Audiophiles, Listen Here:
Everyone sat stiffly in their seats, facing the fully open coffin and large portrait wreathed by pink lilies at the front of the church. Nothing would start without her, and the pianist was on the fourth round of the first song, dragging a little more each time until the tune itself seemed destined for imminent death. People were starting to fidget and surreptitiously check their phones, as if holding it below your knee made it invisible. No text reading “Funeral cancelled, thx anyway!” meant they had to stay in their seats, nearly a hundred hostages to the whims of the old lady.
The church was a Frankenstein’s monster of beautiful old architecture and horrific capitulation to the glad-handing funhouse of modern worship. Soaring stained glass windows depicting the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ were covered by banners announcing the new sermon series, “Being Wordy in a Worldly World.” A cartoon Bible stood in front of a torrent of red and black media, holding out one hand to ward them off. The balconies on either side of the stained glass were blocked off at ground level, unsafe to stand in but too costly to remove, just holy black holes.
A rosewood and gold coffin sat on the stage at the front of the church, cream lining showing on the underside of the open lid. A small stepstool, just two steps, sat on the floor in front of it. The stage was thoroughly modern, with three large LCD screens, all currently looping the same flickering candle from the same angle. To one side of the coffin was the keyboard, a squawky electronic approximation of a piano, with a thin woman hunched over it, back to the crowd. On the other side was a drum set, caged in plexiglass with a plywood roof, as if it were a snake caught in the backyard and hastily caged by an eight-year-old. You think those drums are contained, but they are still going to get out and give the ladies fits.
Rendition five of “You Raise Me Up” was so tired it wasn’t even stirring the air, let alone lifting anyone up. Blessedly, the door at the back of the church opened. Two figures were silhouetted against bright sunshine. The one on the right was tall and straight, a man’s outline with broad, crisp shoulders. He had long flowing hair that blew slowly in the wind outside with all the drama of a shampoo commercial. The second figure was leaning heavily on him, a hunched form with a cane in her free arm. She had to reach up to his elbow, so stooped was her body in comparison to his. Here she was, nearly an hour late. The mourners shuffled and sighed, relieved that they were not there for nothing.
The pianist abruptly ended the song with an inappropriately cheerful set of trilling flourishes and launched into a new tune, “Abide With Me.” She played it at a pace that seemed downright jaunty compared to her previous snail’s slide, and it woke up any attendees who’d been dozing in the warm sanctuary. The pair moved inside and the door swung softly shut behind them.
The man was in a black suit and turquoise bolo tie. His romance hero’s hair framed a face full of sadness that sobered the annoyed crowd. After all, late had two meanings, didn’t it? His eyes were puffy and damp, and as he walked down the aisle, a tear made its way down one cheek to fall silently on the carpet. Earl, the son, was the one who would grieve in fullness, and he deserved sympathy.
The old woman on his arm was Trudy Gatewood. Standing at 5’ 2”, considerably reduced from the 5’ 6” of her youth, she walked slowly and painfully toward the front. Her face was creased and recreased, as if some incompetent origami student had only money for one piece of paper. Her mouth pulled down sharply and she looked at the floor with concentration while she walked, gravity her constant foe. Her eyes were hooded, sunken, not visible to most of the mourners as she made painful progress past them. Those sitting on the aisles glimpsed the yellowed sclera and nearly black irises of her eyes, veins covering them in cobwebs of red. She wore a pale gray dress, her bent fingers heavy with rings. A small oddly cheerful hat with a lily perched on one side of her iron hair.
Trudy was halfway to the front of the church when the pianist ran out of song. There was rattling of papers as she frantically shuffled to find the next piece of music. The old woman stopped moving and looked up, eyes sharp and mouth set.
“Luanne,” she croaked, “leave it to you to make a hash of this. Just play anything.” Trudy shook her head and looked at the floor, not moving until Luanne started plunking out “Danny Boy,” a song that had nothing to do with anything, but she had memorized. Trudy sighed loudly, but it was enough to get her moving again. The mourners widened their eyes at each other. Trudy was going to be Trudy, even today.
Two rounds of “Danny Boy” later, after a painfully slow progression up the two steps to the stage, Earl and Trudy stood in front of the open casket. Luanne quietly faded out the music and stood hastily, screeching the chair legs so loudly she scared herself and nearly fell off the stage running to the back of the church. Earl looked down at his mother and she looked up at him. “You’re sure?” he asked.
“You betcha,” Trudy rasped. She threw her cane down with a sharp clatter that startled the mourners. She grabbed onto Earl’s arm with one gnarled hand and used him as a stair railing to climb the two steps in front of the coffin. With the open edge at waist height, she looked down into the box. “Yes, this’ll do,” she murmured. She let go of Earl and put both hands on the coffin’s edge, leaning into it. The crowd held their breath, not sure how this would go. The coffin stand swayed a little, it was flimsier than it should have been, and Trudy leaned back, still holding on. “You’re going to have to help, Earl,” she said, and he nodded.
