There's no place on earth any colder than a graveyard.
I remember having that thought run through my mind on the Thanksgiving morning I went trooping out into the brisk west wind on the north side of Garden Grove Cemetery, to once again -- as it has these days become tradition -- stick the iron legs of my mother's handcrafted wreath into the hardened dirt beside her and my father's graves. This wreath is a sad and paltry sort of token I keep in the basement for just this annual purpose, because during my mother's lifetime it was a favorite of hers. She'd fitted it together with glue and staples and made it as charming and festive as possible so she could plant it on my father's plot during the holiday season, since he'd gone and had the initiative to precede her in death by fourteen years and wasn't around during those times to carve the turkey or trim the tree or be a part of any holiday stuff. So, being the dutiful son I had never been while my mother was alive, after her death each and every Thanksgiving morning I make it a point to rise early and trot out her wreath to the family resting place as a symbolic gesture of honoring her and kicking off the holiday season -- a time my mother dearly loved because she was always able to find some measure of grief in its wings somewhere, and sorrow and suffering were some of the things that made her tick.
Another stupid-ass tradition I like observing on these whacked-out Thanksgiving mornings is taking a drive through Garden Grove and its shady lanes and bidding a silent hello to the ever-increasing population of dead folks I've once had occasion to pass some moments with back when they and I all shared the same common denominator of breathing and being alive together at the same time. There is the occasional old girl friend who'd died young from some tragic disease, the mothers and fathers of old friends and schoolmates, a grandmother here and an aunt and an uncle there. Usually I can find an hour's worth of entertaining meditative therapy on these annual Thanksgiving visits.
But on this Thanksgiving I can't seem to find the means to get warm enough in my bones to concentrate on something other than shivering my suffering ass off, which makes it difficult to give the dead around me the attention I've delved out in the past before. I can't get warm even inside my Camry with the heater going full blast, so I for sure am not much inclined to cut off the engine and go ambling off into the far-reaching burial grounds just to find somebody's headstone, a marker I'm fairly certain hasn't moved an inch since the year before when I'd come across it then. I opt instead for a fifteen mile an hour drive through, meandering along at such a school zone speed that if there is a crossing guard around I won't be whistled at for going too fast and endangering people's lives. It isn't much like the deep reflection of years before, but it gets the job done and I don't feel like too big of a slacker when I'm finished. Maybe next year it will be warmer and I'll be able to devote a little more time to it.
When I get back to the house I get one of those looks from my wife Barbara, which says in her silent way she knows already where I've been and what I've been doing and don't I think it's time to move on to other more important matters and stop playing games over in the cemetery like I do every year. I try to not act like I notice it much but just stroll on off to the bathroom to shave and shower, for Barbara and I have to travel the better part of forty miles this day to be at my sister-in-law's McMansion for Thanksgiving dinner. It will be another one of those Thanksgivings where I watch the Dallas Cowboys with the other male members of the family, studying and dissecting the action on the screen like there is going to be a test on it later, even though I have never been much of a football fan and couldn't name you any of the teams who'd won the Super Bowl since Ronnie Reagan was in office. Such concentration is entirely necessary at these gatherings though, otherwise I would be forced to hear how things are going at each of the men's occupations, the firms, the banks, the real estate offices, and then I'd be compelled to share my own stories of life pertaining to the uniform delivery business and the distribution of aprons and rugs and rubber mats to the waiting industrial blue collar establishments of the city. The way I have it figured is the less my distant family knows about me the better chance we all have of living happily ever after.
Barbara always knows what I am up to on these holidays, but she has sense enough not to blame me too much for my evasive techniques around her relatives; as a matter of fact I think she actually envies my aloofness and capability in keeping myself out of harm's way during these times, for she herself is much too open and vulnerable and therefore suffers greatly at the hands of her brothers and sisters, who see in her a weak link because she has been born with a basic decency and without the cruel and wicked chromosome they all jointly possess in their collective makeup. So it is that my sweet wife Barbara -- bless her soul -- never bothers to admonish me for my anti-social ways on these occasions, but is mostly content just to have me around as insulation and as a breathing symbol of her success in domestic bliss, for it is a well-known fact among everyone who knows us that not once in our thirty-six years of marriage have Barbara and I ever raised our voices or taken blunt objects to each other.
That is not to say we do not have battles. To assume there is total peace between us would be far from the truth. Our wars are not visible skirmishes but deeply-layered struggles invisible to the world around us. While we are smiling and laughing and good cheer exudes from our social pores, there are at times dark vibes and intricate acts of one-upsmanship only we are aware of, and while those around us are basking in the positive auras of our presence, our own seismic relationship readings are threatening to leap off the meter and pulse all over our surroundings, yet we keep this all a secret. It is a hidden subterfuge, akin to our own personalities, which I'm certain is what drew us together in the first place.
