Fiction: On the Way to the Funeral

Second Prize in Lilith’s 2022 Fiction Contest.

“YOU MISSED THE TURN,” Helene said from the passenger seat. She pointed across the whooshing boulevard. A new widow, she wore a funeral-worthy pantsuit that made her sister Natalie cringe when she picked her up. “And we can’t get there from here,” Helene said, disgusted, ready to give up on Martin’s funeral altogether.

“We’ll swing back around,” Natalie said, chirpy.

Four black-clad women were crammed into the new-smelling Lexus: the two in the front, their daughters in the back, cruising along a suburban New Jersey boulevard that might have been called Miracle Mile in the Fifties but now existed as a reminder that even miracles need updating. Each store a different size and color, they looked like a queue of immigrants: Eddie’s Tile and Carpet, Linens and Things, Glasses to Go, McDonalds. Levine Chapel squatted between Dick’s Sporting Goods and The Jewelry Exchange.

“Or we could just keep driving,” Helene said. “We’re early.”

“Keep driving?” Natalie glared. “You can’t forgo your husband’s funeral, Helene! You might skip Shabbat, even the High Holidays, but you can’t—”

“Okay,” Helene said, barely audible.

Natalie and her husband lived in Great Neck, where she volunteered at Jewish Family Services. Helene, a year younger at 49, worked more than full-time as an interior designer.

“I can make a U-turn up there,” Natalie offered.

“But we’re too early,” Helene said. “We have half an hour before we have to meet with the rabbi, people don’t come for another hour, and I really don’t want to wait in that place any longer than I have to.”

“So what do you want to do?” Natalie said to the car’s ceiling. They were stopped at a long traffic light.

Helene stared at the Loew’s Cinema 18 on her right.

Betsy Walton, “New Whispers.” Morningcraft.com

Helene and Martin had been married for three years. She fell for him because he loved, hated, and pondered with passion. His dinner-table conversations were the peak of everyone’s night: a Chinese super-hard, tungsten based material that will revolutionize building, the fact that half of chimpanzee intelligence is genetic, or how the space-saving brilliance of Helene’s lighting sconces was the tip of the iceberg as to why he was the luckiest man in the world. No one had ever loved her so loudly. But he had pulled her away from Manhattan to this child-centered New Jersey suburb, even though their respective children were grown.

That first year, Martin’s intensity and animal appeal blurred his chauvinism and his disrespect for Helene’s children. The second year, his true disposition surfaced, as well as his drug-addled daughter, divorced alcoholic son and floundering third child. When the market fell apart in the third year, Martin shed all remaining pretense. Maybe when wealthy he’d accessed his “better angels”—it could go both ways with people. Point is, before his heart attack, Helene accepted Martin’s defects and kept his ugly incidents to herself. She knew her daughter hated him even though Rachel never said so. Natalie, however, made her opinions painfully clear: “He emptied your ira to invest in that?!… His jacket is part polyester, cheap, see the shine…” Most memorable, right after Helene and Martin married, “For a woman with a professional eye, it’s embarrassing how much you’re starting to miss.”

“Miss? Miss what?”

“The finer details. You’ve changed to get to his pedestrian level. I’m even seeing it in your work.”

Always the little sister with a ready defense, Helene had snapped back that much of design is about distracting the observer so that she fails to notice a low ceiling or a narrow room. “In fact, some people,” Helene had said, her consonants sharp as daggers, “are generous enough to overlook a deficit.” After that conversation, the frequency of their phone calls and lunches, a pillar of their lives for 30-plus years, dwindled to those of second-tier friends. But somehow, funerals, weddings and car accidents return family to the top tier, no matter the duration of distance or enmity.

The light turned green.

“Tell me. Quick,” Natalie barked.

“Keep going,” Helene said. “There’s a mall up there.”

Natalie twisted her neck to face her sister. “The mall? Before Martin’s funeral?” Helene shrugged.

“You hate malls.”

Helene hated funerals, too. Helene wished she had cremated Martin. “Dust to dust,” she had argued with Natalie, “less gruesome than lowering a cold body into the ground to be eaten by worms, and once the coffin gives way, rodents. That satin, cushiony padding inside, I mean—who are they kidding?”

But there was the law, Jewish law, her sister had argued, laws that are based on psychological health. One needs a place to go and remember. “Rituals,” Natalie had said at her legendary break fast after Yom Kippur, “are like the slide show of our lives. They’re a container for love.” Until Martin, Natalie seldom let falter her crusade to nudge Helene back into observing Judaism. With Martin now gone, her determination returned. She loved services and holiday get-togethers, and she loved the attire. Today she wore a black knee-length, long-sleeved dress with a fuchsia ribbon at the waist.

“The Bloomingdale’s in that mall has great frozen yogurt,” Helene said. The department store’s cafe was where Helene escaped Martin’s meltdowns.

“Okay,” Natalie said, surprisingly compliant. “Yogurt it is.”

