Most of the sheriff’s questions I couldn’t answer, not with any accuracy. We stood at the counter in my sister’s kitchen, the lights dimmed as if to soothe the process. He asked whether my brother-in-law had a history of heart problems. I said I didn’t know. Jerry was afraid of doctors. The only time he went was a year ago, for shots before our trip to the Galapagos. And that took some heavy prodding on Dana’s part.
What about the dentist? the sheriff said. The coroner had found a black, rotted tooth, way in the back, which could have been the cause. I ran my tongue unconsciously along my bottom molars, feeling for the new crown I recently got after biting down on a cherry pit. He was afraid of dentists too, I said. He was missing an eyetooth, a point of contention for my sister. They’d come to an agreement: when Dana reached her goal weight, Jerry would get an implant. She was getting close, and just the week before had teased him that it was time to schedule his appointment.
Dana and my niece were skiing up in Mammoth with my parents. Jerry had stayed home to take care of the dogs. My father and sister are driving down, I said. They’ll know more.
Next came questions about employment. Jerry had lost his job eight months ago, a fact that added to my parents’ complaints. No reason to look for a job, my father grumbled on several occasions. My sister made enough to support the three of them—a sore spot everyone would soon call a blessing, would soon be thankful for as it gave him time with their seven-year-old daughter. Jerry took charge of homework and bath time, then wrestled Mattie into pajamas before my sister got home. He was the only one allowed to brush the tangles from her silky brown hair.
The sheriff looked across the kitchen to the living room, the flat screen TV, and the stereo. In this small ranching town, people either worked hard or didn’t have to. Jerry was neither. Did he own a car?
Another strike against Jerry I felt the need to defend. His pickup went away with his job. He drove my sister’s Volvo to the grocery store and to ferry Mattie to school and back.
I let the sheriff finish his notes before asking about the mess. I knew about the body’s release. I said I wanted to clean up before my sister arrived, but really I wanted him to prepare me.
There’s just a small spot on the carpet, he said, from when we rolled him over.
The coroner then came through with the gurney. The sheriff said they were done. He’d found Jerry’s wallet on the nightstand and wouldn’t need me to identify the body. An involuntary sigh of relief betrayed me.
At 4 a.m., they arrived. The floodlights, on the motion detector, flashed upon their pale faces behind the windshield. My sister spilled out of the passenger’s side and onto the driveway, then crawled to the porch steps. My father stood beside me, his shoulders swallowed by his parka. He handed me the car keys. You’re going to have to take over, he said and went into the house.
The six-hour drive and its long silences, punctuated by my sister’s guttural wails, had fixed my father on a single purpose: live long enough to see Mattie finish high school. When she turns seventeen, he will be eighty-eight.
I’m the only father she has left, he said to me, his youngest child, now his confidant.
I wanted to say he was the only father I had left too, but it was becoming clearer that, at forty-seven, this need would no longer be met.
My father told my brother to drive me to the funeral home, and then the cemetery. In my purse were two blank checks and my sister’s instructions: roses and a tree. I pretended to know what I was doing. But my only knowledge of the death business came from five seasons of Six Feet Under.
My brother, always thrifty-minded, had done some research online. Did you know Costco sold coffins?
If you think we’re going to Costco, I said, you can turn around right now.
Our grief consultant at the funeral home was a woman no more than thirty, dressed in a pale blue suit and pearls, small attempts at maturity. Her diamond wedding ring looked new. I fought the urge to make small talk, to ask if she’d gotten married recently, to divert the fact that she was hired to counsel my grief. I did not ask if she worked on commission though I could have. It was something I could always do—get people to open up, tell me their stories, a skill I’d honed watching my father. People rushed to serve him: the dry cleaner, the plumber, his harem of bank tellers.
She led us to a windowless room and eased us in with photographs of floral arrangements—lily-laden sprays and wreaths. It took some time to convince her that my sister wanted only yellow and orange roses, Jerry’s favorite, dozens of them scattered across his coffin.
Casket, she corrected me.
