The funeral was scheduled for after graduation. The entire senior class agreed that graduation shouldn't be postponed. Invitations were sent out, a lot of plans were made. And Justin wouldn't want us to. It was a somber time in the library, putting on our caps and gowns. Several girls broke down and cried. A lot of the boys, including me, had tears we had to fight back.
"I swore I wasn't going to do this," one of them said, wiping his eyes.
I had taken that same oath.
The chair where Justin would've sat was draped with his gown and his cap was placed on the chair. We had also agreed that we would have a second valedictorian, solely to give a tribute to Justin. Sheriff Walker came, along with some family who were there for the funeral. I didn't see Michael. I didn't think Jack knew that they were going to present Justin's diploma to him.
"Justin Joseph Walker," the superintendent announced. "I would ask his Dad to come forward and accept his diploma on Justin's behalf."
The gymnasium erupted in applause. Jack could barely make it out of his chair and I thought he was going to stumble as he walked down the aisle. Brady had come too, and we both got up at the same time to move into the aisle and escort him down the aisle. We took him to the steps and I moved to the steps on the other side. Standing there listening to the continuing applause, I broke my oath. I let the tears flow freely, unashamedly down my face. When Jack came to the steps, my hand was out, but not offered. He never took my hand, nor had he taken Brady's--it would have been out of character for him--but I saw the gratitude in his eyes as he came down the steps. Together, we escorted him back to his seat then I returned to mine. I got a lot of high fives as I made my way to my seat.
After the ceremony I made it a point to see Jack. He was looking for me as well. He gave me a hug and handed me an envelope. He was clutching Justin's diploma in his other hand.
"You didn't have to do that," I said.
'Yes I did."
"I started cleaning out Justin's locker but I put everything back," I told him. "I'll do it later and bring everything to you."
"All right, thanks."
"Sheriff, I was thinking......it's none of my business so tell me if I'm out line but I was wondering if you think it would be a neat idea to have Justin in his baseball uniform, just for the wake. I think he would be proud of that."
A tight smile creased his tanned face. "I think he would be, too. Yes, I'll do that."
"Great, I'll bring his uniform over."
"Why don't you just take it to the funeral home," he said. "I'll tell them to be expecting you."
"It's not clean," I said.
"Was it ever?" Jack said with a smile.
There were a couple of parties that had not been cancelled. Those that were, were combined with others. Since I couldn't see or be with Jack afterwards, I decided to go to the parties. I didn't feel like having a good time, but Justin would not want me, or any of us, to go home and mope. He would want us to be together.
There was one party at Luis's house. I went home and changed and went. It was pleasant, but not fun. Nobody was in the mood for fun. I think we thought it would be sacrilegious to have fun. Except Linda Willard. Under the influence of too much beer she tried to get me and another guy in the bedroom. I didn't know Linda or the guy that well and I wasn't sure if she wanted us in there to fuck her, or if she was looking for me to get fucked in the ass, maybe while I fucked her. Under ordinary circumstances I probably would've gone for it, but it wasn't the time. I didn't stay at any of the parties very long. I wasn't in the mood to have fun; I wanted to be alone, in my own bed, to think about Justin.
The wake was the next evening after graduation. I delivered Justin's uniform earlier in the day. I arrived at the wake early, thinking I would drop off Justin's ball glove to Jack, pay my respects and leave. I was one of the first, there were only a few people in line. I was struck with panic when I entered the room. I was afraid to go up to the casket. I realized the game I'd been playing with myself. As long as I didn't actually see him in the casket, he wasn't officially dead. It could still be a nightmare I was having that I might wake up from. But I was in the funeral home staring at the casket and I wasn't waking up. This was real.
I stepped out to get a drink of water then went into the restroom to splash cold water on my face. When I went back into the room Jack came toward me.
"Kenny. I was afraid you'd left," he said as he hugged me.
"No, I just needed a minute," I said.
"Come on, I'll take you," he said, putting an arm around my shoulder. "You've got his glove?"
"Yes, sir, I thought you might want to put it in his casket."
"Yes, he should take it with him."
