It’s a melancholy chamber, willow wallpaper and a power-steam humidifier trying to spread calm across six pews sulking on either side of a narrow aisle leading to a white coffin sitting atop a one-step stage accommodating a wooden podium and silver microphone. An autumn-colored wreath frames a picture of death’s conquest touting cat-whisker earrings, yellow teeth, perm-wild hair, and brown eyes that, although I’ve never seen them up close, stare beyond the camera, as if looking at something both mysterious and suspicious—me. Her skinny, little red nose declares a Caucasian commitment to the sun. A woman named Rinda Roo Hopkins, with a limp and a lisp, who broke—breaks—my heart.
“Thanks for coming,” a woman says, offering a hand. “How were you acquainted?”
I stand quiet, staring at a closed coffin. The smell of new carpet and girl perfume tempts me to step back, until the woman pulls me into an embrace. “I can tell you’re hurting.” She squeezes. “I know it’s a hard day.” She exhales. “But your attendance makes me so happy.”
Happy. A word with which I’m not well-acquainted, rife with insinuating vagueness. A word so venerated by jolliness, the notion of both having it and not having it provokes levelheaded envy. My sister, Pam, a carbon copy of Rinda, reels my mind with jaded retrospection.
Pam and I haven’t spoken for years, personalities that can’t even bear Instagram pleasantries. Pam’s limp came from scoliosis, and the lisp came from Father’s belief that to repeatedly slap a girl across the face is to reject the embarrassing unsightliness of scoliosis. Someone should have stopped, or reported, him. Someone like Mother. Or me.
“The service will begin in a few minutes,” the woman whispers, releasing me back to the room’s mist. “Maybe you can say something kind about Rinda when the time comes.”
I sit in the second pew on the left side. In the middle. An air duct blows heat upon my hair. The warmth brings comfort, settling my shoulders and relaxing my neck. Ex-boyfriends called me intense. Pam called me a moron. I hope someone happy sits beside me, someone who knew Rinda well and wants to stand up and say something kind, relieving me from doing, if no one else does it, what I know I won’t do.
A few plaid skirts and button down suit jackets sit in the pews around me. Incoherent whispers. Tapping of shoes. Insinuations to hurry up already, we have better places to go, and be. Pam used to beg me to sit still and see what was happening right in front of my, and her, face. I never did, unwilling to let a girl, a sister, a gimp tell me what to do.
The Christian pastor follows a Christian funeral routine: prayers, scripture readings, homily, and an invitation to receive Jesus Christ as a personal savior. No one accepts the invitation. “Before we depart,” he says. “Does anyone have anything else to say?”
No one answers. The woman sitting beside me whispers, “Go ahead now. It’s time.”
I shake my head.
First time I saw Rinda, she limped to a lopsided car in a Walgreens parking lot. I called out, “Pam,” waiting for my boyfriend, Daniel, now an ex-boyfriend, to finish a third shift. Daniel and I were a one-car couple with two-card appetites, downgraded from success by debt, fights, cheating, and lies—unlucky gays nail-pounding the nail-biting cliché.
I often asked Daniel about Rinda, to which he scoffed and said, “Ew.” I asked what was wrong with her, to which he groaned and said, “What isn’t.” I asked for specifics, to which he sighed and said, “That hobble-knob-lisp is so fucking annoying. God I want her dead.” I never mentioned Rinda’s resemblance to Pam, fully aware that the relationship with Daniel was winding down, both of us holding on only because of an ineptitude for letting go. Pam used to say I had the attention span of a bratty toddler. Perhaps that’s the reason I date bratty toddler men. After the breakup, I thought a lot about Rinda, the only reason I stayed in touch with Daniel. To know about Rinda was to care about Pam. Vicariousness at its most guilt-ridden.
“Why do you care about a woman you don’t even know?” Daniel used to ask.
“There’s something about her I can’t let go.”
“You’re so fucking bizarre.”
“One does project what one is.”
The funeral chimes a final Amen and the woman invites me to a reception at her house three miles out of town.
Pam didn’t attend our parent’s funerals, where I stayed quiet, too. Rinda’s funeral was a stadium crowd in comparison.
Driving up the gravel road, I see the woman sitting on a plastic chair on a porch attached to a two-story home. I’m the only car. The only visitor. OMG, it’s just me and her.
“Tea?” she asks, leading indoors. The screen door, much like the wall décor, closes in with ease. Plain. Unassuming. Beige. “I made some carrot cake, if you want some. It was Rinda’s favorite.”
We stand like wilted sorrow in a small kitchen. Strangers linked by Rinda. But how?
“Is anyone else coming?” I take a teacup and a plate of pie to the table.
“Rinda wasn’t much of a crowd pleaser.” She smiles, sitting across. “Except she must have made a pretty big impression on you.”
To admit to not meeting, or knowing, Rinda will likely confuse and hurt her feelings. I sip tea and nibble pie, glancing around the room as if austerity is unknown to me. The tea kettle whistles, bringing my eyes back to a woman who opens and flips through a book of pictures, the first few pages announcing black and white portraits of Rinda. As a baby. Teenager. Twenty-something color when she got scoliosis. Thirty-three when she got Bell’s palsy. Shingles and pneumonia one month after turning forty. Irritable Bowel Syndrome at forty-one. Never married. Sweetest person in the world, but luck was not a friend. Frail as she aged. Forty-nine just last week. “God, she wanted to see fifty.” She closes the book and pours tea. “Thanks for coming today. It was really nice of you.”
