“The Living” was inspired by my own experiences at my father and grandmother’s funerals. When my dad died I lost not just him, but his neighborhood, his house, his cooking, and his poetry friends; everything was buried with him. My grandmother as well. Everything she was, everything she did, everyone she knew was tucked away inside that uncomfortable cement tomb in a cemetery surrounded by a rusty fence next to a fast food joint. I felt that they deserved more, and at the same time, fought with the feeling that the dead can’t deserve anything anymore. Most of all, I fought with the fact that the world continued living. They were dead. And the world continued.
- Amy Laws
Lydia wakes at seven am to ensure she’ll be ready well before it’s time to go. She slips out of her pajamas and into the shower. Water sprays sideways, shooting over the curtain and onto the bathroom floor. The nozzle has been broken for years. Turn the water on too high and all clean clothes and dry towels on the counter get caught in a downpour. Lydia had years ago perfected the talent of turning the knob just far enough to prevent the showerhead from jetting water across the room.
Today is different. She grunts and turns the knob back, her fingers sliding clumsily over the wet plastic.
She reaches from behind the shower curtain and finds her cold wet towel. It hasn’t escaped the shower’s assault. Lydia curses. Careful not to slip on the floor, she walks over to the mirror. Water slides down her naked calves and her muscles are seized by spasms.
The mirror shows a skinny, shaking figure with stringy long hair. Her eyes widen as she inspects their redness.
Still here, her reflection answers.
Rushing by to use the toilet is her mother. Lydia watches her in the mirror, and an unpleasant lump rises in her throat.
We’re supposed to be there in thirty minutes. You’ve been in that shower for over an hour. Put on some clothes.
“You never did learn how to knock.”
Oh please, Lydia. When you were two, you’d run around naked in front of anyone and everyone.
“Right. Two years old is exactly the same as sixteen. That shouldn’t make a difference at all on whether or not I’m seen naked.”
Not in front of your Mother, it shouldn’t, her mother says hoisting up her trousers, and don’t catch that tone with me.
Engines roar to life outside. Lydia peeks through the bathroom blinds at Aunt Cecilia’s family backing out of the driveway.
Why wouldn’t you ride with them? You shouldn’t be driving right now.
“Two nights of them in our house, and I’ve already had enough.”
Lydia, you’re lucky to have family.
Her mother forgets to flush in her breathless state and speedily exits through the open door to the bedroom. On the bed lie a black pencil skirt and jacket. On the floor sit black high heels, a package of pantyhose next to them.
Those are for you. Your old ones have a runner, Lydia hears her mother yell from the other room.
“Mom, nobody wears pantyhose anymore.”
Put them on. And get dressed for God’s sake. Your cousins are already on the way to the church. Hurry!
The words echo in Lydia’s head. The room is empty without the noise of the shower or her mother’s voice, emptier than it’s ever been. Lydia, alone, stands staring at the package of pantyhose on the floor.
Churches always make Lydia uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the pantyhose that constantly wriggle their way down her rear. Or perhaps it’s the combination of pantyhose and high heels that seems to make her cramped toes sweat so profusely. Whatever it is, she doesn’t like going to church on a Sunday, let alone a Wednesday.
Lydia sits in a pew, her makeup perfect, her long hair curled. She shifts, arching her body uncomfortably so that her spine doesn’t rub against the hard wooden back of the bench. The congregation listens to an unfamiliar pastor, or preacher, or what-have-you speak as if he knows what or whom he’s talking about. In truth Lydia and her mother had only just met the robed man yesterday, at which time they told him everything he needed to know.
Detached faces look ahead, all wishing for this event to be over. The congregation sits erect and still, as though remaining motionless can help them avoid the unpleasantness of the moment.
A strong hand squeezes Lydia’s shoulder, and she jumps up from the pew. Everyone looks at her as she glares down at the owner of the hand. Before yesterday Lydia had not seen her cousin Samuel for many years. He smiles worriedly up at her.
