Monday, July 30, 2012

#44: "The Sigh of the Hard-Pressed Creature" by Sondra Spatt Olsen

~~This story previously appeared in The Yale Review (1990)
      They stand on the sidewalk in front of their apartment house, trying to decide how to get to Newark Airport.  Lief is carrying both suitcases because he doesn't trust his wife, son, or daughter to keep hold of them.  He's spent most of the morning making plane, train, and car-rental reservations, and he feels tense and not sure if he wants to go to his mother's funeral at all.  The last time he visited her, seven months ago, she only recognized him intermittently, confusing him with his cousin, Daniel, the last child she brought up.  She looked so frail he could hardly stand to look at her.  He much preferred the days when they quarreled.
            Lief feels pressed down by the small details of travel.  Perhaps it would be calming to walk over to the nearby PATH station at Fourteenth Street, and then just grab the shuttle bus from Newark.  He took this simple route on his last trip to Tennessee.  Everything worked out fine.
            But what's the headway on the shuttle, and is there even a regular schedule?  Among his many well-organized telephone calls, he's forgotten to check this one crucial point.  Or, they could go up to Forty-second Street to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and catch a bus directly to the airport.  
            "Whichever way you want," Ina says in a tired voice.  "We've got plenty of time.  But it's four dollars by bus just to get us all to the Port Authority.
     Lief hates taxis.  The cabdrivers unnerve him with their wild driving and strange routes.  He likes to know exactly where he's going.  He doesn't want any confrontations or terrors.  On the other hand, as they stand on the busy street corner, he notices that both Max's and Sophie's shoelaces are untied.  He feels so tense that he doesn't think he can make it several blocks to the PATH station without screaming at them as their laces, already frayed and grimy, drag on the filthy sidewalk.
      His bright, articulate children, nine and thirteen, aren't able to keep their shoelaces tied for more than ten minutes.  He's also noticed that Ina sometimes leaves her shoelaces untied.  It must be a genetic trait.  Although Leif is careful and orderly, he is not calm. Orderliness merely keeps at bay the chaos he feels breaking out all around him.

      Meanwhile, the children stand dreamily on the street corner unconcerned about their transportation.  It's not their responsibility.  Tall Max leans over to poke his younger sister Sophie, and she assumes a fierce karate stance.  “Hi-ya!” she shouts.  “Out of the way, scuzzball.”
      "Shush, children," Ina says in what is meant to be a warning voice.  But the sound is  inconsequential, masked by the roar of traffic.
      A free cab is coming down the street toward them.  Almost without thinking, Lief lifts his hand.  It's the easiest thing.  As soon as they pile in, with Max sitting in front beside the driver, Lief notices that the avenue just ahead of them is clogged with traffic, probably all the way to the Holland Tunnel.  The easiest thing is just the wrong thing.  The PATH train would have whisked them out of Manhattan right under the Hudson River.
      At least the cab driver seems decent.  He's an Asian--all three names unpronounceable--Vietnamese perhaps?  He doesn't scream at them or object to taking them to New Jersey.  He stays patiently in his slow-moving lane instead of blowing his horn or ricocheting around Seventh Avenue.  Tranquilly he inches forward.
      "We'll never get there in time," Lief says gloomily, but just then they pass the disabled truck causing the jam, and the cab picks up speed.  In a few minutes they are streaking into the tunnel.
      Lief feels cheerful again.  He has taken off from work for an indefinite number of days.  He's a typographer for a small outfit and it's slow season anyway.  "Maybe I won't go back to work till Tuesday," he says, and Ina smiles at him.  "We could drive around Tennessee a little and look at the sights.  I've never really looked around, you know, just driven straight from Atlanta to their town."
     "What sights?" Max asks.  "I have to write a report for my English teacher. She's the only one who wanted homework."
      "We could visit Jack Daniel's Distillery," Ina says with a glint of vivacity.  "Though your mother would probably revolve in her grave."
     By the time the cab reaches the New Jersey Turnpike, Lief has begun leaning back in his seat.  "Do you want me to pay the toll?" he asks the driver.
