By Jeff Somers
I died young. Like a sucker. I bought the ticket and never got to finish the ride. I was twenty-eight and I stepped into the street looking at my watch and got hit by a Mister Softee Ice cream Truck. It took me a few minutes to realize I was dead, that I wasn’t just paralyzed or stunned or hallucinating, that I wasn’t going to stand up and make a joke and buy everyone ice cream. The driver sat on the bumper and cried over me, which touched me in an odd place I wasn’t familiar with, until I remembered that she was the bitch who’d smacked into me going forty-five in a twenty-five zone, doing her makeup or tuning the radio or searching the horizon for children in desperate need of a chocolate shake. Whatever. She killed me, I killed myself, please keep your head and arms inside the safety cage at all times or we’re not responsible for the mess you’re mangled body will make.
There I was, lying on the hot New York City pavement with the ticket stub still in one hand.
I hate the suit they’ve put me in, the fucking brand new piece of shit Armani Mom bought for my funeral, the biggest social event of my existence, which, improbably, continues. It itches me. It’s tight. The ghoul who runs this place has it pinned and tucked to make it fit perfectly, and has packed my ravaged side with foam to give my ruined body symmetry. For perhaps the first time in my life, I’m presentable. If only I’d known the trade secrets of the undertaking profession while alive, I would have been the most amazingly groomed cat on the prowl. I could have made myself up to give my skin the kind of healthy glow only corpses and whores have, I could have padded and pinned my clothing until I looked built, tanned, rested, and ready. I could have learned how to shave myself, give myself a manicure and a haircut. I could have sewn my lips together with invisible fishing line thread, to avoid embarrassing “lip drift”. I must admit that even when in full command of my decayed motor functions, “lip drift” was a significant problem for me.
Dead, I looked better than ever before, and I wondered if any of the girls looked at me, lying here in state, and thought: I don’t remember him being so hot.
I had been scraped clean, too, embalmed, drained and filled in an oddly comforting process. My chest was a complex series of skin flaps sewn back together, my cavities filled to firmness and my future free of internal rot. For the first time ever, I was in a room full of people and not concerned at all about my insides betraying me: I would never get sick again. I’d never drink too much and puke in someone’s bathroom, I’d never eat bad fish and become an instant social liability, I’d never fart in public again and pretend it was my date.
I hate the suit, though. Green is never my color, and I had always assumed my loved ones would know that. I imagined heated arguments between my sisters and mom, my friends and sundry relatives: Mom suggests green, everyone bursts into shouting. I imagined that it would take days for my intimates to make a decision like that. Instead, I think mom saw this monstrosity on sale and decided that if she was going to bury a perfectly good suit it might as well be a bargain.
My sisters are here.
The room is empty except for the three of us, its just a tastefully decorated room filled with cheap wooden chairs and flowers, whose sweet scent (the flowers) covers my own perfume which has been applied liberally and enthusiastically so no one gets offended by any stray smell of death, the charred scent of the ride going off the tracks, my ticket suddenly useless. Lord knows I wouldn’t want to offend anyone. My sisters walk through the door side by side, wearing the same black dress. The Twins hadn’t dressed identically since their boy-swapping phase during high school, when they had traded boyfriends back and forth with evil intent and malicious glee, scarring their older brother into a complete inability to maintain a relationship. I didn’t know what this sudden reversion was about. It was a nice dress, and maybe that was all there was to it.
They were crying as they entered, and then sobered upon sighting me. Two dark-haired versions of our mother, slim but with thick legs, nice figure and that pert, upturned Coblan nose we were known world-wide for. They were gorgeous. I wanted to smile, but couldn’t.
They walked up to me and stood there, like a couple of Village of the Damned chicks, staring at me with intense calm and quiet. Marjorie and Melanie, my sisters, on their own and the last owners of the Coblan name unless one of them went untraditional and gave her kid the family name. I was the last male Coblan, and my humping days were over.
“Hey, Billy,” Marjorie said. I had always been able to tell the Terrible Two apart. It had always annoyed them. Even Mom and Dad had gotten confused sometimes, but I had always known. I could just sniff the air and know which one was there without even looking. We had stopped talking to each other for three whole years because of it. “We’re here.”
I kept my calm, hands folded on my chest, eyes shut, staring at the ceiling even so. The first time in my life I’d been able to keep a straight face, hold my temper, play it cool. It was hot in the coffin, and the material inside was just the sort of stuff that used to make my skin crawl, give me goose bumps. Mentally, I was getting goose bumps all the same, thinking about it.
“Poor Billy, poor Billy, poor bro.” Melanie whispered. She reached out and stroked my cheek. She started crying again. “Oh, God.”
There was a no money back policy. You bought a ticket, you took the ride, you either made it to the denouement or you didn’t…..it was all the same.
Marjorie took Melanie’s hand and they stood for a moment in silence. Behind them, Mom walked in, an old lady now, older than even a few days ago. Older than I would ever be. Older than she herself had ever imagined she would be. A good joke, getting older than you ever expected. All your plans, laid to waste. All those extra days to fill, all those new ailments to deal with. God laughing at you, killing your son before he understands what age really is and leaving you behind, shrinking, fading, getting brittle….Mom walked with a new stooped shuffle, as if I had broken her back in one glance at my watch. She wasn’t crying, which didn’t surprise me. In twenty-eight years, I had never seen Mom cry. Not once. At Dad’s funeral she’d had the same look: calm, mean, pursed lips, silent. Angry. Angry at the universe, angry at me. Angry at the ride, bucking me off. My sisters and I, crying at the drop of a hat, in direct response to and in imitation of our father, who had been the popular parent when we were young. So jolly, so expressive, so affectionate. Mom once in a while looked vaguely interested in what we were doing, that was about all.
