Early Closing

Patsy Alford & Christina Burress

     

Wanda crosses her legs at her ankles then uncrosses them. She crosses her thighs, pulls the strap of her shoe then flattens her dress toward her knees. She straightens her spine against the wood pew then looks toward the lit candles and settles into the piano music and the sound of people entering the church behind her. 

The man next to her leans over and asks, “How do you know the deceased?”

His gravely voice is an interruption and the smell of cigarettes fills her nostrils. She turns toward him and smiles. He smiles back. She doesn’t say anything right away but holds her gaze to his blue bloodshot eyes. He tries to keep his focus but can’t. Instead, he busies himself brushing the dandruff off his right lapel and then his left. He straightens his tie, and places his hands palm down on his knees before finally clutching them together. He clears his throat and looks up. She is still looking at him, looking through him, and says, “She was my mother.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Thank you.”

Why should she tell him anything? Maybe the deceased was her mother, maybe she wasn’t. Why do people say that, “the deceased.” As if your name dies with you. As if it’s all of a sudden impolite to say “Jeanette.” How did you know Jeanette? Well, Wanda thinks, I knew her by her fake-fur collars and the way she tried to make her lips look bigger by applying lipstick above and below the lip-line. I knew her by her red wigs and her pink knock-off Chanel suits. I could recognize her a block away by her purple leopard-skin tights and white patent-leather boots with silver studs. And fringes. Jeanette was a sucker for anything with fringes. She gleamed in the sun under a tonnage of faux pearls and gold chains and zirconium rings. Real zirconium! Not cheap rhinestones.  I could smell her a block away. Menthol cigarettes and Poison. How did you know her? That’s a more interesting question.

Wanda looks around the room. She’s not staring, but who are these people? There’s Uncle Mac and Auntie Chris. Mrs. Britton from across the hall. There’s the doorman from Jeanette’s building for Chrissakes. Wally. “Thank-you Wally,” Jeanette would sing out as she sashayed out onto the sidewalk. Wally would bow. Actually bow. Call her ma’am.  And wink at Wanda behind her mother’s back. Jeanette spent a fortune on tips to keep up this charade. Her hairdresser, two pews over. The mailman. Maybe the guy next to her with the dandruff is the mailman. He looks like he’s been crying. Or drinking. Maybe a cabbie, Jeanette would hail a cab just because she loved the way her bangles jangled and sparkled when she raised her arm. She loved entrances. This funeral is probably the only thing in her life she was on time for.

And there she is in the coffin. Wigged and powdered, suited and pearled. A regular Jackie O, but without—well, without everything.

Wanda turns her head again. The church has all the ambience of a supermarket. Why can’t these new churches have stained glass windows with angels and saints? Why can’t they have sober dark wood? Why can’t they have organ music? Don’t people wear black for funerals anymore? That guy is wearing shorts for god’s sake. Looks like he just came in off the golf course. Wanda pretends to brush invisible lint off her dress just so she can admire the expensive drape and hand of wool crepe. Though the day is hot, crepe is the right thing. One shouldn’t be too comfortable at a funeral and besides the church is air-conditioned. As cool as the supermarket it used to be before Wal-Mart took over the food industry and Super Values became car dealerships and evangelical churches. At least this one has real pews. Wanda was at a funeral last year in which the mourners sat in upholstered stacking chairs. After the service, members of the congregation brought out folding tables and the reception was held right there in the church. With the coffin gone, mind you. Wanda couldn’t imagine eating the buns with tuna and egg salad and the matrimonial squares baked by the women’s auxiliary right in front of the coffin.

A woman Wanda has never seen in her life waves and Wanda waves back. Should she smile or look sad? She smiles sadly and slides her eyes away towards the door where people are still coming in and standing along the back wall.

Thank god, there’s Danny. Danny in his pin-striped black suit, white shirt and fuchsia tie. He is luminous brilliance and upright pride with a trace of grief stretching the corner of his upper lip. His black hair, gelled and styled, is perfection. He stops at the top of the aisle, places his sunglasses on his head and lifts his arm, the one holding the briefcase, to check the time. Who brings a briefcase to a funeral? Did he bring cash to pay the priest? Maybe he’s going to review some documents during “Amazing Grace.” He walks down the aisle with slow determined purpose, smiling at those who nod, shaking hands with those who extend theirs and finally bending over toward Aunt Chris to whisper something into her ear. She smiles and pats him on the arm.

As soon as he sits down the pianist stops. A gap of silence that is steady and true opens up in the room. Wanda almost slips off the pew. She pulls herself back, takes a deep breath and watches the others shift their bodies in the long break. No one speaks. No throat-clearing. Not a sniffle or blow. Death synchronizes breath until the pianist finds the sheet she is looking for and resumes playing. Wanda digs in her purse for the handkerchief her mother gifted her when she was going through the divorce. She brings it to her nose, not because she is crying but because she is anxious. She breathes into it and remembers what her mother had said, “Be prepared to cry fake tears.” My mother, the thespian turned psychologist. That’s a good one. She must write it down. Now? Is it proper to make notes at a funeral? She brought her book but she’s not sure. Still, there are good conversations going on around her that she needs to note. The two ladies behind her haven’t stopped talking since they sat down.

