ISSUE 6 · SPRING 2011
May These Characters Remain
At that moment a funeral passed, as sometimes happens. A harlequin led the procession. He wore an oversized jacket of orange and purple stripes with long flowing tails over an orange shirt open at the neck and buttoned with grape-sized onyx studs and a purple vest. (Sometime in the past, the original funereal clown had lost his checkered tights and come to parody formal attire, but the colors remained.) Long, loose trousers, also of orange and purple stripes, covered the high stilts upon which he so precariously stood, and he carried a long walking stick in each hand to support his exaggerated dancing march: the lifting of each leg in turn so high that the thigh paralleled the street and the straightening of the knee to elongate the leg and extend each stride a good eight feet along the pavement, until he lurched forward and just before falling regained the ground and his balance above it and drew up his other leg in the same way to meet and sweep past its companion—a flailing kind of march, so that as he walked, the tails of his jacket and the legs of his trousers flapped and twisted and swirled like pennants in the wind. His face was painted in diamond shapes of alternating white and black, and a jester’s cap rested atop his head.
The band of life, in white tails and white top hats, marched behind the harlequin. They wore white shirts, white silk ties, and white patent-leather boots. There seemed to be a greater number of musicians in the group than one normally would expect, about a dozen, swinging their clarinets and saxophones and trumpets and trombones in time to the gospel music so evidently in their blood. As they passed, they were coming up upon the end of “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus,” a common favorite.
And then a black Cadillac hearse. As is becoming fashionable, the solid back panels had been replaced with clear windows so that onlookers could see the casket inside. It was an expensive one, carpentered from dark mahogany, with ornate carvings of Roman temples and garlanded angels along the sides and trimmed with glistening brass medallions and handles. Boughs of lilac and a bouquet of yellow roses lay upon its lid and ropes of braided, gilded silk scalloped all around its length and breadth. The driver was a large and solid man, with dimpling scars all over his face, who looked bored with his work as did the priest sitting beside him in the passenger seat smoking a cigarette. The two of them stared straight ahead, rigid as stone, as if they were gargoyles perched on a tombstone.
Two limousines trailed the hearse. In the back of the first, surrounded by weeping children, sat a woman in a black dress with long black sleeves, the deceased’s widow I suppose, though she could just as well have been a sister or lover. A black pillbox hat sat upon her head and a black lace veil covered her face. She wore black, cuffless gloves, though whether sewn from velvet or kid leather I could not tell, which troubled me since the summary effect of a funeral is in the aggregation of its details and this bit of ignorance kept me from a full appreciation of this one’s intent. The woman dabbed at her eyes with a white handkerchief, something I had, of course, seen many times, but which, this time, struck me as odd: If black is the color of mourning and all of the inhabitants of these processions mourners, and if tears are the embodiment of mournful expression, then ought not the cloth used to wipe away those tears be black as well? I had never thought of that before and I suspect I was the first one ever to notice the discrepancy. Looking back, I recognize now that it was that original, questioning thought that compelled all the planning I would soon be making about my own funeral and how much power something as small as a glimpse of white flashed behind a limousine window had to forge an obsession.
Because the band of life was still playing, the band of death, marching closely behind the limousines, was silent. Their instruments, lowered to their sides for the moment, were draped in black silk, matching their black tails and top hats. In every way, they were the opposite of their white counterparts ahead, except that their instruments all were muted and each was barefoot, and that there was in their number a snare drummer. Just as they approached, the band of life completed the final chorus of their spiritual and as that hopeful music faded from the air, the band of death took up their instruments and the drummer beat out the first cadences of the funeral dirge: The roll, followed by a double and decisive tap and then two bars of rest. Precisely as he began the second roll the others came in mournful and slow, holding the notes as if they were dragging their music through air turned viscous with corruption and in so doing mimicked the mourners’ burden of grief, as real and tangible as if each musician were carrying a heavy, rustic wooden cross.
The bass drummer was the final character in this parade, his long black robe trailing along the pavement. A black cowl blocked any clear view of his face, but occasionally the rhythm of his steps or a bit of breeze would pull the hood back just a bit and I could see the death masque painted in white across his features. The drum itself had a black lacquered shell and black drumheads, and pressing out from his chest, it made him look like a proud scavenging bird. He held his mallets (black sticks and black felt heads) straight down at his sides as he waited his turn to perform. His drum would remain silent until the procession was in sight of the cemetery. Then, at a signal from the harlequin, whichever band was playing would conclude its number and the entire contingent would stop for a moment, after which the bass drummer would sound a beat and the procession would begin again its forward march by taking a single emphatic, trudging step. Every few seconds the drummer would sound another beat, and the harlequin, the bands, and any mourners on foot (though this funeral had none) would take another step, the deep throbs of the drum announcing to the village of the dead the return of a prodigal brother.
