February 15, 2008—
You died today—maybe you know that.
Twenty-four. It’s a number. Jack Bauer. Chromium. Willie Mays. You.
It’s not a life.
As I look at you, lying on your stomach, propped up on your elbows, in your room with three members of the Tulsa Police Department in and around your door, you don’t look like you were ready to die. Your face is full; your cheeks have color. You look asleep (on your stomach, it’s how you sleep), healthy, you’re still in your clothes, passed out from a night of drinking, perhaps, staring at a laptop.
But not dead.
Your face, the more I look at it, though, is not full, your cheeks bloated, discolored; still, you could have been in a fight. There’s nothing remarkable about seeing you this way. I’ve seen it before, like the time that kid hit you in the head with nun-chucks that sent you to the hospital.
But not dead.
I hear walkie-talkies; I see cops in latex gloves looking around your room with flashlights, your mother in the living room, whispering something to your stepfather, Bob—so I can’t focus. Bodies, blue pant legs keep obscuring my view of you.
I’m 50, and the only other person I ever saw dead this close was my mother, your grandmother, and she was lying in bed, covered in methadone patches for pain, a skeleton, cancer having made a mess of her body. I was at her feet, looking at her, her neck and chin taut, her arms at her sides, on her back, expressionless, frightened, partially covered up—her nakedness still that of a young woman, inexplicably—but not at all at peace.
She didn’t look surprised.
Your grandmother had breast to bone cancer; you had—what? It was drugs, wasn’t it? Of course it was. And of course it matters. You were not supposed to be the second person I saw dead; you were not supposed to be ever. This is not how it is supposed to work. You should be the one standing in a doorway, with my body, lifeless and fading away on the floor or in a bed, and you should be wondering what happened and what the cops are whispering about and then, later, after the shock passes, are supposed to wonder if you got it right, the two of us, if you told me you loved me, respected me, even liked me—if you did enough. A father is not supposed to be the one standing in a hallway asking himself these questions while looking at a dead son who doesn’t look dead.
I am trying to keep your mom out of the room.
“There’s nothing good that will come of it,” says one of the cops.
But she’s going to want to see you. Remember in The Godfather, the first one, after Sonny is shot and Vito Corleone takes the body to Bonasera, the coroner, who owes him a favor, and says, “I don’t want his mother to see him this way”?
“Tattalgia’s a pimp. It was Barzini all along. He never could have outfought Santino. But I didn’t know that ‘til just now.” You knew the line, loved saying that, too, and how Brando stumbled just a little saying it to Hagan.
Well, I don’t want your mom to see you like this, either.
That laptop is still on. I can’t see the last page you were viewing, and it shouldn’t matter, but what were you looking at? Is that the moment, Paul, that will stay with you through eternity—if there is eternity? That page? Were you buying something, looking at movie times, porn, reading news, checking email? (I hated your screen name, RancidRulz.) Had the page even loaded? Did your heart implode or explode waiting for something profound… something insignificant to appear? The last website of your life… what was it? Were you even looking at the screen or were you in the middle of some thought, memory, regret, smile? Did it have something to do with that girl in prison to whom you wrote those rambling, grammatically incorrect streams of consciousness? Did it have to do with your sister, your mom, me?
The cops can’t tell me when you died.
Strange that I want to know the time, but I want to remember what I was doing, where I was standing, what I was thinking. The story, at least from Bob (and I still have trouble with him being your stepdad), is that you were awake this morning around seven, mumbling something incoherent, when he told you to get up. Even Taco (really, guy, your best friend was named Taco?) said he called you at noon and you slurred something, but he couldn’t understand what it was. By the way, he was in the front yard, drinking from a two-liter Dr. Pepper when I got to the house, crying, “I’m going to miss him. I’m going to miss him.”
I feel like putting that little fuck’s head through brick.
So what happened during those last two or three hours, Paul? The television in your room is off, but maybe you were playing that weird video game on the laptop, the one where you build and destroy cities and then rebuild them again. I remember something about a game set in Newark, New Jersey, a place you called NeWARK, a place, for some inexplicable reason, you always wanted to visit.