“How do you know Rinda?” I ask.
She laughs. “Have I not introduced myself? Oh, for goodness sake. I’m Yvette, her stepsister.”
“Like the sandwich?”
“My sister, Pam, used to call me Reuben the Cuban.”
“You have a sister, too?”
“She also has scoliosis,” I say.
“Did you work with Rinda at Walgreens?”
“How did you know her, then?”
I should have lied about working at Walgreens. I can lie. Ask any ex-boyfriend. Or Pam. “I knew more about her more than I actually knew her.”
“What do you mean, knew about her?”
“An ex-boyfriend of mine used to work with her at Walgreens.”
She squints. “What was his name?”
She closes her eyes. “It’s not Daniel Korn, is it?”
We sit quiet for a short time.
“Do you know him?” I ask.
Her eyes pop open. “According to Rinda he’s complete hogwash.”
“You dated him and you’re telling me you don’t know why?”
Daniel Ambrose Korn. Odd name. Odder man, who didn’t share feelings except about sex and the compulsion to have it. With me. Or with anyone who agreed, known more for top than bottom, negativity than objectivity, baseball than football, men than women, and bitterness than thoughtfulness. Ex number fifty-three. Another mistake I can’t forget, which I blame on Rinda, who keeps me from blocking him into obliviousness.
I look up from the teacup and meet a pair of bloodshot eyes. Yvette glances at the front door before quickly turning her head away from the stained glass. Perhaps she wants me to leave, understanding my relationship with Daniel and Daniel’s relationship with Rinda. Or maybe she wants me to stay, understanding that I’m the only one who came out after the funeral. Either way, she seems conflicted, tearing eyes and rubbing temples.
“Do you know what he called her at work?” she asks.
We sit quiet for a short time.
“How could you be with someone so cruel?” she asks. “Do you think so little of yourself?”
“What did he call her?”
“I can’t say it out loud. Not this close to her death.”
Hobble-knob-lisp; that’s what he called Rinda. And annoying. Fucking annoying. God I want her dead. “He didn’t have much of a filter. That I do know.”
“I should say not.” She stands and looks out the kitchen window into the backyard. “Rinda loved working at Walgreens, said everyone was so nice and funny, including the managers. She enjoyed seeing all the little kids who came in for candy and toys and things. She liked everyone there except for Daniel, who she didn’t understand why he hated her so much and why he was so mean to her.”
“He did have a mean streak when his buttons were pushed.”
“What buttons could he have possibly possessed to make him be so skeevy?” She turns and faces me. “Was he disabled? Did he have Bell’s palsy? Did he lay in a hospital bed for a month after a dozen mini strokes almost killed him?” Her tone takes on weight and height, like a mushroom cloud before explosion. “Did he? Well, did he?”
“I’m sorry he hurt her.”
“Are you? I mean, how can you be when you don’t even know her or know what he called her?”
“What did he call her?”
“I told you, I can’t say it this close to her death.”
I sit quiet, thinking about the skeevy names Daniel called me, long-winded expletives ending in piece of shit. Which didn’t bother me, because I shouted them right back. Louder. Shallowness fueled by angriness. Able men able to do, and say, everything at any time, without filters. Or apologies. Or Band-Aids.
“Before Daniel started working there, Walgreens was her favorite place in the whole world. She couldn’t wait to get there. She felt needed and wanted. She felt like she belonged. Do you have any idea how hard it was for her to find that?”
“I apologize for Daniel, if it helps.”
“What could you have seen in him that’d make you wanna be with someone like that? I mean, you seem sane. And kind. You definitely don’t seem like someone who’d intentionally hurt a poor woman half your age for no other reason than because you’re not.”
I stand and push in the chair. “I think I should go.”
“I’m not mad at you.” She exhales. “I’m just mad that you knew him and that you didn’t know what he was like or what he was doing to her while you were with him. I mean, how many other people did he hurt that you don’t know about?” She pauses. “Was he cruel to you?”
“Please accept my condolences and I do thank you for the pie.”
“Fine. I’ll tell you, if you really wanna know.”
I stop at the front door and turn around. “Honestly, I don’t.”
“One night Rinda heard him and some of the other employees talking about her limp and making fun of her lisp while she was in the stock room and they were outside smoking. She heard him say it’d be so funny if she tripped over the brick he was gonna put outside the door, said it’d serve her right for being such a retard. It was that very night she got a really bad fever and had a first stroke of many more to come. That was also the night she said Walgreens wasn’t gonna work out, and I knew she was giving up on everything, and that there was no going back from wherever it was she was headed.”
“I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive him.”
“I will never forgive him. Never.”
We stand quiet for a short time.
“I am glad to at least know her last name.”
“You know nothing,” she says, walking toward me. “Hopkins isn’t her real last name. She changed it the very first week at work. No way in hell was she gonna share a name, alive or dead, with such a sick, sick man.” Slamming the door behind me.