Funerals

Square lace covered in flies on a black background

Robert Bausch

“...Anything makes me laugh, I misbehaved once at a funeral.” --Charles Lamb

He could hear the people in the church praying. So many voices carried a long way and he could hear every word of every prayer. He was sitting on one of the chairs and looking down into the hole, which was perfectly rectangular and squared off in all the corners, so that it looked as if the ground had just suddenly sunk six feet, without the actual digging of it, without the work of the old men dressed in gray coveralls, who drank whiskey and liked to tell jokes and laugh with the other men on the military honors team. (He wondered at the fact that he had never seen a gravedigger who was not dressed in gray coveralls, and who was not at least fifty years old.) It seemed to him that a man who dug graves for a living had to slip into a job like that by accident, without wanting to—although all of them he had ever seen went about their work as if they were trained, as if there were a time when they had had to learn, a time when they could dig a hole but not a grave. He knew they were gravediggers only because he had seen them performing their work before, which was the only way he or anyone else could know what they were. If you were part of the funeral party, one of the mourners, you never knew, because most of the time they hid behind one of the graves until the ceremony was over. If they didn’t hide, and sometimes they didn’t, you still couldn’t know what they were because they never had their instruments with them. In all the funerals he had been to he had not yet seen a shovel or a pick—or even a pile of bared earth. Just the empty hole, open and not yet a grave, with the earth removed, displaced, and covered with a heavy green tarpaulin made to resemble grass, although it was never the right color.

He looked at the five chairs which were lined up in a row directly next to the one he was sitting in. He was thinking to himself about the odd way a chair, which is almost always just that, a chair, becomes an extension of living persons, if you’re used to seeing the same person sitting in the same chair for a long time. It was that way with the chairs which were lined up next to him, by the grave. He had seen so many mourning faces sitting upright in those small foldable hard-back chairs, that he could see them now—all of them blended into one tired, sorrowful, blurry face.

“Burns,” a voice behind him said.

He turned around and faced his squad leader, Sergeant MacKenzie, who was a tall, quiet, gray-haired man in his late forties. He had an unspoken, silent efficiency, a kind of confident intelligence, quiet knowledge, which Burns respected and admired. He was the type of man no one ever got close to. Burns didn’t answer him, he only looked at him.

“Get offa’ that chair—” he said.

“Ain’t you got no respect for the dead?” one of the other men said.

The other men laughed as Burns got up and walked over to the hole. He looked down into it and tried to picture himself, in some vague future moment in time, gray, when his time would come. He could see his hands clasped across his breast, and he was inside the casket, and the casket was transparent so that he could see through the lid—He could see his face—partly old, and partly young, so that in his mind he looked as if he had makeup on. But it was him; he was there.

“Probably everybody in town came out for this one,” one of the men said.

“He was a young man—probably the local football hero,” one of the others said.

“For a small town, they sure filled that church.”

“Make enough racket too.”

“Rockford’s only fifteen miles north of here—probably got a raft of relatives from up that way come down here.”

“And friends too.”

“There’s enough of ‘em in that church to fill most towns and cities too,” Haney said. “Listen to ‘em.”

Haney was a short squat looking man who is on his second term in the service. He had his hair cut so short that when he was hot the sweat showed through his scalp and made his head shine. His face seemed to be open in a grimace most of the time because his teeth stuck out of his mouth like wax candy, and they were always dirty. He looked as if he had just finished eating a Hershey bar in the hot sun, missing his mouth with the chocolate as it melted, leaving a black line around his lips. He was Sergeant McKenzie’s assistant and he was responsible for notifying the other men of the unit when they had a funeral assignment.

“We gotta’ plant another one pahtnah,” he would say and then he would laugh—he never said anything different or new, he always said the same thing, yet, after he would say it, he would laugh. Burns used to make it a point to interrupt him, cut him off, by asking him where the funeral was going to be, or what day. But Haney always finished laughing before he would answer. Burns despised him.

