The first funeral. It was achingly hot. The crushed sand and shells that covered the drive of the funeral home glinted and sparkled in the sun and made soft squeaking noises beneath the feet of the mourners who filed into the open air chapel. I am hyper aware of my white undershirt beneath the blouse of my Girl Scout uniform. I don’t yet have anything sufficient to warrant wearing a bra so my mother still insisted on the undershirt even though I was twelve years old. The cotton was saturated with sweat and stuck to my back between my shoulder blades where I couldn’t reach to peel it off even if I tried. The stiff green polyester blend of the uniform shirt rubbed my skin raw beneath my arms and around my waist where it was tucked into the skirt.

We had come here together in a station wagon as a troop driven by someone else’s mother. We are minus one and our leader. I hadn’t even wanted to be a Girl Scout. I would have stopped at being a Brownie. But before we left New York I had walked over that bridge, looked into the reflecting pond and pledged to be someone better and that person became a Girl Scout. When we moved to Florida, my mother filled out the paperwork I reluctantly carried home from school. She thought it would help me make friends in a new town and it only served to make me incompetent. If there had been a badge for spending all your free time in the library reading books, I would have twenty. So far the only badges I had sewn on my sash were the ones we had earned as a troop. The other girls all had individual badges they had completed or were working on. Amy had accomplished the most of all of us, individually, although I imagined, unless there were Girl Scouts in Heaven, she wouldn’t be advancing much further.

In the car on the way over Jeannie, a girl who smelled like tuna fish every single day, had shared the way, way, back with me and she had whispered into my ear as we crouched in the open trunk that she had heard Amy was buried in her scout uniform. It made me want to rip mine off my body and hurl it out the window but instead I said nothing and concentrated on breathing through my mouth until we filed into the funeral home and took our seats in the row reserved for us, as if we were special guests or dignitaries, behind Amy’s large family.

When we were seated Amy’s mother, our troop leader, turned to us assembled neatly in a row. She smiled but didn’t really look at us individually. Her face was tracked with tiny cuts made darker and deeper by threads of dried blood that had already begun to scab. Glistening over the cuts was a layer of tears, the collar of her shirt was darker than the rest from the water that ran off her face and on the floppy lapel I saw the glint of her Girl Scout Leader pin. She would lead her daughter to Heaven, I supposed, if she could.

I was so taken by her face that it took me a moment to focus beyond Amy’s family, her four brothers, three steps below her and one above and her father, who owned the Snack Shack down at the town dock. He recognized all of us scouts in Amy’s troop and always gave a mound of chips with the hot dogs or free French fries if he had extra. Today he kept his face focused forward and he wore a short sleeve white dress shirt that strained across his back. His sweat stains echoed my own and the sight of them made me sit slightly off the back of the pew, leaning forward so that whatever air the fans pushed out above my head would circulate around my body.

That was when I saw the glossy white casket. Its lid was closed and on top was a framed picture of Amy. Her school picture, I guessed. Since it looked just like the one my mother had of me sitting on the shelf above the television. Amy smiled out at us, her blond hair waved around her face and disappearing way past her shoulders. Her chin was tiny and pointed and her eyes were a pale green that echoed the color of our uniforms.

There were flowers everywhere that had already begun to wilt from the heat, which just made them look like they had given up. Tulips, roses, and carnations the ruffled edges dipped in green, spread atop the casket and around Amy’s picture.

I squeezed my eyes shut tight when Amy’s mother began to cry. Her sobs quieted the entire congregation of mourners. Even the priest who was standing at the head of Amy’s casket seemed to know that God could offer no comfort at the sound of a mother’s anguished cries. Before I closed my eyes I saw Amy’s older brother look agitatedly around the chapel. His gaze angry, embarrassed, bewildered. His father put a hand on his shoulder to calm him and he not so much jerked as slid away from his father’s attempted embrace and sat as close to the aisle as possible – one foot ready poised for escape.

I knew more about the accident than most, but I kept it to myself. My mother was a nurse and a good friend was on the emergency crew first to get to the scene. I knew something was wrong right away when I came home from the library and found my mother and Paul huddled close together in the driveway of our house. My mother was still in her uniform even though her shift had ended at three and it was nearly five. Paul, also a fisherman, had brought a bucket of crabs for dinner and it was between them on the ground baking in the hot sun. I dropped my bike, not bothering with the kickstand, as my mother reached out to me. She pulled me to her side as I stared down into the crab bucket. I watched the bodies move listlessly as she told me the details of the accident.

Amy’s mother had been driving way out on Pine Ridge Road, a well-traveled trucking route from the Sugar Cane fields, to pick up one of the boys, when they were hit. The impact forced Amy through the windshield. Her body hung there, suspended by shards of glass, and her mother panicked. Maybe, had she not pulled Amy through the window, onto the hood of the old station wagon, Amy might have lived. By the time Paul got to the scene Amy had lost too much blood. They didn’t tell me this but I pictured it: Amy’s mother covered in her daughter’s blood as she held her in her arms and told her it would be alright. Although from our Red Cross and CPR badges she probably knew that Amy wouldn’t make it. Before the priest finds his voice, before Amy’s parents realize what has occurred, her older brother stands up and runs down the aisle. His fists are shoved into his pockets, his head is bowed, and his shoulders are moving up and down. His grief is so electric it is terrifying and no one, not even his parents’, move to go after him.