I have never understood the significance of the bass drummer, believing the character to be unnecessarily redundant. The snare drum that is always included in the band of death could serve the annunciatory function, and more powerfully: The military dirge can be improvised any number of ways. The roll can be abbreviated so that it sounds like a single held beat and the taps eliminated altogether and the rests extended. The marchers could then take their slow, exaggerated steps up to the gates of the graveyard in time to the snare more dramatically than they now do in time to the bass.
The company pressed on until it was out of sight and the street quickly gave up its reverence for the dead man and his family and struck up again the cacophony of daily commerce. I was startled by the contrast between the urgency of the street before and after the procession and the respectful silence while it was yet in view. It occurred to me then that one day my own funeral would wind through this city’s streets and I would command that same respect. Did I have a duty to passersby, all of whom would certainly be strangers, to provide a meaningful and entertaining show? And if so, how should I prepare to meet that responsibility? If I wanted a grieving woman to weep into a black handkerchief, I should plan the event, rather than let bureaucrats and undertakers make decisions for me. Left to them, I would probably be escorted to my rest by a procession very similar to what I had just seen, and there were other things about this standard package that I found distasteful or unsatisfying.
I thought about what I would keep and what I would change, beginning with the bass drummer. I tried to imagine my procession without the drummer. In my mind I watched it pass, and as the band of death marched by me, I realized that the drummer did serve a purpose: to punctuate the parade and give it a clear and decisive ending, that without him, the entire company seemed somehow out of balance. I did not want my townsmen to feel uncomfortable because of his absence, nor did I want the unjustifiable criticism that would surely follow. Some character, if not the drummer, would have to bring up the rear. Perhaps one similar in appearance to the drummer, but carrying something other than a drum, a scepter maybe or walking sticks in each hand meant to be reminiscent of the harlequin’s so that the two of them might, like bookends, more clearly delimit their party from the world.
I sat down on a bench and worried this problem over in my mind and in a short while came to a solution that seemed an acceptable compromise between tradition and the something new I was looking for. I could exploit the fact that the drummer as he now existed in the minds of the public had a priestly or monkly appearance. I would keep the robe and cowl, but have my character walk with the hood pulled back so that his painted skull could be seen in full view. He would carry a Bible across his outstretched hands, opened to a significant passage that I would choose at a later time. At that moment, I thought that the warnings of the Preacher regarding vanity might work, but I could put off the final choice without affecting any of the other details. (I do confess that I also thought that through this character I might begin a new tradition that others would feel obliged to follow. Sometime during his life, a man would choose his own passage, which, when he died, would be made known to his mourners to reflect upon as they moved along with him to the cemetery, the deceased’s survivors searching for some meaning within it by which their own lives might be enriched. These passages would be included as a matter of course in obituaries. This spreading tradition would be my great legacy.)
I would change the harlequin’s dress, keep him in his tails and formal trousers, but make them black, as well as his shirt and vest. I would preserve a trace of the traditional orange and purple in the shirt studs, which would be made of carnelian and amethyst, and in the orange and purple handkerchief in his jacket pocket. His walking sticks would be a pair of ebony staffs, tipped with ferrules cast from silver into the shape of a skull. Each staff would be wound with a silver-colored ribbon in elongated spirals and an identically colored ribbon would be tied beneath each ferrule so as to flutter freely as the harlequin strutted and danced. I would leave instructions that he spin the staffs from time to time so that they would appear to be drilling down into the earth, an apt metaphor, I thought, for what in a future time would soon be happening to me.
