Sorry, I should’ve known that we wouldn’t be able to get a beer this early. Because what time is it? 4pm? Yeah, heaven forbid anybody in this town be seen with an alcoholic beverage while the sun is still up. Then Jesus might be watching, right? Well, fuck me for wanting to take the edge off. If I’d thought ahead, we’d be brown-bagging it. But I guess for now we’ll just have to make do with coffee.
As luck would have, there’s a bakery down the street that just so happens to be another stop on our tour. I worked here for like a month when my best friend’s father owned it. It was the easiest job I’ve ever had in my life, probably because I didn’t do any actual work. My grueling three-hour shifts mostly involved eating the day-old donuts and gabbing with the owner’s son. Sometimes I wonder if I was at least partly responsible for putting him out of business.
And we all know what happened next, don’t we? Wait, sorry, I forgot you didn’t grow up here. Well, a lesbian couple moved to town and bought the bakery. Within a few months they were even turning a profit, which is more than my friend’s dad accomplished in a decade. Everybody in town loved the new and improved bakery, even though they still whispered the word “lesbian” when mentioning the owners.
“They make such good scones. And you’d never guess they were… ” voice drops, hand shields mouth as if to protect the word from lip-reading children “…lesbians.”
They had a pretty good run for three or four years. But then they forgot the most crucial rule of running a bakery. Even if the residents of a small farming town accept your alternative lifestyle, they’re not going to keep lining up for your muffins when somebody gets a mouthful of armpit hair. See, here’s the thing: Andrea Dworkin could get away with shaggy pits because she didn’t bake cookies for children. But when you’re working with flour and milk, you need to either trim those stanky hedges or sew yourself some armpit hairnets.
Long story short, the bakery went under again. I’m not sure how long the building was empty before somebody decided to test the third-time’s-a-charm theory. So the town got their bakery back, and it hasn’t seen another scandal in almost fifteen years. Of course, some people think the new owners have gotten too complacent. My brother won’t even come here anymore because he hates their coffee. I believe his exact words were “undrinkable swill.” And I can’t disagree with him. The coffee is terrible. But I think that’s why the locals like it so much. It’s a metaphor for their lives. The only way to survive in this town and not go nuts is to accept mediocrity as a lifestyle choice. If your standards are too high you’re just going to be disappointed eventually. So every morning they get out of bed and walk down to the bakery and enjoy a piping hot mug of liquid resignation. Mmmm, that bland flavor means that this is as good as it gets.
* * *
So I guess you’re probably wondering, “Why exactly did you bring us to a graveyard?” Well, maybe it’s just my family, but I’ve never been anxious or uncomfortable in graveyards. I mean sure, some of them can be depressing, but only if they’re located next to a major interstate or a suburban mall. If your final resting place comes with an unobstructed view of a Panda Express, you were either a really rotten person or your family despised you, possibly both.
But some graveyards can be beautiful, like this one. Surrounded by lush trees and with a panoramic view of the Bay, I can’t think of a better place to be laid to rest. We’ve got a family plot right over there, though I haven’t decided yet if I want to be buried here. It sounds nice in theory, but… well, let’s say you were going to buy a house, and although you loved everything about it, there’s a contractual stipulation that you have to share it with your parents and both sets of grandparents and several dozen relatives you never met. Now imagine you had to live in this house forever.
That’s basically what I’d be doing if I allowed my earthly remains to be buried here. I don’t claim to know anything about how the afterlife works, but I’m not taking any chances. I don’t want an eternity of awkward graveyard dinners with my ghost family and conversations that never get further than “So… what’s new with you?”
I think of this graveyard less as someplace I might like to end up someday and more like a less intrusive way of checking up on my old neighbors. Two laps and I’ve pretty much learned who’s dead and who’s still alive. So much more convenient than picking up the phone or attending some god-awful party that I’ll be stuck at long after I’ve gotten the information I came for. Every time we come here, there’s always at least one shocker. My brother and I try to split up — better to cover the most ground — and eventually one of us will shout something like, “Oh my god, remember our bus driver in seventh grade?” and the other will come running like a frat guy to free booze.
The only problem is that there are far too many Kriegers in this town, so it’s often impossible to determine with any certainty if we actually knew half of the people buried here. We both went to school with two guys named John Krieger (weirdly, they’re not related), and in this graveyard alone, there are at least six dead guys named John Krieger, ranging in age from 8 to 108. It’s difficult not to wonder sometimes if this entire town was one big in-breeding experiment that the Spitznagels were never invited to.
