Burt Thompson shook his head. Rob knew he wouldn’t have any trouble out of his supervisor. “It’s okay.”
“Thank you, Burt,” said Rob.
“You’ll be back, when, Monday?”
“Sometime Sunday,” Rob said. “Hopefully. The funeral is Saturday morning. If I don’t leave then, I’ll leave for sure on Sunday morning. I’ll be back Monday for work.”
“That’s fine,” said Burt. “I’m not worried. We’re a little slow anyway, right now. We can spare you for a day.” He smiled. “How old did you say this guy was?”
“Uncle Kilgore? One hundred three.”
Burt whistled. “Damn.”
“My great-grandfather’s brother. Their little sister, Aunt Vickie, called me. Died in his sleep last night.”
“They got longevity in your family,” Burt said.
Burt said, “I was pallbearer for my father-in-law. First time ever. Surprising at my age, right? Not long ago. I was scared to death I’d drop him.” Burt smiled. “He would have loved that.”
“Hopefully I won’t drop Uncle Kilgore,” Rob said. “I don’t know what his sense of humor was like.”
The call had come at six that morning, the Thursday rush just as bad as any other morning. Right in the middle of getting ready for work, getting the kids dressed and fed before school and then shuttling them off for the bus, the phone rang.
“Who’s this?” Marianne showed him the caller id. “You recognize this number?”
Rob looked. The name scrolled across the little screen: VICKIE FINNE.
“What the hell?” Rob mumbled. He pressed the talk button. “Hello.”
Marianne was packing a sandwich into a brown paper bag. “Who is it, Rob?”
“Is this Robert? Robert Rampling?” the voice spoke into his ear.
“Robert,” the elderly lady at the other end said. “This is Vickie Finne. Your aunt.”
“Yes,” said Rob. “I remember you. How are you?”
“I’m good,” she said, “much better than my brother, your Uncle Kilgore. He has died, Robert.”
“I’m sorry,” Rob said.
“Do you remember him?” she asked.
“Honey, who is it?” Marianne was at his free ear.
“Not really,” he said to the old woman. “My Aunt Vickie,” he told Marianne.
“Who?” said Marianne. “You have an Aunt Vickie?”
The kids came rushing into the kitchen. Marianne shushed them. Bobby and Bethany made a show of clamping their lips together and sat down at the table.
“He remembered you, Robert,” Aunt Vickie said. “We all do, as a matter of fact. But Kilgore, rest his soul, has stated in his funerary plans that you be one of his pallbearers.”
“Well, that’s, that’s unexpected,” said Rob.
“So was his dying,” said Aunt Vickie. “We’ll need you for the wake as well. He’s going to be buried on Saturday. Can you be here tomorrow? Can we rely on you, Robert? We are still your family, after all.”
“Sure, Aunt Vickie. I guess so.”
Her voice changed. She sounded relieved. “Do you know your way to the family home? I know it has been an awful amount of years since you were here last.”
“I’m pretty sure I still know the way.”
Rob closed their bedroom door. “The kids are down for the count.” He crawled in bed next to his wife. He lay there, tired.
Marianne switched off the lamp and nestled next to him.
“The alarm set?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“You sure you don’t want to come with me? I may need some support.”
“You’re a big boy,” she said. “You’ll be fine. It’s family.”
“That’s what’s so scary.” He turned on his side to face her. “Your mom will watch the kids.”
“We don’t know that,” Marianne said. “And they’re letting us have overtime at work, so I need to work it while I can. And it was like pulling teeth to get my mother to watch the kids for a few hours while I’m working and you’re out of town.”
“I know,” he said, deflated somewhat. “I just thought it would be a nice little getaway for us.”
“To your ancient uncle’s funeral?”
He laughed. “Well, you should see the house. It’s like from Gone With the Wind or something.”
“I’m sure it’s romantic,” she said. “Funeral and all.”
“Oh, shut up,” Rob told her.
“No, really,” Marianne insisted. “I’ve been to some very romantic funerals in my time. I’m sure this one will take the cake.”
“And you’re going to miss it all.”
“If it’s any consolation, I’ll be working my fingers to the bone.”
“It’s a slight consolation,” Rob said.
“Maybe this summer, or next spring, some distant, half-forgotten relative of mine will die and we’ll be able to plan a family vacation around it.”
“You really can’t plan these things, though,” Rob said. “You have to take them as they come. You can’t rely on family that much.”
“We’re sick,” Marianne chuckled.