Trudy let go and held up her arms to Earl, the mother aping the universal “pick me up” of children, and Earl bent slightly to comply. His mother put her withered arms around his neck as he lifted her in an easy threshold carry, her substance now nearly insubstantial, and he mounted the bottom step, holding her over the empty coffin.
“Owww!” he said sharply as he bent to lay her in the cream satin, halting suddenly with his neck at an uncomfortable angle. One of Trudy’s arms was on her chest and the other was tangled by her rings in Earl’s luxurious hair. “Ow, Mom, stop, stop,” he barked as she tried to pull the hand free.
“Well, I always told you that hair was foolishness, didn’t I?” Trudy continued to pull and Earl shuffled slightly on the step, trying to lessen the pain and come up with a plan. The mourners couldn’t see exactly what was going on—was the old woman pulling his hair for some reason?
“A little help, please!” Earl bellowed. Startled into action, Luanne jumped up from her perch on a folding chair and flew toward the stage. When her hurried steps brought her halfway up the aisle, Trudy gave a great yank, succeeding in freeing her hand, a large chunk of Earl’s hair, and herself from his grasp all at the same time. Earl made a fumbling, desperate toss and Trudy flew into the casket with a loud thudding clatter like a sack of potatoes dropped from a height. Earl fell off the step onto the stage with another thud and cried out in pain as he cracked an elbow on the floor. The stand wobbled but held, and the mourners let out their collective breaths.
“Well, now she’s in, at least,” Luanne muttered, collecting sharp looks from those close enough to hear. It was very bad manners to act anything but heartbroken at these things, even if she was a tyrant and made your life a living hell. Luanne caught the looks and blushed. She put her head down and rushed back to her seat.
Earl struggled up, favoring his elbow, and bent worriedly over the casket to check on his mother. One gnarled hand popped above the edge, holding a hank of his torn-out hair. “Here’s your crowning glory!” Trudy cackled. Earl’s face darkened and he snatched the hair away to stuff it in his suit pocket.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” he said mechanically, and reached up to unfasten the bottom half of the split casket lid. “Good-bye, Mother.” Earl’s eyes were streaming, but it was hard to say if it was from emotion or his smarting scalp.
“Good-bye, Earl,” she croaked, and he closed the bottom half of the casket, leaving the top portion open to reveal her face and part of her torso. Trudy had passed. Her part in this ceremony was over, just as her part in the world was, and she would now go to her eternal reward as scheduled. They needed to keep rolling, though, or they wouldn’t get out of the church in time to avoid a fine.
Earl bowed his head briefly and turned to the assembly. All were silent, ready for the eulogy he would surely have prepared and practiced many times.
“Well, folks, my mother asked me to keep this brief, so I will.” It was brief. A five-minute synopsis of Trudy’s unexceptional life, mother, wife, utility billing clerk, a few generic statements about “not dwelling on the loss, but remembering when she was with us,” and a reading that sounded like it came directly from one of the sympathy cards near the guest book.
Earl stopped talking. The silence stretched uncomfortably. He stared at the windows in the back of the church for so long that people turned to look. Just windows. The stained glass dove in the middle was a little streaky from the injudicious application of birdshit by its live counterparts, but the soiled dove wasn’t some relevant symbolism, was it? Murmuring built in the crowd as they asked their pew-mates what was happening.
Behind Earl, a hand appeared at the edge of the casket, four fingers gripping the rosewood, bejeweled and shaky. They tightened, and with apparent strain, the old woman levered her head off its silk pillow high enough to see out. “What in His name are you doing, Earl?” she demanded. The mourners gasped. Once someone had passed, they didn’t pop up to comment on the funeral.
“Oh!” Earl jumped. “Nothing. I just forgot what was next.”
“Well, that’s because LU-ANNE was supposed to be up here already. LU-ANNE!” Trudy barked. Luanne launched off her chair and ran up the aisle, her low heels giving her an uneven gait, like a wobbly seagull. As the crowd gaped, Trudy turned her attention to them. “BOO!” she yelled, and half of them jumped. Her face broke into a wide grin and she laid back down, chuckling at the shock and dismay of her “loved ones.” They were reconsidering whether a share of the estate equalization was worth being associated with this. Trudy’s hand slowly slid back into the casket. Her laughter was muffled by the wood and satin, but everyone could still hear it.
Luanne fixed that by launching into a heavy-handed version of some classical piece. It sounded like a gang of Vikings was going to storm the church any second. It wasn’t calming, but it was progress, and at this point, people just wanted it over with. Such shocking behavior from Trudy probably shouldn’t have surprised them, but they had assumed she’d be better after she’d passed. Rising up out of the coffin to act up was just too much.
