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  • Writer's pictureWolfpen

Tastes Like Heaven

by Jennifer Gambrel

Snow fell silently on the coffin. Tommy watched, just as silently. The shiny brown was disappearing under white flakes. The flakes began falling last night. Was there a layer of white in the hole under the coffin? Was there enough that it would make the coffin stick up above the grass when it was lowered? That wouldn’t be good. Tommy was pretty sure the whole thing was supposed to be underground.

Tommy sneezed and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his suit. Uncle Peter, sitting beside him, gave him a dirty look, but on his other side, Mama just ruffled his hair and squeezed him. Tommy leaned into his mom and returned Uncle Peter’s mean look. If Mama was okay with him, he didn’t care what anyone else thought. Especially now that Grandpa was gone.

The suit pants squeezed his belly and the clip-on tie dug into his skin. He wiggled a finger between the tie and his neck. The clothes had all been picked up from Goodwill yesterday and nothing fit right. Tommy had never needed fancy clothes before. He'd always thought the businessmen in their suits and ties looked interesting as they hurried past on the city streets, swinging their briefcases. Maybe the briefcases were magical, because so far, Tommy was unimpressed.

He squirmed on the hard folding chair and the dress shoe fell off his left foot. His uncle hmph-ed and dug his elbow into Tommy’s side. Mama didn’t move. Tommy threw a sideways glance at Uncle Peter and wiggled the toes on his right foot. The second shoe flopped to the ground and Uncle Peter crossed his arms and shifted away from Tommy.

Good. Tommy didn’t like Uncle Peter. Every time he came to town, he and Tommy’s mom fought until Mama cried.

Tommy stretched his toes. He would not have thought to purposely kick his shoes off, but it felt much better, even with the cold. The shoes were two sizes too big. Mama had crammed a sock in the toe of each so they would stay on his feet. That folded up his toes, but Tommy hadn’t told her. She’d looked so sad as she squatted in front of him to tie the shoes and yank on the hem of his pants to try and make them a little longer.

Tommy had willed the pants to grow and the shoes to shrink as he touched Mama’s cheek. She had looked up in surprise. Tommy stared at her solemnly. She gave him a sad smile and smoothed his tie.

“It’s just you and me now, Little Man.”

Tommy liked having Mama all to himself. He loved the days she didn’t have to work extra hours and could come to pick him up from kindergarten. But he knew this was different. This was for always.

The preacher kept talking. He was using big words that Tommy didn’t understand. He stood by the coffin, holding his Bible in one gloved hand. The snowflakes fell on his bald head and melted into his scarf. The flakes tried to stick to the Bible, but the preacher kept waving it around and knocking them off.

Tommy was glad the little tent kept the snow off him and Mama and the few others seated around them. Except for Uncle Peter...he should be out in the snow.

The preacher said, “We need to be happy that he’s in heaven now.”

Isn’t he in the coffin? Tommy thought. If he’s in heaven, I know where to go find him.

There was a little ice cream shop on the walk home from school. Before winter came and it got cold, Grandpa would pick him up and start shuffling along the sidewalk. About halfway back, he would put his hand on Tommy’s head and say, “Tom, my man, I think we need some help getting the rest of the way home, what do you think?”

Tommy knew what this meant and always agreed. Grandpa would steer him off the walk into a little patio area with a walkup window.

“One scoop of chocolate for Little Man, and two scoops of rum raisin for Old Man.”

They would sit at a tiny table in chairs with cracked vinyl seats and metal backs and take their time with the little paper boats and plastic spoons. Tommy would swing his legs and try to make his feet reach the ground while he answered Grandpa’s questions about lunch and recess and cute little girls.

He once asked Grandpa what he did all day while Tommy was in school and Mama was at work. Grandpa had laid down his spoon and looked out over the patio and sidewalk and into the busy street beyond.

Tommy thought he hadn’t heard him and asked again.

Grandpa looked at Tommy and smiled. “I guess I think about when Grandma walked this every day to pick up your Mama and Uncle Peter. And I wonder where time goes. And I think about my Little Man, and I get to wantin’ this little piece of heaven again.”

He scooped some ice cream into his mouth. Closed his eyes. Sighed. “Yep. Tastes like heaven. And time. And love. And life.”

Tommy looked at his own paper boat of melting ice cream. He put a spoonful in this mouth. Closed his eyes. Sighed. “Mine just tastes like chocolate.”

Grandpa laughed and laughed. “Just you wait, Little Man. It’ll change when you’re older.”

The preacher had finally stopped talking. Mama pulled Tommy to his feet and then told him to sit back down as she knelt to put his shoes on. Tears fell from her cheeks as she retied the strings.

Tommy looked past her to the coffin and wondered who would walk him home from school in the spring. Would they stop for ice cream? Would his ice cream still taste like chocolate?

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