By Kim Bundy
Paul finished his ham biscuit and drained his Bloody Mary, even though he wasn’t much of a drinker. He was standing in Gloria’s dining room on the morning of her funeral, hoping the vodka might tame his nerves. He tried to ease out of the room past Jay, Gloria’s older son, who held court under an enormous oil portrait hanging over the buffet. Jay deftly popped the tail end of a biscuit in his mouth and said to the people gathered around him, “Apparently the Sinclairs take the wallabies everywhere, and I mean everywhere. They act like they are their children, for Chrissake!”
The room was packed with people and for a crazy second, Paul considered dropping to his knees and crawling under the dining room table to get past everyone. Jay turned to him and grinned; Paul noticed his breath smelled strongly of ham.
“Whoa there, Paul–how’re we doing? Think you need to be getting to church about now?”
“Um, well, yes. We want everything to be perfect today.” Jay’s friends stared at Paul and a blush rose from his collar to his hairline.
“Oh, my bad! This is Paul Grimsley. Paul, this is everyone.” A few people pulled celery sticks out of their glasses and began chomping them, but no one said anything. Gloria loved a party as much as anyone, but Paul knew she wouldn’t want a bar set up in her house the morning of her funeral.
“So anyway, Mom just loved Paul–talked about him all the time,” Jay said. Then he turned his back to Paul and lowered his voice. “You know how she took in all those strays who ended up at church …” He dropped his hand at his wrist, bobbing it up and down a few times, and the crowd giggled. Without missing a beat he turned back to Paul and clapped him on his shoulder.
“For some reason, Mom put our little buddy, here, in charge of her damn funeral.”
“Well, technically, the Chairwoman of the Funeral Committee is in charge,” Paul said, the vodka inching its way up his throat. “But she’s given me a lot of responsibilities, so I better get going.” He edged along the dining room table, covered with silver trays of food. Who paid for all this? He guessed Gloria’s estate, something Jay and Tripp impatiently awaited. Sweat ran down his back and the scent of lilies stung his eyes. He’d gotten to the foyer and was poised to make his escape when Jay’s brother, Tripp, grabbed his arm.
“Hold up there, Paul! I want to talk to you–hang on just one minute.” He turned back to a blond woman in a low-cut black dress while Paul waited. “I mean, they never had kids of their own. The wallabies are, basically, their kids. And I hear they are well-behaved so that’s why I told them they could come to the funeral.” She asked what a wallaby was, exactly.
“Wallabies are like, you know, mini-kangaroos. According to the Sinclairs, they can be house trained.” She cocked an eyebrow at Tripp, who said with a laugh, “Now run along little lady, and don’t worry your pretty head over this.” She rolled her eyes and as she headed to the dining room he patted her backside.
“Now, then, Paul, are we ready? You know Mom had huge expectations for today, her Big Day.” He hooked his fingers in air quotes.
“Everything is set to go just the way she planned it. The programs are printed and folded, the family pews are marked, the flower arrangements are in place …”
“OK, OK, I don’t need to hear all the girly details. I just want to make sure this is the best funeral Second Presbyterian Church has ever seen, which is what Mom wanted. Got it?”
“Tripp, that’s what I want, too.” Paul frowned. “Do you think the Sinclairs will bring the wallabies to the funeral? Gloria wanted this day to go perfectly and, well, it’s just a little hard imagining a couple of miniature kangaroos in the sanctuary.”
“Hell, yes they’re coming. The Sinclairs have been friends of ours for, literally, years.”
Gloria’s flame azaleas danced outside the windows. She said her husband, who died in a freak boating accident when the boys were in their teens, wanted to keep the house in the family but she knew the boys would sell it in a heartbeat after her death. When Paul let himself out the front door he thought he heard it lock behind him.
He drove to the church and when he walked into the reception hall he found Mrs. Schroeder dressed in a tasteful black suit with a badge pinned to the lapel that read, “Chairwoman, Funeral Committee.” She was arranging then rearranging silver bowls of pastel mints and mixed nuts. The bowls belonged to her and she’d stuck some of her return address labels underneath them to make sure no one walked off with one.
