I will always find amusement in the sight of breath, in the pale smoke that escapes as I purse my lips and blow into the cold, still breeze. As a child, I would try to pull the breath back into my body. I would inhale, focusing as best as I could, but the breath never returned. Instead, I’d watch as it drifted away from me. Here, two years into undergrad, I find myself retreating into that boy. I exhale and watch as the vapor becomes life in the winter air. All the while, Mary holds my hand, the two of us trying to transfer a warmth we know is absent.
Teddy Hudson stands across from us, eyes hollowed out. Now is the time when patrons are expected to console the family members of the deceased, but Mary and I stay put and let the other mourners take their turns. They circle steadily, their routes carefully planned and executed. I had spent the week prior checking in on Teddy at his dorm, only to rebuffed with an “I’m fine” each time. I don't expect him to cry here. In front of these people. He will stare two craters into the ground before a single tear is released.
“He seems so—” Mary begins and lets the worlds trail into funeral silence.
He seems so angry, but she will say “empty” … or “dejected” if she feels poetic enough.
“—dejected,” she whispers.
My hands begins to shiver; my body begins to stiffen, and I worry this will cause Mary some unease. My body turns cold under duress like a bizzaro pressure cooker. Sometimes, I wonder if she ever gets cold. She has borrowed my coats, has snuggled up to me in a cold room, has said the words, "I'm cold," yet still I wonder.
I notice Teddy shivering. Other mourners huddle around him. They, too, are incapable of providing warmth. I want to feel sad like them, but I have no connection to the man. He often referred to me as “Teddy's nigger friend.” Whenever I saw him, living in the darkened back room of Teddy’s house and looking like Nosferatu in tomb, spooked by the slightest noise or movement, he was too sick and too detached from his surroundings to even register as human. To me, he is yet another old man in a vast sea of old men who have departed from the world. Maybe he's in heaven. Maybe not. Maybe he's exiting the womb of whatever creature he would have been reincarnated as. Sloth perhaps?
A contraption has been rigged to slowly lower the coffin. The device is composed of four conveyor belts controlled by a crank and a solemn man whose face suggests he only ever hears the tune of a solitary violin, and it turns and turns until the body is six feet closer to the core. I wonder if coffins used to be dropped into the hole, like coins from a building.
Mary, too, studies the casket-lowering-device or, at least, appears to be. I have been reading myself into her these past few months which excites, frightens, confuses me. We started college together, just a year prior—the beginning of our life, our real life, we told each other—and now we stand watching the epilogue of someone else’s. My first impulse is to ask if we could take a turn on the coffin crank, but instead, I lean into Mary and whisper that I want to go wherever she will spend the afterlife—whether that's heaven or hell or the nothingness that nihilists write about—and she chuckles but throws her hand over her mouth before the sound escapes. I tell her that I believe in the philosophy of love, in the beauty to which poets devote their lives, in romance, in Biblical love-is-patient-love-is-kind-love-is-so-on-and-so-forth love, the kind of love that would compel me to spend an eternity on the River Styx if it meant floating it with her, and she, the devout Christian who has read of the horrors and of the fires that burn forever and of the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, nods and grins. She whispers back that she’ll certainly have a mansion in heaven but will make weekend visits to my hell hovel. Our conversation has attracted the attention of an elderly man who is making the shh… gesture without sound, an amusing but disconcerting tableau. I try to make a face at Teddy, but he is still staring down at his feet. Mary asks what we should do, and I stare silently at Teddy as he pats the side of his pants.
Teddy Hudson's grandpa had been married 61 years and surely must have believed in love too. He had only moved into Teddy’s house when his wife, Teddy’s grandmother, died four years ago, and according to Teddy, her death had hollowed him out (no word on if it sparked the racism too). At 16, we liked to stare at him from the end of the hallway, stare as he stood lonely in the corner of the room, rubbing his frail hands along the surface of the wall for hours on end. Some part of us wondered what it’d be like to watch a man die, petting the wall one moment and teetering over the next, but he didn’t pass until we had left for college. After he got the call, Teddy must have seen the old man at the end of that hallway, the images must have come hurdling back to him. He must have cried then. One night, bored and staring at Old Man Hudson’s living corpse, Teddy told me that his grandparents had placed a bet on who’d die first. When I asked what his grandpa had won, having survived longest, Teddy replied, “I dunno,” and the words took on an unsettling poignancy watching the frail old man pet the wall, steady and slow. I imagined Grandma and Grandpa Hudson kissed after the bet was placed, loser’s coffin is made of the lesser wood or something, a cute, quirky moment in relationship aging like wine.
That'll be Mary and I, I think, the one thing the old Hudson’s and I have in common. I try to see us 61 years into the future, drawing straws for who’d be the first to kick it, so to speak, only we’d both draw the same length straw, no, we’d draw the same straw, Lady and the Tramp style, and our old bodies would wither at the same pace until two curious teenagers learn the true meaning of be careful what you wish for and stumble on our shriveled, frail bodies wrapped around each other, motionless, and someday, you, yes you, will stand here in the cold, watching your breath escape, as they lower us into the ground. You will traverse the graveyard, realizing that beneath your feet are the corpses of a dead generation, of love not ended but postponed.
I try to make a heart with my breath, but all that comes out is the familiar formless vapor. It occurs to me that it appears as though, with my pursed lips gleefully releasing air, I am gingerly kissing the atmosphere. Embarrassed, I look down and realize that I am standing on someone's grave. I motion Mary to step to her left and whisper a silent apology to the earth. She starts shivering, and I wrap my arm around her shoulder and pull her into my chest. I fear I've been too forceful, but she makes no indication of such. Instead, she drops her head onto my shoulder, nestling the crown of her head into the bend of my neck. The position makes us both uncomfortable, but neither of us complain. Teddy Hudson's grandpa is dead, but I focus on her and an ever-present cold.
Sean Enfield is a recent graduate of the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, and a current teacher of Middle School English. He has had work featured on NPR's All Things Considered as a part of their Three Minute Fiction Contest and poems published in Vine Leaves and Poetry Quarterly.