I didn’t cry at my mother’s funeral. I was fifteen at the time, and the ordeal of seeing her suffer for the last year of her life had left me emotionally paralyzed. People say that you never get over losing your mother, but in the years since then, I locked it away and didn’t think about it much. Then, my father died. His passing had also been expected, and because I had been through this before, I thought it would be much the same.
On the night before I flew back to New York for the funeral, I reserved a room at The Three Village Inn in Stony Brook. My brother had called me and said that because of a renovation that he was having done, there would be no room for me at his house. He told me that if I wanted to, I could stay at our father’s house. Although I considered it, I decided to get a hotel room. The house would trigger memories that I was trying to forget.
“Next weekend is commencement at the university,” he warned me. “You may not be able to get a room.”
I told him I’d try.
“I’ll leave a key to the house in my Garden City office. If you can’t get a room, you can pick it up on the way from the airport. These days, I’m swamped, and I won’t be able to pick you up. You’ll be on your own getting out here.
“I understand,” I said, hoping I could remain patient for the rest of the call. Tommy did that to me.
“Okay,” he continued, “I just want you to know that I have so much to do, so I can’t give you any special treatment.”
I didn’t recall expecting or asking for any special treatment, but I just let it go. “Tommy, I understand,” I said. “Just tell me where and when I’m supposed to be and I’ll be there.”
“That will be a first.”
It’s always been this way with him. No conversation could ever be completely free from a nasty remark. “Tommy cut the shit,” I said. “Let’s just try to get through this. I’m taking off from LAX at 6 AM. My plane lands at JFK at 3:30. I’m renting a car. Where do you need me to go?”
The line fell silent for a moment, and then he said, with a softer tone, “I’m meeting the minister at six o’clock at the Congregational Church, the one in Mount Sinai. Do you know where that is?”
“If it’s the Congregational Church on North Country Road in Mount Sinai, where I was baptized, where I went to Sunday School every week for ten years, and where I was confirmed, then, yeah, I know where it is. If it’s another Congregational Church in Mount Sinai, then I’ll need directions.”
“Calm down, John,” he said. “I’m just saying. “You’ve always been…a little…unreliable.”
“Whatever,” I said. “I don’t know if my flight will be on time or how long it will take me to drive out there. If I can be there, I will. If not, I’ll see you at the wake. When is that?”
“The day after tomorrow at two o’clock.”
“Fine. And it’s the funeral parlor on Main Street in Smithtown.”
“Yes, the same one we used for Mom’s funeral.”
“Okay,” I said. “Now I have to try to get a room, so I’ll let you go.”
“Remember,” he said. “I’ll leave the house key with my receptionist if you need it.”
I hung up the phone and sat at my desk waiting for the anger to pass. I was reminded of why I never talk to my brother. He’s only four years older than me, but no matter how old we get, he can’t get past the fact that he’s the older son. He was the favored one, at least in my father’s eyes. I had learned at an early age to just accept that, but I could never bear the sense of entitlement that unearned favor instilled in him and that he never passed up an opportunity to flaunt it.
We’ve always had problems. When we were kids, he made a show of looking out for me, as an older brother should, but only when my parents were around to gain favor. His affection was strictly transactional. My parents were pleased to see him letting me tag along when he went off with his older friends, but as soon as we were out of sight, he would start teasing and humiliating me.
After finishing college in upstate New York, I had moved out to LA and, for a time, shared an apartment with a friend who was in graduate school at USC. I found work as a junior copywriter in a public relations firm in Santa Monica. The rentals at that time were cheap, and I was able to get an apartment near work. It was the late seventies, and the neighborhood had gone to seed, but the building had a courtyard and a pool, and it was a short walk to the beach and the pier. The best part of it was that it was as far away as I could get from home. Going away to school had taught me that I am perfectly capable of being happy on my own. I have friends who don’t know much about my family, and that suits me just fine. It’s only when I have to deal with Tommy or even think about him, that sends me off the rails.
My father’s death was a kind of relief. He had never gotten over helplessy watching my mother’s long, cruel death from lung cancer ten years earlier. It was hard for all of us. I remember feeling paralyzed and unable to cry or even speak. Tommy and I quietly soldiered on. My father was just the opposite, and it had broken him, and he wrapped himself in an unrelenting sadness weighed upon him.
