Sunday, April 22, 2012


                Proper Arrangements


   Things started out watery and drippy.  Wet from the morning fog settled on his hat and mackintosh so that when he put his hand to his shoulder his fingers came back covered in droplets; bright clear droplets, despite the murky light, sparkling like clear diamonds against the fluted texture of his finger pads. Thank goodness he had placed the plastic cover on his fedora before he left the house otherwise the felt would now be soaked, the brim bending down like the mouth of the sad clown in the posters advertising a coming circus stapled onto the telephone poles along the street. Fortunately by nine AM the breeze blew off the fog exposing  blue sky sprinkled here and there with wispy white cloud as if someone had shredded the cotton from the top of an aspirin bottle and tossed it high  into that feathery blue. His first ten calls produced not a single sale, not a bottle of lotion or even a fingernail brush, by God. When the sun came out he decided to bring his disappointment to the boulevard at the end of Rex and sit down with it on a park bench. He placed his fedora beside him and poured a cup of tea from the thermos he carried with him.

   The streets were empty now, children in school, workers at bench or desk. A few moments after he sat down, the gaffers, who at this time of the morning drifted onto the grassy boulevard at the end opposite his bench, began to gather. A flock of aging black birds, (they were always dressed in black or dark, dirty brown) they clustered like a landing of crows, first pecking their beaks towards one another in greeting and then bending their weary old backs to sit on two benches under a giant elms. Jeremy did not like the gaffers. He considered them crude and irreverent. They leered at the young women passing by. They passed raunchy jokes among themselves, laughing uproariously in the most vulgar way. They smoked pipes and rolled cigarettes. They spit loudly into the street after hawking up gross mouthfuls of greenish phlegm. They picked their noses and scratched their genitals like a pack of baboons. But since they performed all these disgusting operations in a proscribed circle, one which did not impinge on anyone else, they were left alone. The policeman on the beat often came by to pass a few moments in their company. He cracked a joke. They laughed. What were policemen, after all, but gaffers in waiting? Big, bluff Irishmen with potato noses and fat spongy cheeks like the bread dough now rising in bowls in their wives’ kitchens.

   Jeremy himself was a Scotsman of the small variety, short, thin shouldered and delicately boned. His mother had always told him that he was the descendant of Scottish Lairds but he deeply suspected everything his mother told him on such matters. His mother was a terrible liar and great inventor. As the real circumstances of her life did not suit her, she had long ago decided to dream up a series of fictions, which with time and repetition, eventually supplanted the real world with one more suited to her liking. Not that Jeremy minded. At first, many years ago, he had sat in judgment on his mother’s stories. He had chosen an allegiance to a literal truth and had engaged his then middle-aged mother in many pitched battles, which, on occasion, he was foolish enough to believe he had won. But he found that an inevitable pattern established itself in these conflicts with his mother. First she would argue in her calm, reasoned way and then she would haughtily retreat into silence, refusing to say a word. The subject under discussion would not come up again for a long time, perhaps six months or a year. But when it did finally come up again it was as if their previous conversation had not occurred. He came to realize that it was impossible to correct her errors. The field of her mind was absolute, maintaining itself in a state of great shining clarity. His own foolish jabbering, his nit picking heresies were simply ignored, waited out. She wore him down. She ground away at him with the power of her relentlessly fecund, inventive mind. Once Jeremy came to realize that all this was as inevitable as the sun rising or dark descending he began to enjoy his mother’s inventions and eventually came to see the fictive world she lived in to be superior to the boring, every day world of their rather eventless, impoverished lives. He began to look forward to her stories as a spot of colourful entertainment in an otherwise dull and drab existence.

   Jeremy’s mother, sequestered now in a Church sponsored home among prayers, knitting and quiet whispers, employed her time in the repetition of old lies seasoned now and again with the new ones she thought necessary to keep things fresh and contemporary. All these weird personal fables, these creations of a baroque imagination, she worked and polished into seamless stories which she presented to him on his Sunday afternoon visits with great vitality, skill and originality. What did it matter if they were ‘true’ or not? After all, from his observations over the years, what was presented, in the newspapers, in schools, as official history was just as suspect, just as shot through with the levered, personal point of view. His mother was merely acting as the whole world acted, perhaps even more moderately for she never claimed her personal ‘distortions’ to be official bastions of ‘truth’ or ‘reality’.

   According to his mother he and she were related by blood to the royal Stuarts. The original vehicle of this relation was a grandson of the Young Pretender, popularly known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, the last serious standard bearer of the Stuart cause, whose forces were defeated at the battle of Culloden in 1749. Subsequently the Bonnie Prince removed to France where, like many Bonnie Princes, he filled several houses full of children, some of whom were legitimate, some not. Jeremy’s mother claimed John Frail, her husband’s great great grandfather to be a legitimate bearer of the Stuart name. According to her, after a great dance of legal wrangling and fancy political arabesques, he managed, at the age of thirty, after changing his name to Frail, a popular name in the Hebrides at the time, to claim a small island as his inheritance. Here, again according to his mother, said John Frail, really John Stuart, held a kind of underground Stuart court and fired the Hebridean people with new pride in their ancestral heritage. That the Scots, who were at the time making millions in banking and working long hours in the shipyards building war vessels for the British Empire, had much time in their busy lives for sentimental journeys into the past, seemed highly unlikely to Jeremy but his mother was quite capable of waxing eloquent on the new spirit inspired by the blood royal's presence among the people. She could go on for some time telling stories of depressed Celts restored by ‘the touch’ to happy and productive lives, young mothers calmed in the travails of childbirth and so on.

