GLASS BOATS by Victoria Kelly
IN DUBLIN SHE IS CLIMBING the stair machine in the gymnasium as he is being boxed up and driven away to the cemetery. In the university square, the stone is carved into pillars and archways, and angels are painted on the doorway of the church. The bread van is waiting outside the school shop. It runs its engine in the cold.
The names of the dead are printed in the newspaper. The last letter of his first name is cut off. Rober, it says. Rober has died. He lived in Elmer, New Jersey.
He was her mother’s brother. He had ruddy hands, and he sat at the head of the table on Thanksgiving. He brought the little hot dogs, wrapped in phyllo-dough, and then he got cancer in his bones.
When her mother told her about Robert’s dying, Ruby said, “I’ll come home.” But her mother said, “Don’t be silly. We’re an ocean apart. It’s really better this way.”
On the Friday when he died, her mother didn’t cry. Only once, ever, had Ruby seen her cry. She was fourteen and sour, and wanting money for tube tops. “You bitch!” Ruby had called out, pounding her fist on the kitchen window. “You stupid bitch!” Her mother got into the car and drove away. Later, when she came home, Ruby found her at the computer with her head in her hands. Her forehead was against the keyboard. Her shoulders heaved, but she didn’t make a sound. On the screen the “l” key was running on and on.
But Robert died and her mother didn’t cry then. She taught her class; she went to the community center for her Weight Watchers meeting. She was happier when she came home, phoning Ruby in Dublin. “I’ve lost twenty-one pounds!” she boasted.
Ruby’s father took a photograph of the Christmas tree and sent it to her over the internet. In the picture he was standing on his toes with his hand on the star. Ruby thought of him on his back in the snow, sawing away. The hours it took him to choose that tree. To cut it down and drag it home.
In a poem Billy Collins says the dead are above us, rowing little boats on heaven’s lake; the bottoms of the boats are made of glass. And the dead are just rowing. Just rowing along.
On the day of the funeral Ruby is climbing; her father is picking out his tie. Ruby’s mother ties it for him in front of the mirror. She stands behind him with her arms draped over his shoulders.
Ruby spends a quarter-hour making up her face in the mirror. She half expects to see her uncle behind her, and she remembers, then, her first glimpse of the dead: White. Through a doorway.
Although, Robert would look different from that. He was—well—younger, and always smiling. Once, when Ruby was sixteen, when she was finally in tube tops, he took her aside and put his arm around her shoulder. “You’ve grown up,” he said. That night she crawled into bed between her parents, and watched a movie until she fell asleep.
Later, Ruby’s mother calls, and of the funeral she says, “Yes, it was nice. It was very nice.”
“Is that all?” Ruby says. She wants to picture it. “Isn’t there anything to tell?”
Her mother says, “There isn’t much, really.” But she tells her, then, how the priest drove the wrong way down the lane to the cemetery, and Aunt Sofia with Robert’s body turned right instead of left, going her own way, the right way, to the gravesite. “When the priest got out of the car he started yelling at Aunt Sofia, waving his hands, and yelling, ‘Why didn’t you follow me?’ He was embarrassed, you know, because it was his mistake. And Aunt Sofia was crying. ‘This a bad man!’ she said in her Hungarian English. Later your father went up to the priest and told him he should be ashamed of himself.”
“What did the priest say then?” Ruby asked.
“He just nodded and said, ‘God bless you, my son.’ Or something like that.”
Years later, when Ruby thinks of Robert’s funeral, she will think of this angry priest, waving his arms above the coffin, and Robert looking down, shaking his finger at him from his little boat.
Last summer, before Ruby won her scholarship to Dublin, an Indian couple moved into the house next door to her parents’ house. They held a party for their daughter’s wedding. In the backyard, the caterers hoisted white tents like flags. The samosas browned in the ovens and the smell came in through Ruby’s window.
Her father was always worrying about his tie: Should he wear one? Should he not? As the guests parked their cars he knelt behind the living room curtains. He peered out at the street, looking for men with ties or men without ties. Ruby’s mother was impatient. She said, “Gene, let’s go. They’re all in Indian dress anyway. They won’t be wearing ties.”
The night of Robert’s funeral Ruby says the rosary for him at her desk. Her schoolwork is spread out in front of her, and her hands run over the beads, over the papers. But instead of the glass boats, instead of Mary’s face, she keeps seeing her father, kneeling at the window with his tie in his hand. She sees her mother, waiting patiently beside him, holding his elbow and letting him decide.
VICTORIA KELLY received her B.A. from Harvard University, her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her M.Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin, where she was a U.S. Mitchell Scholar. Her fiction has appeared in Colorado Review, The Greensboro Review, Fiction, and Owen Wister Review, among others. She lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia.