Sister Francis’ long black coat whipped behind her in the wind, clipping the heads off dying dandelions and scattering white fluff into the air behind her. Two by two she led us like a grim reaper with a yard stick across the soccer field and into the funeral home. The muddy earth and damp, saturated air provided perfect weather for rubber boots and coincidentally for Ethel’s wake. That morning, Daddy hadn’t come home again so Mama decided it would be okay to give me my new yellow rubber boots without him. Ethel used to have a red pair and we would always sing Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head whenever it rained on our way home from school. Mama made me promise not to wear my new boots today, but she seemed more upset over Daddy than usual and didn’t notice when I slipped them into my bag.
As the other children entered the church to pay their respects like the good Catholic classmates that they were, they each wiped their black Mary Janes and brown penny loafers on the front mat, while my boots squeaked and squawked up the center aisle. Sister Francis instructed us to approach the casket two by two and say a prayer. I never saw a dead body before. Ethel just looked like she was asleep. The girl beside me reached inside and touched Ethel’s hand. “Don’t!” I said, but I secretly wanted to touch her, too. I wanted to wake Ethel up and pretend that we were in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I wanted to be Sundance and she could be Etta Place. I wanted to know if she had worn her red rubber boots today.
As we exited the funeral home, my rubber boots still squealed against the wet floorboards. I could feel the adults in the room watching me as I walked. They were all whispering and pointing at my noisy new boots. Someone began to laugh. I didn’t think you were supposed to laugh at a wake.
That afternoon, I walked home alone from school to find Daddy’s car in the driveway. Brown boxes were thrown into the back seat and the trunk was held shut with a frayed bungee cord. It kind of looked like something from one of those old movies Daddy loved to watch when they came on TV. Maybe he came home to whisk Mama off on a fabulous weekend getaway, or maybe he would take us all someplace far away like in Roman Holiday or Casablanca. As I began to pull back the screen door, I could hear Daddy shouting inside. I walked in to find Mama stooped over the oven crying into a pan of uncooked bread, and Daddy in the living room buckling a suitcase. “Where are you going?” I asked. “Today’s my birthday.”
He just stared at me for a moment and then down at my yellow boots. “You already got your birthday present, I see.” He turned away, picked up his suitcase, and walked past me. The screen door screeched open and then slammed shut.
The next day they buried Ethel. I buried the boots. After the service, I stood unseen, watching from the woods at the edge of the cemetery. At dusk, when the last pile of earth had been patted in place, I turned back toward home. The line “We’ll always have Paris” ran through my mind as wet grass and cool mud squished between bare toes.
Jamie Feldman writes in Nova Scotia, Canada.