Black and White

They were gathered there, nearly two thousand of them, in the immense, dignified cathedral. Like a large troupe of marionettes, they moved in unison whenever the puppetmaster saw fit. One could almost see the controlling strings running upward from their arms and legs, up and out of view, disappearing into the domed ceiling high above. They were puppets, and pissed ones at that.

When the time to sit came, they sat, packed themselves into the rows of long pews, each person trying to get as close to the front, as close to the body, as possible. They crammed, wedged themselves awkwardly into the cushioned velvet-covered benches like sardines into a tin, and they were just as uncomfortable, just as trapped.

When the time to stand came, they stood, bumping shoulders and elbows, colliding with strangers who knew no more of the boy than they did.

When the time to view the body came, they pushed and shoved (discreetly, of course) in a mass attempt to get closer to the front of the line, so that they could look down at the cold, pallid face they wouldn't have been able to distinguish from a stranger's, a face they would forget just as fast. They would look down at him, at it, and they would stand quietly for a few seconds, feigning reverence but in reality savoring the knowledge that they would soon be free from the cathedral, free from the body, free from its father, the puppetmaster himself. They would stand there and they would pretend to be sad, to empathize, and then they would be gone, leaving only an impression behind them.

Them - two thousand individual lives, united as one, bound together by the small white cards printed on a thick paper usually reserved for party announcements. If they had bothered to look, they could have seen the cards, their clean little corners sticking out of the pockets of those around them. They would have seen the invitations, their corners embossed with the same gold foil that was used in the flowing, elegant script that read: "You are cordially invited to attend the funeral of Nathan E. Hightower III, to be held August Seventh at St. Andrews Catholic Church, 2400 Broad Street.

The invitations had been sent out nearly a week in advance, and most of those who received them had nearly thrown them away, thinking that they had received some other person's mail. None of them knew anyone named Nathan. But they all recognized the last name, so they called their friends, fellow employees of Hightower Enterprises, and asked, "Does the old man have a son?", to which the other replied, "I have no idea. I was about to call you!"

Somewhere during the eulogy, delivered by the puppetmaster himself, their guesses were confirmed. The mahogany coffin that rested in the head of the cathedral, just below the main platform, held the body of Hightower's only son.

They all smiled little smiles, congratulating themselves on being right. Except those who thought Nathan was Hightower's nephew. They received small pokes in the ribs and neck from those near them. All this was done discreetly, of course, so as not to disturb Hightower's spiel.

The CEO was quite a speaker. When he informed his audience that "the deceased" was "a trustworthy, dependable and loyal young man," no one doubted him. When he said that "the departed" was an excellent athlete and a diligent student, everyone readily agreed, making sure to wear their most grieved and troubled faces. And when Hightower stated that his life would never be the same, everyone believed it to be true. And then they stood. And pushed. And did their earnest best to discreetly shove everyone else out of their way so they could glance at the body, at the cold piece of meat in the polished box, and then get the hell out of there.

One of them, a blonde woman in a tight, low-cut black dress that showed off her five-figure breasts, leaned against the man she told everyone she was engaged to and whispered, "Why are we even here? You didn't even know the kid, did you?"

"No one did," he half-laughed.

"Then why are we here?" she asked again.

" 'Cause the old man wants me here. He caught me playing Myth on company time, and he was about to file an incident report when the kid croaked. He had so much to deal with, what with the media and everything, that he's kinda put it on hold, I guess. So being here gets me points. God knows I need them. I'm gonna bring up the whole thing with him after we see the body."

"Will you be quiet?" someone behind him hissed.

The man with the blonde looked back over his shoulder. "Hey buddy, why don't you -" he began, but stopped himself when he saw that his antagonist was listening intently to the tiny cell phone he was trying to conceal in his palm.

"Yeah baby," he was saying, "I'll be there as soon as I can get out of here. I'm not sure; it's moving really slow. I'll try. Later." The man turned off the phone and, pocketing it, glanced around nervously. "Where's Hightower?" he inquired softly.

