Richard by Mary Feuer

 

 

"He's right here," I assure him. "He's in the bathroom."

"I want Henry." Richard's head is still bent, his breathing labored, but his voice insists. "Get Henry."

Henry returns on cue. "I'm here, Baby. We're here."

"I just... want... Henry," he squeezes out, grabbing Henry's hand. For one perfectly lucid moment his eyes meet mine. "You go now. You leave." Pleading.

I don't know what to say. There's nothing to say. Okay. I grab my jacket and go.

After twenty years, they have their language, their country. I'm Canada, almost home but not quite.

An hour later I'm walking, walking somewhere, I don't know where. Anywhere. Nowhere. Just away. My mind is stuck, as if in one of those reminders you leave for yourself: remember to get milk, remember to pay the gas bill. Only I can't read my own handwriting. "Remember to..." is all I get. So I walk. And as I walk something changes, something shifts, and it occurs to me that Richard is dead.

I call Henry. He's crying. "It's over," he says.

Richard's gone. The edge permanently erased.

The funeral home is one of those fast-food houses of death, bodies and mourners segmented off to rooms like catacombs, and at first I'm directed to the wrong one. The deceased is an obese and elderly woman. If I saw her on the street I'd think her too big for the coffin, but she actually fits nicely, if snugly, with plenty of room left for flowers. Her feet and legs are buried in flowers; this is because they're so swollen whoever dressed her couldn't get her into a pair of shoes. A framed photo next to the coffin shows her smiling; it's labeled with her name, Judy Kemp.

I look at her so long I don't notice the line curling in front of me and behind. I'm moving through the receiving line. Just ahead of me, wiping teary eyes and hugging, is someone who has to be Judy's daughter: the round face and heavy body are a younger carbon copy of the woman in the casket. I know Richard's waiting, or, at least the pod that contained him is, but it's awkward to leave, to walk away without paying respects to the offspring of this dead woman.

I press the daughter's pudgy hand with both of mine and tell her, "I'm so sorry for your loss." It's true, I am.

"Thanks for coming," she says, puzzled, trying to put me into the frame of her mother's life. "Did you work with Mom?"

"I'm a friend," I reply, and at that moment I am. "She was a wonderful woman. She talked about you all the time."

"I doubt it," she says. "I'm Evelyn. Joelle is the one she talked about." She gestures further down the line, to a thinner, but by no means thin, woman in a dark suit.

"Joelle is the lawyer." Her resentment thinly veiled by sadness.

I recognize that resentment. I know it by heart. I feel a sudden need to erase it, to free Evelyn from all doubt about herself, about her mother. About Joelle.

"No," I insist. "It was you. It was Evelyn. She loved you so much. She was very proud of you."

Evelyn wants to believe me. Her eyes search mine for a trace of mockery. Finding none, she blubbers, "Thank you, thank you so much," squeezing my hand, and I'm instantly reminded she's a stranger.

On my way out the door I turn back to look at her, and Evelyn waves to me, her savior. She could be her mother's twin, sadly and heavily lining up for a shoeless burial of her own.

Richard in repose. This isn't something I've thought about seeing. It reminds me we went to a wake together once.

It was years ago, when we were in our twenties. She was an aunt of Richard's he barely knew, struck down at fifty by some disease or other. He had a family obligation, and I went along for company, an excuse to wear a gorgeous black dress. She was a homely woman, and looked like a drag queen all made up and laid out. As we saw her body, so distant from us, so mortal, Richard joked solemnly, "In life, mortified by beauticians. In death, beautified by morticians." We laughed so much we had to leave the room. Now here he is, made up, hollowed out. Beautified.

I look at this flesh, and the "who" of Richard disappears for me. I lose my grip and he's gone. For the rest of the time, even at the cemetery, at the plot he bought for Henry and himself, he's absent, leaving us to our ritual, as if he himself has better things to do.