And then it occurred to me that though I was thinking far into that future, I could actually die at any time, with no one aware of my final wishes. Being without heirs, I had never seen the need for a will. Neither had I any favored charities or causes that I might wish to see benefit from my death. My opinion had always been to let the state take my property and do with it as it pleased. But the day’s events and my nascent plans made me realize the urgency of having the proper documents prepared. I would need to consult a lawyer. There were several who kept offices in a business district not far from where I sat and I immediately arose, intending to find and retain one that very morning. But what if I should die on my way to find him? Any number of things could happen in the half hour it would to take to walk there. I could be run over as I crossed a street. I could be held up and robbed and then stabbed to death. I could trip and hit my head on the curb, fracturing my skull. I could suffer a fatal stroke or be hit by a flowerpot bumped from a windowsill high up on the side of a tenement. The daily papers were filled with accounts of such accidents and misfortunes—and many others besides. Though I knew that there was slight chance of any of these things happening to me in the next half hour, those newspaper reports all told of victims who died in the face of slight chances. The laws of probabilities are small comfort to the victims of unlikely events.
I urgently needed to formalize my wishes, but even if I were to spy a lawyer just across the street, paralyzed as I was with indecision, I would be afraid to walk over there and approach him—anything could happen, even in the small interval between my arising from the bench and introducing myself to him. I fought back the panic that was rising in my chest and throat and forced myself to think. I tried to imagine what one might do if death were standing in the threshold and one were without a will or had meant to change an existing one but had procrastinated doing so. Then I remembered a story I had read as a youngster, an adventure in which the hero was trapped in a blizzard that raged for days on the top of a high mountain. His supplies were running out and he knew he would not last the night. He took out his log and wrote its final entry (it turned out not to be the final entry—something miraculous saved him—I do not remember just what). He wrote, “Last Will and Testament of ------------.” I did not, nor do I now, remember the character’s name. But that was unimportant. What was important was the real-life lesson: In desperate circumstances one can write a will without legal assistance and it would still be enforceable. Of course I would eventually want to have such a document properly prepared and certified, but I could make my wishes known in writing right then, in that very place, and so protect myself from sudden death.
There was a stationer directly across the street. I was still wary of crossing over the intestate, but other than beg a pad and pen from a stranger I had no choice—I had to risk it. I waited until there was no one within a dozen yards of my bench (how can one discern robbers from the civil?) either on my or the other side of the street, and then rose and stood on the curb, waiting for a break in the traffic. I closely watched the nearest side street as well. I did not want to have taken great care to avoid danger, only to be run down by a heedless driver turning onto the thoroughfare without a look to see who might be standing in its middle. When there were no more pedestrians and no more traffic, I strode across the street, not too fast—I did not want to trip—but surely and purposely, and quickly reached the stationer’s door. I walked in, relieved to be the only customer, and told the proprietor that I wished to purchase a writing tablet and a fountain pen. I asked him to fill the pen with black ink (I remember thinking then that I had read somewhere that black ink is somehow more official than blue), which he kindly did without further charge. I paid him and slowly and carefully exited his shop.
It was not necessary for me to cross back to my bench to settle myself. There was a bench just like it outside the stationer. I sat down and taking up my new pen, wrote across the top of the first page of the tablet:
Last Will and Testament
James L. O’Brien
I thought of my mother then, as I always do whenever I write my name like that for a formal purpose, and her pride in our ancestors, how she was forever reminding me that I was descended from noble Irish blood and not just through my father but from her family as well, a branch of the O’Connor clan, and that the bean-sidhe would surely wail for me on the night of my death (though I had not heard it on the night of hers—perhaps I slept through it—or perhaps the bean-sidhe stayed away that night because of my mother’s peasant mother). What a lucky thought! There was my answer to the bass drummer! It would not be the drummer or a facsimile of a drummer or a facsimile of any other character of human descent that trailed the procession. I would be followed by the bean-sidhe! This solved everything. The bean-sidhe was an able foil and visual counterweight to the harlequin and what better voice to announce my arrival at the graveyard could there possibly be?
And so I began to write. My bean-sidhe would wear a flowing gown of midnight-blue silk, layered and with oversized sleeves fringed in iridescent green lace, so that when she raised her arms to scream, the sleeves would shimmer as they slipped to her shoulders and revealed her lovely arms, thin and white, and the dress would waft about her like wisps of foggy smoke of a forbidding Irish night. The gown was to be partly transparent so as to give a hint of the female flesh it covered, supple and curved. I added a footnote that the woman recruited to play this part must be young and sensual. She was to wear a hag’s mask and her hair was to be long and gray, unkempt and garlanded with weeds. I wrote down many other details as to her appearance and what she would carry and when and how loudly she was to shriek. I wrote nearly two pages of such, which, unnecessary to this story, I do not include here.
