Largely unnoticed but for a quick shoulder hug from her Nana Grace, Brecca wove through the maudlin forest of her father’s friends and relations, searching for her mother.
For most of the evening, Julie greeted those came to pay their respects at the large double doored entrance that separated the funeral home’s foyer from the impossibly long, wide room where Jimmy lay in state. Because normally the bereaved widow waited at the casket for They’d walked up to him side meshed to side when mourners, this breach of etiquette caused a log jam with visitors clogging the foyer and stretching out into the unusually warm spring night. Jimmy’s mother alternated being tears and artfully concealed fuming but her appeals to Jimmy’s father and the funeral director to convince Julie to follow protocol were ignored. Only Gemma dared approach her sister and retreated with a shrug when she saw the set of Julie’s jaw and color of her eyes. Gemma knew that square clench and storm gray stare. She’d never prevailed against it when they were children and wasn’t going to attempt to better that score now.
When they’d first arrived with Brecca’s slight arms locked around Julie’s waist and Julie leaning her head atop Brecca’s and her right arm draped in a protective loop across the back of the girl’s shoulders, they found that Jimmy’s family had arrived ahead of them and were already staking claims near the simple wood casket he’d chosen for himself months earlier.
Brecca had helped Julie and the hospice nurse on duty clean and dress her father in the half hour after his death before the funeral director had arrived with the hearse to take him away. Minus the suffocating hiss of the oxygen machine and the gurgle Jimmy’s throat emitted that reminded her of the burble of a hair clogged drain, the house was still, only the muted thump of the first strains of Welcome to the Jungle on a maddening Guitar Hero loop from the hillbillies next door to remind them that the world hadn’t actually come to an end.
The Jimmy who lay breathless and waxen in front of them was less Jimmy than his newly vacated form had been two days earlier. Painted, stuffed and sprouting hair in places that Julie was sure were long bare, he looked like the portraits of her great-grandparents. The ones colored after the fact with bright pastels in hopes of rendering life less black and white.
“Doesn’t he look wonderful,” his mother, Maggie, sighed as she attempted to wiggle her arm through Julie’s and failing at that settled for a double bear hug of both she and Brecca.
Brecca felt her mother stiffen and push her a little to the side to break Maggie’s hold.
“Yeah. Life like,” she replied.
Brecca knew the tone and caught the smirk on Gemma’s face before she hid it under her hand.
“See Dan, I told you. He looks as good as he did alive. Before, ya know,” she said, glancing over her shoulder to address her ex-husband who sat without comment or expression on a love seat with his wife, Grace near the middle of the a row of seats clearly meant for family in the receiving line.
“I don’t see why we need a receiving line,” Julie had argued with Jimmy the day they’d sat on that same love seat, surveying the room while the funeral director went to find a catalogue of caskets for them to look through.
“Catholic wakes. Receiving lines,” Jimmy said. “It’s the way it’s done.”
“Since when you are so Catholic or traditional for that matter,” she groused as he slid an arm around her and pulled her close enough that she could feel drainage tubes hidden underneath his baggy quilted flannel. He kissed her cheek and snuggled her, the plastic tubing of his oxygen line cold against her skin.
“Funerals are for the living,” he replied.
“Well this living person doesn’t need a receiving line or wake either,” she said, not wanting to fight and yet starting one without being able to stop herself.
“Babydoll,” Jimmy’s tone was more breathy and she knew he was agitated, but how could he expect her to play perfect hostess for his loutish, disloyal friends and cater to his nerve shredding mother within days of his death?
Angry with herself and him, she brushed away hot tears with the sleeve of her favorite gray sweater and pursed her lips to keep back sobs that always were frustratingly near the surface.
“Brecca and I are the only living people who should matter,” she was finally able to whisper.
Jimmy chuckled softly, kissing her curls this time.
“Aw, baby, it’s not that simple. You’ll see.”
Julie saw the family lining up. Maggie positioned herself at the head and beckoned Julie to fill the next spot with a circular wave of her jingly ringed hand. The late afternoon light caught the zirconia and J.C.Penney gemstones creating a kaleidoscope effect that distracted Julie for a second before she smiled that divorced from her flat dewy eyes imitation of civility and said,
“I’d rather meet people at the door.”
She took Brecca’s hand firmly in her own and walked back them back they way they’d come. The room was filling and taking their cue from the family lining up like actors taking the stage, they began to make their way up to pay final respects. Few realized that the widow was striding past them but those who did stopped Julie and tentatively offered condolences. And told their stories.
