Image Credit: Edwin Carmona
“Every dictatorship, whether of man or party, leads to the two forms that schizophrenia loves most: the monologue and the mausoleum.”
Joe taught me about special effects, how the horror of a horror movie is fiction. The head blown off with a shotgun is a watermelon placed on a mannequin’s neck. The zombie-chewed shoulder is latex, cotton balls, and makeup. To get me to lower my hands and look, my grandpa explained these nightmares as tricks, technical feats plus imagination.
Joe loved scary books and movies and had always dreamed of doing special effects in Hollywood. He would say so on nights when he was blasted. He never quit his day job as a machinist, never moved from the suburbs, never was more than what he was. But each Halloween, my brother and I would go to Joe’s for sleepovers with our friends, and he would rig the house with a fog machine and hidden speakers full of cackles and croaks and screams. He lurched downstairs, costumed as Frankenstein’s monster. He loved to scare us. We would make our own masks of tinfoil and wax, and us little monsters would watch old horror movies until we couldn’t stand the thought of things that came in the night.
My grandpa wasn’t afraid of anything, I thought.
Joe particularly loved zombie movies. To watch them alone with him was a rite of passage. To enjoy them together bonded us. We saw the strings. We pointed out the inconsistencies and flubs. We laughed at the phony color and viscosity of the fountains of blood.
While Dad worked seventy hours a week, and Ma worked and started college, Joe and I spent a lot of time together. We talked through countless movies. I asked questions, and he helped me to see without fear.
But sometimes I would notice a swath of silence. In the recliner before the big screen TV, Joe had his eyes closed.
“Are you sleeping, Grandpa?” I would ask.
“Only resting my eyes” was his stock response.
We would laugh and return to dissecting the movie.
Sometimes he really was asleep. Then I was alone and forced to rely on my own rationalizations to keep watching.
The one movie I couldn’t explain away was Day of the Dead. Remnants of a military unit survive in an underground base. The last doctor on Earth experiments on a corral of zombies in hopes of discovering a cure. The best the doctor can do is turn one into a pet, which later—you guessed it—kills him. The movie is slow, long, poorly lit, with sparse dialogue. There is very little threat throughout. The soldiers are otherwise perfectly safe from the horrors above, yet they’ll never leave. In gray bunkers surrounded by several rings of fence, in a hell they cannot escape, they are away from the world, isolated, trapped. This made theirs more frightening than the world outside, teeming with undead.
My grandpa and me, we watched this movie many times.
In the goriest scene, zombies rip the doctor in half. They dig into his guts like children scooping handfuls of sand, and then pull. He is a bad man, yet the scene is terrifying.
I look to Joe for a punchline, a justification, a way of seeing that doesn’t make me want to scream.
He’s on his back in the armchair, resting his eyes.
“Are ya drinking?” Joe repeats from 1,200 miles away.
“We’ve had enough,” I answer diplomatically and turn from the lawn party.
I’m calling from my wedding reception. Joe sounds weak, cheery, skeptical. We haven’t talked in years. The liver and intestinal cancers have returned, so he can hardly move, let alone fly in from Chicago—or so I heard.
“Good,” he says and adds that he loves me. Then he rants for ten minutes about “gays ruining the sanctity of marriage,” “that Muslim Obama,” and the “uprising of the blacks.”
I sweat cold in my suit. My heart twists from affection to hatred, reminded why I cut him from my life.
No longer a child, I fight him with words: “You’re dead wrong about . . . ” and “That’s ridiculous because . . . ”
The man is relentless, nonsensical, a monster. He’s drunk during his chemotherapy. My mom will ache when I tell her, though won’t confront him. What good will it do?
Thunder rips, and the rain I barely noticed slants hard. Behind me, a satin pump sticks up in the lawn. My lawfully wedded wife came to check on me, but Meredith is nowhere to be seen. I fear that she’s gone into the field alone. We’ve had enough.
I need to go, I tell Joe, exasperated though I said so little, not half of what I should’ve.
We hang up, and I can’t say that I love him.
My grandparents are racists.
