“We shall not,” Reverend Morrison whacked the pulpit, “stroll at our ease into the Kingdom of Heaven. For the Lord tells us, ‘Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life.’”
In the front pew Michelle suppressed a shiver, conscious of being observed from the rows behind. To her right her father was staring at the floor, her stepbrother at the minister’s shiny black shoes. Centered below Reverend Morrison, the dead woman pointed her bony nose at the ceiling.
The open coffin was the first Michelle had seen at a church funeral. Though she kept her eyes averted, certain features jutted into her peripheral vision. The dark gleams of the wood. The puffy, pleated white liner. The obnoxious gilt handles. On purpose, Michelle had arrived too late last night for the final viewing at the funeral home, but today she couldn’t escape the creepiness.
To make matters worse, faint odors of wool, cologne, shoe polish and old cigarettes wafted from the pews. Michelle’s own overcoat, hastily exhumed from the back of a closet, reeked of dry-cleaning fluid. A chill current snaked along the floor to lick the mourners’ ankles.
Mourners? How many of them, like Michelle, were glad to see the hag dead?
Even the minister, after a minimal number of words about the deceased’s kindness, integrity and devotion to family (bizarre inventions, Michelle thought), had segued into browbeating the congregation. “Today, having passed beyond the tumult of this world, Sylvia Wellstone is finding well-earned rest with her Redeemer,” he asserted, his cheeks puffed with zeal. “And how do I know so? Because in this life, deep in her heart, she accepted Jesus as her one and only Savior. She had faith in her Lord. How many of us here have done the same? How many of us can be confident of our own salvation?”
The more he talked, the more Michelle disliked him. How could he know the depths of Sylvia’s heart unless he judged by the dollars she donated to his bible-thumping? To hold up a spiteful old prune as a model for others—it was absurd, that’s all.
“So why are you flying home if you hated her so much?” Tim had asked yesterday. A pseudo-innocent question typical of him. Strands of curly hair flopped in his face as he hunched over her kitchen table, fitting together glass beads and scraps of metal into a necklace no one would buy. She’d met him in the crafts gallery where she worked, one of a long string of males who couldn’t earn a living and strewed too much stuff in her apartment.
“My father needs me,” she said. Already guilty for delaying until the night before the funeral, she didn’t feel like talking about motives. Trust Tim to be insensitive.
“I think you wanta make sure,” he smirked, “the Wicked Stepmother is really dead.”
“If she weren’t,” Michelle shot back, “I wouldn’t get near her.”
“Gotta be dead certain,” he went on, milking his joke.
“Are you driving me to the airport or not?”
On the flight from Texas her exasperation with Tim fought with remorse for snapping at him. She blamed this emotional mess on the pregnancy scare that had upset her last week. The way she saw it, having a kid right now meant committing to Tim, who fell short of her standards for fatherhood, husbandhood or even long-term boyfriendhood, though he did inspire tender feelings. She definitely didn’t want a child with him, but abortion seemed a grubby option. She had always pictured herself as having one or two children at some point in life, because it—it felt like a natural thing to do. Even for a slim-hipped person not built for easy childbirth. Whatever her physical limitations, she was surely far more qualified for parenthood than her own parents had been, and living your whole life without a baby seemed kind of . . . well, barren, to use the nasty old word for it (though she didn’t think well of herself for thinking of that word). And while she meditated on these confusing matters, her so-called biological clock (another nasty term) had gone past “ticking”; at age 38 it tumbled along like the digits on her Honda’s odometer, which had lately passed 140,000 on a trip to the arts fair in San Antonio.
Luckily the issue became moot when her period started. No immediate decision needed. And then Sylvia’s death offered a different sort of reprieve, a chance for Michelle to get out of town for a few days.
In her distraction she’d forgotten that a western Pennsylvania March might amount to mid-winter, so she sat on public view now in a thin black synthetic dress that proved no match for the chill of this little church. It was not an ugly building—the old stained-glass windows on the eastern side glowed with deep reds and ambers—but the unforgiving wooden pews and gray flagstone floor echoed the bleakness of the minister’s supposed consolation. The huddled humans, who filled half the church at most, couldn’t muster the warmth to fight back.