My sisters shifted aside to let Mom approach. She stood there for a few seconds, a quiet moment of looking me over, as if checking my makeup for flaws, my suit for lint, and then she turned and found a seat in the front, staring straight ahead, satisfied, I guessed, that I wasn’t embarrassing myself, for once, for the one last final great performance of my life. The embalmed stylings of William Coblan, ladies and gentlemen, one night only -please don’t forget to tip your waitress.
My sisters and I had not always been like siblings. During the famed Coblan war we had not spoken to each other for over three years, sending volleys across the bow of our family through Mom, who stoically relayed our barbs and missiles without reproach or intervention. We choreographed our visits to the ancestral home to avoid each other, we spread mean rumors about each other to cousins and aunts and uncles, I once sent blank Christmas cards to each of them in a sort of existential insult neither understood. The Great Coblan War had several grand battles which were still part of the family mythology. The Coblan Thanksgiving Day Massacree. The Day of Broken Crockery (a particular favorite amongst the younger relations). The Mother’s Day From Hell. We went up to the line of physical violence and stopped, though Marjorie and I toed the gravel beyond the line and stood there whistling for a while, eyeing the verdant turf of bloodletting.
The beginning of the Coblan War was lost to the mists of time, now. Or perhaps someone remembered and wisely kept it to themselves. The end of the Coblan War came, predictably enough, at Dad’s funeral, where Margie Mel and me sat outside the funeral home and smoked a communal pack of Lucky Strikes and told each other everything we’d done in the three silent years that had passed. Everything. Dates, tragedies, successes. Stuff we all knew through Mom or other intermediaries, but which we repeated faithfully and listened to without complaint. After that, we resumed our previous relationship as if nothing had ever interrupted it.
It occurred to me that it had been interrupted now. Permanently.
I pushed the disturbing thought aside with effort, and somehow looked my sisters over, not pausing to wonder how I managed that. They were sniffling a little, just sitting next to Mom and waiting for everyone else to arrive (I hoped there was everyone else; it would be depressing if you threw a funeral and no one showed up). I was dead, and quite popular, the social darling of the next few days. I still had sisters, but they quite suddenly had no more me.
Wakes are boring. I thought so when I could get up and move about, smoke cigarettes and complain. I still thought so as I lay rotting, unable to do anything but eavesdrop and observe. I saw
hot in here
Aunt Mary and her three
twelve years old I
I don’t sweat anymore
When I was
little demons, aged five, seven, and eight
tried to sniff glue in our basement, looking for a thrill. Why this occurs to me now, I don’t know. Perhaps the fact that I might have killed myself then. Who knows? At twelve I’d had a few drinks and smoked a few cigarettes and I was frustrated in my pursuit of illicit pleasures. When I’d been twelve everything seemed illicit. I took a tube of model glue down into our basement with the intention of getting stoned. Luckily for me I had no idea how the procedure worked, what had to be done. The phrase “sniffing glue” made me think that all you had to do was sniff the fumes -which I guess might have worked had I concentrated them, cut off my supply of oxygen, who knows. To this day the ins and outs of sniffing glue elude me. Thinking back, I suppose there was the chance that I might have figured something out and fried my brain, killed myself, given myself brain damage.
Maybe I had. Maybe I’d died in that basement and the last sixteen years had been an Owl Creek Bridge episode, happening in my mind as my central nervous system bucked and twitched and unwound like a sprung clock. Maybe I’d damaged my frontal lobes and I was right now sitting in a padded cell, rocking gently, hallucinating that I had died and was lying in state, being waked. It would explain a lot. Or maybe alternate worlds exist where I am a real stoner, a hardcore inhalant abuser, a dead memory.
Then again, it seems I’m a dead memory now.
I saw Aunt Mary and her three little demons, aged two, five, and six. Mary is huge again, bloated with her fourth kid. Uncle Frank is a drunk and a lech and a leach and a moron and she continues to let him knock her up on a regular basis. Uncle Frank knew better than to come to family gatherings. We’d tolerated him until he’d tried to take a drunken liberty at a Fourth of July party with my cousin Gail three years ago, when she’d been a plump and voluptuous sixteen-year-old. No one knew exactly what the liberty was, what horrible attempt he’d made at Gail’s virginal pink flesh. All we knew was that Uncle Harry, Gail’s father, had almost succeeded in beating Frank to death in the driveway before we pulled him off. Since then, Frank had taken the hint and stayed far away….though not far enough away from Mary, most of the family muttered darkly.
Gail was now at college, and, from all rumors, no longer quite so virginal. She’d lost the plump but kept her tits and was, admittedly, a looker. Apparently no permanent psychic damage had been inflicted by Frank, because by all accounts she was enjoying her own personal sexual revolution, much to the consternation of Uncle Harry, who drank more, these days, since she’d moved away to the dorm. A co-educational dorm. With boys down the hall.
It’s so hot
two fingers of whiskey
to smile but
I don’t sweat any
and a rakish cigarette dangling
I wanted to smile but of course my face remained passive and unresponsive, sewn up and made up and puttied and not really mine, any more. Alien flesh, rotting. The vessel left behind. I wondered how it was that they could scrape me clean, inside, remove everything that had been me, and yet here I was, as attached to this carcass as in life, still tethered to it. What did that say about all those theories on where the soul lay?
It’s so hot, but I don’t sweat any more, I notice. I am now best served at room temperature, garnished with sobs and this heinous green suit I would never have been caught dead in while living. I had expected my intimates to know that. Still, I could tell that as the place filled up with my overweight and sweat-prone relatives, things were going to get sticky, literally.
Aunt Mary already looked completely washed out, drooping in her formal black dress. Her kids had stolen her energy away and were wasting it, throwing it everywhere with indiscriminate contempt, their father’s children: useless, manic, and determined in an unfocused way that usually resulted in unintended violence. Mary sat down and held my Mother’s hand, speaking softly and steadily to her, while Mom stared ahead and nodded. Aunt Mary was a devout catholic and was almost certainly telling Mom all the reasons God had for killing us, and how Jesus would be there for her if she but looked for him. Mom and Mary were sisters but they often acted as if they’d been raised light years apart in different galaxies. Mary with her dumb cow-like faith which had so far brought her four hellions and one lout, which she thanks god for like cattle lowing at the butcher.
