"It All Came Out All Right"
When the funeral was over, those going on to home or work--couples, straggling children, an occasional lone older man--dispersed. Those who were left paused inside the porch of the Funeral Home, bracing themselves for the cold, then huddled down into limousines the widow had hired for the trip to the grave. The daughter, Ellen, settled herself into the single seat next to the gauze curtain, waiting for the family car to fill up.
She had marked this time out for herself, the first without a task since dawn and the news of her father's stroke. Perhaps, she hoped, somewhere on this ride she would have time for her mourning. Earlier, shepherding her brother through the long train ride north, she had had a glimpse of it, a prophetic moment which fled away back down the Connecticut coast: Lightheadedness and faintness had cleared, and there, in her stomach, the certainty that she too was no longer alive.
"I guess that's all the next of kin that's going over, then," the driver intruded, and they lumbered to the edge of the lot, to become the first car of the procession. When Ellen turned around, it seemed to her that her family had stationed themselves apart deliberately to make the points of the compass: Eddie, hunched in the back, staring out the tiny window, then on the long seat with her mother, Ethel, her mother's golf partner. At the top of the compass, herself on her upholstered jump-seat. So huge the space, so scattered the party; at least, she consoled herself, she could feel the knobby knees on her mother's long legs pressing through the back of the seat.
"If he'd had his way," her mother's voice rose out of her sniffles, "he'd be going into Portsmouth Naval Cemetery, can you imagine that?" But she got no response except a sleepy grunt from Ethel. "That's seventy-five minutes if the traffic's the other way, Ethel, and any time any of us wanted to see him, there'd be that trip to make, and what if Eddie or I weren't there to take Ellie down? Who was he thinking of? We'd never see him, believe me."
Automatically, Ellen turned around and began to stroke her mother's leathery knuckles which hung over the seat. Then both women shook their heads slowly at one another, back and forth, like a slightly uneven pendulum, and raised echoing eyebrows; Ellen knew they were telling one another it was impossible to believe he had gone, just like that, till she felt her mother squeeze her hand even harder.
"But it wouldn't be right to leave him so far away from us, would it?" Before Ellen could answer, her mother had slid her hand out from under. "I just can't think about it any more," she said. "I did what I had to do."
Facing front, Ellen made herself say over who they had been to one another in case today should change her hard-won map of it. Since she had had breasts her mothers love had come to her saturated with words, the confidences her mother had needed to make while her husband raged at her uncontrolled. After this, in orderly succession, had come their months of the silent treatment; her parents would then sit in separate rooms and sentences would begin Tell your father that.... But under cover of this silence, he had somehow arranged to be a remote, almost kindly father to her; his love had demanded loyalty to the silence, not the rage and fear it aroused. But from today on he would only be silent; already today her mother was winding her into the skein of words she was weaving around the dead man. What would happen, Ellen wondered, if she would say to her mother, who had instructed her in independence and meant it, leave me space to mourn, or please give me today off?
Ellie, her mother leaned forward, Im so glad I told Johnnie and Joleen and the caterers 2:30 and not 2:00. Isnt it wonderful they could set out a whole spread with seven hours notice, and Joleen said they wouldnt dream of taking a cent? Ellen made herself not answer.
In front of the windshield the funeral director was beckoning, and the car jerked onto the road. Relief to be in motion at last allowed Ellen to register that, inside her coat pocket, she was pressing something against her hip. She had no idea what it was, so she took it out; then she began to run her fingertips lightly over the indentations on a speckled red glasses case.
Only twenty minutes ago, the balding pastoral counselor who had presided had placed this in Ellen's hands whispering, "Well, he won't be needing these anymore, but, heck, who knows?" (Then Ellen had made herself thank him for his address, a summary, really a dismissal, in backwater psychologese, of her father's deeply troubled nature.) But someone there had laid him out in these glasses, and for this Ellen now felt an unexpected flash of gratitude: these glasses said it, what her father had succeeded in giving her, through it all, love of reading, "veneration for intellect," her first college boyfriend had called it. Her fingertips' pleasure as they brushed over the ridges on the case told her she should hold on to this aspect of him. Even better, they had put the glasses on his face upside-down, and Ellen laughed out loud when she saw them in her mind's eye.
