Another from my series about my maternal grandfather
The old man proved mortal at the last.
His body gave way to an eating cancer
that settled in his tough old heart,
and burned him out.
Tom and his family attended the service,
all swathed in black clothes
that Shirley made special.
The girls wore matching baby-doll dresses,
with lacy white collars tacked on
in deference to their ages.
Shirley had sewn in a rush,
for three solid days her spindle was blazing.
Her grief, if it was such,
and sent the tattered fabric flailing
against the walls of her room.
Tom looked at his daughters
across the grave, between cigarette puffs
and thought that if the intention had been
to make them innocent, child-like,
his wife had utterly failed.
Janet, twenty-two and three years married,
stood with her greasy long-haired husband
and her two little girls.
The black blanched her ginger skin,
while the cut made her matronly.
Tom hated thinking this, but he could not ignore it.
Joyce looked better, though frankly sexual.
She’d come from college, especially for this,
though Tom had said when he called
that he wouldn’t make her.
Her adolescent tendency towards anorexia
had blossomed to a lush large-bosomed slenderness,
and at twenty she had the beginnings
of a fine model’s insouciance.
Her beauty frightened Tom,
so he worked hard to deny it.
Tried not to know
what his brainstem whispered:
they might not have followed us,
if it wasn’t for her.
He flicked the pinched butt,
into the gaping earth.
Tom settled his right hand
in David’s sprung curls,
his fingers planted knuckle-deep
in a field of rust.
The boy did him credit,
as solemn as anyone could be at five years old.
The boy looked up at his father
with Tom’s own narrow face.
Gap-toothed, he smiled. Pulled his father down
to whisper over the priest’s ministrations.
‘Can I take this thing off yet?
It’s itching my balls.’
Tom thanked God for that.
His first smile in days.
He’d told Shirley
that the weather was bad for polyester.
He was hot himself.
‘But Tom,’ she’d said her accent still northern,
unsmoothed after so many years
caught in the rasp of the south,
‘We’ve got to save money! He didn’t leave any,
this whole funeral comes from our pocket.’
Shirley was right, it was Daddy’s final indulgence.
Tom reached out with his right hand,
took her by the wrist.
The shovels were heaving gray sand on the coffin,
water from the leaking table already sopping the edges.
So much fine cabinetry meeting the sea, decaying quickly.
Tom smiled again at the thought
that as soon as the family had properly vanished
the sexton would appear behind the wheel
of his small cement mixture,
to kill any potential for corpse buoyancy.
And there would be Daddy, cement drenched,
weighed down, entombed for the centuries,
guaranteed never to rise from the water-logged earth.
He’d never known that vampires
had a weakness for drowning.
They all turn to leave now.
Making way towards their separate cars,
Janet’s brood in the Station Wagon,
Joyce in her Trans Am.
Tom lights another cigarette, impossibly thirsty,
and Shirley- older, but trim- leans into his arm.
‘I wish Bill had made it.’
She picks in her heels across the gray gravel.
‘But I guess his classes
were too much for him to cope with.’
‘Hm.’ says Tom, opening the door for her,
handing her in, letting Dave slide beside her.
He nods at the boy. ‘Now you can take off the jacket.’
‘Nope. Leave them on. We’ll be home in a minute.’
He cranks up the engine, the rear wheels spurt dust.
Shirley leans her head on his shoulder,
asks, ‘Was it enough?’
There is a plastic cooler on the floor between them.
Shirley takes a bottle from it,
hands the beer to her man.
Tom swallows long, carefully steering.
The road is narrow here, beside the ocean.
The traffic is strong.
He empties the bottle.
‘It’s like when you were a kid and wanted
something special to play with.
A new bike or a gun.
And you want it for years with everything in you,
thinking if only I had that I would be fine,
no matter what happened.’
Shirley opens, hands him another.
She runs her finger down the length of his arm.
‘And years pass, they pass and you with them.
You grow up, somehow, older, big and finally strong.
But all this time this need is burning.
‘At first, you like the feel of it.
You think it makes a man of you.
You know that one day you will get it.
This thing that you need.
Though you know you are too old for it.
The symbol, you think, will be enough.’
They are nearly home.
Have driven past the beachfront millionaire mansions
cast in whimsical Tudor or castle-like shapes,
in mimicry of a land Tom’s never known,
which crouch on postage stamp lots
valued for their allotment of beachfront.
They are approaching the same-ish
working-class salt-boxes, sloughing their paint
like weather-torn corpse-skin.
One more bend till they are home.
‘Eventually, you give in, give up,
accept that your life is defined
by unfulfilable hope. And then, only then,
somebody hands it to you. This great good thing.
Wrapped in a package, tied with a bow.’
He does not know that he is weeping,
he brushes the drops free with a sleeve
that scratches his cheeks and absorbs nothing.
‘You feel suddenly quiet.
That moment, that light, is everything
that you ever wanted.
Trembling slightly, in terror and awe,
you open the bow.’
He turns to Shirley then,
grinning with dead eyes;
the devil she knows.
‘And in the box, through the tissue paper,
is this little piece of shit cap-gun.
It’s made of tin and rusted at the handle,
capable of absolutely nothing.
‘And you think This? My life, for This?
And there isn’t any joy left.
Only your anger. And you have gotten old.’
They are home, garage-parked,
the kitchen-door welcoming.
Tom keeps the engine on,
but takes the Volkswagen out of gear
and pulls the break handle.
He pats Shirley’s hand, says,
‘Go on in, and take Davey with you.
Get him out of his itchy trousers.
I’ll be in, in a minute.’
‘Tom, are you certain?’
He makes his mouth gentle for her,
‘I’ll be fine, love. Go.’
And so they leave him.
Into the kitchen, into their rooms.
Tom switches on the radio.
His favorite country station.
And there is Johnny Cash
singing a song his wife wrote for him.
I fell into a burning ring of fire.
I fell down, down, down
and the flames leapt higher.
Tom opens one more bottle,
throws the cap out the window
to clang against the wall.
He thinks, ‘Ring of fire. Fuck yes.
A good song to drink to.’
Bottle in hand, radio blaring,
Tom settles back to ride into nowhere.