The following is excerpted from a novel I am currently writing.
Goddamn but Reggie was pissed. It was a Saturday and it looked like he’d be stuck at home that night because Mom said it would be disrespectful to go out on the day of his grandmother’s funeral. That meant missing the party at Casey Bray’s house. And damn it, this was the last time he’d set foot in a church. Mom had promised that when Reggie turned sixteen — which he had two weeks ago — it was up to him whether he went to church services or not. That’d been a no-brainer. But here he was stuck in the goddamned church on a Saturday. Plus everybody in the fucking town had come up and said what a great person his grandmother had been — as if he didn’t already know it. Like everybody else Reggie had loved Grandma but she hadn’t been the same person — hell, she’d hardly been any kind of person at all — since the stroke two years ago. So Reggie had already mourned his grandmother’s passing after the stroke which, after all, had effectively killed the person she’d been.
Another thing that Reggie couldn’t stand was sitting on the fucking hard-as- rock pews wearing a goddamned suit and especially a tie, which made him feel like he was being choked to death. All the people who came up and spoke about Grandma were boring too, it was torture listening to people saying the same fucking things over and over. Although nothing had been worse than listening to the minister droning on. Reggie had thought he’d heard the last of him when he went to his last service the Sunday before his birthday. He had to be the most serious, uninteresting man on the planet.
His sister Lisa was sitting next to Reggie and every so often she’d sob softly. Reggie supposed he should be doing something to comfort her but he was uncomfortable with the whole idea. Next to Mom, Lisa was probably the family member closest to Grandma. Mom, who was sitting on the other side of Reggie, had been crying off and on ever since her mother had died. Dad and Jerry were sitting on the other side of Lisa and they didn’t seem to give a shit about anything, least of all Grandma. Jerry happened to be on leave from the army when Grandma died so he was in town anyway. Reggie doubted that he would be here otherwise. It was no great thrill to have Jerry at home in any case. He was a totally gung-ho military guy who wanted to “get back to killing VC.” He’d been in Vietnam for a year and “had seen plenty of action.” All he talked about how the Vietnamese were savages and how righteous American soldiers were and how they need to “clean up the country, even if it means leveling it first.” Goddamn but Reggie hated listening to that shit. So did Lisa who would leave the room when Jerry would open his big yap. Mom maybe hated it worse than anyone and would direct her eldest son not to “spew such hate” in her house. Mom was pretty good at keeping Jerry in check like that. Dad, meanwhile, didn’t seem to give two shits what Jerry said, not that he cared about anything anyone ever said. The old man had become increasingly quiet over the years and hardly reacted to much of anything. The only enthusiasm he ever showed was over watching football or talking about his hunting and fishing. Mom said that he still had a lot of fun when they went out dancing but Reggie had a pretty goddamned hard time imagining his father “having fun.” Anyway Dad sure didn’t act at all broken up about Grandma’s passing. Fuck ‘em, Reggie thought, at least I cared about her even if I’m not all weepy right now. Dad and Jerry don’t probably care about anyone except themselves and maybe Mom.
When the funeral was over most people went back to the house to eat and stand around and talk about Grandma and eventually other topics too. Reggie’s aunts Martha and Lillian were there and he liked them well enough His cousins were there too, three of whom lived in Colorado and were a lot older than Reggie and he rarely saw them anyway. They made Reggie uncomfortable because even though he was related to them he’d never got to know them and they always treated him like a goddamned kid, even now when he was sixteen. Martha’s only child, Brad was about Reggie’s age and lived in Salem so Reggie had seen him regularly all his life. The problem was that Brad was about as boring a person as had ever lived. He was eighteen and expressed no interest in drugs or booze or chicks. He acted like a fully grown, uninteresting adult and actually seemed to like church. Reggie thought that Brad must have had stick all the way up his butt.
Reggie mostly sat by himself in the kitchen where he was close to the food. Sometimes an adult would come by and offer sympathies and even try to talk to Reggie a little. He knew how to be polite and act “gracious” as his mother put it, but he was sick of the whole thing. Grandma was dead and he had great memories of her and didn’t need anyone to say anything to him and didn’t need to spend any more time mourning. Reggie was sure he’d get sad at times in the future thinking about Grandma, but it was time to move on.
Reggie finally got bored sitting in one place so he got up to walk around. The truth was that after all the sitting at the funeral he’d like to be outside playing basketball or something and he wanted to be looking forward to going to Casey’s party. He barely knew Casey personally but felt like he knew him well by reputation. Casey was Mr. Party. No one knew how to have fun like Casey and he threw bodacious parties. All the cooler young people gravitated toward Casey. Evidently girls loved him although he never seemed to have a girlfriend. Reggie guessed he liked playing the field. This was his first chance to go to a Casey party and he was stuck at home with all these sad, boring people.
