The Burial of the Dead, fiction by Murray Dunlap

They shaved his beard for the funer­al.  I can’t begin to under­stand why.  Who told them to do it?  He looked like pink-cheeked drag queen.  But the fun­ni­est thing was watch­ing my broth­ers squirm in that front pew.  The four biggest men the in this tiny church, and they shoved them all onto the front right pew.  The sons should sit togeth­er on the front row, a man in a suit said.  Who are these peo­ple mak­ing deci­sions?  They squirmed and sweat­ed.  Mas­sas­auga, Alaba­ma in August.  If there was air con­di­tion­ing, you couldn’t feel it.  One broth­er would lean for­ward when the oth­er leaned back because their shoul­ders were too broad to sit side by side.  Ren, the old­est, sat clos­est to the cen­ter aisle and mouthed the words cold beer three times through a blood red, exas­per­at­ed face.  I sat with the wife, ex wife, and mis­tress on the front left pew.  The wife, Celia, sobbed and some­times moaned into her end­less cleav­age.  The ex-wife, Joy, had Alzheimer’s and asked me four times, “Geor­gia, when is the movie going to start?”  The mis­tress, Loret­ta -my moth­er, sat as rigid and life­less as dad­dy.  I nev­er saw her blink.  I nev­er saw her cry.  When­ev­er Celia moaned, moth­er whis­pered stu­pid whore to no one. As far as awk­ward events go, daddy’s funer­al was world class.

The Rev­erend Macallan led us in a very short, very ordi­nary ser­vice.  He read from the bible about ash­es and dust, and the organ­ist played Lift High the Cross.  For a moment it seemed as if it could have been a nor­mal church ser­vice, any giv­en Sun­day.

But then the rev­erend wiped his brow with a white hand­ker­chief and made more than one self-dep­re­cat­ing joke about his weight.  Appar­ent­ly there is a wine called Fat Bas­tard, and the rev­erend shared a bot­tle with Celia the night before.  So much for nor­mal.

We got to chuck­ling and raised a glass to fat bas­tards every­where,” he said. “We found it quite appro­pri­ate, as Ben­nett often called me a fat bas­tard, and it is also how I referred to him.”

He went to Yale and I attend­ed Har­vard, so bit of good natured rib­bing was only nat­ur­al.”  The rev­erend winked at the con­gre­ga­tion, which got him a few laughs, but I’m absolute­ly cer­tain that at that moment, the rev­erend Macallan was look­ing at daddy’s wife.

Stu­pid whore,” moth­er whis­pered.

Then daddy’s sis­ter, Eleanor, walked up the cen­ter aisle with an arm­ful of gold­en­rod.  Eleanor is tall, thin, and stun­ning.  She has a doc­tor­ate in psy­chol­o­gy and counselor’s easy, wel­com­ing face.  For as long as she can remem­ber, she has been told that she looks like Christie Brink­ley.  Eleanor devel­oped a dear me, aren’t you sweet rou­tine that we’re all sick of.  She placed the gold­en­rod on daddy’s chest, the tiny yel­low flow­ers tick­ling his shaven chin.  The church swished with the sounds of legs crossed and recrossed, arms crossed and uncrossed, uneasy hands rub­bing, fold­ing, and adjust­ing neck­ties.  Eleanor turned and faced us and gave an audi­ble sigh.

As Bennett’s twin, I guess I some­how knew I would be doing this some­day.”

Ren leaned back, which forced Bax­ter, the youngest, to lean for­ward.  Bax­ter scratched the back of his scalp through quar­ter-inch hair.  He adjust­ed his tie and coughed.  He tugged the thin blonde tri­an­gle of facial hair under his bot­tom lip and quick­ly searched the room with his eyes as if map­ping an escape.  Despite his black suit, he wore run­ning shoes.  New Bal­ance.  Bax­ter nev­er wore any­thing else.

I am grate­ful that Bennett’s strug­gle was short and that his pain was lim­it­ed.  I am hap­py that he was not sub­ject­ed to the tor­tu­ous road so many alco­holics walk at their ends.  I am relieved that Ben­nett died with dig­ni­ty, and that he did not act out, that he did not give in to his old pen­chant for tantrums.”

