Here's the thing you need to know. It’s a blistering cold night in January and my daddy is dead. I know it must be true because Brother Sixteen-Ounces told us. His real name is Brother Ernest Pound and he’s our preacher. When he arrived at church last year Larry laughed and said, “That’s sixteen ounces. You know, sixteen ounces in a pound? Get it?” So, all the church kids call him “Sixteen-Ounces.” Anyway, he wouldn’t lie.
We had just finished eating the hamburgers Mommy made for her first boyfriend since the D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Jim said he’d help clear the table if Larry, my brother, would find the deck of cards. He taught us gin rummy a couple weeks before, and now the four of us play almost every night. Tonight, I think I hear a soft knock at the door.
“Hey Emmie, how about I shuffle, and you can deal,” Jim says.
I agree because I like his handsome smile. “Me and Mommy are a team and you and Larry.” There is a louder knock.
“I thought that was branches blowing against the house,” Mommy says, moving toward the living room. Jim starts shuffling the cards.
Mommy peers out the windowpane, then opens the door slowly and we hear her say, “Brother Pound, Arleen come in. What are the two of you doing out on a night like this?”
“I’ve come with some news,” he says. Then I hear, “Larry. Emily. You need to hear it too. Can you come in here, please?”
Jim stops shuffling the cards and I’m thinking, “Doggone it, can we just get on with our game?” I glance at Larry. His face looks like the time he didn’t get a BB gun for Christmas. I roll my eyes, so Larry knows I’m irritated too.
“Kids, come in here,” Mommy says in her stern, I mean business, voice. “Jim you can come too.”
“Stupid revival visits,” Larry whispers under his breath. We all get up and drag ourselves into the living room where Mommy hasn’t even turned on the ceiling light.
“Brother Pound, you know my friend Jim Collins, don’t you,” Mommy asks with a scrunched-up, worried look on her face.
Brother Sixteen-Ounces looks disapproving, probably because Mommy is divorced and it’s a sin to have boyfriends, but he politely nods his head.
“I’ve made a fresh pot of coffee; would you like a cup?”
“No thank you. You see I’ve come with some difficult news.”
“Well please, have a seat,” Mommy says. The adults sit. Larry and I stand closest to the hallway so we can make a quick get-away.
Silence stands in the room, hovering in all the corners. I stare at Mrs. Sixteen-Ounces, wondering how she gets her hair plastered in those waves all over her head. Finally, the preacher says, “Mrs. Newman called me just before dinner this evening. She asked me to come over and talk to you and the children. They found Harold today.”
Mrs. Sixteen-Ounces doesn’t take her eyes off the carpet where I spilled my red pop last week. Mommy finally says in a voice I can hardly hear, “ I don’t understand. Found Harold. What do you mean?”
“They found him in the garage at his sister’s house. He was dead.”
Mommy doesn’t cry. She gasps, grabs her chest with crisscrossed arms and bends into her own lap. Jim holds her up from falling off the couch. I wait for her to breathe again as I slowly circle my eyes around the room. I get to Larry who is pursing his lips like he does when he’s not supposed to pout. I can tell by his quivering chin he wants to cry. Finally, Mommy looks up and quickly sucking in short breaths between words asks, “What happened?”.
“All I know is he took his own life. June, are you going to be alright?”
Mommy nods and Brother Sixteen-Ounces says, “Well, let’s stand and join hands for a prayer before I go.” Brother Sixteen-Ounces and Mrs. are the first on their feet holding hands. Jim helps Mommy up and Larry nearly falls as he darts to her other side. Sixteen-Ounces grabs my free hand with his chubby sausage fingers, and I don’t like it one bit. The circle of despair is complete.
“Dear God and Father in Heaven, Ruler of all the Earth,” he begins in a singsong. I don’t remember the prayer. I do remember peeking with one eye at Mommy and big tears drop off her chin onto the floor. Then before he says the part about, “In Jesus name, amen,” Brother Sixteen-Ounces is putting his hat on his no-neck head and reaching for the doorknob. His wife hugs everyone goodbye. On his way out he says, “Hope to see you in church on Sunday.”
Here I am, my skinny legs barely holding me up. Five minutes earlier my Daddy was alive, but he took his life. I don’t know where. I do know one thing for sure, I don’t like Brother Sixteen-Ounces anymore.
Daddy's dead. I’m only ten and I don't really know what that means. I've only seen one dead person. Sheriff Henry Ward. Mommy took me to see him one night after Bible study. He just laid there in an over-sized suitcase by the ruffled curtains in his living room. All the ladies held tear-soaked hankies and hugged each other. That’s what I know about being dead. So, shouldn’t someone be hugging me?
I was hoping Larry would, but no! He won't talk to me, not even a smart aleck remark. He runs to the bedroom and falls into his bed by the ice-covered window where the streetlight glimmers in. He turns his radio to WLS Chicago like always, but tonight I hear sniffles.
