The October People. Chapter 3: The Wake.
"I was afoot with three women. I’m not sure if I was guiding them, or just accompanying them. It was apparently a long, brutal journey of deprivation. When we got to our destination, one of the women expressed concern about her appearance, with the dried blood in her hair and all. She wondered how I could possibly stand to see her. I told her that her appearance didn’t bother me. She seemed thankful for that answer. Apparently the journey was thought hard enough for a woman to survive it, but for a man to was considered very unusual.
The next piece took place in a large building, and mainly one room in it. I think maybe it was a Veterans’ Hospital and I was a shell-shocked vet or something. I kept returning to this room. It had one long window that took up the entire wall facing a hallway.
It was called a “Shockee”, or “Sharkee”, or “Schlockee” room or ward. I can’t recall what was said there. There were four others there I think, including the one I took to be the psychologist. I felt he was completely insensitive and unable to connect with us. I felt pretty sure he was the Devil. He had a red shirt under his white lab coat, and had a goatee and mustache like the Devil. I was Zombie-like, but knew deep down I had to get away.
I think I did so with the help of a dried up looking woman. She told me she was healing now because of this tape recorder. It was sent by someone I knew, but couldn’t place. I only knew he was on our side, but far away.
She asked me if I didn’t wonder why such a strong, passionate woman such as herself had such bad pains post-menstrually after Christmas. By way of explaining, she pressed a button on the player. No music came out, and I perceived that pushing her buttons was the answer, and maybe the cure.
Suddenly, I was outside this huge skyscraper. I was watching the police set up barricades to prevent the entry of a Lion-man, who was hunting something. Then me and the woman were inside the building and helping a canister-sized Robot Sensing Device search out what we wanted to find. I sensed that whatever it was, it was rightfully ours."
We were almost there now. We threaded our way through a maze-like development of prematurely old little streets, past accretions of weary-appearing houses planted cheek to jowl until finally on a corner lot across the street from scrubby woods, we came to a McMansion whose street and number fit Jake and Ann’s.
I glanced at the dashboard clock. As I had estimated, it was 4 p.m. We both took a long, deep breath and let it out slowly as we got out of the truck and walked slowly up to the front door. Melissa was silent, feeling sick at knowing what was coming. She kept hearing the promise in Kathy’s voice from this morning’s call. She said nothing about it to me, just braced herself. I was oblivious to everything as I silently wondered what scenes of wild grief and loss we would likely be encountering once we entered that house. Funerals are such emotionally wrenching times.
Our knock was answered by Kathy. Still an attractive, slim woman at 44, she maintained her hair in the same auburn hue of her teens. She considered her looks as her greatest asset and was desperately proud of what she considered her success in looking younger than her age. Her slimness came from not eating as a form of dieting, which did nothing for a muscle tone that was now sagging. She greeted us pleasantly but impersonally and ushered us in.
It was as if we had just walked into a party in progress. In one room, the teenage friends of Ann’s daughter Sandra were laughing and chattering as they put together a collage of photos of Ann for the funeral home. There was no sign of Jake or any of his children. We were told he was at the funeral home with the parents.
The party atmosphere abruptly evaporated as soon as everyone saw who had arrived. I walked over to Mike, Ann’s younger brother. I had just seen him last summer when he had come to Vermont with the others for his first camping trip.
I told him how sorry I was for his loss and gave him a brief hug. I felt him stiffen instantly and struggle to pull away.
“Oh, sh*t.” I thought. “Faux pas…Guys hugging guys….Fool!”
Stepping back and glancing around with more alertness I saw that Ann’s sister, Mabelle had withdrawn and was watching with unfriendly eyes. Her husband Doug came over and re-introduced himself, as we had met only briefly once years ago. As we exchanged greetings I noticed a silent group movement. Everyone drew away from us and gathered in a clutch at the other end of the room.
From the first, Melissa was studiously, resentfully ignored by all…except for a little 4 year old girl, who came right up to her and hugged her legs. Children always were drawn to her. There was an audible shocked intake of collective breath from the knot of women quietly clucking in disapproval across the room.
“Who’s the little giggler?” Melissa asked, gently stroking the girl’s long brown hair. She was begrudged an almost inaudible curt reply which implied she was somehow negligent in not knowing.
It only took a few minutes of observing to note that it was Kathy who had assumed the role of THE one in charge here. She gave orders and directions in an overbearing, demanding manner couched in the deceptively genial banter of a seasoned waitress and an old hand at henpecking a husband and bossing around children.
She was efficient, and the task she undertook was a vital one. But her performance was marred by playing to the crowd, and always with that glance over her shoulder to see if she was making points with those who counted.
We were shown to the patio outside, told where the refreshments were, and then left alone. Melissa went back to find Kathy and see what she could do to help. I stood awkwardly around the glass-topped round table.
After a few minutes Doug and George came over to engage me in small talk. I was being avoided by everyone else as if I were a plague carrier. I appreciated Doug’s genuine attempts to make me feel more at ease.
George was loudly talking non-stop. Every other word from him was “f*ck” or “f*ckin”. I figured he had been drinking for awhile now. I glanced around. I could hear the happy voices of the teenagers in the house. I assumed that meant that we also could be heard. But no one seemed to heed the string of expletives from him.