“Our times,” glared Reverend Morrison, “grow rank with false prophets. They that counsel a broad, easy path to salvation, a road of acceptance, tolerance, what they call liberalism or humanism. But the Lord tells us—writ here in the words of the Apostle Matthew—there is only one way, the narrow way. For the broad path leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.”
Had he forgotten this was a funeral instead of a revival meeting? Or did he think Sylvia Wellstone’s family and friends an especially sinful bunch? Besides Daddy, a number of others here must be members of his own congregation, so why did he need to hassle them so much?
Michelle had never before set foot in this church that Sylvia had latched onto during the early days of her illness, and she suspected that Dad, a rather cold-natured businessman, found the pastor as exasperating as she did. Frankly it amazed her that anybody subscribed to this reactionary rant. You had to slip through a really narrow gate to get into this world—as she’d been all too conscious in the past week when she imagined bearing a child—so if God set up another squeeze test at the end, just to keep liberals and humanists out of his exclusive club, she’d rather sign up for a midnight bowling league.
On the other hand, this did seem a perfect sendoff for Sylvia, who had specialized in narrow-minded malevolence.
She stole another glance at her father. His thick hands, tensely clasped in his lap, lay six inches from her own right hand, but she couldn’t reach out to touch them. It wasn’t that kind of relationship.
Still, the years with him alone hadn’t been so bad. It was kind of cool not having a mother, or Michelle had made it so. From the first day of preschool (which was the day her mother took off, never to be seen again), Michelle was always more mature than her classmates. She was edgier than other kids, an opinion leader. Soccer and Barbie dolls were idiotic, art projects fun. Later on, recreational drugs were cool after class, tobacco disgusting, heavier drugs stupid. Boys tolerable if they weren’t jocks, pervs, fantasy-game nuts or overly hairy. Besides, Michelle knew that her lack of interest in her mother’s whereabouts was genuine, in spite of the “oh, I’m sorry” reaction she got now and then.
Then came Sylvia, with her Baptist upbringing and personality of sugar on top, vinegar beneath, and Michelle’s adolescence curdled.
Without warning, her right hand reached out to adjust the suit collar riding up her father’s burly neck. The gesture surprised them both, and he moved his head irritably.
Her stepbrother Matt, seated on Dad’s other side, was on much closer terms with him now. He was the one Dad trusted for advice. But she had nothing against Matt, who’d been away at college during Michelle’s showdowns with his mother. A computer guy with a high-tech job in Pittsburgh, Matt probably felt the same way she did about this dough-faced preacher, who was still carrying on about the narrow path and the strait gate.
Shivering again, Michelle wanted to pull her coat over her shoulders, but would that draw more attention? She could feel at least a dozen eyes on her. This dress had too wide and deep a neckline for a funeral, she supposed, but it was the only black one she owned. No way would she buy something special to stuff Sylvia in the ground. Michelle was the family black sheep anyway, so she might as well live up to her billing. Black sheep in black dress with too much skinny collar- and breastbone showing. The eyes must have noticed the clingy bodice and semi-short skirt as well. Well, fuck you, ladies. Get over it, and tell your husbands to goggle elsewhere. She would leave her coat off, she decided.
How much had Sylvia gossiped about her? A few months ago Dad had said on the phone, in a rare moment of emotion brought on by Sylvia’s illness, that he hoped Michelle wasn’t “still mixed up with that filthy stuff” down there in Austin. This infuriating notion that relaxing with a joint (which, yes, she still did) equaled heroin addiction equaled mortal sin had to come from Sylvia.
Daddy, if we’re talking substance abuse, Michelle wanted to snap, how about your vodka martinis, which on my last visit amounted to three or four a night? How come your tongue is mushing every consonant? OK, you’re upset your wife is croaking, but how many did you have tonight, Big Boy?
Of course she had said no such thing, just resented Sylvia even more. And now, she supposed, these pewfuls of wool-clad hypocrites visualized her life as a rank brew of drugs and sex with maybe a dash of witchcraft on the weekends—all because of Sylvia’s malice.
The first time she and Sylvia set eyes on each other, the supposed mother-replacement made a joke about teenagers who dyed their hair outlandish colors. Michelle’s happened to be mauve at the time, so she retaliated with a casual reference to perms that resembled stale cinnamon buns. They had each other pegged from the start, with Dad in the middle bewildered by their antagonism. It was weird to imagine Dad actually loving Sylvia, to the extent he was capable of love. Even creepier to realize he’d been attached to Sylvia far longer than to Michelle’s mother.
