As you start getting up in years, thoughts of mortality initiate a tag-team match inside your skull, especially when you notice the number of dead online friends is creeping up on the number of your live online friends. It shouldn’t be all that bothersome, though. Not everyone is lucky enough to reach “old age.” I served in Vietnam and I have way too many buddies who are still just 19, 20 years old in everyone’s memories—their names still looking freshly carved into that long black wall.
While experimenting with a new version of an old recipe the other night, I remembered a memorial I had attended not all that long ago. I hardly knew the guy. Hadn’t seen him for over 20 years, but he was related to friends. I remember his gal at the time. Nice looking. Friendly. But solidly attached to her guy. That guy.
It was a pretty large crowd in attendance. That’s always comforting. I often think about my services . . . in the somewhat near future. My family should show up. Unless there’s a concert in Nashville. Friends? Yeah, about a dozen. Unless I outlive them.
They had a slide show running, off to the right, behind the podium. Lots of pictures. I recognized his wife, though I hadn’t seen her either in over 20 years. Photos of him mowing the lawn. Sitting on a swing. Washing his car. Waxing his car. Sitting in his car.
His brother was the first to speak. It had been a sudden heart attack. The silent illness. And he started out saying that his little brother was the first of all the boys to leave us. How it had hit them hard, and how much he missed him already. He talked about how much his brother had loved his wife. She didn’t take the podium that day. She was still deeply mourning.
And then his brother looked around, smiled, and said, “And boy did he love his car.” Light laughter wafted up from the audience. “He kept that thing spotless.” Yeah, there were quite a few photos of him and his car. “You had to wipe your shoes off before you got in his car.”
“I have no idea how many coats of wax that thing had, but I know he kept a chamois in the glove compartment. He really loved that car.”
With the fourth speaker, he seemed to have run out of brothers. But that last one informed us, or at least me, because I really didn’t know the guy, that he carried a portable vacuum cleaner in the trunk. “I had to take off my shoes just to sit in his car.”
I envisioned the next speaker exclaiming, “I had to pull my pants down and bend over while he hosed off my ass before I could sit in his car. He really loved that car.”
Next I learned he had another sister. I was sitting next to a sister I’d known back then. She’d flown in for the services.
I was expecting her to tell us, “I had to douche before I could sit in his car,” but thank God, she changed the subject. “He loved going to the casino.”
Or at least I’d thought she’d changed the subject.
“You’ve all seen his car keys, right?” Some gentle laughter ensued. Then she held up something, “I bought this key chain at the casino. It’s just like my big brother’s. Gold dice,” she added shaking them so we could hear.
With a bit of squinting, I could finally make them out. They were two extra-large gold dice on her key chain.
“He really loved going to the casino.” In his car, I assumed.
Then his mother took the podium. She didn’t have much to say, but asked, “Does anyone want to say anything? Any memories you want to share with us?”
A hand went up slowly. Mom pointed out it was one of his cousins.
“I think I gave him the best birthday present he’s ever gotten. I got him his car stereo. We’d put the top down, turn her up, and take off for a ride.” His sister leaned over to me and squinched her nose, “He works at AutoZone.”
Back at the podium: “He loved that stereo!”
Finally there was the performative “moment of silence,” and then the feast. Ham and cheese, potato salad, dinner rolls. It certainly wasn’t a Sicilian affair. At a Sicilian affair, you need a “made” man or two at the door to keep out the crashers.
I’ll never forget my grandmother’s funeral.
At all the funerals I can remember, it was my grandmother who took charge in the kitchen, waving a wooden spoon, barking out orders, sampling the cheeses, and asking aunt Bessie why the cannolis aren’t stuffed yet. And the sauce. She worked on that sauce for two days. You’d think the Pope had died.
I carried in some groceries to the kitchen when my grandmother had died. There was silence. I put everything on the counter, looked around, and there was silence. Nobody moved. I swear my grandmother was trying to dig her way out of the earth to get to that damn kitchen and start kicking some Sicilian ass.
I sat next to his mom. We’d known each other back then. She asked me if I was married yet. I told her, “You don’t look Jewish.” She laughed.
And then the politics started up and she told me that Hillary was going to jail.
“You just watch. Hillary’s going to jail.”
“She’s not been convicted . . . or indicted.”
“You just wait. It’ll all come out soon. She’s committed hundreds of crimes.”
Even her husband across the table, smiled, looked at the ground, and shook his head.
Then there were the kids. Her grandkids. All grown up. They didn’t recognize me. Twenty years earlier the little one, the cute little blonde would run at me and jump into my arms, hugging me and saying, “I love you.”
Her kids made me melt back then. And now they didn’t even know me. Their mom told me they remembered the dog that spoke Hebrew. Well, understood Hebrew, but you know kids.
I suddenly felt really out of place. I went over to his widow who was standing near an exit. Her eyes lit up. She remembered me. But then, I had hair and teeth still. I gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I asked, “You okay?”
“Yeah, getting there.”
Outside I looked for my car and quickly remembered I’d come along with neighbors. Damn.
So I lit up a tiny Cuban cigar and notice that right in front of the church entrance was that car. His car. The car he loved.
The top was down. Not a speck of dust or a piece of lint anywhere. I recognized the keychain immediately, hanging from the rearview mirror. I hadn’t attended his funeral, but I guessed this was sort of an open casket. He loved that car.
But in the pit of my stomach growled a mournful plea: Dear Lord, I sure hope they’ll have more to say about me than I loved my fucking car. That I made a difference. That I served my country and murdered Asian patriots for freedom and democracy. That 30 years later I found I couldn’t sleep because I was wracked with guilt. That I’d made art. That I’d moved people. That I’d touched those I taught as much as they’d touched me. That I’d built a charity and a nonprofit to help fellow human beings. That I had saved a life or two. That I created laughter, love, and true friendship. That I mattered.
And I sure as hell hoped that someone would at least mention that I stole that asshole’s fucking car.
Loved the stereo.
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