I like to eat brownies and butter cookies and random cinnamon things, anything vaguely cake-like. I grab them all with a single napkin. If you want to find me I’m the older gentleman eating funeral desserts next to the round, middle aged woman wearing a burgundy and grey tea dress that makes my eyebrows tremble slightly because even though she is such a darling I nearly lose my appetite just looking at the dress. I dip one of my cookies into my styrofoam coffee cup.
“All these people are too much.” The woman fans her face with a funeral handout.
“I know,” I say, “that’s why I went to this corner but apparently you’ve beat me to it.”
Except there aren’t that many people. That’s why I’m here. There really isn’t anyone here at all aside from the workers at the funeral home. But grief can do tremendous things to women in bad dresses.
“It’s just tough to say goodbye to my aunt with so many people,” she says, “I don’t like people. Well, I like people, but you know what I mean.”
“Oh, I understand,” I tell her. “I’m the kind of person who’d rather be sitting at home in sweatpants eating ice cream.” Disclaimer: I’ve never sat at home in sweatpants and eaten ice cream. She’s such a kind lady and I imagine that she would be the type to relate.
“You read my mind,” she says. I make her laugh, she seems more comfortable. Not completely comfortable, just more.
“You must be Agnes,” I say.
“How did you know?”
“Your aunt used to tell me about you.”
“Really? Well, I guess I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know who you are. I’m sure I’ve been introduced.”
“I met you once when you were very little,” I say. “I’m an old friend of your aunt’s. I hadn’t seen her for many years.”
“I think I remember her talking about you.”
I’d never met Agnes. Her aunt never talked about me. I was just good—very good—at my job. My job isn’t like your job. Let me explain as described by my company’s website:
We are typically invited to help increase visitors to funerals where there may be a low turnout expected. This can usually be a popularity issue or being new to an area, or indeed, the country. We have a significant amount of mourners to call upon when the need arises. We are an experienced company. We are extremely professional and very discreet. We will follow your guidance as a matter of course. We can supply individuals or groups to attend funerals or wakes. All charges and expenses are discussed and agreed during our planned meeting.
* Punctual and Professional: We are always punctual and strictly adhere to the dress code you request.
* Dedicated Support: We will work with you every step of the way and communicate with you regularly.
Agnes cries next to pillars of flowers on pedestals surrounding the casket. I look at her aunt: a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a powdered face, wrinkled hands crossed atop each other, a dark blue pantsuit, eyes closed, flesh stiff, skin soft to the touch.
I’ll never know how some people in our business have become so used to the dead. Because I’ve been in the business a long time and I still feel an aura around them. This isn’t the aura of the dead, nothing a spiritual leader could explain, but something thanatologists, those who study death, might better articulate. It was two parts reverence for the dead mixed with one part insincerity, a few dashes of actual sorrow, stirred with tradition, and garnished with a priest or pastor or rabbi or some holy man.
This service is small. It is infinitesimal. Just the way I like it. I’ve talked to Agnes and in turn I’ve talked to everyone else including the funeral director, the funeral assistant, and the congregational minister who begins the service. The minister speaks of life and death, a scripted response from the old man who has, from the look of him, been to more of these than I have. I think I’m old as dirt but he just simply is death. He stops talking and the room is silent.
And then there is always a song. There is always an auditory consolation, an elegy, lament, march, requiem, death song. Maybe Garth Brooks’ Friends In Low Places for the country folks. Or Biggie Smalls’ Hypnotize for your best friend who died too young. Stravinsky. Bruce Springsteen. Dvorak. Kenny Rogers. Those “soundtracks” represented those “lives”. It’s true.
The dead who had their soundtrack chosen by the funeral director were the same dead who were only given eulogies by the same funeral director. I don’t like to make sweeping generalizations, or maybe I do, but I think you can find evil in those who never enjoy music. If evil stems from any kind of unnatural abomination, there is nothing more unnatural than a person who doesn’t enjoy music. And this could be true because silence is unnatural—I’ve never experienced it. It’s true. And I don’t consider myself to be an abomination so please, play Leadbelly for me when I die.
I don’t know if the deceased ever listened to Eric Clapton but they play Tears In Heaven. If there was a drinking game to funeral songs, this one would be worth something. Of course, we aren’t allowed to drink at funerals.
Agnes cries. There is some sort of natural response to the jukebox of funeral songs. It even makes me want to cry. If I were the kind of person who wanted to cry, but I’m not.
