Mama’s mood altered and shifted as quickly as the thunderstorm clouds wafted across an Oklahoman-rainy-day-sky for weeks after Daddy left her lyin’ in a pool of her own blood on the trailer floor. It’s like he snuffed the light clean outta her steel-blue eyes, leaving her perpetually dazed from the blow when he stumbled home drunk that God-forsaken night, walloping her over the head with that Amish chair Mama picked-up at a yard sale. Ain’t nothin’ me and Bartlett and Graham could do to make our Mama laugh no more, no matter how much we all tried.
“Let’s get her!” Bartlett exclaimed, as she poured herself on top of Mama laid stretched out on the couch watchin’ a Bonanza rerun. Opportunely, I took the cue and jumped on top of Bartlett and reached around her waist to find Mama’s armpit and started ticklin’ her good and hard tryin’ to get her to emote or laugh or somethin’.
When Graham came wanderin’ in fresh from a nap in his footed pajamas and saw us piled high on top of Mama like that, he squealed just like a pig in heat with pure adolescent delight. “Yertle the Turtle!” he exclaimed. I realized what he meant and I do reckon we must’ve looked just like all them turtles piled-up high from that picture book written by Mr. Theodor Seuss Geisel hisself. But, Mama, glanced up and took one look at Graham’s intentions on gettin’ in on all our fun and quickly wiggled her way out from under me and Bartlett. She stood up so fast it caused me and my sister to fall into a tangled heap of arms, skinny legs and long hair and all, right onto the carpeted floor directly at Graham’s feet. Immediately takin’ Mama’s sour mood out on me, Bartlett stood up too and quickly jabbed her elbow deep into my side and then stamped on my foot good and hard while Mama’s back was turned.
“Yeowwww!” I cried, as Bartlett turned to look me straight in the face with that don’t-fuck-with-me look of hers that somehow always managed to instantly numb my pain and stifle any waterworks that threatened to gallop like wild horses down my cheeks. Obstinately, I pursed my lips and stared right back at her in a showdown that I already knowed I was destined to lose so it weren’t worth even tryin’.
Mama sighed and said, “Don’t go startin’ in with your damned cryin’ now, Barley. You ain’t a baby anymore. You’re almost fifteen years old for Christ’s sake,” she lectured when she caught me wipin’ one lone, errant tear from my pained face. “You kids go on and git outside now and leave me be for a spell. And be sure to shut that door on the way out. We ain’t heatin’ the outside!”
On the way to grab my coat, I stopped and picked-up a glass swan ornament engraved with “Harvey-Douglas Funeral Home” that had fallen beneath the unlit Christmas tree set all cockamamie on its stand in the corner of the living room. I turned the novelty around and around in my hands, workin’ over the smooth glass with my fingers as if that could summon up Grandpa reincarnated right before my very eyes. It’s true though, that if I closed ‘em nice and tight, and squinted my forehead in deep thought and fond remembrance, I could pertinear smell the scent of Old Spice and Copenhagen, and could see Grandpa rubbin’ his bald head as he bent over to pick up a penny he found on the ground.
“Keep it for another time and place, Barley, you never know when you might come up short,” Grandpa said with a toothless grin. And poof, just like that—the image of my Grandpa was gone along with the telltale aroma of his aftershave and snuff-in-a-can, and was instantly replaced by the smell of outdoors and the Loblolly Pine Christmas tree Daddy and Graham chopped down and hauled inside last week.
As I placed the ornament gently back on a branch of the stubby tree, and twirled it around on its string, I recalled the day the tall, solemn Funeral Director, dressed in a navy blue suit, walked over and handed it to my Mama. She opened the black velvet box and began to shudder and cry. One. And then he told Mama that he’d be closin’ up Grandpa’s casket soon. Two. “It’s time to pay your last respects before we take him away,” he said. Three. I told you everything bad happens when it comes in threes like that.
As the Funeral Director walked away, Mama turned to me and Bartlett and said, “Go on now. Both of you. Give your Grandpa a kiss.” I couldn’t believe what Mama was askin’ of us as I watched in downright horror as Bartlett tentatively worked her way to the edge of the casket, peered in and worked hard to conjure up some nerve. Just as my sister leaned in towards my Grandpa, a now wrinkled, ghostly, pallor of a man I no longer recognized; I turned on my heels and ran fast—bursting outside and into the sunlight where Daddy and several other pallbearers stood smokin’ and snuffin’ out cigarettes with their shiny dress shoes.
