(This story was first published in the anthology “Obit” put out by the Australian press Pure Slush in March of 2013. The obituary that appears in the story was the actual prompt from the publishers.)
Everything aches. My skin, from jaw to foot, droops like wet paper. I’m gettin’ ol’. I am ol’. But really, what i’m really concerned about are my hands. I use to be proud of ‘em- my hands. Now they are all bone and scars and curl up in pain whenever I use ‘em for too long. The headaches are gettin’ worse too but the real trouble is- what is a man if he can’t hold on to things he needs to hold on to.
I have worked for the Sleepy Hollow Cementary for 40 odd years and I think it’s time I retire my mop. I ain’t specialized or nothing like the other folks here. I’m what you might call a Handy-Man. Whatever the Sleepy Hollow needs fixin’ or cleanin’, I clean and fix. The pay ain’t good but it’s enough. I got a room I rent behind Ms. Martha’s place at the edge of Tarrytown and I ain’t got much family to speak of, so I don’t mind that slim check I get every week since I just pay for myself and all. Mind you, I ain’t retiring any time soon on account I got a few more blocks left in these old shoes but one day I will. One day i’ll put that mop away and never have to smell that stinky thing again.
Ned the boss told me yesterday that ol’ Webster Murphy Allen is coming back to town in a pine box and we got the pleasure of stuffin’ him in the ground. Knowing Webster, that pine box will be the prettiest, most expensive thing this bone yard has ever seen. I’ve been knowing for a few days now about Webster on account of his obituary that’s been sitting in my back pocket. It’s damn near invisible because of how many times I’ve read it. The man, I’ll give it to him, led some kind of life. I damn near have his obituary to memory:
Webster Murphy ALLEN, 87, of New York City, died May 1, 2012, during a vacation with his wife, Esther McDonald Allen, 85, and their grandson, Theodore Murphy Rice, 21, of Portland, Oregon, in Toronto, Canada.
Mr. Allen was born April 14, 1925, in London, England, to Richard and Emily (Smith) Allen. He was the third of four children, and after the birth of his sister, the family moved to New York City, where Mr. Allen remained until his death. Mr. Allen’s father, Richard, was an investment banker.
Mr. Allen attended Tarrytown High School in New York, and continued his education at Yale University, graduating in 1948 with a degree in communications. After, Mr. Allen attended Harvard University, graduating in 1952 with a juris doctor degree. While attending Harvard University, Mr. Allen met Esther McDonald, who was matriculating at Radcliffe College. The two were married in 1953, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before the Allens relocated to New York City.
Mr. Allen began his career as a lawyer as an associate at the firm of Smith, Stearns, and McKeen, where Mr. Allen remained until opening his own firm, Allen and Sons, in 1971, though the only Allen child to enter the practice as an associate was his daughter, Marianne.
Mr. Allen’s three sons – Webster, Junior, Sam and Robert – pursued careers in finance, education, and philanthropy, respectively.
After retiring from his firm in 1991, the Allens enjoyed several trips around the world, and had homes in Switzerland, Puerto Rico, and Savannah, Georgia, where Esther Allen was born, and where her family remains.
Mr. Allen enjoyed watching baseball and football, playing Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit, and spending time with his family. The Allens were season ticket holders at the Metropolitan Opera, and patrons of the Museum of Modern Art and the New York Philharmonic.
Mr. Allen is survived by his wife; two brothers – Philip Allen and Marshall Allen – and their spouses – Crystal Allen and Meghan Amos-Allen; one sister, Mercy Allen; two sons – Webster, Junior and Sam – and their spouses – Meredith and Michael; one daughter, Marianne Rothson; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Arrangements are with Callahan Brothers Funeral Home in New York City. A private viewing will precede a public service on May 5, 2012. Mr. Allen will be interred at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Mr. Allen’s name to Look Before You Leap, the charity his son, Robert DeMary Allen, founded before his death in 2001.
I ain’t goin’ to lie to ya, I hate the bastard and I’m not sorry he’s dead. The only thing I’m sorry about is that it took the lord almighty this damn long to figure it out. If the man kicked the bucket 30 years ago it would’ve been not soon enough. Now I hate to speak ill of the dead and I’m sure his family is going through it right now but the man, from birth, was nothing but a mean dog.
You can say we grew up together. You can say it. Webster was older than I was by a handful of years. He was about a foot taller as well. Don’t get me wrong, I was picked on by everyone in town on account of my natural god damn condition, but ol’ Webby was especially cruel.
