Miss Lift and Squeeze brought me my beer and asked if I wanted to start a tab.
“No,” I answered. “It’s easier to keep track if I pay as I go.”
She smiled and retracted her cleavage. “Okay.” Then she turned, stepped out from behind the bar and went to the patio to smoke a cigarette.
I looked up at Rico and Sammy. They were pouring over the racing program and jabbering. A few seats down, Mac the Younger was staring into his cocktail and not paying any attention to the races at all. Not that there was a lot to choose from. The Belmont Stakes were long past and Turf Paradise was closed until October. Dark Days – that’s what they call it when all the local tracks are closed and you’re stuck with off-track betting where all the races are somewhere else and none of the jockeys are familiar. The only races to be had were either at casino tracks with lousy odds or tracks in far flung places like West Fucking Virginia.
“The six,” Rico said.
Sammy shook his head. “Naw. The four.”
“Are you NUTS?” Rico asked. “Why the four?”
“Cuz WHY, pendejo?”
“I like the name.”
“Huh?” Rico shook his head. “You like the name. You like the name? What, is it named after your mother? I know a couple of whores that are, too.”
Sammy pointed a large round finger at the book and tapped it. “Right there. Dreamsrfurlosers.”
“And you wanna put REAL money on that horse?”
“Look at six, man. This jockey is the top jockey. And he hasn’t won yet today. It’s his TURN, mano!”
Sammy shook his head. “Nope. The four.”
“But look here,” Rico said, pointing at the book with one of his narrow wrinkled fingers. “This horse has won the last five out of six starts.”
“Oye,” Rico grabbed his forehead. “Okay. How about this name then. You like names. How about ‘Starlight Express.’ Huh? What do ya think? Nice name, huh?”
Rico threw his hands up. “I give up. You wanna throw good money after a five year old nag with a pinche jockey that hasn’t placed in three years, go right ahead. I’m gonna go put money on the WINNER.”
They stood up and walked back to the mutuel together. I drained my beer and looked around for the bartender. She was still outside on the patio, flirting with one of the kitchen workers.
I grunted. “I should go back there and get it my damn self,” I said. “For all the use this chick is.”
Mac looked at me, but didn’t answer. Instead of the usual dirty look, though, Mac just looked, shrugged, and went back to staring into his drink. I thought maybe Dino was tightening the screws on him.
“Where’s the old man?” I asked. “Haven’t seen him in a while.”
He was about to answer when the bartender flounced back in. She looked at me. “You want another?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.”
She brought me another bottle. I paid her. Then she walked over to Mac the Younger and asked him the same question. He nodded and drained his cocktail. Then he stood up and walked back towards the pisser.
After he was out of ear shot, the bartender came over and leaned in with a conspiratorial air.
“He’s been here since nine,” she whispered.
She shook her head. It pivoted on top of her neck like it was attacked with a screw. “Nooo. He lost his job.”
“That’s as good a reason as any,” I answered. “Until the money runs out.”
“But it HAS.”
“Uh-Huh.” I was imagining her as that girl in high school – the one who knew which girls gave it away, which ones were knocked up, and which ones had abortions. She was the girl who was your friend until you turned your back on her. Then she was off spilling all of your dirty little secrets to the cheerleaders with loose lips and even looser standards.
“Yeah.” She nodded and it looked like her head was going to detach from the top of her neck and roll onto the bar. “Did you hear about his dad?”
“Well,” her eyes widened and she licked her lips. Her lips were full, plush things that look entirely out of place on the dead space that was her face. Or maybe they were just over accentuated. Like a clown’s or a hooker’s.
“You know he went out to California, right?”
“He said he was going to his granddaughter’s graduation?”
“Uh huh.” I wanted to tell her to cut the damn melodrama and get to the point; but I was focused on watching her lips move. They were the most animated part of her face. Her eyebrows were penciled in. There wasn’t a wrinkle or a laugh line to suggest that she’d ever experienced anything. Her skin was a model of manufactured perfection – robotic and without blemish. And then there were the eyes. They were wide with anticipation; but otherwise, they were shit brown and dead.
