At the Home

The drive passed much more quickly than Sarah would have preferred. Between her thoughts and the considerable stretches during which she forced Phillip to sing loudly with her along to the iPod, what should have been a long trip seemed to take no time at all. Dread has a funny way of speeding up the march of time; sort of in the same way excited expectation or boredom seems to bring it to an abrupt halt.

Here they were, just out front of the local funeral home having had to drive straight to in order to make the evening visitation.  It was an unassuming yet ominous sort of building, set right at the street while the closest neighbouring houses were built some distance back from the sidewalk, giving the Home the illusion of jutting out at you. The heavy sheer drapery hanging in the front windows was always closed and the soft pot lighting illuminating the outside of the structure in the pending dusk of early summer attempted in vain to make the funeral home more inviting.

Sarah had been coming to this place for as long as she could remember and as she stepped into the Home she was flooded with the glimpses of all those whose last memorials had occurred in this sombre structure, beginning with a great-grandmother when Sarah was but three years old. The vague recollections of being shown the coffin as a toddler teased Sarah’s memory, not quite clear enough to be of any use, but leaving her wondering as to why her mother chose to expose her to it; of course, early exposure might have helped Sarah cope a little better with the subsequent and far more shocking loss of a young aunt a few years after that, but at the same time isn’t three a little young to be introduced to death? Sarah laughed to herself, it was no wonder why she was so dark and she, perhaps somewhat inappropriately, took pleasure in the black dress clothes she was wearing – the stylish ensemble wasn’t new for the funeral but one of Sarah’s favourite everyday suits.

Phillip’s hand gently touching Sarah’s left shoulder brought her back to more pressing matters as she came to an awareness of all those relatives lining the room on either side of a shiny coffin situated at the group’s pinnacle.  There he was, cold and greyish, caked with makeup in a silly tradition of imitating sleeping life. Hard to believe he was finally dead after the many failed attempts it seemed a grim reaper had tossed at him over the years.  Countless aneurysms and comas, the man had been a determined time bomb for nearly two decades. And from the rupture of the first aneurysm on his brain, the family had rapidly disintegrated around him. Of course, despite these divides, all their children and spouses were out in full form tonight. Grouped in little camps, they kept to themselves.

Nearest Sarah’s grandmother and thus the head of the coffin was the most needy and youngest of the offspring, Dolly.  Shaped like a giant pear, no matter how much Dolly tried to starve herself, the large round form that her body settled into around her ass just wouldn’t shrink. Dolly hung close to her mother, heaven forbid anyone should be able to have a private conversation with the woman. Dolly hadn’t spent all those years living in such close proximity to her parents to lose sight of the prize, the Douglas family farm, at this juncture.  Obscured in a corner behind the ecliptical Dolly was her estranged husband, Tucker, (Sarah only ever referred to him by his last name, and increasingly so by a crass derivative of it).  Tucker was stowed away in an armchair, babysat by his embarrassed daughter who struggled to keep her arrogant father silent.  While the whole town was already well informed that the marriage had turned ugly, so to speak, and Tucker in learning his homely and dependent wife would no longer tolerate his flagrant infidelity, had done the only thing he thought might work to save the unholy wedlock, not to mention his hopes of inheriting a piece of that farm: he cried suicide and faked a nervous breakdown one day at work in the local garage.  It was quite the soap opera and the town was all too happy to discuss it, but for some reason appearances had always triumphed in the Douglas dynasty and so here sat Tucker behind Dolly, pretending as though everything was just fine.

Next to the Tucker clan stood the older sister Dianne and her large family. Dianne’s husband Hank had always been a man’s man and when no son had been forthcoming the couple had just kept on trying. The result was a brood of six tall and shapely daughters, each similar in size to both their mother and Aunt Dolly. Aptly, Hank’s last name was Bartlett. There was absolutely nothing extraordinary about these girls, neither being bright nor beautiful, but every one of them strived to take care of themselves, carefully dressing and colouring their faces in a bid to compensate for what was not naturally given. Sarah recalled their fleeting encounters in childhood, the poor girls had all been models of familial insecurity; suffering from bedwetting to stutters they carried on nicely in the tradition of their mothers. It had been no surprise that upon hearing of her brother-in-law’s infidelity, Dianne’s response to her sister was rumoured to be, “so what?”