“Denial,” Shoshanna whispered to Rachel in the back seat, “is the first stage.” Shoshanna was Natalie’s daughter.

Rachel rolled her eyes at her cousin. Training to be a psychologist, Shoshanna sent cards for every occasion—birthdays, illnesses, graduations, even Just thinking of yous. Now here was Shoshanna explaining grief to Rachel, to whom she had already sent “My deepest condolences for the death of your stepfather.”

“You know,” Rachel whispered back, “frozen yogurt is the second stage.”

Shoshanna blinked, her powdered lids like butterfly wings.

Natalie pulled in front of the monolith that was Bloomingdale’s, its parking lot already beginning to fill.

“Helene,” Natalie said, “will this allow you to respect the weight of the situation—”

“The yogurt is really good,” Helene said. “It’s non-fat.”

“I’m sure it is, but Mom’s saying that maybe now isn’t exactly the time,” Shoshanna said, sounding like a greeting card. She seemed about to continue with, “It’s a time of reflection and a time of love, a time of embraces and a time of care…”

“Now is exactly the time,” Rachel piped up.

“It is a little blasphemous,” Natalie whispered.

“Who the hell is watching us?” Helene said. “And what else am I going to do? Sit in a car in front of a funeral home, sur- rounded by Circuit City and Kids R Us, and believe I’m having ‘a moment’?”

“Fine. Let’s get out.” Natalie said. “Maybe Lancome is giving away freebies.”

Arm in arm, Helene and Rachel followed Natalie as she marched toward the glass doors of Bloomingdale’s. Shoshanna trailed behind.

Inside, Christmas ornaments studded countertops and paper snowflakes decorated the air. In this store, the group’s grim, all-black processional looked like a Bergman-Disney collaboration. White-coated cosmetic girls gawked. Rachel and Helene passed Clinique. A banner read: “It’s Bonus Time!”

“Do you need anything?” Helene asked her daughter. “Mom? You okay?”

“Do you?”

“Uh, no. I don’t use Clinique anymore,” Rachel whispered. “It’s got methylparaben. A carcinogen.”

“Ah.”

“You all go ahead,” Natalie called out. She was standing by a nail polish display. “I’ll meet you.” The girls followed Helene up the escalator.

Helene was not okay. The last time she visited this Bloomingdale’s, she had just learned the truth about her sapphire and diamond ring.

Two years before, Martin had given it to her for their first anniversary. She had insisted it was too big, too expensive, and she didn’t crave fine jewelry anyway. “Well, you should,” Martin had said. “You’re not a hippie anymore, Darling.” Then last year it went missing and Helene did not tell Martin. For months, she searched the house, the car, her studio, never telling Martin. And despite the rift, she even asked her sister to check her house since she’d worn the ring to one of Natalie’s holiday gatherings. Then she saw old Mr. Greenberg at the Sunday farmer’s market. Greenberg was the town’s trusted jeweler; he bought and sold expensive estate pieces. “You don’t need to be embarrassed,” he whispered to Helene, “I want that you should not be ashamed. These things happen.”

“What things?” Helene had asked.

Old Mr. Greenberg smiled at a cantaloupe as he squeezed it. “I promised Martin I wouldn’t tell anyone where it came from.”

He turned to her with kind eyes, “Don’t worry. I’ll get a good price. It’s a beautiful sapphire, beautiful. Just like you,” he said.

Helene nodded stupidly and plucked another peach, not noticing its bottom had rotted.

She returned home, dropped the fruit in the kitchen and stood at the threshold of the family room, where Martin sat eat- ing leftover pizza. He was watching a Yankees game.

Martin had pawned her ring without telling her. If he denied it, would she mention Mr. Greenberg? Would she corner him into the prison of his lie? If he continued to deny it, would she finally leave? Maybe Martin wouldn’t deny it. Maybe he would crumble, admit that he needed to save face because of his dearth of commissions, and in his confession she would fall in love with him all over again.

“Have you seen my sapphire ring?” she asked.

He looked at her, cocked his head, then shouted at the television. “Damn! That’s A-Rod’s second error!”

“Martin. My ring?”

“What? Don’t tell me you lost it.” Not a speck of deception on his face.

“No.” Her mouth had gone dry.

“Come to think of it, I haven’t seen it on you for a while,” eyes fixed on the outfield.

“I’m sure it’s somewhere.”

“Better be,” he said. “It’s worth a fortune.”

She stood staring at his back, at the televised baseball game, and walked back into the kitchen, the ringing in her ears like multiple alarms. She left for the Bloomingdale’s café without an explanation, peaches and cantaloupes sweating on the counters.

Martin died from cardiac arrest the following day, while eating a very-berry scone at his office desk.

Now at the top floor of Bloomingdale’s, the black-clad group glided through housewares, passing blenders, knife sets and tongs, until they reached the entrance of the café. “A Bloom.” A velvet rope hung between chrome stands, a small sign dangling: “Closed.”