My sisters had said a polite hello and returned to staring at their nylons, smooth legs. My sisters have nice gams. They have so far managed to remain single but not much longer for Mel, I think; the Smooth Little Prick (as Mom referred to him, capital letters implied) was beginning to get that feel about him, he’d started calling Mom “Mom”, to her entrenched annoyance, and he had started talking to Mel in the plural: our future, our kids, our money, we’re going, we’re doing, we should. It freaked her out. I wondered why he wasn’t with her, whether she left him out of it or if he had some pressing business which was more important than one final glimpse of my comely form before they ditched me. He was probably coming later. At any rate Mel had no intention of marrying the SLP any time soon, much to everyone’s relief, although she hadn’t ruled it out, either. The fact that he seemed to be assuming something bothered him, I could tell. I enjoyed it.
Marjorie on the other hand doesn’t date anyone for long. Flings. She likes the excitement, the breathless flirtations and desperate couplings. She enjoys the first two months of a relationship more than any other aspect of it, so after the honeymoon she dumps and jumps, and goes out looking good and fetches herself another guy, starting it all again. Marge drinks too much and sleeps around too much. She would probably end up like Aunt Mary: a gaunt-eyed believer, searching for something she couldn’t find in the usual pleasures.
I wondered if old girlfriends would be showing up. I wondered if any of them were still in touch enough to hear about my demise. I wondered I wondered I wondered, all I could do was wait and see.
my goodness the
The littlest of
two fingers of whiskey
There are a few sets of solemn eyes on me. The littlest of Aunt Mary’s brood was staring at my face while his elders were whispering to each other, daring each other to disgrace my dignity by touching the body. The little one, he’s just staring at me. I wonder if he recognizes me, if he thinks I’m asleep, if this is all just fun for him. A night out. Excitement. When I’d been his age I had not been brought along to wakes and funerals, or weddings, for that matter. I’d been deemed too young. But times change and Aunt Mary can’t afford a sitter and even she doesn’t leave them with Frank, who is probably already halfway through a six pack as they stare at me and would pretty soon be ranting and raving and calling 1-900 porno lines, which is what he does when he drinks. Then he usually passes out with his dick in the open air and the phone off the hook. I wouldn’t leave my pets with him, much less my kids.
The little Demon, staring at me, suddenly stood up on his tippy-toes and reached across the grand expanse of the open coffin and poked a pudgy little finger into my cheek, forming a dimple. He then retracted his finger and watched as my dead skin took longer than usual to regain its former smooth appearance. This fascinated him, and the little bastard did it three more times before Mary cried out in consternation and removed her brood from my air space. I caught Mom shaking her head as Mary dragged the young bulls to the rear to berate them.
Somehow, this was a psychic signal for my family to start arriving. Uncles and Aunts, cousins and their friends, lovers, husbands, and wives, from Mom’s family and Dad’s more shadowy cabal of blood relations, with whom I think I shared a skin tone and a predilection towards temper and little else. The Little Demon, glittering eyes fixed on me from across the room, was diluted in a flood of blood relations, a whispery, nervous, herky-jerky collection of uncomfortable suits and perfume. Uncle Harry and his brood, including the luminous Gail who had an awkward but aloof young man in tow. He seemed mesmerized by her, his eyes following her lazily. Who brings a date to a Wake? I remember my friends coming to my father’s wake, but they were friends of long standing and had known Dad, a little. This kid looked like he was just doing his male duty to try and score with her, doing his sensitive male role. I’m here for ya babe, now neck with me.
No shame in it for him, I would have done it myself. I once seduced a friend of mine at my Father’s wake, even. I don’t think Dad would have minded.
Uncle Harry was married to Joan, Aunt Joan, naturally. Joan was a Stepford Wife. She’d been born with the circuitry in place and had spent 18 years waiting patiently for someone to flick the switch and turn her on, and Uncle Harry had been 23 and as dimly confident as he was today, fifty-three and moving through his life with the oblivious cheer of big men who never had to apologize. He was a charmer, all right. He shook hands like he was wrestling you and he believed that God guided him in all things. Joan was the original version of Gail: blonde, busty, with a big-eyed smile that was really something to look at. Gail lacked her mother’s vacant vivacity, but otherwise they were the same person.
Harry did not acknowledge Gail’s friend. The guy was lanky and had hair just a little longer than acceptable in Harry’s view, I could tell. He looked like one of those college slackers that no amount of time or generational shift removes from our hallowed halls of learning: the kind of guy who looks back on his college days as the five or seven best years of their lives, the kind of guy who doesn’t get a degree, he just lives around town and bangs the freshmen chicks and attends parties and all the 18-year-olds look up to him as some sort of party god. He plays guitar and skateboards and has a job at the local comic book store and when you’re 18 I suppose he can seem pretty charming and adventurous, this kid who refuses to give in to the Man and wants to live his life like an 80’s teen comedy. They usually did get laid a lot when they were young. I didn’t begrudge them, though, because they also usually ended up pumping gas.
Harry ignored the kid with a kind of vicious oversight, a cheerful, pushy denial made up of blank looks and interrupted conversation. The kid was no match for Harry; the kid wouldn’t have been a match for Harry 30 years ago, either.
I couldn’t see where the little Demon had gone; Mary must have removed them from the scene until they could promise to behave themselves. My sisters had engaged Gail in a solemn conversation, Mel still sniffling a little, Gail holding her hands and kneeling and trying to be the warm supportive blanket her mother was so effortlessly. Joan was busy doing a similar pose to Mom, a woman who didn’t care for her very much. Mom was good at hiding these things, however. Then again, maybe Joan was too. Women were born to keep secrets, after all.
A lot of those secrets were dying with me, much to the relief of many women in the world.
