When Somebody Begins Weeping

by Dennis Must

On Memorial Day, when it appeared as if the whole town of Bethel were out scrubbing burial stones of its deceased, placing potted blue or pink hydrangeas on the plots, my brother, Jeremiah, and I felt left out. Mother's parents hadn't been buried yet. Our father's had, but we didn't know where.

"Where is Grandpa buried, Dad?"

"I don't know."

"What about Grandma?"

He shook his head. Had no idea.

"Did you go to their funerals?"

"Pap had on a suit we rented from the undertaker. Mother wore her only Mass dress. They carted them off somewhere."

"Did you go with the cortege?"

"What's that?"

"Long line of cars headed to the cemetery."

"We didn't own a car, and none of their friends could afford one."

"But where were they buried?"

"Potter's field?"

Like they'd been erased. Seeing somebody's surname chiseled in a tombstone made living seem all the more important. My friend Jimmy Hodge's father died when Jimmy was ten. I'd visit his father's plot with him on an occasional Saturday. It was in a little churchyard alongside Cascade Park. The Gorge, a roller coaster, careened alongside. Jimmy and I'd eat our packed lunches on his father's grave and watch the Gorge riders hold their arms in the air as they plummeted down the coaster's most wicked dip.

It said right on the polished granite's face:

James F. Hodge, 1912–1948. "Till we meet in the sky."

"Why did they write that?" I asked.

"'Cause my father smoked."

I didn't get it.

Jimmy explained. "When I came home from school one day, Ma said, 'Your Dad won't be coming home anymore.' I asked why. 'Because he needed more space to smoke,' she said. Then pointed above her. It was a bright afternoon, and the clouds sailed across the sky. 'See,' she said, 'he's lit up already.'" Jimmy glanced high above the Gorge. Cumulus clouds in abundance; perhaps that's what the riders were pointing at.

We leaned against the stone. Evidence that he once walked this earth and smoked here. I was envious of Jimmy. If there were markers in my family, nobody knew where.

* * *

When I was in junior high school, Mother's father passed away. The day of his internment, the preacher stood up and said a brief eulogy. Mother, of course, cried, while Dad stared off in space. The mortician stepped up and closed the casket lid. Uncle Bill, Mom's only sibling, took off his hat and passed it among the few assembled into which everybody tossed dollar bills.

No burial stone here either, I thought.

"Oh, we'll eventually get one for Grandad," she promised. A handwritten inscription lay under isinglass on his burial plot. It wouldn't survive but a winter or two. But as time passed, the granite became less important than getting new curtains for the dining room or laying linoleum on our kitchen floor.

* * *

After a couple of years, my brother and I'd spend Memorial Day at the movies.

When it came Pap's turn to think about his home in the sod, well, he made it abundantly clear he'd have none of it. He made Jeremiah and me swear that there was to be no funeral service, no casket, none of the trappings of a customary Bethel death.

"How do you want it?" I asked.

He lit a match and held it up to my face.

"You mean..."

"Yep," he said. "And when it's over, take my damn ashes and blow them out both your asses."

Jeremiah laughed.

"Be serious," I said.

"I am serious. I don't want no false piety. People leaning over me and kissing my clasped hands, saying what a good man Joe Mueller was, dripping tears on some five-and-dime rayon tie your mother's got roped around my neck. If you insist on showing me—hire Betty Nugent (a lady of pleasure) to sidle up alongside me in the buff. That'll put a beatific smile on my face. I want no picture of Jesus with his forget-me-not eyes to be dangling from the lid of any pine box over my torso, either. If you dare do it—I promise, if you do, I'll come back and haunt both your ornery souls into eternity.

"Have an open bar, and every time somebody begins weeping—whack them with a gladiolus."

Jeremiah, always our old man's best audience, was bent over.

"You think I'm shitting you?"

"Seriously, where do you want your ashes, Dad?"

