On his way to the county cemetery, where they placed the unwanted remains of those who cannot afford a “proper” burial, James stopped at a convenience store to buy flowers. The plastic container near the door was empty except for a thin film of gray scum lining the bottom of the hollow bucket. He bought a Beanie Baby instead, thinking of the shrines he had seen alongside the road. Whether Mr. John Sheffield, 54, originally from West Virginia, had any affinity for teddy bears was unknown, but James was compelled to make a gesture.
Was a stuffed panda bear with a red ribbon tied around its neck an appropriate sign of respect? Did it matter? He was the only one at the grave site, except for a ball-capped younger man who looked at him briefly uninterested, then went back to his work, directing the yellow-clawed earth-digger deeper into the hole, lifting large clumps of loam and depositing it into a growing mound.
The casket, a bare bones box, sat on the opposite side, and James wondered briefly how they would lower into the hole once it was completed. Where were his friends? His family? Was he such a loner, a misanthrope, that no one seemed to know or care? James only knew him from the picture he had seen in the newspaper, and the sound the train made when it ran over his body. The newly launched Brightline Express had killed seven people in twelve days. Although two were clearly suicides, the rest . . . like, well, Mr. Sheffield . . . one could only wonder what made a person run in front of a high-speed train.
The sky was gray like ash. Rain, perhaps; although at this time of year the threat of storms was deceptive. One moment, clouds darkened, and the next, sun beamed. One of the burdens of living in the Sunshine State was the expectation that one’s mood should always match the weather; instead, the atmospheric instability made one irritable. The only consistency was discomfort. Perspiration dripped down one’s brow and stung the eyes. Heat indices climbed into triple digits.
The grittiness of sweat accompanied the most uncomfortable moments of his life. He suffered under the glare of his father’s disappointment, a military man who saw any deviation from his own way of life as a weakness. No action was too inconsequential to be noted and derided, as his disapproval was delivered with alacrity and abundance. Orders and refusals were the brick and mortar of their relationship, building a wall between them from James’ first request for a pet. Dogs stink. To his attempt to join the high school band. If you can’t play sports, you are not going to march around the field. James often wondered what made a person so angry and controlling? Only mother, a gentle dove, could navigate through his father’s nettles. Her presence as a conciliatory island in the rough seas of father and son carried them through many rocky days.
James was not rebellious, but his mere presence seemed to irk his father, who was not a “book man” and while giving silent assent to James’ studious ways, clearly did not understand them. Perhaps he’d be more appreciative if James smashed up a car or got some girl in trouble. Maybe that would qualify for a manlier son—some sign of aggression. The one time he did assert himself was after high school. He bided his time, made an announcement. He was leaving. After the words spilled out, he couldn’t breathe. Mother was at the sink washing a cup, her back turned toward him.
What followed was years of silence. When his mother passed, James watched his father, silent and sullen, at the funeral, his steely spine barely bent as he walked away from her casket for the last time. His composure—brutal. James reached out to take his arm and he pushed him away. “Don’t!” Then he stood in the receiving line, stone-faced and nodding grimly as one after another friend and distant relative offered condolences.
A week later, the unexpected phone calls began. Three times in one week. James felt obligated to return the gesture until his father found his footing. Soon enough, the topics of discussion changed from what to do with her needlepoint canvasses, flosses, and threads into lectures about what failure was—what a failure he was. James hung up.
The phone calls stopped.
“I hated him.”
The grave digger turned and looked at him.
Had he said it out loud?
What was it about funerals that brought out the worst in people?
Mother’s waxy face bore no relation to the woman who lived outside that box. Father’s performance at the wake was academy award winning material. Why was everyone scared of death?
He had been reading about an uproar over a gorilla doing handstands. It seems the zookeeper was showing the gorilla, Bolingo, how to perform the stunt and encouraging him to mimic her. Of course, the act was videotaped and went viral and the animal rights activists took to Twitter to condemn the act. It was forcing the gorilla to be something he was not intended to be. Gorillas interpret staring as a threat. Inciting gorillas to do tricks only draws more people to their cages, and consequently they are more likely to react badly or strike. He never read the zookeeper’s rebuttal because at that point the train stopped, having run over Mr. Sheffield.
An announcement was made that all commuters would have to detrain and wait for buses to pick them up.
“Do you want to say a prayer, Father?” Finished digging, the man had climbed down off the caterpillar.
Do I look like a f--ing priest? The thought marched to the front of tongue and stopped.
The grave digger took off his ballcap and lowered his head.
“Lord, take this man in your hands…” and what? That was as far as he could go. “Amen.”
James crossed himself and stood beside the box. “You’ll need help.” He moved to the other side of the coffin and took one side of the straps as they rolled it into place. The grave digger hand cranked it into the ground and offered a handful of dirt to James. He tossed it on the casket with a bit of a flourish.
“I’ll finish up later, Padre . . . take care.”
He had been boarding a plane for Spain when he got the call. Heart attack. Sudden. What should they do? There were old military friends. A cousin. There was a plot next to his mother. Make whatever arrangements necessary. James had no preferences or wishes for the ceremony. Nothing. James could not attend.
In Madrid, he went to see the bullfights at La Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas del Espíritu Santo. He drank warm scotch out of a paper cup and watched the spectacle in dazzling sunlight. He had never seen blood so red, as the picadors stuck the banderillas into the bull’s neck. When it was time for the kill, the crowd stood up and cheered. His father’s ghost lingered in the back of his mind as he watched the bull stagger, then fall dead.
He placed the stuffed panda at the head of the grave and waved good-bye to the man who was now perched again on the small earthmover. The crane creaked, and dirt dropped upon the coffin sounding like dry gritty rain. Beyond the crabgrass and weeds that spilled out from the graves was an old warehouse and an abandoned office building. No beauty in death but nothing to be afraid of either. Just the smell of heat rising from the gravel, and in the distance, a train whistle, insistent in its passing.