Craig stood back, under a tree and watched the interment. A lot of people stood, all dressed up. He rejoiced he hadn’t time to put on a black suit. These people must be suffocating in this heat.
He’d missed the funeral due to work. He hated being late. The dead man, Bill, Craig’s little league coach, taught him punctuality. He taught him everything. Now Craig had missed their last work-out. It had been years, but still.
Long, straight rows of markers for the many who had passed away ran into the distance. Enough to fill a stadium, he thought. To be honest, he’d rather be playing ball.
The mourners began to disperse. Bill’s daughter, Shadow, glanced at him and brightened. She left her conversation and came to him. They’d been playmates long ago.
“You made it!”
“Had to… Sorry about your Dad.”
“Thanks. You should have sat with us.”
“Dressed like this? I don’t think so. I came straight from work.”
“I don’t care.”
“I thought that was for family.”
“You are family, Craig.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. You’re coming to the reception.”
“I wasn’t sure.”
“That wasn’t a request. He‘d want you there.”
“Sure about that?”
She looked at him like he was an unruly child.
“Come on. It’s at the center.”
They followed the black clad, shuffling crowd from under the shade into the sunny morning.
Mourners stood in small groups on the sidewalk, catching up with lost time. Some dabbed their eyes with hankies. Everyone wore sunglasses. A few nodded solemnly listening to others speaking in low tones. Laughter rang out at odd intervals.
“Boy, it’s warm,” said Craig.
“Where are you working?”
“Graveyard at Home Depot.” He realized where they were. “Oh, sorry.”
She didn’t care. “You must be exhausted.”
“It’s a job.”
Shadow touched his face and looked into his eyes. “You look so sad.”
“I’m at a funeral, Shad.”
“I know. But this seems deeper. You hadn’t seen Dad in years.”
“Will there be food at this soiree?”
“Of course. You must be starving.”
They turned at the sound of an ice cream truck pulling to a stop.
Craig laughed. “This guy is either a genius, or the biggest fool in creation. Want an ice cream?”
“We’re about to have lunch, Craig. The reception?”
“I know. But I haven’t had one of these in years.” He taunted her, “Shadow wants a Popsicle…”
Shadow smiled and took his hand. They caught the driver as he stepped from the truck.
“Do you have lime?”
The driver smiled. “Actually, I’m on a break. I came to pay my respects to Bill.”
Craig stepped back. “Oh, sorry. That’s why we’re here too.” He introduced Shadow.
“Nice to meet you. Sorry for your loss.” She nodded and smiled. The driver paused. “Tell you what. You wanted lime? One lime, on the house. For Bill.”
“That is so nice of you. Thanks.” She took the Popsicle from the driver. She gave it to Craig as they stepped away from the truck.
“Let’s split it.”
Craig broke the icy treat and unwrapped it. He handed Shadow her half. She nibbled. He took a big bite off the end and closed his eyes with pleasure.
“That is so good. What did people ever do before refrigeration?”
She laughed. “He asked about you, you know.”
“Bill? Really? What did he say?”
“Not much. But there was something about you he liked.”
“What? Did he see you and me together or something?”
“Not that. Maybe he thought you deserved better.” He gave her an odd look. She laughed, “Not better than me, dodo. Better in general.”
Craig scowled. “You play the cards you’re dealt.”
“Of course. That’s it. He never saw you feeling sorry for yourself.”
“No point. I hate all that victim crap.”
“So did Dad.”
Craig polished off his half of the Popsicle. “I wish I’d invented these.” He looked for a trash can and slipped the paper wrapped stick into his back pocket.
“You’d come over and follow him everywhere. He was your hero.”
“He didn’t talk down to me. He’d always ask, ‘You have my six?’”
“Yeah… what is that?”
“Military jargon, referenced like a big clock on the ground. Twelve is straight ahead…”
Shadow nodded, “I get it.”
“I felt included… adopted. He’d tell me to wash for supper. He didn’t invite me. I was welcome… He knew I’d stay. He’d say he had something to tell me later. I felt important to him.”
“Not like your Dad?”
Craig grunted. “You want to know the difference between our Dads?”
Shadow nibbled on the ice and nodded.
“You remember that game I pitched? The perfect game?”
“All my Dad said was, ‘You lost’.”
“But…” Shadow frowned. “You lost it?”
“Yeah. That’s the crazy part. We did lose. But Bill kept me in. He wanted me to go the distance.”
“I guess I’m lost too. How do you lose a perfect game?”
“They didn’t get any hits. I kept striking them out. But they scored on walks. I threw some pretty wild pitches.”
“Bill figured it was worth it. How many kids can say they pitched a perfect game?”
“Like none? Like never?”
“He gave me an arrowhead once. Said to keep it for him in case he needed it. He never called it in. I kept that thing forever. It might still be around.”
“I never met your Dad.”
“How’s he doing?”
He shrugged. “I guess he’s still hanging in there. He never had time for me and then I got busy with other things.”
“That’s so sad.”
“I always felt accused. I’d walk into the room and get such a look, like he’d caught me doing something.”
“I never knew. But it wasn’t good. Always wanted to keep me down. I was an embarrassment.”
Shadow dropped her Popsicle.
“Now you’ve done it.”
She smiled at his mock scold.
“You do this all the time, Shad.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t remember dropping one of these when you were, uhm, ten?”
“You remember that?”
“Every ten years, like clockwork…”
“I felt so bad. It was a tragedy. Those were always my favorite. I always felt responsible for people starving in India or someplace.”
“But your Dad turned it around.” She pondered, unsure. “Don’t you remember? He told you it was a good thing.”
“He said you should always drop something sweet for the ants. So they’ll leave the picnic alone.”
“Oh, right! He said they’ll go crazy eating it while hoping the humans won’t ruin their feast.”
Craig looked around. People were filtering out. The ice cream guy came out and got in his truck.
He waved at them. “You want another? Last chance…”
“Thanks so much, but no.” Shadow smiled. “It’s okay. We have food waiting inside. If there’s any left.”
“He was a good man, your Dad.” The driver started his truck and pulled away.
Craig offered her his arm. “Shall we?”
She laughed. “Yes, let’s. We don’t want to waste our sacrifice to the ants.”