June 27, 2009
My father died younger than any of us expected, contributing to my belief that we were made of something too soft. Just two years after running the company my grandfather had built into the ground, my father had without warning, signed off. I had found out the morning after it happened. Now, late that night, I found myself sitting in an almost-empty funeral home with my brother. There were some people from the funeral staff there, but they were practiced in the art of staying in the background, and so I was rarely aware of them, seeing them only in the edge of my vision, passing from what I assumed was one ghastly back room to another.
The funeral arrangements had been purchased long ago by my grandparents, and so it was an old funeral home, on sixth avenue; built before most of the white people had fled downtown Birmingham for the surrounding suburbs. Out there the funeral homes seemed to be built in a spirit of forced happiness, with large, white, pillars and windows that gleamed in the sunlight, winking at you as you drove past, as if to say everything would be all right. This one was old and cavernous, with dark walls so that your surroundings appeared to you almost as through a veil. The place was officially closed, the viewing and burial not until tomorrow, and so only the necessary lights were on. Two lamps beside the sofa that we sat on gave off a dim yellow glow. And in front of us, through the cracked door of the next room, two similar lamps cast the same light on the casket that held our father’s body.
This had been Rhett’s idea, being here now. He’d called before I left for the airport. I’d only found out ten minutes before that my father had passed. He said that we, the two sons, should stay with our father through the night. He’d even convinced my uncle to pay for three staff members to stay overnight with us. When I said nothing he added, like in the old days. He said that since our mother, who’d left him a couple of years back, and who was now remarried, would not be there, that we would be the only people there that my father cared anything about. We decided to meet at our father’s house, our last remaining property, and then drive over together.
Before that I had not seen or talked to Rhett for almost two years. The last time I’d seen him, he was in the hospital after almost beating a fellow student to death in a bar in New Orleans, and then flagellating himself on the brick walls of the bar. Since then the only news I got about him was from my infrequent phone conversations with my father. He had, for no reason my father could discern, moved to Louisville for a while. He had even gotten married, briefly, to a girl we’d never seen or heard of. Shortly after, he’d come back to Birmingham alone, asking to stay with our father for a few days. When Dad asked him about his wife, he replied nonchalantly that he’d made a mistake, and never mentioned her again. Shortly after, my father had sent him to the psychiatric ward at St.Vincent’s when he locked himself in the upstairs guest room for two weeks, refusing to come out or accept food. His behavior was becoming increasingly erratic. Some days, he was jovial and charming, making my father laugh, helping to keep his spirits up. Others, he was hostile and mean, insisting that every bad thing that had happened to us was the result of an essential flaw in our father. And more and more frequently he would suffer bouts of extreme paranoia, convinced that the universe was not only indifferent, but that it was an angry, dark, force that was out to get us. Us, our family specifically. Finally he’d moved to Atlanta, and Dad hadn’t heard anything from him for over six months when he died. I thought of this as I sat beside him in the dark strangeness of the sitting room. We had hardly spoken since entering the funeral home, and I felt I could sense his mood changing from a numb sort of calm to something else. He was beginning to fidget, rubbing his hands over one another, and constantly looking from side to side, as if he expected to see a ghost. I noticed how different he looked. The boyish good looks were gone, replaced by something still handsome, but unfamiliar to me. He looked like a man now. His body, still more or less fit, was now thicker. Throughout my life he had been a physical threat to me, and now more than ever. I wanted to leave, but I knew I couldn’t. I had to stay and finish this out because, as I was only then realizing, that was what I wanted, it was why I had agreed to do this. I would give in to Rhett one last time, and then I would be done. I had distanced myself from them quite a bit in the last two years. I wanted to be out from under the dark clouds that hung over us. I was secretly terrified that if I didn’t get away from them something bad would happen to me. My father had lost everything, our money, our dignity, and our mother, everything that had constituted a life for him. He had died entirely alone. He hadn’t had the ability to go on, to persevere in the face of that kind of loss. Rhett was deteriorating in such a way that I always half-expected a call telling me he was dead. They just didn’t have what it took to survive in the world, and I was afraid that I was just like them. This was to be a final goodbye to my family.
