I Will Fear No Evil, for I Have a Mother-in-Law
Despite her sister’s and father’s insistence that she go home and rest, Joss insisted on going to the graveside. Nothing less would do for Mother Parker, whose accusing eyes bore into Joss’s back despite the supportive arms of her family. One would have thought Joss was the one who had been driving the car that hit her son.
The interior of the limousine was cool and dark, and Joss leaned her head against the tinted window and closed her eyes. The funeral ceremony tradition was barbaric. The weeping and the moaning only served to prolong the anguish and retard the healing process.
Joss always thought the moaners and the weepers were always trying to outdo each other, especially the ones who broke down in the middle of the eulogy, moaning, “Jesus, Jesus!” It set Joss’s teeth on edge. What she wouldn’t have given for a quiet Methodist memorial service. Better yet, she should have insisted on a Viking funeral, where she could climb up on the burning pyre and be immolated.
Her mother’s funeral had been simplistic and lovely in a somber way. No open casket, no weeping in a dark, over-perfumed funeral home, no awful air-conditioned ride in a limousine and no sitting out in the hot sun by an open gash in the ground. Her mother had been cremated and they’d had a memorial service at the beach.
They arrived at the graveyard. Joss smiled a little as she walked over the slippery grass to the grave, remembering how warm the sand was even near the water, as they scattered her mother’s ashes over the azure and white waves. It gave her a feeling of peace just thinking about it.
When she learned that Jeffery had died in surgery, his broken body unresponsive to the efforts of emergency personnel and the hospital surgeon, Joss took a cab home and got into bed. She lay there for eight hours and refused to cry, move or speak. She stared at a litho print purchased in a New York gallery. The print had cost them a small fortune; Jeffery hadn’t told her the price, but had bought it because she’d admired it. It was only later that Joss found the invoice in some of Jeffrey’s papers and was at first aghast at the price and then touched. She never told him she knew how much it cost.
Those eight hours in bed was all the time that Mother Parker needed to take over the arrangements. Poor dear, she had clucked, the words insincere even to Joss’s frozen ears. Poor Joss. Let me handle everything. And Mother Parker had indeed handled everything even over the protests of Simone and Joss’s father. Joss had heard them arguing outside her bedroom door, but had been too paralyzed by her newest friend, grief, to speak up on her own behalf.
The sun was hot on her back and shoulders as she sat in the rickety folding chair. She would have preferred rain – that would have offered some grim comfort. It would have also made Mother Parker’s hairdo fall, which would have offered Joss a small bit of satisfaction. Mother Parker went to the salon every single week without fail. Joss tugged at one of her own bronze braids, a simpler hairstyle that you didn’t have to while away four hours every week to maintain.
The minister droned words about Jeffrey’s youth and young adulthood that meant nothing to Joss and the people from the university: Jeffery had stopped attending services at his mother’s church when he was fifteen: all the minster knew was what Mother Parker had told him to say.
Joss bit at her lip, barely listening to the sounds of mourning around her. They weren’t for her, they were for Jeffrey. She was sure some of the ladies of the church wished it were she in the casket and not her husband. He would have made a lucky widower with his pick of the church henhouse .
She stood when Simone pulled at her and obediently picked up a handful of dirt. She squeezed the brown clay soil in her damp palm, thinking it as cold as her husband’s flesh. She shouldn’t have touched him then. That wasn’t the way she wanted to remember him. But it was too late now. With great concentration, she crumbled the dead soil on the wooden box that held the body of her husband, her best friend and only lover.
Her lips moved without sound, forming the familiar litany of words she had heard at many funerals before her. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. She touched the back her neck with her muddy hand where the coat rubbed, leaving behind ashy brown streaks on the dark cashmere. The coat was suffocating in the warm May sunshine and she could feel the sweat running down her ribs and the curve of her back. She shrugged her shoulders a little to work some air under the coat and went back to her folding chair as they lowered her husband’s body into the ground.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the gravediggers, for lack of a better term, waiting a discreet distance away leaning against an orange back hoe: a sure sign of how deep six feet really was. She sighed a little and sagged against Simone who rubbed her back.
“I want a drink,” she whispered as the ceremony ended.
“Of course you do,” her sister whispered back. “You need to take off that heavy coat.”
Joss pressed her lips together and didn’t answer. She wasn’t going to take off the coat, so Simone could just hang that up, pardon the pun. She shoved her hand into the pocket and played with a tube of lip balm Jeffery always carried with him. People began coming toward her to offer their condolences and for a scary moment, Joss flashed back to her wedding receiving line. There, everyone had been all smiles, full of liquor infused joy and general party time camaraderie. She had shaken many hands that day and exchanged hugs full of tears of joy.
Today, there were no tears of joy, no hugs, no handshakes. Joss kept her head down and her hands in her pockets as Simone and her father ran interference, thanking family, friends and work acquaintances for their condolences as she sat, silenced by the deep sorrow that choked any words back. What could she say to them? Thank you for being sorry that my husband died? I’m sorry enough for all of you.
