Funerals really are the strangest parties.
They have all the makings of an absolute rager: food, drink, music, people you know, people you haven’t seen in years, people you don’t know from Adam, a rented pad to house everyone, paid help keeping things running in the shadows. Yet not a single funeral I’ve ever attended has turned into a real party. Everyone shuffles quietly on the muted carpets, muttering and whispering like talking too loud will wake the dead. No one smiles. No one laughs. If someone dares, well, they can expect the entire room to give them a dirty look (well, minus the person in the casket). The people around them wander off to avoid being associated with the troublemaker.
And that’s just the wake.
I sit in the corner near her photo memorial, drink in hand. I’m doing my best to look properly sad, twirling my drink and staring into it, looking occasionally at the photos and sighing. The photos are the “normal” ones Mom picked out. I hadn’t been allowed to add any photos of me and Grandma at the strip club, or the knitting circle gals passing a waterbong in Amsterdam. This wake is as boring as the photo memorial. I check my watch. Nearly five. Almost time for the actual funeral service.
Grandma’s wishes had been a little unorthodox. Her funeral had been planned and paid for before anyone even knew she was sick. All we had to do was show up. It was strange, though, to have a wake start early in the day and then the funeral service in the evening. Not that Grandma’s funeral wasn’t expected to be strange- the woman was known for her glass dildo collection kept in an antique china cabinet. The funeral’s timing is the strangest thing about this party, though. Everything else is bland and blah, except maybe the casket.
I look over at the casket. It’s closed. Locked tight to keep out any drunk uncles who want just one last look at Grandma. The will just said she wanted people to remember her how she was. Most extended family and friends took that at face value. Others viewed it as her being eccentric one last time to spite my Mom. Oh, and spited she was. There she stood at the doorway, greeting people with her expressionless face and downcast gaze, but every few minutes I catch her eyes flick towards the closed casket and her nose crinkle like it does when someone in our house has the audacity to fart.
In through the doorway, just in time for the service, are the ladies I so desperately want to see. They all shuffle in, their clothing dark, their faces solemn, but they catch my eye from across the room and all our faces light up at once. Mom turns to greet them only to realize they haven’t stopped. They’re making a beeline for me. I catch Mom’s eye, smile on my face, and turn away to greet my friends. “Dearest, how are you?” Maureen says, hugging me and pressing her wrinkled cheek to mine. “You know we’ve been thinking about you all morning.”
“Yes, we’re so sorry we couldn’t come sooner.”
“Well if someone hadn’t forgotten to pick me up on the way to get their dress-“
“Oh, Betty, hush about that-“
I cut in on the chattering old women surrounding me, holding Maureen’s hand. “It’s great to see all of you. I’m glad you’re here.”
Around me are Grandma’s best friends, her knitting group. They’re all old, some as old as Grandma, some middle aged. Six women, joined in their love of knitting in someone’s parlor once a week, beaming at me at my Grandma’s wake.
Jolene is the first to offer condolences. “You know we did our best with her. I’m so sorry.”
She was the one to diagnose and treat Grandma, then pronounce her dead four days ago. Betty, a rich widower, had been the one to find Grandma on the floor. She shares her grief next. Maureen holds my hand while the rest of the girls all share their sorrows, their eyes twinkling. They want to get this part out of the way. We all would rather rejoice in Grandma’s life.
I notice the bags they carry. “Wait, did you all bring your knitting gear?”
“Of course,” Grace says, patting her bag, “You think we wouldn’t have one last knit with the full group?”
The rest chuckle, quietly so as not to rise the ire of the rest of the partygoers.
“You didn’t bring yours?” Agatha asks.
“You know she doesn’t have knitting gear,” Betty chides, “She has crochet gear.”
More muttering and chuckles. I was their knitting group exception, allowed in to their circle by the grace of Grandma. Only the devil crochets, apparently.
“That’s not all we brought,” Maureen whispers conspiratorially and opens her purse. A fifth of whiskey peeks out.
One of the nameless men running the place taps the mic at a podium at the front of the room.
“Thank you, everyone, for coming, but visitation is now over. If you were not invited to the service, we ask that you make your way out the front of the building, yes, those double doors to the left. Thank you.”
The knitting circle and I pass the fifth around quickly, each taking a quick shot with our backs to the crowd. We smile, wiping our mouths and give quick hugs before heading to our respective seats. I sit in the first row with my family. The knitting circle is in the last row. I steal a glance over my shoulder as people begin to file into the chairs. They’re all pulling out their current works-in-progress and I have to hold my fingertips over my lips to keep from laughing.