Melissa found Kathy in between the kitchen and the dining room in the midst of a crowd of people. She came up to her and quietly asked if there was anything she could do to help.
“I… don’t know what…da…f*ck…I’m…doin!” she retorted loudly, leaning into Melissa’s face with bared teeth, wagging her head from side to side to the cadence of her words. Then she turned on her heel, leaving Mel standing there amid the smirks of the others.
Undeterred, Melissa attempted the same question several times more over the course of that afternoon and evening, and Kathy’s response was the same, word for word, each time.
Sometime later she overheard someone saying that Jacob and my parents had arrived, so she went outside to greet them, meeting them as they were coming up the walk to the house. She expressed her condolences to Jake, who thanked her quietly without either stopping or looking at her and went on into the house, leaving her standing there.
She waited for my mother and fell in alongside her. As they walked up to the door, Melissa complimented her on how well she was healing from her fall and asked how she was feeling now. Not replying my mother led her through the house to the backyard, ostensibly to take a ‘walking tour’ of Ann’s border plantings. She then took the opportunity to abruptly inform Melissa that she was “displeased” at how long it had taken us to get down there.
It took a minute for Melissa to realize she wasn’t talking about today’s ride down, but that we didn’t come down yesterday. She explained that there was a lot we had to take care of before we could leave or we would have lost everything. She was surprised to be met with a look of hatred.
I too had heard Jake was back and was anxious to find my brother. After several tries I decided not to anymore for now. A pattern had become painfully obvious: If I went inside, those inside picked up and went outside. If I went outside, those outside went inside or withdrew to the other end of the yard.
Even the houseful of Sandra’s friends, who didn’t know me from Adam, avoided all eye contact and would go the long way around the house not to come near me. Yet behind my back I could feel their eyes. And if I turned quickly enough, I could catch those rapidly averted eyes.
“What the hell was going on here?”I thought to myself.
So I walked the perimeter of the small backyard thinking, stopping to gaze at Ann’s tiny patch of eggplants and tomatoes. She must have loved this place. Maybe it was like a dream come true for her; a big new house, an above-ground pool, successful husband, and three fine children. She must have been very happy. I hoped so.
I went out to the truck for a cigarette, staying there to smoke it pensively. On my way back to the house I saw the 16 year old Sandra for the first time that day; and the only time that whole trip. She was sitting on a bench on the front porch, all alone, looking lost and hurt. My heart melted.
“Ahhh…The poor kid.”
I walked up to talk with her, hoping maybe I could comfort her a little somehow…and was startled to be met with as clear-eyed a look of absolute hatred as I’ve ever seen. With a deep pang I realized my talking with her was not to be; I would not be able to help.
I asked if she were okay. She nodded once briefly, softening the edge of that look somewhat. I intruded no further and went on inside.
Kathy’s husband Maury, and their two teenaged daughters, Amanda and Vikki had arrived. Their 12 year old son had opted not to come. Melissa watched as Kathy herded her girls across the room. She marveled at how much they’d grown since we’d seen them last.
“I’m so nervous!” she heard Amanda say. .
“Jist siddown, have a cigarette, an a cuppa coffee, an relax.” her mother counseled her.
As soon as I stepped back inside the house I was aware of a sense of isolation on the side of the room where Melissa was standing all alone, and a wall of hostility emanating from the other side where everyone else was. I crossed the No-Man’s-Land and joined my wife.
Kathy made a furtive, imperative gesture and Amanda and Vikki both dutifully rose in unison. Then one at a time, as if they were walking the plank, they reluctantly crossed the room and gave me, but not Melissa, a brief buss on the cheek and a murmured hello.
I was disturbed by what I saw in Amanda’s eyes, but Vikki’s held the exact same look of raw hatred as Sandra’s.
“What the hell was going on around here? What did I ever do to these kids” I stared after them as they retreated to the safety of the other side of the room.
As evening approached, Melissa took a cup of coffee out into the backyard. The air was filled with laughter and loud talk. She saw Jake sitting by himself, a little away from the others. She went over and sat down next to him.
Without looking at her, he began to talk. He expressed remorse at not believing Ann when she insisted she wasn’t feeling good and wanted to be taken to the hospital.
Melissa remembered that Ann had had a phobia about hospitals: She couldn’t stand to be in one, not even to visit someone. For her to ask to go, to insist on going, must have meant she was very scared about how she was feeling.
She told him he shouldn’t blame himself. In circumstances like that there wasn’t anything anyone could have done. She told him her own father had died in much the same way, right in the hospital parking lot. He kept looking at the ground.
A woman came over to join them. She introduced herself as a co-worker in the same school with Ann. She expressed her condolences, and mentioned how unbelievable this all was.
“As a matter of fact,” she said, “the last time I saw her, she was literally dancing on top of a table in the cafeteria because she was so happy about getting her first paycheck.”
Jake stiffened with a convulsive, involuntary jerk when he heard that, but he neither looked up nor said a word.
“This was something I wasn’t supposed to hear: He has money troubles.” Melissa realized instantly.
Ann had been a very well-known woman in the town she grew up in and never left. If people didn’t know her personally, they knew of her. A local caterer sent over warming trays of buffet food; gratis. He lived over a block away and when asked if he had known Ann he replied, no, he didn’t, but he had heard her.
