Saturday, February 9, 2008

Song Story

"Paperthin Hymn"


The wind, violent and slow, whipped around my face, tearing strands of hair away from their position. I would have to fix that before I went back into the parlor. It was required of me to look presentable to say, “I’m glad you could make it,” and “Thank you so much,” I guess. I concentrated on keeping the cigarette in my mouth from being blown out or away. The sun was bright and it was far too nice a day for a funeral.

Most of the attendants gathered in several large groups here and there, presumably because they were all in the same congregation, but I didn’t know or recognize any of them. They talk in hushed tones with one another, and from the eavesdropping I allowed myself to do, none of their conversations were about my grandmother. This is my first funeral in five years and I wonder if these floral- and pastel-covered older women have already become bored with burying the other members of their church.

There’s a man sitting on the bench next to me, smoking as well. I always had to hide my habit from my grandmother and to be smoking now, outside, for the world to see, well, it feels sacrilege somehow. The funeral doesn’t bother me so much, but the people sure as hell do. There’s only so much “polite” I can muster before I need a break. Every breath I take is swept downwind and so is the breath of the man sitting next to me and pretty soon I can smell the dirty air drifting towards me.

Exiting from the passenger door of a 15-year-old Buick, an overly tall woman wearing a long, black floral dress with a face punctuated by obnoxiously large glasses approaches the front door of the parlor, where I’m standing. She’s wearing brown sandals that are inappropriate for the situation, especially since her toenails are yellow and ill cared-for, but I know that she only owns two pairs of shoes, so I forgive her. The man she’s with is short, much shorter than she, and in khakis and a green sweater. His soft features and awkward walk display a complete lack of confidence. I glance over at my friend on the bench to see if he sees it too. He’s dragging on his cigarette and watching them walk, so I imagine that he does. The couple stops a few feet from me.

“Noel,” says the woman.

“Hey ma,” I say. We don’t hug.

“You know Nan would hate to see you smoking,” she says.

I look down at my shoes to avoid her statement. I’m wearing the $600 black laces by Tod’s because I thought they would be formal without being flashy. I take a drag.

I look back up at the man she’s with. “Arthur,” I say, out of required politeness, “How are you?”

He puts a hand on my arm and all I can do is stare at it. “I’m good. I’m good,” he says to me, stressing the O’s in a pitiful sort of way, “How are you Noel? Are you holding up ok?”

“I’m fine,” I say.

He wrinkles the corners of his mouth like I just said the saddest thing he’s ever heard and he puts both arms around me and he hugs me. I’m uncomfortable.

“She’s in a better place now,” he finally says. I take the hand with the cigarette in it and pat him on the back. I think about all the saliva that just ended up on his green sweater.

When he lets go, he’s clutching me by the arm again and looking at me.

“We’ll be inside, ok?” he says, like I might be needing them for something. He lets go of my arm and holds the door open for my mother.

When she walks past, my mother stops for a second and asks me, “Is your father here?”

“Haven’t seen him,” I reply and take another drag, hoping that’ll be the end of the conversation. Thankfully, it is, and I’m left alone with the man on the bench, who is now watching me. I spend a few moments breathing and feeling the wind.

“Interesting woman,” he says, directed at me but with the tone of observation that implies apathy of response.

“Yep,” I say.

“You the grandson?” he says.

I glance over at him. “Yes,” I reply.

He nods at me and then looks over the parking lot, surveying. “She was an interestin’ woman, too. You two were close weren’tcha?”

I look out at the cars and the asphalt and the white paint, trying to see what he was looking at. “I lived with her for a few years when I was a teenager.”

We don’t say anything for a while. When he finished his cigarette, he stands up and walks to the doors.

“Be seein’ you,” he says.

“Yep,” I reply, throwing my cigarette on the ground and stamping it out.

I stood there for a few minutes, feeling the wind on one cheek and my now-disheveled hair against my forehead. The parking lot was full of unfamiliar minivans and the occasional Caddy. When I finally turn back and go inside, I still couldn’t believe how beautiful the day was.

I walk past the bathroom and decide to leave my hair how it was. What did I care if I had messed up hair in front of the old ladies? The line of people extending from the casket was outside the parlor now, spilling into the hallway. My mother’s at the front of the line, shaking hands and looking sincere, with Arthur by her side for some reason, not doing much of anything. I cut through the line and stand next to my mother, avoiding Arthur’s sympathetic eyesight.

I ignore the line of funeral attendants my mother was speaking to and face the casket. It was the first time I really looked at her since the whole thing began, and I didn’t much care for it.

“Yes, that’s true,” my mother says behind me, her voice the only one in the room without reverence for the quiet, “she is in a much better place, and we’re grateful for that...we’re so happy you could make it, her church family was very important to her...No, I wasn’t there at the end, but I know that she went peacefully...Yes, she was an incredible woman wasn’t she?”

The congregation would stand alongside me and look at my grandmother for a few moments, before I made them uncomfortable by ignoring them and they joined a circle of people somewhere. Some of them whispered things to me while they were standing there and I just nodded, regardless of what they said. I’ll admit that the practice of viewing the dead has never and will never make sense to me, but it felt appropriate that I should be standing here, facing her, as opposed to outside smoking and staring at parked cars.

I had bought her a new dress for today, a $400 white Kay Unger, something she would never wear, but the hues accented the pearl necklace that she wore almost every day I had known her, and the subtle tones of her skin that I gratefully inherited. There was too much makeup on her, and her face was disappointedly overshadowed by superfluous splashes of purple and red. Thankfully, her hair was in a much better condition, tightly woven into the bun she wore on Sundays and on special occasions. Her face was wider than I had remembered and I considered whether or not this was the decaying process in effect, or if I just didn’t remember her face as well. The expression on her face was discomfort, either in spite of or because of the stitches I knew were inside her mouth. My grandmother had a tender shade of blue in her irises that I, unfortunately, did not inherit, being left with the sharp lines of brown and green from my father’s side. Her eyelids were, of course, closed over the delicate blending of blue into azure into yellow, and I found myself wondering if there was anything about this figure I recognized, anything that was familiar to me. I picked up her hand in mine, but immediately set it back down.

Dear god Grandma, when did your hands get so thin, and why didn’t I notice until now?
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