by John F. Dillon
The telephone woke him before sunset on Tuesday, He attempted to place the voice when ii informed him his brother had died suddenly of a heart attack.
"We'll leave immediately," he said before cradling the earpiece.
Taking turns behind the wheel, the man and his wife drove through the night. Conversation consisted of his wife doing the talking to , if the man responded at all, a grunted response. By the time they stopped for gas and an untouched breakfast at dawn, conversation had ceased entirely. They shared a tuna fish sandwich at midday at another gas stop. Eventually, they crossed the final bridge and entered the small village to his brother home. Dusk was falling.
The house was empty when they arrived. A note on the door included directions to the funeral parlor.
The parking lot was near full when they arrived. The small crowd clustered near the entrance stepped away from the doorway when the couple approached. A tall figure in a dark suit remained and held the open door. The man's wife accepted the mooted greetings while her husband continued inside. He passed more words of condolence in silence as he made for the lone casket and looked in. His sense of dread struggled for a feeling of relief.
"What! ...Is this a game? This ain't my brother," he said to himself. He glared at the body in the casket. Is this some kind of joke? ...This ain't my brother. Can't be him. We just talked on Sunday ...on the phone. Hell! didn't he even say, See ya, before we hung up?"
He scoffed at the patches of rouge applied to color the tight skin of the old man with the large white forehead. Above, streaks of thin gray hair were combed into neat straight lines. Tight thin lips, too thin and too tight, ended in emotionless straight lines at the edges.
"Not his mouth! My brother always had an impish grin. Like the cat that...What happened to his freckles? No-this ain't my brother-couldn't be! Don't even look like.... This is an old man.... Not my broth.... Look at his hair. My brother got thick curly hair! Who do they think they're kidding? This ain't him! Its gotta be another one of his stupid jokes!"
The man yielded to a hand on his shoulder and turned to his brothers wife. Dressed in black, the spaces in the webbed mask could not hide the puffy eyes inside.
His sister-in-law let her hand rest as she turned to the casket. "They did a nice job-didn't they?" she whispered, complimenting the workmanship of the undertaker.
"So! You're part of the game," the man thought. "Okay, Ill play along." Instead of protesting, he drew a deep breath and nodded.
His sister-in-law guided him from the casket to a nearby table where a photographic display of his brothers life was summarized in stand-up plastic frames.
"Oh, this is taking it too far," the man snickered, and scanned the rapidity filling room for signs of his brother. "What's this? Another joke? My brother's always jokin'. Any moment he's gonna jump up and yell, 'Got ya!' "
They considered the pictures without speaking until his brothers older daughter approached. After a hushed exchange between the women, the girl took her mother arm leaving him alone at the table. "I cant believe it! My niece is on it too." He smiled and shook his head. "This is too much!"
He turned his attention to the table and focused on a photograph of two very young, tousled haired, boys, he and his brother, in mackinaw jackets. The disheveled youngsters appeared to have been interrupted from their play and the photograph could not hide their problems standing still. He smiled then almost laughed aloud when he saw the picture of the brothers dressed in their sailor suits. "I remember that," he snickered then looked about fearful someone had heard his laugh. People were gathered in small clusters, some standing while others were seated. All were engaged in hushed conversations. Relived no one had heard him; he returned his attention to the table. There was a picture of his brother in a white tux. He was standing beside a gowned date before leaving for the high school prom. In another, his brother was in uniform with his flight crew standing alongside a military jet. In yet another, his brother was clad in a cap and gown at his college graduation. A wedding picture stood beside another graduation photograph-medical school. His brother was dressed in his resident whites with a stethoscope about his neck. There were many of his brother and sister-in-law, their children and grandchildren.
There were more in the three photo albums on the side of the table. He recognized the album with the brown imitation jacket and held together with soft twine as one he had viewed many years ago. It was the old family album. Inside were black and white photographs of their parents standing beside a Model T Ford. In a few faded images, both his parents were wearing one-piece bathing suits. There were baby pictures and many photos of people whose relationship had long ago disappeared with faded captions. There also Baptism pictures, Communion pictures, Confirmation pictures, and photos of two growing boys before birthday cakes.
The photographs in the second album were in much better condition with many in color. One depicted two thin suntanned boys, the man and his brother, standing with their arms about each others shoulders-their laughing faces frozen in time. "Boy, I was sure skinny then," the man smirked and touched his midsection before proceeding to the next photograph. There was a picture of the brothers at the house their parents rented at the beach and another aboard a fishing boat. A few invoked the memory of an ill-faded hunting trip when they rented a cabin in the mountains and nearly froze to death waiting for deer that never came. The photograph of young men posing in front of the neighborhood bar elicited another smile. The man paused. He chuckled at sight of his brother and a friend posturing as musclemen. "It's been over a year now," he mused about the man beside his brother. "The last time I saw Howie he was about three hundred pounds and not a hair on his head."
The next page contained a photograph of another friend, Eddie. The man smiled, "All the girls loved Eddie," His smile faded as he recalled, "It must be five years now.... He never really recovered from that stoke." His eyes stopped at another face. "There's Sonny! ...He's gone too." He looked for a long time at another close-up photograph of the brothers with their arms on each others shoulder. Both were supporting the first shadows of a beard. The beards didn't last. Both complained of skin irritation and shaved. The man actually believed his brother really yielded to pressure from his yet to be wife. He looked closer and smiled. "I never knew I was that good looking," he scoffed. "That was before dentures." The man readjusted his glasses before acknowledging his own thick black mantle had thinned and turned completely gray.
The photographs in the third album were in color. There was his brother on the golf course, at various parties and functions-more pictures of growing grandchildren. As in the first two albums, there were a lot of pictures of the brothers. He noted that their faces where more mature than those in the other albums, their bodies fuller. Again, he touched his stomach and murmured, "I gotta do something about this weight."
Time continued as life sequenced with the turning of a page. When the man completed the third album he returned to first. It wasn't until his wife touched his shoulder and told him that the service was about to begin did he lower the album and turn from the table.
The service was short, followed by long eulogizes as others recalled another time, another place, and another face on the man in the coffin.
Eventually, the service concluded.
A sudden pain, protesting the ordeal of sitting in the hard chair after the long car ride, spread from his lower back when he attempted to stand. It continued with increasing intensity though the muscles of his right leg. An involuntary moan preceded his collapse back to the seat. Relieved to observe the stumble went unnoticed to all but his wife, he allowed the throbbing to subside before making another attempt to rise. Forced to stop whenever the pain threatened to become unbearable, he clutched his wife's arm for support while slowly and deliberately rising to a stooped position. With the assistance of his wife and the occasional assurance squeeze of her hand, he moved his bowed frame until he stood before the open lid of the coffin. A silent grinding of teeth accompanied the agonizing act of kneeling.
His lips moved-first to pant oxygen to his drained lungs then in solitary conversation as he gazed upon the dead body. After a time, he reached into the casket and gently touched the rouged cheeks with his fingertips. His hands moved to the pale hands encircled in Rosary Beads. He lifted his hand to his mouth and kissed two fingers before transferring the kiss to forehead in the coffin. His eyes remained on the body as he struggled to his feet.
Before turning to wife he sobbed, See ya, in a final goodbye to his brother.