Shakespeare's Trollop Page 11

Janet, Becca, and I entered the main doors and were escorted by an usher to our seats. I made sure Becca went first so he grasped her arm instead of mine. The church was packed with pale people in dark clothes. The family pews, with the front one left empty for Lacey and Jerrell, were filled with all the cousins and aunts and uncles of the dead woman, and I picked out Bobo's bright hair beside the dark head of Calla Prader. I had forgotten that Deedra was Bobo's cousin.

The usher gestured us into the end of a pew about midway down the church. It was a good thing we'd come when we had, since it was the last place open that could accommodate three people. Janet glanced around the sanctuary with curiosity. Becca studied the program the usher had handed us. I wished I were somewhere else, anywhere. Jack would be here tomorrow and there was a lot I needed to do; I was worried about his visit, about the problems we faced. The scent of the banks of flowers filled the air of the church, already challenged by all these people, and my head began to ache.

Joel McCorkindale, in a black robe with even blacker velvet bands striping the sleeves, appeared at the front of the church after the organ had droned through several gloomy pieces. We all rose, and with due professional solemnity the team from the funeral home (one male Shields and one female Shields) wheeled the coffin down the aisle. After the casket came the pallbearers, two by two, each wearing a carnation in his lapel and walking slowly with eyes downcast. All the pallbearers were male, and as I scanned their faces I wondered how many of them had performed intimate acts with the body in the coffin preceding them. It was a grotesque thought. I wasn't proud of myself for entertaining it. Most of them were older men, men the age of Jerrell and Lacey, who were coming in at the pallbearers' heels.

Lacey was clinging to Jerrell, and he had to give her a lot of help just to make it to the front pew. As the couple went past the rest of the family, it occurred to me to wonder why Becca was sitting beside me instead of on the other side of the church. She was a cousin of Deedra's, too, though she'd had little chance to get to know her.

It had been a crowded week for the Prader/Dean/Winthrop/Albee clan. I wondered how many of them were thinking of the burning of Joe C's house the night before instead of the murder of the woman in the casket.

A few more people slipped in at the back before the ushers closed the doors. The church was packed to capacity. Not only was Deedra too young to die, she had been murdered. So perhaps the curiosity factor had a part to play in this crowd.

Maybe because I was stifling - the press of people and the heavy scent of flowers almost overwhelmed me - I found myself wondering if my own funeral would have been as well attended if I'd died when I'd been abducted years before. It was all too easy to imagine my parents following the coffin in, and I could even be pretty sure who my pallbearers would have been... .

I yanked myself back to the here-and-now. There was something sickly self-indulgent about reviewing my own funeral.

The ceremony continued about like I'd expected. We listened to two singers plow through two old standards, "Amazing Grace" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Since I can sing myself, the performances were interesting, but no more than that. No one here in Shakespeare knew that I used to sing at weddings and funerals in my little hometown, and that was just fine with me. I was better than the woman who sang "Amazing Grace," but my range wasn't as good as the girl who performed second.

I sighed and recrossed my legs. Janet kept her gaze fixed properly on the singers, and Becca examined her cuticles and removed a fragment of thread from the setting of her diamond dinner ring.

I might have known Joel McCorkindale would not let the occasion pass with a simple eulogy, if he'd decided there was a point to be made. To no one's surprise, he based his sermon on the passage in Thessalonians where Paul warns us that the day of Lord will come like a thief in the night.

The preacher made more of a meal of it than I'd expected. His point was that someone had usurped God's rights in taking Deedra's life. I found myself growing stern and affronted. He was taking away the focus of the funeral from Deedra, who was actually the dead person, and focusing on the man who'd killed her.

To my alarm, the people in the congregation who were used to his style of preaching began to agree audibly with his points. Every now and then a man or a woman would raise hands above head and say, "Amen! Praise the Lord!"

I turned my head slightly to check out Janet's reaction. Her eyes were about to pop out of her head, and she gave them a significant roll when she saw me match her own astonishment. I had never been in a church where it was the norm for the congregation to speak out loud, and by Janet's facial expression, neither had she. Becca, on the other hand, was smiling slightly, as if the whole thing was performance art staged for her benefit.

I could tell the men and women who ordinarily attended this church were very comfortable with this, this... audience participation. But I was horribly embarrassed, and when I saw Lacey leaning forward in her seat, hands clasped above her head, tears rolling down her face, I almost got up and left. I never talked to God myself, having gotten out of the inclination for faith after that summer in Memphis; but if I did have such a conversation, I knew it would be in private and no one around me would know. In fact, I promised myself that.

Janet and I were so glad when the service was over that it was all we could do not to bolt from the church. Becca seemed intrigued with the whole experience.

"Have you ever seen anything like that before?" she asked, but not in a voice low enough to suit me. We were still close to the other mourners, who were scattering to climb into their cars for the drive to the cemetery.

Janet shook her head silently.

"Who knows what'll happen at the gravesite," Becca said in happy anticipation.

"You'll have to catch a ride with Carlton," I said, nodding toward my neighbor who was just coming out of the church. "I'm going home." I started down the sidewalk. Janet trotted after me.

"Hold up, Lily!" she said. "I don't think I'll go to the cemetery either. That service kind of shook me up. I guess Methodists are too repressed for something that emotionally ... open."

" 'Open,' " I snarled, and kept on walking. "I didn't like that."

"You mean the church? The people?"

I nodded.

"Well, I wasn't raised that way either, but it seemed to make them feel better," Janet commented cautiously. "I don't know, it might have been kind of comforting."

I shuddered.

"Listen, what are you going to do now?"

"Call the hospital."

"About what?"

"Joe C."

"Oh, yeah, he had a fire last night, didn't he?"

I nodded. "See you later," I told Janet. I forced myself to add, "Thanks for going with me."

