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Roy Miller

    James sat in his car and stared at the doors of the funeral home. Smoke swirled from his hand and drifted out the window. Two men in suits stood by the entrance and opened the doors for people as they approached. James wondered how many people they would see over the course of their job life there, and if all the grief surrounding them ever weighed on their thoughts and kept them from sleeping.
    A woman he assumed was the widow emerged from the right side of the building where the parking lot wrapped around. She was flanked by a man on her right and a woman on her left, both wearing the same color as her. Probably her children. The men at the doors opened them wordlessly and stood off to the side while everyone filed in, then shut them and returned to their standing positions against the wall.
    James got out of the car, took the last drag of his cigarette and tossed the butt on the ground, grinding the cherry into the pavement with the toe of his shoe. He made his way up to the front just like the others, nodding his appreciation when the doors opened and closed for him. He briefly wondered if the parlor owners ever considered cutting costs by installing the same type of doors the grocery store has, then assumed that the human element the doormen provided must have added something to the experience.
    Inside, the hallway buzzed lowly with hushed conversations from the right side viewing room. The deep blue padded carpet helped muffle the sound a bit. Chandeliers hung overhead with clear candle-shaped lighting tips. James saw two women sitting on the couch at the end of the hall, arms around each other, unmoving. The solidarity between human beings at the viewing of a loved one was always something to be seen.
    He made his way into the viewing room and was immediately met with bodies. There was a line wrapping around some chairs and back to the door for attendees wanting to sign the guestbook. James inched his way to the right and headed for the back of the room, since that was usually where the piano sat. People didn’t tend to bother someone that preferred to be alone at a funeral.
    A quick look confirmed that that funeral home’s piano was much the same as the others he had played. It was a dark mahogany, like the one he had so much fun playing in school. He wanted one just like it for the house, but his father wouldn’t have it. He tried to get James to play Baseball, but that was the last thing he wanted to do. After a few years of fighting about it, they agreed to disagree, but it ended up as more of an end to their father-son relationship.
    The group of mourners was sectioned off into smaller groups. Each part of the room held small circles of people that carried on their own conversations. Occasionally, someone would break off from one circle and be joined into another after they realized they knew someone. It reminded him of watching organisms under the microscope in school, how they’d detach and reattach. The room was like a thriving microeconomy.
    Two younger guys shimmied their way to the back and one of them made eye contact with James. He smiled weakly and sat in the last row of chairs. James situated himself on the piano bench and watched as the rest of the room began to sit, and a couple minutes later the Chaplain entered the room. He straightened some papers on the podium and waited for the room to quiet down.
    This was the point where the Chaplain would go through a whole list of why the deceased was such a great person, regardless of what they actually did with their life. The person in the coffin could have been a serial killer, but no one pays seven thousand dollars to have someone say negative things to their friends and loved ones. Sometimes, the deceased didn’t have much in the way of good things, and in those situations there was a lot of emphasis on that clay leaf-shaped ashtray they made for their mother in third grade.
    James never made a clay leaf-shaped ashtray for his mother. She smoked, sure, but he liked to use his time at school for music. His father wasn’t really one to appreciate art, and any time he asked for a piano there was always a resounding no that pushed him back into his room. It was also what eventually pushed him to being in that spot, behind the piano at a stranger’s funeral.
    He couldn’t think of one instrument that was more widely appreciated than the piano. Centuries old and timeless at once. His music teacher in seventh grade commended him on having nimble hands with long, strong fingers. “It’s like you were born to play,” he said. Of course, that kind of talent needed nurturing, something he wasn’t getting at home.
    The Chaplain continued his praise of someone he likely didn’t even know, probably reading a pre-written sermon designed for that exact purpose. The deceased’s wife cried silently into a tissue while her son rubber her back gingerly. She was older, but not old enough to be frail yet. James supposed that anyone in that situation would be weaker than usual, though, and continued watching with a renewed interest. He hadn’t experienced much death in his life.
    As the family stood up and turned to face the room James cracked his knuckles, knowing that his turn was coming up soon. He had been to roughly thirty funerals over a span of five years, with his random appearances being the only time he got to play, and each service went pretty much the same. The widow greeted everyone and thanked them for showing up while her children stood with their heads up and eyes averted. He had learned most people weren’t big on eye contact during times of grief.
    When the family bowed their heads and returned to the side of the room next to the guestbook all of the attendees began to stand up and socialize again. James took his cue and started playing a piece by Ó lafur Arnalds. A few heads turned in his direction at the start of the music, including the family by the entrance. The daughter seemed to know the piece, or at least be interested in the music in some way.
    His fingers stretched and danced across the keys almost effortlessly. He wondered once if that was how Stenographers felt, being able to flawlessly type hundreds of words per minute. Regardless of his piano prowess he could barely manage fifty, seeing as they didn’t have a computer in the house when he was going through school. The notes carried through the room and reverberated off the padded carpet and stained-wood walls.
    As he finished the first piece and moved into a second the deceased’s daughter made her way over and sat in the back row of chairs, turning one to face the piano before she situated herself. The top was open so she sat off to the side so she could keep James in her vision. He could see her out of the corner of his eye, just barely in his line of sight from the edge of the piano.
    The second piece swelled and deflated, building up to an impending crescendo. Most of the composer’s work was muscle memory to him so he watched the room around him more than the keys, getting familiar with the whiskey-colored eyes of the girl staring at him. He cracked his neck without the use of his hands and kept playing. The girl stood up slowly and took the few steps between the chair and the piano with her eyes on him.
    She walked around the left side of the piano and trained her vision down to the keys. James was suddenly hyper-aware of his situation and his heart began to pound in his chest. He always felt the romantic essence in Arnalds’ pieces, but being watched by a beautiful woman as he struck each note felt warm and exciting. Of course, he wasn’t bound by grief in that moment as she was, and the gray undertones of the pieces pulled him more into the moment than he’d ever been.
    “You’re quite good,” said the woman, sitting on the edge of the bench as the song came to an end. “I’ve always wanted to learn how to play but I don’t have the discipline for it.”
    “It’s the same as anything else in life.” James fingered a few chords to begin the next song. “You can appreciate it, but if you don’t have a real passion you can’t force it.”
    She watched as he got into the third piece. A few other people gathered around the front of the piano. James could see their clothing through the gap by the hinges on the piano lid. He could hear a few of them talking amongst each other, mostly about the gathering following the service, where they would grill some food and let the kids play on the playground for a while. If there was one thing to be said about death, it had a way of bringing people together.
    The third piece finished and the woman next to him spoke up again. “How long have you been playing?”
    “About eleven years,” said James, knowing that he would have to make an exit soon.
    “How did you know my father?”
    James cracked his knuckles and slid off the side of the bench. “I have to run to the bathroom really quick, sorry.”
    He smiled weakly and headed for the door, passing a few people who nodded their appreciation for his performance. The widow reached out to him as he passed and shook his hand briefly, breaking eye contact with her current conversation partner for only a second to smile at him. He returned pressure in her grip and slipped away without engaging anyone else.
    The two men at the door were locked in a conversation of their own, becoming tight-lipped as he approached. They opened both doors at the same time and flashed their supportive-but-solemn smiles as he passed through. As soon as the scene disappeared behind him with the closing of the doors, James lit another cigarette and headed for home.

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