Riversbend Elegy for guns, sax, and harp

a novel by Janet Ference

Chapter 5

The bacon isn’t sizzling anymore. The frittata has set up like a brick. As for the muffins, they were stale when they arrived. Only the coffee is fresh.

They’re on the third pot. They have to plan a funeral today.

The young widow, Sue, has left the room for the moment. Last night she went missing and turned up later in the woods, but so far the other women have avoided talking about that.

Her mother, Merrianne, is listening intently for the sound of anything untoward coming from Sue’s direction. All she hears is the toilet flush, so she lets herself breathe.

The others are startled by the loud whoosh of Merrianne’s sigh. They let themselves breathe a bit, too.

“Tom would want it simple,” Kathy says. Kathy is Sue’s little sister. She’s eleven, and she’s the only one who’s eaten.

Tom was a twenty-two-year-old soldier in the Army, and he died two days ago in Iraq. He is survived by his widow, a baby boy, his divorced parents, two aunts, an uncle, and his paternal grandparents, none of whom is in this room.

The women who are in this kitchen are Tom’s in-laws, Sue’s mother, aunt, and grandmother, as well as Kathy, who has spoken out of turn.

The only outsider in the room is the new Methodist minister, Molly. The other women expect Molly to respond to Kathy. All morning, they have expected Molly to offer clear direction, explicit instructions even, and she has not.

She has been practicing her listening skills instead.

They are variously annoyed or downright perplexed by what they perceive as her lack of experience.

Molly is a fairly new pastor, it’s true, but she’s a middle-aged widow herself, and her last congregation was an aging one, who provided her plenty of practice at presiding at funerals. Her reticence today is in deference to Sue, whom she feels should be engaged in this process.

Merrianne has put a spiral notebook on the kitchen table in front of them. Two pages are already filled with lists she’s been making over the last two days. They catalogue in minute detail all the condolences the family has received, including name, date, and time of arrival, whether it be card, note, call, visit, casserole, or flowers, and the approximate investment of time or cash for each item. Merrianne likes to know who her friends are.

She has turned the page and left it open to a fresh list, this one detailing the pertinent questions before them: what kinds of flowers are appropriate; which pieces of music will be played; who will preside at the service, perform the music, do the eulogy, and be the pallbearers; and underlined, where and when will the funeral take place? They’ve already informed the Army where to ship the body. In this small town families are loyal to their mortuaries. Though this family is equally loyal to its church, they are considering the Army’s proposed military funeral to take place graveside at the national cemetery instead. It would be both cheaper and much more grand. There are no answers on the open page of the book, just questions.

At the moment, Merrianne is staring at the cheap BIC pen she has placed by the notebook. Kathy told her the occasion warrants a Waterman or at least a Sheaffer, preferably a fountain pen. Merrianne should have listened to her, but she hates to encourage the child. Now Merrianne is itching to jump up and replace the pen. This one is only fit for grocery lists. She could get one of the good pens she saves for writing letters, but it would be tacky to do it now. The best she can do is to move the small bamboo plant in front of the pastor, pretending to make the muffins more accessible, in order to hide the pen. Then she sits again, more loudly than she intends.

This bit of hubbub so disquiets Merrianne’s sister-in-law, Jane, that she drops her coffee cup, spilling an instant black stain on Merrianne’s white linen tablecloth. Jane finds this almost as satisfying as it is mortifying. A spinster living on limited means, Jane considers Merrianne’s family money an affront to social justice. Still, a stain is a stain, and a woman must deal with it. It’s a matter of propriety. Jane rises to the task and begins clearing the table.

The others are too nonplussed to interfere at first. None of the customary murmuring and deferring of one more muffin, one last bite of bacon, have been begun. It is too soon to remove the food. Though rarely a hostess, Jane is ordinarily a good guest, so her behavior is considered aberrant.

Jane’s mother, Brenda, finally stays her daughter’s hand. “Jane, won’t you offer the pastor that good frittata before you take it?”

Molly clears her throat with a deep rumble. “No, thank you, really, I’m fine.”

Merrianne surveys the largely untouched platters of food. It’s enough to make her cry, but she refrains. “Let me help you,” she manages to say.

Since the right things are now being said, more or less, the others join the effort to remove the dishes and get down to the stain in the cloth. They do this work with only the quietest of exchanges, “Won’t you let me get that?” “May I?” “Would you please?”

Meanwhile, Kathy leaves the room. She finds Sue apparently sleeping on the couch. Bending over her sister, she stares at her fluttering eyelids. The lashes are ridiculously long. Sue is such a Seventeen magazine kind of pretty, even at twenty, even as a widow. Kathy watches long enough to decide the dreams Sue is having are safe and apparently painless enough that she doesn’t need to be waked up right this minute. Then Kathy leaves Sue and goes to her own room, where she can draw pen and ink sketches of the people downstairs who are throwing away all that food. Kathy loves to draw strange things. She hopes someday she’ll understand grown women.