“Here they come,” Sergeant MacKenzie said calmly. “Burns you better come over here so you’ll be ready.”

He hadn’t noticed that the parade had stopped, but he heard the big wide church doors swing open and he was expecting Sergeant MacKenzie’s voice to interrupt his thoughts. He walked over with the rest of the men. As he stood there watching the people file out of the church, forming up like a military unit, he began to think of all the funerals he had been to—of all the things he had seen in the last year and a half that he never, in his life, thought he would have to see—of all the things he had gotten used to. To him they were all tragedies—he knew they were all tragedies—he knew that they were—yet, they occurred with the dramatic, almost theatrical quality, until with time, even the worst funeral was no more painful, or real, than a sad movie or play. And what was worse—even in the face of all the misery, there have been times when, without wanting to do it—he had laughed.

There had been two times, when he had first been assigned to the funeral detail, and he and two other new men went on their first funeral. One of the new men had been forced into presenting the flag. The squad leader had said it would be good experience for him. No one ever wanted to present the flag because it was required that a little speech be made to the widow of the grieving mother. The new man had gotten so nervous that when the time came he stepped up with a flag and stammered loudly, “Congratulations.” Everyone laughed on the bus afterwards, on the way back to the base, but no one thought it was funny when it happened. And somewhere that night, a woman, frightened, alone and lonely, by herself in the bedroom, had no idea that a bus was full of young soldiers—boys, young men no older than her husband had been—and most of them never in love yet, and not knowing what it meant to love someone, much less lose them, were laughing and drawing amusement from something that happened at her husband’s funeral.

He was thinking about the irony of laughing at the instant others may be crying, and then he was again thinking about the new man saying “congratulations,” and he chuckled to himself.

Sergeant Mackenzie looked at him for a second, then he said, “Come on, Burns, don’t let them see you laughing.”

“Don’t spoil the image, Burns,” Haney said.

Sure, the image. “Images get shattered on bad days,” he thought, “and some images get shattered on good days too.” He was thinking about a funeral he had gone to in Springfield. It had been for an old man, last winter (He could always tell the age of the deceased without being told. It was easy. He could tell by the number of people at the gravesite and the way they mourned—not who was liked or disliked, or who was rich or poor— but only who was young and who was old when they died.) And in Springfield, last winter, there had been eight people there—eight people including two gravediggers, one mortician, and the minister. (For an instant, he was thinking to himself about how similar morticians and ministers are. He had never noticed the similarities before, but they were so obvious he couldn’t imagine how he had ever missed them—rubber, pliable faces, with lines which are clear and distinct, yet which disappear with each change of expression, like a badly animated cartoon. And ministers and morticians have an uncanny ability to grab you gently but firmly right at the bend of your elbow when you walk by them.) They had looked properly sad in Springfield, that day. The minister, because he thought it was what God expected of him, and the mortician because he knew it was his job to look sad.

Sergeant McKenzie’s raspy voice interrupted him, “The following men will be on the firing squad.”

He began to call out the names. He always waited until the funeral party got on its way towards the grave, and then, as if in charge of a combat unit (and he probably was at some time in his career) in the face of the advancing enemy, he would bark his commands without looking one way or the other, staring straight ahead, the lines in his face, his eyes, as plain and clear as if they had been drawn there with pen and ink. And the men would rest quietly to their positions. It was the way Sergeant Mackenzie liked to do things, and for him, it never failed.

In Springfield, that winter before, there had been a fresh new squad leader, promoted on paper, by design, to head a unit that could not afford to make mistakes, and everything had gone wrong. They had gotten there late and the funeral party, all eight of them, had been such a small group that the squad leader hadn’t noticed that they were already there, standing by the grave. The men straggled in an unruly formation off the road towards the tent (there was always a tent, just a canopy really, which covered the gravesite)—some of them dragging their rifles along the ground, some putting on their white gloves. It was freezing and the men were all groaning and shouting about the cold. The ice cold Illinois wind was blowing through the huge cemetery, and whistling through the flat, gray, stone markers which pockmarked the hillside, so that it was almost impossible to hear.

