By Brandon Denham
A pint bottle fell out of Ben’s car when he opened the door. The sound of it bouncing off the curb ripped through the early morning stillness. Unfazed, he dragged his feet to the gravesite. Otis, who had been there over half an hour, watched him drone through the maze of headstones. Ben was pale. The only color left was in the rings under his eyes.
“You didn’t have to come.”
Otis had given him the day off. He didn’t think a man should have to dig a grave the day after burying his mother. But here he was. Maybe he feared what sitting still would do to him.
Ben grabbed a pickaxe, and they went to work. The smell of liquor radiated from his body as sweat soaked through his shirt. He moved slowly at first, but he got going. His mind was going too. His eyes shot from side to side, the way they do when a brain is running hot behind them.
It took them about four hours to dig the hole and set up the chairs before the family arrived. Ben hated that part. He couldn’t smoke with them there. He just had to stand by, not too close, and watch.
The family filed in, all wearing black and hunched over as if a sniper was waiting nearby for them to poke their heads up. Young men escorted the elderly to their seats before standing in a group that wrapped around the back row. Ben had never seen such a crowd there, certainly not yesterday.
Their preacher waddled up to the front, wearing a suit starched into an exoskeleton. He had thick-rimmed glasses and hair greased down in thin black lines across his shiny head. He began with a quote from the book of Romans. Ben knew it well. His mother had read it to him as a child.
Each word reached out like the feelers of an insect, poking and prodding for a reaction. Every now and then an old lady would reward the preacher with a “yes, Lord” or an “amen” slightly above the volume of a whisper. Ben felt like he was speaking directly to him. He spoke of God and all the things he could do for you, and to you.
In his mind, these words were being said for his momma. He found comfort in that, but couldn’t shake the guilt. They were a day late.
Ben and his sister, Catherine, had held a service for their mother the day before. It was just the three of them. Two of them now. Catherine flew in from Philadelphia. No preacher. Just siblings standing shoulder to shoulder while a pine box was lowered out of sight. They kicked at dirt clods while they took turns saying anything that had nothing to do with her.
“Is it weird being here? Like being at work?” she asked him.
Ben shook his head.
They left the burial site and went back to their mother’s house, settling in the kitchen. They were both quiet, possibly from the shame of not doing more for her on that final day. Catherine reached in the cabinet and grabbed a bottle of bourbon and two glasses, neither of which had been touched in years. She blew the dust from the inside of the glasses and filled them halfway. They spilled a little on the floor when they clinked for a toast. “To Momma.”
Their buzz gave them the courage, maybe the permission, to remember her out loud. They giggled, telling stories like the time she had tried to drive a stick and had given the whole family whiplash when she had popped the clutch. They completed each other’s sentences, recounting the infamous tale of how their parents met, not sparing any details about the slick lines that got him slapped or her apology that led to their first date.
What they didn’t say was that he got violent towards the end. His kindness went with his mind, and their momma wore old dress shirts with a can of mace in the breast pocket for when he really let loose.
Eventually, the family shuffled back to their cars. That was Otis and Ben’s signal to get back to it. The preacher stayed behind, smoking out by the road. Ben walked up to him, wiping his hands off on his pants.
“Mind if I have one of those?” Ben asked.
He took one and bent his neck down to meet the flame of the preacher’s Zippo. “That was a nice service.”
“Thank you, son,” the preacher grumbled through a puff of smoke.
“You have a way for people to get a hold of you if they wanted a service like that?”
The preacher pulled out a card that was browned with age, vein-like wrinkles crawling through the text. Ben slid the card next to the only other thing in his wallet, a card for a life insurance salesman.
Months later, Ben sat in his living room thinking about that night with Catherine.
They had stayed in the kitchen until dawn, drinking and talking. They were both slurring their words before she told him about her cancer diagnosis. She was now on her way back from Philadelphia for the last time.
With his thumb, Ben slipped a card from his wallet and dialed the number.