"Funerals can be funny things."
Albert caught his breath. He didn't enjoy being at his father's funeral, and he didn't enjoy being in his uncle's presence, but to hear the bastard make light of the whole thing was almost too much. Gritting his teeth together, Albert reminded himself of the promise he made to his mother.
"What do you mean, Stewart?" his mother asked.
God, Mom, stop being so nice, Albert thought, and checked himself. His mother and uncle had always gotten along, and she probably needed the comfort, too.
"Well, it's all these people," said Stewart, waving his arm at the crowd. "Some of them probably never even knew my brother, and yet here they are. "So sorry for your loss, he was such a wonderful man, he's in a better place now…"" He made a face and sipped his drink.
Then why the hell are you here?, thought Albert, and checked himself again.
"The circle of society," his mother said, a hint of resigned exasperation in her voice. "See them at weddings, funerals and Christmas, never inbetween." She laughed softly.
Albert frowned slightly. His mother had always been a little aloof, but this wasn't the time or the place. A part of his discomfort, he felt, came from his mother agreeing with his uncle. He shook his head. He was acting like a sullen teenager, not a man of 26.
"Man", he thought. That's a laugh. But now with his father dead and the only child of his parents' marriage, he was the man of the family.
Somehow, the thought did not fill him with pride.
Albert felt like it was getting late, but a surreptitious glance at his watch told him he had a long way to go before he could be alone again. The funeral home was too small. There were people everywhere, most of them complete strangers to him, and the rest acquaintances he knew nothing of. Reluctantly, he found himself agreeing with his uncle; he was sure some of these people had never met his father, but that didn't stop them from dressing in their best black clothes, sipping the wine and helping themselves to the refreshments.
God, just get me out of here, he prayed.
Maneuvering his way across the room, making sure to keep his eyes down, Albert somehow found his way to an empty room. Knowing the guests, his mother or the funeral home staff, it wouldn't be empty for very long, but a few minutes was all he needed to clear his head and calm down.
He wandered over to the window and looked outside. Once his eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight, the world looked so much more colorful than what he remembered.
Is this what heaven is like? Colors brighter and more vibrant than here on Earth?
His reverie was interrupted by the sound of the door opening. Taking a breath, he turned around to see who had come in, already formulating an excuse for being in what might well have been a private room.
His uncle Stewart shut the door behind him.
Oh, son of a bitch.
"I'm glad I could catch you alone, Albert," his uncle said, walking over to him.
Albert stood frozen , one shoulder to the window and the color of heaven, the other towards his uncle, who was apparently not satisfied with making the funeral an even worse place to be by his very presence. Now he saw fit to intrude on Albert's one moment of sanctuary.
This is too much, thought Albert. This is enough.
He licked his lips and took in a breath, but his uncle gently raised a hand.
"I know that we haven't gotten along recently," he said.
Mouth still open, breath stalled on the intake, Albert didn't move. Didn't blink. He hoped his eyes didn't show how weary he was.
Stewart took a breath of his own and looked at the floor. "Truth be told, that's an understatement, and a bad one." Now he raised his head and looked at his nephew. "And I'm sorry for the things I said to you when we last met."
An apology? thought Albert. Licking his lips again, he finally managed to speak. "You chose a fine time to make good."
His uncle nodded, unable to look him in the eye. "You're right. And your mind is probably made up about me. But all I can say is that I'm sorry, Albert. I really am."
Despite himself, Albert couldn't help wondering if his uncle was sincere.
Stewart continued: "I won't offer you any money. We both know better than that, and we both know that money never solved any problems. But I do want to offer anything, anything, I can do or say that would bring us closer together." His breaths came deeper now.
Before he could help himself, Albert found himself frowning. The bastard was sincere. And… was he actually fighting back tears?
If Stewart noticed his nephew's confusion, he showed no sign. Instead, looking at the floor, he continued: "We all used to be so close, d'you remember? You, me, your parents… d'you remember those camping trips we used to take? And how we used to go fishing? You were always so good at that, so natural, d'you remember?"
