Cousin Molly saw Larry sitting on the bench on the porch of Jim and Sharon’s home, the old man’s home until he sold it to them five years ago and moved into the assisted living facility.
“Larry,” Molly said, “Come inside with the rest of us. It’s getting cold out here. Have something to eat.”
“I’m okay here, Molly. I’ll come in in a minute,” Larry said.
“Suit yourself,” Molly said. Larry always sets himself apart from the rest of the family.
Barb pulled into the driveway. The headlights from her car swept across the porch. Oh, Christ. There’s Larry keeping a safe distance again.
“Larry, come inside with the rest of us,” Barb said. “Dad wouldn’t want you sitting out here by yourself.”
“I’m fine, Barb. You know the cigarette smoke bothers me,” Larry said.
“Okay,” Barb said. Larry should be inside with the rest of us. Dad thought of him like a son.
Gertie, the old man’s niece, and her husband drove up and parked their van in front of the house.
“Larry, what are you doing out here?” Gertie said.
“I’m just paying my respects from a distance. I can’t take the smoke anymore,” Larry said.
“Oh, all right,” sighed Gertie. Typical Larry. He probably stopped smoking just so he wouldn’t have to be around us. “I’ll bring you out something to eat. At least you won’t starve.”
In a few minutes all the parking spaces on the street filled with the cars of nieces and nephews, cousins and close friends, grandkids and distant relatives, all coming together to console the family of the old man who died last night in the hospice unit of Derrsbury Hospital from colon cancer.
The old man’s house was filling up, and, even though it was chilly, the large windows overlooking the porch where Larry was sitting were opened to let in some fresh air. When Sharon came out, there were several non-smokers sitting outside; she found Larry sitting at the farthest end of the bench, away from the parlor window.
“Larry, Jim and I were talking. We need an obituary for the paper tomorrow. We were wondering if you could help with it?” Sharon said.
“Tom McKinsey writes the obituaries for the paper, Sharon. I’m just the local beat reporter. I’m not sure the paper will be willing to run a story on the old man’s death,” Larry said.
“I know the paper won’t run a story, Larry. Dad has been out of public office for more than twenty years. All his cronies are dead,” Sharon said. Larry’s just begging off doing anything emotional. “We know McKinsey will handle the obituary, but we need to put something together to give him, and since you’re a professional writer we thought maybe you could help. You know, like talk to each of the immediate family about their experiences with Dad and put them in a form that McKinsey will use. Make it an extra nice obituary,” Sharon said, giving Larry her most pitiful look. “Dad would’ve really appreciated something like this.”
“All right, I guess so,” Larry said, taking out his reporter’s notebook.
Jesus, he’s got that notebook with him even here. He must take it into the bathroom in case he has an interesting crap. Sharon handed him an envelope. “Here’s a little write-up Dad put together when he moved into the assisted living.”
Larry took the sheet of paper out of the envelope. “But this is a complete obituary. You don’t need me to write anything if you have this. Just add the date, the place, and the cause of death.”
“Oh, but this is just factual stuff. It doesn’t have any of the human interest you could add,” Sharon said. Larry’s trying to weasel out of the agreement. “Look, remember Dad at my wedding, how proud he was? Couldn’t you add something about that?”
“I thought the old man was really pissed off about you marrying Jim. He always called Jim a knucklehead. I thought the big wedding was to cover up the fact that you were pregnant?” Larry said.
“Well sure, but you know after Mom died and Dad got sick, he and Jim got to be pretty good friends,” Sharon said.
“What you’re really saying is that Jim became the old man’s drinking buddy of last resort. All of his regular drinking buddies were either on the wagon or too sick to be much fun anymore,” Larry said.
“Hey, the guy’s dead. Show some respect,” Sharon said. “You could try to write something nice.” Christ, Larry couldn’t turn off the reporter even for a minute; he interrogates you for a goddamn obituary.
“I’ll see what I can do, Sharon,” Larry said.
After Sharon left, Larry was alone for about ten minutes until Barb came looking for him.
“Christ, what’d you tell Sharon you were going to put in Dad’s obituary, that he was a drunk or something?” Barb said.
“I was just trying to get some details from Sharon about her wedding,” Larry said.
“What? She wanted you to write about that? The whole operation was a cover for her getting knocked up by an auto mechanic’s idiot son. Of course, it turned out well,” Barb said.
“Turned out well? How?” Larry said.