In recent years his own health had been failing. He struggled to breathe with emphysema, and his body was wracked with rheumatoid arthritis. I was able to come back home on holidays to be with him, but there wasn’t much I could do to help. I was building a life for myself and establishing a career, and to be completely honest about it, I take Tommy in small doses. My absence and lack of direct care for my father was something my brother would begin complaining about the moment I arrived, and he wouldn’t stop until I left. Nobody can push your buttons like a sibling.
The following day my flight left on time, but a construction project on the expressway created massive congestion and turned a forty-five-minute drive to Stony Brook in Suffolk county into an hour, then an hour-and-a-half, and finally two hours. I was too exhausted to drive to the church, and I had missed the appointment anyway, so I checked into the inn and went up to my room.
The Three Village Inn is located in the harbor next to the town beach on the channel that leads out into the Long Island Sound and dates back to the 1750s. My room was in the back, overlooking the Stony Brook village green. The room was simply decorated with a lightly flowered wallpaper, a colonial style writing table, a four poster maple bed and single nightstand with an antique oil lamp that had been converted to electric sometime during the early twentieth century. A red and gold area rug covered most of the dark wide-planked floor. I opened the window, and a cool breeze set the sheer white curtains fluttering. Out on the green, a wedding party was having their pictures taken next to the artificial gurgling brook. It was just before sundown bride and groom were surrounded by the tuxedoed groom’s men and the bridesmaids in their ridiculously broad, poofed-out hoop skirts. The bride was flushed and jubilant. The groom, all clean-cut with his hair precisely trimmed, smiled with an expression that betrayed a mixture of fear and confusion. Or maybe I was just projecting.
I sat down on the bed and pulled out the small card from my wallet and dialed Miriam’s number, hoping that the number was still good. The last time we spoke was seven years ago. The call hadn’t ended well. We’d grown up together and had been through a lot together—her parents’ divorce, my mother’s death from cancer, her brother escaping to Canada to avoid the draft, and then his overdose. Most of this had happened before we finished high school. Sometime after that, things fell apart for us. I went away to college while she insisted on staying home. She was the youngest in her family and the only one still at home, and I couldn’t convince her to come with me. I was impatient and wanted to get as far away from my own family as I could, so foolishly I broke us up. I know I loved her, but I think at the time I hated Tommy more, and I needed to get away from home. My father was morose and withdrawn after my mother’s death. He seemed to blame us, and me in particular, for living and reminding him of the life he lost. Tommy just knuckled under and played the devoted and dutiful son. It was too depressing to me, and I just wanted to get away from it any way I could.
Before I left for school, I moved in with Miriam and her mother to avoid being at home. When I finally left, I vowed to never return to Long Island. I believed, or at least hoped that Miriam would move to wherever I ended up after school, but she refused to leave her mother alone. I had never been able to imagine ever being without Miriam, and I just took her for granted. Finally, she gave up on me and married a pre-med student she met at Stony Brook University. In the following years, we’d met a few times when I came back to visit my father, but it was always awkward. After she had her first child, a daughter, we stopped all contact. Well, I stopped telling her when I was visiting.
The phone kept ringing, and I was about to give up when the connection clicked, and I heard Miriam’s voice. A baby was crying in the background.
“Hello, Miriam?” I said tentatively.
I raised my voice, “Hello, Miriam? It’s me, John.”
“John!” she yelled. “Give me a minute.”
I heard her say something to somebody who was nearby and the sound got garbled. Then it was silent for a few minutes. Finally, she came back. “John, it’s so good to hear your voice, I’m so sorry about your father. We just heard about it yesterday. It’s so sad. He never got over your mother, but at least he’s finally at peace.”
“So where are you right now? I’m coming to the wake tomorrow afternoon. Will you be there? Will I get to see you?”
“I’ll be there. I just got in a few hours ago, and I’m at the Three Village Inn,” I said.
“Good. Brad will be taking care of the kids tomorrow.”
I zoned out for a moment when she mentioned her children and her husband. Then I realized I should ask about them. “How old is Lisa now?”
“Six, going on sixteen. Ben is now ten months old.”
“That’s great,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“Why don’t you come over? Have you eaten yet? I’m about to fix something.”
When I called, I hadn’t planned on spending the evening at Miriam and Bradley’s house with their kids. I wasn’t sure what I had intended, but it definitely wasn’t that. “I’m sorry, I have to get with Tommy to talk about the estate.” I didn’t, but I was now trying to end the call as quickly and gracefully as possible.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I wish you had called sooner and we might have been able to spend some time together. Brad’s on call tonight, but it’s too late to get my mother to watch Lisa and Ben.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “We’ll see each other tomorrow at the funeral home.”