Kathy supervised the handling of all the food and drinks. The teenaged cousins dove on it, and gathered together merrily around the dining room table. There was no sign of Jake’s kids. Around the snack trays George and Maury were playing the classic game of those insecure over their phallic endowments: “I can eat hotter peppers than you can.”
Melissa sat down at a table next to my mother inside. George’s dog stuck his head up from under the table, begging hopefully. She always had a soft spot for pleading eyes and wagging tails. She took a piece of Roast Beef off a platter and fed it to him. My mother saw that.
“I don’t like dat!” she said indignantly in a voice calculated to be heard across the room. “He shoulden eat from na table! I don’t like dat!”
. “Shhhh.” Melissa whispered. She was afraid he would get in trouble and wind up back in his cage again.
“Don’t shush ME!” was the even louder outraged response. “I don’t like ta be shushed! NOBODY tells me ta shush! I don’t like dat!”
As if slapped, my mother recoiled in angry disbelief. She lurched up and left the table in a huff, shooting Melissa an angry look.
Drawn by the fuss, Kathy strolled over. Sizing it up, she indicated the dog with her chin
“Ya gotta friend fa life.” she told Melissa, turned and walked away.
Concerned that she may have gotten the dog in trouble, Melissa went over to George and explained what had happened, saying his mother seemed upset.
“Ignore dat woman.” was his bored comment. “I feed im dat stuff alla time.”
She looked down and for the first time noticed that one whole side of his dog’s tongue had been cut off; a nice, clean slice.
“What happened to his tongue?”
There was a moment’s awkward silence, then Shawn spoke up.
“He bit it off once when he was eating greedily.”
“Bit it off?” She thought with a sudden chill.
The evening grew closer with no sign of my kids. I was beginning to get concerned.
Finally Erica called. She was in New Jersey. Jackson had given her directions, but he had left out the bit about going over the Throg’s NeckBridge. Consequently, each time she tried to follow them she wound up in Jersey.
After several attempts she gave up and decided to call. She got hold of us via my father’s cell phone. He walked up and handed me the phone. He made no attempt to hide his irritation.
“It’s ya daughta.”
I was surprised to realize that he had been here all this time. Where had they been, I wondered? But first thing’s first; make sure Erica is okay. Her cell phone kept dropping out but eventually I got her squared away and heading in the right direction. I was peripherally aware that the tension level all around me had jumped.
“So I take it Jackson decided not to come?” I quietly asked her. “Is he okay?”
“Oh, he’s fine. He just had a panic attack about going down there, that’s all. We started out together, but he turned back after a few minutes. He told me to tell you to say he had car trouble.”
I gave her some final directions and told her Melissa and I would meet her at the Pizza Hut and guide her the rest of the way. I handed the phone back to my father. He took it from me as if I’d contaminated it somehow.
I looked around for my mother. I found her in the house, seated in a rocking chair as if glued there. As I came up to her, she announced that this had been Ann’s favorite chair.
I told her that Jackson wouldn’t be coming because of car trouble. She let it be known that was unacceptable.
“Where’s JACKSON!!?” she began keening loudly, ignoring me completely as I stood there dumbfounded. “Where’s JACKSSSSOOONNN!!? He should be here!!” The wail grew louder and louder. “Where’s JACKSSSSOOOONNNN!!? He should be heeeerrrre!!”
I didn’t understand; why did he have to be here? Kathy’s son wasn’t here, why didn’t he have to be here? I was beginning to get tired of this.
When it came to be time to go meet Erica, I went out to start up the truck and wait there for Melissa. George and Kathy came out to see where I was going. We stood by the line of black garbage bags at the curb that were beginning to bloat in the heat.
“Hey, Frank!” George gloated. “I got lucky last night. Yeah, I slept wit a sexy babe.”
“Yeah. I stayed ova here at Jake’s; an nere was no room…so I hadda sleep with Kathy.” He smirked smuttily.
“I always wanna be known as a ‘Sexy Babe’, but that’s not what I had in mind exactly.” she replied, looking uncomfortable under my gaze and coloring slightly.
There was nothing unusual about them sleeping together when they were children. The three of us boys shared a small room and Kathy had her own even tinier room. Yet every morning we’d wake to find her sleeping in George’s bed. We all thought she was nuts; we would have killed to have had our own room.
Never could figure out why she did that, and she never said. Must have been scared of something.
It wasn’t a warm relationship she and George had growing up. In their teens she took a cat-like delight in coolly antagonizing him until he exploded in inarticulate rage. She went out of her way to set him up so she could play him, pushing his buttons of frustration like a crescendoing instrument. He was no match for her. His temper was his downfall. Any intelligence he had disappeared when it appeared.
But they weren’t kids now. And there were sofas or the floor. She was doing 'it' again. George hadn’t had a woman in a long time and she knew that. So for her to let him sleep with her meant she was playing the cock-tease again, as she so often did with her brothers, her father, whoever. For some reason, she really did want to be known as the ‘Sexy Babe’.
Maybe her cultivation of that image was an antidromic reaction against becoming her mother. About a dozen years ago, she had called in a panic. Melissa had taken the call.
“Dis is Kathy…”
“Hi, Kathy! Congratulations! We hear you’re going to have another child. That’s wonderful…”
“PUT my brotha on na phone!”