And, I kept goin’. I ran as hard and as fast as I could down the flagstone steps and out to the curb where a black hearse was already parked ready to haul my Grandpa’s lifeless and limp body out to the cemetery, and then I continued on down the walkway and out onto the sidewalk and past rows and rows of houses and barkin’ dogs and cars whizzin’ by me along the street, and past fire hydrants and picket fences and summer gardens filled with peonies and pansies. I ran beneath a clear blue sky blemished only by legions of puffy white clouds that trailed my steps and kept up with my wild pace. I ran with tears streamin’ wanton from my eyes, and until my sides hurt so bad I thought I was gonna die too, but I kept runnin’–until finally, from out of nowhere, I felt a hand on my shoulder that yanked me clear around stoppin’ me dead in my tracks.
“Where ya off to, Barley?” Daddy panted, bending over to catch his breath from sprintin’ as fast as he had tryin’ to catch-up to my mad dash away from the finality of death that awaited me back at the funeral home. When I didn’t have an answer, Daddy grinned a giant, sheepish smile and said breathlessly, “Now you know I ain’t got my runnin’ shoes on.”
And then I fell into him and cried and cried, intoxicated by the smell of man, sweat and the temperature of his body heat, and it was there, buried deep in Daddy’s chest, that I finally succumbed to my grief. It felt foreign and awkward when Daddy cradled my head in his hands and drew me in closer. Daddy and me stood there on that sidewalk together for what seemed like an awful long time before he finally pulled me away from the safety of his body, smirked, and then reached into his pants pocket and produced a white cotton hankie embroidered with an “S” for Sullivan in the corner.
“Clean yourself up. It’s best we be gettin’ back now” Daddy said, turning on his heels to face the direction of the funeral home. He was clearly as embarrassed as I was from the raw emotion that we both exhibited out on that sidewalk and so I turned away from him too, and blew my nose. I was ready to pay my respects to my Grandpa. I tried to give Daddy back his hankie, but he just laughed, “Keep it; I ain’t puttin’ all those tears and snot back into my pocket,” he said, as he ruffled my hair.
Mama was standin’ at the top of them steps, stampin’ her foot and waitin’ for us along with all them pallbearers and the rest of the guests lookin’ to start the procession out to the cemetary. It’s like the memorial had come to a dead halt without us and I reckon I did feel real bad about that. When I got close enough, she took one good look at me and saw that I had been cryin’ and knew I had been off throwin’ a fit somewhere. In five seconds flat, she marched right up to me and grabbed my arm and slapped me solid across the face, sending me reeling back on my feet.
“Today ain’t about you, Barley. Get that through your God-damned thick skull,” she said as she turned to face the crowd of people waitin’ to get Grandpa’s body into the ground. Each person in the band of people before us turned uneasily away from the spectacle goin’ on before them, some of them lookin’ down at their shoes uncomfortably. And just like that, Daddy pulled away from me too and joined his place in line with the other men, while I stood there fightin’ new tears along with the harsh sting of Mama’s handprint which I knew was indelible across my cheek.
Out at the cemetery, the flat granite gravestone marker was already in place bearin’ my Grandpa’s Paul’s name: Private Paul Doyle, 1918-1981. Below that it read, “Loving husband and father who served his family and country well.” Next to his name was my Grandma Anita’s and the year she was born—1922, but she was still alive so she didn’t get no final restin’ date next to hers yet. I tried real hard not to think about Grandma’s dyin’ too. The thought of that was almost more than I could take on at the moment.
The hot, August sun permeated clear through my polyester clothes as I stood there tuggin’ onto my skirt that was clingin’ to the sweat beadin’ down my legs. All of a sudden, the crowd migratin’ around us hushed and I seen the most amazin’ sight I ever did see with my own two eyes. Out there in that eerie cemetery, dotted with trees and gravestones and flowers everywhere; an Army soldier in full uniform appeared amid us where he produced a bugle and stood there for a moment like he was collectin’ his thoughts or somethin’. And, then he raised his instrument to his mouth and blew out a beautiful, lonesome tune I knowed I heard some place else before.
Two other soldiers also appeared, stretched a flag out between them and then folded it lengthwise, and then lengthwise again. Eventually, somehow or another, as if by magic, they formed the flag into a perfect triangle while managin’ to keep the stars facin’ outwards. With a somber, regretful look on their faces, they handed the flag to Grandma Anita who was decked out head-to-toe in black. Upon receivin’ their gift, she finally began to wail. And, as if that were their cue, the soldiers slowly backed away. Suddenly, seven more uniformed men appeared out in the clearing nearby, armed with rifles, and each fired three shots into the air.
Mama and Bartlett was wailin’ right alongside Grandma, as well as were various other female relatives on my Mama’s side. As for me, I was all cried out with no more tears left to shed by the time them soldiers lowered their rifles in perfect timin’ with my treasured Grandpa and his flag-draped coffin bein’ hoisted deep into the ground.