Rhett had picked me up from the airport that afternoon, and we had driven to my father’s house. It was strange to think he had been alive in there only two days before. Inside, the house was quiet in the way of a space that has been recently abandoned. Dad has bought it after we had to sell the one I had grown up in. This one was much smaller, and was in a neighborhood I had only ever driven by before. He had been living there almost a year, but only the bedroom and living room had furniture. The other rooms showed no evidence that they had ever been occupied. It was clear that he spent most of his time in the living room. Newspapers and books were scattered on the floor, along with yellow pads with hastily scribbled notes. Near the center of the room was a big, dark-brown, leather sofa. It was from our old house and it was a favorite of my father’s. He was sitting in it when he died. He had been found slumped over, head pressed awkwardly against the floor, on his knees, just in front of it. The small table beside the chair had been knocked over, and a bottle of scotch and a glass had fallen from it. Someone had picked it all up. The table was back where should be. I pictured the scene. Sitting there, alone, after a day of small time legal work, he’d poured a scotch and sat down to watch the financial news. Maybe he’d been feeling bad lately, maybe he knew. Maybe he felt fine. As far as we knew, he hadn’t said anything to anyone. And then it had struck him, a massive heart attack. I felt sure that there must have been a moment, however brief, of pure terror. He must’ve known that something horrible was happening. I knew, because I knew my father, and I knew myself, that in that moment he had not been possessed of a quiet dignity. He had attempted to get up, to escape what was after him. I could see the perplexed and agonized look on his face, I could see him rush a hand to the arm of the chair, a failed attempt to lift himself. He groped wildly for the table with his drink on it, desperate. And then, it was over, he was gone, and his knees found their way to the floor. I moved closer to the chair, daring myself. My hands were shaking. I was never going to talk to my father again. I felt a desperate sadness for him, for what he’d had to endure here, alone. I, like both my brother and father, was an expert at not crying when I didn’t want to, and knowing my brother could come downstairs at any moment, I gritted my teeth inside my closed mouth, and wound my finger around my thumb, pressing it into my hand until it hurt, and I stood there.
The funeral home smelled of flowers in a way that was somehow sickening to me. Rhett, who had been silently slouching beside me for almost an hour, sat up suddenly. In a simultaneous motion he produced two bottles of scotch, one from each of the inside pockets of his blazer. He held them in front of him, one in each hand, eyeing me, grinning. Despite myself, I smiled back.
“Whom do we see about getting a couple of glasses in here?” he said.
He immediately shuffled off toward the back rooms to look for one of the staff. I looked back to see where he’d gone, and there was no one. I felt instantly alone. I became aware of the fact of my father’s body in the next room. There was a closed casket, at my father’s request, resting on a large gurney, and inside it was his body. I imagined him a hideous, unnatural white. I remembered my grandfather’s funeral. I was nine years old. My grandfather had also requested that the casket be closed. Appleyards didn’t want to be seen like that. But my grandmother had been adamant about opening it, at least for her. Rhett and I were playing silent hide-and-seek, and I’d gone into the wrong room. I’d found my grandmother standing next to the casket. She was weeping, but it didn’t really affect me at the time. I was transfixed by his strange pale color, and the way his face looked like his, but not quite. I couldn’t determine what was missing. I walked closer, almost as if in a trance, and put my finger on his forehead, moving it closer until it finally touched. I felt the coldness, and jerked my hand away quickly. I couldn’t believe I had done it. In general, I am a person, or rather, we are people, who don’t slow down to look at car crashes. The last thing we want to see is the body inside of the wreckage. We know that it will haunt us forever, and we don’t want to be haunted. We like for things to be easy. For almost a year afterward, I couldn’t eat food that had touched that finger. I ate sandwiches with my left hand only. If I touched the rim of a glass with it, I would make sure to drink from the other side. Now, with my father’s body just in the other room, I couldn’t move. I had to squeeze the arm of the sofa to keep from calling out to Rhett. Mercifully, he came back into the room, holding two glasses.
