L'enfer, c'est les autres
(Hell is other people.)
- Jean Paul Sartre, No Exit (1944)
Dan found Rich Buchanon easily in the viewing room where his grandmother had been the night before. He was the first to arrive, Rich told him, but it was still almost twenty minutes to noon. Dan was only expecting the pallbearers, John, Brian, Adam, Jeff, Dan’s Uncle George and his cousin Saul. Perhaps their families would be with them, but everybody else would likely be meeting at the cemetery.
Sure enough, everyone was there on time and they loaded Chulkie’s casket into the hearse with a minimum of pomp. Dan rode in the limo behind the hearse alone, not counting Bill, and there were less than a dozen cars in the procession. Even at a dignified speed, it only took a few minutes to make the journey to the cemetery. Dan could see as they approached the entrance that there were quite a number of cars parked along New Holland Avenue.
The hearse and limo pulled into the cemetery along with the cars in tow. As they pulled up to the open grave, surrounded by Astroturf and covered by a temporary canopy in case of rain, there were more people there than he had expected. He could identify most of the faces in the crowd, but there were still several whom Dan did not know, or at least did not recognize.
The sun had gone behind thick winter clouds, which washed out the day in a dull gray. Rich tapped on the glass and slid open the partition between the front of the car. “Are you ready?” He asked.
“Give me a minute, Rich.” Dan said. “I just want to collect my thoughts. Thanks.”
Rich got out and began collecting the pallbearers around the back of the hearse. Dan could see peoples’ breath in the cold air. It must have grown colder again, he thought.
Bill sat opposite Dan in the limo, facing him. “You ready?” He asked.
“Ready as I’ll ever be, I suppose.” Dan replied.
“This is what the week has been leading up to.” Bill suggested. “It’s not only time to bury your grandmother, but also to bury your past and all of its negative connotations. It’s time to let go of all the bad stuff that ties you to this place. Release yourself. The ghosts here still haunt you because you let them. You give them that power. Let go. Just let go.”
Dan just nodded his head and sighed deeply. “Showtime.” He said under his breath, and opened the door. Cold air rushed into the limo as he stepped out into the cemetery. His feet crunched on the frost that clung to the grass as he made his way to edge of the grave, under the canopy. He silently nodded to friends and family he passed along his way. The casket was carried from the hearse and set down gently on the thick straps suspended above the open grave. Once in place, the pallbearers dispersed and stood next to wives and kids and other family and friends. The casket containing his grandmother seemed to float above the open hole.
Someone handed Dan an “In Memoriam” program with Chulkie’s name and birth date, etc. on it, along with her favorite passage from the bible. It also listed the service to be performed today. The pastor Rich had gotten was from Adam’s church, so Dan was happy about that.
The reverend stepped up the lectern and opened the service with a prayer. Everyone present bowed their heads, except for Dan who defiantly held his head high and his eyes open. He always did that during any public praying, regardless of the event. It tended to piss off the more exuberant christians, which was fine by Dan. He felt that freedom of religion also meant freedom from religion, if that was your choice, but most people he debated this with disagreed. They thought he should just go along with the crowd and be respectful of their religion. But Dan couldn’t do that. He couldn’t just go along with any crowd if he didn’t agree with the underlying principle behind it.
Dan didn’t really pay much attention to the service. It was for the people there, and it was what Chulkie wanted. So he kept it traditional for their sakes, and in the end thought he had been as respectful as he could to something he disagreed with whole-heartedly. Instead he spent his time looking around at the assembled crowd. He divided them into three camps. People he knew, people he didn’t know, and people he could make educated guesses about.
People Dan knew made up about sixty percent or so. They included his remaining relatives, old friends and their families and curious old acquaintances that Dan had not seen or spoken to since he’d left Shillington. Trixie was there, keeping to herself near the back. The educated guess folks included the doctors and nurses from the Hassler Home, neighbors Dan didn’t know, and people from his grandmother’s church, no doubt perplexed by Reverend Dreher’s absence. That was probably another twenty or thirty percent. So left ten to twenty people that Dan didn’t have a clue how they were connected to his grandmother. Did they know about the wake? He didn’t like the idea of strangers at the wake, but he kept reminding himself that the wake was for his grandmother; to honor her memory. It was not about Dan.
He looked done at the program to see they were about halfway through the short ceremony. Good, he thought, and his thoughts drifted once more away from the present. He was picturing this same spot twenty years before, when they buried his mother. The crowd was a little bigger, but not by a much. And quite a few of the people here today were also there with Dan twenty years before. For a few of them, that was the last time he’d seen them since he’d left for California not long afterwards.
Someone nudged Dan gently in the ribs. Dan turned to see his cousin Saul. “It’s time to throw the dirt on the casket.” He said softly.
