My pop’s newly dead wife, Edna, was a fundamentalist Christian and he, an atheist who pretended to be a Christian, a deacon at her church. He told me about his lack faith when, in my teens, I told him there is no god and the church can go fuck itself. He advised I not tell my mother and keep my secular views to myself; the church he explained is good for business and relationships. For his part, he was happy to go to his knees and praise the Lord God so that Edna, his fifth wife, would go to her knees and give him Jesus sanctioned blow jobs. He told me she did sexual things in the sack that my mother never would do, but she wouldn’t take off her brassiere and only made love in the dark. I told him thanks for letting me know. He asked me once would I pretend to be Christian around Edna because she worried I was going to Hell. I told him sorry, no.
I have a stopover in Denver and my dad picks me up at the airport in Springfield. He’s always been healthy and aware and this is the first I’ve seen him in the shadows of decrepitude. His eyes have dimmed and it makes me sad. He’s driving a little Japanese generic and he cuts off two other drivers on his way to the curb. He doesn’t notice the angry horn honks.
Thirty years ago in a big Oldsmobile, on the way home from the cabin at the lake, on a curvy and hilly two-lane road, with another wife, my father had a head-on collision with a Volkswagen Beetle and three teenagers died. He wasn’t cited but he had always been a distracted driver and he’d had a couple of beers. It hit him hard and it remains to this day. I volunteer to do the driving while I’m here.
“Edna was in a lot of pain,” he tells me. “But it was still a surprise. She was in the hospital for her rheumatoid arthritis. I went home and ate a bowl of soup and when I came back she was dead.”
“She died from arthritis?”
“The arthritis didn’t kill her but it made her wish she were dead and I think she just more or less closed her eyes and died.”
“Wow, you found her?”
“No, they told me she was dead before I saw her. Are you in a hurry to get to the house? I need to stop at Walmart.”
“That’s fine, I’m in no hurry. What do you need?”
“A new nine-iron.”
“A golf club?”
“Something’s not right with the one I have. You’re looking good. How have you been feeling?”
“I’m alright, you know. I hurt but I’m used to it. I’m tough enough. I still swim laps. How are you? You going to be okay on your own?”
“I’m probably going to die soon. Your grandmother Sothern was ninety-one when she died. I was hoping I’d go one year longer than she did but now I don’t think I’m going to make it. I’m sorry to say, there’s not much money left for you kids after I’m gone. The house was Edna’s and I’ve spent most of everything I got from selling the studio. I feel bad about that. Your brother is still mad at me for selling the building downtown and the cabin at the lake fifteen years ago.”
“Yeah, well, you’ve got nothing to feel bad about. It was your life and your money, it’s not like we did anything to earn an inheritance.”
“I know Edna wasn’t sophisticated like the kind of people you know out there in California, but I loved Edna and she really loved me. Here comes Walmart right up there.”
“I liked Edna fine, she was great. She cracked me up.”
“I can have wine with my dinner now. Edna didn’t allow booze in the house. Her father had been a drunk and she thought alcohol was the devil, but now if I want a glass of wine I can have one, nobody cares.”
“The silver lining.”
My father laughs a single ha and shakes his head. We pull into the lot and park and get out and we are walking toward the store when someone behind us starts yelling.
“Hey asshole! Who do you think you are, asshole?”
We stop and turn and it’s a man and a woman in their thirties. They are overweight and ungroomed and the woman is yelling.
“You, don’t even care,” she says. “You banged our truck with your car door and you don’t even care enough to give a shit.”
“What?” Pop looks at me and he is clueless. I figure it out. The pickup truck next to Pop’s car is theirs and when he opened his door he dinged their door.
“Hey, I’m really sorry, nobody meant to bump your car.”
“Maybe I should show you what it feels like,” the guy says. “Maybe I oughta see if you give a shit if I bang your car.”
“Maybe he should say he’s sorry,” the woman points at Pop. “Fucking assholes think you own the world. How’d you like to try something with me right now? How about that asshole.”
I tell them have a nice day and take Pop by the arm. “Come on, Pop. Ignore them.”
Walking into the store I tell my father I think there’s something about the gravitational pull here makes people stupid. He laughs and he tells me he’s glad I ended up on the West Coast and he understands why. Later, back in the parking lot with his new nine-iron and a bottle of red wine, we check the car for dings but it’s untouched.