I then turned to the front of the procession and wrote out my wishes for the harlequin. As I wrote, I realized that what was spreading from my fingers was not exactly what I had imagined when I sat across the street. There were things I knew I had thought of, but could not now remember. I wrote with deep anxiety that something important was escaping me. But my fears faded away the more I wrote and as a plan for my funeral began to shape itself upon the pages of the tablet. I came to understand that it was not a specific set of parts that I was after, but an effect that would emerge from certain select ones, details which I could vary and change as much as I wanted, so long as I preserved that primary impression. I wrote down what I remembered thinking, but added new bits as I went along.
I fleshed out the harlequin’s description and then turned my attention to the bands. There would be only one, actually two merged into one. My band of life, dressed just as that morning’s (all in white), would be intermingled with the band of death, dressed in black but wearing black patent leather boots instead of marching barefoot. They would march four across, life alternating with death, and behind each musician in white there would follow one in black and so on, so that they formed a checkered pattern. As I wrote those particular instructions, I considered adding a note that this pattern was meant to reproduce in an abstract way the alternating diamonds of the early, now lost, harlequins’ costumes. But then I thought better and omitted it: Perhaps brighter observers would conclude as much on their own, and as for the duller ones, whether or not they could appreciate the more subtle particulars of my creation, its visual elegance might still please them.
All of the musicians would play the same tunes, alternating light music and gloomy dirges. I stipulated that the light music be sprightly jazz (I would add a codicil later that would list my specific preferences—I have a fondness for Coltrane, but was unsure just then whether his works would be lively enough—I needed to go home and listen to a few of his records to be sure).
I described the hearse and limousines that I wanted: white rather than black (I confess to being contrary with this choice and was a bit concerned that I would be deviating rather farther from the norm than I should and risking dismissal from our town’s citizens, but I decided to go ahead with the idea, at least as a draft), with the same glass sides in the hearse that I had seen in the morning. I deferred any mention of my casket for the time being—I was impatient for a view of the whole and began avoiding such details so that I could get something like that whole view on paper, even if it would be a bit skeletal.
I emphatically explained that my driver must appear engaged, not like the pockmarked and irritable man who drove this morning. Dress him formally, put a top hat on his head. No smoking. And while we are here, get rid of the priest—replace him with a footman.
Thinking about the priest made me remember that the first big change from tradition that I had meant to include in my funeral was to replace the bass drummer with a priest who would carry an open Bible. That contribution was to make me famous. But I had abandoned him for the bean-sidhe! She could not perform her wailing purpose and sedately carry the Bible at the same time. I wanted to give up neither her nor the Bible bearer, but I could not have both. I was at an impasse. I saw no way to continue and even as I tried to think through the ramifications to my entire plan of letting one of the characters go, more complications and complicating questions seemed to force themselves into my racing thoughts: Even if I didn’t want a priest in the car, I would still need one at the cemetery. Could anyone else carry the Bible, the widow perhaps? Would it be possible for the harlequin to recite the passage? (He certainly could not carry a book and maintain his hold on the staffs and his balance.) But if the passage were recited, it would lose its mystery and such passages as others would choose as they adopted this practice never be included in their obituaries: What use is a written record if the sentiment it represents has already been proclaimed? My entire plan was in danger of collapsing! Everywhere I turned, every compromise I tried to arrange, every little change I thought about making to any part of this enterprise would ruin some other part. Where I had hoped for fluidity and music, my plan had become rigid and dissonant. I was deeply embarrassed at myself for thinking I could manage such complexity as a funeral evidently required—I had had no idea what I was taking on when I started. No wonder so many were alike! Perhaps I should abandon my plans altogether and just let the authorities do with me as they would.
I set the tablet down on the bench and smoked a cigarette to calm my nerves while I contemplated this question of abdication. After such excitement, such a flush of emotion as my planning engendered, could I live in the resignation that I was an untalented, unimaginative buffoon, who had no business whatsoever even considering planning a funeral? But even as I thought these thoughts, suppositions and arguments about how the affair could be rescued began to glow in the recesses of my brain, dimly at first and then gradually brighter, like mists lit from within by an approaching searcher waving a flashlight back and forth as he came ever closer. Almost unconsciously I began to piece together a solution. It was not a priest I had imagined carrying an open Bible, but a character who was “priestlike.” The question was not where to position the “real” priest (he could even arrive in a separate vehicle, not part of the official procession—his coming along was as much convenience as symbol: Since he would attend at the last viewing and again at graveside, just load him up with the body and the mourners and deliver him like so much freight). Rather the question was whether it would be legitimate within the funereal traditions to add a new character. I realized that of all the innovations I had made so far, none was truly new. I had merely concocted some replacements (as effective and profound and beautiful as these were) and done some rearranging. They were still the same number of characters—I had substituted the bean-sidhe for the drummer, reorganized the bands, re-dressed the harlequin and the musicians, but the framework was precisely as that of the procession I had seen in the morning.
