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When Biannie Burton’s abusive husband Charlie dies in a motorcycle accident, she looks forward to creating a new life for herself and her family, never dreaming Charlie will be more trouble dead than he ever was alive.
Four days later, Biannie found herself where she’d never have dreamed in a thousand years she’d be—in the sanctuary of the funeral home chapel in her rented wheelchair.
Charlie was dead. Between one breath and another, her whole life had changed. Charlie had stormed from their house in a flaming temper, leaving her curled in agony on the floor. He’d died on the deserted highway near Lake Overholser.
Eldon helped her onto the thinly padded pew at the front of the large echoing room, guarding her arm, and easing her down so her ribs didn’t protest. Ken moved the wheelchair to one side out of the aisle. Her Charlie-look-alike son Ken, nineteen and angry, sat on one side of her. Eldon, her seventeen-year-old warrior, sat on the other. Ken shifted restlessly. Eldon stared at the floor as he folded and unfolded the small funeral home brochure with Charlie’s biography.
Biannie took her first good, clear look at the altar.
A large photo of Charlie nestled in a mountain of flowers—a glorious mix of roses, lilies, Gerbera daisies and other assorted blossoms. She glanced nervously at Giang. The flowers should have been white for a funeral. She watched her mother’s mouth tense.
“Colored flowers?” Giang whispered to Biannie.
“I didn’t order flowers.”
Charlie in his funeral portrait was a good-looking man. His blond hair, a little too long, touched the collar of his blue shirt, and his signature Wyatt Earp mustache drooped over his mouth and hid the smallness of it. He gazed out at the mourners as he had at the photographer, with a charming smile.
A bowl of rice occupied the most prominent spot in front of his 16” X 20” face. It was a beautiful bowl, white porcelain background with an array of colorful flowers. A pair of red chopsticks stuck out of the rice. Beside the bowl, a small votive candle gleamed in a frosted glass holder, and beside it a squat blue and white vase supported slender sticks of incense.
“Mom.” Biannie hid her bruised face in her hand for a moment. “We’re Americans now, Mom.”
“You maybe American. I’m Vietnamese.”
Biannie stared straight ahead, her lips tight to hold in words that couldn’t be unsaid. She loved her mother, she truly did, but she hated the details of her that made her different from other mothers. Biannie hated her own clipped way of speaking with the slightly nasal tone that she’d absorbed from Giang without knowing it. She hated the way her mother used her hands so dramatically when she was telling a story even though she was a good storyteller. She hated feeling different, feeling like she was on the outside looking in at a banquet that was set for someone else, never for her. She hated that her damned stubborn pride had kept her with Charlie long after she should have packed her bags and left.
“Which country oldest, this country or mine?” Giang stared straight ahead, unwilling to let the argument end, anger vibrating from her tiny body.
Biannie could see the light from the altar reflected in her mother’s thick glasses, and on her face with skin stretched tightly over her skull. It occurred to her that her mother was getting older, and that because of Charlie, they approached a confrontation that neither stubborn woman could win. Biannie backed away from the impasse. “What would Dad have said?” she finally managed to whisper.
“He’d have added some Greek nonsense,” Giang answered. “You lucky he not here. Now hush and show some respect.” She straightened her shoulders as the other mourners stirred and rustled around them. “Even though Charlie Burton don’t deserve respect,” she muttered moments later.
“Where did all the flowers come from,” Biannie said. “They must have cost a fortune.”
“Should be the white flowers.” Her mother faced the pulpit and Charlie’s large photo.
Biannie still wasn’t sure just how that evening four days before had played out. She remembered Charlie and his fists and his belt. She remembered the ride to emergency and the young doctor saying to her, “Ah, Mrs. Burton, been tormenting the tiger again, I see,” as he cleaned the abrasions on her face, taped her bruised and damaged ribs and immobilized her severely sprained left arm in a blue cloth sling.
