Excerpted from Went Out Laughing
There’s that thing at the end of Romeo and Juliet where both of the main characters get more important because they kill themselves. Like, the whole city shuts down and everyone grinds their teeth and you’re left to assume that nothing ever happened again after that, or if it did, it didn’t really matter because it couldn’t hold a candle to something so big. Nothing shut down for my sister. They should have covered the skyscrapers downtown with giant tarps, covered the streets in Persian rugs, and let us lead a barefoot parade through the busiest intersections. Instead we chugged along through construction and traffic, watching everyone go about their days, pretending they couldn’t feel our pain radiating out in every direction.
A moving truck cut us off on the way to the cemetery and we lost the hearse. I was scared they would bury Emily somewhere we could never find her and it would be the same as if she never existed. Someone from the funeral home had offered to chauffeur us, but the old man insisted on driving. He’d shown up in his old tan Buick Park Avenue and made me and Mom sit in the back. It smelled musty inside. I knew it’d been sitting in the garage at his old house ever since he moved in with us. He said he’d had to wake up a neighbor to give him a jump since he hadn’t driven it in so long.
A diagonal row of orange traffic cones sliced the road down to one lane and made it impossible to pass. The old man swerved back and forth in our lane but it didn’t matter, there was nowhere to go. At one point I saw the moving truck driver in the long side mirror. He was just a bearded college kid, nodding along to some radio song I couldn’t hear. He clearly had no idea he’d separated the head from our little funeral caterpillar.
“Perfect,” said Mom.
The truck’s brake lights came to life and the old man nearly ran into the back of it. I noticed I was breathing hard.
“What’s the cemetery?” I said.
I kept running my fingers between the seatbelt strap and the clip-on tie Mom had handed me as we walked out the door.
“It’s the place where they plant humans like seeds,” said the old man.
“Jesus,” said Mom.
I sort of couldn’t believe the old man was still saying things like that, especially today. Mostly because Mom hated it when he talked like that, but also because I’d always kind of thought he was joking, and today didn’t seem like a day for jokes.
“I mean, what’s the name of the cemetery,” I said. “We know, right?”
I watched him smoothing the air bubbles out from under the decal they’d given us, a plain white see-through cross. The other drivers had stuck theirs in the corner of their windows, but the old man had slapped ours directly in the middle of the windshield. I wondered if that was what you were supposed to do if you were the closest family members.
“We know,” said Mom.
She sounded like she was angry at me. Usually I would have left it at that, but I was more worried about losing track of my sister than what would happen if Mom had a meltdown.
“Can you just say it so I know we know?” I said.
Mom hadn’t said more than a dozen words since the paramedics left the house with Emily’s body under a sheet, the two burly men struggling to keep the stretcher flat as they brought it up the steep basement stairs. I didn’t even know about the funeral until Mom knocked on my door that morning and grabbed my black dress shirt and pleated gray pants out of the closet and tossed them onto the bed. I hadn’t been to school for two days and I was hoping they were going to let me skip the last month of sixth grade.
“Your grandfather knows,” said Mom.
That wasn’t a good sign. If she was relying on him for the specifics of anything, we were all in trouble.
“I know that your sister isn’t actually in that hearse,” he said.
His eyes found me in the rearview mirror. It felt like he was daring me to say something back to that, something that would definitely piss off Mom.
“But you helped carry her in there,” I said, trying to point out some real world thing that had happened. He hadn’t really carried her, though. There weren’t enough men to support the weight of the casket, so the old man and my uncle Bill rested a hand on either side as it was wheeled out to the hearse on a metal cart.
“Fisher, did that look anything like your sister?” he said. “Wasn’t there something essential missing?”
I was about to press my cheek up against the cool window to try to calm myself down when something crashed into the roof of the car. I imagined a bird dropping dead out of the sky, something large, like a bald eagle or a hawk, but then I saw Mom’s fist. It was still shaking as she lowered it back down to her lap.
“Enough of your bullshit,” she said. “Just get us to the goddamn cemetery.”
We’d inched so close to the back of the truck that I couldn’t see the traffic light. It felt like it’d been red for forever. The old man put the car in reverse and backed up as much as he could without hitting the jeep behind us, then shifted back into drive and started pulling into the right lane. The side of the Buick bumped a traffic cone but it didn’t stop the old man. He slowly pulled all the way into the blocked lane, rolling over one orange cone after another, each one making a dull thud as we watched the tip disappear below the hood. We hit every cone in our path, the scraping getting louder with each bent piece of rubber that went under.
As we passed the moving truck, another bearded college kid sitting in the passenger seat turned to watch us. When he saw the cross on the windshield he looked like he suddenly got it, and he flipped his head around, probably to tell the driver what they’d done.
The light was still red by the time we pulled up beside the hearse. The funeral home director looked over at us with big eyes, then down to the front of the car where I’m sure there was a pile of cones sticking out. We couldn’t go any farther because of the flashing electronic construction sign blocking the exposed manhole. A few confused construction workers were standing around behind the sign, scratching their faces and giving us their full attention. The sign only blinked two different words: SLOW / HOLE.
“Asshole is more like it,” muttered Mom.
The light turned green and the moving truck held its position while the old man tried to shake off some of the cones by driving quickly back and forth. Eventually he got rid of enough that we could drive forward again into the empty space the hearse had left behind. We caught up and took our place behind it, where we belonged.