But the wind was gusty, and died down just as the new squad leader noticed the people by the grave, and they noticed him; right before he yelled loudly, “There they are—Goddamn, form up, they’re here, form up!” The wind had died down enough so that everything he said echoed through the cemetery just as it would have if he had been standing on the fifty-yard line of an empty football stadium.

They had gotten in formation as quickly as possible, but not without further disturbing the silence left by the dead wind, which refused to pick up and blow again. Burns was assigned to the firing squad, which consists of seven men who, on completion of the ceremony, we’re supposed to fire three shots in unison, which comprises a twenty-one gun salute.

The people by the grave were all standing next to each other parallel to a sidewalk which ran just behind them and the coffin which sat directly in front of them. They were between the coffin and the sidewalk.

As the squad leader marched the troops up the road, towards the tent, the bugler rushed out of the formation and, running as fast as he could, caught up with him. They were both walking briskly in front of the squad of men, and talking earnestly to each other, back and forth. But they weren’t arguing.

It is customary at a military funeral for the man who plays Taps to be hidden from view. The grieving family never sees him; in a way he is like the pick and shovel of the grave digger, like the ugly brown dirt hidden under the tarpaulin. On that day in Springfield, the bugler told the squad leader, as they hobbled up the path, that he could not blow the bugle in that freezing weather, that his lips had to be warm or he couldn’t play Taps.

It had been the squad leaders first funeral and he did not want anything to go wrong, so he told the bugler, who was panting alongside him trying to keep up, to stay on the bus. Then he instructed the bus driver, who was marching at the rear of the formation (which it finally resembled) to find a suitable place to hide the bus. The bus. He told him to hide it near the grave site. In order to hide the bugler, he was going to hide the bus.

The small group by the grave began to stomp their feet to send off the cold and show their impatience. The squad leader had marched the men onto the sidewalk behind the gravesite, and behind the people who stood in silence by the grave.

The bus pulled into, and out of, four or five different places, trying to find a place that was not visible from the tent, but close enough for the bugler’s horn to be heard. It was making so much noise in the process that the people at the gravesite became interested and began to follow its every move with their eyes.

The squad leader had maintained the position of attention, and he stood at right angles to the mourners and the troops lined up behind them. He was between the people by the grave and his men who were lined up along his left. Burns had been the third man in line and he could see the squad leader’s face–his head locked in a forward position, his eyes wandering to the limits of their restraints, following the bus as it moved from place to place. The squad leader’s face had been on the verge of tears, and it had been then that the man to the right of Burns could see the rage form on his face.

The minister began the ceremony, the ritual, by saying “let us pray.” Burns was sure that none of the people within hearing distance of the spot he was standing on, at that moment, were praying. It was too cold. The minister spent nearly forty five minutes trying to put some meaning into the life and death of a man mourned only by his descendents. A man mourned by people that he knew as babies, by people who met him, and came to know him when he was already old, so that his death was not really mourned, or even regretted. There were only four people there besides the minister, the mortician, and the two old men in grey. The dead man had been too far removed from the young people who stood by his grave—so far removed from them that they could not really mourn his passing. They were there to witness a burial, to honor a dead man more, perhaps, because he had managed to live so long, than because he had died.

-During the minister’s speech the squad leader noticed that the firing squad would be firing directly over the heads of the funeral party-

He began to worry about how he was going to keep that from happening.

The bus had pulled behind a huge mausoleum, just across the road. The firing squad and the funeral party all stood with their backs to it, but the squad leader, who stood at attention, could see from the far corner of his left eye, the huge blue bus, sitting as it did, across three or four graves, its big rounded back wheels leaving smashed and crumpled artificial flowers in their wake.

Only the squad leader could see the bus, but everyone could hear it, even the minister while he talked. The bus driver left the motor running to provide heat for the bugler, who sat in its warmth and read comic books waiting for the shots of the firing squad to ring out, which would be his signal to play Taps.

