Uncle Bill was among the men huddled in the garage, clustered in the corner behind the jig saw and planer table. I stared at them through the kitchen’s rusty screen door but all I could see were the ember tips of cigarettes moving in the air. Uncle Bill and his friends always went out there and Aunt Retta always sent me out to fetch him. I hated having to do that.
“Esma, honey, go on out there and tell the men it’s ready … go on.” Aunt Retta tap her foot a few times as I stood there not moving. Then she waved her large just-do-what-I-say hand in the air to send me on my way.
“Uncle Bill?” I stuck my head inside the building’s opened door and told him that his sister wanted him in the house where we’d set out a table with food for those who’d been to the funeral. The up and down flickering of their lit tobacco stopped.
“Geez… In a minute.” Uncle Bill’s voice floated out from the corner. He’d hardly said anything since Grandma died.
As they walked single file into the house, I wanted to ask what he and his buddies from the cement plant were doing in the garage but didn’t. I just smiled as they nodded at me or rubbed the top of my head.
“Help me with the coffee.” Aunt Retta suddenly stood before me. The black of her dress blocked my view of Uncle Bill who’d been about to reach the table. Unable to see through the swirl of that heavy cotton, I missed the look on his face when he spotted the spicy bean dip. I asked if we could have that dish because it was one of his favorites.
The night before as we sat at the dinner table Aunt Retta said “Bill, it’s not like she meant to die the week before your birthday.” He hadn’t eaten for days and was about to leave the table without taking even one bite of the meal she’d prepared. Instead, he started laughing and she turned her attention to me. “Esma, take your bath right after you finish.”
She must’ve had eyes in the side of her head. How else could she have known I’d been making silly faces to try to get Uncle Bill to smile?
Aunt Retta told everyone he’d been born on the slow side of the bed, but, like my mom, I didn’t believe her. He was quick enough when he needed to be. Look at how fast he could stop himself when his body shook sometimes like a wet dog.
“C’mon, Retta,” my mother would say to Aunt Retta. “He’s our little brother and he can’t help it that he’s got a nervous tic from those damn jack hammers. It’s not like he can trade himself in.”
The day Grandma died, Aunt Retta turned to me and quietly said. “Its times like this I miss your mom the most.” I only nodded. I missed her more times than that but learned not to say so. “Your mom wouldn’t want you feeling so bad,” Aunt Retta used to scold. “She gave you to us because she wanted you to be happy.”
Uncle Bill wanted me to be cheerful, too. He painted my bedroom circus-green and then had moved his rabbit cage near the window, so I could see his plump, white bunnies.
“Now don’t go feeding them. They’re fat enough!” He warned with a wink that was followed by a jerky shake of his head.
He also let me watch him shave; sometimes let me soap his face.
I asked him once how come he shaved, and he said it made for nicer kissing. I was about to ask a question about that but the “you’re not supposed to ask questions about that” tilt of his head dropped me into silence.
At the wake, Uncle Bill moved among the funeral guests without talking to any of them. Walking over to Aunt Retta, he slipped some cash into her hands. “For the preacher.”
“That’s about what I figured, too.” She glanced at the money and with the back of her hand motioned Brother Jess over.
“Esma, get the Reverend a cup of coffee.” She then gave Uncle Bill a brief once-over as he returned to the buffet table and shook her round head. That morning she had called him a renegade for wearing a dark green shirt, blue jeans, and brown leather cowboy boots and had told him to wear something else.
“What in heaven’s name have you got on? This isn’t a dance.”
“Damn” was all Uncle Bill had said before stepping outside for his morning cigarette. On the porch, steam rising out of his nose, he had looked like a dragon.
“I’m wearing ‘em anyway. She was my ma, too!” He had announced when he came back inside.
I stared first at him, at the clean-shaven face that had nothing to do with a kiss, then I looked over at Aunt Retta. Dark hair up in pin curls, her face showed lines usually hidden beneath face powder.
“We’re gonna get her cremated, Bill. That’s what she would’ve wanted.” Aunt Retta smacked her lips and resumed an earlier argument.
“No grave, no nothing?”
