Chapter Thirty-Three (Scenic Hills)
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Note: Here’s the voice only chapter of the video book, in case you want to watch while you read. The multimedia version has music by Bette Middler and Leon Redbone, but this version ain’t bad all on its own:
I didn’t find out Elliot killed himself until a month or so later. Dick Joseph told me. He had dropped by to see Elliot one day, as was his wont, and Elliot’s mother told Dick Joseph that Elliot had shot himself in the head with his father’s revolver a month ago the previous Thursday. I went through my appointment book and figured out that it must have been the day after I’d last seen him. I called Ginny to tell her. The phone rang and rang. She never answered. I tried two or three times a day for a week or more. Then the number I had reached was no longer in service.
I asked a guy I was in the middle of selling around a million bucks worth of computers to at Levi Strauss whether he had seen Ginny lately. They used to go to the same AA meetings over in Berkeley. He pinched the sides of his chin and wrinkled up his forehead and said, “I think she might be dead.”
“Really?” My face got hot.
“I could be wrong,” he said.
“Can you find out?”
“I’m going to a meeting tonight, sure. You’re coming by tomorrow, right?”
“To pick up the signed contract from your nit-picky boss, I am, yeah.”
The next day, it was true. Ginny Good was dead. The guy at Levi’s pinpointed the time and day. One of his friends had been the one who found her. The way the Levi’s guy heard it was that she had overdosed on Excedrin PM and the better part of a fifth of gin. He stressed the gin more than the Excedrin — AA guys get sanctimonious when it comes to alcohol and people in the program.
“Shows to go you,” the guy said.
I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by that, but I didn’t ask. He didn’t know I knew Ginny very well. I did, though. I knew her as well as I’ve ever known anyone. I knew her well enough to know that killing herself would have been more along the lines of an accident. She had tried to kill herself hundreds of times by then; she’d been trying to kill herself since she was six. I don’t think she thought she was ever actually going to die. Elliot killing himself was more conscious, more deliberate; you pretty much have to pull the trigger of a .38 caliber revolver on purpose.
When I finally got the chronology sorted out, Ginny and Elliot both died on the same day — probably pretty close to the same time — as if it had been some kind of cosmic suicide pact. Elliot would have liked that. He always was kind of a romantic. Whether Ginny would have liked it or not, I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t like it, I can tell you that. I don’t like dead people. I’ve never liked dead people. Dead people piss me off. Dead people can go fuck themselves.
Well, except for my father, I guess. He’s the only dead person I can think of who doesn’t just totally piss me off. He didn’t kill himself, though. He didn’t want to die, not at all, not ever, not one tiny little bit. It took a lot to kill him, too. It took cancer — some weird, semi-rare kind of cancer called “Carcinoid Syndrome.”
It had been growing inside him for ten years. None of his doctors had the slightest clue. That his nose had turned increasingly purple was the only overt symptom anyone might have spotted, but we all just thought that was because he’d been something of a drunk for the last fifteen years or so. None of us paid much attention to his poor purple nose. He got more stomachaches than normal, too. His doctor didn’t know what was causing either of the symptoms. His doctor was an idiot. Yeah, well, it was probably good that his doctor was an idiot. I don’t think any of us would have wanted to know that he’d had cancer for ten years — three months was long enough. Up until then, all we knew was that his nose had turned purpler and purpler and that he was always running out of Rolaids.
Some specialist did exploratory surgery. It was no big deal. It was mainly just to shut my father up, to humor him, to prove to him once and for all that the pains in his stomach came from eating too god damn many peanut butter sandwiches on Wonder Bread. While the guy was poking around, the wall of my father’s large intestine fell apart, disintegrated. Gobs of pus and cancer came gushing out into the empty space around the rest of the organs in his abdomen.
The surgeon cleaned up the whole mess as best he could, sewed my father back up again and said he had a month to live — six weeks, tops. My father fought it every step of the way. At the end of the six weeks, he was still going strong. Well, “strong” might be too strong a word, but he was still alive.
