Before the Cortege
by Chris Dungey
What you want today, with the sun making an effort between clouds that look like rain, is to just get the salt off. There is no more snow predicted for the immediate future and you expect to be in the funeral procession. Toward the rear, hopefully, but how do the kids say it? You ought to represent? Your phone says it’s supposed to rain tomorrow. It was right about the snow. Rain upon the freshly opened ground, the black umbrellas. Perfect. Dirty rooster tails as the cops lead the parade through the red lights.
Totally unexpected. Such a shock. Think how Doc Lonnegan must feel. You went out to get the mail Saturday morning. Saw the EMS light show flashing in their driveway, your last glimpse of Darlene, still alive on the gurney. Maybe she spotted you and tried to wave. You’d like to think. Or, it might have been just her arm flopping over, yanking on the oxygen tube. One of the medics repositioned the mask, tucked her arm under the strap. They waited for Doc to get dressed and ride along. How critical could it have been?
You choose the Better wash at West End Quick-Lube because you’re broke now at the end of the month. Flowers had to go on the VISA. The boss quits scrubbing the tail-lights ahead of you. He shuffles out, pulling off his gloves. You hand a ten out the window plus a couple of ones, a tip for the guys. You’ve learned that this promotes a hidden upgrade in their efforts. The gratuity is signaled by some kind of hieroglyphic scribbled on your windshield with an orange marker.
“Got your card?”
It isn’t in the second cup-holder, or the junk trap in front of the shifter: Mini flashlight with dead triple-As, comb, recycle card for Mayfield Twp, hubcap lock.
“Never mind, Here’s a fresh one. We’ll combine ’em next time. Pull on up.”
It looks like a full crew gathered around the entrance. Unusual for a Monday. But the first big snow has melted. There’s that tentative sun. These guys are expecting their own procession.
A baby-faced kid in Carhartts lays a hissing spray onto the windshield even before the boss waves you in. Left, left, left with his index finger. You get the front tire into the guide. The kid doesn’t look like a tweeker out on work release. Teenage marriage? They don’t make them quit school anymore. Kid should be there, too.
The heavy set dude in fireman’s boots hammers on the rear hatch, his brush squirting suds. Hey, easy on the wiper. The license plate holder clatters. Weedy, thin guy with indecipherable tats up his neck sprays under the driver’s side wheel well. Sounds like hydroplaning through a puddle at 70 mph. Cigarette bobbing. Now this guy belongs. How judgmental is that? If you could just quit judging. Make it easier to rationalize some other transgressions. But, so why are those first impressions usually accurate? Biker? Trump guy? Looks like he might not care enough either way. You hope the kid doesn’t take up smoking too. Maybe vapes. What are the benefits of that, exactly? Darlene should have vaped. Something. Didn’t she and Wendy, your first wife, try the patches for a while? Wendy went to a hypnotist for chrissake. Would’ve been forty years ago. Caught up with both of them in the end. The conveyor hook catches the frame and tugs.
You love that smell when the purple wax-foam gushes down, blotting out what light there is. Carnauba? Mmmm. Chamois strips drag and stir it, front to back. For years it was difficult to have a conversation with Darlene. She couldn’t get through two sentences without a paroxysm of coughing. Then so careful with her next word, the next sip of coffee. And yet her x-rays were always clear. She claimed. Well, something killed her. Low blood oxygen was the first news from the ER. Then blood clots drifting loose countered by a massive infusion of Coumadin. It was supposedly working. They sent Doc home but phoned him to hurry back in at four in the morning.
Now that high, whining wind and the light at the end of the tunnel, water and wax climbing the glass. Two more of the guys are waiting to greet you at the other end. Nondescript and moving too fast to observe and pigeon-hole into some punitive registry or other.. This is the important part to you, the grueling part for them. You hate to get home with rivulets out of the trim, from behind all the mirrors. They’ll windmill over most of the surface with terry-cloth mitts; spare towels draping their shoulders. More headlights coming out of the storm, relentless.
Your son and step-son will serve as pallbearers. Friends for so long with all the Lonnegan kids. Did she see you? You never technically slept with her. Doc was all for it from the day you moved in. Flirted openly with Wendy at every opportunity. But neither of the women were interested. Smarter than you and Doc put together. Might have been a disaster, so many years left to be right next door. Plus, on a level of personal aesthetics, Doc always needed a shave. Always looked like he’d just changed the oil on all of their vehicles, including lawn tractors. OK, but it did get as far as everyone screwing on the shag carpeting in the rec room. All the kids gone to their grandparents; nice fire in the wood-stove. Own partners only, in the amber shadows. Darlene and Wendy still hacking out the Michigan ditch weed that got it started. Doc looking like he might fall asleep, Darlene working on him lethargically between coughs. You figured the others were peeking, too, just to see what everyone had. Otherwise, what was the point? She lost interest and sat up to light a regular cigarette.
“Wendy, look what we have to go through now just to get laid.”
No, she probably didn’t see you. So it appears you didn’t love your neighbor as yourself, either. Not really. Three weeks since you had coffee with them. She always had the latest hearings on three different TVs. Echoing Trump this and Trump that from one end of their house to the other when you could no longer stand the sound of the name.
Your car rolls out and down the incline. The guys hop along, keeping up with gravity, slapping their mitts under the wipers, the side mirrors. A rap on the window and a thumbs up. You’re good to go, so please get out the fucking way.
Back in gear and twenty yards to the vacuum. The floor mats already have doilies of salt residue with the winter solstice three weeks away. You get out with an orange shop-rag you brought. The tip must have worked. There are no obvious missed spots, just a few drizzles still seeping from under the trim. You daub them up. Now it turns out the machine you’ve parked next to is tagged out-of-order. The elephant dong of hose has been curled almost entirely into a trash barrel. But at least this little Chevy cleans up nicely.
Kind of Doc at the visitation last night. In a dark suit and some kind of musk aftershave, he didn’t seem terribly devastated. His basset eyes are always a little red from allergies. Darlene could never have a cat. And he may have resumed toking for the occasion. There were so many family members around the casket, you and your current wife hung back. When it was your turn, Darlene looked like she’d been given a coat of shellac.
“Sorry for your loss, Doc. And sorry I haven’t been over. I wanted to give you some space. I still can’t believe it.”
All you got was a handshake. Cheryl got the lingering hug, of course. She’s still not sorry she didn’t go skinny dipping when they had their above-ground.
“Listen, don’t take this the wrong way, but…”
God, this had to have the right effect or you’d never live it down.
“Well, this would have been a lot easier if I was standing here next to her, talking shit about you.”
Only Cheryl was indignant. Doc snorted so hard with laughter that he doubled over and snot-blocked with both hands.
Chris Dungey currently lives in Michigan feeding two wood stoves, waiting for soccer season (Detroit City FC and Flint City Bucks FC), riding a mountain bike, and singing in Presbyterian choir.