Life and Death Go to a Funeral
By Shawn Nocher
Shafts of morning light slice through tall panels of stained glass and cut across the tops of mourners’ heads as we take our seats. Tissues are readied and knotted in fingers. There are sighs.
Funerals amuse my old friend. He likes to hear what is said about him. A shame, though, that he hasn’t more of a fashion sense. Right now he is wearing a navy suit with a too-broad paisley yellow tie and a tie clip, of all things. It looks like a brassy stick of gum across his chest. His hair is short today, shaved tight along the back and sides with a longer flop of it on top. When he nods to me and turns to take his seat a few pews ahead, the swath of black hair flaps in greeting. The seams of his jacket are stretched at his shoulders, threads threatening to snap.
Yes, we are friends, but perhaps that stretches the truth of our ties to one another. We bicker, admittedly, as co-workers do. We both know it’s pointless. We each have our chances—even if we have no choices. He, on the one hand, is a kind of shuttle service, an escort, whereas I am more of a companion. I am in you and everywhere else—a witness and a partner, a co-conspirator and a reconnaissance pilot. But again, neither he nor I have many choices. We just are.
You’re curious and so you must wonder what I look like. It would be too easy to tell you that I look like everyone and everything.
A mere moment ago I was curvy and thick with an ample bosom and a matronly wide backside. I smelled of gardenias and wore my hair short and wavy. It was a glorious chestnut color—Clairol #22 Autumn Harvest. I kept Tic Tacs in my pocketbook and ate them like candy. (I had given up smoking years before, but still fought the craving). My hands were fat and pink and I wore an opal bracelet, really too delicate for my fleshy wrists, but I liked it just the same.
Before that I was a man with a limp, but good-looking, nonetheless. I had that soft heft in my walk that you hardly notice at first, then spy as I’m walking away, but you wouldn’t feel sorry for me. I was too confident, too kind, and you would have admired the way my pants hung on my hips and the breadth of my shoulders. I had a nice smile, a truthful one.
For this memorial service I am wearing my favorite dress, black sleeveless with an eyelet hem. It’s way too short for this venue, but I’m always looking for an excuse to wear it. I cut my hair short yesterday—cute, very hipster. I have a tattoo around my ankle that I’m always second-guessing. It’s tasteful, a garland of tiny blue flowers, but the color is already fading and I don’t think it was a top-notch job. You get what you pay for. Lesson learned.
So here we are. Just over a month has passed. That’s the way they like to do these things now. No sense in weeping over bodies. Memorial services are held after everyone has had some time. Time changes everything. And then it doesn’t. Death is neutral on this subject.
There are a million ways to die and Death doesn’t give a damn how you do it. It just gets done. It’s harder for me. I feel invested. And when it’s a choice to die, that’s altogether different. I try to do my job the way it’s meant to be done, but I vacillate. I want to slip into your brain and jiggle some wires, try to get you to feel things moving around in there. Don’t jump! Don’t shoot! Don’t slice! And when it’s a choice you don’t even know you’re making—well, it just makes me feel like a slacker.
I’ve had struggles with the boy, a man really, but always my boy. You might say I was over-invested. How could I not be? There was that laugh. When it came from his belly it bubbled up into something you could almost touch. He loved me and he made others love me just by watching us.
The world was a wonder and he clung to me as it unfolded—squatting over a driveway puddle to watch a worm wiggle its way to drier asphalt, squirming under his mothers hands as she rubbed sunscreen on his back and shoulders and the ocean licked his toes, or when he finally found the sweet spot on his brand new two wheeler and burst out of his father’s steadying hands for the first time in a fury of peddling—always the two of us.
Sometimes he loved me so much he didn’t know what to do with me. When his third grade teacher asked him just what he planned to do with his life if he couldn’t even sit still in class, the rhetoric was lost on him and he could only sigh, try to explain that there were too many options, too many things he liked.
He was a child who dreamed of growing up and growing older if only for the freedom he imagined it would buy him, but all the same he wished to stay young and safe in the cocoon of his family because he just knew, instinctively, that it was harder on the other side of childhood. He wanted it all—to have his cake and eat it too—as his mother often said to him (but in a loving way because she admired that in him and thought that maybe, if anyone could do it, he could).
