They Can’t Say We Never Tried
Two women try to remain friends when their friend in common moves away.
a standalone short/excerpt from my completed but unpublished (and unedited) novel, Crooked
Everyone at the service wants to know when Renee got into town, how long she’s staying, how sorry they are about Cecil. All but the last is nervous chatter because, apparently, she visits once a year. She’s still a part of this community. I can tell there are other things people want to say, but a funeral isn’t the appropriate place.
Renee made good in a big way and the town wants some of that for itself. I’ve been gone for 10 years and no one’s busted up about it. A few people say, “hello Arrich,” but most are content with quick nods without words. All the attention is directed at Cecil’s wife Dana, and to Renee.
“Cecil was so proud of you Renee.”
Renee cries with inaudible grace, wiping steady tears without wailing like she did with me. Despite that, a woman who worked with Cecil, Helen, comes over and hugs Renee from the side, then positions herself beside and behind her, a firm hand on her shoulder and a muted glare at me, as if she’s protecting Renee from voodoo. Renee thanks her, and pats one of her own hands over Helen’s, releasing it from service. The man next to Helen offers a pat on the same shoulder and his own “so sorry Renee.”
Renee catches me rolling my eyes a little and quietly digs a heel into the front of my shoe, trapping and pinching a toe. Now we are both crying. I whisper,
“I loved him too Renee.”
I hardly knew him, but Renee lets up on my foot. I make thoughtlessly thoughtful statements all the time, ones she scolds me for, but today it’s okay for some reason.
“You hardly knew him, you jerk.”
She says jerk like it means buddy, strangely comforted by my usual bullshit.
Cecil was cremated, but his will has a lot of strange stuff in it regarding the funeral. The first is we’re doing this thing at a cemetery instead of just putting him in a tin can on the mantle and calling it a day. Most of his remains are going home with Dana, but a couple of scoops (enough to make a pot of coffee) are to be laid to rest here. That part is fine, but what’s weird to me is that it’s not in an actual burial plot. We’re almost to the road, the nearest headstone is 20 paces into the graveyard, and we’re planting a tree no bigger than a potted houseplant with the coffee scoops of Cecil.
It’s ridiculous. I think it, but keep myself from whispering to Renee whose eyes are locked forward with everyone else’s in sober reflection. Nothing for me to do but attempt to reflect soberly.
More than half the town is here, in their Sunday best, witnessing what amounts to superficial landscaping. It seems so overdone and melodramatic to me, but it makes me think of another ridiculous offering of Cecil’s.
“What was that fish he had mounted in his office?”
I can hardly ask Renee without laughing. She remembers and seems, like me, to associate what’s going on around us with the fish, shakes her head before whispering back to me in recognition,
Right. An anchovy. Just one. He wasn’t outdoorsy, but went once with fishing-obsessed friends on a trip. They all brought back monsters they mounted. With no prize of his own Cecil had the last piece of his bait taxidermy’d instead. The little fish is 20 times smaller than the wood it’s mounted on. A comic proportion, a lot like a tiny sapling being planted by a couple hundred people in formal attire. Renee puts an arm around me and kisses the side of my face before whispering,
“He loved that thing.”
Although Cecil rarely went to church he insisted that the Baptist minister speak, as well as a mendicant from the Buddhist Meditation Resource Center (slash bookstore slash gift shop slash natural foods purveyor) located in a downtown strip mail. She brought along two assistants, so there are 4 people in religious attire hovering over a folding card table with Cecil’s urn on it.
“Are we all ready to lay brother Cecil to rest?”
Rev. Philip Ishmael Pryce (who I called Fisher Price when I was younger, but caught hell for it) gets the spiritual party started. People nod in the affirmative. He’s wearing long flowing robes that are mismatched. The top-most one is white (with a coffee stain), but the layers underneath are light purple and a faded pink. There seems to be more of them then there are supposed to be.
“Good morning my friends.”
I’m the only one, other than the mendicant and her two toadies, to not reply-
“Good morning Reverend Pryce,”
-like a field of trained African Parrots.
I try to shoot the monk-nun a nod to let her know the whole crowd isn’t playing into Fisher Price’s hands, but her hands are buried in the sleeves of her robe and her chin is at rest on her chest. A quick scan of the crowd and I make eye contact with a few people, all of whom immediately look away and down.
“It is a beautiful day to say good-bye to a loved one.”
“I’ve been asked to say a little something for our brother Cecil and to read his favorite passage from the text, The Bhagavad-Gita. Although Cecil was a Catholic, and a lapsed one at that, he treated those around him with good Christian love. So, although he was not as Christian as you or I, ah…”
I remember something else Renee told me after one of her trips down here. Reverend Pryce suffered a massive concussion several years ago while trying to set up the nativity scene in icy conditions. He was putting the star that lead the Wise Men to the freshly-minted Jesus, leaned a little too far out on the ladder, and flew ten feet to the pavement below.
He never dropped the star.
For his heroics, he spent several weeks in the hospital and was thereafter promoted to Reverend-Emeritus. Most of us haven’t heard him speak since then, but he and Cecil knew each other. It was worth the wait. This guy is good.
“Cecil, ahh… Christian. Sorry. Where was I? Oh yes! Cecil was a lapsed man of the one true God, but he saw the words of our savior in other societies not fortunate enough to have been exposed to his wisdom.”
The basic chronology of that is hilarious to me. And only me. I laugh, softly I think, but Renee digs her heel into my foot again.
“I have been lent a copy of this Gita from Sister, ah… the monk, ah, woman- This nun here. You all know her. The lady who runs the bookstore on South Yarrow Street. The one next to the Dunk-in’ Donuts.”