    John Stuart’s son emigrated to the American continent in the early eighteen hundreds. Jeremy’s mother claimed that he, through a series of circuitous name changes, cut outs, etc, apparently necessary subterfuges to guard against the enmity of certain powerful men, to be the great grandfather of her dead husband, Jeremy’s father. When Jeremy said to her that considering the number of descendants in that populous line, even if this were true, then it would not have been anything special, his mother fixed him with a terrible eye. After a pause in which she scoured him with those old fierce eyes whose antecedents were perhaps as terrible to the old enemies of the Scots as the Highland charge once was, she said, “The rest are bastards you foolish boy,” employing a directness of language which he had never before or after heard her use. John Frail’s grandsons frittered away the money he brought with him from the old country, their sons becoming carpenters, boat builders, makers of furniture and coffins  - skilled, yes, but nonetheless workman even though ‘of the higher variety’ as his mother phrased it. Jeremy’s father, who died three years after he was born, operated a workshop in the basement of the house he inherited from his parents, producing an inexpensive line of furniture for his workman nieghbours. After his death his mother turned the workshop into living quarters for herself and Jeremy, renting out the rest of the three story house. Jeremy was brought up on the proceeds of this meagre rental income.

   “And who has the Hebrides island now?” Jeremy asked. But his mother cast an imperious hand toward the ceiling saying, “What does it matter? Danes of some kind or another. Sheep breeders, fishermen, tourist guides, something of that kind.” Jeremy couldn’t help thinking that being of that kind might not be so bad if you owned an island to go along with it but his mother held in high contempt all worldly ambitions not having to do with the Blood Royal and, suspecting, (most accurately) the motivation of his inquiries, refused to answer any more questions.

   The drift of all this was that Jeremy was in the direct line and therefore his question to her was, if so, what was he doing here in the colonies selling brushes door to door. Here his mother took refuge in vagueness. She was unsure she said. There were many details which remained obscure and rightly so for some shield must be cast over such matters or malevolent persons might use unguarded information to perpetrate violent and evil acts. The Hanoverians, according to his mother, were anxious on such matters. Their anxiety was not a danger to anyone, excepting perhaps themselves, may it rot the linings of their ursurping stomachs and curdle the contents of their unholy bowels, but gaining detailed knowledge of the Stuart line would bring about great dangers. Surely even a brush salesman could appreciate that such knowledge in the hands of Hanoverians or their agents, would spell disaster. They had the ear of certain organizations to whom falls from high buildings, mysterious disappearances, gruesome motor vehicle accidents, silently slipping tortured corpses into the sea, were all in the course of a day’s business. The resources of the Blood Royal were more modest and thus they were forced to rely on the time honoured weapons of the powerless – subterfuge, secrecy, obscuration, veils leading to veils leading to veils, etc. To speak in an unguarded way of such things was dangerous and unwise. To even know of such things in an unguarded way was dangerous and unwise. Therefore he should stop being such a noodle head and asking questions she had no intention of answering for the obvious reasons given above.

  At this point (this conversation occurred some fifteen years before) Jeremy began to think his mother mentally deranged, paranoid. He even thought of trying to convince her to come with him to see a psychiatrist. But after several weeks of revolving this in the back of his mind, he gave it up. He decided that there was no way that his mother would ever repeat the things she told him in the presence of a psychiatrist. Even if forced to wait on one by some magical power he did not possess she would sit there very coolly denying every word he said, insisting that the pressure of her son’s employment had driven him mad and, as everyone knows, the mad are great ones for insisting that they are quite sane and the others, especially those who are near and dear to them, are really the mad ones. Such a contest with his mother played out in the court of a psychiatrist would surely end in his utter defeat. Besides, even if she were mad, his mother was harmless. She had never suggested that the postman was a Hanoverian agent and that Jeremy should do away with him at the first opportunity or anything of that sort. If she were indeed mad she was just a harmless old spider building a series of complex webs at the bidding of a chemical imbalance or some weird warping of the DNA and thus of no harm to anyone.

   According to Jeremy’s aunt, his mother’s sister, ten years her senior, who lived in another city far away to the west, visiting Jeremy and his mother for two weeks every summer until ten years ago when age and health brought her traveling to an end, his mother always had a tendency to ‘drifting and dreaming’ as the aunt put it. As a child her play with dolls was much more extravagant and went on for much longer than it did with other girls. For her dolls she worked out elaborate and complicated lives involving plots and secret pacts, sudden disappearances, journeys to far off places of refuge involving mysterious lovers, malevolent forces, witches, violent kings, agents of evil whom she dressed in dark clothing and fitted with masks similar to the ones worn by Zorro and the Lone Ranger. She spent several hours every day alone in her room conducting these ‘operas’, as Jeremy’s aunt called them, amidst her dolls and other figures she constructed of sticks, pieces of cloth, wire, straw stolen from her mother’s kitchen broom, papier mache and odd bits of clutter rescued from the garbage bin. These creatures operated in a maze his mother made by suspending pieces of butcher string from her bedposts to nails pounded into the window and door jambs which she then covered with small ends of cloth given her by their mother. The action took place in this city of multicoloured curtains. There was even a gibbet composed of coat hanger wire wrapped in black cloth from which hung four butcher string hangman ropes suitable for multiple executions. From these ropes, according to Jeremy’s aunt, hung, for the most part, the evil agents with masks and black capes, which to his aunt seemed reasonably appropriate for they were, no doubt, murderers, abusers and perpetrators of numerous evils and thus it was not surprising that they ended up hanging from a gibbet. Sometimes, however, one of the golden haired, blue eyed dolls, dressed in long blue gowns, hung there all by herself. When this happened all the other characters, even the evil agents, were placed in attitudes of deep mourning about the foot of the gibbet, perhaps including those who had placed her there now overcome with deep regret. There were several carriages pulled by wooden horses whisking actors from one scene to another and a paper mache pirate ship occasionally taking a party off across an imaginary sea to another country.