Rounding out the favoured trio stood Dick alongside his two sisters.  Together the three of them colluded to have Sarah’s father written out of their parents’ will during his chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Dick was the most educated and pompous of his siblings and when deep into his thirties he had failed to marry, much less bring a girlfriend home, he was haunted by the unspoken suspicions of his sexuality.  While late bachelorhood is a plague in a small town like this, Dick lived fortunately in the city where desperate women of a certain age abound. Thus, Dick somehow managed to wed a wonderfully kind professional woman who herself had not known a great childhood. Dick then succeeded in draining all of the life that had remained this sad creature, after first bearing him a weak and sickly son, relegating her to the existence of a shut in until she had finally decided herself to end it all. Here at the funeral home stood young Danny, pale and startled, beside and slightly behind his father. For the sake of this shaky youth, so the family claimed, his mother’s suicide was quickly hushed up and blamed on a long battle with alcoholism.

Sarah noticed that none of these people were willing to look her in the eye. The situation was even mildly entertaining to her as she had never had the opportunity to do anything to them, and to the best of her knowledge they hadn’t done anything to her, directly. Of course, knowing what she did of this so-called family, Sarah really wouldn’t put it past any of them to have secretly done something nefarious to her, some deed of which she was still blissfully unaware.

Scanning the room for her parents, Sarah at last spotted them towards the back of the room, safely at a distance from the three vultures. Near to them, but still not standing with them, was Sarah’s Uncle Dennis. Sarah was uncertain as to whether she really wanted to continue calling the man this. While Dennis wasn’t in collusion with the other three, he wasn’t necessarily on her father’s side either. It was a touch and go sort of relationship. Dennis and his wife Eileen had been the only two in the Douglas family to ask after Sarah’s father’s health when he was sick. They sent an email. A great deal more than the others. Dennis was a Douglass, however, through and through: his temper ran hot and he suffered from the same inflated sense of self as all the others. When Dennis had been driven off the farm himself by the arrival of Tucker some thirty years before, the bitterness of the situation festered inside of him: Dennis remained blinded by his own misfortunes never acknowledging those that were now befalling his brother. As a result, Dennis lived locked in the past, eager to exact revenge for what he perceived as a wrongdoing against himself and cared very little for the outcome as it related to his brother, who alone had had to stay behind in the wake of Dennis’ departure to maintain the farm with their father. Sarah nodded acknowledgement to Dennis and Eileen but made straight for her parents.

Sarah’s father, David, was a ghost of his former self, not that there had been much of him to start. Unlike all of his four siblings, David was a small, wiry man.  Hiding himself under a thick beard, David seldom said anything in front of his brothers and sisters. As the eldest, David had enjoyed little time alone with his parents as Dianne and Dick followed in rapid succession, but some eleven months after for the former, and another year after that for the latter.  Sarah’s mother, Judy, always joked that he probably couldn’t get a word in edgewise and just decided to shut up. Having a bit of insight into the nature of her grandparents, however, Sarah doubted that much time alone with them would have made her father any more sociable: if David’s lack of memory about his childhood was any indication, it wasn’t a happy one, and it was mostly filled with work for as long as he could recall. Sarah looked down at her father who was resting in one of the Home’s armchairs, her mother standing steadfastly beside him. It broke Sarah’s heart to see her parents treated thus.

“Hi, mom,” Sarah said quietly as she leaned in to hug her. While Sarah wasn’t really the touchy-feely sort, she had learned to hug her parents mainly out of necessity; living at great distances from loved ones will do that. Not wanting her father to get up, Sarah bent down to hug him, as Phillip greeted her mother. “How are you?” asked Sarah to them both in general.

“We’re OK,” answered Judy, who was somehow always able to sound chipper in the face of just about anything.  The sound of her voice, of course, wasn’t a true indication of how she was really feeling, but she had an uncanny ability to mask whatever animosity might be lurking beneath. And surely there must be a lot harboured for most of the people standing around this room, thought Sarah. “How was the drive?”

“Short.” Too short, Sarah’s widened eyes seemed to add.

“Well, we’re glad you could come.”

“For you, anything,” Sarah meant it in earnest, “but it is awkward.”

“Tell me about,” Judy laughed shooting a look around the room and shaking her head, “we’ve been here all afternoon.”

“Where’s Sean?” Sarah’s brother lived in the small town, married with three kids, and was nowhere to be found in the funeral home at the moment.