I remember the first time I met him too. How can I forget? It was the day everything changed. I was sitting by myself, behind the church on York St., flipping through a picture book and before I know it, a foot comes flying by my head. It came so close I could smell the rubber from it and its last three steps. I look up and there he is, standing above me like a storm, laughing- that white boy was frothing.
“Hey Nigger boy. What you doing with that book? You’re kind is too dumb to read.”
“I wasn’t readin’ it. I was jus’ lookin’ at the pictures. And I ain’t dumb.”
“Nigger boy, I’m going to have to take this book from you because of that attitude problem you got. You probably stole it anyway.”
“I didn’t steal it and no, you are not.”
Apparently I shouldn’t have said that because after I said it, he picked his foot up and kicked me square in my face. The force of his kick smashed the back of my head against the cement real hard on account that I was sittin’ down with my back flat against the wall, you see. I don’t remember much about that day after that. They tell me I was in some kind of coma and I was out for almost a week. When I finally did wake up, I was in the hospital- the old one on Rainer Street, not the new fancy one on Heath, and the police was there too. Mind you, I was but a small boy, no bigger than a stack of books, been unconscious for a few days, and these police got me tied down to the bed!
“Boy, you up?”
“Boy, we were told you attacked young Mr. Allen without provocation and in order to defend himself he pushed you and you then fell and hit your head. Is this correct?”
“No, sir. He was the one who…”
“Boy, that’s not what we wanted to hear. Mr. Allen is on his way to Yale University this coming Fall. He is one of the brightest kids we got in Tarrytown. We know he wasn’t the one who started this.”
“But sir, I didn’t do…”
“Shut up. Can you read?”
“Can you write?”
“A lil’. I know how to write where I live and my name…Where are my parents?”
“They’re outside and they can’t come in just yet. You know how to write your name, huh?”
“Well then, how about you write your name on this paper and everything will be fine.”
Boy oh boy. Puttin’ my ol’ John Hancock on that damn paper was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Let me tell you this right now and take it as a damn fact: the police and Webster Murphy Allen sold me up a rough, awful river. Not but two weeks later, I was sent to some trouble boy’s home further up state. Probably because they thought I was going to tell the damn truth sooner or later. So because everyone who I’ve never met a second before said I was guilty of getting my head kicked in and I needed to be reformed because of it. I still shake my head over it when I get to really thinking about it. I get to this place, the Juvenile detention and it was 5 long buildings across and all of them had dingy white walls with loud echoes, and on the first night I got beat up. I tell myself that if they try it again somebody is going to leave this place feet forward and lying down, you know, so guess what happens? They tried again the next day and I put up such a fight that they pretty much left me alone after that. The folks who ran the place had other ideas, though. They kept on me and wouldn’t let me be. They said I was nothing but trouble. They threw me in what we called “the straps” a few times but it really wasn’t that bad if you really got to thinking about everyone pretty much left you alone ‘til they pulled you out.
The people runnin it up there didn’t give a rat’s ass ‘bout us kids. They didn’t even give us any type of schooling and they barely fed us crumbs. It was the worst. I kept runnin’ away on account they didn’t believe I needed any medicine for my headaches and the awful treatment in general. They thought I was just joshing ‘em and tryin’ to get sympathy. After that year up north they sent me back here to T-Town and, let me tell you, I already felt like I lost at everything. Every year after my return, especially right here in this here neighborhood, I was treated like some damn criminal or some worthless bucket of mud who was going to spill the beans and ruin their Golden Boy…or go nuts. I didn’t, of course. I just lived.
My life has just been one downward spiral up a large hill. But that’s okay now, I’ve made my peace and I’ve had a few laughs along the way. Nobody ever apologized and I never asked for one. A man needs to keep shoveling shit until the path is clear, you know?
Tomorrow they bring in Webster Murphy Allen’s body. Tomorrow will be the first time I’ve seen him since he messed up my head and ruined my life. Everybody around this here Cementary actin’ like some big shot is coming back home and they gettin’ everything extra nice and clean. Fresh flowers and soap buckets everywhere. I’d rather cut my hands off then clean for that man. But nonetheless, I can’t wait to see him.
There’s perks to being the Handy-Man in a bone yard. I have keys to the gate and nobody says a damn thing if I’m wondering through the dead lanes by myself with a shovel. So if I wanna, and not saying I will, but if I wanna, on the darkest night, on May 6th for instance, I can dig up some mean, ol’ dog’s grave and I can open that mean, ol’ dog’s pretty pine box and I can whisper in his dead damn ears, “You’re welcome, you son of a bitch. It’s because of me you lived the life you had. It’s because of me you got you a pretty wife and spoiled kids. It’s because of me you own more homes than I have shoes. And it’s because of me, for the rest of your death, every year I’m going to find the meanest, angriest, and hungriest rat, and bury that animal with you until you are nothing left but what it shits out.” If I wanna.
The story he told was that it happened in the heavy weave of the jungle, during the awful times of war. And as the sweat from his arm dripped down onto an old machete- a machete stained with the throats of men, a bullet from a rifle ripped through branch and vine and nicked a piece of bone from his scalp. What was left was raw meat and a dent so perfect it could hold a sip of water. And I was born.
He always finished the story with “but I got him back”.
You would ask him to tell you that story over and over again. After each telling, every time, you would place your thumb into me and ask “why does it fit so perfect?” and he would shrug and go back to work.
Years later, when you stopped asking him to tell you stories and had begun to live your own, you asked him how I really entered this world. You wanted the truth. Do you remember? He answered with a question, “The whole truth?” and you replied with “Yes, please.” So he began that new story with just two words “a roof”. He would later explain it was, specifically, the international symbol for being poor as shit- a roof made from corrugated tin. And underneath it lived your family. And with this roof, every lick of wind rattled it and every drop of water echoed, so when the hurricane touched down that early evening in Iriga City, things especially sucked. Him, in fear of the entire thing blowing off and landing somewhere in the rice fields leaving his family defenseless of the harsh elements, decided the best time to securely nail down the roof would be in the middle of a Class 1 storm. So, at the top-rung of a makeshift ladder constructed with self-cut wood, twine and glue- him, your grandfather, with hammer and nail, wobbled brave and stupid into the mouth of the vicious winds. Suddenly, and like a violent ballet, the tin roof spun off its frame as he stood high at the edges. It pitched and yawed, first away and then straight at his goddamn face. Before he could duck, the metal clipped his head and stole a piece of bone and chunk of flesh and I was welcomed into this world. But being as stubborn as a mountain, the next day he found the roof that attacked him, cursed at it, and threw it into the river.
He ended the story with “I got him back.”
Even though you thought you were too old to hear his stories anymore you would still, from time to time, ask him to tell this one, my origins, like you’ve never heard it before. And like you’ve always done, after each telling, you would put your thumb into the dent and ask, “Papa, why does it fit so perfectly, even after all these years?” And like he’s always done, he would shrug and go back to work.
He liked to tell stories, didn’t he? And you loved to listen. I remember you too, then, sitting like a smiling rock, just a kid, at the kitchen table as he told tales as tall as the reach of god… I’m here to tell you the truth about me. How I really came into this world and why we were always a perfect fit. I hope you’re ready.
It happened long ago when your Grandfather was a very young man. He was scared but brave because he was about to be handed a gun and told to go make war with strangers. Days before the war was going to take him, a woman dressed in rags and covered in dust, grabbed his arm as he crossed the street and whispered over and over as he struggled to get away “go to the volcano, go to the volcano, it will tell you the future. I will meet you there.”
This shook your Grandfather. She felt so honest and sincere. He sat awake through the night and wondered if she was right, if she could tell him his future. He wondered so much so, that he decided to make the journey to the volcano the next morning.
As he stood at the foot of Mt. Pinatubo, he saw that it was covered in smoke and fire and down it sides flowed burning rock. People ran in every direction like dropped coins. Photos, clothes, and trinkets covered the dirt streets like a carnival just left town. He stood, your Grandfather, and waited for his future to be unraveled before him like the strange woman said it would. Smoke eventually squeezed his throat shut and burned his eyes. Rocks pelted his skin and burned holes the size of fists into his shirt. No matter the pain from his searing skin, or from each breathe that plumed black clouds with every cough, he stood and waited. Villagers ran screaming past him, terrified. It was chaos. When he reached to lift a man who tripped next to him, a piece of exploding rock that fell from the blackened sky smacked him across his forehead and took with it his flesh and bone. It made me. He staggered and eventually had fallen onto his back. He watched the dark sky fill with streaking red ribbons and fought the urge to fall asleep that had begun to envelope him. Minutes had passed and his eyes had begun to close when the woman in rags and covered in dust suddenly appeared and slapped his face. She said frantically “I had to be sure. I’m sorry. I watched you and nothing happened for so long but it finally happened. If you would’ve walked away without a scratch- if you didn’t even show up, you would have been cut down by the third day of war but now I know, Paul, now I know. You will live through it all. You will become an old man, living far from your birth, and filled with the joys and regrets of life. How do I know? It’s because that hole in your damn head. It will heal and you will fight and survive and love and marry. I think…”
“You think! You think! I’ve done all this and you don’t really know!” Your Grandfather screamed.
“Yes. I don’t know how you will live your life, Paul, but I’ve seen a few of your days in the future and it tells me a great deal. You are an old man. Your hair and teeth are gone but your smile is still young. You are sitting at a table with a young boy, your grandchild, and you are telling him a story. At the end, the young boy lifts his hand to your forehead and his thumb will fit perfectly inside your now old wound. You both laugh… I have seen another day. The boy is older, a man now. He is standing above you trying to be strong. His thumb reaching towards your face…” Her words were spilling from her mouth as if they were only seconds left.
“Don’t tell me anymore.”
And that, young man, is how I truly came into this world. Promise.
Hey guys, check out that dudes neck. Am I right?! Anyways, I took this photo last night of this random couple and I was like “Wait a minute! That purse totally clashes with her outfit!” And then I was like “Hold up, did that Armenian-ish dude in the background perm his chest hair?…because that shit is extra puffy.” And then I noticed that avant-garde pillar with a sticker on it and I couldn’t help but think about racism and how awful teen pregnancy is. You know?
(I’ve been hacked by rich kids.)
I support Gay Marriage, red headed step children, big girls who wear leggings because fuck you i’m sexy, weirdos who had a hard time in junior high, whispering “do you want to see it?” to strangers, public nudity, whiskey, the working class, creepy-ass left handed people, Gay Marriage, old dudes who flirt with cashiers, liberal white folks who are obviously uncomfortable around people of color because that shit is hilarious, awful singing at karaoke because fuck you I love this song, a well timed anal joke, hating books that contain rich middle-aged people who “find” themselves in third world countries, whiskey, big asses, making fun of Arizona, Gay Marriage, hating the fuck out of quaint poems, high school movies starring Alyssa Milano, anything starring Alyssa Milano, high school movies that stars someone who kind of looks like Alyssa Milano, Jodeci, fat guys who rub their bellies after eating and the women who love them, the Philippines when their pissed off at the government, Mac Dre, teachers, people who rep their unions like they are a part of the crips or bloods or some shit, holding on to the dream that one day you will win a wrestling match with a bear, getting drunk at a zoo and running full sprint at the bear exhibit, working out for the sole purpose of fucking up a bear in a fist fight, consensual butt sex, ice cream, that moment right before you touch someone’s “no-no’s” for the first time and they’re all like “damn homie, i’m so into it.”, casual drug dealing, bus stops in the summer and the people who ride them, people who like whiskey, people who get serious about Battlestar Galactica and argue that Adama is a way better leader than President Bartlett in West Wing, butter, people who wish more than riches and week-long orgasms for a TARDIS, watching Mike Tyson’s first 20 fights, putting salt on everything, Gay Marriage, making out and maybe a lil’ finger banging action in the back seat of a ‘72 Chevelle, Kirk Rambis’ hustle and Micheal Cooper’s socks, the Showtime motherfucking Lakers, folks who won’t let go of the time when that one place forgot to put extra cheese on their sandwich so they will never go back because fuck you I love cheese and I thought I was going to enjoy this extra cheesy sandwich while I watched 4 straight hours of Archer on Netflix, and Gay Marriage.
Everybody and everything else can go chew on poison and hang out with poets who write quaint poems about nature and wagons and specific bark and about that one time they couldn’t talk to that one person because they were so afraid of shit getting nuts and they really wanted to LONG about it more.
Also, the only argument against Gay Marriage is “I’m a goldfish and I’m not allowed to be left alone with solid foods.”
In the context of the rampant and aggressive homophobia in Hip Hop and R&B, Frank Ocean doing a beautiful love song to a man at the Grammys is so FUCKING PUNK that I want FOOT STOMP IN A DIRTY PIT to this slow ass whistling shit.