“That,” he said, “was not as easy as I would’ve thought.”
“What are we going to do in here all night?” I said.
“We are going to honor our cowardly, deceased, father’s memory.”
“Oh good, I was worried it would be something dumb and weird.”
Rhett was pouring into a glass that he had raised to his eye line, so that he could see how much to pour in the dim light.
“The first one should be stiff,” he said. Almost as an afterthought, he added, “Seth, you have to get into the spirit of this whole thing.”
“And what is it, this thing?”
Rhett breathed an annoyed sigh.
“Seth our father is dead.”
“And so we have to acknowledge the importance of this event.”
“Yes, like they did in the past.”
“Now that’s exactly right.”
Rhett presented me with a scotch. I sipped it and felt an immediate warm rush in my chest. I hadn’t had a drink since I’d left Nashville, and the relief I felt was disturbing. Recently drinking had gone something that I loved but could do without to something I depended on every day. Now if there wasn’t tequila or scotch in my apartment, I was nervous. I feel asleep every night in a drunken haze. If not for that, I wouldn’t have slept at all. This had been going on for almost two years. After Rhett’s episode, I’d gone to Vanderbilt. I began to pretend that my family didn’t exist. I was surprised to find how relaxed I was being away from them. There were days when I wouldn’t think about them at all. Then I would remember, and I would have a sensation of impending doom. These episodes would last anywhere from a day to a week, finally becoming something that happened every day. I was always waiting for something terrible to happen. Something dreadful might befall Rhett or my father, I would run out of the little money I had left, or my girlfriend would leave me. My mind would race around these things until I would be in a hysterical panic. We had always had the security of money, if nothing else, and now that too was gone. And although I wanted out of my family, a larger fear was that somehow I would end up entirely alone. After a few months of this, my girlfriend finally did leave me, which sent me into what felt like a cavernous pit of hell. I neither slept nor ate nor contacted any friends for a month. I dropped out of the semester and turned off my phone. In the midst of this I remember thinking that perhaps I was becoming just like Rhett. Maybe whatever was wrong with him was wrong with me too. Maybe something degenerative was being passed down to us through our blood, sealing us to a doomed fate.
It was cold and airless in the room, and I was glad to hear the heat click on. It filled the room with a comforting buzz. Rhett and I seemed to see him at the same time. A large black man, standing just a few feet in front of us. We both shot up, Rhett spilling some of his drink on his shirt. I realized he was one of the staff members who’d be staying over with us.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said. “I certainly do apologize.”
The man noted with a couple of quick glances the fact that we were getting drunk. He made a small frown. I felt, as I often did in the presence of an outsider, a sense of our absurdity. I was embarrassed. I thought, with a certain amount of contentment, about future days when I would no longer be a part of all this.
“It’s okay,” putting my glass on the floor, “we just didn’t see you come in.”
“I just came to tell you that we were gone go on and go to bed, unless you need anything else.”
I raised my arm to check the time and was startled to find my father’s watch on my wrist. Then I remembered putting it on while we were looking around his house. In my haste to leave Nashville I had forgotten mine, and had absentmindedly taken his off the dresser. It had a dark maroon strap and a white face. I remembered seeing it on his wrist. I had a memory of him loading us all in the car for a trip. I can’t remember if it really happened. Rhett and I were young, in the back seat. Rhett was poking his finger into my ear and I was trying to punch him in the ribs. My mother was in the front seat, happily reading a magazine. Dad was putting something in the trunk, and as he slammed it shut his hands rested for a moment on the back of the car. He looked content, as if whatever we needed he could provide. He checked his watch quickly, and then got in the car to drive us wherever we were going. Now it was almost midnight.
