T.J. kissed his Pappyâ€™s cold forehead. It reminded him of one of those brittle white turtle shells heâ€™d stumble across in the woods from time to time. The kiss was perfunctory. Best not to linger too long over the dead. T.J. moved along.
The young man straightened his tie so that his two missing buttons wouldnâ€™t show. He realized that he did not feel quite as sad as he probably should. He wondered if anyone could tell about that or the missing buttons.
The family members all arrived the same basic way, with buttery-smelling dishes tucked under a flaccid arm, the other limb outstretched to embrace whichever relative happened to be lingering on the front porch at the time.
Birdy, T.J.â€™s cousin, had come up with some old daguerreotypes and propped them up on a table near the coffin. The Pappy in the picture was dark and puffy, with grey eyes and slick black hair; he held his King James Bible upside-down in his lap. This was a man with important work to get back to, not the broken remnant T.J. had known, the ghost who sieved milk through his long, white beard while babies dribbled spit onto his splayed chicken legs.
Birdy, sheâ€™s dyed her dress black, T.J. saw. It had been a spring dress, blue and white, with bows.
Aunt Lillie was licking her fingers again. T.J. always liked the way she did that. Even as she fought off 40, her lips were still tender and pink, not a line to be seen. T.J.â€™s eyes followed Aunt Lillieâ€™s hands as they swept through his uncleâ€™s frazzled mane, down to her wide, inviting hips.
He took his place in the middle row with the other teenage children. Aunt Lillieâ€™s red hair spurted like lava from her black mourning hat.
â€œYou,â€ said the photographer, a round, bearded man with a dark complexion. Jewish? T.J. had never seen one that he knew of, but this man fit the description given by Uncle Virgil: dark and hunched over, smoothed with oils, peering out of his sleepy eyes like a hungry weasel, waiting for some kind of opportunity. They and the Catholics were the worst. They were in league. It all went back to the Pope. Everyone had a theory.
â€œYou, move back to the back. To the back. No, to the back! Back there!â€
What a loud, insistent little man, T.J. thought.
T.J. had never been in the back row before, but he didnâ€™t mind. He took his place directly behind Aunt Lillie, who smiled at him, flashing those straight, white teeth of hers. Now that he was closer to her, T.J. could spot some grey ash in the lava bed, but it didnâ€™t matter. Her eyebrows were like Louise Brooksâ€™, T.J. thought. Slight, slender arches. And her smell. Underneath the potpourri, it was all kitchens and sweat.
â€œGrab hold, T.J.,â€ his father told him as the men eased back the coffin so that Pappy could stare into the camera with the rest of them.
â€œYou men hold on,â€ said the picture man as he took up his position behind the camera once more. T.J. was surprised by just how heavy the coffin was. Surely he must be getting a disproportionate share of the load, he thought.
About 30 or so people gathered around. T.J. clenched his wet right hand around the sharp corner of the coffin. He caught another quick glimpse of his auntâ€™s bottom. His eyes darted around to make sure no one was looking.
â€œAll right, now. All right, now. Thatâ€™s good. Everyone hold it right there, now,â€ said the Jew.
Sweat streamed down T.J.â€™s forehead, sending his glasses sliding down his nose as the coffin weighed down on him. He clinched his thin fingers more tightly, trying to find his grip, but it was like trying to hold onto an oil-soaked piano. Gravity wants what it wants.
â€œHold it right there!â€ said the camera man once more.
Just take the goddamn picture, T.J. thought.
He glanced out the lone open window, hoping for some type of divine intervention. He spotted a blonde-haired girl, about his age. She was holding something. She looked a little scared, peering in like the blacks often did before knocking. Then she was gone.
A barb shot through T.J.â€™s right hand like a snakebite. He recoiled, sending the coffin tumbling onto the floor with a splintering crack amid yelps of shock from the women in front. One of the babies began to shriek from all the noise.
Pappyâ€™s corpse plopped at the feet of the children in a most unnatural position. The children clambered over the body to cling to their mothers like frightened monkeys.
T.J. looked down at his right hand. A tiny splinter protruded from the webbing between his index finger and thumb. He pulled it out and popped his bleeding hand in his mouth and peered up at his father. His face was granite.
His father motioned for the other men, mostly T.J.â€™s uncles, to hoist the body back into the coffin. T.J. stepped forward but his father shook his head and shooed him away. T.J. slunk backward, seeping into the crevices.
A squeal of yimmeryammers announced Hoke, the blonde one, as he strode in through the foyer like a prince, the Prodigal Son returned. Hoke carried a half-eaten chicken leg in one hand and he was using his other to pick out bone between his broad, white teeth. Hoke had a trampy young girl with him, which was nothing unusual. She stayed a few steps behind him. Who was it this time, T.J. wondered. Another Carroll County girl? She was unusually thin, wearing a dress of homespun wool. She had pink flowers in a frayed hat. T.J. averted his eyes, even though she wasnâ€™t looking at him. Was this the girl he had glimpsed in the window? T.J. didnâ€™t think so. He was pretty sure that the girl in the window was Beatrice Evans. What had she been doing here, lurking about? T.J. hadnâ€™t seen her for two years or more.
Hoke strutted across the room to help the men lift the body into the coffin. Tom smiled and embraced Hoke, muttering something to him as he glanced over his shoulder at T.J., who pretended not to notice. T.J. looked to his feet. His laces had come undone. As he crouched down to tie them, he glanced around the room and saw the girl with the pink flowers again, leaning against the opposite wall. She pressed her hands against her dress, flattening the wrinkles. Her eyes flitted around the room like a lost child looking for its mother.
As T.J. fiddled with the laces the blood from his hand dribbled out onto the floor. T.J. wiped the wound against his pants leg and looked up again. The girlâ€™s eyes pinned him down.
T.J.â€™s eyes darted back to his shoes like a fish to the reef, even though he was finished tying them. Did he know this girl? Hadnâ€™t he seen her somewhere before?
His grandfather had been tucked back into the coffin now. T.J. sucked the last of the blood away, stood up, and took his place again in the back row. No one asked him to help hold up the body this time. Hoke did that, assuming T.J.â€™s position beside his father.
Hoke winked back at T.J.
â€œHow are ya, Slick?â€ he asked.
T.J. hated it when Hoke called him that.
In a flash it was all over and the dispersal began, with the women cackling their way to the kitchen, the children chasing one another out the doors and into the yard, and the men shuffling, looking at their shoes, nodding, each waiting for his turn to speak. Occasionally a contemptuous snort would make itself heard over the low rumble of mutters, grunts and farts. T.J.â€™s father seemed set apart, more serious and anxious than the others, and perhaps a bit sadder. Tomâ€™s red skin was stretched over his bony frame like a tarp.
T.J. wanted to follow his mother into the kitchen, like he used to as a child, listening in on the gossip about cousins and uncles jumping on trains or getting into fights or drinking themselves unconscious.
But T.J. would go with the men today. He knew his father and the other brothers had plans for Uncle Bije. He didnâ€™t want to miss that. Uncle Bije, with his quick temper and wit, could always make for an interesting afternoonâ€™s diversion.
Besides, T.J. knew that he was not welcome with the women. He was too old. So he would follow his father, but he would be thinking of Aunt Lillieâ€™s hair, the waif in the homespun dress, and Beatrice, the girl in the window.