I saw Michael standing off to the side near the casket with some other family. Jack took me up to the casket, his arm still tight round my shoulder.
"I liked your idea about the baseball uniform," Jack said. "But my sister said he has to be in his Sunday suit for the funeral."
Appropriately, there was still dirt on the shirt and worse dirt stains on the pants. His cap was in his hand and Jack placed his glove in a corner of the lid. His diploma sat in the other corner of the lid.
"He looks great." I felt stupid for saying it. That was something you said about a guy in his tux for prom. But it was true. If it could be said of the dead, he looked downright awesome. So fuckin' good looking and studly, even in death. He didn't have that pasty look I'd seen on dead people. He didn't look like they'd used any makeup on him at all; he was just naturally tanned. He looked like he was asleep, and the stupid thought came to me that this could be a joke after all, that Justin was laying there in a casket in his baseball uniform as a practical joke. I half expected him to break out in a smile. I wanted to grab him by the balls and wake him up and tell him it was a fuckin' sick joke. I did reach in and touch his hand under his cap. It was stiff and cold. I held onto it, trying to warm it up, and I started to choke up. Jack gripped my shoulder and it was like he squeezed the tears out of me. I started to sob, still holding onto Justin's hand. Jack turned me and drew me into his arms and I cried on his chest while he put his hand on mine that was holding Justin's hand.
Others had come up to the casket and Jack eased me to the side.
"The flowers the team sent are over here," he said. The floral arrangement was huge with actual baseballs tucked in here and there, and a real glove at the bottom. I wondered whose idea it was; I had not ordered the flowers. The card had all the players signatures on it, not just our names written by an employee. We decided we all had to go into the florist's and sign the card personally.
I looked around for the ones I'd ordered from just me. Jack pointed them out, sitting back behind some other arrangements, on a taller pedestal at the end of the casket. I was glad I'd chosen the one I did over the huge baseball planter. There was one of those on a table in the back of the room and it looked juvenile, even cheesy. This one was a simple earth tone, square planter on stout looking legs with two large red roses and one white one, mixed in with a lot of green plants. I'd ordered the plants for Jack to keep. The roses had a personal significance; the white one signifying a virginal me, the red ones a virile Justin and the second rose symbolizing more than one time. I didn't tell Jack. I did tell him he needed to get back to the casket. When we walked back I saw that someone had placed a baseball in the glove. My plans to leave changed when he said he hoped I would stay for a while.
The wake was huge. The line formed a serpentine through the funeral home and outside around the parking lot. Every one of the team was there; most of the school was there. There were even a lot of kids from other surrounding schools, a lot of athletes and baseball players that Justin had played against. I wondered about all the girls from those other schools; how many of them Justin had fucked.
I had a chance to talk to Michael when he took a short break from the family but we didn't talk much.
"It was a great idea, putting Justin in his baseball uniform. Fuck, he looks as studly as ever," he said.
I let on like it was Jack's idea.
"Hey, what'd Uncle Jack ever do with that chip he took away from me?" he asked.
"I don't know, he never mentioned it," I said.
He asked me when I was coming to visit him in California now that I was out of school. "That offer is still open," he added. I didn't know.
"Do you think there'll be a chance for us to get together while I'm here, maybe with a couple of the other guys?"
"I don't know, you can ask around, but I doubt I'll be able to make it, I've got a job lined up," I lied. It didn't seem appropriate even to be talking about having sex.
I spent another night tossing and turning, wrestling with thoughts of Justin, all we'd done, all we hadn't gotten around to doing, because we thought we had a lifetime ahead of us. The one big regret I had--and it was sexual--was not ever being double fucked by Justin and Damon. Justin and I had talked about it once, it was his idea, and he asked if I might ever want to try it. I said I would. He asked me what other guy I would pick to double team me. I told him Damon. He laughed and said nobody could handle him and Damon both at the same time. I bet him I could. But we never did.
In the middle of the night I couldn't take the tossing and turning anymore. I snuck out and crossed over to the door that leads into Kyle's bedroom/basement. It took him awhile to open the door to my gentle knocking. He opened the door wearing an old pair of boxers. He didn't say a word but reached out and took my wrist. He pulled me in and led me to the bed. He took a second to tug off my shirt then we were both in our underwear. Kyle helped me onto the mattress.