      "No, sir, I'll include it."
      "Paying tolls always drove my mother crazy," Lief tells Ina in an expansive mood. "Because if we were driving up to our little summer house near Greenwood Lake and we were taking along some friends, they would offer to pay the tolls.  And my father would accept it.  My mother would hiss, 'Ikke ta pengene.  Harald, du met slet ikke ta pengene.  Don't take the money.'  They struggled over this for years.  My father wanted to take the money.  Why shouldn't he?  We weren't rich.  He was a working man.  We were taking people on an outing, and there was also the gas."
      "But your mother was a generous person," Ina comments, not eager to have the children hear ill of their grandmother on the way to her funeral. She glances at Max and Sophie, but they are both staring out the window.
      "In a way, but she was too conventional.  She had a poor childhood, and she couldn't stand to think other people believed she needed money.  Of course, sometimes we did need money.
     "And she was so stubborn.  Oh, you never met such a stubborn person!  She would have her way.  We had these miserable quarrels all through my childhood, especially over stupid things like whether I should wear a hat.  She would run out the front door and race down the steep steps after me, quick as a girl, though she was in her fifties then.  I always wore the hat in the end."
      "You wear a hat now," Ina observes.
      Lief looks around and sees his children staring at him, eyes fixed on his Irish fisherman's hat. "That's different," he says, his pale face flushing.  "That's to make me handsome.  I didn't need to be made handsome when I was a child."  He grins suddenly, the wire orthodontic bands on his teeth glinting.
      "What will Faith say when she sees your braces?" Ina asks.
      "Oh, I had them when I visited last time," Lief reminds her.  "She was furious to see me spending so much money just to look good, though of course she didn't say that.  First Mamma paid too much attention to me, and now I pay too much attention to myself.  And I don't deserve any of it because I'm a bad son.  But she never says how bad I am, she just seethes cheerfully."
       Lief sees the giant airport signs looming like grave markers in swift succession, beckoning them forward.  The trip has taken only twenty minutes.
      "What's a distillery, Mommy?" Sophie asks.
      "It's where you make whiskey."
      "How can Grandma revolve in her grave when she's not buried yet?"
      "I just meant to say that she wouldn't like to know we were visiting a distillery.  She and Grandpa never drank whiskey or any alcohol, didn't you ever notice?"
      "Total absteemers," Lief breaks in.  "And many a temperance meeting I've sat through and many a pledge I've signed and see where it's got me . . . ."
      "But you don't drink, Daddy, do you?"
      "He has a glass of wine in a restaurant," Ina says.  "And he drank champagne at our wedding."
      "She got me drunk and made me marry her." Lief is laughing.  "When I was soused, she pulled out the license."  They all giggle at this ridiculous scenario as the cab pulls up to the North Terminal.
     "That will be thirty-one dollars."
      "How do you get that?" Lief asks.
      "Twenty-seven on meter, two for toll, two for toll back."
      "Ah, toll back, I understand," Lief says, pulling out his wallet.  He adds a generous tip.  "Very good ride--smooth--not too nerve-wracking."
      "Thank you, sir."
       As Lief gets the bags from the trunk and they walk briskly across the zebra stripes to the entrance, he feels a burst of pleasure, a moment of relief from the brutality of the city.  Yes, it feels as if they're going on vacation.
       "I bet you don't have any money on you," Lief says to Max, who is slouching along beside him.  "Are you travelling without a cent in your pocket?"
      "Well, here, take this."  He hands Max a five-dollar bill.  "Put it in your pocket.  Never travel without money.  You're almost a grown-up now."
     "Where's the gate?" he says to Ina.  "Do you have the tickets?"
      "Right here."  Ina pats her handbag as they walk quickly along.  "Look--we go that way."
      The children are dawdling behind, as usual.  Sophie is attracted by a piteously mewing cat which has caught its claws on the mesh of its carrier.  She is kneeling down beside the oblivious owner.  "Hurry up," Lief calls.  "Quick."
