By Sean McNie
“A living dog is better than a dead lion,” the voice rang, bouncing off the pavement, off my skin, before becoming invisible. I showed up somewhere towards the beginning, and most likely I hadn’t missed much. Maybe the welcome.
I made my way along Fabergé Road, a walk lined with desert shrubs. At the end of the sidewalk was a single, incomplete room—an enclosure missing a wall, which, looking back, isn’t technically an enclosure at all. Simply put, a hollow. It was large enough to fit forty, maybe fifty mourners. Today, at a point far from home, there were seven, including myself, the minister, and the funeral coordinator. For the sake of this story, my grandfather does not count as one.
I passed between two privates standing at attention, frozen: full uniform, full salute. I nodded to them, but they didn’t even bat an eye.
Inside, the sloped roof had a skylight at its peak that cast a lone beam on the minister—the voice—standing center, and the body in the casket, draped with the American flag. Each of the three walls had what looked like tall, paned doors. With no knobs or handles to speak of, I questioned whether they opened and closed on hinges, or gave the illusion of being doors. A film had built up on the outside of the glass—a translucent haze of sandy dirt and smoke from last summer’s fires, which didn’t brighten the space so much as lessen the dimness. Some days before, raindrops had licked specks into the haze. Faint shards of light were cast on the audience in the shadows, sitting on aluminum benches angled towards the center. At the point of the sunlight, the minister and the body.
“Only his body is with us,” the minister continued as I slid into a row near the back. “His soul has risen.” The whistle of the valley wind collecting itself in the hollow provided background for the words. Words lost in the howl of the valley that surrounded us: my family, and an old woman I did not know. A white-haired woman who looked like she was about my grandfather’s age, seated on the outskirts, like myself.
She looked like she couldn’t be bothered with the whole thing, the death of my grandfather. I couldn’t blame her. Glasses perched at the edge of her nose, she focused on knitting with silver needles a yellow mitten. She was finishing up the thumb of what would be the left or right hand. Every so often she’d lift her head and take inventory, then return to her work. Maybe she didn’t even know my grandfather at all, but who was I to judge—I only knew the simple facts of his life (setting, plot points), which is not enough to say you truly know a man.
The minister asked us to turn our attention outside, as military honors were set to begin. We all shifted in our seats, facing away from the center—from the minister and the body—outside the hollow, into the refulgent valley.
One of the privates, who’d been standing at attention moments before, marched along the sidewalk and stood at the mouth of the center aisle, bathed in the uncanny sunlight of a true Californian winter. The man was tall and coffee-toned, his hat pulled low over his eyes, almost like his eyes didn’t exist, like he’d never been given a set at all.
“I understand this is a military family,” the minister’s voice lingered in the wind. “For any person in attendance who has served, past or present, you are asked to join the salute.”
I wasn’t sure if his words applied to me. Under normal circumstances, the drinking problem develops alongside honor, after you return from warfare (in one piece or in pieces), long after your first kill or at least witnessing such things, and not before you even finish basic training. I was simply a civilian with a buzz cut, soft hands, and a few stories to tell. I decided it was in my best interest to leave myself out.
As the trumpet sounded, I couldn’t help but keep my eyes on his fingers, falsely playing; never once did they move. I’m not sure why that surprises me (at most ceremonies, an electric trumpet or bugle with a pre-recorded song is used). Once the recording finished, the private placed the trumpet in a plastic case, and he and the second private—a small, stern-looking Asian woman—marched up the aisle towards the center of the hollow and the body.
They stood at the head and foot of the casket, tugging the edges of the flag. Behind them, large pendants displaying each division of the military hung along the foggy panes. The second private untucked her ends from beneath the casket and spread the corners out wide, looking sharply at the first private. He fumbled with his corners, and when he finally got them loose, he met her gaze, signaling. Their eyes remained locked, and it seemed like they were playing tug-of-war with the flag until they spread it out flat between them. They sidestepped away from the casket, towards us, paused, and commenced the folding: the woman stood in place while the man folded the flag over and over—onto or into itself, depending on how you look at it.
The fold was sloppy and uneven, but by the time the first private reached the end, he and the second private tucked it together, producing a neat, plump triangle of red, white, and blue, with traces of stars along one edge.
The second private approached my mother with the flag, sitting in the first row with her back towards me. The private knelt and placed the flag in her hands. She then put her hands over my mother’s, who clutched the neat triangle to her body like a baby, or, an incarnation of my grandfather; the end realized. The private’s eyes became soft, and she said something to my mother that I could not hear. Wind screamed in the hollow. Tiny tornados of dry grass whirled in the bare corners.
