His face was a rag with torn-out eyes that flickered blackly for his girls. The only visible male in a family of incandescent women, he had burned through his few years quickly, as if life were a thin joint mostly paper and one strong draw could drag the ember the whole length to his lips. He had held his breath ever since. It gave him the look of a man with a secret. Always a woman was with him: mother, sister, aunt, niece, wondering what it would take to make him happy. We’re friends, not family, my wife and I, come to pay our late respects, and some of the girls have gathered around the bedsides. Michael wears a jaunty hat and lies beneath a sheet and looks asleep. The women catch our eyes as we come in, then look away or at the floor, then back at us with pity, to see if in the interval we’ve understood or will need to be told. We’ve understood. We hug the ones we know, nod to those we don’t; no introductions tonight; this is not about us. The overhead lights come blazing on. Roxanne bursts in. We hear her first. “Why so dark? It’s like a morgue in here! Hi, Baby. Cheryl! Did you get caught in that traffic, honey? Horrible accident! Rubberneckers for miles. How’s Michael tonight? Did you bring him that hat? He’s so cute. What do the doctors say?” We look on helpless, helpless to interrupt. She takes his hand. Her chattering stops. She looks at us. She shrieks. “You could have told me!” she says, and lunges to embrace him, collapses sobbing and lets it all out, for all of us. We watch in silence and touch her lightly and quietly think of everything but him.

Copyright © May 12, 2007 David Hodges

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