Long Bright River

On it, I find information about a mass for her. It will be at Holy Redeemer this Thursday.

There’s no viewing. The implications of this settle queasily onto me.

I intend to go.

* * *

All day, I wait for more information about the circumstances of her death. I want to watch the news, to see whether they’ve apprehended anybody, but I don’t want to frighten Thomas. Instead, I listen to local radio, using my cell phone and an old pair of headphones that I find in a box in the closet. I wear them around the apartment, doing laundry, organizing, while Thomas builds his wooden train tracks into an elaborate maze.

—What are you listening to? he says several times.

—The news, I reply.

The cruiser in the driveway has departed, but a new one comes by our house every so often, driving slowly down the street. I can see it from my bedroom window. Sometimes, I find it comforting; others, I find it threatening, foreboding, predatory. I try to keep Thomas away, but he’s quite observant, and he knows something is afoot.

The station I’m listening to is the local public radio affiliate that Lauren Spright works for. At the end of a one-hour show, I hear the host say her name.

I remember, suddenly, our encounter in Bomber Coffee, and her offer to host a get-together for Lila and Thomas. It occurs to me, in fact, that I might ask Lauren whether she could do this during Thursday’s funeral for Paula. Spring Garden Day School is closed for the week between Christmas and the New Year, which means that Lauren, too, might be at home.

I retreat again into the bedroom, call her, and leave a message, telling her I have a funeral to go to and asking if it might work for Thomas to come over at that time. A minute later, she calls me back.

—Sorry, she says. I didn’t recognize your number. That sounds great. I’ve been looking for stuff for Lila to do. This break is never ending.

Lauren laughs briefly, and then stops. I’m sorry about your friend, she says.

—Thank you, I say. She wasn’t, I say, she wasn’t a close friend. She was a friend of my sister’s more than mine.

—Still, says Lauren. A friend of the family. No one likes for anyone to die young.

—No, I say. That’s true.

Paula’s funeral is underattended, despite the fact that the PPD has finally released her name. I walk in ten minutes before the mass is due to begin, and seat myself in a pew toward the back, genuflecting out of habit before sitting.

I have two reasons for being here: The first is to pay my respects. I am not certain whether or not I believe in an afterlife, but I do believe in trying to do what is right during one’s own life, and if I don’t know with certainty, yet, that my mention of Paula’s name to the PPD led directly to her death, what I do know is that it was, at least, a betrayal of her trust. I am here, therefore, to make my amends.

The second reason: I feel it is possible that I might overhear something useful while I’m here, may hear speculation about the cause of her demise.

This morning, I dressed myself in black pants and a black shirt and realized, suddenly, that I looked like Gee in her catering uniform. So I put on a gray shirt instead, and kept my hair and face as plain and inconspicuous as possible.

Now, from my pew in the back, I can see that the first few rows on either side of the church are full, but the rest of the room is empty. I recognize most of the people in the church, either from working in the 24th or from high school. All of the attendants seem to me to be in varying degrees of sobriety today. A handful of men sit together, one of them coughing outrageously, another nodding out. A dozen women, some of whom I know I’ve brought in.

The parish, Holy Redeemer, is the one we grew up going to as kids, and the one affiliated with the first grade school we attended. It’s a big stone church, cool in the summer even with no air-conditioning, cold in the winter, as it is today. I have many memories from this church: I made my First Holy Communion here, and then Kacey did two years later, wearing the same dress. I can still see her, dressed as a tiny bride, trying to remember to walk slowly.

It is not out of the question, I know, that Kacey herself might be here. Surely she has heard by now of Paula’s death, and I thought perhaps she might make the decision to come. But I don’t see her anyplace. Not yet. Every so often, I turn back to check the door.

* * *

The service begins. The priest—Father Steven, who has been here so long that he also led our mother’s service—speaks quickly, intoning the rites. I imagine, morbidly, that funeral masses in this neighborhood have increased in number in the past two decades. Father Steven seems quite accustomed to his role.

From here, I can see the profile of Paula’s mother, in the front row on the side opposite mine. She’s wearing jeans and sneakers. She doesn’t take her puffy jacket off, but keeps it wrapped around herself, another layer of protection. She has her arms crossed about her middle in an odd way, so that the palms of her hands are facing the ceiling. She is gazing down into them, as if cradling the memory of her daughter, recalling the weight and the warmth of the baby Paula. Wondering what went wrong.

Fran Mulroney, Paula’s older brother, delivers a eulogy that’s mostly about his own anger with the perpetrator. Whoever did this, he says, over and over again, wagging his head back and forth with as much menace as he can muster in a church. Father Steven clears his throat. Toward the end, Fran hints at his anger with Paula, for being in the situation she was in. He remembers her sense of humor, how sweet she was as a child. I just don’t know what happened, he says, several times.

—I wish she made better decisions, says the person who introduced everyone around him to the pills that would eventually undo them all.

* * *

    The service ends. A receiving line is forming at the back. Fran Mulroney and his mother and someone else, a grandfather, maybe, are standing at the front of it, near the main doors.

Kacey never came.

I slink down a side aisle, and then I position myself in line behind a group of women I recognize from working the 24th. They are friends of Paula’s, and were friends of my sister’s, too.

I look down at my phone, trying to be casual, in case they turn and see me. Most of them, I imagine, would recognize me, despite my lack of a uniform today.

They’re speaking in near whispers, but I can hear snippets of what they’re saying, one word every so often that gives me an indication of their views.

—That fucker, says one, and another repeats, That fucker.

At first I think they are talking about Fran Mulroney. They’re looking in his direction, at least. But then the conversation shifts, slightly. At one point I hear, distinctly, the word cop. At another I hear wrong guy. Bail, I hear. My view is mainly of the back of their heads, but every so often one of them turns to another and inclines her head to whisper something, and I catch a glimpse of her face and her expression, in quarter-turn.

Suddenly, one of them—she is standing at the front of the pack, turning back to listen to something her friend is saying—spots me and freezes.

—Yo, she says to her friend. Yo. Shut up.

All four of them, seeing where she is looking, turn in my direction. I keep my eyes on my phone, pretending not to notice. But I see, peripherally, that no one is turning back around.

The woman closest to me is short and strong looking. She’s wearing purple jeans. She points her finger right at me, almost touching my chest, so that I am forced to look up.

—You’ve got some fuckin’ nerve, she says. Showing up here.

Her hair is slicked back into a low ponytail. She wears earrings that come almost to her collar.

—I’m sorry? I say.

—You should be, says another woman.

All four of them are moving toward me now, menacingly, hands in pockets, chins thrust forward.

—Get the fuck out of here, says the woman in purple jeans.

—I don’t understand, I say.

She snorts.

—What are you, she says. Stupid?

It’s a word I’ve never liked. I frown.

The woman is snapping her fingers in my face now. Hello? she’s saying. Hello? Go home. Leave.

* * *

A sudden movement, behind my aggressors, catches my eye. Someone is entering the church, moving in the opposite direction as the departing crowd.

I don’t recognize her at first.

Her hair is light brown, as close to her natural color as I’ve seen it since she was a child. Her complexion is pale. She’s wearing glasses. I’ve never seen her wear glasses before.

Kacey. My sister.

Despite looking healthy, she also looks frazzled, running late, her belly protruding through an unzipped jacket. Under her coat, she wears a white shirt and gray sweatpants. Perhaps the only pants that fit her at the moment, I think. She is weaving, now, past the receiving line.