He kept a list in his pocket one summer—he might have been six or seven—of the things that he would do when he grew up:
1-eat all the choclit chip cookie do before it gets made to cookies
2-swim in jello
3-get a monky
4-bild a house for all the lonsom people to live in
His mother smiled when she found the list. You’ll drown, she said, if you try to swim in Jell-O. Can’t be done. She handed him his list and went back to stuffing his clothes in the washer. You’re too reckless.
She also wanted to tell him he couldn’t marry her, but because she knew he was a sensitive boy, she didn’t have the heart to do it and left it to me.
He thought longer and harder about the Jell-O, and not surprisingly found it worth the risk. He guiltily raided the pantry through the course of the summer, dumping boxes of Jell-O into the swimming pool. Nothing seemed to come of it other than the pleasure of watching a pale dust bloom lemon yellow or cherry red as it met the water and ebbed away. But the filter burned out in August and the pool man found it strangely gunked in a slime such as he had never seen before.
Still, he wondered if he could have swum in it, if it was possible to do such a thing. It was just his nature.
Together we were exhausting. I smile now to think of the two of us. We never slept. There was no time for such things. There was so much to see and do. We were too much for this world so there were drugs meant to still him, calm the tide of enthusiasm. Even then, I couldn’t help nagging him, urging him to reach out and touch a classmate’s shiny long hair, the snail slime that trailed across the patio tiles, candle flames he could pass his fingers through, snap-crackling bubble wrap, the pearling condensation on the outside of his father’s glass of evening scotch, the stuffing in his mattress, the inside of the dog’s mouth, the cat’s gritty tongue.
Touch it, feel it. And he did. He felt so much.
He sang in a boy’s choir and some said he had a voice like buttercream icing. Sweet with a touch of savory and blended to a consistency that made the parishioners have to hold their own hands in their lap to refrain from clapping at the end of particular hymns. But there were always a few whispered Amens among them. It couldn’t be helped.
When his voice began to skip with the first cracklings of manhood, he was embarrassed, but in time he felt it shimmy into place in his chest again and he started a band with his young friends. They christened themselves Tragedy.
I admit to having been there when he ditched school to spend the day in Tiffany Hoover’s parents’ bed while her parents were in Punta Cana, and I can still remember how she went to change the sheets and we were all embarrassed to realize we had to flip the mattress over or surely risk being found out. And I am partially to blame for his having still been a bit drunk when he took the SATs because I could not have imagined missing Eddie Wallace’s birthday party knowing that Eddie’s big brother was going to score for us. But I cannot take the blame for everything—not everything.
When I hurt him, he tried not to hold it against me. When the math tutor stuck his hand down the boy’s pants and sent me scurrying like a cockroach, he called me back slowly, and told me it would be all right. Shame could not keep us apart. When Death took Eddie Wallace off a slip-n-slide ribbon of wet highway, he was only angry with me at first for having let go. (And need I point out, once again, that these are not my choices). When the girl with the beautiful hair and the cinnamon lips snapped his heart into little pieces, he took me out west and plied me with weed and sunshine.
But sometimes, even when I was right there, he couldn’t feel enough of me, couldn’t get enough of me, and he would look for me on the streets, tried buying me for a few bucks and maybe a favor.
He said that I did this to him. Maybe it’s possible that I was the first one to whisper in his ear that something, anything, had to feel better than the nothingness that was creeping up on him. And there were so many promises being hawked.
How did it start? How do I explain: Do you love jalapenos? They’re not for everyone, I admit, but if that kind of thing appeals to you, you might ask yourself—what do I like about them? The way they burn sweetly on your tongue, the way the heat is layered and comes in peppery at first, followed by a twist of pickling sour and then a flood of new heat that your tongue needs to resist twisting around, and then, after you’ve swallowed, it’s still there for the flash of a moment, perking where your tongue presses to the roof of your mouth and searches for more? You think you are satisfied—you’re not even hungry, for goodness sake—and your throat is expanding with a gaseous heat and you may even begin to twist the lid back to the jar and then, the after-burn is only a little less than good. And so you think—one more.
The first time he got clean he told the counselor he had a hole in himself. She had heard it a thousand times. Junky talk, junky justification.
How do you describe a hole? After all, it’s filled to the very brim with nothing. He was forever standing on the edge of that hole and wondering how to get to the other side of it. Heroin fills holes, splendidly. The bigger problem is that once it fills the hole, you stop giving a damn about getting to the other side anymore. It makes for a good place to settle in and feel the angels kissing you.
