Published in July 202o in the Elizabeth River Press 2020 Anthology
Gerry was steamed when his son arrived at the funeral home wearing that baseball cap. Not that it was unusual: He’d been a royal pain in the ass recently. Teen-age rebellion, Laura said. Hard to believe this was the boy who’d loved practicing baseball with his Papa.
Dozens were in line to pay last respects; more were in the foyer signing the sympathy book. His Gretchen lay there, on her right hand the claddach ring they’d bought in Ireland last year just before she fell ill. Love, loyalty, friendship. His heart ached.
The room was banked with flowers – from the teachers’ union, school staff, PTA, food bank, homeless shelter, Boy and Girl Scouts, bridge club. Half of Middletown.
People wore their Sunday best. Gerry was stuffed into a suit he hadn’t worn in years. If Gretchen were alive, she’d have let it out; she was a terrific seamstress. In fact, Laura wore a dark dress that Gretchen re-tailored for her to start college two years ago. She looked so much like her mother. The rest in the receiving line, his brother Marvin and Gretchen’s siblings and their spouses, were dressed formally.
And here came Jeremy, skulking in and squeezing next to his sister, in cut-off jeans and a long-sleeved red jersey, his hair spilling out of a baseball cap on which was lettered Life has no meaning. At least it was turned sideways; people might not notice the words.
“We’re going to miss her,” Mrs. Murphy was saying, “If there’s anything we can do . . .”
“Thank you,” he said, trying not to sound hurried. “Laura, this is Mrs. Murphy from the food pantry.” He stepped behind her to face Jeremy: “For God’s sake, take that off!”
Mistake. When Jeremy turned his head, the bill pointed forward, the gold-on-black lettering standing out like neon. “People have come to pay respects to your mother,” Gerry hissed. “Why can’t you be respectful?”
“I didn’t even want to be here. It’s bullshit. None of this will bring Mama back.”
Gerry could almost hear Gretchen: Lay off, dear. He’s quick to anger; he learned that from you. He turned to Marvin, next in line, Jeremy’s favorite uncle. “Can you try? I’ve got to greet people.”
“Hey,” Marvin said, laid-back, calm, a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder, “glad you’re here.”
His son turned, and more of the quote showed: no meaning. . . the moment you lose . . . something. So many words on a cap! Just above the bill was a name: Jean-Paul somebody. Have to ask Laura what that’s about.
Gerry hurried back in line to accept condolences from Mrs. Wadsworth. “So young. A tragedy. A few months ago, at the women’s shelter, she looked so well. It was cancer?”
“I’m so sorry. I suppose at the end that was a blessing.”
“Thank you.” He handed her on to Laura, remembering those hard final weeks, the hospice staff helping them accept the inevitable.
All but Jeremy, who came only once. He’d begun playing video games in his room: Carmageddon, Mortal Kombat, Thrill Kill. When Gerry made him turn the volume down at night, he skipped school to play during the day. Gerry, going to the hospice early and then to work, didn’t know until the school called.
“Jeremy,” he said that night, “Your Mama wants to know if you’re keeping up your studies.” Untrue: He hadn’t wanted to burden Gretchen.
“Lie to her,” Jeremy had said. Defiant. Didn’t even pretend, let alone promise to do better.
Mrs. Howarth stepped up now and gave him a hug. His neighbor’s mother, a retired guidance counselor. “It’s going to be hard.” She looked meaningfully down the line at Jeremy.
The wake went another hour. Marvin had persuaded Jeremy to take off the hat and to say just “Thank you” to mourners. After a while, that became “Thank you, it doesn’t matter,” which made Gerry mad all over again, but most didn’t seem to hear it. The ritual of funerals doesn’t demand full attention, he thought.
At last the line finished. Jeremy disappeared, wearing the cap. The undertaker took the casket to some cold dark soulless refrigerator until the funeral the next day; Gerry didn’t want to think about that. A dozen were still seated in the room, praying. He should thank them. Sitting down with each would encourage lingering, but God surely didn’t mean a man his size to stand in a tight suit for two hours straight.
First, Mrs. Howarth. “Jeremy is troubled,” she said.
“We used to be close,” he told her. “He’s probably home playing video games.”