“Okkkaaay. Hang on… Here he is.”
“What’s up, Kathy?”
“Do you think we become our parents?”
“What? Well, yeah, actually I do…”
“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! What the hell’s the matter?”
“Mommy an Daddy were jist down here fa a visit, an she was a real A*SHOLE! Bossin Daddy around an tawkin ta him like he was a piece a sh*t! She was always makin him go get er stuff! She even made im git up an get er sumthin dat was right next ta her on da f*ckin table, an he was across da f*ckin room! An she was drivin me f*ckin nuts wit her F*CKIN pills! Den, she finds out I’m pregnant wit my fourth, and she tells me I’m jist like her, cause she had four, jist like her Mutha had four!....
“You didn’t let me finish. We tend to become our parents, just because they were our in-house example of how to be a parent. It doesn’t mean you’re doomed to be like them if you don’t want to be. You can stop yourself. The main thing is to be aware when you are acting like them. Once, I got mad at Jackson when he was little and when I yelled at him, I heard Pop’s voice come out of me. Man, I slammed both hands over my mouth! It happens, and you gotta be careful.”
She had seemed relieved that she was not predestined to become her mother against her will. Regardless, the pattern was broken. Her fourth pregnancy ended in the toilet I was told.
The other characteristic thing she was notorious for was her theatrical lying. There was nothing she could say that I’d believe at face value. She embellished her actual roles in events beyond recognition or invented them whole-cloth.
I breathed a sigh of relief when we saw Erica’s Saturn pull into the Pizza Hut parking lot. When she got out we all hugged and chatted briefly. She’s a handsome girl, tall and raven-haired, and was remarkably chipper despite her long, confusing ride.
She followed us back to Jake’s house and the three of us went in together. For the rest of the evening she stayed with us as an island of familiarity in a sea of strange faces that coldly ignored her.
My mother passed around the mug-shot of herself that she had had Pop take of her injuries after they had come back to the Island. We hadn’t seen the black and blues that had developed because they wouldn’t even let us come to the hospital to say good-bye when she was discharged. Kathy and Mike’s wife were behind Melissa when she got the photo.
Melissa stared at it in amazement. Lurid bruises covered the entire left side of her face and throat.
“You had a photo taken of this?” she asked in amazement. It was not a flattering sight.
“Yes, I did!” Mom retorted huffily indignant. An instant later in a completely different tone, she addressed the two women behind Melissa. “Dey stayed da whole day at da hospital wit me…”
“Big deal!” one of them snorted. The other laughed derisively.
What caught Melissa’s attention was not the rudeness, but the sudden worried glance my mother shot at them surreptitiously; as if that was somehow going too far.
I finally found Jacob. Oddly, as soon as I sat down next to him he launched into his story. I wasn’t going to ask him what happened; I hadn’t wanted to remind him of his loss.
“I went ta bed around 7 as usual. “ He began numbly without preamble, elbows on his knees, looking only down at the ground between his feet. This had the feel of something rote, a recitation with no emotion. “Ann’d been complainin about her neck. It felt funny she said, dere was sumthin wrong she kept sayin…Anyway, I went ta bed…Around 9, she came up ta da bedroom an told me she wanted ta go to da hospital…I bitched at her: ‘I’m already in bed. It’s late…Is it really dat bad?’…We got in ta a argument. She kept sayin she wanted ta go, she wanted ta go, she wanted ta go. So finally I got up bitchin at er and got dressed. I’m still bitchin at her, an she’s still bitchin at me when we went out ta get in ta da car…I open up da front door, I look ova da top a da car at her jest in time ta see her eyes roll back inta her head, an she falls right outta da door, right on da front lawn.”
His voice stayed flat, emotionless.
“I jest stood dere. I jest stood dere screamin ‘My wife. My wife.’…A neighbor heard me screamin an she ran outta her house across da street an started givin her CPR. Someone musta called 911, cause an ambulance came an took her away.”
I kept my face composed in a look of sympathy...I hope. But I was shaken, stunned, and embarrassed for him.
“Instead of going to the hospital, you argued with her!? And then you just stood there when she dropped like that and did NOTHING?...How could you tell anyone this!?” I thought incredulously.
A few minutes later he was animatedly talking about the suits and countersuits he and his neighbor had filed against each other, and about the ones he’d filed against the builder of his house and the subcontractors, and how the loss of Ann’s health insurance was going to cost him plenty. A week later he was exploring suing Ann’s doctor and the EMTs that had tried to save his wife.
He related to his audience the quandary he was in regarding his office; the rent had been raised and he couldn’t afford it. He told them he had been thinking about moving his office into his house for awhile now. I suddenly realized now he had no partners nor employees, not even a secretary. He only had a desk in one of the rooms, the other one was completely empty except for a couple of boxes of files.
The males in the group gathered around him took it from there. They all assured him they’d take care of everything. He wouldn’t have to lift a finger or spend a dime. A lively discussion ensued as to whether to turn the garage into an office or use part of the house.
I heard my parents say they would be leaving at 9, so I told them we’d leave then too and follow them. Again, for some reason this clearly irritated my father.
I was really getting tired of this.