At the house Pop heats up a can of Campbell’s vegetable soup and I go to the bathroom. Edna was a cleaning fanatic and the bathroom usually feels like it’s never been shit in, except now, only three days dead and my pop has left damp towels on the sink and amber islands of piss on the toilet seat. Edna had chronic pain and all the meds in the bathroom cabinet are stacked face out, shoulder to shoulder like soldiers. I find OxyContin and Viagra. I like OxyContin and I’ve never had a Viagra. I leave the treasure trove as is and figure it’s not going anywhere before I leave.
My dad gives me some blankets and a pillow and he tells me he’s feeling really sad and I say well, no shit. Your wife just died. He tells me he misses her and they had sex three times last month, and, Christian or not, she really liked it. He has tears in his eyes. I tell him that’s pretty impressive for a guy his age and he says well, you know, it wasn’t always like that. “When I was married to your mother…” That’s the cue to say goodnight. I give him a hug and walk him to his bedroom. I tell him happy dreams.
It’s only ten o’clock and I’ve got the keys to Edna’s Lincoln Towne Car. In Edna’s world, one buys a new luxury car every two years, to keep up appearances. Pop has been driving it once a week, to church, where Edna could emerge from the back seat like countrified royalty. Keeping up appearances was never a concern of my father’s; but Edna had her own money and Pop enjoyed driving the big cushy cars. The house is a few miles out of Springfield proper, which has prospered and spread and peopled the surrounding hills and valleys. I push the button to open the garage door.
When I get to the highway I stomp the accelerator and the Lincoln takes off like a rocket-fueled mattress. I turn on the radio and scan for my adolescence. I find 96 Tears and crank it up. I want to get in a fight and I want to burn down a barn. I buzz down the windows and the wind blows.
I circle the bypass and get off in a neighborhood I remember well. I drive by the red brick house I grew up in. I pass my elementary school, junior high, and high school. I drive through the park where I got laid for the first time.
I drive by the memory of Sothern’s Studio, portrait and wedding photography; the building is empty, in a state of conversion, forever vanished. I go west on Walnut and turn north on South Street which should go through the town square but, tonight, is closed to traffic. A hundred years ago Wild Bill Hickok shot and killed a man on the town square. A few years later a mob of assholes lynched a couple of black guys in the town square center. Tonight there’s a rock concert and everywhere are young people. It’s warm and the girls are all beautiful and I have a semi-erection. I wonder about all the girls I used to know and hope the grudges have all gone. I was an asshole when I lived here and now, all these years gone by, it seems I would mellow and treat this Ozarkian city with a little respect, but I still hate the fucking place.
The next morning my pop wakes me and he’s in his white underpants and he has a herniated belly-button that looks like a head of cabbage ready to blow out of his stomach. He’s flustered and confused. It’s the day of the funeral and he’s feeling abandoned and stranded. We decide to go to Aunt Martha’s Pancake House, a place we used to go with family after Sunday church. Inside it’s the same as it was but old and lonely and musky. After a doughy feast covered in butter and maple syrup I pick up the tab. This is the first time in my life I pay for Pop rather than the other way around. It’s sad when I see he hasn’t noticed.
We go to the funeral home and a guy in a suit shows us to a room where Edna is laid out. Edna looks just like she did last time I saw her, like Tammy Faye Messner. She’s dressed in fluff and lace and her hair is big and blonde and lacquered in place. I’m wishing I had a camera with me. Pop teeters then gulps out a big sob, “She’s so beautiful,” he says. “Just look at her, I should have brought a camera.”
Edna’s family members arrive, eight of them in different ages and sizes. It’s not fair for me to assume they’re a bunch of idiots as I’ve only just met them but still, I’m pretty sure they’re a bunch of idiots. When they all hold hands to pray together, Pop joins the circle and I leave the room.
Back at Pop’s house he makes a baloney sandwich and because he can, pours a big glass of red wine. I make coffee and eat a bowl of Raisin Bran. I go into the bathroom with a soup spoon and crush an OxyContin and then snort it up with a dollar bill. I decide I might as well try a Viagra to see what it’s like. If I get a stiffy I can go into the nearest bathroom and jerk off like I’m a kid again. I take two.