“Oh yeah that’s fine,” I said. “I don’t suppose we need anything else.”
“If you do,” he said, “just wake one of us up.”
Rhett was already back sitting on the sofa, pouring another drink. I turned to look at him, and when I turned back, the man had left the room.
“Alright, it’s time,” Rhett said. We’re here to sit with him.”
The room didn’t have any furniture except for the casket and the table it sat on, so we just sat in the floor beside it. Rhett refilled my glass.
“A toast,” he said, and raised his glass in the air.
He waved me away. “Don’t fuck around,” he said, “a toast.”
I remembered what I’d come here to do, and I raised my glass. I expected a long, convoluted speech, but all Rhett said was “to the end.”
I felt a tension at our proximity of the body, and I could tell that Rhett did too. We both avoided looking at the casket as much as possible. I sensed that Rhett’s mood was changing. His face was tensed and focused, like he was thinking about something. I didn’t know when I’d see him again after tomorrow.
“So how have you been?” I said.
He looked up at me, and then back to where he had been looking before. He seemed to really be considering my question.
“Well, I keep enough pills to kill myself lined across my dresser at all times,” he said finally. “Otherwise I get so tense I can hardly breathe.”
I studied his face closely but said nothing.
“Oh Jesus Christ I’m kidding! I have to put a gun in my mouth in front of the bathroom every morning to remind myself I’m not dreaming. Calm down.”
It was impossible to know which part of it was true.
“Dad had told me you got married.”
Rhett shifted uneasily on the floor. I thought for a moment that he would simply ignore me.
“Yeah, that ended,” he said finally.
I hesitated, not knowing which small word or gesture might turn him completely.
“What happened?” I said.
Rhett seemed as though he might answer, but then just said, “What real difference does it make?”
I smiled. “None, I guess.”
I knew better then to think I could help my brother. I was beginning to believe that I couldn’t be helped either. I couldn’t help imagining this as my final meeting with my brother. I imagined days in the future when I would think back to this night, and even miss it. I was thinking this when my brother called for a three-for-three. It was two in the morning. Three shots, in succession, one after the other. He handed me my own bottle. Again I agreed. For so long I had felt inert with fear, and now I felt that we were moving irreversibly forward, toward something. When I took the last shot, groaning a little as I put the glass back on the floor, I felt the slight fear that accompanies an action for which the consequences are definite, but delayed.
“What do you think he looks like in there?” I said.
Rhett shuddered, and then said matter-of-factly, “ a ghost.”
We had never been a religious family, never encouraged to believe in an afterlife or spirits or anything that wasn’t logical and visible. But now I felt as though somehow my father was still conscious, still able to hear what we were saying. A chill slowly made it’s way through my body.
“What if he’s here?” I said. I immediately regretted saying it out loud.
I was terrified. When I looked at the casket it seemed as though the lid were rising, and then it would be closed again. Rhett got up and started to pace. His mood seemed more aggressive, angry. We were stuck here now. I suddenly wanted more light in the room, wanted to be able to see everything. I got up, looking for switches, but there were none. It occurred to me then that the room had a specific purpose. It was a display room for the dead, it wasn’t meant to be occupied by the living at night. All around the room were candles. They sat on long silver stands, in rows. There were two against the far wall, and two on the wall beside the casket. They were there for show, or maybe for the ceremony tomorrow. Rhett and I seemed to realize it at the same time. He fumbled around in his blazer pocket for a light. The light from the first one flickered across the walls. Rhett continued until they were all burning. The room, empty and cold moments before, now took on a ceremonial character. I had thought the casket was blue, but it seemed to be black. The candlelight reflecting off of its shiny surface cast the room in an otherworldly, although still-dim light. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. Rhett had moved to the far corner of the room, and he stood there, with the knuckle of his thumb clinched between his teeth. He was visibly shaking, terrified, and so was I. We looked just like my father, I thought. Unable to open our eyes to what was truly terrible. I felt suddenly that I knew what we had to do. I moved behind the casket.