— — —
I went up to Ashland to hang out with him while he died. It was only for a few weeks. I’m sure plenty of people have had the once in a lifetime chance to hang out with his or her father while he was dying, but I’m not sure anyone got to hang out with someone who didn’t want to die as much as my dad didn’t want to die. He really didn’t want to die, not one bit, not at all, not ever. No matter how much it hurt. No matter how much weight he lost or how much shorter he grew or how many morphine induced Indians with tomahawks were surrounding the house and breaking the windows and chopping down the doors, he didn’t want to die no matter what.
Sometimes it made sense to him to take less morphine and deal with the pains in his stomach on his own. One of the ways he did that was by imagining that he was fishing. It may have looked to the casual observer like he was propped up on pillows in a rented hospital bed, but in reality my father was out in a rowboat on Howard Prairie Lake, fishing his guts out. The pains in his stomach were fish. He’d feel one nibble the bait, give the line a little tug to set the hook, then gingerly bring it up the side of the boat and slip the hook out of its mouth and solemnly club it to death. That felt good for a second. Then he tossed the line back in to try to catch another.
Sometimes one of the pains slipped off the hook halfway up the side of the boat and hurt all the more. The pains that got away were really pissed. They were like barracudas. They dove deep into the organs inside him and bit into nerve endings with sharp, pissed off, barracuda teeth. But no matter the pain or the fear or the delusions that beset him every minute of every day, he did not want to die.
He tried everything he could think of to try. He was making deals right and left. Some of his deals got sort of silly. One morning he wrote a check to God in the amount of five thousand dollars and put the check on the bright sunny windowsill in the kitchen where God would be sure to find it. Now, five thousand bucks may not sound like a lot of money, but it was more money than my father ever had in any bank account in his life, and he gave it all to God on the off chance he might not have to die. He tried every off-the-wall hope in hell.
He called Art Linkletter’s 800 number and ordered one of those Craftmatic beds. Art Linkletter had looked my dad straight in the eye and had told him personally, man to man, that if he really didn’t want to die all he had to do was go to the phone, pick up the receiver, dial the 800 number and order himself a Craftmatic Bed — and my father dutifully tottered over to the phone and ordered one.
I tried to talk him out of it, but trying to talk him out of something he had his heart set on led to the same inevitable conclusion — hey, if he wanted a Craftmatic Bed, what the fuck, he deserved a Craftmatic Bed.
“You don’t need no god damn Craftmatic Bed,” I said.
“You don’t know what I need.” He shook his head and looked at me — and he was right, of course, I didn’t, but I didn’t think Art Linkletter did, either.
His deals got downright preposterous during the last couple of days. A news story on Dan Rather gave him a brilliant new idea — an absolutely sure fire way to keep from dying. He was more animated than he’d been all week.
First, he needed his chain saw.
He was tilted back in the La-Z-Boy. I’d just given him more morphine. I’ve never tried to describe my dad, but if I had to, I’d say he looked kind of like a cross between Humphrey Bogart and Don Knotts. He had wasted away some — he still looked like himself, but he’d wasted away. His hair, which he always slicked back like Humphrey Bogart, was oily from the sickness and stuck in odd, curly shapes to his scalp. He hadn’t been able to take showers.
The hospice ladies gave him sponge baths. He liked getting sponge baths from the hospice ladies. He flirted with them and made them laugh and seemed to think that the reason they were giving him sponge baths was that he flirted with them and made them laugh. Well, except when he got sad; then he knew perfectly well that no god damn hospice ladies were going to be giving him any god damn sponge baths if some fairly well-informed medical professionals didn’t think he was going to die, and probably pretty soon.
“Go out in the workshop and bring me my chain saw,” he said.
“What do you want your chain saw for?”
“If you don’t know, don’t ask.” That seemed to make as much sense as anything Yogi Berra ever said. Every nonsensical thing my father ever said always made all kinds of sense. I brought the chain saw into the living room.
“Now get a cube of butter,” he said.
