I should have been thinking about God. Or the meaning of life. Or simply grieving the fact that my best friend was now motherless and my own mother without her best friend. Instead, I found myself gazing into the sleek mahogany coffin lined with generous folds of ivory silk, silently critiquing Mrs. Carr’s lipstick, a magenta with blue undertones that subtly clashed with her coral dress, the same one she had worn to Lucy’s wedding nearly five years ago.
More problematic than the shade of lipstick, though, was the application. Someone, clearly low on the beauty-industry totem pole, had colored just outside the lines as if to create fuller lips. It was an optical illusion that never fooled anyone and seemed wholly unnecessary given the circumstances. After all, there would be no photos taken today. No professional albums filled with various combinations of family and friends, posing with Mrs. Carr, horizontal but front and center. In fact, the entire custom of fancying up a corpse for an open-casket funeral seemed suddenly ridiculous. Cremation was definitely the way to go. It was the way I wanted to go, rather than risk the possibility of going out on a bad-hair day. Without a husband or sibling, I made a mental note to convey my final wishes to Lucy after some time had passed. She was really the only person it made sense to tell. Besides, Lucy got shit done. She was like a decisive committee with no dissenting members. At least none who dared speak up.
“Do you need anything?” I whispered to her now, breaking into the endless line of friends, family, and virtual strangers offering condolences. I had never seen so many people at a funeral, and, combined with everyone who had come to the wake the night before, it seemed that most of our small town had made an appearance.
“A Kleenex,” she whispered. In contrast to the past three days, she was dry-eyed, but looked to be on the verge of a fresh breakdown, her blue eyes glassy and round. I handed her a tissue from my purse, once again conjuring her wedding, when I had vigilantly shadowed her with mints and a compact of powder.
“Anything else? Water?” I asked, thinking that it felt good to be needed for once, and it was a shame that it took a major rite of passage to turn the tables on our usual dynamic.
Lucy shook her head as I returned to the second pew, where she had instructed me to sit, along with my parents. She had all the details covered—from the seating to the hymn selection to the white orchids on the altar—which was why it was so surprising that she hadn’t noticed her mother’s lipstick last night at the wake, when there was still an opportunity to fix it. At least I hoped she hadn’t noticed it, because as a corollary to her efficiency, Lucy was cursed with the crippling capacity to dwell on even the most trivial matters for weeks, sometimes years. Like the grudge she was sure to hold against Angel, her mother’s hairdresser, who dared to be away this week, on a Caribbean cruise no less. If not to return to do her mother’s hair, Lucy had ranted, then at least to pay her respects to her best client. Secretly, I thought Angel should have been afforded some slack; surely her vacation had been planned for months, and logistically it must be pretty tough to get off a ship on such short notice. But it wasn’t Lucy’s style to cut anyone slack, especially when it came to a slight to her family, whether perceived or real. As her oldest and closest friend, I was also a beneficiary of her extreme loyalty and had long since memorized her bright-line rules. There was no gray area and no second chances, even when I could muster up my own forgiveness or indifference. That didn’t matter to Lucy, who stood by her creed: You’re dead to me.
There it was again. Dead. I shivered at the finality of it all, cursing the cancer that took Mrs. Carr’s life in ten months flat, not a single symptom until it was too late. Recognizing that praying wasn’t at all like riding a bicycle, I bowed my head and formed silent, clumsy words, doing my best not to question God’s existence while I asked Him for favors. Please help Lucy find a way to be happy without her mother. It felt like an impossible request, and the fact that she had her own daughter, just-turned-four-year-old Caroline, who was too young to attend the funeral or one day remember her Gigi, seemed to heighten all the emotions of loss. A new generation was a constant reminder of everything Mrs. Carr was going to miss. Birthdays, benchmarks, all of life’s momentous firsts stretched ahead without her.
I turned my gaze and prayers to Lawton, Lucy’s brother, a carefree bachelor but still a mama’s boy to the core. He was standing beside his sister, mopping his face with a handkerchief, likely one Mrs. Carr had pressed for him in anticipation of this day. She had made a flurry of arrangements and plans over the past few months, including a morphine-induced request for Lawton and me to marry. Kill two birds with one stone, she had said, not exactly a flattering or hopeful description. That wasn’t going to happen—Lawton wasn’t my type and I was even less his—but I had smiled and told her I’d work on it, while Lucy made a joke about every couple needing at least one grown-up. I looked up at the sun streaming through the stained glass behind the altar, wondering if Mrs. Carr was somewhere up there watching us. And if so, could she read my mind? Just in case, I said a final goodbye to her, my throat tight and dry. Then I closed my eyes and mouthed Amen, aware of the glaring omission in my prayer: Coach Carr.