I don’t know why the image of you in front of your computer is bothering me so much—maybe because it’s the last one I’ll have. I am standing in the hallway, down from your room—looking at the cops looking at you—and I see a picture of you with a basketball team in the hallway. You’re holding the ball, as if you were the star, as if you were even good at it. You must be 12 or so and you look so… normal, happy.
I’m not going to do this.
Yeah, I am.
I am going to write this and then… God knows what I’ll do with it. But maybe you can see me write it, hear me say it out loud, feel it, help me finish it. I am hoping you can somehow tell me what hurt so much, why this life was so impossible, what it was that I never understood about you, or it, or us.
You’re still here—literally, still here. Can you see me?
I know that Catholics believe there is a two-hour period between the pronouncement of death and when the soul leaves the body.
How much time do I have? There’s a lot I want to ask, explain, and I don’t know where to start.
We Jews probably don’t get that long.
Okay, the beginning—no, the end. Was there a thought, was there something that made you laugh right before it happened; was there a sharp pain, a moment where you thought, “This isn’t good”; or did you just, I don’t know, fall asleep? Does death feel like sleep? Was there a moment when you called out for your mom, Taco, me? Did you panic when nobody came?
I can hear you now: “Dad, stop asking so many questions. The letter isn’t three pages old and you’ve already asked me like a million fucking questions!”
Okay, I’ll stop.
I am anticipating that your mother and I are not going to agree on a service. I will want Rabbi Sherman to do it at Temple Israel; she will probably want a Methodist service—or I think she will. In all the years your mother and I were married, it only seemed we cared about our faiths when the other one did. And now we both will. I don’t even know what religion you were, what you considered yourself the last few years. Your sister, I know, used to think of herself as Jewish, but not lately—Nina is an atheist now, telling me the whole notion of a promise of ever-lasting life is kind of silly, a series of fairytales. You and I never talked about what you were… or wanted to be.
“We’re going to have to think about a service, Jane,” I tell your mom.
“You know, he wanted a Viking funeral.”
“Yeah,” she said, laughing. “He wanted to be placed on a boat that went out to sea with flaming arrows all around the sides of the boat.”
You did? Where did that come from? And what do you know about the Vikings anyway? Nina tells me you used to watch the History Channel a lot, I remember now. Remember that time on The Sopranos, when Tony called it The Hitler Channel?
They just put you on a gurney and they’re trying to maneuver it, you, through the hallway. I don’t know where he came from, but a volunteer chaplain from the city or some funeral home is here, too, and he just led us in a prayer and ended it by saying, “In Jesus’ name.”
Goddammit! Before he started, I told him that we were from a mixed-religious family; I thought he would have known enough to not mention Jesus without me having to say, “Don’t mention Jesus.”
Maybe it’s Oklahoma. You should have stayed in Maryland, where you were arrested. I think you’d still be alive. I know you hated it when you went there last Labor Day, but really, what did you want the cop to do? He sees you asleep, headphones on, in a parking lot, notices a club with spikes coming out of it in the front seat, and a prescription bottle with pills that are clearly not yours? I thought, considering you got off with a suspended sentence and unsupervised probation, how lucky you were. And then you came back to Oklahoma and back to Methadone and Xanax and Oxycodone and that imbecile in the front yard. Now, I wish they had thrown you in jail in Maryland, kept you for six months, kept you away from all this, kept you away from yourself. I would have preferred visiting you, seeing you dressed in an orange prison suit on a work detail outside of Baltimore than like this… with a sheet over your head in a gurney that can’t get out of a hallway.
How many ways were there to avoid this Friday afternoon? And how many things had to happen at precisely the moment they did for you to die today? I can’t help think that one less drink, one less pill, one more good night’s sleep and your heart would have held out.
By the way, is it true, as your mother told me, that when you were in court in Baltimore, you told your attorney and the district attorney that you would have produced a prescription for the drugs the cop found but that your doctor was in jail for writing illegal prescriptions?
That’s hysterical. Did they laugh?
I’m having trouble keeping all the stories from coming back now, sorry. You’re lying under this tarp in the hallway—I see the outline of your face, your nose— and I’m trying to remember the last time we spoke. Wednesday, right? Two days ago? It went all right. You told me you loved me, I remember that. Now that I think of it, those were the last words I heard from you. I was in Vegas, at your grandfather’s, and you were on something, clearly, but you told me you loved me—you told me you loved me—and then said you would try to pick me up from the airport. I told you I loved you, but I don’t think you heard me.
