I got the call from his on-again-off-again boyfriend, all half sobs and grief rounded words, letting me know Jake bled himself in the tub, the result of which sent me into a whirlwind of arrangement making. I ran out to my car and drove down to San Diego. After an erratic car ride, cutting off old women and getting the finger from more than one Mercedes drivers, I parked out front the county hospital.
I sat in the car and looked at the building. I counted the boxy windows, and determined it held six floors. Inside, I was instructed to wait until a technician from the morgue could be called. I waited, sitting in an uneven chair that rocked from side to side when I leaned my weight one way then the other. I considered the possibility of there being a mistake, but concluded that hope was best saved for a different occasion. My eyes tore around the place looking for a clock on the dull white walls. Jake would have taken the time to put on a watch, one with a big face, nothing gaudy, but something prominent and noticeable. I looked at my own wrist and in doing so imagined his: thinner, with darker hair, and a silver watch he would have found appropriate. I saw the second hand ticking like a heartbeat, and when the woman at the front desk called out, “Mr. Nonsole , we’re ready for you.” The second hand stopped mid tic, and the watch disappeared.
A man in white led me into an elevator. It shook and banged loudly while we made our descent. It seemed to pause every foot or so, making the trip seem longer. In the presence of the mute stranger, I stood unmoving. After the doors to the elevator banged open, the man in white placed me in front of a window and disappeared, only to reappear with the flickering of a light on the opposite side of the glass. Besides my brother, the room was empty, obviously only a pit-stop for the dead. When he pulled back the sheet, I was glad to only see my brother’s face. It was pale, and the still look of him allowed me to take in his presence, like a photo. I nodded and turned to leave the place.
In the parking lot, I took a deep breath, as if ready to dive into a pool whose temperature and depths I was unsure. I hopped into the car, and I drove the two hundred miles to our parents’ house. Not the home Jake and I grew up in, but rather a house in a cottage style community, where all the residents were retired and close to clocking in for the last time.
Mom looked happily surprised when I turned up at her front door. I thought the grief on my face might tip her off, assuming the loss of a child is something a mother instinctively knows, something felt in the pit of her stomach, an aching or searing pain, at least an itch, but my mother appeared to have none of these. We sat in the kitchen nook, a cozy thing, with an extended window that allowed my mother to grow herbs in the sunlight, something she loved to talk about. The rosemary becoming the daughter she never had and the basil growing so successfully it would be impossible for me or my brother to live up to it. Dad sat in the kitchen, giving me a half conscious smile before looking back to the crossword lying in front of him. Mom sat to his side on the bench-seat while I sat across from them in a wooden chair my father claimed to have built in the garage, but I could tell by its brother sitting next to me, this pair was chosen, either out of a catalogue or off a showroom floor.
Mom kept trying to escape the table, trying to pour me something to drink or serve me something to eat, the whole time badgering me about how fast I’d said I’d gotten there. She said something about car accidents, and Dad piped in with, “It’s those new cell phones, too many contraptions. You know they have some with cameras? It gets people caught up in strange things.”
I nodded, trying to find my way into telling them what I had come for. I decided on the beginning. Wondering where beginnings start, I cleared my mind of everything except my brother’s face, but every time my mind freed itself of all the other crap, a public service announcement explaining how to see the signs of depression flooded back into my mind, and my brother’s face was lost to a black screen with a website typeset in white across the middle. Mom placed a cup of coffee in front of me and sat down.
“Jake’s killed himself.” I said.
Neither of them responded, no questions, no tears, not even a gasp of air to take in the moment. They exchanged looks, then stared back at me as if the news was sad, but not that sad. Jake might as well have been the neighbor’s dog.
“We have bunt cake,” my mother finally said.
She stood up with not so much as a shudder and served me a slice. It sat in front of me as I waited for something grander, something that showed me my parents knew their son, their baby, the man lying cold at the county morgue.
“He’ll have to take my plot I guess,’ Dad started, ‘I happen to know there’s a spot open to the right of your mothers. I don’t suppose he lined up his affairs before acting.”
“Oh no,’ said Mom, ‘I don’t want your brother messing all this up.”
I looked to my mother, and the look of disgust must have read as inquisitive. “Your father has slept to my left for the last forty years,’ she said. ‘And I don’t want something like this to go and change that. “
I couldn’t muster the energy to say anything.