What if I added a new character? Indeed, could I have it both ways?
Just thinking of such a provocative proposal thrilled me, and I trembled in excitement at what I was about to do (for having thought it, I could not not do this mischievous thing). I wrote it all down, no longer caring for the sensibilities or opinions of anyone other than myself. I would have my priestly book bearer. I would call him the Angel of Death. He would march immediately in front of the hearse and side-by-side with the snare drummer. He would wear the black robe and cowl, which would be pulled back to reveal his entire head, just as I had first imagined. (I hesitated a second as a thread of self-doubt tried to weave its way back into my newfound confidence: Removing the cowl would mean that the entire head and not the just the face would have to be painted, which would require shaving the head and who knew what other preparations. But just as quickly, I added that he would not be painted, but would wear a full masque that would wrap his head and neck in a three-dimensional skull. I was learning that it is the substrata that drive the surface and not the other way round.)
I felt freer than I had ever felt in my entire life. I wrote rapidly and in no particular order. There would be two limousines. In the first, which would have opposing seats so that its occupants could face one another, would sit three women: One in her mid-forties. A second in her early thirties and a third just barely twenty. The two elder women would be dressed in black, in high-necked dresses with long sleeves. The younger of these two would wear a pillbox hat, much like the widow I had seen that morning. The other would wear a black lace mantilla that flowed from the combs in her hair down to her waist. Both would be veiled in black and wear black velvet gloves. They would clutch black handkerchiefs wet with tears.
The young woman would wear a shoulderless scarlet dress with a low bodice held up by a single neck strap. Her blond hair would fall loosely on her shoulders. I specified her accessories: A red clutch bag with a gold clasp. Red patent leather heels (spikes). A black pearl necklace. Red fishnet stockings. A red satin handkerchief in her right hand. In the second car would ride as many people as could be stuffed into it, formally attired but all different.
Around and behind the second car would march a disparate group of mourners, some in fine clothes, others in uniform, still others in the rags of beggars. (Their marching in this position would preserve the symmetry usually provided by having two bands.) They were to be of both sexes and the several classes. There would be crippled elders and infants in arms. (This motley company, seen from the sidewalk as I passed in death, would impress everyone that in life I was universally admired, even loved.) I wrote out instructions for how these people were to cry out and wail, how some would walk with heads bowed in complete silence, how one or two would faint from grief.
My casket was to be enameled in royal purple, with orange inserts upon which were tacked engraved pewter plates depicting scenes of banquets and young lovers tripping unclothed through flowered meadows and sun-dappled forest glens, and the entire box bunted all around with a silver chain forged from slim, diminutive links so that my final berth would appear to be laced in glimmering threads of pure light.
I worked back and forth, peppering the paper here and there with subtle little bits of description: The musicians clad in black would wear orange silk handkerchiefs in their jacket pockets, those in white, purple ones. I wrote down that the harlequin would wear an academic’s mortar-board and then scratched that out and changed it back to the top hat I first set down.
I worked through the entire afternoon and into the early evening and when I could think of nothing more to add or correct or remove, felt that I could now safely walk the streets again: My final wishes were committed to paper—I was testate at last. I carefully tore the pages from the tablet, folded them neatly, and tucked them into my pocket. I sat for a few moments and watched the sun set behind a tall building off in the distance and allowed myself to feel the fatigue of my labors. I was hungry and exhausted but still luxuriated in the remains of what had been an exceedingly satisfying day.
In my office the next morning I unfolded my handwritten will. Though with patience a reader would probably be able to parse out my wishes, the thing was a mess: Passages scratched out, emendations and insertions scattered everywhere (between lines, in the margins, even referenced by notations on other pages). Large circled digits, all out of order, indicated the actual intended sequence of my revised thoughts. Arrows attached to long sweeping lines connected various separated passages. I had littered the entire document with notes to myself and questions that I had subsequently answered or dismissed. I could take this to the lawyer, but it would be much more considerate to take him something better structured and much neater. Today’s job would be to copy the entire thing onto fresh paper and make it presentable for calling. I had few appointments scheduled for the day and those few would be brief (or could be made to be so). And so I set about grooming my disheveled friend.