Reggie didn’t simply want to get high he felt like he needed to. After the somber atmosphere of the last few days a good high would be just the ticket. Maybe he could try to have another talk with Mom and convince her that she should let him go out. He needed to find the right time to talk to her which was going to be tough because she seemed to always be surrounded by people. There was no telling how long this thing could go on.
Doing a circuit of the living and dining room areas, Reggie saw Lisa talking to Mrs. Forster one of the ladies that helped his mother at the library. Reggie marveled at his twelve-year-old sister’s ability to talk like an adult and happily carry on conversations with grown-ups. Jerry and Dad were standing in a corner talking with an old guy who Reggie didn’t recognize. From the looks of their hand motions the topic was fishing. Reggie couldn’t think of anything more boring except for maybe talking about church stuff which he noticed his Aunt Martha was doing with a few of the old ladies who were friends of Grandma. Of course Mom was surrounded by people as she generally was at any social gathering. Mom knew everyone in town and could talk for hours with a person whether they were the mayor or a snot-nosed eight-year-old boy. Reggie was kind of proud of the fact that his mother was so popular and more than that that she was so highly-respected. People were always telling Reggie how great his Mom was which was kind of uncomfortable to hear about your mother but at the same time kind of cool. In fact, Reggie thought his mother was a pretty cool lady. So far in life he’d been able to talk to her about anything — except, of course, drugs and booze — he could even talk to her about girls although he dare not mention sex. Most kids complained constantly about their parents but Reggie felt he had it pretty good with Mom, except of course for the fact that she was being a real bitch about him having to stay at home on this particular Saturday night. You could only expect so much from a grown-up. For some reason grown-ups had to do what Mom called “establishing boundaries” which amounted to letting their kids only have so much fun. In two years Reggie would graduate from high school and be able to use the inheritance from Grandma, which Mom said was around $5,000. That’d get him set up in his own place and he could live by his own rules. Sometimes two years seemed like a million years and at other times it seemed like next week. Today for sure was a time when the two years seemed like an interminable wait.
It was after dark by the time most people had left. Reggie finally got a chance to talk to Mom alone on the bigger of the two living room sofas. It was obvious his mother was exhausted as Reggie plunked himself down next to her. Reggie knew better than to immediately launch into a plea with Mom to go out. He’d have to work up to it.
“How ya doin’ Mom?”
“I’m okay sweetie. It’s been a long day and a long week. I thought we sent your grandmother off well, exactly the way she would have wanted it. Don’t you?”
“Oh yeah, for sure. Grandma would have been real happy with the way the whole funeral thing and everything went. I know that sounds kind of weird but you know what I mean.”
“Yes I do.” Esther leaned over and hugged her son and gave him a kiss on the top of his head. “You’ve been wonderful, Reggie. Strong and supportive, especially to me and your sister. I know Grandma loved you and I think she’s up in heaven right now being proud of you.”
Reggie couldn’t hold off any longer and besides based on what Mom had said this seemed like a good time to broach the subject.
“So Mom being as I’ve done my duty — and didn’t mind a bit, it all being in honor of Grandma and all — do you think I could go out tonight after all. I could sure use it what with having been indoors all day and stuff.”
“For one thing sweetie, there’s a lot of cleaning up to do in this house and I don’t intend to leave it until morning and — ”
“Sure, Mom, I’ll help clean up before I go. Whatever you want. Heck no, I wouldn’t leave all the work to you and the rest of the family.”
“Okay, but the broader point is that I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to go out on the night of your grandmother’s funeral.”
Now there was a high-pitched whine in Reggie’s voice that he couldn’t help. “But Mom, I don’t see how it’s going to matter to anyone and not to Grandma or her memory, whatever, if I go hang out with friends tonight.”
“It would matter to me, sweetie. I’d like you here tonight.”
“But why? It’s not fair.” The whine was more obvious. From the other side of the room Reggie’s father said, “son, no one likes it when a man whines like that, you’re not a little kid anymore. Besides it's a bad tactic, whatever you’re asking your mother for isn’t going to come when you sound like a whiny baby.”
For once it seemed like his father might be on Reggie’s side and that he was giving him practical advice. Monitor his voice. No whining. Reggie cleared his throat and tried another tactic.
“Mom, I’ve been pretty down about Grandma dying and for me it’s been made worse by being cooped up today — not that I don’t understand the need for the funeral and us being all together, but I feel like I’ll go crazy if I’m stuck in the house much longer.”
Esther Polk looked at her son as tears welled up in her eyes. Then she laid her head on his shoulder. She spoke softly, barely audible. “Sweetie, you’re practically a man now. You’ve shown real maturity over the past few months and I’m proud of you. I was disappointed that you decided to stop attending church when you turned sixteen but that was your right. I know you loved your grandmother and that she was proud of you and loved you too. If you really think it’s the right thing to do for you to go out tonight, despite my expressed desire that you stay home with us, go right ahead. No one is going to stop you.”