Sometimes the sorrow of others is unbearable and sometimes it feels like I need a vacation. I’d spoken to funeral directors and they could relate, but too many were old bastards, too many were jaded as hell. I mean, I’m an old bastard and I’m jaded as hell, but sometimes I feel like grief is contagious. The funeral directors have a position of authority, an honest transparency, but I am essentially an actor. I have to feel something. And sometimes I don’t want to feel. The alcohol helps. Of course you don’t drink during the job—that is forbidden. But I also wouldn’t believe anything that I’m telling you.
Some mourners drank during work in the past and it never ended well. They would slip up, they would break character, they would fight, argue, cry, wail. It was after work that you had a drink. Maybe I would make a big double martini to start, four shots of gin in a few sips. Then I’d usually finish the bottle with ice and tonic, maybe a few chunks of lime. No. That’s too glamorous. Why am I lying to you? The truth is I pour full pint glasses of warm vodka and drink it like water. I feel an instant of euphoria and there’s no room for sorrow in euphoria. Maybe I’ll spin around in a circle and pass out on the recliner. I’m an old, geriatric alcoholic. That’s another lie. I’m not all that old. Fifty-something with salt and pepper hair, a strong jawline, piercing blue eyes, and an oversized ego.
Tonight he is young, definitely could be my son—maybe my grandson. That doesn’t matter. His ass is tight and firm. His thighs are those big chunks of ham Rugby players have. His chest barely has any hair on it and his face is smooth and youthful. When I’m done with him I think about life and death, the decay of human flesh, the looseness of mine and the tightness of his. And then again he fills my emptiness, the negative, and makes me feel better. Temporarily.
“God I love you so much,” he says between kisses.
“You’re just saying that.”
“I mean it, you’re not like anyone I’ve ever met. You’re something else,” he reassures me.
“You don’t know what love is,” I croon, an old reference left for dead.
I keep thinking about life and death. I would die before him, at least I assumed, and I would die alone. He would live on and I would be forgotten.
He holds me until he falls asleep, always at first, just like the others. When I hear his snoring, I slip away. Because even his flesh, in its concreteness, is not enough to find true comfort. Flesh is temporal, even if it’s firm and tight.
I remedy temporality with a shift as I slip into the kitchen and rummage around. I knew I would be with him so I didn’t plan to have anything to drink. “He was my drug” ad infinitum. But I need an actual drug. I hadn’t prepared. I didn’t have anything to drink.
If there’s something you need to learn about alcoholics, and maybe you do, it’s that there are never any drinks left over. It’s true. We drink it all until it’s gone. I used to work at a liquor store and every day a visibly poor man would come in and buy a half pint of vodka. Every day. Same time of day. Without fail. I’d always suggest that he buy a handle and save money, but he always refused. It wasn’t until later that I realized if he bought more, he would just drink more. And he would die.
I find a bottle of peppermint schnapps on top of my fridge. I finish it and go “ahhh” like I’m gargling Listerine. I climb back into bed and even though I thought he was sleeping, he still wraps his arms around me when I get under those sheets and I feel his heartbeat on my backside.
Tell me, where did you sleep last night?
I just fell asleep so be ready for my dream sequence: Sometimes I dream of old streets. Let me clarify, because I need to explain how people think where I grew up. That’s how people think in places like where I grew up. I’ll never tell you where, that’s my secret. Unless you’ve lived in a place that doesn’t matter, you probably wouldn’t know what I’m talking about.
So I have dreams about streets I knew and streets that were once known. I drive to places with the GPS on my phone. I’m new in town, I don’t know where to go with all the common-to-the-locals paths through highways and suburbs. Then my phone breaks. I look up the directions on a computer and print it out. Then my printer breaks. I write them down with a pen. Then my computer breaks. Then my pen breaks. The papers blow away in the wind. Apparently I’m outside. I ask for directions. I memorize them in that local vernacular—the familiar paths taken, the barns, the place where the Dairy Queen used to be. I listen to directions from a man running a brat wagon: “Oh yeah, where the K-Mart used to be on the Frontage road and then that Mexican restaurant opened up where that Ponderosa was in the same parking lot over by the Frontage road.” That’s how so many of us refer to things in small places. We refer to the ghosts of places that once existed, the negative space replaced by the positive by specters that don’t exist if you don’t even remember that they ever existed to begin with.
Really, I don’t know who would come to my funeral—or even if I want anyone to. Maybe the professionals in my business would show up, but yet again—who would even pay for it? Thoughts like that float, mixed like one part to the two parts that are dreams around my mind in the morning as I stir. The metallic grinding of my stomach tells me that it wants breakfast, but all I want is to pull the covers over my head.