 

Four years later. Another white casket. Mounds of flowers. At sixteen, mourning was something I clung to, stroked and feted like a beloved pet. For days I have barely slept, or eaten and only today have I showered and dressed in a white eyelet sundress to say goodbye to my beloved friend. In my fist I clutch a ball of tissues that have become slick with snot, but I am unable to contract the muscles in my hand to part with them. Had I gone with my friends as we had planned I would have been in the car that killed one of them and left the rest in the hospital, still so broken they are unable to attend the funeral. Instead of my friends I chose a boy who I won’t even allow to share in my grief. I blame him although he has nothing to do with it. I had been waiting a long time for him to notice me and when he finally did, I chose him. I. Chose. Him. I felt sick at the thought of what I was doing when she died. Of what, shamefully, I still want to do although I will not allow myself. His hands were all over my skin and I welcomed them. His mouth hot against my ear, my neck, the two of us twisted together on a blanket on the beach. I can still feel him all over me when there should be nothing left to feel.

When her mother and father see me they draw me to them and close their arms around me. They moan low and soft and we sway as a group before her casket. My dress swishes around my bare legs and brushes up against the metal stand. There is no air in our closed circle but I don’t struggle to get out. I deserve this, I think, turning their tragedy into mine. I have a hard time believing she is gone. I am swollen and sodden with grief and anger. I feel leaden, untouchable, as her mother whispers in my ear that she tucked all of our pictures into the casket. When I am able she wants me to come to their house to pick something out of Terri’s to remember her by. Even then I know it is something I will never bring myself to do.

 

When I extricate myself I look across the room crowded with teenagers in all states of distress. In the far corner I see him standing there. Unlike the first time he is not poised for escape. He knows what to expect. He has been here before. He has lost everything once and it is not impossible to imagine it won’t happen again. Our eyes meet across the room. He doesn’t need to say a word as he slowly begins to pick his way through the crowd to where I am standing. He knows all to well what happens next.

 

 

 

 

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ROBIN ANTALEK is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins2010). The Summer We Fell Apart was featured as a Target Breakout Book in 2010 and was published in Turkey by Artemis Seveler in 2011. Robin's short fiction has appeared in Fifty-Two Short Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review, among others. She was a finalist for The Tobias Wolff Award for Short Fiction as well as a two time finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters and Short Fiction Contests. She is also a regular contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. For news and updates: www.robinantalek.com or Robin Antalek on Facebook.

30 responses to “Girls in Shiny White Caskets”

  1. AnnMarie says:

    Amazing piece. Very quiet and very true. I am moved.

    • Thanks so much AnnMarie. It’s interesting that it comes across as quiet – because these events when in the actual writing – were like tiny storms in my head. Literally. I couldn’t get the words down fast enough.

  2. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I have goosebumps from the raw beauty of this piece, Robin. The end floored me. Incredible. I hope time has given you the chance to remember these friends with joy and laughter. Thank you for sharing this.

    • These funerals have been in my head a lot lately – after years of not going there. I think,maybe, it is because I recently returned to the area after nearly two decades and found that my memories – were just that – memories because certainly the physical landscape of my childhood had changed – and for the worse. And that in itself was like another death. Without the funeral.

  3. Debbie says:

    This took my breath away, Robin.

  4. D.R. Haney says:

    Like Ronlyn, I have goosebumps. Still do. Yes, the ending is something. Also, of course, your gift for evocative detail is very much in evidence.

    I have a friend from Florida, Debbie, who often reads and comments at TNB, and she’s mentioned a number of friends who were killed in car accidents. I think that’s why I have the impression that Florida leads the nation in auto-related fatalities — can it be true?

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Debbie! Look! I just mentioned you!

      • Debbie says:

        I see! Great bit of synchronicity there, no?

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Very much so. I was writing your name even as you were posting a comment.

          But do you think it’s true about Florida — what I said, I mean?

        • Debbie says:

          Yeah, I definitely think its true. We have a lot of people here who aren’t used to the roads, the weather, the people around them and just don’t pay attention when they drive. That is outside all the drunk drivers, motorcycles, and pedestrians that get into accidents every day.

          When I was in high school I went to 12 funerals between my junior and senior years. I didn’t know all of them personally….but we all had the same thing in common. I think, down here, people are faced with their mortality more often and at a younger age than most places.

          Where in Florida did you grow up Robin?

        • D.R. Haney says:

          I’m curious about that, too, Robin. Or did you address it in an earlier piece?

