I woke up before anyone, in the basement where my cousin died. They were going to bury my grandma, her muscles and skin, her toe nails and hair, slathered in garish makeup, dressed in someone else’s clothes. I put on headphones and pressed play on my MP3 recorder. It began to repeat a yoga class I had recorded months before. Every morning I woke up and ran through that sequence. In the beginning it was difficult, my lungs gasped and my legs shook, but time passed and my body grew. Now a nugget of muscle had formed above my kneecap, proud and swollen. At the height of my madness I looked at the shriveled husk of my body and hallucinated life flowing back into it. My legs grew large and tan, just like Robbie’s. Now the vision was coming true. I had never looked so good.
Dave, the one married to the Cindy who was my mother’s younger sister by blood, stepped out of the basement bedroom and into the common area. It was 6 in the morning. I was holding Warrior 2 with headphones on my ears, dressed only in boxers. My uncle-in-law pretended not to notice and jogged up the stairs as fast as his dainty feet could go. Dave was genteel, a southern banker who lived in Savannah Georgia. He had a game show smile and was affable to a fault. My mostly naked Warrior 2 no doubt confirmed everything his wife had told him about me. I didn’t care. My body was returning.
I showered in the bathroom where Brett laid out his needles and butane torch, where he tried and failed to pass a balloon filled with heroin. The balloon tore and the drug spread through his body, changing into morphine, caressing his neurons with warm fingers, convincing his lungs that it was OK to stop breathing. I looked in the mirror, at the same surface that once reflected the panic on my cousin’s face as he realized what was about to happen. I shaved and put on funeral clothes, then went upstairs for breakfast.
The house was packed, swarming with Dvirnaks who had come to say goodbye.
“There’s the cool dude,” Cindy said dramatically, her face stretched tight across her skull. “Nathan, you simply must read ‘My Grandma’s First Nap’ at the service today, don’t you think, Father?”
“If he’d like,” my grandpa took a bite of porridge.
After the rousing success of ‘My Grandma’s First Nap’ at the memorial service, Cindy ingratiated herself to me, beaming to everyone about her talented nephew.
“What should Nathan read?” My mother called from the bathroom. She was putting on makeup and doing her hair. No one answered.
“What can I get you for breakfast?” Bryan’s Cindy asked.
“Fruit is fine,” I looked at the basket on the counter top. “An apple and a couple of bananas.”
“You need more than that,” she looked genuinely concerned. “Can I fix you some eggs?”
“I’ll be fine,” I put my arm around her. “I promise.”
Worry spread across her face, “You need to eat,” she admonished. “You’ll never recover if all you eat is fruit.”
“Sometimes I eat fish,” I went to the basket and grabbed an apple.
“I’ve got a few cans of tuna,” my aunt shuffled over to the pantry, “I can open one for you.”
“I’m fine, really.” I sat down at the table opposite Bryan and next to Cindy’s husband, Dave.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” Dave winked and flashed his perfect smile.
“What’s that, David?” Cindy called from the kitchen.
“I was just telling Nathan that an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” he repeated the phrase proudly to his wife.
“You know,” Cindy came around the corner, “I have always said exactly that.” She looked at me and my apple. “An apple a day and, God willing, we’ll all live to be as old as Father.”
My grandpa— stripped down to his undershirt so as not to get porridge on his funeral suit— ignored his daughter’s comment.
“What have you always said?” My mom called from the bathroom.
“Traffic is downright dangerous between Bismark and Dickinson,” Bryan said somberly to Dave. “It’s all the oil tankers screaming back and forth.”
“Good morning everyone!” Anya burst into the dining room. “How’s my favorite grandpa?” She kissed the old man on the cheek.
My grandpa chuckled, his face lighting up. “Good morning to you, Anya.”
“You wouldn’t believe the way they drive,” Bryan continued. “Bats out of hell, every one of them.”
“It couldn’t be that bad,” I took a bite of my apple. My uncle was a small town yokel. He lacked perspective.
