Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Jack in a Box

For the first, I don’t know, hour? it felt like me and the open casket were the only things in the room.
I was there, at the hospital when he died, but my mom and her brothers and sister were in his room and I was in the palliative care waiting area with my cousins. When the doctor, this Indian woman who was so lovely—in both senses of the word—told us Grandpa Jack was dead, my cousin Trevor leaned his body forward, faced the ceiling and started sobbing, his Adam’s apple bobbing away, and the doctor had actually gone up and pulled his head against her breast—breast in both senses of the word. I’d gone in then to say goodbye to Grandpa Jack, and I’d nearly thrown up, but his body was different at that point. It was still warm from life, but it was so changed, so, so sunken. I mean, I understood why people say that the body’s just a shell.
But the people who dressed him up for this visitation were really effective, I think. They captured some essence that, well, I don’t know how they could find it in the photographs Grannie gave them. She must have picked really good pictures.
So, yeah. I was in the receiving line after Mom, but before my younger sister and before Dad, even though the way that my aunts and uncles did it was to stand beside their husband or wife and let the kids, the ones that were there, follow. Grannie first, then in order of the sibling’s age, that’s how my Mom and her brothers and sisters did it, which, since Mom is the youngest meant that Dad was the last in line. I was meeting people and stuff, but mostly I was feeling this weird pressure, like a pushing, like one of those lead vests they give you when you are about to get an X-ray. Plus, I was crying, obviously. Periodically, at least.
When my cousin Trevor and his girlfriend walk in—late, of course—he starts putting his hand on people’s shoulders and asking them how they’re doing and crying with them and I think the truth is that everyone—everyone else—is grateful for the distraction.
I was born at 9 a.m. on my due date and Trevor was born the same day, 13 days early, at 11:50 p.m. Same year. I was born in Toronto and he was born in Hamilton and Grandpa Jack used to joke that it was considerate of Trevor to show up late—in the day, he meant—so that everybody had a chance to enjoy me for a bit before meeting Trevor. There were implications to this that I didn’t appreciate.
Once though, Grandpa Jack looked at Trevor and said, “It’s amazing all parents don’t kill their children, even just once.” I held on to that one.
When Trevor got down awkwardly to pray, on the little bench in front of Grandpa Jack’s coffin, I saw that he was drunk. His girlfriend, Jacqueline, she was swaying like a skinny tree in a storm wind. She grabbed her purse like it might steady her and a bottle stuck its stoppered neck out. The whole receiving line—really more like a receiving U—lurched forward when she put her hand on the casket. Trevor’s mom, Aunt Cindy, she actually came up and walked Jacqueline over to their spot in line and propped Jacqueline up against Trevor’s dad, Uncle Louis, who, I once over-heard Aunt Cindy say, had provided the genetic blue-print for Trevor’s big penis. After that, I shied away from Uncle Louis’s wiggling tickle fingers, or Trevor’s invitations, under Grandpa Jack’s blossoming lilac, to compare genitals.
There was a piece of that lilac in that coffin with Grandpa Jack. A picture of all the grandkids, too. One that Uncle Richie picked because his daughter, Tina, looks great in it. Tina looks great in every picture, but in this particular one, I am at the very beginning of a flinch. Out of frame, Uncle Daryl has just lofted a football towards me. My consolation is that Trevor looks nuts, his eyes wide and heavily towards that ball, the beginnings of that big smile just tearing at the corners of his mouth. The picture of me that I had in my pocket is way better. I don’t believe in heaven or anything like it. I don’t believe that Grandpa took any pictures with him anywhere—like he’s got some non-corporeal wallet that he filled with photos of his grandkids—but I knew that those pictures were going with him into the ground and if they haven’t been fucked up by the soup of rot that Grandpa is or was, then someone might someday excavate Grandpa and, without evidence to the contrary, think that I had some sort of spastic nervous disorder. Not that there would be anything wrong with that, it’s just that it isn’t true. 
When Trevor finished praying he got up, steadying himself against Grandpa’s coffin—though he spoke to Grandpa’s body right then to make it look like he wasn’t just propping himself up—and he went around the receiving line, even though he was supposed to be part of the receiving line, giving everyone these big, long, heart chakra to heart chakra hugs and, of course, everybody had this next wave of strong feelings. I wished that Trevor would just leave them all alone.
When he got to me, he breathed bourbon vapor into my ear to ask me how I was doing.
“How do you think, Trevor?”
“I hate seeing Grandpa Jack in a box.”
I laughed, the spasm of my diaphragm distancing our chakras.
Trevor pulled me back tight. “You okay, buddy?”
“Jack in a box,” I said.
He stroked the back of my neck and said, Shh, hot into my ear.
I flinched.
“Don’t you wish he’d just pop right up?”
“Stop it,” I said.
Then he started humming “Pop Goes the Weasel” and we both laughed and some people looked at us like they were horrified, or at least very shocked, but our family looked at us like, Oh, you two. Like behind their sad smiles they were all just clicking their tongues.
In the basement there were two single person bathrooms and I was waiting for one to free up, for either Great Aunt Marge or this father and his young daughter from the visitation across the hall to finish their business. Trevor smiled at me as he and Jacqueline, arm in arm, stumbled by wiggling the bathroom door-handles. The father called out, Nearly finished, but poor Aunt Marge was silent, probably mortified. When she raced out of the bathroom, as fast as those old legs would go, she didn’t even look at anyone. Not even when Trevor said, “Hi Margey.” I really had to pee, but, with a gesture towards the open door, offered the bathroom to Trevor or Jacqueline. Trevor shook his head and gave me a thumbs down, but I insisted. Maybe to be accommodating, maybe because he had something else in mind, Trevor put his arm around Jacqueline, kissed me on the cheek then took Jacqueline into the washroom with him.
Trevor and Jacqueline were laughing at first. “Having fun in there, I guess,” the father said when his daughter asked what that noise was. As I peed, their sounds transitioned to include grunting and groaning. I left without washing my hands.
Grandpa Jack was alone in his box and the room was empty except for a caretaker. I smiled at him. He nodded and went back to sweeping. I lifted Grandpa Jack’s arm and tucked the nice photo of me under it.

