Reggie looks at the one sister, sitting off to the side. In another setting, she might be mistaken for a Goth girl, light on the make-up. She has been sedated, Reggie has been told, and sits very straight, swaying ever so slightly as if she were a palm tree caught in a gentle breeze. Reggie wonders if its safe to let her sit there alone like that, worries that the momentum will gather until suddenly she just topples over.
The other sister is in a tight-fitting, low-cut black dress under a square-cut shorty jacket with elbow-length sleeves. On her head sits a black pillbox hat with a shoulder-length black veil speckled with black velvet dots. Reggie wonders idly where she has seen this hat before, then thinks perhaps it was on Jackie Kennedy at JFK's funeral some twenty-five years prior. The woman in the pillbox hat is wailing in an ostentatious fashion and flailing at a man in a black suit whom Reggie thinks she remembers is the sister's husband.
She looks for Angela, sister to the aforementioned sisters and Reggie's reason for being here. Reggie finds her in a huddle of weepers, which acts as a sort of choral backdrop to the whole event -- with occasional soloists, it appears, as one of the women lets out a piercing cry and would slump to the floor if it weren't for the arms on either side of her holding her up. Wakes were never like this in Ixonia. And she asks herself, not for the first time, if it was a good idea to come here.
But then she remembers why she did. The phone call came toward the end of Reggie's third date with Angela -- which is to say, first thing in the morning: after a long, long, long illness, Angela's grandmother had died. Furthermore, Reggie remembers calculating later that the grandmother's last shudder of breath -- for they hear all of the details later that morning at Angela's mother's house -- came at approximately the same time as a particularly intimate moment in the date. After all that, Reggie feels that she is part of all this somehow, and it is only right that she come to the wake. And although three dates does not represent much of anything by most people's standards, for lesbians, it is tantamount to a commitment, so of course she's here, standing off to the side, feeling the wrinkles in her panty hose beginning to gather in coils around her ankles, which she forces herself not to confirm by looking lest she draw attention to herself.
Despite the fact that she is wearing panty hose, things feel pretty airy to her under the large floral print skirt she is wearing; she wishes now she had opted instead for her usual attire of pants. She feels chilly, even with the pink angora sweater she is wearing. She sneaks a peek at her ankles anyway, and the nylons are looking rather elephantine, just as she suspected. This really draws attention, she thinks, to her Birkenstocks, which, though not appropriate, she concedes are still better than the Adidas, her next best viable option. It is when she looks back up, past the humongous pink and yellow flowers of her skirt, that she realizes she is the only one here not wearing traditional black. She slumps against the wall.
"Regina!" Angela's fierce and watery whisper startles her, but before she can react in any way, she finds herself in the vice-grip of Angela's mournful hug. With her arms pinned to her side, she awkwardly pats at Angela's kidney region or thereabouts, while Angela sobs loudly in her ear.
Regina E. Schnackenberg, she thinks to herself, you're not in Wisconsin anymore.
Reggie came to New York a scant six months ago to become a writer, finding nothing among the cornfields and cows of Ixonia, Wisconsin, worthy of her extraordinary self-assessed talent. Her parents seemed surprised when, a year before Reggie was due to graduate from the university at Platteville, she had announced she intended to leave those hallowed halls, where once her high school teacher and some other boys -- students there at the time -- pulled the prank of making a cow climb to the third floor of the elevatorless Ag. Building: cows are notoriously incapable of going down stairs. Reggie doesn't remember how they ever got the cow out.
That her parents seemed surprised is surprising to Reggie. After all, when you name a girl "Regina" in a German Protestant town, shouldn't you expect the unexpected? It was her mother who came up with the name. An avid fan of royalty, Eleanor Schnackenberg kept a rather hefty scrapbook of clippings of anything having to do with royal families, England's in particular. The scrapbook had a special appendix for Princess Grace of Monaco, to show that it was possible for anyone to achieve royal status, and another appendix with clippings about King Edward and Wallis Warfield Simpson, to show that things don't always go as planned. The appendixes were both now quite yellow and crumbling, though she still thumbed through them with some regularity, which of the two depending on her mood. Reggie's father, Otto Schnackenberg, who might have objected to the name "Regina," was too busy repairing shoes, singing in a barber shop quartet, and racing slot cars on the special course set up in the basement to notice much about names.