A brave soul seated on the aisle in the second row stood and walked toward the front, starting a confused stampede not unlike airline passengers deplaning after the world’s most turbulent flight. The man, Trudy’s doctor for the last five years, made his way to the casket and looked down. He murmured the Prayer, a standard wish for eternal peace, and hustled off the stage and out the side door. Mourners from the front three rows followed, repeating the Prayer and speed-walking to the bright sunshine outside. Luanne kept pounding through the music until Earl patted the air in front of her in a “calm it down” request for less volume.
Mourner #43, a shirttail relative and opportunist named Barnard, took a good long look in the box. Trudy had her eyes closed, mostly, though she was cracking one open occasionally to see who was looking at her, and her arms were down at her sides now, one hand in a pocket. The bodice of the gray dress floated over empty air deserted by her gravity-affected breasts. Her face sagged toward the pillow, smoothing and pooling into jowls. She looked like she was melting. Barnard made a face and wrinkled his nose.
Trudy was peeking for sure. A jet of liquid sprayed from the lily on her hat and hit Barnard directly in the face. He flinched back, then he screamed. “What was that?! My eyes! It’s burning!” He scrubbed at his face with his hands, making it worse. Luanne jangled to a stop, turning and staring with wide eyes. The absence of music made Trudy’s giggles audible. Earl sniffed, then coughed.
“It’s just vinegar, Barnard,” he said, trying to hold the man’s hands away from his face and making him more combative. “You’ll be okay, but you need to wash out your eyes. Luanne!” She jumped up and came over to the injured man, trying to grab an arm and help Earl calm him. Barnard hit her a glancing blow in the nose for her trouble, causing a dramatic fountaining nosebleed. Luanne clutched her face and ran for the bathroom, crashing through the waiting line of people and smearing blood on several of them. Their noises of disgust were too much for Trudy, who levered herself up again to see what was going on. Taking in the blood trail, fleeing Luanne, and struggling pair on stage, she cackled again and laid back down.
Several of the mourners in the rear of the line quietly made their way out the opposite end of the church. They would forfeit their shares, but the old woman’s money wasn’t worth playing a part in this fiasco. Earl saw them go and frowned, but he wasn’t in a position to do anything with Barnard in a headlock.
Earl wrestled Barnard off the stage toward the bathrooms and yelled, “Keep going!” The next person in line stood well back to mutter the Prayer. The rest of the line paid their rushed and physically removed respects. Trudy broke into unnerving laughter at random intervals, further disturbing them. After the last person in line had exited the door to the right, Trudy waited a few minutes, expecting the ceremony to proceed, but nothing happened.
“EARL?” she called in the empty sanctuary. No answer. “EARL? Where are you at?” she called again. A representative of the National End Service rushed out finally. It wasn’t protocol, but this service was so far into bonkers, what was one more breach?
“I’m sorry, Ms. Gatewood, but Earl is tending to the injured man and Luanne has not come back. I’m Garvin, from the NES. Can I do something for you?”
“You can get right back out of here, Garvin,” she shrilled. “I don’t need you vultures rushing me out of here!” The departed woman looked at her watch. “I have ten more minutes in here!”
Garvin nodded and scuttled out, nearly bumping into Earl as he made his way back to his mother. Earl frowned. “We still have ten minutes, don’t we?”
“Yes, yes, so sorry, just trying to help. Your mother was asking for you.”
“I’m sure she was asking for ME, not you.” Earl pushed past the man and walked to the casket. He took one last look at his mother, the woman who had both loved and tormented him, the strong personality in the weakened body, and whispered, “Bye now.”
Trudy was silent, and kept her eyes shut as he lowered the remaining half of the casket lid, turning the latches until it was secured. He rested one hand on the rosewood lid, softly reciting the Prayer with his head bowed, loose hair hiding his face. Only when he’d finished did he signal the NES man that they could proceed. Five minutes to spare. Luanne crept out of the bathroom, blood down the front of her pale yellow dress, and seeing that it was all over, went to the coat closet on the side of the stage to get her long coat. She had wads of toilet tissue in each nostril.
“Well, that’s it then, isn’t it?” Luanne said, as nasal as a school secretary over an intercom.
“Yep.” Earl wiped a hand down his face, looking as if the last hour had aged him ten years.
“It was fine, wasn’t it?” Luanne said anxiously, still looking for approval from someone, anyone.
“It was just how she would have wanted it.” Earl put an arm around Luanne’s thin shoulders and squeezed briefly, then walked slowly out the church’s front doors into his motherless new world.
Copyright 2019 by Rebecka Ratcliffe, All Rights Reserved.
The Story: This is one my own ideas, something I thought up in the shower. The image of a son escorting his elderly mother into a funeral is one that strikes a heartstring. Assumptions are made. I thought…wouldn’t it be funny if they just kept going and she climbed into the casket? Well, funny to me, anyway. I hope you enjoyed it. I used this idea to give me time to produce a quality story from a reader suggestion for next time–a story about sparkly flowers and hidden agendas. See you again in a couple of weeks.
PS. If you’re enjoying the stories, please don’t hesitate to share them! I’m committed to doing this for a year, and it will only be more fun with more people. Send ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave them in the comments.