The minister was saying loudly, “And so we are here today to lay to rest, John, your faithful servant—” and the bus was going—DUMDUMDUMDUMDUMDUMDUM—and the minister, “who lived in God’s world and kept his faith…” and the bus—DUMDUMDUMDUMDUMDUMDUMDUM—and the minister, “through the outrage of world war and the degradation of poverty—”and the bus—DUMDUMDUMDUMDUMDUMDUMDUMDUMDUMDUMDUM.

The man next to Burns had managed to contain himself although the quick jets of misty air that burst from his nose and mouth into the freezing sunlight led Burns to believe that he was still laughing.

The minister nodded his head to the squad leader before anyone noticed that he was finished. The squad leader was still looking at the bus out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t seem to be able to take his eyes off the bus, as if the drone of the engine had him in a trance.

The minister nodded once again.

Burns stood at attention, holding his rifle by the front sight, hard against his thigh. He could see the minister looking disgustedly at the squad leader, and you could see the squad leader staring intently in the opposite direction, out of the side of his face. The people at the grave began to notice that nothing was happening.

The minister nodded at the squad leader once again.

There was no wind. Burns thought that the silence was becoming annoying, and then, embarrasing.

The minister nodded his head emphatically, up and down.

Then the people beside the grave began to stomp their feet again, and this sudden movement called the squad leader’s attention.

“SQUAD!” he yelled.

The people by the grave and the firing squad all jumped together, just as they would have if the coffin had opened up and the dead man inside had sat up and said, “Boo!”

“TENSH—-HUT!”

The men in the firing squad all snapped to attention.

“POUHRT—-HHAHRMS!”

They raised their rifles diagonally across their chests, in one smooth quick motion.

(They had all been on the ceremonial team over a year—had been to three or four funerals a week—and had learned, had been conditioned to the fact that after the command, “port arms,” came the command, “ready.” It was natural. They knew that after they executed the order to get to the “ready” position, which was to move the left foot back a half-step and turn to the side, that the next command would be “aim”, at which time they would raise their rifles to shoulder height. On the command to “fire” they would fire three quick shots and then lower their rifles. Snap. It was always done that way.)

The squad leader decided to move them back down the sidewalk to the corner, so that they wouldn’t be firing over anyone’s head.

So he said, “LAYUFT—–HHHACE!!!”

After hesitating for a second, Burns confusedly turn to his right, still holding his rifle at “port arms.” The man next to him, who had been laughing, made a perfect left face so that he was directly facing Burns.

He laughed out loud.

The man to Burns’ left went automatically to the “Ready” position. Burns looked at the squad leader who was still standing at attention, facing him. His chin was pulled in close to his neck and his face was contorted in an ugly frown. He said quickly, under his breath, his voice high like a little girl, “lefface—-I said lefface, lefface.”

At the sound of the squad leader’s voice the man on Burns’ right began to laugh louder, and the man on his left raised his rifle. He was confused, but he was also well trained.

The squad leader said again, low under his breath still, as if he were not willing to admit that anyone had yet made a mistake, “lefface!”

The men on Burns’ left fired his gun three times.

Burns quickly turned and fired his gun, as did the man on his right, who was still laughing. The others in the unit followed with sporadic bursts of fire. The squad leader managed to yell “fire” just before the last volley.

He never did say “ready–aim.”

Then there was silence.

Burns thought it sounded as if a battle had just been fought.

The people by the grave had all turned around and they were looking at the squad leader, who, for the first time kept his eyes riveted in place, staring straight ahead. He looked as if he were trying to swallow.

The man on Burns’ right was laughing to himself, loudly, so that all of them could hear him.