Sue is not truly sleeping. She is definitely dozing, but she knows her sister stopped to hear her breathing. People do that. Because Sue has tried to die a couple of times over the years, and because Sue’s twin sister, Sandy, did die suddenly when she was eight, people tend to hold their own breath to listen for Sue’s. She’s used to that.

For her part, she’s listening to the familiar sounds of women in the kitchen and trying to imagine the impossible, a funeral for Tom. Sue didn’t get to go to Sandy’s service. People said she was too little. She’s been to the grave. People let her do that. It’s a plot of ground with a simple flat marker like all the hundreds of others in that big cemetery outside town. There is no headstone with statues of angels on it or sayings like, “Darling Beloved Daughter and Sister.” Nothing like that. When Sue asked what the funeral was like, her mother told her, “There was no fanfare.”

Sue is trying to picture fanfare for Tom. Her grandfather leads the high school marching band. They win awards for playing jazz in formation. Tom played in the band. He was a wonderful musician. Sue is thinking maybe the band could play and follow the coffin like they do in New Orleans, and everyone could dance. Tom loved to dance.

When it suddenly gets very loud, then quiet in the kitchen, Sue stops daydreaming to listen to the others.

In the kitchen, there has been a disagreement about the best method to remove the coffee stain. Brenda insisted it be Breck shampoo, the non-conditioning kind, alternating with white vinegar, and she offered to go home and get some. Merrianne said Tide would do the trick. Jane said they must use de-ionized water along with the Breck and white vinegar, and she would go home and get all three. Molly, trying to ameliorate the dispute, said any old dishwashing liquid would do, especially since the stain was so fresh. That’s when Merrianne crashed one of her best china dinner plates on the corner of the counter, quite intentionally, and left them all speechless.

Now Jane removes the apron she has donned at Merrianne’s insistence, a silly frilly thing with an appliquéd rose on the pocket, and folds it deliberately along its starch lines, before placing it back in the drawer.

Merrianne snatches it out of there, saying, “You know better than that. It’s dirty now. You’re like another child in the house.” She’s twisting the apron in her hands, crushing the rose and crackling the starch.

“Sue is not a child,” says Jane. Turning to go, she’s so off-balance that she stumbles and slams her own breast into the doorway, and she yelps a little like she might cry, but she doesn’t actually cry.

Sue has heard her name and the word child, and she has opened her eyes. “Granddaddy’s band should play,” she announces to her Aunt Jane, thinking she is being very grown up indeed about planning the funeral. She wonders if she will make a good widow, and she knows widows are a lot like spinsters, with mostly the same social position, so she is watching Jane now to see if she is getting it right.

Jane is not sure she has heard the girl right. She sees Sue staring at her, and she wants to be supportive because Sue has had a raw deal in life, but she would really like to leave this house now. She looks levelly at Sue and tells her, “Your mother has a list. It’s on the sideboard. All the questions to be answered. All the arrangements to be made. Go ask her.”

When Jane sees Sue sit up in that flimsy little nightgown she’s been wearing all morning in this cold December death house, and put her bare feet down gingerly on the hardwood floor, it breaks her heart a little, and she sits down by Sue for a minute. “I mean, this should be the way you want it, not your Mama.”

Jane starts to put her hand on the girl’s knee, but then she retracts it instantly into a quick fist, as though Sue’s knee is hot to the touch. “I need to go now,” is all she says, not standing. She’s waiting for Sue’s impossibly beautiful eyes to give her permission.

Sue drops her eyes, thinking she’s done something wrong. Though she often doesn’t know what it is she’s doing wrong, she does know she’s always doing the wrong thing. So, it’s no surprise she’s done it again. She dances her toes on the floor a bit, wishing she could do a tap dance at the funeral. Tom could tap dance. He was great at it.

Jane is surely going to cry for the girl now, which would be of no use whatsoever, so she abruptly stands and adjusts her skirt on her hips, before striding to the closet for her coat. Pausing with her hand on the front doorknob, about to twist it into escape, she almost looks again at Sue to be sure the girl is okay, but there are others to see to that, she tells herself. So she opens the door and goes.

In the kitchen, Molly has retreated to take her place again at the table as she thinks a guest ought to do during this sort of domestic disturbance.

She’s so quiet the others have almost forgotten she’s there. She has been, after all, unhelpful.

Merrianne is resolutely doing the dishes, ignoring her duties as a hostess. Instead, she’s staring out the kitchen window at the frozen cherry trees. She’s wondering how the gravediggers will break through the topsoil in this kind of weather. She shivers, and she plunges her hands deeper into the hot water, but she doesn’t stop to go get a sweater.