“Jeanette was so weak in those last weeks.”

“Horrible.”

“Why couldn’t they do something?”

“My neighbor’s sister had morphine for the pain. Why couldn’t they give that to Jeanette?”

The voice lowers, “Maybe they were worried, you know, that she’d get hooked again.”

“Oh please, she hadn’t had a drink in years.”

“But still…”

Now in a faint whisper, “It’s just a shame that it had to end so sadly.”

“Her broken heart was what took her.”

“You’re right. Couldn’t the book have come out after she passed?”

“You’d think.   

Wanda takes out her notebook and writes fake tears and thespian psychologist. She sketches Danny’s briefcase in the corner of the page and attaches a chain to it, drawing link after link until she ends up on the other side of the page. She writes faint whisper and broken heart then closes the notebook. The priest, in white robes with gold trim, stands on the rise, behind the podium, wearing a microphone headset. When the piano stops he begins, “My friends…”

At least he didn’t say “Dearly beloved.” Or maybe that was marriages. Wanda’s only experience of religious ritual comes from movies. For example, in a movie you always hear the priest say, In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. That’s all the Latin a Hollywood screenwriter needs to know. And it’s so hypocritical. This guy is no friend of hers or Jeanette’s. That’s Danny’s fault. He arranged everything. And now here he is sitting beside her with that ridiculous briefcase. She can smell the leather, a lower note to his Boss cologne. But there must have been a time when a priest or pastor or minister or whatever they call themselves these days would have known the congregation. You see that in movies too. A kindly black-clad elderly gent shaking hands outside the church door as the congregation files out, driving up in his buggy and matched horses to deliver the last rites to some old man or woman tucked into a four-poster bed with about six lace-edged pillows. The room is dark. A far cry from Jeanette, ninety pounds, tubes in every orifice, hooked up to some bleeping machine, begging Wanda to pull the plug… Back at the manse, the priest has a plump housekeeper with an Irish accent. She wears a calico apron and sensible shoes, bosses him around a bit in a motherly kind of way. Turns a blind eye to his drinking. The poor dear man, he’s had his share of trouble…

Danny nudges her. Hisses. Oh, they are standing, droning out some doleful hymn. Jeanette would love this. She’d sing the loudest. In another life she would have been an opera singer. In another life in which she could actually carry a tune, that is. Wanda mouths the words when Danny hands her the hymn book. Where does he get that golden baritone when she can’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow? He probably chose the hymns just to set off his beautiful voice. Like his mother. A show-off. But he’ll say, it was mother’s favorite hymn. And she’ll say, Danny, mother didn’t have favorite hymns; she had favorite handbags (big enough to hold a bottle of vodka and a small dog), she had favorite bars, favorite slot machines, favorite soap operas. And favorite children. 

Danny yanks her back down. Wanda just nudges the briefcase with her foot as she regains her seat and hears it hit the floor with the solid whump of expensive leather making contact with industrial carpeting. Danny leans over and sets it up again, hands her back her notebook. It must have fallen from her lap when she stood up. At least it is closed, at least he didn’t see inside it. He’ll give her a hard time about it anyway. She puts it on the pew beside her on the side away from him and covers it with the handkerchief. She’ll put it in her purse in a while, but she doesn’t want to seem to be fidgeting. Or hiding anything.

“Let us pray…”

Oh shit, prayer. Wanda bows her head a bit but she doesn’t close her eyes. What are other people doing? She looks up to see a roomful of people, heads bowed, eyes closed. The dandruff guy has his hands clasped at his forehead and is rocking back and forth. A friend of Jeanette’s for sure. A taste for the dramatic gesture. Are Danny’s eyes closed?

Merciful Father and Lord of all life, we praise you that we are made in your image and reflect your truth and light.”

Yes. She slips the notebook into her purse. But not before adding a small drawing of a handbag with a dog poking its nose out of one pocket.

“We thank you for the life of your child Jeanette, for the love she received from you and showed among us. Above all, we rejoice at your gracious promise to all your servants, living and departed, that we shall rise again at the coming of Christ.”

Wanda imagines Jesus and Wanda coming together. She hopes Jesus likes Bingo. Hopes he likes his martinis dry and his wine sweet. Well, she supposes he can have his wine any way he likes it. Maybe he and Jeanette will hit it off after all. She jots a few more words in the notebook. Jesus cheapens the wine for Jeanette.