The fact first took shape during the summer between third and fourth grade. We were out to lunch, seated at a Burger King. My grandpa tapped the table to get Gram’s attention, then pointed at a black cook. The guy wasn’t doing anything unusual. Head down, his navy visor pivoted between toppings as he filled rush orders. The guy was high school age, working because he had to or for spending money. Either fit my family’s work ethic.
Gram spit out her burger in a stringy wad that plopped onto the wrapper. My grandpa ordered me to do the same. I did. Gram gathered our uneaten burgers and threw them away. We left.
“I can’t stand when they touch their hair,” she said.
The kid had been nice enough to cook us lunch while wearing a starchy polo and a visor indoors. Many things didn’t make sense at that age. Like why the bass thump of cars going up Harlem Avenue annoyed the adults on my block. Wasn’t much different than an ambulance wail, except you knew the person was in a lot better mood.
“Why?” I asked, not brave or smart, unaware of what I was really asking.
“Spooks are dirty,” Joe answered.
We were buckled up in their minivan. He looked at me in the rearview to check my reaction. All sunglasses, Joe didn’t appear angry. Just the placid, mustachioed face of my grandpa, my scary movies buddy who made me laugh to tears with a new joke every week.
His words sounded mean-spirited and irrational. I would be embarrassed if I repeated them to my mom. Something was wrong. He was trying to teach me to see as he did.
“Get a plane ticket and come home,” Dad says over the phone, three months after the wedding. Ma stayed all night at the hospital. Joe died watching the Discovery Channel, a fact my father returns to. “It’s Shark Week. Can you imagine?”
I hang up annoyed and repeat to my partner what’s happened.
“How’re you doing?” Meredith asks.
“I have so much work to do this week. We don’t have money to fly. I don’t have a black jacket, and I’m not buying one.”
“How do you feel?” she says.
For four years, Joe had been a drunk with cancer. Not an alcoholic with cancer. He never questioned the genetic and/or environmental factors that made a single drink a problem. Before his diagnosis, wrecked each night, he followed a daily routine of salves, herbal teas, Epsom salt soaks, heating pads, various massagers, Alka-Seltzers, vitamins, and naps. He rationed his sick leave for the inevitable gout attack. Cancer was an inconvenience. He talked about the surgeries like necessary home repairs: “My guts need work. Once they do that job, I won’t be looking so bad.” Occasionally, his mortality was painfully real. He rushed to the doctor, took his medicine, prayed to his guardian angel. Joe was a believer, but drink was his true religion. A week later, all doctors were again quacks. Alcohol actually helps to kill cancer, he would tell my mom, not joking. Both times he’d started chemotherapy, he quit. I don’t think his was a dilemma of time, a hedonist snubbing common sense. For Joe, to quit drinking was a quality-of-life issue measured in parties, guests, laughs, and the well-worn grooves of habit. Maybe he’d welcomed enough babies into the family with boozy kisses not to need to see the faces of his great-grandchildren.
However, my partner isn’t asking for the facts, rationality.
“It can take some time to process,” she assures.
“I don’t think so,” I answer, not ready to say that I don’t feel anything, that I experienced more loss when her sweet, agoraphobic grandmother with the eye patch passed last winter. I barely knew the lady. How does anyone love a bad person?
Meredith gives me time to explain. I don’t. She hugs me.
Fear has my tongue as I consider the coming funeral, my relatives, and what she will learn about my family. I mean, learn about me.
Our morning flight to the funeral is delayed, and Meredith talks adoption at the gate. She swipes through photos of little ones with big smiles, bright eyes, and waggily tails. I’d promised we would get a dog after the wedding. Our starter family, we’ve been calling it.
Like a sober Grandpa Joe—dour, sunglasses on against the sunrise—I watch the news on a wall screen. The weekly forecast says record high greed with scattered protests and a lot of hot air blowing in from east of the country.
My partner returns to the pointy-eared pup, sandy like a dessert fox. The dog has intelligent eyes, a happy tail.
“What do you think?” she says.
I love her already. Anxiety makes my heartbeat stick and gasp.