Shit, she berated herself, why do I let this old crap get to me? It’s water under the bridge—and in a few minutes the old bag under the dirt, hah-hah. Except we all might kick off before this Reverend Borington stops bludgeoning us with the bible.
As Michelle tuned back in to his monologue, he was ascending new heights of tastelessness. Arms extended, he began a call to salvation, the kind she’d seen evangelists make on TV.
“If someone feels the Spirit here today—if any among us is accepting Jesus right this moment—do you feel Him flowing into your heart? That stream of faith, that flood of bounteous joy, do you know it? Are you ready to stand up and declare yourself one of the Holy Company—to enter through the narrow gates of the Saved? Yes, friend, it can happen that suddenly! He comes upon you like a tidal wave, Jesus be praised!! Give yourself over, let Him overwhelm you, and then step forth . . .” With one arm he made a sweeping gesture like a barker showing the entry to a carnival tent, and then he lowered his head to continue, “Let us pause now a moment, praying silently, and while we do so, any person who desires to acknowledge and accept Jesus as his or her personal Savior, please come forward to the altar. Heads bowed, now, as we offer prayers to the Lord.”
After a few coughs, quiet descended.
Despite her cynicism, Michelle was stunned by this overt call for converts. It was like Sylvia’s individual life or death didn’t matter—all that counted was the number of souls the preacher could notch on his belt today. Sylvia didn’t deserve better, but wasn’t this insulting to the family?
As the seconds passed in dismal silence, Michelle glared from under her brows, wishing someone would stand up and slap the minister’s fat face. At the same time her self-consciousness took another jag upward, as if she could feel the occupants of other pews thinking, Why doesn’t that wayward daughter let the blood of Christ wash her sins away?
There must be plenty of sins to cleanse, in their narrow view. Like the time she stole a brooch of Sylvia’s, hocked it for cash and lied about it. Or the time she sopped up Billy Cipriani’s semen with Sylvia’s favorite lace table runner, then folded it neatly back in the closet so the peculiar stain came to light weeks later when Sylvia laid it out for guests. Kid stuff, that’s all, but as the imagined eyes glared at Michelle, her skin flamed. She hadn’t felt this level of outrage for years, not since—since that time she fled the house in her nightie and the police grabbed her.
It’d been an oh-so-typical argument at first, when Michelle was brushing her teeth at bedtime. Sylvia demanded she “come clean” about where she’d been till so late. Michelle retorted that 11:30 wasn’t late and there was nothing unclean present except certain people’s minds. See, even her teeth were minty-fresh (a big toothpasty grin). Sylvia snapped back with accusations about boys and drugs and what a certain type of 15-year-old girl would be called. Michelle commented that the word applied equally to dried-up witches who preyed on lonely businessmen. A slap, followed by a whack in return. Grappling, hair-pulling, while Dad tried to yank them apart. Screaming and wailing—from Sylvia, of course, because Michelle, gone fiercely silent, locked herself in the bathroom to escape that stupidity. Yelling heard through the door, while some pointed object jabbed at it. Then Sylvia, the drama queen, shrieked she’d get the gun, with Dad cursing loud and furious till a greasy pop echoed down the hall. By that time Michelle was climbing out the window onto a tree, from which she dropped to the ground to run down the road, past dark houses and deserted lawns.
This being mid-summer, she wore only a thin nightgown, which the policemen who picked her up had ample time to appreciate as they shone the spotlight. But their stares were less humiliating than Dad’s convoluted tale that neglected to mention the bullet hole in the bedroom ceiling.
A little pearl-handled .22 he’d given Sylvia on her birthday, for “protection.” He’d wrenched it away from her, which was when it fired. So demented! Yet in the policemen’s eyes, after her father’s dodgy tale of adolescent angst, Michelle became the “disturbed” one. Naturally they believed Daddy, who must be trustworthy because he owned the town’s supermarket.
