Root, Page 2A. Sparrow
Like I said, it’s obvious why it’s called ‘Root’ to anyone who sees it in its raw and untamed form. It’s a subterranean jungle, a tangle of brown strands of every dimension, woven into sheets like old spider webs, threading in and out every which direction, connecting things, outlining spaces, or just getting in the way.
Root is basically a staging area for souls on the way out. It’s not Purgatory. That’s for dead people. I’m talking about live folks about an inch from ending their lives. And not from cancer or heart attacks or anything like that. The folks I’m talking about are what you might call … volunteers.
Root wasn’t meant to be a place for loitering. You’re supposed to go there to get the inspiration to off yourself. When even your dreams have gone dry and all you have to look forward to besides your daily life is the dim, brown cave that is what most souls see of Root, well then there’s not much point in pressing on.
The end that comes to the less gifted in Root, is not so cool from I’ve seen. The bearers of bad news are these nasty things called Reapers. They don’t wear cloaks or carry scythes. They’re nothing even close to human; and not like anything of this earth. Only another monster could have designed them.
But don’t ask me about the afterlife. I’m not there. Yet.
Like I said, I’m James. James Moody. Nobody special on this end of the plane of existence. Just some white trash kid from Florida via Ohio. In Root, though, I’m a rare bird. I’m a dead survivor, and a weaver of dreams.
Chapter 3: The Funeral
Those early visitations were nothing compared with what was to come. Root remained closed to me apart from these little teases and glimpses. It would take some major jolts to break down the doors, but that was only a matter of time. Dad’s passing was only the start. I was in for a bumpy ride.
The day of the funeral, Aunt Helen made breakfast for all of us—blueberry buckwheat pancakes with sausages and bacon. I sliced up some pancakes with my fork, slid them around the syrup, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat more than a bite or two. I did have a slice of bacon, though. No matter what mood I was in, I could never resist a good, crisp slice of bacon.
Dad was an Episcopalian so his funeral was going to be the whole shebang. We had already suffered through the wake. Now we only had to muddle through a mass and a procession to cemetery for yet another ceremony. I couldn’t to go home and mourn in peace and on my own terms.
At the church, I sat in the front pew next to mom and Aunt Helen, her sister-in-law who had come down from Ohio with my mom’s brother Ed. Uncle Ed kept chase after his rowdy eight-year-old twins, Jay and Josh, who seemed to be given free reign over any havoc they wished to wreak. At one point, they had blown out a whole bank of votive candles before Ed could coax them to stop.
“Kids, please. It’s not your birthday.”
Mom gripped my hand like a pet hamster she was afraid might get loose and run away the instant she slackened her grip. I just sat there and stared straight ahead, trying not to look at the coffin, wishing my bratty cousins would stop goofing around and act like they were at a funeral.
Whenever the main door creaked open, Mom would crane her neck around to see who had arrived. I’m sure she was keeping some kind of running tally in her head of the folks who came to pay their respects to dad. Social slights were important to her.
“That girl’s here,” she whispered, turning back around.
“The one were hanging out with. From the park.”
I turned around and there she was, settling into a pew way in the back next to her own mom.
I swallowed my gum. My blood, which had been settling into my lowest reaches like bilge water, began to course like superheated steam through my veins. The flame that had been guttering inside of me had roared back to life.
Mom managed a grin. “You like her, don’t you?”
I stared straight ahead, still not looking at the coffin, my lids pegged open a half inch wider.
I hadn’t seen Jenny in weeks. I’m not sure how she got wind of what happened to my dad. It’s not like we shared any social circles anymore. In fact, I had become a circle of one.
Her being there did a good job of taking my mind off the grotesque side show that was my dad’s coffin. It seemed so surreal—him just laying there in front of this crowd. At least the lid was closed this time, unlike at the wake when he had been displayed like some slab of meat, because that’s what he was—meat. That thing in there was not my dad. My real dad—the consciousness that made all that meat move and think and talk—was long gone away to another place.
If dad was here, there was no way he would have tolerated all these people staring at him laying in a box. Dad was a social creature. If he could, he would have gotten up and made the rounds, with body or without, going from pew to pew cracking jokes and making small talk. There was just no way my real dad was in this room.
I kept glancing back towards Jenny, trying not to be too obvious. She seemed to be trying real hard to ignore me, apart from one puzzled stare. I started to worry. Why was she here, if she wanted nothing to do with me? I didn’t get it.
The priest finally came out and got the proceedings underway. When all of the mumbo jumbo was finally done, a group of pallbearers—dad’s buddies from work—came up the aisle to carry his coffin. Mom and I followed after, and everybody else filed out of the church behind us.
Mom went straight to Uncle Ed’s car but I waited for Jenny on the steps, the downside being I had to listen to a hundred people say: “So sorry for your loss.”
“Look at him … so brave,” came a disembodied whisper.
“What’s he wearing?”—another subdued and anonymous voice. “Shush, he’s in mourning,” scolds a younger voice.
And what was I wearing? Jeans with holes. Teva sandals. A white dress shirt, un-tucked. Dad wouldn’t have cared. He would have been impressed that I wore a clean shirt.
