Tomorrow's Funeral

Submitted into Contest #203 in response to: Start your story in the middle of the action.... view prompt



Tomorrow’s Funeral

Bill VanPatten

Death is a distant relative. It seldom knocks. It just shows up, quietly stepping over the threshold into a home, an office, a hospital room. Estranged from everyone else, it sits off to the side. Watching. Waiting. Then, as silently as it appeared, it leaves—and you wonder if it was ever really there. And you realize, death has no limits. It visits people, animals, plants—and marriages.

Juanita sat in a pew in the back, thinking these thoughts. She wasn’t sure about this funeral, not sure why she’d come. The man in the closed coffin wasn’t a friend, at best an acquaintance, someone she’d met on just two occasions. But when she read his obituary online, curiosity slipped into her consciousness, tickled at her. She’d always avoided funerals. Something about them unnerved her. Perhaps the thought that someday she would lie in a church like this man, the object of—what? Why were people there? To release repressed emotions? Assuage some guilt? Many of them with unspoken words, as dead on their tongues as the man in the coffin. Yes, someday she would lie there, and she wondered who would grieve, whose unspoken words haunted them as they viewed her.

At the age of forty-four she was divorced, and the stats were not in her favor. More than likely, she would remain single. Especially in Mañana. The town boasted a whopping twelve-thousand inhabitants, not including the two prisons the city annexed some years back for census and tax purposes. The chances of her finding love again were meager, the pool of available men worth a second date as parched and drought-ridden as this part of California. And there was no way she would hook up with a married man, although maybe she deserved to try it, after what Manny had done. Yeah, finding love again seemed at best the stuff of a Hallmark movie, a plot from Danielle Steel.

Was she ever even in love with Manny? If she had been, wouldn’t she have picked up on the signals? Wouldn’t she have been tuned in, sensed something, felt something was amiss? Fifteen years and she never had. Or maybe she was in love. What was the saying? Love is blind. You don’t see things that are in front of your face. No. Love isn’t blind. People are sometimes stupid. They like to be fooled, lulled into an illusory existence, because they know that in the end, what is it all for? You wind up in a church like this one, with people lining up.

She didn’t know how the man in the coffin had died. It must have been sudden. The last time she saw him, three months before, he looked to be about fifty, certainly no more than fifty-five. She’d spotted him at the Rite Aid, recognized him from the meeting at City Hall where the Council was reviewing a new zoning order that had drummed up controversy among the citizens. She’d gone to that meeting as an observer, to see what the issues really were, and to get out of the house and do something different, to stop sitting in front of the television looking for something interesting on Netflix. But this guy, he marched up to the microphone and spoke to council members, claiming the zoning order would change the nature of the small town, create a traffic problem on the east side of Highway 99, a road not slated for widening but in desperate need of it. She felt compelled to talk to him after the public was dismissed.

“You were very good,” she said to him in the lobby outside the council chambers.

“I just don’t understand what they’re thinking. We don’t have the infrastructure for this kind of change.” He smiled. “Have we met?”

“Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head. “Sorry. I’m Juanita Salazar.”

“Nice to meet you, Juanita,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Richard Rodriguez.”

“You seemed to know a lot about what’s going on.”

He smiled. “I grew up here. Plus, urban planning is a side interest.”

Urban planning? She had follow-up questions, but a woman appeared at his side.

“Oh, honey,” he said, “this is Juanita. We were just chatting about the zoning issue.”

“Nice to meet you,” the woman said. “Come on, dear. We need to get home.”

He waved goodbye to her and left with his wife, her arm through his, her head leaning against his shoulder. Juanita eyed them, wondering what their marriage was like, if it was solid—or if, maybe, like hers, it was built on a foundation of lies. No. Not lies. A lie. A singular big lie. Did he have a secret like Manny? Was his wife unsuspecting?

So, when she saw him again at the Rite Aid, she followed him around the store, staying out of eyesight. He stopped in the seasonal aisle, presumably to see what was on sale, if there was anything that interested him. Easter candy had long been replaced by summer items—everything from suntan lotions to planting needs and tacky resin garden figures. After examining a few pots for plants, he made his way toward the back, to the section on oral hygiene. She watched as he compared the ingredients on a bottle of Listerine to those on the Rite Aid generic variety. He shrugged and went with the store brand. He grabbed some Sensodyne and then turned. She pretended to be coming down the aisle, then stopped, expressing fake surprise.

“Hi. Richard, right?”

Recognition spread across his face.

“Yes. Nice to see you again.”

When he didn’t say her name, she knew he’d forgotten it. And why would he remember it anyway? They’d met that one time, briefly, and that had been several months before. She decided not to rescue him. She eyed the toothpaste and mouthwash in his hands.

“Here for the essentials, I see.”

“Oh, yes. My wife has me out on errands today.”