“Oh, right. Sure.” Dan said, trying to regain his composure. There was a pile of dirt right next to the grave and he knew he should take the dirt from there, but it just didn’t feel right. He walked a few yards away from the group to the tree where his step-grandfather Wilbur had stood during his mother’s funeral and stopped. He was aware that all eyes were watching him and all of them were confused, to say the least. But Dan’s reputation for eccentricity often allowed him to easily act first, explain later, since acting unusually was, for him at least, normal. In a way, it was expected. Though perhaps no one would say so, most probably expected that he would do something out of the ordinary today. Dan knelt down and dug up a handful of earth near the base of Wilbur’s tree. He then walked it back and sprinkled it on Chulkie’s casket. A few other people added dirt of their own and then it was done.
A man from the funeral home lowered the casket into the grave and the pastor concluded the ceremony. He announced that the wake would take place immediately after the ceremony. Dan thanked Rich Buchanon and Reverend Moyer, the pastor from Adam’s church. People milled around for a while and Dan shook a lot of hands and accepted condolences from many more. It was still quite cold and Dan got the crowd’s attention to say they should all follow him back to Chulkie’s house, where it was much warmer and there were food and beverages.
He led them back down the road and onto Broad Street. It was like a small parade. The only thing missing was the marching band. Dan would have liked having a New Orleans style band to play dirges on the walk back. He was kicking himself for not having thought of it before now.
When they reached Chulkie’s house, several people were waiting there ahead of him. Dan was surprised to find that the door was already open and the food and drinks spread out in the kitchen and living room. Trixie was inside in the dining room. She was arranging things on the table when Dan approached her.
“I hope you don’t mind.” She said. “But I knew you wouldn’t do anything until you got here and then everyone would just be waiting around. So I stopped by this morning and started putting everything out.”
“Wow.” Dan said. “Thanks. You really do know me, don’t you? I appreciate this a lot.”
It was strange how easily Trixie had slipped back into his life, Dan thought. And not only that, she seemed to be at home here in his grandmother’s house. It was as if she had remained a part of his family when he effectively left it, like they’d traded places. She seemed to know where everything was in the drawers and cabinets and moved around the place with a practiced ease. There was a time when that might have pissed off Dan, but he was actually grateful for the help. Everything was laid out very nicely, and much better than Dan would have done. He left her to it then, and returned to greet his guests.
His relatives, for the most part, had taken seats in the living room and had plates of finger foods perched on their laps or knees. His friends, by contrast were mostly in the kitchen where the drinks were. Dan could see the house was starting to fill up so he began making the rounds and talking to each person in turn.
His Uncle George and Aunt Amy were seated at the sofa alongside his Great Aunt Helen. Not surprisingly, George made a reference to god’s plan. His aunt and uncle were good salt-of-the-earth people, but Dan was glad he wasn’t subjected to even the passive preaching that their newfound faith engendered. His Aunt Helen mercifully was as cranky and lucid as ever. She was in her mid-nineties so he was very glad she hadn’t succumbed to the same dementia that Chulkie had at the end of her life. It seemed like she had been robbed of the remaining years of her life. He thanked them for being there and moved on.
Aunt Mary and Uncle Jacob were seated across from George and Amy with his cousin Saul standing behind them, with a beer in his hand. He chatted with his aunt and uncle amiably before turning his attention to his cousin Saul. Dan thanked him for being a pallbearer.
“No problem, dude.” Saul replied. “I haven’t seen you since I was a kid.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s true.” Dan admitted. “How old were you when I left?”
“I had just started junior high so I was probably around thirteen.” Saul told him.
“Jesus, does that mean you’re thirty-three now?” Dan asked.
“I will be in a few months. I’m still thirty-two now.” Saul answered.
“Wow. I guess I missed a lot.” Dan shook his head. “What are you doing these days?”
“I live in New York City, near the village. I’m just home for a visit.” He explained. “I went to NYU and just ended up staying. I work for a publishing company. I’m a low-level flunky but I really love it in New York. Not like this place. There’s nothing to do here.”
His father, Dan’s Uncle Jacob started to disagree. “Now that’s not true. You just never liked it here. But there’s plenty to do here.”
“Whatever, Dad.” Saul said dismissively, pulling Dan aside so his parents could no longer here him.
“For a while there, you were my hero because you got out of here.” Saul confessed. “I couldn’t wait to get out of this place but you were the only family I knew who made it. My parents always talked about you like you’d be coming back any minute but I always secretly hoped you wouldn’t. Not that I didn’t want to see you, just that it gave me hope. You know what I mean?”
“Wow. Did they tell you why I left?” Dan asked.