So, though Barbara is grateful to me for enduring these dinners each and every November, she still cannot help but hold me accountable in some manner for the creepiness of the situation and my absolute refusal to allow it to envelop me and pull me down into the dark regions of hell she is forced to inhabit by herself. She would be happier, I can tell, if I was suffering in the pit alongside her. "Misery Loves Company" could be her motto.
"I suppose we have to stay at least an hour when we arrive," I say as we're motoring along, just to get the dreaded festivities underway. "I don't know if I can knock off a couple of plates and some pumpkin pie that fast, but you can count on me to give it the old college try."
Barbara sips at the coffee in her travel cup, not even lukewarm, I'm sure, by this late in the morning. The thought of cold caffeine causes me to shudder behind the wheel, but this frigidity is dandy for her no matter what the occasion is. I've seen her drink cold coffee after dinner that she brewed in the morning twelve hours before. I look at this habit as another hint that all is not right up there in Barbara's brain, that perhaps there's a screw loose allowing something important to flap around, but I think this is something I found attractive about her to begin with. I guess it could be said I enjoy people who are slightly abnormal.
"The way you shovel it in I doubt it will take you anywhere near an hour to gorge yourself," she says. "You might as well take your time, though, because I'm not going to run out of there and leave a bunch of cleaning up for my sisters to do. I'd never hear the end of it if I did."
"Just distract everybody's attention and I'll shovel the leftovers and dirty plates into a Hefty bag. I'll smuggle it out with the trash and we'll be good to go."
"If only it was that easy," Barbara wished. "But we don't have to worry about dirty dishes at least. We've decided to use paper plates this year."
"That's what I like about your family. They show real class in the old holiday festivity department. I'm always impressed."
"Like your family is so sophisticated."
"I see nothing wrong with drinking wine out of a Dixie Cup."
We drive along on I-65 for a while without speaking, listening to Tina Turner tell some john he'd better be good to her. Isn't Tina getting a little long in the tooth, I want to say, to still be worried about such things? All that Ike stuff ought to be behind her by now.
Barbara's phone is making that lilting sighing noise it emits when a call is coming in. The sound is so New Age/ Enya I want to pick it up off the cup holder and fling it out the window. Of course, Barbara probably feels the same way about my phone, with its ringtone of James Brown exclaiming, "This is a Man's World." I bought it just for her. I knew how much she'd like it.
"Oh, god," I hear her say. "I'm so very sorry."
About the only thing we have to be sorry about these days are divorce and death, and since all our friends who are going to get divorced have done so by now, my guess is someone's demise has grabbed center stage this Thanksgiving morning.
Barbara clicks the phone closed and raises her eyebrows at me.
"I guess you might come close to getting your wish," she says. "That was Brenda on the phone. Her dad passed away early this morning. We're going to have to leave early so I can get back and help her out."
Brenda Bailey is Barbara's best friend from high school and college, and the fact that her dad has died is not so much of a shock to me, because Mr. Bailey was way up there in the old age department by now, yet he was also one of those guys who a person can't help but think of as perpetual and a mainstay of the scene one has always inhabited. The thing of it is John Bailey was around when I was a kid. He lived on the same street as my family while I was growing up, and Brenda and I always seemed to be in the same classes all the way through elementary school. I guess if the truth were to be completely told Brenda Bailey was my first female interest. I wouldn't call her my first love or anything like that, but she was the first girl I found I could talk to and feel halfway comfortable about doing it with at the same time. It was even me who semi-introduced Brenda and Barbara when Barbara moved here in the sixth grade from Alabama, since I sat in the desk between them in the alphabetical order scheme of our class and all notes had to come through me.
Thinking about it, driving along with Rod Stewart rasping "Maggie May," I find it difficult imagining the world without good old Mr. Bailey in it. My own parents had checked out years before, but I'd been in my forties then and neither my mother or my father had managed to become timeless in my mind. I suppose, being in my teens and going off to school and living away from home for four years, I'd become estranged and distant from that too-present world I'd grown up in, and the acute and familiar things that had constantly been around had become muted and faded and invisible to my eye. John Bailey, however, was different. He was the one guy in the neighborhood who always knew what was wrong with your car and how to fix it for next to nothing. He was the man who could get a broken-down ramshackle lawnmower running again, and on New Year's Eve you could eternally count on him to pull his Remington out of the closet and fire it into the sky at midnight along with the Roman candles and M-80s exploding all around. Such actions were looked on as completely normal back then.
