“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust,” the pastor was saying, his baritone voice boomed over the Panasonic microphone. The choir, resplendent in their black and red gowns, had just finished singing that they wanted to be in that number when the saints go marching in. And proceedings had long passed the part of the service where people could stare at Jane and her perfect hair, which looked even lovelier against the white, shiny silk interior of her polished, brown coffin. Polly had screamed a lot before it closed but after her grief was confirmed only by her tears, some of which fell off at her bony chin unto her black, closefitting satin dress, soaking it as she sat in between Ruth and Herbert on the front bench of St. Peter’s Baptist Church where Jane had played Mary in last Christmas’ “Away in a Manger” composition. Polly’s head was on Ruth’s shoulder, she hadn’t leaned on or touched Herbert since that night Ruth and her had had the talk on the dirt track.
First Lady Litz song the closing song and Minister Stine did the closing prayer. Next to Ruth, Herbert and the Pastor, they were the only other people in the area who knew that Polly was pleasant and shy, almost too eager to please. The cut of Minister Stine’s black suit was the type Polly loved and she would have done the only thing Herbert hated but would keep quiet about, even after a night at Joe’s —give the minister (a man of God but another man nonetheless) a compliment after church—if the occasion weren’t so dismal. The Minister would have liked it too, especially after sounding very genteel after closing his prayer by asking God to let them all be there when the roll is called up yonder.
The coffin had been opened again after the prayer and before the final procession; they’d open it one last time for the congregation to see Jane looking as close to nirvana as she could possibly be. Desires she had none now and some in the congregation, even Ruth, referred to her as Jane’s corpse, but not Polly, to her she was still Jane. Polly looked her up and down. She saw Jane’s freckled nose, her smooth, flowing hair, her tattoo—she saw her only child blue with lifelessness, she smelled the balm the mortician had used on her, she felt her, cold as if blood never ran warm in her veins. Polly started her wailing again; not as loud as the morning she’d seen Jane hanging, but loud enough for Ruth to escort her outside after Herbert had tried to console her and failed.
“My daughter is dead,” Polly had told him the night before the funeral when he told her she was acting weird. Her thin arms vibrated a little when he asked. She’d been staying over at Ruth’s every night that week. True, normally he would have yelled at her about it by that night, but he hadn’t been to Joe’s since Jane had gone and ended herself so his voice hadn’t thundered throughout the living room in a while.
“You seem distant,” he had said when Polly asked what made him say she was acting funny.
“Distant how? Where?”
“It’s like I’m not enough for you.”
“It’s like you can only discuss things with Ruth and not me.”
“What do you want to discuss?”
“I don’t know…Jane maybe?
“I bet you would!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“How do you mean nothing? If you have something to say then say it.”
“It’s nothing I say.”
“What? You think it’s my fault Jane killed herself? You think it’s my fault you’re a horrible mother?”
Polly didn’t answer. She just walked straight into the bathroom and started taking down the items she would need for another night at Ruth’s, slamming them against the marble sink. It was the only thing in the house that the termites hadn’t got to and the only thing Herbert had bought since he got the house when his daddy had gone and gotten a rather fatal heart attack in a famous sky diving incident. It was why the old man didn’t get to finish patching out the scratches on the backdoor, which was the only noticeable blemish the house had when Herbert got it. Oh, that house was his father’s pride, strong, white, almost sparkling in the Florida sun, so well-built that it took fifteen years after his death to become green with algae.
Jane’s friend, Ashley, started singing “Amazing Grace” in tenor. Her sweet, southern voice rose high and low, undulating as those gospel notes climbed over her larynx. Everyone looked so pensive, so deeply solemn, except the pallbearers, they were probably used to that sort of thing. And they looked so calm, so relaxed, so unmoved as they lowered Jane’s body into its final resting place, Lot 1047 of Lakeland Cemetery.
The first shovel of dirt hit against the coffin top neither harshly nor softly. It was clear that it was thrown with a certain degree of disinterestedness. The second one hit pretty much the same. And that’s the one Polly took as a sign to start wailing again. Ruth immediately gave Polly her shoulder and led her away from the brown sand of the grave side. Herbert only watched.
“It’s all his fault,” Polly said setting her head more comfortably on Ruth’s shoulders as they wondered out onto the green of the cemetery.
“Cry if you may, my dear. Cry it all out.”
“I loved Jane, I’d never let anybody hurt her.”
“I know, I know.”
“I loved Jane, I’d never let anybody hurt her,” Polly said again.
“I know,” Ruth said again but in a whisper this time.
The leaves hadn’t started growing as yet in that false spring. That day like so many others was cloudless, all around was soft with afternoon sunshine so the bareness of the trees was especially salient. They seemed naked but full of promise. Ashley was under one of them finishing up her rendition of “Amazing Grace,” riding that last note as if she’d been used to doing it since early childhood. Jane had always talked about her—her black friend who could sing; the one that she’d gotten suspended with for pushing Lilly and Anne down a flight of stairs. She’d explain too that Lilly and Anne were the popular girls at Lakeland High and that they’d walk around begging for attention from all the cute boys. And that she and Ashley had to push them down the stairs because they wouldn’t stop touching her hair. Jane usually left out the part about them calling their clothes cheap.
“You’re my girl, right?” Jane had said to Ashley about two months before the frightful morning. They were sitting under the big tree.
“Um, yeah?” Ashley said.
“I’m going to tell you something that you can’t tell nobody.”
“Promise you won’t!”
“I won’t tell anybody. I promise, just tell me already, man.”
“Herbert made a pass at me!”
“You have to tell your mom, man.”
“I think he was just joking, though.”
“Still you have to tell your mom, man.” Ashley called everybody “man” when she was high.
“Nah forget it.”
Disremembering wasn’t a problem. After all, they’d come out to the big tree with the firm intention to forget, Ashley especially. She would usually start smoking from home and then drive 6 miles to join Jane whose round 1 was her round 2. It had been like that since her parents’ divorce.
“Do what you have to,” Herbert had said that final evening, but his face looked like blood was about to drain from it. Polly’s blue and dark green suitcases were already packed, almost bursting with shoes, clothes, mascara, foundation and perfume—everything she needed to revolt against obscurity. They were 7 in total, and she taking them off the porch and putting them into Ruth’s 2010 Toyota Camry with dizzying haste. She had forbidden it with a stern motion of the hand when Herbert tried to touch the heaviest one. By now it was 3 weeks since he’d been to Joe’s and 2 and a half since he’d started eating one meal a day instead of his usual four. Polly wasn’t cooking as usual, barely any at all and he seemed to have lost the drive to get take out. Ruth had told Polly when they were alone in the driveway that it was his conscience eating at him.
Herbert looked even more worried, as would be expected, when the Police told him about his right to remain silent. This time it was Polly who had called them close to when she was about to leave.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“I’m doing what must be done to show that I respect myself and my daughter,” she said.
Sometimes you have to love yourself enough to move on.