Death and I were just outside the counselor’s door. We are forever bumping into one another in such places. He was pushing one of those soft wide swiveling mops down the hallways, gathering debris from the edges of the baseboard, and wearing a flannel shirt, blue hightop sneakers, and a red bandana knotted around his neck. His thinning hair was pulled back into a useless ponytail. I had just arrived with a box of donuts for the staff, the cumulative effects of such indulgences hidden beneath an ankle-length skirt and an over-sized Grateful Dead T-shirt. I knew every song by heart.
Nice shirt, he said.
I offered him a donut, but he declined and patted his own wide girth by way of explanation and then leaned back into his work. I stood beside him and watched him swirl the mop handle with uncanny precision.
The counselor should have listened if only because she might have taken a look in that hole and realized how deep it was. Better to build bridges. But she made her nice cooing noises instead and said can you explain that. Though she didn’t say it like it was a question. She was distracted by Death’s mop sweeping along her door, the mop fingers inching into her office in the margin of space between the closed door and the laminate floor. She sipped at her coffee cup and found it cold, and her mind was flitting away to imagine it warmer. She even considered stepping back out into the corridor to freshen her cup, but of course, she didn’t, couldn’t.
The counselor liked him, perhaps more than she liked some of the others at the center. But she knew he was a liar and that he would only like her back until she got in the way of what he wanted. Junky brains. He wanted to be clean and he wanted not to be clean and he wanted to want to be clean and he wanted to not need to be clean and all of that was between him and this woman who was supposed to help him be clean, but only if he wanted it.
So he got clean. Mainly because that is what you do in rehab.
Eleven days after leaving the center he scored some oxy. He dreamed of swimming in Jell-O and woke with his arms feeling like they’d been pulled from the sockets. He found a bottle of Tylenol in his roommate’s drawer and took the last nine tablets. His scalp itched like it was crawling with vermin. He took the juicer (no one ever used it) and his old snowboard to Cash-Me-Crazy and walked out with enough to keep him high until he could figure out what to do next. Maybe call his counselor, go to a meeting, get a sponsor. He would have to figure it out.
He got thinner, downright skinny, and his hair was often dirty. He forgot to brush his teeth some days and then he wondered why his smile wouldn’t buy him the same quality company he used to keep. He had been back out nearly a month before his roommate explained that the situation wasn’t working out. And where the fuck is my juicer, he wanted to know.
He said he’d start going to meetings again. He wanted to make things right. It pissed him off, but he would replace the goddamn juicer. He’d scored earlier that morning and was feeling ok so he went to the Goodwill to look for a juicer.
Claire was sitting in a naugahyde recliner the color of burned butter and reading from a stack of paperbacks on her lap. The chair nearly swallowed her, she was so tiny.
She wasn’t pretty. He couldn’t say that she was, but she had a curly smile that he liked and fine bones in her face, like those of a bird. She was fragile. We both knew that about her. Delicate, with fine thin arms and tiny fingers turning the pages of the crumbling paperbacks, her fingernails no bigger than thumbtacks.
As for myself, I was doing a little shopping. I collect quality china and you never know what’s going to show up at the Goodwill. I had already found a piece of creamy Limoges that was flawless. I dusted it off with the hem of my skirt and pushed my glasses up my nose to double-check for hairline cracks. Absolutely perfect! Sunlight was glinting off the cut glass pieces, making prisms of color that shimmied on the metal shelving and caused Claire to blink quickly and tilt her head to the side.
She’d been clean for ninety-three days she told him. He didn’t ask, but she had recognized him as someone she’d bought Molly from at a festival last year. She just offered it up. Hey, she said, I know you. And then she told him she’d been clean. She read a lot now, she said. And this place is a goldmine when you’re on a budget. (I had to agree). She was reading The Last Unicorn. We’ve always enjoyed that one, must have read it half a dozen times.
I startled him when I came out from behind the shelving. The aisles were narrow and he had to take a quick step closer to where Claire sat in order to let me pass. I bumped him with my basket of treasures. “Ooops, sorry!” he said, as if it were his fault. There was a clink in my basket as I righted it and his hand reached out to steady it at the corner. “Careful, now,” he said. “You break it, you bought it.” His smile went from me to Claire and widened along the way.
He told her he was clean now, too. It wasn’t because he wanted to lie, or even because he was hitting on her. He just didn’t want to disappoint her.
Cool, she said, and she invited him to a meeting with her that was to start in the next hour. He didn’t have anywhere else to go right then anyway.
