(This short story was originally published in Forum magazine, Spring 2011)
Cedric had agreed to drive a couple of people from the funeral to the party. It’s hard to say no to a favor, especially when the girl asking is just about to attend her father’s funeral. When Heather called Cedric he was surprised and curious as to why she would call him after six months of estrangement. Their only recent contact had been some hateful (on her part) and childish (on his) emails, including one in which she had carbon copied her sister as a witness to his overt flirtations at some party, at some gallery that he honestly didn’t even remember. She spoke quietly over the phone, and told him that her father had passed away; he wondered why she had called him to tell him that. Then she asked him to attend the funeral and he realized that she must still be single. Then she asked him to drive a couple of people from the funeral to the wake at her house afterwards, and he wanted to say “No,” but instead said, “Would they be people I know? Like your sister or your mother?” and she said, “No, that would be awkward, they won’t be people you know, just help out, please.” She started to whimper over the phone like a mouse, and then she started crying, like a girl whose father has just passed away, and he said, “Okay, I’ll clean out my car.”
The funeral was predictable and tiresome. It took place in an old, stone church with large stained glass windows depicting Christ’s final days. Cedric thought it looked drab.
Cedric left the ceremony alone. He thought that trying to flirt with Heather outside of the church would be difficult, so instead he walked down through the uneven graveyard to his car. Many of the headstones stood erect and proud, while others were damp and speckled with lichen, and slumping into the grass as if ready to join their owners in the soil. He saw a gravestone that read Think of me as one you never figured, and this briefly made him think of his dad, until he started thinking of sleeping with Heather again.
He waited in the car at the bottom of the graveyard for the passengers. His dark-blue Ford Escort had a key scratch down the entire right side. He had often thought about buying a new car, but hadn’t gotten around to it. It was cold in the car. It was cold outside too, but it felt colder in the car. He watched Heather as she stood with her mother by the church, thanking the funeral-goers as they left the service. She looked good; she always looked good in black. The sky was cold green and her hair was deep red. The wet wind flicked her curls across her forehead as she smiled an irresistible smile. He thought her body looked better than when they had split up. He thought that she would probably be more inclined to sleep with him tonight, after all the emotion of her father’s funeral. Plus, she had invited him here; she must want him for more than just a taxi service.
The people leaving the church thanked her, looked sympathetic, gently smiled, and said something like, “Lovely service” or “He would have been proud,” while really they were just glad to get out. No one likes a funeral, and this funeral had been particularly hard due to the unfortunate way in which Heather’s father had departed.
Cedric could see Heather had moist eyes. During the ceremony she had said something like, “My father was the only man I have ever been able to rely on, he was the only man who ever believed in me.” This started everyone crying. Heather’s mother wailed like a weeping willow being fed to a blunt saw. Cedric didn’t cry during the funeral, except when he saw her cry, which made him sniffle a little. This annoyed him. He regretted wearing a bow-tie.
He wondered why Heather could never rely on him. He was an attractive guy, and witty too. It couldn’t be because he cheated on her, because she didn’t know about that until the end.
She was now talking to a military man outside the church. He had silver sunglasses, gleaming black shoes, and a heavily decorated uniform. The faint sun shone off her red hair into his eyes, framing her beauty in the winter light. Cedric watched them and thought it was typical of Heather to shack up with a military man. Then he realized that they didn’t even know each other. Then he thought they would make a good looking couple. She looked like she was directing him down to Cedric’s car. She pointed at the car and Cedric forced a lame wave out the window. Shit, he thought. He played Kind of Blue by Miles Davis through the car stereo as the man approached, and immediately regretted this. The inappropriately sultry sound of So What swelled loudly throughout the graveyard. It was too late to change it now, the military man was already walking towards Cedric’s car with tremendous posture. The man opened the back door and climbed in, behind the empty front passenger seat. Cedric looked at the man via the interior mirror and tried to express a look of Who the fuck do you think I am, your chauffeur? Unfortunately, his well crafted look only reflected right back to him from the military man’s sunglasses. He really did look like an idiot in the bow-tie; he had chosen it purely for the end-of-the-evening-undone-bow-tie-hanging-around-the-neck-with-a-glass-of-scotch look.
“Comfortable back there, mister?” Cedric said sarcastically, looking over his shoulder. “Let me know if you need anything.”
“Would you prefer if I sat next to you?” the man replied, sincerely and directly.
“No,” Cedric said. “I don’t mind where you sit. Did you enjoy the funeral?” He didn’t like how his question sounded. “I mean, did you think the funeral was, um, nice?”
“I enjoyed it very much, Sir.” The man spoke like he was delivering an important line from a bad play. He was looking for something in his military jacket. He pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil and started to write something. The pencil had been chewed to within an inch of its life; Cedric looked at it in the mirror and briefly remembered middle school.
