In an hour, Owen’s mother will go into a coffin in the ground. He saw her when she had just died, lying in bed. Even though her eyes were closed, he could tell she wasn’t asleep. Owen’s father, Gabriel, had refused to call anybody until hours had passed, as if she would smell waffles from the kitchen and get up for breakfast like nothing had happened.
The mortician did her hair in a braid like Gabriel asked and not in a bun like Owen wanted. If she could see herself now, she’d make a fuss of pinning it up. “I’m not a twenty-something anymore,” she’d say, as if her youth were so long ago. “I’m too old braids.” But instead, she lays with her hands crossed at her chest, right under left, with no wedding ring on. She never wore it to bed. When Gabriel woke up and found her dead, he made himself some coffee, made Owen waffles, and went to work on his car’s broken engine. But it was Georgia and it was summer, so when he returned, her finger was too bloated to fit the ring back on. The mortician said he could buy a new one, but it would run Gabriel upwards of $300. He preferred that his wife die a maiden.
Owen sits in the front row of the church, a yard away from his mother.
He would much rather sit in the back. Gabriel insisted there was nothing flowers couldn’t fix and called for an open casket. Her features are slumped, cheeks stretched towards the ground. Even through the makeup, her skin is sallow. Owen wishes he were sitting in the back where we wouldn’t see that, despite her decay, her braid still looks smooth and shiny. He isn’t crying, though. He’s just rocking back in forth in his seat like he has to pee. Gabriel isn’t crying either.
But Owen’s sister is crying and his grandfather, too. His grandmother would be crying, but she got her own braid and chestnut coffin years ago. Owen’s grandfather was even worse than Gabriel. He let his wife lay in bed for a week before Owen’s mother knocked on the door, asking what the smell was. She was only nine when she forced her weeping father to call the mortician. He told them that his wife had been sick for months. He didn’t tell his daughter that it was genetic.
It’s humid, the heat rippling through the church in thick, wet waves. The pastor sweats as he gives his speech about the afterlife and how death should be rejoiced. His speech imagines the decomposing mass in the coffin as something beautiful, and Owen’s sister cries again. The pastor mops his brow with a handkerchief and leaves the stage.
Gabriel’s speech is horrible. Not because he stutters or cries, but because he doesn’t. He grasps the microphone firmly in his callused hands. Looking at nobody in particular, he delivers his speech without once looking down at his notes. Even though he’s not sniffling, he’s acting like a child, and he sounds dead. He gets off the stage and no one claps.
Owen plays the piano while his sister sings Amazing Grace. He looks at the sheet music because he doesn’t recognize his hands anymore. They’re starting to look like his mother’s, pale and thin, his blue veins pushing against papery skin. He plays slower than in rehearsal, but his sister keeps a normal pace. It’s terrible. At least they get scattered applause; it’s mostly for Owen’s sister. They sit down.
Their mother is lowered into the ground with Gabriel’s Bible and the flute she used to play for Owen. They ask Owen if he wants to help to fill the grave but he doesn’t. Gabriel doesn’t either.
Everyone assumed that someone else would bring flowers, so the fresh earth before her grave is empty.