     Most of the seats in the waiting area are empty, no airline personnel in sight, but soon they'll be aboard and the worst part of the trip (the traveling part, he corrects himself) will be over.  As a special treat for the return trip, he's splurged on two economy bedrooms on the Crescent.  The children have never traveled by long-distance train.  Along the right of way they'll see a part of the country they've never glimpsed, and then after an exciting night they'll have breakfast in the dining car and that will truly be the best part.  After the fun of the snug bunks and the porter and going up and down the aisles, they'll be cozy and safe.  While they're eating their pancakes, they'll see the familiar landscape of cities coming up.  The worst part of the trip will be over and they'll be heading home.
     All of a sudden, just as they are about to sit down in their plastic seats. Lief has a terrible recognition.  "Where's my wallet!" he cries out.  He begins searching through his pockets and zipping and unzipping his bags. 
      "It's gone!" he cries so loudly that the few passengers nearby turn their heads to observe him.  A middle-aged black woman wearing a stylish blue beret gives him a sympathetic look, while a muscular fellow in a plaid shirt eyes him coldly.  From childhood he remembers this sinking sensation, this well-known dive, as if a platform in the sidewalk let go and down you drop feet-first to the basement, down to the depths.
      "Let me look."  Ina stands and begins rummaging through his jacket like a wardress.  Then she reexamines his luggage.  He's amazed at her calm.
      "Don't you see what's happened? It's got my credit cards, the Amtrak tickets.  My God!" -- here he feels like crying -- "Don't you understand?  My goddamned driver's license!"
      She looks at him without the slightest comprehension.
     "Without the goddamned driver's license how are we going to get from Atlanta to Chattanooga?  How are we going to rent a car? You didn't bring your license with you?"
      She shakes her head.  "I haven't driven in years."
      "You carry all kinds of junk -- membership in the Wilderness Society, for God's sake, business cards of old linoleum salesmen.  You can't keep your license in your bag?  If you could rent the car, I would drive."
     "You'd drive without a license?"  She stares at him.  "You'd risk that?  Where did you lose the wallet?" she asks, still with that blank look on her face like a cow.  The children are standing around him, also staring.
     He feels like smacking them.  "How do I know?  It must have fallen out of my pocket after I paid the cabbie.  Maybe it's in the cab.  Maybe it's on the ground."
      "Go back," Ina says.  "Right away.  Ask at the desk.  Don't just look for it yourself.  At least I still have the plane tickets and some traveler's checks."
     Lief begins running breathlessly back past the metal detector, where the guards look at him curiously, back down the long arid corridor which seems so much longer now.  The world is curiously empty--the crowds and the distracting clutter of the terminal rush by without catching his notice.  He's looking for one small bit of red that will save him -- a small red nylon wallet from Land's End -- good for a canoeing trip, he'd once thought, because it would dry fast, but he's not yet gone canoeing.  He rushes out the door, almost crashing into a porter wheeling a cart, but there is no red speck, no red anything.  The sidewalk is empty.
      He approaches a policeman.  "Nothing's turned in."
      In a daze he walks back, feeling worse now than he's ever felt, except in dreams where he's been sentenced to execution, where he must watch the frightened man before him ascend the block for his beheading, and he cries out to wake himself up.
      Breathlessly he tries to run past the metal detector gate, but the guards make him slow down.  "What's your rush?"  They give him an extra eyeballing.  To his horror, although there's now a long line of passengers at the check-in counter, Ina is already turning away.  Like an idiot, she's handed in their tickets.
      Max stops him eagerly before he can reach Ina.  "Did you have the wallet when you gave me the five dollars?"
     "Jesus, don't be stupid.  I keep small bills in my pocket, not in my wallet."
      He accosts Ina, who says coolly, "I got seats well away from the smokers."
     "Jesus F. Christ.  Why did you give them the tickets?  We can't go."  He articulates carefully for her comprehension.  "We don't have money, my driver's license, the tickets home."
      For the first time, she looks baffled, put out.  "But we have to go.  We're here already.  We'll miss the funeral if we don't go now."
      "We can't go.  Let me repeat.  How are we going to get to Chattanooga?"