“Not really.” Saul admitted. “They said it had to do with your mom and your stepfather. But I didn’t find out your mom was murdered until I was older. In fact, I was out of high school before somebody told me, and even then it was a friend’s dad who was surprised that I didn’t know about it. I guess it was big news around here at the time. But I didn’t know anything about it. I was mad at my folks for a while after that. I hated that they had tried to shelter me for so long. It was infuriating, you know what I mean.”
“I’m afraid I do. It must be a Pilger family thing.” Dan speculated. “My mom did the same thing to me when I was a kid. She had a really hard time letting me grow up. We fought all the time. To be honest, I really wish we’d had the chance to patch things up before she died. I don’t want to sound too much like an oldster, but you should try to get along with your parents while they’re still around. Otherwise, you may regret it later, when they’re gone and it’s too late. You know what I mean?”
Saul shuffled uneasily. “Yeah. I know. We get along okay now. It’s been much better since I live in New York. I can visit them pretty regularly but it’s also far enough that I can be myself. By the way, you live in California, right?”
“San Francisco. Yeah.” Dan answered tentatively.
“Could I visit you out there?” Saul asked excitedly. “I’ve always wanted to go to California.”
Dan was relieved, expecting another ignorant misunderstanding about his adopted city. He had long ago tired of people thinking it was a crime-ridden, AIDs infected, gays on every corner kind of town that threatened Dan with every step he took out of doors. “Yeah, of course. You can crash at my place anytime. I’ll even pick you up at the airport, unless you’d rather take BART, which is our subway system.”
“Cool.” Saul said.
Dan shook his hand and, seeing more people demanding his attention, left Saul in the middle of the living room. He ducked into the kitchen and poured himself a drink. Neighbors he didn’t know introduced themselves to Dan, as did a few nurses from the Hassler Home. Dr. Arzt expressed his sympathies as he left, explaining he had the evening shift at the home. Even Rasta Granny had a few words for Dan, in something approaching civility. It was probably the best she could manage. Her husband, who looked long-suffering, ushered her out of the house after she’d spoken to Dan.
A contingency of blue hairs that identified themselves as being friends of his grandmother’s from Grace Lutheran interrogated Dan about why Reverend Dreher had not performed the ceremony. He tried to be as polite as he could without coming off as a complete heathen. There were few things scarier than an angry mob of old women. Especially christian women. He told them he’d know Reverend Moyer before and since Sutherland wasn’t at their church anymore — everybody had liked him — he’d asked the pastor he knew. Anyway, they seemed to buy it and he got the hell out there.
Dan checked out who was in the dining room and tried to grab a bite to eat. He found Jamie there. He had remembered to come after all, Dan thought. He walked up to as he was filling his plate. “Hey Jamie.”
Jamie jumped. “Geez, you startled me.”
Dan laughed. “Sorry about that. Good to see you. I’m glad you came. Thanks. I really mean it.”
“Hey, no problem. Wouldn’t have missed it. I wanted to see the one who got away.” Jamie explained.
“What do you mean?” Dan was perplexed.
“Well …” Jamie began. “C’mon. I work in a factory. I didn’t get out of here, did I. Hell, I still spend my free time with the same people I did in high school. We still reminisce about our glory days, as if our lives were over when we graduated from high school. I don’t mean to complain. My life is okay. I have fun. Tom and Barry and Mike are, good loyal friends. I have enough money, I’m not rich but I’m not living in the street either. But it’s pretty god damn dull; let me tell you. I can’t remember the last time something extraordinary happened. Maybe never. Then you disappeared. I didn’t see you for a couple of years. Every now and then, I’d wonder what happened to you. Eventually, somebody tells me you’re in California. They don’t know why or what you’re doing. I was immediately intrigued. I imagined all sorts of adventures you were having. Every now and then I’d hear something more. A snippet here, a rumor there. I couldn’t tell you the other day because the guys were there. I don’t think they’d understand. Anyway, I started to live vicariously through what I imagined you were doing.”
Dan was very surprised to hear Jamie go on about this. It had never occurred to him that his leaving would have a positive effect on anyone. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You can start by telling me some juicy tales about San Francisco. What are the women there like?” Jamie laughed. “No, I’m just kidding. Do you have e-mail?”
“Yeah, of course.” Dan told him.
“Maybe we could keep in touch. I’d like that. Just to know what somebody was doing outside of this hell would make it easier on me.” Jamie wondered. “Would that be okay? Is that too much? I know we weren’t the best of friends but I did always admire you. Though when we in high school there was that weird hierarchy and it’s all I knew. When I look back it was pretty stupid but then it was very important to me, I can’t even remember why. Anyway, I should have been a better friend to you.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it. It was a long time ago. To be honest, you weren’t a bad friend. I always knew you had responsibilities and obligations because you were popular but you were always cool to me. We hung out once and a while, you were never condescending or pretended not to know me. In a way, you risked your popularity to be my friend. Anyway, I always appreciated it.” Dan remarked sincerely. Dan pulled out his notebook and wrote his e-mail address on it, handing it to Jamie, who did the same.