I don't remember crawling into bed with my clothes on, but I did. In the middle of the night, I wake up in a pile of stinky vomit. Mommy helps me out of bed, cleans me up, and gets my jammies on. She makes a pallet on the sofa and places a wastepaper basket near my head in case the lump comes back in my throat. She puts a cold washcloth on my forehead.
I float in and out of sleep in a dense fog, but I'm not afraid because my daddy is with me. He picks me up, gives me a tender hug, and holds it before he kisses me. Pointing to my heart he says, “I’m sorry, Little Brown Eyes. I have to go, but I’ll be living right there.”
“Daddy, no one knows! Who will call me Little Brown Eyes if you go?”
“Listen for it in your heart. You’ll hear it. Remember, I always loved you.”
He slowly fades as if he’s being erased like a mistake on a piece of paper.
As morning breaks, my mind wanders through a thick swamp of murk, and I don’t know how to get home. My eyes are too heavy to open. Between dreaming and delirium, I hear my Mommy say, “She hasn’t been awake all day. If she doesn’t get better, she won’t be able to go to the funeral tomorrow.”
I hardly move all day and well into the night. I’m laid out on the sofa just like I imagine Daddy laid out at Anderson Funeral Home. The lights in our apartment are dim, and I feel a tug on my arm. “Sissy? Sis are you awake?”
“Kind of,” I say, still working to open my eyes. “Hey Larry, I saw Daddy today.”
“No. You didn’t. You’ve been sick all day. I saw Dad tonight at Anderson’s. I said a few things to him, to get him to move. He’s definitely dead. He killed himself in his car with gas.”
“Well, I saw him. I don’t care what you say.”
The next morning, we put on our nicest clothes. I wear my dark magenta skirt with box pleats and white angora sweater with a high neck. Mommy says it will make Grandma Newman feel better if I wear the necklace she gave me for Christmas, so I do. Mommy puts on a dark suit. Larry his clip-on tie, sports jacket, and dark pants. We look like we’re ready for a photo shoot at Mr. Green’s Photography Studio, but it would be a terrible picture because no one is smiling.
White columns run across the huge front porch at Anderson Funeral Home. I can’t count the number of people on it. I'm instantly nervous with butterflies fluttering around my tummy. I think everything is happening in slow motion. People, dressed in dark doldrum clothes with mournful faces, turn around in unison. Some of their eyes have been crying and are swollen. They all stare, and I’m sure some of them are shooting darts at me. One old man in wrinkles points right at us and I know Mommy has always said pointing isn’t nice.
“I need you to be a big girl, Emily. I know this is hard, but we will get through it,” she whispers.
So, I vow in my mind to be a big girl like when I go to the doctor for a shot. Mommy always says, “Remember big girls don’t cry. It only stings for a split-second.”
When we enter the Anderson’s house, I don’t dwell on the awful smell because I see Daddy across the room in his casket. Grandma and Grandpa Newman, the sisters, and Uncle Cecil stand around him. Thankfully, Uncle Cecil comes across the room to us and smiles in an uneasy way. “Emily, are you feeling better? I hear you were sick yesterday.”
I don't say anything, so Mommy jumps in. “Cecil, Emily hasn't had a chance to say goodbye to Harold. Would you mind taking her over there?”
“Of course not. Larry, would you like to see your dad too?”
“No,” Larry says looking down and rocking on his spit-shined shoes. “I did it yesterday.”
Uncle Cecil takes me by the hand. We take the long, lonely walk up the center aisle to Daddy. I look down at his waxy face and think how irritated he will be if he wakes up and realizes someone laid his head on a sissified blue satin pillow.
“He loved you very much, Duckie,” Uncle Cecil says.
Now, I'm about half mad. “Why does he always call me Duckie? See Daddy, only you know I'm Little Brown Eyes. I will never hear that name again. You have left me here in this world to be called Duckie.”
I look up at Uncle Cecil. “He's not coming back, is he?”
“No, he's not coming back,” he says choking back tears.
We sing four verses of In the Garden and listen to a psalm about pouring oil over a sheep’s head. The organ music gets louder as it’s our turn to march by Daddy one more time. Mommy holds our hands tight. Larry lets out a loud wail and breaks away. He begins to sob, and Mommy bends down to console him. They’re collapsing into a big scene of tears and indiscernible blubbering.
I’m uncomfortable so I stand stiff as a statue and stare at the side door, wishing I could escape. I think of daddy living in my heart and that makes my stomach hurt, but it will only be for a split-second. I’m a big girl now.
Susan Kisinger is the retired Managing Director of Civic Theatre of Greater Lafayette. Since retiring she has pursued her passion for writing. She has participated in The Interlochen Academy for the Arts Writers Retreats and is a participant in the Lafayette Writers' Studio. Her play Gilded Dreams was produced at Civic Theatre and published by the New Plains Review. Most recently she was a semi-finalist in the International Amy McRae Award for Memoir. Susan lives in West Lafayette and in her spare time, she enjoys travelling and genealogy.