“We thank you for Jeanette’s life and for her death, we thank you for the rest in Christ she now enjoys, we thank you for giving her to us, we thank you for the glory we shall share together. Hear our prayers through Jesus Christ our Lord.” 

The minister is really rolling now. Wanda looks up. He is braced as for a stiff breeze, the Bible out-held in his right hand, his left arm carving graceful arcs in the air. Dandruff is joining in with a few amen’s of his own, extempore.

“Eternal God and Father, we praise you that you have made people to share life together and to reflect your glory in the world. We thank you now for Jeanette, for all that we saw of your goodness and love in her life and for all that she means to each one of us. As we too journey towards death may we do so in the company of Jesus,
who came to share our life that we might share the life of eternity, in whose name we pray…

Now everyone is finally muttering the Lord’s Prayer in unison. Wanda has never learned the Lord’s Prayer. Or the National Anthem. She can sing it if everyone else is singing it, but she’s tried to sing it right through in the car when she’s stuck in traffic and can’t do it. Probably you don’t learn the words in the same way when you only mouth them. Danny apparently knows the words to the prayer. He recites it authoritatively. A moment ago she was glad to see him in the crowd, so why has she slipped so readily back into her old sibling insecurity. Her therapist has talked to her about that.

When the prayer ends, Danny approaches the stage, or podium, or altar, taking the briefcase with him. He steps up, stops, steps, and stops, as if he is hearing music in his head and keeping the choreography true. He makes a half turn on the ball of his right foot, takes a step, another half turn and pauses. He lifts the briefcase onto the podium and with his thumbs, click releases the locks. Someone coughs a wet phlegm note setting off the invitation for another to blow his nose, and another to clear her throat. Danny will not be deterred. He eases open the top, pushing it forward to create a barrier between him and the audience. He adjusts the microphone and says, “Hello everyone. Thank you for coming.” He tilts his head to lend his ear to the leather, “What? What did you say?” Now he’s looking in the briefcase. “Oh, you want to say something?” With that a puppet giraffe peaks over the edge and looks around the audience, ears dipping and lifting, neck tilting and stretching.

Wanda holds in a huge guffaw but eventually little sounds break out the sides of her mouth like air escaping the stretched opening of the balloon. She places a finger on each side of her mouth to seal the laughter but it is determined to make its way out. The back of her throat is making strange pleas and air is coming out her nose in sharp exhales. She is on the verge of losing it when the rest of the gathering starts laughing

“I do.” says the giraffe.

“Me, too.” Now a sock monkey peeks over the edge and turns to look at Giraffe and then at Danny.

“By all means, please, the floor is yours.” Danny shifts, disappears into a frozen smile and blink-less performer.

“Hi Giraffe. Why all the long faces, did someone die?”

“Yes, Sock Monkey, our dear Jeanette.”

“Jeanette the actress?”

“Yes, Sock Monkey, Jeanette the actress and singer.”

“Jeanette the dancer?”

“Yes, Sock Monkey, Jeanette the actress, singer, and dancer.”

“The same Jeanette that acted off Broadway and in Japanese soap operas?”

“Yes, Sock Monkey, the same Jeanette.”

“Ohhhhhhhh, that is sad.”

Giraffe raps his neck around sock monkey’s back and they weep together. Sock Monkey screams out in pain and Giraffe says, “There, there, how about a little song to cheer you up”

 “Ok.”

The pianist, obviously pre-cued to the show, begins to play. Giraffe stretches his neck a couple more inches, clears his throat and beings,

A pack rat, a diplomat

a cuddly cozy democrat…

A thirsty broad, twice defraud

a dancing prance…

 

Wanda’s face is wet with tears. Her cheeks sore from laughing. Everyone around her is laughing now and somehow it feels right that the grimness of death is swept away with a puppet eulogy. Though Wanda can see that Auntie Chris is none too pleased. She never did approve of Jeanette’s work in the dramatic field. She thought it was the devil’s doing that Jeanette was swept away by bad outfits and bit parts in community theatre. Auntie Chris is trying to stand up but Uncle Max, who is laughing, has her by the waist, and is trying to keep her down. Auntie Chris pushes him hard and then turns to wave at the minister, hoping that an authority of his stature will surely see the debauchery of the moment, but he doesn’t notice her and continues to clap and sway in unison with the puppet eulogy lyrics.

Aunty Chris, screeching, breaks loose from Max’s grasp. “Stop that...Stop…Just stop!”

Giraffe stops singing, looks around the room, spies Aunty Chris. “Sock, is that Aunty Chris?”

“Yes, Giraffe.” In a stage whisper that reaches the back of the choir, he adds, “She’s upset.”

“Why?’

“That’s her favorite song. She wants to sing it.”

“Aunty Chris, do you want to sing?”