My brother kept a running total as I flipped through the catalog of caskets. The last few were rough wood boxes with the Star of David carved into the top, the kind I would, someday, consider for my parents. But Jerry was a car guy, always dragging Dana and Mattie to weekend classic car shows. Ignoring my brother’s groans, I chose a pricey gunmetal gray with sleek chrome accents.
Jerry wasn’t religious, so there was no one to officiate the service. The consultant suggested family and friends tell stories about the deceased. Still, someone needs to be in charge, she said, to keep things moving along. She looked at me. You could do that.
Our next consultant—apparently we needed more than one—was dressed in black slacks and low heels, practical attire for hoofing around the cemetery, a map and inventory pressed against her chest. We trailed her, stepping carefully around graves she cut right across. She showed us two plots, side-by-side, near a twiggy sycamore. It’ll grow, my sister would reassure me later, after the funeral. We went inside to complete the paperwork. That was when we hit the snag.
Dana and Jerry weren’t actually married, a lie—for Mattie’s sake—we had all come to believe. Without a power of attorney, the right to make funeral arrangements reverted to Jerry’s adult children from a previous marriage.
Back in the car, I called my father. What are you going to do? he said, his voice small.
I hung up and told my brother to drive while I started making the calls.
During this time my sister had progressed from denial to anger. She blamed the coroner’s findings—two blocked arteries—on the bowls of ice cream Jerry consumed every night. I explained California’s law on decedent’s rights.
I can’t deal with this, she said. Mom and Mattie are going to be here any minute.
She gave me their phone numbers: a son in Glendale about to be deployed to Iraq and a daughter in Mar Vista who, for years, had stopped speaking to Jerry. They already knew about his death, that much I was spared. But I needed their signatures, notarized, transferring power of attorney.
If they give you any trouble, my sister said, tell them they can handle the funeral, including the expenses.
My brother overheard the last part and cheered. I covered the receiver. You’re not helping here.
Directory assistance gave me listings for notaries in both areas. I took a deep breath and called the son first, the one my sister said would be the easiest. After sputtering my story, he agreed to meet us.
But the daughter wanted nothing to do with her father, even when I said that was my goal. To spare her. A consideration my own father was choosing to overlook. You must be very hurt, I said, then moved to more persuasive territory, to ways I could make this easier for her.
In time, her voice softened. My listening skills were that good. She explained that she had two small children and couldn’t leave the house. Her kids came first, she said, something Jerry never understood. She didn’t know about the afternoons Jerry spent helping Mattie with her Kumon, or his mastery of French braiding, complete with ribbon and barrettes, things we would tell Mattie when she no longer remembered.
I made the daughter an offer, one that would require yet another round of calls: What if I got the notary to come to her?
There was a subtle shift, a hint of gratitude: now I was doing her the favor. She would sign, as long as her mother could be present.
At the Glendale Mailboxes Etc., I told the notary we were meeting someone we’d never met before, then suddenly felt embarrassed by how silly I sounded. A young man came in, followed by his pregnant wife. I searched for something familiar, like Mattie’s wide-set eyes and button nose, features that set her apart from our clan. He had Jerry’s build, the same square shoulders outlining his camouflage jacket. My brother asked about his deployment, the one subject I wanted to avoid. I turned to the wife, tiny but for the belly straining her sweatshirt. The baby was due while he was overseas. Another father lost, I thought.
We were about to leave when the son asked about the funeral. Dana didn’t want them to attend, a cruelty I attributed to the anger stage, so I lied, told him we weren’t sure what day yet, but we’d let him know.
My brother insisted we stop at Subway before our cross-town trek. Alone in the car, I felt a momentary crisis in confidence and called my father again. I’m worried the daughter’s going to back out, I said.
Mattie and I are playing store, he said loudly, his way of indicating now was not the time.
