by Joe Cappello
The Zabretti family stood in front of the coffin staring at the body of their mother. She was dressed in a pink, shift dress with a hodgepodge floral design, resembling a mini tornado that touched down below her waist. She wore a white head band with the words “Peace and Love” printed on it in blue letters next to the outline of a dove. Strands of white hair stuck out over the top of it.
Marion Zabretti shivered from the air conditioning that made the viewing room colder than it had to be. The sickly-sweet scent of flowers and sight of her mother looking like a hippy manikin turned her stomach. But as the oldest Zabretti, she felt she should be the one to say if her mother’s coffin should be opened or closed for the viewing. Her younger brother, Salvatore, (“Torre” for short) and youngest sister, Luce, had other ideas.
“I say we vote on it,” offered Torre. He leaned over to get a closer look at his mother’s head band. “Did people actually wear stuff like that in the 60s?”
“That and love beads and they stuck flowers in the hair, flower children they called themselves.” Marion shook her head. “Mom was a piece of work alright.”
“So, are we going to vote or what?” Luce folded her arms rubbing her bare arms with the palms of her hands. She wore a sleeveless black dress and matching low heel pump shoes. Her brown hair hung in curls around her face giving her a slight retro look. “Because if we are, I vote to leave it open.”
“Are you serious with this dress?” said Marion ignoring her. “It barley reaches her knees. And that headband…” She leaned over the coffin carefully as though coming too close would soil her pricey high-waisted trouser pants and snow-white blouse.
“Don’t rag on me,” said Luce. “Mom wanted to be buried in the dress she wore at that Democratic Convention in Chicago ‘68… ‘stickin’ it to the man’ as she liked to say.” Marion bent over the coffin getting an even closer look, her parted black hair falling in front of her face which she quickly brushed away.
“Let’s stay focused, Marion,” said Luce. “We’re supposed to be deciding if we should leave the coffin open or not. I vote yes. How about you, Torre?”
“I don’t care one way or the other.” Torre shrugged. Marion frowned as she took in her brother’s appearance. His wrinkled gray trousers and navy-blue sport coat didn’t quite match. She winced at the sight of a multi-colored tie around his neck, which she considered most inappropriate for a funeral. She turned down his collar to cover the exposed tie and centered the knot on it.
“Thanks, mom,” Torre said, beaming a child-like warmth that made Marion crack a smile.
“Never mind.” She patted his cheek, then turned away abruptly.
“Okay. I vote we close it,” said Marion.
“It’s a tie.”
“Not really, Luce. Tie goes to the oldest. We close it.” Luce opened her mouth to say something but Marion cut her off.
“Look at this carpet. What was the color supposed to be…maroon? It looks like dried blood from a crime scene.” She scraped at it with the sole of one of her leather ballet shoes. “And these shit-colored, brown walls and those things passing for drapes in front of the windows look more like burlap sacks. Did you have to have the wake here?” Luce rubbed her arms more vigorously.
“Baldoni’s has buried Zabretti’s as far back as I can remember,” said Luce.
“Did you ever think it might be time for a change?” Marion’s dark eyes narrowed. She lowered her voice. “Did you ever consider cremation? We could have sprinkled her ashes over the marijuana plants she had growing in the back yard. Mom would have loved that. Honestly, I wish you would have checked with me before you did all this.”
Johnny Squitera, Luce’s husband, a short man with a barrel chest, drew closer to Luce and Marion. He cleared his throat.
“Marion, we had to make decisions,” said Johnny, “so we did the best we could, we—”
“Hey, you all remember Beth, right?” said Marion cutting off Johnny and rubbing the shoulders of her partner standing next to her. A wisp of a woman with curly blonde hair and brown roots, Beth smiled slightly. “Show everyone the picture you brought with you.” Beth reached into her purse and produced a six by nine, color photo in a flat black frame. It showed Mary Zabretti standing on a boardwalk, her back to a sandy beach with white-capped ocean waves behind her. She wore a tie die shirt, granny glasses and a wide brimmed straw hat. Two rainbow colored peace symbols hung from her ears.