Like the best friend he'd always been to me Kyle wrapped me up in his arms and held me through another crying jag, petting my back and murmuring soothing sounds into my hair. I fell asleep like that, feeling safe and protected. I woke up with the sun and snuck back to my house. The paperboy caught me coming into the garage in just my shorts. He gave me a long look but didn't say anything before moving down the street on his bike.
The funeral was a stunner. True to everyone's wishes, Justin was dressed in a dark suit. The pall bearers were to be at the funeral home early, I went earlier, hoping to have a few minutes alone with him again. Godd, he looked so handsome. I broke down again and had to go in the restroom to wash my face before the other guys got there. I went back and tucked the fake ID I'd found in Justin's breast pocket. "Not that you're going to need this, but it's not something your dad needs to find," I said quietly. I also tucked the single condom down in the side of the casket. "Not that you're going to need this either, they probably don't use condoms where you're going."
I didn't realize there was anyone there till Luis put his hand on my shoulder.
"What was that you put in his casket?" he asked.
"Man, that is awesome!!"
"Yeah, I wonder if he'll know what do to with it. I never knew him to use 'em," I said.
When the pall bearers had all arrived we were asked to help load the flowers into the flower van. The men began closing the casket. I wondered what was going on and thought it odd that none of the other guys said anything. People hadn't even started arriving and they were closing the casket. I remarked that I didn't know Sheriff Walker had requested a closed casket.
"Oh, no. Didn't you know? The funeral is being held on the baseball field," the man said.
"Oh! Wow!" I was wide eyed. I didn't know. Nobody had mentioned it to me and I hadn't read the obituary with the arrangements.
"He's going to be resting on home plate," the other man said.
When the casket was closed, we were instructed on how to lift it and carry it. As we lifted it up from the stand, I never felt such a sense of duty and honor in my life. I'd never done this before and I was surprised how heavy it was.
"Damn, Justin, you put on some weight," one of the guys muttered under his breath. It broke us up laughing. It was an odd, good moment. It showed how closely bonded we were, that he could say something like that.
We loaded the casket into the hearse and got in the big, black SUV. There were some cars in the parking lot and I saw Jack and Michael and some other family being escorted to the long, black limo. When the funeral coach was secured we pulled out, with the limo behind it, us in the SUV behind that, and the cortege behind us.
Nearing the sports complex there were police and sheriff's cars blocking off some streets, and policemen and deputies directing traffic along the street and onto the football field.
"Shit, there's gotta be nine counties here," Tyler said.
The coach pulled onto the field and rolled majestically up to home plate. There were chairs set up all across the baseball diamond. We all got out of the SUV. When the hearse was opened we all stood facing away, as we had been instructed, and took hold of the handles to lift it out. We carried the casket to home plate and placed it on the wood platform sitting over the plate. There, they opened it.
"I understand you boys were all on his baseball team," the funeral director said.
"Yes, sir," I said.
"The team is going to be lined up, standing along the baseline between third and home," he said. "Other athletes from surrounding schools will be standing along the other baselines."
"Dang, this whole thing is awesome," somebody said quietly. Nobody said anything but all of us, instead of going out to the baseline, walked back to gather around the casket. We stood for a moment, when I saw the family getting out of the limo I reached in and squeezed his hand.
"Goodbye, old friend. This is the last time I'll see you." God help me, in that moment I would've died for him. I wanted to be in there with him, to go wherever he was destined to go
Others spoke in quite tones, made gruff to hide their grief.
"Yeah, goodbye, Justin."
"See you one day, later."
One by one we said our goodbyes and walked to the baseline. I stood squarely on third base, crying. I saw several of the guys wipe their eyes.
The other baselines filled up and we waved for some of other players to join us. As the chairs were filling up the cars arriving still formed a line as far as I could see down the street. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. And I would never see it again.