“Go to my office, and grab me a folder labeled,” Dad looked to the ceiling as if looking for the answer to one of his puzzles. “Final Plans.”
I jumped at the opportunity to allow Mom and Dad to find their place in the world, talk to each other, put on a show, even if it was just for me.
I entered the office and looked around. It had become an unused room, one reserved to house the clutter and the dust of a lifetime. Books and boxes of useless things converged together to create a panorama of the forgotten and the unimportant. I looked for the folder, riffling through papers stuffed in various desk compartments and fingering through rows of files in filing cabinets, but it wasn’t until I saw a red file, stationed after medical bills and before investments, that I found what I was looking for.
I opened the file to find paperwork explaining my father’s investments, and his life insurance, detailed instruction on how to collect all his assets were he to pass, numbers of people to call, people who knew his wishes, none of whom belonged to the family, and instructions on how my mother was to be cared for. Pages and pages of words, not one written for his children only to them.
The paperwork pertaining to the burial plots lay near the end of the file. A grid of numbers, each encased in a rectangle, little notations where sidewalks ran and trees grew. An empty circle meaning the plot had not been used but been purchased, a filled one showing the owner had taken up residence, and star indicating the plot still needed purchasing.
I plopped into the leather armchair I remember Dad having in the living room when I was growing up, but now it lingered in his unused office like an outcast. Next to it, a hand lathed side table his brother had made, the table that sent my father into a wood working frenzy, though none of his pieces ever came close to the same craftsmanship. A picture of our family stood beside a lamp. The shot taken at a portrait studio in the mall when I was twelve and Jake still ten. My parents and I dressed in itchy red wool sweaters and blue jeans in front of a phony fireplace and mantle. Jake is there too, though he had discarded the sweater in favor of a plain white t-shirt. That October was an abnormally warm one, and I couldn’t help but remember all his complaining about the heat and the sweater. I sat looking at the grid of graves considering the place where my parents were meant to move and where my brother had so recently butted himself into.
“Dad‘s wrong.’ I said to the picture of my brother’s ten year old self. ‘There are spots open on either side. I think I’ll go with him to buy the extra plot. I think I’ll try to convince him to buy the one to his left, and when the time comes to situate everything, and we both know I’ll be doing the situating, I think I’ll set you up right in the middle Jake. Make you lie between our parents for all of eternity, like a toddler to afraid to decompose in his own grave.”
The ten year old Jake in the picture buckled over laughing. He pushed down the pictured twelve year old version of me like a cardboard stand-up and turned to his side, and sticking his thumb into his mouth, he cuddled up to Mom’s shoulder, playing the part I’d just described, occasionally breaking from character to see if I still looked on.
When I left my parent’s house, the sun began to make its downward descent. I hugged Mom and shook Dad’s hand, pausing for a second on the front step giving them one last chance to react appropriately. Both whiffed again. Mom only gave a half smile and Dad kept looking from me to the car. I raised my hand to signal I was off, and Mom’s smile spread a little bit wider and Dad gave me a nod. I was left to make the three hour drive on my own, trying to figure out what kind of family I was born to.
The next few days were filled with phone calls: to the morgue, to the mortuary, to family, and to the police precinct. I needed to find out when I could have my brother’s body moved, but the police needed to sign off on some paperwork. I called repeatedly throughout the week, finally deciding that I’d have to go down to the precinct.
A detective with a lunch-speckled mustache invited me into his office. He referred to my brother as the Nonsole Case. He explained the problem.
“We found some irregularities,” he said. “The amount of tranquilizer we found in your brother’s system was more than enough to do him in. Usually the ones who mean to complete the job know how to do it. Very rarely do we find an ender who’s not on the ball. There’s also the lack of a note. There’s almost always a note. People can’t seem to go without getting a few last words out, at least some kind of indiscernible rubbish finger-printed in the steam on the bathroom mirror.”
“My brother wasn’t a rubbish kind of guy.” I said a bit loudly, growing agitated with the manner in which the detective so nonchalantly covered my brother’s suicide. My irritation showed across the detective’s desk like a forest fire on a distant mountainside.
“How’d you feel about your brother’s life style?” The detective asked while sitting down and taking my brothers case file up in his hand going over it like he would the morning newspaper.
