The cemetery grass is vivid green and speckled with dozens of mourners. Many are here to pay their respects today, looped around gravestones in the humid sunshine. The crusty clouds of morning finally got the hint, and decided to clear out. At least you can sleep now, Jason. His casket gleams silver – locked and sealed like a meat freezer – suspended on huge bungee cords and reflecting in the sunlight, ready for its descent underground.
A delicate bagpipe melody drifts by on the breeze, whispers in my ear, and then moves on.
There’s a short stubby tree resembling a Joshua tree very close to his grave, making this sad scene very ‘U2 album cover.’ Jason’s family stone is tall, black marble, with edgy font suited for a metal show poster; both of his parents have been here many years.
“I’m so sorry, honey,” a million of his friends are here and that’s what they say to me, and it’s all a blur as people approach and express their sympathies. Every time I begin a conversation with someone, Aimee sticks to me like a wad of gum.
After a second, I reply, “I’m sorry, too. He was your friend, too.” Kenny with the coke and his sidekick Jamie, they are here, looking forlorn. “And look at all the people here.”
The respectable line-up of cars enveloping the chapel does not include Schmitty’s carbon monoxide-steeped pickup, thank God, nor a million scrapyard bikes lying in a heap. The throng of mourners donned their very best. Even his uncle – who, by all accounts, was a total dick – is here in an American flag bandanna
“Jason’s life was full of sorrow,” begins Cousin Valerie in a voice like a sad violin. She drove from Rhode Island; Cousin Cindy and Aunt Barbara drove all the way from Indiana. Jason once told me over a Brazilian Kiss at Texas de Brazil that he had cousins out of state.
They are sitting casket-side beside his estranged uncle. Cindy, Barbara and Valerie- they saved everything; saved Smooty from being buried in a ‘graveyard for the unclaimed souls’, as the county burial investigator put it; claimed him from the county morgue. Saved everything unbeknownst to them, as I was repeatedly calling the morgue and being told I wasn’t next-of-kin, and in fact, none of us knew of any next-of-kin. But I knew there must be.
“He lost both parents at a young age,” says Valerie. “ It’s been years since I saw Jason. I have memories of the house on Pinetree, where he loved to throw parties for friends. He was a generous soul.”
“Hell yes he was,” booms a Gen-Xer who’s taken a knee next to me with an ounce of Fireball raised above his head, flames emblazoned on his poly-blend button-up and a drunken smile on his lips.
“Wild African geese, kept as pets,” Valerie continues. “Summers at the lake cottage in Attica…That’s what I remember most, and I’m sure many of you have memories that you would like to share.” The bagpiper in tartan picks up his instrument, and begins a somber rendition of “Danny Boy.”
I’m not mentally prepared to say anything. In fact I’d rather hang onto the past. My mind drifts away at the mention of African geese…
It was a frozen windy day in March when Jason and I went power-walking in Forest Lawn. I promised him there was an African goose, a Madam, who lived there. I met her once. At the end of our power-walk, there they were, a whole gaggle beside the pond. Their round bodies were curled up and facing the same direction. If you get too close, one will typically hiss with its tongue projecting outward like a dagger. In fact, his beloved Daisy once “bit his grandmother’s poodle on the ass,” according to Jason! Another funny story is that his parents went to bring their pets, Daisy the African Goose and Tucker, their dog, to church for a family photograph. The church did not allow Daisy, only Tucker, because they feared her wildness and her unruly bowels. Well, Tucker was the one who peed on the floor of the church that day. Aw, Tucker, poor shaggy-haired, disobedient Tucker, he was the one who caught the priest’s wrath. And as for poor Daisy, well, she froze to death in a snowstorm.
And then my mind snaps back to reality.
“Who is that guy videotaping everything?” I poke Tim on the arm.
