Photo by Jimmy Chan on

by Cynthia Robinson

issue 68

The watch is warm, as though my father had just taken it from his wrist. The finish is rubbed off in places from wear. The time is correct.

My brother drops it in my hand and shoves his own hands back in his pockets. “Daddy wanted you to have it.”

No one sits on the stiff couches.

In the casket a few feet away, my father’s face is his own but smaller. We both know this isn’t the watch my father meant. The guns were for my brother. I was to have my mother’s rings and the gold pocket watch—our great-grandfather’s—that now hangs from a fob around my brother’s fat waist. Watch fobs are rare items; my brother has planned this moment.

If you believed the photographs or my mother, my brother was a pretty baby, and a happy one. Now his bald spot shines, premature and pink, through a thin weft of reddish hair, and his suit is too tight. His new wife is here, jingling with too much jewelry, frosted mane sprayed stiff.  She dabs eyes rimmed in shimmery blue. She’s older, I can’t tell how much through the makeup. Her nephew is here in his uniform, about to leave for Iraq.

When the viewing is over, my brother asks, “Y’all coming to Applebee’s?” He looks at me, then at Miss Tennessee, eighty-three years old, her whole life spent in this town, most of it as the wife of Mayor Roy D. “Cooter” Cox.

“I better get back and see about things, sugar,” Miss Tennessee says. She pats my cheek before pulling her car keys from her shiny patent-leather purse.

I am staying with Miss Tennessee and Cooter. Cooter doesn’t know it’s me.

Miss Tennessee jangles her keys, “You go on and have a nice time.” She follows my eyes to the fob and the watch-bulge in my brother’s pocket. “Or would you rather come on back and have some fried chicken with us?”

I would.

At supper, Cooter soils himself. Miss Tennessee hangs his arm around her neck and shuffles him down the hall. I think of offering help, but they are perfectly balanced, an intimate equilibrium. Cooter’s arm drapes comfortably, his hand brushing her breast. He laughs and wheezes, like he did the time my father made a comment about how my fourteen-year-old breasts were coming along. I ran to my room in humiliated tears.

“He didn’t mean any harm, baby,” my mother said, closing the door behind her. She sat on the bed, stroking my hair. “They’re all like that,” she sighed. “Just a bunch of silly little boys.”

After that day my father never hit me again. He hit my brother harder and for much longer. Once, at the supper table, there was almost a broken jaw. My mother iced it down and hid the bruise with makeup like she knew how to do, whispering at him not to make Daddy so mad.

Inside a glass box on the mantel of Miss Tennessee’s living room, her rhinestone crown twinkles. She takes out a bottle of bourbon, two silver-rimmed shot glasses. “I believe we could both use a nip.”

* * *

In the morning at the funeral, I sit on the second pew beside Miss Tennessee. My brother and his new family occupy the first one.

I hadn’t been sure whether I’d cry or not, but the sobs start slowly, softly, in tune with a country song crackling over the loudspeakers, the sort of music people call “Christian contemporary.” To the side of the podium there’s a perfectly good organ, which I know my father would have preferred. The music is cloying, the smell of lilies overpowering, plus minty gum and the stale smoke that lives in clothes. I face the front while tears run over my cheeks.

The uniformed nephew leads us in the Lord’s Prayer. My father, though he only served one year at the tail end of Korea, and from behind a desk in Georgia, has been transformed into a war hero.

At the cemetery “Taps” plays on a tape, while the nephew holds a trumpet to his lips. My brother keeps the folded flag.

Afterward, Miss Tennessee hugs my brother goodbye. Down here everybody hugs everybody. Then we drive to the assisted-living facility.

I unlock the door to Daddy’s room.

“Land sakes!” Miss Tennessee gasps.

My brother has ransacked drawers, cabinets, bookshelves. Left is an imitation Ming vase, an anniversary gift my mother put peonies in every summer until she died. Ordered from National Geographic. Daddy was a subscriber.

Miss Tennessee waits with me for the airport limo. We don’t talk about the funeral or the assisted-living facility. “Your daddy sure did miss your momma. She was a good woman.” She hugs me before I get into the car, whispering something about the loose clasps on those cheap fobs. I feel something heavy drop into my pocket.

Miss Tennessee is a good woman.

My fingers close around the watch, warm from her hand. Through the limo window, I drink in the thin, misty winter. No hard freeze, no snow, just gentle undulations of low hills hugged by leafless cottonwoods under an ashen dome of sky.

I want to remember everything because I’m not coming back.