Mom is ready to raise hell about the knitting circle when the preacher begins his sermon. I let my gaze soften and let his droning go in one ear and out the other. I have to remind myself this is a service for the family, not Grandma. She knew that. Still doesn’t seem right. Grandma and religion didn’t mix well. She always said Heaven sounded dull, she’d rather see us all in Hell. I discreetly check my watch.
About halfway through the sermon I hear the soft click-clack of the knitting needles in the back. I smile and take a glance at Mom. She’s white as a sheet and her jaw is so tight it looks like someone’d need a wrench to pry it open. I look down and hope my hair is hiding my face so no one can see me biting my lip to keep the laughter in.
The preacher’s done. I check my watch again. It’s time for family to speak. Grandma hadn’t left any instructions on this part, but, based on the preacher, I know she never intended for me to say anything. Instead, Mom gets up and starts spewing dribble about Grandma’s “independent spirit” and “love of life” and how “her occasional eccentricities were endearing to everyone who knew her”. My urge to laugh dissolves in this speech. It’s one thing to talk about Grandma’s “free spirit” once she’s gone and another to try and have her sent to an assisted living facility because you’re “worried she’s making poor choices” and “not in her right mind” while she was alive. She’d never admit that though. That’s why the funeral is for her, not me.
Both of my uncles get up after Mom to give their token speeches. I check my watch, less discreetly this time. Dad elbows me. I shrug.
The nameless man who’s running the show waits for anyone else to come up and, when no one does, returns to the mic to ask if anyone else wished to say anything. If not, final goodbyes are recommended, please form a line, blah blah blah. Since we’re in the first row, I stand to get in line to touch the casket. I mean, that’s essentially all we’re doing. No one can open it, no one can look Grandma in the face and say goodbye. We all are standing, waiting in line to talk to and touch a wood box that can’t hear us. It reminds me of Communion, without the weirdly tasty wafers and garbage cooking wine at the end.
I look back at the knitting circle to see them quietly chatting and putting their needles away. The line moves. Mom’s in front of the casket. She touches it, mutters something, and then walks off. Dad moves forward. I’m next in line. He doesn’t say anything but pats it softly, like he pats our dog Molly’s head. Then I move forward and stand in front of the box that holds Grandma. My best friend in the world.
I smile and tap our secret knock on the box. Whenever she wanted to come in my room, or later, my apartment, she’d do the same “secret” knock. One-two, a pause, three-four-five. I let my hand rest on the casket a moment.
“See you later, alligator,” I whisper, then walk to the back of the room, where my family has set themselves up to say goodbye to everyone.
The casket wont be buried until the ground thaws, so there’s no funeral procession or graveside service to gracefully exit from. Everyone has to awkwardly say goodbye and they do, the line from the casket leading into the line out the door. No one much talks to me. A few family members pat my head or say “This sucks, kiddo” like I’m still a child. I let it slide. These people don’t know me or Grandma, not really. They’re who this is for.
The knitting group trickles in and, after enthusiastic goodbyes to me, they finally acknowledge my parents with a handshake and regular condolences. This seems to put Mom in a better mood, but it’s hard to tell. I check my watch. The funeral parlor closes at seven. Half an hour left. The knitting circle leaves with some last waves and promises to meet next Wednesday at Jolene’s. I begin to help my family clean up the decorations and chairs.
It’s six-fifty-three. Everything is in Dad’s car, but I forgot my purse inside. Mom’s frustrated.
“Listen, you guys go on ahead. I’m probably just going to go home and crash anyway,” I say. “You’re not coming to our house? We should be together as a family right now!”
“Sorry, Mom, I’m really tired. Can I come over tomorrow, instead?”
She huffs and shrugs. I say goodbye and head back inside to grab my purse. No one that works there stops me. In fact, I don’t see a single person around. I head to the women’s room, let a stall door close most of the way behind me, and sit with my feet up on the toilet. I check my watch. It’s past seven now. All that’s left to do is wait.
All my stakeouts of the funeral parlor showed that about six people worked here, and most left at seven. Their janitor worked mornings, so I didn’t have him to worry about. All I had left was the director and his accountant, who would do a cursory glance into all the rooms before locking up. Neither were female and, from the few times I’d been able to catch a glance of them checking the restrooms through the windows in the front, they didn’t exactly look for people hiding. What did anyone have to gain from robbing a funeral parlor, really? It was mostly dusty bodies in boxes, bad carpet, and worse wallpaper. Not a prime target for criminal masterminds.
The minutes crawl by and I let myself doze. At eight-thirty I hear the door to the women’s room open but no footsteps. The lights turn off. The door closes. I decide to wait another hour just to be safe and return to napping, my head on my knees.