“Paul! Where have you been?” Paul knew she had doubts when Gloria nominated him for the Funeral Committee–who ever heard of a twenty-five-year-old man serving on such an important church committee? But after his first few funerals she began trusting him, even making him Head Usher today. She pinned a pink carnation to his suit. Her hands shook and he knew she was nervous. Gloria, who never missed a service or a Sunday school meeting or a potluck, told everyone who would listen how she wanted her funeral to play out. She saw it as a production, adamant it be a day to remember.
Paul made his way to the entry of the church and was folding extra programs when he noticed a family getting out of a minivan. A man and a woman helped two little children dressed in matching blue and white sailor outfits, complete with button-on shorts and jaunty ties. The shorts bulged to accommodate what he assumed were diapers. As they drew closer he could see they weren’t children, after all, but rather animals. Hopping animals.
Gloria told him they were old friends from Carmel who never had children. Very nice but a little on the quirky side. A few months ago, they’d called her with good news: they’d adopted some young “brothers.” Gloria was thrilled as she always thought they’d be wonderful parents, although they’d gotten to an age where most people wouldn’t consider them qualified to adopt. When they mentioned the brothers were, in fact, wallabies she wondered how that would work. The Sinclairs explained they were quite socialized, and strong hoppers.
Families come in all sizes and stripes, she said to Paul. Look at us–you’re my son, at least in my heart. When she said this a narrow pinch in his chest that had plagued him for years loosened.
“Halloo there! What a day!” The man beamed as the wallabies hopped up the front steps.
“Uh, welcome, folks.” Paul tried to sound enthusiastic.
“Thank you very much, young man. We are the Sinclairs–good friends of dear Gloria’s. This little guy is Calvin.” He nodded to the wallaby whose paw he held. Calvin leaned forward and sniffed the programs Paul held. Mr. Sinclair was short with a very prominent rear end and the pleats in the front of his pants flared every time he moved.
Mrs. Sinclair piped up, “And this is Richard.” Richard peered up at Paul in an imploring manner. Mrs. Sinclair, with no derriere to speak of but quite a memorable bust, had on a dress with a breezy green frond pattern. It made Paul wonder what wallabies ate. Bamboo?
“Are they still babies?” he asked, not sure what to say.
“They may look like babies but they’re adolescents,” said Mr. Sinclair, pleats flexing. “Before long we should have them fully potty trained. Can I just tell you what an amazing addition they have been to our family?”
“They certainly seem, well, fairly tame,” Paul said, even though he had doubts. Their constant bouncing made him nervous.
“We’re sticklers about the boys standing upright and behaving themselves. Those tails of theirs can be wrecking balls if things get out of control,” Mr. Sinclair said, with a wink. They took their programs and led the wallabies down the aisle, and after much debate deciding upon a pew about midway down. Their diapers rustled as Calvin and Richard settled into the pew, turning and circling to find the most comfortable sitting positions.
More people arrived and when Jay and Tripp finally pulled up it was obvious they were drunk. Mrs. Schroeder, who’d been waiting for them, charged out to their car, hissing at them to straighten up. She led them to their places on the front pew and nodded to the minister to begin the service. He climbed into the pulpit and as he opened the Bible a woman shouted, “Oh my God!” Paul, who was handing a program to a latecomer, looked up to see Mr. Sinclair reaching for Calvin and Richard, who were now moving swiftly down the middle aisle.
“Boys! Come back here!” Mr. Sinclair shouted. Mrs. Sinclair stood in the pew and pressed a handkerchief to her mouth. Everyone later learned that Jay, who knew Gloria adored ham biscuits, had slipped a few into her open casket. The church was very warm, and the siren song of the ham wafted back to the Sinclairs’ pew.
The casket was seated rather precariously on an unstable, low wooden stand. This had been at the Funeral Committee’s behest, as they much preferred the aesthetics of the wooden stand to the higher, unattractive metal rack provided by the mortuary (Gloria would have wanted this, Mrs. Schroeder explained).
