The Pretender

I had a summer job that turned into a full-time gig. I was paid to be a mourner at funerals of the unpopular. I was good at it. Sometimes in groups, sometimes alone. Customers pay extra for ones who mourn convincingly—so I learned to bring myself to tears on command. I'd squeeze my eyes shut and think about the imminence of death, about the torture of innocents, about my loved ones suffering at the hands of the wicked. What really did it for me, though, was thinking of this one movie about a woman with unfulfilled dreams, who realized too late that she wanted more from life than she'd gotten.

One day I was hired by a man to mourn his dead wife. When I got there, I was surprised to find the funeral well attended, mostly by the woman's family. "How dare you show your face in here," the husband said, his face as fat and pink as a cloud. "She never loved you. She only used you," he said. His anger was so authentic, I was almost caught in the fog of his emotion. He would have done well as a mourner. I turned around and walked out of the church. "She was a pretender," the man shouted. "She fooled the both of us."

Phong Nguyen is the author of the novel Bronze Drum, as well as four other books of fiction. He is the Miller Family Endowed Professor in Writing and Literature at the University of Missouri.