The front door felt solid, and when it took all my strength to open it, I thought my gut would explode from nervousness. I should have arrived earlier. The room seemed quiet and, unlike outside, felt warm like a summer night in Tampa. A strong scent of flowers perfumed the air, a smell so strong that there was something wrong with its power. Thick blue curtains hung like the boughs of weeping willows and covered the few windows, blocking most of the sunlight entering the room. David sat in the first row. How stupid. Where else would he be sitting? Behind him sat an assembly of people, all here to show their love and support during this time. My heart pounded and echoed through my skull, and I thought all eyes were on me, the latecomer, but I was wrong. Every sullen expression faced toward the front. I looked beyond them and realized that the smell came from all the ornate wreaths by the small casket.
The hall seemed packed full of friends and families paying their respects. By now, most of the seats were taken, and some folks even stood along the back near the windows. A minister spoke from behind the pulpit in the front, but his voice sliced sharp with every letter s pronounced over the antique speakers, and I barely heard his words.
“Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?”
I had rushed to get here, and now that I was here, a great exhaustion overtook my body. There was no way I could stand for the next hour or two. There were so many people here. I knew nobody, not even David’s Uncle Greg, who I had talked to on the phone. They all were like an ocean of dark faces, rising and falling with grief and sorrow toward the memorial shore of the deceased. I wondered how many would show up at mine.
Near the front, a young man stood up, cupped a cell phone with his hands, then left his seat. How rude and inconsiderate a gesture, especially now. It would serve him right if he lost his seat. But the seat was right behind David.
Maybe I shouldn’t.
I didn’t want to sit so close and disturb them during this time. But my urge to take this young man’s seat became overwhelming.
When I sat down, I felt I should make my presence known to David, so I did. I placed my hand on his right shoulder and squeezed a little. He turned and looked back, giving a refrained smile. When he turned back around, I felt that was it. He knew I was here. He knew I came to show my respect and to show him my support. If I left right now without him seeing, it would be fine, because he knew.
Maybe I should stay a little longer.
With each passing minute, my nervousness subsided along with my exhaustion, but it seemed even warmer. I wondered if the AC worked. On the stage, the casket sat white, almost a pale silver, with a bouquet laid on top. Were those lilacs? I remembered that my neighbor grew them in her front yard. I had watched her prune them with great care but never had the time to stop and talk to her about them. Such a strong smell. Such a strange flower. Maybe it belonged to their culture. My mother used to tell me that, as a teenager, she loved stringing jasmine together back in India. She told me how at weddings a bride would wear strings of jasmine in her hair as a sign of good luck and future success. There were many things my mother used to tell me when I had the time. But that was in the past now, and the lilacs were a mystery to me. Maybe someone next to me knew why there were so many here.
There were also purple lilac wreaths on white wired stands surrounding the casket and further beyond stood a forest of plastic plants in assorted pots. It looked as if someone had taken an eraser and rubbed out a small rectangle from the forest, a part that was no longer of this world, now visible only as a void. The casket was closed, and I couldn’t blame the family for wanting that after what had occurred.
After a while, David shifted in his seat, leaned his arm on the back of the chairs next to him, and turned his body to face me. There seemed a small spark in his eyes, an excitement for seeing me. Or maybe a gratefulness since no one else from work showed up. He motioned with his head for me to move toward him. I leaned forward but was afraid of what he wanted to tell me.
“Thank you so much for coming,” he whispered.
“Don’t have to thank me. No need for that.”
“How did you know?”
“Your Uncle Greg called the office, and there was an email that was sent out. I talked to him on the phone too.”
“I can’t believe my boy’s gone.”
“Did Uncle Greg tell you how—”
“Yes,” I said. David sat drooping over the back of his chair. I had never seen him like this in the office. I knew nothing of him beyond the world of work. I knew he had a wife and a kid, but he never talked about them. Or maybe when he did, I tuned him out. He always seemed more interested in getting to know me, but I never had the heart to tell him that I had enough friends. There were moments at work when I could see that something had bothered him, something he carried from home that through the stewing of thought and time had thickened into a worry he wore on his face. But what advice could I offer?
Or maybe I just didn’t want to get into it.
“He was only ten,” he said. “He was a big boy, and it was just down the block, you know.”
He kept talking. I kept looking toward the pulpit. The minister’s glances toward us made me feel uncomfortable. Sweat beaded on the back of my neck, and I pulled on my collar. After that office email, the only person I could get in touch with was his Uncle Greg. He talked my ear off, but the story went like this. David’s boy wanted to buy comics from the grocery store near their house. He gave him a few dollars and expected his son to be back soon. Half an hour later, David went to his front porch only to see police lights far at the end of the block. It was a hit and run. It was evening, and no one saw it. The boy was in bad shape, and he died before reaching the hospital.
