Friday, November 25, 2011

Interlude: The Funeral March IV

I put on my best suit for the funeral.

I have only one suit. In my business, I could do to have a couple, but maybe not. I’m a fucking entertainment writer. I make phone calls to rock bass players and country singers who play the tambourine. There are days when wearing a t-shirt seems like I'm trying too hard.

Still, the suit was the best I had, worn only a handful of times. It was worn once in 1999 for a wedding. Wearing that suit, I’d told a woman in a parking lot I’d fallen in love with her. She sped off in her truck right after –probably the smartest thing she ever did.

I wore the same suit at my sister’s wedding, my best friend’s wedding then at my wedding.

I wore it once to interview a dying blues guitarist. The man was about 70 and still having to play to pay bills. I thought he deserved better than to have to answer questions from a guy wearing a cartoon t-shirt.

The suit has been employed on a couple of occasions when someone has offered me a job I had no intention of taking. I’d worn the thing as an outward sign of my seriousness, of my deep consideration of their offer, but really, any job that would think someone like me needed to wear a suit to do his job wasn’t really a place I needed to be.

Still, it was the best I had, the best I could give my father, who would remember me better in the suit than my grandmother was capable of. Besides, she’d never seen me in anything more formal than a t-shirt and jeans.

At the entrance to the parlor of the funeral home, my father said, “You clean up real good.”

He repeated variations on the same theme for the rest of the day, which pleased me.

More than anything else, I’d dressed for my father, to show respect both toward him and to the woman who raised him. I wanted him to see me as a man, not a 40-year-old kid. I was there to help, to comfort, but not to mourn. I would do that on my own.

I was one of only a few suits in the room and most of the others belonged to people paid to be there.

My people are working class stock. I come from people who are autoworkers, mechanics, cashiers and clerks. My father was the oddball in the family: the teacher.

As it should be, we buried my grandmother on a rainy day. Sunshine and clear skies are a poor setting to bury people you love. Cold, gray rain came down in a steady pour. As a grim group, we made our way through a cramped city graveyard to my grandmother’s final resting place.

Words were said. I don’t remember them. A few people cried, but it was hard to make out who. I couldn't find it in me to cry in public, but I did have the suit.

Interlude: The Funeral March III

People were waiting for me at the funeral home in Flint. Viewing and visitation had been ongoing for most of the afternoon by the time my car rolled onto the parking lot.

My stepmother, Laurie, saw me first, hugged me then sent me inside to see my Dad, who was standing next to the room where my grandmother’s body laid in a box.

“I’m glad you made it,” he told me.

For a couple of minutes we talked about my drive and the little controversy that had arisen about my grandmother’s obituary.

Details about her life, children and grandchildren had been submitted to the funeral home by my uncle. My father, a retired, high school English teacher, had been asked to look over the finished copy.

He couldn’t have pissed them off more if he’d made the changes with a red pen.

We talked for a minute then he led me up to the small, wooden casket.

The dead cannot help but be a poor imitation for the living. My grandmother’s dressed, painted, and boxed corpse was only a vague outline of the woman I remembered. Her flesh sagged on her frame. She looked like the woman I knew, but carved out of wax and melted slightly under the lights.

“I don’t think it looks like Mom,” my father said. “I think they did their best, but that’s not her.”

He meant that both aesthetically and spiritually; and I agreed. It wasn’t her.

We spent a few minutes there and I felt numb from grief and guilt.

“She always appreciated those letters you sent her,” Dad told me. “I told you that, but she used to light up whenever she’d get flowers or a card or a phone call from one of you kids.

“She was proud of you.”

I heard what he said, but it sort of went through me.

The viewing was to be broken into two parts. The early part of the afternoon was meant just for family. The evening was open to the public, though none of us expected a crowd. My grandmother was almost 90. She’d outlived most of her friends. Few of those people from her past wouldn't be able to travel.

Still, a lot of family turned up: long-lost cousins. Of course, none of them had been long-lost. That was me. They'd stayed and been part of the ongoing family story, while I'd been absent; the one spoken about, but seldom spoken to.

I don't know that they'd even expected me to come.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Interlude: The Funeral March II

To me, the worst part about the trip to Michigan for the funeral seemed to be the distance, the time in the car.

A lot had changed.

As a child, my family made an annual pilgrimage to Flint to visit my father’s parents. We’d leave just before dark in the summer. Dad would do most of the driving. By the time I was 10 years old, I rode shotgun with him, pouring his coffee, keeping him company while Mom and my two sisters somehow nodded off in the back and slept.

Those trips were important to me. I remember the smell of the hot coffee poured from his green and chrome thermos. I remember the old radio shows on AM radio: Fibber McGee and Molly, X-Minus One and a million different westerns and crime shows. I remember riding through West Virginia one year and hearing Bill Withers “Just the Two of us” played over and over on every other station we found.

On the road, in the wee hours, we talked –Well, Dad talked. He told me his stories and I listened. He told me things he never mentioned during the day. He talked about Vietnam. He talked about growing up in Flint and mentioned some of the less pleasant things he'd done and often regretted. He rattled off his thoughts about politics and music.

Some of it was nonsense or seemingly contradictory, but I loved it.

Still, the drive was a killer.

Many times, we left just before dark and usually arrived mid-morning in Flint, ready for Dunkin Donuts at Grandpa and Grandma’s house. Dad would sleep all day.

And for years, I measured out the time to get to my grandmother’s house to be around 10 to 12 hours –half the day, for sure. It was too long to try alone, too long to try with a family, too long to try in a beat up Geo Metro, a beat up Toyota Station wagon, a beat up Dodge Neon…

It just couldn’t be done; not under these circumstances.