No one spoke to us as we left. I was almost through the door when Jacob suddenly came up behind me. He put his left arm over my shoulders and secretively showed me a slim joint palmed in his right hand.
“Doug gave me dis.” he murmured in my ear. “Here. You take it.”
“No thanks. You hold onto it. You might want it later.”
He said nothing, just stepped back and faded into the room with the others. My crap-detectors went off. That was just too weird. Sure, I liked getting stoned, he knew that. But he had a house-full of others who all smoked dope too, that he was apparently far closer with than me. It felt like a set-up.
When we got back to my parents’ house there was no conversation. We all just turned in. Erica was given the living room couch. She said she was exhausted and could sleep anywhere. Melissa and I had the little bedroom that I used to share with my brothers. The bedroom door was closed and must have been all day because it felt like a tomb in there; hot, stuffy, and somehow creepy. Oddly, the windows were fastened shut from the outside. I couldn’t open them.
There were two twin beds in there. Melissa just lay on top of the covers of one of them and didn’t sleep at all. I have never been comfortable sleeping in that house; always had bad dreams. I slept fitfully, and the dreams found me again.
"There was a house with a haunted attic, an older, well-cared for house with hardwood floors and a center staircase going up several floors. A young girl was both scared and interested in that attic. During a dinner party she went so far as to smash the serving dishes on the table with a staff to call attention to it.
Suddenly I seem to have taken her place and found myself in the hall on the top floor directly under the open attic trap door. Something was up there: It sent out waves, pulses, of evil. Terror washed over me like icy water and the hair on my arms stood up. Whatever that presence was, it was powerful and wanted me to do something, or get me up there, or get out itself.
I saw part of a small oriental rug hanging partly down through the opening. I reached up and pulled on it. Something up there pulled back. I won the tug-of-war and pulled the rug completely down. Lights now came on in the attic. It was furious. From then on the power of the presence was even stronger. I could see shadows of something moving.
I woke up several times, each time scared for my soul, and each time I fell back asleep I was right back in the dream. I realized that what I had to do was make peace with it, and help it. I didn’t like that idea.
It started all over again with another dinner party, just below the attic trap door this time. Again I saw part of a rug hanging down. I climbed up on top of the table and pulled on it. Much more resistance this time, but I still managed to pull it down.
I found there were 3, 4, maybe more oriental rugs attached together at the ends somehow with paperclips. They formed a sort of ladder.
This time I saw the shadow of a head up there right near the opening and could feel its terrible fury. I dropped down to the hall floor. I realized that I was now alone, at night, in this haunted house with the ‘Thing in the Attic’.
I figured my fear came from my not understanding that it really needed my help. I started to do what I felt I must. I saw how the first rug was folded and went about folding and attaching the others in the same manner. I hoped it wouldn’t kill me before it saw I was trying to help.
Intensified waves of cold evil told me the Thing in the Attic had come down and was now on the landing with me. I concentrated on what I was doing, not looking up. As I worked the feeling of menace subsided, but still burned with cold.
When I finished, I stood up and faced what had come down.
In the dark hall, bathed in a stark light, stood a slim, bare-armed woman with long blonde hair. She wore a floor-length, shimmering emerald green sheath-like cocktail dress. I could only see the right side of her face. It looked like raw, bloody hamburger from the side of her mouth all the way up past her eyebrow; terrible wounds covered that entire side of her face. I could not see an eye.
Mutely, I held out the completed ladder to her…and she was suddenly gone.
Where the maimed woman had stood, there was now a pixie-like girl or woman. She was very happy with me and with finally getting out of that attic. She excitedly talked about all her plans for where she was going and what she was finally going to get to do.
After she left, the house crumbled. The scene shifted to the City.
“BrooklynBridge is to be torn down too.” a voice said."
“Shame.” I thought, “But not surprising.”
At first light I silently went out into the tiny backyard to do Tai Chi. After, I made coffee, and when the others began to waken I made us all breakfast. We had brought fresh eggs and home-made wheat bread down with us.
My so-called “Health Nut” lifestyle was always a topic of amusement to my relatives. We raised most of what we ate right on our farm and somehow that gave rise to the belief that we were vegetarians. Probably because we ate a lot more vegetables than they did.
Not I thought there was anything wrong with that type of diet. Melissa had been a vegetarian for some time before she met me and was an excellent example of its benefits. Ann used to refer to her bitterly as the “Woman Who Never Ages”. We just didn’t eat much meat, and what meat we ate was organically raised, grass-fed, or shot by me.
I never believed diet or exercise guaranteed an increase in the quantity of your life…just its quality.
I was disappointed to see that Pop was even sourer toward us than the night before. “What is his problem?” I thought, irritated. It was like they hated to have us here, or somehow I had screwed up some plan of theirs.
Erica, Melissa, and I chatted as we ate. I looked over at my mother, who had remained stonily silent, and asked if Ann had been on any medications. She begrudged me the information that Ann had been on Zoloff because she had been feeling very stressed. She didn’t mention over what. I commented that that class of drugs had recently been implicated in heart attacks. For the first time since we’d been down they were interested in something I was saying.
Mom ordered Pop to fetch their “Drug Bible”. She had him give it to me, and I looked it up. There it was: Zoloff was contraindicated in cases of known heart trouble, as it could cause sudden, massive heart attacks. I lowered the book and looked grimly over at Melissa.
