“Your mother’s funeral,” Aunt Margaret repeated as they sat down. She spoke, as she always did, so Eric and everyone else at the table could hear her.
It was a gorgeous late spring day and the women of the First Baptist Church had set up the funeral dinner outside rather than in the church basement. Only the mildest of breezes blew and it was scented with lilac.
Eric said nothing. He had learned long ago to keep his responses to Aunt Margaret short and polite, whatever else he might want to say.
“Where on earth were you, Eric?” Aunt Margaret demanded from across the table. “What did you think could possibly be more important than being on time to your dear mother’s funeral?”
Eric took a sip of his iced tea. Too much sugar — one of the many little, telling changes in the church in the years since he’d last bothered to attend.
“I was at the park, feeding the ducks.”
“Oh, well, naturally that was your single great concern today, was to make sure the ducks had plenty of bread to eat. What else could you have possibly had to do?” She daintily stuffed half a ham sandwich in her mouth, and Eric was grateful for the respite.
Judy, Eric’s late mother, had taken him to the park to feed the ducks since before he was old enough to walk. Even when Eric had reached an age when young men generally didn’t care to be seen in public with their mothers, he gladly went with her.
Eric had a photo of himself as a toddler with his mother and father. His father wore an army uniform and did not return from Korea to have other family pictures made. All his life it had been himself and his mother and the ducks in the park.
“Mom and I used to feed the ducks together and watch them for hours,” he said.
“Yes, no doubt. Your mother was a whiz at wasting time on frivolous nonsense like feeding ducks. She seemed to have less sense in her head with each passing year.”
Eric’s jaw tightened and he instinctively checked the weapon. It was loaded.
He took a bite of potato salad and stole a glance around the table at Aunt Margaret’s three adult children — Pamela, Timothy, and Shirley — and Uncle Ronald; the foursome never said much, but then, how could they?
Eric had always liked his cousins; perhaps it would be best not to use the weapon. Not today.
“If your mother had had any sense,” Aunt Margaret opined, “she would have remarried so you would have had a father. At the very least, she could have enrolled you in military school so you’d have had a better upbringing than what she gave you.” She scooped a forkful of three-bean salad into her mouth. “Rest her soul.”
Eric took the weapon off safety.
“I think I had a perfectly nice upbringing, Aunt Margaret,” he told her, keeping his voice conversational. “I think Mom would like to have remarried, but she said she never found someone as good as my dad.”
“Nonsense! I could throw a brick at any second-rate job site and hit six men like your father. You didn’t know him and I did. He was nothing special. My poor little sister wasted herself on him. Getting married at the courthouse rather than in this church to make him happy.” Aunt Margaret stabbed her fork in Eric’s direction. “She could have had two or three of the boys in her high school graduating class who have done very well for themselves financially and socially. And who weren’t no-accounts who got drafted and shipped to the nastiest place on earth to die for a bunch of Orientals.”
Eric aimed the weapon. He carefully sighted his aunt; he didn’t want to hit his uncle or cousins.
“Yes, Aunt Margaret,” he said. “Mom often told me how embarrassed you were over her marriage.” He picked up his tea but did not drink it. “She told me how you were always the proper sister.”
“Well, that’s true,” Aunt Margaret agreed.
Eric cocked the weapon.
“How you got the better grades in school. How you graduated first in your class.” He caught her glance and stared hard into her eyes as he fired the weapon. “How you were the first in the family in ages to bear a son.”
Margaret’s eyes went wide and she paled under her thick layer of rouge.
Eric fired the weapon’s other barrel.
“Yes, Aunt Margaret, Mom talked a lot about you when we were feeding the ducks. Lots and lots of stories while we were wasting time on frivolous nonsense.”
Anger mixed with the fear in his aunt’s eyes. He kept his gaze steady, letting her know that the weapon — an assassin’s tool so far — could be made nuclear if she said one more word wrong about his parents.
Margaret backed down and focused on her food.
Eric glanced at his uncle. Ronald kept eating but was also nodding slightly to himself. He understood perfectly, Eric realized, but was minding his own business; he had no intention of taking the bullet for his wife. That was as close as he could come to civil disobedience in his own family.
Eric’s cousins were oblivious to both the carnage and the mutiny that had just taken place. That was good, and he put the weapon away.
“Not, of course, that the family wasn’t pleased to have both my girl cousins,” Eric said, looking toward Pamela and Shirley. Timothy sat between them. He was the son Margaret had borne in wedlock — the only one who could be discussed openly.
Aunt Margaret couldn’t let the silence linger too long; it would be out of character.
“Emmaline always makes such fine potato salad for these dinners,” she said.
Eric decided he was as satisfied as he could be on the day of his mother’s funeral.
The next time he went to the park to feed the ducks, he thought, he would talk to his mother and tell her how he had pulled Aunt Margaret’s fangs at the funeral dinner. He imagined she would be pleased.