Over the next few hours, I was able to copy the whole thing out, although not without some fits and starts. Even after all of yesterday’s hard work, I still found things that were awkwardly phrased or things that were imperfectly matched or things implied that ought to be made explicit. I added two or three new items: I seemed unable to stop trying to decide among options, to choose one or a complementary set of them, then revise them yet again, and then often reverse all that I had just done. But I progressed and after a few hours, felt that everything was in balance, set down my pen, and admired my work. Here is some of what I wrote:
There are two passenger seats in the first limousine. They face each other, one facing forward toward the hearse and the other backward toward the rear of the procession. In the forward seat, looking back, sit two women. Both wear long black dresses and cuffless velvet black gloves. The one on the left (as seen from the rear) is about forty-five years old and wears a mantilla made of black lace. One can just see the silver combs upon which the mantilla rests and from which it flows in long dark waves all the way down her breast and sides to brush against the black leather of the seat. The other is thirty-five, a black pillbox hat pinned to her hair. Both women hold a black handkerchief and from time to time reach beneath their veils and blot the tears from their cheeks, so that their handkerchiefs have become dampened and limp. They are trying (unsuccessfully) to console one another. In the very center of the seat facing them sits a woman of twenty, blond and very shapely. She wears a crimson crepe dress, its hem cut to mid-thigh. The neckline is cut quite low, revealing much of her breasts. She wears a sheer red scarf around her neck, tied in the back, and above-the-elbow gloves of red satin. The only jewelry she wears is a ring on her gloved left little finger, a single large black star sapphire set in gold. In her right hand she holds a small clutch bag of red patent leather that matches her spike-heeled shoes. Her legs are crossed, pulling up her skirt, so that the garter that supports her sheer hose is just visible. She stares straight at the women across from her, her head high, her eyes blazing. Her two companions are taking pains not to return her gaze. Beside the woman in red sits a youngish priest. He is quite ill at ease. He has pushed himself as far from her as possible. He presses up against the door, and, like the other women, tries not to look at the girl, though it is not her eyes he avoids. Every few minutes the young woman lifts her legs and recrosses them, offering up to him alternating glimpses of her inner thighs. Distracted and disturbed by the young woman’s tender flesh and her woman smell, the priest can think of no words of comfort, his responsibility on days like these. If he were an older priest, in the twilight of his mission, he would have seen something like this dynamic before and would have found words to pry open the air, but he is too young and so is powerless to break the tension in the car. He only hopes that his arousal is not noticed.
I signed my name at the bottom of the last page, and affixed the date. It was late morning when I finished. I called out for some lunch. As I ate, I reviewed the document yet again, with which, except for a few minor flaws that I corrected as I went along, I was generally pleased. But it occurred to me to ask myself just who, and just precisely how, these written instructions would be made into an actual procession. Where would the costumes be made? Who would hire the men and women to play the character parts? Who would rehearse the musicians? There were dozens and dozens of details of this piece of imagination to work out and be made real. And what would all of it cost?
I needed answers. I called Mr. Shea, who owns the Shea Funeral Home, explained to him that I was planning my funeral, and asked if I might see him that afternoon. He said that he could meet with me at 3:00.
When I arrived, Mr. Shea showed me into his private office, offered me coffee, and took my will and read it straight through. You have some interesting ideas here, he said. He explained to me that most of the items were close enough to standard (such as the musicians’ suits) that no special arrangements need be made right now—they could be provided on very short notice. But some of what I was asking for would require advance work. For example, the harlequin’s costume should be tailored as soon as possible and put into storage. He had a man he worked with to handle such special requests and could have that (and several other items) taken care of within a week or two. I expressed concern about the practicality and the expense of the orange and purple casket and the plates I wanted attached to it. He assured me that this was quite a minor issue—mere veneer and easily arranged with little contribution to the total cost.
He did say though that he could not guarantee that white vehicles would be available. He had only black, but might be able to lease white ones from a competitor. He said he would try. I did not believe him. I was sure that he thought the color of the cars mere veneer as well, though it was not. I was deeply disappointed but knew there would be no persuading him otherwise, and so I let it go, asking him to do his best when my time came. I tried to console myself with the thought that perhaps this one imperfection might make everything else by contrast seem more radiant—in the way a single, small blemish on an otherwise flawless face makes a woman more desirable. But I knew I was lying to myself—there would always be something wanting in my words so that they could never fully bridge the chasm that yawned between me and the world, no matter how hard I might try. So I gave up—my final ride would be in a black car and there was nothing I could do about it.