And then, Uncle Harry’s frightening shadow was falling over me, cutting off the rest of the room with his bulk. He looked down at me with a look of beatific….joy. Joy was the only word which described the expression on his aging boy’s face. I knew Harry well enough to know that he was happy because he thought I was drinking the cup of life with Jesus now, strumming my harp and preparing to greet him in heaven with a sheepish grin. “Well,” I’d say, “you were right, Harry. You were always right! Welcome home, uncle!” Harry, like most religious people, was an arrogant asshole at heart. His faith stemmed from his unwavering belief that he’d picked the obvious winning team and everyone who was not as faithful as he would get theirs, or at the very least have to apologize to him in the afterlife. As if Jesus would be bringing all we atheists around to apologize. “Fellas,” he’d say, “this is Bill Coblan, and he’d like to say a little something to all you Christians who actually took the trouble to attend mass.” And I’d shuffle my feet and stare at the clouds and say “Um, I’m sorry I made fun of you and didn’t see the obvious, fellas. Forgive me?” The only problem I have with that vision is I can’t believe people like my uncle Harry would actually forgive me, which would be very un-Christian. Harry would likely scratch his left wing and say “Well, Billy, that’s all well and good, but you know it might be more than a one-shot apology to make up for disrespecting me all those years.” And Jesus would nod approvingly and wink.
He reached out and stroked my hair. “William,” he sighed, and then didn’t say anything else. He closed his eyes. After a moment I realized his lips were moving. He was praying.
This got boring quick, so I looked around the room again. Aunt Mary had returned with momentarily chagrined demons and was saying hello to various people around the room, all my relatives who I hadn’t spoken to, largely, in years. This was the Haunted House portion of the ride, I guessed. I’d been through the Tunnel of Love, the Wax Museum and been on the Scrambler far too often. Now was time to get my money’s worth.
As I watched my family pad around each other and softly socialize, I began to wonder how I was
two fingers of whiskey
of a demon that is dreaming
what the hell
why can’t I
Suddenly the littlest one of Aunt Mary’s brood was once again staring at me, perched, it seemed, on the edge of the coffin, with all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming. His piggy little eyes….and then Aunt Mary is pulling him away, but he doesn’t take his eyes off me, he twists around and keeps staring at me. As if he knew I was watching, as if he could hear me…
As I watched my family pad around each other and softly socialize, I began to wonder how I was going to get through this death, these boring days. Lying here, unable to leave the room, get away, have a drink, watch TV, listen to the radio. Think of all the albums I’d never hear, all the movies I’d never see. The people I’d never meet. I never met my wife, I never met my true love. Somewhere out there some girl is going to grow old alone because I died before my time. I could barely manage to entertain myself when I’d been mobile and articulate, what the hell was I supposed to do with…eternity.
I tried to conceive of eternity. The best I could come up with was The Lunatic’s Wedding.
Eight months I dated The Lunatic. Eight months of the insidious tentacles of prying, snooping, possessive feminine domination, the calling card of The Lunatic. The Lunatic had spent our eight months together secure only in the knowledge that I was busily fucking better-looking women whenever she wasn’t directly supervising me. Her goal while we were dating was to increase and expand her security net until she was at my side all day and night every day and night, to ward off the nubile actresses and lingerie models she imagined I trysted with whenever she dozed. And Jesus! The night I’d awoken with a start to find her staring at me. The mental leap to imagining waking with a start to find her holding a gun on me or tracing a knife blade along my jugular was not difficult, even for a dim bulb such as myself, and the next day I began the lengthy and arduous breakup proceedings. Our breakup was violent and exciting. I still dined out on that story, ten years later.
The wedding wasn’t so bad, I’d been invited to stick it to me what a hot tamale I had let go, I supposed, a final act of immature taunting. She did look mighty good, I recall, but not a moment of regret, I swear. Every time a libidinous thought wriggled free from the darker depths of my soul I envisioned her staring at me that night, all night, every night, for eight months. Usually I then needed a drink.
Four hours between the wedding and the reception is always a drag, and The Lunatic inviting me over her Mom’s house for a little pre-reception gathering seemed ideal to pass the time. Dateless, of course. In case I was dating one of the aforementioned lingerie models, The Lunatic didn’t want any competition. The gathering at Mrs. Lunatic’s turned out to be The Lunatic, her mother, her grandfather, the groom, and: me. Eternity began to unspool around me, piling up like magnetic tape spitting out of a broken projector. I drowned in no time. Drank in self-defense, made it through an hour of the reception before calling a cab. What really bothered me about the whole incident was the fact that it probably made The Lunatic think I was pining for her, drinking to heal the pain, Love on the Rocks, all that. Made me angry with myself for giving her that fantasy to thrive on for years to come. It had just been the boredom, the social awkwardness, the sheer length of time.
Oh well. No more faux pas por moi, eh? Can’t drink, can’t speak, can’t even lose my pleasant expression. Even if I had muscle control the wires would keep me looking beatific.
Uncle harry is still fucking praying. I just re-lived eternity as I know it in my mind and here he is on his fifth Our Father or some such pagan bullshit. If I’d had any inkling that the universe was about to rip my ticket I would have written a will, specifying NO FUCKING CHRISTIANS at my funeral.
I let Harry’s whispers flow over me, tried to relax, which struck me as funny, me needing to relax. I considered trying to relax for the rest of eternity. The boredom. The sheer length of time.
Uncle Harry finished, made an awkward Sign of the Cross, and turned away. If I’d had any involuntary reactions left to squander in my social interactions, I would have reached out after him -suddenly realizing with dawning nausea that Uncle Harry might be one of the last voices I heard aside from my own weak mental signal, and that I ought to make it last, to pay attention. It was like pulling into the end of the roller coaster ride and realizing you’d kept your eyes tightly closed throughout the ride.
