A Short Story by Pamela Eason
I’m not crying at old Isa’s funeral even though he is my grandfather. Instead I’m thinkin’ how I won’t have to go with Mama, slinking like a coward behind a shield, to see to him ever again. The funeral man said me, and Mama, and Daddy, and Aunt Imogene have to sit here on the front row. I can see old Isa’s face sticking up a little below Preacher Tomkin’s pulpit. He’s lying there, like a king, on a pillow of pure white silk. I’m thinking how funny it would be to say, “Hey, old Isa. Cat got your tongue?” I have to put my hand to my mouth to keep a giggle from escaping at that thought. Something in my chest gets harder when I do that.
The funeral man closes the casket lid. I can focus on the blanket of white Lenten roses now. That’s a lot better because I think it will keep me from thinkin’ anymore ugly thoughts. I know the flowers are called a blanket because this is not my first funeral. I’ve been going to them my whole life.
The roses look real pretty with the greenery mixed in. My grandma, on my daddy’s side, said Lentens are poisonous. She knows a lot about flowers. She said, way back when, people used them to keep evil spirits away and cleanse the wickedness out of peoples’ minds. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. Sometimes I quote Bible verses for dramatic effect. If that’s the truth, we should’ve made old Isa some tea or something out of them years ago. That might of saved me a lot of pains, and Mama too. Grandma said, some people claim, if you scatter them in the air, you can make yourself invisible. That might of saved me a lot of pains too.
Preacher Tomkins is standing up. He’s going to begin the service. A Lenten rose is pinned to his black funeral suit. It matches his hair, and the white stripe in his tie. All in all, the whole scene is pretty nice. He has a stern look on his face though like he’s about to tell us something we don’t already know about life and death. Daddy makes that same stern face when he has something serious to say.
Mama paid for her part of the casket and the roses with the money she’d been saving for two years for a trip to the Great Smokey Mountains. She’d been wanting to go ever since she’d seen a picture of them in the Ladies Home Journal. Mama didn’t complain, but it made me pretty mad that she had to make that sacrifice for old Isa. It seemed like her whole life was one big sacrifice for that no good old man. I think Daddy was a little mad about it too. He says Aunt Imogene has plenty of money. She gets to go wherever she wants to and she doesn’t have to save for two years to do it. That’s how I wanna be.
Our church is pretty small. Even so, I didn’t expect it to be full of people, it being old Isa and a Monday and all, but the pews are packed with church men in black suits, and church women in dark dresses, and church kids squirming between them. You would of thought it was Sunday morning or the funeral of Granny Grier. She used to teach the old ladies’ Sunday-School class and pass out soft peppermints to all the kids who asked her for one after church. Mama must be almost as popular, and she’s never passed out peppermints. I know they’re all here for her.
Preacher Tomkins is saying, “We’re here to remember the life of Isa Bitterman.” Preachers always read the names of the survivors after they say that. I’ve never heard my name called out in church except that one time when I couldn’t quit laughing at something that struck me funny. I got into a heap of trouble over that.
Sometimes my mind wanders, so I pretend I’m a movie director so I won’t miss my name. Rolling. I point at Preacher Tomkins, but I keep my hand in my lap so he can’t see me. Action.
“Mr. Bitterman is survived by two daughters, Mrs. Imogene West and Mrs. Gracie Judge, and one granddaughter, Miss Ida Mae Judge.”
There it is – recognition of my accomplishment. Mama’s too, even though she would never think about it that way. Aunt Imogene survived by moving to New Mexico. Truth be told, I barely survived, but I guess that counts for something.
The Miss makes me feel all grown up. I sit up a little straighter. Then I feel everybody’s eyes staring at me like they’re accusing me. My face feels hot. I want to stand up and scream, “I’m not like him! I won’t be like him! You’ll see!” That would be a dramatic scene.
The Last Time I Saw Him Alive
I saw old Isa alive only last Thursday. He was sittin’, all shrunk up, in a fold-up lawn chair in front of his fireplace. The chair was the only furniture in the room, so me and Mama always had to stand or lean up against the wall while she tried to talk to him.
