Leslie’s Granddad had been dead for four days. He was her first dead person. Officially, Mrs. Kennedy’s rabbit, Chalky, had been her first dead thing, and she remembered when the whole street had closed its front curtains as Joey Wynn had been carried out in his coffin; but these deaths didn’t count because they belonged to other people. This dead person was hers. At the wake, she approached his open coffin on tiptoe, taking her time like she did when unwrapping Christmas presents, enjoying the anticipation, until the buttons on her duffle coat touched the side of the box he was laid in. His chest didn’t move. She had known that it wouldn’t, that when you are dead, you don’t breathe. But still she waited for it to rise. His lower jaw had slackened slightly to the right as though his face was melting. The normally red, flaky skin was planed and smooth, as if it belonged to someone who had just entered the world, not someone who had just left it. The all too familiar roughness, the patchwork of scars caused by thrown pint glasses and German shrapnel had been evened out like freshly poured concrete. Perhaps Aunty Pauline had told the man from the funeral home to get rid of the evidence of Granddad’s earthly sins. After all, Leslie thought, how else did he stand a chance of getting past St. Peter?
Leslie looked over each shoulder, screwing up her eyes against the haze of swirling cigarette smoke. There were lots of people in the room, all grown-ups. Many were sipping sherry from the tiny glasses she normally saw behind the glass cabinet in her Nan’s front room. They were people who knew Granddad from the pub, from the mine, the war or all three. Most lived in the houses they were born in, drank in The Jolly Miller, stormed the same beach, and then coughed up the same coal dust. Most were smoking, some were laughing softly, others creased their faces into closed lipped smiles. There was a low continuous hum of conversation; memories were shared, tongues were clicked and heads were shaken. No one saw Leslie.
She raised an itchy hand slowly towards Dead Granddad’s new face, hesitating in midair. Perhaps an adult would notice her raised arm, guess her intention and nod in consent. Maybe even in encouragement: “It’s alright, girl. Go ‘head and touch ‘im and say goodbye if ye’ like.” Was this okay? She had a silent understanding, coming from nowhere in particular, that you didn’t touch dead people. But she couldn’t help herself.
He was waxy and cold. This was an unexpected sensation and her fingers recoiled from his sunken cheek. But then she breathed deeply and studied dead Granddad with a new understanding. Fighting the urge to use her index finger and thumb to flick the hard surface of this new likeness, she smiled. She thought she would enjoy the sound.
Three days earlier, Leslie had listened while Aunty Pauline spoke to the “nice man from the Evening Herald” on the phone. According to what she heard her say, Granddad had been “called home by Our Almighty Father” on Tuesday at around tea time when “he fell asleep into the arms of Our Lord Jesus, to be reunited with his loving wife, Mary.” When Aunty Pauline had arrived home with fifteen copies of the next day’s edition, Leslie read further that Granddad was “surrounded by the love of his devoted family when he passed peacefully from our world into the next.” Leslie remembered the event differently.
Standing at the foot of the old man’s bed, she had heard no choirs of angels calling Granddad “home,” only liquid rasps and gurgles coming from the old man’s chicken neck. There was, though, the dull and rhythmic droning of Father Flynn, whose occasional sprinkles of tepid holy water appeared as charcoal splotches on Granddad’s pillow. Leslie watched as they were slowly absorbed and disappeared into the thin fabric. She recalled gnarled, blue knuckles and Granddad’s bony grasp upon the greying blanket. Perhaps Granddad thought that if he could just get a good enough grip… And she remembered the stink of soiled bedclothes as Granddad, understanding the significance of the priest’s presence, had shit himself for all to smell. Leslie thought this must be something that Father Flynn was used to, people losing control of their bowels in fear when he appeared at their bedside. Molecules of cheap whiskey wafted from the folds of the old priest’s cassock, mingling with the pong of shitty sheets and the perfumed bowls of potpourri Aunty Pauline spread about the room. The air, already thick and heavy with heat from the electric heater and cigarette smoke, had begun to stifle Leslie and she hoped she would not faint. Recognizing the familiar cold tingling sensation in her fingertips as early signs of this threat, she took off her coat and loosened her school tie. She did not want to miss this.