“She looks great, doesn’t she?” said Marion. “Compliments of my Bethy over here.” Marion grabbed Beth’s cheeks and smooshed out her lips. “Where did you take that again, my little talented photographer?” Beth strained to speak through her scrunched lips.
“Jersey shore. Seaside I think,” she blurted.
“Well, you are terrific at what you do even though you hardly make any money at it,” said Marion. She placed the photo on a pedestal next to the coffin in front of a bouquet of flowers. Her cell phone rang.
“Hello?” She lowered the phone. “Gotta take this call. Be right back.” She brought her face close to Beth’s ear. “Let me know if little sister over there brings up the will.”
Marion hurried back to the viewing room. She paused at the entrance to give her eyes time to adjust to the darkness that now hung over it like a dark cloud. She could see the curtains had been drawn to ward off the hot July sun. She sat next to Beth in the front row.
“Any news?” she asked.
“Nothing about a will,” said Beth. “Torre was just here talking about the house he is renovating in Pennsylvania. I didn’t know he moved to PA, did you?”
“No,” said Marion. “I thought he still lived with mom.”
“Not for a long time, he said. How come we didn’t know that?”
“I can’t picture the man leaving mom, never mind Jersey City, New Jersey.” Beth’s eyes widened as she pointed to the back of the room.
“Oh, and your sister, Luce, is back there, giving the funeral director hell.” She turned her body around indicating the back of the room.
“Mr. Baldoni, this light?” Luce indicated the light mounted on the podium at the entrance to the room. She pulled the chain repeatedly turning the incandescent bulb on and off. “Did you buy it from Edison himself? I told you people who come to pay their respects will be old.” Mr. Baldoni’s bald head turned red and his jowls sagged lower than an old hound dog. “They need a bright fluorescent light so they can see to sign the register. I paid for a podium with a bright light and that’s what I want.”
“Was she always like that?” asked Beth.
“Luce? Oh, yeah,” said Marion. “She was always little Miss Anal. Has to control everything. She not only dots I’s, she crosses T’s then nails people to them.” The old man shrugged.
“And when you’re finished with that, Mr. Baldoni,” continued Luce. “There, see? Back there.” She pointed to a row of chairs. “The third row. A few of the chairs are out of line. I said three perfectly straight rows. So, when you come back, I expect you to make that right.” She ran her hands over her bare arms, then placed her hands on her hips. “And turn that damn air conditioner down. Its colder than a morgue in here.” She took long, quick strides toward Marion and Beth and sat down with a huff.
“How many Zabretti’s has he buried? You’d think he’d know the drill by now,” she said.
“So, Luce, when did Torre move out of mom’s house?” asked Marion.
“I don’t know, years ago.”
“Okay, so you’re still around the corner form mom on Piersall, right?”
“No, we moved down the shore six years ago.” Luce took a deep breath and pulled her black skirt over her knees. “So, when are you two gonna get married?” Marion and Beth exchanged glances.
“We are married,” said Marion.
“You’re kidding. When did that happen?”
“Three years ago,” said Beth. “At the bowling alley where we met.” She clasped her hands and squealed with delight.
“You know how Beth loves to bowl,” said Marion.
“No, I don’t and you actually had a wedding at a bowling alley?” Johnny and Torre heard the word “wedding” and instinctively joined the three.
“Did you say wedding? Who’s getting married?” Johnny sat next to his wife.
“These two,” said Luce. “Only they’re already married.”
“Oh,” said Torre, looking at Marion.
“Alright, look, we didn’t invite family, okay? Just a few friends,” said Marion.
“And my bowling team.” Beth’s eyes widened. “We bowled afterwards. Shot a 150. My personal best. Say, after this maybe we can all go bowling, Luce. I see there’s an alley here in your old neighborhood.”
“No thanks,” said Luce. “I haven’t been in that bowling alley since they found out the guy handing out shoes was a pedophile. He’s probably still there.”
“I remember him,” said Marion. “He was creeper than a graveyard at night.” Just then Johnny held his ears and began screaming.
“Ahhh.” He stood up rocking from side to side.