Gathered around a hole in the ground, we are all at peace. We are all made gentle by our grief, even though that couple is divorced, those two barely speak, this family is throwing that man out of his home. All conflict is erased by the shared rite, the lowering of a body, the handfuls of dirt thrown in. Each grieves in his or her own way: the sobbing theater friends, dramatic as ever. Little niece Amanda in her Easter dress, somber and still. The waspy, moneyed adults keeping it together. I wish someone would tell me how I am reacting, how I wear my grief.

Henry's spine curves. He's thinking, I imagine, about the time that stretches out in front of him, time without Richard, with whom he expected to grow old. Half his life has been spent with this man, and now as long without him lies ahead.

I wonder if Henry will love someone else now. If he does, he may live longer with the new love than he did with Richard, may spend twenty five or thirty or even forty years beside a new man, and then, at his death, come back to rest here, in the side-by-side graves Richard bought them. Or he may not want to be buried here, despite their twenty years, despite the grand romance of Richard's gesture. By the time it's his turn to go down, Henry may have other plans.

Richard's family has everyone back to the condo for coffee and dessert. Nobody asked Henry; he's only borrowing this home, after all. Some of the cousins or in-laws open the cupboards and run the shower, not bothering to hide their designs on the place. Occasionally someone sniffles; occasionally someone sobs. Mostly it's the rustle of hushed conversation, as if someone in the next room is asleep.

In the middle of the parlor, on its easel, stands that goddamned painting. The one Henry didn't put me in. The one of Richard's dream. If no one were looking I'd push the easel over, smash the stupid thing down, but Henry's showing it to a small group of people. He's picked a strange time to start caring about an audience.

"It's a dream he had. It's him letting go," he tells them. "All his life, Richard was haunted by his writing. Possessed by it. See, here?" He points to the sheets of paper, their tiny words crawling like ants. "It's all flying away, and he doesn't even care. He lets it go."

He pauses, choked up. A gulp, then he continues. "In the last few weeks, he did let go. He realized, finally, what mattered. It wasn't those plays. It wasn't success. It was love. It was peace."

Suddenly I'm elated. Ecstatic. I can see now my special role here. I and I alone understood Richard, knew truly who he was. Not Henry. All these years I thought he was the insider. But this painting, this dream: what I see are Richard's plays emancipated, soaring, out into the world, and Richard, their proud author, beaming. Henry sees them thrown away, scattered, and with that scattering sees Richard released. Released from his burning ambition. Released from his obsessive work. Released from the one thing Richard would never have wanted to be released from.

I know why it's called a wake. It's not for the dead one, no, he's not asleep. I'm the one who awakens.

All these things I'll dedicate to Richard:

I'll write a novel. I'll move to Los Angeles. I'll make movies. I will get healthy, I will be happy, I might fall in love. I'll quit my day job. I'll get liposuction. I'll make a lot of money, and get square with the IRS. I'll relearn Spanish. If there's time I'll meditate. If there's time I'll find God.

All for Richard.

It's late afternoon. Family and friends are dispersed back to their animosity. The remainder of the day is crisp and clear, the cold snap over, a bright, low sun bursting through the wisp of occasional cloud.

Henry and I are on the swings, not saying much; the day has been a conversation of sorts, the longest conversation we two have ever shared. We buried our Richard today. A chapter's over, and the rest of the book is a mystery except for the end. We know how it ends: we'll die too. What's less clear is who we will be when we do, and where, and with what and with whom.

Henry begins to swing, the rusty chains creaking tears.

"What did he say, right at the end? His last words?" I ask.

"Just one word. He said, 'More.'" Henry's not looking at me, not looking at anything, just pumping his legs and going up.

"More." I repeat it awestruck, like a mantra.

A question, an answer, what? Richard, in his last moment on earth, said "More."

We pass and Henry sees the question on my face.

"He was talking about the morphine," he says, swinging an arc into the wide blue sky.

 

 

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2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

 
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