We called the wake “Goodnight, Fancypants” because we thought Fancypants would’ve liked that. A pink banner hung above his tiny coffin. It was an open coffin but only the bottom half, he’d always been shy. We tied a bright red balloon to his little leg. By we I mean me and Audrey—Vanessa still hadn’t shown up.
Audrey said, “He would’ve wanted her here.” She ran her nail back and forth across her top row of teeth like a stick back and forth across a gate. “Do you think she feels awkward?”
I said, “Yeah probably. I don’t think she knew we knew about them.”
Audrey’s face said, I feel bad about that. Can you believe we read his diary? And found out he had a girlfriend? We’re bad parents.
I felt bad about this too but didn’t want to think about it so instead I said, “Also, she probably doesn’t have a ride?”
Vanessa was in Fancypants’ sixth grade class which meant she couldn’t drive. The only person who could’ve driven her was her dad and the awkward part is that Vanessa’s dad was not invited to the wake. We didn’t want to be rude but we also didn’t want to invite the man who ran over our son to said son’s wake. There were also legal reasons for not inviting her dad, complications after he ran over Fancypants while dropping off Vanessa at our house. An eighteen-wheeler actual truck.
Audrey said, “But even if that were the case, couldn’t she have just ordered a Lyft?”
The mourners came in. They hobbled, affecting serious illness, like they were sympathetically identifying with Fancypants as much as possible without also dying. Audrey smiled tight like she took these histrionics as an insult.
She whispered in my ear: “I take this as an insult.”
Nobody knows how to act when a little boy dies. It feels like you’re a walk-on in a soap opera so you have the bad actor’s impulse to break character. Overacting was the only viable alternative to cracking, laughing because this wake was ridiculous. Deep down we all know little boys don’t die, not really. So at a wake like this you get through by pretending it’s an inside joke, one you don’t understand but pretend you do.
They ate the cake we’d brought, which we’d bought a week before for his birthday party. When he died, we had the cake guy redo the frosting.
Fancypants’ red leg balloon popped for no reason. I coughed.
Audrey said, “Can you run out and get another balloon?” Then she stopped me at the door. She said, “Please fix this.” Her face said, Don’t literally get another balloon. What are you, an idiot? I’m telling you to do something different. I telling you to fix this. You can’t but I want you to.
I drove. “Goodnight, Fancypants” was on lunch break, 12-2, and if I could drive off Summit Ave up to I9 and from there to the Parkway and from there take Exit 220 and get off so I was by Chestnut Ave, I would be at the home of Vanessa and her dad.
There was no traffic. I looked at the sky. I called Audrey, she didn’t pick up, her voicemail beeped. “Hi,” I said, “it’s me. You wanna hear something weird? There’s no clouds today. It’s beautiful outside. All blue, no clouds, no sun.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say but I let the recording run and run and run for two minutes. I wanted her to hear me driving. I wanted her to hear what I heard. But then I realized she might not even listen at all and almost definitely she’d stop listening to the voicemail once I stopped talking.
Audrey didn’t believe in God. Why would she listen to a mostly silent message?
I pulled into Vanessa’s driveway and rang the doorbell of her McMansion. (The money came from Vanessa’s dead mom, heiress to the Frigidaire fortune, whose will stipulated that her daughter be taken care of and her husband’s dream of being a trucker realized.)
Vanessa answered the door in her dad’s trucker hat, a hat that read “TRUCKER.” From the way she held her mouth you could tell the braces still felt weird.
“Hi, Vanessa,” I said.
“Hi, Vanessa,” she said, imitating me so that I sounded stupid, which was fair.
“Sorry, did I do something? Something to upset you? Like kill Fancypants?”
“You didn’t even really know Fancypants,” she said, eyeballs inflating, jaw assuming some rigor mortis clench. “I knew him. I loved him…what happened, it’s like, it’s like Romeo and Juliet.”
“So you’re saying you’re dead too?”
“Well then how is this like Romeo and Juliet? Is there some animosity between our families? Did your dad want to kill Fancypants?”
She actually stamped her foot, which I had never seen in real life before.
“It’s like Romeo and Juliet because we loved each other and now he’s dead.”
Her face was as blank as the last page of a book. The story was over, that was all I’d be getting. Sure I could look back or analyze or try to decode but I’d be getting no new information forever.
“Okay,” I said.
Vanessa and I looked at each other. We looked and looked and looked, asking ourselves, Where is Fancypants in this other person’s mind? Where can I find him from now until the day I die and join him?
From behind Vanessa I saw her dad sneaking around one of the kitchens, slowly opening and closing cabinet doors. I smelled coffee. He didn’t want to talk to me, which I actually had no problem not taking personally.