Shit. It was like a knife in the heart for Reggie. It was the worst stuff his Mom could have said. He’d feel guilty as hell if he went out now. It would have been so much better if she’d said, “you are absolutely forbidden to go out tonight.” For a second Reggie thought that maybe he should take advantage of his mother’s offer and go to the party. But he knew he’d feel like hell if he did. No way would he have a good time.
Reggie couldn’t bring himself to say anything. He sat there next to his mother with her leaning on him. He wanted to cry. He wanted to cry because Grandma was dead. He wanted to cry because everyone was so sad. He wanted to cry because it had been such a miserable day. He wanted to cry because he felt bad for mother and baby sister. He wanted to cry because his father and big brother didn’t seem to give a shit. He wanted to cry because he was going to miss the party. He wanted to cry because the rest of the day was going to suck. He wanted to cry because he realized he was incapable of crying. Goddamn it, Reggie felt about as bad as he ever had in his whole life.
A few minutes later Esther slowly got up and walked to the kitchen. Reggie could hear her talking to his two aunts who had already started cleaning up. Lisa sat down next to Reggie. “How ya doing, Reggie? You look so sad.”
“Yeah, well it is the day of our grandmother’s funeral so whattaya expect?”
Reggie immediately winced as his harsh tone. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that, Lisa.”
“That’s okay, Reggie. I understand. I’m not at my best right now either.”
“Hell, Lisa, you’re always at your best. You’re an incredible kid and everyone thinks so.”
Lisa looked at her brother totally stunned by what he’d said. “Thanks, I guess, I’m just…gee, I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything.”
Lisa loved her mother and Reggie more than anyone else and the only person she’d ever loved nearly as much was Grandma. She was having a hard time facing the fact that, while she loved her father and Jerry, she didn’t really like them. She felt guilty about this but the reality was that Lisa felt nothing in common with either. Neither of them had ever been terribly affectionate with her nor did they show any interest in her. Her conversations with them were always one-sided. For example if she ever asked one of them how they were feeling they would answer but not return the question. Lisa though of herself as an intellectual — a word she was just becoming familiar with. She loved school, and didn’t mind homework a bit, even looking forward to tests and getting excited about being assigned projects and research. Lisa had several close friends but had no interest in school gossip or the social scene. She’d rather become ensconced in a good book. The funeral had been difficult for Lisa, a long reminder that Grandma’s absence from her life was permanent. But it did make her appreciate her mother and Reggie even more.
Reggie noted that his father and brother were still talking. He overheard his brother saying something about “jungle rot.” He continued to listen and it became obvious that Jerry was talking about Vietnam — again. He seemed to love talking about Vietnam and the war and the greatness of the U.S. armed forces. Reggie was sick of hearing about it and wished his stupid big brother would go back there tonight. Unfortunately he’d be home for another three days before he had to report back. His dad ate up Reggie’s stories and so did a few others in town. Aunt Martha’s stupid husband, Harry loved his stories too. It was mainly him and Lisa and Mom who hated all his talk about killing “gooks” and all that other shit.
Reggie finally whispered to Lisa: “Can you believe Jerry is going on again about Vietnam?”
“I know,” she replied. “It’s like all he ever talks about and since we don’t want to hear about it he stays away from us.”
“Dad loves it.”
“Sometimes it seems like Dad and Jerry are from different families than you Mom and I.”
Lisa and Reggie talked about their cousins and aunts and other people who’d been at the funeral. It was easy for Reggie to talk to Lisa because they shared the same views on most every topic, especially other people. Reggie marveled that he got along so well with his younger sister given how many of his friends and classmates constantly complained about bratty younger siblings.
When Lisa got up to go help his mother and aunts clean up, Reggie was left alone again. He felt pretty lucky. He was young, healthy and was enjoying a rich social life, even if it was on hold this night. He decided that he should see if “the ladies” needed any help. Reggie looked across the room again at his father and brother. Jerry caught his eye, there was a look of utter contemptuous hate on Jerry’s face and it was directed right towards him. Reggie wondered if his brother was crazy. Meanwhile his Dad was looking at Jerry and beaming. Reggie wasn’t used to seeing his father look happy.
Reggie made for the kitchen but Mom told him they had everything under control. Reggie was relieved. In an instant he decided, “fuck it, I’m going to Casey’s party.”
He told his mother who sighed, then smiled and said, “do what you want, sweetie.”
Reggie ran upstairs and changed his clothes. He felt liberated. He was going to a kick-ass party where there’d be plenty of chicks. The glumness of the day was replaced by euphoria.