Measure of a Man

by

Joshua Mattern

Rick Stanley had an aisle seat.  He hated aisle seats.  He hated them, and he suspected that the airline companies knew this, and that they took great delight in having their pilots call over the intercom and say, “Those of you on the left side of the plane,” and insert your chosen majestic image here. 

He took to his aisle seat with silent contempt, and hoped that when they flew over the Rockies the sky would be buried under a heavy cloud cover. 

                Shortly after getting situated, a young woman sat down in the window seat beside him.  She was probably in her mid-twenties, with long, curly red hair and eyes so green he wondered if she wore contact lenses.  She smiled at him, and took off the silver wedding band she wore on her left hand.  “Hi,” she said.  “I’m Nikki.” 

                Nikki was twenty-three, and had been married for little under a year.  “When I got pregnant,” she said, “his mother practically insisted we get married.”  She paused, looked into the air above them, and laughed.  Rick looked up as well, to see if the memory was maybe floating there. 

                “She actually…came to the hospital, the day I gave birth, and she said, ‘have you all thought about the wedding yet?’”  Nikki rolled her eyes, and laughed again.  “My baby was over a month premature, in the ICU, his skin’s yellow, and she wants to know when the wedding is.” 

                Nikki’s husband, an independent contractor of something and such, was in Sacramento on a job, and had unexpectedly gotten done a few days earlier than expected, so she was flying out to spend some time with him.  “The baby’s at my mother’s,” she said.  When Rick made no response, Nikki ordered a cocktail from a passing flight attendant.  She drank it quickly, and said, “I told him I wasn’t bringing the baby, and he didn’t even ask why.”

                These were the sorts of conversations Rick Stanley had, on a fairly regular basis.    And they weren’t even really conversations, either—more like, monologues, dramatic soliloquies, spontaneous confessionals.  He often considered telling people that he was a preacher, and not a psychologist, but that probably wouldn’t help.  Knowing he was a Man of the Church, they likely, he reasoned with himself, would just keep talking, thinking that Rick had a direct line of communication with God.  That he could call in favors, or something. 

“I’ve never been to California,” she said to him.  “All I know is what I see on TV.  And that just tells me that it’s full of men who wear their sunglasses indoors, and women who don’t eat.”  She frowned, and looked out the window.  Rick followed her gaze, and could see no mountains.  When she turned her head back toward him, they were staring at each other, their noses mere inches apart.  Nikki breathed in, quickly and deeply, and Rick felt sorry for her, for the way wrinkles already had burrowed into her cheeks, for the way the dark circles holding up her eyes would probably never go away. 

                Her face reddened, not quite as much as her hair but almost, and she looked down at her feet.  She dug into the front pocket of her jeans, and pulled out the wedding band, put it on her finger, took it off again, then just held it. 

                “Have you been to California before?” she asked him. 

He had, but not under circumstances she would understand, and so Rick just smiled, and shook his head. 

                “God, I don’t want to go.”  Nikki leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.  She laughed, and Rick could see her eyes rolling beneath their lids.  “Maybe I should go with you,” she said, quietly.  She opened her eyes again.  “Where are you going?”  Before he could answer, she shook her head.  “I’m sorry.  I’m so…fucking rude.  What was your name?”

                “Rick Stanley,” he told her.  “And I’m going to Nebraska.  Lincoln.”

                “Oh,” she said, “you have family there?”

                Rick said, “Yes.  We haven’t…seen each other for a while,” thinking, hoping, this would be enough to satiate her curiosity.

But Nikki asked, “Birthday?”  And she smiled.

                “Funeral.”

                “I’m sorry,” she said quickly.  Rick looked, and saw her put the ring back on her finger.  “Who…I mean, may I ask—?”

He put up a hand.  “It’s okay,” he said.  “My father.”  Then, to her frown, he went on, “Really, it’s alright.  We weren’t close.  I wasn’t even going to go, actually.  But they want me to do the eulogy.”

                Her lips formed an O, and she exhaled through her nose.  “So…are you a preacher, then?”

                Rick couldn’t help it—he laughed.  “Yes,” he said.  “I’m sorry for not saying so earlier, but, as you may imagine, it makes meeting people rather awkward, sometimes.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” she said, and waved a hand dismissively.  “It’s not like…what we do isn’t really all we are, right?”

                “No,” he agreed, thinking, What a curious thing to say.  “It’s not.”