The minister was good; he was ex-military and an ex-coach. He invited anyone who had something to say to come forward. A couple of the guys did. Several guys from other schools did. Coach Baldwin did. Several girls did. I didn't. Most of what I could say, couldn't be said in polite company. Justin would not only understand, he would understand with a smile.
When the service was completed the minister announced that anyone who wished to could follow the funeral coach to the cemetery. Besides the family, I guessed about half the people did. Most of the athletes did.
There was an easy breeze sweeping across the cemetery. When we had the casket set on the rack I stepped back and looked around to see dozens of the athletes standing all around the cemetery, well back from the family.
"All we need is a ball, bat and gloves and we could hold a tournament," one of the guys said.
After the short graveside service the minister extended an invitation to lunch at the church. A lot of people were still hanging around. The funeral coach pulled out and the driver of the SUV was waiting beside the vehicle, waiting to take the pall bearers back to the funeral home. I went up and told him I wouldn't be riding back with them.
I walked some distance away, looking at the headstones, waiting for everyone to leave. The workers stood at a respectable distance away as well. When all but one car had pulled out, they went to work. I moved up to the gravesite as they were lowering the casket. It lowered with such grace and dignity, I thought, till it went below the surface of the ground, and then it descended into the dark hole. I stood and watched with a determined stance. "I will see you through to the end," I told him silently.
When the green carpeting was removed and the rack taken down, the workers stood to the side and I realized they were waiting on me before they placed the vault.
I motioned for them to go ahead. One of them held a shovel out to me. I stepped forward and took the shovel and thanked him. I slammed the shovel into the fresh dirt and tossed it into the grave. It landed with a loud clatter on the casket. It took me weeks to shake that sound. I handed the shovel back and walked away with my head down.
Lifting my head, I saw a tall, athletic looking boy in a sharp, dark suit, coming towards me, a smile on his handsome, tanned face, with his hands in his pockets. He put out one hand as he approached.
"You probably don't know me, I'm Ted Clark, Bennington High. We played you in the tournament last year."
"I remember you," I said.
"When I was leaving, I saw you didn't go back with the other pall bearers and I didn't see any other vehicle. I stayed back to see if you have someone picking you up?"
"No, I....." I looked all around, laughing and feeling very foolish. "I didn't even think how I would get back. Stupid of me."
"No problem. Come hop in."
I got in his car for the short drive back to town.
"I appreciate this. I'm glad you noticed and stuck around, otherwise I would be riding back in the back of a cemetery truck."
"The way you hung back....you were pretty close to him," Ted said.
"Yeah. You could say that. Real close," I said.
"So was I."
"Oh?" I turned with a surprised look. He was smiling. I immediately wondered how close.
"We've been friends for a couple of years," he said.
"I guess he didn't mix his friends from different schools," I said.
"He had quite a reputation," Ted said with a knowing smile.
"I assumed that from all the girls from other schools that came to the funeral," I said.
"A lot of guys from other schools, too," he said.
"I could understand that, the bond of athletes." Curiosity began to creep in as I began to wonder if Ted was trying to tell me something. The way he smiled made me wonder even more.
When he dropped me off at the funeral home where my car was, I put out my hand through his open window and thanked him and there was that smile again. I started to walk away but suddenly turned around. Fuck it, I thought, I was going to ask him; what'd I have to lose?
"Listen, Ted, maybe I'm getting the wrong idea, the wrong vibes, but I gotta ask.....just how close were you and Justin?"
"Close," he said, still with that smile. "Very close. As close as two guys can get."
"I thought so," I said, nodding, and I smiled back.
"You could say we were pretty tight," I said.
"Well, one of you anyway," he said as he was taking out his wallet. He took a card out and handed it to me. "Here, email me, or call me sometimes. We can get together and compare notes."
"Yeah....yeah, I'd like that." I had one more question for Ted but there was no easy way to ask it. I had to force myself to ask it, looking him in the eye, "How long was he fucking you?"
"We met at a summer baseball camp. He was fifteen and I was sixteen." He didn't seem at all embarrassed but a look of sadness came over him and he had to look away for a second. "Even then, he was just a kid but he had this... this way about him. He made you want to make him happy, like it made me proud to let this kid fuck me. I... I can't really explain it," he finished.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to be so rude about it. I was just curious." I made a move to turn and walk away but Ted's next words caught me in place.
