Emeline wore a navy dress to her husband’s funeral, because the only black dress she owned had a long slit almost up to her thigh, which made it a great dress for a Friday night date with Derrick, but not to bury him in. She had thought briefly about burying that dress with him, since he’d liked it so much. Then she thought about burying her wedding dress with him, since she’d only worn it eight months ago and wasn’t sure she could stand to see it hanging in her closet anymore. Then she thought about burying herself. She’d thought a lot of things in the past two days.
The pastor was saying something that she was sure would have been comforting if she could hear it, but ever since she’d hung up the phone call telling her that her husband had dropped dead, there had been a kind of ringing in her ears—like the morning after standing too close to the stage at a loud concert—that made everything else hard to hear. Derrick had told her once that when your ears stopped ringing you’d never be able to hear that exact pitch again. She wondered what she’d be able to hear once the ringing stopped this time.
It was cold for so early in October. Cameron had given Emeline her sweater because thoughts as complex as “it may be chilly later” were too much for Emeline to process, and none of Derrick’s four useless brothers were thoughtful enough to offer Emeline their jacket as she stood by her husband’s casket shivering in the cool breeze.
The first time Emeline had ever told Derrick she loved him was the night he promised she would never have to have dinner with his mother and brothers again. The first time Derrick proposed, she said no because she was sure it meant he would break that promise. But then Derrick’s business partner had offered him a job in Cincinnati, and Derrick agreed to take it. That night was the biggest fight of their life, which ended, somehow, with Emeline proposing to Derrick. If we get married, my family will be at the rehearsal dinner, Derrick had said. Emeline said well, then we won’t have one. That settled it. Over her mother’s objections that it simply wasn’t possible to plan a wedding in such a grotesquely inadequate amount of time, they decided to be married the next month, pack the apartment and move to Cincinnati by the time Derrick’s new job started at the beginning of the new year. That night Emeline put on her black dress so they could go out and celebrate, but they didn’t manage to make it out of the bedroom.
Emeline considered that she would be sitting down to dinner with Derrick’s family after the funeral, but since she hadn’t been able to keep any food down in the past two days she doubted she would actually be eating. Technically, she supposed, Derrick had kept his promise.
Emeline became suddenly aware that people were hugging her. The pastor had stopped talking, and she had somehow been steered into the receiving line next to Derrick’s brothers, his horrible mother, and some distant cousin who had been sobbing since the hearse pulled up. The ringing in her ears grew louder as she watched mouth after mouth form words she could only barely register—we’re so sorry for your loss, if there’s anything we can do, such a shame, we just can’t believe it…
Somehow through the static of condolences Emeline became acutely aware of the voice of her mother-in-law, Mary Margaret McConnell.
“I don’t understand how this happened,” she was saying. “I don’t understand it.” Emeline wondered if she was the only one who could detect Mary Margaret’s accusatory tone. Of course she couldn’t understand it. Mary Margaret had kept Derrick alive the first eighteen years of his life, and after only eight months in Emeline’s care he had dropped dead.
The ringing in Emeline’s ears changed to a metallic grinding, and she realized the casket was being mechanically lowered into the ground. The petals on the flower wreath laid across its top fluttered gently as the box sank lower. Emeline was ready to go home. She was tired. Maybe Derrick would have dinner ready by the time she got home. He almost always did.
No, she thought. He won’t. Her head jerked back to the lowering casket, now almost fully swallowed up by the ground.
“Wait,” she said.
But no one waited.
A hand landed on Emeline’s shoulder and she jumped. The pastor’s serious face appeared before her. His other hand was stretched out to her, and filled with dirt.
“The service is over,” he said.
The pastor furrowed his eyebrows. “The service is over,” he said again. Then he lowered his voice. “It is customary for the bereaved to toss a handful of dirt over the casket.”