"Please, Ellen, can you make me laugh too?" Her mother's strong hand climbed over the seat again to rest tight on Ellen's shoulder. When Ellen explained, her mother did laugh, and Ethel too, but not Eddie, hunched in his corner in his bomber-jacket, forbidden baseball cap sticking out of his pocket. It bothered Ellen, she couldn't get his attention now, as she clearly had during the funeral, when they had kept their eyes steadily on one another's faces as rows of their relatives watched.
"Hey, Ma." Eddie sounded almost defiant, "Why'd Dad do that?"
"You know, say he wanted to be buried where you say he did. In that Naval cemetery."
"Who says I ever understood one single thing about him?"
Beyond the curtain, where Ellen looked for silence, a moment of her "day off," was the hill of William Street she had walked every day coming home through the city from high school a decade and a little more ago. The sidewalk still buckled in the same places, and here came a dog yanking a familiarly frayed owner, around snowdrifts, uphill home. Shafts of sunlight pierced the scene, making it doubly uncanny, the world going about its business, even insisting on its beauty, without him.
"All right, Edward, I'm sure Dad would say he was just saving, always saving his money. At least now maybe I'll be able to leave the lights on for more than ten minutes at a time." She started to cry again, and again Ellen swiveled around and took tight hold of her wrist.
"Ellen, I'll be all right, you know I will. I always am, aren't I? and she snickered bitterly. "Edward," she turned back to him, leaving Ellen useless, open hand outstretched, "Chuck Rogers had a word for it that one time I dragged Dad in to him, 'fear of intimacy,' that's what Rogers called it, and of course Dad stormed out of there and never went back, and I got three months of the silent treatment because of it. But can you believe it, 'fear of intimacy,' even in the grave?" But it got to Ellen because she had just been hearing this very same Rogers give the awful eulogy.
"In a way," the words rushed out of her mouth, "it doesn't say a whole lot, 'fear of intimacy,' does it, Ma?" Immediately she regretted denying her mother at this moment, but Eddie had already echoed, "It sure doesn't."
"You can say that again, children. Any time we were doing anything nice or cozy, even just going out to dinner" - she put Ethel's sleeping head on her own shoulder so she wouldn't wake her with a gesture - "or that time in Coral Gables with Janice and Barry, and Barry was his cousin, mind you, and I got them together, because I could see that Barry really wanted to be his friend, and God knows how much your Dad needed a friend. Well, I guess things just got too nice, so he took one of those fits of his, you never knew what would set him off." (Ellen was sixteen, sitting at the breakfast table in terror that if she turned the page of the newspaper the wrong way he would annihilate her.) "Well, this time it turned out it was because I dared to give him, the Great White Father, directions how to drive back to the condo in front of his cousin, only, of course he didn't speak to me to tell me that for five months. By then, of course, I was supposed to be carrying on some kind of big secret love affair with his cousin Barry."
"We heard all about it," Eddie warned.
"I know. But I always did the best I could to keep it away from both of you."
"Yeah, Ma." Ellen asked herself to notice how much easier it was to be angry at her than at him, since she didnt threaten annihilation.
"You're right, Eddie. I can't believe how I'm going on about it now," her mother turned around to him, "taking him where we're taking him." She stopped and Ellen heard her muffled sniffles in her handkerchief. "Ellen, you understand these things, you're a psychologist or almost, maybe it's because it's over and I just can't take it in? For forty years all those terrible words, and so many months without a single word. Where did they all go now?"
Their car stopped short, and behind it the whole cortège rattled itself to a halt; to Ellen it seemed the traffic light might be broken. "All right, Ellen, dear," she teased herself, "here is the most 'time out' you're likely to get; do something with it." But in this pause her mother began really to sob, and the sound of it moved alongside of Ethel's snores, and this daily, absurd mixture made Ellen catch her breath and start to cry too. After a little, "No more day-off business, please," she told herself, "now I am mourning, apparently it's not something I have to go looking for, and they're still with me even more in my head, till when, till I'll be able to let go - Stop, Ellen, you can't always know everything beforehand." The car veered, then moved forward. "So please, cry now and let her talk!"
"It's all I can think about," her mother was going on. "It happened again last week." As she had many times in this small trip, Ellen gave her mother her hand, this time stretching it back, over her own shoulder, as far as she could.
"But Ellen, you don't know, we made it up. It all came out all right. Can I tell you just in these last few minutes?"