Finally, there came Jenny walking out of the anteroom. Her hair looked shorter, perkier. She wore makeup for a change, and even a dress.
Our eyes met. She veered over and gave me a hug, standing one stair higher so our faces were even. My heart practically burrowed out of my chest. I forgot completely about all this funeral business, ignoring the folks passing by and patting me and whispering condolences. It might as well have been just me and Jenny alone on those stairs.
“Sucks. What happened to your dad.”
“Yeah,” was about all I could muster. I was having trouble gathering my breath.
Jenny’s mother, stood a few steps back. She looked nothing at all like her daughter. She had the face of a bulldog and a body to match. She hovered by the door, trying to smile, looking very uncomfortable.
“Burke told me. I was gonna come on my own but my mom insisted on coming with. Can you imagine? I need a chaperone to go to a funeral. She doesn’t even know anybody here.”
My eyes lingered on Jenny’s face, studying every freckle. “Haven’t seen you downtown lately. Where’ve you been?”
“Grounded,” she said. “For no good reason. Just … sass.” She tossed a glare at her mother.
“Are you still?”
“Nah. But I can’t hang out in the park anymore. My dad freaked when he found out it was just me and a bunch of guys. I don’t know what the heck he’s worried about. They’re good kids. What’s he think? I’m gonna get gang-banged? I mean, really.”
“Shit,” I said. “That means … we don’t get to hang out. I mean, like ever.”
She scrunched her eyes. “Why the heck not?”
“Well, because … the park’s the only place I ever get to see you.”
Something in her expression shifted, like she had lost her favorite earrings and remembered where she had left them. But it was more than that. It was a bigger change, an epiphany that momentarily rendered her speechless. A smile invaded her face. A light emerged from the depths of her eyes that was breathtaking to see.
� are … other … places … you fool,” she said. “You never heard of a mall? Movies?” Her eyes went wide. “Actually … my sister’s having a sort of a beach party next weekend. Upperclassmen mostly, but I’m gonna go. Wanna come?” She glanced towards the hearse. “I mean … if you feel up to it.”
A quake trembled through me. “Um. S-sure! Definitely!”
It felt so wrong to feel so good with a funeral procession ready to roll and my mom blubbering on her brother’s shoulder, but I think dad would have approved. He worried about me being such a loner. He would have been proud to see me hooking up with a girl at his funeral. It was certainly something he would have bragged about. Who knows, he might have been bragging about me right then, wherever it was he had gone.
“Great! I think we’re going Saturday at nine. My sister’s taking the minivan. You can meet us in front of the library. I’ll save a spot for you.”
She patted my arm. “I’m afraid we can’t go to the cemetery. Mom’s got a hair appointment. But … so sorry about your dad. Must be so hard.”
I didn’t know what to say. I just nodded.
“Looking forward to Saturday,” she said.
“Th-thanks. For inviting me.”
I watched her walk away, bedazzled by what had just transpired. I just stood there, letting the last few minutes resonate through my being. But then I realized I couldn’t call her. I didn’t have her number. I didn’t even know her last name. But that was no biggie. I would see her next Saturday at the beach.
I heard a long whistle. Uncle Ed stood on the sidewalk, waving for me to come. Cars were lined up, ready to go. I realized that I was standing alone on the church steps. I stumbled down to the car in a stupor.
Mourning is supposed to progress in a series of phases, one leading to the other. That’s what the grief counselor told me, anyhow. Problem was, neither mom nor me could seem to break out of shock and denial.
Mom was a wreck. She stayed in her pajamas all day, and lurched around the house like a zombie.
She kept on making breakfast for dad, setting out a plate of bacon and eggs, dumping it in the trash when it got cold. I was caught in the same time loop. On Saturdays I washed his truck like always, still expecting to find a ten dollar bill show up on my dresser. Nobody dared sit in his chair in the family room.
The house was just wrong now. Mom tried using me to compensate for his absence, gossiping to me like some substitute husband. What did I care what the neighbors were doing with their septic tank or who was snubbing who?
Thank God, Uncle Ed’s family stayed with us that first week and relieved some of the pressure. Aunt Helen became her gossip receptacle and spared me the bother.
Uncle Ed was anxious to get back to his business in Cleveland, but mom kept breaking down, going all catatonic, locking herself in the master bedroom. He was reluctant to leave with her in such a state, so he and the family stayed on till the weekend. Aunt Helen did her best to keep mom occupied, taking her shopping, to the movies and for long drives along the waterfront.
Ed stayed in the house all day, watching baseball, screaming at the twins and fretting over mom and dad’s papers. For the owner of a landscaping company, he didn’t take much interest in our lawn.
One morning, when I was bringing him a cup of coffee, I found him in dad’s office, muttering to himself.
“Something wrong, Uncle Ed?”
He gave me this sick look and tried to smile. “Nah. It’s okay. I guess. Let’s just say … your dad wasn’t the best at staying on top of things. I can’t make head nor tail out of the mortgage stuff. And I was kind of hoping he’d’ve had some life insurance.”
“He was talking about it. I mean, mom kept nagging him about getting some.”
