminds Jackie of the wake, earlier that day. Bobby is still in his formal blacks and whites; he stands still and straight, left hand in pocket; he nods and shakes hands, speaking only when spoken to. Like he never left the funeral parlor, Jackie thinks. It is suddenly clear that Bobby does not want to be here at all, that he would rather be doing something completely different. He should keep asking Bobby things, Jackie thinks, should keep him talking. Consoling words run through Jackie’s head.

 *

None of this comes to much, however, and in the tearing of his indecision Jackie continues standing quite motionlessly in the living room. He soon finishes his beer, and does not go for another. While knowing that he should not leave Bobby, Jackie feels that he is here for a reason and should be lending a hand in some way. He keeps an eye out around the room, almost hoping something will happen that will give him a proper reason to leave his post.

Jackie finds himself looking through the wide doorway to the goings-on of the dining room. Mrs. Romanelli sits planted at the long table that overflows with flower arrangements, while a few friends and an old woman who Jackie assumes is Bobby’s grandmother sit next to her. Several of them have both a glass of wine and a cup of coffee before them, but Jackie can’t tell if they’re consuming them simultaneously or not. Everyone else in the room never seems to stop moving: a fleet of Mrs. Romanelli’s friends fly in and out with platters of food, paper plates, utensils, drinks, the trash. An immense ruckus audible throughout the house emanates from the kitchen that Jackie cannot see, where they prepare and set out and clean up the food made all across town by people like Jackie’s mother.

Mrs. Romanelli, meanwhile, sits on her smartphone flicking the screen with her finger. Jackie smiles to himself and nearly laughs. He easily imagines his own mother at such a time, uploading pictures or posting comments. That’s how they found out, Jackie remembers: his mom came into the kitchen one morning while looking at Facebook on her phone. Bobby’s dad died, she had said. The information took a moment to develop; he hadn’t even thought Bobby Romanelli’s name in months. Jackie wonders about the kinds of things that Mrs. Romanelli could be doing online right now, and he imagines a Facebook post, like the one his mom must have seen.

Without a word, Bobby’s older brother David walks up to Jackie and hands him a new beer. Jackie is extremely grateful, and David smiles as he walks over to the coffee table crowd. They have committed to digging out every photo album in the house, and each new find passes from hand to hand around the room.

Inspired by how even David has joined in the activity, it suddenly occurs as a bit ridiculous for Jackie to be standing here doing nothing. Things feel different, for some reason, from fifteen minutes ago—Jackie leaves Bobby’s side and walks over to the coffee table.

The first album Jackie picks up peaks his interest: photos from an old skiing trip to Vermont the family took when it seems like Bobby was just old enough to go. It must be around the time he met Jackie in grade school. He remembers that Mr. Romanelli was big into skiing, and even worked as EMS patrol for a few years on the same local mountain where Jackie teaches now. He brings this album back over to Bobby.

“You remember this?” Jackie asks. Bobby looks over and nods his head. “A little,” he says, and looks back to where he was staring off. Jackie tries not to push anything, but can’t help tilting the album in Bobby’s direction, just in case he wants to steal a glance.

Most of the photos were taken by Bobby’s father but Jackie looks at each one anyway, admiring the scenic shots of the high slopes. When he finds a shot of Mr. and Mrs. Romanelli bundled in bright coats with mountain in the background, he half-whispers over to Bobby. It takes Bobby a second before he even looks down, and he nods at until Jackie takes the album away. Jackie knows that he is pushing now, but feels like he needs to dig something out of Bobby.

When he finds a photo of a Mr. Romanelli sitting in the snow delightedly enjoying a steaming sugar-covered waffle besides his skis, Jackie looks up to show Bobby and discovers that Bobby is not there. After a moment believing that he has simply gone to the bathroom, Jackie sees Bobby’s large form squeezed onto the sofa across the room. Bobby’s head is bent sideways, looking at an album that his young cousin flips through besides him. He even makes a comment, perhaps concerning a particular photo, and they both laugh.

Jackie continues flipping through the album by himself, because he doesn’t have anything else to do. Eventually the ski trip ends and the pages go white. As he returns to the coffee table to exchange it for another, while hearing Bobby from across the room recalling a family story to his cousin, Jackie cannot tell if he has just now lost Bobby, or if Bobby left a very long time ago, years before Jackie called Bobby for the first time in a long time to offer his condolences.

 *

After Jackie has been sitting down on the carpet of the living room for at least a half hour listening to conversations concerning food or school or gifts, talk that helps him forget the real reasons he is here, one of Mrs. Romanelli’s friends enters the room in storm with wineglass in hand. “We’re going to decorate this house,” she declares. Jackie catches movement behind her in the dining room. He sees David run down the hallway and pull the latch to the attic.