“The fact that he’s a graphic designer or that he sometimes wears socks with sandals?” I answered.
“It’s just that some people…” he started.
“I know.’ I interrupted. ‘I get it. Some people aren’t comfortable with the gay thing. I’m not sure that I am, or was. But he’s my brother. When it comes to that, well, the other stuff doesn’t matter.”
The detective nodded his head and dropped the case file onto his desk. “I guess that’s it.’ He said. “I’ll be calling you as soon as all the paperwork is done.”
Outside the police department I thumbed through a stack of photos I collected from a shoebox hidden in my place that I planned to use for a poster board meant to bring life to my brother’s memory, something for friends and family to look over while waiting to take their seats at the church. Some of the photos housed only my brother, but not many. Most were shots of the four of us at family gatherings. Jake either front and center with a beaming smile or somewhere hidden in the back behind a cluster of photo inhabitants. One showed my father and me at my uncle’s house inside the workshop. My father and I posing as a disturbed family for a forgotten reason, me with a hammer raised over my head, my father looking like he belonged in a production of West Side Story half bent over with flathead in his hand ready to strike. In the back, obscured by shadows, my brother sits on a newly put together chair. He’s leaning forward with his elbows pressed down onto his knees, two hands clenched together as if in prayer. His face half hidden. I stared at him, wishing I could get this shot blown up, and find a way to have my father and I removed so my brother could sit in the workshop alone.
“That’s not a half bad idea brother.” Jake said, using his hands to push himself off the chair as he moved forward in the shot. He reached up and snagged the hammer away from me. “You think Dad would be a shark or a jet?”
“He’s white Jake. I don’t think he’d have a choice.”
Jake circled our father occasionally flipping the hammer in his hand. Never making to hit him, but something in his eye told me he just might. “You should go check with some of my friends,” he said. “I bet they got some photos the family would love.”
Jake dropped the hammer and stared at the picture version of me then at the real me. “You don’t have to invite everyone, but I think Mark should be there. We were together so long. I don’t want him turning into one of those depressed widowers. He’ll need some closure. I want you and him in the front; carrying the coffin, fill in the rest of the positions with cousins or something.”
“Are you sure you only want Mark there?”
“Who else would you suggest?”
“I don’t know,” I said, running through an empty roll-a-deck in my head.
“It’s fine,’ he said. ‘Just Mark.”
Bending down, Jake disappeared from view, but returned instantly sliding the hammer back into my hands before retreating to his seat in the back to return to his prayer.
I had Mark’s cell phone number from when he called to tell me the news. I called him and he answered with a chipper tone in his voice that disappeared when I told him who I was.
“I wanted to know if we could meet,” I said. “I was hoping we could get coffee or something.”
His end of the line stayed quiet.
“I also hoped you might have some pictures of my brother, some pictures of him at his happiest.”
The next day I waited for Mark on the coffee shop patio, tearing small pieces off a coffeecake muffin I inexplicably purchased after the young and perky coffee slinger behind the short counter suggested it to me. The thing turned out to be dry, but I kept picking away at it anyways.
Mark stood about 6’4” without shoes, and sauntering down the street in black skinny jeans and a tight sleeveless shirt, that showed off his toned chest, a pair of platform boots that rose over his calves, all topped off with a 1940’s style woman’s hat complete with veil, he looked like a cartoon character coming towards me. I stood up when he got to the table and as I stuck out my hand he barreled into me taking me up in a great hug that almost lifted me off the cement. Mark released me and I all but fell back into my seat wanting to hide my face from the foot traffic just beyond a three foot iron green fence that separated the coffee place’s patio from the sidewalk.
“How are you handling everything hun, I know you and Jake were close, he always talked about his big brother like he was well, his big brother.”
Before I could answer, Mark raised a long arm and ordered his coffee from a seated position, yelling back into the coffee shop receiving a curt not from the girl behind the counter.
“I am so glad you called me,” he started up again. “I really want to be a part of this thing. I’ve been racking my mind as to how this whole thing should go down. Of course your brother wanted to be cremated, and I would just love to get one of those diamond rings, you know, the ones they make out of your loved-one’s carbon, I already have the chain I want to keep the ring on. I’ll wear it forever. I swear. Well maybe not when I’m out. The whole story would be kind of a turn off if you know what I mean.”
