Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Funeral Arrangements 

 

When Alice and Jerry pulled into the driveway, home at last after a day spent running errands at the market, the hardware store, and the furniture outlet, Alice glanced in the rearview mirror to see a flash of red bloom across the glass and then disappear: the bright raincoat of a little girl dashing down the sidewalk behind them. For a moment Alice sat still in her seat, letting the memory of that color linger.

“If I die first,” Alice said, “I want to you to ask everyone to wear magenta to my funeral.”

Jerry unclipped his seatbelt. “Where is this coming from?”

“Magenta, not black. That’s important. And I want cupcakes, too, served right there in the church.”

“You want your funeral in a church?”

Neither of them had voluntarily set foot in a church, excluding weddings and funerals, for years.

“Or wherever it’s held. Cupcakes served on silver platters. All varieties, even gluten-free and vegan or whatever else exists by then. And champagne, too. Flutes of champagne, real glass, passed around instead of the collection basket.”

“They don’t do the collection basket at funerals.”

“You know what I mean.”

“So, magenta. Check. Cupcakes. Champagne.”

Jerry stepped out of the car. Alice grabbed the bags and followed him inside, where she entered the code to disarm the security system. Against the melodic beep of the buttons, the vision of her funeral unfurled before her: row upon row of magenta clothing, cupcakes piled high with frosting, real champagne glittering inside glass, waiters circulating with solemn expressions. Or maybe not so solemn—if people wanted to be happy at her funeral, they were more than welcome. 

“But if I die first,” Jerry said from the kitchen, “I want a jug band to play during the service.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged.” She twisted the oven knob to bake. She had a casserole waiting in the fridge, a recipe she’d invented on the spot the night before.

“And maybe instead of flowers,” he went on, “there could be tiers of donuts.”

“Tiers of what?”

“Like how they do those wedding cakes with donuts. I want two big displays of them, right on either side of the altar.” He stopped to smile. “This is fun.”

So he considered this a lark—not that Alice was surprised. Back when they were first dating, she surprised Jerry one morning in the shower, just ran in screaming at him to see what he’d do. He jolted back against the shower wall, leaving a smear of shampoo lather on the tile. “Got you,” Alice had said. Deadpan. And Jerry laughed. He laughed and laughed, the initial shock forgotten, his mind full of nothing but play. From that moment, she understood perfectly well what kind of man he was.

“What I definitely don’t want is paper streamers, like the kind you get at the party store,” Alice said. Her mother’s funeral reception had included a half dozen strands of those streamers twisted limply above the buffet. She couldn’t think of anything drearier. Her mother had died years before she and Jerry met, which meant he had no idea about the streamers or the rubbery canned beets or the dusty cold church basement where her older brothers booked the reception out of a shocked helplessness.

“I hope you heard me,” she said. “No streamers.”

“Do you think we should be writing this down? Into a will, maybe? 

Alice shook her head. “This is based on faith.” She pulled a head of lettuce from the grocery bag, rinsed it in the sink, and set it on the cutting board.  “If I die first, have some ponies trucked in. I want pony rides outside for any kids who are dragged to my funeral.”

“What if it’s the middle of winter?”

“Then I want sleigh rides and jingle bells and hot chocolate. Spike it with peppermint schnapps for the adults.”

“If I die first, I think I’ll serve scotch at the funeral.”

You won’t be serving anything.” 

“You’ll serve scotch, I mean,” Jerry said. “I also want ping-pong at the reception. And maybe a magician.”

“A magician, that’s good.” Alice chopped lettuce. “I’d like a fortune teller, the cheesy kind with all the scarves and a crystal ball. You can tip her off to tell people my messages from beyond the grave.” 

“Obviously.”

When dinner was ready, they moved to the dining room and sank into the threadbare chairs they’d ordered replacements for that afternoon. For a few moments, they chewed in silence. Alice thought about the ponies waiting outside her funeral. In the summer, they’d have colorful ribbons braided into their manes. In the winter, they’d be shaggy and would chuff little clouds against the cold. She almost couldn’t decide which she’d prefer. If only she could die four times, once for every season.

“If I die first, maybe you could call my old girlfriends and personally invite them to the funeral,” Jerry said. “Make it sound like I was secretly still in love with each one all these years. Just to rattle them.” 

“I wonder if any of my exes would even think to come. It’s been a long time.”

But it hadn’t been too long, not yet: seven years of marriage, nine years together total. They were in their mid-thirties. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, they had more than half a lifetime of togetherness awaiting them. Of course, Alice knew better than that. 