“Why would anyone bring a kid into this nightmare?” I want to say, but already know her answer. “A dog isn’t a kid,” and then, “To make it better.”
I try to think of one good reason to bring another well-meaning white person into the world. Selfishness pads the futility of the endeavor. Being a parent would give me little time for self-care, which includes solitude and writing. The prospect isn’t cheering me up. Meredith notices and rubs my arm.
“We don’t have to decide now,” she says, for herself maybe as much as me.
We’re not young and we’ll need to decide soon. I remember something she said early in our relationship, very seriously, a declaration and a question—family traditions are important. She listed hers growing up: flowers on the first day of school, new PJs for Christmas, an annual family trip, half a dozen others. Family is important, she was saying. She loves hers. They love her. It was then my turn to answer, to agree, but I couldn’t see through the drunks shouting “Feliz Navidad” and me hiding under the Christmas tree in my early memories. “Traditions can tie people to things they don’t always want to be a part of,” I started to say. “My parents worked a lot and we weren’t too close with our extended family,” I ducked the question.
Meredith glances once more at the pup before she pockets her phone.
I smile and pat her leg.
Joe supported a family all his life instead of chasing his dreams. I want to call and ask, “Was it worth it?” I can’t. I never could.
The intercom squawks. Our plane will arrive in another hour. I was hoping the flight would be cancelled. My partner will meet my extended family for the first time.
Uncertain and sick inside, my gaze hangs on the news.
“That shit your grandparents eat is not salsa. This is salsa.”
My great-aunt set a bowl on the snack table, which made my grandparent’s store-bought look grossly radiant. It was hot, she warned, then watched ten-year old me accept her challenge and shovel.
“He knows,” she said. She still sounded displeased. I braced for what she would say next.
My gram’s sister had married a Cuban man. Another sister had a family with a man from Mexico. Another had a female partner for the last forty years. Perhaps ironically, my grandpa’s loyalty to family trumped his bigotry, and these folks were welcomed and loved in their house. They’d grown up together, the children of factory workers, in the Back of the Yards, the infamous immigrant neighborhood from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. When the stockyards closed in 1971, along with 40,000 jobs, my grandparents joined the white flight to the suburbs, away from new waves of immigrants from Mexico and Central America who moved into the area of largely dried-up economic opportunity. In front of my great-aunts and their families, Joe called these people “wetbacks,” “gangbangers,” and, when asked by our family to relax, only hated “the lazy ones” and those “taking American jobs.” His parents were first-generation Polish highlanders who’d come over on the boat for a better life. As a child, the mental gymnastics to hate who your family was only two generations ago confounded me.
My great-aunt is a tall, bitter-faced woman. When she stood over me and spoke, I listened.
“Why aren’t you going to church?” she said.
Chanting gives me the creeps, but I knew I couldn’t say that. I looked for Ma. She’d once told me that I should choose my faith when “moved to” and not be brainwashed Catholic. Ma wasn’t nearby to defend me.
“I just don’t want to,” I muttered.
My great-aunt gestured at my clothes. “You couldn’t, looking like that.”
My basketball jersey, baggy shorts, and headphones around my neck leaking rap said to her that I was growing away from the family. Other than blood and marriage, prejudice against black Americans and black culture bound this side of my family. Liberals tend to think of bigots as fundamentalists homeschooling their kids in cabins in the woods. I met them here first, the “working class,” drinking Coors and grilling on Chicago’s south west side, and not all white.
Attempting a careful escape, I moved down the snack table to Uncle Jaime’s guacamole. My great-aunt followed, hands on her hips. Until she got an acceptable answer, she wouldn’t let up. I’m glad she didn’t.
“How do you know right from wrong?” she said.
Hers was the most important question ever asked of me. Because I did have a sense of goodness or at least a sense of what wasn’t good, I realized. It wasn’t founded on doctrine, dos and don’ts. So on what, then? Asking allowed a glimpse at the link between my self and the world. Looking long enough inevitably distanced me from my family.
“I just do,” I might’ve said or played dumb and crunched chips until Ma appeared. I knew that just because an adult said something was right or wrong didn’t make it true. I knew that she and they were wrong about the world. Knowing was enough, then.