Y’know, doing an inventory of the recently deceased neighbors in your former hometown can really work up an appetite. Anybody feel like getting something to eat? I’m buying. We could grab a sandwich at… no, that’s closed… okay, how about- ? Wait, no, they’re closed too. Uh… hmmm… give me a minute, I’ll think of something…
* * *
I am shocked — shocked, I tell you — that this place is still open. I could’ve sworn it went belly-up like all the others. I guess this town still needs at least one greasy-spoon burger joint. For a second there, I was worried that my old hood had given up on colon cancer. Yeah, as if, right? Well, gang, I hope you brought your appetites and a spare colostomy bag. Do you think a burger needs bacon like a public school needs government-enforced prayer? Do you like your bleu cheese dressing with just a splinter of iceberg lettuce? Do you believe that velvet paintings of hobos facilitate digestion? Well then lower your veiny and translucent ass into the nearest booth, ’cause you’re in the right place.
This is crazy. I think the last time I was in here, it was with my dad’s mistress. That seems like an eternity ago. Anyway, anybody feel like splitting an order of onion rings?
Wait, what? Oh, the mistress thing? Yeah, I don’t even know if that’s true. I just remember having dinner here with my brother and dad and some woman who definitely wasn’t my mom. I think my mom was visiting her parents in Florida at the time, and for all I know, my dad taking a strange woman out to dinner was completely innocent and defensible. But when she came back there was a lot of yelling and door-slamming. And at some point she took me aside and asked me leading questions about the apparently clandestine dinner.
“Did it look like he was having fun?”
This made absolutely no sense to me. “Of course he was having fun,” I said, a little too defensively. “We were all having fun. It was fancy burger night!”
She didn’t come right out and ask me if there was any funny-business going on, but I could read between the lines. My mom’s head was aflutter with conspiracy theories. And she may’ve had grounds for her mistrust, I didn’t know. All I could tell her is what I saw. I probably came across as too protective of my dad, too willing to throw myself in front of a moving bus to save him. But I was as honest with her as I could possibly be. Maybe the “we all had fun” line sounded evasive, but I didn’t intend it in a Bill Clinton “That depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is” kinda way. If I could go back and do it all again, I’d come right out and tell her, “If you’re asking me if she blew him between the salad and the main course, no, I did not witness such an exchange.”
For the next few weeks, my dad slept on the couch in the living room. When they thought my brother and I were out of earshot, they lobbed threats at each other like grenades. Every so often we’d get hit with shrapnel. Words like “move out” and “divorce” came tumbling at us, scarier because of the lack of context. But they told us nothing. Dad kept his distance, and my mom would only say, “I don’t want you to lose all respect for your father.”
And then one day, as abruptly as it began, the fighting stopped and my dad returned to their bedroom and the topic of affairs and sneaky dinner dates was unceremoniously dropped.
I never saw ol’-what’s-her-name again — the woman that my dad may or may not have slept with while his wife was away. If I’d known just how significant she would become in my family’s secret history, I would’ve watched her more closely when I had the chance. I think she had brown curly hair and wore hippie sundresses and sandals and smelled of patchouli. That’s pretty much all I could tell you about her. Obviously, she’s not predominately featured in any of our photo albums.
My brother and I have discussed what might’ve happened that night more times than I’d like to admit. We’ve never talked to our mother about it, but we have talked about talking to her. We’re waiting for a window of opportunity. We’re ready if the perfect conversational segue should present itself and we can finally ask her the Big Question. But you can’t force these things. You can’t just charge at her and say, “Did dad ever cheat on you?” These things need to be handled delicately.
I’m not sure why I need to know, I just do. For a long time, my brother thought I was being a masochist. “Just leave it alone. What does it matter? It’s in the past. Forget it.” But now even his curiosity has gotten the best of him. Maybe it’s because our mom is getting older and life is fragile and we realize instinctively that we’re running out of time. You can’t retrace the footsteps of your past if all the eye-witnesses are gone. You don’t want to be the guy shaking the 98-year old woman with dementia who thinks you’re Teddy Roosevelt and screaming, “I need answers, damn you! Answers!”