But her lips – man, those lips moved. They moved like they had a mind of their own. Like they just happened to be wandering around, looking for a face to perch on, and stumbled onto hers. They were perfect blow job lips: writhing, wriggling, warm. Any other use was not only a waste of time and (I’d bet) talent; it was a fucking annoyance.
“Yeah.” She looked around to make sure Mac wasn’t back. “He went out to California and DIED.”
“Wow,” I said, not sure whether the point was that he died or that he had the gall to keel over in California.
“Yeah,” she breathed. Her lips turned up into a smile that her eyes couldn’t match. “But that’s not the BEST part.”
“He died in bed.”
“NOOOO.” She shook her head. Her lips wrapped themselves around the ‘O’. “He died in BED. Having sex. He died in the middle of SEX.”
That’s just what I need, I thought. The image of geriatric fucking to sour my beer.
“But that’s not the best PART!” she squealed.
“He wasn’t in bed with his WIFE.”
“He was doing some younger girl – or she was doing him – ANY-way, she was young enough to be his daughter. His GRAND-daughter, even.”
You never know what some people like.
“The wife is devastated.”
“There’s a daughter, too. And she’s PISSED.”
“They usually are.”
“Yeah. And she won’t give Mac any of the money. She thinks he knew the whole time that the old man was fucking these young girls. She told him he blew through enough money while he was ALIVE.”
“Yeah.” Her head seemed to wobble as she nodded. “I guess THAT gravy train is over.”
“Guess it is.”
She was planning on talking some more, but she looked over and saw Mac returning to his seat. She shot me a conspiratorial glance and walked over to see if he wanted another drink. Naturally he did. She brought him another cocktail (after shooting me another conspiratorial smile) and decided to wash the empty glasses that had accumulated behind the bar. There weren’t that many; but it took her a while to get them done.
I watched Mac out of the corner of my eye. Poor bastard, I thought. There he was, sitting at the bar he came to with his dad, where everybody (secretly or not) thought he was a mooch. There he sat; maybe knowing full well that everyone around him was applauding his downfall. Never mind that maybe he’s depressed because his father died. No; everyone decided he was sad because the free ride ran out.
Sometimes people say more about what’s important to them than they realize.
Except that it wasn’t a free ride. Not really. I’d be willing to bet the old man kept a mental record of every goddamn penny. And maybe he didn’t exactly REMIND his semi-prodigal son of how much he owed. But I’ll bet he never let his son FORGET about it, either.
Against my better impulses, I move across the bar to a stool near Mac. I didn’t plan on saying anything to him. There’s never anything appropriate to say, and people invariably say the wrong thing. They send cards expressing hackneyed condolences and flowers that die three days after the funeral.
When my dad died people sent food. The refrigerator was loaded with casseroles. Tuna Casserole. Green Bean Casserole. Lasagna. Casseroles with odd names like Fanny’s Fancy Noodle Night Surprise that had been published prominently in the annual church recipe book. Then there were the non-stop phone calls from the concerned, the sympathetic, the gawkers, and the gossips. The Church Grief and Counseling Committee. The grave criers – the ones who lived just to attend funerals and show how emotive and pious they were.
I was pretty much always bored and uncomfortable during church service. I don’t think anyone was surprised; he was twenty years older than my mother and his health had never been all that good. I was told later (by a particularly pious grave crier) that when mom was pregnant with me, the general consensus of the congregation was that I was both a blessing and curse – a blessing to be born so late in my father’s life and a curse because he probably wouldn’t live to see me grow into manhood. As much as I was bored during church, I loathed sitting through it when Dad was sick. Especially when the Prayer List was announced. The stern faced preacher would stand at the pulpit and read off the names along with the hospital each person was incarcerated in. The list was always read in alphabetical order, like a school seating chart. When Dad’s name was read, I always felt like people were staring straight at me. I felt their eyes burning holes into the back of my head, into my spine, into my face. What were they looking for? Signs of worry? Of gratitude? Stress? Faithful endurance? Piety? What? I was just grateful the sensation passed as soon as another name was called and the eyes would focus on someone else.