We find a .38 revolver between the wall and headboard. A shotgun and .22 rifle stand in the armoire. All are fully loaded.
“This shotgun leaks oil.” Dad holds it out to me as one would offer to hold a baby.
I try to imagine Meredith and me at a gun range back in Austin, Texas, beside college kids training for campus carry licenses. Guns scare her. Despair makes me laugh at the growing list of inheritances for my hypothetical kids: a racist’s shotgun, a genetic predisposition for alcoholism, a life of regret …
“No thanks,” I say, borrow the power drill, and help with the windows.
We have two days to empty and stage the house for sale. We need every minute. My grandma will live with my parents.
The double-hung windows are screwed shut, three long ones per frame. After an hour of work, the house has its first fresh breeze in forty years. Gram smiles at me from the kitchen table. “Love ya, love ya,” she says and nods over her cup of wine as I pass to the living room. We’re all doubtful she’ll survive long, even out from under his influence.
From down the hall, I hear Meredith ask if she can warm Gram’s coffee. Gram laughs and admits to drinking before 11 a.m. I can’t get to the kitchen fast enough before my partner has asked what type of wine she prefers and Gram has out her box of Franzia White Zinfandel. She encourages Meredith to have a glass. In a kind, unpatronizing way, Meredith says she’s good with coffee. She understands the woman’s behavior as the result of grief. I know better. I try hard not to be a dick in asking Meredith to get out of the house, to wander the neighborhood if she likes, and to please find us food, no rush.
Next comes disassembly of the five working CC cameras. These feed to four monitors that Joe flipped through from his armchair, dinner table, basement bar, or in bed. The system is appraised at two-thousand dollars with the wires salvaged.
“You’d think the goddamn world was ending,” my dad grumbles.
Together, we dismantle the defenses of the man I once believed fearless, unfazed by the bloodiest scenes.
Dad wishes openly for a cold beer. He hasn’t had one in years, and there’s plenty in the fridge. He hesitates but grabs another bottled water.
The one time I saw my dad drunk, he beat the hell out of Joe at a Fourth of July party. I was seven. Mom threw a coffee cup at Dad for being an asshole. It didn’t help. Joe stepped in and said, “Don’t you talk to my daughter that way.” Then police had Dad restrained, furious and sobbing, behind an overturned kitchen table while paramedics bandaged Joe on the lawn. I left with Ma. Later that night, Joe sat up stiffly in one of his basement bar stools, head taped like a bad mummy costume, one eye bruised and blood red. “For some reason, I got a killer headache,” he said. He laughed when no one else did. He told Gram to pour him a shot and a beer. Joe couldn’t stand with the three broken ribs. “Did I ever tell you the one about the priest with the hangover?” he went on. I don’t remember the joke. I remember that afterward, despite knowing life would never be the same, we felt a little better.
“What’re we doing?” Meredith says, back with pizzas. I ask her to work in the living room, please, and to box the many movies, albums, and photographs.
After a few hours, Dad and I yank until the camera wires pop like hairs. I feel some relief. Joe’s world is ending.
Suddenly very worried, my partner pulls me aside. “There’s a dog beside the armchair,” she says. “I think it’s dead.”
With my shoe, I nudge the black and white creature curled on a flannel blanket. Its eyes remain closed. The dog is fake with real hair of questionable origin. Instinctually, I’m trying to scare her, and I immediately feel stupid. Its purpose was to frighten robbers, a last warning that those inside don’t want you. Joe also thought it was cute.
“Ours will be friendlier—and a lot cuter,” my partner disarms the weirdness with humor.
“He was crazy,” I say. “I swear I’m not,” is what I mean.
As if to prove it, I dumpster all the boxes of his books and movies. At one point, Day of the Dead tops the pile. The cover zombie is blue-faced with weary, blood-red eyes. He still leads a horde of undead into our world under a rising sun. I think to take the film as a memento, a warning. I imagine subjecting my kids to its perplexing terror.
I trash the dog along with the shower chair. That’s almost everything. I’m left holding a deep shame I can’t shed so easily.