“Are you all right?” he whispers.
A voice from the front of the room says, “Please stand to sing the closing hymn,” and the congregation slowly turns away from Lydia, clearly upset by her reaction. Eyes water and heads shake in such a terrible pitying way while fumbling hands find their hymnals.
Samuel rises as “Lift High the Cross” is solemnly played on the organ. When Lydia last saw him he was just a scrawny little ten-year-old, but now he towers over her. His strength is apparent in his broad shoulders and large jaw. His smile wavers and he turns away to find a hymnal. Unsettled, Lydia stares blankly forward, her lips moving mechanically to the words of the song. Had it really been so many years since she’d seen Samuel? What did it matter though?
On the last verse, men begin to roll the casket to the door. Lydia steps out into the aisle and the congregation follows. The cart underneath the casket noisily clinks down the stairs as the men try to control its tilt. Lydia’s mother appears at the door to look longingly after it.
“Let’s go,” Lydia says as she starts out the door, but her mother grabs her arm. “Ow!”
We have to shake everyone’s hand and thank them for coming.
“Why don’t you do it?”
You know people came here for you, Lydia. Only family are coming to the cemetery. Stand here and don’t move till everyone else has left!
Lydia holds her hand out to a tall old lady that she doesn’t recognize. Her rouge is applied too heavily, her eyebrows drawn on far too thickly, and her perfume is simply overwhelming.
“Thank you for coming.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Sweetie.”
“I appreciate it.”
“Do you remember when you and your mother would come over for tea? Oh, but you were so little then. I know you’ve gotten busy with high school, but your mother would still bring me pictures. Beautiful. Just look at you. And your outfit complements your figure so well. What I wouldn’t give to have a figure like that again. You must promise to come visit me and bring more pictures.”
Lydia pulls her hand back from the old lady. “I’ll try. Thanks again for coming.”
Lydia, her mother scolds in hushed tones, You know I’m the only one to ever visit Mrs. Merle. She has no other family. You have to go visit her, for me.
“Okay, okay.” Lydia says.
“Okay?” Mrs. Merle asks.
“I mean, sure I’ll come see you, Mrs. Merle.”
“I’m so glad to hear it.”
Lydia smiles fiercely and the old lady’s eyes water before she turns to leave. She keeps looking back at Lydia, probably trying to decide whether or not she’ll ever see her again.
This spot was chosen for the burial years in advance. Now that she’s here with her dead, the small cemetery encased by a rusted wrought iron fence seems too coarse. Heels and dress shoes scrape across the concrete as the small family shuffles toward the crypt. Lydia’s feet scream in protest of their confinement as every step pounds the cement. Pound. Pound. Pound. Her heels knock on the ground, the dead’s door.
The smell of burgers from the fast food joint across the street and the hum of cars rushing by grab Lydia’s attention. The family’s determination just to look at the concrete beneath them and at the coffin itself only makes the location that much more painfully obvious. If they could ignore the intrusion of the world, of life, then they could pretend that today is a significant point in time.
The robed man says a prayer and the cemetery workers shove the coffin ungracefully into the crypt. The process seems unnatural to Lydia. She had always thought of a cemetery as a large grassy field with beautiful monuments. She pictures her own body lying beneath that green field, becoming one with the earth as plants use her dust and bones for fodder. Here, concrete tombs are all around as if families expect to come back one day and retrieve their departed as they would money from a vault.
A loud grunt escapes a cemetery worker’s mouth, and Lydia’s eyes focus on the men wiping their hands and walking away. The family stands around, awkwardly patting backs and blowing noses as the service ends. Lydia walks toward the wrought iron gate, but stops on her way out to inspect one of the many concrete tombs. On it rest a few faded cloth flowers in a plastic vase. A small trail of ants climbs up and down the ragged flowers.
She picks up the vase to see what the ants are after, but her fingers slip and it falls from her hands. Old rain water sloshes onto Lydia’s legs. More ants pour from the cracked vase, their numbers seeming to have doubled. A frenzy ensues as the small brown bodies scurry across the pavement.