“That girl by the church, what did she tell you?” Cedric asked.
“She told me to get in this car to get to the wake. You are driving to the wake, Sir?” the man replied.
“Yes, um, did she tell you I was just a driver, or a friend?”
“She just told me to get in the car, Sir.”
“I’m a friend,” Cedric quietly concluded. “Did you know Walter?” he added, changing the subject.
“Yes, I met him in a war; I met him in a battle in Mesopotamia years ago.”
“Oh,” Cedric said. “You mean Iraq, right?”
“I try to attend all funerals of people I have met,” the man said, ignoring Cedric’s question, “especially those I have fought with.”
“You think, in some weird way, it postpones your funeral?’ Cedric asked.
“That man probably saved my life out there, Sir.” The man’s voice grew in volume; he paused to collect his thoughts and continued. “There have been several moments in my life when I have, for good reason, expected to die imminently, but I’m still here. I have always been close to death, funerals comfort me.”
“I’m glad you sat in the back,” Cedric joked.
“There is a man trying to get into your car, he wants to sit next to you,” the military man pointed out.
Sure enough, a soft, hairy, pink fist was gently tapping on the window. A bearded gentleman’s sinewy face peered through the glass, through some heavy black-rimmed glasses. Cedric stretched over to unlock the front passenger door.
The large man was wearing too much denim for any occasion, especially a funeral, and he smelt of brandy. He sat down next to Cedric, leant across and fake-whispered out of the corner of his mouth into Cedric’s ear, like an uncle telling a dirty joke to his nephew.
“All right pal, it feels like a funeral around here, heh heh, let’s get to the wet wake before I die of thirst, heh heh heh,” he laughed over the sound of no one else laughing (and Miles Davis). He slumped into his seat and pulled a soft pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes out of his denim shirt’s front pocket and lit one before asking, while opening the window, “All right to smoke in here, Chief?”
“Sure,” Cedric said.
“Dean,” he answered, as if Cedric had asked for his name. “I went to college with Walter, a long time ago. That was a crazy fucker, may he rest in peace.” Cedric shook Dean’s big, pink, soft, hairy hand. Dean twisted his large neck around awkwardly to the military man seated behind him.
“Hello hello, pal,” he said, as he looked the man up and down. “A War Man, I presume?” He pulled his black-rimmed glasses down to the end of his nose and tilted his head forward, as if to get a better look at the military man’s much-decorated uniform. “Smoke? You look like you’ve seen a thing or two; in my experience all war men like the taste of tobacco, eh?”
The military man in the back seat declined the cigarette without words, and opened his window.
Cedric had hoped that his passengers would be attractive women in need of comforting, maybe charming and impressionable cousins of Heather’s. This was clearly not going to be the case; nonetheless he was slightly relieved that he had some passengers and would soon be able to get to the wake and start chatting with Heather. He had decided he would definitely try to sleep with Heather tonight, although he had no idea what he was going to say to her as she would probably only want to talk about her Dad.
Dean watched the mourners leave the church. “What a way to go, eh?” Dean rhetorically asked the car.
Heather’s unfortunate father, Walter, had been stabbed through the eye by the antler of a deer’s head he had recently mounted above his bed. He hadn’t mounted it very well. He had shot the deer himself last winter with some friends. It was the first time he had ever been hunting. When he shot the deer, the large animal’s eyes momentarily opened wide and bright, before its legs gave way and its heavy body slumped into the long grass. For a few seconds Walter felt like he was going to cry. His psychiatrist suggested that he mount the deer’s head on his wall and never go hunting again. He had told his friends that he would mount it above his bed; he told them his psychiatrist told him to. They told him that sounded like a stupid idea. His wife hated the animal head in their bedroom, but let him do it in return for a thirty-eight inch plasma television mounted on the opposite wall, which he agreed to. The thirty-eight inch plasma TV was easier to mount than the stuffed animal head. The plasma TV is still attached to the wall. They were having sex for the first time in five months, with the Discovery Channel on in the background, on the new television, when it happened. Walter had his eyes closed and was thinking of his petite mistress, Liza, so he didn’t see it coming. When Walter’s wife realized what had happened, and saw the dead beast’s head puncturing her husband’s brain on the pillow, she punched the deer in the eye and vomited.
Over the phone Heather had told Cedric not to leave the church before he had a full car, as they were expecting a lot of people at the funeral. He needed a third passenger. A small spidery woman shuffled out of the graveyard. She had clearly been crying so Cedric presumed she was part of the funeral festivities. “She’s our ticket out of here!” Dean said, over-enthusiastically. “Go and grab her, she looks like she needs a drink.” Cedric obliged and jumped out of the car, leaving the War Man and Denim Dean alone to listen to Miles Davis. He approached the woman. She was younger than her posture suggested, somewhere in her late thirties. She looked up to Cedric and dried her eyes.