I believe John Bailey would have liked me for a son. He had three daughters -- Brenda being the youngest and his favorite -- but all that masculine knowledge about automobiles and lawnmowers and the Philadelphia Eagles and shotguns just seemed to go wasted on his three pretty girls and his dark-haired dish of a wife, Louise, who could have doubled for Jennifer Jones in some of those old MGM Technicolor epics. My dad worked pretty much all the time, so it wasn't unusual to find me as a ten-year-old in those days up the street in the afternoons throwing a football back and forth with Mr. Bailey and hoping to get a look at Mrs. Bailey when she came home from teaching school, or taking him a ticket to the minor league baseball games when my dad couldn't get off work in time to take me. On those occasions Mr. Bailey and I would load up in his shiny black Ford Galaxy and drive to the ball park, and I remember us being routinely mistaken as father and son by others, an assumption I didn't mind people making one whit, and I'm fairly certain Mr. Bailey didn't mind it either, for he was a manner of man in need of a good robust son, and I hope I filled the bill for him sometimes. In a way, whatever we were looking for and lacking just a little bit of I think we lucked out some and found it in each other.
When we do arrive at the McMansion, Barbara has recovered quite nicely from the sad news and is able to greet her nieces and nephews and cousins and the rest of the in-law brood with a certain amount of joy and enthusiasm, but it is me who is the one down in the doldrums and not much in the mood for inhabiting my place in the family circle, as if I would have been thriving in such a role under different circumstances anyway. Luckily my distaste for familial interaction does not show itself to be much different from any other time, so there are no eyebrows raised or questions asked when I am silent and a tad anti-social. I am, after all, the weirdo Barbara married -- always have been and always will be -- and after all these years the consensus is there is no changing me now, which is probably the only opinion Barbara's side of the family holds that I readily agree with them upon.
After a few handshakes and some moments of painstaking smiling, I am able to steal away down a stairway to a big great room where approximately fourteen people sit on a massive leather circular sofa around a coffee table as long as a brontosaurus watching the Detroit Lions lose once more to whoever they are playing this Thanksgiving. I lift my hand in greeting and immediately turn to stick my head inside a small refrigerator, searching purportedly for a soft drink or something to place in my hand so I won't have to keep waving at my in-laws like I am on a float in the Macy's parade. Naturally, there is nothing to drink in this icebox but a gallon jug of buttermilk, the shelves being filled and jammed with Pyrex and foil and Tupperware, and I don't much have the inclination to hoist the big plastic jug up to my lips just to keep my hands busy, so I close the door and immediately begin busying myself shooting miniature basketballs on an arcade goal off in a corner, a device that electronically tells you while you're playing what a lousy shot you are and how you can give up immediately any aspirations you might have to ever play in the NBA. Once I begin shooting on this contraption I know in my heart I can't stop until it is time for dinner, else I will be forced to join the football males on the gargantuan sofa and have to beat my forehead on the Bunyanesque coffee table just so I can come up with something halfway intelligent to say to these folks who become more complete strangers every time I see them.
It is during these moments of reaching and shooting, reaching and shooting, that it occurs to me that I once defeated Mr. Bailey, Brenda, and Barbara in a game of H-O-R-S-E. It was a spring afternoon during our senior year, and Barbara and I had stopped by the Baileys to show off the new Mustang Barbara's parents had given her for a graduation present. Prom was two nights away and commencement was suddenly right there in our headlights, and so there we were on one of those green and yellow afternoons out in the sunshine at the apex of our youth, and there I was all set to go off somewhere after graduation and become a man at last, and I remember looking across at John Bailey in his gray work pants and his so-white tee shirt and his arms that could probably bend steel and his close-cropped hair that had been to war in Europe once, and I wondered if someday I might become a man like this, and, if this kind of miracle happened, would someone someday look in awe at me for being such a man myself? It mattered little that I would go on to win that driveway game at that moment; what mattered more -- and I knew it even then -- was when the spring I was in became summer would I be something more than the high school boy I was on that day?
Somehow or another the Lions have scored and I hear the men laughing at such an improbability. Above me on the next floor the women in the kitchen open cabinets and oven doors, set tables and gossip over what's old and what's new, and up on that floor I know Barbara is doing her usual job of multi-tasking, pleasing her family while thinking of what she can do for Brenda and the Baileys later on, while I keep shooting toy basketballs and thinking of long ago afternoons and John Bailey and the basketball goal in his yard and a lot of other dead things I have never managed to escape.
Part One of Nine
Originally appeared 2010-11-15