I arrived this morning. I didn’t expect you to be there.
One of the detectives just pulled me aside and said he found a syringe in your pocket. I can see Taco, by the way, outside, and he’s still walking around the front yard, mumbling to himself.
He’ll be the next one to die; you know that, don’t you?
Until then, that little fuck, that little shit, gets to go home; he gets to see tomorrow and lie to his parents about needing money for something other than drugs and alcohol; he gets to parlay his grief over you into sympathy and, who knows, maybe more drugs and a blow job from some skanky little whore on meth who will feel bad for him because you died.
The cop who found the syringe told me when he went to ask Taco what happened to you, Taco kept repeating, “I don’t know, I don’t know. He was my best friend.”
It’s irrational, this isn’t his fault, but I can see him (if he doesn’t die soon) at 30 or 35, telling people about his “best friend Paul” and about how he tried to save you but couldn’t, and I can hear him tell it with earnestness and persuasion and even see the girl who will be with him, rub his back, and cry one single tear and think to herself, “What an amazing man to have come through all this.” And Ryan—yes, by then, he’ll use his real name—will never mention his sucking on a Dr. Pepper bottle like a tit in the front yard the day his best friend died or how he couldn’t put five words together. I want you to be 35, to be able to tell someone, some kid like you (maybe my grandson), about drugs and desperation and survival and have some long-haired girl with a tear in her eye rub your back and think the world of you.
But you’re on a gurney; Taco is getting a ride home.
About a month ago, Nina told me how your doing drugs was something you enjoyed doing (and I don’t even know if the drugs killed you, but I’m thinking they had to) and that your friends looked up to you, that Taco looked up to you.
“I’m tired,” she told me, “of Paul always being the victim.”
Your sister has always been the smartest one in the family.
On my way over here, she called. I had to prepare myself to talk to her. I didn’t want to be driving when I told her that her brother was dead.
But then I listened to her message.
“Dad, Dad… Dad!”
Apparently, your stepfather called her, but it wasn’t Bob’s place; it was your mother’s.
It was mine.
I imagine Nina was in her dorm, as she would be on any Friday afternoon, when she heard the phone ring. I wonder if there was something about the ring, the moment that seemed different, and then, Bob’s voice.
“Your brother’s dead.”
And then, Paul, imagine: she had to hang up the phone. She had to stand there and figure out what to do next. If there were people in her room, she had to tell them; if not, she had to tell someone, call someone. And what do you do when you hear your brother is dead? Do you close your eyes and hope the world goes back to the moment before you picked up the phone? Do you collapse on the floor where you were standing?
What do you do when the world changes?
Her boyfriend, Drew, you remember, his brother died, too.
Two dead brothers—that’s their bond.
One of the cops just told me—and you’re still in the hallway—that they are taking your body to Oklahoma City to do the autopsy because there is no medical examiner’s office in Tulsa anymore. (How can that be?)
“It usually only takes a day,” he tells me.
“Drugs?” I ask.
He doesn’t know. Then, “Yeah, looks that way.”
The guy who did the prayer pulls your mom and me aside.
“I’m sorry to say this, but you’re going to have to make a decision pretty soon about what to do, what kind of service to have.”
“Okay. Give us a minute.”
“Cremation, I guess, yeah?” I ask your mom.
“—Yeah, yeah, I think that’s what he’d want,” she says.
“Where do we do it? For me, you know, I’m more comfortable at Temple Israel. But maybe we can have both.”
“No,” she says, “Rabbi Sherman was always so good. Let’s have him do it.”
Standing in the hallway, we decided.
The thought of you being buried somewhere, somewhere I could go and see you dead—is impossible to fathom, traipsing over dirt and other people’s dead children. I don’t want to remember you dead. At this moment, I think about taking your ashes to the Bahamas or San Diego or some other place you loved, like Vegas or Columbia, Missouri, maybe even find out about that Viking business. But not a grave with a headstone and dates.
I tell the guy, “Yeah, cremation.”
