“His skin was black as charcoal”—that's what my Mom used to say about my brother, I was light skinned compared to him, which was funny because I really wasn't that light skinned, but standing next to him you could see a difference. His nose was broad and strong. He reminded me of those warriors my dad showed us in his comics. His eyes were a beautiful dark brown and his teeth white and pearly, almost perfect.
They said we couldn't do an open casket. The fuel tank that went off had torn through his face and burned it too badly. The funeral home director said, “Very few soldiers nowadays get open caskets.” I think he thought that would make us feel better. Mom only started to cry harder, and my dad had to pull her up off the ground. I wish I could see his face, I don’t know why. He would still be dead but something deep within my bones needed to see his face. Call me crazy. I needed to see him, one last time, I just needed too. Mom saw that I was on the verge of tears. So she grabbed my arm and held it tight—she was still crying in this moment but I held strong. We all walked out of the undertaker's office and into the hallway. As a family, me, my mom and dad, minus one.
We would end up staying in that hallway trying to calm down for what was a little over an hour, before my mom eventually pulled her head out from my dad's chest. After that, she was ready to go.
The car ride home was silent, with only the words of a pastor on the radio filling that void that no one else cared to fill. We got home and the sun had fallen out of favor with the world and street lights illuminated the block. I loved my town at night. You could see the skyscrapers lit up and sometimes the Old Drunk down the street would bring out his guitar and play a melody from a time somewhere better. However tonight, I could only look at the end of the block and see a deep blackness that seemed to be moving with a soft step. If it could have grinned it would have. Mom got out from the car and then my Dad. I didn't get out.
My Dad noticed and he turned back to the car. He walked to me and kneeled down to the window. He was a big man and it showed when he did that.
“You alright?” he looks at me, with those gentle eyes of his.
It’s been a while since I have seen them, now that I think about it; I always liked being around my dad when he was kind. Because that's who he is and every other act he puts on in his attempt to be a “responsible god fearing parent” makes him significantly less likeable. I don’t say anything and look at my legs.
I want to scream and shout. Every emotion that ever was and could be broke through my body; And the last levee, the tip of my tongue, at least managed to hold strong.
Again the Giant repeats himself, “You alright, baby girl?”
I looked at him, my lip whimpering and shaking my head. He walked around and opened the car door and took a seat, the car made a slight fold back. The suspension made a mouse-like squeak. My dad was now sitting in the back of the car with me. “You know you're not the only one that’s upset.” He looks at me, and he gives me that sassy dad look, as he teases me.
“Uh sir, can I help you?” I push back against him, and a small smile finally finds its way to my face after a long-ass day. Sarcasm was our stupid way of showing love.
“You know he would hate to see ya this way.... he was always so much better at talking,” Dad says looking down at me. “I remember there was a time I was mad at that boy for breaking a window down by the shop.” He chuckles to himself, and continues, “I was yelling and yelling at that boy, and he just stood up and said to me, ‘You can be mad at me, but at least I ain’t playing on the other side of that street’.” He laughs out loud and slap his knee then gets very serious with his crazy eyes. “I was about to slap that kid into the next millennium. Then he said something that made me start laughing so damn hard: deadpan; your thirteen year old brother, and with that running-thesaurus he calls a mouth, says to me, ‘You can forgive me for the window or you can stay mad and I can become a monument to your sins’.” My dad laughed even harder. I smile a tiny bit bit wider.
“Did he get punished?” I asked with curiosity.
“Oh yeah, I super slapped the shit outta the boy after that line.”
I go silent for a slight second then the awkward silence overtakes us both. Suddenly with the slightest gasp of withheld laughter we both violently explode with chortlinging self propelling irrationally hard laughter that sustained itself for a good long while.. Tears now dry from my face, my eyes tighten. I think about a picture we have on the wall. My brother has a baby fro in the picture; he said he wanted to look like Jim Kelly when he was in high school. Momma didn’t like those violent movies, and even said they were a reason my brother went out to that war. My brother said he was going because he didn’t want to live and die in LA. I don’t know why he went out to fight and I really don’t want to put words into the dead's mouth so I will just take my brother’s word for it.
My Dad looks at me and he says, “You feeling just a little better?”
I bob my head up and down a slight amount. I don’t make eye contact.
“I want to see him,” I say to my dad, I turn my head to him fully and I just say the thing I've been thinking all this time. It takes a slight weight off my chest.
“What do you mean?” My dad looks at me puzzled and almost taken back.
“I Just need to see his face.” I look at him my lips curled and brow pulled back.
“Kid, I don’t think that's respectful...”
He was right, it wasn’t respectful. Nothing was respectful about anything that has happened to my Brother, nothing was respectful about shooting down a medical helicopter with no weapons on it, nothing was respectful about burning forests down with napalm and nothing was respectful about letting a helicopter full of young men burn so bright that their skin melted. However, I just needed to see him. I don’t believe that he is gone and I don’t want to believe it. I know it's stupid and irrational to think that there is some conspiracy to hide my brother but I just want to see him, just as much as I don’t want to believe it.
“Dad, please. Just before the funeral. It can just be me, you, and the undertaker.” I look at him. I realize that I'm starting to sound hysterical.
