"You'd be much more attractive if you'd smile more," my mother nagged, stopping in front of me to straighten my collar and brush a molecule of dust from my skirt, which was far too wrinkly to give away any dust or lint. I sucked in a sharp breath of frustration, held it, and counted to three.
"It's a funeral, ma," I said, rolling my eyes. "We're not supposed to smile." I was sweating profusely, even in the sleeveless black dress I had borrowed from Abby. The mid-summer heat was oppressive.
Mother pursed her lips irritably and pretended she hadn't heard me. "You know, the Jergins's youngest, Bobby, just got back from a tour of duty in Iraq. He'll probably be here today."
"Ma," I pulled my head away from her hand as she reached out to brush my hair out of my eyes. "I used to babysit Bobby. Also, he might not be so keen on me once he hears my political views, or sees my tattoo." I headed up the walk to the funeral home again. Mother followed briskly.
"I've already explained to the Jerginses that you had no idea what that horrible man was tattooing on your body and that you're having it removed as soon as possible."
I stopped abruptly, eyes wide. "What?"
"Well, how do you expect to find a decent husband anywhere with THAT tattooed across your body?" Mother turned away from me and waved at another couple approaching the funeral home.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked away again. Almost there. Ten more steps to hell, but at least I wouldn't have to listen to her carry on anymore.
"Welcome, welcome. Thank you for coming," said the ancient doorman. "The Stevenson/Everrett memorial is just down this way. May I take your coat?"
I blinked at the wizened old man curiously. "It's a hundred degrees out."
"Very well. Very well. Right this way, please." He tottered off down the hall. The door closed with a loud WHUMP behind me, causing a giant cloud of dust to rise out of the decades old carpet. I followed him along the dimly lit corridor, painfully self-conscious of my body in a dress, made all the more awkward by the two sizes too big combat boots I insisted on wearing as part of my funeral garb, just to give my mother heart palpitations. Whatever.
I held my breath as I entered the room the doorman showed me to, partly out of anticipation of the waiting crowd of people, and partly to hold off the "old person smell" that I knew would accost me the moment I faced them. With a rustle of whispered sound, I watched as people milled around the rows of seats, giving sympathetic nods to one another, compassionately gripping each others' shoulders or hands.
I stood there in the doorway somewhat reluctantly, the aged doorman swaying beside me like an autumn leaf. "Uh, thanks," I said, nodding at him and clearing my throat. He inclined his head toward me reverently, but didn't leave. I could hear his rattled breathing. I would have stayed right there for hours, if it weren't for the arrival of my mother and the couple from outside. I was swept neatly into the room.
Groping hands reached in from every side to pat my shoulder or my cheek. I sidestepped as many hugs as I could, but I couldn't avoid their eyes. Equal parts pity and judgment. Fuck them, I thought, chewing on my lip-ring, and trying to resist the urge to brush the hair out of my eyes. I didn't need their pity or their judgment. I was just fine.
The faces began to blur together. It seemed like time would just stand still. And then I saw my mother gliding toward me with Bobby Jergins in tow. I needed to escape. I ducked my head down and slipped to the front of the room, but it was a close shave.
"Olivia?" I heard my mother calling.
"Not now, Jean-Louise," a sharp, metallic voice responded. "Give the girl some space." Great Aunt Hester to the rescue. The woman was tiny, but she was fierce. "Go ahead, Livvy. Go on." She patted my elbow, since that was as high as she could reach.
I held my breath again as I approached the casket. This was it. No going back. Once I looked at him, it would be real. Was I ready for that? Each step forward was shorter than the one before. I didn't think I was ready. But it was this or face my mother and her latest "match." I'd rather die, I thought, casting an envious glance at the casket again.
I didn't belong in that straight-edged town anyhow. If I could just look, just let him be dead... I could let go. I could move on.
I leaned forward to look inside the casket... and breathed out.