“Yeah, well. I guess he never got off his butt to get it done.” Ed got up from the chair, and brushed back a dangling lock of hair. His gray-green eyes looked so much like moms. Yet, little else about him was anything like her. Unlike her, he had never gone to college. He seemed to have no interest in the world beyond Cleveland.
“James? You ever need a job, you can come up to Ohio and work for me.”
“You mean it?”
He shrugged. “Why not? If you learned anything from your mom, I know you can write, work with numbers. I could use some help in the head office. Especially if you could bone up on some accounting. Why don’t you see if there’s some night classes at the community college or something?”
I should have been grateful for the offer, but a desk job? That had no appeal to me whatsoever. Landscaping to me meant carving up yards with bulldozers and backhoes; creating hills and dales, rock gardens and water features; transforming boring yards into living sculpture.
“What about working outside? I mean, if I came to work for you.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You don’t wanna be doing that.”
“Why not? I think I’d like it. I think it’d be cool.”
Uncle Ed sighed. “Trust me. It’s not something you want to be doing.” He went into the kitchen and got a Bud out of the fridge. “That’s why God put Dominicans and Guatemalans on this earth.”
I gladly let my twin nine-year-old cousins sleep in my room. That week, I pretty much stayed up until everyone else had gone to bed and then crashed on the sofa. I didn’t sleep a whole lot, between thinking about dad and thinking about that beach party on Saturday.
Despite the pall that the funeral had spread over everything, I had the sense that this beach thing was going to be a momentous and monumental occasion—a crux in the course of my life. I certainly couldn’t hype it up any bigger in my head. The way I saw it, Jenny was looking for a way for us to connect, to create an opportunity that would let our feeble bantering and dilly-dallying evolve into an actual relationship.
Now Jenny wasn’t the prettiest girl I had ever met. She had really nice eyes, even without makeup. But her forehead had an odd pinch to it, and nose was way too small for her face. She was by no means model material, but I liked the way she looked—a lot.
She wasn’t very bright or witty, either. She never cracked jokes, just snickered at other people’s. And she knew hardly anything about the world. She thought Obama was a Muslim socialist and that Afghanistan was a country in Africa. From what she let me see of her iPod, her taste in music was narrow and pedestrian—Lady Gaga and Nicki Manaj and not much else in between.
She had this odd way of dressing—wearing sweaters and long pants even when it was warm out and all the other girls had on short shorts. It made me wonder if she were hiding some scar or deformity. I wondered what she would wear to the beach. Would I actually get to see her in a bikini?
Two days before the beach date, I couldn’t stand the waiting anymore. My relatives still swarmed the house and mom had yet to return to work so there was not a chance of privacy, especially with my two pestiferous cousins poking their nose into everything I did.
I needed a fix of Jenny badly. I needed to hear her voice to make sure that what happened at the funeral was not a hallucination or a delusion, that the invitation was real. So I had to figure out a way to call her in private.
But to get her number, I needed to know her freaking last name. Jenny was the only name she had given me. That wasn’t going to get me very far.
There was this geeky kid next door who went to her high school. I barely knew him. He rarely seemed to go outside. But when I saw him taking out the trash, I ran out to the curb in my boxers. He threw up his arms defensively when he saw me coming at him fast, like he thought I was going to beat him up and take his wallet.
“Adam, calm down. I’ve just want to ask you something. You go to Ft. Pierce, right? Do you happen to know any girls named Jenny?”
He lowered his arms. “Well yeah, only about twenty. Every other girl’s named Emily or Jennifer or Ashley. I don’t know what the deal is with these parents. Can’t think of anything original to name their kids.”
/> “Well, this Jenny I’m looking for has got shortish, dirty blonde hair. Freckles? Never wears shorts?”
Adam just stared. “Sorry guy. These Jennys and Jessicas all look alike to me. It like the school got invaded by clones.” He faked a smile. “I got a high school phone directory, if you want to borrow it.”
“Um, sure! Can I?”
I followed him back to his front door and waited on the stoop until he brought over this photocopied and stapled listing of students by class.
I started to thumb through it.
“Oh, just take it,” he said. “I’ve got others. And it’s not like I use them that much.”
“Gee, thanks! I’ll bring it back as soon as I’m done.”
“No rush.” He headed back into a dim lair smelling faintly of microwave popcorn.
I took the directory home and locked myself in the bathroom. Unfortunately, it had no pictures, only names and addresses. And Adam wasn’t kidding. While there weren’t actually twenty Jennifers at Ft. Pierce High School, there were at least twelve. And while I knew she couldn’t be a senior, I had no idea whether she was a junior, a sophomore or even a precocious or held back freshman.
I considered calling them all one by one until I found the right Jenny, but then my finger landed on a kid named Burke Watkins. I checked the rest of the directory. There was only one Burke in the entire school. It had to be the Burke—Jenny’s friend. So I called him.
A little girl answered.
“Hi,” I said. “Is your brother home?”
“Um … Burke?”
I heard her call. “Burkie!”
There was a clunking, and then: “Hullo?”
“Hey, uh … Burke. This is James. From the park?”
“The home schooler? The mama’s boy?”