  Jeremy’s mother was very religious. Despite his own strict Catholic upbringing, or perhaps because of it, Jeremy saw all religious belief as a form of mania. He was quite willing to admit its beneficial effects, for instance the relative harmony which prevailed at the seniors home where just about all the inmates were fervent and devout believers, partakers of the sacraments and so obedient and orthodox they were like members of a second chance nunnery, a membership conferred upon them by age, impoverishment and the fact that they were either widows or spinsters. There were regular prayers. In the corridors there were often black suited priests. The place was run by Sisters of Charity who wore long black robes and astonishingly white starched wimples  - quick, elegant, direct women possessed of great intensity and force of personality. The viaticum was administered every morning to those who wished to take it. Sundays the able bodied went to the Cathedral. Here they sat through the Bishop’s mass with its pomp, bright vestments, stained glass windows, its gold gilded altar, the choir, the sung liturgy, the sweet, angelic altar boys, the press of the crowd. For shut ins there was a mass in the dining room where even the most ancient and decrepit could be present in their wheelchairs. All these activities had to them a purposefulness, a solemnity which was very impressive. Without them what would there be, Jeremy often asked himself, but a bunch of disassociated personalities hurtling towards death? Old women crying their despair into the darkness? They may very well all be maniacs in the sense of participants in a group mania but Jeremy could not help but come to the conclusion that without their faith and ceremonies they would be much diminished, much worst off. Unbeliever that he was he had great respect for the comfort given and the humane results of their belief and always treated its forms, observances and intellectual structures with tolerance and respect. Because of this his mother did not take him to task for his unbelief. That he acted as if he were a believer, that he did not mock and challenge, was good enough for her.

  Many, in those days, were enthusiastic about the reforms of Vatican II. This was not so with his mother. Of course she was officially obedient to all pronouncements from proper authorities in the Church. However she could not help but think of John XXIII, at least in his human manifestations, as a vulgar peasant led astray by populist notions. For her the chief tragedy of the century was not the wars and mass killings but the vernacular mass. To turn aside from the great tradition of the Latin Rite, which, in a long uninterrupted line had believers speaking the praises of God in the same language and form extending back into the centuries, was a terrible mistake for which the Church would be punished by chaos and confusion, all the evils brought down upon the heads of the builders of the Tower of Babel for their hubris and unholy pretension. That the priest should face the congregation, exposing the holy rapture of his union with God to the rabble seemed to her to be unseemly. That they could gaze upon the host elevated above his head for a few brief moments seemed to her quite sufficient. Sundays she went to the Cathedral but the other mornings of the week she, accompanied by a few old maids whom Jeremy always thought of as her entourage, attended a Latin Rite mass down the street at a Dominican Abbey. Here, his mother and her cronies could say the Latin responses in exactly the same way as they had came forth from the mouth of the Young Pretender some two centuries before. Jeremy suspected that his mother saw the vernacular mass as an attempt by levellers to break this connection, to leave it floundering in a sea of grasping rabble infected with the terrible disease of what she called the Cromwellian heresy, that is that each individual made up their own rules after nightly conversations with a rational, administrative God. This, according to his mother, went against the common knowledge and inheritance of the human race, casting adrift the great bulwarks of Order, Obedience, Hierarchy, Tradition and the place assigned by God for the individual in both the natural and eternal order.    

  The downfall of the Stuarts was, for his mother, also a great tragedy, the greatest in all human history, but one softened by her surety of their reestablishment in their ordained and proper place. The details of this ordained and proper place were a little vague, for his mother had no real notion of economics or political structures. Indeed she thought of these things as the encumbrances of lesser minds leading into the blind alleys and mazes of the twentieth century. Talk of a Stuart resurfacing was expressed in mystical language and went something like this. Driven mad by the unholy confusion of the secular states, in a frenzy of egoism, rage and destruction the masses would rise to throw off the yoke of commercial Mammon. The streets of the cities would flow with blood while the rabble indulged themselves in a bacchanalia of lust, murder and drunkenness. Virgins would be raped, Ministers of the State struck down in the corridors of the Houses of Assembly. The rich would be burned alive in houses where once they composed the tableaus of deep degeneracy. The cities would empty out as millions tried to escape the violence and mayhem. Of course they would escape into a vast maw of starvation and disease. The roads would become lined with festering corpses. The four horsemen of the apocalypse would harvest a mountain of skulls. Deep rivers of human misery would overflow their banks creating innumerable scenes of human suffering. This would go on for some time until perhaps some three quarters of the human race was wiped off the face of the earth. Then a period of shock, remorse, and deep quiet would ensue. It was in this period that the people would come to their collective senses and search about in the ruins for the pillars of truth and reality which they had so long neglected. One of these pillars would be the restored Stuarts, in some mystical way now cutting across all barriers of race, custom, language to become the universal saviors of desperate and fallen humanity. Lifted upon the shoulders of the justly chastised populace, they would usher in a new age of Justice, Obedience and Absolute Rule. The second pillar would be the remnants of the Church Hierarchy, which the judgment of God (perhaps in the form of a Highland dirk) would miraculously merge into the first; thus the Keys to the Kingdom and the seat of human judgment would be joined together in the body of the Stuart King. (no Queens, Jeremy’s mother would not have it) Some might wonder how such a demure old Catholic lady could dream such horrible pyrotechnic dreams but there you have it.

   After twenty minutes of sitting in the sun Jeremy rose, hefted his sales case, remarking in his mind for the thousandth time how he should find some way of wheeling the beast and thus saving the wear and tear on his small, thinly muscled frame, and started off towards the head of his next street of call.  Sullivan Street. The first customer, Mrs. Slaney, gave him a cup of tea on the front porch and ordered one cat brush, one fingernail brush and a roll of fancy ribbon. Next door Mrs. Drapeau took three bottles of shampoo and two comb and brush sets for birthday presents. Three houses down Mrs. Delaney was put down for face scrub and an expensive brush set for her daughter’s graduation and so on until three o’clock (he skipped lunch being on a roll) his order book was almost full. After a brief wait at the stop he climbed aboard the number ten bus and rode it home. There, Mrs. Gillian, the landlady, gave him a phone message from his mother. He was to appear at the home at 7:10 that evening on an important matter. This was the exact wording repeated by Mrs. Gillian in a deferential tone for she thought Jeremy’s mother a lady of great distinction, always repeating her messages verbatim as they seemed to her to be expressed in a genteel language so different from what she, Mrs. Gillian, used for every day occasions. Jeremy thanked her and climbed the stairs. In his room he shed his outer clothing, hanging everything neatly in the tiny closet inside the door, removed his shoes placing them together to one side of the bureau and lay down on the bed. The next thing he knew he Mrs. Gillian was calling him for supper. Pot roast, homemade bread, blueberry pie. Then, after thanking Mrs. Gillian warmly for supper (she was truly a wonderful cook and a gem of a landlady) he left the house in the cheerful frame of mind brought about by a fine meal, and took the number seven bus arriving at the home at 7:04.