        • 1969: Naples Florida. Highway 41 was a two lane nothing through town. Alligator Alley was a death trap – the Everglades and swamp buggy races and Florida Black panthers were its inhabitants and now the alley is an express highway that links west to east coast. The beaches were wild – abandoned -only one “high rise” existed and it wasn’t even that high. There wasn’t a mall, or expensive retail shops or really any retail shops save for Winn Dixie, Publix and W.T Grants. Not even a fast food restaurant unless you counted 7 – Eleven or Black Sambo, a diner, that later changed its name to:The Clock. It was that kind of Florida, not the homogenized version. Or even the family vacation atmosphere of Miami Beach. In Naples, the sun was hotter,the sharks were nastier, the sand was whiter, the people who lived there year round a little off the grid. The feeling was very wild, wild, west.
          It breaks my heart to see it now – it’s worse than DisneyWorld. The beach houses have been torn down for McMansions. The beach and the forest where we had bonfires: gone the way of the condo. You have to pay to park to go to the beach and the people? Ach, don’t get me started on the people.
          You can’t go home. Ever. Breaks my heart.

        • Debbie says:

          No, you really can’t go home again. That’s the worst part of it. In 1997 Alligator Alley was just a bigger death trap than you had growing up, but it still managed to swallow people whole.
          I grew up on the east coast. Sandy beaches, tourist traps, morons…the Space Center. Dirt roads and monster trucks lined our streets and there was nothing to do in the summer but drink and have sex at night, or go ‘muddin’ during the day. I hated every minute of it. The high rises are beginning to show up there, though it still smells like orange blossoms and the salt. All of our commercial groves are gone, now its all private land. Makes me sad that I can’t just wander through the orange groves anymore. I know what you mean about the people. They are worse now than ever.

    • I’ll answer to you and Debbie that yes – the state of Florida is literally teeming with the caskets of people involved in traffic fatalities. From my own experience most of them didn’t live to see their 18th birthdays The two funerals I wrote about were sadly, not the only ones I attended before I graduated from High School. And they were not the only funerals were people who really meant something to me died stupidly and tragically. It sucked. It messes with your view of mortality. You either live life like every day is it – or you turn inward and hide.
      And then write about it thirty years later on TNB.

  5. Ducky says:

    Poignant and moving. Thank you.

    There were flowers everywhere that had already begun to wilt from the heat, which just made them look like they had given up.
    ~I love this line.

  6. Erika Rae says:

    I want to hug you, Robin. You told this so vividly. I have a rock on my chest.

  7. jmb says:

    She would lead her daughter to Heaven, I supposed, if she could.

    There is nothing to say
    to this sort of weight.

    I thank God I have never
    had to face such pain
    & I kick at him a little
    & say that one day
    He better make it all right.

    One day.

  8. Angela Tung says:

    i love this piece. it’s incredibly sad in a restrained, subtle way.

  9. Angela – thanks so much for your lovely words.

  10. Irene Zion (Lenore's Mom) says:

    Robin,
    This was an elegant and painful piece, beautifully written, carefully.

    Aside from that there is the sociological truths.
    The reactions of you at two different ages is perfect.
    This is what every little girl would feel and do.
    This is what every sixteen-year-old would feel and do.

    Odd that we are so predictable.

  11. It is odd, isn’t it? I’m wondering when the separation occurs… when we start to see ourselves moving differently through the world. The sixteen year old hyper self-awareness is shockingly brief, thankfully. At least in some….

  12. Zara Potts says:

    Oh I could hear the little storms in your words, Robin.
    Beautiful piece.
    I too, had a number of friends who died in car crashes when I was teenager. The pure waste of it is such a terrible thing.
    I also remember the funeral of a friend who committed suicide when he was eighteen and the primeval howl of his mother as his coffin was lowered into the ground stays with me still.

    • Grief is a bitch. Just when you think you are done – you’re often not. It is something that rarely abates with time because often a sound, a smell, a certain phrase or look, can bring it all rushing back. I imagine that raw release of pain from your friend’s mother was only the beginning.

  13. kristen says:

    Another stunner, Robin. You nail adolescent grief and longing and disorientation square on the head.

    “Like tiny storms in my head”: even your comments are wonderfully evocative.

    • Adolescence is such a passionate time – especially when a real tragedy occurs not just the tragedy of teenage ennui. Physically, we age, but everything about that time is still so present as the years pass. Makes me wonder if we ever feel the same way about any other time in our lives…..

  14. A friend once said he’d never heard anything like the cries of his grandfather when his grandmother passed away; it was a horrible thing to hear him say, let alone hear for myself.

    Here’s crossing my fingers and knocking on wood; I, and my friends, have been largely untouched by death. It’s been a blessing, especially in a day and age when accidents happen so often due to the prevalence of cars.

    This is a sadly beautiful and beautifully sad piece, Robin.

  15. Simon you are a lovely man…

  16. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Robin, this is stunning, and soulful, and sad, and rendered with great beauty. I love the title. You’ve mastered that brutal mystique that only a child can realize.

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