I’m not alone in the funeral business. Like the rest of that niche of the industry— funeral homes, makeup artists, caterers—it makes a lot of money because we profit off of the predictability of death and the necessity we serve for the still-living because the first thing any of us will realize is that we sure as hell aren’t serving the dead. It’s like working any construction job, any service job. Roads need to be paved, repaired. Food needs to be made, consumed. Sorrow needs to be tended to, treated.
My aunt dies and I go to her funeral, feeling almost pro-bono. My family rents out an entire bar on a Sunday. They buy a keg and have open bar with Bud Light, pitcher upon pitcher. I sip on a tall vodka. “Fill it up all the way. No ice. Yes, I’m sure. No ice.”
Family comes together, ordering cocktails, taking shots, watching the football game on the dozens of TVs. The food is hardly present, there wasn’t time to plan because, listen closely: death comes unexpected. The food that is present is a food of the future and of the past. Who will teach us how to make tamales for the holidays? Did we take enough notes from the last few years? How many anchos for the carne? How many cans of disgusting veg-all with the carne molida? Does anybody even like the carne molida? How did she make the pollo en mole? Who gets the molcajete? The cazuelas? The fucking tortilla press?
The negative takes over. They fill it with a positive—drinks, food, arguments, more drinks, time. And at the end of the day the negative remains. They must clear the house. They must sell the house. They must pay for this funeral. Because this business isn’t cheap.
I don’t want to be alone that night. I dip out early and find myself at a crowded bar on Main Street in my hometown. The orange street lights are the same, even though my world is not the same place anymore. A little bit of snow mixed with slush until it’s a kind of carbon sludge brings me back. The signs are newer, they’re trying to be historic or something with these sort of black pillar-like street signs. There’s even a new bar with one of those garage doors at the front and it’s fucking cold outside and it’s always cold in that town so I laugh. Inside the bar I see that there are so many beautiful and ugly people playing pool, lining up shots, filling up the shot-ski, talking about things I didn’t care about, laughing, arguing, fighting, going out back to smoke.
I grab a glass of vodka and follow a few people outside and start talking with a girl way younger than me, young enough to be my daughter, maybe even my granddaughter. She’s radiating so much heat that steam rises off of her as she steps into the cold. I bum a Camel No. 9 from her and it tastes like shit and old memories.
“This one time I fought a man and killed a bear when I was younger.” What am I saying? I’ve had too many drinks, even for me. Don’t-use-this-one.
“Really?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say, “turns out it was just a man in a bear costume.”
We leave the bar and catch a cab. My hotel bed feels so refreshing. She even brings a bottle of Bacardi 151 in her purse that she mixes with a little juice before we disappear into bed. Her ass is thin and springy. Her legs are smooth and hairless. Her chest defies gravity and wrinkles are only a rumor to her face. When I am done with her I think about life and death, the decay of human flesh, the looseness of mine and the tightness of hers. And then she kisses me and fills my emptiness, the negative—makes me feel better. Temporarily.
Her snores are loud like tiny machine-guns. I sit on the other side of the room, naked in an uncomfortable chair draining the rest of the fifth of rum and clearing out the mini-bar. That’s when I think stupid shit to myself:
What if the old masters painted their self portraits smiling? Think about it. That’s why the old masters never painted their self portraits smiling. That would look stupid.
She snores tiny SMG’s. Rat-a-tat-tat. I spin around until I sit down and then pull myself under the covers. She wraps her arms around me, that sleeping, yet fully aware twenty-something who “doesn’t know what love is,” or at least that’s what I tell her.
The drink bridges me to my dreams and sometimes nightmares. Life screams in my face, taunts me, makes me pull the covers over my head. But death is silent. In my dreams I see all of the people who’ve died in my life, like rows of coffins in some weird outdoor amphitheater-ish place. The clouds overcast, the sky some sort of greenish-black, the stones are old and worn, the ground is damp and real. I walk up to the closed caskets and pry them open with my fingers. Why? I don’t know. I’ve never been able to do that lucid dreaming bullshit. Choices in my dreams? Shit. I stare and see bodies—some fresh, some skeletal, most somewhere in between in a state of decay. I force myself to stare. I force myself to touch them, like people at a funeral touching the corpse. It feels so completely strange. Is it supposed to feel normal? Because I’ll be the first to say it’s weird to touch some sort of taxidermy-treated human and expect to feel the warm flesh we remember them as. When somebody dies, we reconfigure our understanding of them. We pull the covers over our heads and shield ourselves from the decay of flesh.