Vanessa imagined what I saw and tensed up again.
I said, “I don’t have to talk to him.”
She said, ‘Leave.”
I said, “Audrey needs you to come.”
She said, “I’m going to come. But later. I’ll only come if I’m the only person there.”
I sighed, in admiration and frustration. “You think I don’t understand love?”
“Know,” she said. “I know.”
If Fancypants had lived, he might’ve married her. In his diary he wrote, “I might marry Vanessa.”
He asked us why we named him Fancypants and Audrey said, “So no girl would ever marry you.” And then they hugged and I looked at them hugging and I was happy.
(Here’s the real reason we named him Fancypants. Audrey was pregnant, we planned to name the baby Will. Audrey miscarried. She got pregnant again, we planned to name the baby Christine. She miscarried again. This happened two more times—pregnancy, normal name, miscarriage. When we finally stopped trying but she got pregnant anyway, we didn’t want to jinx it. “We’ll name him Fancypants,” I said, and she laughed and looked at me like she loved me. But then the joke was on us because Fancypants was born.)
Instead of saying goodbye, I imagined Vanessa growing up and marrying someone else. I imagined her happy.
I drove back to the funeral parlor, the sky and roads and land and earth still so perfect. I was alive and that guy in the other car was alive and Fancypants wasn’t and that was no big deal, at least in this moment. I felt big and I felt brave. I was hurtling many miles per hour on the same earth where God killed everyone in a flood and where, more recently, God said Fancypants deserved to die. But not me, not yet.
I couldn’t share this with Audrey.
I walked in and the cake was gone. There were crumbs on the floor and even a fly. It was eating a crumb in the carpet. I stepped on it but missed. It flew away and I had white frosting on the side of my black shoe.
Only Audrey was left.
“Audrey,” I said, “call me Mr. Fixit. Because I fixed it. ‘It’ being the problem with Vanessa.”
Wow, I thought, I hadn’t expected her to laugh. That “Mr. Fixit” joke must’ve been better than I thought.
“She’ll be here soon. Later. But we have to pretend we’re not here. We can’t allow any more mourners, we’ll say the wake is done for the day. She’ll only come if she thinks she’s the only—”
I realized Audrey hadn’t been laughing at all. She was crying really hard. The kind of crying where you’re not just sad but scared. Scared.
“Fancypants,” she said, softly.
I hugged her.
“Fancypants,” she said, loudly.
I said, “Fancypants is our angel, he’s happy in Heaven, he’s where he belongs.”
She yelled “Fancypants” again and again and again.
What was it like?
It was like she had suffered a major stroke, and she was trying to ask for milk but all she could say was “shoe” and so she said “shoe” louder and deeper and more desperately as if she could make “shoe” mean “milk” if she just said it hard enough.
She wanted the word to do something it wouldn’t.
She said, “I hate Vanessa.”
Holding Audrey, I for some reason remembered our past due bills. I thought of the scraps of paper where we wrote out our budgets. I thought of our not having to spend money on Fancypants anymore. Food. Toys. College. All that future was now spent. I remembered the threatening letter from Vanessa’s dad’s lawyer, the threat of a pre-emptive countersuit if we even thought of pressing charges, some argument that we had orchestrated Fancypants’ death to get a slice of the Frigidaire fortune, “desperate times, despicable measures.”
We shut off the lights and sat in the back. At around 9 the staff left and we begged them to give us just another hour alone. We gave the owner $50 to drive around for an hour, he could come back and lock up at 10.
At 9:45, we heard the main door open. Vanessa walked into Fancypants’ room. Audrey and I were huddled behind the couch, which proved totally unnecessary because Vanessa didn’t even turn on the light.
I stuck my head up over the back of the couch and thought I saw her walk up to him. I heard one half of the coffin close and heard the creak of the other half lifted open. I imagined Fancypants’ face, saw it through Vanessa’s eyes. I felt my hand squeezed. I saw all the love in Vanessa’s heart flow out onto my son. Then I heard what sounded like Vanessa sobbing, sighing, panting. Then something thumping on the ground. I heard her say, “Fancypants…Fancypants.”
I looked at my phone. 9:55.
I turned to Audrey and whispered, “Turn on the lights.”
But before we could move the owner came back and he turned on the lights.
The lights came on and we saw it wasn’t the owner, it was Vanessa’s dad.
“Vanessa,” he said.
“Vanessa,” she said, imitating him to try to make him sound stupid. Except he didn’t look like he felt stupid. Instead he looked like he was hurt.
“Vanessa,” he said.