“Marion, what is wrong with you.” Luce grabbed Johnny’s wrist. “It’s all right, Johnny, everything’s okay, look at me…look at me,” she said, her voice thin and panicky.
“Sorry, Luce I forgot.” Luce placed her forehead on her husband’s while still holding his wrists. Their heads swung back and forth in unison. “It’s okay,” she said. “The bad lady said the bad words it will pass.” She turned on Marion. “You know he has a reaction to idiomatic phrases.”
“I…I…remember now, it just slipped.” Beth turned to Marion.
“What’s going on?”
“A crazy story,” said Marion. “Johnny works construction. About five years ago they were demolishing a small building. They were finishing up inside. As you can see, Johnny is a short guy. When the foreman went to do a head count, he missed Johnny. He must have been bending down or something, who knows. Anyway, they blew the damn thing up with him still inside.”
“That’s terrible. Was he hurt?”
“Minor injuries, except they noticed a little later that he went berserk if anyone used an idiom or expression like the one I just used.”
“That’s strange,” said Beth.
“Tell me about it. Doctors still can’t figure it out. He’s a rock star in the unclassified mental disorders community.” Marion noticed Johnny seemed to calm down. Luce started leading him by the hand to the exit.
“Wait a second, Luce.” Marion intercepted her sister. “Hate to bring this up but what about…you know…mom’s will?”
“We’re not talking about any will until the priest gets here.” She turned to go, then wheeled back on Marion. “And watch what the hell you say around my husband.”
The wake got underway at 2pm as scheduled. By two thirty the family was seated in the first row. Marion looked back at the three long rows of chairs made straight as an arrow by the cowered Mr. Baldoni. At that moment a woman entered the room. Bent over, strands of white hair barely covering her head, she pushed along a walker with four shiny chrome wheels and matching chrome hand brakes. An oxygen bottle sat in a bracket mounted on the walker’s left side; a clear plastic tube attached to the tank split into two smaller tubes visible in each of the woman’s nostrils. An “Eat my Dust” sign hung from the front seat.
A large man with a perpetual grin followed the woman as she made her way to the coffin. She closed her eyes and mouthed a prayer. She placed her hand on the coffin then made her way to the Zabretti family who were now all on their feet.
“Hello,” she said stopping in front of Luce. “I’m Bernadette Cosimano, an old friend of your mom’s. So sorry.” Luce put her arm around the old woman.
“Thank you,” said Luce. Marion pointed to the sign.
“Nice sign,” she said. “Really cute.”
“Comes in handy.” Her eyes twinkled in an old cute person sort of way. “Especially when I have to haul ass for somethin’ I did at the home.” Luce laughed uncomfortably. Torre came to the rescue.
“Thanks for coming. How did you know our mom?”
“Oh, me and Mary go way back. Went to St. Paul’s on Greenville Avenue together. We were in the same class.”
“How sweet is that,” said Beth unconsciously massaging her bowling arm.
“Yup. Mary and I made our first communion together…sang in the choir…received confirmation…”
“Adorable,” said Luce shaking her head.
“Snuck our first cigarette in the girl’s bathroom. Nun smelled the smoke but couldn’t figure out who did it. She was madder than a pissed-on chicken.” Johnny fell back in his seat and instantly assumed a fetal position.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing, Mrs. Cosimano,” said Luce as she went to Johnny and began rubbing his temples. “Relax…relax…it’s okay,” she said. Mrs. Cosimano laughed.
“He looks like 90 percent of the people back at the home. Anyway, where was I?” She looked back at the large man, his hands folded in front of him still grinning.
“Smoking in the bathroom,” he said.
“Oh, right. Let’s see, we had our first drink together…” Luce stood up.
“Really, Mrs. Cosimano. That’s enough…”
“…And our first refer…”
“Don’t stop her, Luce, she’s on roll,” laughed Marion.
“Must have been 1966 or 67. Hell of a year, did lots of pot. Lots of cute boys were around then.” She smiled as she leaned over her walker. “We did them too.” Torre stifled a laugh. Beth swung her harm as though throwing a ball down an alley. Luce gave up and fell back on her chair.