      "We can take a bus."
      "A bus?  There is no bus.  How do you know there's a bus?"
      "Well, whatever there is, we'll take it.  There must be some way to get from one place to the other.  The funeral isn't till tomorrow.  We can stay overnight in Atlanta if necessary.  Come on, Lief.  We came here to go to a funeral.  We made all our plans."
      Just at that moment, the loudspeaker blares.  "Flight 102 to Atlanta boarding now at Gate 10."
      "Everything is too complicated.  I'm going back to the apartment.  You'll have to give me some money."
      "I don't have much cash."
      "You don't have money to come home," he reminds her.  "The train tickets are no good.  Even though we have a reservation, goddamit.  They can sell those tickets twice."
      "We'll worry about that when we get there.  All your relatives are there, aren't they?  We'll borrow money."
      All your relatives are there.  He feels a fierce angry pulsing in his head.  He turns away and, bringing his hand up to shoulder level, bangs it hard against the plaster wall.  The black lady gives him a severe look, as if saying, I didn't know you were a madman.  He pretends not to notice and bangs the same battered hand again.  "Why did this have to happen?"
      "Maybe Faith can pick us up at the airport," Ina suggests.  A small crowd of travelers has formed at the exit gate, but more people are still milling about near their seats.  "Telephone her.  There's a telephone on that wall.  Maybe one of the children is around and can drive to Atlanta."
      "Faith? No, I won't do it.  Absolutely not.  She'll be annoyed.  It's a long trip.  No, worse, she'll be delighted.  She'll gloat.  I'm in the wrong again, goddamit!  Bad again!"
      "Well, look then," she says matter-of-factly, "let's say goodbye.  I see you don't really want to go.  You need some cash, right?"  As she pulls out her purse, she looks so sad and sorry for him that he feels worse than before.  She fishes in her messy handbag and pulls out her wallet, clumsily stuffed, he's appalled to see, with crumpled one-dollar bills, and begins smoothing them out.  And the children keep staring at him -- how they keep staring, as if he's some creature behind bars in a zoo.
     "Passengers in row twenty to thirty, now boarding."
     "O.K., O.K.," he says, feeling the pressure of three pairs of eyes upon him.  "I'll try to reach Faith.  After all, how much more humiliating can it get?"
      Faith answers the phone on the first ring.  "What a thing to happen," she says.  "I was just lying down for my nap."
      Lief feels the same jolt he always does when he remembers what he always managed to forget for a while.  Last summer his sister had breast cancer.  She had a radical mastectomy, a full course of chemotherapy.  The last time he saw her she wore a wig.
       "Maybe Joy or Hope or Elizabeth can pick us up at Atlanta."
      "I'll get Tom.  He'll meet you at the auto-rental counter.  We'll be praying for your lost wallet.  Do you want to go straight to the motel, or come to the funeral home first and see Mamma laid out?"
      "The plane is leaving," he says, and hangs up the phone.
      It's true.  While he's been talking, the passengers have disappeared.  He grabs the bags.  Ina hands in their boarding passes and they rush into the boarding tunnel toward the plane.  Trotting along, Lief finds himself next to Max, who looks tired and glum.  Ina and Sophie are left far behind.  Lief forces himself to ignore Max's shirt collar creeping up behind his ear, his wrinkled jeans, both shoelaces flopping on the carpet.  "I'm sorry I yelled at you before."
      "It's O.K.," Max mumbles, and moving faster than Lief has ever seen him, he draws on ahead.
     Alone in the tunnel. Lief shudders.  He has a sudden image of his mother lying in the darkness, her thin nose stuck up in the air like a beak.  Her shoulders and arms are frail, slighter than Sophie's.  Her abdomen and chest are empty.
      I'm going to get a grip on myself,  Lief thinks.  I'll just be quiet.
       On the aircraft he sits like a stone on the aisle across from his family, neither moving nor speaking, consumed with anger and regret.

