“Box at the End of the Room” by William Vernon

Box at the End of the Room

He is my Cousin Somebody, according to my father, who begins shaking hands and hugging people. I glance at the box at the other end of the big room and see inside it a forehead, nose and lips, hands piled, lying one on the other.

“Who are they?” I asked entering the house, seeing the multitude ahead, and he said, “All of them are your relatives.” 

None of them look familiar. I don’t know any of them. Never seen them before. 

Dad’s right elbow swinging back and forward brushes my shoulder or head as he steers me among them, going from person to person. I keep as close to him as I can get.

When we reach the box, the people there step aside so we can see good. It’s not an old man. I’d thought only old people die. I think I heard him called Butch. He’s not a kid either, but younger than Dad. There’s hairs growing on his cheeks. His fingers don’t look entirely clean. There’s something dark back under the nails. 

“He looks so natural,” a woman says, “like he could sit up and talk to us right now.” That woman starts bawling so hard, someone leads her to a chair along the wall and sits her down.

Natural? I see orange-like stuff spread over the cheeks, making the face like a Halloween mask. Everywhere else, his skin is as white as the socks above his clodhoppers. I see brown hair growing out of his nose and an ear. I see warts on his neck and his forehead. Just like Dad’s. I see a smudge of what looks like lipstick just under his nose.

Somebody grabs my arm so I look up. It’s Granny. “Come over here with me, Sonny, and we’ll let your Daddy mingle.” She never calls me Billy like my other grandma used to do.

Now I remember that we are here to pick her up. We’re s’posed to have dinner with her before driving home. I imagine it’ll be fried chicken, mashed potatoes or noodles with gravy and biscuits. That’s what we always eat here. Maybe she’ll also have a berry pie. I hope so.

We live three hours away from the hills where we are now. Dad’s got work tomorrow. We’ve been in Perry County since last night with Mom’s relatives. I sit in a wooden fold-up chair next to Grandma, and she holds my right hand real hard like to hold me in place. Like I might run away, which is what I want to do except there’s nowhere to run to.

So we sit and I watch the smoke from cigarettes swirl around up into the light coming through the big window behind the box and settle like fog over the people who are my relatives, yakking away, a few times laughing, telling stories, and I guess passing the time until they feel like they can leave. Other people sit like us on the sides of the room and some of them cry like there’s nothing to hope for. There’s no escape.

There are two or three babies along the opposite wall and they’re squalling too. Oddly, I can’t feel nothing. Everybody else seems to be thinking about something so horrible it makes them almost sorry to be alive. 

And watching my Dad move around among all those people, at ease and smiling, touching elbows, sharing words, I can’t help but be proud. He is my father, and all these people like and respect him.

Suddenly he is in the box himself. I see him lying there in place of Butch. I see him all laid out with the orange on his cheeks and his hands folded together.

When Grandma squeezes my hand harder than normal, I lean against her—even here she’s wearing an apron and smelling like flour—and I start crying myself. I’m not sure why. I can’t explain it. But it’s all right hearing the noise I’m making mix with the noise of everybody else in the room, and when Grandma lets go of my hand and puts her arm over my shoulder and hugs me against herself, without a word I understand the beauty of how I’m related to everybody here, and how sad that is at the same time.

Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it mainly at Sinclair Community College. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction occasionally appear in a variety of magazines and anthologies.