“Well, sorry again for your loss. She was a great gal, kind with a sense of humor that would make a stone sculpture crack a smile.” Johnny moaned as he dropped his head in his hands. She pointed to the large man behind her. “He’s my ride. Gotta get back. I promised a gentleman caller I’d do him a favor.” She winked at the group. “I’ll probably have to take my teeth out for that one.”
The afternoon wore on and only two more visitors showed. One was a woman who worked with Luce at the local motor vehicle agency. She brought a card signed by her other co-workers. Marion remarked to Beth that was much easier than actually showing up at the wake.
The next-door neighbor, a man in his 50s who mowed the lawn for Mary, stopped by to pay his respects and let everyone know he would no longer be cutting the lawn.
“I mean, who’s gonna pay me, right?” he remarked. Marion laughed mechanically as she gently shoved him out of the room. She shook her head as she sat down next to her brother.
“So, Torre, still working for that construction company?”
“No, I’m a sales associate for a lumber yard.” Torre unbuttoned his suit jacket, his large belly spilling over his belt. “But that’s only temporary. I got this idea.” He leaned in to her, his breath coming in short heaves. “I got an idea for a TV show on one of those home improvement networks.” He patted his stomach. “The name of my show…” He raised his hands in the air and looked between them as though reading a sign that had suddenly appeared there. “…My Gut Feeling.” Marion raised her eyebrows then frowned. Torre continued.
“Tagline…Your Gusty Home Improvement Guru.” He slapped his knees. “The graphic is a tool belt around my gut. What do you think?”
“Sounds like another show about flipping houses,” said Marion.
“Yeah, but I can provide insights from my wealth of construction experience.”
“But weren’t you usually the guy who directed traffic at road construction sites? Not exactly useful info, if you ask me.” Marion regarded him for a moment and slowly nodded. “How about coming to work for me?”
“You know I ain’t got those kinda’ credentials,” said Torre.
“But you got a contact…me. How you think I cracked the good ole boy investment banking network?”
“You had your fancy NYU MBA.”
“No guarantee. But I was smart. I joined a tennis club where a lot of investment bankers were members. Played in high school, remember?”
“Yeah,” said Torre. “You used to beat the hell out of me in front of my friends. Embarrassing.”
“And I beat the snot out of them until one of them said someone as aggressive as me should be working for him. That’s how I made the jump to Wall Street.” She leaned in confidentially. “I could be your jump.”
“Forget it, Marion. I don’t need my big sister to rescue me.”
Marion looked at her watch and was about to say something to Beth when a young woman entered the room. She paused letting her eyes adjust to the dim light.
“Over here.” Marion smiled as she and Beth rose to meet the young girl. They each took an arm and led her to the group.
“You all remember our daughter, Juanita. Juanita, you remember your Aunt Luce, my sister, and her husband, Johnny. And my brother, you’re Uncle Torre.” Juanita’s long black hair draped over her cell phone, her dark eyes fixed on it as she texted. The pecking sounds made by her fingernails filled the abrupt silence.
“Say hello,” exhorted Beth. Juanita grinned as she looked up for a moment and waved with one hand, her other hand still texting. Beth pulled Juanita into the seat next to her.
“Wow. I haven’t seen you since you were a little one,” said Luce. “How old are you now?”
“She’s 17,” said Beth as her daughter continued texting. Marion grabbed her phone.
“Sweetie, can you stop that please? Its rude.” Juanita’s head bobbled back and forth as she spoke.
“How come it’s not rude for you, mi querida madre?” She looked at the others. “She talks on that phone all the time…even when she sits on the toilet.”
“That’s enough, Juanita.” Marion cleared her throat. “Juanita’s attending an art sleep away camp for the summer.” She patted Juanita’s head. “She fancies herself an artist. Beth and I think it’s a great hobby.”
“It’s much more than a hobby,” said Juanita looking up from her phone.
“Never mind,” said Marion. “You’re here to pay your respects to your grandmother.”
“Okay,” she said as she rose. Halfway on her way to the coffin, Juanita stopped.