                They both went silent then, and Rick leaned back in the seat, looked up at the carry-on compartment above them.  Before take-off, when he first saw Nikki, she was walking up the aisle toward him.  She had stopped beside him, looked at her ticket, and shrugged and smiled, said, “Guess this is me,” and then took her backpack in her hands and stretched her arms to put it in the carry-on compartment.  She wasn’t a very tall woman, and so raised herself to tip-toes and stretched her arms, and when she did this, her blouse rose up above her navel, exposing a green stud.

                When she finally got the bag placed within the compartment, she looked down at him, caught him staring and, blushing, pulled her blouse back down.  He didn’t tell her that he stared because the green stone matched her eyes so perfectly, and he wondered if it was a conscious choice on her part, or just chance. 

                “Then what is it?” she asked, so quietly, it was more like a breath with syllables attached than actual words.

                “What’s what?”

“What makes us…us?”  She closed her eyes, tightly, pressing them closed, like something was trying to escape that she had to keep in.  “If it’s not what we do…is it what we say?  Who we love, or hurt?”  The ring off her finger again, resting in her open palm.  “The things we let go, that we give up, just to do what’s right.”  That last part, not spoken as a question, but as a reflective, more than somewhat mournful, declaration.

                “I think,” he said, placing his hands against the seat in front of him, pressing his fingers against the fabric, trying to feel what rested beneath.  “I think you take the greatest thing you’ve ever done, and you place it right next to the worst.”  He paused, licked his lips.  “And in your mind, your heart, you put them on a scale, side-by-side, and see which one’s heavier.”  Rick nodded his head.  “That’s what makes us who we are.  The measure of those things.  The answer to that question.”

                He looked over at Nikki, and she was looking back at him, smiling.  “What?” he asked, smiling himself. 

                She shrugged.  “I just didn’t expect an answer.”

“I know.”

                If Rick Stanley’s life was a better story—and not just the sort of story you read about in books, because those, too, can be depressing; but, rather, the kind of story they make movies out of, right around Christmas time, or Valentine’s Day, where people can start out kind of shaky, even crumbling, maybe, but they make it all right in the end—if his life was that sort of story, then there would have been more smiles, more conversation, between him and Nikki.  And, if his were the best sort of story, when his plane touched down in Lincoln, she would have followed him, and he would have wanted her to—or, even better, the plane lands and there are technical problems with her connector flight and she has a twenty-four hour layover, except Rick doesn’t know this until they run into each other at a restaurant down town. 

                But, Rick Stanley’s life is not one of those stories, and so a few moments after he answered the question she didn’t really want answered, there were mountains outside her window, and she turned her head toward the glass, and Rick, after trying to see her eyes in the reflection for a couple of moments and failing, rested his head back against his seat, and closed his eyes, and fell asleep.  And then the plane was descending, and the change in altitude and velocity brought him back awake, and he kept his gaze trained forward, toward the seat in front of him.  And when the plane landed, he stood, and stepped past her, walked down the aisle and off the plane. 

The sun was just starting to dip over the horizon when Rick left the airport and walked into the late spring Lincoln air.  Big city or not, the air was cleaner out here than back in Fairmont—it was, in fact, one of the few things he missed about Lincoln.  He took a deep breath, inhaling as much of it into his lungs as he could, as if he could bottle it up somewhere inside of him, and take it home like sand from the beach.  He set his suitcase down, let it rest on the sidewalk beside him, and waited.  People walked by him, going into and out of the airport, but Rick just waited, silently, patiently. 

                Maybe a half-hour passed, and he heard the boom of jet engines, and looked skyward, just as a plane passed overhead, flying west, chasing the sun.  He tried to imagine Nikki inside, sitting in another window seat, telling another traveling companion about her husband and her baby and saying without saying that she was unhappy.  And he wondered if this passenger, this new friend, would be able to handle himself as well as Rick had; if he would be able to sit there and not say Everyone suffers and hold back the urge to scream and kick and cry out. 

                “Where the fuck are you?”  The voice came seemingly from nowhere, and knocked Rick out of his thoughts. 

                He looked down from the sky and into his sister’s impatient face.  Reese was thirty-five, just two years older than Rick, but could easily pass for ten years younger.  He smiled, but not at her; rather, at the way that still, after all this time, she still pretended like she didn’t live in Nebraska: she was tall, wore her hair long and bleached like a Hollywood starlet, her blue jean shorts would have been risqué even at a poolside, and her sleeveless white tank top hugged her waist and chest in twin death-grips.    

                As he stood there, hands in the pockets of his trousers, suitcase still resting on the ground beside him, she rolled her eyes and flipped him off, which made him laugh.  She threw her arms into the air.  “Fine.  Fuck.  Just stand there.”  And she turned, started away.  Rick shook his head, grabbed his suitcase, and jogged to catch up with her. 