“I wish you would come with me, though, for real.”
“I know. I wish I could go.” She settled against his chest. “What are these people like? You’ve never really told me much about them.”
“I really don’t knew them,” he said. “They were my father’s people. After he died, my mom never went around them much. They never really thought of her as one of them, I guess. They never said it out right, but she picked up on it. She wasn’t eccentric enough.”
“Eccentric or crazy?” asked Marianne.
“They have money, so they’re eccentric.”
“Maybe the old guy left you some money.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” he said. “They didn’t stay rich by giving it away.”
“But you’re family,” said Marianne.
“Was, is more like it. After mom married my stepdad, they ignored her existence. They did raise a stink when Baxter adopted me. I remember that.”
“What did they care?”
“The family name wouldn’t continue, or something. They were mad as hell. Aunt Vickie, Uncle Kilgore, a couple others.” Rob thought for a second. “I haven’t seen these people in twenty-something odd years. Haven’t even talked to them.”
“And then out of the blue,” Marianne whispered.
“Yeah. Out of the blue.”
Marianne nudged him. “I think if your Uncle Kilgore remembered you in his funeral plans, you have a damn good chance of being in the will.”
“Life’s full of consolation prizes,” she said.
“I wonder how much it would be,” Rob pondered.
“To the gills,” he said.
“How did they get so much money?”
“Land development,” said Rob. “Also coal, cotton, tobacco- you name it, they have their hands in it. They own a majority in some healthcare corporation too. You wouldn’t believe what all they do.”
“Wow,” said Marianne. “And you and your mom lived like paupers.”
“Lived?” said Rob. “Look around, baby, we ain’t exactly on Easy Street. I still ain’t escaped.”
“You’re holding me back,” said Marianne.
“Only because I blame you for all this,” Rob laughed.
Rob left at nine Friday morning. He tripled checked to make sure the empty, quiet house was locked before he settled into his truck. The radio didn’t make the hours pass any quicker, neither did any of the road music he had selected.
Outside of Nashville he stopped for lunch. It was one o’clock. He sat in a wobbly booth, waiting for the waitress to bring his bacon cheeseburger and onion rings. He was staring at the cell phone, his finger running lightly over the buttons, when it chimed with an incoming call. He pressed the talk button.
“I thought we agreed to only use the phone for emergencies,” Marianne said. “We’re low on minutes and haven’t put anymore on it.”
“You called me, sweetheart,” said Rob.
“I just wanted to check in with you.”
“Well, I was about to call you. I wasn’t sure when you had your lunch break though.”
“Took a late one.”
“Where you at?”
Rob looked out the window. “Somewhere south of Nashville. I’m almost there. Not much further to go.”
“Nervous?” asked Marianne.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” said Rob.
“That’s why I called,” she said. “I knew just the sound of my voice alone would give you strength.”
“It’s not working. Maybe you should talk dirty.”
Marianne burst out with a high laugh.
“Tell me all the things you’re going to do to me when I get back home,” said Rob.
“Well, when you get home, I think the first thing I’m going to do is supervise you as you repair the back porch. Those rotted boards.”
“Oh, boy, slave driver.”
“And then, lets see, the gutters need to be cleaned. The trim in the bathroom needs to be painted. The border in Bethany’s room is peeling.”
“I can’t wait to get back home,” Rob said.
“Have you built up your resolve yet?” Marianne asked.
“You bet. I’m going to try to worm my way back into the Finne’s good graces and abandon you for a life of luxury.”
“My cousin’s a cop, don’t forget. I’ll track you down wherever you go.”
“Love you. Be good.”
“I will,” he said.
“I’m going to finish my cheese and crackers,” Marianne said. “You have a nice vacation.”
“Kiss the kids for me.”
“I will,” and then she rung off.
The waitress placed his order on the table.
“Let me know if you need anything,” she said.
It was three-thirty when Rob made it to Cedar Grove. The school on the main highway into the little town was letting out and traffic was bumper to bumper. Rush hour in a speck on the map that only had one traffic light. He wasn’t even to the traffic light yet. That was downtown, right where you turn to go onto the town square. Or keep driving straight through the traffic light and follow the highway out of town. That thought crossed his mind.
He made it passed the school and to the one traffic light. It was red. He had to stop. On green, he drove on, followed the highway to the turn off to Finne Hollow Road. They had their own road, their own section of the metropolitan hamlet. He waited for a semi to pass and made the left turn.
