Anthony wants to keep it classic. Traditional elm wood or, in a pinch, a chip board veneer. It looks just like the real thing. But Lewis wants Ho Chi Minh fanfare. He wants to be in his Navy uniform, he says, his brass buttons gleaming, drifting in a bath of embalming fluid.
“That would be an enormous expense,” Millie says.
“Think about your grandchildren,” Anthony says.
Jillian has dementia. She says, “In a short time we will begin our in-flight beverage service. Flight attendants will be passing through the cabin.”
“What about you, Earl?” Millie says.
“Not elm wood. Not Ho Chi Minh. Not this.”
He gestures towards the front of the church. The squat urn perches like a cheap vase at a flea market, partially obscured by a cloud of strong, choking incense. The black-clad guests crane their necks to see it. Up front, the altar boys shuffle self-consciously from one foot to another. They remind Earl of the talent shows they used to have every year at his son’s middle school, where the students stepped from side to side and lip-synched Diana Ross into round hairbrushes.
“Agreed,” Millie says. “Let’s blow this joint.”
“If we leave now we can make the three-thirty at First Unitarian,” Earl says.
“But I wanted to hear the dirge,” Anthony says plaintively.
Millie stands first and grabs her flowered handbag. Jillian is next, followed by Lewis, then Earl, then Anthony. The ushers stand back politely to let them through.
“Cause of death?” Lewis says.
“Cancer,” says Earl.
“That’s the bad one.” Lewis shakes his head.
“Pour in the Flavor Packet and reduce to a simmer,” Jillian says. “Stir! Stir! Stir!”
* * *
They meet every Sunday at the curved drop-off driveway in front of Caring Condos. Earl sets the itinerary. Millie writes out the sympathy cards. Lewis makes sure that everyone remembers to send their mourning clothes to the laundry service on Monday mornings. Anthony drives and keeps his big Cadillac filled with gas and bags of Werther’s Mints: regular for himself and Earl, diabetic for Jillian and Lewis.
At First Unitarian Lewis makes Earl explain his marital troubles. He is the only one with a living spouse. They are trying to downsize and simplify and they cannot agree on what to throw away. Margaret thinks he has too many pewter figurines. Earl does a tally. He has only fifteen: a set of five Colonial foot soldiers, five Scots Hussars, two dragons, a knight, a witch, and a wizard skeleton. They all have red crystal eyes and a hand-buffeted satin finish. He tells Margaret to get rid of her locked-room paperback mysteries instead, and she throws him out.
“I just don’t get how you can read twenty when you’ve already read one,” Earl says, exasperated. “It’s always a secret mechanism in the window.”
“But is it always the same mechanism?” Anthony says.
Jillian says, “Im Frühlingsfest, als ich ein Kind war. Sie müssen sich nicht darum kümmern. Manchmal gibt es Fenstern und manchmal gibt es Finsternis.”
“Basically,” Earl says. “Either a self-closing spring load or something hinky with the latch.”
“You know, remarriage in our time of life is not uncommon,” Millie suggests.
“Nothing is off limits to you,” booms Lewis.
“We are here today to honor and pay tribute,” the minister begins.
* * *
It is a long service and Earl fidgets. His hand itches. He stares at Lewis’s head in the pew in front of him, at Lewis’s hair, the trimmed gray thatch around his temples, and back down to his own hands. He picks at the follicle that is caught in the skin of his palm. He is close to saying he will not do haircuts anymore.
At Caring Condos everyone has to volunteer a skill. So Margaret teaches bridge on Mondays, Jillian teaches German classes on Thursday afternoons, and on Wednesday mornings Millie leads a walking group down the path around the artificial lake that ripples gently in a great shining oval behind the condos, its surface astir with skating waterbugs. On Thursdays Earl gives haircuts in the card room, in the corner right next to the giant water cooler crammed with lemons.
But now, somehow, after fifty years of running a barbershop, Earl is starting to be troubled by hair. By the same heads that change under his hands, the same memorable slopes of the same men’s skulls, the thin patches of locks, the way the hair comes away in his fingers so that Earl feels he is wasting it when he washes it, that he should somehow put it back. It is as if the men are melting under his hands. Sometimes a stray tough follicle gets stuck vertically in the pads of his fingertips or his palms, right in between the curved grooves of the skin, and Earl has to pick it out with tweezers. It isn’t just the hair. Bits of the men are stuck in his hands, he thinks.
