Howard glanced down at the watch on his wrist. The little hand lay a few notches past the eight, while the bigger hand rest directly over the six. He had missed the 8:24am express bus by two minutes, instead catching the 8:33am local. This unfortunate delay meant that he would not be able to stop off for coffee on his way to the funeral, which he had really been looking forward to. He’d anticipated getting one of those new moca-frappa-whatcha-call-its from the café that had just opened up on the corner of 6th Avenue. He’d been noticing a lot of the college kids going there in the early morning lately, their faces still smooth and contorted with the hopeful expressions of the naive. He’d overheard one of the blonde girls talking about how great her sugary coffee was and he swore he’d get one himself. Apparently that had been a lie.
A homeless man had boarded the bus while Howard daydreamed of his coffee, a cup of coins jingling in his remarkably dirty hands. He was now bent over the seat in front of Howard, grabbing some some sort of charitable donation from the elderly woman who sat there. Howard picked up the crumpled New York Times a previous passenger had left on the seat before him and opened up to the politics section. Howard did not care much for politics, nor for any of the republican candidates who were now throwing their hats into the ring. All he cared about was not being bothered by the smelly homeless man now standing over him.
Howard pretended to read the newspaper as the man shook his cup beside his face, eyes down as the man turned and continued walking to the seat behind him. In reality, Howard was not actually reading the newspaper. Instead, he was thinking of the funeral he was on his way to attend. He had not had the opportunity to meet the recently deceased, yet his mother was certainly upset about his passing. She had left a cryptic, tearful message on his answering machine, explaining she would be at the funeral for a final goodbye, and then refused to return his calls. He always worried when she did that, when he struggled to reach her. He was never sure if it was because she was off playing bridge, as she often did on weeknights, or if she had succumbed to the unfortunate effects of growing old. He figured, however, that he would probably find her at the funeral.
The homeless man was now making his way down the opposite aisle of the bus, his cup still jingling in his filthy hand as Howard turned the page of the newspaper. He was staring blankly at the sports section, which he cared about even less than the politics section. The only experience Howard had with sports was tied directly to being thrown into lockers repeatedly by various sports teams while growing up. Aside from that, he was not entirely sure he could tell the difference between Football and Basketball. All he knew was that one of the two sports probably involved using feet.
The bus came to a stop, the driver’s almost impossible to understand voice announcing something about 267th Street. That was his stop, or rather as close as he could get to his stop. Had he caught the 8:24 express bus, he would’ve been dropped off just a mere block away from the cemetery. Unfortunately, the local bus dropped its passengers off a whopping four blocks away from the cemetery. He could have ridden it another stop, but that would’ve left him five blocks. This seemed the better option.
Howard pushed himself up and out of the seat, and then began down the aisle. The homeless man was still jingling his cup of coins, his upsettingly dirty coat rubbing against the neatly dressed folks on their way to work. None of them looked up at the begging man, but it was obvious to tell they only did so out of the sheer uncomfortableness of the situation. Each one of them would’ve clearly preferred not having their work attire be infested with the possibility of bedbugs and scabies. Howard, likewise, did not want such a fate. Yet as he passed the homeless man, his eyes locked on the bus floor to avoid any potential conversation, he felt the man’s infested coat rub up against his brand new overcoat. He made a mental note to wash it as he stepped off the bus.
Rather than walking at his usual pace, Howard decided to speed walk to the cemetery. By his calculations, he only had a mere fifteen minutes until the reception started. Was it called a reception? Howard had never been to a funeral before, and therefore didn’t even know how to refer to the whole event. Instead, he decided it would be best to simply call it an ordeal. The idea of death itself, that felt like an ordeal. Having to go through unavoidable and slow process of dying, then immediately having your now-dead body unknowingly embalmed by a member of the fortunately living, only to then inconvenience everybody you knew while you were not dead by requesting they view your dead-but-not-dead-looking body, that was an ordeal.
Howard arrived at the funeral home roughly ten minutes later, which meant he had five minutes before the ordeal began. Thankfully, however, he noticed a group of people standing out front that he recognized. It was his aunt, his uncle, and their children, whom he referred to as cousins. He began toward them, careful to avoid the edge of his coat that had been desecrated by the homeless man, and then stopped. It occurred to him then that he recognized several other people: friends he had not seen since college almost two decades ago, coworkers he never saw outside of the office, a man he swore was his barber, and, standing in the corner, her face covered in some sort of a black cloth, was his mother. He was relieved to see she was not dead, nor was she out playing bridge somewhere.
Howard walked over to his mother and said hello, to which she responded by staring at him blankly for longer than Howard felt comfortable with, only breaking the silence to state that he was not dead. Howard, caught a bit off-guard by the brashness of the statement, simply shrugged his shoulders and explained he was, as far as he could tell, alive. She lunged forward and wrapped her arms around him, sobbing into his shoulder. That was not exactly the way he was accustomed to greeting his mother. However, as Howard had never before been to a funeral, he simply assumed that such an emotional response was to be expected. That remained Howard’s thought up until the moment that the rest of the funeral procession began encircling the two of them, several of them quietly repeating the same statement his mother had. Howard could only respond by stating that, as far as he could tell, he was not dead.
His mother released her grip on Howard, which was admittedly a good thing. He was starting to find it hard to breathe, which would’ve resulted in him having to adjust his previous statement about not being dead. He took a step back and smiled at everybody, not exactly sure why he had suddenly become the center of attention. In response, his uncle Mark, whom he had not seen since he and his former-Aunt Amy divorced almost a decade ago, explained that they all assumed he had died following an abnormally brief police investigation. After no body was recovered, nor any clues to his whereabouts, the worst was immediately assumed and the news quickly spread. To Howard’s surprise, he was actually in attendance at his own funeral, an uninvited guest to an otherwise private affair.
Howard took another step back and slowly stared at all the familiar faces surrounding him. Although he hadn’t seen the majority of them in varying amounts of years, with the remainder being either coworkers he only saw in the office, or his bridge-addicted mother, he couldn’t help but feel a little bit more loved than he had while riding the bus not fifteen minutes ago. Whatever the case, Howard realized that this would probably be the last time he’d go on an abrupt and unannounced vacation to the Florida Everglades. Apparently being out of contact for anything longer than a week resulted in his family, friends, and coworkers assuming the worst and throwing him a funeral. The last thing he wanted to do was have to make everybody go through such a tedious and burdensome ordeal again.