Mac didn’t look up when I sat down, although the bartender stared at me for a minute or so. I made a point not to look at him, either. I drained my beer and waved so the shallow bar bitch would see I needed a refill. I left cash on the counter. She brought me a beer and took my money without looking at me.
She did lean into Mac, though, smiled, and did the lift and squeeze. “You want another drink, honey?”
“Yeah.” He didn’t even look up at her.
She retracted and walked away. I thought I saw her shaking her head. Tsk tsk tsk. There would be a point when they’d stop serving him unless he paid up. Without Mac the Elder to make sure the tab was paid – well, the memory of bartenders and cops is pretty short.
She brought him his drink, offered an uncomfortable smile (still not looking at me) and retreated to the other end of the bar.
I recognized the smile. It was one of those smiles people flash when they know they’d just say something stupid if they spoke. Like at a funeral.
Mom had Dad laid out in a room at the local funeral home. The night of the visitation – that’s what tea totaling Protestants do instead of a wake – there was another visitation in the room across the hall. I don’t remember the person’s name. Dad’s coffin was dark brown with brass and gold fixtures. The interior lining was white. Dad was dressed in one of his suits; he rarely wore one when he was alive. The suit was dark blue. The shirt was white. I don’t remember the tie.
Visitations are usually around three hours long. At a minimum. Church people came early. Lots of hand shaking, pats on the back, and cutesy bible related comments. One person in particular – an elder who was known as much for his long winded benedictions as for the narrowness of his doctrine – shook my hand a long, long time. A long time. He had my hand gripped with one of his hands, and with the other he took hold of my elbow. It was the Venus Fly Trap of handshakes.
“I prayed,” he proclaimed. “I prayed hard. I prayed for a miracle.”
I didn’t bother asking if it turned out the way he wanted.
The extended family showed up. Most of them weren’t local and had to drive at least two hours. They were all mom’s relatives. They got teary eyed and hugged and laughed and cried. They told me how tall I was getting. They told me how much I resembled my father. I wondered: did any of them realize how much Dad despised them? And if they found out, would they grieve as hard?
Aunts, uncles, cousins. Ruby and Denis. People Dad had known when was growing up. People he’d gone into the military with. They all shuffled though: they walked slowly past the casket, whispering things like:
“He looks like he’s asleep.”
“Doesn’t he look peaceful?”
“I heard the end was nice and quiet.”
The air was full of piped in air, religious musak, and nervous avoidance. People formed little groups and talked about Dad – the kind of THIS IS YOUR LIFE/CELEBRITY ROAST tactic people use to avoid mentioning the obvious. I tried listening to some of the stories; but it seemed like they were talking about someone else. Some guy I didn’t know who happened to have my Dad’s name. I was seventeen when he died; and maybe by that point I should’ve started seeing him as more than my Dad. Maybe I should’ve started seeing as a man. As a human being. But I hadn’t. I still saw him as just my Dad – as close to infallible (even though I knew better) as I had ever seen; as close to god as I would ever imagine.
Mom couldn’t pull herself away from his side. She stood next to the casket while people shuffled by. She stood there while the funeral home attendants started setting up folding chairs for the short memorial for the people who weren’t planning on attending the grave side service the next day. Even after the chairs were set up and everyone took their seats, Mom was still standing by the casket, rubbing the top of head and talking to him.
No one said anything to her. The minister stood off to the side, looking around and waiting. He would occasionally look at her – especially when it was clear that she was talking to her dead husband – and then he’d cast a hard glance at me. An uncle who was sitting behind me muttered to his wife (loud enough for me to hear), “Why don’t somebody DO something? It’s just pathetic.”
