The following is from Cat Shook's If We're Being Honest. Shook graduated from the University of Georgia in 2016 with degrees in Creative Writing and Mass Media Arts. Born and raised in Georgia, she now lives in Manhattan.
Gerry Williams’s funeral was a shit show.
Before it even began, deciding who would eulogize Gerry, the beloved eighty-two-year-old patriarch of one of Eulalia, Georgia’s oldest families, proved difficult. Ellen, Gerry’s wife of sixty years that past November, hoped their middle child and older daughter, Wilma, would do it, but Wilma wasn’t one for attention, and felt that taking the task could be interpreted as her claiming to be closest with her father (which she wasn’t, necessarily) or smarter than her siblings (which she definitely was). Her older brother, also named Gerald but nicknamed Gerry Junior and called, however inaccurately, JJ by everyone who knew him—and even those who didn’t but were fans of Keep It Up, his afternoon sports radio show on 97.7 The Jam—felt like he should do it, but had private concerns he would get visibly emotional in front of the crowd, and that certainly wouldn’t do. According to JJ, he was now the “man of the family,” which made every Williams except for Ellen roll their eyes. Gerry and Ellen’s thirdborn, Carol Anne, was completely out of the question for more reasons than can be listed, but chief among them: she was usually under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol; Gerry’s lifelong marriage could not be detangled from his identity, and Carol Anne had already been married four times (though her parents only knew of three); and she couldn’t go more than five minutes without mentioning her acting career, which didn’t really exist.
Which left the grandchildren. Delia, Wilma’s younger daughter at twenty-seven, had a disqualifying romantic situation or, more specifically, a complete lack thereof. Her boyfriend of four years had just dumped her, and she had barely talked about anything else since. And no one, herself included, wanted Gerry’s eulogy to devolve into a speculation of whether her ex, Connor, had cheated (there were signs, but no proof). Wilma had raised Delia and her older sister, Alice, in Atlanta, and both had moved to New York City after graduating college. Though, unlike Alice, this left Delia with a disdain for Eulalia she was unable to hide, and all wanted to avoid the eulogy becoming a rant about how sexist the “Welcome to Eulalia” billboard was (a smiling blonde woman standing in a kitchen, wearing an apron, holding a pie) or about how the Chick-fil-A playground was listed as a “tourist attraction” on the bulletin board downtown.
Alice, the oldest grandchild, seemed like a decent option: she was widely considered to be the smartest in the family because she was a writer and had even had a book published. She loved her grandfather deeply and could have remained poised throughout, but there was no way his eulogy could exclude significant heaven talk, and Alice was decidedly and openly not religious, a fact which kept her grandmother up at night.
Gerald III, JJ’s second kid, called Red for his carrot top, was chief contender. He worked at a youth ministry in Nashville, so he was used to public speaking and invoking Jesus without irony. But the pressure here was too much, and Red’s chronic fear of disappointing others and his resulting anxiety rendered him ineligible.
Carol Anne had no children, so that left Grant, JJ’s older son. Grant was the only family member who actually wanted to do it, and also the clearest nonoption. While he was affable, charming, and a dutiful grandson, most things he did in life were in an attempt to bed women or grow his client base (he was a personal trainer; these two goals often overlapped), and there was worry that his grandfather’s funeral would be no exception. He tried to make the case for himself to JJ and his mother, Jennifer, JJ’s wife of thirty years, arguing that a lot of the people at the funeral would want to hear from him anyway, given that Grant was currently living out his fifteen minutes of fame hot off a season of The Bachelorette. The episode in which he was eliminated had just aired, so he felt he had the sympathy of the nation on his side, with an uptick of 120,000 Instagram followers to prove it.
(The only person who was truly saddened by Grant’s nationally televised elimination was his aunt Carol Anne, as Grant was sent home when the remaining five contestants became four. Had he made it to the top four, he and his family would have been featured on the hometown-date episode. Carol Anne had preemptively bought a plane ticket from LAX to Georgia the moment she realized it was possible she could be featured on television, plotting to pull Grant aside and engage in a long, tearful conversation about how she could tell he had found the one in Lindsay, the twenty-three-year-old “Outfit Planner.” Her agent’s phone would surely be flooded with calls once America saw her on-screen gravitas.)
It was decided that Fred Clark would deliver the eulogy. Fred was Gerry’s lifelong best friend and business partner. He was a pseudo uncle and great-uncle to the rest of the family and would be the next best thing to actual kin speaking at the funeral. When JJ called to ask Fred if he would do it, Fred didn’t speak for a good minute. JJ thought maybe he ought to repeat himself, before Fred replied, in a crackly voice wet with tears, that he would be honored. Ellen was humbled by Fred’s agreeing. Even though she was pretty sure nothing could beat the numbness she had felt since the first night in over sixty years she’d lain down to go to bed without Gerry beside her, she knew it was no cakewalk to lose a best friend, either. Linda, Fred’s wife, had been Ellen’s closest friend (by association but also by genuine connection). She had died of breast cancer ten years earlier, and that loss had hit Ellen much harder than any member of her family cared to realize.