I drove to the cemetery with him as my passenger after fetching him by the Thai food takeaway. I also went to pick up Willy, but after we all smoked a joint and cigarette apiece, I turned around in the kitchen and there stood a man I had never seen before in my life. “Hi,” he said, looking all the part amiable nerd, and it turned out to be a guy by the name of Jay “Cruiser,” who took Willy as his passenger. Jenny from the block and her on/again off again husband, they brought Donnie Dab, one of Jason’s acid tripper cronies with a predilection for Quik Draw. And of course I know Kenny and Jamie, and Donald the Professional Plaintiff and Donald’s Son, and Aimee (barf), and Taco, plus a bunch of others here. But the man videotaping everything remains a mystery.
Tim shrugs. “No clue.”
The snowy-hair funeral director steps before the casket. “Would any of you like to say a few words?”
“I do!” shouts the man who had been videotaping everything. He carries with him a cardboard sign on two metal stilts. Despite his reverence, forgive me Jason but, I have no clue who this man is. His gold framed glasses have stop-sign red lenses, which match a red polo shirt and both of which immediately call your attention to this diminutive man with a saggy beer belly and hunched over posture. He stomps towards the casket, then faces his audience.
“In 1997 I WENT TO GERMANY WITH JASON,” booms Red Specs Man, He sets up his sign, pokes it into the dirt and it says “Unconditional-love.net” underneath some kind of mythological Greco-Roman image of a woman fainting beneath a domineering guy in a cape.
Red Specs Man continues his monologue.
“I will be donating my $995,750.32 from my grandmother’s estate to Roswell Park in Jason’s name,” he says. “It’s part of my charitable giving campaign which you can read more about, on Unconditional-love.net.”
I’m sure Jason would have wanted some of that while he was alive? I glance from side to side to assess what effect this is all having on everyone. The funeral director seems cautiously amused, although I can’t really tell with his mask on.
“I’m writing my life story which will be out in 2022 and there will be a whole chapter about Jason.” Now I look Red Specs straight in the eye dubiously but he seems to be in the throes of personal rapture, Hitler-style.
“It’s not right what happened to Jason,” he continues, the volume of his voice ever so steadily rising.
“IT’S NOT RIGHT!”
His words echo through the cemetery. And then, he steps aside for the next party.
“Hey guys, I’m Aimee,” she begins mindlessly.
Thankfully, as by an Act of God, a strong wind sweeps in and drowns out her muttering. Her flimsy Walmart sundress blows around until finally she steps aside. The funeral director invites us all to approach the casket to bestow any final goodbyes, any au revoirs, any parting words, and the like.
“Hell I gotta have one last drink with you buddy,” Fireball confidently struts towards the casket, another mini bottle raised skyward.
Fireball and Aimee and Red Specs and a few others crowd around Jason’s soon-to-be-resting place. The scene around me melts into a dripping abstraction. I’m shut out, closed off from the casket. I allow the breeze to blow through my ruffle-hem wrap dress from the Lord & Taylor liquidation sale. Jason would think I look chic, despite the fact it’s constantly blowing about. And of course, I donned the sloth socks he just bought me from FYE.
When Jason went to the mall, he always bought me something.
It’s messed up when the only upcoming social occasion marked on your calendar is your own bunnyboo’s funeral, the burial of your snuggle-bear, with whom you had so much planned and so much to look forward to. In fact, Jason had just bought new sneakers; he told Willy “I’m walking on clouds.” Since he was on vacation from work he went and bought Thai noodles with peanut sauce for us to make. But instead of Thai noodles, that was the day that he passed away.
Instead of us indulging in Thai noodles, that was the day Detective So-and-So delivered the news. At 4:00 while at the office, I looked at my cell and saw a missed call from a random (716) number, as well as a text that said “Ann Marie this is Detective So-and-So from Cheektowaga Police please call me at this number.’
The packet of Thai noodles now sits unacknowledged and dried up on the kitchen counter; Willy will never touch them. In fact, he already re-arranged the whole apartment and scrubbed every surface clean. His government-grade flagpole, jackhammered cement circling the base, hangs at half mast alongside the shed which desperately needs to be saged. Char hid in the basement for days, sad and lost. Jason would brush her fur for an hour straight, and made sure she was well fed.