The wallabies, in their frenzy to find the ham, began rocking the casket. Jay sprang up and tried pushing them away, but Richard’s swinging tail caught him squarely on the jaw and he tumbled to the ground.
“Tripp! Get up and help me with Mom!” Jay jumped up and tried to steady the pitching casket but the family Bible, placed in the casket, went flying. Calvin and Richard, biscuits in hand, bounced back down the aisle and out the front door, followed closely by the humiliated Sinclairs. Tripp and Jay glowered at each other and a few people stood up to leave, not certain if the funeral was over or not.
Jay grabbed Tripp by his tie, and slurred, “Did you tell the Sinclairs they could bring their stupid little wallabies? Leave it to you to fuck up her damn funeral!”
“Don’t blame me! Mom said they were well behaved!” Tripp took a drunken swing at Jay then took off running down the aisle, the Bible tucked under his arm. Jay chased after him, and the minister followed, shouting, “Guys! C’mon, now, this is your Mom’s big day!”
A few people left, scared off by the sight of wild animals in the sanctuary, but most remained, expecting, well, something. Paul ignored his flip-flopping stomach and said to the crowd, “Please hold on for just one minute. Let me see what’s going on.” The organist began playing hymns softly and Paul found the minister on the front porch trying to separate the boys. Tripp tried ripping the Bible out of Jay’s hands and dropped it. Paul picked it up.
“Give me that you little girl,” Tripp growled.
“Gloria said she wanted to be buried with this Bible,” Paul said, calmly. “And that’s what’s going to happen.” Tripp lunged as if to punch him and Paul, without flinching, turned to go back in the church. He walked up the aisle and gently placed the Bible back in the casket before facing the wide-eyed crowd. Mrs. Schroeder was nowhere to be seen and he assumed she’d fled to the reception hall.
“Let’s go with ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ something Gloria liked.” Paul had no idea whether Gloria liked ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ more than any other part of the service, but he knew the words, so he started the crowd with, “Our Father, who art in heaven …” He was surprised and pleased when everyone obediently bowed their heads and murmured the entire prayer.
After they said “Amen,” they looked back at Paul, so he quickly said, “Is there anyone here who would like to say a few words?” An older woman named Mrs. Petree immediately raised her hand.
“Good!” said Paul, relieved.
It took her several minutes to stand and make her way up the aisle. “Well, I think the boys were going to do the eulogies, but Gloria and I attended Sunday School class together for forty-five years, so I guess I can handle it.” The crowd, mostly elderly, chuckled.
“As you know, Gloria was a big personality. She had definite ideas about things, just like how she wanted her funeral to go. Which, as we know, probably wasn’t like this.” The church exploded in laughter.
“She talked about a lot of things but what I remember the most is how hard single parenting was for her at times.” Mrs. Petree stopped for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “She also talked about that family with the wallabies. When they adopted them, she said it was a new beginning for them, that they could just start from scratch.” People nodded knowingly.
She looked at Paul. “And she talked about you. All the time.” Paul stared at his shoes and his cheeks burned. “She said you were so good to her, going with her to see movies no one else would go see, asking her how she was doing and such.”
“This isn’t the way Gloria wanted this day to go, but let’s honor her by remembering how hard she worked at being a friend,” she continued, turning back to the crowd. “And I don’t have to tell anyone here–if you were her friend, you were also her family.”
The organist burst into “Lord of All Hopefulness,” and everyone stood and began talking. Paul headed toward the reception hall to help Mrs. Schroeder and paused as he passed the choir room. He walked to the locker that held Gloria’s robe and when he opened it and saw her robe, hanging so still on the hanger, his throat tightened.
Taking the carnation off his lapel he pinned it to the silky black fabric and when he smoothed the feathery petals with his fingers he thought about Mrs. Petree, how she was honest but also tender. How she filled the room with love. He gently closed the locker door, knowing in his heart it had been a good funeral, the kind of funeral she wanted.
It was a day to remember.