October 8, 2015
When I walked in the door, I hadn’t expected the room to be so full. My Dad was a funny guy: boisterous, entertaining. But the depth of most of his relationships ended there. He had a few good friends but otherwise people seemed to come and go in his life. He spent his afternoons in his Lay-Z-Boy watching the local news and any other free time at the bar or on the tennis court. The people milling around the room indicated a part of my father that I didn’t know. He was in the front; and he looked good, which even as I said it in my head sounded weird. How could anyone look good dead? It’s one of those things people say at funerals, though.
I took my seat in one of the front rows.
A preacher I didn’t know got up and starting saying things about my Dad, the general things you say when you don’t really know someone.
“Life is precious,” he said.
Life is short-lived, I thought.
“We need to cherish it,” he said.
It had been a long time since I’d been back here. Years ago, I played soccer across the street on the prairie dog fields and a few miles back I swam laps in the neighborhood pool every day after school. But the fields had been replaced by a large mall and the pool by a condominium complex and nothing was the same, yet I was expected to pretend like it was.
I probably should have made it out here before this. My father had lived here since he was six years old when his own family had moved from Nebraska to the budding Denver suburbs. I was born here. It was once home to me too, but sometimes memories aren’t enough.
“I’ll come next month,” I would say to him over the phone.
“That’s good,” he’d respond.
And I’d look for plane tickets the next day but never buy one and he’d never ask about it again.
Once, I did purchase the ticket. It was a humid summer day after a light rain that made it worse. I took the train out to JFK and waited at the airport. My flight was delayed, repeatedly, so that an eight o’clock in the morning flight still hadn’t taken off by the same time in the evening. I remember spending a lot of money that day with nothing to show for it but burnt coffee, tabloid magazines, a soggy turkey sandwich, a bag of jelly beans, and three bottles of water. The flats I wore dug into my arch, slowly building a blister, which went against the main reason I’d chosen them in the first place.
At just after nine, they cancelled my flight. I picked up one of those phones that dials some call center in another part of the country, probably Texas or Chicago, and told the woman I needed to rebook. I called him when she put me on hold.
“What’s a good weekend?” I looked at the calendar on my phone. Then put it back to my ear. “Two weekends from now?”
“Your flight is cancelled?”
“I’ve got the woman on the phone on my other ear.”
“What woman?” He smacked his gum.
“The United woman.”
“I knew this would happen,” he said.
“I’m on hold. She’s going to come back.”
“I hate flying. They’ve turned it into a nightmare.”
“Can you check?” I asked.
“I went grocery shopping.”
“What am I supposed to do with all this food?”
The woman was speaking to me from the other receiver. Telling me she had an available flight and did I want it.
“Another time,” I said and hung up on them both.
That was the last time we spoke. Most people would probably feel bad about that, like they should have known it would be the last time or if they could re-do it, they would do it differently. But I didn’t really feel that way. That was how it was between me and him. At least we weren’t pretending.
The first man to speak at the funeral was about my age, thirty, and using words that didn’t enter my mind when it came to my father: good-listener, thoughtful, gentle.
“He was like a father to me,” the man said.
And I looked at him, closely, for a sign that I knew him, that I might have heard about him. He had ice blue eyes and a sharp chin. He was thin and tall and the clothes he wore didn’t seem to fit quite right—a little too big in the neck, a tiny bit too short in the arms, a tie a shade darker than it should have been. He spoke with a bit of a lisp, gestured frequently with only his right hand.
“I’ll miss you, Jerry,” he said and you could hear tears in his words.
As the blue-eyed man made his way back down to sit, people were murmuring in the crowd, agreeing with him.
“What is there to say about someone you love so much?” I asked the crowd when it was my turn at the podium.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t lie, that I wouldn’t tell them something about my father or our relationship that wasn’t true. So, I related a few fond childhood memories: our hikes up in Red Rocks and pretend concerts on the empty stage, the voices he made during long car rides to keep me entertained, the baby bird with a broken wing we carefully took to be rehabilitated at a local vet, the weeks he spent teaching me how to punt a soccer ball. I mentioned how much he made me laugh. I asked the audience if he did that for them too? They nodded.
“Laughing is important,” I told them. “It makes living easier. So maybe we can take a moment and thank this man for the ways in which he made our lives easier. Maybe, in the end, that’s all anyone can focus on for another person.”
I sat back down and listened as person after person got up to describe a man that I was coming to realize I had known differently than them.
Afterwards, in the lobby of the church, everyone gathered around a collection of things that used to be my father’s: a tie patterned with different colored dogs; an old tennis racket missing two strings; a signed football; a tarnished trophy from his induction into his college’s hall of fame; a well-used screwdriver; a heirloom mantel clock that donged every fifteen minutes; a large, crystal bowl full of his favorite type of gum.
“I heard you gave a nice speech,” the blue-eyed man said. “I’m sorry I didn’t hear it. I had to step out.”
I nodded. “Yours was nice.”
“He was a great man.”
I held out my hand, introduced myself. He took it and I waited for the recognition.
He pointed to the bowl of gum. “Bazooka was his favorite.”
“I know,” I said.
“How did you know Jerry?”
I said my name again.
He shook his head.
He leaned back, surprised. “He never told me about you.”
I wanted to tell him I’d never heard of him either, but instead, I looked to the bowl of gum. “He used to read the cartoons to me as a kid.”
The man was cradling each elbow in the opposite palm and staring at me.
“But maybe he did that for you too,” I said. It came out more spiteful than I’d wanted it to.
“I’m sorry,” the man said.
I picked up the crystal bowl and took it back into the church where my father was laying, a person or two still sitting in the pews.
He looked like a wax figure of himself, the stillness unsettling.
I rattled the gum in the bowl. Then did it twice more. And turned it upside down, pouring the pieces into the casket, the hard, little squares scattering about my father’s body. I thought about telling him how much I hated him for not being there and how little time we’re given and how he wasted his, wasted mine. I thought about whispering how I really felt into his waxy ear and having the last word. It was unfair for the room full of grievers, for the blue-eyed man, to know a better man than I did. I thought about yelling and screaming and pounding my fists against his chest.
But it was pointless, to be angry with a dead man and words no longer mattered. My hand brushed against the hardening shell of his body as I picked up a piece of gum, unwrapped it and read the comic to him.
Leslie Rapparlie’s short stories have appeared in The Stoneslide Corrective, The Evening Street Review, The Broken Plate, Flash Fiction Funny, Picayune, and South Philly Fiction. She received her MFA from Rutgers University, and also writes extensively about experiential education, teaching, and writing. She is currently a Writing Coach for MBA candidates at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and an instructor at The University of Colorado.
What motivates her to create:
Ideas and images come from the beautiful, complex, confusing, amazing, horrible, and dynamic world around me. I find myself using an interaction that I saw between people on the street or pulling a line of dialogue from when I was out to coffee with a friend or exaggerating a characteristic of someone I love to shape the lives of the characters on the page. I am motivated to write about situations that confuse, inspire, and torture me. I write to have a tether, to put what is inside, outside.