“Okay, maybe we’ll be able to find some time tomorrow for just the two of us. Brad will be off, and he’ll be able to watch the kids the whole day.”
“That would be good,” I said. I wasn’t sure what she had in mind. Some things ran through my mind. I tried to set them aside by ending the conversation as quickly as I could. “I have to go meet Tommy now,” I lied.
“Okay,” she sighed. Then in a serious tone, “Don’t let him get to you. You know how he is. I’ll never forget when we were kids how he bullied you and teased you in front of everybody. Like he was so perfect. Let it go, John. Soon you’ll be able to put everything behind you and move on. It’s time for closure. You deserve it.”
As I hung up the phone, I thought about leaving things behind and moving on. I knew that this was the time for that, but some things refuse to be abandoned, no matter how much time has passed.
I woke up with a shudder and my face was hot and sweaty against the pillow. The room was dark. My right arm was bent and pressed under my side and had gone to sleep. My right hand was tucked between my thighs. I had been in the middle of a strange dream where I was wandering up and down a multilevel garage looking for a car. I couldn’t remember what the car looked like or where I had parked it. I kept walking up and down the ramps looking for something I might recognize with a feeling of panic slowly rising in my gut.
The clock on the night table said 9:34. I was hungry, but the anxiousness I felt in my stomach made the thought of food repulsive. More than that I needed to get out of the room that felt like it was closing in on me and go outside to clear my head.
Outside, the air was cool and refreshing. I crossed the narrow street that runs between the Inn and the town fishing pier. My hands grasped the steel railing at the edge of the pier and leaned over, looking down into the darkness of the channel that smelled of salt, seaweed, and motor oil that was drifting over from the marina. I heard some laughter and turned to look down the length of the pier toward the town beach. Two teenage boys and a girl were sitting on the concrete slab with their feet dangling over the water. The boy nearest to me took the last pull on his cigarette and flicked it over the water. It arced and broke apart in a cluster of red sparks that floated down into the water and went dark. He tossed his head back and blew smoke up toward the stars. The girl reached around him and pulled his attention back to her, and they kissed. The other boy, the third wheel, just looked out at the water. They were the perfect couple with a hanger-on friend. They were starting what two of them would remember as the best summer of their lives, and the other would recall as the worst. I felt envious of them—even the lonely one. Their future lives were still undetermined and filled with endless opportunity.
I arrived at the funeral home just before two the next day. The funeral director, a slim, soft-spoken man looking too young for the job he had, and with the unlikely name of Digger Philips, met me at the front door and buzzed me in. He shook my hand with both hands and earnestly expressed his condolences. “Your brother is already here with your father in Parlor C. Let me take you there.”
I followed Digger and tried to match pace with him, but it was difficult because he had a slow, deliberate pace that was just slightly slower than that of a normal person his age. I kept getting ahead of him and having to stop to let him regain the lead.
Tommy was sitting in the front row of seats leaning forward with his hands clasped and his elbows resting on his thighs. As we approached him from behind in the center aisle, he stood and turned to face us. His face had gotten a little heavier since I last saw him. It was puffy, and middle-aged jowliness was setting in. His hair had gone gray and was thinning on top. When we were boys, he was stocky and taller than me, but the stockiness was melting and descending into a paunch, and he was becoming pear-shaped. He no longer seemed so tall. Despite the four years that separated us, we now appeared to be from different generations. He stepped around his chair into the aisle embraced me. He smelled of gin. “I’ll leave you two alone,” Digger said and turned without a sound, and with a minimum amount of leg motion, left the room. As soon as Digger was gone, Tommy released me and stepped back. “Where were you yesterday? I waited as long as I could, but the minister had to leave to visit someone at the hospital.”
“I got caught in traffic.”
Shaking his head, Tommy said, “Well I did the best I could. I told him what kind of service we wanted and what we wanted him to say tonight, but you weren’t there, so I was all on my own. Is the twenty-third psalm all right with you? It was always Mom and Dad’s favorite, but if you want something else, we could talk to the minister before he starts.” He was staring at me with an intense, serious look that wrinkled his forehead.
“It’s fine, Tommy, the twenty-third psalm is fine. Relax it’s okay,” I said, trying to reassure him.
Then he did it. The pivot.