Y’know, let’s skip the meal. I’m not hungry anymore. Looks like they’ve opened the bar. I could use a beer and a shot… and then three more beers. Who’s with me?
* * *
You wanna another Pabst? I got another six-pack in that bag over there. No, seriously, help yourself.
So I know we’ve already covered this part of the tour, but I think it’s worth a second look. Did I mention that I grew up in this house? I did? Well, whatever. Lots of important shit happened here. I mean, not on the front stoop, but inside. I’d show you some of the highlights if I could figure out how to jimmy these locks. I don’t get it, I’ve been down here screaming for half-an-hour. How can they fucking sleep through this racket? Just let a brutha come in your home for five freakin’ seconds so he can make peace with the demons from his past, that’s all I’m asking. I’m sorry if midnight isn’t the most ideal time for you, but it seems I forgot to have my fucking secretary call you with a complete itinerary of my fucking emotional breakdowns!!
Sorry, sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to yell. It’s just been one of those nights, y’know? I really had high hopes for this tour, but everything just went to shit before I knew what was happening. Half of what I wanted to show you isn’t even around anymore. That corner store I was telling you about, where my brother and I bought comic books and smoke bombs? It’s a pharmacy now. Last time I went to the Christmas Cove Beach I saw a condom floating in the water. Summer camp? Gone. Replaced with condos. Sledding hill? Torn down to build another wing on the hospital, which of course closed down. Can you believe that? We don’t have a hospital anymore. A hospital! We’re not talking about a restaurant where you can throw peanut shells on the floor. This is where you go if the bleeding doesn’t stop, or if you notice that your spouse is much bluer than usual. The nearest hospital is now an hour to the south, but I’m told you can get medevaced during an emergency. In other words, you better be goddamn sure those chest pains aren’t just indigestion, because when you call 911 you’re paying for a fucking helicopter.
Honestly, folks, I can’t think of where else to take you. There’s Nipple Hill, but I don’t think I could find it again unless I was driving in a jeep with a pair of Old Money Brooklyn Jews, one of whom might’ve been a drag queen, soused on box wine. That’s a long and complicated story, I don’t want to get into it now. There are the rich gay guys who own the B&B down the street, but that’s another sad tale. Have you ever been walking through your old neighborhood after burying your father and it’s late December and it’s snowing and the houses are all lit up like Vegas strip clubs except with more fluorescent mangers than boobs. And as you and your family are wandering aimlessly, still in a haze from grief, you pass the home of the eccentric gay couple that just moved to town, and you notice that they’ve decorated their yard with a life-size mannequin of Santa Claus, who appears to be dropping his pants and preparing to take a big, steamy dump in the snow. You point and laugh at the absurdity of the Christmas tableau, and somebody mentions how much your dad would’ve loved it, and they’re right, he would’ve been the most vocal in his appreciation, and probably would’ve walked straight up to the house and rang their doorbell and told them how fucking hysterical their shitting Santa lawn ornament was and the next thing you know you’re spending Christmas Eve with rich gay guys. But as you think about this and exchange forlorn looks with your brother and mother, you begin to realize that there’s something kinda sad and pointless about it. Is that really your father’s legacy, as the Guy Who Would’ve Appreciated a Santa Crapping Joke? Is that the best you can come up with? He’s dead and now he’ll never be able to enjoy getting brown-nosed by some obese Christian icon? Is that all his life was worth? Obviously not, but in that moment, just hours after lowering his urn into the dirt and saying your final goodbyes, it feels vaguely depressing that this is how you and your family have decided to remember him.
Shit, I’m sorry. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I thought this tour would be fun. I thought it’d be like Huckleberry Finn but without the racist subtext, full of adolescent mischief and white picket fences. But I’m just so fucking weepy tonight. It may not matter anymore, but this was all a lot better the first time around. I wasn’t some maudlin kid beaten down by life. There was — will you throw me another Pabst? Cool, thanks — there was so much to this town that I haven’t been able to do justice. I just… I just need to think for a minute. It’ll come back to me. And then we’ll… uh…
Okay, hold that thought. I’m just gonna talk to these cops and see what’s up. They’ve got that hostile “you’re drunk and disorderly and trespassing on private property” look on their faces, but I think they’ll come around when I tell ‘em what my day’s been like. Don’t go anywhere, okay? I’ll be right back.