Gone for Good Page 74

We all stayed outside, almost as though we were afraid to begin the ceremony. People broke down into groups. The younger folks stayed with Sheila’s brother and sister. Sheila’s father stood in a semi-circle with the suited men, all nodding, with fat ties and hands in their pockets. The women clustered nearest the door.

Squares drew stares, but he was used to that. He still had on the dust-ridden jeans, but he also wore a blue blazer and gray tie. He would have worn a suit, he said with a smile, but then Sheila would have never recognized him.

Eventually the mourners started to filter into the small chapel. I was surprised by the large turnout, but everyone I’d met was there for the family, not Sheila. She had left them a long time ago. Edna Rogers slid next to me and put her arm through mine. She looked up and forced a brave smile. I still did not know what to make of her.

We entered the chapel last. There were whispers about how “good” Sheila looked, how “lifelike,” a comment I always found creepy in the extreme. I am not a religious fellow, but I like the way we of the Hebrew faith handle our dead—that is, we get them in the ground fast. We do not have open caskets.

I don’t like open caskets.

I don’t like them for all the obvious reasons. Looking at a dead body, one that has been drained of both life force and fluids, embalmed, dressed nicely, painted up, looking either like something from Madame Tussaud’s wax museum or worse, so “lifelike” you almost expect it to breathe or suddenly sit up, yeah, you bet that gives me the creeps. But more than that, what kind of lasting image did a corpse laid out like a lox leave on the bereaved? Did I want my final memory of Sheila to be here, lying with her eyes closed in a well-cushioned—why were caskets always so well-cushioned?—hermetically sealed box of fine mahogany? As I got on at the end of the line with Edna Rogers—we actually stood on line to view this hollow vessel—these thoughts became heavy, weighing me down.

But there was no way out either. Edna gripped my arm a little too tightly. As we got closer, her knees buckled. I helped her stay upright. She smiled at me again, and this time, there seemed to be genuine sweetness in it.

“I loved her,” she whispered. “A mother never stops loving her child.”

I nodded, afraid to speak. We took another step, the process not so different from boarding that damn airplane. I almost expected a voice-over to say “Mourners in rows twenty-five and higher may now view the body.” Stupid thought, but I let my mind dodge and veer. Anything to get away from this.

Squares stood behind us, last in line. I kept my eyes diverted, but as we moved forward, there was that unreasonable hope again knocking at my chest. I don’t think this is unusual. It happened even at my mother’s funeral, the idea that it was all somehow a mistake, a cosmic blunder, that I would look down at the casket and it would be empty or it wouldn’t be Sheila. Maybe that was why some people liked open caskets. Finality. You see, you accept. I was with my mother when she died. I watched her last breath. Yet I was still tempted to check the casket that day, just to make sure, just in case maybe God changed his mind.

Many bereaved, I think, go through something like that. Denial is part of the process. So you hope against hope. I was doing that now. I was making deals with an entity I don’t really believe in, praying for a miracle—that somehow the fingerprints and the FBI and Mr. and Mrs. Rogers’s ID and all these friends and family members, that somehow they were all wrong, that Sheila was alive, that she had not been murdered and dumped on the side of the road.

But that, of course, did not happen.

Not exactly anyway.

When Edna Rogers and I arrived at the casket, I made myself look down. And when I did, the floor beneath me fell away. I started plummeting.

“They did a nice job, don’t you think?” Mrs. Rogers whispered.

She gripped my arm and started to cry. But that was somewhere else, somewhere far away. I was not with her. I was looking down. And that was when the truth dawned on me.

Sheila Rogers was indeed dead. No doubt about that.

But the woman I loved, the woman I’d lived with and held and wanted to marry, was not Sheila Rogers.


I did not black out, but I came close.

The room did indeed spin. My vision did one of those in-and-out, closer-and-farther things. I stumbled toward, almost landing in the casket with Sheila Rogers—a woman I had never seen before but knew too intimately. A hand shot out and gripped my forearm. Squares. I looked at him. His face was set. His color gone. Our eyes met and he gave me the slightest of nods.

It hadn’t been my imagination or a mirage. Squares had seen it too.

We stayed for the funeral. What else really could we do? I sat there, unable to take my eyes off the stranger’s corpse, unable to speak. I was overcome, my body quaking, but nobody paid any attention. I was, after all, at a funeral.

After the casket was lowered into the ground, Edna Rogers wanted us to come back to the house. We begged off, blaming the airlines for the tight flight schedule. We slipped into the rental car. Squares started it up. We waited until we were out of sight. Then Squares pulled over and let me lose it.

“Let me see if we’re on the same page here,” Squares said.

I nodded, quasi-composed now. Again I had to block, this time muffling the possible euphoria. I did not keep my eye on the prize or the big picture or any of that. I concentrated on the details, on the minutiae. I focused on one tree because there was no way I could handle seeing the whole forest.

“All that stuff we learned about Sheila,” he said, “her running away, her years on the streets, her selling drugs, her rooming with your old girlfriend, her fingerprints at your brother’s place—all that—”

“Applied to that stranger we just buried,” I finished for him.

“So our Sheila, I mean, the lady we both thought of as Sheila—”

“Did none of those things. And she was none of those things.”

Squares considered that. “Styling,” he said.

I managed a smile. “Most definitely.”

On the airplane, Squares said, “If our Sheila is not dead, then she’s alive.”

I looked at him.

“Hey,” he said, “people pay big bucks to soak in this kind of wisdom.”

“And to think I get it for free.”

“So what do we do now?”

I crossed my arms. “Donna White.”

“The pseudonym she bought from the Goldbergs?”

“Right. Your people only ran an airline check?”

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