Back at Mother Parker’s house, people gathered in small tight groups, eating finger sandwiches and drinking. Joss let Simone settle her at a table to wait while she drove their father home. You have to make an appearance, Jay, Simone told her. Her sister brought her a drink and asked if she needed anything else. She also placed a plate of sandwiches in front of her that Joss picked at and pretended to eat. In one corner, she could see the mothers from the church sitting on a corner, hats off, eating cucumber sandwiches from a shared plate. They spoke in low whispers occasionally shooting a glance over at her, who met their fake sympathy with a steely glare. After that, they stopped looking.
Joss sipped her bourbon and pulled the coat tight around her. It was comforting warmth against the chilly air conditioning of Mother Parker’s. She probably kept it cold so she wouldn’t rot away, like a zombie. Joss resisted the urge to giggle. The bourbon was warm on her empty stomach and she closed her eyes halfway, nodding vaguely to those that sat next to her on the bench and patted her shoulder. She just wanted to go home, crawl back into bed and sleep.
Something like a cold wind blew past as Mother Parker slid into the space newly vacated by Jeffrey’s old college roommate. Though she didn’t like him much, Joss would rather he stay than have her mother in law breathing her gin-scented breath on her. Oh god what now…
“You were never good enough for my son,” she began, her vicious words settling onto Joss’s shoulders like volcanic ash. To a stranger, it would seem that the older woman was comforting her daughter in law, two women sharing the sorrow of their loss.
“No Jack and Jill, no formal presentation to society. What rock did you crawl from under to trap my son? Did you trick him? Did you tell him you were pregnant and then pretend to lose the baby?” Her French manicured nails slipped against the soft material of the coat as she scratched at Joss’s arm.
Joss leaned slightly away from her, head down, hand curled around the heavy crystal glass of bourbon. Why did this woman not like her? What had she done that was so horrible? She wouldn’t listen to this evil woman for one second longer. She tried to get up, but Mother Parker pressed the tail of Joss’s coat to the bench, trapping her there.
“You never changed your name. You never wanted to be a part of this family.” She took a healthy swig of her gin and tonic, the bitter smell making Joss’s nose wrinkle in distaste.
“Don’t think you’re fooling anyone with this act, wearing his coat around, trying to make people feel sorry for you. Don’t think you’re going to keep any of this things either. All he had, all that he gave to you? It’s mine.” She took another sip, fortifying herself to spew more poison in Joss’s direction.
Joss’s fingers hurt from gripping the glass. Mother Parker’s words continued at a level only she could hear, growing more poisonous by the second. “You’re distinctly middle class, Jocelyn and that’s what you’ll always be. Your sister, a hairdresser. Poor things, growing up raised by wolves, without a mother. ” She said this with a sad look on her face. “Pity Phillip couldn’t raise a better class of girls, but considering what I’ve heard about your mother, he’s lucky you turned out half good. At least you have some sort of education which is more than I can say for your sis—“
It was if she were watching a movie. Joss saw her hand raise the glass with the amber liquid and turn toward Mother Parker. A small smile creased her face as she tossed the remnants of her drink in the old woman’s face .
“Va te faire foutre, you old dried up…” Joss had never been so angry in her life. How dare this old broad who knew nothing about her family except what Jeff told her and made up the rest in her old evil mind. She resisted the urge to stick out her tongue.
Simone, car keys and purse in hand, grabbed Joss’s arm and yanked her up. “Time to go, sis.”
Joss placed her glass carefully on the side table and smiled, taking great satisfaction in Mother Parker’s bourbon-covered face and hair. The liquid caused her perfectly coiffed old-lady hair to droop on one side, making Joss smile even more widely. Gonna take more than a couple of hairpins to fix that, she thought.
“Oh, most definitely. I think I’ve overstayed my welcome.” Something loosened within her and she began to laugh hysterically, Simone walked her through the shocked faces of Mother Parker’s friends and the sympathetic glances of her own colleagues.
After this, she was going to sleep for a week.
Jeffrey’s sister Alisa helped her mother dry off and change into another dress upstairs. The old woman was fuming as she fussed with her silver hair in the mirror. Alisha, who liked Joss, sat silently while her mother raved.
“I don’t know who that little so and so thinks she is but I’ll tell you one thing, she’s not getting any of that money.”
Alisha sighed. “Mom. Stop it. There’s nothing you can do. The will is solid. Leave her alone.”
“Humph. Doesn’t mean that I can’t fight her; give her a run for her money.”
“You already railroaded her into a funeral that she didn’t want.”
“Then the ungrateful little switch throws a drink in my face?”
Alisha pressed her lips together so that her mother wouldn’t see her smile. “I’m sure you weren’t over there wishing her goodness and light. I saw the way you were talking to her, Mom. At least admit that.”
“I was just telling her the truth.”
The daughter threw up her hands. Her mother could be cruel and stubborn, not giving an inch. This was one of those times. “I’m going back downstairs.”
“Alisha,” Mother Parker had turned away from the mirror. “What did that little bugger call me? She spoke in French, some gutter dialect with which I am not familiar.”
Alisha crossed her arms. “I’m not sure if you want me to tell you.”
“She said ‘go fuck yourself ’.” Alisha fought to maintain a neutral expression. For all the oppression that her mother tried to dole out on her, Joss sure knew how to fight back in her own way.
Mother Parker’s face didn’t change. Instead she went back to pinning her hair into an acceptable shape.
“Tell everyone I’ll be right down.”