“Here goes,” he mumbled to the strains of blues that filled the truck cab.
Finne Hollow Road, all oil and chip, wound its way among the land like a twitching snake in the throes of death. Curves and hills, curves and hills, up and down, around and around. It seemed to go on forever, the years of absence for Rob lengthening it. Fine homes, family homes, houses of Finnes, sat far off from the road, gleaming on hill tops and bathing in valleys of sunshine. Finne Hollow Road, such as it was, was actually just the drive for the Finne House. A driveway miles long. Finally, he came to the homestead, what had always been named the Finne House, surrounded by its multitude of weeping willows.
Vehicles, fine ones no less, filled the circular drive. They parked at the edges with still enough room for one of the semis Rob had passed to circle through. Rob chose a spot far from the house, parking between to very spotless foreign automobiles. He was careful not to ding the one beside him with his mottled truck door.
Rob was wearing khakis and a buttoned down collar. Decent. But he was sure he would be grossly underdressed compared to the others already here giving their condolences. He was sure he looked more like one of the Finne’s employees and hired hands than an actual family member.
All the cars and trucks he passed on his way to the house were spotless, as if they’d never been driven except to leave the showroom floor for this one occasion. All the tags were local. All family at this point. He half wished to mingle with the employees.
It wasn’t until he reached the walk leading to the house he realized people were milling about on the porch. The house itself, now that he could see it clearly, was a freeze frame of a bygone era. It was just as he remembered all those years ago, just as it looked in all the sepia toned portraits that hung upon its interior walls from what seemed like days before time itself, those portraits he remembered browsing when he was child in this house.
Seeing the place, the plantation, the mansion, he felt like a child again. Standing in its sneer, looking upon its visage, he felt as small as he was when he was ten years old.
The Finne House had not changed the very few and far between visits he had made here with his parents. When he was still a Finne. The Finne House had not lost any of its immense dimensions. It’s white luster columns were still virile and grand, it’s windows sparkling, it’s bricks impenetrable. Distantly, he remembered his father having called the place a Georgian-Palladian bastardization. It seemed to Rob that age had not touched the place. The porch and balconies were still draped in flowers and hanging ferns. Rocking chairs still sat in the same place, the porch swings still swayed with the breeze, their chains creaking ever so gently.
Rob stood still, taking it all in. Cold. Paralyzed by it.
The chatter of the group on the front porch died as their attention focused on the new face.
A young man, as old as Rob, spoke. “Can I help you?” His dark blue suit was buttoned, his pink shirt pressed and wrinkle free. A red rose sprouted elegantly from his lapel.
They were all looking at him. Rob was sure he could back away, just turn and drive his truck straight home at top speed, fall into the solace of his wife and children.
“I’m Rob,” he said. He found himself walking, actually walking, his legs were working. He found himself taking the steps with confidence.
“Rob-” the young man mulled it over. “Robert?”
A woman, past her prime and plastic thanks to surgery, had her hand at Rob’s elbow. “Robert Finne?”
The assortment of others exchanged glances, curious looks, whispers.
“Rampling. Robert Rampling,” Rob said.
“Justin Finne,” the young man said and shook Rob’s hand.
“Myrtle Finne-Beech,” the older woman said. She placed a kiss on Rob’s cheek. “Welcome back. It’s been so long.”
“Thank you, I know. And please, call me Rob.”
“All right Rob,” Myrtle said. “And you are still a Finne. No matter what adoption papers may say. Especially as long as you’re in this house.” She smiled. “Lets introduce you once more; nearly the entire family’s here already. Come on,” she lead the way inside.
Rob followed her. Justin brought up the rear. The others commenced a fevered whisper as the screen door closed.
The inside was much the same as the outside. Intact, spotless, untouched. The same portraits and decorations Rob had seen as a child, the same sturdy antique furniture, the same smell of wood and varnish and moth balls.
“It’s just as I remember,” Rob said.
“I guess so,” said Justin. “It’s always looked this way. Like a museum. I guess we like to preserve our roots.”
Voices came from closed sliding doors to the left of the expansive foyer.
“The drawing room,” Rob pointed.
“Yes. Aunt Vickie is going over some final preparations for Uncle Kilgore’s viewing,” said Myrtle. “That’s to be held in the Great Hall, here,” she indicated the closed doors to the right. “He’s not here, yet,” she added.
“Oh,” said Rob. “I remember the hall. A birthday party or something. I came with my dad. I don’t really remember who it was for.”