I tried to imagine what shape rock my brother would make, and before I could chisel out his exact dimensions, I stopped Mark. “I’m sorry Mark. I wanted to let you know that you are more than welcome to come to the funeral. I didn’t want there to be any question about that.’ Mark stared at me across the table, his face motionless, not appeased, not affronted, only calm and calculating.
“Jake is going to be buried. We’ve got a plot, near my parents.”
Mark swallowed down the last point with an obvious look of horror. The lump in his throat sticking in the center of his neck before it dropped. He took a deep breath and forced a smile onto his face before continuing. “Well the reception. I was thinking something like a big extravaganza, a celebration of life. Something people can talk about for months to come. I brought you those pictures,’ Mark pulled a stack of three-by-fives out of a little purse slung over his shoulder and went on. ‘I included a guest list with the pictures, some close friends, some cool people, and some hot bods. Trust me your brother would love the idea. Do you have any ideas for a band, if not I know this great industrial group, they can use the gig, and I’m sure they can do some real mellow stuff if we ask.”
“I’m sorry Mark, but there’s not going to be much of a reception. Maybe some coffee and cake, but that’s about it. Everything is going to be pretty vanilla. No real shock and awe to it at all.”
Mark straightened his back, and draped a dramatic hand over his chest. He stared down at me over his long nose. “Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but I don’t think you understand. Your brother never fit into your family’s cookie cutter existence, and I don’t think he’d want some kind of ho-hum funeral. He was my lover. I knew him. Really knew him. If you’re not going to obey his wishes, well then, I don’t think I can be a part of this.”
Mark made to stand up, but I stopped him with an outstretched hand “Mark, please. I know he wants you there. He wants you and me to carry his casket, the two of us on either side right up in front.”
Mark stood, the back of his legs pushing back his chair on the cement. “Me, carry the casket. I’m the widower not the undertaker. I’ll be leading the precession hun. Leave all the info on my phone. I don’t think I have anything else to say to you.”
The chick from behind the counter had just made it out to the patio. Next to Mark she looked like a child. She looked from me to him and back again like she’d walked in on her parents having a go at it in the kitchen. Mark snatched the coffee from her hand and said, “He’s got it,” before strolling out of the place with the free coffee perched in his right hand to his side like an unwanted gift he was obligated to take home with him.
I paid the girl and she looked down the sidewalk at Mark before smiling down at me and adding, “Don’t worry, me and my boyfriend are always fighting.”
At home, I looked through the stack of pictures Mark left me. Most were of the two of them, and I could imagine Mark going through the pictures, picking all the ones he thought he looked best in. As I discarded the shots I couldn’t use, shots with my brother’s eyes closed, the ones of Mark draped over my brother’s lap, and the ones of the couple kissing, I ended up with three good pictures for the board, one that I particularly liked, a school photo of my brother from his senior year. I’d seen the picture before, but had forgotten about it like one forgets about an old phone number or a password long out of use. My brother, with his perfect hair, the bangs falling over his forehead, a sly, mischievous smile thinly drawn across his face, a truly handsome young man whose eyes told the person looking at the picture that he had a big secret.
“What are you smiling about Jake? You get your kicks by pulling the wool over Mom and Dad’s eyes. God, you actually made Dad cry, the man who sliced through ninety percent of his thumb and walked into the dining room to casually say he needed to go to the hospital.”
Jake flipped the hair off his forehead and said, “We both know he wasn’t crying for me brother. The old man was just thinking about all his friends at the lodge, about what they might say. And you’re forgetting Mom, she was great. ‘No son of mine is going to be a homosexual. I won’t have it.’ You’d think I’d become a clown in the circus. Like I could just hop a bus and come home. ”
“You sure did play the part Jake. What about Suzy? You guys dated for five years.”
“More like one. Then we were just good friends. She says she knew all along. I hope you invited her to the funeral, it’ll give Mom something to badger me about in her head. ‘Oh Jake, she’s such a pretty girl, and now you’ve gone and ruined it all with your silly shenanigans.