Eleanor paused, glanc­ing up from her papers and scan­ning the room.  I won­dered if she could make out the look on our faces.  Who on earth was she talk­ing about?  Not our father.  Not the man who hired an acupunc­tur­ist to fly in from Seat­tle and heal his pain, only to laugh at the man’s effem­i­nate hands and offend him to the point of leav­ing unpaid.  Not the man who was pre­scribed a painkiller that induced hal­lu­ci­na­tions and imme­di­ate­ly mount­ed a dis­co ball over his bed and hired danc­ing strip­pers.  Cer­tain­ly not the man who packed a bag and moved into a hotel with the red head­ed Celia -one of the strip­pers and soon to be sec­ond wife- while his first wife, Joy, was at the hos­pi­tal giv­ing birth to Wal­lace, their sec­ond son.   Not the man who had been dying by a slow scotch-induced-sui­cide for years.

Wal­lace sat at the far end of the pew, lean­ing for­ward and gap­ing at Eleanor.  He had already removed his tie and used it to wipe sweat from his fore­head.  Then he pinched the cor­ners of his tremen­dous mous­tache and ground his teeth.  Like Ren, his face glowed red.

Between Wal­lace and Bax­ter sat Shane, the first born of the sec­ond mar­riage.   Shane leaned back with his arms spread out across the spine of the pew.  His head bobbed with sleep and then jerked back to atten­tion.  The Bud­dhist tat­too on his shoul­der of two fish swim­ming in an end­less cir­cle showed through his thin white shirt.  He grinned through a full red beard.

We are all here because we loved Charles Ben­nett Porter, Jr.” Eleanor said, read­ing from her papers.  She stared at the typed words.

Then she looked up, took a deep breath, and chose to speak off the page.

We loved him in our own ways.  Ben­nett did not make it easy.”

Ren looked at me across the aisle and smiled.  He mouthed the words here we go.  Celia stared, her eyes wet and star­ry with val­i­um.  The rev­erend Macallan gripped his knees.

Ben­nett was intel­li­gent, hand­some, and when we chose to be, extreme­ly charm­ing.  But if he was charm­ing in the last ten years, I missed it.  The days of our sum­mer sail­ing trips end­ed so very long ago.  The week­ends spent water ski­ing up on DogRiv­er, gone.  The only activ­i­ty Ben­nett main­tained to the end was hunt­ing.  He cre­at­ed a world of his own at the cab­in in Bar­lo.  But I believe what was once a sport for him became an out­let for anger.  A very brief and very rare moment of con­trol.  He was sen­si­tive and uncom­fort­able with emo­tion.  He chose to anes­thetize his feel­ings rather than process them.  Most of his choic­es were self-destruc­tive.  His wives may be able to say oth­er­wise, and I’ll let them speak for them­selves.  The same goes for his chil­dren.”

She looked at me and said, “All of them.”

I hope you have all come to terms with the ways in which you were and were not con­nect­ed to Ben­nett.  We each have to find our own way to define the rela­tion­ship.  We each have to find our own way to remem­ber him, and our own way to let go.”

Moth­er leaned in and whis­pered, “No one came to get their head shrunk. Bitch.”

Joy leaned in and whis­pered, “When did Christie Brink­ley start act­ing?  She’s not bad, but I sure wish they’d put more action in the plot.”

The real rea­son we are all here today is to mark the end of a bat­tle,” Eleanor con­tin­ued.  “A long dif­fi­cult bat­tle we all fought.  I, for one, am glad it’s over.  When Ben­nett and I were chil­dren, when we were home from board­ing schools in the sum­mer, I loved to run out­side on the very first morn­ing and gath­er arm­fuls for gold­en­rod.  I brought them into the house and filled vas­es in every room.  I twist­ed and tied the branch­es and made a wreath for the front door. By the time Ben­nett came down from his room, his eyes had turned red with aller­gies and swollen to the size of soft boiled eggs.  He had already sneezed a dozen times.  If she was sober enough, Mom would pull the tip of his nose and say, hel­lo Mr. Sneeze, let’s get you med­icat­ed.”

Eleanor walked down from the pul­pit and gen­tly pat­ted the gold­en­rod lying across Bennett’s chest.

One last jab, broth­er,” she said. “One last jab.”

Then she returned to her seat.

No one else rose to speak.

We filed past Dad­dy sin­gle file for com­mu­nion.  Shane placed a bowl of rice and a pint of John­ny Walk­er inside the cas­ket, return­ing to his seat with­out tak­ing any wine or bread.  Celia dropped her wafer into her cleav­age.  With­out a moment’s hes­i­ta­tion, the Rev­erend Macallan plucked it out.