“It’s hard to cope with a mother’s death. We’ll have you over for dinner.”
“Just a matter of time,” Marvin butted in. “He’ll get past it. Kids are resilient.”
“Call me,” she said to Gerry.
Agnes Hardy had tarried. And Muriel Butler. Both widowed early. A good mechanic in a small town knows people by their cars. Jack left Agnes a 1999 Riviera. Charlie left Muriel a newer BMW. Both kept coming to him. “I’m so sorry about Gretchen,” Agnes said at the garage one day. “Cancer is cruel. Tell me if I can do anything to help.” She paused for emphasis: “Anything at all.”
Now she patted a chair when he reached her side of the room. “It will be a difficult time. Lonely. Call when you’d like a home-cooked meal.”
“Thank you,” he said, getting up.
Muriel smiled from across the room. She’d been even less subtle. Called one evening: Her car, which she needed first thing in the morning, wouldn’t start. He stopped on his way from the hospice. It started right away. “It must be hard,” she said, unapologetic, “working all day, spending time with her, coming home tired and alone.” He said he’d send a bill, and left.
“Dear Gerry, you must be distraught,” she said now.
“And lonely. You’ll call me when the time seems right.” She said it more like a forecast than an invitation.
He looked around, wondering if Laura had noticed these two, glad Jeremy had left. He finished his goodbyes and went to Mario’s Ristorante, where Marvin had reserved a room. “To be family together,” he said. “Celebrate her life, and remind ourselves that life must go on.”
Jeremy didn’t come.
“Did you see his hat?” Gerry asked Laura.
“I know. Embarrassing. Poor Jeremy.”
“What was it all about?”
“It’s by Jean-Paul Sartre. I’m afraid he got it from me.”
“A French philosopher, Papa. I studied him, and brought the book home. Jeremy borrowed it. I’d probably bookmarked that quote. It’s famous.”
“I didn’t know you could get so many words on a hat.”
“There’s a shop downtown. They do customized.”
“What does the whole thing say?”
“Let’s see. ‘Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.’ Something like that.”
“Too complicated for me. Doesn’t sound optimistic.”
“It isn’t, Papa. Did Mrs. Naismith talk to you?”
“She didn’t tell you about the cat?”
“Her tomcat that yowls all night? I haven’t heard it recently.”
“She thinks Jeremy killed it. She found it on her doorstep one morning, sort of . . . mutilated. He needs help, Papa. We should get him to a psychiatrist.”
“He doesn’t need a shrink,” said Marvin, butting in again.
“I think he does, Uncle Marvin.”
“Give him time.”
When he and Laura got back to the house, the noise from upstairs was deafening. “I’ll go talk with him, Papa.”
He listened from the living room. They’d been close; maybe she could get through to him. The racket stopped. Low voices. The video started again, but quieter. Laura stopped in the kitchen, came back with cheese and crackers and red wine just like Gretchen used to do.
“Have you seen the cuts on his arms, Papa?”
On his arms? Jeremy had worn only long-sleeved shirts recently. “Cuts? No.”
“Razor cuts, I think.”
“He’s shaving his arms? Why would he do that?”
“Not shaving. He’s cutting himself. We read about it in Psych 101. People feel numb, and cut themselves to feel pain.”
“I guess you were right about getting a psychiatrist.”
“It won’t be easy.”
“Maybe Mrs. Howarth next door can help. I’ll talk to her.”
They fell silent. Gerry considered going upstairs. If Jeremy came to the door, he might see the razor cuts.
“Papa,” Laura said, “you should get rid of the guns.” His two rifles and the shotgun were in a mahogany wall cabinet that Gretchen found. “You don’t use them anymore.”
“No. I pay my dues, but haven’t even been to target practice.” He looked at the cabinet, so cleverly made that an intruder might think it held teacups. “It’s locked. So is the night table where I keep the pistol.”
“Papa, anyone could bust in with a screwdriver.”
“I’ll think about it.”
He did think about it. Couldn’t get to sleep. Tried to imagine cutting his arms with a razor blade. Couldn’t even imagine how addicts stuck needles into themselves.