She half smiled. There was an awkward pause.

“Well, it was nice seeing you again,” she said. “I have to run along.”

“Yes, yes. Good to see you.”

He left, and she took in his gait, the assuredness in his walk. She ginger-stepped her way toward the front until she was within earshot of the register and stood behind the rack of assorted gums and breath mints. He can’t be for real, she thought, the way he interacts with the clerk as though they were friends. He offered a genuine air of “glad to see you” and smiled constantly. No, no, he couldn’t be for real. He was probably another Manny. A liar. This town was full of them. The world was full of them.

* * *

As she sat in the church, amid the sounds of stifled sniffles and with the scent of vanilla votives drifting in the air like an invisible shroud, she saw that Richard had many friends and relatives. About a hundred people filled the pews in the small Catholic church, some lined up at the casket. His wife sat up front, dressed in a simple black dress, pearls, low-heel pumps to match. She was alone now, unless they had children. Juanita didn’t see anyone that looked the right age to be their offspring sitting with her. Yeah, she was alone. Juanita was unsure whether she was sympathetic, felt anything for her loss, for her new situation. Part of her was resentful. Why couldn’t Manny have died? It would have been so much easier to be a widow . . .

People stopped to pay their condolences. Juanita didn’t know any of them. More than likely, most were from out of town. That happened in places like Mañana, didn’t it? At funerals and weddings, relatives and friends drove in from various spots in the valley, the Bay Area, elsewhere. They were the ones who’d left, sought to get out of small-town living, even though their roots in Mañana were deeper than those of the thousands of acres of almond trees that encircled the city.

She and Manny were not from here. They had moved to Mañana from Gilroy. The South Bay had encroached enough on the former farmland that Manny said it was time for some space, that Gilroy had become a suburb of San Jose. Plus, home prices and taxes were lower in Mañana. She now wondered if there were other reasons he’d wanted out of Gilroy. During the divorce, he moved to Merced with his lover—a man he’d known since high school who’d moved to the Central Valley several years before. She recently heard that they’d married, the news sinking into her with fangs dripping poisonous emotions. She stayed in Mañana, sole owner of their house, alone, relatives at least a hundred miles away. Good thing they’d never had kids. It was embarrassing enough that her family and friends had found out, clucking their tongues with their I’m-so-sorrys, while all the time whispering when she was out of earshot about how humiliating the whole thing was. She never heard them, but she knew they talked.

“He led a double life.”

“How could she not have known?”

“I know everything about my husband.”

“I wonder how long he’d been carrying on?”

“To be cheated on. And with another man.”

She rose and made her way to the front of the church after the visitation line had shortened. She stood at the coffin, pictured Richard within, looking like he did that day at the Rite Aid. She tilted her head. Is this what life is? she thought. People come and go, some for a long time, some fleetingly. We may or may not get to know them well, but somewhere in our minds they leave an imprint—in some cases a trove of memories, some vague, some clear. Some of those images we repress, she thought, like those of her last months with Manny. She’d worked hard to shove those memories into the basement of her mind and put a lock on the door, but they occasionally snuck up the stairs, escaped, pushed her to reach for another chardonnay, pop an Ambien before bed. What about Richard? How long would she remember him? And in the end, did it matter? They weren’t friends. He couldn’t remember her name the last time they’d run into each other.

She turned and walked over to his wife.

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

His wife offered a weak smile, probably out of habit after hearing that line so many times. “Thank you.”

Juanita made her way back, but instead of sitting down, she headed out of the church and into the sunlight of a Central Valley afternoon. It was early May, and a bright bowl of blue stretched above, not a cloud in sight, eighty degrees bathing the town in perfect warmth. She would not go to the cemetery. She would not go to his house for the post-ceremony gathering, where people ate and told stories, offering fond memories and funny anecdotes in an effort to soothe themselves and maybe put a smile on the widow’s face. What stories would she tell? What memories? And who would she tell them to? Let death take its leave, she thought. Let it wander among Richard’s friends and relatives before slipping out the door, unnoticed, until the next time there was a hospital-ridden soul, a car accident—or a marriage taking its last breath.

She slipped on some sunglasses and headed for her car.

June 18, 2023 00:17

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Julie Jose
18:44 Aug 01, 2023

Thought provoking..., what an intriguing story, showing how death has a way of making one reflective, memories and death seem to come & go, hand in hand. I feel many hold this thought or eschew it immediately when it surfaces... "...someday she would lie there, and she wondered who would grieve, whose unspoken words haunted them as they viewed her." I enjoyed reading the names of familiar Northern California cities and towns.


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June Gillam
15:52 Jun 29, 2023

Terrific story!


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Colleen Ireland
14:19 Jun 29, 2023

as someone going through a divorce I felt all of this and could picture every scene; well done.


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