The Williamses were all seated in the first pew in Eulalia’s First Baptist Church, in which all the grandkids had been baptized, even though by the time Wilma had Alice and Delia, she did not consider herself Christian, or religious in any way really (unlike Alice, she kept this to herself). Wilma was struck then, and again now, that the smell of holy water in the church was somehow fresh and stale at the same time.
Pastor Tom had been the one to dunk all the grandkids, and he was running the show the day of the funeral, as well. When it was time for the eulogy, Fred slowly weaved his way to the pulpit, stumbling a bit and clearing his throat with the rattle of a drum line before he began to speak. The Williamses—particularly Ellen, who still saw Fred regularly—were surprised to see how disheveled he looked, tie loose, white hair sticking up in odd places like a toddler just waking from a nap. Even though he had to be shaken with grief over losing his best friend, and he was the same age as Gerry (which is to say: old), Fred was considered something of a Eulalia miracle: he still stood up tall and rode his bike around the neighborhood daily. Unlike Gerry, he was also very shy, so Ellen and her daughter Wilma thought nerves could explain his stumbling, the volume of his throat-clearing, and his untidy appearance. JJ and Carol Anne were too wrapped up in their own grief to notice.
As was her nature, JJ’s wife, Jennifer, immediately suspected something more sinister. And she was right to, because as soon as he started speaking, it became clear to the rest of the Williams clan that Fred was shithoused, even drunker than Grant had been at his high school graduation party a decade prior, which had ended with Alice and Red throwing buckets of water on the bushes outside JJ and Jennifer’s house to dilute the vomit before anyone from the previous generation could notice. Jennifer’s suspicion was confirmed when Fred pulled a flask out of his jacket pocket, took a swig, wiped his mouth sloppily, and leaned so close to the microphone it looked like he was trying to kiss it.
“I’m Fred,” he said, his amplified voice so loud the Williamses all jerked back like a spark had been lit in their faces, momentarily shocked out of their grief. “Thank you to the Williamses-eses for asking me to speak today.” He nodded in their direction before letting his eyes lazily drift to the ceiling and breathing a massive sigh. Ellen had never seen Fred drink. Gerry had told her that Fred’s daddy had been a major alcoholic (the abusive kind, not the fun kind, like Ellen’s father had been), and Fred had vowed never to touch the stuff, even though he and Linda never had any kids to abuse, anyway.
“The Williamses-eses are the nicest family around town. Ellen has one of the kindest hearts of any woman I’ve ever met. And I like Ellen the most of anyone because she’s quiet, like me.” He pointed his index finger at her like they were old buddies in the pub telling war stories. “She gets it,” he said, slurring. Whatever he had consumed thickened his Southern accent to an unrecognizable drawl. “And Gerry and Ellen had such good kids. They were such beautiful kids. JJ could smile and throw the football, and Wilma was so sweet and artistic.” Wilma cringed; she never handled praise for her photography well, even in situations that weren’t already awkward. “And Carol Anne, well, she’s always been her good ole Carol Anne self. A star. Sort of.” The family nervously averted their eyes while Carol Anne smiled and nodded, understanding this to be a compliment.
“And all these grandkids, these gorgeous grandkids,” he said, eyelids half closing. “Alice, Grant, Delia, Red. He loved all of ’em so much, Gerry did.”
All four grandchildren had cried more than once since they had gotten the news of their grandfather’s passing five days earlier, but none of them shed a single tear now, so disturbing was Fred’s drunkenness.
Horrifyingly, Red felt nervous giggles coming on, but was saved and silenced by a wave of anxiety so powerful that had he been standing it would have knocked him to his knees.
“Gerry . . .” Fred trailed off, leaning against the podium unevenly enough that Alice almost went up to the pulpit to prop him up. He bent his head down and leaned on his fist, and Delia was strangely reminded of how she always held her head when she was in pigeon pose at the heated yoga studio near her Manhattan apartment in the West Village. She thought of how proud she had been when her now ex-boyfriend Connor had started going to classes with her, how satisfying it was to be one of those couples chatting before class, their mats next to each other, and how she would sometimes see other women and a few guys checking him out as he moved through the flows. Then she remembered she was at her grandfather’s funeral, watching his eulogy get butchered.