   “I have decided,” his mother said when he came into the room.

   “Decided what?” asked Jeremy for his mother’s mind was chock full of things being decided in a very systematic, logical process much like an automobile assembly line with vehicles in various stages of completion.

   His mother looked at him sharply. “You know very well what I mean, Jeremy.”

   Usually Jeremy would defer to this with a smile and perhaps a nod of his head but today he was fortified with a stomach full of digesting nutrients and he spoke up for himself. “You forget, mother, that there are other people in the world besides yourself, people who may not understand you when you speak in a cryptic manner.”

   “The horses. Gray and finely combed of course but the number was causing me problems. I have decided that ten would be pretentious. Six will be quite sufficient.”

   His mother was speaking of the horses which would pull her funeral cortege. Long ago Jeremy had given up trying to convince her that if one were rich and the funeral director given ample notice one could have a funeral cortege pulled by any number of horses of any description and colour, but an impoverished old woman with a son who sold brushes door to door was not in that category. All his efforts to disabuse her of these notions of grandeur had been met with the same indulgent smile then swept aside with a flourish of details concerning ribbons, the braiding of the horses manes and tails, the amount and design of the silver decorations on the harnesses and so on. He had learned to listen very attentively even closing his eyes to imagine the particulars she was laying out before him.

   “Black ribbons I suppose to secure the braiding but you would suppose a funeral would allow the occasional use of some other somber colour besides black – deep purple perhaps but custom is custom and we don’t want to cause scandal.” His mother was thinking of the funeral of a man who she claimed to be a direct line descendant, held in the south of France, whose lover had tied bright pink ribbons onto the door handles of the hearse carrying him from the church to the grave site, announcing to the world, or at least that part of it which was listening, that the corpse therein had been gay or was gay if you saw gayness as a condition which continued after death. Everybody who knew him already knew this for he was not one to disguise the nature of his sexual desire, rather the opposite. What bothered his mother about this performance was not that the corpse was gay but that the organizers of the funeral had been so remiss as to allow such a solemn occasion to be abused by the exhibitionist tendencies of his paramour. All the more reason to have trusted aides or trusted sons to insure that indignities were not visited upon your corpse after death. But secretly, Jeremy was sure, his mother longed for the bright colours disallowed at funerals especially as her procession would be the only proper one allowed her in a hard life of obscurity and self denial and it seemed a shame that that the colours involved should be limited to the funereal spectrum.

   Six horses then. Grays, big Arabian mares, driven by driver and assistant in tails and silk top hats, footmen on the running boards the same – handsome, hearty fellows to beat off the crowds and clear the way through traffic. The coach glassed, the coffin open until it reached the grave. The tomb had already been decided upon – granite, windowless with a cornice carved with resplendent archangels. Here she would await secret ambassadors from the old country who would ship her remains across the sea to their final resting place filled with the posthumous glory of the Stuarts. His mother was convinced that her temporary tomb was now awaiting her at a local cemetery some ten miles away. Jeremy had decided that this was a relatively harmless delusion and even brought her pictures of tombs in a book from the library from which she picked out some of the details. His mother was also convinced that an inner coffin of hammered copper set into an outer of polished oak sat in a storage room of the funeral home and was thus ready to be pressed into service immediately upon her death. The copper was necessary for ‘respectful preservation’ as she put it during the hiatus preceding her journey across the sea.  

   Of course she was to be buried in a simple pine coffin atop the by now crumbling casket of her husband, William John McKenzie, dead these thirty years and no doubt properly mouldering. The coffin chosen by Jeremy was second up from the bottom of the list at Snow and Glaston’s Funeral Home and even then barely affordable from the tiny savings of her only son. The marker would be limestone, an archangel carved into each upper corner, but archangels with wings folded, the kind with wings spread out being too expensive. The Funeral Home hearse would transport the body to the gravesite, a small cemetery two miles down from the big one where the plots were cheaper. The casket would be closed. There would be no crowds to peer in curiously even if they could see through the darkened windows and no press for the footmen to clear a way through. Indeed there would only be Jeremy, a few cronies from the old neighbourhood and perhaps a half dozen old ladies from the home carried from the service in the Cathedral’s chapel to gravesite in two Funeral Home cars, black Chevrolets. Jeremy would pay fifty percent of the costs up front from his savings. The rest would be paid in monthly instalments over a period of three years.

   “Have you got all that, Jeremy?”

   “Yes mother,” he replied and indeed he did for he had copied it into the notebook he carried with him for such purposes. If, or perhaps when would be more realistic, his mother brought up archangels, braid tying ribbon or reception arrangements he could flip to his index, written in a small print script with cross references, and put his finger on the necessary information in a matter of minutes. His mother was delusional, yes, but she had an impeccable grip upon the details of her delusions, even more of a grip, Jeremy sometimes thought than if they were real. He found it best to have good notes for although the general shape of things in his mother’s mind remained the same, she sometimes changed a detail here and there. Years before he had learned to leave spaces for corrections and he entered them in the same tiny, tidy script he used for writing orders for brushes, ribbons and lilac body powder. Even though his mother’s wishes were quite insane he still enjoyed the journeyman task of writing them down and adding new page numbers and cross references to the index. His mother liked to watch him do so for his careful, painstaking jottings gave to her decisions a reassuring concrete reality. When he finished his notes, he placed the book back into the inside pocket of his suit coat.

    At that precise moment, Edna, one of the Home’s inmates who, over the years, had taken on the role of his mother’s confidant, traveling companion and maid, came in to the room as if by signal although as far as Jeremy could make out there had not been one, carrying before her a tray of tea and cookies. She was a small thin woman, one of those who even in her seventies remind you of the phrase ‘a slip of a girl’. She had a thin elegant face with a high forehead and a lovely, radiant, childlike smile. Jeremy knew little of her background. Not long after his mother moved into the Home twenty years before Edna had taken up her role as his mother’s aide de camp as naturally as a kitten might curl up to a large maternal cat. She placed the tray on a small table in front of his mother and then, at her invitation sat opposite the old lady and poured three cups of tea. They chatted about the daily happenings in the Home while nibbling cookies and sipping tea. Jeremy caught the 9:07 and was home in bed by ten o’clock.