I wake up and look at my watch. Nine-forty-five. I take my shoes off before stepping back down on to the floor. Gross, I know, but sacrifices must be made in the interest of stealth. I crack open the bathroom door, looking for signs of activity. The hall is dark. I open the door fully and begin my search.
Funeral parlors aren’t very large as a general rule. They have an entryway, the main room for visitations and funerals, maybe a little chapel, and some office space for the day-to-day operations of staffing, accounting, and directing. The main money is spent in the cold storage. Now those rooms are big.
I do a quick search through all the office rooms to be sure there’s no one left in the building before heading to the door that leads to the basement. This door is locked, but I came prepared- I have a bobby pin and weeks-worth of watching YouTube videos on how to pick locks. Maureen even let me practice on her deadbolt, just in case. Luckily, it’s just a standard key lock and I have no trouble after a few minutes of fiddling.
It takes all of my effort not to run down the stairs two at a time. Even if no one’s around, I shouldn’t make a racket. There’s one more door to the storage area at the bottom of the stairs but it’s unlocked. I open the door and, letting caution go now that I’m in, run to Grandma’s casket.
It’s locked, but the storage manager has a skeleton key for all caskets. I grab it off his desk and open the casket.
Grandma’s inside, snoring.
I gently shake her awake. “Grandma, rise and shine.”
She opens her eyes and smiles. “About damn time, Linette.”
“Sorry, fell asleep in the bathroom.”
She sits up and stretches. “You know,” she says, bones cracking, “It’s really not as easy as you might think, laying still and quiet for a whole day. I’ve had to pee for ages.”
“Breathe okay, though?” I asked, helping her out of the box.
“Oh yeah, those holes we drilled in Grace’s garage worked nicely. I don’t even think the people moving me about saw one.”
I glance at the holes now that the casket is open. They’re small, painted and lacquered like the rest of the casket, lining under a decorative molding at a forty-five degree angle. Grace was one hell of a carpenter.
Grandma hops a little to get down onto the floor and I grab her elbow to keep her steady.
“You still need a bathroom? There’s one upstairs,” I offer.
“No, no, best not stay here too long,” she says, grabbing the edge of a table. I throw some ball weights I had been keeping in my purse into the casket and then lock it up. “I can always pee at Betty’s house before we take off.”
“Alright,” I say, grabbing her elbow again, “Then let’s get you to Betty’s. We’ll have to go out a window, though. Doors are alarmed.”
“I’ve got practice climbing through windows.”
Through a window, down three blocks and behind a dumpster, we climb into my car. Betty’s house is in the country, only a twenty-minute ride out of town.
“Can you believe some of the things they said about me,” Grandma goes on, “All because they think I’m dead. A load of horseshit. And that priest! God himself was probably so bored I’m surprised he didn’t strike him dead. Tell me, were the girls knitting? Oh good. I’m sure your mother was livid. Well that’s what she gets for wanting to stick me with the drooling empties at the old folk’s homes. To think, me, kept prisoner, only to await the excitement of my next sponge bath! Good riddance to all of ‘em. Ah well, here we are.”
We pull into Betty’s long driveway. A glow from behind the mansion tells me the runway lights are on. Being a rich widower has perks. Like private planes. And private islands.
The lights in the estate are off, but Betty comes outside without a single call or knock. She hugs Grandma tight and they laugh. I leave the car running. I know I have to go. Did it start raining? I look up at the sky for some explanation as to why my face is wet. Nope. Clear skies. So clear you could see the stars.
I look at Grandma.
“Linette, honey, don’t cry. You had all day to do that.”
I sniff. “I know, but I wasn’t sad until now. You’re really leaving.”
“Just to Betty’s private island. And you know Betty. I’ll be safe and sound and able to party, none the wiser.”
I smile at the thought of Grandma drinking Mai-Tais and laying on the beach. If she hadn’t done this, Mom would’ve stuck her in a home by now. It’s for the best. It doesn’t stop me from crying, though.
Betty chimes in, “Hun, you just call me whenever you need to take a vacation, alright? We’ll go visit together. All us girls in the knitting circle.”
I nod, unable to get the words out. Grandma hugs me tight.
“Promise me you’ll keep getting up to no good with the girls,” she says.
“And promise me you’ll keep painting this boring old town red.”
“Okay,” she says, looking at me, “Then the next time you see me will either be on the beach, or in hell, baby-girl.”
I laugh, wiping away tears. “Okay. See you in hell, Grandma.”
Grandma laughs and pulls me down to kiss my forehead. Then she turns and walks into the house with Betty. I get back into my car and head back down the driveway. On my way into town, I see a low-flying plane pass among the stars and smile.
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