The casket shone like a magic trick under the pink lights, staged in front of a crucifix so ornate and beautiful that Jesus looked like he wanted to be nailed there. Henry sat across from it on a lumpy couch, watching Mom collect condolences like secrets while she clung to Dad, who stared stone-faced at fancy Jesus.
Henry’s eyes were red. Everyone assumed he’d been crying for Papi. They didn’t know Mom had broken a wooden spoon across his backside before leaving the house.
He hadn’t cried about Papi at all. Not when he first heard the news. Not when he lay in bed thinking of him. Not even at the wake: He thought he saw Papi breathe, half-expected him to sit up and offer a stick of Juicy Fruit gum. To a seven-year-old this was an elaborate play — people throwing themselves on the casket and the shouting and streaked faces and handkerchiefs.
A large woman with high hair hurried over, her black dress whispering as she walked. She took and kissed Mom’s hand, then told Henry, “He’s your guardian angel now.” Henry tried not to gag on her perfume.
“Is that true, Mom?”
“Papi’s in heaven,” she said without looking at the boy. “He’s with Grandma and he’s not sick anymore and everything is beautiful.”
“Then why is everyone crying?” Henry said. “We should be happy.”
“Shush,” Dad said, still staring at Jesus.
Papi used to visit unannounced. This was the way in Puerto Rico. But in New Jersey, his daughter was always sad and his visits just seemed to make things worse.
Why didn’t you call?
You don’t want to see your own father? Who came all the way from the city on a bus?
But the house is dirty and my hair isn’t fixed and I haven’t cooked anything.
She would drop everything to play hostess and make a meal and entertain Papi until he was ready to leave.
Henry looked forward to the gifts and candy. And Papi didn’t care if his eldest grandson walked and talked more like a girl.
Henry’s not doing anything wrong. Leave him alone.
Nobody hit Henry with Papi in the house.
It was dark when the wake ended. Henry slept on the drive home.
He awoke to the sound of car doors closing. In the house, his little brother Ben was curled up and dreaming next to the babysitter while she watched TV. Dad carried Ben to bed, then drove the sitter home. Mom went into the kitchen for some water.
Henry still had questions.
“If it’s so great, why don’t we just skip this part and go right to Heaven?”
“Because God wants to give us the choice to follow Him,” Mom said.
“But we get punished if we don’t. Why would He make something that can go wrong just so He can punish it?”
“That’s enough, Henry.”
“It isn’t fair…”
“I said that’s enough.”
“Why didn’t you like him?” Mom stiffened, her coat halfway off.
“What did you say?”
“You always got mad when Papi came over.”
Her coat slipped to the floor. Then came the look Henry knew well, like she was reliving some horrific storm. It was pointless to run. She would follow him under beds or tables and drag him out by a leg.
She backed up to the kitchen counter, put her hand on the drawer that held the wooden spoons. She turned her head to one side, keeping eyes on her son. Dad would be back soon, would turn this into another Old Testament rant, accompanied by his belt. Henry wished Papi would come through the door instead.
Mom took two steps forward and flopped back onto a kitchen chair, her shoulders rolling with sobs.
The front door clicked. Keys jangled and slid on the hall table. Dad stood in the kitchen doorway, looked at his crying wife, then at his son. Henry steeled himself for what was coming.
But Dad walked past him, eased Mom from the chair, and with his arm around her back and her head on his chest, guided her up the stairs. Henry was left to hang up her coat and shut out the lights. In the blessed stillness, he heard the distant whine of a late bus leaving.
Bill Merklee’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best Microfiction 2021, CHEAP POP, The Cabinet of Heed, FlashFlood Journal, Ellipsis Zine, Bending Genres, X-R-A-Y, Ghost Parachute, Gravel, Columbia Journal, New Jersey Monthly, and the HIV Here & Now project. He lives in New Jersey.