“Your daddy was a rascal,” the preacher’s sister said to Jim.
“That he was,” Jim replied thinking, you have no idea. He looked around for an avenue of escape and spotted his grandson talking to Clarence’s two best friends, all three of them giggling like fools about something. “Will you excuse me Miss Ella? I see some folks I need to talk to.”
He had sidled away before she could frame a reply. As much as Jim admired Ella Rossmore for her good works and tasty caramel cake, he knew she’d been lonely since her husband died and was looking for someone else to dote on.
Jim didn’t do “dote.”
“There he is,” Thomas said as Jim approached. “Come here and give me a hug.”
Jim really didn’t do “hug” either but the old man reached out and embraced him whole-heartedly and unself-consciously.
Ignacio was a little more reserved, and just reached out with his liver-spotted hands to clasp Jim’s hand. “God damn I’m going to miss him,” he said, earning a sharp glance from a passing woman Jim didn’t know.
There were a lot of people he didn’t know. That didn’t surprise him. His father had collected people the way other people collected pennies in their pockets—without even trying. Three different people had told him they’d met Clarence while serving on jury duty with him. One, a woman who looked like her name should be “Muffy” or “Buffy” or something, seemed particularly overcome. She’d reached right into the casket to pat Clarence’s cold hands, then turned away with tears in her eyes.
That had made Jim angry for some reason. You didn’t know my father, he’d thought to himself. You don’t have the right to cry for him.
Jim’s head hurt. The flowers were playing hell with his allergies.
The viewing had started at one and it was still standing room only. Jim wished he still smoked because going out for a cigarette would have given him an excuse to leave for a little bit.
“What were y’all laughing about?” Jim asked, thinking, I could use a laugh about now.
Ignacio looked at Thomas and Thomas looked back and both of them burst into laughter again. Jim looked at Ty, who looked like he was about to bust.
He gave the boy his best stink-eye. “What’s going on?”
“It’s a secret,” Ty said, trying to compose himself.
Irritated, Jim looked around for James. “Where’s your daddy?” he asked Ty.
“He’s with Dina,” Ty said and pointed. Jim looked over and saw his son in earnest conversation with the woman he’d been dating since January. There wasn’t enough space between their bodies for Ty to pass through.
Good for him, Jim thought, even as a pang of something he recognized as jealousy rose up in him.
Jim didn’t do jealousy but surrounded by all his father’s friends it suddenly occurred to him that he really didn’t have friends—not like his father did and not like his son either. Thomas and Ignacio had been in his life from the moment he came to live with Clarence and Mama Pearl. Their kids had been like his cousins—kissing cousins in the case of Ignacio’s daughter Connie—and all three had been tight until high school when she fell in love with Ricky Martorelli, who got them both killed in a motorcycle accident. Thomas junior had enlisted on his 18th birthday and had gone missing in action six months later. Jim had worn an MIA bracelet with his name on it for years until Thomas finally told him to throw it away, that he couldn’t bear seeing it any more.
Jim had taken the bracelet off but he hadn’t thrown it away. Thomas had been the best friend he’d ever had.
He blinked away the thought.
“Oh my lord,” said another woman Jim didn’t know, staring open-mouthed at the door.
Jim turned in time to see a large young woman in a small black dress walk over to the casket and stare down at Clarence.
She was wearing a black veil that did nothing to disguise her voluptuous features or cover her magnificent chest.
Every eye on the room was on her as she kissed the rose in her hand and then dropped it into the casket with Clarence.
Conscious of being the focus of the room, the woman turned as if on a Milan runway and sauntered out.
Jim could see James’ shock halfway across the room. And then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught Thomas and Ignacio elbowing each other like frat boys at a smoker.
“Don’t be mad,” Thomas said as he saw Jim’s expression.
Too late, Jim thought.
“Who is she?”
“Rolanda,” Ignacio said. “She’s Clyde’s hospice nurse.”
Clyde was his father’s other best friend, bedridden now with cancer. “Clarence was always flirting with her,” Thomas explained. “He admired her titties.”
Ty giggled at the word “titties.”
“Don’t encourage them,” Jim said to his grandson.
“Rolanda’s a good girl,” Thomas said. “She liked Clarence.”
“You should have seen your expression,” Ignacio said, gasping out an emphysemic laugh.
Jim shook his head sourly. “You shouldn’t have …” he began. “It wasn’t dignified,” he added, knowing that he sounded like a total prig.
Suddenly Ella was standing next to them, eyes wide with curiosity. “Who was that …?”
…Hoochie mama? Jim thought, completing her unspoken judgment. He glanced at his father’s best friends and suddenly realized that his father would have appreciated the moment better than anyone.
What the hell he thought.
“She’s an old friend of my father’s,” he said.
“A very dear friend,” Ignacio said.
“A very close friend,” Thomas added.
Ella pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows inquiringly.
Jim gave her a sheepish look in return.
“A very dear and close friend,” he confirmed.