Mama, as usual, had lugged in a grocery sack packed with milk, and cheese, and butter, and some canned goods. The pound cake I’d made was balanced on top. I’d split the batter so we could keep some of it at home. I came in behind Mama with a chicken pie. It was still warm in my arms. It was covered with a dishtowel so I could smell it, all buttery. It was making me crazy to have some. Mama told me to set the casserole on the kitchen table.
The table was yellow laminate with a chrome band around the edges. Besides the Coca-Cola calendar, it was the only half-modern thing in the house. Except for the nasty food splatters cemented to it, the table looked like something you’d see in a drugstore diner with a jukebox and milkshake machines, and twirly stools and everything. I wanted to stay in the kitchen, but I knew Mama wouldn’t like that, so I pinched some of the crust and went to get the paper sack.
When I got back, Mama’s arms were folded just below her chest. She was looking old Isa over the way I’d seen her look over her grown-up tomato plants when they showed signs of blight.
“Well. How are you?” Mama asked.
His bony shoulders jerked forward to pump an “ump” out of his chest. He didn’t bother to raise his head to look at her.
“How’s you hand healing?” she went on. She was pointing at an ugly gauze bandage. It was stained yellow. A border of fraying tape barely held it to his hand.
“Don’t know. Haven’t looked at it,” Isa growled still staring forward. You would’ve thought he had a wooden neck or something.
“Want me to take a look?” Mama asked.
He snapped back, “Up to you.”
Personally, if it’d been up to me, I wouldn’t of bothered. I would’ve stomped out then and there and slammed the door behind me.
Mama squatted. Her face was even with his. The hem of her flowered skirt pooled around her. I like it when dresses do that. It’s like something beautiful that happens in a movie. The floor messed the scene up though. It was dull peeling linoleum. There were a couple of places where you could see it used to be white with a gold pattern on it, like the marble floor in the courthouse downtown.
When Mama unwrapped the bandage, I could see a large crusty sore with yellowish puss around the edges.
Mama said, “I’ll clean it up and put some more black salve on it after I finish in the kitchen. It’ll do good to air out a few minutes.”
Mama stood, smoothed her skirt, looked up at the mold-stained ceiling, and let out a sigh. If Mama had been a movie star, she’d of shook her head in exasperation right then.
I like the word, exasperation. It sounds so breathy like Ann Margaret. She’s my favorite actress. I have a poster of her in my room. She’s sitting on a motorcycle wearing a green leather jacket lookin’ up to no good. Sometimes I practice lookin’ up to no good in front of my mirror. A few auburn curls fell across Mama’s forehead. Mama’s hair is the same color as Ann Margaret’s, but Ann Margaret doesn’t have soft round cheeks with freckles like Mama. Mama wiped her curls back in place and poked her head through the kitchen doorway to judge what had to be done.
“Ah. Well,” she said holding onto the door frame, “I’ll have it cleaned up in no time.” She forgot to motion for me to follow.
I stood there, cowering without my shield, Old Isa was separating me from Mama. I knew he could smell my fear. I heard Mama running the water from the kitchen faucet. I heard his crusty dishes clanging as Mama piled them in to soak. I could’ve run behind him to help her, but some kind of hard determination rose up from my chest and kept me standing there. Plus, I knew if I ran, he’d say, “Scared I might bite?” or, worse, cluck like a chicken and my head would feel hot. If I could stand it, staying there, I knew something would be proved.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. Each sound in the kitchen got slower and louder. The paper sack rattled. Cans plopped, one after the other, on the table. Glasses tinged together. Metal scraped. Mama was moving things around in the refrigerator. I felt like my head was going to crack – like it was a Christmas-stocking Brazil nut clinched in Daddy’s vice grips.
Old Isa ignored me, which is what I would’ve called the Lord Almighty’s favor poured out on me. Once, Mama said we should be grateful for him. “He’s God’s grace to us,” she’d said. He’s not any kind of gift I want. No! Thank you! One time, when Mama said that, I said, if I opened a Christmas box and found him all laid out on a sheet of tissue paper, the last thing I’d be is grateful. I think Mama was exasperated when I’d said that.