"Yes, Ma," she said, meaning it, since it had just come to her that her tears were the safe place and the day off.
"So you see, I have to get it right, now, right from the beginning, before we get there. But darling, don't keep your hand stretched like that, you'll strain your shoulder." She let go of Ellen's hand and put her own on the bottom of Ellen's neck. "There, that's better isn't it?"
"Well now, let's see, when was it he went into that last fit, a week, ten days ago, anyway, he got hold of that metal cane of his and he just kept smashing the T.V. with it over and over, for twenty minutes on end. I told him he had to stop, hed just make himself sick with it, and of course he came down with flu two days later. And you know what else? Thank God finally the cane broke. There's a gash in the set, I would say, two, two and a half inches deep."
Ellen felt safe enough even to venture talking to her a little. "But Ma," she made her voice steady, "I did hear you say you made up, didn't I?
"I think we did. I want you to tell me. I think that might be why I'm talking so much, Ellie. Look, it's Edgewater Boulevard already."
"Hey Ma," Eddie interrupted with force, "what was it about this time?"
"Money, Eddie, money, what else? Like with the grave thing."
But you said that one was fear of intimacy.
Now Ethel was gulping and yanking herself awake. "My God, I fell asleep on you. Where are we?"
"Very near, Ethel. Too near." She laughed, a little wild. "You were sleeping so nicely, you didn't hear my story, how it came out all right." Ethel smiled a question, then yawned. "At least I have the rest of my life to convince myself of that. Now where was I?
"You were fighting about money and he hit the T.V.," Eddie responded.
"That's not how it was! Anyway, Ellen, and Ethel, I always told you," her voice, in excitement, rose a few pitches, "how he always was saying I wouldn't let him read my will, and it never made any sense, he always knew he was my primary beneficiary - "
But now through the front windshield, between the bare tops of trees that lined the boulevard, Ellen thought she could just make out the high stone gate of the cemetery.
"Oh, I think we're slowing down. I'll finish. Anyway, the day after he broke that cane, even though we weren't officially speaking, I sat him down, and I said to him, 'O.K., Joe, here's my will, get ready, I'm reading it to you.' I mean, I had to show him I'm not the terrible person he always says I am."
"But, Pat," Ethel put in, "you may have read him the will, but did he hear you?"
"I think. I hope so. Ellen, what else could it mean? Two days ago we even started talking a tiny bit, and he even put a little note on the table saying he was opening a new joint account with my name on it. Ellen?"
But with the stone gate there in front of her, her moment in the train had come back too, the ocean going fast by (drowning the little island of safety she had made), he, she, everybody alive one second, not the next.
"What, Ma, what?" Ellen tried to get back her mother's last words.
"But I remember I told you about it. Six months ago, he closed all his and my joint accounts and opened two new ones with Eddie and your names on them."
"Always money," Eddie murmured. The line of cars was now inching to a standstill in front of the gate, and Ellen wasnt sure there would be legs there under her stomach to walk on, down to the chapel or the grave.
"Money," Eddie was getting louder, "you know what I wish? I wish God would pick up all the bills in the world and wipe his ass with them."
"Dad hated money, right?"
"He certainly hated me making any," her mother had turned around to him, "and it's a good thing for both you children that I like it just fine, or he'd have kept me right there alongside him vegetating on that couch of his. I would never have gone back in to teach, and Eddie, you wouldn't be down in New York in acting school and Ellen wouldn't have her Masters in Clinical Psychology."
"My, what a long line of cars behind us!" Ethel tried chirping an interruption.
Soon, Ellen thought in the silence that dropped from the high stone arch as it passed over them, we'll all be standing on the ground, and we'll have to be quiet; Eddie will have to wait, a few years, with luck, till I can get back up to the surface and tell him again how tricky they were with each other about money.
"So, just look, children, isn't this a lovely spot? Every week he was sick, I rode my little bike here, and then one day I said to myself, 'This is where he's going.' He's in between a surgeon and a judge, you know. Probably Mafia." Ellen heard her mother and Ethel snicker. "But I believe Edgar Allan Poe's supposed to be in here too."
"Just Dad's crowd," Eddie murmured.
"Ellen, darling, we're here. It finally hit you, right?"
"It had to, dear. I was waiting for it to. But it's after the crying stops it really gets terrible."