“Well, it will have to be. You had your chance to have your say about the service, but you weren’t here, so it was up to me. I had no choice because you weren’t here, like always.”
That’s what he always does. One-minute sweet and kind and brotherly and sincere, and the next, nasty and mean like somebody flipped a switch. It had been a lifetime of heartfelt reconciliations that would inevitably be trashed for no apparent reason. I’d learned the pattern and—most of the time—just let it pass. “It’s okay Tommy, really, let’s not do this now.”
I stepped around him and approached my father’s casket. He was a lot thinner than he had been when I had last seen him. The Undertaker had done an acceptable job, but there was still a hollowness in his face, and his eyes were set back slightly in his head making his brow appear more pronounced than it had been in life. I remembered that feeling I had at my mother’s funeral. Knowing not what to say, what to think, feeling paralyzed with a tightness in my chest. I hadn’t cried, and in the years since I’ve wondered why I couldn’t. All I felt was a gaping, black void that was never filled and never went away. I felt the same thing now.
Digger unlocked the front door, and my brother was out front to greet people as they entered the building. I stood at the front of the parlor, off to the side and met with the guests as they came through and passed by my father’s casket. My father had been a member of the pressman’s union for almost thirty years before retiring, so there was a large turnout. I didn’t know most of the people there, but many of them had worked with my father. I went into auto-pilot, shaking their hands, air-kissing their wives’ cheeks, pretending to remember them, and thanking them for coming. I didn’t have anything to say to them, but I soon realized I didn’t need to say anything. My only role in this was to listen to them talk about what my father meant to them and console them.
A familiar-looking elderly woman approached me, smiling. It was Miriam’s mother. She was a little heavier than I remember, and more hunched over than I remember, but with that loving smile, I will never forget.
“Mom,” I said, and we hugged. She stepped back and looked up at me and took the sides of my face in her hands. “Johnny, Johnny,” she sighed. “I’m so sorry for you. And I ‘m so glad to see you again finally. How are you?”
“I’m good, Mom. I’m doing good.”
“How’s he treating you,” she asked gesturing outside the room where Tommy was.
“Oh, he’s all right,” I said, not wanting to upset her. “I know how he is so I don’t let him bother me anymore.”
“Okay, okay, Johnny. Just remember, your father loved you and don’t ever forget it.”
“I won’t, Mom.”
We hugged again, and she started to move on. “If you’re here for a few days this time, please come by and visit. I’ll cook something for you.”
I nodded my head and said, “I’d like that.”
I stood there on duty and kept track of her; she moved around the parlor chatting with neighbors and mutual friends that she had with my parents until she finally slipped out of the room. When I turned back to the front of the room, I saw a sudden movement in the corner of my eye coming toward me. I hadn’t seen her in five years. Her black hair was still shiny, but there were a few spots of gray. Some lines were forming around the corners of her eyes. She wore a yellow silk blouse that was tucked into her jeans and had a big bow at the neck. Her feet, as always, were in sandals. She stood up on her toes and threw her arms around me. I held her tight and could her sobbing quietly in my ear, and her body shook with each sob.
She pulled away. “I’m so sorry about this, but I’m so glad to see you.”
“So am I,” I said, wiping a tear from the corner of my eye.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Digger’s calm, gentle voice said over the din, “This afternoon’s viewing has come to a close, but we would like to invite you back for tonight’s memorial service at 8pm. Please pay your last respects and leave at your own leisure.”
I looked at Miriam. “In other words,” she said, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. Why do they always throw you out in the afternoon?”
“I don’t know,” I said, loosening my tie. “Maybe to give the family a break. I don’t know what I’m going to do for the next four hours, but at least let’s get out of this room.”
I led Miriam out into the foyer where the rest of the guests were filing out the door. “Do you still have some time?” I asked.
“Okay, where should we go?” I asked.
Miriam looked around at all the people who were around us. “Let’s get outside first.”
“Okay. After you.” Miriam did what she had always done. She held me by the tips of her fingers and wormed her slight figure through the throngs of people, opening a space for me to follow. Someone grabbed my arm, and we stopped. It was Tommy.
“We need to talk about some things,” he said.
“Right now?” I asked impatiently.
Tommy looked at Miriam and me and shook his head. “Can you be back here at six so we can be alone?” I nodded. “Good,” he said, and we were free.
Once outside, we moved over to an open area in the parking lot. “So where do we go?” I asked.
“Need a drink?”
“I’ll say. Where? Someplace here in Port Jeff?” I suggested.