He let me squirm for a while. Then, he picked up a tin of tobacco and his old bone pipe. They’d been sittin’ in his lap the whole time. He opened the tin and and started stuffing tobacco into the pipe with his shaky, scabby hand. When he’d got it the way he liked, he closed the tin and put the pipe in the corner of his mouth. His lips were stained yellow where the pipe hung. If this had been my movie, I would’ve told the camera man to do a close-up shot on that. The pipe pulled down on his mouth and made half his face sag. He looked half ugly and half uglier. It’s like Daddy says, “Just when you think things are bad enough, they can get a whole lot worse.”
He fumbled around in his shirt pocket for matches. Finally, he got hold of the matchbox and slid it open, Two matches were left. He scratched them around in the box trying to get hold of one. When he finally did, he had to make four strikes to get the red tip to flare. Somehow he managed to get the flame to the pipe’s bowl without the match burning down to his fingers. I would have played suspenseful music for that scene. He sucked his mouth in, and shook the flame out.
The red glow spread down through the tobacco. Little clouds of smoke made his face look hazy. The scene reminded me of “Torments of Hell.” That picture takes up a whole page in our big coffee-table Bible. And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever. They have no rest day nor night.
A thick, kinda sweet, scent overtook the match’s smoky odor. Old Isa stuffed the matchbox back into his pocket and, for a moment, looked as relieved as Daniel must of when the angel showed up to shut the lions’ mouths. That picture’s in that Bible too.
He motioned for me to put the tin on the fireplace mantel. Prince Albert, Crimp Cut Long Burning Pipe And Cigarette Tobacco. Reading advertisements calms me down sometimes. A picture of Prince Albert was on the tin. He was Queen Elizabeth’s great-great-grand father. He was buried at Frogmore House and Gardens where Queen Elizabeth spent part of her honeymoon. I learned that from reading her biography. It had pictures in it. I like to read biographies. I think Frogmore is an ugly name for such a beautiful place.
Seeing them side-by-side like that, I thought the prince looked like old Isa, only younger. He had beady eyes and his face and head were hairy except for the top. Ha. I’d of never thought me and Queen Elizabeth would of had something in common – a beady-eyed, half-bald, tobacco-smoking grandfather.
The prince stood erect holding a walking stick under his left hand. The crook of Isa’s stick hung on the metal handle of his chair like a scepter. He might use it, without any good reason, to strike you dead. There’s probably the difference between ’em.
The fire was dying out. It needed poking. I like the way the fire glows yellow in the center of red logs crusted over with black flakes. Old Isa took out his pipe and moved his jaw from side to side as if to loosen it. His teeth made a grinding sound and I thought about “Torments of Hell” again. Where there will be gnashing of teeth. Mama says sometimes I grit my teeth at night.
Mama called out, “That chicken casserole’s for your lunch. You can eat it when you’re ready. It should still be fairly warm.”
Old Isa didn’t act like he heard her. His eyes were focused on the fire the way aisle-walking sinners focus on the altar at church – like their whole destiny is at stake.
“Oh. And Ida Mae made you a pound cake,” Mama persisted.
He took his pipe out long enough to snarl, “Well now. Ain’t that just peachy?” He topped the remark off with a scoffing chuckle and a smirk. My head felt hot. I wasn’t allowed to scoff or smirk back, but sometimes I did behind his back when Mama wasn’t looking.
“Quit standing there like a knot on a log with your face all red. Make yourself useful. Go help her,” he finally growled.
I could tell then I was gettin’ to him. He was like King Saul when he hurled his spear at David after the Almighty Lord sent an evil spirit to terrorize him. I was more determined than ever now. My chest felt like stone and my feet like a tree’s roots. I ignored him. I knew he probably wanted to whack me with his cane. I looked around for something else to think about.
The only other thing was the calendar. It was tacked, all by itself, to the middle of the wall. Coke has the taste you never get tired of. The February picture showed a blond-haired teenage girl holding a Coca-Cola bottle and some vinyl records. She was smiling. If I’d had a drop of Coca-Cola right then, it sure would’ve felt cool fizzling down my throat. The piecrust and fire had dried it out.