As for the “devoted family members” mentioned in the obituary, it was true to say that Granddad had died with all of his living relatives at his bedside. Leslie’s Uncle John was standing in the corner, slight shoulders hunched, weak chin resting on weak chest. He gnawed at the skin on the thumb of his right hand, ripping strips between his teeth. Leslie noticed the bloody mess of his other fingers.
His younger brother, Leslie’s Uncle Franny, was bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet, fiddling with his heavy silver lighter. Occasionally, he took a restless stroll around the bedroom, picking up Nan’s old dusty trinkets, turning them over in his hand, casually appraising them. Leslie saw a glass swan disappear into his pocket.
The single seated figure in the room was Leslie’s mother. Her angular body turned from the deathbed, stockinged legs crossed, staring at the wet grey slate beyond the bedroom window. She was wearing a pair of maroon high heeled shoes Leslie had not seen before; one was dangling from the toe of her left foot as she idled it in midair. Blowing small smoke rings through her red circled lips, chin slightly raised and eyes half closed, she had removed herself from the rest of the room. Leslie noticed that she had dyed her hair again.
The grey drizzle of the early afternoon continued and it grew steadily darker. Leslie felt a drowsiness that tested her resilience and determination to see her Granddad die in real life. Aunty Pauline rattled in with more tea no one drank. There were biscuits too and the good plates.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Pauline,” Uncle Franny spat through his small teeth when offered yet another cup, receiving a silent but stern rebuke from Father Flynn’s watery eyes. Aunty Pauline, born old and stooped, sniffled into the hankie stuffed up her sleeve and knelt by her father’s side. Sobbing loudly, she had tried in vain to unclasp his death grip on the blanket; Leslie saw that she wanted him to hold her hand.
“O Lord Jesus Christ, let there enter this house with the entrance of our lowliness eternal happiness, divine prosperity…” Father Flynn’s hand, raised in benediction, trembled in midair.
Then Granddad had opened his eyes wide and gasped like someone who has been held underwater and finally broken the surface.
“Oh Jesus, fuck…,” Granddad’s last, profane appeals to Heaven had gone ignored by all. Including God. His once strong, gruff voice was raspy and pleading.
Father Flynn’s energies seem to have been revived by Granddad’s sudden outburst and his incantations now had a new vigor and volume. Leslie suspected he was experienced enough with this sort of thing to know that a dying gasp, such as this one, was a sign that he was in the closing straits of his priestly duties and would soon be dismissed from them. With a rousing intake of breathe, Father Flynn continued:
“…may there fly from this place all approach of the demons; let the angels of peace be present and all ill-feeling and discord leave this house.” Granddad responded:
“Shut up Pauline…”
“Father of Mercies, God of all consolation…according to Thy many mercies, look down favorably on Thy servant, Francis…”
“….where’s ye’ fucking sister?”
“…so graciously grant to Francis forgiveness of all his sins…”
“Ye’ sister…Oh fuckin’ ‘ell. Pauline … Our Val?”
.”.. and that his soul in the hour of leaving the earth may find Thee as a Judge appeased…”
“Our Val…Did she come..?”
“…may deserve to pass to everlasting life.”
Then Granddad’s chest rattled and his bony clutch on the bedclothes grew more desperate. Leslie wondered how long he had been crying, as she watched his tears blend with stream of snot seeping from his nose. No attempt was made by anyone, including Granddad, to stop the mucus flow, just as no attempt was made to change his shit sodden pajamas. And they were his good ones, too. But really, what was the point? Leslie heard herself thinking. Granddad was going to die in a bed of his own filth; leaking shameful and dirty things from all his holes.
Suddenly, something changed and Leslie was struck by a new softness to Granddad’s normally nasty, rumbling voice. She was simultaneously aware of a shift in the focus of the grown-ups in the room. Uncle Franny stopped pacing, Uncle John lifted his eyes toward Granddad. All seemed to hear a death knell. Only Leslie’s mother remained unmoved.
“Val…where is she?” Leslie’s mother sighed heavily. Resting her still smoking cigarette on a heavy glass ashtray, she uncrossed her legs and shifted her body in the chair towards him. Leslie remembered her empty face.