Fred raised his head quickly, like he was a cartoon character whose alarm had just gone off. “Gerry and I met a very long time ago. Eulalia High. He was the best person in the world. His smile could light up a whole damned—sorry, Pastor—room. Everyone knew who he was. We built our construction business together, and there’s no one better in the world to work beside every day. He loved music and was always dancing. He liked jokes.” Fred was still slurring, but Ellen felt a small glimmer of hope that he could get this on track, that maybe the threat of complete disaster had passed.
But then he screamed, tears streaking down his face like streamers: “You all think he was my best friend! He wasn’t my best friend, wasn’t JUST my best friend. He was my Gerry. Mine. We were in love.”
Between the nine still-functioning Williams hearts seated in that first pew, not a single one beat for a terrifying moment. They all wondered if they had heard Fred correctly, or if Fred really was so drunk that he was spewing nonsense. Only Carol Anne leaned forward, reaching for her weed pen before remembering where she was, completely intrigued, without an ounce of fear.
“He was,” Fred said, pawing with huge swipes at his own face in a futile attempt to dry his tanned, wrinkly cheeks. The crying then transformed slowly, over a period of time that felt like one thousand years, into a chuckle, then into a roaring laugh. The whole church sat perfectly still, like they had been petrified, like their souls had also left their bodies.
“We weren’t just friends. I mean, my God”—in between laughs— “and none of you knew. None of you had any idea.” This was where he made arguably his biggest mistake, which was to look at Ellen and say, “Linda knew. I think you knew. Maybe you tried not to know. Linda knew. She probably told you, for all I know, who knows.”
A wave of nausea passed over Red and his father, JJ, at the exact same time, though neither of them had the capacity to be aware of the state of anyone else’s stomach.
By now, Pastor Tom had gotten his wits about him enough to know that it was time to intervene, and to do so quickly, decorum be damned (though he never would have used such language; well, not figuratively, anyway). He speed walked up to the pulpit and put an arm around Fred’s waist.
“Yeah, I bet you especially don’t want to hear this.” The words were spilling out of Fred’s mouth like oil as he leaned against the pastor the way a sorority pledge would on a sophomore. Pastor Tom jerked the microphone toward himself, still supporting Fred’s weight, and began talking about how he knew Gerry, trying to tell the story of when he was new to the church and how kind Gerry had been to him, but it was difficult to hear over Fred leaning forward and shouting, “LOVERS!” into the microphone every few seconds through his returned sobs.
While all the Williamses by blood were too confused and stunned to do anything, Jennifer couldn’t stand it anymore, and understood that it would have to be she who took action. She tossed her perfectly straight blonde hair over her shoulder, marched up to the pulpit, wedged herself beneath Fred’s shoulder, and started to haul him down the stairs while Pastor Tom halfheartedly and with lots of uncharacteristic “ums” talked about the year that Gerry built the manger for the Nativity scene.
Although every member of the family was too stunned to begin really considering what had just happened, Alice couldn’t help but feel the beginning of a crack in her heart as she watched Fred’s withered, drunk, and heavy hand trace the outline of her grandfather’s coffin as Jennifer carried him to a pew. She was too sensitive to be able to keep Fred’s tragedy at bay, no matter how consuming her own had felt just moments before.
Red felt like several hundred arrows had pinned him to the pew. His mind was a white-hot, blank slate, and even though doing so scared the shit out of him, curiosity overtook, and he turned to his left to sneak a peek at his father’s and brother’s reactions. Grant’s big brown eyes were wide in confusion, which wasn’t atypical. JJ’s eyes were narrowed, flickering between his wife handling Fred and the preacher blabbering on. Red felt perverse for looking, like he was pulling back a curtain to watch his parents have sex or something.
Somehow, though no one there could have given an accurate play-by-play, the funeral ended. The Williams family robotically followed Pastor Tom and the pallbearers, struggling under the weight of the casket, down the aisle and out into the aggressive sunshine. They watched through tinted lenses as Gerry was lowered into the ground. They prayed over the grave, none of them able to focus on anything other than the fact that he might have been sleeping with their pseudo uncle. By the time they got back to Ellen and Gerry’s—well, now just Ellen’s—house, there was nowhere to park, as cars covered every driveway on the street and every inch of curbside. The lawn was crawling with people whose plans earlier that day had been to attend a reception to celebrate the life of Gerry Williams, man about town. Now, like alcoholics at Communion, they were there to lap up one of the biggest scandals Eulalia had ever seen.
In their separate cars, not a Williams said a word, allowing the numbness they felt to spread throughout their bodies and across their family unit, unable to picture where they would go from here.
From the book If We’re Being Honest © 2023 by Shook Not Stirred, LLC, published by Celadon Books on April 18, 2023.