Emotions erupt at funeral.
I've always had a problem with punctuality. Homer told me once that I’d be late for my own funeral. This was before the basketball sectional and he was ready to go half an hour early. I had my pre-game routine but the timing on that varied. I would listen to Cinnamon Girl in the headphones, eat a small bowl of spaghetti, shave, iron a shirt and pack my gym bag. This was a home game, there was extra time and no bus to catch so I also listened to Down by the River. Then I overcooked the pasta in the microwave and it took forever to cool. I went on to nick myself shaving and burn my finger on the iron and I couldn’t find my favorite game socks. Even with all that drama we were still only a few minutes late. As for my funeral, whether or not I'm late I’ll never know. But one thing is certain I didn’t set out to be late for Homer’s funeral. That just happened. I thought I could get through the service without a drink but at the last minute my car pulled into the package store. I bought a half-pint of schnapps and a tall boy, drove through the country and wound up running into a detour that took me way the hell out near Pleasant Mills. So I was running a little late. I was pretty sure they had started without me but I figured since I was a pall bearer they wouldn’t finish without me. I chewed a handful of Tic Tacs and entered the parlor.
Uncle Ray was up front offering a prayer. He had recently been baptized at the local ‘seeker’ church and was now holier than the Pope. I slid into the back row beside Laurie Speakman. We don’t see each other much now but when we were kids we were both on the swim team, so you could say we watched each other grow up in bathing suits. She was still achingly beautiful and her last name was now Patterson. I knew her husband from high school and he there he sat beside her looking goofy as ever. He has no chin. He is chinless to the point of looking deformed in my opinion, especially in profile, especially with his head bowed in prayer. Laurie and me almost went all the way once in the little league dugout. I had her blouse unbuttoned and I was grinding on her big time when her ride showed up. I walked home that night, four miles, because Homer had worked overtime and couldn’t pick me up.
I didn’t recognize the woman sitting in front of me until she turned around to see who I was. It was Aunt Beanie. I love Aunt Beanie. I gave her that nickname when I was a kid. I couldn’t quite say ‘Beatrice.’ It came out ‘Beanie’ and everyone started calling her that.
“Hello, Joseph,” hushed Aunt Beanie. Then she winked at me. Beanie was the only one who called me Joseph, not Joey. She always has me figured out. She was working on 22 years of sobriety and I had gone to a couple of AA meetings with her. She’s worried about my drinking which I can understand. After I got my DWI she had a good talk with me.
“It’s in the family,” she said then, “you got two strikes against you already, what with your mom and your dad. Don’t screw up your life kid.” She gave me a Big Book. What it says makes a lot of sense to me but I guess I just haven’t hit bottom yet. Beanie says if I work the Steps I won’t have to hit bottom. I know she’s right but I still like the booze too much.
“Beanie, I love your hat,” I said. She was wearing a floppy wide-brimmed hat that was the exact color of a plum. She turned back toward the front of the room and mockingly stuck her nose in the air. It was funny.
A fellow from the local VFW was offering a few comments about Homer’s service to the Post. Homer had been in World War II and was actually on a ship in Tokyo harbor for the Japanese surrender. I didn’t know the guy who was talking but he looked like he was a hundred years old and his voice creaked. I scanned the room to see who was where. Grandma sat in the front row of course, along with Aunt Jessie, Uncle Ray, Uncle Charles, and their spouses. They all had a hand in raising me. After Mom and Dad died I stayed with Uncle Ray and Aunt Louise and then with Homer and Grandma. I guess I just call him Homer because that’s what everyone else called him. He looked like a Homer. Short, well muscled, hardly any gray hair, always wore a baseball cap. He grew up working the tomato fields and he made a good living all of his life with his hands. When he died he had only been retired three years. He told me one time being retired “isn’t so great. All my friends are either still working or dead.” He tried to keep busy visiting and helping out the extended family. There were three children, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. It is a relatively young family. In fact, since my parents’ car crash 25 years ago this was the first death in the family, the patriarch passing from this world, leaving his protégé’s to their own doing. So, anyway, everyone called him Homer, no one called him dad or grandpa. His nieces and nephews called him Uncle Homer but only when their parents were around.