“It turned out well because Dad was always too cheap to buy a decent car. So every time his clunker broke down, he just called Jimmy, and the car got towed to Jim’s father’s shop for repairs at the family rate and Dad got a loaner,” Barb said.
“How about you? You must have a heart-warming story about the old man. He took you in after you were divorced and Roger emptied the bank accounts and refused to pay alimony,” Larry said.
“Mom was still alive then, although only barely. I think Dad took me back to appease her. She liked having me and Jason around, even though she said she never understood why Roger left me,” Barb said.
“You didn’t tell her you were sleeping with Roger’s partner?”
“No, Dad and I agreed it would upset her too much in her last days. We told her it was irreconcilable differences, and that we would explain more when she was feeling better,” Barb said.
“But she never got better?”
“No, she died about three months later. The last five weeks she wasn’t aware of much because of the pain killers,” Barb said.
“So the old man tried to spare your mother’s feelings when she was sick?” Larry said.
“Correct. That would be something nice that you could write,” Barb said.
“And did he spare your feelings about the divorce?” Larry said.
“No, he called me a slut and wondered if Jason wouldn’t be better off with his father,” Barb said. “Look, I need to take a pee.” I really need another drink and someplace warm to drink it, away from this asshole.
The old man’s youngest daughter, Francine, came out next. She was a lesbian and a history teacher in an exclusive all-boys prep school.
“The two harpies sent me out here to talk about Father’s obituary,” Francine said. “He was a pig. I couldn’t stand the thought of ending up like mother, servicing a pig like him.”
“The old man paid for your expensive education at Barnard,” Larry said.
“That’s when he thought I was going to marry the next Nobel prizewinner in chemistry from Princeton. As soon as I dumped Hubert and took up with Lilia, he cut me off,” Francine said.
“Well, you were twenty-six at the time,” Larry said.
“Yeah, but I still had a lot of issues to work out. I hadn’t completed my transformation,” Francine said.
“Still, I remember seeing you and Lilia at all the family gatherings, wakes, funerals,” Larry said.
“Sure, but he wouldn’t let us stay at the house. Said he couldn’t put up with that stuff under his roof,” Francine said.
“Sex, you moron, perverted sex,” Francine said. Larry was going to try to get a rise out of me because I always act to superior toward him. Well, goddamit, I am superior; I have an Ivy-League education and teach the little bastards of the rich and famous in an exclusive boys’ school; I make more money than your average history professor at a third-tier state university and a goddam sight more than a local beat reporter for a hick-town newspaper. “Dad may not have approved of my personal life, but he was happy with my academic success and my faculty appointment at Saint Aloysius.”
“I guess you’re the only daughter who’s really financially self-sufficient?” Larry said.
“That’s right. You could allude to my success in the obituary you’re writing,” Francine said.
“It will be one of the highlights,” Larry said.
“Fuck you,” Francine said. I’m not putting up with any more of Larry’s shit. She went back inside to make herself a double Martini.
Gertie came out with a sandwich and a beer for Larry. She chatted him up for a few moments, thinking he might be lonely out here by himself. After Larry told her about his interviews with the old man’s three daughters, she decided Larry was probably just in a bad mood and might benefit from being left alone.
About the time Larry finished his sandwich, Steve came out. Steve was the old man’s nephew, through Larry’s Aunt Mildred.
“I heard you’re writing the old man’s obit. How’d you get trapped into that?” Steve said.
“Only by minding my own business. I suppose you have some heartwarming stories to tell?” Larry said.
“Hardly, the old man always lorded his success over Mom, how he had to keep bailing her out every time my dad lost his job. I mean how many times did he tell you the story about how he showed up at Mom’s apartment to find my father away and her with two crying kids and no milk in the house?” Steve said.
“I don’t have enough fingers and toes,” Larry said.
“Damn-straight. The old man could be generous when you were really down and out, but piss blood if he was ever going to let you forget about it,” Steve said.
“So, let’s see, for the obituary, he was generous but not magnanimous. Is that about right?” Larry said.
“Hey, don’t quote me one way or the other. I’m still hoping for something in the will,” Steve said.
“I’ll consider it information from an anonymous source,” Larry said.
“Great,” Steve said. “I gotta get another beer before they run out.” God, Larry’s an idiot. But he can afford to be. The old man liked him, and he’ll be taken care of in the will, for sure.