Come back, Uncle Harry, and pray for
two fingers of whiskey
kill for a
Daniel and the
am I wearing
stuck like a beetle tied to a push pin
Daniel and the rest of them flowing into the room like soft water testing out the ocean, hesitant, careful, wide-eyed. Intimidated by all the adults around them and all the maturity on display. Men and women who had families, mortgages, who understood what death could mean. Daniel and them were having their first lessons. Dan and Kristy and Miles and Carol, my friends, the people I drank with and occasionally confessed to. I didn’t want to think about all the secrets I’d shared with them, now public domain since the main source of their embarrassment was literally cooling his heels.
I wondered: am I wearing underwear? I couldn’t recall, I had….drifted while the undertaker had been dressing me. I hadn’t realized this before. I didn’t recall pulling the cadaver’s pants down as part of the traditional mourning process, but I was becoming softly aware of the amount of things I didn’t know. Maybe something like that, as part of such an unpleasant body of knowledge, got missed.
Kristy and Carol were crying as they entered, not full-out bawling but the soft sort of dry weeping women engaged in sometimes, a long sustained tearwelling rather than an hysterical mucous-spraying tantrum. Women realized early on that such expressive bouts of weeping, while effective, were not attractive. I hadn’t realized that I was the sort of person women cried over. I had made a few cry in my time, of course, but I had always assumed it was from the sheer cruelty of the moment, the sudden shock that someone you trusted wholly and relied on could turn on you so viciously. But here were weeping women, and upon catching sight of my handsome but rigid form they each retreated from the room briefly, to collect themselves.
My whole soft white clan was assembling, and me their dead patriarch. At least for now.
Dan and Miles waited for the girls to return, and then they made their solemn careful way to the front of the room, exchanged hugs and pecks with Mel and Marj, and knelt in turn to say a few meaningless words of comfort to Mom, who accepted them with her usual stoicism. Mom didn’t care for scenes. She gave them each a low-wattage smile and a pat on the hand and sent them off to me, the main attraction under the big tent, the Chief freak in a competitive field of Coblans.
Dan paused to shake Uncle Harry’s hand; they had been introduced once at some family picnic I’d dragged the poor man to.
“Well, Bobby, you’ve looked better.” Miles said in his traditionally sardonic upper class drawl, and for a freaky moment I thought he was actually talking to me, that maybe he’d heard my sleepy tow-headed thoughts and was trying to communicate. Then I realized he was just injecting his usual inappropriate humor into the situation. Miles’ family had been rich up until the approximate moment he’d been born, at which time some series of truly unexpected financial disasters had left them positively middle class, and he was an odd mix of snooty rich boy tastes and third-generation hand-me-downs humility. I’d always liked him tremendously. I was bizarrely touched that he would come to my funeral and insult me a few last times. He leaned close.
“Did you beg, Bobby?”
My skin crawled
two fingers of
This made Kristy and Carol start crying again, covering their mouths with their hands. I wasn’t sure why, but women in general are beautiful when they cry, gorgeous. In sadness they find a peculiar grace and delicacy that otherwise got buried under pickup lines and ennui and diets.
“We miss you buddy.” Dan said clearly, his dark hand on the coffin but not touching me, which I was strangely glad for. “We’ll always miss you.”
Dan was a good guy, but I knew it was false. People died too often. You got forgotten eventually, passed by, your charms and virtues hidden beneath dust and rot and time and lost to everyone’s memory. Dan would try to remember me, because it was his nature, but he would eventually fail me and leave me behind with my newer acquaintances, the worms and roots and industrious molds.
Kristy put a damp hand on mine. I couldn’t feel it. She squeezed my hand quickly and then let go; I was freaking her out. Who the hell was she to be disgusted? I
and roots and industrious molds
and roots and industrious molds
and roots and industrious molds
stuck like a beetle tied to a push pin
It’s not so bad, could be worse, not worth the admission price but so far so good as they say. The strangest part is the sudden realization that all those nagging ailments are gone. Back doesn’t ache, eyesight is perfect, hangnail no longer bothers you. Never hungry. Never tired. No more stubbed toes, no more strained muscles. Suddenly you pause in whatever mental conversation you’d been having with yourself and realize that probably for the first time in your life there is no pain, absolutely none, no discomfort, nothing at all wrong.
The silence is nice too, soothing
And yet in a crowded room should it be so
The first day is over. I am lying in the dark, now, the room deodorized and air conditioned and empty. Creepy. I drifted again, the rest of the evening lost to me, its almost as if I fell asleep right there, thinking about Kristy and Dan and the rest of them. Just blacked out and spiraled away, and for a while I have been muffled and quiet. Now I am back, and everyone else is gone.
I guess I am a ghost, but I can’t go anywhere. I seem to remember all the ghosts I heard of were mobile and visible, able to interact on some small level. I’m stuck like a beetle tied to a push pin, circling my deflating carcass endlessly, a dog upon a leash. I can look around but I can’t leave myself behind.
There is an audible hum in the room, the air conditioning, I guess.
There is a whisper of a breeze in the air, also from the vents, I guess.
A roach trundles along the thick carpet, lost and desperate, I imagine, his little insect legs overwhelmed by the tall fibers of this blood red rug that looks black in the twilight of my presence above ground. My time is fading, it’s two minutes to midnight and I’ve got pumpkin written all over my sandpapery white skin. Or, if not pumpkin, mushroom
There is an audible hum in the room, the air conditioning, I guess.
There is a whisper of a breeze in the air, also from the vents, I guess.
The silence is nice too, soothing
I am losing moments, here and there, I notice, my train of thought is all over the road, swerving here and there and every time I slam on the brakes I pitch forward and hit the wheel hard enough to black out….and I come to a few minutes later, and nothing’s changed and its hard to tell how often its happening. One black moment is just as dull and black as another, after all.
“Buck up, asshole.”
The roach has paused in his struggle with the carpet to sit on his hind legs and smoke a cigarette, appraising me with dull bug eyes. The cigarette is tiny, about the size of a splinter.
“What was that?”
