There is no cheerful clatter of pans, or old Beatles records spinning in the living room. No warm cinnamon smell fills the air – only burnt coffee. For a moment, I’m half expecting Papa to swoop me up and dance me around on his Old Brown Shoes. My name is Blueberry Joy, and my Papa and I share a birthday.
My legs are slick with urine. My toes stop wiggling and I sit up on my elbows. Strip the sheets and stuff the soggy underwear deep into the hamper.
At the table, Mama slumps over an untouched mug of coffee, red eyed. “Good morning, Shortcake. H-Happy Birthday.” She wipes a string of snot from the end of her nose. “Do you want pancakes?”
“No, thank you.” I pour a bowl of Krispies, spilling some milk. Spoon some sugar on top and listen to the cereal snapping like Papa’s dusty records. I like the way they smell, like old books. The music, I mean. Not the cereal.
Papa and I used to give each other gag gifts on our birthday: a can of beans for some tube socks. All day long, we’d invent new games, like Sock Potato. In the evening, we would decorate a cake with rainbow candies, cream cheese, and real dandelions from the front yard.
My cereal goes mushy and I slip down out of my chair, into my glitter fairy wings. Mama says to get dressed; I tell her I already am. Mama says, “That’s not appropriate for a funeral, Blue.” So I change into a dark velvet and plaid dress with scratchy tights. Mama pulls my hair into a taut braid that pinches my scalp.
She doesn’t notice that I am wearing tap shoes until we are shuffle-stepping up the sidewalk, rat-a-tat, and then she just rubs her temple and frowns. I feel very important as my feet click past the fat chimneys and blinding windows, up the smooth cement to the Chapel doors.
It smells like outer space – a sublime mix of burnt cedar, oil, and salty moon. I press my nose against the glowing stained glass, but Mama pulls me to the pew. We do a little dip before we enter. Gran and Pops and Aunt June are already there, all gray and wet with tears. Chewed hands clutching densely wadded tissues reach out to pat my head. I duck away.
Plastic Jesus hangs over the alter. He looks like Papa with his skinny ribs and long hair and the plastic beaded blood. When we kneel, I suck in my belly and try to make my ribs stick out sharp, like suffering Jesus and Papa.
The preacher is telling a story about a ship with grand white sails, soaring into the distance. I think of one of Papa’s songs about a ship on the horizon and I begin to understand. I wish I
didn’t. I look over at Jesus. His ancient lips are moving. I squint and try to tune out the congregation. Jesus points one webbed resin hand, my wet eyes follow to a figure in the corner.
“Papa,” I whisper, mouth gaping.
He stands like magic in the shadows, highlighted by rows of warm candle flames. I am not sailing away,Blueberry, he says. I am right here. He’s wearing vapor wings. I tell him that Mama said wings are not appropriate and he just smiles.
Papa sings me through the rest of mass. When Mama breaks down into deep, shuddering tears, he gently sings Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye. While we stand in line with our tongues out, he offers Lilac Wine. I take my body of Christ and chew with my mouth closed. I imagine nibbling one holy, wounded foot.
Everyone lines up again to kiss the casket. It is a slow progression, and Papa’s voice becomes clearer as I get closer to the front. It isn’t a casket that I lean over to kiss, but an over-sized cream and gold music box.
I follow the somber chain of relatives to the table of thick candles. Each cousin pays a dollar to light a candle. I approach just as my winged Papa finishes singing Happy Birthday to me and to him. Everyone gasps as I blow out all those candles. Nobody even claps.
As my eyes adjust, the cool dark space where the candle light danced reveals a singing stone statue. My Papa, the rock and roll angel. A fat tear rolls down my cheek, and my heart squeezes with longing.
After the service, I let the soft breeze dry my eyes as we click out of church and down the sidewalk home. I can hear a quiet, tender melody pouring from the sky. I look up toward the whispering clouds and hum along. It might really be his smoke-honey baritone...
Or maybe only the wind.