Lydia carefully lifts her left foot, choosing her target. She acts quickly, grinding the toe of her shoe into the pavement and lifting it once more to inspect the death she has caused underneath. Another ant tries to lift the crumpled body and take it away. Lydia observes its efforts and kills it too. What does it matter? The fast-food joint won’t stop cooking, and the cars won’t stop driving just because two ants have died.
“Lydia?” Samuel asks hesitantly.
Lydia flinches. “What is it?”
“My mom wants to take a picture of the family while we’re all here together.”
“Aunt Cecilia? She wants a photo?”
“Yeah, outside of the gate.”
The small family stands along the outside of the rusted gate in order of height. Samuel squeezes into the back behind his grandmother, and Lydia slides into the front row next to her mother. The photo shoot begins. Cameras are passed back and forth as people trade spots to make sure everyone is in a picture.
They smile and laugh deciding on new angles and poses.
Disgusted, Lydia rolls her eyes.
This is how they’re coping, Lydia, her mother whispers.
“Yeah right, this will make everything better,” Lydia laughs.
Samuel hears Lydia and taps his father’s shoulder to whisper something in his ear. Their penetrating gaze upsets Lydia all the more.
Crossing her arms tightly and sucking on her teeth, she plants her left foot behind her and leans back. Immediately she falls into Aunt Cecilia who topples into the wrought iron fence. Everyone turns to help.
Lydia’s high heel has sunk into the first patch of grass that Lydia’s seen on this suffocated cemetery surface. She flails back and forth trying to break free but instead sinks further into the dirt. Is the earth unsatisfied? Does it have to take her, too? A short scream escapes Lydia’s lips. She pulls her sweaty panty-hosed-toes out of their cramped prison and bends over to rip her heel from the ground.
Calm down, Lydia, her mother insists.
“Look at my heels, Mom. My goddamn heels!”
Are you really worried about your shoes right now? You’re at a funeral. Show some respect.
Lydia looks past her mother at Aunt Cecilia. “I can’t believe you, any of you. Who takes pictures at a funeral? Why would anyone want to remember this?”
Lydia’s mother and the rest of the family fall quiet. Tears pour down Aunt Cecilia’s cheeks as Samuel wraps his strong arm around her. His strength won’t last.
“Why take a picture?” Lydia stammers as she backs away to her car. “It’s all already … it’s all ...”
Lydia jumps into the driver’s seat of her mother’s car. She grabs the car key, but her hands tremble too violently to fit it into the ignition. She falls back against the seat and closes her trembling eyelids. She doesn’t notice her mother appear in the seat next to her, but knows she’s there.
“Why hold onto the past?” Lydia asks.
Angrily, her mother says, Because that’s when there was hope.
“I know,” Lydia sobs, “and now there’s nothing.”
Three loud taps sound on Lydia’s window, and she moves her hand quickly to her chest as if to hold in her rapidly beating heart. She rolls down the window, and Samuel leans inside.
“Hey, listen, I know you don’t want to think about it now, but tomorrow you’ll have to start packing. We can only stay in town for so long before my Mom and Dad have to go back to work. Don’t worry, we’ll all help you pack. Do you want me to ride back with you, or will we just see you at the house for dinner?”
“See you back at the house,” Lydia says.
“You’ve still got us, even though we can’t replace her.”
Lydia nods, her eyes and nose growing red.
“I’m sorry about your mom. I wish I had visited Aunt Harriet more often than I did.”
Samuel taps the side of the car and turns to leave.
“Thanks,” Lydia mutters, but Samuel is already out of ear shot.
Lydia starts the engine and places her hands on the wheel, her foot on the brake. She turns to look at the passenger seat, empty except for two black high heels, one with grass still stuck to it.
Amy Laws is a recent LSU English and creative writing graduate. She is currently an editorial/writing intern at Clearly Delicious Food Blog.