Inside, waitresses set tables and emptied carrots into salad bar compartments. Rachel laid a gentle hand on Helene’s shoulder, “They’re closed. Can we get yogurt somewhere else?”

“No. This frozen yogurt has just the right amount of sweetness, but not too much that it overwhelms the flavor, you know?” Helene gazed into the restaurant, resting her eyes, but not really seeing the multi-paned Palladian window. She was replaying the day Martin had lied. She hadn’t ordered blueberry, her favorite. She’d asked for one serving of vanilla, she couldn’t recall why, and sat there for two hours.

Tears now threatened to fill her eyes. Which loss was she mourning? Martin was gone, utterly gone. His kids had lost their dad. There was the generalized death-sentiment; death is always awesome, it floods the eyes merely from the existential reminder. But heaviest was the loss of the man she once thought was Martin. Which pain hurt the most—realization that you’ve been duped, stupid? Or the disappearance of that person who once made you feel acutely alive? Who held what you thought was a shared vessel of infinite love?

Shoshanna rubbed Helene’s back, as though the closed café was one more tragedy.

“Excuse me!” Rachel called into the restaurant.

A waitress saw the gloomy group and dismissively said, “We’re closed. Until noon.” She continued to organize sugar substitutes.

“Excuse me!” Rachel said again. “We just want to have some of that yogurt.”

“I already told you. We’re closed.”

“Could you make an exception? Just this once? We’re on our way to a funeral.”

The waitress raised an eyebrow.

“Hers. I mean for her husband. And it was one thing she wanted to do before going there—”

The waitress looked around the restaurant, as though this was not a place for an activity like eating. “Okay, all right. But you’ll have to sit at the counter.”

Shoshanna, Helene and Rachel shimmied onto stools. Helene put her hand over Rachel’s and smiled a little.

The waitress placed a silver dish with one dollop of vanilla in front of each of them, as though they were orphans without the luxury of choice. “On the house,” she said.

Helene briefly closed her lids at the cool sourness. Death makes you dry. “Check out that dental molding, mom,” Rachel said. Vacantly, Helene glanced at the top of the wall, then swiveled to face Rachel. She spoke softly. “He died of stress,” she said, and took a slow bite, clearing the spoon with her top lip.

“It was his heart, Mom.”

“No. They told him that if he didn’t bring up his numbers, they were going to fire him. He had just bought the beach house. Then they gave him notice. Two days later, the heart attack.”

“God…sorry. I had no idea.”

Helene’s eyes filled again.

“Did you two come here?” Rachel asked.

“No.” Her tears now ran freely. “I came alone.”

Natalie bustled in with two little brown shopping bags.

“I’m sorry, we’re closed,” the waitress said.

“I’m with them.”

The waitress sized up Natalie’s black ensemble, then motioned her in quickly.

“I got you ‘Burnished Raisin’,” Natalie whispered to Helene, “Chanel!”

Rachel slipped off her stool to allow the sisters to sit together. “And something else. I was going to give it to you after, but….”

From her purse, Natalie pulled out a small jewelry box in navy- blue leather.

Helene took it, hesitant.

“Go ahead. Open it. Then I’ll explain.”

Slowly, Helene flipped it open. “Oh my God.”

Facing up at her from between two folds of plump satin gleamed a ring that looked exactly like the one Martin had pawned.

Natalie started, “I saw it and thought—that looks so much like the ring you lost—”

“Nat, you shouldn’t have, I mean this is too …God.”

Natalie knew jewelry. She had to know this was Helene’s ring. She had to have bought it from Greenberg. Natalie smiled at her sister with a love so big, Helene felt instantly ashamed of her tangled resentments.

“You found it!” Rachel squealed.

“No,” Natalie said. “I found something like it. So I figured I’d get it for your mother. To remember Martin by.”

Now Shoshanna glowered at the ring as though it came from Sodom itself. “Jeeeees, where’d you get that?”

Natalie took a bite of Helene’s melting yogurt. She licked her lips. She was stalling. “Some place in Manhattan. You know. I’m always looking.”

Helene leaned forward and held Natalie. She wished she could stay like this until the funeral was over. They were two little girls again, hand in hand on Jones Beach, bending to pick up shells, Natalie giving Helene the unbroken ones. Her head snug on Natalie’s shoulder, Helene saw someone’s glass of water. It was one of those stemless wine glasses, rounded below, slightly tapered at the top. She was transfixed by the water’s trembling surface, its circle paralleling the rim’s. On the sides, below the water line, curved rectangles came to a point at the glass’s bottom, mirroring the Palladian windows. And in each of the rectangles—a reflection of the outside sky and trees, all upside down! She peered carefully and could even see a speck of white cloud. So much was contained in something as simple and clear as a glass of water! She had never seen anything like it.

A professor at Boston University’s department of film and television, Debbie Danielpour writes fiction, libretti, and screenplays.

ART: Betsy Walton, “New Whispers.” Morningcraft.com

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