“Looks like ‘they’ got another one.” I told her, meaning the pharceutical giants.
Before going to the Funeral Home for the first viewing my folks were going to my ‘mother’s Florist’ in Eastport to order an arrangement. I was a little surprised that they hadn’t done that already, but as we needed to do the same I asked if I might join them. They hesitated for a long breath, Pop watching Mom from under lowered eyes. Then she agreed, reluctantly.
My brows furrowed. I was getting tired of the weirdness down here.
Mom’s ‘Florist’ was in a run-down, seedy little shop. He was friendly enough, but it didn’t seem to me like he really knew her. After she had picked out an arrangement, the Florist asked her how she’d like the card to read. Her eyes barely flicked toward me without moving her head. There was a long moment’s pause as she hesitated.
“Well…” she began, “Ann always called herself da ‘Good One’…I think dat would be nicccceeee…”
I slowly turned my head to stare at her in disbelief. “She can’t be serious. She can’t mean that.”
The florist was staring hard at her. He knew what she meant. Not lowering his stare he shook his head firmly.
“Not a good idea.” he told her emphatically.
I looked steadily at her, finally beginning to understand something. She was a bit flustered at this unexpected resistance and began to act as if she were just a bit dotty. After making a big show of selecting a broken ceramic Cherub to be part of the arrangement, she chose a more ‘neutral’ message.
I ordered a “Living Arrangement”, paid up, and we left. It was a silent ride back to drop me off before they went on to the Funeral Home. I said nothing to Melissa about it.
After we had done the dishes and made the beds, we drove out to the Funeral Home ourselves; Erica following in her car.
We learned there that per Ann’s request it was to be a closed casket funeral. Ann’s parents were there. They weren’t at Jake’s house last night, at least while we were there.
“It must be awful for them.” I thought. “I can only imagine what it must feel like to lose a child... at any age.”
I expressed my condolences sincerely to them and in the surge of my emotions repeated a previous error: I gave them both a hug. Both of them reacted as Mike had; stiffening and trying to pull away. I gritted my teeth and went on into the Viewing Room.
“What the hell is this now?” I thought looking around, startled by what I now felt: It was a shimmering, almost visible, emanation of hate.
There was no doubt about what I was perceiving. I didn’t want to believe it, but it was impossible to deny because there it was: A palpable wall of hate.
I’ve had to stand alone in front of hate-filled crowds before. I’ve seen an entire street of houses empty out, the occupants surrounding me, screaming for my head. The last thing I heard before losing consciousness was the roar of voices willing my destruction. I know hate when I feel it.
What I couldn’t understand was why; why all these people, most of whom I’d never even seen before were sending out theses waves of hatred and disapproval. The atmosphere was bizarre. Something was going on here, a subtext which I didn’t understand, but which I could sure feel.
It wasn’t just because this was a funeral. I’d been to enough funerals, involving many different families. I’d seen how they could trigger strange, unsavory, or theatrical behavior. When Melissa’s father died, his ex-wife’s Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘Congregation’ had hijacked his wake. I had never seen such disrespect for the dead. To them; he was nothing but an ‘eternally dead non-believer’. They used the wake to disparage him and dance on his grave. There; it was glee at a fallen opponent.
Here; the reason might be unknown, but of the message there could be no doubt. It was being made crystal-clear: “We despise and hate you. Your presence here is a desecration. You are not one of us. You are the enemy. It should not have happened to them, it should have happened to YOU.”
Yet, at the same time there was a relish: “Now we’ve got you where you can’t do anything about it. You don’t dare do anything about it here. You’re in our territory now. You’re all alone, and we’re united against you. “
Like last night, whereever we went everyone left, including my parents this time: It was a shunning. If it weren’t for the setting, it would have made for slapstick comedy, what with the franticness to avoid being with us or seen with us.
The point of the greatest intensity of animosity was in the Viewing Room. Out in the hall, though we were avoided, it wasn’t as bad. To step back into the Viewing Room was like being hit by an ugly shock wave.
There were a few exceptions to the hostility to be sure…but only a rare few. One was one of my father’s oldest friends. When we were kids we called him “Uncle Will”. He was openly friendly and I sure appreciated it right about then.
On the ride home later Melissa told me that when he greeted her, he took both her hands in his, looked right in her eyes, and without words conveyed joyful congratulations to her. There was an “If only you knew what I know” kind of excitement in his eyes. She felt confused and embarrassed by it. My father was standing nearby when he did that. Pop had put his head down as if he didn’t want his expression of bitter disgust read and had stalked away.
Kathy and her family made their entrance fashionably late. She was dressed in a tight low-cut black top and a pair of scarlet, hip-hugging slacks. She paused to greet some mourners at the back of the room. Everyone was instantly aware of her presence and heads all around the room swiveled to see who was talking so loudly.
She animatedly squealed with delight at seeing people she knew and leaned over to kiss each one, bent-leggedly wiggling her derriere gracelessly in the air like a dirty joke.
“Stop stickin ya butt in na air like dat!” Pop hissed at her. She looked around nonplussed, laughed lightly, and continued as before.