Justin smiled. “I’m sure it’s still the same as then.”
“Most likely,” said Myrtle.
“Lets take you to Aunt Vickie,” said Justin. “She was so pleased you agreed to attend. She can’t wait to see.”
Myrtle ushered him by the arm towards the drawing room doors. As Justin slid the deep colored doors open, a wave of anxiety coursed throughout Rob. He felt suffocated. He was afraid he was visibly trembling, that Myrtle could feel it.
Once the doors were open, the conversations hushed. Rob stood in the doorway. Aunt Vickie sat on a plush red velvet divan. She craned her head away from the men and women in crisp suits and choice dresses that surrounded her to stare at her prodigal nephew.
Aunt Vickie’s eyes were a cloudy blue. Rob at first thought she was blind. She was skinny, very frail, her wrinkled flesh hung on her like a bleached duster on a coat rack.
“Robert.” Her voice was stronger than her appearance. Her small mouth made the slightest cut of a smile. “Robert,” she said a second time. She made to stand, and did with the assistance of the gentleman next to her. She steadied herself and waved to him. “Well, come here.”
Rob went to her. Justin and Myrtle stood at the door. He felt naked and alone.
“Let me look you over, boy,” she said. Her head bobbed slightly atop her twig of a neck. “You seemed to have grown up well.”
“Thank you,” Rob said.
“Even if it was without us.” Rob caught the mad sparkle in her eye.
“Not really,” said Aunt Vickie. “I’m so glad you came. Where’s your wife and little ones? Twins, right?”
“Yes. Bobby and Bethany. They had to stay at home. Marianne, my wife, she sends her regards.”
“That’s sweet of her,” Aunt Vickie said. “We’ll get a good visit from with them next time.”
Rob mumbled an “Okay.” Maybe there would be a next time. Without all the other hangers-on staring.
“Have you met everyone?”
Myrtle spoke up. “He only just arrived, Aunt Vickie. We brought him to you straight away. We knew how much you were expecting him.”
“Excited as a school girl,” said Justin.
“Right you were,” said Aunt Vickie. She cupped Rob’s face. “I’ll introduce you to everyone. I’ll even point out the snobs.” Her thin smile broadened.
“Thank you,” Rob said.
A few of the people surrounding them stiffened.
There were people everywhere that Rob had not noticed or seen. Every room, it seemed, teemed with family. Aunt Vickie and her handler, Roger Westmore, attorney at law, guided Rob on a personal tour. Aunt Vickie had instructed everyone that was encamped around her to stay in their place and give them breathing room.
There was Leanne Finne-Hoyt who laughed after every other sentence, the rather manic Esther Finne-Blake, Abigail Finne-Jeanot who glared suspiciously at everyone; Aunt Vickie didn’t bother to introduce their husbands- “They’re not of particular interest,” she told Rob.
There was Kindall Finne and, Aunt Vickie put into parenthesis, his “roommate”, Trevor. Kyle Finne, Randall Finne, Brian Finne, all cousins, or somehow related to Rob.
“And surely you remember Tipp,” said Aunt Vickie.
Tipp turned slowly from the wet bar in the study. “Robert.”
“Uncle Tipp,” Robert stared in amazement.
Tipp sat aside his tumbler of whiskey and hugged Rob, his arms as strong as his cologne. He stood back, looked him over just as everyone else had.
“I can’t believe it,” Tipp said.
Rob couldn’t either. It was almost like seeing a ghost. Tipp was the younger brother of Rob’s father, his dad’s only brother to be exact, and yet they could have passed for twins.
“You look…,” Rob searched for the correct words. “You look good.” Older, but good, he thought.
“I try to stay fit. But at my age,” Tipp said and patted his fist to his chest. “My ticker went bad a couple of years ago. Got to stay on top of that. I go to the gym,” he smiled, “but I don’t work out much, I mainly look at the ladies.”
“Dear Lord, Tipp,” said Aunt Vickie. “Must you?”
Tipp winked at Rob. “Ain’t no harm in looking?” His eyes got big. “Could make my heart race though!” he laughed and retrieved his whiskey.
“Drink up, for your heart,” said Aunt Vickie.
Tipp downed it in one gulp. “That’s the ticket.” He slammed the tumbler down. “The old bat showing you the place?”
Aunt Vickie rolled her eyes.
“Now Tipp-” it was Roger Westmore talking, ever-present at Aunt Vickie’s elbow.