I looked over at Ruby, but she was too busy looking dignified to act. I didn’t want to do anything. After all, who did these people think they were here for? It was her husband – my father – who had died. I told myself she should be allowed to mourn without having to act in some “appropriate” way to make them feel more comfortable. Who do these people think they are, anyway?!
When I stood up, there was a general sigh of relief. I looked over at the preacher, who nodded in approval. Fucking asshole. I didn’t go up there for him. I didn’t go up there for any of them. They could sit in those fucking folding chairs until their asses went numb and fell off for all I cared. I stood up and approached the casket because I couldn’t stand the thought of people whispering about her. I didn’t think Dad would have wanted that. My mom and I didn’t always get along – she could be pretty severe in her own way – but she was still my MOTHER, goddammit.
Mom was holding his hand and stroking his wedding band with her finger. She was whispering something to him that I couldn’t make out. I looked down at him. It was the first time I’d looked at him since I saw him lying dead in the ICU.
It didn’t look like him. Not at all. I mean, it clearly was him. But it wasn’t. Not really.
That only compounded the feeling I’d had when people were standing around telling stories. None of it seemed like Dad. None of it made sense. It would culminate later in what some people called my “inability to mourn properly.” For some reason, people get stuck on what kind of mourning makes them the most comfortable. What seems the most normal to them. I think it’s interesting that all that normalcy goes out the window when they’re the ones who are grieving.
I touched her arm. “Mom?” She looked up at me. “They’re ready to start.”
Tell me to make them leave. Tell em you want to do this alone. Tell me.
She didn’t tell me. Instead, she let me lead her to the empty chair next to mine so the preacher could do his bit.
“You ant another?” I looked up. The bartender was staring through me. Her tone was impatient. I looked down at the bottle. It was nearly empty. I looked around. The bar was still mostly empty.
“Sure,” I said. “Another.” I smiled. Obnoxious cunt. She walked over to the cooler without asking Mac if he wanted a refill. His glass was empty. He was holding his head up, but barely, and staring deep into the wood grain of the counter.
“And bring one for my friend, too,” I called, nodding towards Mac. Miss Lift and Squeeze shot snarky glance over at me. I put extra money down on the bar for his beer. When she came and set the beers in front of us, Mac looked up.
“On me,” I said to him.
“Oh,” he said, almost smiling. “Thanks.” He grabbed the bottle and took a long drink. It seemed to revive him a little. Then he looked at me.
“You… you… ah… you knew my Dad,” he slurred. “Right?”
“I talked to him once or twice.”
“You know?” he asked. “You know, he, uh… he died. Right?”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said. “Seemed like a nice enough guy.”
Mac nodded. “He was. He was. He was … SOMETIMES.”
“Yeah, well,” I shrugged. “You can say that about anybody.”
He looked at me and for a brief flash his eyes cleared. Then he nodded. “Yeah. I guess so.” He tipped the bottle back and emptied it. Then he brought a big wad of tangled cash out of his pocket and tossed it on the bar. “Make sure she gets all that,” he said.
Only if Dino doesn’t wander in. “Ok. You sure you don’t want another? Maybe a cup of coffee?”
He smiled. “Nah. Gotta go. Got ta go. Time ta go.”
I watched him leave. So did the bartender. For a moment I thought she was going to pick up the phone and call the cops. Instead, she came over and picked up her cash. She didn’t look at me.
*It rained the day of the funeral. The grave side service took place during one of those cold September rains with rain drops the size of golf balls. Rain that large falls heavy. It also falls fast and slow at the same time. Fast enough that it’s difficult to see more than five inches in front of you slow enough that I felt each and every drop fall, hit, soak through my clothes, through my skin, and down into my bones, where it created a permanent chill. I’ve never been able to get rid of the chill.