“Yes, he was here, but they didn’t want to leave the boys for too long. Sean and Krista spent the afternoon. They left about an hour ago.” Sarah expected that it would be no more comfortable for Sean in this room than it was for her now. At least he was still on speaking terms with their grandparents, well, grandmother. Sarah really didn’t know what to do next, it was sort of strange for her to go up and speak to her grandmother now, after a year.

Both Phillip and her mother seemed to be looking at Sarah expectantly, as if wondering silently whether she wanted to go and talk to her grandmother or not. It wasn’t lost on Sarah, who answered with a shrug and a face. “I don’t know. What am I going to say? Hi, grandma, you might have noticed that I stopped talking to you, then again, maybe you didn’t. Well, sorry about your loss.” Sarah shook her head and knit her brow, “I think I’ll pass, thanks. At least for now.” Sarah could tell that Phillip felt a little awkward about the decision, not wanting to be rude, but he also understood Sarah. Experience had taught Phillip to just stay out of any Douglas affairs.

And as conversations so often do at funerals this one dwindled into an uncomfortable pause until Judy asked, “are you two going to stay on for the auction?”

“Auction?” What auction?” Sarah was stunned. “The man had only died two days ago, how could an auction already be organised?”

Judy drew a long, deep breath and clenching her teeth answering quietly, but pointedly in the direction of Dennis, “Some of the kids thought we should get on with a sale of machinery. Despite the fact we told your grandparents weeks ago that it didn’t make sense and we wouldn’t go forward with it, your grandmother went ahead behind our backs and set a date. Your grandfather just didn’t make it in time.”

Sarah could only gape in astonishment at her mother, who continued, “Yep. When we found out, we approached the local auctioneer.” Sarah groaned, the auctioneer was a friend of her grandparents, a loud, obnoxious asshole whose needlessly expressed opinions had irritated her throughout childhood and who was unfortunately distantly related. “We explained that as partners in the farm, we hadn’t agreed to the sale,” Sarah shook her head in anticipation of what was inevitably to come, “and of course, he told us he didn’t care and the sale was already fixed.”

“Of course,” Sarah said weakly. Sickened by yet another tale of familial warmth, “he too wants his pound of flesh.”

“We approached the accountant, just to try and get a handle on the costs. He told us we’d probably lose about fifty grand to taxes alone in having a sale like this,” Judy shook her head still amazed. “Of course, this was to say nothing about the potential risks of having strangers traipsing through the farm with a one-legged man and a senile lady living alone in the house. It’s ridiculous.”

“Did you talk to grandma?”

“Yes,” Judy was beginning to betray the slightest sign of exasperation, “She started to cry when I told her about the money that would be wasted, but she just kept saying that the sale was booked, it was already in the papers, what would people think?

“What did you do?”

Judy snorted slightly, “What could we do?”

“Call your lawyer, for one.” After Dennis had left, David insisted he be made a partner in the farm with his parents, and wisely so. “A partner can’t sell the machinery for a business without the consent,” Sarah laughed with shock, “forget that, behind the back of the other partner! That’s practically criminal, it definitely has to be fraudulent.”

“Yes,” agreed Judy more calmly, “but this is just a drop in the bucket. Your father’s entire livelihood and retirement is tied up in that farm. We have to make sure that we get it.” Sarah rolled her eyes and sighed forcefully. This whole affair turned her stomach: her father had worked, and by that he did all the work, on that farm for the last thirty years. Dolly had received an adjoining farm at a gross discount if not for free when she married Tucker, meanwhile both of them had full-time jobs elsewhere; Diane’s husband Hank had inherited his own father’s farm, while they both worked too; Dick lived in a half-million dollar house in the city bought by his executive job; and Dennis and Eileen gave up any claims to the land when they disappeared in the middle of one night a couple of decades back, leaving David to work off the mortgage to their farm too. It was just unconscionable that any of them could think about laying claim to a farm none of them had lived or worked on for decades, especially considering the only child that had stayed behind barely eked out an entire existence from it. Any sort of rationale for even staking a claim to ownership of the farm by the other siblings was absolutely lost on Sarah.

Shaking her head, Sarah at last wondered, “so if the auction had been set before grandpa died, why are we still going through with it all things considered?”

Judy laughed and closed her eyes, sadly reiterating her mother-in-law’s own words, “it was already listed in the paper. What would people think?

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