I don't often sleep with my clients, which may be why I remember that morning. Valerie's bottom pressed into the soft spot in my side between my hip and my ribs, her body curled into a fetal ball beside my outstretched figure. I twirled one finger through the last wisp of dry white hair, and let my palm rest across the back of her bald scalp. I gazed at the knobs of her spine, which emerged each day a little more prominently. There was faint smell of medicine, and it mixed with stale perfume and Vaseline to create a calm, satisfying funk. The window was propped open by a box of tissues, and the cracked air of January was trying to push past the hiss rising from the radiator below the windowsill. I could hear the sounds of St. Marks Place below, car horns and a bicycle bell, a voice shouting out to Manny to throw down the keys. I could also hear Valerie breathing, a slow, steady wheeze, just developing into a rattle. I was smiling.
I owe my career as a eulogist to my Uncle Herbie, my mother's oldest brother, who had survived the Korean War to become the first white heroin addict in Nassau County. Herbie had an impressive talent for making money—he developed strip malls along Sunrise Highway between Valley Stream and Seaford. He also had an impressive talent for staying alive and was already over forty, having injected several fortunes into the open sore behind his right knee by the time I went to live with him. I was fourteen and, taking after my father, had run away from home. Dad was in Florida with Aunt Rachel, and Mother had become a towering goddess of propriety, incapable of fixing an Instant Breakfast without a lecturing me on the dangers of promiscuity and moral drift. Promiscuity and moral drift were two things I was anxious to get involved in, so I stole a bottle of Mateus Rose from Halperin's Liquor Store and hitchhiked to Herbie's apartment in Baldwin.
Herbie's rooms were bare of all furniture except a bed, a metal folding chair, and the beautiful wooden coffee table between them. We rinsed two paper cups he found in the wastebasket, and he pushed the cork into the bottle with a screwdriver while I tried to find ice. There was only a package of Kraft Singles American cheese slices in the freezer, so we drank the wine warm. I actually drank most of the wine.
"I have been off the liquid depressants for some time," Herbie told me, pouring his wine into my cup. "In favor of the powders." He took a small plastic bag out of a slice in the side of the mattress and laid it on the table. We listened to an old John Coltrane record as I presented my case against living with my mother. The record had a replay function and the needle would pick itself up—producing a moment of silent anticipation—then drop back down onto "A Love Supreme." Herbie nodded his head as I spoke, but it may have been in time to the music, rather than in sympathy with me. I was still getting warmed up to the subject of Mother's fixation with my sex life when Herbie stood up.
"You can stay as long as you like, but I don't know if you can like staying here for long." He took a glasses case out of his breast pocket and a works out of the glasses case. I watched in silence as he rolled up his sleeves, mixed the white powder in the envelop with a little of the wine, cooked it down and sucked it into the hypodermic needle. Then he rolled up his pant leg and stuck the needle into a pink and pus-filled blister in back of his knee. He winced as he squeezed the needle, speaking through gritted teeth.
"The arm is too obvious. Always avoid the obvious."
He sat back down and took a sip of my wine, shaking his head rapidly. After a moment of tense silence, I went back to complaining about Mom, and he went back to nodding his head. Around midnight he stood up again and tossed a wad of cash onto the table next to the torn and empty plastic bag.
"Order us some Chinese. I'll be back. "
I didn't see him for two days.
I met Valerie after the Unger funeral. The Unger twins, pretty and popular seventeen year-old girls, had died in a car accident. Valerie's bright yellow headscarf stood out in the sea of gray and black. She was sitting just where the crowd thinned out a bit, as pushy relatives gave way to reluctant friends. That funeral was particularly crowded—youthful death will do that—and the front of the church was packed with family and close friends and those that want to appear to be either family or close friends. The lady with the sharp eyes and the yellow scarf seemed to be listening too intently, no tears, just that strong stare, a couple of nods of the head. She looked like she wanted to take notes.
