I came home from school and my parents told me that the cat was dead. There was a lot of crying; weirdly, more from them than me. It wasn’t because they were particularly fond of the cat—he was overweight and aggressive and as my dad liked to point out, “an asshole”—they were just worried about me. They assumed I’d be devastated. I was the one who’d brought the asshole cat home in the first place, and the only one in our family who spent any time with him. I was sad that he was gone, but not nearly to the extent that my parents had braced themselves for. It wasn’t the kind of sad that permeates your bones, or makes you want to sob until you’re dry-heaving. It was more like the “Oh my god, I can’t believe they canceled The Six Million Dollar Man” sad.
My dad calmly repeated what the veterinarian had told them. My cat had Feline Urinary Syndrome, which caused blockage in his urinary tract. It was a difficult decision, he said, but they finally decided to put him to sleep, if only because he was in such excruciating pain. He explained where the body would be buried, and how he’d actually lived a very long and happy life, at least compared with the average feline life span.
After he’d covered all the medical details, we just sat in the living room and said nothing. We weren’t about to discuss the considerably more ambiguous topics of souls or an afterlife. As a family, we were already pretty skeptical about the idea of a heaven for human beings. So it was agreed, without anybody needing to say it out loud, that a kitty heaven was kinda retarded.
When my parents were satisfied that they’d done their best, I wandered upstairs to my room for a nap. I sat on my bed and stared at the ceiling, trying to convince myself that I was fine, just fine. I didn’t need any “he’s with the Baby Jesus now” platitudes. But this was the first time that anybody close to me had died, and I wasn’t sure how to make sense of it. During my ten years on the planet, my only exposure to death of any kind was when Obi-Wan Kenobi took a light-saber to the gut in Star Wars.
“Is that how it happens?” I wondered during my first of many, many screenings. “When somebody dies, do they just disappear completely? And does everybody get to come back as a spirit and visit your friends on the ice planet Hoth, or just if you were really, really good?”
I eventually figured out that Star Wars isn’t the most reliable source of information. But there wasn’t anyplace else for a guy to get a concise overview of spirituality, or at least enough spirituality to get by. I didn’t need all the answers, just enough to take the edge off.
With few other options, I laid on my tiny bed and tried to work it through on my own. It seemed easy enough. I just had to conjure up a mental image of the earth and pull back like a camera, until I had an unobstructed vantage of… everything. It’d all become clear if I just got a good look at the nuts and bolts of the universe. So I watched as the earth got smaller and smaller in my mind, becoming one of many planets, until it was just another speck in the vast canvass of the galaxy. And then even our galaxy began to diminish, swallowed up by bigger solar systems and black holes that seemed to stretch on forever. Soon anything even remotely recognizable was gone and it was all just black and emptiness that went on and on and on and…
I gasped for air, like I’d been swimming at the bottom of a pool for a little too long. My heart was racing and I was suddenly very, very cold. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d just experienced an existential panic attack. I took a good, hard look at the void, and sure enough, it was a whole lot of nothing. And let me tell you, it was fucking scary. Weak-in-the-knees, pit-in-your-stomach, face-to-face-with-the-meaninglessness-of-existence scary. Given that the most stressful part of my day usually involved wondering if I was going to be picked last for dodgeball, it was a lot of information to digest in just a few minutes.
I waited until I was able to catch my breath again and my heart didn’t sound so much like bongo drums. And then I went downstairs and watched Young Frankenstein with my dad, and laughed and laughed and laughed.
When I was fourteen, a girl died at my school. Well, she wasn’t at school when it happened. She was at home, sleeping in her bedroom, in the middle of the night. There was some electrical problem – an overloaded light socket or something, I don’t know – and the house went up like a bonfire. Nothing was left but a mountain of burning embers, and not a single person got out in time, including Cindy. I didn’t know Cindy very well. I knew of her, mostly as the first girl in our class to get breasts. It was the hot topic of conversation for almost a month. “Have you seen Cindy’s breasts?” Personally, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. They weren’t much bigger than pencil erasers. But nobody was more proud of her mammary seedlings than Cindy. It became part of her identity. She even added a pair of naked boobs to her signature – as a fleshy double-dot to her “i” – which made her very popular with the boys during yearbook-signing season.
I wondered if her breasts were the last thing she thought about as the flames engulfed her. “What a gyp!” I imagined her thinking, as she cradled her tits like a mother protecting her infant twins. “I didn’t even get to own these things for a whole year!”
