He hadn’t meant to get dirty, but it was hot and thick outside and all the dust and blacktop and stuck to his sweat. Besides, he really didn’t want to be up front. All the commotion scared him a bit and from the way the other kids were talking, Mr. Jacob would be sitting in the back of the truck, his dead body propped up like he was still alive.
“No, Matthew. Mr. Jacob is in a box. A coffin.”
“Can he breathe in there, mom?”
“He’s dead, Matthew. Dead people don’t breathe.”
Matthew left it at that because he didn’t want to talk about what it means to be dead. That’s all his brothers and sisters were going on about and listening to them made him feel like someone was poking holes in his stomach.
He found a milk crate in the shed and shoved it over to the side window. He wouldn’t miss a thing from there. The shed - once a place where his father kept his tools and now a rotting corpse of crumbled brick - looked right down the driveway and towards the street, giving Matthew a fine a view of all his family and neighbors gathering by the roadside. He settled in and waited. For what, he wasn’t sure. But he knew from the way the older kids were talking that they had done this before and that it was a big deal to have a dead guy paraded down your street. He just wished Mr. Jacob wasn’t the one being dead today. He liked Mr. Jacob. He was the only grown up who ever smiled like he remembered what it’s like to be happy.
Yellow. Years later when Matthew would think about this day he would recall how everything was tinged in yellow. Not the yellow of daisies and crayon suns, but a brownish, dirty yellow that cast an eerie glow on the death circus he watched from the shed window.
For three days after Mr. Jacob died, the sky had been bloated with thunderstorms that wouldn’t budge. Matthew’s mother and father stood outside every morning and said “gonna be a big storm today,” but it never rained, never thundered and the sky just turned yellow and gray and brown like it was rotting. And as Mr. Jacobs's funeral procession approached Matthew’s house, all rumbling tires and crying women, the clouds seemed to sink under the weight of the storm they were holding in and the sky felt lower, like it was pressing down on them and forcing the whole world to bathe in its weird storm-glow. The dirt road, the dry hedges, the gossiping women and stoic men and oblivious children playing by the porch - they were all tinged dirty yellow and it hurt Matthew’s eyes to look.
The pick-up rounded a corner and was headed toward Matthew’s house. Every child stopped moving. Every woman stopped talking. Matthew held his breath, afraid to make a sound and break the spell of revered quiet. There were only a few sounds; tires doing a slow turn over dirt and Mrs. Jacob, held up by Matthew’s mother and aunt, praying and crying. Her whispered sobs carried loud like echos.
Matthew, still holding his breath, watched the trick get closer and only when the noise of the wheels on dirt was enough to drown out Mrs. Jacob, he began to breathe again.
The truck was open in the back and had a makeshift wooden bench on each side of the truck bed. On each bench sat three men and between them, on the floor, was Mr. Jacob, resting comfortably dead in a wooden box. The men were all dusty boots and squinty eyes, dressed in the same hats and flannel shirts and faded work pants. Their expressions never changed as they stared into the crowd of people that followed them on foot. Their faces were worn and filled with lines like etched stone and as the wind kicked up and the hems of their pants ands cuffs of their shirts flapped and fluttered, they never flinched not even as wind-carried dirt settled on their lips and flew into their eyes. Every few seconds the long box would shift and the men would all bend down at once and push the box back.
As the truck moved right in front of Mrs. Jacob, the men all took off their hats and bowed their heads and Mrs. Jacob wailed, a sound that made Matthew’s heart feel squeezed and tight. Matthew’s mother and some other women were trying to keep the widow from running into the street, but Mrs. Jacobs’s grief carried her away from grasping arms and she ran toward the pick-up truck, trailing it, holding up her long funeral skirt as she half-ran, half-stumbled and the driver of the truck sped up just a little and later - years later - Matthew would wonder if the driver was trying to get away from Mrs. Jacob or trying to keep her from reaching the truck bed. His brother would say to him “same thing, ain’t it?” And Matthew would shake his head. “No, not at all.”
Later, when the sky finally cracked and the rain flushed the yellow from the sky, turning it black and brown, Matthew sat on his front stoop with his mother, eating a piece of pie and looking at the very spot where just this morning Mr. Jacobs passed by his house for the very last time. Matthew knew then this would be one of those things he would remember forever, that one day he’d be sitting on the porch like his father before him, telling stories about his childhood, and this would be one of them. Even if as the years went on the colors would change or the pitch of Mrs. Jacob’s cry would get louder or tiny flaws of memories would change the snapshot in some way, it would always be there, hanging like a poster in his mind.Copyright Michele Catalano 2005