When we were seat­ed again, the rev­erend con­clud­ed the ser­vice by pro­claim­ing, “My peace I give you.  My peace I leave you.”

Then he led us through the side door and along a brick path to the gravesite.  The broth­ers act­ed as pall bear­ers, lift­ing and guid­ing the pine cas­ket eas­i­ly on their shoul­ders.  I’ve been told that six men would nor­mal­ly be required, but that after one look, the rev­erend Macallan said, four titans such as these could lift the cas­ket if it were still inside the hearse.

A few pas­sages were read.  Each broth­er dropped a hand­ful of dirt onto the cas­ket.  Eleanor stood under the shade of a long-leaf pine and cried in silence.  Celia sobbed and moaned.  Moth­er repeat­ed, stu­pid whore, stu­pid whore, stu­pid whore.  Joy held my arm and smiled.  I looked through the trees and stared at the cop­pery bay, per­fect­ly still with­out wind.  I watched a pel­i­can glide a few feet above the sur­face, scan­ning the water for fish.  I watched the pel­i­can fly until she was out of sight, nev­er hav­ing spot­ted any­thing worth div­ing for.  The broth­ers shift­ed foot to foot, loos­en­ing ties and sweat­ing.  Four red­dened faces with nowhere to look.

Final­ly, the rev­erend Macallan said, “Amen.”  And then, “This fat bas­tard has nev­er been so hot.  Let us retreat to the shade.”

We fil­tered out of the grave­yard and moved under the pines next to the church.  A few plat­ters of fin­ger sand­wich­es and a bowl of pota­to sal­ad sat on a pic­nic table, just begin­ning to sour in the heat.  No one ate.  We all crowd­ed around the lemon­ade and cokes at anoth­er pic­nic table.  Who made these choic­es?  No cater­ing, no beer or wine.  Mon­ey wasn’t an issue, so why did this have to be so pathet­ic?

When we all had a cold drink in hand, we looked around at one anoth­er.  What could any­one say?

Celia looked up at me through bleary eyes and put out her hand. “I’m Celia.  How did you know Ben­nett?”

He was my father,” I said.

Celia stared at me.  Not one mus­cle in her face moved.  When she final­ly blinked, a bead of sweat dropped from her chin into her cleav­age.  I guess all sorts of things must fall in there.

I rather enjoyed the movie,” Joy said.

Anoth­er day,” Shane said to Celia.  He took his moth­er by the arm and led her across the pine nee­dles to Bax­ter, where he jogged in place.  Eleanor asked Bax­ter, do you under­stand what obses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der means? 

Was that nec­es­sary?” Wal­lace asked.

She asked,” I said.

But today?”  Wal­lace waved away a fly.  “You don’t know this, but I’ve got big­ger fish to fry.  Have you been told about the will?  Of course not.  I’ll tell you.  Wait right here.”

As Daddy’s ille­git­i­mate child, I’d spent more than a healthy num­ber of nights won­der­ing about that will.  Won­der­ing if Charles Ben­nett Porter Jr. would stay true to tra­di­tion and leave me out, or if, just maybe, he could see clear to leave some­thing to his only daugh­ter.  I’d already been left out of the col­lege trust fund busi­ness, but that nev­er both­ered me.  Dad­dy would have been forced to tell Celia about me, and we’re talk­ing about a man who couldn’t come clean to his own sons about why he left Joy -whose real name is Joyce, by the way- for Celia in the first place.  Dad­dy was a boob man.  Plain and sim­ple.  Celia had strip­per boobs and white biki­nis.  Joy wore a giant one piece num­ber with the frilly skirt attached.   Back when Joy was giv­ing birth to Wal­lace, way before the Alzheimer’s, one cry­ing baby was a lit­tle too real for dad­dy.  Just the thought of two lit­tle scream­ing mon­sters made his lip quiver.  Celia took uppers and down­ers and loved a late night spent at the clubs.  Of course, Celia was ill-equipped to use birth con­trol with any mea­sure of accu­ra­cy.  Shane and Bax­ter were inevitable, but I was impos­si­ble to explain.  Moth­er had breasts like soda bread.  She also had an alley cat’s tem­per and claws to match.  By the time I was born, dad­dy didn’t have the ener­gy for anoth­er wife, anoth­er child.  And Celia had calmed down enough to play nurse­maid to daddy’s slow decline.

