fiction by William Haywood
The crowd there at Buchanan Funeral Home was a rough bunch. The constable was there for most of Momma’s funeral. He was so old he looked like a strong sneeze would have knocked him on his ass. He was that age of a feller still working where it was hard to tell if he was just doing his regular rounds, talking to his ancient buddies who worked at the funeral home and flirting with the young girls, eating up all the peppermints in the crystal bowl at the desk, or if he was there because he knew our family. He knew outlaws and addicts would be there. If that was the case, I didn’t know what he thought he might do to this bunch. He didn’t even have a pistol that I could see. My family is that breed of hillbilly that don’t care if you’re the law. They’re not the kind that cans jelly or gives classes at the Folklife Center to upper middle-class mountain newcomers on quilting. They’re not the kind that put on red bandanas in memory of union miners from 100 years ago and go on marches to stop strip-mining jobs. They’re the kind that inspire writers that secretly hate poor people to pen scripts for dumb-ass movies like Wrong Turn. They’re the kind that will sniff out your weakness and build a lie just for you—one that gets them exactly what they want. They’re the kind that has a record and can’t keep the same phone number. They’re the kind that sells off your Granddad’s guns to pay for their habit.
My little brother Dale was out on parole just three weeks. I wondered if the constable was there for Dale. He would need a few more geriatric buddies to make that happen. I hoped to God he wasn’t there for Dale. It wouldn’t be good for nobody. Not the ancient constable. Not Dale. Not Dale’s young’un. Not me. It took me a day to decide whether I was going to wear a suit to Momma’s funeral. Mostly because the prospect of getting in a fight seemed high and a man can grab hold to your tie in a fight. I wanted to wear a suit and a tie. Momma liked it when I got dressed up. Said I looked like her Daddy. I decided to wear the tie and when I saw the constable’s ancient, mud-colored Crown Vic in Buchanan’s parking lot, I immediately regretted it.
Should I take it off?
What kind of math was this? I hadn’t had to do this kind of figuring in a long time. I had shed almost all of that when I moved out of the mountains and into the city. But here I was, at my Momma’s funeral, right back to doing redneck math on whether you were going to have to fight a constable or, more likely, one of your brothers, at your Momma’s funeral.
At least two people were high. The slow talking, the heavy eyelids, the head droop. These were my Momma’s chosen family. Fragile. Vulnerable. Already acquainted with death. She seemed to collect them. Was she their matriarch, herding all these broken folks, caring for them and giving them something to eat and a place to sleep, or was she one of them? Was her disability checks what held them to her? Or were they anchored by her heart? I don’t know. It had been a long time since I had known my Momma in a real way.
There was a young woman there different from all the rest. She had the prettiest baby girl and was heavy with her second child. She said my Momma had helped her get, and stay, sober. She said she had been sober for three years and my Momma was a big part of that for her. It felt good to hear that. She was pretty, and healthy, and in stark contrast to my sister and the rest of the bunch that was in mourning on that day.
Jimmy sat in the first pew. Staring ahead.
His face stretched across his skull, big ole teeth protruding. He was the only one in the bunch that still had all his teeth. They were large, yellow, clenched. He was breathing through them teeth and the lines around his mouth were deep cut, little lips stretched tight and brittle across the face of a toothy wall. He was carrying all his grief in that mouth. The loss of my Momma. The fact that his wife was living with another man in the house where he stayed, too. All the sorrow that comes from being on dope in the mountains. It was all there in them teeth.
He was rail thin, frail. His too big clothes hung off his shoulders and collar bone and every other joint. He, like the rest of the bunch, had a yellow undertone to his skin. He was a husk. Like a cicada that had left all the unimportant parts behind, he was just a shell of the old Jimmy, yellow-opaque. He had been wrung out like a dishrag that had once been warm and useful and bubbly and clean and now was stinking and gross-damp. Cold. Now everything he met got dirtier. Not like before when we would talk about keeping up lawnmowers.
I wanted to talk to Sissy, the real Sissy. Not this version who didn’t
listen and laughed in the place of where a period should go in each
of her sentences.
My sister, Sissy, was late to our Momma’s funeral.
She was tall now. Taller than me but she was almost gone. Meth most likely. She was wearing two different socks and had clumpy mascara. She wore a long, stained cotton dress with a long- sleeved stained shirt. Her face was sharp now. These days she talked like she was holding a marble in her mouth. She talked fifty miles a minute. Our yankee grandma’s voice stung in my head, “You’d talk the pictures off the walls and the ears off a mule, Sissy,” she would say. When Sissy wasn’t talking to you, she was talking to herself, even if you were right there with her. She talked through the planning of Momma’s funeral at the funeral home. She talked through Momma’s funeral. She talked. And talked. And talked.
I don’t know if it was a nervous tic cause I was there or if it was her way of getting through this day or if it was just what her habit turned her into. I wanted to talk to Sissy, the real Sissy. Not this version who didn’t listen and laughed in the place of where a period should go in each of her sentences.