Suddenly the air was split with a short grating noise, which sounded like a stick or pipe being dragged along a picket fence.—CHICHICHICHICHICHICHICHICHICHICHICHICHI—it was the bugler opening one of the side windows on the bus. As if from nowhere, from the depths of the graveyard, the sound of Taps came filtering through the bushes in the wind and the tombstones. It was played quickly, shakily, so that Burns thought that it sounded as if the man who was playing it was urinating in the cold at the same time. Then the sound came bursting through the air at them again—CHICHICHICHICHICHICHICHICHICHICHICHI—and the bugler went back to his comic book.
The minister and the mortician seem to be annoyed, but no one at the gravesite seemed too upset. Burns got the impression that they were all trying not to laugh. It was pretty hard not to because everybody else was.

“Come on Burns–get your gloves on!” Sergeant MacKenzie said.

He put his hat on and then his gloves. He walked over next to Sergeant Mackenzie and asked him, “Did you give me an assignment, Sarge?”

“You and Haney fold the flag.”

“Burns will have to present, Sarge,” Haney said quickly.

Burns thought, “God damn you Haney,” he said: “I’m not doing it—I’ve never done it before—I don’t know what to say.”

“Yes you are Burns,” Haney said, “and we ain’t goin’ to argue about it now. Not with the goddam greevin’ widda’ comin’ up the path with the stiff all ready to lay out.”

“Work it out,” MacKenzie said.

“Sarge,” Burns said, “I’ve never done it before–I’d just mess it up.”

Haney said, “You’re gonna do it today Burns–I outrank you–and I sure as hell ain’t gonna do it.”

“You can’t give me orders, Haney.”

They were whispering now, loudly, although the crowd was drawing nearer and nearer. The path looked almost yellow in the bright noon sun and there was dust filtering and swirling around their feet as they labored under the weight of the coffin. “Work it out,” McKenzie said in the same tone of voice, not looking at them, not looking at the crowd even, but just staring in their direction, straight ahead, as though he were thinking something else at the same time he was saying, “Work It Out.”

“Burns is presentin’ the flag, Sarge.”

“Ok, Haney,” Burns said, “But wait till you hear what the shit I say to the bitch–just wait you bastard–wa–”

“That’ll be enough of that, Burns,” MacKenzie said.

Burns was mad, really angry. He hated Haney.

Haney laughed.

Sergeant MacKenzie looked at Burns, the same way that Burns looked at Haney most of the time, with contempt in his expression, until Burns looked away. He felt small. He felt like Haney.

The crowd was approaching them now, spreading out and around them to take places close to the grave. The pallbearers brought the coffin up and placed it gently on the bier. Burns could see water drops on the lid and for an instant his mind flashed the vision of a priest, in gold vestments holding a chain and cup, sprinkling with it–and praying as the water dropped like tears on the lid.

He walked to his position at the head of the coffin and faced Haney, who stood at the other end. Sergeant Mackenzie stepped up and placed a huge bright American flag on the coffin and Burns watched the water seep into it, quickly first, and then slowly until it stopped, leaving wet spots about the size of a fingerprint. He looked at Haney and then back at the coffin between them. Haney had a smile on his face.

“Bastards,” he thought, “Sons of bitches.” He was condemning all the people in the world who were “Haney” to him–in his mind he felt the rage and impotence–nothing–not even hate–could rid the world of them.

He watched the family carefully taking their places in the chairs beside the coffin. There was an older woman, probably the mother, but she was no older than the priest, or Sergeant Mackenzie, and she was sitting up, on the edge of the chair, as if she were afraid to relax–afraid to rest her aching back in the presence of her son’s casket. Her face was hidden by a black veil. Next to her sat her husband, the father, who was drawn and pure white, like a marble statue. The lines in his face were deep and long, and his eyes seemed to be shaded by huge rubber cups which dripped down, and down once again, each time squeezing out large, shiny droplets of water–tears–that ran down the furrows in his jaw, haltingly one after another, to rest on his chin. Next to him sat two young girls, no older than nine or ten, neither knowing yet what death is, or that death is dying, or that the dead are deceased–and both of them sitting as still, and as quiet as they ever had, or ever would.