When I looked up again, he was directly in my line of vision, walking from the opposite end of the casket toward the pew in front of me, his hands clasped behind his back, the way he paced the sidelines of a game. I heard him exhale as he took his seat, close enough for me to touch his shoulder if I only extended my hand and leaned forward a few inches. But I couldn’t so much as look at him, hadn’t been able to in weeks, even when I dropped by the house with store-bought casseroles and six-packs of Shiner Bock. I knew he was devastated, and the mere notion that I might glimpse him in a vulnerable moment was unbearable, like looking at those award-winning photos of soldiers or firemen, holding babies, weeping after a catastrophe. I firmly believed that it was always harder to be the one left behind, especially if you thought you were on your way to happily ever after.
Coach and Connie Carr’s story fittingly began at Walker University, the school with the same name as our small town in North Texas, where he was the star quarterback and she the prettiest cheerleader. Except for the one season he played for the Colts, just after Lucy and I were born, the Carrs never left Walker, as he worked his way up the coaching ladder from quarterbacks’ coach to offensive coordinator to the youngest—and now the winningest—head coach in Bronco history.
Coach Carr was something of a deity in our town, throughout the state of Texas, and in the world of college football, which happened to be the only world I truly cared about, and Connie had been royalty in her own right. She was more than the elegant coach’s wife, though. She worked tirelessly behind the scenes, as the ultimate fund-raiser, administrator, social chair, therapist, surrogate mother. She sat with injured players in the hospital, wined and dined boosters, cajoled crotchety faculty, and soothed feelings on all sides. She made it look so easy, with her surplus of charm and kindness, but I knew how demanding and lonely her job could be. When Coach wasn’t physically gone—on road games or out recruiting—he was often mentally absent, obsessed with his team. Still, Mrs. Carr had never wavered in her support of her husband, and I honestly didn’t know what he would do without her.
I took a deep breath, catching a whiff of Coach Carr’s familiar Pinaud Clubman aftershave, a few airborne molecules triggering rapid-fire memories. Lucy and me sitting on his office floor, playing board games while he drew up depth charts and play diagrams. The three of us riding in the front seat of his truck, my hand out the window, as we listened to country music and sports radio. Sneaking into the locker room with Lucy, not to glimpse the shirtless boys (although we did that, too) but to hear Coach’s passionate postgame speeches, thrillingly peppered with cusswords. Much like the one he gave me in his living room when I was seventeen, right after the cops decided not to arrest me for drinking and driving—and instead dropped me off at the Carrs’. Coach, you got this one? I could still remember the look he gave me—worse than spending the night in jail.
I allowed myself a fleeting glimpse of his profile now, afraid of what I would find, but comforted that he appeared as strong and rugged as ever. Not at all like a widower. He was a fit fifty-five, but looked a decade younger thanks to a full head of hair, olive skin, and a strong bone structure. It wasn’t fair, I had thought for years, whenever I saw Lucy’s parents together. Mrs. Carr was beautiful, fighting age almost as viciously as she fought death, but her husband just kept getting better-looking, the way it was for a lot of men. And now. Now it really wasn’t fair. It was a proper funeral musing—the inequities of life and death—and I felt relieved to be maintaining an appropriate train of thought, if not actual prayer.
But in the next second, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, as I thought of football. Lucy said it was all I ever thought about, which was pretty close to true, at least before Mrs. Carr got sick. Even afterward, I found myself escaping to the game I loved, and I knew Coach did the same. It upset Lucy because she didn’t understand it. She would ask me, through tears, how he could care so much about signing a recruit or winning a game. Didn’t he see how little it mattered? I tried to explain that his job was a distraction, the one thing he could still control. Football was our touchstone. A constant. Something to hold on to as a bright light burned out in Walker, Texas, our little version of Camelot.
A few seconds later, Lucy and Lawton sat down, flanking their father, and the sight of three of them, instead of four, was more than I could take. My throat tightened as the organ began to play. Loud, mournful notes filled the church. I could hear my mother softly weeping between chords, and could see Lawton and Lucy wiping their eyes. I glanced around so I wouldn’t cry, anything to distract me in that final lull before the service began.
I spotted my boyfriend, Miller, who had played for Coach years ago, during my faded era, standing with a few former teammates in the far aisle. They all looked lost in their ill-fitting suits and shined-up shoes, unaccustomed to Walker gatherings that weren’t celebratory in nature—pep rallies, parades, and booster dinners. Miller gave me a two-finger wave with a half smile as he fanned himself with his program. I looked away, pretending not to see him. Partly because I knew Lucy didn’t approve of him. Partly because I still felt a knot of guilt for having been in bed with him when she called with the final news, my ringer accidentally turned off. But mostly because it just wasn’t the time to be waving at your boyfriend, especially one you weren’t sure you really loved.
“No riffraff at the house,” Lucy declared immediately after the burial as she marched down the grassy embankment toward Neil’s freshly washed Tahoe. I’d known it was only a matter of time before her sadness turned to anger—and was actually surprised that she had held out this long. Coach had once joked that Lucy had only two gears—happy and angry.
“Define riffraff,” I asked—because I really wasn’t sure what she meant other than that she cast a wider net than I did when it came to such categories.