During the last of the housecleaning, Meredith holds up Joe’s black suit for burying friends and family.
“You needed a jacket?” she says.
It’s a three-button, and a minute later an old-timey gangster stands in the mirror. With no beer gut to pad it, the jacket drapes long in front, but otherwise is a perfect fit. I tell her about the time Joe turned his spare room into a gym, lifted weights, and drank protein shakes until he had a legitimate six-pack—abs, not beer. One night, he goaded me to punch his belly, to do my worst, over and over again to prove his indomitableness. In the morning, he was black and blue. A few weeks later, he gave it up.
“Little Joe,” my family calls me during the wake. I cringe, thank them, and retreat inwardly where the memories then assault me.
As a kid, I wanted to be just like Joe, to circle the gorgeous, tournament green table in his basement bar and similarly sink shots as cool as an actor most comfortable when on set, the center of everything. Joe was short, so he shot in heeled shoes. If it was daytime, you bet he wore sunglasses. He played me like an adult, which I respected.
“Surely, you can bank that one, Grandpa,” I would cheer him on.
“I thought I told you never to call me Shirley,” he would say, then take the game.
Wanting to emulate his knack for punchlines, I bought joke books. I had a joke book shelf. 1,001 Dog Jokes. 1,001 Rubber Chicken Jokes. 1,001 Spooky Jokes. I would commit my favorites to memory like he did and sometimes perform for my family. Joe laughed, was proud. I was happy, ignorant for a good while.
Considering the man, our similarities unnerve me closer to the funeral.
Before the cancer, people often remarked that Joe looked like a movie star. He had a bushy mustache, a glossy comb over, wore sunglasses always. Think a short, impeccably groomed Burt Reynolds. Joe was vain and particular, dyed and cut his own hair, face somewhat orange from artificial tanner. His hairline receded, but he appeared ten years younger than friends. Pattern hair loss is generally inherited from one’s mother’s father from a gene on the X chromosome. Despite a healthier lifestyle, I inherited his hairline, his gout, his vanity. Learning from my family’s issues, the alcoholism and bigotry skipped me. Instead, I got his love of reading.
We’re all seated, and I’m supposed to be crying or praying or eyeing the body. Instead, I pull from my pocket and thumb his favorite bestseller, Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. I saved it from the dumpster. The story is about an object buried in the woods outside of town that turns residents both brilliant and insane. The novel was written during the worst of King’s substance abuse, about which he’s said, “The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act.” Inside is a bookmark folded from college ruled paper. I recall Joe teaching me his system for homemade bookmarks with the many characters’ names and short descriptions listed to track the plot. Next to the often drunk and violent protagonist, penciled in drafter capitals is “HERO.” Coming from an undereducated family, Joe’s reading of novels was impressive and made them seem less daunting, even exciting despite the work. I too wanted to know what was inside them and later began to write.
I don’t think Joe ever expected me to write about him. He wouldn’t be too happy with my portrayal, eulogized as anything but a generous man loved by his friends and family. And maybe he would goad me to hit him as hard as I could.
The Elvis impersonator staggers with emotion, arms outstretched in front of the casket, voice aquiver with kingly vibrato, on the morning of the funeral. Our heads are bowed, the final farewell for the family.
Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed …
Elvis wears a gray jacket over a black jumpsuit, legs and chest embroidered with flames. Circles of blush clot his powdered cheeks, flanked by sideburn chops. His lower lip glints coral in the electric-candle light.
“I seriously can’t fucking believe this is happening,” I say in a look to my partner.
She elbows me to be respectful. Meredith leans forward in the pew with her eyes shut. Her forehead creases, as if listening for a message in the music. She might be thinking of her grandmother. I hold her hand. This is the second funeral she’s ever been to. If I’m lucky, she’ll think services are always this kooky.
Elvis’s hips flash and an arm juts out. He raises it to the heavens from which he seems to have seized some power in a fist. He struggles to pull it down.