The funeral service next day was awful. The parson went through the pious stuff about Gretchen’s being in a better place now. People came to the pulpit to praise her. Laura made him teary saying what a good mother she was, telling about the time the cocker spaniel ate all the Easter eggs, which made him laugh through the tears. He wished Jeremy had come. A little reluctant laughter might do him good. Like the time he broke his leg sliding into second base, and learned to smile through the pain.
He wished Gretchen could hear it all. By the time everyone finished, Gerry was blowing his nose so hard that no one expected him to go up there too.
Most of them came to the burial. It was a blue-skied fall morning, leaves just turning. The parson read more scripture, the casket was lowered, and he and Laura threw the first handfuls of dirt with a mournful thunk! After others threw some dirt, the parson ended the ceremony and led them away so they wouldn’t see the cemetery workmen fill the grave.
Walking back through the depressing hundreds of gravestones, Gerry glimpsed someone standing with head bent at some other grave. Then he recognized the cap. He let the others go ahead, and called. “Jeremy?” He stepped in that direction.
“Let me do it my way, Papa.” Jeremy’s voice had a hollow ring. “You don’t know what it’s like.”
Some inner demon, Gerry thought. But he’d managed to communicate. “You coming to lunch at Mario’s this time?”
At least he was saying Papa. Maybe Marvin was right: Give him time. “Everyone would like to see you.”
Jeremy shrugged, took off the cap and bowed like some medieval peasant, then walked toward Gretchen’s grave. Gerry wanted to follow, but the others were waiting.
Jeremy didn’t come to the restaurant. The meal went on too long. Afterward, all the relatives gave hugs and started back to wherever they’d come from. He and Laura came back to the house. No sign of Jeremy.
“He’s depressed,” Laura said. “See if those guns are still in the cabinet, Papa.”
The key was on the mantel under a porcelain shepherd Gretchen bought somewhere. The guns were still there, but she wasn’t satisfied. “Why don’t you deal with them now? I’ll begin putting Mama’s clothes in boxes for the women’s shelter. You’ve dreaded that job.”
So she, bless her heart, went up to the bedroom while he took the guns out and unscrewed the cabinet. It seemed weird, having just buried his wife, but kept his mind occupied. He put everything in the trunk and took it to Herb’s Sport Shop.
Herb, once a hunting buddy, with a 2009 Accord, offered condolences and said he could probably sell the cabinet and rifles together; he’d take care of the paperwork. “Jeremy was in the other day,” he added. “They grow up so fast.”
“Jeremy? Did he buy anything?”
“No. Didn’t stay long. Wearing a baseball cap with weird lettering. If he wants a gun, why aren’t you just giving him yours?”
“I’m not sure he should have a gun.” Gerry hesitated. “He’s . . . a little unstable sometimes. You saw that hat.”
“I could only read part of it. You think he. . .” — this time it was Herb who hesitated – “might do himself harm?”
“His sister thinks so. I don’t want to leave these in his path.”
“Gotcha. If he buys from me, he’ll have to pass a background check, anyway.”
“But seventeen-year-olds can buy guns?”
“Anyone can have a long gun, Gerry. Twenty-one to get a handgun or a carry permit.”
“If he comes back, have a talk. Like, ask where he’s hunting.”
“Not like quizzing, you know? Just conversation.”
“And give me a call, will you?”
By the time he got back, Laura had found something to cover the faded wallpaper behind the gun cabinet: a huge painting Gretchen bought at an auction when they vacationed in Vermont years ago, an autumn maple with white birches and dark pines. Once home, she’d decided it was too big, and consigned it to the attic.
“It’s as though she knew we’d need that huge painting someday, Papa. It’s perfect.”
It wasn’t really. It overpowered the living room. But it reminded him of Gretchen.
Laura had most of the clothes in cardboard boxes, and had some earrings and brooches and necklaces on the coffee table. “Papa, I’d like to keep these. To wear in remembrance, you know? And to pass on as family heirlooms.”
“Sure,” he said. “Your Mama would want that.” He was still worrying about Jeremy. “Anything your brother might want?”
“How about this locket?” Laura opened a little heart on a gold chain. “It’s you and Mama and a baby. Must be one of us.”
“Perfect. It’s Jeremy. Someone took the photo at the hospital. I bought the locket and gave it to her the day she brought him home.”