“Thanks by the way. I’m glad you didn’t call Mark for the invite. I know he appreciates you meeting him man to man. He was just putting on a show by the way, he’s like that. It’s annoying at first, but then you get to depend on it. It makes you feel good, playing to someone else’s whims. When you’re able to make them happy, play all their childish games the right way, it makes you feel in control. That’s what I saw in him. I know you were wondering, and that’s okay. I know he’s a bit over the top, but people are just more fun that way.”
“I just hope he doesn’t turn into a drama queen for the funeral.’ I said. ‘I already have to round up our clan. I can’t imagine trying to control a giant wailing widow.”
Jake’s hand came into the picture and pushed the bangs off his forehead. “Can you believe this hair,’ he said. ‘My god, I must look like Luke Perry or something.”
The next morning I found a message on my machine from a Detective Jackson, saying the death was in fact a suicide and my brother’s body could be transported. I showered and got ready for another trip up the coast to the cemetery where my brother was to be buried.
Half way there, I looked to my rearview mirror at the poster board in the back seat. I contemplated the placement of pictures; the thing looked like a fifth grade science fair project. I realized I couldn’t go through with it. I wasn’t about to drop this pathetic depiction of my brother’s life off at the funeral home to be displayed. I reached toward the backseat awkwardly as if trying to maneuver myself out of handcuffs, and I tore off the middle picture, the high school photo of my brother. Without looking at it I shoved it into my pocket and continued my drive.
My appointment at the mortuary was for three, and with the lack of traffic that led to my speeding, I reached the funeral home half an hour early. I sat in a nearly empty parking lot in front of the funeral home, the only other cars were a hearse and a brown Buick Regal, the ideal car for a mortician, comfy as a casket but not too flashy. I considered going in early, but thought about how awkward it would be to walk in on an orthodontist deciding what kind of lining he wanted his mother to lie on for the rest of eternity. I sat in the car and waited, listening to the radio and staring down the clock on the dashboard willing it onward. At last the hour changed, and I burst out the car as if freed from a cell. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the driver side window and realized my sky blue shirt was much too bright for a mortuary. I immediately began unbuttoning and headed for my trunk where my bags lay packed for the next few days. The solution for my misjudgment came in the form of a wrinkled brown number with a bit of barbeque sauce on the right cuff. I shrugged off the calamity of my appearance and figured the guy I was about to meet worked with dead people, and my wrinkles and stains were nothing compared to his usual clientele.
Inside, the place was dark. A mellow piano recital played in the background, two notches above barely audible. Golden light fixtures hung from the ceiling and I thought they looked a bit too modern for the atmosphere. On one wall, different styles of caskets protruded three feet, enough to show the interior and give a general idea as to how the full sized model would look. I could tell they were arranged on the wall by price. The brown ones on the bottom looked adequate, but anyone could tell the high end merchandise lived on the top row. Across from the caskets, a garden of silk flowers displayed different arrangements to be ordered, here the display to price ratio was not so obvious. While considering a bouquet of violets that looked so real I had to reach out and rub a pedal between my fingertips, a whiny voice stopped me.
“Mr. Nonsole you’re late.’ I turned around to be confronted by an elf of a man, pointed ears and all. ‘I believe we were scheduled for three.”
“I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I was outside, but afraid that I’d interrupt if I came in too early.”
“Interrupt,’ he repeated, ‘what are you insinuating?” The defensiveness and a hint of worry lingering in the man’s eyes made me wonder if I should leave my brother here to be diddled by the man when I was gone.
I didn’t answer his question.
“So how does this work,’ I started. ‘What exactly needs taking care of?”
He turned and left the room without a word only to return again with a file and a clipboard. He pulled out some papers, attached them to the clipboard, and handed it to me. The spread sheet listed model numbers for caskets, linings, flower arrangements, etc.
“Your parents were by two days ago. They got the ball rolling, but said it was important for you to finish the job. Would you like me to show you the different models or would you rather I leave you to peruse the showroom?”
I looked at him bouncing on the tips of his toes, eager to leave, and couldn’t help but wonder whose grandma lay cold in the back urging me to have him show me around.
“I think I can manage,” I said.
After he left I walked over to one of the caskets in the middle and ran my hand against its lid. It felt smooth and cold like a kitchen counter in the morning. I hitched open the lid and saw it was lined in pink satin, I pulled my brothers high school picture from my pocket and lay it inside. His eyes stared up into the button hooked pink satin above him before he turned, flipped the hair out of his eyes and said, “Really brother. Pink. You’re going to bury me in pink.”
