The wake was on a Thursday. Art class was Will's last period and it was a lecture day. He suspected that Mr. Filo wasn't supposed to be talking about the subjects he chose for lectures. On that Thursday, he started out with a tame discussion of paintings by Mark Rothko. It didn't take long, however, to come to how Rothko died. Mr. Filo stood on the desk and delivered his interpretation of the artist's mind as he was diagnosed with an aneurysm, which made him impotent and destroyed his marriage. The teacher jumped off the desk when he got to the part about Rothko slitting his wrists and painting on his last canvass with his own blood.
Will sat next to Jason Shoenberg, who must have toked before class because he had the look in eyes and was slumped in his chair with a single arm slung over the back. Also, he smelled of weed. He knew Mr. Filo wouldn't care or even notice. Jason leaned over and said,
"Hey, do you still have that guitar?"
"The one my grandmother gave me?" said Will.
"Oh man, it's her wake today. Geez man, I'm sorry."
Will was puzzled but didn't give it much thought. It's not as though he'd never seen Jason high before. Mandy was sitting on the other side of him and chuckled.
She said, "He was talking about forming a band earlier. That's all. You want in?"
"I don't know. It sounds fun, but I'm still learning."
"It's a high school band, Will. Who cares if you can play?" She put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Sorry about your grandma, though."
The bell rang and Will walked down to the middle school to get his younger brother Sid. When the two of them got home, Dad was sitting on the couch in a ratty suit and watching tv. There was something on the news about "UN Resolution 678". Will had no idea what that was supposed to mean, but given the footage of tanks lining up the desert, he figured it must have something to do with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Dad turned to them with a blank look.
"Boys, can you dress in something a little nicer before we go?"
"Where's Mom?" said Will.
"The wake started at three and someone had to be there."
It was Dad's mother who'd died, but no doubt he was trying to avoid his family. Will felt about the same. The boys found their church clothes. They all drove together in the creaky Delta 88 down to the funeral home. The building sat on a small pond dotted with weeping willows. The long fronds were covered in the frost from the morning, making them look like massive frozen fountains. Their grandmother was inside. She looked very nice, just as Will had remembered her.
Mom sat in the front and she was the best dressed of all of them. It gave Will a strange feeling when he saw her like this. She still had her looks and she'd been to a hair dresser that morning. You weren't supposed to see that your mom was beautiful, but honestly it's like not noticing that the sky is blue. It's just a fact, as uncomfortable as that made Will feel.
Wakes were the worst. Will hadn't been to one since his grandfather had died six years earlier, but it was the worst then and it was no better now. At least at a funerals there was something to do. People talked about the dead and maybe you sung a couple of hymns they liked. At a wake, all he could do was sit for a few moments of silence and then wander about and struggle with what to do with his hands.
Then his father's sister rolled in and made things interesting. The herald of her arrival was the sound of her crashing into the French door as she entered. The doors were opened and tucked behind heavy curtains, but that didn't stop Aunt Deb from listing to one side smashing her shoulder into one of them as though she were a drunken missile aimed in that general direction. She wore her hair in a bowl cut and her mascara was already running under her thick glasses and smeared as far down as her cheeks.
The way Deb walked was almost creepy. She looked to Will like one of the marionettes from the puppet show he used to watch on tv. It was so long ago he couldn't remember the name or even be sure it had existed. Come to think of it, his aunt was a bit like that to him too. When was the last time he'd seen her come around? Then someone cut her strings and she collapsed in front of the casket and started balling.
"I can't do this." she cried.
Will wondered, was there anything that she could do? It's not as though Grandma's death was sudden. There were years when Dad was the only one caring for her and then the final weeks when it was clear her life was over. Will glanced over at his parents. Mom had her face in her hands. Dad's eyes were wide open and frozen in place on his sister. He looked like he was weighing his options. It wouldn't be easy to escort Aunt Deb out of the wake for her own mother. But Deb was merciful. She gave him a way out.
"The devil is in me!" said Aunt Deb, clutching her rosary. "The devil is in me!"
Dad leapt up to take his sister's shoulders. He recognized his moment and took it. The priest was there too and soon he was on the other side of the woman, giving the whole production the consent of authority it desperately needed. The two men ushered the drunk woman into some quiet back room where Will could still hear her sobbing. The entire room took a sigh of relief.
And the truth was, if Aunt Deb was really that shitfaced, she probably wouldn't remember this embarrassment. Will felt a little better about that until the thought occurred to him that maybe Jason had also been too bombed to remember his idea of forming a band. Somehow this made Will feel worse than the passing of his grandmother. He'd started looking forward to the idea.
When it was time to mingle, Will walked to the windows and looked through the gauzy curtains at those icy weeping willows. A squirrel was pecking about, looking for its hidden cache. Will saw a person's reflection in the glass an turned. A wispy woman with some kind of damn peacock feather in her hair floated up. It was Janice, a woman who'd watched Will and his brother when they were younger. She asked something about how the boys were holding up, but Will's mind was still on the band and in any case he had a hard time making out Janice's high pitched sing-song voice. He did, however, welcome the woman's eminent sobriety.
"Sometimes I think a grandparent is more important to the kids than their parents." she said. "Tell me you're okay."
The truth was, Will did miss is grandmother. But she was gone now and the real problem was the way things would change. He suspected Deb would be around more as she wondered what to do with her hands, wandering among family members trying to ease her guilt the way that squirrel was hunting in the cold. Will didn't want to hear condolences for what he'd lost. Why didn't any one express condolences for what the living were doing to him?
How about, sorry your aunt finally went off the deep end and is about to terrorize the remainder of your childhood? Sorry your overworked father, on whom so many burdens have already fallen, is going to burn himself to ashes trying to piece together his mother's complex finances while trying to keep his living family members from detonating? And most of all, I'm sorry your friends got you worked up with the hope that maybe you could form a band. It's not really going to happen, is it?
Well, apparently there was a war going on somewhere too and Will didn't give a shit so why should anyone else care about him?
"We're all right, Janice. Thanks for asking, though."
She gave him a big hug. He wasn't so cynical that he thought it was insincere. Will didn't push her away or even twitch as the hug lingered. He liked it better than talking to her. Then Janice released him, squeezed his arm one last time, and walked off to greet Dad just as he was reentering the room. Sid was sitting right there, but she didn't go to him. He wasn't old enough yet to know how to respond to those offering thoughts and prayers.
Will hadn't understood that either when their grandfather had died six years ago and Janice hadn't come up to him then. Maybe he could take some solace in the notion that she'd just granted him a kind of christening into near adulthood. As with Dad, he wasn't here to receive consolation. He was here to ease the insecurity of others, and in a way that was better. After all, the hope of taking away grief was as futile as the hope of raising the dead. At least Will's job wasn't impossible. Congrats, you're a man now. Here's your union card.
image courtesy of pixabay