The streets of the daughter’s neighborhood were lined with brown grass. Her apartment building was near a busy corner, next to a liquor store and a laundry mat. The living room was empty but for toys and a TV, her kids already in bed. The only furniture was the kitchen table and four chairs. Dirty plates filled the sink, an aberration Jerry never could tolerate. He washed the dishes after every meal, a compulsion my sister took full advantage of.
My brother and I stood as the notary explained the paperwork. The daughter read over the form, then handed it to her mother. There was a question about liability if, for some reason, the expenses didn’t get paid. My brother was about to interject until I shot him a look. After she signed, he went outside to pay the notary. Her mother went to look in on the kids, leaving us alone.
How’s Mattie? the daughter asked.
I was surprised she knew my niece’s name. Okay, I said, a little uncomfortable. Thanks for asking. I can only imagine how hard this is for you, I added.
She folded her arms, hugging herself. You don’t know the whole story.
The truth was I didn’t know any of the story and didn’t want to. Jerry had gotten a second chance, something this woman never would. You did the right thing tonight, I said.
She took hold of my arm. Would you let me know about the funeral?
In that moment I became her counsel, assumed her grief.
I’ll call you tomorrow, I said.
We headed home, on my lap the envelope with the signed forms. My parents were already in bed, laying as they had for fifty-eight years, he to her right, their dominant hands free to reach for the other. My mother was asleep, and my father was reading the newspaper, the sections scattered across the bedspread. He took off his reading glasses, his blue eyes hooded under puffy lids. His forehead, age-spotted, was higher now that his silver waves had receded. He tipped back his empty scotch glass. I offered to get him another, but he waved me off. Tell me what happened, he said, then put a hand on my mother’s hip. But talk softly.
He nodded as I retraced the day, as though he expected the feats I’d accomplished, as though he’d been preparing me for such feats all my life. You know how to talk to people, he said.
Angry, I wanted to tell him this skill he’d taught me—this confidence game—was both a gift and a burden.
Instead, I asked how Mattie was doing.
She doesn’t understand, he said. Dana explained where her daddy went, but you could see it wasn’t registering. So I just tried to be with her.
That’s what she needs the most, I said.
I asked if he’d chosen a story for the service yet. He couldn’t think of anything he could get through without crying, so I suggested the one about the tea party. My mother and Mattie were on the patio under the wisteria, with finger sandwiches and cookies. My father wanted to join them, but Mattie said no, the party was for girls only. Dejected, he went into the house, put on my mother’s nightie and sun hat, and returned to ask again, this time in a high, quivering voice.
I imagined them giggling as my father stood there, barelegged, his thinning gray chest hair framed in lace, waiting until Mattie invited him to please sit down.
We could use a moment of levity, I said.
Levity, he repeated, as though considering its value. I’m not sure your mother will go for that.
On Friday morning we assembled, huddled under a tent and umbrellas, Jerry’s son and daughter standing off to the side. Only a few volunteered to speak. I warmed up the crowd for my father with the story of Mattie’s birth. In the delivery room, Jerry let me stand beside my sister, squeezing her hand as she pushed, as close to the experience he knew I’d never have. When the doctor pulled Mattie out, I shouted, It’s a girl! so loudly they could hear me in the waiting room.
My father’s story got a lot of laughs, especially at the end: Jerry had interrupted the tea party to take Mattie to her piano lesson. My father, to hide his embarrassment, calmly adjusted the satin strap that had slipped from his shoulder. Jerry said he’d always suspected my father was a cross dresser; he finally had the proof, if only he’d had a camera.
At the end, my sister stood, her back to us, and placed roses on the casket as she recited Psalm 23 to the wind and the rain.
In two months I would take my parents cemetery shopping, amaze them with my vast experience. They would decide upon two plots on a grassy hill overlooking the mountains and a duck pond, he to her right, with the option—at no extra charge—to have my ashes, one day, buried with the parent of my choice.
Lori White earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her story, “Gambling One Ridge Away” won first place in the 2013 Press 53 Open Award for Flash Fiction. Recent work has appeared in The Journal Online, Superstition Review and Kenyon Review Online. She teaches English at Los Angeles Pierce College.