“Hello ma’am, I’m helping out, getting people down to the wake; can I give you a ride?” Cedric asked kindly.
“Do you know me?” she asked quietly.
“No, I don’t think so,” Cedric replied, honestly. He felt sorry for the lady but wasn’t sure why; she looked utterly defeated. He had a strange urge to cry, and quickly pretended to cough. He had noticed that he had been fake-coughing a lot recently, particularly in awkward situations.
“Okay, thank you,” she said, and walked with Cedric back to the car.
She quietly climbed into the back seat next to the military man and introduced herself to the car as Liza, with an awkward smile and few words.
Cedric started the engine and tried to remember how to get to Heather’s house.
“You know,” Dean said, as the old Escort pulled away, “John Paul Getty, the oil man, didn’t attend his own son’s funeral; he was too busy drilling for oil.” No one responded, and Dean ignored the fact that he was being ignored, and continued, “It just doesn’t make sense, eh? What is the purpose of anything in life, if you can’t attend your dead son’s funeral, eh?”
Cedric thought that Dean was a man who couldn’t handle silence, a man who could always be relied upon to fill a room (or car) with the sound of relentless observations, anecdotes and declarations. He was the kind of man that made you wonder how his eyes looked when he was on his own, in his home emptying the dishwasher, when he wasn’t being watched.
Cedric drove south by the river where Heather and he once came to watch the regatta. She had worn a violet print dress and a felt cloche hat that he thought was a little kitschy, but then when he saw how the men were looking at her, he had spent the rest of the day showing her off to his friends. He looked over the river to the boat house and tried to remember how she looked that day, but couldn’t picture her face.
“Today’s funeral was kind of funny,” Dean went on. “The first time that man’s in a church for forty years and he shows up in a coffin. I don’t blame him though, churches are creepy. It’s crazy to think that this hocus pocus still rules so many people’s lives. It’s just voodoo with a different name, eh?” Dean said, as though he was the first person in the country to suggest that God may not exist and organized religion may be problematic.
The military man removed his glasses to reveal eyes like licorice, shining and bitter.
“God is no joke young man,” he said to Dean.
Dean laughed, “I suppose you have met God on the battlefield, eh, War Man?”
“Maybe I have, Sir, I’ve certainly met Satan, and one can’t exist without the other. They are acquaintances,” he said in utter seriousness, and returned to his scribbling. Cedric raised his eyebrows to no one but himself and glanced in the mirror. Liza tightened her eyes as if constraining a bolt of anger. Cedric saw her digging her red fingernails hard into the flesh on her other hand.
Dean chortled into his cigarette, “Sure, Satan and God are friends, just like me and you, War Man.”
“Walter didn’t believe in your God or your Devil,” Liza burst into the conversation jarringly. “He had no reason to go to church, he knew where God was.”
“It was my God or their God,” the military man said. He slid his sunglasses on and looked out of the window at the flat clouds over the wide, slate colored river. The wind rushed the clouds across the sky.
“Walter didn’t believe in your Gods!” she wailed.
Dean laughed, “Calm down lady!” His laugh was so inconsiderate it made even Cedric cringe.
She regained composure and removed her black shawl. Her hair was in a pristinely organized bun, and she had a slack jaw line, with sharp white teeth which rested on her bottom lip awkwardly.
“He believed that God was in the forces,” she jabbered, as if reciting text from some treasured scroll. “God is gravity, God spins the world and attracts the moon. God doesn’t care about people, why should he, and he certainly doesn’t care for you.” She leant forward to poke Dean on the shoulder with her bright red fingernail, before drawing her shawl back over her hair and sinking back into her seat.
“Hey Chief, we nearly there yet?” Dean asked Cedric, as he scratched around his denim shirt for his pack of cigarettes. “I really need that drink.” Cedric ignored him. He tried to remember why Heather left him in the first place. He remembered. It was because he cheated on her. He tried to remember why he cheated on her. He had no idea.
The military man looked up from his pencil and notepad and pulled off his glasses once more, as if he couldn’t talk unless they were removed. “If God is in the forces…” he began.
“God is not in the forces, Sir,” Liza interrupted, rising in her seat once more and removing her shawl. “God is the forces.”
“Sorry, Ma’am, I don’t follow, if God is the forces, then where or what is Satan? I’ve met Satan Ma’am…”
“Yes, we all heard the first time, War Man,” Dean interrupted. “You met Satan in Babylon, or wherever you were saving babies, and you beat him into the sand.”
“The Devil is in electricity and magnetic fields,” Liza explained, irritably. “The Devil controls the poles and makes the world spin slowly out of time, that’s what Walter believed.” She paused. “We were talking about it over dinner only last week.”