“When he was younger,” David said. “Maybe eight, I don’t know. His teacher told us that he wasn’t paying attention in class. He wasn’t writing down his assignments. I was angry, so at home, I scolded him and placed him in the corner of our dining room. He was in timeout, but only for ten minutes. Enough time to think about doing better next time.”
His eyes seemed fixed to my side, like he stared into empty space, observing the nothingness. I never liked funerals. Such a universal feeling. No one looked forward to them.
“Weeks went by,” he continued. “And I just didn’t get it. I didn’t think I was getting through to him with all the timeouts. They got longer, and I even spanked him a few times. I could see in his eyes that he was sorry, but we kept getting notes that he wasn’t paying attention. Then we took him to the doctor.”
I shifted in my seat a little but kept my eyes on him. At funerals, I wasn’t uncomfortable with death or the deceased that lay in the casket, but I found myself troubled with the living. Those who died always took something from those who were left behind. David’s whole mouth curved downward.
“It was his eyes. He couldn’t see the board. That was all. We got him glasses, and he was fine, but what I did—”
He cupped his mouth with his left hand and hung motionless. Then he shook a little, which caught his wife’s attention, who sat a seat away in the same row. She leaned toward him and gave a stern look. Her eyes were angry and wet; a world had been stolen away from her. She glanced at me, then leaned back in her seat. David just stared at her.
“She blames me.”
“Why are you telling me all this now?” I asked.
David turned and looked at me straight in the eyes. I never noticed how brown they were and how they were the most noticeable thing when you looked at his face.
“You don’t get it, do you?” he said. “You don’t have anyone, so you don’t know. Can’t think beyond yourself, can you?” David turned his body forward.
I looked up and noticed that the minister, still speaking, peered at us with a perplexed expression. I stayed silent and kept my eyes on the back of David’s head. I felt sorry for him.
While minutes passed by, I reflected on how death makes us appreciate life, especially the good moments. Sometimes, I wished the good moments of our lives would linger into eternity, but then would it be good moments if they lasted forever. It was a conundrum, one I preferred to forget. I looked past David’s head toward the casket and all the lilacs. I still didn’t know why they liked lilacs. The smell was still so strong, and the hall still warm.
The minister droned on. The words that trickled from his monotone voice started to have a lulling effect on me.
“He is no longer here. He is in heaven now, holding hands with our Father, and smiling down upon us. We will see him again.”
When the service concluded, I felt an eternity had gone by. The minister instructed us to give our final respects before the interment. Someone started playing on an electric piano. Then someone started singing “Amazing Grace”, her gentle voice rising up over the whispers and low hum of conversations. David stood by his family, and I felt an unbearable pull to just walk away.
How sweet the sound, that saved…
I wasn’t a member of his family, and I wasn’t really his friend. I was just a coworker. I played a minor role on this side, this portion of his constructed world. But then how about that other world? Heaven. Do we take an afterlife for granted? Or what if there was none? Would we treat each other differently, with even more love, every moment precious, knowing that we would never see the other again? I walked up to David.
“I’m really sorry for that,” he said.
“It’s been difficult.”
“I can imagine.”
“Thank you for being here.” He put out his hand, and I shook it.
“Yes,” I said. “I have to go.”
And grace my fears relieved…
“What? We have lunch for our guests afterward. Can’t you stay for lunch? It won’t be that long.”
“I have something I have to attend to. It’s work. I have to go.”
“Okay. I’ll see you.”
“I’ll let others know in the office.”
“Thank you,” he said and turned around.
And grace will lead us home…
I turned around and hurried through the crowd of people until I reached the front doors.
Outside the funeral home, the air cut cold like an icy blade even though the sun was out, and fallen leaves from the nearby oak trees softly crackled and fluttered along the ground. The almost barren branches moved in the wind like haggard arms waving. I took a deep breath, and the lilac’s once lingering smell was no longer overpowering, and its traces soon became imperceptible. I walked over to my car with my hands in my jacket pocket, my breath visible in front of me. I stopped and reached for my keys, but I just stood there. Looking beyond my car, everything blurred, and I tried holding it back. I couldn’t see this before, but was there truth in all of it?
B. A. Varghese lives in Tampa, Florida and works in Information Technology at the University of South Florida. His short stories have appeared in FRIGG, Cleaver Magazine, STORGY, and other literary journals. (www.bavarghese.com)