Aunt Vickie shushed him. “Did I not make it clear I didn’t want your input on this tour?”
Roger shut his mouth. If he was embarrassed or infuriated, he swallowed those emotions.
“When I want you to talk,” Aunt Vickie told him further, “I’ll open my purse for you to take the spare change.”
Tipp wriggled a tumbler. “Drink Roger?”
“We don’t need you getting three sheets to the wind, Tipp,” said Aunt Vickie.
Rob was giggling. “The last time I was here, I think you two were arguing over the very same thing.”
“Intriguing,” Aunt Vickie said with only a hint of a smile.
Tipp was pouring himself another whiskey.
“It is a funeral,” Aunt Vickie said.
Tipp toasted, “To Uncle Kilgore,” and he downed it.
A young woman in a black pant suit walked up to Aunt Vickie with hurried steps and whispered in her ear.
“Good, good,” murmured Aunt Vickie. “Oh,” she clutched the young woman’s arm. “You’ve not met your cousin Robert. Robert, this is Tipp’s daughter-”
“The good one,” Tipp added.
“Maggie. This is our Robert.”
“Nice to meet you,” Maggie shook his hand.
“Likewise,” said Rob.
“She’s adopted,” said Tipp.
“My God, daddy!”
“Either I say it or Aunt Vickie does behind your back.” Already had another drink in his hand.
Aunt Vickie smiled. “We lost you, Robert, so we took one for our own.”
Rob said to Maggie, “Now that I’m back, I hope they don’t toss you out.”
“No chance,” said Aunt Vickie. “Now, Maggie has informed me he’s here.” Her lower lip twitched. “Kilgore is home.” Fresh tears began to well. “Lets see to it he is settled in properly, then, Robert, I’ll show you to your room.”
“Aunt Vickie, that’s not necessary, I was-”
Aunt Vickie cut him off with a wave of her hand. “You’ll being staying here. With your family.”
The sunlight across the foyer was blinding. Roger held onto Aunt Vickie, she seemed to grow weaker the closer they got to the Great Hall. Rob felt his own heart jogging. He couldn’t help but think of how many bodies had been on view in the Great Hall over the years, wakes followed by birthday parties and anniversary dinners.
And Rob couldn’t keep from stealing glances at Tipp. Each sight of him brought a pang of, not sadness, but wonder. Rob wondered what his father would have looked like at present, much like Tipp he guessed. And he wondered how his life would have been different had his father lived, if he had remained in contact with the Finnes. Would he have been any different than the person he was now? Would he have married Marianne? Would they have even met? What would a different life had gained him? In quick succession, he could list all the things, good and bad, he would have lost, would have never known.
The Hall doors swung out. A tall skeletal man stood sentry, nodding as their procession slowly filed in.
“No one else is to visit just yet,” Aunt Vickie told the skeletal man. “Not until the proper viewing time. Just us right now, just us four. And Roger,” she cast a disgusted eye on the attorney.
The skeletal man nodded.
As they crossed the threshold, Rob felt the temperature drop considerably. Rob’s thought was instantaneous: there’s a dead body in here.
The skeletal man closed the doors behind them, shutting them in with Kilgore and the cold.
Rob slunk behind a couple paces. He was no rush to see Uncle Kilgore. He noticed Tipp and Maggie weren’t either. Tipp’s fingers were itchy; Rob was sure he was wanting a drink. Rob felt he could do with one himself.
Drawing closer and closer, walking this seeming mile to the coffin, flowers everywhere, their smell disturbing, Rob’s curiosity didn’t increase concerning the deceased. He tried to think of anything but the shorting distance to Uncle Kilgore.
The drapes were closed over the windows and doors, blocking the natural light. Black cloths hung over the mirrors and portraits. This was all tradition, Rob knew. Traditions and old wives’ tales and lore.
The group stopped when Aunt Vickie sobbed. A gasp of despair, sad and vulnerable and mortal.
Rob cast his eyes down, stared at the backs of Tipp and Maggie. He buried his hands in his pockets to the wrists.
“Kilgore,” Aunt Vickie wept. She touched the polished midnight blue coffin. Her shaking hand found it’s way to Kilgore’s waxen looking hand and grasped it. “Kilgore,” she strangled again.
Roger led her to the nearest chair.
Rob raised his head. Maggie and Tipp had parted and he had a clear view.
