Authors: Robert Goolrick
SCENES FROM A LIFE
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2008
FOR LYNN GROSSMAN AND BOB BALABAN,
who said there would be a book
who said there would be time
Come death, and with thy fingers close my eyes, Or if I live, let me forget myself.
Both Now and Forever
Maybe I'm Amazed
Playing the Zone
The Summer of Our Suicides
He Was So Fat
How I Went On
The Cowboy Sandwich
Such Charming Hands
The End of the World as We Know It
A Persistence of Song
My father died because he drank too much. Six years before, my mother had died because she drank too much. I drank too much. The apple doesn't fall very far from the tree.
My father was cremated. My mother was cremated, too. When she died on Labor Day, six years before, my father was too weak with grief to go through with a burial service, so my mother's ashes sat on a shelf in the funeral home for months, until the next spring, when suddenly one day my father got her ashes and had the yard man bury her in the back yard, in a little garden just off the back terrace where we sit sometimes in the evenings watching the creek and feeling the cool breeze off the water.
My mother's grave went unmarked, and nobody knew quite where she was, and my aunt was frantic with worry that there had been no burial service, no proper Episcopal blessing. The following Christmas, we gave my father a cast-iron statue of a unicornâmy mother had always loved themâand we put the statue approximately on the spot where she was buried. We put the statue on top of a marble pastry board from the kitchen.
My father was probably the only man in history to receive a funerary statue as a Christmas present. It came in a crate as big as a washing machine, and he opened it on Christmas morning, just like it was a new set of golf clubs or something.
It wasn't a funeral, not a real one, but at least her ashes weren't sitting with a bunch of strangers in the funeral home anymore. My mother never allowed us to use the word
, she thought it was tacky, but I don't know what else to call a place where they keep people's ashes after they've been cremated.
My sister and I decided to bury my father next to my mother, or where we thought my mother was, underneath the unicorn, and to have a burial service for both of them, so my mother's soul would finally be free to go to heaven, to cease her endless wandering limbo in the ecclesiastical ether, and this pleased my aunt a lot. It was almost legal, to bury your parents in the back yard.
The house my father lived in, which I owned, was a wreck. Six months before, I had been home for a visit with him, and I woke up in the night and heard something moving in the room. When I turned on the light, there were three enormous rats on the crappy rug, sniffing at my garden clothes that I had tossed in a corner to be washed. I threw a book at them, and they scurried into wherever they lived, but it kind of freaked me out, so I went downstairs to sleep on the sofa. At dawn, I woke up again, to find two rats fucking on the Persian rugâwe never said carpet, not even when it was wall-to-wallâso I sat up and threw an ashtray at them, and then stayed awake, rigid with fury, until my father came down to breakfast.
“This can't go on,” I said. “There are rats fucking on my mother's Persian rug and it can't go on another day.”
He didn't even answer, just went on cooking his eggs and bacon as though I weren't even in the room. That was his reaction to anything unpleasant, to pretend it wasn't happening, so I called an exterminator, who came out that day. He took one sniff in the sitting room and said, “You have a serious infestation problem.” That was exactly what he said. He was so serious, like a doctor telling you that you had a fatal disease. “This could take a year.”
By the time my father died, on August 15, the rats were practically gone, at least they didn't run around in the daytime, although the house smelled a lot like dead rats, if you kept the doors closed.
When I got into the house, I called my sister, whom I love very much. “We're orphans now,” I said. “Who's going to adopt a forty-three-year-old orphan?” Then I started to get ready for the funeral.
My father had a carport. Just saying carport gives me a vague feeling of nausea. He had bought it from Sears, and it was just big enough to get his Chevy Nova under cover. His Chevy Nova stank to high heaven because the previous summer, my father had put the garbage in the trunk to take to the Dumpster, and then he forgot and left it there for six weeks, until I came home and got into the car and gagged and looked in the trunk and took the six-week-old summer garbage to the Dumpster. I sold the car eight years later, and it never stopped stinking. But the carport really bugged me.
There it sat, corrugated tin on flimsy poles, in front of the
two-hundred-year-old house that my grandmother had bought seventy years before. So the first thing I did was call the yard man, who was named Claudie, and ask him to come out and cut the grass, because I knew there would be a lot of people coming to the house in the following days and at least the yard would look decent. While he was there I asked him to take down the carport and throw it away. This was the day after my father's death and already the carport was going, and Claudie asked if he could have it and I said sure, so he carefully took it apart and loaded it into his truck, which anybody could see would never fit into the carport anyway, so I was puzzled, but I was just glad to have the thing gone.
He probably had other cars. Some people in Virginia like to leave used cars in their yards as though they were extra pieces of real estate.