“Oh, by the way,” she said turning around. “I forgot to tell you. My roommate at camp got COVID.” Marion and Beth exchanged glances. Before Juanita could say another word, they pounced on her, dragging her back and pinning her down in one of the seats.
“Where is your mask…get me a mask,” said Marion. Beth reached in her purse and took out a blue surgical mask. Beth grabbed her arms as Marion stretched it across her face and hooked the loops to her ears. Juanita jumped up her words pulsating as though trying to break through the mask.
“What are you doing, you two locas? You didn’t let me finish. That was three weeks ago. I don’t need no mask.” She attempted to take it off. Marion held up her hand.
“No, you should keep it on,” she said. “It’s for your own good.”
“Huh. You mean for your own good. After all, I might make you sick, you might have to miss a day of your precious work.”
“Calm down, Juanita.” Beth went to touch her arm but Juanita batted her hand away.
“Sure, mia madre, don’t I always?” She rolled the mask up in her hands and placed it in her pocket. “I’m going to the little girl’s room, then I’ll be back to say goodbye to my abuela.” She lifted her index finger in the air. “And just so you know, I’m not going to college in the fall. I’m going to art school.” Juanita resumed her texting a she turned and exited the room. Marion smiled weakly at the others.
“Teenagers. She’ll calm down.”
“Sounds like she wants to go to art school,” said Torre.
“I’m already a patron of the arts with this one,” said Marion, jerking her thumb at Beth. “She’s going to college. I want her to take care of herself, make money.” Just then, a man appeared in the doorway and peered into the room.
“Oh. The priest is here,” said Luce, getting up and motioning for him to enter. “Everyone, this is Father…uh…”
“Kerala…Father Onka Kerala,” the priest said, rolling his mouth around each syllable of his name like it was a giant marble.
“Sorry, Father, I had a momentary lapse there.”
“That’s okay. It’s an Indian name,” he said nodding to the group. “Sometimes hard to remember. Please…just call me Father Onkar.” Marion whispered to Beth.
“That doesn’t sound any easier.” Beth shushed her.
Father Onkar walked slowly to the coffin, his black cassock making whooshing sounds as it brushed against the tops of his shoes. A shock of black hair stuck out form the top of his head held in place by a noticeably greasy hair tonic. He clutched a bible to his chest like a shield. He stopped, bowed to the coffin, then turned toward the group.
“Now before I say a prayer and give a final blessing, I thought it might be comforting if any of you would first like to say a word d about your loved one.” He continued rocking back and forth. “Anyone?” he said. Juanita appeared in the doorway and spoke as she entered the room.
“I just want to say my abuela was a great lady, always nice to me. Gave me money every time I went to see her. She knew I was saving up to see my father in Guadalahoorah, Mexico.”
“That’s …jara,” said Beth, pinching the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. “Guadalajara, Mexico.”
“Whatever,” shrugged Juanita. “Anyway, she was sweet and I’m gonna miss her.” She sat down and resumed texting.
“Thank you, young lady. Anyone else?” Torre raised his hand. He held it there.
“You’re not in school,” chided Marion. “You don’t have to wait to be called on.”
“Oh,” said Torre. “Okay, I just want to say that she was a good mom.” Torre sniffed hard as he reached for a handkerchief in his trouser pocket.
“Thank you. Anyone else?” asked Father Onkar. Luce, Johnny, Marion and Beth avoided his stare. “No? Okay, then, let us pray.” Father Onkar opened his bible using a red cloth bookmark. “Father, we commend the soul of our dear sister, Elizabeth, into—”
“Mary,” shouted Luce. “Her name was Mary.” She buried her face in her hands. Father Onkar looked at his sheet of paper.
“But here it says the name is—”
“It doesn’t matter what your paper say, Father Oshkosh or whatever you name is. Her name is Mary.” Marion turned to Luce. “Were did you find this guy?”
“Knock it off, Marion.”
“No, I’m serious. Is he saying the Mass tomorrow? Better make sure he has the right address for the church. Who knows…he might show up at a synagogue.”
