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November 4, 2018
November 6, 2018


Saturday Afternoon at Your Wake


I woke the morning of the wake and was still drunk.

The night before, I walked from my apartment to the river. I set my shoes and phone in the grass and waded in. The water was cold, and the parts of my body evolved to preserve themselves recoiled from it.

Once submerged, I waited for the instinctual panic that would compel me back to the surface. When the panic was not immediate, I tried thinking of other reasons to come up for air. But it was a Friday night, and I didn’t have to work in the morning.

The panic arrived.

A text from E when I returned to my phone: “Hope you’re good. Haven’t heard from you in a while.”

The forgotten stovetop burner was orange and hot when I returned home. I stood over the heat and drank until I fell asleep.

When I woke up, I was still drunk. I needed to buy shoes for the wake, because my nice pair was still in E’s Ford Taurus.

In the bathroom I swallowed a shallow palm-full of ibuprofen and used my hand to lap water from the sink. I knew X from the hospital. We talked on breaks and ate lunch together sometimes. I’d never seen her outside of the hospital, and, of course, I’d never met her dead mother. I’d never even heard her mention her mother. We usually talked about small things and about X’s husband and son.

I was sober, or something close to it, when I arrived downtown. I should have gone to the mall, it had a Payless and a Macy’s. There were mostly office buildings downtown.

I texted E: “Hey, remember those shoes I left in your car?” and

“Do you still have them?”

I was nervous about being late, so I offered a homeless guy twenty dollars for his shoes. They were black Skechers, scuffed and torn, but my pants would obscure the worst of it. Back in the car I set a shoe on each thigh. It looked like an invisible man was standing on my lap.

I joined the line of guests funneling through the door to comfort the bereaved. Everyone around me was talking, but no one was talking about the dead mother. I wondered if they’d ever met her or if they were just friends with X and her husband. There were a lot of people in line, though, more than I could imagine X had as friends.

When it was my turn, X was happier to see me than I’d expected. She shook her head. Her eyes sprouted tears. It was the first time we’d ever hugged and the longest we’d ever touched. She whispered something in my ear about how happy she was that I’d come and how it had been such an overwhelming day already. She introduced me to her husband and son. The husband kept smiling about nothing.

I smelled like the river. It wasn’t a salted, briny smell, like sometimes happens at the ocean. I smelled like muck and dead fish, like always happens at the river. My phone buzzed, and I excused myself.

E: “I’ll assume you’re doing well then” and

“I don’t know about the shoes.”

A couple stood in front of the coffin as I approached. Their bodies obscured my view, but between their shoulders I saw her face. It was small and dispassionate. I was thankful for the bodies between us. She didn’t look dead. The dead people I’d known always looked like shit or, if they’d been fixed up, they looked vibrant. She looked tired though, the way living people look. And she was fucking beautiful.

E: “Hey shithead. I worry about you.”

Her hands were on her stomach, just above her waist. The hands looked dead. The fingers were thin, frail, the skin around them tight.

The couple moved, and there was no longer anything between me and the beautiful dead mother. I was close enough that I could touch her if I needed to.

“Hey there son—it’ll be okay.”

A man in a suit rested his hand on the foot of the coffin. “What’s your connection?”

“We were friends.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

He placed his other hand on my shoulder.

“She lived a full life—”

Watching her face, I waited for it to move. Her lips were chapped, she was about to wet them with her tongue. I hadn’t seen her tongue, but I doubted it was dead like her fingers.

“—everyone’s processing this differently. I mean, Christ—”

E in my pocket: “Some people still care, that’s all”

I took off my shoes and set my knee on the table. So as not to disturb her body, I bent myself and contracted until I was nestled in the empty space between her and the wall of the coffin.

“We’ve got to keep the family in mind. It’s a big loss. They’re going to need—”

The taffeta and velvet were cool on the back of my neck. My forearm, heavy across her sternum, rose and fell with her breath. She didn’t turn her head, but I knew she was keenly aware of me, especially of my eyes on her. It was almost morning, and we’d forgotten to sleep. But if we closed our eyes and kept them shut it wouldn’t matter whether or not the sun ever rose.


Stephen Mortland currently live in central Indiana with my wife, Dev, and our daughter, Lorae. You can find him online @stephenmortland