“Baby, please just calm down, I’ll talk to your mother about it,” he says with some anchor of hesitance attached to his throat. He looks me up and down, he feels my braids. “You're a mess, let's get you inside and get some sleep.” He looks at me with a soft smile. I wanted to retort back some witty response but I couldn’t stomach it. I didn’t need more tears. I tried to get out from the car, but I couldn’t—my body went limp. My dad came around my side and shook his head, opened the door, and picked me out. He walked me up the stairs of our house and put me into bed and gave me a warm cup of milk. I looked at a poster on the wall. The darkness of the room turned every single one of the portraits that littered my wall into an unwitnessed portrait that concealed their faces into nothing but outlines of men. Black outlines that I could only ever imagine as my brother staring back from that blackness that was shapes of men.
I closed my eyes and I dreamed of a faint memory, with only details I could recall that was of condensation on a plastic cup, and the flaring of sun in my eyes.
The morning came. Mom brought out a flower dress. She knew I couldn't stand dresses but she gave it to me and I put it on without protest. I tied my braids into a bun. I looked into the mirror, and I hoped I looked “good enough.” My brother always said I didn’t need to worry if I'm “good enough.” I think about that a lot, though it was my nerves always thinking about what people had to say. I got really conscious about what the old ladies at church had to say to me about my looks.
We got into the car and drove our way back to the funeral home. It was crowded with all of the various aunts and uncles as well as the family friends that crawl out the woodwork when stuff like this happens. They gave me hugs and condolences and I spent the next half hour being touched by people that could be better described as strangers with some blood ties than family. Once that was settled, we were brought into the church. We passed rows of wooden benches that looked older than man itself 'til we made our way to the front row. The Pastor gave his sermon, and the people who knew my brother talked. I couldn’t go up. In front of all of those people I would choke up and get side eye from the old church women. So I just stayed by my Mom and Dad. The day ran past almost in slow motion it seemed, my brother's coffin up on the stage. Men in Military attire slammed medals into the coffin and gave me hugs and condolences like everyone else did. Then eventually, it was over. It was just me, Mom, Dad, and the undertaker. The Undertaker stood in the back of the Church watching.
Mom looked at me. “Your father had a conversation with me last night,” she says to me.
I swallow my tongue. Mom looks at me with me with the contention of iris alphe looking at an ugly sweater. She kept a sturdy look when she was in disagreement with something. However, I knew she was going to let me have the final say in the matter.
“Honey I don’t think it would be much good for you. Lord knows I couldn’t take it. I can barely take it knowing he is only fifteen feet away from us right now. However you are your own women. If you think this will do you some good, god willing, I will allow it.”
She put her hand on my lap and intertwined her fingers with mine and she gives me a kiss on my forehead. Then out she goes, walking past the wooden rows that only an hour earlier was filled with humanity that celebrated her son's life and then she found herself at the door. There she took a moment. I could see her wiping her eyes before taking another moment then off she departed into a burning white light. Now it was just me, Dad, and the Undertaker. The Undertaker sat in the back. He was a pale man in a white suit. The man in white walked across the isles towards us. He looked at me with unerved eyes that almost made me put more space between us.
“You want to see the body.” He looked at me, his lips sealed. Without emotion, without the flowery terms that had floated by in the aftermath of death and the sale of it. He said what it was, not my Brother but the “body.” He was honest, I liked him. I nodded at him and then he met eyes with my father. My dad shook his head, and together we walked to the casket. The Man In White walked up the stage and he undid a latch, and then waited for us to signal him. I made eye contact with the Man In White and gave him the go ahead to open the casket.
He softly swung the top open. I was expecting a grotesque smell, but I wasn’t expecting the smell of old books. That smell of rotting pages and dusted air upset me, in some ways that was harder to deal with then whatever abomination of a smell I was expecting. Then finally, I saw it, a body dressed in blues and elaborate medals. The people in charge of his body clearly cared, but this was just a body. I saw its face, white as the phosphorus that burned it. It looked like something from a bad horror film. It was my brother. The shell not the man with the beautiful full lips and gaunt cheeks. It was not the happy little boy with a beautiful head of hair, and beautiful dark brown eyes. It was not my brother, it was his body. I swallowed hot phlegm and and moved back a few steps. My heart beat with the power of an old combustion engine, my hands grew clammy. I started to hyperventilate, my dad tried to grab me, but before he could I bolted down the aisle and out the door. I ran past my mom, she called my name, I bolted, past the old liquor store that sits as the border of my childhood and the real world, and I ran and ran 'til I found myself somewhere else. It was a park, Griffin Park, the very start of it, where the trees hid all of its secrets and it seemed like the farthest place from that god awful funeral home.
I sat at a bench and let a cold air kiss my body. I don’t know how much time passed as I sat watching the trees wisp through the air, however it was enough time that the sun’s light began to fade from the world. I didn’t get up and I don’t think I would have if my family hadn’t found me.
In the twilight evening, Mom and Dad found me sitting on the bench looking over at the trees and sunset that was dancing in front of my eyes. Quickly they pulled the car over, Mom jumped out and hugged me as hard she could and my dad guided me to the car. They weren’t angry and they were not upset. Just tired like I was.
They helped me into the back of the car and finally we drove off. My Dad fiddled with the radio in order to kill an awkward silence and then seemingly orchestrated by the will of god, a song me and my brother used to sing out loud on sunset played. My dad gently mimed the words with his chapped lips “hold me closer tiny dancer” the soft echoes of a piano played against vibrating a engine, and I remembered the dream. It wasn’t a dream but a memory. Me and my brother, a hot summer day, a bottle of apple juice and this song playing from some rugged boombox in the park. That's how I was going to remember him, I thought to myself as we got onto the highway. Heading somewhere else.