“You bet it is,” Bryan didn’t budge. “You’ll see it today, rows of trucks as far as the eye can see. This state is really growing up.” He turned and pointed to his back yard. “We used to get all kinds of birds out there.” My uncle’s yard was pristine, every blade of grass in perfect order. In the middle of the thick sod, tall ears of corn grew up and up, protected from grass and weeds by cement edging. “Every morning I fed those birds to keep them away from my garden, but this year, nobody’s showing up. It’s all the development they’re doing.”
“Denver has traffic,” I continued to argue. “Three million people and only two highways, and then there’s New York and L.A. If you want to see traffic, move to L.A.”
“Nathan, I bet the traffic up here is worse than in L.A.” Bryan refused to give up. “You’ll see it today.” He nodded, agreeing with himself.
“What will we see today?” My mom called from the bathroom, but no one answered.
The road to Dickinson was considerably less offensive than my uncle imagined, but he was right about one thing, the tanker trucks were everywhere, massive semis loaded with equipment and fuel. The drive took an hour and a half. I sat sandwiched in the back seat between relatives. Bryan drove, but he decided to buckle his seat belt. I was thankful for that.
• • •
“Uneventful.” I put my hands in my pockets, then removed them uncomfortably, trying to find a position that felt natural.
“How was the traffic?” My uncle looked at me with those wild eyes.
“You live in San Francisco,” I said, a bit angry. “The traffic up here is nothing.”
“It didn’t used to be like this,” he shook his head. “When I was a kid you could drive for fifteen minutes without seeing another car.”
“You could drive for an hour,” Craig heard us talking and came over to add his two cents. “Just the other day I seen one of them tankers veer off the road and into a ditch.” His face was burnt from cheek to chin, but white where his cowboy hat shaded him from the sun. “They zoom up and down the road that goes out to the ranch and I tell you, they kick up clouds of dust like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I have friends in high places,” David launched into another one of his stories, “and they’re fairly certain that all this activity is just cover for a big move by the military. Things are about to get hot with Canada.” I took my cue and left them to their gossip.
The casket stood on a decorative display between doors that led to the sanctuary. The lid was open so people could see the body, but most people were avoiding the area. When I was a kid, I went to my grandpa’s funeral. I still remember looking into the wooden box and staring at the plastic face, realizing that all the things they said about dead bodies were true. I didn’t want to remember my grandma as a peaceful counterfeit. I wanted to remember her near the end, the way she growled and fought and refused to die, clinging to life like an angry badger, her claws bloody with the fury of it all.
I sat on a seat near the drinking fountain, as far from the casket as I could get. Above the coffin’s lid, a poof of hair drifted lazily like some ridiculous cloud. The poof was framed by floral arrangements and funeral gifts. Seeing it made me cry.
“Hey Nathan,” It was Austin, my second-youngest cousin. The church was crawling with cousins.
“Hey, man,” I let the tears fall down my face.
Austin was an attractive kid, Craig’s youngest son, ranch-raised and full of joy. He’d gotten married earlier that summer. I missed his wedding because I was out of my mind on steroids. “How was the flight?”
“I made it,” I caught the poof of hair out of the corner of my eye and a new army of tears began marching down my face.
“N-n-no more pickles,” Austin said sadly. My cousin stuttered when he was a child. It used to be so bad you could barely understand him. Now only the faintest trace remained.
“I always hated those pickles.” It was the first time I’d admitted it to anyone. “I remember how you used to eat them,” I shook my head. “I was jealous. I wanted to like them as much as you.”
“That’s OK,” Austin consoled me. “We’ll always have cheese pockets.”
“We’ll always have cheese pockets,” I agreed.
“Nathan!” Gaye approached. I stood and let her wrap me in a big hug, “It’s OK, buddy.” She patted my back. Dwight shook my hand while I hugged his wife. Little Nina took one of the seats next to me.
“Hey cuz,” she smiled up at me from behind her mousy glasses.
