By R.A. Rycraft
The children’s mother was dead. Her car hit by another car traveling on the wrong side of the road. Sometimes this was how God dealt with sinners, adulterous women who ignored marriage vows and corrupted children.
“Dead is gone,” the father told his children. “Dead is where bad deeds bump into God’s justice.” With two fingers he made the sign of the cross.
“God’s justice?” said the boy.
“If you’ve been bad God gets you.”
“I want you two to get dressed. Hurry up.”
Their clothes were neatly arranged at the foot of the father’s bed: a tiny dark suit and a yellow pinafore dress with lace trim. The girl clutched a picture of two kids and a woman, a picture she had drawn with blue, yellow and red crayons. She tried to hide it behind her back.
“What’s that?” said the father.
“Do you think I can give this to Mommy?” she asked, showing him the drawing.
The father raised his finger to his lips and said, “Shh.” He held his hand out to his daughter. She handed him her artwork, which he placed on the dresser between the tall cross and his seminary books. He promised to put the drawing in a safe place, the same safe place he put all the things that reminded them of their mother: the portrait of her smiling brightly as if saying, Hi! The crocheted doilies that used to sit under the lamps on the end tables; the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls she stitched into red and white polka dot suits. All those reminders gone, vanquished to a safe, secret spot. When the time was right, the father said, he would show her the place and she could take what she wanted.
In spite of what her father said, she knew the picture would not be kept safe. The handmade quilts the mother had sewn for each child’s bed were muddy and torn, having long ago been given to the dog. And since the day of the accident, he had removed from their rooms the remaining pictures of their mother. When the girl came to understand this tendency of her father’s, she began to hide things—a couple of Chuck E. Cheese tokens, a Hot Wheels fire truck, a pink hair ribbon, a few snapshots of her mother (one with B-Daddy), and a necklace with half of a jagged heart.
“Funerals aren’t easy,” the father explained. “It’s hard to be around grieving people, people who cry when they should be celebrating. If the departed hasn’t been bad she will be going to God, to live in His house, you understand? To worship at His feet forever. But that means a box with a body that is buried in the ground, ready for resurrection. This always upsets some people, the ones who are worried about their loved one getting into Heaven.”
“If I’m bad, God gets me?” said the boy.
“Exactly,” said the father. “For the dear departed who have been good, funerals are like saying See you soon.” He waved. The boy waved back.
The father clipped on the boy’s tie. “Remember you must stay with me,” he told the children. “If you don’t, it will hurt God because He wants you to be with the one who loves you the most.”
Since the girl was good at helping her brother, she was told to take him into the bathroom to change his dirty Pull-up. She carefully lowered his pants so as not to get poop on his legs, helped him step clear, and then flushed the mess down the toilet. She no longer gagged when performing this task. Resolute, she dampened a washcloth found under the sink, because the wipes (like so many other things) had disappeared when their mother left. Her brother bent over so she could clean his bottom.
“No matter what, stay by Daddy,” the girl whispered, guiding her brother’s feet through the legs of a new Pull-up. “Promise.”
“Promise,” her brother whispered.
“What you need to remember,” the father said to the bathroom door, “is: Faith, Hope, Chastity. That’s the way to Heaven.”
When the children were ready to go, the father kissed the tops of their heads and tickled their tummies.
The girl said, “Let’s play brain sucker—Daddy always likes to play brain sucker!”
“All right,” the father said. “But we mustn’t be late to the funeral.”
First, the father lumbered around the room, a child clinging to each leg. He said that he was getting weaker and weaker and soon he might fall flat on his face, right there in the middle of the living room floor.
The father said, “Woe is me, who has such heavy weights to bear.”
He fell to the floor, pulling the children with him. They were upon him. Giggling, squealing, wrinkling their clothes, mussing their hair. Sucking his brain.
They played for so long that the clock chimed ten times.
The father stood up and straightened his clothes. He said, “I look pretty good for a guy with no brain. Huh?”
The children giggled.
The father turned towards them. “We must hurry now,” he said. And he smoothed the girl’s dress and tucked in the boy’s shirt.
“But what about our brains?” the girl said.
“Our brains,” said the boy.
The father looked confused. “Why, I’ve already got them,” he said, “right here.” And he tapped the small cedar box that sat on the end table. “I’ve kept them safe all this time, ever since you were born. ”
The girl looked at the old clunky shoes the father had placed by the front door. “I can’t wear those,” she said.
“They don’t go,” she said. “My white buckle shoes go.”
The father gave her a stern look. “We’re not going to spoil the moment, now, are we?” he said.
“But Mommy . . .”
“Shh,” said the father.
He rushed them out the door and strapped them into the car. The girl pointed to a sign in their front lawn.
“I can read that,” she said. “For Ss-aye-L-uh. For Say-luh.”
“Try again,” the father said.
“For Say-el. For Sale?”
“What a smart girl,” the father said.
The girl grinned at her father and clapped her hands. “I did it!”
“Well done,” the father said, and he kissed her forehead. “You’ll like our new house. It’s in a better place.”
They headed for the funeral. The father said he would rather take them to Disneyland, but there were certain tasks in life you had to do even if you didn’t want to. The funeral was like that. The best they could hope for was that it would be short.
“Can we go after?” the girl asked, meaning Disneyland.
“Go. Go,” the boy said.
“We’ll talk about it. If you stay with me,” the father said. He said it with the gentle look of a father who protects his children but is pained by discipline.
