The biggest ironies about funerals were the fucking hats, honestly. The floppy-brimmed one dangling in front of me had this massive agglutination of black netting and feathers on top that reminded me vaguely of roadkill. While the minister with worm-on-a-string eyebrows went on about “death begets life” and “blessed are the living,” the birds who sacrificed their plumage and lives to make that hat were probably throwing a riot in bird heaven.
I wondered what Jay would think of all these huffy men choking on their ascots or the minister whose mouth gaped like a fish every time he said ‘Thessalonians.’ I imagined him in his clean-pressed suit and polished shoes, fighting to keep a straight face. He happened to be really good at that—“years of practice with the Exeter profs,” he said—but I could tell when he was laughing inside. His jaw would set and his chin would jut out, as if the laugh were a bullfrog in his throat which he was trying to contain. I glanced inside the casket to look at his white face. Not even a twitch.
The last time I saw Jay, he was packing for a charity mission to Mozambique.
“You know, just because you’re an Ivy graduate,” I said, taking a drag of my cigarette, “you don’t have to fill the shoes of some old white philanthropist just yet.”
He didn’t reply. Jay had this brilliant way of talking through his silences. A quirk of his mouth, a pause, and you’d understand exactly what he meant. This one felt like a tether, drinking up your words and gently tugging on you for more. I took the cue.
“It’s like, sure mom and grandma and, heck, this entire town thinks you’re America’s biggest darling since Shirley fucking Temple, but—” he raised his eyebrows at that, and I went on hurriedly. “—but the point is, are you trying to make yourself into a walking stereotype with this ‘helping orphans in Africa?’”
He put down the shirt he was folding and looked at me. “That’s the point, Reed. Everyone makes this about me, but it’s not. It’s about the orphans.”
“So, the Catholic prep school valedictorian has been soul-searching.”
“Maybe I’m a hippie after all.”
“Tell that to your monogram,” I said, jabbing my cigarette where his initials lay embroidered on his shirt collar, and I took satisfaction in the scraggly ash circle it left behind.
Jay’s following silence was rare and resigned and final. We hugged good-bye and he set out half a world away to feed the starving of children of Africa while I discovered the wonders of rolled marijuana. Two weeks later, we got a call that he had been killed by four of the teenagers for whom he had just built a school.
“It’s truly tragic, but not uncommon,” the doctor had said. “A lot of the kids here have a lot of, ah, resent, for the white people who come here and interfere with their lives.”
“He had a whole life in front of him,” my dad kept saying in disbelief, while my mom shuddered silently. She graciously took a handkerchief from the doctor and blew her nose twice, crying louder. I just shook my head in amazement. If I could by chance make it into heaven, I’d have to give the bastard a dollar for being right again.
Another month later and my mom was still crying next to me, at the funeral paid for by Jay’s remaining mission funds. The minister had finished his speech and people were walking around, making an ocean of those godforsaken hats. I made my way to the side exit and almost got away with lighting a cigarette, before my dad clamped his hand on my shoulder.
“Seriously, Reed? You’re at Jay’s goddamn funeral. The trash can’s by the other exit.”
I rolled my eyes and walked across the room. When I got to the casket, I stopped. There were dozens of roses wreathing Jay’s body. Nearby was a lady I didn’t recognize handing them out, and she gave me one when I walked up.
“Oh, you must be Reed. I’m so, so sorry for your loss. If there’s anything I can do… ”
I turned the rose. It was black. “I didn’t know black roses existed,” I said stupidly.
“Oh, yes, beautiful, aren’t they? They’re very rare, only grow on the Euphrates, but all of us were so touched by your brother’s story that we thought he deserved them.”
“Yes, the one about the thugs in that town—oh, when I heard it, I just—”
“Beira,” I said dully.
“The town’s name was Beira. In Mozambique.”
She frowned at me like I was an afterthought. “Yes, anyways, he was so kind, your brother. Aren’t those kids horrible—well, all of them are, those not raised by our Lord. Anyways, we were all so moved and set up a fund to import them from Euphrates. And, oh… ”
For the first time, I looked at her face. She was smiling thoughtfully behind about seven layers of black mesh, as if she actually found the whole ordeal beautiful. “Yeah,” I said flatly, looking straight at her. “They sound really horrible.”
She sniffed sympathetically and patted my back. “Anyways, honey, I’ll be headed back to my seat. Your dad’s eulogy should be starting soon. But you take your time with him, alright?”
She drifted back, still with that affectionate smile plastered across her face. Her hat was one of the tiny stiff ones, but no less horrendous than the carnage of feathers I had been staring at for the past two hours. I wondered what reason she had to hide behind all that mesh, as if she were too modest to show her face, while there was a literal corpse, sprawling mesh-less and visibly face-up in front of her.
“What a fucking spectacle,” I said, turning to Jay. With exaggerated care, I tucked my rose underneath his elbow. “But you saw all this coming, didn’t you?”
I wanted to say more, but my dad was mounting the stage, and my shoulder was still sore from where he grabbed it. Instead, I turned to head back to my seat, where my mom was still crying. Her eyes hardened when I approached, though, so quickly that I had to wonder if she was only crying for show.
“Your dad said you were smoking just now.”
I shrugged helplessly. “I wasn’t. Well, I was going to, but then he stopped me.”
“God, Reed,” she said after a hard moment, “What is wrong with you today?”
I never got to answer. In that moment, the lady two seats down began screaming. My dad doubled over coughing onstage. I smelled smoke.
“Everyone out! Fire!” a man shouted from the back.
I didn’t need a second signal. I jumped up and ran, pushing past wizened professors and hunched old ladies to the exit. A couple yards away, smoke was pouring in great black gusts. The mahogany casket—Jay had always despised mahogany—had finally found a less mundane purpose and fueled the flaming mass that was now engulfing the front stage. While I watched the stack of ungiven Euphrates roses wither and catch fire, I breathed in the summer air, almost giddy with excitement. It was over. Even the old men were hobbling safely out of the building now, everyone well and intact except for Jay’s body. That would have already disintegrated to ash, and the fire department would never find the cigarette stub tucked under its elbow.
What was that for? Jay would’ve asked.
For you, bastard, I would say. For the kids in Beira.
Then he would give me a sad smile and watch in resignation as a woman desperately fanned her hat at the flames, only for it to ignite a moment later. God, funerals were hilarious.
Samantha Liu is a fifteen-year-old aspiring writer in New Jersey with a penchant for all things Voltaire. She thinks optimistic nihilism is underrated.