Uncle Kilgore looked every bit his age, year for one hundred three year. His features were sunken, eyes deeply set. Flesh wrinkled and liver spotted, thin wisp of an echo of white hair curled in one spot atop his bald head. His face was burrowed and furrowed, it was difficult to discern his mouth.
Rob thought nature would not have to do much of a job of decomposing the departed. Kilgore looked more than half on his way before his number was called. He looked worse than Rob’s memories.
Maggie said, “He looks good.”
“He does. Looks like Uncle Kilgore,” said Tipp.
Rob glanced at them both, one to the other, to see if he could see crazy tethering them together.
“Rob.” Tipp motioned to the coffin.
Aunt Vickie was crying into Roger’s shoulder.
“I can see,” said Rob. He crossed his arms. “I’m good.”
“He looks so good, so natural,” Maggie said before she went to Aunt Vickie and wrapped her arms around her.
The crowds of Finnes he had met before paled in comparison to the multitudes that showed up for the viewing.
Rob met Glenda, Tipp’s wife, a woman frustrated with the task of being married to Tipp. There were uncles, aunts, cousins, cousins, cousins, once, twice, thrice, removed. They clustered every space available, chatted, smoked, laughed, gestured, drank, and ate. Wait staff glided smoothly with silver serving trays among them, expertly zigging and zagging the reveling and mourning masses.
Tears were shed, anecdotes told. Rob was volleyed from clique to clique by Aunt Vickie and Roger. Introductions made, pleasantries and condolences exchanged.
It was Maggie nipping at his heals.
“What?” he could barely hear her over the babble of the people around them.
Maggie took his hand and pulled him along outside to a side porch. Surprisingly they were the only occupants. Rob was grateful. The air was cool, welcome from the stifling heat inside. And it was quiet.
“I don’t realize there were so many,” Rob collapsed in a patio chair.
“We tend to multiply like rabbits,” Maggie said.
“For real,” Rob wiped sweat from his brow.
“I have a favor to ask.”
Rob’s mouth went dry. “Okay.”
“Daddy was as close to Uncle Kilgore as most anyone. It wasn’t that great of a relationship, but as good as one could have had with Uncle Kilgore.” Maggie ran her damp palms down the sides of her pants. “He is going to be sitting up with Uncle Kilgore tonight.”
“He’s going to be staying with Uncle Kilgore’s body.”
“Why?” asked Rob.
“It’s tradition,” she said. “It’s not practiced much anymore. But it was a request Aunt Vickie made. That’s why the wake is being held here at the homestead. Originally, we were only going to have the funeral service here. The funeral home wouldn’t allow it.”
“Okay. It’s kind of morbid.”
“I know,” she said. “But the family is big on tradition.”
“Just look at the house.”
Maggie laughed. “I know.”
“I think I know where you’re going with this.”
Maggie smiled. “I’m sure it’s obvious. Mom and I- have you met my mother?”
“Aunt Glenda. A ceaseless worker,” Rob said.
“Daddy is a handful,” she said. “We talked about it, and we were wondering if you would be willing to sit with daddy while he sat with Uncle Kilgore? Keep an eye on him, you know. You may have noticed, he likes to indulge a little bit in the drink. Tipp isn’t really his name, I don’t know if you know that or not. It’s short for tipsy.”
Rob fanned himself with his hand. “Sure. I’ll stay up with him.” With them, he thought.
“I know,” he told Marianne. He called as soon as Marianne went back into the house. He paced the patio. “I can’t believe I agreed to do this.”
“You kind of wanted to, though, right?”
He stopped. “Yeah, I guess.”
Marianne laughed. “We are demented people.”
“You should meet these people,” he said. “It’s a smorgasbord of odd. I have an cousin Ken who is bald as the day is long, and he feels the need to run a lint brush over his head every few minutes.”
“Oh my God!” she laughed. Rob had to hold the cell away from his ear. Her chuckles faded enough for her to ask: “Why does your aunt want all this?”
“So Uncle Tipp doesn’t get drunk and tip the coffin or something, I guess.”
“No, no, no,” said Marianne. “Your Aunt Vickie. Why does she want someone to stay up with your Uncle Kilgore?”
“Yeah. Apparently it’s something that used to be done, but not so much anymore.”
“That’s crazy. I wonder why?”
“Hell if I know.”
“I wish I’d gone,” Marianne said. “I’d love to be there with you.”
“I know. I wish you were here.” He paused. For a second he tried to imagine life without her, without Bobby and Bethany, but couldn’t. “I miss you more than anything.”