“That means no,” the girl whispered to her brother.
The father kept his eyes on the road. “You know,” he said, “you’ve got to live by the Good Book because it’s the only way to get in Heaven—unless you want to go to Hell.” The father’s hand slammed against the dashboard.
The girl jumped at the sound. Her brother raised one drowsy eyelid then shut it. Warily, she watched her father’s back, but he didn’t say anything else, not even when she asked if they should go home because it was morning and the sky was getting dark.
On the seat beside her was the busy box. She pulled out the magic doodle board and began to draw a picture. She penciled in a flower, and some grass below that, and a smiley-face sun in the top corner. At the very bottom of the board, beneath the grass, she wrote M-o-m-m-y.
She shook her brother’s arm. “Look!”
The boy looked at her, heavy-eyed.
“What you got there, Punkin?” the father said.
The girl met her father’s gaze in the rearview mirror, the corners of his eyes crinkled, implying a smile. Her hand moved guiltily across the surface of the doodle board, blurring the image and smearing the word. She put the board back in the busy box.
“Nothin,” she said.
Rain fell and the father turned his attention back to the road. He clicked on the wipers. They squealed against the glass. A voice on the radio said: “Partly cloudy with a twenty percent chance of rain.”
“This promises to be a lovely day,” said the father.
The father’s hands tightened on the wheel. His knuckles were white. He turned off the freeway onto a wide street flanked by houses. He stopped at a red light. “Have I ever told you how much you guys look like me?” the father said to the rearview mirror.
“He’s the one that looks like you,” the girl said, nodding toward her brother. “Grandma Carol says I look like Mommy.”
“Shh,” said the father.
The girl gnawed her finger.
The light turned green, and the father followed a long line of cars into the church parking lot.
“Will Grandma Carol and Aunt Aimee be there?” she said. “Will we see B-Daddy?”
“Shh,” said the father.
When the car was parked and the engine switched off, the father turned in his seat to face his children. The boy was asleep, his head leaning against the seat, drool dribbling from his mouth. The father shook the boy awake.
“What are you thinking?” he asked his daughter.
“Me?” the girl said. “Nothin’.”
“Nothin’,” said the boy.
The father considered their empty heads.
“You must stay close to me,” he warned them.
A wet wind slapped at the window. Rain pattered the roof.
“Raining on a funeral, that’s bad, a bad omen,” the father said.
The girl unbuckled her belt and wiped fog from the glass. “I see a big white car,” she said. There were lots of people huddled under umbrellas. The people looked sad. Some were wiping their eyes.
The rain made puddles on the asphalt.
Four men pulled the bronze coffin from the hearse and set it on a carrier.
The coffin looked like a giant, ornate jewelry box.
The father got out of the car, opened his umbrella. The girl and the boy held onto his pant legs as they hurried toward the church. The girl watched the sidewalk and carefully stepped over each line she crossed, whispering, “Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back.”
“Shh,” said the father.
A small group of mourners moved to intercept the family.
“B-Daddy!” the boy yelled at his stepfather. His sister grabbed his arm and shook her head. But he kept on, “B-Daddy! B-Daddy!”
The father squeezed the back of the boy’s neck. “Settle down,” he said. The boy squirmed and whimpered but did not move away from his father.
The children’s grandmother nodded to their father.
“Carol,” he said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
The grandmother leveled an icy glare at the father. He held her gaze with unblinking calm. “I’m sorry too,” she said. “But at least she’s beyond persecution now.”
“Is she?” said the father.
The girl watched as the stare-down between the adults intensified, and she knew the grandmother would lose. She watched the familiar blank expression settle on her father’s face. She watched her grandmother grow more uncomfortable. She watched her grandmother’s fingers pull at each other, her nervous shifting from foot to foot, her eyes darting across his face, to a cheek, his nose, everywhere but his eyes. And she watched her grandmother look away.
The stepfather beckoned the girl and her brother to come. But the girl looked up at her father, noting his tense jaw, the narrowed eyes. He looked down at her and nodded.
“B-Daddy!” the boy cried, running towards him.
B-Daddy dropped to his knees on the wet pavement and wrapped them in his arms. “I miss you. I miss you!”
“I miss you, too, B-Daddy,” the girl said.
Then it was the aunt and the grandmother, wailing and hugging and kissing. There was a lot of stroking and touching. The grandmother rubbed at the mark left on the boy’s neck, while the tight-lipped father hovered, stoic and silent.
After a few minutes, the father said, “It’s time.” He made a show of looking at the casket, up at the sky, and back at his children. He reached for their hands. “Time,” he said, “Now.”
Someone had placed an unfinished pink and yellow quilt over the casket. A man in a black suit beckoned the group into the church.
B-Daddy started down the aisle followed by the children and their father. The group sat in the front row—B-Daddy next to the coffin, his hand fingering the quilt. The girl sat between her stepfather and father, and the boy on the father’s lap.
The reverend had been speaking for a while when the girl heard him say, “In your grief, remember that she’s in a better place. She’s with God now.”
The girl grabbed her father’s sleeve and whispered, “See, Daddy, Mommy’s with God.”
Her father raised his finger to his lips and said, “Shh.”
R. A. Rycraft is an MFA student at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, as well as an Associate Professor of English at Mt. San Jacinto College in Menifee, California.
Photo "Cemetery" courtesy of Simona Dumitru, Paris, France.
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