We cleaned the house, my sister, my aunt, and I, until late in the night. We cleaned at least the parts where people might go. There were plates of food still left on the kitchen counter and the kitchen floor for the dog to eat, mostly Styrofoam containers from places like Long John Silver's. My aunt kept singing this sort of little song over and overâ“Greasy cobwebs,” she would sing cheerily, as she attacked the ceiling with a broom, “Greasy cobwebs.”
Much later, I learned that both she and my uncle despised my father, whom I had supposed to be universally liked, he had been so charming, at least until he became a total recluse who only went to town at eight-thirty in the morning to get the mail and go to the library for stacks of mystery novels and to buy his dinner at some fast-food place, some greasy something which
would sit out all day until he heated it up at night and took three bites.
He must have been so lonely.
When we were done cleaning, the house didn't look great, but at least the sitting room and the dining room looked OK. The dining room had once been in another room, but my father had all the furniture removed and moved his bed in there so he didn't have to walk up the stairs drunk every night.
That was the other thing I did the day after my father died. I took apart the bed he slept in and gave it to my sister. It had been the bed she slept in as a child, a little twin bed, and my father had passed most of his hours on it, reading an endless number of mystery stories and watching TV and talking to his dog, Sam Weller, and drinking bourbon. My sister would go out and cut his toenails in that room. He bathed and went to the bathroom in the old pantry, where he had had a sink and toilet and tin shower installed, the only bathroom in the world that had been put together without any heating at all, so the pipes froze every winter and I suppose he had to go upstairs then, at least once in a while.
The day after my father died, my godfather's wife appeared with a ham. There was one slice taken out of the middle of it. “We just had this ham left over, and thought maybe you could use it,” she said, as though it were an ordinary thing to go to all the trouble to cook a ham for eight hours in the middle of the summer, and as though one missing slice relegated it to the land of leftovers. It was an act of enormous kindness, done in perfect taste, and I appreciated it. People followed her, and they brought all kinds of food, with instructions pinned to the wax paper
telling us how long to heat it up at 350. Grief, I suppose, makes you hungry, and since it was way too hot to cook anything, we ate whatever came to the door. A lot of it was really good.
Also, the day after my father died, this eighteen-year-old kid appeared out of nowhere and stood in the yard. He was from one of the houses up the hill, and he said that my father's dog, a black Labrador who was dumber than dirt, but sweet, had taken to wandering into his yard and he had started feeding him. Sam Weller wasn't thin, living, as he did, on a steady diet of Long John Silver's and Arby's and so on. The kid told me he was going off to Vanderbilt in the fall. “That's a good school,” I said.
“Can I have your father's dog?” he asked. I thought about it a long time, wondering at the gall that had made him walk into a grief-stricken yard and start asking for dogsâI mean this was a sweet, good-natured dog he was asking forâbut I knew that after I went back to New York I would visit the house only occasionally, and my sister already had two dogs and two children, and so I said yes. The kid didn't even know the dog's name, so I told him, and he stared at me blankly, and I figured there would be a lot for him to learn at Vanderbilt. I told him he could have the dog and he whistled and Sam came trotting over and the boy led him away, up through the woods, and that was the last time I ever saw that dog.
People came. My brother and his wife came from Atlanta, but they stayed in a motel, as they always did. Unexpected people came. Even two friends of mine from New York came, flying down in bad weather to stand up in a church and pay respects
to a man they didn't know, just to be a comfort to me. It touched my heart.
Old friends of my father's came, and they would sit in the rat-free sitting room and have cocktails or iced tea and talk about my father. They told a lot of funny stories. There are more tears at the average Southern wedding than the average Southern funeral, and this was pretty much the case with my father. A lot of the stories had to do with times my father had gotten drunk and done funny things or said funny things, or when other people had gotten drunk and been hilarious, the life of the party. And there were the usual outpourings of melancholy. My father had been much loved.
The sitting room was very pretty, but there wasn't a single comfortable chair in the whole room, all the furniture was so cheap, bought on the quick without any care or thought, mismatched, everything, so they didn't stay long. Besides which, it was very hot, and we didn't have any air-conditioning.
My brother isn't very good at grief, he avoids scenes that trouble him, but he was very useful because he could sit for hours trading anecdotes with the people who came to visit. He's sort of the king of anecdotes, and he's very witty. Actually, he's kind of like my father, although he's never drunk.
The richest woman in the state of Virginia came, driving all the way up from the Eastern shore, bringing a bucket of tomatoes from the farm, as she called it, an immense Georgian mansion and something like three thousand acres on the Rappahannock.
After a Southern funeral, you always have people out to the
house for drinks and lunch, if it's in the morning, and my father's was going to be at eleven, so we called a caterer, the only one in town, and she said she'd put together some chicken salad on rolls and sliced ham, which we had plenty of, and things like that, so people would have something to eat. It was hot as blazes.