SmokeLong Quarterly

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Story by H.J. Shepard (Read author interview) June 17, 2024

Art by Kateryna Hliznitsova

I always looked forward to it at funerals. Ambrosia. Usually green or red jello that had been pulverized and mixed with cool whip then studded with mini marshmallows and halved grapes. Halving grapes, that’s something to do. And it was always served in a fluted cut glass punchbowl and brought by some distant cousin with a very Finnish last name and a charming family story that I can’t remember now – perhaps she was older than her aunt? I think that was it. I always wished I came from that thread of the family, who had the Finnish last name and were honestly friendly and seemed to have normal houses with normal carpets and were allowed to make and eat things like ambrosia.

In my little black buckled shoes and black velvet dress with the felted red roses I read a message from my father. He had given it to me to read because he and I were great friends and because he could not be there. Why he couldn’t be there I don’t remember. It seems now like an event one should not miss. But I do remember that everyone was very touched by what he wrote and by my reading it and that his words were about how nice she was. That she always observed how nice things were. Oh, how nice. And it was true. And while I read it, I thought for some reason about how still she always was when we shared a bed together. That I had never known someone to just lie down on her side with her hair still pinned up and simply fall asleep. Never twitched or turned or scratched. Just lay down and went to sleep and didn’t move til the morning. I thought there was something impressive but alarming about it. I thought about all of that while reading the message from my father, which was truly genuine.

When I finished reading, I went and sat on the stairs with all the other kids because the room was packed, and my favorite cousin turned to me in his grey suit which was too short for him and rubbed his eyes and told me he loved me. That filled my heart to the brim though soon also made me anxious because I thought I should not be feeling anything like joy at the moment. My cousin was my uncle’s boy and my uncle had asked his sisters if he could please not be the one to go last but they put him last anyway and I recall feeling like that was inconsiderate of them and so I felt a pain for him while he spoke. His wife Liz who half the family called Liz and the other half called Betsy finished the service with a hymn and someone the family had hired from the church played the harp behind her. I remember thinking that the girl was very pretty and definitely not related to us. An entirely different face than the rest of us had.

When it was over, we went to the church basement which smelled a lot like some corner of my grandfather’s house – pipe tobacco and spilled motor oil and candied peanuts. Wet canvas. The food was laid out. There was the bowl of ambrosia. And just as I remember trying to contain my joy that my cousin had told me he loved me, I remember thinking I should not be too excited about the ambrosia. Because a major severing had just taken place. An irreversible disappearance that made me feel so sick I couldn’t stop smiling, which hurt my brother’s feelings. Why are you smiling? he kept asking, with his little white face so tender and true. Stop smiling. But the shape of my mother with her black stockings and dark eyes, drinking coffee alone against the concrete wall across the room frightened me so much that I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop smiling.

About the Author

H.J. Shepard’s work has appeared in Flash Fiction International, published by W.W. Norton, as well as Fiction Southeast and Spout Press. She studied writing at Sarah Lawrence College and received graduate degrees from the National University of Ireland and Fordham University, where she was a teaching fellow. She has conducted research in public institutions across the U.S. and Ireland and has worked as a script reader for The Public and The Druid Theatre. As an archival researcher and producer, H.J. has collaborated with many documentary filmmakers over the years, including Nancy Buirski, Brett Story, Joe Brewster, and Michèle Stephenson. She is currently working on a feature screenplay and a collection of flash fiction.

About the Artist

Kateryna Hliznitsova is a photographer from Ukraine.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

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