Infatuated with Elvis Presley, my grandparents frequented his shows and, after the King’s death, the shows of his impersonators. Though terrified of home invasion, Joe invited over these strangers, their bands and groupies. Years after, this particular Elvis brought folks to his basement bar to drink at all hours—a hotly debated subject in my family. Was Joe a friend or a free beer? Was the wake a tribute or a gig? I don’t think Joe knew. He had an eye for error in movies, in his work and appearance, but not in people. That would require seeing error in himself.
Elvis’s brow sweats. His free hand wipes it with a handkerchief. He tosses the white silk at my gram. She puts down her wine to lift the gift to her eyes.
“Joey! Joey!” she cries. Others wail: beloved friend, beloved uncle.
I await the announcement that records are for sale in the back. How can people love Joe this much?
Full of a divine power, Elvis faces the corpse. The King is in the building. His hand pops open. His voice rises:
With shout of acclamation
To take me home,
What joy shall fill my heart.
Then I shall bow in humble adoration,
And there proclaim my God how great thou art …
Gram’s mouth hangs open, watches as if Joe might sit up in the coffin. I’m not drinking, but I feel it too. She’s afraid he’s really gone. I’m afraid he’s not.
“Who’s in here with us?”
“No one, Grandpa.”
“Then who’s that?” Joe pointed at the empty couch cushion beside me.
“Then whose legs are those?”
“Those are my legs.”
“Oh,” he said, too wasted to understand.
I’d never seen Joe so drunk as on the night of my fifteenth birthday party. He was two months into his forced early retirement. Joe had done nothing but complain about paying dues throughout the 80s and 90s as CEOs systematically replaced Chicagoland factories with automation, non-US, and non-union labor to reap a larger margin of profit. Then SK Tools, the company he’d worked for as a machinist for thirty-five years, downsized him. Joe bragged that he’d stolen the company’s manual for manufacturing specialized tools, which he’d written, big as a telephone book. The company still hadn’t called asking for it. No, Joe decided then, it wasn’t his fault for not resisting with the union or the fault of lawmakers for taking dirty campaign contributions or even big business for giving them, but the fault of people who “took” jobs for half the pay. These he described as Mexican or college kids.
Joe babbled all about it that night. Then he asked me for help and described the symptoms of alcoholic hallucinosis. The disorder wasn’t familiar to me at that age. Still I understood—the man was losing his mind. In his bedroom at night, shadow soldiers appeared on their bellies as if going under barbed wire. They slid on their bellies across the floor and up the side of the bed and glided over his feet.
“And last night there was an angel’s head with blonde hair above me,” he said, “and when I opened my eyes, I saw his face. I was so scared that I stuck my fists up out of the bed sheets in front of me, ready to swing out at it. And it flies back from me with a scared look in its eyes, and then it starts to disappear. But it smiled at me. It wasn’t like the shadows. It was solid and had a face with curly golden hair all around it. I didn’t mean to try to hurt it. I don’t want to send a bad word back to the big guy upstairs. But I was scared. It was scared of me too, I think.
“Is it my guardian angel? Is He trying to tell me something? Am I dying? I swear I’m not making this stuff up. Why don’t you think about it and one of these days come over to the house and tell me what you think. Maybe we’ll have that drink together. You don’t have to call. You know you don’t ever have to call before you come over. You just stop on by anytime. I love you, little guy. You know that? OK, then. One of these days …”
Joe, if your world of monsters and angels are real, can you hear me now?
The dream meant you were a drunk and an asshole for killing yourself while your family watched. You were a good grandpa and a despicable person. I’m sorry for not telling you then.
The evening of the wake, Ma shakes angrily in the hall outside the family room.
“This is the shit that killed him,” she says.
I peer in. The room is crowded with relatives and old friends, drinking hard. Visitors have amassed a beer cooler, a shots bar, a troupe of wines. I go inside to try and do something. Around me, people devour Polish pastries and what I mistake for store-bought sushi, stacked three high. It’s platters of neon-pink ham and cream cheese roll-ups. Someone retells a Joe-joke about a bartender trying to serve drunk deaf folks. Toasts are made. The wake is a kind of party, as he would’ve wanted. I stash the booze beneath the snack table. I’m halfway to the door when the bottles reappear.
