Before sunrise, I leave for Capitol, steeling myself for the two-and-a-half-hour drive ahead. Puffed up red-tailed hawks perch on tree limbs and power lines, waiting to snatch unlucky field mice and voles from their foraging. The images of meaty deer cadavers, bloated and ravaged by crows and eagles, linger, accompanied by the rhythmic road noise of tire on tar, a steady beat that measures my time. Off the main highway, rough and broken pavement takes me into Capitol. The pines, deep in snow, are near enough to brush the car as I pass. Their fragrance is intoxicating. I should have brought some gin.
Why am I doing this? I’d like to believe it’s about me being nice to an old lady, giving her a chance to see her oldest brother blessed and buried. I know this is a lie. I will never believe he’s dead if I don’t see his carcass. And I need an excuse to show up. A four-hundred-mile out-of-the-way excuse.
When my mother, Virginia, called my office to tell me Billy had died, the sound of her voice went off in my head like an air-raid siren. She insisted I inform his sister Mercy of his demise. Even after forty years of silence between us she expects that I will do as she asks. I can’t believe she gave a thought to Mercy—probably saw this as her last opportunity to frighten me witless. A shudder runs through my scalp and my face flushes hot.
Mercy at eighty-six still lives way the hell up north in the old logging and railroad town where she was born. I like her. She’s always been good to me. I’m happy to help her out from time to time, no matter how far away she lives. It’s Virginia’s touch on my life that has me twitching. I feel like an uncertain hare smelling an unseen fox nearby that’s closing in.
Mercy is waiting at the window when I arrive at her small backwoods home and bustles out of the house with her best friend, Nellie Jane. No need for me to get out of the car, but I do, to collect their overnight bags, but first, to hug them both. They kiss me and call me honey and try to fight me for the luggage. I smile at the look of them. Mercy is round and soft. She reminds me of a Parker House roll, risen dough on the counter, oven-ready. Nellie Jane is more muscular and straight of stature, the daughter of a Scottish trapper and logger, her mother, Lakota. She favors her father’s side and once had quite the mane of auburn hair. In the summers she sports a bounty of freckles, adding color to her fair skin on face and arms.
I pack the ladies into the car and ready myself for the long trip ahead. The soft chatter of the two friends rises and fades off in rhythm with the thumping of the tires on the old highway. The whir of the engine’s fan, set on high to keep heat circulating, distracts. I want to sleep. I want to be going the other way. I wish the sun would shine. But the sky is one color of gray, all the way into Minneapolis.
Today, at the First Presbyterian Church of Saints and Sinners or Whatever, we will send my father, Billy McInnis, off to the netherworlds. He can eat my dust tomorrow. I’ve given up two days of my life on his death. A couple more days and I’ll be done with him for good.
The parking lot at the church is packed. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Who would give a fuck that Billy died? Maybe I have the wrong day, the wrong funeral. I pull the car up to the church entrance, get the ladies out and through the wide, double doors. The room is as packed as the parking lot. The noise from mourners is deafening. A young man approaches to hand us programs for the event.
I ignore the bulletin and ask, “Would you take these ladies to the family pew? I need to go park the car.” It’s obvious that he is unsure about the care of old people. He stands, mute.
“Aunt Mercy, take this young man’s arm and he will escort you and Nellie Jane to the front pew.” Mercy ignores his reach and begins, with Nellie Jane in tow, to get herself down the church aisle.
I am relieved to be alone again, if even for a few minutes. There is no open parking space for a full square block. I circle until I spy a car leaving the church lot, pull in, and park. I need to call Ned before I get caught up in the funeral madness, but first, I close my eyes. I hear myself sigh. I feel the air in the car cool quickly. I don’t want to leave this solitary space, but I can’t leave my aunt and her friend on their own.
“Hello my sweet husband. How are things with your sisters?”
Ned’s oldest sister died the same day that Billy evacuated the planet. She was beloved by her siblings, the first one to go. Ned is in Texas, holding down the fort with his sisters while they try to regroup into a smaller family unit.
“We’re all right. It’s hot as Hades in Texas. I’m glad to hear from you. How crazy is it there?” Ned’s voice soothes me.
“Give them my love and tell them how sad I am for you all.” I can hear a duet of sister voices saying we love you from the background.
“I just have a minute to check in. The old girls are already in the church, waiting for me. I’ll take them to our house tonight and home tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Ned’s warmth fills me, but I still want a drink. “Talk later. I love you.”
“You, too.” We disconnect, and I re-enter the world alone, into the bowels of a church where heaven and hell coexist, to see my father, that abusive son of a bastard, in his coffin.
I make my way up front, where the ladies are waiting for me. It does not surprise me that Virginia is absent. It was bad enough I had to hear her voice. I haven’t seen the woman in forty years either and I do not need to break my winning streak. Aunt Mercy stands before I can sit, gesturing that she and Nellie Jane want to view her brother’s remains at the altar. They go on ahead as I settle myself in the pew not intending to go near the coffin.