"At the back of the line," the blonde replied.

About six people back, another of them, a middle aged man with a snobbish demeanor, was talking quietly to his wife. "Yeah, Hightower sure picked a bad day for this. Even if I hurry, I won't get a tee time before five, most likely."

His wife nodded pseudo-sympathetically. "Well, at least this gets me out of the house. I'm so sick of all those fund-raiser people. I had two little brats interrupts my swim time yesterday, wanting me to give to some MS foundation or Salvation Army or some shit like that."

"You didn't give them anything did you?" the husband asked.

"No, but I dripped chlorine all over the house when I went to get the door. We really should hire Macy full-time."

At the front of the cathedral, a heavy-set man with grey hair and a crimson face approached the coffin. Just as he looked down at the corpse's closed eyes, he felt a vibration in his pocket. He deftly slid his pager out of his jacket and looked at the device's green-tinted face. PRX down 24 ½. Buy? the luminous screen questioned. The man's eyes widened and he shoved the pager back into his pocket. "Hell yes!" he declared a bit louder than he had intended as he turned away from the coffin. "Sorry kid, no time," he muttered as he hurried to the nearest bathroom to call his broker.

The young man who was next in line stepped up to the casket. He glanced over his shoulder as he approached, catching a glimpse of Hightower far behind him.

"Alright," he thought out loud, "gotta make this look good." He slowly lowered his head, until he was staring at the boy's eyelashes. "Alright kid, you're the ticket. You're Danny's promotion. It's right here....come on Hightower, look up, look up." He managed a furtive glance backward. The CEO was conversing with one of his vice presidents. "Damn it! Thanks for nothing kid." Another quick look to make sure no one was watching, and Danny gave the corpse the good flicking-off he thought it deserved. "Great. Looks like I came for nothing."

From his vantage at the rear of the cathedral, Nathan Edward Hightower II saw the gesture and a shadow of a smile played across his lips. He quickly caught the eye of his Director of Employment and immediately called him over.

"Yes, Mr. Hightower?"

"Good to see you, Nelson."

"I'm honored to attend, sir."

"Have Daniel Law fired immediately. I want him gone by tomorrow night. Have a good day, Nelson." Hightower turned back to the line, back to the people that anxiously awaited their turn to stare death in the face and then go grab some Italian. The CEO spotted two of his cameramen passing by and frowned. The cathedral had not been nearly as full as Hightower had planned. He had wanted the videos to portray a packed house, a majestic building filled to capacity. Heads would roll, he would make sure of that, but all was not lost. The tapes could be edited, doctored to his specifications, he knew. As long as it looked good, no one would care how he bent the truth.

Hightower's thoughts suddenly moved to something he himself had said in the eulogy, something about his life not being the same (in truth, he couldn't remember his exact words, though he had practiced the speech a dozen times in front of his full length mirror, making sure to stand up straight, to look his tallest, to be a figure everyone would be impressed with when watching the video).

His life would be different. The boy's bedroom would be converted into another rec room - he had decided that before the child was even born - and the month old Jaguar could be given to Nelson's daughter as a graduation present. Hightower Enterprises hasn't been in the papers in quite some time, he realized. Easily resolved: the tuition funds that Hightower paid for the boy's schooling could be donated to charity, an MS foundation or some shit like that.

Yes, another rec room. I'll have the wallpaper and furniture removed, incinerated most likely, and I'll have new lighting installed so that-

Something bumped into Hightower and pushed past him. The CEO looked up indignantly. A short figure, no more than a child, had pushed past him and was heading down the center aisle towards the coffin. Hightower blinked the rage from his eyes and looked again.

It was a girl, a short girl, no more than five feet tall. She was dressed in funeral black, but her clothes were dirty and ripped in places. Her raven hair, which seemed to run wild, cascading down her back, was unkempt and dirty. As she moved deliberately down the aisle, the anxious line of puppets in front of her parted, and she walked on, the marionettes seemingly moved from her path by some unseen force, as if an invisible hand had brushed them to either side, or, tugging their strings from high above, had jerked them rudely out of her path.