“They’ll have to try harder than that if they wanna get rid of us,” said the old man.
We pulled over into the patchy green grass when we’d snaked our way far enough through the cemetery.
“Open the door for your mother,” said the old man as he got out and went to wait for the funeral director to unlatch the back of the hearse.
“I can open my own door,” said Mom, but she just sat there, her seatbelt still buckled tight.
She was wearing her biggest sunglasses, and angling her head just enough toward me that I couldn’t see her eyes at all. I’d already undone my belt but I sat there for a minute too, hoping that mimicking her was the right move.
Through the windshield we could see the old man discussing something with the funeral director. I’d forgotten his name immediately after he told us. I wasn’t going to ask him for anything and I certainly wasn’t going to say hello if I ever saw him again. The funeral director pointed at the grass and the old man tapped his forehead like he was thinking hard about something.
“I know you thought your dad would show up today,” said Mom.
She’d turned toward her own window, toward the endless rows of gravestones jammed into the earth, and the stray statues and monuments that towered over some of them, casting long shadows. For once, I’d forgotten to think about Dad at all.
“Did you call him?” I said.
“No,” she said. “He can’t fix this.”
“But he knows,” I said.
“Probably,” she said.
She bent at the waist and adjusted her black tights near her ankle.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “He doesn’t matter.”
There was a tap tap tap on my window and I reached out to roll it down.
“The grass is too damp for the cart,” said the old man as he lowered his head into view. “I need to recruit a few more pallbearers to carry her the rest of the way.”
“Get Bill’s new idiot girlfriend to help,” said Mom.
“One step ahead of you,” said the old man. “I just need the boy, and we’ll be set.”
I didn’t know if he was asking Mom for permission or if I was supposed to get out of the car and go with him. I stared at the headrest of the empty driver’s seat and waited for some kind of sign.
When Mom didn’t say anything, the old man opened the door.
“Wait,” said Mom.
She stuck her arm out in front of my chest, like she’d slammed on the brakes and didn’t want me to fly forward and hit my head. She wasn’t touching me but she wasn’t moving her arm either. She was doing something strange with her closed lips, like she was taking quick, painful bites at them, and I wondered if she was crying underneath those enormous sunglasses. She put her arm down and took a deep breath.
“Okay,” she said. “Go help.”
They put me in the middle on the left. Uncle Bill’s girlfriend kept stepping on my heels. I didn’t know her name either. The old man was directly across the casket from me. I think the funeral director and the guy who drove the hearse were carrying most of the weight, but the old man and I probably seemed like the only ones doing any of the heavy lifting from the way we were both twisting up our faces.
There were three chairs set up for us a few feet from the hole. Everybody else was expected to stand. Mom still hadn’t walked over from the car by the time the priest was ready to make his stupid speech. The old man took a seat and told me to run back and get her.
I squished my way to the narrow road, figuring that jogging was probably throwing muddy splatters onto the back of my pants. It didn’t matter. I should have been able to smear my whole face with mud if I wanted to. When I got to the Buick it was empty. I spun around and inspected the group of people near the grave but there were so few it was easy to see that Mom wasn’t one of them. I went from panic to anger really fast. The wind blew against my back and I turned into it. There was Mom, balancing on her tall heels, wobbling up the gravel road toward the cemetery entrance.
I ran to her. I wanted to shout as I ran, say something that would make her stop in her tracks, but I didn’t feel like I had that kind of power anymore. I made it to her side and slowed down to her pace.
“Everyone’s ready,” I said.
“I’m not ready,” she said, still walking.
“I think this part is pretty short,” I said. “The old man said it’s just another thing we have to get through.”
“I don’t care,” said Mom. “I’m so sick of the shit he says.”
The road was curving ahead of us and I thought about how long it took to wind our way this deep into the cemetery. It would take a while to make it back to the front gate on foot.
“Please don’t make me do this alone,” I said.
“None of this means anything to me,” said Mom. “I can’t see myself here. I can’t…”
She didn’t finish her thought. Her voice sounded weird, like she forgot who I was and was talking to another adult or something.
“I can see you, Mom.”
“No, you all can only see what I’m supposed to be,” she said. “And how I’m supposed to be it. Like the T-Rex, remember? It can only see you when you move?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
I remembered the movie but I didn’t know what it had to do with Mom or the funeral. I was thinking about the part where the paleontologist waves the flares, to distract the dinosaur from getting the kids. It seemed like Mom was thinking about a different part.
“I’ll be home eventually,” she said. “Go back and be with your sister, and your grandfather. They’re waiting on you.”
I knew there was no point arguing with her. She never did what I asked anymore, no matter how much I begged or cried. I stopped in the middle of the road and watched her go. She didn’t turn around once, and we didn’t see her again until it was already dark the next day.
About the Author
David Henson’s work has appeared in numerous journals and recently won the 2017 So Say We All Literary Prize in Fiction and the 2016 Problem House Press short story contest. He writes and records music under the name Shadows on a River, which can be heard at shadowsonariver.bandcamp.com and tweets from @davidbhenson. He lives in Nebraska with his wife and daughter and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. “Traffic” is the first chapter of his unpublished novel, Went Out Laughing.