She remembered Ken driving her home from the hospital with a silently furious Eldon crouched in the back seat. She remembered the two young policemen on the porch of their house, a matched pair, one blond, one dark like her sons. She remembered disjointed phrases, something about the Thirty-ninth Expressway and the bridge abutment. She remembered the stillness of the house when the boys went with the policemen to identify Charlie’s body.
Now his absence surrounded her. Charlie was gone. He was dead. The festering boil that was Charlie on the warpath had been lanced and neutralized by an immovable ledge of stone and concrete. It was too soon to do anything but struggle to make sense of all of the changes swirling around her. But already her home had a different feel, a quieter feel.
Her most recent pain pill had worn off, leaving her face throbbing and her ribs aching with each breath. The sling immobilizing her left arm was an ongoing annoyance. At the pulpit, the rotund minister with the hypertensive flush on his round face was another annoyance. His voice droned like the sound of a hornet.
Her sons sat beside her, bookends of protective testosterone.
Her twice widowed war bride mother, Giang Gianopolis Landry, small, brisk and with thick glasses sliding down her nose sat on the other side of Eldon. Her dark hair was shot with bits of silver now and lay tight against her slender skull. The seat next to Giang, reserved for Charlie’s brother Marvin, was empty.
Biannie searched for the proper emotion inside her to fit this somber occasion but it was a struggle. Her wicked sense of humor that she’d learned to keep carefully hidden squirmed inside her.
Be nice, Biannie. A man’s dead.
True he was a mean bastard, but death was too final, like clipping a plant before it bloomed. Her fingers needed the feel of a pen, the smoothness of a new notebook, some way to deal with the emotions that swung from great relief with a dose of her sharp observations to bewilderment.
At this moment, in her mind, an imaginary conversation with the minister unfolded. “On a scale of one to ten, Mrs. Burton, how would you rate your husband’s memorial service?”
“I’d have to give it a minus one,” she murmured, then realized she’d spoken aloud.
The scent of the enormous collection of flowers behind the minister mixed with the several sticks of burning incense that permeated the air. Her imagined snappy reply to the minister was lost in the much more urgent thought, If I don’t get out of here, I’m going to be sick. Where in the hell did all those freaking flowers come from?
She considered pushing past everyone and fleeing up the long aisle and out into the fresh winter air, shouting, “I’m glad. I’m glad he’s gone. I hope the son of a bitch bastard rots in hell.” And she might have done that had she been uninjured, maybe not the shouting part but certainly the leaving part. Only problem, it would take her the better part of the afternoon to maneuver her wheelchair to the vestibule. Not an option.
She clenched her eyes closed and put her hand in front of her nose to divert the saccharine scent. She swallowed repeatedly and forced the minister’s interminable phrases, Biblical references and throat clearing from her mind. She focused instead on the small glimpses of her future without Charlie—trips in the new motor home that sat in their driveway, evenings on the back patio with her sons and maybe some friends. She didn’t have any friends now. Charlie had taken care of that little detail. But Charlie was no longer an issue. It shouldn’t be that tough to find a couple of women who needed a lunch partner or companion for evenings at the movies or some sports event.
Giang reached over Eldon’s shoulder and pinched her arm.
Biannie jumped. Opened her eyes. Looked around.
“You look like you sleeping,” her mother hissed. “Pay attention. Funeral nearly over.”
Biannie swallowed and nodded.
Across the aisle a man with wrestler’s shoulders and a beefsteak face sat beside another large man, this one with a dark beard threaded with strands of silver and a large turquoise ring on one finger. The first man caught her eye and gestured toward the flowers, then touched his chest and smiled.
It wasn’t a nice smile.
Was he telling her he bought the flowers? Why would he buy Charlie flowers?
She examined his face, and his smile then nodded and mouthed “Thank you,” but made it a point not to look at the two men again.
She spent the remainder of the service swallowing repeatedly, frozen with fear that she’d disgrace herself and upchuck from the overpowering flowers and incense. Finally the minister quit talking. Finally, there was the rustling of the mourners rising and filing out of the pews and heading for the vestibule.
One of the ushers brought her wheelchair and Eldon helped her into it. She could walk but only very slowly. It was easier to ride. And quicker.