“Buck up, asshole, I said.” The roach repeats. “Jesus, I live for about a week, for Christ’s sakes. By the time I figure out to not eat the poison I’m dying anyway. You had twenty-eight fucking years. I’d kill for that kind of time.”
“I always thought bugs and insects had subjective views of time. You know -“
”That my week would seem like a hundred years to me? Sorry, no. It’s just a freaking week. When they carted your squished remains in here I was middle-aged. Now I’m a few hours from death. I’m just looking for a dry place to die in peace.”
I thought about the fact that despite there being so many billions of them in the world you never saw a dead roach just sitting in the middle of a room, or hardly ever.
“We like privacy, just like you. How’d you feel lying in the street with all those people and melting ice cream?”
I had to admit I hadn’t liked it.
“Twenty-eight years, man,” the roach said, shaking its head and snuffing the cigarette. “I would have conquered this planet, killed you all, if I’d had twenty-eight years.”
He resumed his trek across the carpet in relative silence, just muffled cursing. “Fucking shag!”
Twenty-eight years, but not all of them wasted, I didn’t think. But what counted? Friends? They carried memories of me inside of them, to pass on, to preserve. But they wouldn’t last forever. Sudden death, senseless like mine. Senility. Self-interest. Which of them would really take the time to record my existence? We’re all responsible for our own legend, it seems. I can’t very well expect Dan or Kristy, two people who could barely write memos for Christ’s sake, to write my biography.
And what would they write? What had I done? Existed. Like so many other people, I’d
stuck like a beetle tied to a push pin
The room is full again, how did I miss the beginning? Mom and Mel and Marj in the front row again, my two sisters looking drawn and sleepless, pale and sallow. Unkempt. Mom to Mel’s left, looking at me with stern disapproval. I was always too much like Dad for her taste, another mindless Coblan drinking too much and messing around too much and taking too much joy in dumb jokes and easy chairs. If I’d been given half a chance I could have matched Dad pound for pound for sheer charm and wasted time, telling jokes that disappeared into the ether, drinking beer that got pissed away, spending money quickly forgotten, hearing secrets soon made meaningless by evolution. Here I was dead and Mom was watching me like she was waiting for the final insult, as if she expected me to be found mooning the collected family from my final resting place, a gleeful Coblan grin on my face and Dad’s glint in my eye.
And, of course, there was the fact that she would finally be rid of the Coblans, largely, the boisterous and messy Irish clan she’d despised for years. Loved my Dad, hated his family, the bunch of thieving Irish dogs. The kind of people who mailed money to the IRA every year, who couldn’t hold a simple social event without fighting, arguing, cursing, sweating out beer brawls and religious politics.
I cruised around the room. I seemed to have more freedom of movement this day. Maybe I just hadn’t tried hard enough before.
Uncle Harry and Mom’s brother Uncle Stanley were discussing my sisters, wondering how they were holding up, how come they were here alone, where were the fabled boyfriends? Stanley and Harry were years out of date when it came to the social lives of my sisters, and could never tell them apart anyway. My sisters disturbed everyone else in my family, twins who used their identical appearance so ruthlessly. Other twins always worked hard to be individual, to dress differently, to be so polar that you’d be able to tell them apart. My sisters had wanted that too, but had been more than willing to pretend to be each other whenever the situation seemed to warrant it. The frequent impersonations had given my sisters a witchy, evil aura. More than one quivering young man would be glad to attest to their malignant powers of witchcraft and enchantment, but probably only if their anonymity would be guaranteed. Among other unsavory things, Mel and Marj were vengeful.
Several of my unnamed cousins were sitting around talking quietly about their drinking exploits, a bunch of well-dressed and fresh-scrubbed teenagers who had no worries and so were busily creating their own. I could never really tell the bunch of them apart, and always referred to them as The Cousins. The Cousins regarded me as a dark and unattractive tumor in the family, they did not understand me or my ways and didn’t care to. I regarded them with similar affection. The Cousins were a bunch of penny-loafing shit-eating whitebread beer sucks, and my whole life I’d felt superior to them, even back when they’d been merely annoying younger kids. My whole life I knew I was made of better stuff than The Cousins.
Now, I was dead, and they were better than me by default, I guess.
I would have
once again perched
on the human heart a stone
Aunt Mary’s youngest, the ghoul, was once again perched, it seemed, on the rim of my coffin, staring down at me with horrible, pale, understanding eyes. His hair was mussed and he wore his little suit the way little kids wore clothes, as if it was still a novelty to him and he wasn’t sure he liked it. It bunched in all the wrong places and looked uncomfortable. He kept his balance miraculously, sitting like a bird of prey waiting for the room to clear out so he could tear open my incisions (not healed but sewn) and see what was left on the appetizer cart.
The urge to reach out and push him, to shoo him away, to do anything that would startle the little fucker and make him run from the room screaming, scarred for life, repeating this story in therapy years and years from now, breathless and desperate for an explanation, was huge, ballooning inside me, whatever me is these days. I looked down at myself and pushed, pushed so hard just to make my cheek twitch, my hand spasm, anything. This body that had so long obeyed my every command with reasonable agility and promptness was suddenly mocking me, stiff and sterile and beyond my control. I couldn’t even reach out and grasp me by the arm, force myself into motion. All I could do was endure that little Demon’s stare.
“I’ll be twenty-eight in twenty-five years.” he seemed to be saying to me. I could almost hear him. “That’s forever.”
“Yeah, kid, for-fucking-ever. Pay for the ticket and keep your head and extremities within the safety cage, please, you never know when it’s going to jump the track and send you hurtling into the ether where you’ll unspool like an unwound top, fading right before everyone’s eyes, a sunken, emptied corpse in dim lighting and muted noise and and and…”
Those little eyes, beady and knowing. They say that your brain has the most capacity and speed when you’re a small child, learning all the basics, that a 6-month old baby learns faster and more completely than ever again in their life. After that, one long slow slide down into eventual senility. My brain had been weighed, and was found to be normal. It corrodes and rots and is turning into a viscous fluid right now
“Forever,” the little Demon said, winking, “is subjective.”