I pulled him out and showed him the outside.
“I thought you’d like if Jake. The black with the silver bars. Looks pretty sleek.”
“No brother, it looks pretty cheap. Second row, really, is that what our brotherhood means to you. Throw me in that top one, it looks like a Bentley.”
I did as he asked, having to really reach to prop the thing open. I tossed him onto the cream lining. I felt around the edges to find the material was combination of silk and cashmere, with what felt to be goose down stuffing.
“Now this is it brother. I got to have this one. The thing is practically made for me.”
I couldn’t see his face, but imagined a giant grin.
“Do you think we can do something about this lining?’ he called out to me. ‘I was thinking some of that Burberry plaid. It would really pop with the chocolate brown exterior.”
“We’re not getting this one,’ I said. ‘It’s way too expensive.”
“Really, you’re talking about money. I’m letting you have the entire inheritance. All I’m asking is to go out in a bit of luxury. I’m sure when you crunch the numbers you’ll see you’re getting a much better deal than I am. Get me the casket and forget about the flowers, what am I going to do with flowers? Make potpourri? I’m not that gay.”
“Fine,’ I said. ‘You can have the casket, but no Burberry lining.”
“Great. What about the headstone? Is it going to be one of those prominent standing ones, or just a flat lie down one that no one can see, the kind strangers trample over?”
“I don’t know.” I said and ran my finger down the list looking for mention of the headstone. I lifted the first page and found another. On it was the information for the headstone. My mother had already filled it out. She chose the lowest grade rock. Chose the basic font. Decided against and picture of the deceased or any other graphic. And chose only to put his first and last name, completing forgetting to add his middle name, a name he hated, though he never told her so. A name once attributed to my mother’s father, a name she might now wish she never had given her son. Below his name the date of his birth followed by the date of his death a single dash comprising the twenty-six years of his life. Finally a third line with three words: Son and Brother. I pulled my brothers picture out from the casket and showed him the sheet of paper.
“Wow,’ he said. ‘And I was afraid of be trampled on by strangers.”
“Excuse me,’ I called out to the mortician. He shuffled into the room with awkward little steps. ‘About this headstone,’ I said while handing over the completed forms. ‘Can I make an adjustment?”
He turned the page and considered the inscription.
“It is a bit short,’ he said. ‘But I’m afraid a copy has already been sent out to the engraver. A new stone would have to be started from scratch and that would require the purchasing of two headstones. In times like these most people tend to go beyond their means when purchasing the last objects for their love ones.’ He looked over the order form I just handed to him. His eyes widened upon seeing what casket I chose, and he instantly started backpedaling out of his previous statement. ‘I see you’ve done so with our best casket, though I must confess it is the class of all burial implements, and choosing it is a good idea, but two stones Mr. Nonsole. I must say it is unwise.”
“He’s right.” My brother said from my hand.
I looked down at him searching for the right words, but the mortician took my contemplation for something different.
“Is that your brother?’ He asked. Snatching the photo from me, he raised one hand to his chin, messaging it as if trying to mold it into a point. ‘Handsome young man. Is this the way you wish his hair to be?”
“No,’ I said, taking back the photo. ‘His hair is short now. You’ll see when he arrives. I’ve got some clothes for him in the car, I guess I can leave them with you and we’ll be done. My parents have set up payment, right?”
The mortician nodded his head, and I left the place to grab up a three piece suit I thought my brother would enjoy and a striped tie of mine he once complimented. Returning to the showroom, I found it empty, but instead of calling for the mortician, I lay the suit on one of the half-caskets and left the place.
That night I stayed at my parents as I did the next few nights. A cheerful home it seemed. Every morning I ate breakfast with my parents. Dad spent half the day going through the cross word, though he never came close to finishing one while I was there. No one said much about Jake, and I was happy for that. The first night there, I wanted to say something about the headstone, but as I led up to the matter, I could hear Jake calling from my pocket for me to be quiet and to let the thing go. The hours in the cottage style home quickly bled into days, and finally when the cheerfulness and the lack of talk had brought me to a boil, the day of the funeral arrived.
