Conversation Outside a Funeral Parlor

Marie walks up the partially cleared sidewalk out front of the funeral home. It is already dark outside and the lights in the windows glow golden and inviting. She places her cane and tries to straighten her back for her sister’s sake— the one who has passed.

A slow trickle of people step up from the snow-covered streets and are swallowed by the golden light within by a door that seems to work on its own. Marie spots her great-nephew standing at the side door beneath the maroon and white striped awning. His cigarette glows red in the shaded darkness. 

“Justin!” she says, waving a hand. “Justin. Come help me up the steps.”

The boy doesn’t move right away; rather his cigarette bobs indecisively in the darkness.

“Are you gonna let me slip?”

Finally, the boy comes down from the steps and approaches with a sullen expression; eyes bruised by something more than annoyance.

“What’s the matter with you?” Marie says, knowing the boy can’t be at any great emotional distress over his grandmother. He never paid her much attention while she was alive.

The boy flicks down his cigarette from between already yellowing fingers, and the tightenness of his lips extends into his jaw as he turns his head away. “I don’t really wanna go inside,” he says. “Ma yelled at me.”

Marie plants her cane in front of her and covers it with both hands. “Why don’t you want to go inside?”

The boy looks at her with eyes like embers in his face. “I don’t wanna, okay? Dead bodies creep me out.” His poorly clad shoulders shiver at this.

“It’s not like it’s a stranger or something. She was your grandmother. She deserves your last respects.”

“Couldn’t they have cremated her or something, though? Dead bodies just laying out in a room— Everybody staring?” Justin shivers again. “I’ve never seen a dead body before.”

Marie squints at her great-nephew. “You don’t want to go in just because you’ve never seen a dead body before?”

“It’s gross, isn’t it? King of. Like morbid. What are we supposed to do for her anyways? She’s gone. Staring at her body won’t bring her back.”

Marie doesn’t know whether to laugh at the boy’s pragmatism or feel sad.

“Why should the dead force the living to think about death, you know? Just move on, and be done.”

“A funeral is always for the living,” Marie says. “One last goodbye, to remember, to celebrate really.”

Justin furrows his manicured brows. “And you have to do that by staring at their dead body and everybody sitting around teary-eyed?”

“Well, no. You can celebrate someone’s life in many ways, however it’s not a bad thing to look death in the face once in a while. It reminds you you’re mortal, too. I think.”

“For now, at least,” Justin laughs. “Wouldn’t it suck for you and her if science comes up with a wonder pill like a decade from now?”

Marie lifts her head and narrows her eyes. “When you get to be my age, you realize an expiration date is a mercy. And not just because of the aches and pains— Do you see what I mean?”

Justin’s eyebrow soars, and he shrugs a bony shoulder beneath his thin jacket. “Of course, you think that. You didn’t grow up with the possibility.”

“And you have?”

“Certainly more of a possibility than you and Gram.”

Marie squints at her great-nephew and lets images of her youth play through the back of her mind. She thinks of all the news reports and all the possibilities rapidly advancing science had brought to her and her sister when they were young. She remembers how doubtful and distrustful of it all her own grandmother had been. 

“Well, I will be a corpse soon if you don’t get me inside,” Marie says and holds out her hand.

Justin barely keeps himself from rolling his eyes, but he takes her arm and threads it through his elbow. He walks her slowly toward the front steps, where imitation lanterns burn brightly and the cut glass of the front door glows. 

Justin hands her up the steps, and the door opens to reveal a staircase and a hall, the murmurs of people hidden around the corner and an understated ostentatiousness that is pleasing without being gaudy.

Marie turns back to her nephew where he remains, shuffling on the sidewalk. “Why don’t you come in? It’s warm, at least.”

Justin squints up at her and then away, as if embarrassed by her request. “Nah. I’m fine, thanks.”

Marie regards him with quiet eyes. Perhaps a lesser woman would have ranted and raved, but Marie is not a lesser woman. 

“All right,” she says, and steps with a clacking of her cane into the funeral parlor.

© 2022 Katie Baker

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