by Colleen Sutherland
(Note: The Funeral began as part of a mystery novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo a few years ago. Unfortunately everyone that read it knew whodunnit by Chapter 3 so I put it aside. I still liked the funeral, so I changed the sex of the deceased, her back story, the past tense to the present, and added a few other touches. In other words, I recycled.)
Autumn is coming to Glen Valley. Sugar maples vie with red oaks for color along the river trail. The days are warm, the nights cold. Glen Valley is far enough north to be visited by wild creatures. Down on the trail five eagles perch on the old “eagle tree” watching for carp. The loons are still around calling and fishing as they have for thousands of years. Their calls are a ghostly wail as they get ready to get out of here and be on their way to more pleasant climes. I know exactly how they feel.
I spent my youth trying to get out of Glen Valley and my adult years doing everything I could to stay away from it. Once I left for college, I only came back twice, for two funerals, one for my mother and one for my father. And here I am back at the cemetery on a sunny September morning being laid to rest beside them.
Rest is not the proper word for a phantasm who hovers over the proceedings, watching because there is nothing else for anyone living or dead to do in this no horse town. Plus living or dead, I am a writer and writers observe. So I float around the empty excavation, the coffin, and in and out of the souls of the mourners. Mourners is not the right word here.Writers should always use the appropriate word. Gawkers would be more accurate.
It is not often in this town that somebody of note dies and remains to be buried here. More accurately, within memory it never happened before. I am not terribly well known in high brow literary circles, but I cranked out romance novels for three decades and to Harlequin readers I was a star, I suppose. I was particularly good at the mandatory sex scenes two thirds through each book. Matronly readers who scoffed at porn skimmed until they found those naughty bits, read them over and over until the book fell open in the same place, then hung around the book racks at the local supermarkets until the next cheap romance came out.
I earned enough to keep an apartment in Manhattan and a cottage in Vermont. I had two husbands, both unsatisfactory and long gone now. My life was fulfilling, in a Sex and the City kind of way. I had escaped Glen Valley, its values, its religion and in my own way enjoyed life.
Then along came the fortieth high school reunion which coincided with a book signing tour through the Midwest. I decided to drop in and lord my fame over the students who ignored me back then, but who knew that one of them would run me down on Main Street, perhaps by accident, perhaps on purpose. You never were sure with Alexandria Bastien, who always was a nasty bitch. Drunk driving was the verdict, and her license was taken away, but she was one of the Bastiens. They were the richest family in Glen Valley, which meant upper middle class anywhere else. She had a good lawyer so she was still walking around town.
I'd lived a writer's life, which was solitary. No husband, no children, no church affiliation, and all my money was already in a trust for the ASPCA. Nobody claimed my body, so the Glen Valley chamber of commerce took up a collection to give me, an atheist, a Christian burial. A solid marker would serve as a tourist attraction, they reasoned. It was wasted money. I am not that famous. My passing didn't even get a mention in the New York Times.
So here I am on a Wednesday on a sunny September morning at a short graveside funeral. There still was one space in the family plot here at the Lutheran cemetery so old Reverend Poot kindly officiates as he has for the past forty five years. Because almost everyone in town is in attendance, there aren’t enough folding chairs, so the public library staff stands at the back. The ladies closed the library for the day to attend the services for a writer, which was decent of them. Most people came because of the nature of my death, rather than out of respect.
Television reporters from two nearby stations are covering the event. The USB network has the biggest and best equipment. One set of cameras scans the grave, the other the audience. (I hesitate to call it a congregation because that would indicate similar beliefs and that is hardly the case. Most of the Glen Valley church members believe anyone in other denominations are doomed to perdition.)
When he realized the event would be televised, Mr. Mooney the undertaker tried to round up a portable organist and an organ. Missy Panich, who sings the leads in all the high school musicals, auditioned to be the soloist. Then my Manhattan attorney e-mailed that I wanted no church service and no music. He underlined the words so there would be no mistake. Further there would not be an open casket which means Mr. Mooney's handiwork is not on display. Missy is particularly upset because she saw this as an American Idol moment.
The reporter from USB is doing live interviews working the camera like a pro. It is obvious that none of the interviewees can remember much about me but that doesn't stop them from prevaricating. It seems half the women in my class were my devoted friends. It is a lie. I had only two friends, both male.
Reverend Poot calls us to order. With that, the population of Glen Valley begins to behave themselves. If anyone were to say, “Good riddance,” about this late departed, the microphones would pick that up.
Up on the hillside, two figures are sitting on a tall flat-topped tombstone. They wear suits for the occasion, but they looked like they had been pulled out of a closet unopened since 1940’s. They are wool worsted suits, probably once worn by their father, far too warm for the day. When the breezes waft down the hillside, there is an overpowering scent of sweat and mothballs. It is best the Loach twins keep their distance. My old friends, there to send me off. I am touched.
Old Reverend Poot, ignoring the stand of microphones in front, stands behind the engraved silver plated casket, giving his standard funeral address for non church attenders, using the 23rd Psalm as his text. By sticking to the words of those verses, he can talk about death in general yet avoid saying anything about the deceased. If you can’t say anything nice....
It is the same sermon he preached over my parents, so my mind wanders. I float here and there, turning to see who is there and who isn't. No one is missing that I can see. Even Alexandria is here, looking not the least bit chagrined. The least she could have done was wear black, but she has a stylish print on.There is a small standard floral display that the bank sent, the same bouquet they send to all their customer’s funerals. None of the cashiers or loan officers thought anything bigger was necessary and after all, I didn't have an account there.
There is a big spray over the casket and by shifting to the left, I can make out the printing on the ribbon. “Xerxes Publishing, editors.” That is tacky on so many levels I don't know where to start. It is cheap publicity for my latest books which should sell briskly at the local book store, at least for a week.
Beside the ostentatious display, there is a charming little posy: an orchid surrounded by Queen Anne’s lace, chicory and New England asters, early autumn wildflowers. I look up the hill at the Loach boys and smile and give them a thumbs up, though of course they can't see me. They were always the sweetest boys in high school, not a mean bone between them. Not a dime between them either which is why they are outsiders at an event like this one.
A soft hum surrounds the grave as townspeople whisper their own ideas on the crime, if that is what the Bastiens allow them to call it, but there is an immediate hush when Reverend Poot winds up his oration and asks if anyone would like to say anything. The towns people stare at him blankly. They know they should say something, but it hasn't occurred to anyone to prepare anything.
With a harumph, Karen Carlisle brushes right through me, strides to the casket and turns to stare defiantly. “She may have been a pornographer,” she says “and she had sinning ways, but we should all pray that in her last moments she asked God for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. Otherwise, she went straight to hell.” Since everyone knows by this time I was killed instantly it wouldn't be likely I was currently slipping through the Pearly Gates. Karen knows that, too. She is using Christian morality to take a final dig at someone who got out of Glen Valley and had a career. I am new to this, but if haunting is allowed, I have my first victim selected. I begin a mental list of all those who can look forward to a little poltergeist fireworks, though I will leave the Loach twins alone.
No one else speaks over my mortal remains. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” Reverend Poot intones and that is the end of the service. Everyone leaves to go to the Chamber's post-funeral reception and fall fundraiser.
So here I am, wandering around the town I hate. If I had had the good sense to be mowed down by a New York taxi, I would be wafting in and out of the Metropolitan museum, visiting the Bronx zoo, spending afternoons in Central Park, or watching people drink coffee at Starbucks.
Instead, I am lost forever in the banality of this damned small town. It may be there is a God who grants prayers, even if they are not particularly nice ones like Karen's. Perhaps that is why I am stuck in the hell that is Glen Valley.