Short Stories

So Long, John

I stare at the body for a long time. That’s what I’m supposed to do. I know the routine. I’ve been here before. Same funeral home. Same situation. They always put the coffin in this same place. Well, they have in recent memory, anyway. Twenty one years ago my father was at the front of the room. Since then they’ve started tucking the bodies away in this little alcove. You have to come in here to see the body. I suppose no one can really relax these days with a dead man in the room.

The reek of the flower arrangements overwhelms me. They’re like candy that’s been loaded down with corn syrup; so sweet that it stings your senses. But I shrug it off. I came here for a reason. So far that reason has been to stare at my uncle’s body.

“So, John” I say softly to the corpse. “They finally got you dressed up, huh?”

They dressed him casually. Slacks. A tasteful plaid shirt. A narrow tie. Not how anyone is used to seeing John, but conceivably as he might have dressed under certain circumstances.

My presentation is weak. Even by my standards. But I’m going through the motions, even standing here alone. The problem is that this dead body isn’t John. There’s no one there. It’s a corpse in a coffin. It’s not my uncle. He’s long gone. This is just some over processed carcass that they’ve propped up for the family to fawn over in one last orgy of grief. Well, calculated grief, anyway.

All I’ve seen so far has been talented entries into the Grief Competition. The poor bastard lay on his deathbed for a week with people poking and prodding him, brushing his hair, trimming his mustache, cleaning out his mouth with cotton swabs. Every one of them was afraid that somehow someone else might trump them on the Grief & Caring Scale, and so they doted on poor old John. His body had been shutting down for a week, but they just couldn’t leave him alone long enough for him to get around to dying.

But John won it in the end. He died while most of them had gone home for some rest. The only relatives left in his room at the time of his death had been asleep in their chairs when he escaped them.

I look up to the ceiling. Well, not at the ceiling. I look at that mystical in-between space where your eyes go to talk to the departed. John might be looking down through that hazy space. Well, if you believe in the afterlife stuff. Which I’m not sure about.

“I’m going to miss you, John,” I tell him.

I wish there were poetic words to follow. But there’s not. John was never much for poems. He never cared for crap like that. He wasn’t one of those manly-man assholes who can’t get through the day without wondering if he’s queer because he smiled back at some guy who had smiled at him first. All the sentimental crap had just never figured into John’s life. It’s not a part of who he is. Well… was.

I nod to myself. That’ll be enough. John and I never needed much in the way of words. Somehow or another he had always understood me. I could say to him “you know how it is,” and he would nod. He knew. Not many in his family understand this. Not that John and I were cut from the same cloth or anything. I think we were both always somehow on the periphery of the larger family. Neither of us quite fit into the overall dynamic. So our relationship was an understanding nod to one another from opposite sides of a crowded room. Nothing more than that.

And, well, one other thing.

He gave me my most prized possession. A 1978 Ford Thunderbird. Well. Not exactly a prize, I know. It’s just the only thing I have that means anything to me. July of 1984 was probably the last time anyone did anything for me out of “the goodness of his heart.” I needed a car. John gave me the Thunderbird. All I had to do was take up the payments. We kept it in his name so the insurance wasn’t too bad (I was still too young to get decent rates). I appreciated that. And even when he refinanced it to lower the payments and tacked on a couple of thousand dollars to the final tally (and put a little money in his pocket besides), I didn’t mind. John had done me a good deed. We wouldn’t haggle over the details. Besides, I was in no position to argue.

I smile. It’s funny how everything comes back to that old Thunderbird. John and I had very few conversations that didn’t come back to that car. It was like an old whore that we had both bedded; one of those unexplainable bonds that exist between two people. Now that old car sits in my driveway. Beaten up. Abused. Neglected. Just about everything on it that could possibly be repaired needs to be. And still I hang on to it. John was the only one who ever understand the why of it all. Why not get rid of it? Why not get a new car? Why not get that piece of junk out of your driveway and make your yuppie neighbors happy?

Like John would say; “Why ask why?”

He knew. I know, too.

I take a deep breath. A sigh, really. There’s no point to this. John is dead. I’ll shed no tears, but I’ll miss him all the same. He would understand that. This is just the new way of things. All things change. I’ve done my part.

This is all I wanted. I wanted to say bye to John without a bunch of eyes staring at me. I didn’t want anyone grading my performance. I didn’t enter the Grief Competition, and had no intention of participating. So however much the family might think I’m an asshole, I’ve kept my head down. I didn’t see John in the hospital. I didn’t visit the family after he died. I didn’t come up here with them to view the body. I waited until I could have my moment with John. Alone. With no politics, no hysterics and no melodrama.

I’m thinking entirely too much about this.