The funeral home put together a video showing pictures of Homer from his entire life. It was still running on the TV in back of the room and as the Elderly Soldier droned on I watched. It showed Homer as a little boy, living in an orphanage sponsored by the Catholic Church. He told me the brothers taught him how to pray, work hard, and box. He was proud that he won the 7th Fleet Smoker at 140 pounds two years in a row. Even though he grew up Catholic he seemed to have his own religion. I talked to him about it several times and he just said he didn’t need a crowd getting between him and God. He would walk around the yard picking up twigs and branches, praying silently to himself. But after he got his diagnosis he stopped at St. Mary’s to talk to Father Phil. The young priest took Homer’s confession and then visited him often when the cancer finally put him on his back. Now Father Phil was delivering the eulogy.
“Friends and family members, the times when we lose loved ones are perhaps the most difficult episodes we have to bear in this life. As we gather to remember Homer, let us also remember that Homer had made his peace with the Almighty. He will walk in Heaven with the saints.” I thought to myself, ‘Or as Homer would refer to them, the fuckin’ saints.’ I almost whispered it to Beanie but thought better of it. I looked across the crowd of about 100 people and didn’t recognize many of them. Homer had three brothers and two sisters. I used to know the cousins when we faithfully attended reunions but that stopped when I was ten or eleven. Grandma got into it with Homer’s sister-in-law. Peg. From what I could remember, Grandma got us all packed up and ready to go. Homer tried to talk to both of them but they weren’t budging. Grandma never went to another gathering and Homer backed her up .He stayed on friendly terms with the family, except for Peg and Uncle Norm, Homer’s brother. I asked him about it once and he told me they were all acting like children.
“Don’t ever let some dumb-ass argument come between you and your family,” he said, “it’s not worth it. People need to fix those things. You can’t go through life hating anyone. It’ll be worse for you.”
Father Phil went on saying how Homer was a faithful supporter of the parish. I remember getting those offering envelopes in the mail and I never knew what they were for until Homer told me it was ‘payday for the priests.’ Anyway, Father Phil knew Homer pretty well, but only the Old Homer. The Young Homer was quite a different character. There was a photo on the video of him and Grandma from about 1940 and he had on this zoot suit with a long watch chain and a fedora. She had a huge corsage and she was smiling big. They were both eighteen years old. As it turned out she was pregnant with Aunt Jessie at the time but didn’t know it. Then Aunt Jessie got pregnant when she was 16, and Ray and Charles both had to get married. In our family, pregnancies out of wedlock seemed to be passed down just like the alcoholism.
Grandma and Beanie were sisters but Beanie was much younger, almost like a daughter. She would stay with us sometimes during the summer when Grandma would be having her ‘episodes,’ the afternoons when she drank her green nerve medicine and slept all afternoon. Me and Beanie would work in the garden or go fishing or just walk along the railroad tracks. We would try to guess where the rabbits were hiding, scaring one up every once in a while. Beanie would shout, “Thar she blows!” and we would throw rocks at them. I think we would’ve died if we had ever hit one.