“It all seems so fucking ridiculous now.” He admitted. “If I knew how things would turn out, I might have done things differently, made different choices. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I do.” Dan confided. “I have plenty of regrets.”
Jamie leaned in closed. “Do you mind if we keep this conversation to ourselves? I know it’s stupid but my reputation is all I have left. I don’t want people around here to know any of this.”
“This is between you and me. Nobody else. Wild dogs couldn’t drag it out of me.” Dan laughed.
Jamie laughed, too, but sounded a little relieved. “Thanks man. I really appreciate it. Did I see KZ here? And Trixie?”
“Probably. I ran into her a couple of days ago and invited her. She’s divorced, you know?”
“No, I hadn’t heard that.” Jamie said. “That is good news, indeed. And Trixie?” He repeated.
“That one’s pretty weird. It’s been twenty years since she’s talked to me. Last night she shows up here after the viewing and we talked most of the evening. It was good, but also strange after so long. So I don’t know what’s going on with her yet.” Dan explained.
‘Well good luck with that.” Jamie offered. “You’re going to need it.”
“Tell me about it.” Dan knew. “It was really good seeing you, man.”
“I can’t tell you what it’s meant to me. Thanks.” Jamie shook Dan’s hand vigorously but Dan moved in and hugged him. He seemed startled at first. Dan suspected he wasn’t used to being hugged, but to his credit Jamie accepted it and hugged back.
Dan moved on to the kitchen, seeing Bill sitting in the corner. As he entered the room, Bill pointed at KZ standing nearby. He reached up and squeezed the air right in front of her breasts. Dan could see him laughing as he did it. He just shook his head and grabbed another beer out of the refrigerator. At least Bill was having a good time, he thought.
Weaver Came up to Dan and asked. “Is he here?”
“Who, Bill?” Dan half pretended not to know.
“Yes.” John sounded exasperated. “Who else?”
Dan laughed. “He’s in the corner pretending to fondle KZ.”
“Really?” John seemed excited.
“Yeah, really.” He’s waving to you now.
“Cool.” Weaver exclaimed. “Right back at you buddy.” He said, raising his glass seemingly to nobody.
“Hey John.” Dan said seriously. “Thanks a lot for being here. You’re a kindred sprit, man. I really appreciate it.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it.” John replied, but he’d had enough to drink already that serious reflection was beyond him.
So Dan let it go at that, patting him on the back warmly and moving into the hallway towards the living room again ending his first slow loop around the party. He would make many more such loops over the next several hours. During that time Dan would make idle chitchat with more neighbors and field more questions from church members. Most, if not all, of the guests from the Hassler Home stayed only a polite amount of time, which was quite understandable. They felt close to their former patient but knew virtually no one else at the wake. The other people who were there in their official capacity, Dan’s lawyer Jim Anwalt and the Rich Buchanon, the funeral director, among others, had also left as early as they could, which was fine with Dan. He kept waiting for all of his relatives and the remaining neighbors to leave, so the real party could begin.
John finally introduced Dan to his wife Amanda and his daughter Polly, who was now nine. They had met at college but Dan had left by the time they’d married and like most of the important events in his friends life after he’d moved to California, he was unable to attend the wedding. Whenever he talked to Amanda on the phone, Dan always had the impression she held it against him. She clearly didn’t like Dan for some reason. But she was polite to him and it was certainly nice to put a face with the voice. Dan thought there was a chance that meeting her in person might soften her animosity toward him. Polly was really a sweet kid, though. Apparently she’d developed a crush on Jeff’s son Dominick, or was it the other way around? He wasn’t exactly sure. But they were clearly flirting in that adolescent way that could still be called innocent love. Amanda and Polly were leaving, and much to Polly’s embarrassment they were taking Dominick and Jeff’s daughter with them to spend the night. Dan said his goodbyes and returned to the wake and his loops.
He thanked Trixie again when he ran into her taking with Adam, Jeff and Brian. She had been telling them what she’d been doing for the last twenty years and was probably tiring of telling the story over and over again. Stepping back from that scene, Dan could also believe he’d been transported back in time. It was such a familiar sight; all his friends and his girlfriend chatting at a party. It made him a little nostalgic. In the years before he moved to California this scene was nearly ubiquitous on any given weekend. He spent a lot of times with friends and it was hard to be so abruptly cut off from them when he left. He had friends in California, and some very good ones, but it had taken a considerable amount of time before he felt as comfortable with them as he did with this bunch.