The Coca-Cola girl looked a little older than me. She had on a red and white stripped dress. The white stripes matched her teeth. My teeth were a little yellow. Mama said, “Put some baking soda on your toothbrush.” I’m gonna try that. A teenage boy with a white shirt and another girl with almost the same dress danced behind her. I’m not allowed to go to dances. I wasn’t jealous of them though. I rather not be allowed to go to dances than be trapped in this ugly room with old Isa for a whole year.
“Ida Clara,” Mama called. Go get the dirty clothes please.” That was my chance for escape. Escape sounded like God’s grace to me too. I paraded to his bedroom like I wasn’t scared to move. I sure was glad I could obey Mama and not that stubborn streak nailing me to him. Old Isa couldn’t say nothing now anyways. I’d proved I could stand him and he knew it.
I pulled the old yellow-spotted sheets and pillowcases from his unmade bed. I scooped up his pants and shirts and socks and the underwear he’d heaped in a corner of the floor. If I hadn’t just defeated him, I would’ve probably felt like Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis.
“Want me to take them outside?” I asked Mama.
“Yes. You can wait for me on the porch if it’s not too cold. I’m almost finished.” I thought that was God’s grace too.
I walked all quiet toward the front door. I kept behind old Isa’s chair in case he’d got his nerve back up and decided to come in for a second swipe. I was like a mouse dodging a cat who was low to the ground, all rigid and ready to pounce. “What the tarnation you think you’re doing?” he said. I acted like I didn’t hear him. It was too late for him to make a move anyways. I was already turning the front door handle.
It was cold on the porch, but I didn’t care. I leaned against a post, sucked cold air down my burning throat, and blew it out in cloudy wisps, and listened for Mama’s footsteps. I felt kinda sick from the smell of his old clothes. I thought the piecrust might come up. Finally, I heard the doorknob turning. Mama walked out.
“Can I drive?” I asked. “I’ve got my permit with me”
“I don’t see why not?” Mama said. I threw the bundle in the truck so we wouldn’t have to smell it on the way home, and climbed in behind the wheel.
Talk of Grace
“Why does he always have to be like that?” I asked.
She’d told me already before in different ways. “He’d grown up rough. He’d been a traveling salesman when times were hard. He’d got robbed and beaten up a few times by some rough people. He’d had a lot of disappointments.” I’d heard it all. She always ended with, “Maybe he never saw the grace in any of it.” Mama could find grace under a rock, but I never saw it the way she did. To me grace was getting the exact thing I wanted on Christmas morning or any other time for that matter.
“Anyways,” she added, “God’s goodness comes to us in many ways. It’s meant to lead us to repentance you know, but he just got more and more resentful and cantankerous as time when on.”
Cantankerous is an ugly word, but I didn’t think it quite fit old Isa. He was definitively uglier than cantankerous. He was just plain mean. It must have been rough on Mama growing up with a father like that. I didn’t really know Mama’s mama. She’d died when I was only two, but I knew some stories about how she’d protected Mama and Aunt Imogene and how she had finally got away from him with the twin blessings of a broken arm and a black eye. Mama had never said anything about that. Aunt Imogene had told me one year when she came home for Thanksgiving.
“How can you stand to be so nice to him,” I asked.
“There’s deep mercy for me,” Mama said. Mrs. Zeta, my Sunday-School teacher said mercy is getting out of a punishment that you deserve. As far as I can see, Mama didn’t do anything to deserve punishment, so I didn’t understand why she needed mercy. Anyway, we were home. “I have to get supper started,” she said. “You’re father will be hungry. Go get the horses fed.” That was fine with me. I get along just fine with horses.