I always enjoyed her company, the quiet of it. She’s a watcher, that one, always noticing the small things, the soft drift of dust in a sudden shaft of sunlight, the way a dog circles before it does its business, that a bird always draws in its head before flight.
Claire. Maybe what he liked best about her was her name, the way it came up out of him, the way the letters opened up and took flight, like a wish tossed in the air, or a prayer.
It was easier for him to stay clean with her. Of course, she needed him more than I did. I knew that about her. But like I said, I was too invested. I cared too much.
When they made love she kept her eyes open. It scared him to open his eyes and see hers looking back at him. Once, when the sunlight came in the window so brightly that he thought he could see through the skin that stretched at her clavicle, he lifted his eyes to hers and saw his own desperate reflection in her irises and it unnerved him. He spread the fingers of his hand and drew the pads of his fingers down softly over her eyelids, like you would close the eyes of the recently deceased. Shhhhh, he whispered, but she hadn’t said anything at all.
They went for coffee one morning and sat outside The Beanery on the patio beneath a sign that said No Smoking on the Grounds and he smoked. A woman with a child in a monstrous stroller moved to another corner with a sigh and positioned the stroller so the back was to the two of them. Claire nodded to the sign, as if he hadn’t seen it and he shrugged. There were only so many rules he could follow at one time. She smiled that curly smile of hers and lit her own cigarette, ran her tongue over her lip and blew the smoke into a long thin cloud.
“I’m thinking of going out,” she said. “Just saying.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for sixty-seven days now,” he said. His heart skipped a beat because he was hopeful.
He could see her doing the math in her head.
“I knew you weren’t clean when we met,” she said. She wasn’t mad, just wanted him to know that she knew.
I took a slow seat at the table next to them. My legs were hurting and I hadn’t eaten since the afternoon before. I had seventy-two cents in my pocket, but someone had left a half-eaten croissant wrapped in paper and a third of a large latte on the table. I put my hand to the whiskers on my face. I liked the way it felt to pull my fingers through them, like scratching the wiry fur of an old dog.
The woman with the stroller wheeled it a little tighter to herself. Glorious morning, I said to her, because it was. Sunshine was streaming and little beige wrens were scavenging on the pavement. I pinched off a piece of the croissant and dropped it to the ground. There was a flap of little wings and a hop and suddenly the fattest of the wrens was only inches from my boot. I tapped my toes and it turned its back to me, wriggled its tail feathers and hopped away with the shred of pastry in its beak, but didn’t take flight. The coffee was still warm and sweet.
“Hey, Old Man,” he said, and he leaned over and handed me a smoke, already lit. He’s like that. A cup of sweet coffee and a fresh smoke followed by a perfectly crisp croissant. Glorious morning.
“Seriously,” she said. “I’m thinking about it.”
“Seriously, I believe you.”
They started slow, scoring some Percocets, but moved back onto the needle when cash got tighter and stayed there because it was just easier that way.
He took his mother’s call when his phone rang one morning before he could stop himself. He wanted to hear her voice—not her words—just the sound of her voice.
I’ve been trying to reach you for weeks, she said. He could hear both the anxiousness and the relief in her tone, the sweet and the sour of it.
Sorry, he said. He’d been really busy. He wanted to make things right with her and so he said he thought he might have found a job. He couldn’t remember if she thought he was still working as a programmer or not. He didn’t get that job, but he thought maybe he had told her he had. The other job, he said, wasn’t going to pan out, and they were making cuts.
What other job? She wanted to know.
The other one, you know, that I told you about, but it’s not enough hours and I need something better. And if they cut my hours, I’m screwed. I’m really tight now. Might pick up something else. I might wait tables on the weekends. But those hours, you know, they’re grueling and then you got to get up Monday morning and go back to real time in the real world.
She asked if he was still going to meetings.
Not so much.
He said that he was busy, but that he still went—when he could—but he was busy and what did she want from him anyway? Just what did she want. He couldn’t be every place at once and there was a lot to work out.
I can go to the fucking meetings, Mom. I mean, I can go, but then I need another job—Jesus—whatever.
I hate when you do that, she said. I hate that whatever thing you do.
I don’t know what the fuck you want from me.
I don’t want anything from you, she said.
Christ, Mom. You’re so dramatic.
We just love you so much. We just want you to be happy.
Claire rolled over in the bed beside him, opened up her arms and tossed a thin forearm over his chest. He stroked his hand over the parade of lavender bruises all the way down to her wrist. So thin he could have cracked it in half if he rolled over it in his sleep.
