January 6, 1998

by Brandi Wells

He is dead. That is the easy way to say it. Here is the hard way: I am thirteen and I wake up at 5:00 A.M. because my mother is laughing. Her laughing is so loud that I cannot fall back asleep. I lie in bed, cold because my parents never turn the heater on, until I realize she isn’t laughing. She’s crying. And then screaming, “He is only forty-one.” She keeps repeating the number forty-one. I stay in bed for a while because I feel unsure of what I should do. This has never happened before and I do not know the appropriate way to act.

I get out of bed, still cold and in my blue flowered night gown that my mother sewed from a pattern she bought at Wal-Mart. My mother sews all my clothes. I have light pink shorts with a matching shirt, a droopy black dress and half a dozen other atrocities. At thirteen, I want a Tommy Hilfiger jacket and Calvin Klein jeans. To feel normal. To feel accepted.

The only light on is in the computer room. It is dark outside. The hallway and living room and kitchen are dark, but there’s a green glow in the kitchen, coming from the clock on the microwave.

My brother is already awake, standing in the computer room, talking on our black cordless phone. The light in the computer room is more yellow than the other lights in our house. Something to do with the light bulbs or the way the chandelier is hung.

Mom is pacing, repeating the number forty-one, and crying with no tears. She doesn’t have make-up on. She is prettier without make-up. Less harsh without the thick black eyeliner drawn around her eyes and deep burgundy lipstick smudged on thicker than her lips actually are.

Dad is lying face-up on the floor next to the computer chair. A game of hearts is open on the screen. His glasses are on the floor beside him. He has on the same pajama pants and white t-shirt that he’s worn for as long as I can remember. I don’t think he owns another pair of pajama pants.

I take the phone from my brother. I am thirteen. The 911 technician is telling me how to tell my brother to perform mouth-to-mouth. Her voice is soft, but steady and I imagine she is young, maybe in her mid-twenties, with short black hair and glasses.

“His mouth is dark purple,” I tell her. His whole face is dark purple. His lips are so dark they’re nearly black. I do not see how my brother can breathe into those lips, that mouth. It’s all too stiff, inflexible.

“He’s dead,” I tell the technician. Later someone will tell us that he had been dead for five hours. Another person will tell us he had been dead twenty minutes. My mother will worry that she was awake when he died, that she hadn’t been there to help him, though she’d been awake in the other room, smoking a cigarette and thinking about what she’d cook us for breakfast.

Then I hear the ambulance. I wonder if the neighbors are staring out their windows at the ambulance in our driveway. The EMT’s come inside after knocking on our front door. Knocking seems unnecessary. I sit in the living room where the lights are turned off. It is less dark outside than it was before. The technicians can’t do anything so a coroner is called. My dad lies face up on the floor. His eyes are open.

My mother’s friend, Linda, comes over before the coroner arrives. They tell me I should call a friend, so I call Brenda. We are in eighth grade accelerated classes together. Her mother sometimes helps me with my algebra homework because my dad gets frustrated too quickly and I cry when I can’t get the problems right.

Brenda’s mother brings her to my house in their cartoonishly blue blazer. Brenda’s mom is pale with blonde hair and she wears bright blue eye shadow, pink blush and red lipstick. When Brenda gets older she will wear make-up like her mother. Because of them, I will never wear blue eye shadow.

Brenda sits with me on the couch and the coroners arrive. They take their time putting my dad in a body-length black zip-up bag. After they put him in the bag, they stand around talking and one of them has a cup of coffee. My mother sits at the kitchen table with Linda, drinking sweet tea and smoking Marlboro lights.

They take my father outside and I sit in my bedroom with Brenda. We don’t talk. We sit Indian style in the middle of my green and pink flowered comforter. I like the comforter because it is easier to make my bed with a comforter than with a bedspread. I have matching pink and green curtains. I don’t like pink and green.

People knock on my bedroom door, come inside and say things, but these aren’t the things I remember.

His coffin is smooth and shiny silver. He is inside it. His face is puffed up, like it’s swollen, filled too full with embalming fluid. I imagine what would happen if I poked him with a sewing needle. Would the goo pour out fast? Leak out slowly? Stay put? His hair is parted on the wrong side. They close the coffin and put it in a hearse. We ride in the car right behind the hearse for twenty or thirty minutes, which seems longer because the dress I’m wearing has scratchy lace around the neck and sleeves. I will have red scratch marks on me for weeks.

They do not lower his coffin into the ground. Someone tells me they have a machine that will do this later. It’s hot outside and mosquitoes bite the backs of my legs. When I slap one of them off of me, my mom tells me to be quiet.

Later we go back and there’s a mound of dirt covered with all the flowers from his funeral. And later there’s a headstone and a marble slab with a picture of a fish on it. My mother plants a rose bush beside his grave, but my aunt complains it is too close to where my grandmother will be buried, so my mother goes back, digs the bush up and plants it in the woods behind my father’s grave.

Brandi Wells has fiction in or forthcoming in Hobart, Monkey Bicycle, Elimae, Wigleaf, and other journals. She sometimes blogs at brandiwells.blogspot.com.

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