A plain blue bedsheet was draped around the body of Dolly Coben. The sheet was hard-bleached and frayed, and still showed traces of pee stains and mouth blood. Some folks were stirred to take a last look at her, curious what death looked like, but most stayed in the kitchen and drank the homemade beer that her husband Eldridge was selling for a nickel a glass.
Their boy Efrim stood in front of the sheet like an usher, and he looked like he belonged where he stood, guarding his mother, waiting to escort her to wherever she needed to go. He carried all the ill-regarded Coben features: the heavy-lidded green eyes, the stringy arms, the pouching belly. And of course he had that flame of red hair, the affliction of the family. His doughy face was a countenance of sorrow and dimness, just like all the Coben forebears. He was fourteen years old, and nearly everyone said it was already too late for him.
Efrim understood the meaning, that being that a Coben meant being a no-good. It wasn’t an easy thing to push away. He wasn’t like his father, but he had no say in how hard the family blood flowed in him.
He didn’t peek in on her, not once. It felt like there was a stone caught in his throat, and it made moving and breathing hard. He nodded when people parted the sheet to look in on her, but that was the only part of him that moved, just that shallow bob of his head. He knew what she looked like, and he wanted to remember her with her eyes open and her breath still warm.
He wore a gray suit, borrowed from a neighbor’s boy, and it was a size too small. Even unbuttoned, the jacket was tight, and the trousers were too short and rode him wrong. The suit had been ironed the night before, and the cuffs rubbed against the top of his wrists like cardboard. His father had already removed his own jacket, flung it over the back of a kitchen chair. His sleeves were rolled up, his tie tucked into his back pocket, and it swayed like a horse tail. Eldridge’s face was flush from drink, and his voice was too loud and dominating. People nodded, pressed their hands upon his shoulder, then moved away to another part of the kitchen.
Elani was in still in her bedroom. She was three years younger than Efrim. She had not cried yet, probably because he hadn’t, but he saw the weight behind her eyes. He sat with her before the crowd drifted in, and he held her hand. She sniffled and coughed a lot, trying to expel her grief through her nose and mouth instead of her eyes, and he didn’t say anything. Elani petted the string hair of her rag doll, brushed it with her fingers, slow and careful. She was quiet too, but sometimes her shoulders convulsed, and he squeezed her hand until her body calmed down.