They didn’t tell Jeremy about the locket right away. He got home just after they got the boxes piled by the door for the shelter people, and were in the living room with cheese and crackers and wine.
“Come join us, bro,” Laura said.
“You took down the gun cabinet.”
“Papa’s starting a new life. He wasn’t using them.”
“What do you mean, you were?” Gerry said.
“Just target practice. Out in the woods.”
So much for locked cabinets and hidden keys, Gerry thought. “You didn’t ask.”
“Didn’t think I needed to.”
Gerry wanted to ask why the hell he would think that, but held his temper. He was frightened as well as angry.
Jeremy changed the subject. “Where did you get that picture? It looks like the cemetery.”
“Mama bought it in Vermont,” Laura said. “It’s been in the attic.”
“It’s a remembrance. You and Papa will have to cheer each other up.”
“Sure. See you in the morning.”
“Wait! We went through Mama’s stuff, and found something you might want.”
“I saw the boxes by the door.”
“That just clothes. I mean here on the coffee table.”
“Looks like jewelry. What are you going to do, sell it?”
“No, silly. Mama never had really expensive jewelry. These are keepsakes, to pass along to our children.”
“If you have kids.”
“I will, someday. Won’t you?”
Gerry cleared his throat to speak, but Laura flapped her hand to silence him exactly the way Gretchen used to. “Well, we found a locket that might change your mind.”
“What do you mean, a locket?”
“God, Mama looks so young. Who’s the baby?”
“It’s you. At the hospital just after you were born.”
“Ugly even then, wasn’t I?”
“No! You’re not ugly. Your eyes remind me of Mama.”
“I don’t want to be reminded about Mama. She’s gone. I’m going to bed.”
But he took the locket with him as he trudged noisily up the stairs.
Sunday morning, Laura insisted on making bacon and waffles like Gretchen used to. “Oh, Papa,” she said as she gave him a second helping, “you’ll have to tell Grandpa Harry. Do you want me to stay another day to come with you?”
Just then Jeremy dragged in. He was still in pajamas, which were long-sleeved so Gerry couldn’t see his arms, but the top was only half-buttoned and he had the locket around his neck. “It won’t matter,” he broke in. “The old man won’t get it anyway. He’s like totally out of it.”
Harry Peters was indeed in a locked wing at the convalescent home, although Gerry thought he was too frail to wander even if he tried. The nurses had to drag along his oxygen, on a rolling rack, when they got him out of bed for a daily walk down the hallway and back.
“Not totally,” Laura said. Harry had always been her favorite grandparent. She wanted to be an architect because he’d been a carpenter building houses. “He snaps out of it sometimes to ask me how school is going.”
“Never lasts long.”
“You’re right. I guess when he comes to, he remembers Grandma, and lets his mind slip away because he can’t stand thinking about her.”
“I get that.”
“Denial. He’s despondent. We read about it my college course. He’s lost hope.”
“I get that too.”
Gerry didn’t want to get into that conversation. Depressing. Harry’s wife died at about Gretchen’s age, and the old man never got over it. His mind went first, and then his lungs and legs. Gerry wondered if he’d deteriorate like that. Maybe taking up with one of those widows would stave it off. God! What was he thinking about, at a time like this?
“Maybe you could go with Papa,” Laura was saying to Jeremy. “Help explain. He ought to know.”
“Okay,” Jeremy said.
That was unexpected. “Thank you!” Gerry said, almost too enthusiastically.
“That would be wonderful, bro,” Laura said. “Papa will need some moral support.”
“You should go before lunch, when sometimes he’s more alert.”
“Okay. Let’s go today.”
Maybe Marvin was right: time, and the resilience of youth. Gerry wished Laura could stay longer. Like Gretchen, she’d always been able to cajole Jeremy into a better mood.
“We can take you to the airport,” Jeremy said, “and then go from there to – what’s its name?”
“Rose Garden Convalescent,” Laura said.
“Yeah. Convalescent. As if anyone there was getting better.”
“Some do, I think.”
“Promise them a Rose Garden,” Jeremy said.
A half-hour later they were on their way to the airport in the family Camry. Jeremy actually volunteered to go upstairs for Laura’s roll-on and put it in the trunk. Amazing. Only visited Gretchen once in the hospice, but was ready to come see his grandfather. He offered to sit in back, but Laura insisted his longer legs needed the room.