  One year to the day after that evening Jeremy’s mother had a stroke. She was rushed to the hospital. When he arrived she was in bed and very pale, the white coverlet up to her chin. At first he thought she was asleep but something about the rhythm of her breathing told him this was not so. When he came to the side of the bed she opened her eyes and with a motion of her head beckoned his ear down towards her mouth. In a harsh whisper she said, “Never mind.”

   “Never mind what, mother?”

   “All those things I told you. The proper arrangements have been made.” As soon as she said this she shut her eyes and drifted off. Jeremy sat in a chair beside the bed until the night nurse reminded him twice that visiting hours were over. At the desk in the hall a young doctor told him she would be unlikely to survive the night. Jeremy thanked him and took the bus home. His mother was eighty six. Right up until the stroke she had been physically active and mentally alert. Of the two of them Jeremy had always considered his mother, despite her delusions, the most intelligent and the most aware, alive. He would miss her terribly but he was not so deranged as to wish her deprived of a quick and merciful death for his own selfish reasons. He was happy it had turned out this way for her. He was grateful. A long disability before death would have been hard for a woman like his mother to bear.

   The next morning, at 6:31, she died. Jeremy was given the precise time by Edna who arrived one hour before him at the hospital. She established this time from the pendant watch she held in her hand, his mother’s one valuable possession. When she told him the time she looked at him expectantly as if some comment on this figure should be forthcoming. When Jeremy failed to produce one she looked at him pityingly, exactly, it seemed to Jeremy, the way his mother often looked at him when she was alive. “The grandson, William,” she said.

   “Died at the same time,” said Jeremy.

   “Yes,” said Edna giving a radiant smile to find her pupil such a quick study.

   “Although there is some controversy,” said Edna. “Four said 6:31, two 6:30, one 6:32.”

   “Probably a matter of inaccurate watches,” said Jeremy.

   “No doubt,” said Edna.

   The attendants came to remove his mother’s body and Jeremy and Edna left the room to let them do their work. They waited until the gurney was wheeled out and watched it move down the corridor and out of sight.

   “I’ll have to phone the funeral home,” said Jeremy.

   “There is no need,” said Edna. “The proper arrangements have been made.”

   “What did you say?” Asked Jeremy.

   “The arrangements are made. There is no need for you to do anything.”

   “I don’t understand,” said Jeremy. “Are you telling me mother made separate arrangements I know nothing about?”

   “I suppose you could say that. You mother is on her way to be embalmed. The coffins are waiting.”

   “Coffins?”

   “Yes. An inner coffin of hammered copper, an outer of polished oak.”

   “What are you talking about Edna? Two coffins. Arrangements made. By whom? Upon whose authority? With what money?”

   “Resources have been provided.”

   “By whom?”

   “Sush. Such things cannot be talked about in such a public place. I will tell you later in private.” After saying this Edna opened her purse and handed him a sealed envelope. “Put this in your pocket.”

   Jeremy took the envelope between the fingers of his right hand. He turned it over looking for a name but there was no writing on either side. Just a plain white sealed envelope.

   “What’s in it?” he asked.

   “Isn’t that rather obvious?” Edna replied.

   “Not to me it isn’t.”

   Edna sighed. “Your mother told me you might present difficulties. ‘He’s rather na├»ve, Edna,’ she said to me.” She gave him a severe look and then continued. “The envelope contains a plane ticket. Flight 416 leaving tomorrow at 7PM. I will pick you up in a taxi at 5. We will be arriving in Nice late afternoon. No need for a suitcase. Any clothing you own would be inappropriate for the occasion. In your room at the Chalet you will find all the clothing you will need. Your mother gave us the sizes. Trust a mother to know the sizes of even an aging son. The envelope also contains cash. Use whatever you need to pay rent in lieu of notice. Perhaps you might like to arrange with your landlady to have surplus belongings stored for later shipping or given away to the Salvation Army.”

                                                  ^^                          

   The coffin was open and you could see his mother’s severe dead face through the glass. There were eight horses instead of six, Arabian mares, three footmen on either side of the coach and a driver but no assistant. The braids on the horse’s tails and manes were tied up with ribbons a deep dark purple and there were bright silver fastenings on the harnesses. People lined the road, the men holding hats in their hands, women with their heads bowed and when the carriage pasted by in it’s slow, sedate procession they slipped onto the gravel roadbed and followed along behind.

   When they reached the cemetery the procession turned off the road and wound its way along a gravel path barely wide enough for the wheels through what seemed an innumerable series of graves, markers, elaborate carved stone memorials until it came at last to a large granite faced mausoleum. It was exquisitely worked, the entire front carved with figures of archangels, in some places praising God with uplifted arms, outstretched wings, in others carrying the souls of the recently departed upwards to their heavenly reward. From a cornice of huge overhanging stones protruded a series of incredibly hideous gargoyles, laughing, leering, so realistically portrayed in attitudes of fierce mockery that it seemed the placid beauty of the angels, their counterpoint, their opposition, were about to be overthrown in favour of a bacchanalia trumpeting the absurdity of all human things and the meaningless profanity of death. These figures so terrified Jeremy that he lowered his eyes to avoid them but found himself raising them occasionally all through the ceremony, very elaborate and very long, as if these figures held for him a deep allure, a fatal attraction. The language of the liturgy was Latin. The entrance to the tomb was piled with flowers, the overly florid flowers of warm countries, their sickly sweet perfume mixing with the smell of incense burning in half a dozen censers to create a pall which, in the completely still, soft spring air, encasing the mourners in a nauseous fog.