Fireball slaps his clammy palm on the casket like cold deli meat. SLAP. I’m still a foot away from the grave and a foot away from my Smooty, forever. This is the closest to him that I will ever be. The snowy-haired funeral director specifically beckons me forward. Fireball staggers away sideways , so I
so I lean down and kiss his casket. Just a peck is all I can muster. One last kiss for my Smooty. The metal feels so cold on my lips on this hot day, and the tears stream down, uncontrollably. It’s the Amazon River over here, or Niagara Falls. I’m drowning in that really big waterfall in South America of tears. And it makes me think of sloths.
Just two days before he died, we went to the zoo. We took mushrooms and rode the Metro and looked for Flash, the sloth. Jason loved sloths. But we found ourselves empathizing with the depressed reindeer, and once we found Flash, drugged up and squished in a tiny glass case (all the animals were separated from each other and locked indoors that day), it all became very ‘Fear and Loathing at the Zoo,’ so we lazed around beneath My Tree on the Delaware Park golf course. Being Sunday morning, balls whizzed around our heads and Jason’s picnic that he packed in a bag labelled ‘St. Luke’s pantry,’ became something of a political statement. After various psilocybin fueled epiphanies, Pete joined us and took us to Daddio’s. After he dropped us back at the house, I turned to Jason and said, “Today was too good to be true.”
“We have to clear the area now,” says the Funeral Director. “The vault company needs to come in.”
“You gave me this shirt right off your back,” Taco rushes towards the grave now and swiftly removes his shirt, a black tee shirt with squiggly metal calligraphy, and throws it down in the hole. Tears are streaming down his face, and he doesn’t bother to wipe any away. He is openly weeping like every man could and should do now and then. He hugs me to his chest.
Jason had the most stellar collection of band tee shirts purchased at shows over the past 30 years. He gave me one from my favorite local band, Gutted Alive, as well as his Pig Destroyer with sawed-off sleeves which was garnering negative attention during protest summer. When I went to his bedroom the night I got The Call, I found his beloved Type O Negative shirt, threadbare and musty and worn, and his camo fatigues that were his father’s from ‘Nam. This ensemble, along with his glasses and father’s dog tags and brand new sneaks – I brought it all to the funeral home for him to be buried in. Even though Willy pieced together a “suit”, I knew, and Jenny agreed, that his Type O shirt would be what he wanted.
Three women from Jason’s manufacturing plant approach and tell me that work’s not the same, that they still have his empty desk same as it was and everyone is really sad.
And then Aimee sticks to my shoulder like a wad of gum.
“Excuse me, the bagpiper is looking for an Ann Marie,” the Funeral Director approaches.
“Oh right, I have to pay him,” and I rush over there with my wrap dress blowing to and fro, and my envelope with $200 inside almost blows away too. I had to get some live music here at Jason’s burial, obviously. I wanted to put a whole band together.
I hide under the Joshua-esque tree and eventually go stand by Tim, and we watch the casket slowly, ever so slowly, be lowered deep into the earth.
I find Jenny from the Block and her on-again off-again husband, Jason’s fellow obscure vinyl-listener; we often hung out in their living room. All three of us, along with Donnie Dab, who I’ve agreed to let travel with me, and whoever else decides they want to follow – we all gradually drift in the direction of Otto’s bar.
Swerving into Otto’s back parking lot with Donnie Dab waving a large joint laced with God-knows-what in my face, we find ourselves parked next to Donald in a giant truck, with Willy in the passenger seat and his son in there as well. Donald always looks sketchy no matter what he’s doing. I can’t quite put my finger on how or why, really, it’s more of a vibe. I dial Tim’s number while applying numbing eye balm in the rear view.
“Tim, hi,” I say. “Are you coming to Otto’s?”
“Yeah, I just think I may,” he says.
I emerge into the fresh air, and spot Aimee lurking around my car like a stray.
“You have to wear masks inside,” she buzzes in my ear.
“You’re kidding,” I say, my completely-bitchy sarcasm hanging in the air before dropping like a dead body in a lake, totally lost on her.
