J. Lincoln Todd, "Linc," is attending the funeral of his scapegrace cousin, Wayne Shit-for-Brains, while trying to avoid his memories of teenage escapades with Wayne. Here, Linc drives from the funeral home to the cemetery with an unexpected passenger, a woman named Marie who claims to remember him.
That episode in the garden shed was the last time Linc went anywhere alone with Wayne. Whether he would have agreed to go or not, he never learned, because once Wayne got old enough to acquire a broken-down Corvette he was seldom around. And in the decades since those family vacations, Linc had never confessed the incident in the shed to anyone, nor had he and Wayne mentioned it to each other.
As for his difficulties in later life, Linc didn't specifically blame Wayne. If there was constraint in his sexual relations, almost as if someone were watching from above to judge his success, that needn't have been Wayne's fault -- Linc knew he was predisposed to extreme self-consciousness. If the tang of mown grass turned his stomach, there could be other causes. If he too often suspected that people included him in their plans as an afterthought, that was a natural outgrowth of his personality.
In any event, the initiation with Wayne seemed so nebulous and fantastical that it couldn't possibly connect to current realities -- especially this reality named Marie, who was stinking up his rental car with her cologne. In the moments when he'd let himself wonder what became of that 15-year-old girl, whose name he'd never heard or couldn't remember, he hadn't pictured anyone like this. His projections of her life had been lurid: a stripper, a prostitute, a heroin addict, a suicide ...
They had pulled in at the tail of the procession, which turned out to be only five cars long after the hearse and limousine. The short metallic snake crawled along congested roads -- the city's population must have grown to six, eight times what it used to be -- bending toward the harbor and then back till Linc was disoriented. He wondered if he'd crossed any of these streets with Wayne on that unstoppable motorbike. Touching the Ford's brakes to test them, he felt shifted out of place, angled away from himself.
Ripples of degradation, disgust, humiliation assailed him. What a mistake, to come to the funeral! But why, he demanded of himself, was he so upset? Three consenting kids, full of hormones, playing at sex -- how was that so bad? Surely she had consented as much as he had. And with Wayne dead, why did the old story matter? Why did he still resent everything about Wayne?
As he tried to subdue a trembling in his grip on the steering wheel, the woman broke the silence by thanking him too effusively.
"No problem," Linc said.
"I didn't know many other people there, and I wouldn't wanta -- you know, ride with the parents, or the sister. Not after the way they treated him."
"The way they -- ? But they were going to -- an organ donation, June said it was practically set up with the doctors."
"I mean before that. Before he got sick and they were all of a sudden so worried."
"Ah." The bitter tang in her voice amazed him.
"I shouldn't say that," she added. "You're a relative."
"I don't ... " he hesitated, "mind, because I didn't really know what ... "
"It wasn't true what they said about him," she asserted, raising her chin.
"Nuh," he murmured noncommittally.
"Like he needed to cop a feel!" she sniffed scornfully. "His niece's bridesmaid!"
"Oh," Linc said. At the last family wedding, then?
"And his mother's engagement ring? He always needed money, but he'd never take something like that. Never."
"OK, that wasn't true," Linc agreed, suppressing a flippant smile. Lifting his mother's jewels, huh? Copping a feel, or feeling a cop -- he could believe anything of Lucifer a.k.a. Wayne Shit-for-Brains.
"I don't get your tone. Are you being sarcastic?"
"No, no," Linc dissembled.
"He was always good to me. Loyal. Stood by his friends, not like some."
Linc cleared his throat.
"Are you prejudiced like all the rest?" Resentment sharpened her voice. "Just 'cause he was a little ... unpredictable?"
Though Linc thought this a gross understatement, he kept his manners. "I'm sure," he said, "with his friends ... "
"There's been a couple times when I needed -- I mean, Wayne was a very generous person."
"Uh-huh." Generous Wayne, that was an interesting concept. Sure, it made sense: Sharing girls. Sharing drugs, probably. Sharing his idiotic stratagems for wealth.
Silence settled in again. As they poked along, Linc contemplated the irony of Wayne's last ride -- in a shiny black hearse doing, at most, eighteen miles an hour, with frequent application of brakes.
"I'll admit," Marie burst out, "I'm glad I never married him. Marriage, that's one thing he was never good for."
"Apparently," Linc nodded.
"I'm not sayin' he asked me," she clarified, "but he might've. At certain times."
"Uh-huh," said Linc again.
"How 'bout you?" she probed.
It took him a moment to get the question. "Oh -- I'm married, yes. Almost thirty years." He decided not to subtract the nineteen-month gap.
"Children?" she said.
"No. What about you?"
"Got two daughters, five grandkids, one great-, don't see any of 'em much, they don't wanta come back here."
"That's too bad," said Linc.