“Just a simple service, Bill. No need for frills … ” As a member of the United Spirit Assembly Aunt Retta said it was best to not cause a fuss. Just do what other members did. Uncle Bill didn’t belong to any kind of church, so he just shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t really care just as long as she was put to rest in a proper way.
“She will be, and the preacher already knows what to say,” Aunt Retta reminded him.
They had already met with the man to discuss the service. “Give me an idea of what she was like,” Brother Jess asked.
“I don’t know what to say about her, Brother Jess. It’s not like she was saved. She never did take the Holy spirit in, never.” Aunt Retta half apologized. “She died in heart surgery. There’d been no time to be saved.”
Sitting across the table, Uncle Bill had stood up and mumbled, “I’m gonna step out for a smoke. Be right back.”
On a stool in the corner I listened to them talk and had to bite down upon my lower lip to not ask what it meant for Grandma to have been saved.
“I’ll take the spirit for her!” I offered, not sure of what the spirit was. “Then she can go straight to Heaven, right?”
“Esma! You’re a funny little girl! It doesn’t work like that. You can’t just up and get the Holy Ghost for anyone. If you really want it, then the Reverend here and I can help you get prepared. But you can’t do that for Grandma, even though she’d thank you for it all the same.” Aunt Retta cleared her throat and glanced from me to Brother Jess.
“Now, Sister Retta, that’s real nice of the little girl, real nice. I wish it could be as she asks. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the Lord works. Nope, not at all! However, … ” He raised his voice, bringing one short stubby finger up to his lips. “The Good Lord has heard your intent, child and that’s a mighty fine beginning for you.” He then pointed that same finger upwards.
I looked up and found myself staring up at the light fixture over our heads. I could make out the dark bodies of dead flies behind its milk white glass.
“It’s a warm one today!” Uncle Bill came back into the kitchen and went to the refrigerator. “Anybody want a beer?”
In the hush that followed, Uncle Bill pulled his hand away from a beer can and wiped it on his pant leg.
“Honestly!” Aunt Retta muttered. “Now, Brother Jess, where were we?”
In the car, on the way to Grandma’s funeral, I thought about my mother’s funeral. Barely big enough at the time to heave myself onto the kitchen stool, I hadn’t remembered much except Uncle Bill rolling rubber toys back and forth on the living room floor, while Aunt Retta and Grandma talked before we left for the cemetery.
“Well, like Kitty wanted, we can keep her here. But we’ve got to get her baptized.” Wringing her hands, Aunt Retta had walked across the room.
“Wait now, Retta. Kitty wouldn’t have wanted that!” Grandma was about to water the African violets on a cart near the front door. “Now quit your pacing there and listen to what I say!” The command of her voice surprised all of us.
I had glanced from Uncle Bill to Grandma to Aunt Retta. All of them turned to look at me. They did that a lot when I first got there. Most of the time, I’d just look away but this time I couldn’t. I started to cry.
“You sure are pretty.” Uncle Bill wanted the tears to stop.
As we stood outside Aunt Retta’s United Assembly of Spirit church, I rubbed the palms of my hands over my blue dress. “Grandma never wore dresses,” I said.
“Nope, she wasn’t the type, was she, Bill?” Aunt Retta looked over at her brother. His arms were beginning to quiver. “Bill…”
Hunching his shoulders, he pulled into himself. Arms folded tightly across his wide chest to stop the trembling, he said only one thing. “I hate churches.”
He wasn’t the only one. Just weeks before she had died, Grandma had hollered across the room at Aunt Retta who was complaining that even though she invited Uncle Bill to go with her
Sunday mornings, he never did. “Keep your Bible stuff to yourself!” Grandma’s dried face grew red as placed her hands upon her hips.
“The boy needs something, Mama, something bad!”
“Maybe so, Retta. But it’s not going to come from us!” Grandma then motioned for my aunt to follow her into the kitchen. One large, the other small, the two women leaned against the sink, their backs to me. I could barely make out the words that passed between them but straining, I heard them talk about the date Uncle Bill had brought home a few nights before.
