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 The Dead Man                                              T.C. Jones






I didn’t know him, but they told me I had to go to his funeral. They told me he was the father of a player on the high school basketball team my dad coached.


        “Bulldogs stick together,” my dad told me as I whined about going.


        “I don’t want to see some dead guy,” I insisted.


        “Bulldogs have to be strong,” my mother explained. She helped me into my tiny suit as my dad wrapped my tie around my collar.


        “But my friends are going to play at the park. Can’t I go with them?”


        “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do,” my mom said. “Sometimes we have to make sacrifices.”


        On the drive to the funeral home I grabbed at the tie around my neck.  


        “It’s too hot to wear a suit,” I said as we walked from the car to the funeral parlor. “This tie is choking me.”


        “Leave it alone,” my mom pulled my tugging hand away from the knot. “It’s important to dress nice and pay respects to the dead,” she said as she moved her fingers from the tie and held my hand. I wondered how a dead man would know what I was wearing. Don’t they shut his eyes?


        Inside smelled sickeningly floral—death’s perfume. At the front door were a couple of men in black suits with faces that didn’t move. They greeted everyone in deep whispers. My dad walked over and shook hands with one of the men and they talked in low voices for a while. Every now and then their faces would break with smiles, but only for a moment before snapping back expressionless like everyone else. When he returned the faintest smile still lingered.


        “Do you know who I was talking to?” he asked my mom.


        “I sort of remember his face,” she said.


        “That’s Todd Whey.” He couldn’t hold back his smile anymore. “Played in the state championship game in ’87 with a cast on his wrist. He owns this funeral home now. Come on Lara, you don’t remember him?”


        “I think I remember,” she said.


        My dad turned to me and placed a hand on my shoulder. “He was the toughest damn kid I’ve ever coached. Played with no fear. Some day you will lead the team just like he did.”


        I thought about diving on the basketball court with a cast on my wrist. I thought about my arm shattering into a million pieces. I wondered what people would think if I was lying in a casket with no arm.


        People were everywhere, some crying, others talking softly. They mumbled in hushed voices about an unexpected heart attack—so sudden, so sad. A group of kids, not much older than me, giggled and punched each other in the arms. Their mother slapped them hard on the back of the head and told them to go sit down and show some respect.


        The air seemed heavy. It reminded me of a time at school when Monica Madison walked in to the classroom with a black eye. The teacher sent her to the guidance counselor then told the rest of the class we shouldn’t mention it. She told us to just pretend her eye was OK. The funeral home felt a lot like that. A lot of pretending.


        “What a cute little boy,” a grandmotherly woman with blue-white hair said as we passed some old people huddled together. Their skin was wrinkled and sagging. “He looks so mature in his suit. They grow up so fast.”


        “Too fast,” my mom said.


        When it was our turn to approach the casket I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I saw other people doing this and thought this is what people must do before they look at someone who is dead. His hands were folded across his chest and his eyes were closed like I thought they would be.


        “Just like he’s sleeping,” my mother said.


        Except he didn’t look like he was sleeping. He looked dead. And he didn’t look much older than my dad. It didn’t seem real. A mistake. He is too young to young to be in a casket, I thought. Any second I expected his chest to heave and he sit up and climb on out and walk among us. I looked back at the wrinkly old lady who had spoke to my mom and pictured her in the casket instead. It felt better that way.


        I was led in front of the grieving family. The wife was unable to stand. Someone had brought her a fold out aluminum chair to sit on. Her head was in her hands and she cried harder than anyone I’d seen in my life.


        His son stood next to the casket, near his mother but not too close. He was my favorite player on my dad’s team; every day in my backyard I pretended I had his jump shot.


        “Give him your condolences,” my dad said and pushed me forward. I didn’t know what condolences were, but I figured they were something sad.


        I walked forward, slowly, head down, looking at my tiny shoes that hurt my feet. I came up to about his waist, and I stared right ahead at his black belt with shiny buckle.


        “I’m sorry about your dad,” I muttered, refusing to look up.


        I felt his large hand come down softly on my head and sort of moved it back and forth like he was petting a puppy. The hand was so heavy and made my knees shake. I wanted to tell him to take it away, but the words wouldn’t form in my mouth.


        Reflexively, tears streamed, uncontrollable, and I wailed in big panting huffs and buried my face in the hems of his pants and squeezed my arms around his legs. “It’s OK, It’s OK,” he kept saying while I flooded his pants with my tears.


        My mom gently peeled me away while my dad followed behind and shook his hand and said something about staying strong and how the Bulldog basketball community would always be there for him.


        I continued bawling as we left, loud enough that the other mourners turned and looked at me with pity. My mom picked me up, and I, getting too big for that sort of thing, just hung over her shoulder. I said between sobs: “Mom, I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I’m crying. I didn’t even know the dead man.”


        “Sometimes we cry to help bear the weight of others pain,” she said and her voice broke a little.


        Outside was still hot but clouds were rolling in and the birds had stopped chirping in anticipation of a thunderstorm. There was a strange silence, like at a grave; and from it, the world waited, ready to spring.






T.C. Jones is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. His writing has appeared in the Monarch Review, The New Yinzer, Gadfly Magazine, and won the TAR award for fiction in The April Reader.  He is finishing a collection of short stories examining Rust Belt culture and currently directs Jam2Jam, a quarterly literary and art series. He lives in Lawrenceville with his fiancé.