I was at the top of my game. The twins had been clients of my other business—tutoring for the SAT. I had seen them the Saturday morning before the accident, a few hours before Nicole stole the tequila from dad's liquor cabinet and Ricky wrapped mom's car around a telephone poll on Merrick Road.
In my eulogy, which I charged double for, I listed all the things that early death had robbed them of—starting with the big tragedies, like love and marriage and careers. Then I began to work a bittersweet note into the list, mentioning the trials and difficulties they would avoid, "disappointment, loss and compromise are beyond them now." I ratcheted up the pathos by mentioning the promise of independent adult lives: "life would only expect them to grow further apart, but they will stay together now," I said. Finally, in a blatant assault on the emotional weakness of my audience, I confessed to the falseness of my list: "If it seems I have idealized their youth, their energy, their beauty or their innocence, it is because we can only remember them as they were—perfect." Mom sobbed loudly and a woman behind her actually began to applaud before she caught herself. The woman in the yellow scarf was just nodding her head, her eyes suddenly bright with moisture, watching me intently.
She cornered me in the parking lot behind the church while everyone was piling into cars for the trip to the gravesite. She asked me to write a eulogy for her. She had six months to live.
Mother had convinced herself that it would be fitting if no one spoke at Herbie's funeral.
"Let him get Father Hal," she said. "He gives the same sermon every week, it will work just as well for a funeral." Mother took a long drag of a cigarette, sucking it down to the filter, then coughing, spitting, and lighting another. "Let him get that old senile priest that never remembers anybody's name. No one who actually knew Herbie could say anything nice." She sucked again on the cigarette.
"I'll say the eulogy," I said.
There was a tense moment of silence. Then Mother clapped her hands together as if killing a fly. Sparks and ashes flew as the cigarette dropped from her hands and she fell quickly to her knees and rubbed the bright red carpet as if it were actually on fire.
"What could you possibly have to say, that was true. And . . . appropriate. And true?"
Before I could begin to formulate an answer she had pushed herself up from the floor and stabbed her cigarette out in the cake plate she was using as an ashtray and left for the kitchen.
I had received my Master's in Creative Writing the year before, and almost immediately my ambitions had dried up like a neglected sponge. To say something that was appropriate and true about Herbie suddenly seemed like the most worthy of goals.
Valerie and I met the week after the Unger funeral in a bar in midtown, a very quiet, old man's sort of place. I ordered a tequila. We talked about money for a moment. I gave her my fee; she winced.
"You didn't know those twins very well." She said.
"Well enough. I had known them for . . . months. I had seen them every week. I didn't have to make anything up to fill the time." Though, of course, I had.
"But for that kind of money—" She looked around the bar, empty tables, half filled bar stools. "I guess I would want you to get to know me first."
I brought the Cuervo to my lips, but did not drink. "Maybe I should keep my mouth shut, but I'm going to tell you the truth. I don't need to get to know you. You're forty years old, I'm speaking about you for five minutes, tops. I don't need real deep knowledge to summarize forty years in five minutes. Normally I talk to the next of kin, or whoever hires me. I ask a few questions, I get some stories, I get a picture in my head, and I'm good to go. That's more than your average priest or rabbi does, and they speak about total strangers all the time. You want someone who really knows you, someone who can speak from some kind of deep knowledge? You have friends for that, you have family for that." I sipped. "But most people have friends and relatives that can't write very well, can't speak very well. At least not under that kind of stress. I don't offer any real depth, but I do offer clarity. Succinct, clear, appropriate and true. If you can get that from somebody with deep knowledge of your life, go to them. If you can only get one—a clear message, or a deeply felt message, and you decide to go with clear, give me a call." I stood up to leave, a little ashamed for pulling the hard sell on this woman.
"Thirty seven," she said, signaling to the bartender for another round despite the fact that I was on my feet now.