The crowd was significantly smaller than the previous night; it was mostly family and a few close family friends who showed up. Everyone was dressed in black. Some had umbrellas. Everyone looked at the ground. It was the first time since Dad got sick that I didn’t feel everyone’s eyes on me. The burial plot was right between his parents’ shared headstone and a smaller headstone of mine and Ruby’s older brother who was stillborn. I never liked to look at his grave because he and I shared the same name. Mom cried a little, but I knew she would do most of her mourning in private. She stood along side my sister and Denis (who looked like he was thinking about a baseball game he was missing.) The American Legion Rifle Corps – three old drunks who came out whenever a fellow war veteran died, were a little ways down a small incline and off to the right. The graveyard workers were a respectable distance off to the left, smoking and waiting. The preacher was standing at the foot of the grave.
I was standing at the head of the grave, opposite the preacher, where the trumpeter usually stood. I was standing there because I had insisted on playing Taps. I’d been in band since fifth grade, and had moved up into marching band when I hit high school. After I made first chair, the band director, Mr. Colburn, asked if I was interested in playing Taps for American Legion Funerals. I’d get twenty bucks, he told me, and it would get me out of school sometimes.
When Dad died they line up another kid; but I wanted to do it. I didn’t even really know why. So I stood there in the rain, trying to focus on keeping my mouthpiece warm and not fucking everything up.
The preacher droned on and on about Heaven and Salvation and That Time When All Pain Shall Cease. When he finished, he intoned Psalm 23. And when he was finished with that he nodded at me. I raised the trumpet to my lips, not really sure if anything would come out.
The tones rang out despite the rain. I closed my eyes to block out the image of my mother, my sister, and the obsequious mourners in black with their sniffles, tears, and coughs. For the short length of time I was playing, everything stopped. The rustling of the wind through autumn trees stopped. The sound of traffic from the street stopped. The sounds of people crying and sniffling, and whispering stopped. The thoughts in my head stopped. Even the rain seemed to stop. And when I finished there was a brief second of pure and absolute silence; the only way to understand it is to understand that moment when music stops and there is nothing – that moment between tracks on a record or a cassette tape when there’s nothing. It’s one of those moments that have been lost to the digital age, along with cover art and concept albums. It may be the closest to the silence of universe as most people will ever experience.
The silence was shattered by three rounds from the drunks with rifles. They echoed like thunder. When the rifles went silent, time began again. People filed away from the grave, trying to achieve that impossible balance between solemnity and hurrying the hell out of the torrential downpour. The rain, as if it felt the need to catch up, was coming down even harder. Ruby and Denis led Mom away. The preacher shook my hand briefly as he passed.
I stood at the grave for a moment trying to figure out how I should have felt. The man they were burying… that my mom was mourning… that I had just played Taps for.. still didn’t seem like the man I recognized as my father. I turned to walk away. As I did, I saw the graveyard workers out of the corner of my eye, stamping out their cigarettes and starting to move forward.
As I walked away, the head rifleman stumbled up to me. His eyes were puffy and red. So was his nose. He grabbed my hand with both of his and shook it with a little too much vigor.
“That was just beautiful, son,” he said. “Just beautiful.” He tried to hand me a twenty. I told him to keep it.
“Save it for the next guy,” I said. “I can’t do this anymore.”
The old drunk shook his head like he understood. He pocketed the money and then he reached into his coat and pulled out a small flask. He offered it to me. “It’ll help dry ya out,” he said. I took it from him, uncapped it, and took a sip. It burned down my throat. But the warmth spread through my body and for a little while, I didn’t feel that coldness that had crept into my bones.
*You want another?” I looked up. Miss Lift and Squeeze was finally looking at me again, though there was no conspiratorial smile on her lips.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’ll head out after this one.”
She didn’t answer me, but walked over to Rico and Sammy and got into their conversation.
“I can’t believe it!” Rico said. “I just can’t believe this son of bitch! He put money on that NAG – and the fucker came in! First! What the FUCK?!”
Sammy didn’t answer. He was too busy smiling.
I left a small tip on the bar and left.