“I said, shut up, Marion.”
“While we’re at it, who picked out the coffin?” Marion stood up and gestured at the coffin like she was throwing something at it. “It looks like Dracula’s day bed.”
“Enough, Marion. Enough!” Luce jumped up, the chair rocking back and forth in response. “Excuse me, Father.” She turned back to Marion. “I’ve had it with you. Think you can waltz in here and take over? Yeah, I picked out the coffin because you weren’t here. Just like you weren’t here when mom was sick, or she needed a ride to the doctor, or needed her diaper changed. Too busy with your life, so much so we haven’t seen your daughter in years, you didn’t know I moved or that Torre lives in Pennsylvania. Hell, you got married never told anybody, moved to a fancy house in the Hamptons that none of us have ever seen and now you come back here and have the nerve to criticize? All I ask is that you sit there, show some respect for mom and most of all, shut up.” Johnny straightened out her chair and led a shaking Luce into it. Marion sighed.
“Chill, Luce. So we’re a little dysfunctional,” said Marion.
“You have to first be a functioning family before you can be called dysfunctional,” said Luce, her voice quavering with each word. Johnny put his arm around her. Father Onkar cleared his throat as he looked down at his bible. He looked up suddenly and with a wide grin on his face addressed the family.
“Let us say a prayer for the peaceful…,” he raised his index finger, “…peaceful…repose of Mary’s soul.”
“We all here?” Luce stood up and looked at everyone. “Okay. So’s you know. Mom’s will is going to be formally read at her lawyer’s office in a couple of weeks. Mom wanted me to read a letter she wrote, you know, so you’d have an idea what’s gonna be in it and all.” She waved the paper she held at Marion. “So, Marion. The moment you’ve been waiting here. I think you should read it.”
“Oh.” Marion retrieved a pair of reading glasses from her purse. She put them on and, taking the letter from Luce, stood in front of the coffin, facing the group. She cleared her throat as she began to read.
“If you’re reading this, I’m probably stuffed in a coffin at Baldoni’s (don’t let the cheap bastard talk you into something made out of crappy wood).” Marion looked around to make sure Mr. Baldoni wasn’t in ear shot. She continued. “I want solid steel enveloping my ass.” Marion continued reading.
“Overall, I’d say I had a good life. Your father was a good man who died way too soon, but that couldn’t be helped. You were all pretty much good kids. Drove me crazy once in a while, but you may have noticed I had small bottles placed in strategic locations around the house. ‘Mother’s little helper,’ as Mick Jagger put it. Anyway, since this is my last hurrah, I’m gonna tell it like it is (like we flower children used to say in the 60s after taking a toke and passing the pot along).
“Marion, Torre, Luce…I love you dearly, but I am so disappointed in you. Like so many people in this country, you claim to be a family…family values and all that. But when was the last time you spoke to each other.? Or visited each other?” Marion looked up at Luce and Torre who were both staring at the floor. “Marion, seems like you’re way too busy making money. Torre, there’s’ more to life than getting a show on HGTV (who the hell wants to watch a show called ‘My Gut Says.’ Especially one featuring your gut.)
“And Luce. Instead of organizing yourself into oblivion, why not pop out a couple of kids? It might give you and Johnny something useful to do.
“As far as my will goes, I know I’m expected to leave what I have to my family, but the three of you haven’t behaved much like one. The only one who’s acted like family is Juanita. Dear, sweet Nita.” Marion’s words actually made Juanita stop texting for almost 10 seconds. “She’s the only one who makes time to visit me and well she actually taught me how to text.” Juanita smiled as she held up her phone.
“Just sent her one.” She read from her phone. “Miss your already, grandma. You don’t have to answer. LOL.” Marion continued reading.
“I know Marion and Beth love her and have given her a good life. But I can tell she needs more, especially from Marion. She needs a real mother, not a money-making machine in designer pants.” Marion frowned as she looked at Beth, then at Juanita. She refocused her yes on the page.
“Regarding my estate, it will be split equally among my three children: Marion, Torre and Luce. Finally, now that you’re all here, there is one thing you can do for me. I want to be buried with my cat. I know you all think that’s pretty creepy, but that’s my last wish. And by the way, I got one last question for you all. Is my cat really dead?