The morning after, the family was sorting through more pictures for display boards, drinking coffee and eating pastries, when Mom got a call from the funeral home. Nobody was in trouble or anything, but they just wanted us to know that last night someone had moved their bowels beside the toilet.
Of course, I didn’t ask Trevor about it when he showed up with his grief, his hangover and a bag from McDonald’s.
Trevor sat down beside me and, without removing his Ray-Bans, silently ate two Egg McMuffins and three hash-browns. He wiped his hands, quietly crumpled his paper bag, and pulled out a pack of Belmonts. “Smoke with me,” he said.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Just come.”
We stood out under Grandpa’s lilac. Trevor lit a cigarette, exhaled and asked, “Did Jacqueline and I seem wasted last night?”
I shook my head. “Not really.”
“That’s good. The lady at the desk, the hostess or whatever, from the funeral home. She tried to stop us from coming in.”
Trevor started playing with a cluster of the tiny purple flowers. “Fuck her, right?”
“I guess.”
Trevor laughed quietly.
“The funeral home just called. Said somebody took a dump beside the toilet.”
“Trouble with your aim, Mark?”
I opened my mouth, but I hadn’t thought of anything to say.
He laughed again. “Weird thing to do, man.”
“I thought you and Jacqueline were fucking in there.”
“Ha ha. No. Good idea, though. Maybe this afternoon.”
“Warn me if you do.”
“So you can listen in?”
“No.” I vigorously shook my head. “So I can avoid the bathrooms.”
He wrapped his arms around my waist. “You don’t like thinking about Jacqueline and me?”
I turned back to the house and started walking.
“Hey, I’m just shitting you, Mark. Come back.”
“I’ve got work to do,” I said. And I did, right? I sort of did.

Toronto, ON, August 2015

Emoji sequence: Justin Small of Do Make Say Think and Lullabye Arkestra. Justin is publishing a song a week for a year. This week he published his 13th song. This story is in honour of Justin making it one quarter of the way through his 52 weeks. I strongly encourage you to subscribe
Story: Lee Sheppard

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