Marjorie and Melanie are making plans to go have a cocktail with Gail and some of the more elderly among The Cousins, just a friendly family gathering to commemorate my passing. Gail seems more broken up about my death than I would have expected, actually, but I suddenly remember…
That little jingle the Mister Softee truck plays, da-ling-a-ling-da-ling, to call all the kids out of their homes, screaming for ice cream. My swan song. Da-ling-a-ling-SMASH, thump, whoops. There’s my ticket, punched. Torn in two. Admit one. No readmittance.
Five minutes before: I’m arguing with Kristy about paying for lunch, I now suddenly recall. She let me pay with the usual girlish surrender, pleased that I manfully insisted and perfectly happy to let me. $17.85, plus tip, I left $21 even. Kristy gave me a peck on the cheek. I wondered, suddenly, if she was feeling guilty over that $21, if maybe she heard the news and thought shit, I should have paid or at least split it.
Then: me, late for a meeting, striding purposefully across the street, glancing at my watch
…the summer Uncle Harry came to visit for a few days, driving all over the Tri-State area visiting his relations in some sort of mid-life crisis search for his past or something. Dragging Gail along, at the time a gawky eleven-year old whose breasts were still an embarrassment instead of the best thing to ever happen to her social life. Me, twenty-one and bitter, still in college and wondering where have all the good times gone? Not sure I wanted to be home for the summer, still paying rent on my crappy apartment at school, thinking I would just stick around a few days and then melt away, go back to school to drink for a few days, enjoy the company of my fellow twenty-something students who seemed so much more alive and caring than my old dried-out family.
Gail, even ten years younger than me, shared that attitude: she was aghast at finding herself driving around the freaking country with her Mom and Dad, visiting her stupid relatives. I didn’t think it possible, but we bonded over cigarettes out back and even thought the budding fogey inside me kept tapping me on the shoulder and shaking his head about me supplying an eleven-year-old girl with cigarettes, but then I figured they were therapeutic, and so didn’t think too hard about it. We would sit and make fun of our parents and I taught her how to light a match with her thumb. I didn’t think much of it at the time….
Kristy, at lunch, the usual chatter about her job, the guy she was seeing, her parents, her sister. The usual. I could write the script in my head and be prepared for any possibility. Kristy was not a woman of mystery, full of surprises, she was a corn-fed American girl who wore tight sweaters and swore she didn’t like the attention it got her. If you looked hard enough at her brow while it was furrowed in thought, you could make out the shadowy images of her thoughts, gliding by, untroubled and uncomplicated.
Miles, looking chipper in his suit and being patronizing to our waitress at the bar, who didn’t like the attitude he used when specifying Stoli in his Gimlet. Wasn’t the type of place that people usually specified anything, was the sort of place you’d bet the top shelf liquor was just top shelf bottles filled with bottom shelf liquor. You didn’t get fancy in a place like this. You didn’t get anything on tap, either, for fear of intelligent lifeforms colonizing your intestinal tract.
Uncle Harry encountering Uncle Frank at the entrance to the room where I was being viewed in state. Shock. Surprise. Anger. Aggression. A comical threat pose from Uncle harry. I’m amazed at how much frank has shrunk since last I saw him. He’s small and stooped and his skin looks pasty, and I think: the booze is killing him. And then I’m oddly sad that he came to my wake. I mean, why? We had not had a great relationship, I hadn’t thought of him in a long time, why risk the brouhaha waiting for him in the form of Coblan vengeance? The idea that he would take a bloody nose for my sake was incredible, and I found myself wishing Harry would leave him be, for just that reason.
…but it must have meant something to her, being held gently by Marj, patted on the back while she cried for me.
Dark again and my friend the roach is once again making his pilgrimage, although it must be a new roach, a descendant, I suppose, on the same spiritual journey as his ancestor, perhaps in search of the same grail. Stiff and
stuck like a beetle tied to a push pin
I hail the little fellow, my sole companion as the emptied night drags on, me alone in this little room, no one watching me, no one
“Hello, little man. I knew your father.”
“My grandfather, it was, and he spoke of you. You’re not a real man.”
“I assure you I am, bug.”
“You’re full of chemicals. You people all love your chemicals too much. Always dumping them on us, killing us.”
“I’m sorry. I am.”
“Ha! Germ warfare, genocide, that’s all it is, you know. Billions of us, every day, in this city block alone. Our culture, a shattered visage of what we used to be. God, how we hate your kind. That’s what my family’s mission is.”
“We travel out here to lay eggs in you, so you can lay awake down there being eaten by us.”
Dawn, suddenly, as if I’d blinked and fallen asleep instead, unknowing. The room getting light too fast, things….
The slow rocking of a car, and I realize with a sharpening of my attention that I’m in the hearse, that it’s almost over. I’m on my way to the actual planting of me. The funeral. My funeral.
I’m in the coffin, but the lid is shut now, and I am lit only by the slim sunlight leaking through the car windows and the loose fit of the lid. It’s pretty undignified the way I’m being tossed about in the coffin, and I gather we’re on the streets of New York City, potholes and taxicabs and who cares about the dead guy being jostled about. After all, what can he care? I wondered if everyone went through this, if everyone found themselves still cognizant and thinking as they were hauled to their final resting place, if we might get stuck in traffic, funerals all over the place, drivers standing around smoking cigarettes, waiting for wreckage to be cleared, and we homeless ghosts would seep from our coffins like gas, crawling along the ground, finding each other, and sit and chat about what it’s like to be dead, find out if we somehow were related to each other. “You went to Rutgers? What year? Did you know Tom Biggens?”
That sort of thing.
