The women cried and wailed and prayed behind us, and my 7-year-old mind thought the dead body would look like something from the movies. I never saw a dead body before, and I was certain that it would look like a skeleton from a cartoon or at least Freddy Kruger. It would definitely be something that comes out only at night.
I stepped forward with my father and older brother towards the casket. All the conversation and noise in the room became silent inside of my head. I could only hear my thoughts, and all I could think was that I had to let dad step forward first and to be careful.
The toy soldier in my pocket poked into my thigh, and I readjusted it.
“What’s wrong?” my father said.
I looked up at him. “Nothing.”
I peered into the casket, and took in a deep breath.
It was my adult cousin, the one who lived down the street. No skeleton or wounds or blood or winkled skin. Just my cousin. It reminded me of a wax figure. My cousin. Then the silence fell to the back, and I could hear the wailing and the prayers of the woman once more.
“That’s it?” I said to my dad.
“Yeah,” he said. “Quiet.”
I felt compelled to go into my pocket and leave my cousin the toy soldier amongst all the flowers. I didn’t dare.
Death had only been a concept to me. Outside of television and movies, I only had urban legends. There was the time they found a dead body down at the end of the street in tall weeds. My older friend, Vic, said that it was done by a serial killer, who broke free from the Allentown State Hospital. He said that the escapee planned on killing all of the adults and torturing the children to exact some form of revenge. Despite my father’s assurance against this claim, I feared a man was roaming the streets with a gun that night. I couldn’t sleep. They ruled it suicide the next day, and I was relieved.
There was the story of the boy, who drowned in the Lehigh River next to Bucky Boyle Park. They said he swam too close to the whirlpool that swirled in the center, and he couldn’t swim back. For that reason, they told us kids to not even so much as step into the water.
Then there was the story of the boy, who fell out of a window in our former Brooklyn apartment complex. They said his ghost haunted the court yard. I had nightmares about him until we moved.
The wailing and the prayers grew even louder, and it began to make me sick to my stomach. I had enough of looking and standing still.
I looked back up to my father.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said.
“Quiet,” he said, then took my hand and we walked away.
Back in the car and on our way home, my father reminded me and my brother that although our cousin was dead in the physical form, he was still alive in spirit. And that spirit is everlasting and although we cannot see him, he’s still with us. The moment he described my cousin, I imagined the translucent ghost of Christmas past from a TV version ofChristmas Carol.
“Do you think Freddy Kruger could beat a ghost?” I said to my older brother.
“I don’t know,” my brother said.
“Cause Freddy’s got claws,” I said.
“You’re dumb,” he said. “Nothing can beat a ghost.”
I looked back out the window and noticed that it was a beautiful day. When I got home, I would go outside and play with Mitch. Mitch was fun, and he would let me lead. We’d race and play with our toys, and I’d give him the soldier that was scarping my thigh, and I’d tell him that I don’t think I like funerals.
It was a beautiful day. No clouds were in sight, and I could see a faint moon above, immersed in blue sky. A couple of sparrow streaked across it. A gust of air from my father’s window blew into my face. The sun touched everything. And there was plenty of time before dark.
Marc Alexander Valle is an English teacher from eastern Pennsylvania. He’s a certified karaoke geek and cinephile. In fact, where others have had themselves banned from casinos for excessive gambling, Marc has had himself banned from the Criterion section of retail stores for excessive spending. He’s had his stories and poems published in Lehigh Valley Vanguard, The Drabble and Beechwood Review. Visit his blog at mavthewriter.com