"You said I was forty. I'm not. I'm thirty-seven. I have tried surgery, chemo, and radiation. None of it is going to work. Now I am just trying to die well. I have a number of ideas; some involve the funeral. There are people who could speak about me, friends, family. But I don't care what they have to say. I care about what they hear. That's where you come in."
I agreed to four one-hour meetings, but I would charge her for them.
The first time I looked, Herbie's refrigerator had an unopened jar of mustard and a single slice of turkey, unwrapped, dry as toast, clinging to one of the wire shelves. By the time he came back it had several meals—pancakes and syrup in a Styrofoam box, Chinese food in Tupperware, and six slices of pizza, individually wrapped in tin foil. Every time I bought takeout, I bought for both of us, certain that he would come home any minute, convinced that even Uncle Herbie could not be so rude and irresponsible as to leave me alone in his apartment with just that slice of meat. I also searched his apartment and found his spare works in a leather satchel in the bottom drawer of his dresser, which was otherwise empty.
I never glamorized Herb's addiction. He was a real estate broker, not a rock star. He kept a stolen hypodermic needle and a bottle of rubbing alcohol in his toiletries bag, wore polyester suits and nodded out in front of the TV. But when he came home after those two days—clean and freshly trimmed from the barber across the street, he sat with me and had beef chow fun for breakfast while I cooked the eggs he had brought in with him. We both drank Diet Pepsi and he told me that he had spent most of the time he was gone just walking along Sunrise Highway, had made it all the way to Babylon before turning back.
"I visited every one of my malls," he said. "I fixed outside of Syosset with this guy I know in a hobby shop there, and saw the lights come on in the Sunrise Mall parking lot. I sat on the curb and felt it, just felt it. I helped build that thing, and there it was glowing like a piece of the moon had crash landed on Long Island."
In the movies junkies talk when they need to fix and shut up when they are high, but Herbie was the opposite. He withdrew into himself when he felt the urge, but couldn't stop his mouth when he was high. Herbie asked me about girls and school and Mother, and interrupted all my answers with stories he told with such intensity that I didn't want to believe he was just buzzing from whatever he had taken to get over the high. I didn't care, I realized that I loved him because he was a junkie and I wasn't and if that was OK with me, then it was OK with him, and I needed that kind of blind, stupid acceptance just then.
The first meeting took place in the parking lot of a bar in Baldwin. We were supposed to meet inside, but I was early and there were half a dozen motorcycles out in front and I decided to wait for her outside. Her kerchief was white this time, almost phosphorescent under the street lamps. That, and the darkness, made her face less pale. She was almost cute in a leather jacket, chinos, and a bit of a swagger. She immediately took my arm and led me into the bar, which was dark, sour, and deserted. I looked around, wondering where the bikers were. Valerie ordered us beers from the chubby blonde woman behind the bar.
"So," She clinked her glass against mine. "We have begun."
"What have we begun?"
"Getting to know each other."
"I am only getting to know you. And just a little," I said, drinking. "You don't have to get to know me at all."
"I've already begun to get to know you," she smiled.
"What do you know about me," I asked, simply because I thought she wanted me to.
"You are the type of person who would tell a dying woman that she will not get to know you."
"You make it sound so . . . impolite."
"Was that me?"
"OK, I get that detail." I shifted into my public speaking voice, deep, but with an edge of anxiety that could be actual emotion. "'Valerie was always on the lookout to correct life's little injustices, those times when we are rude or short with each other, that seem so unimportant in the moment, but that can add up to a chunk of life misspent on unkindness and recrimination. That bumper sticker, "Mean People Suck," only seems simplistic until your realize that it is true. Valerie taught us that mean people do, in fact, suck, and we don't have to join them.' Thirty seconds of eulogy written, four and a half minutes to go."
Valerie took a large swallow of beer and stared straight ahead at the mirror behind the bar. I looked down at my damp coaster. We were silent for a moment.