He tells me there are still arrangements that have to be made and then hands me a card from his funeral home.
“We all work on a rotating schedule. You don’t have to use us, but if there’s anything I can do, let me know.”
I won’t be calling.
I follow you outside. I think there are going to be many of these moments. I touch you. I touch the back of the hearse.
I go back in.
How do I tell people you died? What do I tell them? Do I mention the drugs (certainly not the syringe), or do I just say you’re dead?
And why am I asking you?
I sit in the wicker chair near the fireplace, looking at your mom and your grandmother, her mother, who was here when I arrived, on the sofa. I notice how much alike they are. Bob is on the chair, that blue chair, the one you liked sharing with me when you were younger. You remember that? You used to sit in the crook of my arm, watching television. You in pajamas, Dr. Denton’s, I think they’re called, the ones with the feet. I don’t remember anything we watched, but I remember the pajamas. And the smell of Baby Magic and stroking your hair.
There’s a row of laundry over your mom’s head and I want it to fall, just so something will happen. I hear Bob crying. Not one of us knows how to help anyone else. Bob gets up to go in the office, my old office.
I have to call my father to tell him about my son.
Your Aunt Susan just called. I take it outside. She’s just calling to say hello—it’s a coincidence.
“Barry, what is it?”
Sitting on a bench in your front yard, where I can still see the cigarettes you smoked, I tell her. She promises to call my brother, Wayne, your uncle. I tell her I want to tell Dad. She says she’s coming to Tulsa for the service.
“There may not be one.”
My wife, Susan, your stepmother, called. She’s on her way.
We’ve been married five years, Paul, and you only saw her three times, the last just a month ago. She never got over you not coming to our wedding.
I didn’t either.
When I come back inside, I go to your room, where Jill and Marcia, your mom’s cousins, are cleaning up.
“Don’t let Jane come in here,” Marcia says, who is holding clothes, rags, I don’t know what else.
“Don’t,” she says again, standing up, as I start to enter. “I mean it. There’s no need.” She walks by me, carrying rags, towels. I follow her through the living room, see her look at your mom, smile, and, without breaking stride, disappear into the laundry room. I sit again in the same wicker chair; it’s going to be my place for the next few days.
Ever since your mom and I divorced—and that’s now 16 years—I have never been comfortable coming back to this house. What was the name of that girl who you used to date, the one who told me that what bothered you most about the divorce was not that I moved out or that your mom married Bob, but that nobody ever gave you the chance to be the man of the house?
You were only eight or nine… did you really tell her that?
I wish I knew. I wish I knew a lot of things.
For my birthday one year, my 50th, I think, Nina gave me a picture of the two of us, her and me. I am lying on my back; she is sitting on my stomach, wearing a purple hat, looking back at the camera.
“Dad,” she told me, “it’s the only picture I have of you when I was little.”
And then this: “You don’t look happy, Dad.”
Looking at it now, and I have it in my bedroom, I can see she’s right. I wasn’t happy back then.
You weren’t, either, were you? I wonder if our unhappiness, mine and yours, were linked somehow.
The wicker chair is uncomfortable; for some reason, I move to its ottoman. It’s worse. In Judaism, when someone dies, the mourners sit shiva and sit on hard chairs.
I am sitting shiva—I’m not even sure it officially started—and you’re on your way to Oklahoma City.
I am trying to remember the last good memory you and I had in this house, but I can’t remember the last memory we had in this house. I keep looking at the laundry on top of the sofa. Your grandmother is starting to fold the remainder of the towels.
It could be any other Friday afternoon if you didn’t know better.
You loved this house, didn’t you? When your mom’s dad died, was it true that you saw his spirit? Your mom told me she had walked into your room—you must have been seven or eight—and you were sitting in a chair, facing the window, when she asked, “What are you doing?” She told me you looked at her calmly, and said, “Talking to Grandpa.”
Is that true? Was his spirit there, talking to you, as well?
Are you out there now, by your window? Can you see Marcia and Jill in your room? Can you see me, your mom, your grandmother folding towels?
There was much about you I didn’t know.
But you knew that.