One by one, the cars swung around to park in the lot behind the modernist, almost trapezoidal chapel. Ellen took as long as she could to put the glasses-case back inside her purse, and tried to look to herself as if she were someone preparing to get out of a car.
Suddenly the door next to her yanked open and her tall mother bent in, turned her, lifted her up from under the elbows and set her on the ground. "You know, Ellen, they called me this morning and asked me if I wanted my name on the vault right now, along with his, and your and Edward's too, but I told the man it was a little soon for that. But now that we're here, I'm wondering, did I do the right thing?"
Dazed and slow, Ellen's mind said, "Yeah, sure, why not"; but then another voice, unsuspected, far deeper down, came out toward her saying no, she mustn't let this happen, not under him. She looked up into her mother's face and murmured, "No, not yet, please, Ma."
"See you in there," agilely Ethel scampered on bulging calves around them down the slate path to the chapel. Now, Ellen thought, all she had to do was to get herself somehow into the trapezoid, which stood ahead on the verge, looking over graves, monuments, and trees.
"Look, there's his vault," her mother pointed and Ellen looked up, but all she could see was three columns of thin metal drawers bordered by concrete which wouldn't turn into a grave. Ellen made herself go forward, ahead of her mother, planting one foot after another flat down on the large slate stepping-stones. She could hear Eddie's boots behind her mother and noted with surprise that she was still able to distinguish the anger in his heavy footfall.
"Children, wait, dear, just one last thing, please." She stopped them by putting one arm through each of their nearest elbows, as they stood on either side of her on their separate pairs of slates. "Next week, or whenever soon, you won't mind putting my name back on those accounts, would you?" She looked down at the slates, then up again. "There's just enough in there to pay for the funeral and the vault."
"Sure, Ma." She tried to turn her mother to make her move forward. "Let's go in now."
"Edward?" her mother asked softly.
"Uh, don't know, Ma, O.K.?"
"Hey, don't be asking me this now, O.K.? As he went around them through wet grass Ellen heard him mumble, "Hey, the whole thing's gotta stop somewhere, right?" But her mother bent down to her and whispered, "It's hitting him very hard, too. I'll find the money if I have to."
Then they were standing next to one another at the back of the large space, antiseptic with yellow and white tiles fixed on to the walls. The circular room put Ellen back inside a centrifugal ride in an amusement park from childhood where the floor dropped out while you went right on whirling around.
After a smiling nod at them, Chuck Rogers began to speak his homily, but the tiles or the structure made it, thankfully, impossible for Ellen to hear. In the middle of this droning, up from her queasy stomach into her fogged brain came the desire to ask her mother, "Where's Dad now?" But then she made herself remember the drawers outside: If he wasn't there already, he would be soon. So, this circular room, she thought, must be the world, and he was going from it.
Her mother leaned up against her and Ellen put her own shoulder as close as she could till nothing broke the surfaces of their damp woolen coats. "No," Ellen corrected herself, "he is the room, and he is the world, and we're standing here inside him. Before we all go down with him, let me please find one thing he loved I can save to keep me here?" At her bidding, there floated up from somewhere in her an open, sodden book. Before her mind could ask what it was, her eyes told her: the fancy book of photos of Dublin she had saved for, at fourteen, for his birthday, the one present she knew he must love, and he had, they both had loved it and looked at it for hours, till later that evening, trying to hold on to their time together, she had fallen asleep with her cheek on the cold page, only to knock her glass of orange juice on to it in her sleep. She awoke to the tall stiff man standing over her screaming, "What the hell have you done to my book?" He was lifting his hand to slap her but she met it with her own to ward off his blow. "I'll show you to raise a hand to me," he screamed.
Even now, to hold down the memory and sound of that moment, she tightened her gloved hand into a fist and stared at it. "If I have to hold this clenched forever to keep myself here, I'll do that," she told herself. But without any words from Ellen, her right hand went and, in one long continuous movement, smoothed over her left hand and flattened out the fingers. After a pause to listen to the thudding echo of Rogers voice, Ellen put her hand out, in order to touch her brother's nearest finger lightly, but he grabbed his hand away. She made herself take a breath and then, detaching herself very slightly from her mother, again she moved her hand centimeters, till she could sense the few soft black hairs on her brother's pinky. As if it were an accident, she let her fingers just dangle there, barely touching, then waited to see if he would keep his hand there or not.