“Sit next to Papa,” she said. “He needs you.”
“Okay,” Jeremy said. Sounded almost cheerful. And when they got to the airport, he jumped out to get Laura’s bag.
“You don’t need to wait.” She gave Jeremy a huge, long hug. “Go see Grandpa. Give him my love.”
“If he remembers us.”
She turned, and Gerry welcomed her embrace, her warmth. So much like Gretchen. He swallowed hard, and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Thank you, baby. Stay in touch.”
“I will. I’ll phone. You two go along now.”
Gerry pulled off the road as soon as they got out of the airport complex. It would be a quiet country road to the convalescent home, not much traffic. Jeremy had a learner’s permit. “You want to drive?”
“Thanks.” He got out the passenger side and came around so that Gerry could just slide over. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt. “I don’t remember the way. You be the navigator.”
“It’s not far,” Gerry said. “Turn left at the next stop sign.” Not far from the convalescent home was a baseball field. In his mind he’d mapped a route to pass it. Jeremy drove cautiously and well, and recognized the field when they reached it.
“Didn’t we used to play here?”
“We did. Stop a minute.” They got out of the car to contemplate the field.
“It’s small,” Jeremy said. “I didn’t remember it was so small.”
Gerry thought he saw bloodstains on the shirtsleeves. “You were smaller then too, you know. Little League size.”
“The Murphy Ford Yankees. This was their home field.” Jeremy led the way across right field to first base. “You were a good coach. We beat them.”
“We did. Two or three times.”
“Mama sat on the other side of that fence behind first base.”
“Yes. A half-dozen mothers sat there. Some of them were at the funeral.”
“Mama cheered every time I caught the ball.”
“And when you got a hit.”
“I remember. I hit a home run here, and thought she’d jump over the fence.”
Gretchen, the proud mother. Supportive mother. They stood silently, remembering. Gerry was sure now they were bloodstains. He finally found words. “Can I see your cuts?”
“No, Papa, please. I’m not proud of them.”
Why do you do that, he wanted to ask. “I can’t imagine cutting myself,” he said instead. “It must hurt.”
“The pain tells me I’m still alive.”
Just like Laura said, Gerry thought. “Suppose you could talk about it with Mrs. Howarth next door? She was a guidance counselor.”
“Maybe later. Let’s go see Grandpa.”
They drove the rest of the way in silence. Jeremy parked, and they walked to the front desk to be let into the Memory Wing. Most residents were slumped in wheelchairs that the staff had parked in their doorways so they might talk to one another, but none seemed to be talking.
There were few other visitors. Gretchen used to come back feeling sorry for these people. “Almost no one comes to see them, Gerry,” she’d say. “I try to brighten their day by making eye contact and smiling and saying good morning.” Gerry tried to smile as he and Jeremy threaded past the wheelchairs to reach Harry’s room at the end of the hallway. A few smiled back, but mostly he got back vacant stares.
Harry was parked in his doorway too, half-asleep, slouched in a wheelchair to which his oxygen tank was strapped, tubes over his shoulders and into his nose.
Jeremy suddenly seemed impatient to get this over with. “Hello, Grandpa,” he said abruptly. “I’m Jeremy.”
Harry jolted awake. “Who?” He had macular degeneration, too.
“Jeremy. With my Papa.”
“I knew a Jeremy. Younger than you. Used to come with my daughter.”
Gerry thought he’d better get into it. “Good morning, Harry. It’s me, Gerry. Gretchen’s husband. Jeremy has grown since you saw him.”
The old man looked up, one eye squinting, the other once-bushy eyebrow raised like a thin question mark. The quizzical look dissolved into a scowl. “Where’s Gretchen?”
“That’s what we came to tell you, Grandpa. Mama is dead.” Jeremy sounded angry.
“That’s why she didn’t come with you?”
It hadn’t sunk in. “We buried her yesterday,” Gerry said. “In the family plot with your wife Myrtle.” This was harder than he’d expected. “We came to tell you.”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
The old man closed his eyes, and his head fell to his chest. His shoulders sagged, then rose and fell. He looked up. “Myrtle and Gretchen are both dead?”