Unbidden, Albert did remember. He could still hear the trickle of the water. Still remembered singing songs with his father and uncle as they waited for a bite. Still remembered the genuine pride in his father's eyes as Albert mastered the ropes in no time.
I'm not here to go down memory lane with you, Albert tried to say, but the words couldn't come out. He found, to his surprise, he too was breathing deeper.
Stewart looked back into his nephew's eyes, and there was no hiding it now; he was crying. "You were always such a fine boy, always so good in school and sports, and we were always so proud of you…your parents and - and I."
Maybe it was the tears in his uncle's eyes. Maybe it was the tears in his own. But for a second, Albert thought he saw something in his uncle's look. But as soon as his mind registered it, it was gone.
Abruptly, Stewart shook his head. The moment had passed. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocked, he dabbed at his eyes. "Don't, ah, don't tell your mother about this," he said. "She's doing all she can to maintain her composure, it wouldn't do for her to…"
He caught sight of Albert's stare. His nephew's scrutiny and skepticism had returned.
"…yes," Stewart continued. "Well, don't be long." He gave a brisk nod and left the room.
Albert stood alone in the room for a long time. Or maybe it was a few seconds. The human brain did funny things sometimes. Images flickered in his head, like an old projector; his uncle, crying; enjoying a fish he himself had caught; his uncle, saying he would do anything to patch up their relationship; running track and field and seeing his family in the stands; his uncle, saying his mother was keeping her composure; graduation -
For the second time, his thoughts were interrupted by the door opening. This time, he was too lost to think of any excuse as his mother came into the room.
"Oh, good," she said, "I was hoping I could talk to you alone."
Albert managed a weak nod. He was never very talkative; less so today, and even less so after that conversation with his uncle.
"I saw your uncle come in here after you, and I guess you two talked?"
It took a second for Albert to realize his mother had intended that as a question. Again, another weak nod.
"Good," she said, sounding sincerely relieved. "You two parted ways on the worst terms last year, and I'm glad everything is out in the open now, even if it had to be…" Her eyes swung to the side, indicating the funeral home.
How typical, thought Albert. We're in a damn funeral home and we're having a damn Oprah moment.
"Ever since Bill died, Stewart's really been wanting to get it off his chest," she continued. "He feels so guilty, you see? As though it wasn't bad enough after all these years."
Still struggling to come out of his own thoughts, his mother's words almost went over his head. Years?, he thought. Dad died a week -
"I told him to wait," his mother went on, "and that Bill's reception was hardly the place to do it, but Stewart's always been such an honest man, he wouldn't have any of it." She gave a little laugh. "And when he failed in honesty, he made up for in loyalty."
Albert had no idea what his mother was talking about. Not for the first time, he found he couldn't speak.
"He insisted on always being there, you see? For you, of course. And for me, too, I suppose. It was his way of making up for things. No one could ever know, of course, but he knew, and that was enough for him. It got a bit awkward at times, but we - he and I - passed it off by saying that we were his vicarious family." She smiled, the sweetest smile Albert had seen on his mother's face in a long time. "And you his vicarious son."
Suddenly, Albert couldn't breathe. His insides dropped to the soles of his dress shoes.
"And of course, he has no family of his own, and Bill understood. Bill was always so understanding. He and Stewart had always been so close growing up, it was perfectly natural that Stewart was always around. It was his way of being close to you, you see. His way of …" She sighed. "His way of making penance, I suppose. Doing what he could do."
Albert could now hear his mother only faintly. Her voice was drowned out by other sounds; water trickling; singing; the spit of a barbeque; the cheer of a stadium; his father's voice; his uncle's voice; the beat of his own heart.
His mother put her hand on his cheek. If she noticed Albert's frozen, horrified expression, she did not show it.
"And of course, no one asked any questions about you. It helped that your father and brother are twins."
Albert's lungs were crying for air, but he still could not breathe.
His mother sighed, deeply. For a brief moment, her composure seemed to crack; she pressed her lips together and stifled a sob. Then, blinking rapidly, she looked at her son again.
"Well, were twins."
She kissed him on his cheek and moved towards the door. With her hand on the handle, she turned to him.
"Funerals can be such funny things."
She turned the handle, slipped out, and shut the door behind her.