I lean forward and kiss the corpse on its forehead. That’s my tradition. My official release. My “Okay, you can go now.” It’s just a ritual. Doesn’t mean shit to anybody buy me. But it’s all I’ve got.

I look up to the in-between point in the air. “So long, John,” I say to him. And I leave the room.

A small, hesitant woman is waiting, seated in a chair. I stop. Surprised. She rises as I come out into the main room.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I didn’t realize anyone was out here.”

That’s the correct thing to say. In truth, I wouldn’t have given a damn if I had known. I came for my time with John, carefully timed so that I would miss the family’s initial viewing, but still avoid the later influx of visitors and sympathetic duty doers.

“Oh, you’re fine,” she says in a cheerful voice. “I’m just an old friend of his. I didn’t think… I just wanted… well, I didn’t want to be a disruption.”

A faint hint of embarrassment flitters across her face and is gone. I understand it. She’s not one of the mainstream, either. She’s one of those odd acquaintances that doesn’t quite fit in with the family structure. Maybe an old girlfriend. A nurse that John flirted with at a clinic. A cashier at the supermarket who remembered his jokes. He always left people laughing. Maybe she was some sweet young thing that John had bent over a counter in the bathroom of a bar once upon a time. He’d been known to do that, too.

“No worries,” I tell her.

She relaxes considerably, and fumbles for conversation. “He looks really natural, doesn’t he?”

I nod. I realize that I’ve stopped walking and I’m staring at her. A mistake. I should have kept walking. Now I’m in a social situation.

“He sure does,” I say. That’s what I’m supposed to say.

That’s not what I want to say. What I want to say is “Yeah. He looks natural, all right. He looks dead. But, well, he is dead. So that’s natural, right? If he was living and he looked like that we’d all be saying that he looks like death warmed over. Which would also be correct, I suppose.”

I don’t say that. I smile weakly and wish I was somewhere else. I don’t know how to extricate myself from this uncomfortable situation.

“Well,” she says softly, realizing that I’m not going to cooperate, “I’ll let you go,” and she steps away from me.

“Good night,” I say, and direct myself quickly toward and then out the front door.

I take a deep breath as I step outside. The autumn air feels wonderful in my lungs. It helps to support the heavy weight that bears down on me. I feel like I can’t breathe. I don’t know what it is. Probably not grief. John’s death surprised no one. It was a relief when it came. He suffered long, and fought hard. His last months little more than agony, where success or failure for the day was determined by whether or not John could sit up on the side of his bed. Everyone was relieved when he finally died. There would be no more pain.

No. This is something else.

I watch for a moment the well-dressed people piling into the church across the street. It’s Sunday, after all. No one seems aware that John Long lays in state in the funeral home across the way. Why would they be? He was nothing to them. Their lives continue on as always, without unnecessary interruption. It’s just strange that I would notice. Normally I wouldn’t.

Farther along a young couple walk arm in arm toward me. Well, not toward me, but in my general direction. The man, as men are wont to do, doesn’t notice me. The woman notices me. She watches with wary curiosity. Our paths will cross unless one of us does something. For the benefit of us all, I cut down along the smaller sidewalk toward the parking lot. By the time they reach the spot where I had stood, I’m already sitting in my van. Crisis diverted.

So. Where to now?

I just want to head home. But I probably haven’t been here long enough. I don’t know what sort of ritual grieving was expected of me. But I insisted on coming up here alone. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to take longer than it did.
I start the engine and find myself on the road, without much noticing the maneuvering it took to get me here. By the time I remember the couple on the sidewalk I’ve already passed them. Then I’m sitting at a stoplight. Right takes me home. Left takes me… away from home. Maybe through the Battleground. Yeah. I could take a trip through the State Park. That’s how I’ll honor John. With trees and shadow and a quiet moment of solitude, zipping along the only road through the Park at speeds that the officials would frown at.

I take the left.

I immediately realize my mistake.  Dumbass. The Park is fourteen miles south. There and back puts me at least a half an hour from home, on top of the time I’ve already been here. No. Mama’s getting ready. She’ll have to be back up here in a bit. There’s no time. So I turn around.

I drift. Looking around. The old town. The never-ending nightmare. The details that might change, but only built upon unchanging basics of the town. The years have changed the people. Everything is different now. All my old friends are gone. One by one my relatives are dying. Everything changes. Except the basic pattern.

I wander by the Arts Center. It used to be the Senior Center. It used to be the train depot back in the days when trains gave a damn about stopping here. But now it’s the Arts Center. No one knows what that means, exactly. There isn’t much in the way of art in town. A few artists who graduated from the Bob Ross “school” of oil painting were given the official nod by the Arts Committee. That means some of their paintings are on display in City Hall. Look! We have artists!