      Lief doesn't want to see his mother laid out, but what can he do?  Without a car of his own, he is at Faith's mercy.  Last night he avoided the funeral home altogether by pleading exhaustion--his, Ina's, the children's.  They discovered they could charge the airfare home to Ina's mother's Visa card for a fee.  Lief was saved from borrowing from his sister.  Relieved, he splurged on another motel room for some privacy.  Later that night, though, when he turned out the lights and crept into Ina's bed, they kissed for a while and held hands, but it was more like the reunion of two old comrades from the concentration camp than a meeting of lovers.
      In the morning Faith calls to say she will pick them up two hours before the service.   Lief, acting like the shadow of himself, agrees.  "She's just too much for me," he tells Ina.  "I'm not up to the struggle."
      While Faith looked tired last night, older (her hair has grown out curly gray), slower as she moved about the table serving her vegetarian dinner, now she turns up bright and bossy in her funeral black, and waves them into her car.  Within five minutes they find themselves in the parlor of the funeral home furnished just like home except for the coffin.
      "I had such a nice chat with Mamma about the funeral only a few weeks ago," she says.  "She told me then what dress she wanted and what hymns."
     "Was she clear enough in her mind for that?"
      "Oh, she had clear spells.  You were unlucky.  The one time you came she was under a cloud.  I'm so glad I persuaded her to move down here.  You never could have taken care of her."
      "You're right about that."
      Faith looks at him pityingly.  "We are all praying for you.  Every day."
      "Praying for me is a cottage industry around here."
      Lief recalls the time the evangelists came, shortly after he married.  The doorbell rang early on a summer evening.  Then Ina came to get him.  "Two men to see you," she said, looking doubtful.
     He recognized their mission immediately from their black polyester suits, their sanctimonious air.  "We're from the West Side Church," one said.  "We'd like to talk about your salvation, Brother Lief."
     "But I have nothing to say to you," Lief replied, still standing on the threshold.  "Please leave me alone."
      Then he recognized the men individually, one of them his classmate in high school, a smooth-talking odious person called Brod.  The other was a hoodlum from Coney Island who had repented, given up drinking, and joined the church.  He didn't want to hear a word from either one of them.
     "You've come to redeem me to the fold?"  Lief grimaced.  "Shows a lot of nerve on your part, I think.  Come to tell me about the snares the devil has laid for me?"  He felt his face become bright red.  "Forget it!  Get lost!"
      They hadn't waited around for him to repent.  "We'll be praying for you, Lief," they said, and speedily turned back to the hallway.
      Ina was alarmed by his roughness.  "Why were you so rude?  You could be polite."
      "Oh, it's all right for you to say," he said, going to the refrigerator for a glass of cold water to take away the taste of the episode.  "You at least had a childhood.  You never had to go to young people's meetings on Friday night, Sabbath School and then church services on Saturday morning.  You missed all the sermons, camp meetings, prayer meetings, testimony meetings, church socials, ingathering for missions, tent meetings, revivals, efforts."  He paused, chugalugging the water.  "I'm through with all that folly."  He began quoting in a hoarse, intense voice.  "Religion is the sigh of the hard-pressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, as it is the soul of soulless circumstances; it is the opium of the people."
            "Mamma looks wonderful, ten years younger," Faith continues.  "Come and see."  With a grip of iron she holds his arm.  Lief allows himself to be steered up to the coffin.  He manages to look at his mother without actually seeing her.  Nothing but the blue of her dress impinges on his retina.
      "Why don't you get Ina and the children to pay their respects, too?" she asks.  "It would be a positive experience for them."
      His family is sitting dully in armchairs by the door.  The children look alien and unappetizing in the stiff suit, dress shirt, tie, starched dress, and black patent Mary Janes in which Ina, with great labor, working since early morning, has managed to tog them out.
      "Jews don't lay out bodies," he says.  "It's against their religion."  He hasn't the slightest idea if this is really true.  He remembers faintly from years ago that Ina's Tante Betty's coffin was closed during the funeral.  "They get their corpses in the ground as soon as possible."
      Faith looks offended--either by mention of Jews or by his disrespectful reference to corpses.  "It's good for children to familiarize themselves with death," she says.  "Psychologically sound.  I remember Mamma always took us to funerals."