My parents and the other adults in the neighborhood talked about how tragic it was. For all of the victims, of course, but specifically Cindy. “She was only fourteen,” they’d remind each other in hushed whispers. “Such a tragedy. Nobody should die that young.” I didn’t understand their logic. To my mind, her age wasn’t the tragic part. It was the skin-burning part that had the biggest impact on me. When the temperature in your bedroom hits a balmy 500 degrees and your flesh starts melting like the Nazis at the end of Raiders Of the Lost Ark, isn’t age irrelevant? I just couldn’t imagine anybody sitting in the middle of a raging inferno and thinking, “Wow, this really, really, really hurts. But at least I’m thirty.”
They let the entire school skip classes to attend Cindy’s funeral, even those of us who didn’t know her. It never occurred to me that letting the actual friends and family mourn in privacy might have been in better taste. Like my fellow students – many of whom, like me, probably couldn’t have picked Cindy out of a line-up – I had no intention of missing the social event of the season.
The night before the big event, I couldn’t sleep. It was all too exciting. I’d never been to a real funeral before. I wondered if wearing black was mandatory or just strongly encouraged. And would there be an open casket? I had no clue. Was that even possible, given the circumstances? What would she look like? A wax mannequin from Madame Tussauds left next to a space heater? Maybe just a pile of green goo, like the monster from The Blob?
Alas, the funeral lacked the theatrics I’d been hoping for. There was no body on display, and much more crying than I felt comfortable witnessing from my peers. Those of us relegated to the sidelines – who, for all intents and purposes, were funeral crashers – tried to keep a low profile. We huddled in the back and quietly remembered whatever there was to remember about Cindy.
“Y’know,” a guy named Todd casually announced to the group. “She gave me a blowjob once.”
My jaw dropped. I was shocked – shocked! – that anybody would confess to something like that. And at a funeral, no less. But a smattering of guys sitting nearby confirmed his story.
“Yeah,” a gangly high school sophomore agreed. “She could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.”
Apparently, had she not been cut down in her prime by a house fire, Cindy was well on her way to becoming the school slut. Her oral skills were legendary, spreading joy everywhere from the YMCA parking lot to under the football stadium bleachers. Given the lurid details offered up by her one-time lovers, it wasn’t just breasts that gave her an edge over the competition. I’ll just say this: her funeral is when I first became acquainted with the phrase “balls deep.”
A line had been written in the sand, evenly dividing the funeral guests between those who had been blown by the dead girl and those of us who hadn’t. I tried to laugh it off, but something about this new information bugged me. At some point during the service, a priest invited us to file past the dearly departed and pay our final respects. I loitered just a little too long next to Cindy’s urn. The weight of the moment had finally hit me, and I realized that this wasn’t just about missing a day of school or gossiping about the exact temperature necessary for a human body to melt. A life had been snatched away too soon, and there was no way we’d ever get her back.
“I’m sorry that I never met you,” I said to her ashes, though only in my head. “I know this probably isn’t anything you care about, especially after what you’ve been through over the last few days. But, well, I just found out that you were giving away blowjobs to anybody who asked and… I don’t know, I kinda wish I’d made more of an effort to get to know you.”
Somebody told me later that it looked like I was crying. And maybe I was. Life isn’t fair, especially when you’re fourteen and the only girl with a corroborated reputation for giving blowjobs has been burned alive and you’re only just finding out now. I mean seriously, did I need another reason to believe that God is a humorless, sadistic prick?
The knocking started around 7am. When we didn’t answer, my mother cracked open the door of the guest bedroom. “Rise and shine, you two,” she whispered in her most soothing morning voice. “I made some coffee and there are hot scones in the kitchen. Oh, and grandma is dead.”
My mom has a talent for delivering bad news as an afterthought. In my line of work, we call it burying the lede. “I made your favorite brownies. Oh, and I may have ovarian cancer.” “Your cousin just got into a great prep school. Which reminds me, your father and I have decided that we’re not paying your college loans.”
My wife and I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs. My dad was standing in the living room, frozen in mid-stride, as if he’d forgotten where he was going and what exactly he was supposed to do next. He saw us and pointed towards grandma’s room just a few yards away. The doors were open and her body was laid out on the bed, exactly as they’d found her, her tiny head still peeking out from under her favorite quilt, the one that always smelled (at least to my nose) like a pungent combination of mildew and vanilla.
She’d died in her sleep, my dad told us. They hadn’t noticed at first because, as we all knew, she tended to look like a corpse when she slept. (As kids, my brother and I were fascinated by her eerie ability to seemingly stop breathing during a nap, and we often debated whether she was hiding from predators.) But after repeatedly trying to wake her, they realized that it might be actual rigor mortis and not just her usual morning stiffness.