He wrote out a list of everything that needed to be done, with a price next to each item, and totaled them. The amount seemed fair. He asked for a deposit on the custom items (the balance to be due when they were finished). The standard items could be paid for out of my estate when I died. I wrote him a check. He thanked me and escorted me to the door. We shook hands and I left.
I still had before me what seemed an overwhelming task: How to gain assurance that I would be attended by sufficient mourners and the women of my life. I am unmarried, an only child, and my parents have themselves passed on. I have but one or two friends, maybe none who would take time to traipse all through the city behind my corpse.
I decided to attack the easier problem first: The wife and lovers. I am a frugal man. I rarely purchase what I can rent. I rent my rooms and my office. I do not own a car—if I need to drive somewhere, I rent one. And I have learned that one can rent wifely services as easily as real estate and transportation. There was a brothel, Mary O’Malley’s, not far from my office that I patronized regularly, if not frequently, and I was good friends with the madam, Mrs. Arlington, whom I believed might be able to help me. (I had once asked Mrs. Arlington why she had named her house as she had: Was the name a fiction that served some legal function? Was she ashamed to use her own name? Had the name been recommended to her? Perhaps Mary O’Malley was a corruption of Mary Magdalene? Jimmy, she said to me, you’d complicate a fart. Mary O’Malley was my mother and this place my sweet revenge.) The perfect place to go to hire widows and grieving mistresses.
The doorman welcomed me, and when I asked him if I might have a word with Mrs. Arlington, sent a boy to announce me and invited me to wait in the parlor. Before I could even order a drink, Mrs. Arlington appeared and we went back to her office. I told her about the funeral I had watched yesterday and my plans for my own and how I was hopeful that she could provide the services it needed. I showed her the will and she said she would need some time to read it. She thought it important, if she were to supply a proper product, that she read it all to see how the whores fit into the whole. In the meantime, she suggested, I could take my ease with one of the girls. I thanked her but told her I was tired and asked if I might leave the will with her and return for her thoughts the next morning. In that case, she said, I’ll read it later tonight. And so I returned to my rooms, had a bit of supper, and then retired with a book, over which I soon fell asleep.
Mrs. Arlington did not wait for morning. She called me around midnight. Do I understand this right, you plan to have a wife and two of your girlfriends in the same car? she asked.
That’s right. Can you do it?
Aye Jimmy, she laughed in her ribald way, I can, an’ they’ll all be thinkin’ you tucked it in your sock. You sure that’s how you want to be remembered?
I am. That or something just as stark. Anything less and no one would remember me at all.
She told me that she had been thinking about the ages of the women, and that I ought not specify all of their ages as I had done. I might live to an old age and the effect on the crowd of a forty-five-year-old widow to an eighty-year-old man might not be the response I hoped for. Any old man can buy a mistress or a young wife, but not a wife who stays the course. She suggested that I generalize the ages, keeping the twenty-year-old, but say that the age of the wife be near that of the dead man and the older mistress’s half-way between the two.
But that’s a trifle, she said. There’s something much more important missing here. Why is the young girl all in red? It’s a grand picture, Jimmy, she said, but where’s the scandal?
I’m not following you.
Do it this way, Jimmy. Have a mighty dustup at your wake, and that the night right before the funeral. The two in black are by your sides, you with your drink in your hand, and the young one comes in the door—she’s in black too—and runs right over and throws herself at your feet and wails for the dickens and screams out her love in a voice like a damned demon’s who’s been tormented in fire. And quick as fairies the others are down on her like werewolves on a virgin, clawing at her with their nails and calling her a fucking whore. It’s so bad the partygoers have to drag them apart by their hair. You have it set up to have somebody start a rumor that she’s not just in the will but gets near everything. Then your pageant will have blood in it and it’ll be a long time before they stop talkin’ about you.
She asked me if I had seen to acquiring the mourners and I confessed that I was at a loss there. I had given thought to hiring a troupe of actors but knew nothing of how to go about finding out if that were even possible.
Jimmy, she said, with your lack of imagination, I don’t see how you stay in business. Just open up the wake, invite the whole damn neighborhood. Have someone you trust pick out two or three dozen that fit the bill and invite them to a burial celebration to be held right after the funeral. Tell them there’ll be free food and an ocean of drink. These Irish in our part of town will march to hell and back for a glass of whiskey, they’ll sure an’ march to your grave, even over in the Italian section, for their fill.