“How about back in Stony Brook? Know a place?” She smiled.
“A quaint old inn with a basement tavern?” I asked
“That works,” she said. “Let’s take your rental car.”
It was the afternoon cocktail hour at the Tavern, so it was crowded and noisy, but we found a small table against the fieldstone wall in a secluded corner. I ordered a beer and Miriam had a rum and coke. We waited nervously for our drinks to arrive.
“Well isn’t this awkward?” I finally said.
“Isn’t it,” she answered.
Our drinks came. “Here’s to,” I said. “Here’s to…what?”
“Friends,” Miriam said.
“That’s right, old friends.”
Miriam sipped her drink and paused. “So, Johnny, are you there yet?”
“Am I where?”
“Wherever you were trying to get to since we were both sixteen.”
“I don’t know where that was,” I said. “How about you?
“Well I’m somewhere, that’s for sure,” she said.
“He’s fine,” Miriam said. “He’s a little on edge right now.”
“Why, you ask? He’s always nervous when you’re around.”
“Then it’s good I’m never around. I’ve been back a lot of times, but I haven’t seen you since you got married. There was just that one time.”
“That was enough. And it doesn’t help when my mother mentions you. I think you broke her heart more than mine. Anyway, he doesn’t say anything, but he gets quiet, and I know he hurts inside. He’s going to be on edge all day today, and it won’t stop until tonight when I get home.”
“I’m sorry, it didn’t mean anything,” I said.
“I believe you’re sorry, John, but don’t tell me it doesn’t mean anything. I know why you called last night.”
“I don’t really know why I did. I was just exhausted from my trip and stressed out about everything. I’m sorry if it bothered you.”
“I didn’t say it bothered me—I just want you to know there’s a cost.” She paused and looked down at our hands joined across the table. “So how are you doing out there? Do you have friends?”
Miriam laughed and said, “Would you care to elaborate on that? Man, beast, fowl?”
“Man, beast, fowl?”
“Well, you do live in California.”
“LA, not San Francisco,” I said. “Yeah, some people I went to school with at New Paltz. They got me the job in the PR firm I work for.”
“What do you do?”
“I write press announcements for drug companies and oil companies. What do you do?
“I change diapers and block porn sites,” Miriam said, “but more to the point, are you seeing anyone?”
I took a sip of my beer. “Yes.”
“Is it serious?” she asked.
“It could be. I don’t know.”
“Why does this sound familiar?” Miriam said, letting go of my hands and leaning back.
“Oh, come on,” I said, “give me a break. What did you expect?”
“Shit, I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know what to expect. You go away, I never hear from you, you come back, and then I have to drop what I’m doing.”
“I told you, I’m sorry I called last night. Look, I never came to see you when I came back to visit my dad because that first time after you were married was so awkward. That time we were in your living room sitting on the couch with Bradley sitting across from us. I was doing my best, and Bradley was doing his best, we were all making small talk, but I had to consciously keep stopping myself from reaching over and taking your hand. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to do, but I had to force myself to stop it.”
“I know, I remember that. I know it was for the best. We had a baby, and we had to make our lives together.” She took my hand. “Look, it’s not that I didn’t love Brad then or that I don’t love him now. But that doesn’t change how I feel about you. We grew up with each other, and there were times after when everything went to shit—with my father and my brother—you were all I had. And then you left.”
“I had to,” I said. “I wanted to get as far away from my brother as possible. You insisted that you needed to stay here for your mother.”
“I know, and I did. My father had remarried, my sister and brother had moved away. I just couldn’t leave her alone. I certainly couldn’t move across the country. I’m the last child.”
“I understand,” I said. “At least I understand now. When I finally realized I’d made a mistake and wanted to come back, I called my father and asked about you.”
“You did?” she asked, leaning across the table.
“Yes, I did.” I took her two hands in mine and held them together. “He told me you had gotten married. Just a few weeks earlier.”
“No!” she said. “I never knew about that.”
“I didn’t want you to. My father asked me if he should mention it to you if he saw you and I told him not to. I didn’t want to upset anything. I wanted you to be happy. And I was going to have to find my way without you.”
“That’s pretty ironic, given how everything’s turned out.” She leaned back in her chair and pulled her hands away. Then she leaned in and held my hands again. “Let’s just look for the positive side of things. Speaking of which, I grew up here, but I’ve never seen any of the rooms. I always wondered what they’re like.”
“Tasteful,” I said. “Very New England.”