I don’t know how long to stay here. Your grandmother is asking questions about laundry and dinner and your mom is answering her. Her daughter, your mother, does not need small talk; she needs wisdom, warmth… a mother. Bob keeps alternating between his office and that blue chair. I feel bad for him, because even now, after a decade and a half of being married to your mother, he still seems out of place. He is not sitting by your mom, not holding her hand.
What was their relationship like, Paul?
Susan, your stepmom, just arrived, and is hugging your mother in the doorway.
“I can still feel Paul in the house,” Susan says, who has never been here, and always manages to say the wrong thing—or maybe it’s perfect. We miss each other a lot.
I am watching these two women, my two wives, hug because my son is dead. You are bringing people together. It reminds me of a fight your mom and I had about a year before we got divorced. We were in the kitchen, screaming at one another, and you came in, threw your hands between us like a ref stopping a fight, and screamed, “Enough, enough. No more.”
And we did. And you were eight.
I’m sorry for putting you through that. Eight-year-olds shouldn’t have to break up fights between parents; they should sit in chairs in pajamas with feet and fall asleep while their dads stroke their hair.
They’re still hugging. They have nothing in common but a husband. When Susan and I moved into our house, your mom came over with salt and bread, an old Jewish custom for good luck and a happy life and home. When she left, Susan tossed them both in the trash.
They didn’t always get along.
Watching them now, though, and Susan looks similar to the way your mom did 15 years ago, I see how little in common I have with either.
Neither thought I was, or thinks I am, a very good father. Susan, particularly, feels I did you much harm, telling me a number of times how much you hated my first book, Road Comic, especially the parts where I wrote about hitting you and including the time you pulled the knife on me. She thought I manipulated stories to make myself look like the adoring, concerned father when, in reality, I was absent, inconsistent, and judgmental. She thought when I wasn’t being cruel or exploitive, I was trafficking in cheap sentiment. I told her it was not what I meant and that, anyway, you hadn’t read it. And what of the part, I asked, about sitting outside Mario’s Pizzeria, where you worked, just so I could see you smile?
She said I used you like a prop.
Did you think so? Did you even read it?
Watching them both cry over you, I know I let them both down.
I never got to thank you for coming by last month—only, as I said, the third time Susan ever saw you—to apologize to her for standing us up at the wedding.
What made you do that, apologize? And why then? Were you, as terminal cancer patients are urged to do, getting your affairs in order before the end? She was touched by the effort, said you told her that you were mad at me, that it had nothing to do with her, that you did it to embarrass me.
You were going to be my best man, Paul, did you know that? You were going to stand next to your sister and me under a Chuppa and watch me smash the traditional glass to ward off evil spirits and then, I hoped anyway, kiss and hug me and tell me how happy you were for me.
My son, my best man.
Susan also said when you left the house (and where was I that day?), you asked if she had any drugs.
Susan just left, said she’d see me at home, but first had to make some stops. She was supposed to be singing in Dallas this weekend. In fact, she was just about to leave when Bob called to tell me about you. I actually thought about not telling her—we haven’t been getting along lately, and I didn’t want to think about my marriage this weekend—but that would have meant pretending for 10 or 15 minutes that I hadn’t just heard my son died.
I walk her outside.
“Can I do anything?” she asks.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“Where else would I be?”
Rabbi Sherman calls back.
He’s in Iowa, but he’ll be back tomorrow or Sunday night and, of course, he’ll do the service.
Okay with you?
Your mom seems tired. It’s about 6:30 (I can’t believe I have been here more than three hours), so I think I’m going to go. The rabbi gave me the name of a funeral home that handles most of the Jewish deaths in town, so I told your mom I’d call them.
But first I have to call your grandfather.
When I get home, not from the car.
He just called, by the way, to tell me about winning $1,100 at craps. He has no idea.
He’s 81, and I don’t know how he’ll take this. You’re not supposed to outlive your kids, and you’re certainly not supposed to outlive your grandkids. Once on a courtesy van to the airport, I heard two guys talking and the conversation went like this:
Man 1: You hear about Bill’s mom?
Man 2: No, what happened?
Man 1: She died.
Man 2: Oooh, sorry. How old?
Man 1: Ninety-five.
Man 2: Ninety-five? Well, that’s enough.