“Who is going to be my escort to Otto’s?” I take Donald’s son’s arm, who is 20 years old. Jason and I went to their house last Thanksgiving, sat at the kid’s table and talked about crushes with the fifth grade girls.
Now all holidays are ruined.
Donald’s son and I walk arm in arm.
“Thank you, I need emotional support,” I say.
Our totally motley crew stomps into Otto’s dimly lit bar/banquet area, and I state my suggestion of all of us sitting outside, however many of us may turn up, as we are going to be unbearably obnoxious.
“It’s a… funeral party,” I whisper to the blonde bartender, gravely.
“You have to order food with your drink,” Aimee buzzes around me again like a tweaker mosquito. I start wishing I’d brought Donnie Dab’s electric fly swatter. I cringe against a random pillar in the middle of the room, and discover a seemingly calm, cool, and collected guy behind it that you can tell is retired and spends most of his time in Florida.
“I like your shirt.” It’s one of those loose linen Hawaiian ones. “Jason had just bought a black one with palm trees just like it.”
“She’s single now, Pops,” Fireball sneaks up behind me and suddenly flips up the back of my skirt.
“Ugh!” I give Fireball the death stare. Then I turn to his supposed dad. “Ugh!”
“Cool it, Jimmy,” warns Pops.
Jimmy doesn’t care, just continues jerking around inside his own personal pinball machine called life.
“Ugh!” I march away from both of them.
“We need alcohol!” Fireball Jimmy whips through the room like a boomerang.
Eventually we all settle into the enclosed patio, a maximum of 10 allowed per table. Willy, Red Specs, Dab and Cruiser are relegated to a faraway table which I regard as the “degenerate table.” Or is our table the degenerate one?
The unaffiliated patrons occupying the other outdoor tables quickly get the hint, close their checks and immediately head for the hills.
“You can sit next to me,” I pull out a chair for Donald’s son. “Since you’re my escort.”
“No – down here!” Fireball shouts at him, and he obeys.
“You can sit by me, Tim,” I plead as he passes by. “Please sit by me!”
“No – down here,” Jimmy interjects, and Tim obeys.
I’m all alone at the end of the table, misty-eyed, except for Jimmy’s Pops sitting across from me. A college-aged waiter arrives to take our orders.
“I’m saving this seat for my friend Jenny, and her husband, they aren’t here yet!” I say, draping my arm across the two sad empty seats next to me. “Don’t want them to wind up over there…” Across the patio, the forecast at the degenerate table looks pretty grim. Jay Cruiser’s all shmushed between Red Specs and Donnie Dab, with Willy swilling a beer and holding court.
“Hey, down here – a Corona!” Jimmy shouts, like a short-circuiting toddler.
Aimee, who kind of situated herself next to Pops, mostly buzzes in his ear and rushes to and fro to no apparent destination while Pops sadly attempts to order a bloody caesar beneath the ceaseless din of his ignoramus son. Aimee talks over him too and confuses the poor waiter boy who clearly has no clear idea what a bloody caesar is.
“Bloody ceasah…” Pops meekly mumbles, “Ceas-ahhhhh.”
“I want a long island iced tea,” Aimee interjects. “And marinara bread.”
All I want is a tidal wave of pinot grigio to wash over me and take me away from this stupid, sad, embarrassing mess. Waiter boy brings the drinks. My perfectly chilled glass is filled to the brim with the most sparkling, the most quenching, the most majestic liquid my eyes ever did see.
“You’re beautiful,” I whisper.
A lovely 8-year-old girl and her Generation-X father plus his mother are at their own small table to my right. She is the most composed person here. It makes me sad really, childhood innocence mixing with utter mayhem. The cold cruelty of the world. But maybe she’s seen it all before. I saw her, graveside, holding a floppy hat in her hands and staring down into the grave.
‘What, no alcohol on the table?” Fireball Jimmy emerges onto the patio with a drunken sneer, like a reject from Jersey Shore auditions. Jenny and Harry, her on/off hubby, have finally arrived and grabbed the seats to my left. I stare down at my cobb salad so long avocado slices dance in front of my eyes, and pray that it swallows ME.
