1. The door
My youngest brother told me about my Uncle Dennie, my mom's brother. We were sleeping at a motel down the highway from my folks' place. He was lying on his bed in the dark and I was lying on mine, under the covers. It was cold in Iowa in November. This is how cold it was. You had to run to the car. You had to run to the motel. You begged your brothers to warm the cars up for you. You stayed in a motel so you wouldn't be cold out at the farm if the heat went out. I had to buy some gloves downtown at Bomgaars, which was now a dollar store. I bought a pair of black gloves with furry leopard spotted cuffs for $2.99. I didn't want to buy expensive gloves to take back to California.
My brother said that one time Dennie came to the house in town while he was asleep on the couch. My folks have a house in town and a farmhouse. It was summertime and nobody was home except my brother.
He said, "I was just taking a nap and there comes a knock at the door and I go to open it and it's Uncle Dennie."
I interrupted, "Was this before or after Dad moved the door?" We both laughed. My dad has serious remodeling issues. He gets an idea in his head that he wants to move the side entry door on the house in town from the kitchen to the dining room. Who knows why? So, he moves the door, but he doesn't move the stairs leading up to door. So in order, to get into the house in town, you have step over a space of air from the stairs into the house.
"Yeah," my brother says, "Dennie's at the door and he steps over, into the house and he says, to me 'Robert, do you have a gun?' So I say 'Dennie, why do you need a gun?' And he says that the sheriff is out to get him and he tells me he's going to shoot that motherfucker. I laughed at him and I, well shit, I was scared, but I said, 'Dennie, are you off your meds again?'"
We're lying in our beds in the motel room and laughing in the dark.
"What'd you do then?" I ask him and my brother tells me he called Aunt Joyce to come get him, but by the time he went back to the door, Dennie was gone.
2. Non-smoking room
My oldest sister told me some pretty good jokes at the Steak House. The Steak House is called something else now, but we still call it the Steak House. It's right next to City Hall, which they almost tore down. We used to rollerskate in City Hall on Friday nights. What a bunch of morons—wanting to tear down a beautiful old brick landmark like that. The jokes she told are not repeatable.
She was in better spirits after the Friday night pre-funeral session at the church. Before that, she had made the reservations for three of us sisters at the hotel and she ordered a smoking room. Then my youngest sister made another reservation in a non-smoking. My oldest sister was pissed. She wanted everything her way. I stayed out of it. I did want a non-smoking room. I'll confess to that much.
3. A thin blue line
I stayed with my youngest sister in her room the second night. She showed me the scar from her tummy tuck—a thin blue line, a flat stomach. I imagined my body in a grave fifty years from now. Numbered the years on my hands trying to decide if five thousand dollars and that etched line was worth it.
My daughter stayed with her in Texas last summer and ended up taking care of her kids while my sister recuperated from the surgery. She hadn't told me or my teenager about the surgery ahead of time. I was bitter because I had to hear about it.
4. The church
The priest told a fairy tale about how Grandma was on a ship going toward people in another land and while we were saying goodbye to her from the shore, watching her ship leave, she was saying hello to all those people on the other side of the water. I kept imagining her on a ship to Russia or China. This ship analogy didn't work for me because Grandma was a country girl, an Iowa farm girl all her life. Why use a ship metaphor? Oh well, better than if Father Carroll had still been alive. Father Carroll was the worst speaker in history. He was a monotone with a drop note at the end of every sentence. This new priest tells us that Grandma used to come up to the church every day. Every day! She had purchased the home at the bottom of the hill from the Catholic church. The priest said that one time, she almost passed out on the sidewalk on the way up. There was a note of reproach in this story aimed at my family—as if we all should have been there when it happened.
5. Her hands
My grandma's skin on her hands told me a story about what it was like to be dead. My youngest sister asked me what her hands felt like when I told her I had touched them, and I said, "Like the skin of a cold dry chicken." My grandmother used her hands to chop weeds, butcher chickens, pluck feathers, dice potatoes, knead dough for cherry pie. She had super-large hands but I had never noted her hands before. After the funeral everyone commented on her hands.
"Those were her hands," my cousin said to me at the steak house.
"Oh course they were," I said.
6. Vinyl sweatpants
My sister told all of us a story about her ex-fiance from high school. She said he came to visit her in Texas about a month before the funeral. Three sisters live in Texas where it's warm all year. Two live in California. One brother lives in the Carolinas—the rest are still back in Iowa. My sister's ex had a pot belly and was losing his hair—that's never nice to hear. And he went there expecting something from her, and when she came in the living room, he was wearing blue vinyl sweat pants.
She said, "He patted the seat and said, 'Come sit here,' no actually he patted his lap, and I about broke out in hives."
I said, "Did you?"
And she said, "Did I what? Sit on his lap or break out in hives?"
7. Sex back then
I told a story about a boy I went out with in high school that both my older sisters had gone out with. One before me and one after. I let slip that he was my first blow job. You could have sex back then as long as it wasn't all the way.
Then my dad, who wasn't supposed to be listening, said that was nothing. He had dated my sister's high school boyfriend's mom when he was in high school.
We went on for a while about how incestuous we all were, "She could've been our mother," we said.
My mom snorted from the living room, currently bedroom, "She can have every last one of you."
