A Little Something Sweet

Marvin Shackelford

At the funeral it’s just misty and breezy enough that the tent put up for family doesn’t do any good. I pull the truck right near the gravesite and Dad watches from the passenger seat. I stand out in the rain with my cousins and the preacher and the little old ladies from church who seem more torn up than any the rest of us. They pray right up to the last moment, and I can tell it’s taken something out of them. The preacher keeps it quick, keeps wiping his face clear of water, and finally after a prayer the funeral director asks if we’d like to add the first handful of dirt ourselves. I look back at Dad. He’s heard us even with the window up, and he raises a hand to wave us on. I tell the man we’re okay without it. He thanks everyone for coming, says what a blessing he knows it is for us, and they lower her down after we leave.

They trundle us up the street into the basement of the church. The ladies lay out lunch on the long kitchen table. Fried chicken, green beans, potatoes, sliced tomatoes. Deviled eggs. Missing is the broccoli casserole Mom would always bring to these things—the broccoli and soup, cheese, crackers toasted crisp across the top. That and a white-frosted cake, half coconut across one side and the other plain for Dad. He sits in the preschool room with his sister and some cousins, in a regular folding chair at the low table. I bring him a plate but he won’t eat. They’re not talking about Mom or the day or the rest of the week still ahead but their favorite uncle, Almus. Once cornered by a friend of the family at a funeral years ago and questioned about goats and their habits. Mating, kidding, nursing, weaning. At the back of the sanctuary someone whispering, and Uncle Almus: What? What? And then the question repeating, echoing: Are you sure a goat’s only got two tits? We all laugh in the kiddy classroom. The story always bears retelling at a time like this.

I get us home and a year’s worth of frozen casseroles Tetrised into the refrigerator. We sit in front of the TV for hours, cable news and snatches of movies we’ve already seen. I leave sometime after the room turns dark, and he sticks with it. I shower and sit in my old bedroom. It’s rendered unrecognizable by redecoration and a string of decades. I call my ex-wife, and she tells me my house is fine and the cat just great. I tell her we’re just fine, and everything will be okay. I try to find a way in to talk about it, tell her how quiet the house sits and gray the day tastes, but she knows talking isn’t my strength anyway. I sit on the bed and smooth a hand over Mom’s quilt, the sheets. She built all this. She won’t ever just leave.

I come out later to find Dad pulling on his coat and picking up his keys. He looks at me and doesn’t so much as blink. I need a little something sweet, he says. I drive him through the cold and rain, past the Sonic and Dairy Queen and a couple bright-lit convenience stores to a grocery open all night. We walk along the tall, glowing aisles. He tries the baking goods and then the cereal aisle. Pastries, pancake mixes, syrups. He lifts a small plastic bottle of the store-brand light corn syrup off the shelf. Says it’s all he needs.

At home again he bypasses the carefully placed dishes in the fridge and brings the butter out to the counter. From the breadbox he produces an old plastic margarine tub. He drops off the top and puts it in the microwave. I watch the light through the door a moment and then figure out what it is. Leftovers of the last batch of biscuits she made. We mash butter and the white syrup together with our forks, get it as mixed as we can. He sets the biscuits out between us. They’re small, short, have a little grit to them. The corn syrup’s sweet, nothing to say for it but it’s sweet. I remember us eating it when I was little but can’t attach anything to it. I’m not sure exactly what we’re doing, something old and incomplete, but I don’t say anything. We chew slowly, savoring. Dad doesn’t speak. We eat.

#

Marvin Shackelford is author of the collections Endless Building (poems) and Tall Tales from the Ladies’ Auxiliary (stories, forthcoming). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Wigleaf, Juked, Split Lip, and elsewhere. He resides in Southern Middle Tennessee, earning a living in agriculture.