The party inside started to get loud. Some of the guests with regular jobs who couldn’t take sick leave for the death of a distant relative or old friend started to leave. Larry took advantage of the second wave of departures to catch Sharon at the door and tell her that he had to go home and work on the obituary. Sharon thought she should give him an argument about leaving so early, but she was getting a little blotto and decided to just let the morose little bastard go.
Sharon saw Larry sitting in the second row of chairs, the ones reserved for the distant relatives and friends. God, he’ll never change.
“Sit up here near the casket, Larry. Dad always thought of you as one of the kids,” Sharon said.
“I’m okay here, Sharon,” Larry said.
Turning toward the casket, Sharon said, “You know, I almost didn’t recognize Dad. He looks so peaceful. It’s been so long since I’ve seen him without pain on his face.” Sharon sighed. “They did a nice job on him. They’re great here at Moriarty’s. Mom looked better dead than she did alive.”
Just then a group of mourners came into the funeral parlor to pay their respects, and Sharon was distracted from her efforts to get Larry to move. She sat down on one of the long benches reserved for the immediate family near the casket.
Barb came back from the restroom and spotted Larry sitting by himself again. I guess he considers that to be an emotionally safe distance.
“Larry, come sit up here with the family,” Barb said. “Dad would want it that way.”
“Sure, but let me just make a quick visit to the restroom,” Larry said.
When Larry came out of the restroom, he ran into Jim leaving the funeral director’s office.
“Larry, I saw the obituary in the paper today. It didn’t seem to have much of the personal stuff you talked to Sharon about,” Jim said.
“There were a lot of death notices in the paper today, Jim. They had to edit the obituaries to fit on page 5,” Larry said.
“I just talked to the funeral director. He told me the paper charges by the length,” Jim said.
“I’m sure they will only charge you for what they actually published, not what they edited out of the obituary,” Larry said.
“We’d better get back. Father O’Malley is here to say a few prayers,” Jim said. Larry is a lying piece of shit. Christ, one simple thing we asked him to do for Dad, and he screwed it up.
Returning to the greeting room, Larry found that heaven had provided for him in the form of Cousin Bertha, who had ensconced her 223-pound frame into the two chairs on the far right side of the first row. Larry made his way down the third row, lifted the last chair and slid into the second row behind Cousin Bertha. Aunt Irene and Uncle Jake were blocking access to the rest of the second row with their feeble bodies, which once settled would be difficult to relocate until the end of the wake. Anyone wanting to talk to Larry would have to sit next to Cousin Bertha in the first row; an electric fence would have provided a less perfect defense.
Father O’Malley began his brief service talking about his memories of the old man. The old man and O’Malley had been altar boys together at St. Paul’s church and pupils in the parish school in the neighboring city of Derrsbury, the old man just a year older than O’Malley. After high school, they had gone their separate ways, O’Malley into the priesthood and the old man into business and politics, but they had remained friends over the years. The old man hadn’t been particularly religious most of his life; he made appearances at church services and donations to church causes when this proved good for business or politics. After retirement and when his wife became sick, the old man started attending mass more frequently, confessing his sins and receiving communion from Father O’Malley.
Father O’Malley had progressed in the priesthood from assistant pastor to associate pastor and finally to the pastor of St. Paul’s, one of the diocese’s richest and most important churches. The Pope elevated him to the rank of Monsignor, the only protonotary apostolic in the northern part of the diocese. About the time the old man retired, Father O’Malley also retired as pastor and was assigned as an auxiliary priest in the parish of the old man’s assisted living facility. After finishing his reminiscences, Father O’Malley led the mourners in the Lord’s Prayer and spent some time moving along the bench, consoling the members of the old man’s immediate family.
Safely hidden behind Cousin Bertha, an avowed agnostic and religious anti-establishmentarian, Larry asked her how she liked the service.
“I’d rather drown in pig spit than have fraud like O’Malley speak at my wake. When the sexual misconduct scandals broke in Derrsbury, the two cases at St. Paul’s resulted in really big settlements because of Monsignor O’Malley’s efforts to suppress the allegations,” Bertha said.
“Yeah, but he’d been friends with the old man for a long time. It gives the service a personal touch,” Larry said.
“I suppose,” Bertha said. “I just hope the kids put on the same kind of boffo post-wake party like the old man did when Aunt Loraine died. I’m starving. I haven’t eaten since three this afternoon.”
“I’m sure they’ll put on a nice spread,” Larry said. “After all, you can’t mourn somebody properly on an empty stomach.”
“Or with an empty glass,” added Bertha.