Honking horns and a radio, somewhere, probably my driver, he’s searching the stations, looking for ball scores or something appropriately mournful to play. I wonder if that’s rude. I suppose he drives corpses around all the time, and doesn’t think much about it any more. I guess everyone’s behind us with their lights on, smoking dour cigarettes, not having much to say to each other. Don’t they always try to get people to carpool for funerals? All those cars in a line. Tying up traffic, driving at fifteen miles per hour.
I hate this fucking green suit, but at least I won’t be seeing light of day any time soon.
“Let me buy you a drink.” Miles said, clapping me on the back.
“Okay.” I said, a few drinks under my belt already and willing to be affable. “Whiskey. Johnny Walker. Or something else.”
He nodded, smiling, and managed to get the bartender’s attention with a professionally raised hand. Some men can stand at a bar for hours and get no attention, some can make a vague gesture and the bartender runs over to kiss their rings. Miles was of the latter, mostly due to his rich bearing and upbringing,. “Two fingers of whiskey, please,” he said crisply, showing a bill,
The bartender nodded and moved away. I lit a cigarette.
“And then there were two.” I said. “The bunch of us are getting old, pal.”
Miles didn’t argue. “Waking up early is less fun than it used to be, as unbelievable as that sounds. We’re all just born to die, after all, leaking away at a steady and delirious pace.”
“Uplifting.” I said.
“Think about it. We’re getting old, my friend. The first of many verbal forays into the Suck of aging. Your back aches, you can’t sleep as well….all steps on the way to incontinence and drool and senility.”
I accepted a tumbler from the bartender, a lithe brunette who smiled at Miles a little too long, and I knew he’d made yet another mental conquest with his patrician attitude and New Money good looks. I rolled my eyes.
“Not me, man. I’ve got a contingency plan.”
Miles sipped his martini and made a face that indicated it only barely qualified as such in the Miles book of cocktails, long and detailed as it was. “What’s that, my trusted associate?”
I raised my glass. “Live hard. Die young. Leave a pretty corpse.”
Miles smiled wanly. “An empty philosophy, you know. All the punk boys and screen idols who subscribed and defined it ended up on their knees begging for a little more time, when push came to shove.”
“Not me, chum.” I drained my whiskey and slammed the glass down on the bar. “I will stand tall in the face of death and wink. Rakishly.”
“Bull. You’ll be begging the gods to have mercy, just like the rest of us.”
“I’ll beg no gods.” I swore. “I will beg no gods.”
“Praise the lord, and pass the ammunition. Two fingers of whiskey, and make it snappy.”
I will beg no gods.
No sense in it anyway; I’m dead. I suppose Jesus could float down from heaven and touch me on the forehead and bring me back to life, but this seems unlikely. Especially since I’ve never given Jesus much of my time or interest; boring little fucker, didn’t even get to live to a ripe old age and learn anything. My Grandpop knew more than Jesus did about life, I’d say. At least Grandpa knew how to make a Sidecar, how to calculate the prime rate. Grandpa, there’s a guy I could ask for help. Jesus? Healing Leprosy’s a neat power, not real useful these days, though. Grandpa could tell me what it was like to watch Bob Gibson pitch, and that’s something.
It’s hard to concentrate, my mind wanders and sometimes it’s like I’ve fallen asleep and
The sun is bright, a small concession to my unknown superstar status, the secret star, the underground sensation so underground no one knew about me. I see the ceremony in flashes. Dark suits. Somber dresses. Cigarettes. Sunglasses. Wingtip shoes. The priest in the purple and white robe, a man who must have frowned and said “Who?” when asked to perform the ceremony for me. “Oh, that kid.” he would have said when I was pointed out to him in some photograph. “I remember that bastard. A sheer terror back in Sunday school. Knew he was going to die young, especially after he stopped attending mass. His poor mother, though. A good woman. I’ll do it for her. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed during the prayer.”
Kristy and Carol, and Marjorie and Melanie, and Gail, standing together in a perfumed bunch in the fore. Women bond easily, especially over emotional issues, is that sexist? Do I care any more? They are made up and impeccably stitched into their mourning numbers and are all holding hands. I’m one sexy motherfucker as a dead man, I suppose, all my secretive female fans have gathered to see their Valentino laid to rest.
My Uncles, standing in a manly group with their hands at their sides. Looking remarkably alike. Uncle Harry’s lips move as the priest speaks; Harry, I’m sure, knows the prayers better, and is noting every missed word.
My Aunts, behind the men, just as stoic but less alike.
My mother, in the front near my sisters. She is crying, quietly, with a still face, as if in denial about it. No one moves to comfort her. They all know better. She’d prefer it if she can deny it all later, in happier times, if they come.
The Cousins, trying hard to look somber, but probably anticipating the dinner and drinks waiting afterwards in the Post-Burial Bash that follows.
My Uncle Frank, lurking by the trees some ways behind everyone else. Sepulchral.
And there, standing in front of the Uncles, looking serious and probably adorable from someone else’s point of view, is Aunt Mary’s youngest, the little Demon in a miniature mourning suit, wind ruffling his hair, staring at me, not at the coffin or the priest but at me, at where I perceive myself to be, as if he can see me and always could, as if he isn’t at all surprised to see my ghost floating insubstantially around, being buffeted by small breezes as if they were gale winds. The little bastard is staring, studying. My Uncle Stan has a hand on the Ghoul’s shoulder, a precaution against inappropriate youthful enthusiasm. Looking into the creature’s eyes, however, I can tell the Demon won’t do any such thing. He’s here for a purpose.
The coffin is lowering on its mechanical pulley, creaking into the hole. I feel myself pulled down into it, for a moment, and then a strange feeling of freedom, and I realize I am floating. Not up and away, on some grand adventure, but away, apart, being torn up by eddies of wind no one else feels and finding it harder and harder to
My sisters step forward with Mom, and the three of them awkwardly use a silver shovel to scoop up some dirt and dump it atop the coffin.
fraying I struggle
one last thought
just as it all seems to
the little Demon stares up at the trees and then the sky, squinting in the sun, and Uncle Stan leans down to ask what he’s staring at.