Mom made blueberry pancakes. When I came into the kitchen, I sat across from my dad who sat working at a new crossword occasionally dropping the pencil down to the paper looking as if he were about to fill in the blank then suddenly retreating only to tap the eraser end of the pencil on his chin. Mom placed three huge pancakes in front of me.
“I can’t eat all this,” I said.
“Oh you hush. They’re your favorite.”
I knew Mom was confused, and after I took a few bights, I realized it was Jake who loved blueberry pancakes. I thought about this slip-up by my mother, and considered calling her out on it, but after a few bights I realized how good they really were, for when I was growing up I always got lost in the thin skin of the blueberry, never enjoying it for its sweet yet tart taste, and in that moment, I realized Mom had stumbled into correctness, for as of that moment they had become my favorite.
After serving Dad and I, Mom flew from the kitchen like a freed bird, hustling to have my dad’s clothes ready for him and still have the time to make herself up as she wished. I stuffed myself, eating every bight, and then I took a shower feeling bloated and lazy. As I walked from the guest room tightening my tie for the third time, my other attempts coming up short in the front and long on the wrong side, I realized we would have to drive separately. Dad still sat in the kitchen, his pancakes half eaten, the eraser still drumming on his chin.
“Mom!” I called out into the house.
Mom came from her bedroom only wearing a slip, both her hands busy with bobby pins behind her head, fixing a configuration of pink curlers.
“You too,’ I said. ‘We need to be there early to get everything ready.”
“Go,’ she said. ‘We know where the place is. We’ll be there on time, or close to.”
“We’re supposed to start at one Mom. Don’t forget. I don’t want to wait and end up paying for an extra hour because Dad can’t find thirteen across.”
“Don’t pick on your father.” she said pointing to the door urging me to leave.
On the way there, I got to looking in my rear view mirror at the poster board I had made. I tried to remember every picture as if my eye had just left the camera, and while shuffling through memories and driving half familiar roads, I got lost. I found myself in the center of the town, or at least by a shopping mall claiming to be. Driving in slowly widening circles, still giving the back seat a glance every now-and-again, I finally ran into the cemetery.
I arrived thirty minutes behind schedule, and ran into the church as if I were coming to break up a wedding. I nearly ran over the tiny mortician in the process. “Mr. Nonsole,’ he squealed. ‘I must say we do have a way of coming upon one another. I see tardiness is a habit of yours. Luckily you acquired my services. Everything is as you ordered. I will leave you with your brother for the time being. I’m sure guest won’t be arriving for at least another hour.”
The mortician closed the two huge oak doors behind him. I looked upon the empty church up at the casket with its lid open, my brother’s profile as dapper as ever. I couldn’t bring myself to approach, something about his lying there silent bothered me. I sat at the farthest pew and stared up at my brother’s casket, the angle hiding him from sight.
“How does it look brother?” Jake’s words were muffled in my breast pocket.
I pulled his picture out to show him.
“It looks clean without all the flowers doesn’t it? I knew it would. I guess I owe you one now don’t I?”
“How are you going to return the favor Jake? Are you going to haunt Mom for me?”
“I already do. Everything I ever did haunted her. Why do you think she is the way she is? I did that.”
“Come off it. She is the way she is, because of how her parents were and how their parents were before that. It’s all heredity in the end.”
“Then how do you explain us?”
Jake spoke after a moment of silence. “Let me see me.”
I stood up and walked down the aisle, as if the space between each row of pews measured out to be miles and the trip would inevitably end with my collapse. I ventured on as if carrying a sick child, the necessity of getting my brother where he needed to be forced each foot in front of the next. When I finally reached the body, I held the picture of my brother up so he could look down on himself. I looked straight ahead not once letting my eyes dip.
“That suit,’ my brother said, ‘it’s atrocious, and look at my skin, it’s all waxy.”
I looked at his high school photo and saw him pulling at the skin below his chin, stretching it out or at least attempting to.
“This young skin has no give.’ He said. ‘Reach down and tug at that waxy gullet for me.”
“No!” I said and turned to walk away from the body.
“Come on, you owe me.”
“I don’t owe you anything,’ I said. ‘In fact, if anyone owes anyone it’s you owing me.’
“I told you brother. You get the inheritance.’
“I don’t want money,’ my voice rose. ‘I want an explanation. You owe me that.”