8. Two pieces of metal
My younger sister told us she couldn't handle what was happening. To the folks, to the house, to the farm. She didn't say a word. It was translated via losing her between the farm and the motel. She drove around the section surrounding the farm in the middle of the night and knocked on the window of our room, while we were all frantically calling her cell phone, calling the farm to find out what happened to her and when we let her in, she was embarrassed by her tears and said it was just so hard. We encouraged her to cultivate a sense of humor about the wall missing between the kitchen and the dining room, the wires hanging down, the bed moved into the living room, two televisions in the living room, the washer and the dryer now in the bedroom, the bathtub full of rust, the missing bathroom sink, the fact that my mother took sink baths in the kitchen, the electric shock we got if we touched two pieces of metal at once.
9. Not telling
My oldest sister got into a fight with another older sister. The two of them were best friends in high school. They both lived in the same state now—Texas. One sister was angry at the other for not telling that the high school boyfriend had come to visit.
The oldest sister said, "You don't have to know everything. Besides I thought someone would've told you by now."
10. The wrap
My mother told me stories I already knew. Stories of her health, her medication, stories that worried me. Stories of my father falling down outside in the cold next to the machinery.
"Your dad hasn't slept for a week," she said.
My father asked me to adjust the wrap he'd put around his ribs.
My brothers were watching from the kitchen because of the missing wall between the kitchen and the dining room. I could see the wheels turning in their heads about the grief they were going to give me later when Dad pulled down his pants as if everyone wasn't watching and as if I couldn't see his BVD's.
Dad complained about the pain in his back. I gave him my last two Vicodin, hoping I wouldn't regret it.
11. The teeth
I told a story about my teeth to my cousin's daughter. Everyone came out to the house after the funeral on Saturday and I was showing her—a pretty girl in about seventh grade—pictures of us kids when we were all little.
I said, "That's me," and pointed to a seventh grade girl in a blue knit jumper with white sleeves—a girl who had long, straight, white-blonde hair. A girl, smiling broadly, who had a silver tooth in the front and another tooth next to it with a hook on it, the tooth was chipped and had a snag on the end of it.
The cousin's daughter asked me," What happened to your teeth?" I told her how I'd run into the monkey bars when I was in junior high, chipped them, had a silver tooth put on, the dentist hadn't shaved the hook off the other tooth and that my two older sisters called me, "Silver tooth, Hook Tooth, or Captain Hook when I was in junior high."
"That's terrible," she said. She looked at her mom, my cousin and said, "That's so mean." And she turned to my two older sisters and said, "That's mean. Why did you do that?"
I didn't know how much it bothered me, until this little cousin came to my defense.
12. The piss test
My brother told me about his wife—she was crazy, he said. "She thinks I'm cheating on her all the time. I'm not saying I don't have to be nice to the female customers, but she's crazy." During the three days we were there, he smoked and drank constantly. He was timing it so that when he went back to the Carolinas, he could pass his piss test. He had only two more to go. If he didn't pass this test, he'd lose his job as a beer rep.
I tried to change the subject so I wouldn't have to state the obvious, "Do you take her out?"
"Who?" he said.
"Your wife," I said. "Do you take her out on dates? Can you afford to take her out?"
"Well yeah," he said, "I can afford to take her out."
"All right, how often do you take her out?"
"I'm doing okay, financially," he said.
13. When it was good
We all got up and told only the good stuff about our grandmother. This was from when we were little. How she let all the grandchildren stay over at her farmhouse in the summer. How she braided our hair like little German girls, How she let us roll down the hill in blankets, had us all eat together, pray together, take baths together, sleep together, nap together. The list was endless. The younger grandkids didn't have anything to say; they hadn't had those experiences. The brothers who had to work the farm didn't get up to talk.
14. Two younger brothers who lived there in Iowa
Their absence on Friday didn't say they didn't care. It could've been work issues. It could've been that some have money and some don't. For me every trip home was borrowed, borrowed from summer money, borrowed from student loans, borrowed from VISA. I would've talked to them about this, but I knew they wouldn't want to.
My oldest brother's story was told in pictures. His wife had brought the camera and the photos and she was printing up copies of everybody for everybody to take home. She had once taken pictures of her and my brother's dead grandbaby. We didn't care for her skill with the camera. SIDS is an old story in my family. My youngest brother dying of it and the fear that another one would go had finally caught up to us. She lived at home and couldn't work. They'd gotten into an accident years ago and now she had that phobia about leaving the house. She managed to get in the car to come to the funeral but we wouldn't let her take any pictures there.
16. The real story
My dad told me the real stuff about his brother. "He threatened to kill me on more than one occasion." I hadn't seen my uncle in years—him with adult onset diabetes. He'd abandoned his kids, my cousins, for another life, a new wife, and that one had left him, too.
Dad said, "I told him go ahead, try it. We're alone, now's your chance. But I'll tell you what, this'll be the last time we talk without a lawyer present. You better take your best shot now while you got the chance." Dad's an old man, but he's not that old. A tough packing plant worker, newly retired. Still driving tractor, still hitching and unhitching wagons. Still slipping on the ice.
17. The cold hard ground
My grandmother's grave told me a story of what happens to the body when it is dead. It goes down in the broke-open frozen dirt with snow scudding in and around it. Once you're gone, your house, your money, your furniture, your empire relegated and sold to strangers to pay for your care even before you hit the bottom. Everything you've taken a lifetime to build becomes snow and ice, and home is the cold hard ground. People race from under the canopy to get back to the heaters in their cars. Back to where it's warm.