He looked at me as if it were inconceivable to him that his only son could ask a question as stupid as that at a time as crucial as this. Then he relaxed, let it go, like it was a little late in the day to try to teach me anything new.
“I suppose you know I love you,” he said, finally, as if he’d utterly given up on the idea that I’d ever amount to anything.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Have I ever told you?”
“Did you ever want me to tell you?”
“Oh, boy,” he said.
I couldn’t tell whether he was reacting to one of the pains in his stomach or whether he was just glad he hadn’t ever had to say he loved me. He supposed I knew. I got the butter.
Then he wanted me to rub the butter onto the teeth of the chain saw. Somehow or other, what he’d picked up from Dan Rather was that the rubbing of a cube of butter onto the teeth of a chain saw would keep him from having to die. He didn’t know how, exactly, but that did not in the least deter him from having me rub butter onto the teeth of his chain saw. The butter got soft. The chain saw gleamed with a patina of fresh soft butter. When the first cube was gone, I asked if he wanted me to get another one.
“Do you think it’s doing any good?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either.”
“I don’t see how it can do any harm,” I said.
“Maybe we should try one more.”
The next night he wanted me to break into Chuck Anderson’s office. Chuck Anderson sold insurance. His offices were down at the end of our street, on Siskiyou Boulevard. There was this book, see. The book was in the lower left-hand drawer of Chuck Anderson’s desk. All I had to do was break into his office, jimmy open his desk, take out the book, erase my dad’s name and put the book back into the drawer. If your name was in the book, you were going to die, but if you could somehow manage to talk your blithering idiot of a son into breaking into Chuck Anderson’s office and erasing your name, hey — who would be the wiser? I didn’t break into Chuck Anderson’s office. I thought about it, but I didn’t do it.
My dad got everyone in on his deals. He had Nicki’s husband Murph blow up several pairs of latex hospital gloves, tie them all together into a big bunch and hang them from the ceiling fan. Then he had Murph turn the fan on as slow as it would go. That was going to keep him from having to die. All kinds of things were going to keep him from having to die. None of them did.
We canceled the Craftmatic bed. The butter didn’t seem to do the chain saw any harm. God never cashed the check — it might still be on the windowsill for all I know. I got to hang out with him the whole time, is what matters. That was cool. Well, some people might not have liked it. It got a little heart-wrenching here and there, but it was kind of funny here and there, too. Dying of cancer wasn’t funny, no. There wasn’t anything funny about it. It mainly meant that we had to stay alert — the way you have to stay alert with a little kid. He was like a little kid in all kinds of ways. It was amazing to see how strong his potty training had been. He’d do anything to get to the bathroom. If there wasn’t anyone to help him, he’d try to go on his own and end up flat on has face in the hallway. That wasn’t funny at all.
But the kid from Domino’s asking the undertakers how to get to the house behind the house next door while they were wheeling my dad’s dead body down the front steps was sort of comical. The kid was just trying to do his job. So were the undertakers. They didn’t want to stop what they were doing, but they didn’t want to be rude, either. They were torn. Besides, they didn’t know how to get to where the pizza was supposed to be delivered anyway. Marya had to step in and tell the Domino’s kid what he needed to know. There’s a path between our house and the house next door, see. It’s not all that easy to find in the dark.
Marya did everything the whole night. She’s Nicki and Murph’s daughter. My niece. She was the one who found him. We were all out in the living room singing “Say Goodbye.” If you’ve never heard it, it’s a long song. A ballad. It goes on and on, verse after verse. Some guy by the name of Pappy was wooing the Widow Norton. Pappy and the Widow Norton were out on a date, out on a jamboree — and when Pappy brought her home at sun up, old man Norton raised his gun up:
“Say goodbye, say goodbye. Say goodbye, say goodbye.
Say goodbye to the old apple tree.
They cut the tree down for a casket,
Put the apples in a basket,
And buried poor Pappy ‘neath the tree.”
“Mom,” Marya said.