The laughing has stopped. Breathing has stopped. Aunty Chris is aware that all eyes are on her. Jeanette always made her look like a fool and here she is, dead, and still at it. Two puppets are delivering the eulogy and she, Christine, looks like an idiot? This is wrong. All wrong. Aunty Chris draws herself up to her full five-foot height. She will set this right. She will set everyone right. But when she opens her mouth, her tongue is dusty and words have deserted her. “Just. Stop,” she croaks.

“She wants you to stop,” hisses Sock to Giraffe.

“I have stopped.”

“That’s true. That’s true. You have stopped.” They both look at Chris, waiting.

“It’s not right.” But the conviction has gone out of her voice. The starch out of her back. Chris isn’t used to the limelight. Not like Jeanette. Jeanette would be up there singing and dancing, displaying her creamy and ample décolletage. Jeanette spent a fortune in foundation undergarments and skin emollients. Chris would have given that money to charity and let her bosoms sag under plain white cotton. Jesus wore plain cotton. Or Gandhi did. Probably they both did. Though it’s possible polyester wasn’t invented yet when our Lord walked the earth. She can just hear Jeanette snort. “Polyester? Teenie, nothing but pure silk touches my skin.” Jeanette called her Teenie. She was short. Fine. But Jeanette was only half an inch taller. And she, Chris, had inner greatness, where everything about Jeanette was on the outside. Everything. Her pastor told her that, and Chris had never forgotten it. He said it was what was in her heart that mattered. Jesus could see her heart. She told Jeanette that once.

“Can he see your underwear then? Does he have X-ray eyes? Can he see you putting anti-itch cream on your yeast infection? Can he see what you do with the Preparation H?” Chris had turned red. Then white. But she always turned off the light. No one could see her.

Except everyone can see her. The place is packed and every eye is on her. This is her chance to show them. Jeanette had wasted her life on vain show, while she, Chris, had toiled to make the world a better place. She had baked a million pies for church suppers. She washed seventeen million cups at church teas. She stuffed envelopes. She gave to the undeserving poor. She manned the soup pot at the local homeless shelter for those dirty creeps. She is going to heaven and Jeanette is not. And then she will be sorry. She will beg Chris to forgive her. She will admit she is wrong. Though Chris hasn’t worked out how Jeanette will do that from hell. Maybe she will attend a séance and call her up just for that purpose. Except séances are ungodly. No, she will pray for Jeanette as she has always done. Pray that Jeanette will see the light. Pray that Jeanette will beg forgiveness. Her forgiveness.

Chris has accepted Jesus as her personal savior. She loves him. She loves his sad face. His thin arms. Sometimes she goes to the Catholic church just so she can see him. The nails through his pitiful hands and feet. Chris can feel the nail-holes, though her palms don’t bleed.  See the smooth skin and muscles of his thighs. His smooth belly. She bought a crucifix but keeps it hidden in case Pastor Winks comes over. Pastor Winks wouldn’t approve. Pastor Winks looks nothing like Jesus. He is half bald and has eaten too many of her pies. He has rosy cheeks and pudgy fingers. He has freckles on the backs of his hands and fine gold hair on his forearms. And now he is looking at her like everyone else. And that isn’t pity in eyes. It isn’t love. And he isn’t going to jump up and put an end to this charade. Though he has told her he will always help her. She can count on him in times of trouble. Well, if this isn’t a time of trouble what is?

Or at least that’s her sustaining memory as she begins to stumble and then trip over the straps of Karla O’Leary’s enormous handbag spilling out onto the aisle. If she puts her hand down to stop her fall she will break her carpal tunnel weakened wrists but if she falls with her wings tucked in, she will land in the middle of the great expanse of indoor/outdoor gray church carpeting, face down, with her big fat derriere presenting itself as the mourners’ focal point. She decides to save her wrists and risk ridicule but the whole thing is taking place in slow motion. She is still falling forward and is trying to pull her hands toward her body, but she is pawing the air like a dog in water while widening her eyes like a hyperthyroid patient off medication.

Her black gypsy skirt is in a flurry and it is plain for all to see that the masking tape she used to hem the bottom is starting to peel away as the seams tug this way and that on the descent. One of her Birkenstock sandals flips off landing against the flower arrangement next to the podium where seconds before the puppets had commanded farce and fancy. Now she is racing toward farce. Her generous bosom that once held her little sister Jeanette during the trying years of the theatre smashes onto the nylon loops of religious Berber.

Chris turns her head to see the audience. To see Wanda reaching toward her.

“Come on, Auntie Chris, the prayers are over. I know you miss her. We’ll go for lunch after. Shhh now.”

To see Danny putting the eulogy papers back into the brief case.  To see her friends and family, their eyes rolling into their heads, to see her own husband walking toward her with tears in his eyes and a smirk on his face. To see the majority of people leaving the church without thought of her. See, that was always the outcome. Jeanette got the applause and Chris got the early closing.