“The fact is, we’ll probably die together, at once,” Jerry said. “In the car. With all the driving we do, statistically speaking, that’s how it will happen.”

“That’s ridiculous.” She stood up to retrieve a bottle of pinot noir.

“I’m just saying.” 

Alice opened the bottle and poured generous servings into the crystal goblets that had been wedding gifts.

“You know it won’t happen like that,” she said. “We won’t go at the same time.”

“Maybe not. We’re probably not that lucky.”

Lucky. Jerry had no idea what that word meant, what cosmic arrangement of cells and genes it represented.

“We don’t know how it will turn out,” he went on. “That’s the point. That’s the future.”

She said nothing, sipped her wine. When Jerry reached over and put his hand on hers on the table, she realized she’d been trembling.

“You need to stop this,” he said. “You’re fine. You’re here. We both are.”

She looked away. They finished eating and drained the bottle of wine and sat together, quietly, as the light outside grew dimmer and dimmer. Alice envisioned a gathering of ashes caught in the wind and swept off some oceanside cliff. She started to say, If I die first I want my funeral to be by the ocean, but she stopped herself. They didn’t live near the ocean. They lived in Illinois, three hours south of Chicago. Hours from anywhere.

Later, after they’d both dressed for bed, Jerry turned to her. “What made you get started on all this, anyway?”

Alice saw again the flash of the girl in that red raincoat, how she ran at full speed down the slick sidewalk with no concern for the future she had coming. But to say this out loud would only reopen the conversation about children, and why she didn’t want them. Why she couldn’t bear to imagine them left without her far too soon.

“It was nothing,” she said. “I thought of everyone wearing magenta, of how beautiful that would be.”

“That’s right. The magenta clothes.” He hesitated, his expression skeptical. “I like to think I’m a good sport about all this, Alice. But sometimes you take it too far. You’re not going anywhere. Okay?”

Alice was quiet. She let the silence stretch for a long time, and then she said, “If you died first, I wouldn’t leave the house for seventeen months.” She could feel Jerry smiling at that, a sense of relief seeping into the room. 

“If you die first,” he replied, “I’ll create a shrine to you in the living room and invite people over to sit in front of it, just to freak them out.” 

Alice laughed. “If you die first,” she began, but she didn’t finish her sentence. Instead, she lay on her side and pulled the covers around her. She waited so long that Jerry gave up on the game and rolled over in bed. 

Sometimes, when she drank a touch too much wine, it was like oceans making waves inside her skull. Like the buzz of an entire universe touching her nerve endings, rattling her insides. The sensation made her think of the green meadows of her youth, and that scared her. It was like a vision of her specific mortality, of where she had been and what little she had remaining.

And she was so young, still, so very young and able-bodied. She was too young to have these thoughts. She was too young to feel that ocean welling and frothing inside her.  

She had started the If I die first game because she already knew that she’d go like her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother before her: cancer-struck, in shivering thinness, and far too many years too early. Jerry, meanwhile, would follow his own family’s legacy to grow older and older but tougher. Wily and sharp-minded to the end.

Right now, in fact, he was already asleep, lightly snoring while she remained awake with her eyes closed, feeling the pulsing of her waves. How many times had this happened after she’d had too much wine? She should know by now. She should have learned something from her short years on this planet, this time spent awake and asleep and awake again, of what would come and what would pass. How very little time she had, how so often games weren’t games at all. They were life. They were reality. They were her future, staring back at her, daring her to face it.

Her mother had died alone, in a hospital, while Alice drove to reach her. That was how fast it went, and yet how slow. For hours afterward Alice sat in the hard plastic hospital chair, waiting for no one, shaking off the nurses. In her hands she’d grasped her mother’s wedding ring, that hollow silver sliver, and pressed it into her palm until it left an indentation. It stayed with her—an empty weight cutting into her skin, a warning of what was to come. Sometimes she could still feel the ghost of that mark, even now, even here in her bedroom, where she waited with her eyes closed as a bright line of magenta flickered in the distance.

 

 

 

 

 

Laura Maylene Walter’s writing has appeared in Poets & Writers, Kenyon Review, The Sun magazine, Ninth Letter, Chicago Tribune's Printers Row, Michigan Quarterly Review, and dozens of additional literary journals. Her debut story collection, Living Arrangements, won the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize and a national gold IPPY. She was a Yaddo Fellow and a Tin House Scholar, and has been a writer-in-residence at the Chautauqua Institution and Art OMI. She serves as editor-in-chief of Gordon Square Review and blogs for the Kenyon Review.