I first wrote this piece as a shorter, second person exercise in Nancy Zafris' fabulous writing group at Kenyon, in 2008.
Dougie picks you up at the Banquet Hall in his black Camaro with the red front fender and a muffler that gave up a long time ago. You don’t want them in your Lexus.
“Get outta the front seat, for Chrissakes,” your cousin yells at his brother.
Jimmy ducks out of the car, his eyes downcast at the rebuke. He’s always been second. Second son, second best. You always felt sorry and a little repulsed.
You weigh twenty-three more pounds than you did the last time you saw them, baby pounds from too long ago. You wear your pink seersucker dress, your bright green shoes and matching bag. Dougie wipes the seat with the hem of his tee shirt. Crumpled McDonald’s bags roll on the floor along with empty cups, their plastic tops and straws at jaunty angles like berets. You try not to step on them.
Dougie’s hand shakes on the gearshift, the whole car vibrates and smells like what the gardeners spread on your rose beds. Dougie bends towards you, is going to kiss you on the cheek, knows he should, he was almost a brother to you a long time ago. You draw back against the window and slap your thighs like a giddy-up. Dougie’s been lots of things, but not a fool.
“Gina, thanks for all this,” Dougie yells over the engine. You nod, smile like you aren’t listening.
It’s nothing for you to pay for the funeral or the reception after that. Nothing at all.
Mantonucci & Sons seems smaller than when your parents died, when Auntie took you in. You were twelve years old. You kept hoping your parents would awaken in their caskets, even though you knew they died on their way home from the “Ice Capades.” People said their car slid on ice so black they must not have noticed it till they were spinning and leaping into the ravine. You wonder if they thought about the skaters they’d just seen; you wonder even now why they didn’t bring you with them. At the funeral, people you didn’t know stared at you, shook their heads sadly. People you did know averted their eyes when you scanned the room. You thought you’d done something wrong. Auntie was different. Your mother’s only sister, though you’d only met her a few times. You remember the soft swell of her arms around you.
“Only living blood relative,” they said, but you felt she’d have scooped you up regardless, proud as a new mother. She put her two teenaged sons together in one small room, then painted a bedroom lavender for you. You didn’t know which boy you’d displaced, didn’t want to know, till Auntie dropped the rolling pin on the counter one day and slapped Jimmy in the face for complaining. You still remember the color of shame beneath the patch of flour on his cheek. “Think of everything she’s lost,” Auntie said. It was the only time you saw her cry.
People said you were the girl Auntie never had. You don’t know how you managed to behave like an only child, but you did. You felt you deserved her, made her happy. You had the good grades, the ambition, the bearing of someone who rose above her station, as your mother had done. Auntie hadn’t liked that about your mother, but she was proud of it in you; she told you that whenever she could. You suppose she ended up taking some credit for your accomplishments, and you can’t blame her for that. She couldn’t brag about her sons.
Auntie used to call you, visited a few times a year before she got sick. You used to get her at the bus station. It was too hard to make the trip back and forth yourself once the kids were born. She’d come down the steps of the bus in those laced-up shoes, looking for you, carrying the stiff vinyl handbag she’d had for years. Her face would relax once she saw you, but she’d cry. You were never sure where the tears that stung your own eyes came from, and you willed them to stop, as you still do. The last time, the driver needed to help her off the bus. You’ll never forget the look he gave you, so you drove her home yourself at the end of the visit. She was frail, but wouldn’t let herself fall asleep. “These times are precious,” she’d said. “Too precious to miss even a minute.”
Her house was quiet. Haunting. You couldn’t wait to get out, said you had to relieve your baby sitter. She understood, hugged you, but looked so small when you left. It was hard to visit her after that, but you never liked to go home. And the nursing home was depressing. All those people waiting for death to take them. She only lasted a few months there. You sent flowers to her, roses. You were going to visit her before she died, but it didn’t happen. Your life is too busy.
The funeral director speaks only to you, though you never suggested it. Dougie places his hands on the table in front of him and stares at them like they belong to someone else. Jimmy goes out for a smoke.
The coffins are downstairs. There’s the Heritage, the Lexington, the Mayflower, all names of hotels. Bronze, walnut, and oak, satin and brass. Dougie and Jimmy leave the decision to you, don’t register a suggestion or ask for a vote, are silent like they’re already in church. You choose the best. She deserves the best. You order roses for her coffin. Her garden was full of roses all summer long. Only the frost would stop them from blooming. All winter they’d tremble in the wind, waiting for her in the Spring. Everyone said she had a green thumb.
You wonder whether you should’ve bought something nice for her to wear for eternity. You wonder why you can’t remember her favorite color, why she gave birth to Dougie and Jimmy instead of you, why you didn’t see her more when you could.
You’ll go back home tonight. There’ll be flowers on the mantle from your husband. The children are away at camp, which is just as well. They never really knew her. She was a snapshot in a frame, a few stories, visits they don’t remember.
Her casket will be covered in roses, courtesy of you. Her favorite flower. She pruned her roses every year. She tried to teach you how; you pretended to listen.