* * *
The next Sunday Earl waits with Millie and Jillian at the circular driveway, surrounded by huge planters filled with jaunty crocuses. He has a batch of obits in his hand. They are going to start with a sumptuous Catholic service to get the juices flowing, break for lunch, and head over to a humble Presbyterian visitation. Then they have a choice: an intimate beachside ash-scattering in the evening, or a jaunty military sendoff in the soldier’s corner of the municipal cemetery.
Anthony is late. Millie and Jillian peer down the driveway, their beaded necklaces swinging. Suddenly the glass sliding door parts behind them and Anthony emerges in a vapor of air-conditioning, dressed in his regular khakis and Hawaiian shirt. He shakes his head.
“Last night,” Anthony says, quietly. “Heart failure.”
Jillian chokes out a sob. Millie rubs her back in the circular fashion that calms her: first one direction, then the other. Earl is surprised. He had thought, secretly, that Anthony would go first. There had been a dogged vitality about Lewis. Just two nights before, around midnight, Earl was on his way to get Margaret a diet soda from the machine when he saw Lewis coming out of Millie’s condo, wearing one of her short, flowered robes, whistling and carrying an ice bucket.
They try to explain his wishes to Lewis’s son, a broad-shouldered, graying lawyer who has Lewis’s booming voice, who sounds like his dead father’s ventriloquist.
“That’s impossible,” he says. “He was just pulling your leg.”
“He explained it to us,” Millie insists.
“There’s nothing about it in the will.”
“He thought he had time,” Earl says. “We all did.”
“He doesn’t even like Ho Chi Minh,” the son said. “He was initially a supporter of the Viet Minh but he strongly objected to the violence of the land reform movement.”
In the end they have to settle for pictures of Vladimir Lenin and Ho Chi Minh on the table with all the other framed photographs at the wake. The Lenin picture, printed from a history website, is grainy and taken from the foot of the sarcophagus. You can just see his red beard and eyebrows, the strands caressed together by the moving fluids. Millie cannot find a good public picture of Ho Chi Minh’s tomb so they print one of the façade of the Hanoi mausoleum during the changing of the guards, the white-uniformed militia stepping smartly forward towards the lens. The guests pick up the photographs, squint distastefully, set them down again. They mill about and drink coffee and eat grapes off of tiny paper plates. They tell stories about him. Earl is surprised by all the varieties of genetic resemblance: a middle-aged woman with Lewis’s alert hazel eyes, a kicking grandchild with the beginnings of Lewis’s rugged frame.
At the burial as dirt is being thrown onto the coffin Earl scratches his palm and realizes that Lewis’s hair is still stuck in his skin. The dead man is going underground and a bit of him remains in Earl’s hand, a bit of follicle wedged into the wrinkled curved groove of his palm, like a future he is reading.
* * *
Earl begins to worry that he, too, will leave fragments of his body behind, embedded in the skin of the people he loves. He will be underground and his own follicles and cuticles will nest in the palms of his survivors, his skin cells cling to the bodies of the bereaved. Bits of his unburied self will be flung around the earth, like rainfall. He tries to explain this to Margaret, first in slow, halting German, then in English.
“Guten Tag,” Margaret says, her eyes fixed on Jillian in the front of the room. “All you’re going to leave behind is a bunch of pewter kitsch.”
Earl scratches his palm. “You could sell them,” he suggests. “Call up some collectors. Make some money.”
“Maybe I should have a water burial,” Margaret says. She pats her hair, which Earl washes and dries, with her long, manicured hand. “A reversal of the axiom. Fear death by water.”
“Now you’re talking,” Earl says. “A water sermon.”
“Noch einmal, bitte,” Jillian sings.
“Guten Morgen, Guten Tag,” they call out simultaneously. Their voices, so loud and willful together, die out suddenly like embers scattering from a bonfire. Earl feels Millie’s eyes boring into the back of his shirt.
Afterwards, when Margaret is serving herself from the lemon water, Earl feels the soft pressure of Millie’s shoulder pad against his upper arm. She slips a pewter figurine into his hand, coquettishly. Earl looks down. It is a horse rearing back on his hind legs, his mane streaming out behind him, his small mouth parted in a silent, perpetual neigh. It is washed in a smooth satin finish and the eyes are made of glinting ruby to match the other figurines in Earl’s display cabinet. He closes his hand, feels the hard spikes of the mane press into his palm.
“I saw this and thought of you,” she says.
“It’s lovely,” Earl says truthfully.