I’m happy, okay? I’m so fucking happy I can’t stand myself. That’s how happy I am. Ok? Ok?
Claire’s eyes blinked open next to him. So fucking happy, and he dove his face into her neck and sobbed with a rage that took us all by surprise.
The phone slid down his arm, pressed between his chest and Claire’s small breast. The voice came through tiny and faraway. Just tell me how this happened again. How did this happen?
The last big score came courtesy of his roommate’s tax return.
Death and I met in the doorway, just outside the bedroom. The room had a thick stink of incense that wafted through the hallway. Death was dressed ridiculously in a thin white shirt and a bolero with a small jewel-toned beetle preserved in it.
That’s hideous, I told him.
They were wrapped around one another, he like a bleached and twisted tree trunk and she like a splay of vines entwined in his limbs.
I had a mother’s heart in me just then and I wanted to kiss them both on the forehead, feel for a fever with my lips.
Both of them? I asked. But Death just shrugged.
Claire’s lips were so still and a blue blush moved into them and then just as quickly there was a rattle in her chest like nails going up a vacuum and a flush of pink came back into her lips again. A powdery moth flitted at the bedside lamp, tapping the shade, once, twice, before landing on the boy’s bare ribs and tucking its wings tightly, little dusty fans folding.
Death took a step and I put my hand on his shoulder. Don’t be so anxious, I told him.
They were dreaming the same dream. Great gushes of water roaring into the canyon, oozing from the muddy earth and spilling in torrents, swirling over boulders and sending great birds up into the sky where they floated in sweeping circles. The water swirled between tree trunks and cleaned the roots raw until the very last tendrils slipped free. The trees, some leafless and black, others glistening green with foliage, toppled and crashed against one another before being sucked into the rushing water and taken down the folding banks in a thickened gush.
They blame me, you know, I said. He said as much. He said I did this to him. I wore him down.
Life’s a bitch, Death said, with a wry smile.
We were closer when she was little, I said of Claire. She didn’t have a lot of friends. But she liked her own company well enough.
Her lips went to blue again, then grey, and the stillness, it was too much to bear. I turned away.
Things change, Death said. He swiped his shoe across the floor to move a damp towel out of his way. And this place is a mess.
The morning sun was just now sneaking through the slats of the blinds and making rippling stripes across the carpet, up and over mounds of strewn clothing, a backpack, and Claire’s sandals. Death walked over to the bed, left me standing in the doorway and leaned over the both of them, his wide hands only inches from the two of them, his face so close to Claire’s I thought he meant to place a kiss on her cheek.
I don’t know why it troubles me so, why I care so much, I mean, really.
He was gentle. He always is, once he has you in his arms, and I’ve heard his hands are warm.
Still, I feel robbed.
We rise now to sing a hymn for the departed. My boy struggles to get to his feet. I want to reach out to him, but he is several seats down from me. He didn’t want to be here today, but there are so many things he doesn’t want to do and he has learned in the last month, among other things, that sometimes you just have to put one foot in front of the other to get wherever it is you’re going. Wherever it is.
He takes hold of the pew in front of him in a great effort to pull his body forward to stand, but his legs are soupy and he cannot engage them to push himself upwards, through the thickness that surrounds him. He looks around, sees me standing here and thinks for a moment he recognizes me, maybe not. He tries again to stand and exhales a long slow crumbling sound. The young man next to him, I know him well. I know them all. And while my boy does not, has only met him recently, the man has promised to stay with him, through this day and even the days ahead, and so he swings an arm around the boy’s middle and helps him to his feet. The man pulls my boy to himself and holds him there, standing. He will not let go until the hymn has finished.
He looks at me again. He opens his mouth to sing. He once had that voice, but it’s gone, like so many other things. He closes his mouth and grits his teeth against the tears.
My boy turns to me and recognizes me, lifts his hand just slightly to acknowledge me. He is certain he knows me. I pull down at the hem of my dress and nod to him.
The young man is lifting his voice up for the two of them.
I have been around forever. And yet I am of the moment. I have seen powerful evil things that could make your spine curl up and roll out from under your flesh and I have seen joy that could make you think you’re about to sprout wings.
I watch my boy now, staring at the backside of Death, noticing the way Death’s flesh rolls on the back of his neck and over his collar and the way the hairs are shaved close to the nape. He turns again to me. Death has his back to him but I am looking him straight in the eyes, reminding him that I am here.
I am here.