Sissy’s youngest boy, Lucky, is eight.
He is whip-smart. Bright. Imaginative. Charming. Has trouble writing his name. Has trouble tying his shoes. He don’t go to school, well, he’s home schooled, whatever the fuck that means. He don’t know what grade he’s in. He ain’t got nobody to show him the simple things he needs to know. My heart is heavy for him and the other young’uns.
He got up to speak, to say something about my Momma. He was wearing matching shoes this time, not like last time I saw him. “I have a story to tell about Grams,” he said. He walked on the thick red, freshly vacuumed carpet, clutching a wad of disintegrating tissue paper, ripping a trail of it on the floor as he went. He got to the front of the funeral home fake-church and stood before the small gathering. I could see a switch turn and something broke in him. He felt the full gravity of all this loss, faced with everyone he knew in one place being sad. His courage shrank. “She was the best Grams ever,” he choked out. He sprinted into Sissy’s arms, sobbing.
Billy was Sissy’s oldest boy. He had the best hair at the funeral home.
Billy’s hair was very long, very red, and very metal. I was there when he was born. He almost didn’t make it. I stood out in the hallway watching through two separate windows in the hospital hallway as they worked on him. It was tense and I could tell by the body language and hand gestures of the doctors and nurses that it wasn’t certain he was going to make it. It all unfolded right in front of me. Most families watched healthy babies through those same windows. Not us. Everything was a fight from your first day and it all just kept coming at you.
Billy made it through that moment and then was hurt by his daddy. His daddy was a baby, too. “Babies having babies!” you hear the church ladies say. But it was true. Billy cried like all babies do but his daddy couldn’t take it. He shook him. He broke his leg, dislocated it from the hip, too. Billy still walks with a limp and hides under that hair. I wish I knew him. Does he brush his teeth like he should? What kind of music does he like? What does he want to do when he gets big? Does he know his Momma is an addict? Does he want out? Will he end up with missing teeth, shitty tattoos, and no hope?
I love that boy and he don’t even really know me.
My brother Dale was ripped up at the funeral home.
He was sobbing. A grown man, just out of prison, sobbing for his Momma. Had to go outside.
I went out to talk to him. What was I going to say? Was it my place to say anything? We didn’t know each other anymore but I was the oldest. I walked up to him and gave him a hug. He side hugged me and minded his smoke. I asked him if he drank. I didn’t even know if my brother drank. He said he did. We went to my truck and I handed him the jar of shine and told him to get him a pull. It was give to me by a friend in West Virginia. He took a swaller. I took a swaller. I asked him to come back inside so we could get started. He did.
A gal I don’t know is hanging around Dale. Following him all over. Like Dale, she’s unhealthy skinny and has her summer-teeth in. Pink hair. Lots of piercings. They say her boyfriend is in jail. That’ll be trouble later and I’m glad I won’t be around for it. Sissy pulls me aside and says that’s the girl Momma pulled a sword on that Christmas. It wasn’t a big knife. It was an actual sword. I was with my wife’s family up north sitting down for Christmas dinner. The house was beautiful, full of stylish decorations and presents and a family that supported each other. Very different from how I grew up and very different from the Christmas Momma and them was having that year. Sissy called me that night and said Momma’s in jail. She told me what happened, and I was equal parts proud and pissed off. They called cause nobody had the money for bail. I called the bail bondsman and got it worked out. Here she was, the gal my Momma threatened to cleave, right here at her funeral. Dale didn’t seem to mind so I guess it was okay.
I met Dale’s boy, Little Dale, for the first time at Momma’s funeral. He was his daddy all over again, toe-headed, ruddy cheeks, big blue eyes. He didn’t live with Dale or his momma. I met the woman that kept him. She seemed sweet and she looked sober. I didn’t know how she come to have Little Dale but I was glad of it. He was clean and his clothes were clean, and they fit him. That was good. At least one of them had a shot. I kneeled down to talk to him at the funeral home. Said, “Hey boy, I’m your uncle, Willy. How old are ya?” He told me he was nine and that he could run fast. I believed him.
I hoped he could outrun all this shit.
I know what this sounds like. It sounds like I made it all up and that I hate my family or I think I’m better than them. That aint’ it. I love my family. And I miss my family and I wish I could still live in the mountains. But I can’t. I can’t do it no more and I stopped feeling guilty about it a long time ago. I’m only telling you what happened on one day. You don’t know what happened before or since but that ain’t your fault. I promise you, it has been a chain-gang of heartbreak and hurt feelings. Momma was in that first generation of sick people that the doctors gave oxy to in that late 90s. She never came back from that and neither did our family. I don’t have any answers for you. I just hope you’re good and that your Momma is healthy and that your nieces and nephews get a shot of doing something good in this world.
William Haywood grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina. He lives with his wife in the
piedmont region of central North Carolina.