The usher led them to where the receiving line had been established in the vestibule of the chapel. She and her family shook hands and nodded as people she’d never seen before marched by mouthing platitudes. When anyone asked about her battered face and her arm sling, she gave them the story Eldon had concocted about her being with Charlie on his bike and being hurt as well.
The two men from across the aisle stopped in front of her.
In a gravelly voice, the first man clasped her hand in his beefy fist and said, “That Charlie sure was a piece of work.”
Biannie nodded. Whispered, “Thank you for coming. And thank you for the flowers.”
He squeezed her hand just a bit too hard, not hard enough to cause a scene, but hard enough to make her look at him. “Me and Charlie go way back” he said, and there was that smile again. “You and me got some unfinished business. I’ll be in touch.” The other man stared at her battered face and seemed about to say something. Then he looked away and followed the beefy man out of the church.
After the condolences, the stares and the pity, it was over, an awkward moment when there were no more people in the church. They’d cremated Charlie so there was no casket to transport to the cemetery. There was nothing to do but give instructions about the flowers, give Charlie’s large photo to Ken to carry. The ceremonial bowl of rice and the vase of incense sticks rode on her lap. Giang carried the small votive candle.
The four of them left through the side entrance of the church. Eldon pushed her wheelchair with Giang holding onto the back. Ken hurried ahead to unlock the car and stash Charlie’s photo in the trunk. He then left them and crossed toward the young woman who hesitated near the front walk.
“Great,” Eldon muttered after him. “Way to go, Bro.” He helped Biannie to her feet and eased her into the front seat of Ken’s Camaro, took the bowl of rice and the blue and white jar of incense from her. These went into the trunk next to Charlie’s portrait and were followed by the collapsed wheelchair.
Then Eldon briskly reached over and fastened Biannie’s seatbelt for her. Behind her she heard the rustle of clothing and the slamming of the door as her mother climbed into the back seat.
Outside, cars were pulling away from the church parking lot. Biannie surveyed the area carefully. The uneasy, wary feeling she always got whenever Charlie was on a rampage crawled up her back. “It’s over,” she reminded herself. “It’s over. We just had the funeral to prove it.”
Eldon climbed into the back seat beside Giang. Biannie heard the soft click as he fastened his seatbelt and the whisper of cloth against cloth as he removed his black armband. Across the parking lot, Ken, her oldest son, was still talking to the young woman, his golden head close to hers.
Behind her, Eldon groaned. “Might as well relax, Mom. He’ll be a while.”
Biannie watched Ken and the girl. She thought about asking Eldon for a cigarette but her mom was in the back seat, and her mouth was too sore anyhow. And she’d been on Eldon to quit. She forced her body to relax into throbbing and burning discomfort—it was another hour before she could take a pain pill—and watched the silent dance between Ken and the girl. He looked so much like Charlie. Too much like Charlie. A punch in her stomach like Charlie each time she saw him from a distance.
But she didn’t have to think about Charlie. She could relish the fact that she and the boys were finally safe.
She could remember her mother’s arrival from Flagstaff for the funeral.
Ken had picked her up from Will Rogers Airport, and brought her to their house. Her mother’s face when she saw the bruises Charlie had left on her daughter’s face and arms spoke more clearly than words. She’d just rubbed Biannie’s shoulder. Later, totally out of context, she’d said, “Things going be better now.”
In her mind, Biannie replayed planning Charlie’s funeral with her family.
Their house had been hazy with incense after Giang arrived. “Got to clear the bad stuff out,” she’d explained and described a Vietnamese funeral, complete with banners and a procession on foot to the cemetery, impossible in sprawling Oklahoma City. The boys had joined forces and said their dad wasn’t Vietnamese, so no way in hell would they have a Vietnamese funeral for him. Eldon didn’t want to have a funeral for him at all.
Peacekeeper Biannie suggested an American funeral with the addition of black armbands or white ones, whichever her mother thought appropriate. Giang had retreated then into disapproving silence and after a moment into the guest bedroom.