“Hey cuz,” I nodded at her.
“You ready to read?” She held her purple poetry folder like a teddy bear.
Craig walked over to the casket with his wife, Rhonda. She towered above him like a redheaded basketball player, looking into the box with its corpse full of chemicals. Cindy arrived with her husband Dave, and began talking to Bryan and his wife who was also named Cindy. Anya flitted about, drinking the sweet nectar of family gossip.
Nina and I sat on the chairs next to the fountain and did our best not to cry. For some reason I couldn’t stop looking at that little cloud of hair, like an itch on the side of my face, I had to scratch it, and when I did, it sent me into another fit of tears. I wasn’t alone. Remorse came in waves, washing over everyone in the lobby. Friends and family reunited, talking about the weather or traffic and then crumbling into tears, which transformed into laughter. Everybody loved her. No one wanted to say goodbye.
The pastor arrived, a loud man with a booming voice and the dark, unhealthy skin of a smoker.
“How was the drive?” Asked Bryan.
“Three hundred and fifty miles,” the pastor cracked his sore back. “Made it in five hours, despite all this crazy traffic.”
“It’s a war out there,” Bryan shook his head.
“Well, I’m glad I could do it.” He looked over at the casket with the poof of hair surrounded by flowers. I followed his gaze and began to cry again.
“Where you preaching these days?” Bryan adjusted his glasses.
“Had to give it up.” There was defeat in his voice, his childhood dream dashed against reality’s bitter shore. “I sell insurance now.”
“That’s a good business,” Bryan nodded approvingly. He didn’t understand. For some people there were more important things than money.
My sister arrived with The Baby Hannah, her husband towering above her. My mom came over to coo at her grand child. Hannah would never know her great grandmother. It made me sad. She was such a wonderful woman.
Eventually, someone closed the casket and the people who hadn’t already filed into the sanctuary found their seats. There were about a hundred people in attendance, not nearly as many as had come to the memorial service in Colorado.
“What’s with these people?” I asked my sister.
“What do you mean?” She looked around.
“It’s a funeral,” she jabbed me with her elbow.
Someone hit play on the slide show. Nina recited her poem. I took the stage and read ‘My Grandma’s First Nap.’ The crowd barely cracked a smile. You could hear Anya giggling over their polite chuckles, but these people were not used to laughing. For them, sincerity was a matter of survival. If you had too much fun the cattle died, then winter and starvation. You had to be serious if you wanted to live in North Dakota. I finished reading and sat down. The pastor took the pulpit, “That wasn’t her first nap.” He said in the booming voice of a Southern Baptist minister, “Grayce used to sleep through every one of my sermons.”
That got them. The congregation gave a hearty guffaw. It was a good joke. I had to admit.
“I had the privilege of being the Dvirnak’s pastor for more than fifteen years, and in that time I never met a more generous or hardworking host than Grayce. She set the table with so much food you’d of thought she was feeding an army, and she refused to sit down until everyone had been served…”
The pastor gave his homily, ending with a salvation message. We sang songs and shared memories, slowly working our way through the program. After the service, the cousins gathered and carried the casket to the hearse. The crowd of bleak North Dakotans parted like an Amish sea. The hearse was fully mechanized. Electric motors opened the back door automatically and a ramp slid out. We placed the coffin on the ramp and watched it suck my grandma into its air conditioned depths.
A motorcade of policeman escorted us across town. Then we carried the coffin to a concrete box and set it on top of a contraption that lowered it into the protective shell.
“Everyone should take a flower from one of the bouquets and lay it on the coffin,” said Cindy in dramatic fashion.
Grudgingly, we picked flowers and placed them on her casket. I chose a pink lily because i’d never liked roses. It felt strange, everyone watching me put that flower on the box. I didn’t know how to walk, or where to put my arms. I could feel my pants riding up and my shirt coming untucked. The light was too bright and the wind was blowing. In the distance, men working heavy machinery dug my grandma’s grave. Everything felt strange. There was nothing beautiful or holy, or even sad, just a box surrounded in concrete and the cold, hard ground.