Sitting just to Burns’ right, in the first chair—in the chair he had been sitting in just moments before—was the young widow. There was no veil across her face—no hat or scarf on her head. Her hair was solid black, like an Indian or an oriental, although she’s neither, and it hung down gently by her face and over her shoulders. Her eyes were open wide, and she stared straight in front of her towards the coffin, as if by staring at it, by not taking her eyes off it, it would somehow become believable (Burns believed firmly that the whole purpose behind funerals is to convince the bereaved, the living, that the dead really died). Her lips were thick, tightly shut, and stained red, more from the exertion of crying, than from makeup or lipstick.

Burns was staring at her. He could not take his eyes off her. She was beautiful. He kept trying to picture her, and her husband, the faceless man in the coffin—perfect together–intimate–her naked, lying back on a grey bed, receiving him–him, but there was no face. The coffin had been closed. He knows because he saw them carry it into the church. There’s probably nothing in it to see, or even bury. Nothing left at all, or perhaps there had been remains–a leg, or hand, or piece of flesh (or did they send anything back at all?) He had heard rumors about it–even been to funerals before, where the coffin stayed closed and only a picture of the dead man–a service photo–sat on top of the permanently sealed lid, with the face on it, touched up and permanently young—with the teeth painted pure white, whiter than teeth ever got, and all the pockmarks or pimples or scars cropped out; with a blue scarf wrapped dashingly around the neck and the service cap with its medallion centered perfectly like the sun setting in a western sky, and the cap tilted just right so that all the men in all the pictures look like Spencer Tracy in “A Guy Named Joe.” The face. Smiling. Touched up. Clean.

He could not help himself. She was so beautiful. He kept imagining her receiving him, the faceless man in the coffin—lying back and holding him in her arms, with her eyes closed, and then open looking at the ceiling, and then closed again, her face expressionless. He tried to wipe the thought of sex from his mind—to think of a good speech to give her when the time came to present the flag. He wanted her to like him, to be stricken with his humility and sympathy. He thought about how she would fall into his arms and weep on his shoulder, and as she cried the grief would flow out of her like spilled water until she would be empty of it, rid of it. And then, like in all the movies, she’d be relieved, cleansed and he would pick her up and carry her away from there. She was so young.

She had not moved. The mother slumped back into her chair and her husband held her head against his breast with hands that were gnarled, that looked as if he were clutching her. Though he was not. He was holding her close to him, his hand on her cheek, gently moving very little, perhaps trembling.

The priest was praying quietly, and Sergeant Mackenzie stood at attention, not rigid or rock-like, but solid and strong.

Then the priest stopped talking and stepped back beside Haney. The mother looked up. The father put his greying head down, his clean fingers covering his forehead. The young widow did not move. They looked as if they were waiting to be shot.

The priest turned to Sergeant Mackenzie and nodded. Sergeant Mackenzie turned sharply and said:

“Squad!”

His voice was not loud, yet it was a command.

“Tensh–Hut!”

The men snapped their rifles and their heels together. Burns and Haney both reached down and took a corner of the flag in their white gloved fingers.

“Pohrt–Harms!”

In unison all seven men raised their rifles diagonally across their chests. THEIR WHITE GLOVES SEEMED TO LEAVE A BRIGHT TRAIL IN THE AIR, LIKE A COMET, IN THE HOT RELENTLESS SUN.

“Ready!” The voice still quiet, stern.

The men stepped back a half step so that they faced away from the coffin.

The widow raised her eyes and looked blankly at the line of men in their blue uniforms and white hats and gloves.

Burns gripped the flag tightly. The air was limp and for the first time he became aware of how hot it was. There was a plane inching its way across the bare, white sky, the sound it was making not reaching the gravesite until moments later, so that they would still be hearing the sound when the plane was gone.

“Aim!”

The line of rifles rose up and one smooth motion, all seven barrels jutting into the air like Jonquils in the first hours of spring.

“Fire!”

