Death of the Way Things Used to Be

Photo by Ulmeilk Majed


He was still. The crinkled lines of his face were set deep in years of ambition. Now, they did not laugh or cry in joyous movement. They were still. As his hands rested by his ironed trousers, his wrinkles rested on aged skin. The closed eyelids were smooth, but the old veins popped out against stark white. The white was whiter than his shirt, whiter than his hair. The wrinkled man was white, and he was still.


Nancy wore a strand of pearls that tugged on the fat of her neck. Bits of the fat cascaded over these pearls each time she lowered her head. Her head often bowed, lowering itself each time a woman, a man, a child or a visitor walked passed her. Additionally, each time a child tugged at the black mass of her skirt, she would turn her gaze downward, as her cheeks flushed red, and one hand moved to the skirt’s waistband. Her head shook no. Never once did her head nod yes. However, when the children visited, her back shot straighter; her hands, with only sketches of wrinkles on them, would twist each other over in circles. Ritualistically, Nancy tugged each finger. Her rings flashed. Her pearls choked. She sobbed when the children couldn’t hear.


Blonde. Blonde with only a tuft of hair poking out under a knitted cap the same color as only what the old man was wearing.  A woman with fewer tears in her eyes rocked him in half-ovals of movement until he slept. When he slept, she smiled. When she smiled, the other adults glared. The baby often smiled, but no one glared at the baby. At him, they stared. They stared for longer than they stared at anyone but the old man. In the times the baby woke up, the woman rocked him with more vigor. Then, the people stared less at the motion.


Wrinkled lines from widow’s barely exposed calf to the undereyes marked with rings of dark color and smudges of mascara. Her grey hair was twisted into a high bun clipped together with hairs fraying in all directions. The bracelets jangled on her wrist, as she shook hands with the line of people that engulfed her. The earrings stabbed through her made her earlobes sag so low her hoops nearly hit the padded shoulders of her black dress. She stood alone as such with no one holding her arm. When her legs shook, and the finger of her handshake could no longer grasp, the widow would sit down. Then, she rose a few moments later. Sweat mixed with the sheen of tears in her eyes.


No tears in a man nearing forty. He stood away from the widow in a corner with another man. There was a firm line of lips pressed tight instead of a loosened sorrow. His hands were tight fists with thick fingers that finished in square nails. They were chipped nails with a layer of grime tucked in the nailbeds. When the children uncurled these fingers, Joe didn’t look. His hand would shake out as if bitten, and any child would lose their grip in the commotion. His voice, which cracked under the distraction, would resume its robust nature. The argument of whispered logistics would continue. The things left behind were demanded by Joe’s “right.” Joe shot spittles at the man who flinched each time the spit caught him. Joe did not look like the other man. Joe had on a tie and a shirt stained, yet pressed, for the occasion. Joe kept his hair messy, and the stubble on his chin remained. The black trousers he had on were too big in the waist, and he wore his work boots.


This one wore a full suit with a watch that ticked in silver attached to one hand. He glanced at such an object often. These moments dispersed evenly with the times his feet tapped and eyebrows scrunched together. His whispered voice was less loud than Joe’s, but also less frequently thrown into their conversation. This man spoke words like, “I’m sorry,” “There’s nothing I can do” and “It was his choice, not mine” each time Joe finished a monologue for his case. This man did not speak with spit. He spoke with an outstretched hand and one on his briefcase. He spoke with a shaven face and slicked back hair. When he left early, the briefcase followed. Joe left shortly after.


She arranged the flowers in vases that had already been arranged. Her quick hands passed over the sunflowers to lift them from their stems and fluff each petal. The eyes of the girl never left the flowers for too long. She had greeted the widow early in the morning before turning to her flowers once more. Now, there were flowers piled in each crevice of the room, and there were flowers distributed to all the people like the widow. The girl had on a black dress as the rest, but hers opened to an empty back that displayed a copper tone. Pinned to the strap of her dress was a sole sunflower that distinguished her from the crowd even more than her red glasses. For a second, she looked toward the old man, but then she returned to the flowers.


His gaze revolved. Although most of his time was spent near the widow, the man with the high white collar strolled the room. People greeted him, as often as he greeted people. His handshake always used two hands to bury another in his own. Each time he spoke, his eyes looked into the pupils of the people he acknowledged. However, when he listened, his eyes were far away; he looked up, unlike Nancy. He nodded. If the children visited him, he bent as far as he could before his knees cracked. They would whisper secrets to him on their toes or wipe tears on his jacket. He talked to everyone alike, even those who didn’t believe in him. But he didn’t talk to the two men in the corner. He only grabbed Joe by the arm, as he left. Joe shook him off just like the children.

A muggy day in summertime Wisconsin. In a room in a town, the smell of fresh flowers intermixes with body odor, perfume and death. People bicker in places meant to mourn. People work there too. It is a diverse place, this mourning room, but it is filled with conversation most similar.

“I’m sorry,” the people say.

“My condolences,” they offer.

These phrases are accepted by hands pressed together and head bows and a shared dress. The children don’t cry as much, but some of the adults don’t cry either. The children whisper questions into the ears of those who listen.

Those who listen say, “Well, you’ll know when you get older.”

Some of those who are older bicker about the most trivial things. They lament the contents of a briefcase carried by a man who doesn’t know the old man. Moisture leaves their bodies in spit, and they don’t cry.

They say to themselves, “The children will understand when they get older.”

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