“An explanation for what?”
“Damn it Jake. You killed yourself, or do your old pictured selves not realize that yet?”
The eighteen year old Jake didn’t say anything. He only looked up at me, as if his future were somehow painted on my face ready for interpretation.
“I don’t think I know brother.” Jake looked into my eyes, and when I didn’t say anything, he dropped his head like a child ready to be punished.
The pressure of the week finally caught up with me. I flung the picture into the casket, and storming out of the church, I heard Jake calling back to me, but in my exhaustion I couldn’t hear the exact words and in retrospect, I don’t think I wanted to.
As I left the church, I could see the waiting area, a large gazebo with white benches encircling the interior, filling up with cousins I barely recognized. I said nothing to them and walked purposefully out to my car. I turned the ignition, but hesitated to go anywhere. The car’s stuffiness along with my wool suit caused me to sweat, but the uncomfortable heat felt appropriate. The beads of sweat forming around the perimeter of my face felt like a sickness oozing out of me, as if I were bundled in blankets to break a fever. A rapping on the window startled me. I looked out and saw Dad bent over looking in at me. I pressed the button and the window sank into the door.
“Where are you headed?’ Dad asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Well alright then.’ He said. ‘But before you go.’ He raised the folded up newspaper with the crossword on it to where I could see it. ‘Twenty-Six Down. Got any ideas?”
I read the clue: +he Effect of it All
“Sum Total.” I said
“Good one,’ Dad said, ‘I kept trying to fit Decision in there, but it kept jumbling up the rest of the puzzle.” He smiled then walked off toward the church, head still down concentrated on the crossword.
I turned off the ignition, letting the cool air flow into the car. The crowd around the gazebo started to build, everyone in black, faces trying hard to look sad, slow nods to one another as if audible affirmations outside a funeral were bad luck. I heard a strong pair of shoes clicking on the cement in long strides.
Mark might have walked out a page of GQ with his form fitting, gray pin stripe suit, with a deep purple tie, and designer sunglasses. I popped out of the car to greet him.
“Are you posted out here to keep me out?” He said.
“No, I’m just happy to see you.”
“You are?’ He didn’t let the question linger into awkwardness. ‘Of course you are. Who else is going to carry the box with you?”
“Right I said. I guess I better grab some others for the job. I forgot how much there was left to do.”
“Oh relax. I’ll do it for you. I’ve always wanted to meet Jake’s extended family. Gives me a chance to get to know everyone. Nothing like asking a bunch of strapping young men to give you a hand. Am I right?”
Jake had been right, Mark could put on a show. My fears of his flamboyancy were laid to rest as I saw him make the rounds inside the gazebo. With a half bowed head and a somber grimace, he recruited four cousins to help with the last arrangement. Soon he had everyone shuffling into the church like a slow moving herd of cows, the moos silencing as they crossed the threshold.
You never want to be in the front row at a funeral, but inevitably we all have to pay for the ticket. Mark sat to my left, not once removing his glasses. I could hear him sniffing occasionally not allowing himself to breakdown. Dad sat to my right. Half way through the service he pulled out his crossword puzzle and started to fill in the boxes as if sitting at the kitchen table. Mom was obviously unhappy with Mark’s presence, but held her tongue at the end of the row. She focused on the minister as he read Psalms 23 explaining each line as if we were all to be quizzed on the sermon afterwards.
When he called for the mass of people behind me to line up and take a moment to give their last respects up at the casket, I wondered which of them would be distracted by the rogue photo tossed in. Everyone took their turn, and proceeded to offer their sympathies, not one seeming to notice the photo. No one said anything to Mark. They all just took his hand and nodded as if he were a third brother the family had forgotten about. After the train ended, a few cousins stayed behind to fulfill their duties. I rushed up to the casket to retrieve the picture. But I couldn’t find it. I hovered over the body looking for my brother, and after a moment of what must have looked like delirium, Mark approached putting his hand on my shoulder.
“He’s gone.” He said.
I wanted to reach around Jake, sure that the photo must have slipped in between his chest and arm or maybe under him. Mark put his other hand onto the casket’s lid.
“Say good bye,’ He said. ‘You have to say good bye.”
And with these words I knew. I had lost my chance to really tell him. To say anything worth saying.