Three–Quick–Bursts of fire. All sound seemed to be driven from the air, seemed to roll with the echo of the gunfire across the open countryside.

When the echo stopped there was silence. Everyone was completely still. The silence was like the sudden interruption of sound, the sudden lack of noise one feels after a long dive from a crowded pier into deep water—the sound of the guns like the clap of the water around the ears—ringing for awhile, like the echo, and then dying out, leaving nothing but the diver in the water and silence.

The widow, who jumped with the sound of the shots and who sat up, alert, looking at the coffin, as if it were the last time she would ever see the man she loved, all though she couldn’t see him at all, bowed her head, and her shoulders began to shake up and down so that Burns thought she could just as easily have been laughing.

While she cried silently to herself the bugler played Taps, and the sound of it, the sound of the slow sobbing bugle, coming just after the rude thunderous rifles, gave Burns a limp feeling inside. “It’s always the Taps that gets them,” he thought, “they shouldn’t play the Goddamn thing.”

He and Haney held the flag taut and chest high. Haney stepped around the coffin and began folding towards Burns, the series of tight little triangles, across and then back, and then across, until he was face to face with him, and Burns held the cloth in his hands against his chest.

He was afraid it would come apart so he clutched it–held it tight–yet, held it gently like an infant.

He was trying to think of a good speech to give her. He was frantic. “Thankful Nation–loved one—honor—courage—–” Words. That was all they were, and he could not think of anything that would have any meaning, that would be proper. Proper. What could he say to her that would have any effect—–in the face of her misery and grief–would ease the pain, the suffering? Not dead. That was all. He could only help her if he could say to her that her husband was not dead. Not dead. But he couldn’t say that.

He walked over to her and, holding the folded flag out on his outstretched hands, like a crown, he said, “From a Grateful Nation -for–for services–for valiant and faithful service by your loved one—and our—comrade—”

She looked up at him. She was going to say something to him, but then she didn’t. He held the flag out, still, though his hands were trembling; he didn’t move.

“Services?” She said through tears, and although she barely spoke above a whisper, everyone knew that she was talking.

“What?” he said quietly, trying to talk only to her.

“Services?” she said in the same quiet tone. She reached up and took the flag.

Burns stood there, facing her, his hand still outstretched. For a minute, he thought he was going to lay his hands on her shoulders, to comfort her, to make her stop crying.

She threw the flag back into his chest and it came unfolded dropping partly to the ground. Burns caught the end of it, the blue field, and he held it between his left arm and his side, the rest of it wrapped loosely around his knees.

She covered her face with her hands and sobbed loudly. She was calling her husband’s name flatly as she sobbed, as if she expected him to answer.

Burns had tears in his eyes. The priest stepped forward and tried to take the flag but Burns held onto it—-clutched it like a child clutches a toy–still looking at the widow as she wept, bent over in the chair, her head in her hands.

He knelt down in front of her and tried to look up into her face. “I’m so sorry,” he said.

He stood up and, without thinking, without knowing what he was going to do, he saluted her with his white glove hand. Then he walked over to the coffin and draped the flag carefully across the bronze cross which marked the head of the casket.

Robert Bausch

Robert Bausch was born in Georgia at the end of World War II, and was raised in the Washington, D.C. area. He earned a BA, MA, and MFA at George Mason University. Bausch has published seven books: On the Way Home (1982), The Lives of Riley Chance (1984), Almighty Me (1991), The White Rooster and Other Stories (1995), A Hole in the Earth (2001), The Gypsy Man (2002), Out of Season (2005), and Far as the Eye Can See (2014).
Since 1975, Bausch has taught creative writing, American literature, world literature, humanities, philosophy, and expository writing at the University of Virginia, American University, George Mason University, Johns Hopkins University, and Northern Virginia Community College. In 2009 he was awarded the John Dos Passos Prize in Literature. Find out more at: http://www.robertbausch.org/

Art

Johnson Bowles , “Veiled Threats” Phoebe Issue 49.2

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