It was after ten before the guests left. Those staying in at the Finne home gradually said their good nights and retired. Rob came down from his room, as elegant as any room in the house and better than any motel he could have found, to find the place practically empty of the living.
Wait staff scurried to and fro with empty glasses and dishes, the house staff were bedding the place down for the night. Rob browsed the pictures and paintings on the wall as he descended the stairs. He snapped pictures on the cell phone of some the more interesting portraits and decor, the halls, the staircase itself, the chandelier.
He suddenly felt the vastness of the house, his place in it like a lone speck of dust in the infinity of space.
He found Aunt Vickie in the Great Hall sitting between Roger and Tipp. He was still bewitched by the sight of his Uncle Tipp, his features so like his late father’s.
Rob took a seat behind them.
“Thank you, Robert.” Aunt Vickie stared at her deceased brother, not turning around to see her nephew. She trembled so, he was afraid she may snap like a stick of kindling. It had to be tiring.
Rob placed his hand on her shoulder. She patted it, and he tried to remember if it was the hand she had used to touch Kilgore.
“Tipp,” said Aunt Vickie, and the man shot to attention at the mention of his name. Or at her mentioning his name.
“Be good,” she said.
Roger helped her to stand, and supported her as she stood beside the casket. “Good night, brother,” she blew a kiss to Kilgore. She gave a slight nod of her shaking head as she passed Tipp and Rob.
“Good night,” said Rob.
Roger helped her out of the Great Hall. The doors closed. Sealed in, thought Rob. He looked at the coffin, at Uncle Kilgore. Entombed, with him, he thought.
“Just us now,” said Tipp.
“I guess so.”
They both stared at the body.
The room was chilly, down right cold. The aroma of flowers nauseating.
Tipp asked, “Know any good dirty jokes?”
“Is that appropriate?” asked Rob.
“Probably not,” said Tipp. “Uncle Kilgore there, he was full of them. An encyclopedia of dirty jokes.”
“Hell yeah,” said Tipp. “He just liked talking dirty.”
“Oh my God,” Rob grinned.
“Aunt Vickie won’t tell you that. He didn’t talk too bad around her or other women folk. But get the guys together….We spent some good times in his study, passing the night telling jokes, smoking cigars-” Tipp pulled a flask from his jacket pocket “-knocking back a few. He always smelled like cigar smoke and whiskey.” He offered a sip to Rob.
“That’s right,” Tipp said, “you’re supposed to baby-sit me.”
“It’s okay, I know all about it.” He sipped from his flask.
“So you were close,” said Rob.
“As good a friendship as you could have with him.”
“That’s what Maggie said.”
“Did she?” Tipp ruminated. “He liked me, I think. I’m sure. He liked your dad, too.” Tipp took another drink. “Uncle Kilgore was a mean old bastard, though.”
Rob swallowed his chuckle.
“Don’t be surprised. Everyone knows it. Even Aunt Vickie. That crazy coot-” he pointed to the coffin and the body within “-had a mean streak. He could be a pistol. Mean to women. Misogynist, that the word? He was flat out mean at times.”
“But he had his good qualities, didn’t he?”
“He could be good.” Tipp stared at Kilgore. The dead man’s flaccid face. “As he went downhill, you know, started losing his health, he became a little nicer. He got to where he wanted me to come over everyday. Expected it. If I didn’t stop in to see him, he’d call, or he’d have Aunt Vickie or somebody to call, wanting to why I hadn’t been over.”
Rob took the flask from Tipp’s hand and had himself a taste.
“The night your dad died,” said Tipp, “me and Uncle Kilgore sat up drinking. He always had the best cigars and brandy. He cried. No one else knows that. He’d kill me if he knew I told that.” Tipp stretched his neck. “Nope, he ain’t turning over.” He took the flask from Rob and sipped. “When your stepdad adopted you, he hit the roof.”
“I know. My mom told me.”
“He about shit bricks, boy.” Tipp laughed. “He went on and on. He had your stepfather investigated, you know that?”
“He did. After he found out Baxter was an upright guy, he let it go.”
Rob listened, staring at Kilgore, trying to discern if the light showed anything new.
“Rob,” Tipp said, “I’m sorry if…that we kind of grew apart from you and your mom.”
“No, it’s not. I know there is probably some hard feelings here.”
“Not really,” said Rob. “I would have had to have known you better for there to be hard feelings.”
“Still, all the same….”
They sat silent for a while, taking small sips as time didn’t seem to move at all. They couldn’t pull their eyes away from Uncle Kilgore.