Your grandfather loves that story. Whenever he tells me stories about friends of his who have died late in life, he’ll say something like, “Lived to 90. Did all right.” Even when talking about your grandmother, when she died at 69, and even though he maintains she could have, should have, had 10 more years, he’ll say, “She wasn’t cut short. She had a life.”
Did you… have a life? I don’t think so.
I am in the car, driving down Harvard Avenue, toward the house. I’ll spare you the travelogue, but there’s no great flood of memories, even while passing Mario’s Pizzeria. You were 13 when you first started working there, but I can’t seem to remember why any of us, including you, thought that was a good idea.
It was where you got your first paycheck.
It was where you first got high.
It’s Friday, pizza night, remember? When you and Nina were little we made sure we did something special each day I had visitation. Monday was the night we made spaghetti and monster meatballs in cheap T-Fal pots and pans; Tuesday, candy at Mr. Bulky’s; Wednesday, bagels; Thursday, a trip to an arcade; Friday was pizza; Saturday… what was Saturday, anyway? And Sunday was the day we went visiting, usually to see your great-uncle and aunt, or my friend Mike.
You and Nina took turns sitting in the front seat of my white Mazda GLC and I’d charge a dime if either one of your failed to put on your seat belt within 10 seconds of starting the car. I never collected, did I? You owe me money.
There are more memories on this drive than I thought.
Your grandfather just called again. He doesn’t trust answering machines, he said in his message, just calling again. He tells me again about his day: tennis, the gym, the win at craps. His life is perfect.
I’m home now. Alone.
Your Uncle Wayne just called. He doesn’t know what to say. Hope, his wife, doesn’t either. They’re coming to the service and want to know when it is.
I told them what I told your aunt.
They, too, are coming anyway.
Jews bury their dead within 24 hours, unless it falls on the Sabbath, which is tomorrow, so Sunday is the earliest day for the service. You, your remains, may not come back from Oklahoma City until Monday, though, so I don’t know what to tell them about the service.
I call your grandfather.
He is listening to the stereo in his office.
“Dad, turn off the stereo.”
“Okay, okay, what?” I hear him just make it lower.
“Dad, turn the fucking thing off.”
“What is it, sweetheart?” He sometimes calls me that.
I can’t say it.
“Paul…” I can’t say it.
“Barry, what is it?
I keep trying; I keep getting stuck. Then, “ …died tonight.”
It came out.
“What happened?” he asks.
“Oh my God,” he said. “Oh my God.” And then, “Oh, Barry.”
I think he tells me it will be all right, asks if I need anything, but I don’t hear anything but my own pain, feel my own spasms.
“I’ll call you back, Dad.”
Your Uncle Wayne calls again and is wondering how Priceline works—especially on the hotels.
We talked about hotels, we did. It was strangely soothing.
Aunt Susan called again, too.
“Did Wayne just call you about the hotel? I told him not to bother you.”
Family. It doesn’t stop.
She is something, my sister, your aunt. I love her more the older I get. At times she reminds me of my mother, your grandmother.
Your grandmother. She’s not going to be happy with you. My eyes sting. I feel like I’ve been hit on the head. I’ll write more tomorrow, but I think I’m going to bed now. I’d wait up for Susan, but I don’t have anything to say—or maybe I have too much.
One last thing: I remember once when your Uncle Wayne and I were younger, 14 and 16, and we were out late one night. Your grandmother started worrying. We didn’t have a curfew, something she and your grandfather never imposed, but for some reason this night, she had a bad feeling, a premonition. This was before cell phones so there was nobody to call, no texts to send.
“Barry,” she told me later, “I was beside myself.”
She didn’t wake up Grandpa, which she thought of doing; instead, she said she paced—through our rooms, through the kitchen, even the garage, until she got tired, very tired, and couldn’t stay awake any longer, so—to hear her tell it—she looked up to the ceiling and said to God (and this was not a religious woman), “You better be up there, because I’m going to bed.”
I always liked the image of your grandmother, standing in a housecoat, looking up at the ceiling in the middle of her living room (I can see her pointing a finger) and demanding—not asking, demanding—God to do his job.
That story has nothing to do with you.
That story has everything to do with you.
Published in This Land: Summer 2015.