Looking at the casket I was hit with a wave of sorrow for Ann and felt tears well up. I had to get out of there. Once out in the hall, George spotted me. He had been trailing his ex-wife around all morning, acting as if he was fuming at her, snarling and punctuating every other word with his favorite expletive. Yet he stayed right there on her heels like he was on a leash.
“Whass goin on Frrrrannnk?” he called as he veered toward me, head cocked to one side and loose-limbed. His eyes lit maliciously. “Ooohhh…I get it: a family cry!”
He snickered, turned on his heel and hurried to catch up to Shiela.
There was a sure progression of signposts in a drinker like him. One or two drinks and he’s loose and carries his head cocked like that. It acts like a line of coke; he feels good, confident. A couple more and expletives begin to precede every other word no matter where he is. An underlying anger and frustration at the world that cheated him surfaces. A few more and the slurring begins. With that the self-pity announces its arrival and he desperately wants to make people understand what a hell he’s been through. If the drinking continues it passes into an inarticulate depression; a sense of hopelessness and loss.
He was bitter that he was known as a ‘drunk’.
“But how about Jake? Oh yeah, big man, big successful man…Yeah, but do dey know he comes ova ta my place fa lunch wit a 6 pack, an finishes it before he goes back ta da office; do dey? Noooo…But George’s da drunk!” he had seethed.
Melissa and Erica joined me and we all went outside for a smoke. Mike was there alone. I told him again how sorry I was, but didn’t repeat my previous mistake.
I learn; slowly, but I learn.
He nodded his thanks, and when Kathy and Maury also came out for a smoke he excused himself. I watched as he set off on a lonely walk around the parking lot. This one had really loved and was missing his big sister.
Kathy laughingly told us that when Ann’s son Macon had heard his aunts discussing what dress they were going to pick to have her laid out in, he couldn’t believe his ears.
“You’re going to dress…a corpse?” was his sole, dryly sardonic comment. It seemed the most amusingly absurd thing he’d ever heard of.
Maury launched into a series of “A*shole Amanda” stories about his daughter. They had the easy recitation of long usage. Must have been real crowd-pleasers I suppose. I wondered what sort of father-daughter relationship they had.
A glance at the watch indicated the first viewing was coming to an end. I suggested we go back in, as I wanted to say our goodbyes before we left.
Melissa, Erica and I walked slowly down the right-hand side of the Viewing Room and waited quietly for our turn to go up to the coffin. I watched as the people ahead of us paid their respects, then turned and walked over to express their condolences to Jacob where he stood at the head of his wife’s coffin.
Melissa reached for Erica’s hand, sensing her stress and thinking she might like some support. As she did, she couldn’t help thinking of a nephew of Ann’s she had seen a few moments ago sobbing in a chair. Feeling bad for him, she had reached down and gently touched his arm. Ferociously, he had jerked it out from under her touch.
Taking Erica’s hand she was startled to find it clammy, like a person’s on the verge of passing out.
“Erica…Are you alright?” she whispered.
“Huh?...Yeah…I’m okay.” Her voice sounded childlike in her nervousness.
Our turn came and we filed over to the casket. For a moment or two we stood looking at the photo mounted on the coffin. I could feel the physical impact of hostility against my back as I took my leave of Ann and wished her eternal peace. I glanced over at Melissa and Erica and saw they were ready.
Drawing in a deep breath through my nose, with clenched jaw I drew myself up to my full height in response to the challenge I felt in that room. I would allow no one, no matter how many, to intimidate me and prevent me from showing my brother that I was with him. This was my family. I turned to walk over to Jacob…
“What the...Where is he?…He was just here a minute ago.” Searching, I scanned the room of suddenly averted faces until I found him. He was in awkward, red-faced conversation with someone near the middle of the room.
I led Melissa and Erica outside. People began filing past the coffin in greater numbers. I glanced back and noted that Jacob had resumed his station near it. We joined the others that were heading for their cars.
We had originally intended to head north right from the Funeral Home, but now I suggested to Melissa that we go back to Jake’s house with everyone else. We could change clothes there, and I wanted some time with Jake. It was irritating me that every time I tried to really get him to talk with me it was always thwarted somehow. That, and the feeling that I was being driven out was beginning to really piss me off.
When we pulled up to the curb in front of his house everyone outside froze for a moment, then turned and quickly went inside: Except for Kathy. After a quick glance back at the house, she moved rapidly as if to head me off. She fell in alongside me as I strode up the walk. She began to talk fast and urgently.
“Ya know? At Aunt Rosa’s funeral…Did I eva tell ya? Some woman comes up, I neva even seen her before, some woman comes up ta me an sez, she sez: ‘So you’re da Demon Seed!’!”
“What did you say?” I asked, paying her no heed.
“I didn’t know what ta say!’’ she laughed quickly. “I jest thought: ‘Ookkaaay…!” She fell away as I continued on.
I passed Maury.
“Why’dya come back here? What made ya change ya mind?” he demanded mockingly as I passed.
I had been really trying not to make a disturbance; this was a funeral. I knew now that I was not welcome; an outsider. But I was not going to be able to hold back much longer. For two days now I’d been catching hints of snide remarks coming from him and now it was coming out into the open. Funeral or not, I sure as hell was not going to take any crap from a mosquito. I stopped and turned, looking down into his eyes.
“I want to see Jake again before we leave.” I spoke clearly and slowly, staring unblinkingly at him. I waited.