So many moments during the past four days were etched into Biannie’s memory. Clearest and most unexpected had to be the moment of tenderness between her and her bristly mother.
When, after forty-five minutes, her mother hadn’t emerged from the small office turned guest room, Biannie maneuvered her wheel chair to the door and tapped gently.
Giang’s voice, muffled and odd sounding, said after a long silence, “Go away. Resting.”
Biannie hesitated. Her mother hadn’t seemed tired when they’d been brainstorming Charlie’s service, she’d seemed energized.
“Mom?” she said, then opened the door and eased her chair into the dim room. Giang sat on the bed, eyes red and tears streaking down her face. She turned from Biannie and grabbed a tissue from the box on the bedside chest, grabbed her glasses from the carved bedside chest and began polishing them.
“Mom, you’re crying.” Biannie couldn’t have been more amazed if she’d seen a mountain moving from one place to another. “Surely you’re not crying over Charlie.”
Giang shook her head, mumbled. “Hue City.”
Biannie stared. “Your home?”
“I miss it,” she said and laid her thick glasses on the lacquered chest, and rubbed her eyes. ”Nobody much left now or I go back.”
“Mom.” Biannie stared at her, her own aches and pains forgotten. In her entire life she’d never seen her mother cry.
“Oh look at me,” Giang managed. “Acting like a foolish one. This not about Charlie, this about me remembering. When your dad here, everything fine. Not too bad with that nice man, Mr. Landry.”
Biannie laughed. “Mom, you were married to that nice man for seventeen years.”
Giang laughed too, a somewhat soggy laugh. “But he not your father. I really, really mad at your father going that last time.”
“He wouldn’t have liked Charlie, would he?” For a moment the sensation of her father’s arms and the scent of his aftershave floated in her mind. Come to think of it, she was mad at him too for not being her rock when she’d needed one as a child.
“No, but he wouldn’t liked any man coming around you. You his princess.”
Yeah, right, Biannie thought. A fine princess. Didn’t have sense enough to leave Charlie after the first nasty comments, after the first slap that was supposedly in fun, after the first punch that shocked and stunned and baffled.
The two women had looked at each other, then Biannie eased out of the chair, joined her mother on the bed, reached for her and enfolded her with her good arm, a gentle healing connection for them both. “I don’t think I’ve said thank you,” Biannie said, “for keeping us here instead of running home to your parents.”
Giang’s voice was now wryly practical. “Not much choice. Parents long gone in bomb before you came along. Nothing to go back to.”
“And yet, here you are, crying. I’ve never seen you crying. Ever.”
“Shouldn’t have seen me now. Stupid woman, falling apart like this.”
“Not stupid, never stupid,” Biannie said. “The stupid one is me.”
The crunch of tires on the church’s gravel parking lot jarred Biannie out of her memories. Almost all of the cars were gone. Ken was still talking to the young woman.
Biannie shifted into a more comfortable position. The waiting silence from Eldon and Giang in the back seat filled the car.
After that unexpected moment of togetherness and tenderness with her mother, it was as if it had never happened. This morning, when Giang brought Biannie’s dark suit to help her dress for the funeral, their truce fell apart. Red threads dotted the lapel of the jacket and glowed with the neon message, this funeral is for an outsider, for someone different.
That had been too much. She’d stood, pushed her wheelchair to one side, and said in a tone she scarcely recognized as coming from her own mouth, “Mom, what is this?”
Before Giang could answer, Eldon exploded into the room, his coat held out for her inspection. Red threads. Ken followed a moment later, his suit jacket also decorated with the bits of red.
“Mom?” Eldon’s voice
Biannie, mouth tight, sat again in the wheelchair and said, “Ask your grandmother.”
“Can’t take too many chances,” Giang said calmly before the boys could speak. “That Charlie bad man.”
“What part of Vietnam does this custom come from,” Eldon asked in a tight voice, cutting off Biannie before she said things she’d regret later.
“Oh, this not Vietnamese custom,” Giang answered as if any fool knew that. “I found it on the computer. Thai, I think. That Charlie, he a really bad man and we sure don’t want him hanging around.”