So now Uncle Charles is getting up to talk and I see Beanie heave a big sigh. Uncle Charles is full of shit and everyone knows it, and he knows everyone knows it, and still he spouts his shit. He starts saying how him and Homer used to do this and him and Homer used to do that and we all know it’s not true because Homer couldn’t stand Charles. Charles was a real mama’s boy and he spent most of his time in the house grabbing onto her skirt. At least that was what Beanie said and I believe her. He kind of acts that way now, catering to Grandma until it almost makes you sick. I mean, sure she needs some comfort now but holy hell, he’s laying it on pretty thick, ‘mama’ this and ‘mama’ that. He calls her ‘the old lady’ when she’s not around and everyone knows it and now Beanie turns around and whispsers,
“Think he can get his lips latched any tighter on her ass? Just cash the check you sorry bastard,” and I about lose it because everyone knows Charles is all about the inheritance, plus Beanie looks like the Hamburglar in that hat. Charles says,
“Pop (and he’s the only who called Homer ‘Pop”) used to say he was just a simple man who worked for what he had. But I’m here to tell you he was more than a simple man. He was a great man, a man who worked hard and took care of his family. He started with nothing and he ended up with a lot…”
“Which you are now going to spend,” whispered Beanie.
“…a loving family… great friends… and the respect of his fellow men.”
What the fuck… his fellow men? I saw Beanie bounce a few times and I realized she was laughing really hard, trying to keep it low key, and that just cracked me up. I had to get up and leave the room. I went to the john and splashed some water on my face.
When I came back they were filing past the casket. This was what I was seriously dreading, going past the casket. I managed to miss all the viewing hours and I didn’t know how I would react, seeing Homer there, dead, dead and waxy and however he looked. When my folks died I was horrified by their appearance, all fake and powdery. But I had to leave my Shellback card. . Homer never got one all the time he was in the Navy even though he crossed the equator several times. He told me once that Mexicans were only above ‘the niggers’ on the ship and none of them got their cards. He used to talk about how bad Mexicans were treated and then he’d use the word ‘nigger,’ or he might say this guy he worked with was ‘blacker than the ace of spades.’ His favorite TV show for a while was Sanford and Son, course he never called it that, it was always ‘them two niggers.’
So I get in line, the very last person in line, and I’m pretty fidgety and I’m saying to myself I wish I would’ve drank two tall boys. All of a sudden I’m seriously concerned that everyone knows I’m buzzed and they’re thinking what a waste of human chromosomes, or why did he even show up, and then Charles starts crying really loud, like he even cares, except for the will, and then Beanie slides around behind me after she goes through the line and acts like she’s reading my mind and says,
“Hey kiddo, that old man loved you. He couldn’t care less about some of these people but he expects you to be here.” And she was right, of course, she’s always right, at least since she quit drinking. So I sucked it up, I really did, I stood there tall and even took off my sunglasses. And when I got to the front I saw Homer there in his ancient ‘Johnny Carson’ suit and he looked peaceful, he appeared to be totally at ease with the situation, you know him being dead. And I reached down and slipped the Shellback card into his breast pocket. Then I walked on out and waited for Grandma to have her last private time with him. That’s when things unraveled. She actually slapped his dead face and said,
“Goddamn you, Homer, you sonofabitch, who do you think you are, leaving me with all this shit, the things you did, the other women! Damn you! You bastard!” We were hearing all of this out in the corridor, and if you think you would be shocked imagine how we felt. It was horrible, and she didn’t stop, it went on like that for several minutes, her just going off to his dead body. I was totally wishing I would’ve smoked some weed or taken some Xanax or something and I just wanted to go back in there and smack her down. The stuff she was talking about happened a long time ago and I couldn’t believe she was bringing it up now, at his fucking funeral. It should have been settled way back when, and if it wasn’t this sure wasn’t the occasion to do it, but there she goes getting it off her chest and making everyone else feel suddenly tiny and stupid. I mean, it was vicious. Uncle Charles is crying like a baby saying, “Oh God, Mama, Oh God!” I just wanted to puke.
