by Joy E. Allen
The quietest funeral I ever attended was for my friend Kayla’s brother. He’d stolen some money from his drug dealer and gone on the run. When he got wind that the drug dealer knew where he was, he shot himself in his head in the cheap motel room where he was staying. Housekeeping found him the next day.
“Justin’s dead.” Kayla was crying; I could hear her through my staticky cell phone. I was visiting my parents for dinner, so I stepped into the living room to talk to her. I said the rightest things I could about how sorry I was and how fucked up it was. I didn’t say that I was glad he was gone. He’d raped a girl I knew, and when Kayla was little, he had touched her, too. There’s not much in the way of justice in this world; neither crime had been reported, and if they had they would have been hard to prosecute.
Kayla had had a baby two months before Justin’s death. She was only 23 and overwhelmed, so she’d opted for adoption. She chose the family through a private service. The baby would receive letters from her on special occasions, and she would receive school photos. She also requested that she have some time with the baby post-birth before releasing her to the new parents. Kayla’s family and the baby’s father were all there, and she told me watching her brother cradle another girl child made her certain that giving her away would keep her safe.
“We have a table set up with a guest book,” Judy, Kayla’s mother, said when I arrived for the wake. Her curly hair was pinned back with a barrette the way it always was, but this time the barrette was black. She and her husband had sunk so much money into their son’s rehab that if he’d had to get treatment one more time it might have meant the house.
“You can also write down any message you have for Justin in Heaven and put it in here.” She had hand-painted a mailbox with his name. It was cloudy blue like the sky. I hugged her but didn’t write any messages.
The room was full of older people. Most of Justin’s friends didn’t come. His kind of people wouldn’t have done well at a Catholic church. It was cold enough that we kept on our coats. The older people, friends of the parents, were talking to each other.
Kayla came over to me, put her mouth close to my ear. “I just said ‘He looks like a frog’ in front of the mortician. I didn’t mean to say it out loud, but he does. His mouth shouldn’t look wide like that,” she said.
“Do you think they’ll fix it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I hope they can. Maybe it’s good you let them know.”
Other friends of hers arrived. I said hello to people I hadn’t seen since high school. We shifted in our shoes, tugged at our sleeves. I wanted to ask them what they knew, and if they had heard the same stories I had, but I didn’t ask. I’ve heard that one should not speak ill of the dead, and I always thought that was in service of the dead person’s reputation. Justin could no longer speak up for himself. But worse was the thought that I could make his family’s grief worse with what I knew. It was complicated enough to mourn him.
The next day, during the funeral, Kayla and her family entered after everyone else. Kayla was wearing a black dress with a deep scoop back. I stood behind her, admiring the contrast of her white skin against the darkfabric until she bent over sobbing. Then, I watched her back heave.
After the priest addressed the congregation, he asked anyone with fond memories of Justin to come by the altar and share their remembrances.
He stepped to the side. Justin lay in his casket. His face resembled him again. I’d checked before the service. He’d been pushed into the shape of a regular man.
The church stood quiet. Vaulted ceilings, hard walls, tile floors; the place was built to amplify sound. No one spoke or moved. Then, I heard the sound of a woman’s flats pat up to where the priest had stood. A small, older woman with curled hair folded her hands behind her back.
She said, “I think we all hoped that Justin would get better.”