“Boosters. Fans. All players, past or present. Except Ryan. Mom loved Ryan,” she finished decisively, tightening the belt of her long black trench coat.
Mrs. Carr did love Ryan James, who happened to be Walker’s only Heisman Trophy winner, but she had also adored every sorry benchwarmer and earnest walk-on ever to come through the program. I exchanged an anxious glance with Neil, who calmly said his wife’s name.
“Don’t ‘Luce’ me,” she snapped under her breath. “I mean it. I’ve had enough. Family and close friends only.”
“How do you plan on enforcing that?” Neil asked, glancing around at the droves of acquaintances making their way to the circular drive surrounding the Carr family plot. He pushed his retro oversize glasses—the kind you could only pull off when you were as boyishly cute as Neil—up on his nose and said, “Half the town’s on the way over there now.”
“I don’t care. They weren’t even supposed to be at the cemetery. What part of private don’t they get? And they aren’t coming to the house. They aren’t. Tell them, Lawton.”
“Tell who what?” Lawton asked, appearing completely disoriented, useless as ever.
“Tell Shea and Neil that it’s time for family and close friends only,” she replied, for our benefit more than his. She reached up to make sure that no loose strands of hair had escaped her tight, low bun. They hadn’t, of course.
“But they think they are family, Lucy,” I said and could hear Mrs. Carr saying it now, referring to virtual strangers as part of “the Walker family.”
“Well, it’s offensive,” Lucy said, stumbling a bit as her heels sank into the fresh sod. Neil slipped one arm around her, catching her, and I contemplated how much worse this would be if she were in my shoes, alone. “I’m sick of these people acting like this is a tailgate at a damn bowl game. And if I see one more teal tie . . . Who wears teal to a funeral?” Her voice cracked just as Miller, in his teal and gold striped tie, loped toward us with an expression that neared jovial. I made eye contact with him and shook my head, but the gesture was far too nuanced for him.
“Yo. Shea. Wait up,” he called out as I noticed that he not only had donned his school colors but also had a “Class of 2001” Broncos pin centered on his lapel. How he’d managed to keep track of that thing for over a decade was beyond me, especially given that he’d lost his wallet twice since we’d been dating.
Lucy pivoted, squaring her slight frame to all six feet, four inches of Miller. “I’m sorry, Miller,” she said, her chin quivering. “Did you want to sing the fight song for us? Or just relive the glory days when you were . . . relevant?”
“Whoa, whoa, girl. What’d I ever do to you?” Miller said, his emotional instincts on par with his sartorial sense. “Why you gotta call me unrelevant?”
“Irrelevant, Miller. Not to be confused with irregardless, which, by the way, also is not a word. And I’m calling you irrelevant because you are.” Lucy’s long, delicate fingers made artistic flourishes in the air.
“Fine, then,” Miller said, his cheeks even ruddier than usual, his curly sideburns damp with sweat despite the brisk February day. I had told him twice to get a haircut, but he hadn’t listened.
“I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry. Very sorry. For your family. For your loss. I really liked your mom. She was an awesome lady.”
The speech was heartfelt, I could tell, but Lucy refused to cave. I braced myself as she crossed her arms and said, “Oh, puh-lease, Miller. The only loss you ever cared about was the one to Nebraska when you fumbled on the four-yard line because you were so coked up.”
“I wasn’t coked up,” Miller said. “I just . . . dropped the damn ball. Jesus.”
I bit my lower lip, shocked that Lucy recollected the play, even the yardage. But she got the rest wrong. It was T. C. Jones who failed the drug test after the game, not Miller, who never really did coke, vastly preferring the mellowing effect of marijuana. In fact, based on his glassier than normal expression, there was a distinct possibility that he had smoked this morning. Maybe even on the car ride over.
“Luce,” Neil said, sliding his grip from her elbow to her forearm and gently guiding her to his car. A child psychiatrist, he had a calming effect on the most high-strung children—and the rare ability to soothe Lucy. “Come on now. Let’s go, honey.”
She didn’t reply, just gracefully climbed into the car, crossed her slender legs, and waited for Neil to close the door. As Lawton collapsed into the backseat, Lucy stared down at the pearl bracelet that once belonged to her mother.
“Are you coming with us?” Neil asked me. “Or going with your parents?”
I glanced back toward my mom and dad, walking toward her car. Although long divorced, they had managed to be civil to each other through this ordeal, and, to my relief and surprise, my dad had left his wife back in Manhattan.
Lucy answered for me through her half-open window. “Neither,” she said. “I want her to ride with Daddy. He shouldn’t be driving alone. He’s being so stubborn.” She stared at me. “Okay, Shea?”
“Just do it. And make sure he wears his seat belt. One death in the family is plenty,” she said as I looked up the hill, finding Coach Carr in a cluster of dark suits.
“But don’t you think he’d rather be alone?” I asked. “I’m sure he doesn’t want to make conversation—”
“Well, you’re different,” she said, cutting me off. “He actually likes talking to you.”