"Sorry," I said. "You seem like a nice person, and I can write you a wonderful eulogy. I will write you a wonderful eulogy. But this is not the way I usually work."
"You actually give eulogies for people you don't even know?
"I know a bit. People talk. I get jobs word-of-mouth, so I often know of the person. I once heard a eulogy that focused on the deceased's address and what it told about his life. His address." I paused. I tried to find her eyes in the mirror, behind the colored bottles, near the sleek new cash register. "It was a killer eulogy too."
"I thought you knew the Unger twins."
"I did. A little. Everything I said about them was true. And I had met Marty Karnay several times."
She rolled her eyes, and reached back behind her head to straighten the knot on her kerchief. "Have you ever given a eulogy for someone you really knew?"
I paused. This was not part of my sales pitch.
"I gave the eulogy at my Uncle Herb's funeral."
"What was he like?"
"A total asshole."
"Well, tell us what you really think."
"I did." I sipped my beer and tapped the glass against the table. "At his funeral I found a way to tell the truth, what I really thought. 'Today is not the day we start to cry for Herb Jordan. It is the day we can finally stop crying.' I stood before everyone that knew him and I told them that he was my favorite uncle, and that he was a total asshole." I looked at my image in the mirror, smiling slightly. "I got him exactly as he was for me, and neither the good nor the bad cancelled out the other. I presented Herb Jordan exactly as he was. Exactly." I drank.
We sat silently for a moment.
"I'm not a total asshole," Valerie said.
"So then this should be easier."
She reached up to the back of her head and untied the knot of her white kerchief. There was a tuft of brownish hair on her left side, and a gentle baby fuzz, glowing slightly in the light from the window, covered the rest of her scalp. The white of her scalp shone brightly, and it seemed to make her eyes darker, solid black. The effect was startling and erotic.
I began to visit Herb a lot. Sometimes he was there, in his apartment, sometimes not. I could let myself in using the key he kept in the cracked aluminum siding, maybe finding him nodding on the couch, maybe wait there alone in the apartment until he showed up to fix. Every once in a while I would find him there and awake and sober. Fidgety and cranky, he would curse at me and complain about having to order food for us. He never asked me to leave, but I knew that every complaint he had about me was legitimate, that he was expressing an annoyance that he felt, that had something to do with who I really was. In that way, the complaints seemed like compliments, and it was only the long silences that were uncomfortable. He read my poems, though he was not interested in reading or poetry. He would simply take the folded up sheets of loose-leaf from me, mutter to himself as he read, then tell me what he liked, what he didn't like, what he didn't understand. There was no sense that he was helping me, no encouraging tone or facile advice. His comments were just comments.
I first tried to sleep with Valerie on the afternoon of our second meeting. She had called me to say that we should go to the Museum of Modern Art.
"I want to show you my favorite painting," she said.
"Starry Starry Night," by Vincent Van Gogh.
"I've seen it," I told her. "Maybe we can meet for coffee somewhere and you can just tell me why you like it?"
"You haven't seen it with me. This will give you special insight into who I am."
"'The Starry Night' is everyone's favorite painting," I said. "It doesn't tell me anything about you. Let's meet for coffee."
She refused to budge from the plans, but agreed that we could meet at her apartment rather than on the steps of the museum. She answered the door in a plain white sleeveless t-shirt, and green hospital pants that had "Memorial Sloan Kettering" stenciled unevenly across her left hip. She had just gotten out of the shower, and her head glowed with dew. It cut my breath short to see her, so much skin glowing with such pale light. Perhaps hearing the slight sound of my choked desire, she leaned in and kissed the air next to my cheek.
"'Starry Starry Night' is a song about the painting, 'The Starry Night'" I said slightly off balance from having leaned in to the kiss and found only air.
"If you say so," she turned back towards her bedroom. "I also like Cezanne's still lifes if that makes you feel better."
"I like fruit," I said.