Michelle took the episode as the ultimate betrayal, marking the end of her youth. The next day she stripped the dye from her hair and began to dress in ochreous greens and browns like growths on a dead log. Through the rest of high school, and then as a bitterly passionate art major in college, she imagined herself the most disillusioned soul in the universe. As one of her illustration projects, she created her own ironic logo, a bleary-eyed olive at the bottom of an empty martini glass. She still had that hanging on the wall of her apartment, in the room where she stashed her sporadic watercolors and drawings.
Now, despite the cold in the pew, Michelle’s indignation sent dribbles of sweat down her back. She closed her eyes and heard a growl—no, it was the Reverend clearing his throat. Praise the Lord! she thought, he’s done waiting for converts. And nobody’s had a spiritual orgasm, huh? Aw, too bad.
Eyes still shut, she heard him announce that services at the cemetery would be private, though mourners would be welcomed at the house in an hour. After wrapping up with standard prayers, he clomped down from his perch and everyone stood. Michelle wobbled to her feet, disoriented.
Two nights of public viewing at the funeral home had convinced Daddy he didn’t want outsiders at the cemetery. Yet he probably hadn’t realized what would happen in church. Denied the pomp of an automobile procession, people came forward on foot, filing past the coffin to offer last respects, guided by two funeral directors in dark suits. The family, trapped in the front pew, was forced to greet the public in what Michelle saw as a burlesque of a reception line at a wedding. Dad shook hands gamely while Matt tried to deflect the demonstrative types.
Watching her father, she realized he’d grown not only baggy-eyed but humped at the shoulders and slack in the belly—an old man suddenly. Driving here this morning he took a wrong turn, forgetting the route. She ought to be helping him but she couldn’t bear to—couldn’t stomach any of this. The fake consolations. The macabre display of the open coffin. The fruitcake smell of winterized humans.
After a few handshakes she edged away, stepping toward the corpse because that was the only direction she could move. Then, as she avoided the eyes of the townsfolk who paused for a last gawk, she accidentally peeked down into the casket for the first time—and gave herself a shock.
Michelle had scarcely looked at Sylvia for more than two decades. After that night of the pistol shot, they had plotted paths through the house that guaranteed minimal personal contact. Once Michelle left for college, visits home were rare and choreographed; Sylvia absented herself as much as possible while Michelle and her father pretended they still knew each other.
But now, once her eyes found Sylvia, they lingered, unable to break away. It was tiny, this body. A teensy triangle on the lace pillow, attached to a slim tube under the sheet. Laid flat across the midsection, the little hands resembled moths stuck on a collector’s tray. The flesh colors were subtly wrong, of course, and though the viewers murmured about how peaceful she looked, they must have had fleeting images of sliced cheese left too long in the refrigerator. Which, come to think of it, the faint odor also brought to mind.
Leading to the dead-moth hands, silky sleeves hid forearms no thicker than a garden hose. No wonder Daddy had sounded so depressed on the rare occasions when Michelle called him. His wife had wasted before his eyes.
Wedged beside an arm, red roses splashed a fresh bloodstain. A vulgar choice in decoration, but Daddy insisted that roses were Sylvia’s favorite flower. Michelle remembered that when he was courting her he’d ordered a dozen each week, an extravagance the teenage daughter had begrudged.
Since Michelle didn’t believe in eternal souls, she understood that the corpse couldn’t be conscious of how ghastly it looked. Still, she found her hatred growing softer, muzzier, in a sort of sympathy with the body’s hideousness. It was like a painting so gruesome you couldn’t wrench your eyes away. Then she thought about the dread that must have pulled Sylvia to this extremist church as the cancer shriveled her.
Again Michelle shivered. How had such an itty-bitty thing tormented her so? Re-imagining the scene in the bathroom before the gunshot, Michelle saw that one good whap could have knocked the bitch over. Maybe she had, in fact, shoved Sylvia down?
“Hi, Michelle,” a voice broke in. She needed a couple of seconds to focus on the speaker, a woman about her own age. “I was so sorry to hear about your mother.”
Not my mother, Michelle wanted to answer, but instead nodded dumbly, puzzled by the half-familiar face. This world felt so alien it could have been Mars.
When the woman moved on, Michelle steadied herself with a hand on the coffin. She yanked the hand away when she realized what she was touching. Did Sylvia see that? Could Sylvia hear her thoughts?
