Well I told a fragment of a story two years ago to get this thing started, and now as it coughs and splutters in agonising death throes, I feel like reprising. August is my indulgent month, and this is a fraction of my friend Parker Morris:
It was a terrible day for a funeral. The sun had found itself at dawn to be the sole occupant of a deepening blue sky and had thus joyfully launched a many-pronged assault: on the moisture in the air, on the green in the grass, on hairless and denuded human skin, on weary human tear ducts. By mid-afternoon its victory on all fronts was assured, and it had begun to celebrate. The difference to its victims was barely perceptible. Its indifference to their misery was plain.
White light flashed off the carousing waves, seeking out eyeballs. Face-hugging sunglasses were deployed in defense, which in combination with uniformly black suits made it appear that many more mafiosi had turned out to mourn the passing of Ingrid Sherman than one might have reasonably expected. Beads of sweat were extracted from the pates of congregating uncles, brothers, former colleagues and teachers—and swiftly exterminated. The plumped and carefully mussed hair of girlfriends, aunts, former colleagues and teachers wilted then began to fray. A reek of floral and watermelon perfumes, tinny aerosol deodorant (liberally applied) and welling human pores swirled around the mourners amassed on the steps of St Jude's Chapel, Digger's Point. When the nod came from within the oaken doors, that soft brief sound you heard might have been a breeze soughing through the elms or a collective sigh of relief.
The skin on Parker Morris' forearms prickled and stuck to the fibres of his cotton shirt as he lowered himself to a pew. He hunched his shoulders to minimize the contact, which action (in his single-breasted buttoned-up suit jacket) gave him the profile of a turtle—his collar rising and butting into his skull. But no-one was looking. No-one had noticed (and he had hoped that no-one would notice—that was the point) his new shirt or black suit jacket with thin and distant grey pins, or indeed his matching suit pants and new black dress shoes that clacked when he walked because only wafers of rubber separated the wooden heels from the tiles, and of course no-one could have noticed his new black nylon socks or boxer shorts. He had bought all these garments the day before in a cascading panic, despite having several serviceable white shirts, shoes that merely needed buffing, and plenty of clean socks and jocks. He had bought them because the task of acquiring a new suit—which for Parker under normal circumstances was a nearly unendurable chore that could not be accomplished except in the promise of a stiff drink—had introduced so many minor transgressions on his private grief that the only way to restore its necessary purity was to extend the ambit. For Parker this meant that not just was a new suit required for the ritual of farewelling Ingrid, but a new everything. When a sales clerk hustled up to him as he floundered through suit racks, offering assistance and persisting in the face of his unsubtle grunts, eventually interrogating him regarding the purpose of the suit, and murmuring sympathy when in short staccato phrases he told her, looking up at him and nodding with soft eyes as she handed him a recommendation, raising his shame and fury incrementally as she moved onto the subject of sizes and alterations, causing him to flee with a stylish and slightly ill-fitting suit and a major problem on his next credit card statement—he paused breathless and sullied a safe distance from the shop and concluded that only the purchase of a new shirt could redress the furtive inappropriateness of that transaction. And so he pepped his pride and checked in on his injured grief then dived into another shop, whereupon the cycle began again and repeated, with only minor variations on the theme, all the way down to the last and improbable purchase of new boxer shorts for the funeral of his former girlfriend.
Respect, again, for Ingrid had dictated his choice of pew, empty and towards the back of the chapel, but still unmistakably among the main body of mourners. He did not want to overstate his importance in the constellation of her life—he had seen her only rarely and briefly in the last two years, although he thought of her often and was confident enough that she had thought of him too. This was not the occasion, either, that he had chosen for his personal farewelling of Ingrid, nor the crescendo of his grief—he did not feel he could channel his emotions into such a premeditated, orchestrated event. Moreover, he was an outcast amongst these people—a shooting star in Ingrid's firmament—there were people here he had not entertained the possibility of seeing again, with little regret, until two days ago. This was an older place, the habit of a younger and different Parker Morris, and the thought most offensive to him was that he might walk into it again as if it had never left his possession. He would tread lightly and leave it unaffected by his presence.
These reservations had not, could not have, arranged themselves into the suggestion that he stay away. Parker didn't think that his absence would be noted, could not imagine any detrimental consequences arising from his absence being noted, since in his mind Ingrid's last breath had severed any bond of duty in either direction between himself and these people. Yet the compulsion he had felt to be there on that day presented itself as the clearest, simplest manifestation of his confused grief, sprung from deep within him and ignorant of any propriety. He wanted to be in the chorus when those who loved Ingrid sang. He would endure each of the many discomforts for that.
He had therefore sidled up to Irene Sherman on the steps of the church, and when at length she turned to him, matronly beneath her black, veiled hat, he had murmured an ambiguous, all-purpose "I'm sorry," and she had frowned and whispered "Oh, Parker" then held him in a vice. He had nodded to both Paul Sherman and Henry Lam standing together under a shimmering elm, and when they reciprocated he mustered "It's terrible I hope you are coping okay" and they, more assured, had answered that at least she was no longer suffering, it was good to see so many of her friends here, she loved so many people.
Funerals are thick like chocolate sauce. You wade through them as if in a drowning dream, and when you try to speak only sweet bubbles of nothing come out. You lose focus and begin to blur, to melt. At funerals, you give up so much of yourself to a collective molasses.
In the chapel the organ petered out and the pastor's low mumble began. It started with a prayer of proper observance, skirting only the periphery of poignancy, invoking call and response from the assembled, Lord, hear our prayer, Lord, hear our prayer. The words were printed in the slender booklet Parker held in his hands, but he did not follow along. He listened to the bassy mumblings of the pastor, broken into crackles and pops by the sapping heat. It was a voice that belonged to another time, when clerics roared from the pulpit and confounded their flock with incomprehensible Latin homilies. Parker swayed in the echoes and thought he could feel the vibrations. He wondered what Ingrid would think of this, whether it aligned with her imagined funeral service. Parker often considered his funeral; it seemed to be an important event in his life, and sometimes it struck him as unfair that he would not be allowed to attend it. He wished that Ingrid were here, however awkward that might be for him, to apply her tremulous laughter to it, to expose it for what it was, to lift its dark clouds. But then he considered that this service was exactly what Ingrid would have wanted, and was suddenly, happily, convinced of it. Ingrid, in his time with her, had neither subscribed to her parent's resolute religiosity nor to his tenacious atheism. She had walked the line between these two extremes as if it were not a tightrope, as if it were a street with doors ajar on either side. Parker recalled that it had bothered him, but now he could see that her approach had left open this possibility: that those who loved her could celebrate her life and mourn her passing comfortably, in their preferred manner. It did not seem like appalling disinterest now; it seemed like caring more about people than about metaphysics. Beyond death, she still made her point.
Joseph | 8 Aug 2005