The church is little more than a podium and a cross in a beige auditorium with two rows of pews. It’s full of people who believe as Edna believed and I’m feeling outnumbered. We meet my brother and sister and their broods in the vestibule. My sister takes my dad by the arm and leads the Sothern family members down the aisle. When Pop stops suddenly our little brigade nearly has a Three-Stooges pile-up. He leans away from my sister and whispers something to an older woman in an aisle seat. “Come on, Daddy,” my sister says and pulls him along. We take up the front pew leftward of the podium. Now Edna’s family comes down the aisle and turns right into the other pew.
I’m feeling pretty good from the OxyContin and wishing I’d snorted two. All the lights are bright, vaporish, everything has taken on a blue hue, a side effect of the Viagra, and I’m digging it. My dick is yawning and stretching and plump but pleasantly so without full power.
The preacher wears a shiny suit with cowboy stitching. He stands behind the podium and he talks to everyone but us and when he leads a prayer we don’t pray along. He tells a story about Edna’s obsessive nature, as though her idiosyncratic faults were charming and delightful. I go back to thinking about girlfriends of my youth and my dick flexes like a forearm lifting a bucket of sand. I make covert adjustments.
Afterward in the parking lot I find out everyone in Edna’s family is coming over to Pop’s house for the after-party and refreshments. I ask my brother and sister if they are coming along and they both tell me not in a million fucking years. On the way to the car a woman around my age approaches my father and me. “Look at me,” she says to my father. “I want to know that you understand what I’m saying.” My dad looks at her and she says. “Stay away from my mother!” She turns from my dad to me and I think maybe she’s noticed I have a vertical bulge in my pants. I smile and she looks like she’s going to spit on me then walks quickly away.
“Jesus, Pop. What was that all about?”
“I don’t know, she’s Mildred’s daughter.”
“A woman I kind of like. She’s cute and she’s not fat like most of the other women.”
“The woman you talked to in the church?”
“Yeah, that’s her. I told her I’d see her at church on Sunday and maybe we could get together.”
Now I am cracking up. “You’re trying to pick up another woman at your wife’s funeral? Yeah, well, I guess there’s no reason to wait around, you are not getting any younger.”
“That’s what I thought. Did you see her? She’s kind of cute for an old gal.”
Pop and I get home before any of the others have arrived so I go into the bathroom and jerk off but I can’t climax. I crunch up another OxyContin and put it in my head as I hear Edna’s family arriving. There are little kids and big kids. A teenage boy with a modified mullet and a white dress shirt sits at the piano which explains why there is a piano in the living room. He plays, I Wish I Was in Dixie Land. He plays slowly and keeps making mistakes and starting over. In the kitchen we have a sliced ham, a vegetable plate, a bowl of salad, a bowl of baked beans, ambrosia, a peach pie and some cookies. I eat a couple of cookies and a slice of pie at the kitchen table. People come and go and we exchange pleasantries.
Two of Edna’s offspring sit on a couch in the living room with two spouses. I don’t know who is who so I nod to them all and say hello, sorry for your loss. The women look like square dancers and the men are nondescript in permanent press. Like me they are baby-boomers but that’s our only commonality.
“So you’re from California,” a woman shares.
“Yeah, pretty much since the sixties.”
“We hate California,” she says.
“Yeah,” the guy next to her says. “California is stupid.”
“It’s a horrible place,” the woman tells me. “Why would anyone want to live there?”
“Yeah,” another guy says. “We lived there when we were young and we hated it. It’s full of pagans and perverts and people who think they are better than us.”
“Yeah, well. I think that was the draw for me, you know. That and the weather. Excuse me.” I go into the bathroom close the door and open the medicine cabinet and someone has absconded with both the OxyContin and Viagra. Whoever it was, I guess it was more their inheritance than mine but fuck, I should have nabbed them when I had the chance.
That night my father takes me to Appleby’s where he tells me the food actually sizzles on the plate, just like they say it does in the television commercials. When the waitress brings his plate of fajitas he says look at that (though he really means listen) and it sounds like piss on a campfire. I wonder if someday my son will see me the way I see my pop and if he does, that’s okay because I’ll know he loves me.