“Lord have mercy! What is going on here?” Aunt Retta had demanded when she found Uncle Bill and his girlfriend in the living room. Instead of watching the TV, they were kissing and doing something on the couch.
“Bill, you know better! This is a disgrace! You put your coat on now.” Raising her voice, Aunt Retta had ordered the woman to leave.
“Now, wait just a minute here, she’s my company and …” Uncle Bill handed the woman her beige button-down coat.
“Company nothing Bill Higgins! We’ve got a child in the house and this just won’t do!”
In spreading her arms, Aunt Retta occupied the small room making it impossible for me, hiding in the shadows of the hallway, to see enough of Uncle Bill’s friend to know what had caught his fancy.
At the church Brother Jess welcomed us in. “Greetings in the light of God. Condolences and comfort from the Son.” Behind Brother Jess was a large cross made of light bulbs. Grandma’s urn was beneath it on a pedestal.
Following Aunt Retta, I heard only the click of Uncle Bill’s cowboy boots against the wooden floor behind me. The sound stopped as we neared the pews where steel blue carpeting had been laid.
I sat between Uncle Bill and Aunt Retta and watched as the preacher pulled upon speaker wires and tested the microphone. He wanted us there early to help with the sound check.
“Can you hear me if I turn my head this way?” The silver-haired man asked every few minutes. “And now in the back row, can you hear me, dear?”
Craning my neck, I turned around to see a woman with two large boys seated in the last pew. She grinned. “Yes, I can” then frowned at like she felt bad for me even though we didn’t know each other.
As Brother Jess spoke to us and the handful of neighbors who showed up about life and death and what happens to those who love Jesus, Uncle Bill fidgeted. He pulled on the cuffs of his shirt, twiddled his thumbs, and rotated his ankles a few times then said he had to go to the bathroom. Aunt Retta sighed and rolled her eyes.
While he was gone the light bulbs on the cross went out. Then the sound system failed.
Uncle Bill returned moments later and sat down. Looking surprised, he leaned towards me and whispered, “What happened?”
Aunt Retta’s eyes darted his way while the pastor, wiping the back of his neck with a handkerchief, raised his voice for the rest of the service.
“Too bad it was hard to hear him,” Uncle Bill smacked his lips as we walked to the car. “And it was just getting good!”
“Bill, I sure hope you weren’t up to any tricks,” Aunt Retta said as she unlocked the car. “That wouldn’t be right.” She advised him to not doing anything foolish to Brother Jess or his wife when they got to the house.
“Why’s she going to be there?”
“She’s his wife, that’s why. She showed up to support him … and us.” Aunt Retta also explained to Uncle Bill their sons were also coming over to the house after the service. As she spoke, Uncle Bill brought one of his dark leather boots to rest on the dashboard of the car.
“Bill, this isn’t a barn! Put your foot down,” Aunt Retta stared straight ahead as she led the small procession of cars home.
Uncle Bill slowly dropped his foot. “Think she’s looking down on us?”
“Probably, Bill, so behave yourself.”
With that he brought his foot back up to the dashboard and glared at her.
Pulling into the driveway, Aunt Retta stared straight ahead, saying only that she hoped he wouldn’t do anything stupid when everyone arrived.
Uncle Bill got out of the car. “Go on in, help your Aunt and …” he said to me. Still in the car I picked at my stiff dress and waited for him to finish talking. “Tell everyone thanks much for coming. She … she would’ve liked it.” His voice cracked.
“And Esma,” he bent down towards me, “I don’t want Aunt Retta sending for me to have coffee with the preacher. I’m going out to the garage. If he wants to see me, he can find me out there.”
I watched the building’s darkness swallow him up before I headed for the house. From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of him; his cigarette glowing in the dark like a faraway star.
Karen Pierce Gonzalez’s fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Lagom Journal, Postcard Poems and Prose, San Francisco Chronicle, Tiny Thimble Magazine, Twist in Time, Voice of Eve, Vega, Visual Verse, and other publications. Select stories have earned awards and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
A former journalist and folklore columnist, she is also a mixed-media artist who works with tree bark, chalk/oil pastels, fibers, and, when lucky, salmon leather.