Something’s going on in the Arts Center building. A few people mill about. I look to see if I can see the Arts Committee Director. She’s technically my step-mother, I suppose. Current wife of my step-father. Or would that be ex-step-father? Is a step-father still your step-father if your mother divorces him? Probably not. But he adopted me. That complicates things. Unnecessarily.

I don’t see The Whore. That’s her official designation. Well earned, I assume. I don’t know. She broke up a marriage. Apparently by giving great oral sex in the bathroom of my step-father’s business. To my step-father, of course. All this according to a friend who worked there, anyway. I didn’t care either way.
I wander by the old Depot convenience store. I don’t notice what it’s called now. It’s been many convenience stores. It’s been game rooms. It’s been a burned out empty building. All I’ve ever heard it called is “The Depot.” I don’t care what it’s called now. It’s just another landmark in a life that’s fading. Or should I say a past that’s fading? Nah. The Freudian slip is probably more accurate.

Beside The Depot is a television repair shop. That building’s been a bunch of different things, too. A fish shop. A game room. A flower shop. An old friend runs the TV repair shop. His family owned another repair shop farther up the road. But it died when the old man died. It took many years for my friend to realize that there was no money in being a guitar player, and return to what he knew best. Or, well, what would might make him a living.

And then I cross the tracks. To the right is an empty mill. There are a lot of those in town. To the left is the building where my family’s restaurant used to be. Long gone, of course. I look at the sign that used to read “Peggy’s Restaurant.” It’s the same wooden sign. They just painted over it. I don’t notice what it’s called now. This building has had about four restaurants in it since my family left it.

I don’t see any point in lingering.

I’m not sure where I’m going. I’m just not going home. Not yet. All these places have to do with John. Maybe only in my own mind, but who cares? These are all places John lingered when he was alive. Places his ghost might visit if he gets tired of angelic harps and Godiva chocolates on pillows of gold, or whatever the hell Heaven was to him.

I’m turning onto another road before I know it. I look to the left at the house where my mother lived as a girl, to the right at the church that my grandfather started, then farther along I take a measure of another abandoned mill. Across the street from the mill is another empty building. John used to have a game room there. How many years ago? Over twenty. How did everything come to exist twenty years removed? What happened? How did I get here?

I turn down the road that runs alongside the old building. It was turned into a house at some point, but it now looks long abandoned. Panes are missing from the windows in the rear rooms. Of course, this is Second Street. It’s not as unruly as it was when I was a kid, but you just can’t shift the energy of some places.

Then I realize that I’m turning onto my street. I’ve crossed town. I didn’t notice. I don’t know what I was thinking about; what had occupied my mind. That happens so much now. I’m so preoccupied. But instead of thinking, I just shut down. Or maybe I’m thinking and I just don’t remember it. I once had to wait for five hours in a bus station for a layover, and it didn’t bother me. I sat in my seat, de-phased and waited. And there I found myself, five hours later, with my bus waiting.

And I’m standing on the porch with the keys in my hand. I look back at the van. If not for the popping of the engine cooling, I would wonder if I had ever left. And if I left, have I returned? I don’t remember parking.

The front door swings open. I realize that I’ve opened it. Not good.

I step into the living room. My wife is already crossing the room to greet me. She hugs me and looks thoughtfully into my eyes. She smiles, full of understanding and empathy. My uncle is gone. I am grieving. All part of the normal script. I play my part and hug her tightly. I give her a warm smile.

“How are you?” she asks me.

“I’m fine,” I say honestly.

“No,” she says, peering into my eyes. “How are you?”

I nod and look back at her, mustering an earnest gaze. “I’m okay.”

She regards me doubtfully for a moment, but she accepts it. We both look up as Mama walks into the room, cleaning her glasses. She’s dressed in a skirt and a black blouse. Dressed up, as it were. She’s going to be doing her duty as a caring relative tonight, when John’s family accepts the visitors.

Mama watches me thoughtfully, as well. “What did you think?” she asks me.

She’s asking about John. Until now I’ve forgotten the earlier conversation. Everyone thinks they did a good job on John. He’s smiling. It looks like him. Stuff like that.

I smile and nod. “He looks natural.”

Mama nods. That’s enough for her. She wanders back down the hallway to the bathroom. My wife wanders back to her computer. I look down. The cat is pawing madly at the toe of my shoe with her clawless paws. Somewhere in this room I will find my anchor. I will sit quietly and stare at the television set. For my own safety and the safety of others, I will de-phase and go back on stand-by. I will wait for someone to come and require me to be human once again. Then I will do my part and play my roll. I will say what needs to be said. I will do what needs to be done. And if they don’t come for me, I will close my eyes.

Someday I will cease to be. Then there will be no more pain.

  • Dedicated to the memory of Loyd Short
  • Completed 31 Oct 2005
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