by Michael Cocchiarale
The driveway light is blown. With one hand, Laine balances a foiled casserole; with the other, she digs a key around the trunk for the hole. Through the trees behind the neighbor’s fence, sports talk blares: “They control their own destiny. They could go all the way.”
After the viewing, the remaining mourners descend into the basement of the funeral home for food. “Young lady,” says Uncle Mark, glancing up from his plate. “You certainly know what you’re doing.” Aunt Judy exclaims, “The thighs have so much flavor!”
Laine smiles, although beside herself with anger that the edges of some noodles crunch in her teeth like bones.
Jillian bounces on her knee. Laine runs her fork through a long line of cheese and draws it up up up. The baby giggles, hands above head as if she wants to climb. How much higher? she wonders. How much higher before the taut white string snaps?
Sam bends like a broken finger over a lukewarm leg of supermarket chicken. Cold, salty, tough—no better for him than dear old Dad. In the kitchen, a group of aunts takes turns with their can’t believes. Uncle Mark mopes by, lamenting a misplaced beer.
When Sam was seven, Dad shoved his head into a sink of suds. Sam saw forks, knives, flecks of casserole that drifted toward his sealed up mouth. Back in air again, he sputtered and spit. Through blocked ears came Laine’s screams, Mom’s watery pleas. “That will teach you!” Dad said. For the life of him, Sam can’t remember his wrong.
Uncle Mark kneels before the recliner, where Dad sits still, hands clutching arms. Words are exchanged. Sam half believes he hears a sob.
He returns to the red threads of meat. He gnaws and sucks. He tries like hell to get down to the clean white bulb of bone.
The body’s sunk inside a flower print dress Linda’s seen a hundred times before. The head wears glasses—new ones, a rare old age splurge. Thin fingers rest upon a rosary. The beads remind her of black ants over a left-behind lunch.
As she kneels, Linda is thinking of twirled pasta and bottles of red wine, two single ladies living the life in the Italian countryside. “You coward,” she wants to say. “You could have left him. God would have been the first to pat you on the back!”
She touches a hand—cool, smooth, inert. What the hell’s the use? The struggle’s over, and the spirit is wherever. Even a blood-curdling cry won’t stand a chance against those dumb, goddamn ears.
There’s sports—the home team’s in the finals. There’s weather—rain tomorrow, sun the day after. There’s a show about bad restaurants, another about trucks on icy mountain roads. His favorite program, though, is the one where someone says “Here is my fabulous invention!” and a panel of professionals—three people who have it all—nod and ask questions and put up money if they think the thing has half a chance.
He goes back and forth among them. He shakes salt into a can of chicken soup.
The phone rings—Mark, like clockwork, which is more than he can say for his kids. After the beep comes the old, familiar voice: “Brother, hell of a day over here. I’m burned out. Going to just assume you’re still among the living.”
At some point, as always, the news comes on. The pretty blonde delivers the day’s one-two punch of doom and gloom with diamond-bright smile.
Upstairs, in the middle of the night, he roots again for the ring. It’s somewhere safe, she’d told him. Had she ever said where?
The drawers out, the closet wrecked, he goes to sit in the black bathroom, head in hands. The gun is downstairs, sleeping like a baby in the cushions of the couch.
He wipes his eyes. He flushes the toilet for noise.
Michael Cocchiarale is the author of Still Time (Fomite Press, 2012), a collection of short and shorter stories, and Here Is Ware, a novella published in instalments by Novella-T in the summer of 2014. Some of his other stories have appeared in REAL, Crack the Spine, Scissors and Spackle, and Pithead Chapel.