She stood up. She had been curled up in a ball on the floor at the foot of Fancypants’ coffin. Audrey was still completely hidden by the couch. I had a bit of my head over the top. Neither of them noticed me. I was just watching.
“I was scared,” he said. “I didn’t know where you were.”
She stamped her foot. She kicked over a standing bouquet, she brought an oval of hydrangeas to the ground. A couple flies swirled around it.
“I know you’re upset,” he said. “I obviously…” He put his hand over his face like he was suffering from a terrible headache. “I obviously didn’t mean for this to happen…”
His shoulders started shaking. Vanessa kicked over another standing bouquet. She then grabbed her dad’s hand. She pulled the behemoth of him—seven-feet, close to 300 pounds, it looked like—and brought him to Fancypants. She told him to kneel.
“I loved him. He would’ve been my husband, we would’ve gotten married.” Her face looked weird. “Do you know what happened to me when you ran him over? It made me want to die too. Now I want to die, Dad, I want to die because of you.”
Her dad’s shoulders were shaking and shaking so much now that it looked physically exhausting. I felt like I was watching someone beat the shit out of this sad man.
I told myself, This is the man responsible for your son’s death. And on some level I knew this was literally true. But I looked at this man—who had come here in a T-shirt and sweatpants, covered in sweat and tears, wearing old sneakers, having driven long roads looking for his missing daughter—and I knew what I saw. I knew he was looking right at my son’s face, not in the dark but under the bright lights of the D’Agnozio funeral parlor. His only child, his only family left, wanted him dead, which wasn’t nothing.
Vanessa said, “I wish it was you. I wish you were dead.”
I saw Vanessa take something out of her pocket. I saw it was a knife. I saw her raise her arm behind her father like, I’m about to stab my dad.
I quickly tip-toed from behind the couch to Vanessa. I grabbed her tiny wrist with one hand and removed the knife from her fist with the other.
Vanessa’s dad must have heard something because he stopped crying and turned to me.
“Oh God,” he said.
Even though I didn’t want to, I slid my hand onto his shoulder because I’m human. I’d never forgive him. His body was as hot as a malfunctioning phone. His wet, screwed up face was as red as hell.
“Sorry!” he said. “Sorry! I just wanted to be a trucker. Sorry! I fucked up. Please don’t stab me!”
“I’m not going to stab you,” I said. Even though I wanted to.
“I am,” Audrey said. But nobody heard her. She kneeled in front of Fancypants’ coffin and plunged the knife into the guy’s calf.
“Ouch!” he said.
When had she taken the knife from me?
“I’m so…I’m so…sorry! Agh…I didn’t…I didn’t want to…that letter, it…Agh!...it wasn’t me…I didn’t send it…the trustees, company, agh!” There was a bunch of blood coming out of him. It distracted the flies from the cake. A little bit got on my pants.
Vanessa had turned away from us. The owner had come back and was standing at the door. She was staring at him and he was trying not to look at her. Dignified Mr. D’Agnozio. He was looking at the ground and at his hand and trying to pretend he wasn’t there. I thought that was selfish. What right did he have to turn away from life? I didn’t want his deadness and dumbness to negatively influence Vanessa at this formative moment. I had to do something.
I said, “Vanessa.”
She looked around and looked anxious. I think she thought she was in trouble. She was biting the insides of her lips. I thought, What the fuck? This little girl. Why is God putting her through this? Some new part of me wanted to protect her from the sadness Fancypants’ death would cause her for the rest of her life. She was real, Fancypants was dead, she shouldn’t have to be lost in some small accident forever. Then I realized that these feelings belonged to her dad and I was feeling these feelings with him.
The owner said to no one in particular, “The ambulance is here. Please leave.”
I helped Vanessa’s dad limp out of the building, supporting the stabbed side of him.
He said, “I’m Roger.”
I said, “No shit. That’s my name too.”
Roger said, “No it’s not.”
He was right. My name wasn’t Roger and he already knew that. I just wanted to feel connected.
Vanessa followed me, kicking the ground at each step. Audrey was putting everything away, with the owner’s help. She still had to write her speech for tomorrow. I was angry Roger had made her stay up so late. Poor Audrey.
“Agh!” Roger said. We stopped at the doorway. He leaned on me more and more heavily until it became an accidental big bear hug. I’m not very tall so I couldn’t see over his shoulder, which I wish I could’ve done. Then I could’ve looked at Fancypants’ face while hugging Roger and forgiving him. That would’ve been perfect. But it didn’t happen. Instead my whole face was pressed into Roger’s chest, which was flabby and crushed my face so I couldn’t see or smell or taste or even hear anything except Roger.
I was marginally aware of someone gently untying the “Goodnight Fancypants” banner, taking it down.