Brenda is looking at the list now, noticing that the choice of a casket has been overlooked. She thinks that’s actually the hardest question to be answered. She knows it may have to be a closed casket, because it was a bomb that killed Tom, so she thinks it’s especially important for it to be a distinctive coffin. Her hands ache from arthritis as she grips the notebook, and the pain makes her eyes smart. She bats away the hint of a tear in her eye and puts down the list.

Brenda would like to dry the dishes Merrianne is washing by hand, as she would offer to do for any other hostess, but she knows Merrianne prefers to let her best china air dry. Her daughter-in-law has no less than five dish racks to deploy after parties. Brenda watches Merrianne’s back helplessly for about two seconds. Then unable to abide her own idle hands, she goes to check on Sue.

Sue is now in the dining room where the flowers have been arranged. She sits in a side chair, marveling at them. Nothing blooms in Indiana in December unless the plant’s as crazy as she is. These blossoms must have traveled far from home. There are roses as gorgeous as Tom’s grandmother grows, even some that are as blousy as homegrown. There are lilies, not just white, but lavender and fuchsia. She’s never seen lilies like these. The most exotic thing, though, is a spray of anthurium brought just this morning by her Aunt Jane, who then taught Sue to spell the word by contrasting it to enthusiasm. Sue thinks her Aunt Jane is an oddball, but perhaps widows and spinsters are allowed to be stranger than young wives and mothers. She hopes so.

Looking in on her lovely granddaughter, Brenda is hesitant to approach her. The child appears serene, which is extraordinary considering the level of her agitation last night. Even when they were girls, Sue’s twin had been the happy one. Sandy would pick Brenda’s neighbor’s flowers and present them to Brenda with twinkling charm. To see Sue, who held the bouquet at her own wedding like a foreign object, now gazing with content at these condolence flowers, is chilling.

It’s Sue who speaks first, without turning, feeling her grandmother’s eyes on her, those eyes that always seem to ask her to be someone more like her sister was. When Sandy was alive, Sue knew all too well her twin was everyone’s favorite. When the wrong one died, Sue could feel their disappointment. There were flowers then, too, more than now, scads of them, all for Sandy, who couldn’t even see them.

“Sandy would like these,” is what Sue says.

This takes Brenda’s breath away so suddenly she chokes.

Then Sue turns to offer bright eyes to her. “Gran, are you okay? Do you want some water?”

Brenda looks at Sue, trying to understand the question. For a moment, it seems as though Sue is blooming like one of the flowers on the table, a bold and unlikely unfolding. This is nonsense, though, so Brenda snaps back to her purpose.

“Would you like your bathrobe, Sue?” is her practical question. She doesn’t wait for the answer. She takes her eyes from the girl’s, breathes, and steps away to make herself useful by going to get the robe.

That’s when Molly wanders into the dining room. She has the list of questions in her hand, but when she sees Sue turn to her with a face as open as a child’s heart, it’s more than she can bear. She trips and drops the notebook.

“I want it to be big,” Sue tells the pastor. Sue doesn’t know her eyes are shining with the first spilled tears of the day. They are falling tentatively, and she can’t feel them. She can only feel an electric current up her straightened spine as she looks at the preacher. She lifts her hair with both hands, airing the back of her neck.

Molly loses bladder control for the first time in her life. She got through her own husband’s car crash, head trauma, brain damage, and too slow death without losing control of any vital functions. That this girl’s loss should affect her so much is unnerving. Molly’s clothes are wet and she can smell herself. Her eyes are watering with shame.

“I’m sorry,” Molly mutters, as she excuses herself to go. Over her shoulder as she’s leaving the house, she throws back, “Come to my office after church tomorrow. We’ll plan everything then. We’ll do it all, full military honors, guns and a flag and a bugler.” Molly believes that’s what Sue means by big.

Coming down the stairs, Brenda hears that, and she’s relieved it’s been decided. The Army will take care of it. It will be appropriate for a hero. Tom will get his due.

Sue is confused. She thinks they must have planned it all without her. She doesn’t know when that happened. She imagines the sound of guns instead of music, and it doesn’t seem like Tom to her. They’ve got it all wrong. She wants to shout at them to stop and listen, but she can’t find the words.

As Brenda enters the room, she’s thinking she must call the Army chaplain, but first she stops to take the robe to Sue.

“Thank God,” Brenda says. “You’ve done the right thing.”

Sue looks at her grandmother and tries to believe that.

Her grandmother looks away.

Suddenly Sue knows she’s very cold. A familiar numbness is taking hold of her. She can’t feel her feet anymore. She’s ready to drop to the floor.

Brenda catches her granddaughter, as always. When she tugs the bathrobe around Sue’s shoulders, it’s like dressing a limp, uncooperative child.

“Gran, will Tom like it?” Sue asks her.

Brenda cinches the robe at Sue’s waist. “Of course,” she says. “He’d want whatever you want.”

Sue tries to remember what it is that she wants, as she closes her eyes to see Tom.

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