                He came up beside her, and saw Reese look over at him from the corner of her eye.  Just as quickly, she turned her eyes back to the sidewalk, toward the parking garage she was leading him to.  “Good to have you home,” she mumbled.

“Yes,” he said. 

                “Shitty circumstances, though.”

                “Yes.”

                They reached her car in the garage and began driving, and fell into silence.  Rick just let her drive, tried not to shiver as the full-blast air conditioning assaulted his face.  The sun was completely gone now, and the moon had risen over Lincoln. 

                “So,” she said, so suddenly and after so much silence that Rick nearly jumped.  “Have you written anything?”

                He shook his head, and she arched her right eyebrow at him.  She used to make fun of him when they were both kids, because he would try to arch his eyebrows, too, but couldn’t.  He would press his hands against his left eye, holding the skin down, while forcing the other one up. 

                “You just gonna wing it, then?”

                “I’ll figure something out,” he said simply. 

                Their parents lived in a relatively small, two-story home outside the city, in a suburban area of tight and rigidly conformed development—a planned community, where printed notices told you what kind of wood you could use for your storm doors, and town council meetings decided if residents could be forced to place American flags in their yards. 

                When Reese turned the car onto their street, Rick saw the house immediately—it was the only one on the block with all the lights inside still blazing.  And the street itself was lined with cars.  “Fuck,” Reese said under her breath.  “Where am I going to park?”

                Rick said, “Is it absolutely necessary that you curse so much?”

                “Yup.”

                They circled the block twice, and finally Reese just parked the car in the middle of the street, parallel to a small, white coup, so close that Rick couldn’t open his own door and had to climb out of the vehicle on her side. 

“Why are there so many people here?” he asked, as he followed her up the walkway to the front door.

                “Dad was a popular guy.”

                He smiled wryly, though Reese couldn’t see it.  “Right.  I forgot.”

                She rang the doorbell, and Rick laughed.  “What?” she asked.

                He shrugged.  “It seems odd.  That we have to ring the doorbell.”

                She cocked her head to the side, and opened her mouth to respond, when the door opened from within, and Rick Stanley saw his mother for the first time in over four years. 

                She looked first at her daughter, and frowned.  “I see you dressed for the occasion.”

                Reese gave an all-teeth smile, and even curtsied.  “I aim to please, Mother.”

“Mom,” Rick said, quietly.

She turned her attention from Reese, and smiled at him, her eyes bloodshot and puffy around the edges.  Her hair was gray.  When Rick had last seen her, it was still a luminous brown, with not even a hint of graying, and her face did not hold the wrinkles that he now saw.  Rick’s mother, like his sister, had always looked younger than her actual age. 

                “Richard,” she said, and stepped through the doorway to take him in her arms.  The gesture was mechanical, and their embrace was awkward—more of a socially-mandated necessity than a genuine display of warmth.  Rick had never had any real problems with his mother—not like with his father—but her complicity in how the man had treated Rick’s older brother had forged a foggy sort of distance between them: through its haze, they could still see each other, even though they could never hope to navigate through the mist.  And after Bobbie died, the mist got denser, its fog more impenetrable. 

                They went into the house, the three of them, Rick and his mother in front, her hand clasped over his, with Reese taking up the rear.  Inside, faces he had not seen in years looked up briefly at their approach before going back to their conversations, and then did double-takes and smiled when recognition kicked in. 

As Rick’s mother led him through the house, he said to her, out of the side of his mouth, “Have they been here all day?”

                “Your father was loved by a lot of people,” she said.  Behind them, Reese snorted a half-laugh, and Rick himself grinned lightly. 

                When a tall, dark-haired man approached them and said something into Rick’s mother’s ear, she nodded, excused herself, and left them.  The dark-haired man stayed behind a moment, looking at Rick and frowning.  Rick knew he should recognize this man, but for the life of him, couldn’t.  Finally, the man nodded, and went after Rick’s mother. 

“Who was that?” Rick asked his sister after he had gone.

                She shrugged.  “The man Mom wasn’t fucking but probably will be fucking in the very near future.”

                “It’s not just the cursing, but the lack of variety in your vocabulary.”

She smiled, and slugged him in the shoulder.  “Let’s get fucked up, and make fun of what people are wearing.”

                She started off toward the kitchen, but Rick stayed behind, looking around him at the all the people.  When she realized he wasn’t behind her, Reese stopped and turned back to him.  “What?” she asked.

                “How many of these people came here when Bobbi died?”

She was a silent a moment.  “Dad was here,” she then said, quietly, and bit her lip.  “That’s appropriate in a way that will make more sense once we’re drunk.”