Old Isa died some time the next day. Mama found him on the floor in the kitchen when she stopped by to get her casserole dish. She called Aunt Imogene who got a flight in from New Mexico that night. It was pretty exciting to go to the airport and pick her up. She had on a leather vest that kinda reminded me of Ann Margaret’s jacket except it had fringe and no sleeves, and it was black. She looked a lot like Mama except that her hair was browner and everything about her face was tighter and pointier, and her eyes weren’t quite as bright. People said I favored her a lot. I’ve never been on an airplane before, but I wished I could fly to Hollywood with Aunt Imogene’s vest on and show the movie people my up-to-no-good face.
Old Isa was laid out for viewing. That meant that, for two whole evenings, me, Mama, Daddy, and Aunt Imogene had to stand, all dressed up and quiet, in the funeral home parlor beside him while people came by. People liked to inspect the funeral man’s work whenever they could in case they wanted to use him for their selves. I heard one lady say, “He did a good job. Mr. Bitterman looks so natural.” Personally, I’d thought making him look unnatural would’ve been an improvement.
On to the Graveside Service
I hear Miss Loretta hitting the first cord of Amazing Grace pretty hard on her organ. It startles me back to my senses. I don’t know what else the preacher said after he called out my name, getting lost in my own thoughts and all like that, but it seems like the inside service is over pretty quick.
The pallbearers hoist the casket up. Their faces are red and pulled down tight. The funeral man motions for us to get up and follow them to the graveyard. Everybody stares at us ’till we get all the way to the back of the church. They follow us out. Miss Loretta is last because she plays until everyone leaves. We are like a parade except we are supposed to look all sad. I guess everybody is trying to. Mama looks like she really is. She’s wiping away a tear.
We step around the graves careful so we won’t desecrate them. Some of them are unmarked, so that makes it kind of hard. We stop at the green tent with matching carpet underneath. Mama sits in an upholstered chair beside Aunt Imogene. I don’t know who came up with the idea of putting upholstered chairs in a cemetery. Me and Daddy stand behind Mama.
The pallbearers are laying the casket on some straps. The straps are hooked to two brass poles on each side of the hole to keep the casket from falling in. That would be a dramatic scene too unless it was a comedy. I wonder how deep the hole is and how the worm that never dies gets into the casket. The funeral man had said it was airtight. One time I heard a story about a girl who got kidnapped and buried alive. There was a pipe that let air and food in. Mama would have found God’s grace in that. The preacher said, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” and sprinkled dirt onto the casket.
I think about the sore on old Isa’s hand spreading over his whole body. I feel sick, so I sneak a lemon drop into my mouth. I’ve had practice putting candy in my mouth in church. You just kind of cup it in your palm and act like you’re yawning. Some people go to sleep during the preaching anyways so it seems natural. I’m crazy to grind the candy between my teeth because it’s hard to keep the juice in, but I fight the urge. The wind blows. I feel some of the juice running out the corner of my mouth. I wipe it with the back of my hand. I probably look like I’m wiping away a tear. My hand feels sticky and there’s a tinge of yellow stain on it.
After the preacher sprinkles dirt on the casket, we recite the twenty-third Psalm. Everybody knows that one. It has the shadow of death part in it so it’s good for funerals. I like the part where it says Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. That would be pretty good scene, me eating and old Isa standing there watching. One time Mama said to me, “In the psalms, sometimes you’re the enemy,” but it never seems like that to me. The preacher thanks everyone for coming, and, after that, most people start whispering and walking back to their cars. I have to keep on standing here, under the tent, until Mama gets finished speaking to everybody who’s still lingering around.
Finally, we leave the graveyard. I crawl into the backseat and lean against the door. I don’t ask to drive. I’m tired out from the whole ordeal and glad to finally be done with old Isa. Daddy still had his stern face on and Mama’s eyes are still red, so I don’t say anything.
I see half of my face in the rear-view mirror. There’s a yellow stain in the corner my mouth. Maybe no one noticed. I think they must of put yellow food coloring in those lemon drops. Then I think about old Isa’s yellow stains and gasp a little. I stick my finger in my mouth to wet it. I try to rub at the stain without Mama noticing, but I’m not making much progress. I think it may be one of those deep kind that has to wear off. I wonder how long it takes for a layer of skin to slough off. I pray, Almighty Lord, Please Let it be quick. That would be grace.