There’s something beautiful about Nellie Jane and Mercy holding one another close, tight. They move as one body toward the coffin to witness the death of the asshole I called Daddy. I watch as they make their way down the aisle of the modern, sparkling-clean chapel. The floors are so highly polished I wonder for a moment if the women will slip and fall.
How would anyone ever find the comfort or solace the Bible promises—so I’ve heard—in a place like this? It has an unnatural smell of waxed floors topped off with an odorous bouquet of smoldering candles. There are horrendous other scents of perfumes, aftershave colognes, and I swear a whiff or two of whiskey. I turn my head to look behind me, and indeed there sits an old man with a flask poking out of his sports coat pocket. I’m tempted to ask for a swig.
My gaze shifts to inspect the church interior and halts at an architectural Jesus captured in iron, installed on the wall straight ahead. There’s a condemning look in his eye. I thought Jesus was supposed to love the little children, yet here, in His house of worship, I feel judged for Billy’s monstrous acts on my child’s body. Someone should have done something. I should have done something. Shame stirs terror that creeps up my spine. My heart flutters. Please, no panic—not today. I distract myself in a stare-down with the iron Jesus.
And Jesus cried with a loud voice and gave up the ghost.
I wonder where Billy’s ghost has settled. It’s probably unsettled whirls of dust devils in hell. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I’d have cremated him, just to be absolutely sure he could never rise from the dead, but Virginia wanted to keep his corpse intact, to be buried in the military cemetery with a twenty-one-gun salute she wouldn’t show up to hear. I intend to miss that part of the festivities. I don’t trust myself around Billy and guns at the same time, even if he is already dead. He is dead, and I thank the resurrected, chapel-ensconced Jesus for that. Billy is silent as he lies in his casket. He’s gone.
Who are the others in the congregation of mourners? Could they be friends of my parents? I can’t conjure an image of Billy and Virginia out on an evening with good friends, laughing, joking, playing bridge, or dining. Yet the place is filled. Maybe they’re Lodge cronies, who’ve come out of respect for the financial windfall Billy left them. Virginia was clear that she would see nothing from his fortune and that I should expect the same.
A collective gasp escapes from the mourners seated at my back. I focus on the altar where Mercy now holds Nellie Jane, who has collapsed. On my feet in a flash, I sprint down the aisle. Mercy is on the floor with Nellie Jane, stroking her forehead. I kneel, extending my arms around them both, like a mother shielding her babes from harm. Mercy looks up at me with eyes that spook me to my core. She looks terrified.
The other mourners are crowding us. I stand and hold my hands up to push them back, to give the old women some air. They retreat to their spaces in pews, too noisy in their mumblings as they go. I glance down at Aunt Mercy. She and the minister are helping Nellie Jane to her feet. I step back to allow them to move away from the casket and back to their seats when I notice an old man stopped in a wheelchair in the west aisle. By the look of him—the wavy white hair, the scowl on his face—I know he’s my uncle Terry, come to his brother’s funeral. He is aged and frail. His face is ghastly pale with unkempt facial stubble. His hair is in such disarray, I wonder if he owns a comb.
However he’s learned of his brother’s death, what would compel him here, to see the body? There was no love between the brothers. Does Terry have a eulogy in his pocket? Perhaps we should compare notes. He seems mesmerized by the scene at the altar where his sister Mercy tends to her friend. Mercy, in turn, is unwavering in her attention to Nellie Jane.
I watch him try to rise up out of his wheelchair, but he can’t lift his old body. He’s slow to settle himself back down in the seat. He struggles to turn the chair around. I think to help him, but I don’t move. Now he turns the wheelchair to face the doors. He grinds along, using all his energy, it seems to me, to move back down the aisle from which he’d rolled into view. I can’t tear my gaze away, but still my body does not move to help him. I fixate on a bright orange student notebook sticking out of the backpack harnessed to his chair. It makes me think of a highway flagman, signaling caution to oncoming traffic.
A person who looks to be a care attendant stands in the doorway. Terry must have arrived by Med-Van. I can’t think. I let him go. He’s gone from my thoughts as an aging couple support Nellie Jane and escort the two ladies to their seats. I sit next to them in the oaken pew, my arm about Mercy’s shoulders as she comforts her friend.
Mercy and Nellie Jane, color returning to both their faces, sit shoulder to shoulder. Mercy’s fingers stroke the red hymnal secured in her lap, opened to the appropriate page for the next song of “To God Be the Glory” or some other dirge. Nellie Jane hums a near-inaudible song of thanksgiving. I recognize the words, pilamaya, wopila.
The reverend is wrapping things up. The grieving and the grateful—me—stand as one to close the ceremony. In the death of my father, all are united. To God be the glory, indeed. Billy will be put into the ground later in the afternoon. There is nothing more to worry about from him.
As I prepare to leave the reception—a lavish expanse of buffet and booze laid out by the Masons and their auxiliary—I feel an unstoppable rise of panic settle into the core of my body, radiating through my arms and into my head, bringing with it a cold as complete and severe as death itself.