                Bobbi was gay, but it was actually heroin that ultimately killed him.  He had started by snorting it, with friends.  When he finally decided, on his own, that he wanted to kick the habit, Rick’s parents wouldn’t support him, other than to say he should put it in God’s hands.  So Bobbi used his own money to check into a rehab center.  When the money ran out, he again appealed to his parents for help, and once again was refused.  This time, as a cost-effectiveness measure, the heroin went through needles, and that’s how he got sick. 

The night Bobbi left the house for the last time and held a knife to his father’s neck, Rick, only sixteen at the time, could see, from where he watched at the top of the staircase, the tears streaming down his brother’s face.  His father later said that Bobbi wanted money, and that’s why his son held a knife to his throat.  But he didn’t file any charges, and nobody asked why Bobbi had left without taking any money.

                That’s what Rick and Reese talked about in the kitchen, sitting on opposite sides of the large, round table, drinking glasses of chilled bourbon.  How when Bobbi found out he was sick, he called the house, and when Rick answered pleaded with him to tell their father, because he had made himself a promise to never speak to the man again.  Rick refused, and took the phone to Reese, who nodded as she heard the story, began to cry, and then said one word: “Okay.”

                Their mother came into the kitchen, just as Rick emptied his second glass of bourbon.  She looked at the table, and the bottle that rested there, and frowned.  “So this is why my children won’t socialize.  They’re drunk.”

                “Socialize,” Reese said, and snorted. 

Rick looked at his empty glass.  “And I forgot to wear a tie,” he added. 

                His mother shook her head in exasperation, said, “Why don’t you two make some coffee, straighten up, and come into the other room.”  She left without waiting for a response.

After she had gone, Rick looked across the table at Reese, and found her staring at him and smiling widely.  “What?” he asked.

“You’re funny when you’re drunk,” she said.  “Much more…entertaining to be around.”

                “Maybe I’ll try it on Sunday.”

                Reese rolled her eyes.  “How can you even do it, anyway?” she asked.

                He shot her a questioning gaze.  “What do you mean?” 

                “The church thing,” she said.  “I mean, it’s not a big family secret or anything that you were the last one anyone’d expect to go that road.”  She paused a moment.  “Even Bobbi.  I’d have seen him doing the God thing before you.” 

                “Well,” Rick started, and took the bottle in his hand, refilled his glass.  “How do you do what you do?”

                She laughed, and rolled her eyes again.  “Fuck you,” she said, “I’m in advertising.  I just do it.”

                “Me, too,” he said.  “I just do it.”

                She put her elbows on the table, and rested her chin in her hands, and leaned toward him, her eyes narrowed to speculative slits.  “What an inspiration you must be to the flock.”

                As the night wore on, and the ‘guests’ started gradually spilling out of the house, Rick and Reese kept drinking in the kitchen.  When finally their mother stuck her head into the kitchen and said, still frowning and looking at the bottle, that she was going to bed, Reese looked at her watch and told Rick that it was nearly two in the morning.  “Maybe you should write something now,” she said.  “Drunken honesty, and all that.”

                “Maybe you should write it for me,” he said.  He put his hand over his face and sighed.  “Geeze, I can’t believe Mom wants me to do this.  It’s absurd.”  Smiling, he removed his hand and looked over at Reese, who was biting her lip and concentrating intently on her glass.  Her chin was shaking, as though she were trying to speak, but couldn’t bring herself to say the words.  The smile left his face.  “What?”

                Still looking into her glass, she said, quietly, “Speaking of drunken honesty, I guess someone should tell you before we get there.” 

                She stopped, and Rick leaned forward toward her.  “Yes?” 

Finally, she looked up at him and attempted a half-smile.  “Frank Felt and his band of merry men are going to be there.”

                Frank Felt was the famous, or notorious, rather, leader of the Northfolk Baptist Church in Northfolk, South Dakota.  Frank, along with his entire congregation, made a habit of taking field trips around the country, protesting gatherings and funerals of causes and people they felt were ‘fag enablers’, whatever that meant.  They even operated a website out of Northfolk Baptist, “JesusHatesQueers.com”. 

                “Why in God’s name are they coming to Dad’s funeral?” Rick said, more shocked than angry.  His father was high-profile enough to warrant one of their visits, sure—the church he had preached at for thirty-five years had grown into the largest Mega Church in Nebraska, and was among the largest in the entire country—but he was as evangelical as Felt was, the only difference being, as far as Rick could see it, his father didn’t use quite as big of a megaphone to voice his intolerance.  “I mean, they’re on the same team, aren’t they?”