He cannot put it in the cabinet without angering Margaret, so what can he do? He seeks out several hiding places in the condo: in his sock drawer, underneath the box where they keep their tax files, high atop the counter over the sink, where Margaret cannot reach. For now, he decides to keep it in his pocket. He takes it out at intervals, turns it over in his palm. It is the perfect antidote to the itching follicle, its sleek, spiky surface pressing into his skin with just the gentlest hint of pain.
* * *
The next Sunday they catch a ten-thirty at Largo Presbyterian. Later they will agree that this was one of the best. Bright but tasteful wreaths of flowers stand at intervals along the front. Family pictures and sports memorabilia adorn the table in front of the coffin. The pews are packed with friends of the dead. The eulogist roasts the dead man a little, tells jokes about how the cause of death was the Cardinals’ loss this season. The audience laughs appreciatively. He reminds them, serious now, that Stu would have wanted them to celebrate, to see old friends, that the counterpoint to death is life. Millie snatches at a tear in her eye. Earl feels heartened. The preacher does a brief, robust sermon about what the dead leave behind. The choir sings, and all the people rollick and sway. Then they stream out onto the great lawn in front, the adults stopping to greet each other and hug, the children chasing each other in circles, their braids and cowlicks unraveling.
Earl follows Anthony out of the church, with Millie and Jillian close behind. Anthony is talking to a little girl in a high-waisted black dress and pink plastic glasses.
“I’m five and a half,” the girl says. “But my cousin is six and a half.”
“No way!” Anthony says. “Why, you’re almost grown.”
She beams up at them and Earl sees that she is missing a front tooth. Her father, a tall, dark-haired man in a navy suit, glances at them. He is standing in a little circle of mourners, his hair slicked back from his forehead, crescents under his eyes.
“I’m five and a half and I can already count to a thousand,” the girl says. “But no one can count to infinity.”
“And why is that?” Jillian says.
“Infinity is forever,” the girl says. “No one can count to it.”
“You don’t say,” Anthony says. “Aren’t you a smart girl?”
“I’m only five and a half but I know there are imaginary numbers,” the girl says. “An imaginary number is a number that doesn’t exist.”
Just behind the girl the father is still watching them, warily, his eyes moving in a semicircle from face to face. Earl scratches at the follicle in his palm and drops the figurine. The little girl springs to his feet and holds it up, triumphantly, to the light.
“It’s a unicorn!” she screeches.
“When I die I want them to get my eyes,” Jillian says, with sudden, terrible lucidity. She bends down conspiratorially towards the child. “They’ll take my corneas out and graft them onto someone else’s corneas. I have good eyes.”
The child takes one look at Jillian’s hovering, dark pupils, her bright vacant grin, and starts to wail, her fist closing tightly over the shining figurine. Other guests turn to see the commotion. Instantly her father is behind her, his protective hands resting on her shoulders, drawing her away.
“Come here, Judy,” he says to the wailing child.
“We’re so sorry,” Earl begins.
“Please accept our condolences,” says Anthony.
“He was a good man,” offers Jillian.
They are quiet on the ride home. Anthony drives, his eyes fixed on the road. Millie keeps her face turned to the window. Jillian smiles innocently into the silence. Earl picks at the follicle. It itches more than ever, spiking into his palm with the rough texture of a pine needle.
Anthony pulls up into the circle to let them out.
“Sunday, then?” he says into the rearview mirror.
“Sunday,” they agree.
Back in the condo Margaret is napping in the bedroom. He looks in at her huddled form, listens for the labored sound of her breathing. There is a long pause in between the inhales and exhales, a pause that tugs his wife ever further towards an infinite stillness. He retreats into the living room with its gentle air conditioning and open blinds, its glass display cabinet of figurines, its view of the shining lake.
Hers will be the water: early-morning sunbeams, the rustling open of a newspaper, the scrape of a deck chair, the long-legged herons wading along the shorelines. A moment in the middle of a breath.
He wants his to be quiet, on a mild sunny morning, just after breakfast, maybe. He wants to sit at the table across from Margaret first and drink instant coffee from the plain unmarked Caring Condos stoneware that feels so cool and solid in his hands. He wants the T.V. to be mute. He wants to lie down on the couch with his good blue polo on. He wants it to happen there, with the artificial lake licking at his doorstep, while he looks outside and sees those paper-winged mayflies that hatch in the morning and die at twilight. Watched over, as with the gods, by those shining legions of ruby eyes.
© Barbara Barrow
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Barbara’s interview]