This story is by Miranda Westphal and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
At her husband’s funeral, Jackie’s mother-in-law cried harder than she did. Jackie rested her hands on her lap with a tissue tucked between them. She stared at the funeral home’s beige, diamond-patterned carpet to avoid rolling her eyes as her mother-in-law sobbed uncontrollably in the arms of her newest boyfriend. The boyfriend looked bewildered as he wrapped his arms around her. They had only been dating for a couple of months.
“I’m so sorry, Sherry.” the boyfriend whispered. Sherry was in a black designer suit. She was in great shape for her age and took a lot of pride in her appearance. Today, however, her eyes were rimmed with melting eyeliner and mascara. Snot ran from her nose and smeared on the boyfriend’s black shirt. He patted her head awkwardly as she wailed.
For the past three days Sherry had been barking orders at Jackie and everyone involved in the funeral. Jackie just wanted it to be over. She braced herself and approached Sherry with her arm outstretched, holding out the tissue as a small peace offering. Sherry snatched it from her greedily and said thank you with absolutely no gratitude in her tone. The boyfriend’s eyes were wide with surprise, but he didn’t make eye contact with Jackie.
Jackie wasn’t surprised by Sherry’s attitude toward her for it had been this way since they first met fifteen years ago. When Alan introduced them to each other, Sherry couldn’t stand Jackie. They were at a nice restaurant downtown, one that Jackie could never have afforded before. Alan left them to use the restroom. “No talking about me while I’m gone,” he joked while wagging his finger playfully at them.
“I know where you’re from,” Sherry hissed as soon as he was out of earshot. “He can do better than trash like you.” She gave Jackie a cruel smirk before turning her attention back to her menu.
Jackie didn’t flinch. She already had Sherry’s old rings on her finger. Alan suggested they elope on the beach a month earlier. She wore a pale yellow slip dress with a calla lily tucked behind her ear. He wore a linen shirt and khakis. They both were barefoot.
Jackie figured it was every married woman’s right of passage to hate her mother-in-law. Even sitting in front of her husband’s dead body didn’t soften the edges of the anger Sherry raised in her. Sherry’s loud, attention-seeking cries of, “My sweet baby boy!” weren’t helping.
Ironically, it was Sherry that killed him. Alan named her as his medical power of attorney and she made the decision to pull the plug once his brain died. She did it when Jackie had left to get herself lunch. After eating a bland salad in the hospital cafeteria, Jackie came back to find Alan’s room completely still. No more rushing of air being blown into his lungs or incessant beeps reflecting his heart rate. No clicks or gurgles or whirs of machinery. Just Alan’s pale, unmoving, emaciated body. Sherry draped over his lap in despair.
Now, at the funeral home, Jackie stood over Alan observing the strange effects of embalming fluid and mortuary makeup. He would have hated to see himself looking both deflated and bloated like this. It made Jackie feel powerful.
Sherry approached from behind, rested one hand on Jackie’s shoulder and handed her a fresh tissue with the other, though Jackie wasn’t crying. “Did you know that men who have children tend to live longer?” Sherry asked as she shook her head. Jackie said nothing. Even at Alan’s funeral, Sherry couldn’t help but mention her lack of grandchildren. As if it were because of Jackie’s barren womb that Alan had a brain tumor.
“It’s time to sit down, dear,” Sherry continued. She looked Jackie in the eyes and slid the back of her hand down Jackie’s cheek in a way that should have felt loving, but Sherry was too rough and her ring scratched Jackie’s face. “Father Peters is about to start the service.” Sherry sighed and retreated to her boyfriend’s arms.
After the service, in which Sherry barely tried to stifle her sobs throughout, and the tissue in Jackie’s hand remained dry, Jackie noticed Amelia at the back of the parlor. She recognized her by her icy blonde hair despite her face being covered by large black sunglasses.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Jackie said to Amelia. Amelia lowered her glasses and revealed her bloodshot eyes. Amelia had been Alan’s assistant until about three years ago, when they started sleeping together. She had good enough sense to quit her job but Jackie was pretty sure the affair continued up until he was hospitalized.
“I don’t know what to say,” Amelia started, but Jackie cut her off.
“You made him happy and that made my life easier. But after today I hope to never see you again.” Jackie surprised herself with the steadiness of her voice. She handed Amelia the tissue Sherry had given her, then stepped outside for some air.
Jackie rummaged through her purse for the pack of cigarettes she impulsively purchased at the gas station before driving to the funeral home. She hadn’t smoked since their wedding, when they decided to start trying for a baby. Jackie was already thirty-two and Alan a decade older. They had only met 8 weeks prior. Jackie was attracted to Alan’s presence, confident and authoritative. She knew he was attracted to her thighs, which he couldn’t keep his hands off of. She also knew he had money based on his expensive suits and haircut. Plus, he always tipped her incredibly well. It was the second marriage for both of them.
Jackie took a deep drag of her cigarette. It tasted like youth and reminded her of working at the club where Alan proposed to her in the champagne room. She had been old for a dancer and was constantly thinking about retirement. The other girls lovingly referred to her as, “Mum.” She showed the new ones the ropes and reminded them that every client will say they’re not like the others. Yet, there she went saying yes to a proposal from a client she had barely known for a couple of months. The promise of retirement was more alluring than her own advice.
Jackie pulled out her compact and powdered her face, cigarette still between two fingers. Her makeup was perfectly in place but there was a thin red scratch on her cheek from Sherry. She was used to marks on her face, and had perfected the art of hiding them with her makeup, though she hadn’t had any fresh ones since Alan was hospitalized. She was still taken aback by the crows feet near her eyes and the wrinkles sprouting around her mouth. Aging was just another kind of assault on the body. Marks that grew with time instead of faded.
At the grave site, as they lowered the casket into the cavernous hole in the earth, Sherry lost it. She screamed and sobbed and banged her fists against her boyfriend’s chest. She fell to her knees and dirtied her tights on the wet ground. She finally turned toward Jackie, who was trying her best to ignore the spectacle along with the other attendees.
“It’s all your fault!” Sherry roared. “My only son. Your husband. Do you even care?”
It was like someone yelled, “freeze!” to everyone there. The wind whistled in their ears as they stood motionless. All their eyes darted back and forth between Sherry and Jackie. There were so many thoughts that crossed Jackie’s mind to say back to Sherry. She wanted to defend herself. She wanted to tell everyone what kind of man Alan really was. But it dawned on her that after today there was no reason that she ever had to see Sherry, or anyone at this funeral, ever again. Silently, she turned on her heel, walked to her car, and never said a word to Sherry again.
The next morning, Jackie awoke in bed and ran her hands over the cool sheets that no one else had laid in. She made herself pancakes for breakfast and sat in the breakfast nook alone. The only sounds were of the birds chirping in the crabapple tree outside the window and the gentle rustling of the newspaper as she read.
Loneliness was a new friend she welcomed. She had touched enough men for a lifetime before she ever laid hands on Alan. She could do whatever she wanted at any time of day. Jackie turned on the stereo and swayed to a song that she hadn’t heard in years. She turned up the volume. She closed her eyes and ran her hands up and down her body, softer now than it was back then, but her skin was still warm and smooth. She imagined the feeling of fringe brushing against her thighs and the patterned glow of colored lights in a dark room. She danced for only herself and she finally felt free.