     She moves over to Max and Sophie and speaks urgently to them.  They shake their heads, smiling politely.
      "No luck?" he says, secretly rejoicing as Faith rejoins him by the casket.
     "It's not necessary, but it would be good for them.  When Bruce was taken, it gave me great comfort to see him look peaceful."
     Faith rarely speaks about her only son, who died at twelve after a long, ugly illness and extensive brain damage, brought on, Lief is convinced, not by the hand of God but by the malpractice of a surgeon.  Surely Faith has suffered more than necessary--a dead son, her cancer.  Where is the justice?  She has always tried to be good, tried harder than anyone else.  Her reward has been sickness and loss.
      "I wonder who I should give the gloxinias to.  Mrs. Luhrs down the street?  She has stomach cancer.  It'll probably be a comfort to her."  She continues as if used to discussing domestic arrangements with Lief.  "Deaconess Howe hasn't been to church since August.  I could take her that small wreath of daisies."  She rearranges the wreath affectionately.
      "See that fine tree?  The engineering department sent us that;  we're not letting anyone have it.
     "Elizabeth can take the cyclamen to Sister Woodhull.  She was looking low, her daughter just died from diabetes.  First she lost her foot, poor thing.  We'll take the lentil loaf over to her, also.  We won't be needing it."
      Lief has stopped listening.  By now a full contingent of mourners is passing through the little parlor.  He recognizes his nieces with children whose names he can't remember.  Here's a fleet of elderly ladies in print dresses, wearing steel-wool buns, who are signing the register and passing before the coffin, pausing to shake his hand.  His mother's life in Tennessee was not really so barren.  When Faith persuaded Mamma to sell her house in Brooklyn after Papa died and to move to Tennessee so she could care for her, Lief predicted a total loss of social life.
      "You're leaving all your friends," he said.  "Without a car you'll be isolated.  They  don't even have sidewalks there."
      "My friends are all dead.  Besides, when you belong to the church, you have friends anywhere," she replied in that dogged moralistic tone he always hated.  But it seemed to be true.  Although Mamma was very old, older than the oldest lady present, these women who are only in their seventies seem pleased to remember his mother.  And they nod toward the coffin as if including Sister Larsen in their reminiscences.
      Soon a Bible-carrying man arrives, a short thick man with spectacles.  "This is Elder Maas, who'll lead the service."
     Their handshake is neutral, but Lief feels reproach.  He is the sinner they hope to redeem, and he is stubborn, stubborn.  How delighted they would be to reclaim him, how warm their embrace!
      "Is there anything special about your mother you'd like me to include in the eulogy?"
     "You should say what a good cook she was," Lief says.  "What delicious food.  Lemon sponge pie, chocolate cake."
     "I've already got that in, Lief," Faith interrupts.
      Elder Maas motions the closest relatives into a circle: Lief, Faith, Faith's husband, and three grown-up daughters and offspring, Ina, Sophie and Max.  "Let us pray."  The folding doors to the alcove are closed inward by invisible hands.  Lief is unable to listen to the prayer, for he hears thumping as he imagines burly men wrestling with the casket to bring it to the chapel next door.  At Bruce's funeral in this very same funeral home off the Interstate, perhaps in this very same room, identical sleight of hand was practiced.  When all the mourners are sitting in the chapel, the folding doors there will open and Mamma will appear resting on her bier before the assembled throng.  An act of magic.
      The prayer is over.  The mourners in solemn file enter the chapel and walk down the aisle.  Lief, looking at his shoes, notes that he forgot to polish them.  His best shoes look dim and creased.  Faith and family sit in the front pew, Lief and family behind them, overflow from Faith's family behind them.  A tenor voice, small and slightly quavering--not the voice Lief would have chosen, for Mamma did love music--sings Mamma's favorite hymn.
            Abide with me;
            Fast falls the eventide;
            The darkness deepens,
            Lord, with me abide.