Hightower tried to voice a protest, but the malevolent words stuck in his throat.

She moved on, slowly, silently, with a grace that seemed unnatural for someone as ragged, as unclean as herself. She moved with dignity, her eyes always on the casket, as though seeing it through the thick strands of hair that hid her eyes from view. People stared at her in silence as she passed. All eyes were open and on her. All mouths were closed.

Her ebon sweater was frayed and dusty, and her black jeans were faded and had a faint musty smell to them. Her hair was everywhere, falling down her back, over her ears, into her eyes, hiding her dirty face. She moved slowly, as if each step was a struggle. Down the aisle she went, its declining slope at times seeming the only thing that kept her moving. But she did keep moving, until at last, as she approached the casket, she stumbled forward and nearly fell, but managed to grab the coffin's mahogany side and pull herself to it. Her stomach hit the polished wood hard, and her eyes closed in pain. The sound of her breath being forced from her lungs broke the silence momentarily.

And then it was quiet again.

The girl slumped forward over the open casket, her head falling down onto the boy's chest. She opened her eyes, her brown, beautiful eyes, and looked into his face. Tears began to fall, sliding down across her temple and over her ear, cleansing skin and washing away dirt as they fell. Her whole body seemed to convulse silently. Emotion wracked her small frame, and a pool quickly formed on the boy's immaculate white shirt. She clenched her eyes closed, trying to stop the flow of saline. She was still for a moment, then opened her eyes again and reached out, touching the boy's face.

"Nathan," she whispered, her voice trembling in horror. "Oh God, Nate, what have they done to you?" she breathed in horror. "They've got you in a box, got you surrounded by people who don't even know who you are."

She lifted her head, and placed her hand on his cheek. A sudden strength filled her and, looking around, she called out in a voice no one could have expected from anyone her size, "Who knows who this is?"

No one moved.

"Who knows who this is?"

"That is the body of Nathan Edward Hightower III." The puppetmaster's voice broke the silence, coming firm and stolid from the back of the cathedral. Those who stood between the CEO and the girl quickly moved.

"No!" she shrieked, turning to the boy. "This is Nate, and he's a poet and a dreamer and a martyr..." There was a storm burning in her eyes, a thousand different thoughts and emotions coalescing in her words. "And a hero!" She paused only long enough to inhale. "He likes Bach and Guns & Roses and Kafka and autumn and rain and waking up before everyone else and just sitting and thinking and watching a new day dawn! He watches the new sun and he thinks about hope and freedom and joy and love and he loves..." Her voice trailed off. Hightower opened his mouth to speak, but she wasn't done. "And he loves me!" she declared loudly, trust and fear and joy and agony laced, mingled inseparably in those words.

"Young woman, I don't know who you are," Hightower began, his voice easily carrying from one side of the cathedral to the other. "But you-"

"And you don't know who he is! You're his father, damn it! So what's his favorite color?"

Hightower didn't move. He thought about the blue Jaguar he was going to give to Nelson's daughter. He thought about the ocean, the boy's carpenter jeans, the sky. He thought about the navy wallpaper he was going to have torn down and burned, and he didn't speak. He didn't know.

The girl turned away from the CEO in shame, turned back to Nathan and leaned over him. "You shouldn't be here," she whispered. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have let them..." She bit down on her lip to hold back the tears, and the storm in her eyes seemed to spread, filling her entire body. "I won't forget you...I won't." She was trembling, shivering with a force that Hightower vaguely remembered, a fragment of a dream or an echo from a past life lived long before memory.

Hightower, and all of them, stood motionless, unable to move. They watched as she bent down and kissed Nate for the last time. They watched as statues do, as she stood up straight and strode past them, out of the massive, half-filled cathedral and out, out into nowhere.

Copyright © T Simpson 2002