“Come over here and help me,” I said.
I was surprised that he didn’t protest, just walked over and stood beside me. I realized that for some reason, the front of the casket faced the wall. I pressed my hand against the cold wood, testing it. Rhett did the same, and we increased the pressure until the casket moved slightly. It didn’t make any sound that I could hear. I looked over at my brother. He was staring straight ahead, and I couldn’t make out the expression on his face. I lifted up on the hatch, and it opened slightly. Rhett and I froze at this, realizing that it really would open. We could still undo this, I thought. We could stop, walk around the casket, and push it back the other way. We could still not see it. Rhett seemed to be waiting for me to decide, and I knew that if I didn’t continue to push, nothing would ever change. I lifted as hard as I could, and Rhett, seeming to take it as a sign, did also. It rose faster than we anticipated, and suddenly it was open and coming to rest on its hinges on the other side.
His face was a startling pale-white. I recognized it, but somehow it seemed to be differently shaped. It made me think of celebrity impersonators, looking just close enough to a particular star that you knew who they were impersonating. I focused on his nose, which was exactly the same as it had always been: delicate and thin. I remembered the way his bifocals would rest on the end of it when he would read. When we were all still together, my mother would push them toward his face in a playful way. It was her way of telling him that he was her type, that she liked a man who wore bifocals and read long novels in his study before dinner. Both Rhett and I had wanted to be like him then. I heard Rhett start to cry, and I wondered if he was thinking about the same thing that I was. For a moment, my fear was gone, and I just felt sadness. I wished that my father could’ve had more time, maybe he could’ve set things right. And then I wished that he could’ve just been tougher, more able to cope with what had happened to us. I felt the loss of him, his permanent absence, and it took a great effort to cry audibly. I let the tears go down my face in silence. Then some shift of light changed the room. I realized that a lamp had gone out on the other side of the room. I looked back down at my father. I could rid myself of the fear that he would reanimate in some way, come back to life. A chill went through me and I shivered. To my surprise, I heard Rhett laughing, and I knew from the tone that he was laughing at me. He had stopped crying.
“You afraid Dad’s gonna wake up and grab ya?” He was on his back now laughing, fighting for breath. He seemed to have entirely forgotten his earlier fear. Suddenly, he leapt to his feet aggressively. It startled me, so I stood up too. I saw our shadows on the wall, surrounded by the unsteady light of the candles. Rhett started repeating a mantra at me, as he so often did when we were children. He chanted it like a song.
“Seth’s afraid dad’s gonna wake up and grab him!”
As he chanted he began to mimic the monstrous walk of the ghosts in the cartoons we used to watch; arms poised in front of him, ready to claw. He pretended to chase me, in slow motion. I turned again toward the wall. He was behind me now, so that it was hard to tell who was who, which hands or feet or arms or legs were mine, and which were his. I began to shoot an arm out, or kick my leg, relieved when I could recognize my own movements in the shadows. Rhett must’ve sensed what I was doing, because he began to anticipate my movements, and try to cover my shadow with his. He was still singing, but he was imitating my father’s voice now.
“I’m gonna wake up and grab you!” he chanted.
I wondered what the man would think if he came back in and saw us. What would he think we were doing? I kept trying to see my own movements, but Rhett was faster than me, and better at this strange game. For a moment, I pictured my father behind my brother, imitating Rhett’s imitation of him. As we approached the wall, our shadows became larger, and the shape less defined. I was seized with the fear that my father was behind me. Rhett continued to chant, but it seemed I could hear my father’s voice too. I was almost at the wall. I knew that soon I would feel its coldness with my hand, which I now held out in front of me. I also knew that soon after, I would feel the touch of a familiar hand on my back.
Ben Prickett is a recent graduate of the M.F.A program at Saint Mary’s College, where held the MFA advisory board scholarship for literary excellence. He is from Birmingham, Alabama, and now lives in Oakland.