"He talked about you sometimes, his friend Kenny. Sometimes it made me jealous, you know, since I hardly ever saw him. How long has.... had, he been fucking you?"
I couldn't admit it had only been seven months to this guy Justin had been fucking on and off for three years. I just kinda shrugged and gave him a screwy look.
"I gotta go, Ted. Thanks for the ride. I'll call you sometime." I turned and walked away. I felt his eyes on me all the way to my car.
I didn't go to the dinner. By then, it was late afternoon and it was probably over anyway. I felt jittery. And alone. But I wanted to be. I didn't want to talk to Michael and I didn't want to be with my teammates. I drove around for a while, wondering about Justin and Ted, and Justin and whoever else that I didn't know about. It hurt a little, like he'd cheated on me, but it was ridiculous; I didn't have that kind of hold on him.
Late afternoon I went to Millers for a hamburger. It was nearing dusk and I felt drawn back to the cemetery. After I ate I went home and changed into shorts and a T-shirt and grabbed my baseball cap. The sun had already dropped below the tree tops as I drove into the cemetery. The mound of his grave was heaped with flowers. It was so beautiful in a morbid sort of way. I parked away and walked to his grave. I didn't feel the emotions that I'd felt before and I wondered if I was getting over it already, or if it was just numbness setting in.
I circled the grave, looking at the flowers. I looked across at the trees, and up at the sky that was getting darker. Then I sat down on a headstone and stared. I wanted to say something--it needed to be something profound--but I couldn't think of anything. I thought about death, how it felt to die. Was there a brief few seconds when he knew he was going to die? What was going through his mind in those hopeless seconds? Did he say anything, or cry out? What were his last words? Who was he thinking of when his life ended? What was it like in the afterlife? Where was he right then? Was he lingering back, perhaps wanting to say goodbye? Or had his journey already begun? How long? Would it really be a journey, or was he whisked away in the blink of an eye? So much we didn't know. I wondered if he could see me.
"If you're still here, Justin, you knew I would come back.....if you can see me, give me a sign," I said quietly. Almost immediately a brisk breeze blew through the trees along the edge of the cemetery. It was strange because the air around me was deathly still. He was here.
I couldn't help but smile. "Okay, dude, I haven't lost you for good," I said in a stronger voice. More strangely, another breeze came through the trees and swept over the cemetery. It lasted only seconds then it was quiet again.
"Showoff," I said. Godd, I felt good. I wanted to spend the night right there. He was there! Maybe he was afraid. I couldn't leave him there alone. Suddenly I felt as close to him as I'd ever felt in my life. Closer even than the physical. I'd never had a spiritual experience before but I was sure this was one. For the first time, the tears I shed were tears of happiness.
I focused on my car. It was parked where I could see the grave. I crawled in the back seat and cried myself to sleep.
I awoke to a tapping on the window and a flashlight shining in. I rose up to see a sheriff's patrol car. I got out of the car.
"What're you doing in the cemetery? Don't you know it's illegal to be in a cemetery after sundown?"
"Yes, sir. But that's my best friend over there. I couldn't leave him alone."
"I'm sorry, but I'm sure he's going to be okay," the deputy said. "Now, you need to leave and get on home."
"Sir, I......you're not with Sheriff Walker's department."
"No he's in the next county," he said.
"Could you call him, please, he can explain who I am. I was best friends with his son."
"This is Justin Walker? His funeral was today."
"No, I don't need to call Jack. Listen, I want you to pull your car over there in that clump of trees where it's not so visible. If any other of my men come through patrolling the cemetery..." He handed me a card out of his shirt pocket. "Give them this card, they won't give you any trouble."
"Thank you officer, very much, you can't know how much I appreciate this."
"No problem. You shouldn't leave your friend his first night out."
It was an odd thing to say, and I wondered about it all the rest of the night as I sat in the front seat with the window open where I could keep vigil till the sun was coming up.