“What is wrong with that fool?” I whisper to Jenny. She just laughs and looks uncomfortable.
“So what grade are you in?” I strike up a conversation with the 8-year-old girl at the table to my right.
“Third,” she says.
“Aw,” I say. And I talk to her ‘grandmother’ although that designation isn’t really fair as this woman is only around 50-something.
“How long did you guys date for?” she asks.
“Only a year and a half,” I say. Too little time together, it’s not fair. “But in 24 hours, we’d go to the beach, a show, make dinner and watch movies,” I continue, “I guess we crammed a lot into a short amount of time.”
Aimee suddenly appears back at the table, her untouched Long Island iced tea dripping condensation next to the bread and marinara she was mandated to order. Pops ordered for her, while she was darting about with Fireball Jimmy, standing around Pop’s silver convertible parked in the lot, smoking cigarettes and Lord knows what else. She’s back now, and looking wretched. There is a ring of marinara sauce looped around her mouth, like the lipliner of a diseased homeless clown. The top row of teeth now reduced to nothing but gums rests dumbly upon her dry, mummified skin, and her expression is perpetually glazed over and slack-jawed. So many people, when speaking of dear, sweet, parasite Aimee, say – “She used to be pretty.” Well, not anymore.
“Look, look at this,” she butts her head directly between Tim’s face and his lunch plate, shoves her phone in front of him. “Me and Jay at Sportsman’s,” she shoves the picture into my face now, and in it, Jason looks like complete shit, with greasy hair and a bored expression.
“Uh, yeah, I remember him telling me about that,” I brush her hand away. “That’s not a very good picture of him.”
Now suddenly Aimee’s in the mood for a grown-up conversation, sits down across from me and asks, “So when did you last see him? What did you guys do?”
I finish choking down a piece of dry chicken, swallow. “I was there the night before,” I begin, “We made coconut rice, watched The Muppet Movie -” While I’m talking, Aimee is dialing a number into her phone without looking at it and looking straight at me; her dead eyes are murky as a pond, cloudy like a neglected fishbowl sitting stagnant for decades. “He really was looking well -”
Before I can get to the meat of the story, Aimee puts her phone to her ear and seems to be listening to something, probably checking to see if anyone transferred funds to her account – so I roll my eyes and end it there. “Nevermind,” I say. “Forget it.”
Eventually I muster the strength to pass around the Polaroids Aunt Barbara gave me. In one, a maybe 12-year-old Jason and his father kneel in front of a Christmas tree decked in a multitude of fun-looking ornaments and tinsel. Next to his father, who perpetually wore tinted aviators, is poor sweet white-haired Tucker the Dog. Both men are in flannel shirts, jeans and socks. Father and son.
When I went into Jason’s room after getting The Call, his boombox still played the classical radio station he put on to go to sleep. It held the poignancy of a child’s music box left behind, abandoned and forgotten, forever stuck on repeat, churning out its lonesome melody.
I called out for Char, but she was nowhere to be found.
“There’s no despair – I love you!” Jason shouted one night I wanted to break up with him again. Because honestly, was it all for real? Could I really trust him? But our last night together it was still the same – making rice, watching Muppets. I guess things really could be quite simple. But what went on outside of our little bubble? What even killed him, anyway? We still don’t know. The autopsy report has not been released to Cousin Cindy yet, and the mind can wander to some dark places.
He has sent me signs. A bluejay appeared on my windowsill three times and peered into my room. Jason was into bluejays. I read that bluejays are in fact monogamous creatures and keep the same mate for life. They are supposed to represent patience and truth. Hmm.
As morbid as it is I go and hang out besides Jason’s grave (which has yet to be engraved with his name). Sometimes I leave a little trinket, other times I just sit and talk or smoke and cry, and I feel his presence there. We had a picnic there, just me and him, which is conveniently located directly across from John & Mary’s pizzeria. I almost forgot that he lives so close. When I feel the most sad I remember that he is really only a minute away if I need to tell him something important.