“Oh.” he said, dropping his eyes from mine.
“Good. Message received. F*ck off.”
I waited for Erica and Melissa, and then turned and we all went on into the house. It was bad, really, bad in that house. Our coming back seemed to have triggered a silent rage, and from what she told me on the ride home Melissa took the brunt of it. Emotions can be displayed in facial expressions and body language without having to take the courageous step of expressing them in words. People can make themselves very clear, while still retaining deniability by never actually having spoken.
She was made to feel acutely, as only women can make things icily clear wordlessly, that her presence in Ann’s house was an outrage, an insult to the family. For her to touch anything in that house was insufferable. When Ann’s mother arrived and told Kathy she would like some Vodka, both Kathy and Melissa began to look through the cupboards for the liquor. When she saw Melissa touching her daughter’s cupboards she stiffened like a Mackerel, clamping her eyes and mouth shut in angry pain. Kathy gave her a sympathetic smile.
I was simply avoided, clearing rooms effortlessly. Whether it was because my anger was becoming visible or not, I don’t know. I was seething at a low boil. I realized now it was a mistake for me to come here. It was time to go before I violated my own principles of respect for the dead and the mourning. Not that I saw mourning. Macon was more upset over spilling soda on his T shirt than any grief I saw over the loss of his mother.
Then to the horror of all, Shawn pranced over in a lumbering way to where we had sat down. I was struck by how flushed he was, by his gleaming eyes, and by an expression that looked like he’d pulled off a great practical joke and couldn’t wait any longer to see how it had worked.
His coming over was the opening needed for his mother Shiela to appear and perch on the edge of the couch opposite us. George, on his choke collar leash, squeezed himself in next to her, fuming and fretting, damn near on her lap.
She ignored him. There was a strange, worried, look in her eyes.
“The kids love it at your place…really, really…they really do. They love it there…” she kept repeating.
“The lady doth protest too much.” I thought. Excusing ourselves, I said we had to go get changed for the trip north. After we had, I looked for my mother. I found her glued into Ann’s rocker: It was hers now apparently. I bent down and told her we were leaving. She stirred, more as if to give the impression she was going to rise than actually intending to. I held her down anyway with a heavy hand on her shoulder.
“No. Stay We want to leave quietly.”
She nodded silently, not looking at me. Then, bizarrely, she reached up and felt the bulge of my left biceps. Revolted, I pulled my arm away.
While I was gone, Melissa looked up and saw Kathy’s family all standing together. She walked over to them and said goodbye to Vikki, wishing her well, and was glared at in return. Then she said good bye to Amanda and wished her luck in her coming attempt to become certified as a CAT Scan technician. For a moment the girl’s face was a transparent display of confusion and doubt.
Melissa looked at Kathy, who smiled a slow, cat’s smile, and then at Maury, who followed her lead. She icily looked Kathy in the eye, gave her a brief nod to acknowledge the fine job she’d done on us and walked away.
I found Jake and told him we had to be leaving. He nodded silently and then murmured his thanks for us coming. I told him there was no way I could stay away; he was my brother. I hugged him quietly for a moment. He never met my gaze.
As I walked away, I suddenly realized that in two days I’d never seen his eyes once.
No one bid us goodbye as we walked out the front door. Not one word was spoken to us by anyone.
Before we got into our cars I apologized to Erica for the behavior of my family.
“I don’t know what was going on,” she told me, “but I sure noticed it, and felt it.”
Once we were on the road I apologized to Melissa as well, not only for my family’s behavior toward her but for my having placed the two of us in a situation where I could not defend my wife without falling into the trap of disrupting a funeral. I had never apologized for their behavior before; I’d always made excuses for it. I swore I’d never bring her down there again.
For the first time we were able to freely compare notes on what we’d seen, heard and felt. We could express to each other how humiliated and angry we felt at being forced to bite our tongues because of the social conventions that protected rudeness.
That was no place for squabbles. No civilized person would dream of doing that. We went down there out of sympathy. We had not wanted to stand out in any way. We had just wanted to join with the others in support of Jacob and his family. Instead we found ourselves a focus for some reason. They closed ranks against us at a completely inappropriate time, and in an unforgivable way.
“I saw no grief. It was just an opportunity to eat us alive.” Melissa summed it up.
I couldn’t remember ever being so glad to put Long Island behind us. We both breathed a sigh of relief when we got north of Pawling and the night air suddenly grew cool, crisp and fresh, with the faint aroma of wood smoke. When we got in the house there were two messages waiting for us.
Beep: “Frank, dis is Kathy. Ya need ta call me. We need ta know where Jackson is.”
Beep: “Frank, dis is Dad. Ya Mutha wants ta know where Jackson is. Is he comin or not?”
I ignored Kathy and called my father back, but only after I talked with my son. I told him he’d made a good decision in not going down there. He surprised me by saying he already knew that: Erica had called him. She told him it was really bad toward us there, really bad.
Which was why I was so flabbergasted when I called her the next day. She denied telling Jackson anything and said that she didn’t notice anything. She said she expected to be treated like that by her cousins because they didn’t know her.
Hexagram 36: Ming I Line 3.
"Darkening of the light during the hunt in the south.
Their great leader is captured.
One must not expect perseverance too soon."