                “I don’t know,” Reese said, “but Mom told me, and I checked the website, and sure enough….”  Her voice trailed off, and then she went on.  “Guess Dad wasn’t…extreme enough, or something.”

                Rick sighed, a long and drawn out exhalation, and when he had cleared his lungs he took his glass in his hand, half-empty now, and held it up off the table, at eye level.  Then he put the glass to his lips and drank the rest of the liquor in a single shot.  He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as the alcohol burned his throat and moved into his stomach.  Then he looked at Reese again and said, “What do these people even protest?  The fact that he’s dead?”

                “Yeah…you’d think there’d be red balloons instead, or something.”

                Rick shrugged.  “You know what, though…I’d almost want to be out there myself, instead of giving the eulogy.”

                She raised her eyebrow, arched it high.  She had gotten much better at it, he noticed.  “‘Almost’?”

                He laughed: she had a point.  “Yeah…you’re right.”  He paused, eyeing the empty bottle setting in the middle of the table.  “Difference is, though…We can talk about all these things we want to do, wish we could do….”  He trailed off, let the thought float into the air.

                Reese reached up and snatched it, finished the statement.  “Doing them, though, is something else.” 

                He nodded, then opened his mouth to speak.  But he closed it again before any words came out, instead said, “I think I need to get to sleep.” 

                What he was going to say, was that he had just written the eulogy, in his head.  But his sister, had he told her this, would have wanted to hear a dry run.  So he stood from the table, told her Goodnight, and went into the living room.

~

                When Rick awoke the next morning, staring up at the living room ceiling from the couch, his first thought was: My head doesn’t hurt.  He looked at the clock on the wall across the room from where he lay: 8:05.  Above him, he heard movement, the busy, scurrying steps of two women rushing to dress and apply makeup.             He sat up on the couch and immediately felt dizzy.  That’s why he wasn’t hung over, he realized, and actually said, “Oh,” aloud: he was still drunk. 

                He heard footsteps coming down the stairs, and looked toward the staircase just as his mother descended.  She stopped at the bottom step and crossed her arms around her waist.  “You’re awake, finally,” she said. 

                “‘Finally’?” he asked, scratching the side of this head.  “It’s only eight o’clock.”  The funeral wasn’t until eleven.

She rolled her eyes.  “So by all means, let’s get there at the last moment.”

                “Can’t we do this tomorrow?” he asked.  “We can go see a movie today, instead.”  Before she could say anything, he stood up and said, “I’m kidding.  I just need a shower.”  He smiled in her direction, and was momentarily blinded by the sun, shooting in through the blinds in the hallway.  He held his hand to block the light.  “I’ll still be ready before you two.”

                His mother hovered at the bottom step still, and rested her hand on the banister.  “I put your suitcase in the hallway upstairs.  I’ll be done in the bathroom in a minute.”  She started back up again. 

“Hey Mom,” he said, and she stopped.  “When were you going to tell me about Felt?”

                He saw her shoulders slump.  Without turning, she said, “If I had told you, would you have come?”

                “No,” he said.  “But that’s the point.”

                She went back upstairs then, and Rick sat down upon the couch.  He stared at his reflection in the blank screen of the television set against the wall and waited, until Reese peeked down from the stairway and said that he could have the bathroom.  He rose to his feet again, and made his way, slowly, across the living room, to the hallway and up the stairs.  He found his suitcase, right where his mother had said it would be, with the hanger his suit was on draped across it. 

                He moved slowly, once in the bathroom, but, as per his prediction, was still able to brush his teeth, shower and dress before Reese had unwrapped the towel from around her head or his mother had even started her makeup.  He went back downstairs and into the kitchen, started a pot of coffee and sat at the table, opened the newspaper, waiting for the coffee to brew. 

                From behind him, his mother’s voice.  “Are you ready to go?”

                He turned to her, frowning.  She was wearing a long, flowing black dress.  “Two minutes ago you were in a bathrobe,” he said.

                She shrugged.  “You get to a certain age, it doesn’t take long to get ready anymore.”

                He closed the paper.  “Coffee’s not even done yet.”

                “You should have gotten up earlier, then.”

                “Funny.”

                They took Reese’s car, and Rick sat beside her in the front, with their mother in the back.  They drove in silence, most of the ten miles from the house to the graveyard.  It was only when they left most signs of urban development behind them and trees started to outnumber houses that Rick felt his mother’s hand on his shoulder, and she said, “Honey, I hope you’re ready for this.”

                He shifted the shoulder downward, letting her hand fall into the air.  As they neared the graveyard, and the first white poster board sign came into view, Rick said, “Remember, Mom: this was your idea, me doing this.” 