"Bad in some cases, good in others," she grinned. Her face was a broad puffy powdered expanse blotched with freckles.
In the steamy car the sheer bulk of her presence felt oppressive, not to mention the cologne. He reached for the air conditioning.
When she turned toward him he flinched. He had just noticed the dimple in her chin.
* * *
There was indeed some throwing of dirt, as the old man had called it. After the minister said a few words, the coffin was lowered and the mourners were invited to toss a symbolic spadeful of earth upon it. Hank, with shaky grip, took the first turn, followed by Tommy, who paused with his shovelful as if he couldn't bear to drop it, while June and Harriet hunched with their arms around each other. After several elderly family friends, Linc stepped forward, outraged at the way Wayne had made these fine people suffer. "Good," he whispered as he shook half the dirt from the spade, "riddance," as the last of it clinked on the wood.
On arrival he had separated from Marie, and she hung back on the fringes -- an appropriate spot for Wayne's whore, if that's what she was. Angry now, he saw no reason to mince words, and his attitude toward the family, too, had turned surly and critical. Harriet and Hank should've kissed off that reprobate without remorse, he decided. Did Harriet ever get her ring back? -- probably not. Gone to finance one of Wayne's last schemes. And the fondled bridesmaid? What a drunken asshole.
Yet Linc's disdain, virulent as it was, lacked conviction. Even more than earlier, he wondered why he was here. Reflections from the inside of his glasses tossed uncomfortable shards of Florida sun into his eyes. Moist grass blades clung to his shoes. The dirt smelled too rich and humid, too well fertilized by stuff like what they were putting underground right now.
Unpredictable, Marie had said. Not like Linc, who didn't take risks. Well, intellectually he did, in his second book, for instance, which annoyed some critics. But in his personal life he was, he had to admit, rather stolid. During the nineteen months when Meg tried other options, Linc had ventured one date -- to a coffee shop. Yet he, too, had lived his life the way he wanted, he retorted to Tommy's words. Decently. Whereas Wayne's legacy was such garbage, why pretend the spirit might have been promoted to "a better place?"
Linc was still arguing with himself several minutes later when Marie showed up at his car. "If you're going back to the house, could you -- my place is near there."
"You don't want to stop by Harriet's?"
"No, I couldn't. I've got to get home to Daddy."
Again his heart and lungs felt the burden of her presence. Luckily the breeze in the cemetery had dispersed the sickly sweetness of her perfume. "Nice ceremony," he said neutrally as they left the parking lot. "Simple, straightforward."
"Wayne deserves better than that snivelly little pastor," she judged.
"He's from Harriet and Hank's church."
"I know. That says it all, don't it? ... Sorry, I promised myself I wouldn't."
He felt a moment of admiration for her loyalty to Wayne.
Again they rode mostly in silence, though she had to instruct him about every upcoming turn. He was as clueless about the route as he had been during the bike ride. They passed megastores that didn't use to exist here, chain restaurants, large motels. On the side streets, though, he saw the old pastel houses, now looking faded and even tinier. It was a sunny, mild noontime, with the humidity from the early rain dried up at last. He was pleasantly hungry.
"Do you see where we're at now? Take a left here, then the first right. Just ten minutes from the Todds'... It's that one there, the pink house with the tree."
He pulled to the curb. "Are you sure you don't want to -- "
"No, I couldn't talk to them. ... But since you're here, you wanta, maybe, come in for a minute? Daddy's prob'ly gone to sleep in front of the TV. I could fix you a better sandwich than you'll get at a funeral buffet."
As she looked at him, her tongue gently flicked her upper lip. Could this be the same house he almost remembered? Was there a shed out back? He couldn't ask, but he imagined she was saying, Come finish up the ride you started so many years ago.
That was his perverted mind, surely; her wide pale face seemed innocent of naughtiness. What he was picturing was harsh and nasty, and it stirred his gut. He wanted it. His fingers shuddered on the steering wheel. He wasn't attracted to her, this fat old thing, but that was the point. Quick and brutal. Show he was as good as Wayne, or as awful.
And yet there was a slender sense of sweetness here. A chance to make an acquaintance, or renew one. A tuna sandwich, a cup of sugared coffee. Besides, if she was the same person, shouldn't he offer an acknowledgment? It felt like an opportunity for some sort of ... resolution? generosity? companionship?
But he had vacillated too long. She lifted her chin abruptly and said, "Of course, you want to get over to your aunt's. I understand. Well, thanks for the ride." She pointed out the best way back to the main road: "Keep straight here, take the second right after the stop sign and the cul-de-sac."
"OK," he nodded.
After lifting her bulk out of the car, she leaned down to add, "It was very nice to see you, Linc," and he caught one last flash of her freckles.
A needle of regret jabbed his chest. He jolted the car into motion and took the wrong turn, bewildered.
-- Sam Gridley