“Yes, Harry.” Gerry couldn’t think what more to say, then tried some of the parson’s words. “They’re in a better place.”
“If you believe that,” Jeremy said.
Gerry wanted to believe it. “The pastor said they’re both with God,” he said.
“What kind of God is that?” Harry demanded. The surliness in the old man’s voice matched Jeremy’s. He looked down the hallway. “Take two good women in their prime, and leave me here, a useless vegetable?”
“We love you,” Gerry said.
“They’re both dead?”
“Yes,” Jeremy said.
“And why am I still here?”
“Beats me, Grandpa.”
Gerry tried to soften it. “God must have a plan,” he managed.
“Some plan,” Harry said. He fell silent. “Why didn’t Gretchen come with you?”
“She’s dead,” Gerry said. “That’s what we came to tell you.”
“Oh, yes.” The face was gray, stubbly. They must shave him later in the day. A sodden lump of flesh in which nothing works very well but hair still grows, Gerry thought. Keeps growing even after death, he read somewhere. He pushed that thought aside.
An aide appeared with a trolley cart of cookies and cartons of milk and juice. “Morning snack, Mr. Peters. Milk or OJ?” She deftly released the brakes and pushed his wheelchair into the room and under a bed-table.
“Milk, I guess. Just leave it there.”
They should stay and help him – Gretchen would have — but Gerry couldn’t think how to help a man eat a cookie. “We’ve got to get along now, Harry.”
Jeremy was obviously more than ready. “Later, Grandpa.”
The rheumy old eyes seemed to focus. “Okay,” he said. “Why was it you came?”
Gerry couldn’t say it again. “Goodbye, Harry.”
Neither could Jeremy. “Goodbye, Grandpa.”
All the wheelchairs had been pushed into rooms for snacks, and Jeremy strode down the long hallway ahead of him. Gerry hurried to keep up. There was only one Gretchen, no lonely widow could take her place, and he couldn’t stand the thought of being like Harry Peters.
“That was a bitch,” Jeremy said when they got outside.
“Do you really believe in God, Papa?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Not me. No God worth praying to would leave people like that. Inmates. Rotting.”
“I know what you mean.”
This time Jeremy drove too fast. Gerry wanted to say slow down, but bit his tongue. “It’s getting late,” he said when they reached the edge of town. “How about we stop at a drive-in for burgers to take home?”
“Okay. We’ve shot the day.”
The girl at the pay window recognized Jeremy. “I’m sorry about your mother.”
“I guess,” he said. “Thanks.”
“Girl from school?” Gerry asked as they pulled into traffic. “You weren’t very friendly.”
“No. I was thinking about Grandpa.”
When they got home, Jeremy took his burger and shake to his room to eat while he played a video game at blistering volume. Gerry didn’t want to make a scene; they’d made progress. He sat alone at the kitchen table where he and Gretchen usually ate. The burger was dry, and he threw most of the fries into the garbage.
In the night table drawer were some earplugs he’d used long ago on the firing range. He took a sleeping pill, poured himself a bourbon, and finally slept.
He woke early, thinking for a moment he would go to the hospice, then realizing that was over. Easy for Marvin to say ‘life must go on’: Marvin still had his wife.
He let Jeremy sleep in. Saturday, so it didn’t matter. He stopped for donuts and was at the garage by eight, putting on coveralls. There were three cars in the yard, keys slipped through the mail slot. He put the first in the dock, a Ford Fusion. It was good to have something to do. Give the torque wrench in his hand full attention so he didn’t screw up someone’s engine. He couldn’t imagine life without Gretchen. What was the word Laura used? Despondent.
He was working on the Chevy Blazer by noon, and turned on the radio to hear the weather. Instead, there was a bulletin. A rampage at Rose Garden Convalescent home. The shooter killed six people in an Alzheimer’s wing, but saved the final bullet for himself. Reporters on the way; details soon.
Gerry sat down heavily. He didn’t have the stomach for another funeral. Not one; two. Saying farewell to Harry Peters would be no problem, but putting Jeremy into the ground next to Gretchen would be incomprehensible.
He thought about the gun in the night table drawer, and knew it surely wasn’t there.