                They were ugly people, Fred Felt’s crew; a type of ugly that originated within the heart and other major organs, and then, as it pulsed and grew, infected their outward appearances, as well.  The little boy, the first protester Rick could clearly see, who couldn’t have been older than ten, maybe twelve, was short, and too thin, and his skin was an almost-horrifying mixture of ghostly white and the splotchy first signs of a long and miserable teenage life of acne suffering.  His sign read: “Queer Enablers Burn in Hell”. 

                Reese steered the car into the graveyard, passing the whole line of sign holders, who said nothing, but held their signs higher as the vehicle went by.  “You missed them,” Rick said, and she smiled. 

                At the front of the line, just past the graveyard entrance, stood the proud patriarch himself, Fred Felt.  He was a ghoul of a man, tall and sickly-looking, rather like a human skeleton with skin haphazardly stapled to the bones.  Felt was the only one in their group who didn’t hold a sign; instead, he had his arms raised high into the air, a smile of yellowed and rotting teeth beaming at the car as it passed, as he screamed a storm of vile curses in the name of God. 

                As the car slowed to a stop, Rick reached for the door handle, but he heard a click, and when he tried the door it wouldn’t open.  “Don’t,” Reese whispered beside him. 

                He looked over at her, and felt the sweat on his upper lip.  His eyes felt puffy and strained.  And he became aware that he was breathing heavily; panting, almost.  “Why not?” he managed to say.

                “Mom,” she said, still whispering.  Tears glassed the corners of her eyes. 

                From the back of the car: “I can hear you, you know,” their mother said.  “I’m not quite deaf yet.”

                “Let’s just…,” Rick started, and looked out the window again, at Fred Felt, who still smiled at him, still called out to him.  “Let’s just get this over with.”  And he unlocked the door, climbed out of the car, and walked right by Fred Felt, passing so closely he could smell the man’s stench of hate, up toward the graveyard, where a crowd had already gathered. 

                The Stanley family had a large plot, near the center of the graveyard.  Two sets of folding chairs, set up on either side of a grassy pathway, faced and led up to the open-lid coffin.  Behind it, a small granite headstone stuck out of the ground, and an empty hole in front of it seemed like an open mouth, eagerly awaiting its meal. 

                There would be no viewing for this man, no service in a small church, and then the long procession of cars, each one among them with those little purple funeral flags clipped to the radio antenna that floated and flapped in the wind, like the colors of a small army riding off to a battlefield.  No, the Stanley family—at least those who still lived in Nebraska and shared the faith—and most members of their church preferred to get the whole thing over with in a single motion—burying two birds with a single stone, as it were. 

The chairs, Rick saw as he approached the gathering, were full, all but the two front rows on the left side, and all around the edges, countless other mourners stood.  Standing at the back of the pathway, Rick stared up at the sky.  The sun shone brightly, and there were no clouds visible, in any direction. 

                Reese appeared at his side.  “They’re waiting on you,” she whispered.

                “Let them wait,” Rick said, not whispering, and he smiled when a couple of people cast disapproving glares in his direction. 

                “You were the one who said we should get this over with,” and she pushed him, not too gently, on both shoulders, and he started forward a few steps.  Everyone turned to him, and he glared back at his sister, who smiled sweetly.  Rick took a deep breath, faced the coffin again, and started forward. 

                He could hear them chanting as he walked, just outside the gates of the cemetery.  He did his best to focus on all the other sounds around him—the piano off to the side, playing a soft melody; birds chirping as they flew through the sky; his own heart, nearly exploding in his chest. 

                Rick kept walking toward the coffin, deliberately keeping his eyes trained straight ahead, not looking down into the coffin, not wanting to view his father’s face, the eyes stitched shut, the short black hair combed back, in a way the man had never combed it himself.  He wanted not to see these things, but the more he tried to not see them, the more he saw them, the more they expanded in his mind until the only thing he could see was his father, and the only thing he could hear were the words “Fag” and “Queer” and “Hell” being screamed from down below. 

                A podium with a microphone was set up in front of the coffin, but Rick didn’t take it—his own church was full, on most Sundays, of over two hundred people, and even there he only used the microphone if his throat hurt. 

                “Good morning,” he said, standing beside the podium, hands on his hips.  A couple of voices in the small crowd murmured greetings back to him.  “We’re here to…celebrate the life of Richard Stanley the First.”  He paused, looked down at his mother, who sat in a chair in the front row.  “My father.” 

                He rested his left arm upon the podium.  “My father was a preacher, just like I am.  A Man of God.  And he cared about his congregation, about his work, just like I do my own.”  He smiled.  “A measure of a man’s success, of his worth…some would say it’s how much he loves what he does.  And my father, he loved his job more than anything.” 