Her tone was unmistakable. We stopped singing and went into my father’s room. His eyes were open. They still had some expression in them, too, but it wasn’t an expression of anything any of us wanted to see for long. I pushed his eyelids shut. Nicki started wailing like a Palestinian banshee woman. She was practically doing those ululations they do — then she blurted out: “He loved me. From the day I was born. To the day he died.”
I thought that was sort of a slick thing to say. I stole it off her for what I said about him at his funeral. We put a cribbage board in the coffin with him. That was probably pretty stupid. I mean, what you are when you’re dead is a hunk of meat. They have to hurry up and get you to the funeral parlor and shoot you up with embalming fluid or you start to rot. What use a rotting hunk of meat may have had for a cribbage board was beyond my ability to comprehend, but we put a cribbage board in the coffin with him all the same. There wasn’t much my father liked better than a rousing game of cribbage with one of his kids or the guys down at the Elks.
We put a mouth organ in the casket with him, too, in case he ran into anyone who might need cheering up. He had a knack for cheering up a person by playing the mouth organ. He’d have been lost without one, so we stuck his favorite Marine Band Harmonica in the lapel pocket of the double-breasted brown pinstripe suit he used to wear back when he was still selling insurance.
— — —
When we got to the cemetery, Mandy and Marya sang “The Rose.” Mandy is Nicki and Murph’s other daughter. She was around fourteen at the time. Marya was seventeen. Mandy’s middle name is Rose. Amanda Rose Murphy. And there was a picture of a rose on the front cover of the program the undertaker passed out. Roses turned out to be kind of the floral theme of the whole funeral. I don’t know whether anyone planned it that way. Printing programs was part of one of the more moderate packages the funeral home had to offer. The Serenity Prayer was on the back cover.
Marya laughed some during the first few verses. She wouldn’t have picked “The Rose” as the song to sing — in fact, she wasn’t sure she could get all the way through it without barfing due to the sickening sweetness and sentimentality of the lyrics — but it was the only song she and Mandy both knew on such short notice, and once they got into it, the lyrics seemed to get more and more appropriate.
By the time they got to the last couple of verses they were belting it out like they were Ethel Merman, both of them, two Ethel Mermans. Funerals are supposed to be sickeningly sweet and sentimental. Marya wasn’t laughing because she was nervous. Nobody was nervous. She was laughing because she was crying. She was laughing because her mother was crying and her father was crying and her grandmother was crying and her uncle was crying. Marya was laughing because everyone was crying. She couldn’t help it. Everyone crying was making her laugh.
Mandy wasn’t laughing or crying, either one; she was mainly concentrating on doing a good job of the singing of the song and didn’t think much of her sister cracking up in the middle of her performance.
To counteract some of the sickening sweetness and sentimentality of the whole affair, there was a donkey in a field not far away, a donkey that hadn’t been fed in awhile judging from the sounds he was making. He kept braying during the most somber moments. We all thought that was a nice touch. My dad would have liked a donkey braying during the eulogies at his funeral. He could bray like a donkey with the best of them. I adore my father. I will always adore my father.
Murph accompanied his daughters on the guitar while they sang “The Rose.” Then he sang “You Are My Sunshine” all by himself. Murph said it had been my father’s favorite song. He was probably right. It probably was. My father had all kinds of favorite songs.
Then, God, I don’t know what the hell happened after that. My mother, I guess. My mother got up from her folding chair in the front row. She walked across the grass in a pair of sturdy black shoes and stood with her back to everyone and put her hand on the coffin. It was a plain pine box, part of the same moderate funeral package she had picked out. She gave the box a comforting pat, then turned around and faced everyone.
There were maybe a hundred or so people there. People we hardly knew — grizzled old World War II fighter pilots from the Elks, guys my dad sold insurance with, guys he sold cars with, guys he sold storm windows with and got drunk with and played poker with. And there were flowers everywhere, flowers of all kinds and of all descriptions. There were flowers on my mother’s dress, tiny little sprigs of bachelor buttons and lilies-of-the-valley. What she said was simply that a song had been going through her head for the past few days. She didn’t know where it had come from; it had just been going through her head.