Some, like Jackie, look instinctively about the room. Indeed, the tree is still empty, the hearth is dark and barren, the windows are unadorned. Excited voices reach from the dining room.

“We’re going to decorate it, and it’s gonna look beautiful,” she affirms. The coffee table crowd takes a moment to catch on, but once they do they rush to take away the stacks of photo albums to make room for new decorations. Within seconds, the whole house seems to be moving. It’s a lively, party-wide kind of thing.

As David sets down boxes labelled “XMAS” onto the carpet, Jackie feels greatly relieved to finally be doing something productive. It occurs to him that it must be the same reason why everyone is doing this—We are all actually helping with something, he thinks.

Four older women, close friends of Bobby’s mother, claim the boxes of tree ornaments for themselves, and tell everyone else to go crazy. Jackie doesn’t rush, and so the boxes are empty by the time he can get a look inside them. He looks around for a moment, hands in his pockets, until he sees an older woman struggling to untangle a long strand of twinkle lights.

He steps over and asks above her, “Need some help?” and the woman laughs and lets him in. She heads to the kitchen to find something to secure the lights with while he deals with the knots.

While there are other people about decorating things like the coffee table, bookshelf and fireplace, the presence of the four women who decorate the tree overtakes the room in movement and sound. Jackie cannot help but overhear their loud conversations as he works. They chat some about the family ornaments they’re hanging, but always spiral back to central topics like the wake, the funeral, the repast, the cost. Their voices match each other; when one goes into a whisper so do the rest, and so it’s obvious when they’re trying to keep something down because the whole room gets quiet, and everyone is forced to listen.

The woman returns with masking tape, and to distract himself from eavesdropping Jackie asks her how she knows Bobby’s family. “From a long time ago, through preschool,” she answers with a smile. “Miss Barbara. I was probably your preschool teacher.”

Jackie does not remember. They have a good laugh, which falls away when they see that some of the twinkle lights aren’t twinkling.

At a very inopportune moment as Jackie is reaching up to secure the string of lights to the top of the windowsill, Jackie realizes that, somewhere along the way, he has lost Bobby. He looks over both his shoulders, and sure enough Bobby is not in the living room. Jackie remembers seeing him rise from the sofa where he sat with his cousins and did not think too much of it. That would mean Bobby has been gone for some time. Jackie is surprised that he didn’t realize this

He doesn’t panic or even stop working. He keeps the lights secured until Miss Barbara hands him a strip of tape. He’ll go look for him, he tells himself, once the frame of this window is properly alight in green and red.

Waiting for the next piece of tape, Jackie recalls the year or so after Bobby left for college when they only saw each other once or twice. Even when he was in town Bobby would never text or call, and in turn Jackie would not try to contact him either. At some point they began getting together again to catch up on things; Jackie cannot remember when or why. Even though high school feels like yesterday, these more recent memories now feel old and vague.

Again he overhears the tree-decorating squad: one of them has found an old family picture, and they mention how handsome Bobby’s father looked. The other three stop what they are doing and crowd around. They say that Diane must have done something with his hair, it looks phenomenal. They talk about how they ought to get her a big frame for that one, to hang in the living room. And then one mentions how she misses him. The others agree. God, do they miss him.

And then the abrupt rustling of the women getting back to work, hanging in silence. A few seconds later one of them speaks up again, and they return to commenting on the cute handmade ornaments.

 *

As the home adapts the fanfare of glittering golds, silvers, greens and reds, Jackie is reminded of his mother, and how every year she will mark a Saturday in early December as the day they will decorate the tree. While the other decorations around the house are put up gradually following Thanksgiving, the tree is done all at once. Sometimes he and his father are home for this event, and sometimes they are not, but nonetheless it always happens on schedule with his mother leading the effort. Jackie was not a part of it this year; and while he remembers that he missed it for the first time in high school to go over a girl’s house, he cannot seem to recall why he missed it two weeks ago. Without his mother, Jackie thinks, this tradition would probably not happen at all. She would surely not know of a time—save her own death—where someone else would be the one to mark the date, take out the ornaments, struggle placing the star on top. Jackie is reminded of this constantly, as the Romanelli household is decorated by everyone here except for the Romanellis

*

It’s hardly late, but once the excitement of decorating dies, families start heading over to the door to grab coats and pull on shoes. Looking into the kitchen Jackie sees everything that can be done has been done: the dishes cleaned, food put away, surfaces wiped down. He thinks of his own mother telling him to do whatever it was that Mrs. Romanelli needed done. Whatever it may be, she said. And now Jackie asks himself: hanging Christmas lights? Eating food, drinking beer? But still he cannot find a valid reason to stick around besides to find Bobby and say goodbye.