           One of Elizabeth's little daughters is kicking the back of the wooden pew with her foot.  He is having enough trouble.  Elder Maas begins the eulogy.
      "Sigrid Larsen was born Sigrid Hansen on November l7, 1893 in Arendahl, Norway.  Brought up by devout Lutheran parents to be thrifty and hardworking, Sigrid was one of a select few pupils allowed to learn English in grade school.  In 1919, at her mother's death, she sailed for America to find work as a domestic.
       "In 1923 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, she met Harald Larsen to whom she was married for fifty-five years.  They lived a good Christian life and brought two children into the world, a girl and a boy."
     "Three," Lief says irritably under his breath. "One died.  I was the replacement."
      "A girl or a boy?" Sophie asks, but Ina says, "Shush."
      "For many years Sigrid worked as a private cook in Manhattan.  She was especially skilled at baking bread, waffles, and biscuits and famous for her good food and hospitality"  Here a number of people in the front pews begin weeping.
     Lief remembers the homemade hot chocolate Mamma served from a battered enamel pitcher.  He feels a bit like weeping and is surprised at the feeling.  She hacked off squares of Baker's chocolate and carefully melted them over the gas flame, then poured milk into the saucepan.  He can smell the rich fragrance now--an olfactory hallucination, no doubt.  On school mornings she woke him by banging pots on the kitchen range.  For a tiny person she made tremendous noises: energetically beating out the hall mat on the back porch, battering it against the porch railings, bang, bang; shaking the feather comforter over the windowsill with a flap-splat, flap-splat.
      Elder Maas is now well into his sermon, a rambling discourse with profuse Biblical quotation--all possible references to the future life that can be strained out of the Old Testament.  Lief returns to reproducing sounds from his boyhood: the squeaking ammonia-soaked rag on the windows, the rattling cheese grater, the whirring beater mixing egg whites for waffles, the cranking of the ancient wringer washing machine which Mamma stubbornly insisted on using well into the sixties, despite his urgent pleading.  Frail and little as she was, she never paid the slightest attention to what he said.  It is too late now to make her do a single thing he wants.
       Suddenly the assembly is standing to sing the final hymn, "Nearer My God to Thee," and he is being pushed forward.  Faith, with an exalted joyous look on her face, is directing traffic.  The funeral has gone just as she wished and planned.  The funeral director lines the pallbearers up around the coffin and shows them the technique.  As Lief heaves his shoulder under the casket which taller, sturdier men have raised, he sees rain falling beyond the open chapel door.  The heavy drops fall on his head as he helps shove the heavy coffin into the back of the hearse.  Yet Mamma weighed only eighty-nine pounds.
      In the driveway Faith bustles about, seeing to the disposition of the flowers.  She has produced a bouquet of umbrellas, which she hands to favored guests.  Lief glimpses Ina and the children getting into a car further back along the line.  He had hoped to ride with them, but is nudged into a seat in the limousine.
      The procession drives slowly through the green countryside, which reminds him of Westchester County.  The rain is pouring heavily now, digging trenches in the reddish earth along the side of the road.  All the oncoming cars on the highway pull over to the shoulder and stop as they pass.  A state police car with red light flashing is leading the caravan.
      "They don't stop in New York.  They just drive on," Faith says.  "No respect."
     "How can they possibly do that in New York?" he begins to say but stops himself.  What's the use?
     "My old classmate Norma Sharp is in the procession," Faith says.  "She'll probably show up for lunch, too.  She never once came to see Mamma in the eighteen months she was in bed."
      The cemetery is not far away, a gently curving hillside with bronze plaques set into the ground near small, pleasant vases.  Lief turns back to look at the rest of the cortege, but his view is blocked by flowers.
      Just as at Bruce's funeral, he finds a tent erected at the gravesite.  A grass-green rug rolls right up to the grave, covering the ugly hole dug by power machine.  Lief remembers making fun of this improvement on nature to Ina when he returned from Bruce's funeral, but in the downpour the covering doesn't look as silly.  Along with others, he dashes under the tent where two rows of folding chairs have been set. After much polite giving-way, the elderly, women, and children settle into the seats.