                A few voices sounded with “Amen”, but Rick could see his mother frowning up at him.  He looked around for Reese, but she had fallen into the crowd somewhere.  Abruptly, he took his arm off the podium and began pacing, back and forth, in front of the coffin.  “But he had a family, too, outside of the church.  My mother, his wife…there she sits today,” and he indicated toward his mother as he kept pacing.  “And his daughter, Reese, who seems to have temporarily disappeared into thin air.”  He chuckled, a forced, obviously affected gesture.  “And myself, of course.” 

                He stopped for a moment, because finally, he spotted Reese, standing far back behind the last row of chairs, her arms crossed across her chest.  As he looked at her, she shook her head, slowly, at him.  And still, he could hear them chanting. 

                Still looking out at her, Rick went on, nearly whispering, so that those sitting farther back than a few rows leaned forward to hear him, “Just because a man professes a great love, doesn’t make it so.  Doesn’t make it true.  Just because a man claims God in his corner, doesn’t make him perfect.”  Rick shrugged.  “And, just because a man has problems, doesn’t make him evil.”  Suddenly, he raised his voice to nearly a yell, as if he were back at Fairmont First Baptist, delivering a regular sermon.  “And those who turn their backs to those sinned against, should not rest easy, either, for they, you, are as bad as the sinner himself!”  He was panting, and sweating, again, and lowered his voice, his lips turned downward in a snarl, and extended his arms outward, palms facing skyward.  “You take the worst thing you’ve ever done, and you place it right next to the best…that’s the measure of a man.” 

                He raised his right slightly.  “Stand in front of hundreds of people, week after week, for years, and give them comfort.”  He lowered it, and then raised the left.  His voice nearly crumbled, cracked in two.  “Shun your first child for admitting his weaknesses…for not being as perfect as you wanted him to be.”  He shrugged.  “Which one is heavier?”  Nobody answered, of course, though Rick waited a moment, as if he expected someone to.  Then he said, whispering once again, “I shed no tears for this man, lying in this box.  I shed no tears for him.”  He looked, once again, at his mother.  She had her head held in her hands, and was looking down toward the ground; but as if she could sense him looking at her, she raised her eyes to meet his.  “Not one single tear.  I used them all up on Bobbi.”

                He didn’t wait for any reactions—that wasn’t his goal.  His goal was to make sure the man received a fitting and appropriate sendoff.  As he walked down the aisle, he did not look at his mother, and wondered, for only a moment, if she ever would speak to him again.  Rick went straight toward his sister, then past her. 

                She stopped him, put a hand on his arm, and he jerked it away violently.  “What?”

                “Where are you going?” she asked, concern weighing deeply on her face. 

                “To smoke a cigarette.”

                How far did he go before she remembered he didn’t smoke?  Rick didn’t know, but he didn’t look back to find out.  He made his way straight for Fred Felt and the protestors, who still held their signs.  And Fred himself still chanted, but stopped, smiled at Rick, as he came closer. 

                Rick halted, just several feet away from Felt, who nodded, and smiled, winked his left eye.  “Brother,” he said. 

                “What did you want from him?” Rick demanded.  “Did he not hate enough for you?”  Tears fell from his eyes, clouding his vision, and he didn’t know why he was crying, and the fact that he was crying only made him angry, which made him cry more.

                Felt narrowed his eyes, and looked upon Rick, as a father would a toddler who played with his stuffed toys, imagining them to life.  “I want only that people believe the Word of God…the true Word.”

                “He hated plenty, you bastard!” Rick said, spittle flying from his mouth.  “You have no idea how much he hated!”

                Behind him, he heard Reese.  She had finally caught up to him.  “Rick,” she said softly, and he felt her hand on his shoulder.  “Don’t be stupid.”

                “Listen to the woman,” Felt said evenly, and then, “Don’t punish the world for your own sins.”  He smiled, showing his teeth.  “There are no secrets kept from God.”

                Rick practically leapt the several feet that separated them, and his left fist connected with Felt’s jaw.  A loud crack was heard, but Rick didn’t know if it was the man’s jaw, or his own hand breaking.  Either way, Felt crumpled to the ground, his eyes glazed over, and blood began to stream from his lip. 

                Rick knelt over him, and put his face inches away from the fallen man’s, and when he spoke, his voice was a hissing whisper that he himself barely recognized as his own.  “I keep my secrets because of the way he raised me, to hate myself.”  He took the collar of Felt’s shirt in his hands.  “It’s dirt like you, who’ve made me feel like I’ve had to hide myself.  How can that be part of God’s work?”