Under Giang’s steely eyes, Biannie and her sons agreed that Charlie hanging around was a bad idea. And they’d shown up at the church, Biannie in the wheelchair, her sons and her mother behind her, black armbands in place and looking slightly tattered with the red threads scattered on their dark clothing. The dark clothing was another thorn in Giang’s spirit, but they didn’t own any white clothing suitable for a funeral.
Biannie decided that when she finally had a moment to write in her journal, the episode of the red threads would be the first segment she wrote.
Her fingers itched for her journal and a hidden place alone where she could record and try to understand these bizarre past days, where she could digest everything that had happened since Charlie . . . bit the dust. That phrase, cliché though it was, would go into her journal for sure. Damned if he hadn’t gone face first into the concrete when he’d crashed into that bridge abutment.
Now, in Ken’s Camaro, watching the parking lot empty, Biannie closed her eyes and pictured a pack of cigarettes, hell, the whole carton of cigarettes, hidden in her bathroom behind the towels and the box of Tampons. She imagined herself on their back patio, no one around, just her, smoking her cigarette, and the wonderful relaxation as the nicotine spread through her body. She could feel the good old Oklahoma breeze, probably with a bite, given the season. She could feel herself unfolding like a flower, opening up to the new possibilities in her life.
A car door slammed somewhere and she absently noted a black Cadillac Escalade and a huge red pickup parked together across the lot from them. All the other cars were gone. The dormant writer in her kicked in, her imagination flaring into action. Why weren’t those folks leaving? Were they talking on their phones? Planning where to go for a late lunch? Waiting on the minister?
Get over it, Biannie told herself.
Don’t be ridiculous. Nothing to do with us, she told herself, and almost believed it.
She looked at her watch and then at Ken, her Charlie-look-alike son, crossing the asphalt toward them.
Ken climbed into the driver’s seat, breaking the moment, scattering her memory fragments. He slipped on his sunglasses, and turned toward her, his movements a complete duplication of Charlie’s movements. “Any place else you need to go?” he asked briskly as he inserted the key and coaxed the engine to life. “I’ve got a date tonight.”
Behind him, Eldon laughed. “Does she have a sister?”
Biannie shook her head, fumbled in her purse for a cigarette, registered what she was doing, and quickly set the purse on the floor. Ken eased the Camaro out of the now empty parking lot, and into the street, the powerful motor rumbling beneath them.
“Now maybe you get some sense,” Giang said from the back seat, “and finish the school.”
Biannie clenched her hands. “I don’t know what I’ll do, Mom,” she said carefully. “First thing, I’m going to take some time.”
Giang shook her head. “You think you have time. Time like sand, dribble through the finger and gone.”
Biannie closed her eyes and held her silence. She finally had a chance, a small window, to find what she wanted her life to be like. She’d lived her mother’s life until Charlie parked next to her and her friends at that drive-in hamburger place and started courting her big time. Now with Charlie gone, her mom didn’t get a do-over of their earlier mother/child relationship.
But what would she do? There were too many questions to be answered. For the past twenty-two years Charlie had been the driving force in her life, the one who said where they’d go and what they’d do when they got there. She remembered the young Biannie she’d been once upon a time, before Charlie.
The odd service they’d just left hadn’t given her the closure she’d hoped for. Charlie was dead. She knew that. Her sons had gone to the morgue with the two officers and come back shaken but sure. Charlie was dead.
Trouble was, he didn’t feel dead.
Her mind told her they were out of a bad situation, one that had been getting worse.
Her instinct told her nothing in her life had ever been that easy. Even from the grave, Charlie probably had a couple of ugly surprises waiting for them.
Gradually Biannie became aware of throbbing Salsa music growing louder. Guarding her sore ribs, she twisted carefully in her seat as Ken pulled onto Classen Boulevard and turned them toward home. With its sound system blaring, the monster-sized red truck from the church parking lot nosed in behind them.
CHAPTER 3 TUESDAY