   When the ceremony was finally over and his mother’s now closed casket carried by the pall bearers into the tomb, Jeremy turned away and walked some distance along the path up a hill until he was alone, away from the crowd. Here, under a yew tree there was a bench. He sat down and looked back at the tomb where the crowd was yet to disperse, still a great knot of several hundreds no longer quiet and worshipful, focused on the single point of the Bishop’s movements, his deep baritone Latin readings from the book of the dead, but now turned toward one another and creating an incredible din of laughter, exclamation, and loud, vociferous greeting. He had made some kind of accommodation with these people. He knew, in a fashion, who they were.  Yet still they seemed unreal to him. He could not help thinking that they were illusions, phantoms, composed from memories of old lithographs, and in the end mere figments of his mother’s imagination. He closed his eyes and listened to the bright, clear notes of the birds singing in the trees around him.

   The noise of boots crunching gravel came towards him. Jeremy remained seated with his eyes closed until they climbed the path and stood before him. Then he opened his eyes and looked up at the three figures standing in front of him. The foremost was a man with a great mane of silver hair, dressed in an expensive banker’s suit. He went down on one knee, reached out and grasped Jeremy’s left hand and brought his lips down to kiss the heavy ornate ring his dresser early that morning had insisted he wear. The man held his closed lips to the ring for several long moments in a weird fervour of mystical union. Then he brought his head up and looked into Jeremy’s eyes and said in a voice husky with emotion,

   “My Prince.”

   Then the white haired man was whisked away as if blown by a sudden gust of wind and replaced by another. A long line of people, both men and women, were now climbing the path. Jeremy could see, through the leaves of a grove of trees to the south, a bright flash of blue sea. For a sudden, absurd moment, he had an urge to be upon that blue sea, sailing. But he knew this could not be so. Just as the dresser that morning had insisted on the ring, there would now be a long uninterrupted line of insisting, of instruction, of requirements, a long line from which it would be impossible to escape. He would have wept but it occurred to him that with his heart was now grasped in a iron hand, a cold iron hand perhaps just emerged from the cool depths of that blue sea and that weeping would be a useless and extravagant gesture. “Who are you?” he asked the woman now genuflecting before him.

    “Recently arrived,” she said and smiled as if this assertion was the answer to everything.

   “Of course,” replied Jeremy. “Of course.” And he raised his hand to the next supplicant, a long nosed man with a face like a knife who held, in the deep caverns of his eye sockets, a pair of terrible enigmatic eyes.

               

   

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Cigarettes


Harry lived across the alley from a bar in the old downtown. He had a basement apartment in a block, once a fine old building now run down. But Harry didn’t mind; he preferred it that way. The bathroom was ancient with a six foot tub and he liked a good soak at least once a day. Besides, when a building is down at the heels the rents are cheap and Harry didn’t have a lot of money.

Harry didn’t drink but nonetheless he liked having a bar across the alley. He received a disability check the end of the month but it wasn’t enough to pay all his expenses. In the bar he could swing a deal now and then to make ends meet and to do so he had only to walk across the alley.

Like the building the alley was a beat up affair. The concrete was cracked and flaked. The garbage bins at the back of the properties were overflowing. Weeds grew everywhere. You had to watch who was around when you walked down such an alley. There were punks who would slit your throat for a hamburger or merely for the pleasure of slitting your throat. Harry had long ago developed the sixth sense necessary for people who live in poor areas. He would stand inside the door at the back of his building and listen. One thing about punks is that they are not silent. They rave. They rant. They snort. They strut. There is no such thing as a silent punk. When he was satisfied the coast was clear he opened the door, looked once each way and walked quickly across the lane.

The bar had a mix of people in it. There were very poor people, bums and street people with enough money for a beer or two. There were workers, some of them with good jobs and flush. There were even the odd suit still drinking four hours after work with old pals from the neighborhood. Then there were the prostitutes either resting from tricks or looking for one. Then there were the pensioners and the marginally funded out for the noise, color and the feel of people around them. The waiters were beefy, loud men who carried huge trays of beer glasses in arms as muscled as a wrestler’s. If you got too loud or aggressive two of these would throw you out into the back lane, beating the piss out of you on the way if you put up a fight.

Harry liked to sit in a shadowy corner just inside the door. Along the wall there were two chair tables, a long row of them. Bum’s row this was called for the loners sat there, sad men who after a period of alcoholic rumination would suddenly break out into a round denunciation of an imaginary enemy and after being chastised by one of the waiters sink back into murmuring waters of their boozy memories. The bums didn’t bother Harry. He saw them as ordinary men like himself who had gone farther into the interior, so to speak, and for whom the every day world had become a series of shadows, mostly dark and threatening. He kept his distance for they were bums and constantly on the mooch but still he felt toward them a brotherly feeling. Both he and they were on the bottom and exactly what shelf at the bottom was of little consequence. Sometimes when he made extra from his cigarettes he would lend out a little money to a few of the more cogent. It always surprised him when most of it came back.

It was Tuesday night, slow as usual. Of the ten two seat tables only two were occupied by men Harry didn’t know. The place was perhaps a quarter full or three quarters empty. There were only two waiters. The weekend nights had six. Harry went up to the bar to get his tea.

“A glass of milk, Outlaw Kid?” asked the young bartender with his usual joke.

“Right you are bartender,” answered Harry. He carried the tea to his table and sat down.

After waiting for a half hour Jim came in the front door, crossed the floor and sat down opposite. After a few moments of conversation they walked out to the parking lot outside, took a large bag from the trunk of Jim’s car. Harry took this across the lane to his apartment and met Jim back in the bar.

Nobody in the world had a more lived in face than Jim, worn and folded and creased but essentially kind. It was the kind of face that has successfully risen from its sorrows into a somewhat careful yet vigorous embrace of the world. He was tall and heavy set and wore an old brown suit which made him seem, at least to Harry, a preacher at a skid row mission. He wasn’t, of course. For much of his life he was a boilermaker but in the past few years arthritis had cut him off from his old occupation and he now sold contraband cigarettes. The waiter brought him a glass of beer and he took a long draught and then placed the glass down on the table.

“Well,” he said, “he’s almost gone, Harry. I went over there tonight before I came here and by the look of him I would guess he’ll be gone in the next day or two.”

Jim was talking of a mutual friend dying of lung cancer.