The minister asked if anyone would like to speak, please come forward.
My mother stood and approached the casket like she was sleepwalking or wading through a body of water. My grandfather’s flag in hand, she turned to face the audience of my family and the old woman I did not know. Wisps of her long, sandy hair fluttered around her head.
“I just wanted to tell you what Dad said before he passed. How he felt about you all.”
She began to relay parting messages from my grandfather, like a game of telephone from beyond the grave. I couldn’t help but think each statement was exaggerated at best, fabricated at worst—how he loved all of us, how he wished he had more time.
“And Christian, the writer,” she said as she searched for me among the empty benches. Our eyes met for the first time in almost ten years. “He talked about how creative you were, and how the whole family has the fire in us.”
As the speech went on, I became angrier about such claims, about the things he may or may not have ever said about all of us. Of which we’ll never know for sure, so we could take or leave all the same—like the man himself. She was the only one by his side when his heart stopped.
My mother closed her speech, and the minister asked anyone else wishing to approach the casket to do so now, to give their final goodbyes.
My brother, with his toddling daughter in tow, made his way towards the center. My niece was wearing a green knit cap with two bulging eyes on the top—a frog or a monster. She placed her hand on the casket and looked up at my brother and smiled a gorgeous half-moon smile. A smile I’d never seen before, which genetics had granted her.
I stepped out of the hollow, into the wind.
I lit a cigarette and the smoke thrashed and disappeared into the horizon once I exhaled; it did not cling to the air.
My mother, brother, and his daughter trickled out. The white-haired woman I did not know followed behind, clasping a finished mitten.
At the edge of the hollow, I watched the old woman bend down and give my brother’s daughter, the niece I did not know, what was left of the ball of yarn. She tucked the mitten in her own pocket, and my niece put the yarn against her cheek, and uttered a single word. From where I was standing, it looked like “soft.”
I crushed the filter against the pavement with my boot.
“How’ve you been, man?” my brother said, hand outstretched.
“Good, real good. Can’t complain,” I replied, catching his hand, knowing full well I could never give him more than that even if I’d wanted to. All we’d know about one another we’d learned already, a long time ago. Scars that have long since healed are scars nonetheless.
His daughter, with her ball of yellow yarn, shuffled off the sidewalk and into the patch of desert shrubs that created a barrier between us and the shallow inlets of the delta surrounding the hollow. As she headed for the water, I took note of the thin, perfectly-spaced white headstones beyond.
“Sorry, let me grab her,” my brother said, walking her down with a stride that doubled her joyous stumbling.
Standing there at the edge of the sidewalk, I watched the gears of life turn. My brother, chasing our blood, the old woman now digging through her purse, and my mother, in an American flag scarf loosely knotted around her neck, hand-in-hand with the funeral coordinator who looked like a teenager, swimming in a grey suit jacket with shoulder pads thick enough for a lineman.
I moved toward her tentatively; she kept her eyes on me, but did not acknowledge me as she spoke with the baby-faced coordinator. Over the wind, I heard “thanks.”
I stood there, hands in my pockets, with an uncanny sense of burden. My heart paused between beats. I recognized the feeling of standing on a Seattle pier in the pouring rain with the tide swelling. Tethered ships coming closer and closer, then dropping away. Water spilling over the smooth dock, collecting in dark pools reflective of the clouds, then rising to my ankles and above, not able to utter a single word, not even “help.” Not a word for myself, not for anyone.
Again, I made my way to the exit, saying nothing.
Inside my rusty coupe, I held the interlock to my lips and exhaled. A green light on the display flashed next to the word “Pass,” which meant my blood tested below the legal limit. I turned the key and the engine sputtered to life. I strapped myself in for the long drive home. Past the flagpole that marked the location (in a place like this, the American flag is continually at half-mast), back through the delta, on California country backroads, over narrow bridges and through foothills peppered with turbines in the distance, slowly turning with the valley wind. Along lush grass, thick from recent rains, past wildflowers in bloom highlighting the hillside. As the sky turned, oncoming headlights flicked on in the dusk, the cars becoming apparitions gliding along the road.
Sean McNie writes out of Northern California. He graduated from CSU East Bay’s English & Creative Writing program in 2009, and has since worked as a freelance journalist and aluminum siding salesman.
This is Sean's first publication.