Jackie finds no sight of him after a quick circle through the communal rooms. The crowd’s low and subdued conversations about warming up the car or where somebody left their coat make Jackie feel rushed. He fears anything that might prevent Mrs. Romanelli from getting some rest. Jackie walks past an empty bathroom and starts scanning bedrooms. The two on the right are dark and empty, but the door to David’s room is cracked and lets out a strip of light. Jackie knocks.

He hears a response, and pushes the door open. It’s just David, alone playing video games from his bed. For a moment Jackie finds it funny, thinking about how David must have been doing this for most the second half of the party. “Hey man, I’m heading out—you know where Bobby is?”

David looks away from the screen and over to Jackie. Low explosions sound from the television. “No, not sure,” and David hesitates, looking back to the game for a moment, as if debating whether or not he should say anything else to Jackie.

He seems to snap to his senses, and indeed looks back. David drops the controller and reaches a hand over for Jackie to shake. “Thanks for coming, man. See you soon—oh, right. Tomorrow.”

 Next Jackie checks downstairs, having first to find his way through the line of people who try to get out the door. Mrs. Romanelli stands in the living room now, as if ushering out the crowd. As he passes by, Jackie again is reminded of the wake, of seeing Mrs. Romanelli stand there for hours at the end of the line, doing her duty.

All the downstairs lights are dark. He is at a loss of what to do. He checks his phone, debating whether or not Bobby would answer a call.

Mrs. Romanelli is saying farewell to the last family of partygoers when Jackie returns upstairs. Oddly enough, seeing her dole out her party goodbyes, Jackie feels for the first time Mr. Romanelli’s presence to be missing. His eyes search in vain for the host to Mrs. Romanelli’s hostess. Surprised and for some reason a bit ashamed, he reminds himself that he did not in fact know the man very well. The other family pulls away, as if to make room for Jackie, as if Jackie is the next in line.

A decision moves quickly in Jackie’s head, and he puts the phone back into his pocket.

“I can’t find Bobby, but let him know I’ll talk to him tomorrow.” He approaches for a hug.

“Of course,” says Mrs. Romanelli. “Thanks for being there for him Jackie. You’ve been great. You guys are coming tomorrow, right?”

“Of course—we’ll all be there.” He says this inches away from her ear as they hug. Jackie waits for her to break the embrace. As he straps on his boots he notices that Mrs. Romanelli has gone back into the kitchen and started moving things around, making the small noises of cleaning and tidying. Jackie wonders briefly about what else there possibly could be to clean, and whether or not he should offer further assistance, but reminds himself that there will be friends back to help tomorrow.

Jackie has the thought that grieving must be horribly bittersweet. People offer you practically anything, and you can never at least enjoy it. None of it is to make you any happier. Only a little less sorrowful.

Jackie tells himself that he’s being stupid. He decides there are things about death and grief that he does not know.

The night is horribly, horribly cold. The wind has picked up since he arrived, and Jackie can hardly see the neighbors’ Christmas lights due to the snow that the wind throws across the ground. And he had to park all the way down the street.

“Hey,” he hears, a sound so faint that at first Jackie doesn’t even turn around to look. After a moment he realizes that it wasn’t just the wind and looks over to see Bobby standing in the side yard. Both his hands are held out in front of him, each clutching something. Jackie walks over and sees that it’s a lighter and a cigarette, which he knows cannot possibly be lit in this wind.

“Hey.” Jackie’s first instinct is to tell Bobby that it is too cold and that he should go inside, but Jackie thinks better of it. The city where Bobby now lives is much colder than here. “I’ve never seen you smoke before,” Jackie says.

Bobby shrugs. Jackie can’t even be sure that Bobby has understood what he said; the wind obscures everything. Jackie kind of hopes it was inaudible, because he didn’t mean to sound so condescending. He had just wanted to say something.

The skin on Jackie’s face grows numb within seconds. They will talk tomorrow, he thinks. Or at least, they will see each other tomorrow. He sticks out a bare hand for Bobby to shake, and immediately considers that he should have offered a hug. But, after tossing the dead cigarette into the snow, Bobby quickly takes the hand.

“Thanks man,” Bobby says, and Jackie hears this clearly. Jackie only nods and waves an arm out as he walks away. Again he feels like he should have done something more affectionate, but nevertheless he finally does not feel bad leaving Bobby alone. The wind against his face makes Jackie suffer on the walk to his car, but still he feels very relieved, and does not look to see whether or not Bobby has gone back inside.

 


Recently graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Maine at Farmington, Kyle now lives and writes while wandering about the northeastern states of the US.

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