“It’s an old song,” she said. “Maybe from the thirties. It’s just been going through my head. I don’t sing very well, either. As most of you know.” Then she sang it. A cappella. Accompanied by no one:
“Out of a blue sky,
The dark clouds came rolling,
Breaking my heart in two.
Don’t leave me alone,
For I love only you.
You’re as sweet as a red rose in June, dear.
I love you, adore you, I do…”
That was as far as she got. We have it all on videotape. Myles did the videotaping. Myles is Nicki and Murph’s only son — the oldest of their three kids. He was the newborn baby boy asleep in the bedroom the night Ginny tried to have her way with Murph on their living room floor then took off with garbage men, instead, lo those many long years ago. Myles never was much of a talker. I don’t know whether it had anything to do with Ginny or not.
When my mother sat back down and it was my turn to say a few words, I started out by saying some slightly off color things I knew would get a rise out of my dad’s buddies from the Elks. There was a period of time when my father took to calling everyone “Frog-Ass.” I don’t know why. But, because of that, the guys at the Elks nicknamed him “Froggy.” I told the story of how Dick Joss was fixing my father’s car one day and I mentioned to him that he and my dad had played poker at the Elks. Dick Joss asked me my dad’s name. I told him. My dad’s name didn’t ring a bell. Then he said, “Oh, Froggy!”
They chuckled in fond remembrance.
Then I said that stuff I stole off of Nicki — only the way I said it was that my dad loved me from the day I was born until the day he died. Ha! That pissed her off. I knew it would. Well, what the fuck, two people can think the same thing, can’t they? Is there some kind of patent on pathos? But that was the first thing Nicki mentioned when it was her turn.
“First, I’m pissed that my brother stole what I was going to say, but I’m going to say it anyway. My dad loved me from the day I was born until the day he died.”
Then it was Tuney’s turn. She’s the single lawyer soccer mom web designer who’s going to stick this all on the Internet for me. Tuney was holding her daughter, Maggie, in her arms — but Bucky, who was six or seven at the time, was on his hands and knees, lifting up the skirt around the bottom of the casket and looking down into the hole into which the plain pine box containing his grandfather’s dead body was about to be lowered.
Tuney said we both got it wrong, that the fact of the matter was that her dad had loved her from the day she was born to the day he died. The line got a different kind of chuckle every time.
— — —
After everyone else was gone, Tuney and Myles and Bucky and I all hung around at the cemetery for a while. We stomped on the sod. Myles did more videotaping. We kept hearing the donkey.
Driving back to the house, we stopped and figured out where the braying was coming from, then drove over there. A family of local ranchers had just finished feeding the donkey and giving him water — a husband and a wife, and their five-year-old daughter. Tuney told them we’d just come from a funeral. “We kept hearing this donkey.” She lifted her outstretched arms up toward the cloudless heavens.
“Oh, we’re sorry,” said the father of the local ranch family.
“No, no. We liked it. It would have made my dad happy as shit,” Tuney said, without any hint of her usual reluctance to use bad language in front of kids.
“What’s his name?” Bucky asked, pointing to the donkey.
“Geezer,” the daughter said. Then she dug the toe of her shoe into the dirt and eyed Bucky furtively through her strawberry blond bangs.
Tuney and I cracked up. Myles smiled, too, although he was about as big on showing emotion as he was on talking.
“What’s so funny about Geezer?” the little girl asked.
“Nothing. Really. Nothing at all,” Myles said very seriously.
Tuney and I cracked up again…and by then we couldn’t have said why we had cracked up the first time, either. Geezer wasn’t that funny a name. It was a good name. We couldn’t have thought of a better name if we had tried.
The farm family waved to us, got in their truck and drove away. Tuney and Bucky and I fed Geezer some of the carrots they’d left. When we ran out of carrots, we fed him handfuls of long grass. Geezer still brayed now and then as he ate the carrots and the grass out of our hands. He curled up his lips and dripped snot out of his nostrils and showed us his huge teeth. Myles got it all on videotape.