by Steve Gaines

1975

gray hair…
gray face…
still handsome
dead among the tears
and the small talk
and the prayers
sons and daughters…
progeny by the score
standing silently
uncomfortably
in the mortuary’s silence and sighs
in a loud corner two brothers talk
about corporate finance
surrounded by the soft prison
of their older brother’s absence
they accept at the lulls in the conversation
the sympathies from people they do not know
who knew their brother
they shake the quiet hands
punctuated by the perforated tearing off of checks
written at the small table beside them
adding up the price for his trip out of purgatory
piped in plastic organ sounds
surround them in the sad silence
real sorrow…
people acting sorrow…
people lost in a sorrow
people there simply because it was expected
later…
down the small town main street
in the church…
grand and church looking
unexpectedly cool at eleven o’clock in the morning
they all gather again
they sit quietly thinking ordinary
everyday selfish thoughts
of their everyday ordinary lives
some are happy
some owe money
some mourn other losses
some in love
some angry
some just waiting to find a bathroom
the tall priest stands at his place only “doing the best he can”
sending off the departed soul
with this week’s gospel and one or two
generalities gathered up that morning
along with his best intentions
after he dressed and shaved
and checked his daily calendar
beside the priest standing blond headed black gowned servers
quiet young boys wearing blue and red tennis shoes
wearing summer in their sighs
wondering who he is…
the man in the box…?
walking in the colorful shoes past the white draped coffin
unable to imagine seventy-five years of life having gone by
in spite of their unquestioning faith
they walk with mock solemnity and sadly
with the bright young eyes of life

then later everyone gathered in the windy outdoors
beneath the green canvas
like a sail in the wind and canvas smelling
heating up with the afternoon
the family standing beneath the tent out of the sun
they look…
unthinking…
into that dark foreboding hole
they see…
unseeing…
through that crust of forever
opened beneath them
darkly it accepts the beautiful oaken box
the old gray man dead at last
and happy in his new peace
dead at last
and without the past great pain stoically served
in his diminishing life
and now he bids them all a silent eternal good-bye
outside the tent the friends
and acquaintances quietly disconnected
look more at life than death
standing…
hair blowing…
sunglasses faced
wearing the bright Easter Parade dresses
dresses bought and used three days early
to send off their dead friend
they make islands of sadness dotting the new grass
here and there a secret happy face…
a hearty handshake
as old friend meets old friend
a reunion of smiles brought out of
the distant past one last time
to celebrate this death
and then to slip apart again
perhaps forever

finally the glad dinner in the echoing hall
with its basketball court floor
scurrying women in their new clothes
grandly aproned
dishing out the meat and potato salad
the small children playing their children’s games
running happily down the aisles between the island tables
the forgetting smiles of family and friends
warming to the social occasion
the new conversations about nothing to do
with their late friend
the old women…
silent fragile pieces of life
gray headed…
slow walking tight hand gripping canes
moving from group to group
forgetting grandchildren’s names
walking the paths of whatever death
they are approaching

and the aproned women tearing off
the crackling paper tablecloths
from the long folding tables laying them out
new for the next celebration
waiting patiently…
tearlessly now in the wings
the next family of death watchers
arriving from the graveside
the somber mortician smiling out…
inside…
at the smooth running program
two funerals back to back in a tiny Nebraska town
both on the same afternoon…
the profits for the month secure
then at last the good-byes
the empty promises to get together soon for sure
before the children grow up
before the cost of living goes any higher

and the new widow…
standing in the center of unknowing friends and family
answers the smiles and good wishes
of the last sad faced friends
hurrying out the door
making room for the next party
the next mingling crowd
with their dried tears and smiles of release
dissolving into the space
the new groups of laughing children…
someone else’s grandchildren
happy in their new clothes

and Wednesday not half over….

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