      To the drumming of rain on the canvas roof, Elder Maas reads a short prayer.  Within minutes, after a round of handshaking, the ordeal is over.  Most people scurry back to their cars, glad to be gone from the damp, gloomy place.
     Lief lingers.  He has wondered ever since Bruce's funeral exactly how they lowered the coffin into the grave.  Then he was shepherded away by his mother and sister.  "Here, Max, come look at this," he says.  "It's interesting."  Ina and Sophie are still sitting back in their chairs, strung out by unrelieved politeness.  Everyone is gone but the workmen.  Faith, in a burst of confidence, has left Lief the keys of her car.
      Lief and Max watch the casket set into a larger metal box, which belts and pulleys lower into the hole.  The workmen busy themselves with minor adjustments.  Lief steps closer to examine the mechanism.  He touches the ropes.  As both boxes go slowly down, down, he suddenly notices his mother's name heavily engraved in the metal.  He has always imagined that sinking into the grave would stand for dissolution, loss of identity, but the thick, solid-looking letters inscribed in the durable material will last a good long time.  SIGRID LARSEN -- 1893-1986.  He is deeply touched.
     The next morning Faith turns up many hours too early to drive them to Chattanooga Airport.  Summoned by the motel switchboard, Lief struggles down to the parking lot with bags and family.  He has slept badly and has not even had a chance to shave.
     "I'm skipping Sabbath School anyway, so I thought I'd drive you around.  You're always in such a hurry to leave.  You never get a chance to sightsee.  The children deserve a treat."
      Max and Sophie begin dancing up and down on the asphalt.
      "If we can get your seats promptly, I'll be able to take you on a tour of Chickamauga."
      "Chickamauga!  Chickamauga!"  Max and Sophie, who have behaved so wonderfully well up until this minute, suddenly begin chanting at the top of their lungs.  "Chicka-Chicka! Mauga-Mauga!"  Sophie begins an Indian war whoop and Max begins pounding on the roof of the car.
     "It's only a half-hour drive from here," Faith says.  "Very pretty.  You know, Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain.  I'll do the best I can to show you a good time since you took the trouble to come down."
     Underneath Faith's cheerful words, Lief senses a deep anger.  He feels angry, too, and wonders if he will ever see his sister again.  Probably not.
      "Chickamauga is where General Braxton Bragg won a great victory for the Confederacy."
      "Wanna go!" Sophie bawls in a parody of a three-year-old.  "Chicka-Chicka! Mauga-Mauga!  Chicka-Chicka! Mauga-Mauga!"  The din is terrific.
      Lief feels something that afterwards he can only describe as a general softening of the brain.  "All I want to do is go straight home, but, O.K., we'll all go to Chickamauga.  Look at the monuments.  Have a picnic.  Run around.  It will be my penance for being a rotten son."

          “The Sigh of the Hard-Pressed Creature” is a favorite because I succeeded in telling exactly the story I set out to tell.  Also,  it’s the only story I ever wrote on a holiday.  I sat in the afternoon shade on the veranda of a cabin on Orient Bay in Saint-Martin and for ten days wrote down exactly what I recalled about a trip to Tennessee several years before.  This unity of time and the bright Caribbean beauty around me relaxed me so I was able to get rid of the censor who always stalks me, and allowed me to choose freely details which might appear unseemly or impolite.  When I explained what I was doing to my husband, he said what he always says (which I normally ignore,) “Don’t worry what other people think.  The more offensive the better.”  “But it’s about You.  Your family. I’ll hurt their feelings.”  “Just write what you want. It’s the only way. Don’t worry about other people’s feelings.”
     With his absolution I set out.
Sondra Spatt Olsen’s first collection, Traps, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award; Marilynne Robinson was the judge.  Her first novel, Lauren’s Line, a comedy about life in an English department, was published by University Press of Mississippi.  In February, “Hy’s Eulogy,” another funeral story from an unpublished second collection appeared in Notre Dame Review.
Born in Brooklyn, she lives with her husband in Manhattan.   You can learn more at

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