The next day Father O’Malley sang the requiem high mass for the old man. After the funeral, Larry managed to mix quickly into the first cohort of the departing crowd, the family friends and distant relatives assigned to the back pews. He remained out of sight near the east door, away from the hearse and the limos designated for the immediate family. Once the hearse pulled away from the curb, Larry bummed a ride to the graveside with Cousin Morton, the son of the old man’s nephew, Edgar.
“Thanks for the lift to the graveside, Morton. I missed the main procession,” Larry said.
“Glad to help out, Larry. You know my dad always had great respect for the old man,” Morton said. I’m really pissed about having to attend this funeral. I barely knew him.
“I didn’t see your father here today, Morton. I hope he’s not sick or something,” Larry said.
“Yeah, Dad was sorry he couldn’t come today,” Morton said. “It’s the big football game today; State versus Central. Dad’s been hosting the tailgating party since forever, and he couldn’t back out. But he is having a moment of silence and a toast with Laphroiag Special Reserve in memory of the old man.”
“It’s some special scotch whiskey, aged for like eighty years. It’s used for toasting dead firemen and such,” Morton said. “It’s a big honor to get toasted with it when you’re dead. Like a twenty-one gun salute.”
“I’ll bet the old man will appreciate it,” Larry said.
“Yeah, wish I could be there to toast him myself,” Morton said.
Morton and Larry were among the last arriving at the cemetery and had to park on the street and walk to the graveside, where the family was gathered under a blue tent with the gold monogram of the funeral home on the top. Gathered around the tent were another two-dozen mourners. Father O’Malley had just begun the internment prayer when Morton and Larry merged into the crowd on the southeast side, out of sight of the immediate family.
“Maybe you should move up under the tent,” whispered Morton. “The old man always treated you like one of the family.”
“I’m okay here, Morton.”
After the service, Sharon, Barb and Francine each placed a single rose on the casket, which was lowered into the grave. Soon the mourners began to depart.
“Morton, you go ahead to the reception without me. I’m going to stay here a few minutes,” Larry said.
“Sure, see you later, Larry,” Morton said. Man, this guy is an odd duck.
It was still early enough in the afternoon to finish the burial. Once the mourners left, the funeral home attendants removed the casket-lowering equipment. Shortly afterwards, the cemetery grounds crew drove up and filled the grave with the dirt stored in a small dump truck. The headstone was moved into a narrow trench and raised upright. A small compactor leveled the dirt above the grave. The grass that had been removed the day before was laid over the dirt in long strips, while another groundskeeper watered it in.
A half hour later, everyone was gone. This section of the cemetery containing the burial plots of prominent local families was deserted, except for Larry who had been observing the activity from the memorial bench next to the grave of his wife’s Aunt Frieda a hundred yards away.
Samantha was waiting at home by the phone. She had refused to be present when Larry pissed on his father’s grave.
“Hello?” Samantha said.
“It’s me,” Larry said.
“Are you finished?” Samantha said.
“I’ve just finished,” Larry said, zipping up his pants.
“I’ll come pick you up.” God, I hope this is settled now.
Only Samantha and Larry knew what the psychiatrist had discovered when he examined Larry’s mother before admitting her to the nursing home with Alzheimer’s – Larry was the old man’s son, from an incestuous relationship the old man had had with his thirteen-year-old sister just before he shipped out to the Philippines in 1943. Larry’s nominal father, a foreman in the old man’s father’s machine-screw factory, was pressed into service to preserve the family name, later becoming the old man’s flunky and dying of cirrhosis in his early fifties. The old man saw to it that Larry and his mother were taken care of financially; Larry went to journalism school on the old man’s nickel.
It was nearly dark when the headlights from Samantha’s car found Larry waiting by the cemetery entrance. They’d make a brief appearance at the reception at Jim and Sharon’s house, but then leave early when Samantha’s migraine returned.
Andrew Hogan received his doctorate in development studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before retirement, he was a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, where he taught medical ethics, health policy and the social organization of medicine in the College of Human Medicine.
Dr. Hogan published more than five-dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. He has published thirty-one works of fiction in the OASIS Journal (1st Prize, Fiction 2014), Hobo Pancakes, Subtopian Magazine, Twisted Dreams, Thick Jam, Grim Corps, Long Story Short, Defenestration, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Blue Guitar Magazine, Festival Writer (Pushcart Nominee), Fabula Argentea, Mobius, Thrice, The Lorelei Signal, Colliers, Sandscript, and the Copperfield Review.