“Chew on that for a while. In the immortal words of Porky Pig…Duh Duhh, Duh Duhh, Duh Duhh…That’s all folks.” Marion frowned as she folded the letter in her hand.
“What cat?” asked Marion.
“Oh,” said Luce a she reached into a shopping bag next to her seat. She retrieved a small, white box tied with a gold ribbon in the shape of a cross and held it up. “Say hello to Schroeder, mom’s cat, and the one she has chosen to share eternity with.”
The family sat quietly as Mr. Baldoni opened the coffin and gently placed the cat’s ashes at her feet. Luce jumped up.
“No, Mr. Baldoni. She’d want the cat up by her arm.” Mr. Baldoni turned around and raised his hands up to his head as though shielding himself from a blow. He shrugged, then did as she asked.
“Why, so she can pet it?’ Torre grunted a laugh.
“She did seem to think it was alive.” Marion shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “What the hell was that all about anyway? I mean, it’s dead, right?” Luce sat sideways on the chair as she faced Marion.
“Funny thing about that. The cat was looking pretty sick a few weeks ago. I get up one morning and it was dead, lying next to her. I took it and buried it in the backyard. Mom was pretty out of it by then and she kept asking for it. Next thing I know, the dead cat’s in her arms.”
“How did that happen?” asked Marion.
“The crazy dog dug it up and brought it to her. He’s a retriever, that’s what he does.” They all stared blankly at her. “Retrieve.” Luce took a deep breath. “Anyway, I buried it deeper, but the dog dug it up again and brought it to mom. This happened a couple of times until I finally decided to cremate the little twit. Next time she asked for him I gave her the box.”
“Not really very sensitive there, Luce,” said Marion.
“Yeah, but it seemed to work. I swear she sat there petting the box and cooing at it like Schroeder was still there.” The group grew silent.
“But what did mom mean when she asked if her cat was really dead?” Marion stroked her chin as she stared at the coffin. Johnny leaned forward in his seat.
“I can’t help but think of that cat in the box thing.,” he said. “You know, the cat is in there but if no one actually sees it, it’s technically alive and dead at the same time.”
“Well, I saw the cat and it was definitely dead,” said Luce. “Like that Monte Python dead parrot sketch.”
“But mom saw the cat as alive,” said Beth. “And in that Monte Python thing, Michael Palin insisted the parrot was alive.”
“Yeah, but like I said, I saw that the cat was dead,” said Luce. “I mean, I buried it.”
“But the dog saw it as alive,” insisted Marion. “Because he dug it up and brought it inside.” Luce couldn’t help raising her voice.
“Then I took the cat…saw it was dead…and cremated it so the stupid dog wouldn’t keep digging it up and bringing it in the house.”
“So, if we put the cat’s ashes in the coffin, we are declaring that it is indeed dead.” Torre rubbed his fingers over his lips.
“Along with mom,” said Marion. “But we can’t see inside the coffin. Does that mean the cat…” She slapped her forehand. “Never mind. I…I still don’t know what this all means.” Juanita stopped texting suddenly and stood up. She smiled, revealing a row of white, niblet-corn teeth.
“We can’t be family if we don’t see each other now and then. When we’re out of touch, we’re like grandma’s cat. We don’t know who’s alive or dead. I’m gonna text that to grandma. She’ll like that.” Juanita sat down and began texting with a vengeance.
A deafening silence filled the room. All eyes were focused on the coffin and the picture of their mother on a pedestal next to it with her hippie clothes and granny glasses smiling like a cat who just ate a bird.
Joe Cappello lives and writes in the picturesque desert country of Galisteo, New Mexico. His short story, “The Secret of the Smiling Rock Man,” won first place in the National Federation of Press Women’s 2022 Communication contest, short story category. A memoir, “Once Upon a Midnight” received an honorable mention in the 2022 Southwest Writers writing contest. His one act play, “Monarch,” won the Susan Hansell Drama Contest 2022.