Once we arrived home, Sandy told us she was going to bed. We were welcome to stay up, she said, as she showed us where to find extra blankets and towels. After Sandy closed her bedroom door, I sat down on the living room couch next to Ryan and leaned my body against his.
“You should go to bed,” he said. “You look tired.”
I pulled my feet onto the couch and rubbed my toes through the nylons. Knowing he was trying to get rid of me, I said, “I’d rather stay with you.”
We sat like that for a moment, Ryan staring straight ahead, his arms limp in his lap. Then he announced he needed a cigarette.
“Can I join you?” I asked.
Ryan shrugged and grabbed his coat from where he’d slung it over the back of a kitchen chair.
On the front stoop, I tapped a cigarette against the pack and put it between my lips, waiting for Ryan to light it from the tip of his, like he usually did. He didn’t offer. “Can I have a light?” I asked, and he passed me his lighter.
There were no streetlights. A lamp over the door cast us in a ring of harsh light, beyond which I could only see the windows of a house across the street and the chlorine glow of a television inside. We smoked in silence until I thought I couldn’t stand it anymore. “I wish you would talk to me.”
Ryan flicked ashes onto the cement. “What do you want me to talk about?”
I couldn’t answer that question. What did I want him to talk about? How he felt? How did I think he felt? “You’re suffering. I can’t reach you. I don’t know what else to do.”
He squinted, rubbing his temple with the same hand that held his cigarette. “What am I supposed to do? Talk my father back to life?”
“I just want to help.”
“You walk around all the time like you can fix anything,” he said and dropped his cigarette into the grass. “Like you know something I don’t.”
I looked up at the sky where the red lights of an airplane glided silently overhead. “What have I done to make you think that?”
Ryan stared into the dark. “You came here,” he said. “Act like my mother is some kind of saint.”
“I just meant that if you haven’t talked to her about it, then you don’t really know why she did what she did, or if she regrets it.” I dropped my cigarette, took his hand in mine and started rubbing the heel of his palm, trying to create some kind of affection between us. Ryan didn’t pull his hand away, but left it limp in my grasp.
“What you said is that her life must have been hard.”
My thumbs kept kneading the tough skin of his hand. “All I meant was that there might have been things about their marriage you didn’t know because you were so young.” I wanted to drop the topic of what I’d said and what I’d meant. We should have been talking about his father. I should have been helping him.
“Why do you think her life was hard?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know why I put it that way,” I said. “I told you what I meant.”
“You put it that way because you think you know better than me,” he said, his voice suddenly louder, almost theatrical.
I stared at the line of shadow that cut across his jaw, the way it shifted, swallowing his face when he looked down. “Why are you angry with me?”
Ryan took out another cigarette and put it between his lips without lighting it. “You think you’re going to help me,” he said, the cigarette bobbing.
“Help you what?” I asked, although I knew. How could I admit that he was right? I was guilty of a certain kind of egotism. I wouldn’t have to say it. He already knew. Lindsey knew. But what she didn’t understand was that acceptance at a distance was so much easier than enmeshing your lives. At a distance you didn’t have to do anything other than think. But when it was your life, too, you had to be different. I could do the right thing. I pulled my hands out of his lap and wrapped my arms around my bent legs, pressing my knees against my forehead.
For a while Ryan said nothing. I heard the click of his lighter, the soft sigh of his breath between his teeth. When he spoke, he was nearly whispering. “I’m sorry. All I meant was that you’re acting like you can make this better, and you can’t.”
I looked up at him. If he was troubled by my selfishness, he wasn’t going to admit it. “What do you want me to do?”
Ryan shrugged. “Don’t do anything,” he said. “Let’s go to bed.”
I said, “okay.”
Ryan drove us to the funeral the next morning because his mother’s car wouldn’t turn over in the cold. The church was modern, a commotion of overlapping angles with a slanted roof that made it seem as if it were sinking partway into the ground. An enormous window formed the back wall and the white ceiling loomed, stretching over our heads like a giant clamshell. Ryan stayed in the back to serve as a pallbearer while Sandy and I sat together, a few rows from the front.
Organ chords throbbed and the group of men slowly wheeled the casket down the carpeted aisle. Ryan’s shoulders trembled and as he passed by me I could see his cheeks were wet with tears. At the sight of him my throat tightened. I looked down at the wrinkles in my skirt and started to cry. Sandy pulled a worn tissue packet from her purse and placed it on the pew between us. She sniffled, shook her head, and rubbed her hands over her thighs.
I tried to focus on the funeral rites, tried to listen as the priest spoke vaguely about Jack Dawes’ compassion and concern for his fellow man. “His friends tell me he was always willing to help out,” the priest said, swaying in his cassock. “His business associates say he was a hard man to know, but that everyone liked him.” Ahead, in the front pew, Ryan dipped his head, removed his glasses, and buried his face in his hands.
Uncle Neil offered the eulogy after communion. He clutched the sides of the stone pulpit and wheezed as he sobbed. “Many of you might not have known what a humanitarian my brother was,” he said. “He was real private about his business practices, but he would donate a percentage of his revenue to the community every year and he was always doing pro-bono printing jobs for the scouts and the school groups.” Beside me, Sandy bobbed her head slowly. “He will live on though,” Neil said. “Brenda says she’s going to keep that company running in his name for as long as she can.” Sandy lifted her head then, turned her ear toward the front of the church and listened. Neil never mentioned Ryan.
At the cemetery we clustered around the open grave. The polished casket sat on a strip of cheap, plastic grass, beside a mound of dirt. Light snowflakes had begun to whirl in the air, drifting toward the ground and spotting the coffin. My limbs ached and I could barely concentrate on the priest’s mumbled prayers. All at once Ryan dropped to his knees, as if pins had been pulled from his joints. I stooped beside him and clutched his shoulders, pressing my lips against his ear.
“You’re okay,” I said.
“I just got dizzy,” he told me. “I’m fine.”
Sandy knelt at his other side and we lifted him back to his feet. “Hasn’t eaten a thing in two days,” she said.
Once the priest had shut his prayer book between his gloved hands, people drifted away in pairs and groups. The men would come later to lower the casket into the grave. I didn’t let go of Ryan’s arm until we reached the car.
“Are you sure you should drive?” I said.
Ryan shook his head. “I’m fine.”
We climbed into the car and Sandy patted Ryan’s arm.
“Maybe we should skip the gathering, take him home,” I said.
“No, he wants to be there,” she said. “He should be there.”