“Still puffing is he?” Harry asked.

“O yes. He says he plans to quit two hours before he croaks.”

Harry laughed. “He always says that.”

“Yes he does, every time. But he’s a great master of timing and it always strikes you as at least a bit funny.”


When George, their mutual friend, was given the diagnosis, the doctor told him they could cut out the affected lung and he would live for another twenty years. But George was having nothing to do with that. “I’d rather have my liver torn out with needle nose pliers,” he told the doctor, a young man who was very shocked by such a grim and gory image. He tried to convince him to undergo surgery but it was useless. George had no faith in ‘the knife’ as he called it. It was his opinion that ‘the knife’ merely spread cancer and pretending that it didn’t was a trick of the doctors to get in some practice on ‘chopping people up’ as he put it. No good could come of it as far as George was concerned. The doctor offered radiation treatment but George wasn’t up for that either. “Radiation didn’t do a lot of good for those poor bastards in Hiroshima, did it?” The doctor, flummoxed by this line of reasoning, gave up. He gave him a prescription for painkillers and later on syringes and morphine.

George lived in a one bedroom three blocks down from Harry. Even now, if Jim was right and he was a few days away from dying, the place was as neat as a pin. When George gave himself his morphine shot he didn’t lay down on his bed and enjoy himself. He couldn’t anyway for the shot to him now was merely a lessening of his pain rather than a high. But he took advantage of this lessening of pain to clean up. As time went on the time he could do this was shortened so that now it was only ten minutes or so. But, as George said, ten minutes six times a day was an hour and the apartment wasn’t very big. After his ten minutes of cleaning he slept for three hours until the pain woke him up.

George was a lover of opera. When his illness stopped him from going out to the local junk stores and buying music he sent Harry. He gave him a printed list of titles for he didn’t trust Harry’s memory. One time Harry had brought him back a CD of atonal music which George put on, right afterwards lying down on the bed for he was in pain. His pain was so bad that he figured he wouldn’t be able to make it back to the stereo without blacking out so he had no choice but to listen. He claimed that listening to that CD had taken a month off his life. “It was like being tortured with hot knives,” he said. All the time the ‘music’ was playing he wondered if the pain of listening was worst than the pain he would have walking over to the stereo to turn it off. “So I had three kinds of pain,” said George, “ the pain of listening to the music, which was probably the worst, the pain of the cancer and the pain of arguing with myself whether to try turning it off or not.” After that he carefully printed out a few titles on a sheet of paper and gave it to Harry before he went off to the stores.

It was Harry’s practice to go see George in the evenings, Jim’s to do so in the morning, but occasionally they went together. The morning after meeting in the bar was one of these occasions. Jim parked his car in the empty bar parking lot, knocked on Harry’s door and they walked down lane to the back of George’s building. The mornings in the back lane were very different from the evenings. Granted the bright May sunshine of that day illumined the ramshackle surroundings cruelly so that every fault, every crack, crevass, and over spilling garbage bin was clear as a super realist painting, yet this revelation, to the two men, was a welcome thing, a thing of beauty rather than one of ugliness. They were both in their mid fifties and the extreme entropy of the alley was to them a companion, a fellow traveler, its torn textures and variegated surfaces like an old, patched work coat one has developed an attachment for, making it the superior of all the clean, shiny, unpatched work coats in the world. Their brief sojourn filled them with an unaccountable lightness of heart and happiness although each remained silent saying nothing about it to the other. Perhaps something told them that such happiness on the way to visit a dying man was reprehensible.

The stairs at the back of George’s building were reached by passing through a short brick tunnel, arched, gouged, cracked and scraped. Its opening evoked an ominous feeling as if one were entering a medieval monastery or some dreadful dungeon. There was graffitti on the back wall - rough and unskilled – the names of gangs with their appropriate symbols. When they reached the stairs they had to climb three floors up a set of wooden stairs until they reached George’s floor.

His apartment was at the back. George always chose an apartment at the back for in such buildings the worst place to be was near the stairs where all night long the drunks clambered up and down like deranged squirrels, stopping now and again to shout encouragement to their friends, or curses at their enemies. When they arrived at the door Jim, after knocking, used his key to enter. George was sitting in his lazy boy on the east side of the apartment at the window overlooking a parking lot filled with scraps of paper and old clunkers.

“Coffee’s on,” he said as they came in the door. They could barely hear him for the stereo was blasting out an opera.

George was a living skeleton or at least that’s the impression he would give to a stranger but to the two visitors who had known him from when he was a boy he was George, whittled down by the cancer, yes, but still George. When he moved now it was very slowly in a sort of rachetting process of many stops to study the effect of the movement on his pain. His face was that of a movie zombie, a ghoulish thing, paper thin flesh barely covering the bone. His hands and wrists stuck out of his shirt sleeves like the talons of a slain bird. His hair was wispy and disordered and lay defeated upon his skull like grass blown flat by the wind. His eyes, however, were very intense, as if he had gathered all the losses of his dying body to give to them a greater glow. The whites were bloodshot but the pupils a deep, bright blue.

Jim put the groceries they brought into the fridge and cupboard. Harry walked over and turned down the volume. Then both men sat at the little kitchen table a few arms length away from where George sat in his chair.

“One of the things about liking opera,” said George, “is that there is a lot of dying in it so you get some practice, at least in the imagination. You have to be an emotionally extravagant person to love opera. If you stand back and look at it objectively it is absurd, bizarre. Sometimes I wonder what a primitive person would think of it. They would probably be seized with terror by all that effusion. But then again, maybe not. Maybe they would find in it something of the rawness you find in a thunderstorm or a blow at sea and thus find it not unusual at all. Opera is an art form suited to the social structures of old Europe. It arose from them and here, where it has been kept up, going to the opera is cultural thing indulged in by the elites. Other than the odd loony like myself for whom it is intensely alive and present, it is like watching a diorama of old forms, a visit to the museum.”

“It’s like drinking acid while sitting in a pot of boiling water if you ask me,” said Harry. “That time I went with you years ago I thought I would never get out alive.”

“But you did, Harry.”

“Yes, but barely.”