Finally Uncle Ray goes back in to settle things down, taking Grandma by the shoulders and guiding her out of funeral home and into the limo. Beanie’s looking disgusted like she can’t believe her sister just pulled this stunt, and then she looks at me and rolls her eyes. That’s how I knew I was reading the situation right, Beanie rolling her eyes. She used to do that when I was a kid and Grandma was yelling at me or Homer was going off on me because I forgot and left a bag of weed in the console of his Impala. It was her way of saying ‘it’s okay kiddo, don’t worry about it, I still love ya.’ And that meant a lot to me, a kid with no parents. I always felt like I was kind of intruding on Homer and Grandma, that they had already raised their family, and if it wasn’t for my Dad being drunk and plowing the car into a line of poplar trees I wouldn’t even be living with them. Only good thing is dad and mom died on impact, no one suffered. That’s what Beanie told me and whether it was true or not it was the right thing to say to a little kid. She told me that they were thinking about me right up until the time they crashed.
So all of us grandsons load Homer into the hearse with no problem except Uncle Charles is still wailing. People are actually crying about him crying and it’s all messed up and Grandma is barely able to walk even with Uncle Ray helping her. It’s a bright spring day and usually you’d be happy but this is not a happy scene. Everyone knows Grandma went off on Homer and it’s kind of tense. I’m driving by myself in the funeral procession, chain smoking and trying to talk myself out of what I’m thinking about doing which is to just go up to Grandma and call her a fake to her face and tell her she’s ruining the funeral for the rest of us. Thank God I got through that and settled down, and by the time we got to the cemetery I was feeling a little more charitable. I mean, after all, she lived with him and who knows what they said or did behind closed doors. I know I wouldn’t want to air my dirty shit in public but who was I to tell Grandma how to treat her dead husband?
With my attitude adjusted I went to the hearse and we carried Homer to the graveside. There was an honor guard from the VFW lining up with their rifles and a bugler stood off in the distance. Homer would have loved it, he was being buried in the ‘white’ section of the cemetery. He had taken me there many times to see the grave of his brother, sister and his mother and father, the Mexican side of the family. They were buried down by the creek in low bottom land. Their graves always flooded in the springtime and I could see the standing water now. It was like they were buried at sea and then I thought that would be good for Homer to be buried at sea being a Navy veteran and all. Hell, I had just made him an honorary Shellback.
We got Homer settled on the rack and I stepped to the rear of the group that had gathered. Father Phil was swinging his incense burner and speaking Latin, a dead language, good for a funeral. I looked over a few rows of graves and spotted mom and dad’s stone. It was a nice rose marble color. I usually made it out to the cemetery a couple of times a year, more in recent years. For some reason I really started missing them when I turned thirty. Maybe I was just missing the idea of them being alive and helping me out. I mean Homer and Grandma were always good to me but once I split with Jeannie I just felt like I wanted to talk to my Mom. I had good memories, I was eight when they died. Don’t remember Dad as well, he was always working, at least that’s what mom told me. When I got older Grandma said he wasn’t working he was just out ‘drinking with his whores’ which I thought was a mean thing to say. I talked to Beanie about it and she just said Grandma was a ‘professional unhappy person,’ that making other people unhappy was her chief talent. But Grandma never seemed to make Homer unhappy. I would say he was exactly the opposite. He always had a smile for you, maybe because he was getting all that action on the side. But knowing Grandma the way I did I don’t think I could blame him for doing it. She could be a holy terror and now she was starting up again, crying real loud, saying, “Homer, Homer,” like she was having an asthma attack and Charles is still crying and the casket drops and BAM they fire their volley and Grandma comes straight up out of her chair and falls on the ground in a heap. It was like she had been shot and Charles runs to her and Ray runs to her and they help her up to her feet and I look over at Beanie and she has an expression of “what the hell?” on her face so I know I’m okay thinking they’re all crazy.
I sparked up a cigarette and walked over to Mom and Dad’s graves. Grandma always blamed Dad saying he was driving drunk that night and he had killed her daughter. Did that really matter after they were dead? It always made me wonder if he was, but then what? Does it make you any sadder? Was there any way for me to feel worse than I already did? Maybe that’s why I didn’t feel sorry for Grandma. No, I don’t see much sense in being mad at somebody when they die. Facing the sadness is about more than I can handle.