“Can you show me?”
“ I..I..let’s go,” I stuttered. I signaled to the waiter for our check.
“Good,” she said. “Speaking for myself, I know what I can live with, and regret isn’t one of them.”
We left the Tavern and nervously made our way up to my room. At one point, Miriam thought she saw the mother of one of Lisa’s playmates across the bar, she wasn’t sure it was her, and even if it were, she’d have to explain why she was there instead of at home making supper too.
Miriam sat down on the edge of the bed while I closed the door. I sat down across the room, sideways on the chair by the writing desk. Down on the village green, another wedding party was standing for pictures. I rested my arm on the back of the chair and looked at Miriam.
“So tell me,” she said, “tell me about that time you called your father about me.”
“Oh, that was a long time ago,” It doesn’t matter now.”
“Yes it does, I want to know. I need to know.”
“I promised myself never to tell you,” I started.
“Okay, Okay.” I paused, collecting my thoughts, wondering where to begin. “It was about a year after I moved out to California. I had settled into my job, and I had just moved into my apartment in Santa Monica. I remember it was early spring, maybe late April or early May. It had rained sporadically for a couple days. It was a Sunday morning, the rain had stopped, and the sun was out. I was sitting on my apartment terrace having coffee. The rain had washed away the smog and the sky was clear and blue. I could see the Ferris wheel down on the pier slowly turning. I felt good in my own place, with how my life was going. Then I realize I wasn’t sharing it with anyone. I thought of you. As much as I wanted to blame your stubbornness, your refusal to move away, I was the one who broke us up. I had been driven by anger and frustration. I hoped it wasn’t too late. I knew that all I had to do was call you and tell you how much I loved you and how much I needed you and you would take me back. I didn’t hope, I was certain. All I had to do was call you, and I could picture what the rest of our lives would look like. It wouldn’t matter where we lived. I just knew it could happen.”
Miriam looked down and put her hands on the top of her thighs. “What happened?”
“Well, it had been a year, so as certain as I was about you, I realized that you might have not been certain about me. I needed to know if you had found someone else that you were happy with. I didn’t want to call or just show up out of the blue. If it was too late, I wanted you to live your life and not regret anything. I wanted you to be happy.”
“It’s a little too late for that,” she said.
“I wanted you to be happy,” I repeated. “I remember dialing your number that day, but I hung up before anyone answered. Then I decided to call my father.”
“And what happened?”
“I called him and told him everything. I asked if he knew about your situation.” I stood up paced the floor.”
“Well, what did he tell you?” Miriam asked.
“He told me that you had gotten married three weeks before.”
“Oh my God.”
“I told him that I didn’t ever want you to know about my call.”
“I never knew. If I had, I would have dropped everything for you.” She lowered her face down into her hand. “I would have dropped everything,” she murmured.
I sat back down again by the writing table. “I was devastated. In those few hours before I called my father, I felt so good, so peaceful, imagining what was to come. Then it was gone, and I felt crushed. I had to face a life without you.”
“John, come over to me. Sit here,” she said, patting the bed. I crossed the room and sat down next to her.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry for myself, I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry if your unhappy because of what I did. I was an idiot.
She put her finger up to my lips and said, ”Shhhh. Don’t apologize. We were what we were, and we are what we are.” She put her hand on my cheek. “It’s time to forgive.”
“You don’t have to forgive me for anything,” I said.
“Shhhh. It’s time to forgive one another. And ourselves. No apologies, just forgiveness.”
Her hand was still on my cheek. I reached up and took it. She leaned forward and kissed my lips. She looked into my eyes and said, “no apologies.” I leaned forward and returned her kiss. She leaned away and then kissed me again. Her hand was on my chest feeling my heartbeat. I kissed her again and whispered in her ear that I loved her. Her hair smelled sweet and of sandalwood incense. She laid back on the bed, pulling me down with her.