But with the funeral, at least this time I had a new car with a good engine, solid brakes and tires that didn’t need to be inflated back to a round shape every 30 miles. I also had satellite radio, a working cell phone and a yearly income that exceeded 18 thousand dollars per year. I was insured, too --something that wasn't always the case.

There was never going to be a better time for me to make the trip, even if I was going to have to take it alone. I didn't want to go alone, but I didn't have much of a choice. Neither of the cats are especially good travelers.

Before I left, I needed directions. I had a general idea where Michigan was on the map, just head north, but I’d scarcely looked in that direction in over a decade.

I checked online.

The first time I entered the start and arrival point, I shook my head. It had to be a mistake.

I picked a different map service and tried again.

The results were identical. Allowing some fuzziness to a hard number because of road construction, traffic delays or too much coffee, all sources indicated I could be at my destination in right around 6 ½ hours.

I felt sick and guilty.

As a comfort, I told myself on the road it was probably different. I would probably get turned around and I did, right off the bat. I started toward Huntington when I should have started toward Parkersburg. Also, one of my exits was closed and so I couldn’t leave the main route when I was supposed to.

Beyond that the speed limit fluctuated from 45 to 70 miles an hour and traffic was dicey around Columbus. I drove through the morning, stopped for gas, stopped for lunch at White Castle (a first for me) and got a coffee at Starbucks.

I still made it in 6 ½ hours.

Damn it to hell.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Interlude: The Funeral March I

I was in the parking lot of the regional jail when I got the call from my sister telling me my grandmother was dead.

“Grandma passed away at about 1:30 this morning,” she told me.

Everybody else was fine.

A week before, my 88 year-old grandmother had entered the hospital because of fluid around her heart. She didn't much like doctors, hated hospitals and had sort of been counting the days until her death for a while. She mentioned not being around in birthday cards sometimes.

My sister broke the news and I tried not to laugh. While I'd been inside the regional jail, talking with a loved one about choosing to sleep on a thin mat laid over a cement floor in an overcrowded cell rather than taking a bed someplace where he'd be beaten, my father was choosing a casket for my grandma.

I imagined him looking at coffins the same way most people would look at used cars and whatever he got would be like my grandmother lived: simple, unpretentious and fiscally conservative.

She'd never piss good money away on an ornament nobody would ever see much of --least of all, her.

Meanwhile, details of the funeral would be forthcoming and probably very soon. Plans were being made. The tune was being called.

“Somebody will call you,” my sister told me then asked me if I was all right.

I was fine. I'm always fine at the point of impact. Later, things would suck, like when I thought about how I hadn't seen her in over ten years and the reasons behind that.

In the beginning, I didn't go because of money. More times than not, I didn't have two thin dimes to rub together. I worked two jobs, struggled to provide both for myself and for my family.

That never seemed to get much better.

Then, there were problems with vehicles. Nothing I drove seemed all that reliable, especially not for a seven hour trip across Ohio to Michigan.

Then I worried about the fragility of my grandmother and the rambunctious nature of my family. I wasn't sure the old girl could handle an hour with us, let alone a weekend, a holiday or a week of vacation.

The minority of voices echoing my concerns encouraged me to think this was for the best.

All excuses were poor and had little merit. The old woman had survived the Great Depression, backwoods poverty growing up in Arkansas and my much loved, but not especially saintly grandfather. She'd raised two kids in Flint, Michigan, in auto worker and union country, which could get rough.

She'd have been fine. If we'd annoyed her, she'd have puttered off to her room and closed the door until we came back later.

And so a decade disappeared with nothing more than a few phone calls, birthday cards and those letters I wrote to her from time to time.

The letters were for my comfort as much as hers.
For a while, I was mailing them every week. Grandma didn’t have email and probably didn’t know what facebook was –not that it would have mattered. After cataract surgeries, she could barely see. My aunt, I imagined, read my letters to her and probably wrote her occasional responses back –except around birthdays.

For birthday cards, she managed to hastily scrawl some little note on the inside of the card, telling me she loved me, but mentioning her back trouble, her impaired vision or her advanced age.

They made me laugh sometimes, but I always appreciated those. She was trying to include me in her life in a way that made sense to her. The card with the money, she sent to share her joy. The messages were her little bits of pain. There was balance in that, I thought. She wanted to share the good and the bad, while I tended to gloss over things: car trouble, selling blood for gas money, an ended marriage, etc...

Sitting in the parking lot, it occurred to me that I'd cheated her out of a lot, but there was nothing to be done about it. I hung up the phone then drove home to pack.

Friday, November 4, 2011

ring cycle: Love and Davenport

There isn't really much of an interest to turn "Don't Print This" into one of those tawdry sex and crime magazines you used to see at your finer convenience stores --or at least I used to see, because my best friend was fond of stealing them --not that he was actually interested in reading it. It was just that he'd taken everything else: the car and gun magazines, a variety of mid-grade porn, and a few comic books that really weren't for him.

Really, those he gave to me, as a kind of payment for keeping my mouth shut and for housing the rest of the loot.

Shoplifting never bothered him, having to explain anything to his parents did and somehow, he thought, eventually, they'd catch him.

Anyway, there have been some odd, gossipy kind of developments. A few people have spoken up as being interested or knowing those who are interested me.

which is at once exciting and baffling. It's exciting that there a few women out there who'd like do more than lunch with me. It's baffling because it just is. I'm a snarling traffic wreck even during the best of times and here I am, split up, divorcing and probably more than a little off-balance and there's interest? in me? Really?

What is also strange is the number of former girlfriends and past crushes that have stumbled back onto the stage, seemingly a little drunk and not entirely sure of their lines.

"Oh, Bill. I have missed you... so. "

I don't know what to make of this, but I kind of like it.