Tipp said, “I don’t know, and rats.”
“What?” said Rob.
“The answers to your questions.”
“Why did they leave the casket open? and why do people sit up with the dead?”
“You got me,” said Rob.
“I don’t know why they left the damn lid open,” said Tipp. “Creepy.”
“The first time I was asked to sit up the dead-”
“This isn’t your first time?”
“Oh no. My third, I think. But the first time, I asked the same thing, why sit with them?”
“Rats,” said Tipp. “In the old days- not that I would know a lot about them, mind you- but in the old days they sat up with the dead to keep the rats away.”
“Makes sense,” said Rob.
“Still doesn’t make any less creepy for me.”
“True,” said Rob. “But it’s kind of the last thing we can do for him. Your last night of staying up with him. And having a good drink.”
Tipp raised his flask. “To Uncle Kilgore.”
Rob noticed that Tipp’s eyes had moistened.
Rob yawned and checked the cell phone to see what time it was. One twenty. He stood and stretched. His back popped, his butt ached. Tipp was sprawled across the front row of chairs, snoozing; two empty flasks lay beside his head.
Rob stood to within an arm’s length of the casket. “So, you investigated Baxter?” he whispered. “I guess you were trying to look out for us, huh? Maybe you weren’t so bad. Deep down. Maybe not so bad at the end, like Tipp said.”
He held out his hand. He could touch him. Rob had never touched a dead body before. He stepped closer, then stopped and backed away. He couldn’t touch him.
Tipp snorted in his sleep. Rob walked quietly about the Great Hall. He peeked behind the black shrouds that covered the wall hangings. Mirrors, more pictures and paintings. The place was loaded with them. He got out his cell phone and clicked a picture of himself in the mirror.
He looked at himself in the snapshot.
He stepped lightly towards the coffin. Would it be rude to snap a quick photo of Uncle Kilgore? Marianne would want to see one. Wouldn’t she? Would she think him a loon?
Rob raised the cell, centered the coffin. He looked around, making sure he was in the clear. Tipp was still slumbering. He pressed the button. The light flashed.
Would she want one close up?
He looked at his phone. The picture was blurred. Rob raised the camera, looked at the screen to center the coffin.
Uncle Kilgore was staring down at himself.
Rob dropped the phone. His jaw dropped, his mouth gaping open. He felt a scream building, but knew he didn’t have the nerve, or strength, to yell. He couldn’t move. This is what all those people in the interviews on the news had always meant when they said they were paralyzed by fear.
Kilgore. It was Uncle Kilgore. The same man in the casket standing beside the casket. Studying himself lying there.
Rob wanted air, his lungs had quit working. He inhaled and sounded funny.
Uncle Kilgore turned. Looked at him.
Rob moved his hand. He wanted to wake Tipp. Wanted Tipp to wake him if that was the case.
Uncle Kilgore held him with dreamy emerald eyes. They had no sparkle, of course, Rob knew that was only with life. His eyes held a quality of confusion; his face, though blank, pleaded for understanding.
Rob moved sideways, bumping into chairs. “Tipp,” he garbled.
Tipp was too deep in sleep thanks to his nightcaps.
Uncle Kilgore followed Rob’s halting movements.
“I, I,” Rob’s tongue fumbled and fouled. He wanted to tell Uncle Kilgore not to hurt him, not to attack him, not to do anything.
But what could he do?
Rob found himself pressed to the wall, put there by his own self. What could Uncle Kilgore do to him now? To see his face, Rob knew that his late uncle only wanted some measure of understanding. Did he not know that he was dead? Did he know, but found the fact of his new existence difficult to accept?
Rob brushed his body along the wall and jumped when something touched his side. Curtains.
Uncle Kilgore, his face, his eyes, still searching for rhyme, maybe reason, watched Rob.
Rob pushed the curtains wide to reveal patio doors. How many porches and patios and nooks and crannies did this place have?
The night seemed so far away outside, just on the other side the doors. Preoccupied, peaceful, infinite.
Rob unlocked the doors and pushed them wide. Nightsong greeted him.
The tinniest smile came to Uncle Kilgore’s lips. He and Aunt Vickie had the same smile. It must have run in the family.
Uncle Kilgore leaned towards the doors. He became like a cloud, like mist, and was gone on the breeze.
Rob stared into the night. There was a hint of fragrance in the air, a mix of cigar smoke and whiskey.