Cedric had driven around the same roundabout three times and began to sweat. The swinging of the car caused Liza to slide across the shiny plastic seat. Cedric couldn’t remember where Heather’s house was, he hoped he hadn’t forgotten. It was a beautiful house, he knew it was close. He picked an exit from the roundabout and went for it in blind hope. The car felt like it had careened onto two wheels, and the military man held his breath and tightened his eyes. Cedric straightened the wheel briskly as the front suspension slammed into the axle, releasing a thud into the wet air. Liza inhaled a sharp gulp of air before straightening her shawl.
“I suppose the devil pulled that deer’s head off the wall too, eh?” Dean cackled. Cedric hit another bend too fast.
The road they had somehow ended up on was lined with dark fir trees stretching to the sky, and pine cones littered the asphalt. He’d lost the river. The wind picked up into a gale, and wet leaves landed on the windscreen. The sweeping rain came into Dean’s open window; a big raindrop extinguished his cigarette.
“How do you know so much about the old chap anyway, Lady?” Dean asked, as he held onto the door handle tightly, his pink, fleshy knuckles whitening fast as they tried to fight against the increasing G-force in the wayward car. Cedric looked in the mirror to see the lady’s response. The moist air had plucked some perfectly placed hairs from her bun and frazzled them with static, and she had grown a sweaty brow.
“Well, you people obviously know nothing of the man, so you may as well know that I am, was, his true love.”
“Whoa, the mistress! We have the mistress in the car, Chief!” Dean celebrated the gossip with less tact than a bulldozer.
“Never speak to a lady like that, Sir,” the military man said.
“You realize that he was in bed with his wife the night he died?” Dean asked.
“He hated that woman!” she said, losing her composure once more, reddening in the cheek. “He told me she was sleeping with the whole street, and his daughter is just as bad, she only ends up with reprobates and probably cheats on them all, too.”
Cedric jabbed his toe into the gas pedal, sending the car hurtling into another bend by a high hedgerow. These people are all idiots, Cedric thought to himself.
The momentum of the circling car pushed Liza further into the military man until they were both involuntarily occupying the same seat. Cedric glanced into the mirror and saw that her face was contorted in distress, more frazzled hair had escaped the bun, and try as she might, she couldn’t scramble back into her designated seat. Cedric increased the centrifugal motion of the vehicle as they hit another roundabout.
What crime did I commit in a past life to deserve to drive this scratched bucket of retched miscreants around, and around, on my day off? Cedric thought to himself. He turned up the volume, as John Coltrane’s saxophone screeched into another spiraling solo. The saxophone sounded like a dying animal. Why did Heather put me in the car with these people, like just another embarrassment, like the mistress and the buffoon?
“Lookity, boys!” Dean pointed to three black Rolls Royces slowly driving through the rain ahead; they pulled into a small road which Cedric recognized. Cedric slowed the car and followed. The gale relented. Nobody spoke. The military man removed his glasses and looked to the sunlight coming through the clouds as Cedric drove up the small country road that led to her house. The music slowed and dipped and Cedric thought it seemed more appropriate now. He parked on the gravel. Heather’s dog ran up to Cedric’s car and jumped up at his window, panting excitedly. A driver climbed out of the last Rolls Royce and opened the passenger door slowly. There she was. He watched as she walked slowly and alone across the driveway. She glanced over towards Cedric’s car but didn’t see him. She walked towards her house with her head bowed. She looked up to the black iron weathervane swinging with the wind on the roof of her house and took a deep breath, as if preparing for battle, before entering the front door. Liza sniffled in the back seat, and pulled a tissue from her handbag. The military man pushed his piece of paper into his pocket and chewed on his pencil nervously. Dean started to talk, slowly this time, to no one but himself, “I lived with Walter for three years, a long time ago, he was a good man…”
Cedric got out of the car and opened the door for Liza in the back, like a good chauffeur. His passengers walked into the house through the spitting rain. There were a lot of people at the wake. Cedric wondered who they all were, and where they all came from, and why they were there. He stood outside in the rain and looked through the house’s large window into the dining room. The military man walked to the front of the room, pulled the scraps of paper from his breast pocket and started to read. Cedric couldn’t quite work out what he was saying, but he looked sad. Heather took her mother’s arm and led her to the front table. Liza stood alone at the back, lightly touched her eyes with a tissue. Dean approached her and looked like he was offering her a drink. Heather stood behind her mother and stroked her hair tenderly, while listening to the military man speak. She then walked across the room towards the window, outside of which Cedric stood in the cold, and she smiled softly. Cedric couldn’t decide if she was smiling at him or at something the military man had said, maybe a memory of her father. She walked to the glass and looked up at the wet sky outside before drawing the curtains. He walked back to his car and started the engine.