She was right about everything of course. She had a boy deliver the will to my office the next morning. I made the changes she suggested and added a section of instructions for my wake. In the space I had left for the scriptural message, I wrote: A large Bible rests in the Angel of Death’s spread palms, open to the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs. Someone has underlined this passage: “How long ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity?” I was done.
. . .
I sit in Mr. Standish’s office. This is my third and last visit to the lawyer. The final copy of my will lies before him on his desk, ready for me to sign and to be witnessed. He has bound it in a black leather folder that proclaims in gilded Old English letters embossed on the cover that it is the last will and testament of James L. O’Brien. Mrs. Arlington sits beside me. She has come along to be my primary witness—I have also named her as my executor. To be legal, a will requires two witnesses. Mr. Standish calls for one of his assistants, a poorly dressed young man who comes in and stands stiffly next to him. The lawyer opens the document to its final page, turns it to face me, and hands me a pen. With a flourish I sign on the line above my name. The ink is jet black. He blots my signature. I hand the pen to Mrs. Arlington, who slowly and deliberately writes out her name. She seems to be savoring the moment, perhaps because of the honor she feels or because that is how she has learned to service men—languorously. Her signature is audacious and feminine: As always she remains politely in control. She hands the pen back and then gently presses my hand and smiles. The apprentice takes the pen, leans over, and solemnly signs. I sense that he would rather just scrawl his name roughly in the general vicinity of where it is supposed to appear on the page and be done with it and get back to whatever tedious tasks he has been charged to complete before he can leave for the evening. But for the good of the business, lawyers must (like undertakers and whores) feign sympathy for their clients' feelings. Mr. Standish places the pen in its holder on the desk, closes the folder, and ceremoniously hands it to me. Our little ritual is concluded. I take his offered hand and graciously extend mine to the assistant. Mr. Standish nods good-day to Mrs. Arlington, who does not raise her hand to him.
Mrs. Arlington and I descend the stone steps to the street, she on my arm, lithe as a debutante, and for all the world playing the lady’s part. It is near noon and the October sky is aflame with blue and the air is warm. I invite her to an outdoor café to lunch with me, but she regrets that she must be back to business and suggests another day. I hail a cab for her and discretely slip a hundred dollar bill in her fingers as she raises her hand for me to kiss. She slides into the cab as stately and gracefully as a queen and I close the door and tip my hat as she drives away. I turn and walk in the opposite direction. I am happier than I can ever remember being, for now that my will is official, death cannot touch me, his sting a mere irritation, of concern to others perhaps, but not to me. I am altogether safe from the frenzied dangers of the city, its criminals and its crumbling landmarks, its terrorist enemies and its diseases, its jealous women.
As I walk, I meditate on all the other missives men compose in the ordinary course of their lives: the business plans, the love letters, the suicide notes, the municipal declarations, all fraught with possibility, but all so often painted in strokes of grays and browns instead of the fiery crimsons and glowing yellows in which they might so much more eloquently be expressed, as I will write them should my time come to compose any one of them.
My burden lifted, the world is altogether new for me, its poignant, sparkling detail prancing before my eyes: The bright chrysanthemums blooming in the garden across the street and the pale blue asters nodding toward winter. The street urchin’s grimy face upon which tears have washed streaks of white as if loving angels have caressed his cheeks with their pure, delicate fingers. The chestnut seller’s hawking call and the steam puffing up from his roasting grill. Everything is piquant. Everything is alive.
I let my feet wander and take me where they will. By chance I come upon the very bench where I sat when the incipient thoughts of my final testament wormed themselves into my consciousness. I smile and sit and take in the day, the autumn sun full upon my face. I daydream of the time to come when I will die and Mrs. Arlington will make manifest all my funeral wishes. My reverie is broken when from down the street I hear slapsticks snapping upon backsides and squeeze-bulb horns honking and laughter rippling along the right of way. A moment later a regiment of clowns passes, as sometimes happens.
James Carpenter began writing fiction after a long, eclectic career in education, business, and information technology. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including Fiction International, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Fourteen Hills, and descant. descant awarded him their Frank O’Connor prize for their best story published in 2009. The editors of Fifth Wednesday Journal recently nominated his story “The Fairy of Destruction Bay” for a Pushcart Prize.