Instantly she fell back into the bathroom scene. She was ripping off Sylvia’s wig, screaming “Show us who you really are, witchy-poo!” The bitch toppled, kicked, wailed, and Michelle laughed.
Michelle jerked her shoulders, stabbing an arm at—but the vision was gone. She didn’t know if it was true or not. Had Sylvia been wearing a wig that night, and had she yanked it? “Screw you,” she breathed, trembling. A chill quivered down her black-stockinged calves, where she could feel the draft along the flagstones. “You fucking lunatic!”
Luckily these words were only a whisper. As she reeled back, wondering if anyone had heard, Michelle felt a pinch of regret. And then an even stronger sensation: a twinge of hungry longing—for what? For the person who used to inhabit the flimsy sack in the coffin? As if reality had never happened? As if the two of them could still link hands, lean their shoulders together like a real mother and daughter?
The spell left Michelle gaping. Her trance was broken by Reverend Morrison, who reappeared through a side door with his buttery smile: “If you would all, please, conclude your leave-taking. The hearse will make its departure soon.” As he neared her, murmuring “Bless you, bless you” and touching people’s arms, his fleshy hands reawakened her disgust. She also caught a whiff of him, a sweetish farty odor among the massed bouquets.
While the dark-suited undertakers hovered nearby, ready to snap the lid on Sylvia, Michelle worked to pull herself together. Robotically, then, she walked to the car with her father, and in the cemetery she chose a facial expression here, a posture there, a hand extended—reconstituting a self.
She succeeded to the point that, at the reception afterward, she managed to chat with a few people, even recognizing some of them. She spoke awhile with Matt, wondering how such a pleasant man could spring from a mother like Sylvia. She took her father’s elbow to whisper praise for the way he was bearing up.
That night she felt an enervation that she wanted to blame on jet lag, though there was only one hour’s time difference between here and Austin. In bed early, staring at the upper right corner of her old room, she imagined a face there, the half-beautiful, half-grotesque countenance of a woman she didn’t know, with huge red lips and lovely green hair—a shade Michelle herself had once used. Later in a dream, as the two of them ran through a field of prickly weeds, it occurred to Michelle that this was her mother.
The next day she sat down for a nice long talk with Dad. It was pleasant but unmemorable. He seemed more exhausted than sorrowful, a reaction she thought she understood.
* * *
Within a few months, most of the funeral’s details had faded. If she remembered her strange emotions, she blamed the phoniness of the occasion. But she did keep in closer touch with her father, who hadn’t many good years left. She found she tolerated his remote nature much better without a third party involved. And when she thought of Sylvia now, it was merely with dislike rather than hatred.
At odd times during her work at the gallery, when she was arranging pottery or unpacking Mexican retablos with their bright-pigmented holy figures, a half-queasy yearning overtook her—a sensation she vaguely connected with childhood. It felt like having the flu without being sick. It found outlet in swirly, deep-colored drawings, one of which she showed her father during a quick visit to Pennsylvania. It had that green-haired face in one corner and a taut spiral in the middle amid tumultuous cloud shapes.
He nodded at the paper, saying, “So you still do that art stuff?”
“This is more, like, out there than my usual,” she told him, and he nodded again. She smiled to herself at his total lack of comprehension.
In these months after the funeral, she also meditated a lot about having children of her own. The question hulked like a raggedy dam in the stream of her thoughts, snagging every idea that tried to flow past. Such an odd thing for a woman to have to decide. So life-changing. And so many things could go wrong between a mother and child. Did she really believe she’d be a far better parent than Sylvia? What if she got cranky and confrontational like when Tim borrowed her paintbrushes? What if she pulled back, distant like her father? What if she flipped out and ran away like the mother with green hair?
On some nights, studying Tim, picturing her future with him or a successor, she supposed that, to have kids, she’d need to undergo a conversion of a sort—into a more intense state, deeper, in some ways freakier. This was scary. It seemed like the faith demanded was so huge, and the gate it had to squeeze through so very narrow.
Sam Gridley is the author of the novels THE SHAME OF WHAT WE ARE and THE BIG HAPPINESS. His fiction and satire have appeared in more than sixty magazines and anthologies. He has received two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and neurotic dog and hangs out at the website Gridleyville.blog.
The Shame of What We Are
The Big Happiness
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