Digger met me at the door of the funeral home and led me to a small conference room next to his office where Tommy was waiting. I sat down at the table across from him. There were thick binders of casket and cremation services brochures scattered on the table. Tommy picked up a folder that was on the floor next to him. “I want to talk about what we are going to do with Dad’s estate. He set it up as a trust, and I’m the executor and trustee. He left everything equally to both of us with a small portion for any children we may have at the time of his death. As of now, I’m the only one of us who has kids so the full amount of that portion will go to Grace and Tiffany. The rest, some retirement funds, some other assorted stocks, and bonds—he had Long Island Lighting Company. Would you believe it, LILCO? Altogether, that’s about 400K. And then there’s the house. We’re getting it appraised next week, but in this market, it’s probably worth at least 350. Here’s the thing. Do we want to keep it or sell it? Or I could buy you out, or you could buy me out? Or we could keep it together and rent it. We could probably convert the first and second floor into apartments and get even more rent. It wouldn’t be a lot, but it would be a steady monthly income. Given your situation right now, you might be interested in that. I could manage the property, for a fee of course, but my firm can do all the legal work at cost as a courtesy to me.”
“What do you mean, ‘my situation’?” I asked.
“Well, you know. You’re not making a lot of money right now, and you don’t really have a profession to speak of so you may want to have at least a little security just in case.”
“I’ve got a job, I’ve got a career,” I said.
“Yeah, but you know what I’m saying. Your job doesn’t provide and longtime security. I’m a partner in a law firm; I’ve got a profession, and I have equity in an established business. I have financial security.”
“Tommy, I’m tired of this. I’m gainfully employed. I actually did go college, get a degree, and I do have a real job.”
“But where are you really? You took your time getting through school, didn’t you? How long were you working in that lumber yard after high school, getting stoned every night? Five years?” He tilted his head and looked at me across the table with a barely detectable smirk.
“Two years, Tommy. Two.”
“Okay, okay, I don’t want you to get worked up over it,” he said.
“But really,” he continued. “where are you really at?” He arched his eyebrows and said, “are you even close to buying a house?”
“Jesus Christ, Tommy, what the fuck is this. I’m here to bury our father not be trashed by you over and over again. I’m not sixteen anymore.” I couldn’t believe this was happening. “Sell it, sell the fucking house. I don’t need it, and I’m sure as hell not going into the fucking rental business with you.”
“You piece of shit,” Tommy said, “I’m the trustee, and I can determine that if you’re not capable of handling your inheritance properly if you’re irresponsible, then I can decide to hold your portion indefinitely. That’s how it’s written. I can even decide that you should forfeit it all.”
“Oh great,” I said, raising my voice. “You’d really do that wouldn’t you!”
Digger leaned in through the doorway. “Gentlemen, please keep it down and watch your language. We’re going to be opening again shortly.”
Tommy and I sat back down. “You’d really do that? Really?”
“I won’t if I don’t have to,” he said, “but don’t force my hand.”
“Force your hand? What are you talking about? Have I raised any question at all? You asked me what to do with the house, and I said to sell it.” Under the table, my leg started shaking.
“Okay, okay. If we’re going to sell it, is there anything you want to get beforehand? Otherwise, I’m going to call in the estate liquidators, and everything will go.”
“I think I might want a few pieces of furniture,” I said. “Maybe Dad’s rocker from the living room.”
Tommy shook his head. “You can’t have that. I already took it. You know I had a special relationship with him. Before you were born, I used to sit in his lap in that chair and listen to him tell me about the cowboys and the Indians.”
“Special relationship?” I said, rolling my eyes. “Cowboys and Indians? Are you kidding me? I was his son too.”
“It’s my chair,” Tommy insisted. He lowered his voice. “Unless you want to bid for it.”
“Bid for it? What do you mean?” I asked.
“You make a bid to buy it from the estate. And I can make a counter bid?”
“Are you serious?” This was getting very strange very fast.
“Sure,” he said. “I handle things like this at work all the time when we’re settling contested estates.”
“All right,” I said. “How much should I bid?”
“As much as you can afford. Whatever you think it’s worth.”
“Jesus, I don’t know. A hundred bucks,” I offered.
“I bid five thousand.”
“Five thousand! Are you serious?”
“Five thousand,” he said. “If you don’t have enough cash, we can take it out of your share of the estate.”
“Oh Jesus Christ, what you want me to do, sign over whole inheritance for a fucking rocking chair?”
“John, I’m really trying to do Dad right in this. I’m trying to be fair to you. Quite honestly, after the way you’ve been, I don’t think you deserve a fucking dime.” He got up again from his chair and said, “you were never anything but a disappointment to him. You were a slacker when you were a kid, and you’re a slacker now. Besides, I’ve been doing all the work taking care of him all these years. What did you do for him?”
“I live across the country,” I said, trying to regain control of myself.