                “Rick!” came Nikki’s strained voice.  “It’s enough!”

                “Answer me!”  He tightened his grip and started shaking the man by the collar, convulsions that started in his hands, and eventually traveled through his entire body.  “Fucking answer me!”

                Finally, Felt sputtered, a bit of blood flying up into the air and hitting Rick in the face, and he opened his eyes, smiled up at Rick.  “You, too, are a man of God,” he said softly, “a liar, just like me.  How much fun the three of us will have in Hell.”

                Suddenly, Rick felt sick to his stomach.  He released his hold on Felt, and stood, quickly.  He began backing away from the man. 

                Still lying on the ground, Felt began laughing, and called after him, “I know who I am.  I have always been sure.  Do you?  Have you ever?”

                Instead of saying anything, Rick stumbled backward, fell down to the grass, onto his knees, and began to vomit onto the ground.    

~~~

                Rick had watched them, as he sat in the grass, lower his father into the ground.  They didn’t start their work until well after everyone attending the service had left, and occasionally, now, they would cast curious glances in Rick’s direction, probably wondering just what in the hell a man in a suit, sitting down on the grass, was doing staring at them as they worked. 

                After the service had ended, Rick watched his mother walk down to the car.  She cast a single, lingering glance toward him, but then continued on her way.  Reese, after speaking to her for a moment, came over to Rick, and told him to get up.  He shook his head, said he needed to sit by himself for a while.  Looking up at her, Rick thought she looked like she would argue with him, but she only sighed, deeply, and said they would go get something to eat, and come back for him later.

                Now, long after the men had finished burying his father, Rick heard a car engine growling in the distance, and looked up to see his sister’s car coming toward him.  She parked in the same place she had parked it for the funeral, and for some reason this fact made him smile.  After the car stopped, and the engine cut out, both women got out and began walking, slowly, toward him. 

                They started side-by-side, but gradually, Rick’s mother went ahead of Reese.  For a moment, Rick had, in his mind, images of her breaking into a run and hitting him at full speed.  This, too, made him smile.

                Instead, she stopped, several feet separating them.  The sun was still high in the sky, and, depending upon where his mother stood, its rays either disappeared as if in an eclipse, or blinded him.  He wanted to ask her if she had the time, but thought better of it.  Instead, he said, “Hi, Mom.”

                She put her hands on her hips, and a slight breeze caught her dress, sent it flowing around her like a flag.  “I could slap you,” she said, softly. 

                “I know,” he said.

                “If I slapped you, I think that’d be a perfectly reasonable reaction to all of this.”

                “I know,” he said again.

                She sighed, keeping her hands on her hips, and then shook her head, like a thought had suddenly come into her head that she didn’t want to be there.  Then she looked down at him, moved her arms down so that they hung limply at her waist.  “I shouldn’t have asked you to do this,” she said.  “That was my fault.”

                Rick could think of nothing to say—nothing productive, anyway—and so he just nodded.

                “Some things, though…,” she started, but whatever thought it was that had formed in her head, remained only half-formed, as she abruptly turned, walked back toward the car. 

                After she had gone, Reese stepped toward him, and Rick smiled.  “Your turn, now?” he asked.

                “Fuck you.”

                He shrugged. 

                They stood, silent, staring at each other, for several moments.  Then Reese said, “That dumb bastard’s probably going to sue you.  You know that, right?”

                Rick nodded.  “Probably,” he said. 

                “Yeah, so, you know that was a really stupid thing to do, right?” she asked, but her lips were starting to turn upward, slightly.  And she reached a hand out toward him. 

                “Incredibly stupid,” Rick agreed, and he took her hand, let himself be raised up to his feet.

                As they walked back toward the car, Rick asked her, “What time is it?”

                She shrugged.  “About four, I think.  Maybe a little later.”

                They walked a little farther, and as they neared the car, Rick said, “So, is Mom pretty angry?”

                “Oh.  Very angry.  Yes.”

§

 

Author bio:
Joshua Mattern earned his M.A. in English from Marshall University, and in 2006 served as editor-in-chief for Marshall’s literary journal, EtCetera.  He is a past columnist for online political magazine Culture 11 and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina’s Weekly Surge magazine.  His fiction appears in Sleet magazine and Two Hawks Quarterly, and his short story, “Requiem,” has been nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize.  He lives in Huntington, West Virginia, working as an advocate for the Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless.
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~ by jwoodall on November 22, 2009.

One Response to “Measure of a Man”

  1. […] I just read “Measure of a Man” by Joshua Mattern over at The Write Room and wanted to recommend it to everyone. There’s a lot going on in this […]

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