EVERY FAMILY HAS ONE | Duncan Birmingham
I am not my father’s favorite son. I’m probably not second, third, or fourth on his list, either. And of course he favors his girls over me, too. In an Irish Catholic family, there are countless ways to come in last.
I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in a crooked receiving line. Of course I’m at the end. By the time the mourners make it down to me, they’re grieving on autopilot.
“Sorry for your loss. Your old man was always talking about you…” They search my face awkwardly, unable to remember which damn one I am again.
Naturally, I’m upset by my father’s death and more than a little peeved by his timing. I was, after all, on the verge of paying him back numerous loans. I was close to making big things happen out in Los Angeles and finally — for chrissakes, finally — turning my life around. My web series is just one of a number of projects I’m so close to bringing to fruition. It kills me to know that the old man died thinking I was something of a flop.
I try to vary my small talk. I tell people about my web series, my positive experience with Obamacare, my recent brush with Amy Adams in a Trader Joe’s parking lot and a new mindfulness class at the Y that’s really working wonders. When I hand an old neighbor my new business card (it looks like a little screenplay with my name in place of a title), my youngest sister elbows me sharply in the ribs.
I’ve always been low man on the familial totem pole. When I arrived in town off the redeye from Burbank, my oldest brother reprimanded me for crying in front of my mother. My youngest sister used the word “hysterical”. The rest of the family nodded in agreement. Three out of five siblings warned me not to start drinking before the wake.
My cousins questioned my sexuality because I hadn’t been following the Red Sox. My mother, with a scolding tone, took my hands in hers and asked that I please, please, not make one of my scenes.
The J.P. Sullivan & Sons funeral home is thick with coughing. A wet chill blasts through the doors as extended family and coworkers clamber in, pounding their boots and emptying their pink noses. One of the eponymous second-generation Sullivans stands on tiptoes to inform my brother that the coatroom is full. For the second time, I ask Sullivan if he would mind turning up the heat; he hurries right past me without stopping.
It’s a packed house. My father was popular. Weddings, baptisms, birthdays; he was always there. The lifeblood of the party. His drunken speeches were famously corny and entertaining. His booming laughter was contagious. He could tell a joke well, the old man. He was a charming drunk. Always left an impression. I never saw him lose an argument or mumble his words or do any of the things that are as ordinary as breathing. I wonder how many of these people would show up at my wake.
“How you holding up, Hollywood? When we gonna see your name in lights?” It’s my Uncle Ned with his marbled-mouthed Boston accent. He pushes right past me before I can respond. I am remembered here as the delicate one; the little boy who talked too much, tried too hard, was afraid of stray cats and wet his pirate costume during a second grade production of Peter Pan. Sometimes, when my siblings want to antagonize me, they refer to me by my old nickname, “Tinkle Bell.”
I feel myself break from the line, moving past mourners and taking a place beside the gaping coffin. I clear my throat weakly, then clap my hands sharply for attention.
Once, twice, three times. That gets them. The long hall falls silent and a hundred pale expressions swivel in my direction.
“Oh Christ, no, no, no, Tinkle Bell,” I hear my oldest brother mutter.
Ignoring him, I take a deep breath, wink towards the heavens and prepare to dazzle the room with a speech, once and for all propelling myself into their good graces.
Duncan Birmingham is a writer/producer who has written on IFC’s Maron and is currently writing on Starz’s Blunt Talk. His show, Foodies, is in development at AMC. His fiction has appeared in nerve, Word Riot, Satire, Opium and Oxford Review. He’s the author of the really ridiculous humor book, Pets Who Want To Kill Themselves and his short films have played the Sundance, AFI, GenArt, Miami and LA film festivals.