Edward Belfar

Mourner’s Prayer

Sheila Rosen, hunched forward in her wheelchair, watches as her son Ben places a pebble atop the modest gray footstone that marks the grave of her late husband, Sheldon. Today is her and Sheldon’s sixty-third wedding anniversary. She has spent the last eleven of those here at the cemetery.

Ben, after fussing a bit with his glasses, begins to recite the Kaddish, reading, ponderously, from a printout provided him by a helpful employee in the cemetery’s administrative office. The paper flutters in his hands. At times, his words vanish into the wind that bends the denuded tree branches and scatters dried leaves over the ground. Pausing, he adjusts his glasses again. Then he starts over, from the beginning, reading more loudly now, though there is no one within hearing distance but Sheila. She suspects that the students in his classes at the university mock him behind his back.

Feeling a chill, she tries to adjust her scarf, but with her one usable hand encased in an oversized mitten, she cannot get a proper grip. The nape of her neck remains exposed to the wind. She wishes that he would read more quickly. Perhaps, she reflects, she ought to have acquiesced when he urged her to put off the visit to a more propitious day. She immediately tries to banish the thoughts from her mind. They are unworthy, disrespectful. Honoring Sheldon must come before comfort. 

Ben has nearly reached the end of his recitation when a bone-piercing wind gust yanks the printout from his hands. He pursues it, even breaking into a jog, as it flies ever further out of reach. Were the overweight, gray-haired professor, soon to become a grandfather, chasing a piece of paper in the wind anyone but her own son, Sheila would find the spectacle amusing. Since his adolescence, at least, his morbid fear of looking ridiculous has led Ben to make himself so. That same fear plagued his father as well, but with even greater intensity and more pernicious effects. It sometimes made her kind Sheldon cruel.

A thousand miles and more than half a century away from the cemetery, she and Sheldon make a handsome couple, sitting at a round wrought-iron table on a hotel patio ringed with varicolored paper lanterns. A slender, delicate brunette, with her hair cut short and sculpted into a swirl on the right side, she has a heart shaped face, luminous eyes, and a ready and slightly mischievous smile. Sheldon, with his angular features, prominent nose, and brown eyes that look warily out at the world, has a much more serious aspect. While she wears a green and white summer dress with a leaf pattern, he sweats in his dark-blue wool suit on this muggy Florida night. Though they can hear the rumbling of the surf in the distance, no cooling breeze comes their way. His Brylcreemed hair, black and glossy as patent leather, rises above his forehead. Sheldon and Sheila sip gingerly from cocktail glasses with paper umbrellas, avoiding each other’s gaze. Unlike the other guests, they do not laugh at the lewd jokes of the comedian holding court in the center of the patio. Owing to nerves and inexperience, they have fumbled in the bedroom, consummating the marriage only on the second night of their honeymoon, and that just barely. On this, the fourth night, they struggle even to make conversation. The terrible question hangs over both of them: could they have made the mistake of their lives?

Sheldon tugs at the knot of his tie, smooths his hair back, wipes the sweat from his face with his handkerchief, then starts on the tie again. Holding the stem of his glass between his thumb and his middle and index fingers, he rotates it back and forth, back and forth, until he loses his grip. The glass falls and shatters on the patio but not before its freezing contents spill into his lap. He gives a start. Sheila giggles nervously.

“Do you think that’s funny?” Sheldon roars. “Do you think that’s funny?”

All over the patio, heads turn in their direction. Stunned, Sheila leaves the table and hurries across the patio back to their room. There she locks the door and, sobbing, throws herself face down onto the bed. During the night, she awakens and hears a stirring and a murmuring. in a corner near the door, Sheldon sleeps in an armchair. She wonders whether to wake him and tell him to come to bed, but some unknown force, far greater than Earth’s gravity, will not let her rise.

She wishes now that she could say to him that she forgave him long ago, not only for that display of temper but for all the recriminations and misunderstandings that followed from it, and that she feels grateful for every minute of their fifty-two years together, the best ones and the worst.

“I’ll see you soon, Sheldon,” she murmurs.

“Not so fast, Mom,” comes the breathless answer. “I think you’re going to be around for quite a while yet.”

Doubled over and panting from his exertions, her son has returned to the graveside empty-handed, his shoes coated with brown dust. However well-intentioned his remark, she cannot shake the feeling that he has been eavesdropping on her.

Crossly, she replies, “I want to go now. It’s very cold.”

© Edward Belfar

Edward Belfar is the author of a collection of short stories called Wanderers, which was published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press in 2012. His work has also appeared in numerous literary journals, including Shenandoah, The Baltimore Review, Potpourri, Confrontation, Natural Bridge, and Tampa Review. He lives in Columbia, Maryland, with his wife and has often gone hiking around Loch Raven Reservoir.

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