Emeline blinked again. The bereaved? She looked around. Her brothers-in-law stood in a cluster behind Mary Margaret, who was now seated in a folding chair, her mouth set in a thin line. Cameron was hovering nearby, clutching her arms to her chest since Emeline was wearing her sweater. Beyond her were Derrick’s coworkers, his business partner who had flown in from Cincinnati, most of their neighbors from the apartment building, a number of Derrick’s childhood friends—even his high school sweetheart, her three-month-old in tow—and about twenty third-grade girls and their mothers. Derrick had been a volunteer coach for the local softball league. She stared at all of them, and they all stared back.
It is customary for the bereaved to toss a handful of dirt over the casket, Emeline thought. In that case, we’ll have this hole filled up in no time. But since the pastor only had one handful of dirt, Emeline supposed this was a task she was meant to take up, alone. She wiped her hand on the skirt of her dress, and held it out to the pastor, who poured the dirt from his palm to hers. Emeline stepped to the edge of the grave, and peered in. This would be a very appropriate time to cry, she thought. She clenched the dirt in her fist for a moment, closed her eyes, and flung it downward. She heard it thud and scatter across the casket’s polished wood.
She stood there with her eyes closed until she felt someone move beside her.
“Emeline.” It was Cameron. “Are your parents coming in tonight?”
Emeline shook her head without opening her eyes. “They’re still in Greece,” she said. “They weren’t able to get their flight moved up.”
“Then I’m staying with you tonight,” Cameron told her. “I’ll have Eddie bring us some egg drop soup. Let’s go.”
Emeline opened her eyes and allowed Cameron to propel her across the cemetery and toward the line of parked cars. Cameron had stayed with Emeline every day and every night since Derrick died. Her boyfriend, Eddie, had been charged with finding some kind of food Emeline could keep down—so far, egg drop soup was the sole winner.
Timothy. The second oldest, after Derrick.
“Aren’t you riding back in the limo?” Timothy asked once he caught up. “We’re having a big dinner over at Mama’s. A few of the boys are coming over.”
Emeline hesitated, but Cameron jumped in.
“I’m going to take Emeline home, Tim,” Cameron said. “You understand.”
“Oh, sure, sure,” he said, nodding, though he clearly didn’t. Emeline plastered what she hoped was a smile on her face, patted Timothy on the shoulder, and turned back to the car.
“Oh, Emeline—” Timothy hastily stepped in front of her. “Just one other thing. I know this ain’t the best time, but, well, I don’t know if Derrick told you, but—” he lowered his voice to almost a whisper, “—but we’re planning on putting Mama in a home. You know how she is, and living all alone in that big house, she’s bound to take a fall sooner or later, and, well, you know how she is.”
Emeline knew exactly how she was. She was a cantankerous bitch and the boys were tired of dealing with her. All four of them lived on the same road as their mother and the house they grew up in. Derrick was the only one to even move across town. The fact that he’d meant to move to Cincinnati was one Mary Margaret had yet to accept.
“Yes, Derrick told me,” Emeline said. “You boys are doing the right thing. Now—”
“Well, right, but,” Timothy pressed, “see, the home we’re putting her into, we all agreed to help pay for it. And Derrick never, well, see, he never did—”
Emeline felt her whole body tense. “Well, I don’t have Derrick’s checkbook on me right now, Tim,” she said slowly, trying to keep her voice even. “Why don’t you come by tomorrow and we’ll see what we can work out.” And while we’re at it we can talk about the fact that not one of you offered to help pay for the funeral, Emeline thought.
“Oh that’s great, Em, really,” Timothy said, sighing with relief. Emeline tried to smile again and moved toward the car.
“Just one other thing,” Timothy said, stepping in front of her yet again. “We planned to move Mama in next week—before all this happened, I mean—and, well, Derrick was going to—well, see, Mama can be real—well, you know—and we were hoping you could maybe help talk to her—”
“Goodbye, Tim,” Cameron said firmly, taking Emeline’s shoulders and pushing them both past Timothy and to the car. Emeline clambered in while Cameron took the driver’s seat.
“For fuck’s sake!” Cameron said as soon as the car door slammed shut. She turned to Emeline. “OK,” she said. “Stupid question: are you OK?”
Emeline almost laughed. “No,” she said. “Thanks for asking.”