“Na zdrowie!” the family roars. Childhood memories scatter. I’m lost behind a thicket of adults’ legs in my grandparents’ basement. At the bar, Joe is the center of the crowd. I can’t reach him. Everyone laughs but me.
My partner takes my arm and pulls me into the hall. I must look not much better than Ma.
I breathe reality in. It’s not easier.
“Every family has their shit,” she says.
“Thank you,” I say. She knows I mean, “I need you so damn much.”
“Shouldn’t we?” she says after a while. She means view the body. I haven’t yet. Even from a distance, you would think his makeup artist was Doctor Seuss. The corpse’s face looks melted, less once-alive than a horror movie zombie. The cancer ate Joe up. I’m sure the funeral director did their best, but even Joe would say be kind and close the damn thing.
The rows of the visitation room are empty. Well, there’s the constant mourner perched on his cross above the body. The gunmetal casket is flanked by flowers. Oddly, an armchair has been pulled in front of it, a solitary front row seat. Meredith and I come around and find a boy-sized man in sunglasses. He has a drink in his hand and a hospital bracelet around the other wrist. Add a mustache and he’s Joe.
“God, such beautiful family. Leggier than the nurses.” He talks stiffly, loudly, looks my partner up and down.
I’m too stunned to ask the man-boy to leave when I recognize him as Joe’s brother, Eugene. I haven’t seen him since I was a child. They could be twins, except for the missing mustache. They hated each other. Some dispute with no beginning. Maybe they were too alike.
Eugene escaped the hospital to do this, he explains, and is supposed to go right back.
Ma enters from the hall. “Uncle Eugene is that you?”
“Nah, that guy died,” he jokes.
Her cheer quickly fades.
“I come all this way and my brother can’t say hi,” he goes on. “He’s always been an ass, but this?”
“Uncle Eugene, this isn’t the time or place.”
“Where’s the place?” he says. “Joe’s an ass. I know. I’m an ass. And he’s as big as they come.”
Their conversation softens over Eugene’s hospitalization as I linger at the flowers. If you look at flowers, really look, it’s hard not to feel better. Even the sickly white ones. Flowers are choirs of life, every pedal a singer. It goes on, they say. More to learn from them than the husk of a person, I tell myself. I still can’t go up to it/him.
Meredith stands beside me. She is patient, kind. She knows I’ll face him, in my own way, in time.
“Message the fox-eared dog’s foster parents,” I tell Meredith. Soon as we’re back, we’ll drive the three hours to the rescue in Dallas.
She squeezes my hands.
“It’ll be nice to be back home,” she says.
I tell her it will, and I mean it.
Beside us, Eugene twiddles his finger at the casket. “There’s something the matter with Joe today.”
Meredith grips my arm. “Does the drunk asshole actually think he’s sleeping?” she says in a look.
“That’s not my brother.” Eugene stirs in the armchair. His little legs kick. He floats his Christian Brothers and Coke around for a place to set it, but recoils when Ma reaches in. He stands, sips again, and says, “Did you ever notice how Joe always wore sunglasses. Even in-doors if he could. This isn’t his look.”
Eugene takes his own sunglasses out his shirt pocket. He’s going to put them on the corpse.
I want to say no. But what does it matter? Joe isn’t getting up, won’t bite him zombie-style or later bitch about his mistreatment or even thank him.
If this were fiction, I would’ve stopped Eugene. I would’ve told him no—to sober up with the other Pollocks over coffee and kolaczkies—or, better yet, told him to get the hell out of here, nobody wants you here, Joe doesn’t, you’re not funny, not half as funny as Joe’s rehearsed punch lines, not as handsome or as loved. This would be my moment to stand up to a bigot, maybe hit the bar to steel my courage, likely be an ass to Meredith in the process, tell her we should rethink the family thing when she questions my drinking, and then let Eugene have it by lowering his worth. I would become my grandfather in defending him. Horror can be instructive.
I do nothing. Worse than nothing, I laugh. Eugene is right for once. Joe isn’t himself without the signature shades. Anyway, the funeral isn’t about Joe. It’s about us, saying goodbye to better face the future while he rests his eyes.