“I’m ‘ere, Dad.” She did not look at him.
“Yes, Dad,” her mother said.
“Val..,” through his tears and snot, Granddad’s lungs made a final massive effort. Leslie hoped for some deathbed wisdom. The secret of the last seconds. Profound and simple; everything would be explained. Granddad’s lip curled into its final decisions. His wide eyes narrowed as he turned his head to Leslie’s mother. The voice with which he spat out his last words was gravelly and cruel.
“Val…Ye’ always were a fuckin’ bitch.”
That sneering face was Granddad’s death mask and now, as she looked at this other still profile lying in the plywood box in her Nan’s living room, Leslie wished that someone had cast one, like the ones she saw of Isaac Newton and William Wordsworth in her book, Dead Great Britons. Standing now at his coffin, poking at his waxwork face, Leslie decided that she liked dead Granddad loads better than live Granddad. He was a cruel man when he could still breathe. Leslie recalled how his calloused sausage fingers would grip and pinch small spare pieces of skin on the inside of her upper arm. The sharpness of this pain always took her by surprise and she soon learned that any tears would be met with disgust.
“I ‘ardly touched ye’, you stupid little cow,” he would spit at her, in the same way he would tell Aunty Pauline that she was as ugly as her mother and no wonder no one would take her off his hands. He had worn that same expression of disgust on the rare occasions Leslie heard Uncle John attempt to reply to the old man.
“Thought I’d beaten that stammer out of ye’, ye’ fucking queer,” he would snarl, clipping his son across the back of his slumped head.
Now all that was left of Granddad’s meanness was frozen on his dead face forever. But it still made poor inconsolable Aunty Pauline servile, stooped and alone. It still managed to silence Uncle John and continued to burn in the violent code Uncle Franny lived by in between his prison stints. And it made Leslie’s mother go away and hardly ever come back.
But now, looking down at dead Granddad’s steadily melting face, Leslie saw the postmortem attempts to hide his sins were a waste of time. St Peter had clearly given him the knock back and the fires of hell were already taking their toll on his slowly dissolving skin.
“From dust thou art, and from dust thou shalt return,” she whispered.
She really wanted to flick his whiskied nose. Just once, right where the scar left by a flying pint glass in 1952 should have been. Checking the coast was clear of grown up interference one last time, Leslie was startled by the sight of her silent mother staring out the grimy window, the smoke of her own cigarette floating about her. Standing with her defiant back to all assembled, her red lips, shoes and fingernails dared anyone to approach her, to place a hand on her bony shoulder, to offer condolences, a eulogy, a prayer. She had removed herself completely. Leslie looked at her mother for longer than she had ever done in her 13 year life, and for the first time noticed the striking similarity between that woman’s profile and the one of the man lying still in the box in front of her. Unmoving and detached.
The first flick hurt her fingernail. The noise was hollow. The second flick was more measured and the noise more satisfying. A pop. A bit like the wooden block musical instruments they had been allowed to play in nursery school. A plastic echo. Leslie longed to put her ear against the dead cheek to check for reverberations, but knew it was too risky with so many grown-ups around. She contented herself by experimenting with pitch at various points on Granddad’s freshly smoothed face. Had she more time, she could pick out a tune. One of her favorites: Adam Ant or Boy George or another one of what Granddad referred to as “them fuckin’ queers” as he broke her albums over his knee. It was then she sensed the slight movement her mother’s shoulder had made in her direction. This caused Leslie to pause her musical exploration of dead Granddad’s face, but she did not look up. She did not know what she was going to see on her mother’s face. She understood that the hum of the room continued, but that neither she, nor her mother were a part of it. Leslie knew that she never really had been. But beneath the drone of the other conversations, she became aware of a throaty, unfamiliar sound. Leslie looked up. Her mother was laughing. She had placed one manicured hand over her red mouth in an effort to stem the flow of growing laughter, but her shoulders continued to shake and her eyes shine. Leslie, accustomed to being the target of cruel sniggering, pivoted awkwardly on her heel, uncertain what to do. Then, with thumb and forefinger at the ready, her mother approached the open coffin and Leslie began to smile. The thought of how much Granddad would fucking hate this made her happy.
This is C.J. Griego’s first published work.