Mil­lions of dol­lars.  Of course I’d thought about it.  But dad­dy wasn’t exact­ly the kind of guy you just up and asked a thing like that.  No one knew what he had in mind.  No one but Wal­lace.  He’d gone to law school, passed the bar — bare­ly, and set up with a firm here in Mas­sas­auga.  He was the only one who hunt­ed with dad­dy.  They took week­end trips up to Bar­lo and killed ducks, doves, and deer.  At least they said they did.  None of the oth­er broth­ers grew into that sort of mold.  Ren was a pro­fes­sion­al bal­loon­ist, float­ing var­i­ous com­pa­ny logos over cor­po­rate par­ties, foot­ball games, and golf­ing tour­na­ments in his com­mer­cial hot air bal­loon.  Shane was a riv­er guide and con­ser­va­tion­ist.  He worked for an envi­ron­men­tal pro­gram devot­ed to sav­ing Alabama’s rivers.  He con­vert­ed to Bud­dhism.  Shane guid­ed chil­dren down the Caha­ba and taught them how acid rain kills water lilies, how lawn mow­er oil can end up in the gills of a rain­bow trout.  Bax­ter was still in col­lege.  He ran.  His grades were decent, but run­ning took top pri­or­i­ty.  He kept a shaved head, tan shoul­ders, and steel pis­ton calves year-round.  Bax­ter broke three hours in his first marathon.  He didn’t say much, but my god could that boy run.

Dad­dy didn’t con­nect well with any­one but Wal­lace, and even that rela­tion­ship was ten­u­ous.   Wal­lace went to the wrong law school, took the wrong offer from the wrong firm, and absolute­ly bought the wrong car -all accord­ing to dad­dy.  But Wal­lace ignored him, focus­ing on the mon­ey he intend­ed to inher­it.   I’m keep­ing the wheels greased, he was fond of say­ing, since no one else will.

I watched Wal­lace -we called him Wal­rus when we were kids- gath­er­ing the broth­ers, whis­per­ing in ears, and squeez­ing shoul­ders.  He kept his brow in a knot and point­ed an index fin­ger at one broth­er, then the next.  He tugged his mous­tache.  He was in full-on dic­ta­tor mode.  He said: you don’t know this, but… and the broth­ers rocked on their heels and lis­tened.  Shane sat down.  Ren made a fist.  Bax­ter jogged in place.

I decid­ed I would find out about the will soon enough, so I walked along a dirt path through the trees to the bay.  A lit­tle breeze had kicked up and tiny waves rolled onto the thin strip of sand.  I took off my shoes, stepped bare­foot into the course sand and shal­low water and closed my eyes.  The heat seemed to let up a bit with the breeze and the shade of the water­side pines.  I decid­ed to not think about the will and mon­ey for now.  I decid­ed that what­ev­er hap­pened would be fine.  That my job car­ing for the angel­ic, nine­ty-year-old Jane was a good one and that I would be opti­mistic about find­ing anoth­er kind woman to care for after Jane was gone.  That I would not fall apart when Jane was gone.  She was my infor­mal­ly adopt­ed grand­moth­er, and it would be hard.  But it was crit­i­cal that I hold it togeth­er.  My secret was not a ter­ri­ble one, I decid­ed, and that when my baby arrived I would do right by her, with or with­out daddy’s mon­ey.

I let the tiny waves lap against my ankles and the breeze cool my face.  I heard shout­ing behind me, but I kept my eyes closed.  I was doing my best to focus on my baby.  A lit­tle girl, I was sure.  I would name her Jane, of course, and I would pro­tect her from this freak-show cir­cus we called a fam­i­ly.

hike1 (2)Mur­ray Dunlap's work has appeared in about fifty mag­a­zines and jour­nals. His sto­ries have been nom­i­nat­ed for the Push­cart Prize three times, as well as to Best New Amer­i­can Voic­es once, and his first book, -an ear­ly draft of "Bas­tard Blue" (then called "Alaba­ma") was a final­ist for the Mau­rice Prize in Fic­tion. His first col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, "Bas­tard Blue," was pub­lished by Press 53 on June 7th, 2011 (the three year anniver­sary of a car wreck that very near­ly killed him…). The extra­or­di­nary indi­vid­u­als Pam Hous­ton, Lau­ra Dave, Michael Knight, and Fred Ashe taught him the art of writ­ing.

 

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