Janet looked happier. "You're welcome. Thanks for letting me use your driveway." She got into her red Toyota and started it up, waving at me as she backed out.

The street was filled with cars pulling away from the curb, lining up to follow the hearse to the cemetery. As I stood in my front doorway, the street emptied of all its life like one of those time-lapse films. Only one Jeep remained parked farther up the street. I was alone with the trees in the arboretum across the street.

No, not quite alone. As I finally took a step back into my house I saw a man get out of the Jeep and begin to saunter down the street toward me.

It was Bobo, I realized with some astonishment, and remembered our appointment. As he walked, he was loosening his tie and pulling it off, stuffing it into the pocket of his dark suit. He loosened his collar button with two tan fingers, and raked back his blond hair.

Suddenly the postfuneral exaltation of being alive hit me. I felt the crackle of lightning about to strike. The man coming down the sidewalk toward me felt it too. He quickened his pace until he was actually hurrying, keeping all his attention focused on me. When he got to my door, without saying a word he wrapped me in his long arms and held me to him and kissed the hell out of me.

My brain said, pull away! But my body wasn't listening. My fingers were twining in Bobo's hair, my pelvis was pressed firmly against his, and I was kissing him back as hard as I could.

We were visible to any passersby.

That must have occurred to Bobo, too, because he pushed me a little and into my house we lurched and he spared a hand to press the door closed.

Bobo bit me on the neck and I growled and began grinding into him. The top of my suit was unbuttoned and his hand was inside, caressing me through my bra. Bobo ground right back, and my hands went under his suit coat to hold on to his butt, and our rhythm went on, and somehow he hit exactly the right spot and I saw stars. He groaned, and I felt the front of his pants grow wet.

Then there was only the sound of our panting.

"Floor," Bobo suggested, and our knees gave way.

My living room isn't large and there isn't much floor space. I was sitting right next to the sprawled-out young man, and my blood was still humming through my veins.

But after only a few seconds, I was overwhelmed with the wrongness and stupidity of what I'd just done. And with someone I thought of as a friend. The day before Jack was returning.

All these years of trying so hard not to make a mistake had just gone down the drain.

"Lily," said a voice gently. Bobo was propped up on his elbow next to me. His flushed face had returned to its normal coloring, his breathing was even. His big hand traveled an infinite distance to hold mine. "Lily, don't feel sad."

I was unable to speak. I wondered if Bobo was twenty-one yet. I told myself in the nastiest terms what a depraved moron I had been. I wanted to literally beat my head against the wall.

"It was the moment," he said.

I took a deep breath. "Yes," I answered.

"Don't be so upset," he repeated. "I don't wanna be crude, Lily, but it was just a dry hump."

I'd never heard the phrase before.

"You almost smiled, I saw your mouth twitch," he told me, pleased.

I brushed his hair back from his forehead.

"Can we pretend it never happened?" My voice wasn't as shaky as I'd feared it would be.

"No, I don't think so. What it was, was fantastic. I've always had a thing about you." He drew my hand to him, kissed it. "But I never saw this coming. It was just funeral fever. You know - she's dead, but we're alive. Sex is a great way to prove to yourself you're alive."

"You're being wise."

"It's about time you got a break, let someone else do the wise thing."

"I do plenty of things that aren't so smart," I said, unable to keep the bitterness from my voice.

"Lily, this won't happen again, not ever. You're not gonna let it. So let's be real honest with each other."

I wasn't sure what that would entail. I waited for him to go on.

"There's no telling how many fantasies I've had about you since you worked for my mother. When you know some beautiful, mysterious woman is cleaning your room, it's just a sure thing you're going to imagine... what if? My favorite one - "

"Please, no," I said.

"Oh, all right." He had the grace to look a little embarrassed. "But the point of this is I know ... I know it was just a fantasy, that you're real, that we're not gonna have a relationship. I know that you just like me as a ... buddy."

A little more than that, I thought ruefully. But I knew better than to say it out loud. "You don't really know me," I said, as gently as I was able.

"There's a lot I know about you that you won't admit about yourself," he retorted.

I didn't understand.

"You pull old men out of burning buildings. You saved Jack Leeds' life and almost died in the act. You're willing, and brave enough, to risk your life to save others."

What a misconception! "No, no, no," I protested angrily. He made a kind of dampening gesture, patting down the air with his free hand. I sat up and reached over to the pile of folded laundry on the chair, laundry I hadn't had a chance to put away today. I passed him a hand towel, and he began dabbing at the front of his pants, trying hard not to be embarrassed.

"You did those things. You are brave." He sounded flat, and final.

I didn't want to hear a booster speech from Bobo Winthrop. I was going to feel bad about what had just happened for a long, long time.

"And you're smart, and hard working, and really, really, pretty."

All of a sudden, tears stung the back of my eyelids. The final humiliation, I thought.

"You have to leave," I said abruptly. I leaned over to kiss Bobo on his cheek. For the last - and only - time, I pulled him close and hugged him after we stood up.

"Now, you go, and we'll be okay in a week or two," I told him, hoping that I was telling him the truth. He looked down at me very seriously, his handsome face so solemn I could scarcely bear it.

"I have to tell you something else," Bobo insisted. "Listen to me, Lily. I'm switching subjects here."

I nodded, reluctantly, to show him I was waiting.

"That fire was set. The fire marshal came and told Calla this morning, and she called all of us in the family. Not Lacey, naturally, but all the others. Someone tried to kill Joe C, but you stopped them."

I didn't listen to the renewed pat-on-the-back part of Bobo's speech. I was thinking about his opening sentence. I wasn't surprised by the news. In fact, I'd been taking it for granted that the person I'd seen in the yard of Joe C's house had actually started the fire. Trespasser + sudden fire = arson.

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