Her own memories of funerals were similar to Jimmy’s. Dead bodies on display, family meet and greets that flowed easily from weddings to funerals with hardly a second thought about the morbid similarities and that the first might simply be practice for the second. There had been no receiving line for Jimmy and Julie. They saved themselves the trouble by eloping.
“We were married by a transgender Elvis impersonator at the Graceland Memorial Love Chapel in Memphis,” Jimmy used to tell this story hard on the heels on Julie’s recitation of his Harlequin romance proposal because the contrast amused him.
What Julie remembered most about funerals where the tales told and the way lives she thought she knew revealed their shady places through others’ memories. It was as if a person was a jigsaw puzzle with pieces scattered across their lives that only come back together in the end.
At her own father’s funeral, Julie stood in the exact spot Maggie had offered her, behind her mother, and listened as one person after another revealed a man she always suspected that she never really knew. What she didn’t know at the time was how much of the information was news to her mother too.
Brecca slipped through the side door to a long hallway that ran past the viewing room to the foyer, looking back towards the building’s entrance she saw people lined up in both directions, into the room where her father lay and out the front door into the cold inky night. In the other direction was a dimming hall that seemed narrower for lack of light, but no sign of her mother. The last she’d seen of her was a half hour earlier when Julie had sent her to the courtesy room set up for the family.
“There are sandwiches and things. Get something to eat and sit for a while,” Julie told her.
“I should stay with you,” Brecca said although she wanted to be away from the introductions, dank embraces and the inane surprise about her growth.
“Wasn’t I supposed to?” she blurted out without meaning to and prompting her mother’s suggestion in the first place.
It was Karen who took her firmly by the shoulders and shepherded her past the group of men who made up the nucleus of Jimmy’s friends. Older looking than Brecca remembered but still sporting t-shirts bearing the names of sports teams under suit coats that hung loosely or clung to bellies that overhung jeans that would have been reality checking on women of the same age, they ducked eye contact and whispered among themselves like school boys. She cast a glance back at Julie, who smiled with the only genuine light Brecca had seen in her all day as Karen whisked her away and down the same dim hallway she faced now.
The family room was off to the left, and Brecca peeked in, seeing only Bailey and his younger brother Roth, still munching and watching television as though they were in their own living room.
“You need something Brec?” Bailey asked. He sat up straight and leaned forward on the sofa expectantly.
“Have you seen my mom?”
“She was here a while ago and then left,” Roth replied though he didn’t take his eyes from the television.
“She was with our mom,” Bailey added. “I thought they were heading back to the … room? What do you call it anyway?”
“I don’t know that it has a specific designation,” Brecca said.
“They call them chapels,” Roth supplied helpfully.
“How do you know that?” Bailey asked.
Roth picked up a brochure that was on the coffee table and tossed it in his brother’s lap.
“Says so right here,” he said.
Bailey leafed through it, frowning before tossing it back.
“What’s the point of advertising in a room that’s only used by customers?”
“Do you guys know where else they might have gone,” Brecca wasn’t in the mood for brotherly banter.
Bailey shrugged and sighed. He hadn’t done a thing right in days and was still pitching a perfect game.
Voices further down the hall caught her attention and with a small wave she followed them to a ladies restroom. It was locked but she could clearly hear women’s voices inside.
Silence and then a click before the door opened slightly and Karen peered out. Seeing Brecca she opened the door wide enough for the girl to slip through. Julie was sitting in a club chair in the corner.
“I told you she would be the second to notice,” Julie said.
Gemma was perched on the vanity and Karen seated her self on the closed lid of the toilet.
“I’m sure people are asking for you,” Karen said. “Right, Brec?”
“No, I came on my own because I didn’t see mom at the door.”
Gemma laughed, but Julie’s reaction was as hard to read as it had been since it was obvious that Jimmy wouldn’t wake up again 5 days ago.
“Kare-bear, your faith inspires me,” Gemma said.
“Now that I’ve proved my point,” Julie added, “it’s time to call in quits for the night.”
She stood with a slight wobble that everyone noticed but let go without comment and stretched out an arm for her daughter. Brecca responded quickly and was snuggled up under Julie’s wing as Karen and Gemma headed out the door ahead of them.
“Just have to make it through tomorrow, Mom,” Brecca said.
The naive sincerity in Brecca’s voice brought tears to Julie’s eyes for the first time that day.