He took a reflective drag on his cigarette. "What's the point in memorializing our time here on earth?"

"You mean you won't have any gravestone?" Jeremiah asked.

"Stone!" the old man barked. "So you, your brother, and Mother can scrub it down with Bon Ami on Memorial Day? It's bad enough you give me Old Spice at Christmas."

"Nothing's sacred to you, is it?" Jeremiah asked.

"Who are the sack-cloths honoring when they shuffle off to the boneyard? 'We've come to visit you once again, Joseph.' Your mother takes out her sewing shears and trims the thistle around my epitaph, a pious homily betraying who I was in real life. 'We sure miss you, Father.' Then you abandon me for another year...and the worms down there chomping away. It's a bad joke, boys.

"Where my old man and sweet mother are sleeping with Jesus, I couldn't for the life of me tell you. Ain't gonna be any different for me."

He lit another wooden match, this time holding it up in front of Jeremiah's eyes, who shivered.

* * *

When the news came that Dad was gone (Mother found him lying on the new floor with the phone receiver next to his ear), after the requisite tears, I expressed to her his desire to be cremated.

"What?" she cried.

"Didn't he ever tell you?"

"Tell me what?"

"That he didn't want any part of a funeral or burial."

"Burn your father?" she whooped. "If he goes to hell for all the suffering he's caused me, he'll burn soon enough! I have to call your brother. Once I set the funeral arrangements, I'll phone you back."

Jeremiah and I arrived in Bethel the next day. He flew from his home in Virginia; I took a midnight bus from Altoona. Mother greeted us at the door. The house was decorated with china vases and wicker baskets of floral arrangements. She looked like she was getting married again.

"Where's Dad?" Jeremiah asked.

"Funeral parlor," she answered.

"How's he look?"

"I've never seen him look so radiant."

I thought about watching Jimmy Hodge's old man cottoning the sky. Our father never stopped smoking either. But he loved women. What would we see when we looked up a summer afternoon?

Jeremiah went with Mother to the mortuary. I refrained, fearing Dad would make good on his promise if I didn't, at the very least, protest this grotesquerie in some fashion.

"What was it like?" I asked Jeremiah, who opened a beer following the service. Mother sat in the living room with her Presbyterian lady friends, eating potato salad and yellow cake.

"Just like he said, Ethan. All those strangers stroking his hands and crossing themselves. A couple of veiled women dripping tears on his cheap tie. Mom, before the preacher lowered the lid, kissed his stony lips. Christ, they hadn't had sex in years. So long ago he couldn't even remember. You ever see him caress her?" Jeremiah asked.

"Only when he was drinking."

He laughed hollowly.

"Jeremiah, did anybody stand and pass the hat?"

"I wanted to," he said. "But envisioned mine being full of his ashes."

Just then I recalled Dad returning once from Mass with a soot mark on his forehead.



"We now got a past."

"I don't get it," I said.

"Ma took me to Issacs's Monument Yard down off South Beaver Street following the trip to the cemetery. I saw it."

"Saw what?"

He flashed an open-lipped grin.

"Oh, Jesus."

"Yessir. Bigger than Jimmy Hodge's old man's. Rose granite. Shade of some old lady's unmentionables."

"Dad will shit! What's it say?"

"'Blessed Is the Match That Is Consumed in Kindling the Flame' Joseph Mueller 1908–1980."

"We got a stone," I said.

"Big enough that we can all lean against," Jeremiah answered.

BIO: Dennis Must is the author of two novels: THE WORLD'S SMALLEST BIBLE, Red Hen Press, Pasadena, CA (March, 2014), and HUSH NOW, DON'T EXPLAIN, Coffeetown Press, Seattle, WA (October, 2014), plus two short story collections: OH, DON'T ASK WHY, Red Hen Press (2007), and BANJO GREASE, Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA (2000). His plays have been performed Off Off Broadway and his fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary reviews. He resides with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts. For more information, visit him at www.dennismust.com