There’s another lightbulb for me. Fisher Price liked to use Dunkin’ Donuts in many of his sermons. I remember this now from Christmas services Paula dragged us to. He thought there was great merit in The Dunk-in’ Donuts, almost as if they were churches themselves. He put (and still puts) the inflection on Dunk in the same way that natives of Nashville pronounce guitar, Gee-tar.
When I was a kid I thought this idiosyncrasy was surprisingly effective in humanizing his sermons. It’s not about the church, but the faith the people in the building produce and apportion, and it’s not about the donut franchise, but the people enjoying the sustenance produced and sold there.
“I will read Cecil’s selections to you now:
You have been mourning those who should not be mourned; the truly wise do not grieve for the living or the dead. There never was a time when I was not, or you, or these rulers of men. Nor will there be a time when we shall cease to be, all of us hereafter. Just as within this body the embodied self passes through childhood, youth, and old age, so it passes to another body. The wise man is not bewildered by this,
um, ah- And Cecil marked, ah…”
He stumbles and can’t find the next bit of the selections Cecil requested. Everyone shifts in their quiet and respectful stances as the first couple of minutes pass. Philip forgets what he’s supposed to be looking for and just improvises the rest, as I hoped he would.
“Cecil and I used to play chess together, and then, ah, after my accident, checkers. He was a gifted player and a true friend. He and I were both fond of the Dunk-in Donut. You know the one. It used to have a handle. They call it the Old Fashioned now. I guess Cecil and I were both old fashioned.”
I miss Cecil more by the minute. Renee looks over at me, I think to make sure I’m not laughing, and I shrug my shoulders, smiling.
“The best way to judge a man-ah… Cecil was always sharing his ah… What was I saying? Forgive me for a moment.”
He thumbs through the Gita as if he expects to find something there, at random, that will save him. He stops and abruptly walks away from the group, holding and waving the Gita over his head, forgetting I think that it’s not a Bible. He gets in his beat-up Camry and drives away, his robes stuck in the door, tethered and billowing. People look up and around at each other wondering if we’re all meant to leave now. The nun steps forward and keeps the proceedings moving.
Her toadies spread out a little so that together the three of them form a triangle of sorts around the tree hole. The nun breaks out some beads. The toadies break out their matching sets. About ten more people from town follow suit, so that the the string beads are like cigarette lighters at an AC/DC concert.
The nun chants a little. It sounds more like fake Native American to me than Eastern Zen, but I’m enjoying myself, thinking of dunking some donuts with Cecil. To show my appreciation I chant along, first quietly to myself, and after Renee glares at me, loud enough for everyone to hear. To my utter amazement everyone with beads joins me in chanting.
Sadly, I’m still the only one smiling. I keep thinking if Cecil were here he’d be on the ground laughing, and I imagine him watching this, eating donuts holding his glorious anchovy.
The nun-bookseller stops chanting and everyone waits for her to say something. Those waving beads slowly lower their bead-arms and wait. The nun is dead silent for what must be 5 full minutes. Finally, in a sudden and sweeping gesture, she reaches into the sleeve of her robe and pulls out…Nothing?
“Is this a magic trick?”
Renee digs her heel into my foot again. The nun shakes her hands at the hole in the ground, then her toadies shake their hands, then she chants a little more and signals to an old man with a shovel who is not dressed for a funeral. He lifts the tiny seedling and puts it in the hole, then waves at no one in the proximity of Cecil’s urn. No one is moving to do anything.
“Is anyone going to do something?”
I whisper to Renee. No one moves. The crowd is growing restless again. The nun and her minions keep their heads bowed, seem to be clearly waiting for someone else to do something. Fisher Price should be here.
I step forward. No one stops me. I walk slowly to the card table, thinking someone will intercept me and do what is necessary. I’m alone, and another scan of the crowd gives an additional smattering of quickly broken eye contact.
I make it to the table and grab the urn. First I try to pry off the lid, but eventually try rotation. It’s a twist cap. Inside is a little silver spoon. I look up at Renee, then behind me to Cecil’s wife, and they have an expression of surprise and appreciation on their faces. I walk over to the tree hole and put a few scoops of Cecil in the ground with the tiny sapling, before screwing his cap back on and returning him to the card table.
Still, no one is doing anything. Only now, everyone is looking at me. I think I just accidentally put myself in charge. When I look at people their eyes go from me back to the card table. I look over at Renee and she’s sobbing now like she was when she first told me Cecil died, and I notice for the first time she’s holding a slip of paper.
She’s supposed to say something.
It’s too much for her.
I walk back to her, reach out to her hand and take the slip of paper, put it in my pocket and whisper,
“Don’t worry about it.”
I walk back to the card table and look up at everyone. I pick up the urn and hold it in front of me like I’m reading the label on a great bottle of wine. I think of the only funeral I ever cried at, Spock’s at the end of Star Trek II. It strangely fits, so I go for it.
“We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted that in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life.”
Here I point to the tree. It’s a dramatic, Shatner-esque pause, not by design but necessity, because I’m going over Captain Kirk’s next lines in my head and taking out the sunrise of a new world bit which makes no sense to me in this context.
“Ours is a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of our friend Cecil, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”
I can’t help but leave in another of William Shatner’s heavy-handed pauses, but the crowd seems to enjoy it. I turn and hand the urn over to Cecil’s wife, trying not to salute her even though I really really want to. I decide instead to ad-lib,
“He’ll be missed,” to her, and a louder, “We’ll all miss him in our own way,” loudly to the crowd. As I walk back towards Renee I wave to the groundskeeper in overalls with the shovel, spinning my finger pointing upward and then pointing down at the tree hole like a basketball coach in a movie about underdogs, telling the most underdog player to take his free throw and win the game for the small state college no one ever expected to make it to the national championship.
Let’s bury this guy and go eat some donuts.