George coughed out a few barks which had taken the place of his former liquid, musical laugh. “You refuse to give yourself over to it, that’s why. The wailings of country music are just as ridiculous and yet when you hear them the tears roll down your cheeks like falling rain as one country song I remember puts it.”

“Each to his own, George,” said Jim.

“True. Each to is own. Yet this is a new one or new to you guys I suppose I should say. Turn it off and bring up 6:23 and then crank it up to eight. And then you have to listen. It’s the least you can do for a dying man you philistine bastards.”

Jim did as he was asked. When he came back to the table and sat down George said, “Now close your eyes so you can get the full impact. Listening with your eyes open is like fucking while watching reruns on TV.”

Jim and Harry obediently closed their eyes. It was a song from the Pearl Fishers sung by Jussi Bjoerling. It was a gorgeous, heart rendering song and even Harry and Jim, resist as they might at first, were moved by it. When it was over and Jim had turned of the machine, there were tears in their eyes, partly due to the beauty and pathos of the music but also to the awareness of listening to it with a dying old friend. George, satisfied, leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.

After George rested for a few minutes they continued to talk for a half hour or so until he suddenly became very tied. They offered to leave and George said OK. Before going the two men cut up a plate of fruit and filled the water glass on the table beside George’s chair. Then they went down the stairs and out into the alley.


Two days later Harry got a phone call at five in the morning. He was instantly fully awake after the first ring and leaned over to pick up his cell from the table beside the bed.

“He rang me, Harry,” said Jim. “He says he’ll be going in an hour or so. He said first he wasn’t going to bother us but then he thought with two old friends that would be a rotten thing to do. “If you don’t mind the blood and gore come over,” he said.”
“I’ll meet you there.”
“Fine.”

George was in his chair. His face was as white as a ghost but very serene as if all the usual human emotions had left him. When Harry got him a fresh glass of water and put on the coffee pot Jim came in the door. The two men sat at the table as they always did. George had his eyes closed waiting for them to settle. When they did he opened them wide and smiled.

“That nice young doctor came to see me yesterday. He said I should go to the hospital and I asked him why? Cause it’s the proper place to die he said. No it isn’t I said. The proper place to die is where you lived not in some fish holding tank like the hospital full of busybodies and bossy nurses. It would take twice as much energy to die in a god forsaken place like that. But he is a nice young man and it is only to be expected that he have the usual views on things having lived in the world too short a time to have acquired others. He’s a book reader you know. When he’s not patching up the sick people he’s got his nose in a book so that’s why when it comes around to understanding things in the real world, he’s a bit retarded you might say. So I’m giving him the books. Or I should say you two are. You will have to box them up and deliver them because with those skinny arms of his he will never get them down the stairs.”

Jim suddenly burst out into a heart wrenching sob.

“Now, now Jimmy. Don’t go soft on me, lad. You can cry all you want when I cough up this load in my lungs but until then I would ask that you pay attention so you don’t get things all mixed up and then I will not be able to go unburdened into the land of the dead. The music goes to the Opera Society. They have a garage sale every spring. The Cremation is paid for at Snows. It includes picking up the corpse, cremation and a pottery urn, so don’t let them cheat you. Here (he pointed to a lacquered box on the table beside him) are all the necessary papers, the receipt for Snows, income tax stuff so you can get the pension benefit. You two can split that. As well there is almost ten thousand in hundred dollar bills. After the telephone, hydro finals, the rest is for you two to divide. I already gave some to charity so don’t worry about that. This is for you and I want you to take it. Promise me you’ll take it.”

Harry and Jim nodded their heads.

“Good. The pottery urn is mean for convenient conveyance, not as the centrepiece of a shrine. I want you to scatter the ashes in the river under the bridge where I used to fish. Then wash out the urn in the river water and use it for something else, holding packages of gum or change or whatever. The rest of the stuff in here split between you or give away. OK?”

Again the other two nodded.

“Now the doctor left me shots already prepared. They are in the fridge. Bring me three of them. The syringes are there too. Three of them as well.”

Harry went to the fridge and got what he wanted and brought them to the table. George loaded all three syringes and laid them in a row on the table. Then he looked at them for a time and smiled a wry smile.

“Even all three wouldn’t kill me, you know. I’ve built up quite a tolerance over the past six months. I loaded all three just in case. “Be Prepared”, as the Boy Scouts say. There is a bottle of morphine capsules in the fridge. It’s almost full. Keep them. They last a long long time and there are a lot of sadistic doctors in this world who think relieving pain is a sin. Either yourselves or someone you know will need them before they expire. There is nothing wrong with relieving pain. I don’t see the purpose in useless suffering. Morphine is natural you know. It comes from opium plants and if God didn’t want us to use it he would not have put it into the world.”

George rolled up the right leg of his pants, found a vein and injected the contents of one of the syringes. He sat back in his chair. His face became relaxed and he let out a small sigh. He closed his eyes and did not open them for five minutes. Harry and Jim looked at one another but didn’t say anything. When they were starting to get worried George opened his eyes and said,

“Bring your chairs over here boys, one on either side.”

They did so.

“Now hold my hands. I know there is not much left but skin and bone but do your best.”

They each reached out and cradled a hand between their own.

“O your hands are so warm,” he said. “They are like hot water bottles.”

Then he hemoeraged. He twisted and shuddered and curved his spine backwards in an arch. The blood came out of his mouth in a great fountain, spilling over the white blanket he had wrapped about himself. When the spasm was done he slumped back in the chair, eyes still open. He looked at each of them for a few seconds, a fond yet piercing, penetrating look and then he closed them for good and his body relaxed into the great giving up of death.

Jimmy got two wet towels from the bathroom and cleaned the blood off his face. They stripped the bed and put a clean blanket on it and, unwrapping him from his bloodied blanket and taking off his slippers, they laid him out on the bed. He didn’t weight any more than a ten year old child.

Harry was on the phone. “Bring it around the back up the lane. That’s the best way to take him out. I’ll go down to meet you.”

Jim was stuffing the bloodied blanket and towels into a garbage bag. George was gone but his dead yes were still looking up at the cracked ceiling.