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.
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.