“Good for you,” he said. He put his hand over his heart and said, “I was the one who came in and cleaned the house and cleaned him. I got him to his medical appointments. I put him in the hospice at the end.” His eyes got glassy, and the room fell quiet. Then he composed himself and said, “you didn’t do shit for him. All he ever did was talk about how he missed you. I spent big bucks on him over the years. I should be taking that out of the estate.”
I was shaking. “All your life only thing you’ve ever done is connive and manipulate him. Whatever you did for him was to get something in return. You trashed me when I wasn’t around.” I felt the back of my neck grow hot. “I’ve had it with you, and I’m not taking any more of your condescending bullshit.” I grabbed one of the brochure binders and threw it against the wall. Then I grabbed the other one and slammed it across the table at Tommy. Digger came running in. “Gentlemen please!” he yelled. “We cannot have this here. You must both leave. If it continues, I will call the police.”
Tommy glared at me. “We’re not done,” he said, and he turned and left. I stayed for a moment and tried to collect myself. My hands were shaking.
“I’ll be opening for the evening service soon. Please try to calm down,” Digger said.
“Is there a place I can go to be alone and get a drink of water?” I asked.
Digger had returned to his Prozac-like demeanor. “The smoking lounge downstairs by the restrooms. There are sofas and a water cooler. I will take you there.”
When I returned upstairs, I saw Tommy, motioning me to join him. He looked like nothing had happened twenty minutes before, but people were gathering in the foyer and in the parlor, so I tried my best to look like nothing was wrong. “John, this is Reverend Wilson, who will be leading the service.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand.
“My condolences,” he said. “I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to meet yesterday. I had a service to perform at the hospital, and I had run out of time.”
“That’s all right, Reverend,” I said. “Tommy told me what the two of you decided on. It’s all fine with me.”
“Good,” the Reverend said. “I do want you to know that when I visited with your father at the hospice several weeks ago, he made a few requests for his service. I’ll do everything you’ve asked, but I’m also going to his request as well. We’ll do the Twenty-third Psalm as you requested, but we’ll start with a reading from First Corinthians which was a favorite of both of your parents. He told me it was read at their parents’ wedding. I think it’s appropriate here.”
I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know anything about First Corinthians, so I said, “that sounds fine to me,” I said.
“Me too,” said Tom.
“Good,” the Reverend said. “Mr. Philips is getting everyone in their seats. In a minute or two, we’ll enter, walk down the center aisle to the casket, say a silent prayer together before your father’s casket. The front row of seats has been left open for you so you can sit right in front of the pulpit.
“Thank you, Reverend,” Tommy said.
We stood there facing each other, silently, waiting for Digger to summon us. I looked from side to side, avoiding eye contact with Tommy. After a few minutes, the Reverend returned and told us everything was ready. He took us each by the hand and walked us through the entrance to the parlor, and we started down the aisle. The crowd fell silent. We approached my father’s casket, and the Reverend turned his face to my brother, and then to me, giving me a reassuring look and then bowed toward my father. I clasped my hands in front of me and nodded. My mind was swirling. I was wondering if I should be saying something to myself inside my head. I couldn’t think of anything, but I could only stare down at my father’s face. I thought again how I hadn’t cried at my mother’s funeral. I saw her face again: the one I remember from when I was a boy, and she was young. Her face was smooth and pure. She was smiling the way she smiled when my father got up after breakfast on Sunday mornings to walk around the table to kiss her on the cheek. I felt lightheaded, and my legs felt rubbery under me. Finally, the Reverend said, “Amen” and raised his head. I turned to face the mourners. Miriam was standing next to Bradley in the second row. The Reverend guided us to our seats in the front row and then returned to the pulpit.
“Please be seated.”
“Joined again this day in heaven: Joseph and Grace. Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy. It does not boast. It is not proud.”
I was dizzy again. My vision first blurred and then narrowed like I was in a tunnel and my ears were ringing. I wrapped my arms across my chest and tried to straighten up in my seat.
“It is not rude. It is not self-seeking. It is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”
My legs went limp and felt numb. I reached down and grasped my thighs to hold them steady. I struggled to breathe.
“It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
I fell off the chair. On my hands and knees, I lowered my face to the carpet and wept.
Fred Bubbers has had short stories, poems, and essays appeared in such journals as The Oregon Literary Review, The Green Silk Review, Palabras, Remington Review, The Loch Raven Review, and the Blue Lake Review. His prose chapbook, The RIF, is forthcoming from Blue Cubicle Press. He grew up in Queens, New York, and currently live in Western Maryland.