Here, at the present moment in Brooklyn, Reggie manages to slither free from the clamp of Angela's grieving arms.
"Angie, honey, let's sit down, okay?" she suggests, leading the red-nosed Angela to a nearby chair while surreptitiously checking her own ribs for fractures. Angela blows her nose loudly. They make their way to the vinyl-padded folding chairs, which let out a rather indecorous sound when they sit down. Reggie has an impulse to laugh, but seeing Angela's drippy face makes her think better of it.
The only wake Reggie had been to in Ixonia was when Mr. Berger just outside of town had been in some sort of freak hay-baling accident. There was crying, of course, but it was very quiet, discreet. Reggie had seen worse at a screening of Love Story in nearby Oconomowoc when she was in high school.
With Angela shudder-sobbing next to her, Reggie hears a murmur ripple through the room and notices an elderly woman with heavy black shoes and a wooden cane hobbling down the aisle toward the coffin at the front of the room. Reggie's eyes are not the only ones on the old woman, and she watches to try to determine why. A long dramatic pause in the mourning ensues while the woman walks and walks -- and walks -- down the thirty-foot aisle. About ten paces from the coffin, the old woman throws down her cane and runs, catapulting herself onto the body in the coffin.
"Angela! Angela!" she shrieks, "How could you do this to me?"
Reggie looks quickly to her date, who is weeping afresh, then back again at the coffin, confused, until she realizes that the grandmother's name must also be Angela.
Two men hurry to the old woman, who is shouting laments at the body while clinging fiercely to it, and try to pull her off. She is apparently less frail than she first appeared. Then Reggie notices, off to the side, a young fellow of about twenty in a hounds-tooth jacket with suede patches at the elbows -- the sedated sister's boyfriend, Eddie or Freddie, Regina thinks she remembers -- holding on to the end of the coffin.
"Hey," he is saying in a loud stage whisper, "Hey, somebody help me! The casket's slipping off these things." And indeed, with four bodies now variously positioned over, on, and in the coffin, it is beginning to slide backward off of the tastefully draped horses on which it rests.
At last they wrest the old woman from the body and lead her to a nearby chair. Her hands cover her face. Her knees buckle suddenly and she appears about to faint, but the two men hold her firmly by the elbows.
Sympathetic murmurs surface behind Reggie, and then whispers.
"Her sistah," one woman says knowingly with a pronounced Brooklyn accent.
"Ohhhh!" replies the listener, in a steady upward ascent of understanding.
"They were close," the first woman confides, as if this explains it all. "The Pasquinelli sistahs," she adds, despite the fact that Angela the Elder had married Frankie Colletti over fifty years ago and the sister, Rosa, had been married to Myron Friedman for forty-eight years.
"Ahhh!" says the second woman, satisfied.
Eddie or Freddie is slumped against the wall tugging at his collar and wiping his face with a hankie, having been rescued from casket-catching duty by two funeral parlor employees. Reggie wonders if he will faint, and there is no one to hold his suede-covered elbows.
Then Reggie notices the cane still lying in the aisle, just a foot or two away. She picks it up, thinking she will give it to Angela the Elder's sister, but then realizes she hasn't got the nerve to enter the knot of Pasquinellis, Collettis, and Friedmans. She turns to Angela the Younger, to give her the cane, but she is no longer there. She is holding the sedated sister's head to her bosom, while both women shriek and cry and gesticulate. At the front of the room, a tight circle has formed around Rosa Friedman, who keeps trying to make a break again for Angela the Elder. The din in the cavernous room -- at least twice as large and high as the homey little funeral parlors back in Ixonia -- is overwhelming.
Reggie feels a sudden need for air. She leans the cane against a chair and makes her way to the back of the room. Before walking out the door, she turns for a moment and surveys the chaos in the room. She shakes her head in disbelief. What, she wonders, will the fourth date bring?
©1997-2004 Blithe House Quarterly : all rights reserved