My dad and I held onto each other and cried. With tears still streaming down his face, he looked at me and said, “She was a bitch, wasn’t she?”
“She was,” I nodded. “A colossal bitch.”
We both burst into laughter. Not because it was such an inappropriate thing to say, but because it was a relief to finally say the word out loud. She was a bitch. The kind of bitch who scowls at babies and undertips waiters. The kind of bitch who accuses her son of turning up the thermostat in an attempt to kill her and steal his inheritance. The kind of bitch who assumes that her grandson recommended Harold & Maude because the septuagenarian leading lady commits suicide on her 80th birthday, which is clearly a subliminal message that she should off herself at 80. The kind of bitch who, on the last night of her life, reminded her daughter-in-law that she was a disappointment to her.
We were sad that she was gone. But… well… when a 94-year old woman dies in her sleep, in her own bed, without any suffering or illness, leaving a family who has had quite enough of her bitchy attitude, thank you very much, the last thing you’d call it is a tragedy.
It took only minutes for the paramedics to arrive, followed closely by the coroner and funeral director. While the medical professionals examined her body, the director tried to console us. “I’m so sorry about your grandmother,” he told me, and it sent a shiver down my spine. Not because of the sentiment, but because there was something about him that reminded me of Jonathan Frid from Dark Shadows. His words had a whispered menace, and he held on to certain vowels just a little too long. “So sooooorry about your graaaaandmother.” Also, as far as I could tell, he didn’t have a neck. When he turned to look at you, he had to bring his entire body with him.
The cause of death was determined to be “natural causes” and the body shuffled away. The whole process happened so quickly that I wondered if they thought they were being timed. Were funeral homes now working on commission? Was it like Glengarry Glen Ross? “First prize for bringing in the most bodies is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is you’re fired.” But when I wandered outside, I began to understand the need for haste.
The street was filled with teenage girls brandishing pom-pons and practicing their high-kicks. A farmer was roughly pulling a pygmy donkey into position on top of a float that vaguely resembled a pink birthday cake. A man dressed as a large brownish blob, either meant to be Mr. Potato Head or a cancerous testicle, tumbled to the ground as he tried to find his equilibrium.
I stood on the front porch and stared out at the chaos. My wife came out and handed me a cup of coffee.
“Is there a parade today?” She asked.
“God I hope so,” I said.
We watched as my grandmother was carried into the waiting hearse. As if supplying a soundtrack to her departure, the birthday donkey brayed in protest and Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” blared from speakers mounted in a convertible Hot Rod.
“Feel the fire of desire
As you dance the night away
Cause tonight we’re gonna party
Till we see the break of day”
When we ventured back inside, my mom told us that what we’d just seen was a parade – or at least the staging area for a parade – and not the Fellini hallucination I’d feared. With little else to do with our day, we decided that a parade might be just the thing to lift our spirits. So we walked downtown and sat in the grass with our neighbors, none of whom had any idea that we’d just lost a family member.
When the parade began, we laughed and passed around a milk jug filled with wine and voted for our favorite floats – a tie between the retirement home, which we agreed should be renamed “Praying for the Sweet Release of Death”, and the local Jiffy Mix factory, in which truck drivers threw mini-boxes of pancake mix at the crowd like projectile weapons. After awhile, we got so caught up in the excitement that we completely forgot why we’d been sad in the first place.
And then my mom saw her.
“Look,” she said, pointing into the distance. “There’s grandma.”
Sure enough, there she was. The hearse, which I’d personally witnessed my grandmother’s body being loaded into just five minutes earlier, was slowly driving down Main Street, somewhere between the marching band and the cowboy cavalcade. The neckless funeral director was behind the wheel, waving at the crowd and throwing miniature Butterfingers at the children.
He spotted us and smiled broadly, exchanging a meaningful gaze that seemed to say, “Yes, I know and you know that there’s a dead body in this hearse, but let’s not ruin everybody’s fun by drawing attention to it, okay?”
So we just waved back and quietly said another goodbye to my grandmother, and tried to ignore the absurdity that a woman who had gone out of her way to make everybody around her miserable was being given a bon voyage parade, with dozens of strangers she’d never met cheering for her and applauding her as she made her way towards her final resting place.
Children were sprinting towards the hearse, grabbing for the falling candy and pounding on the windows. It didn’t seem unreasonable that they might roll over the hearse and pull grandma into the street, thrashing at her body like a pinata.
We could’ve said something, but who wants to be the one to spoil a parade?
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the December 15th, 2008 issue of Keyhole Magazine.)