I wake up from the dream and into a nightmare where I’m clutching her young, twenty-something body tight. Her flesh is warm and yields to my touch. My girl, my girl, where will you go? I’m going where the cold wind blows.
I meet with my client beforehand and am told “the story” so that I have all of my facts tucked away. I was an old friend of the deceased, the deceased being a widower, a mother, an aunt, and a sister. I keep all of this inside, a personal, single lexicon of a character that I’m going to play. We went to the same school together, had gym class, used to go hang out at the park, sometimes grabbed coffee, would take the kids to the playground, repeat the whole cycle.
The viewing is small, the space is described by the guests as cramped, musty, too cold and too hot, too dim and too bright, containing both the right flowers and the wrong flowers. I’m going through the same desserts at the same banquet tables, going straight diabetic between sips of coffee from the same styrofoam cup. I tuck myself away somewhere in the outer perimeter of the handful of people, handful being four people. I start to drift away until I’m standing next to a younger man, young enough to be my son. I don’t expect it when he leans over to talk to me.
“I know what you’re doing,” he says.
“Eating cookies and drinking coffee?”
“No.” He gets closer. “I know what you’re doing. I know why you’re here.”
“Well I apologize if I sound curt, but I think that’s a conclusion that doesn’t really call for much investigation. We all know why we’re here.”
He grabs me by the sleeve of my jacket and grips it. “Cut the shit. I know my brother hired you to be here.”
“If you think I’m here because your brother hired me,” I say, “then you seriously underestimate the friendship I had with your mother.”
“I’ll only tell you to cut the shit one more time or I’ll tell everyone else here,” he threatens me.
“What do you want?” I set down my coffee on the banquet table. It is a rare scenario when one of us is called out, but we have a procedure for that as well. Like any dangerous situation, it’s best to be talked out peacefully.
He leans closer, speaking quietly. “I know who you are. I know the company you work for. I looked up the website, everything. Like I said, I’ll tell everybody unless you listen.”
“How do you know?”
“I have a friend who’s seen you around. You’re a crazy alcoholic who walks around bars and picks up people. There’s no way you were friends with my mother. She wouldn’t have anything to do with you. She hated alcoholics, her father was one.”
Was I a crazy alcoholic who walked around bars picking up people?
When you’ve been found out, it feels like a giant invisible hand is grabbing you by the back of the neck. It makes you look twice. It makes you listen to whoever is worth listening, and makes you want to get out by any means necessary. But he was still holding me by the jacket.
“What do you want?” I ask.
“I want you to know what a piece of shit you are. You’re a terrible person. You capitalize on death. When you die, I hope nobody goes to your funeral.” He pulls harder on my jacket. “I want you to leave here and go drink yourself to death.”
I want to laugh and tell him I’m already drinking myself to death. But maybe he already knows that. How can you force somebody to drink themselves to death? It’s stupid.
“Leave and go drink yourself to death. Or else I’m going tell everyone here.”
“Fine.” I pull myself away from his grip. This was a first, but there are always firsts. Life is full of firsts. Maybe I will go drink myself to death, that’d be a first. But drinking yourself to death is really too temporal to tell.
I walk out of the funeral home and see something sitting on the stairs, glistening in the sunlight. It’s a handle of vodka. I look at it. It’s unopened. It’s immaculate. It’s like a hundred dollar bill in a bathroom. A diamond ring in the grass at a park. It’s meant for me. Sometimes the best way to dehumanize somebody is by exploiting their humanity itself. In this case I don’t know if it’s disrespect. I mean, if I’m a human I’m going to act like a human. The bottle leaves with me. The bottle is mine. Temporarily.
I try to tell myself I don’t want it. I could’ve bought my own. What does any of that matter? That kid could be my son, he doesn’t have shit on me. Leave and drink myself to death? The joke’s on him. We’re all dying already, every single day we’re dying and I’ve been dying a lot longer than he has. But the bottle is in my hand. It’s on my kitchen table. It’s waiting.
I’m not afraid of dying. You see my hand here? Old and wrinkled. It’s nothing, just organic matter, flesh in a constant state of decomposition. I’m an animal and a human being. I’m not an animal. I’m a human being.
Still it’s always waiting.
The light shines through my kitchen window and illuminates the clear liquid housed in plastic like a giant pool. And the light shines through and like a prism makes the sliver of a rainbow on my kitchen table. It’s always waiting. It’s waiting for you to come in and say hello, to sit down and give it the time of day. This is how life goes. Something is always waiting for you and when your time comes you’re going to walk right into it whether or not you intend to.
In the pines, in the pines where the sun don’t ever shine, I will shiver the whole night through.