They placed a concrete lid on top of the concrete box, then moved the coffin to the grave with a forklift. Sheets of plywood had been spread across the grass to protect it from the vehicle’s tires. The guy driving the fork lift was wearing jeans and work boots. He was covered in mud. His dirty crew stood around the open grave manning heavy machinery for digging and lowering. The hole was massive and deep, with perfectly straight sides.
“When dad dies, they’ll stack him on top of her,” Dwight explained the size of the yawning hole.
It was a veterans cemetery and all of the sites were marked with the same gray thumb-shaped stones. A few rows down, workmen had already begun digging the grave for the next incoming funeral. Their noisy machines tore the ground, dispelling any chance of reverie.
They lowered my grandma’s casket into the earth with a loud piece of construction equipment. The wind blew. The sun shone. No one said a word.
As the grave diggers scooped brown dirt over the casket, a single-wing private aircraft flew across the sky. The airplane was similar to the one my grandpa flew to take my grandma on their first date.
“Look,” I nudged Gaye, pointing towards the airplane.
“I don’t get it,” she looked where I was indicating.
“That’s the same airplane grandpa used to pick grandma up from Bible camp.”
“No,” Gaye shook her head, “that plane is long gone. They sold it for scrap ages ago.”
Gayed didn’t understand that I was being poetic. That was OK. It was my special moment. I watched the airplane pass, realizing my story was coming to an end, that this summer of madness and agony was almost over. Soon I would move to Grand Junction and climb the monolith near Devil’s Kitchen. There I would summon Sauron and slay him in the final battle.
Four months earlier:
The enemy loomed above me; his all-seeing eye bathed the bathroom in an ominous glow. I panted, gasped and stared at the toilet where the violent heaving of black liquids had missed then splattered down the sides of the bowl. It looked like shit. Had blackened death shit come out of my mouth? Was my body working in reverse?
Hunched over the toilet, my ass on the edge of the tub, I breathed and spat into the bowl. I waited for my enemy to speak, to say something (anything!), but he remained silent.
Eventually I had the courage to speak, “What does it want?” I whispered to the floor, unable to look at the looming presence above me.
“The same thing as you.” Replied the dark lord, his voice calm and assured. “To live.”
If the motherfucker wanted to live, I looked down at the red sword glowing in my hand, he was in for a surprise.
• • •
After the funeral, my family drove to Country Buffet, a choose-your-own-adventure style restaurant where patrons dished their own grub from an assortment of options. The green beans had bits of bacon mixed in so I opted for broccoli and a baked potato.
“What do you do?” Asked the girl working the buffet. She was in her twenties with dark hair and dim eyes.
“What do you mean?” I asked, a bit confused.
“For a living,” she explained. Something about the way she asked, I could tell she was taken by me. I was wearing fashionable clothes cut tight from dark cloth. My skin was tan and I was ten pounds under weight giving me a movie star’s chiseled angles. She was a wage slave at a chain restaurant in North Dakota and hoped that I was a musician or an actor, something extraordinary to brighten her day. I thought about my summer, about how I used to be a student working his way through college and now I was… now I wasn’t sure.
“I’m a writer,” I said, adding another scoop of broccoli to my plate.
“Of what?” She asked in a country drawl.
“Blogs,” I admitted, feeling the red rise in my cheeks.
“Oh stop,” she waved me away. She might be a country girl, but she wasn’t going to fall for that.
“I sell t-shirts on my website,” I tried to explain.
“If you say so,” she picked up an empty bin of tater-tots and replaced it with a fresh pile from the kitchen. She was right. I wasn’t a writer. My mom had bought my meal. The girl was from a small town, but she was street smart. She probably had a drug addict father and discerning truth from lies had become a matter of survival. She was right. I wasn’t a writer, not professionally. I looked fancy, but she had a job. I returned to my seat feeling dejected and alone.
to be continued