"I feel very close to still lifes, I feel like the titles suit me. I want to put a sign around my neck 'Still Life With Cancer,' just to flip people out." She sat on her bed to tie her sneakers.
"You don't think being bald flips people out enough?"
"You don't seem flipped about it."
"I find it kind of sexy," I placed my palm flat against the top of her head, and thrilled that she did not pull away.
"I am sexier now than I ever have been," she said.
"How so," I asked, moving my hand to the nape of her neck.
"I've lost weight." She stood and slid a hand along the flat of her belly. "The fifteen pounds I could never get rid of, diet and exercise and more diets and pills and shakes and home remedies. It just stayed right here." She patted her belly. "Cancer took it away. I am at my ideal weight, my most beautiful."
"You got it. Try to appreciate it fully and don't flinch as it all goes down hill."
I bumped into Herb outside a movie theatre with a girlfriend once. Herb was on one of his tours of the strip malls he had helped develop, and had no doubt been talking at the woman for hours. Whatever mixture of coffee and Phenobarbital he was on gave him the appearance of hyperactive sobriety. She was clearly enthralled, found him charming, believed him when he said his limp was from an old motorcycle accident. He was in a gray suit with no tie, and he needed a haircut. It was a look that I know marked him negatively as a businessman, some element of sloppy laziness that never showed up in his work but that hung about him anyway. No one in his working world seemed to know he was a junkie, but everyone seemed to know something was not straight Kiwanis Club about him. On this night, however, the slightly disheveled look offset the suit to make him cool. The woman clung to his shoulder as he began to brag about me.
"He is very handsome."
"Any girl with my Maxie is a lucky girl," he said, pushing her hand towards me so that I finally reached out and we shook tentatively.
I was aware that Herbie seemed in some vague way to be pressing the woman on me, despite the difference in our ages and the fact that she was so clearly enthralled with him.
"A girl like that will never leave a man, no matter what he does." Herbie insisted the next time I saw him. He had bought some beer for me and we sat and watched the Nets play Denver until, around midnight. Then, unable to sit still any longer, he threw me some cash and walked out. I ordered Italian hero sandwiches and watched the soft-core tapes he kept on the bookshelf. I gave myself another tour of his apartment, opening one closet to look at his seven suits, and the other to look at the wire hangers and dry cleaner plastic that showed someone had been using it. She had moved in and moved out.
Once I acknowledged its existence, my desire for Valerie grew like a weed in my chest, tendrils reaching down my arms and filling my fingers until my hands sat on my lap like they had a vegetable life of their own. We had our fourth and supposedly final meeting at Eisenberg's Sandwich shop on 23rd Street. She wanted to try the famous tuna salad before she died, but something in the smell of the tuna made her gag—her throat had appeared slightly swollen when we met outside the Flatiron building—and she had to retreat to the bathroom. I noticed a slight limp as she maneuvered through the narrow aisle past the waitress. As her arm rose up to steady herself by grabbing the back of a red booth, I had to turn away and study the menu tacked onto the wall. Nothing but the prices had changed since 1953.
Later that night I showed up at her door. She let me in without commenting on the unannounced and uncompensated nature of my visit. I sat cross-legged opposite her on the floor, a small candle between us. She poured me tea. She had a line of medicine bottles spread before her and was taking out pills and laying them on a small tapestry at her knees.
"Some of these are prescribed by the last of my doctors, pain killers or vitamins. Others I picked up at various health food stores. This one—" she picked a small reddish aspiring from a large blue bottle "—contains seven herbal extracts that are supposed to boost the immune system. Which is good, because my immune system has never really recovered from the chemo."
She had the pills lined up now and was moving them in and out of the line, as if they were pieces in a sidewalk con-game. Her arms were hennaed with a pattern that included flowers and spiraled tendrils. Her hands were quick and sure. She felt each pill gently as if she could weigh its medicinal value with her skin.
The room was silent. I tried to sip my tea quietly and looked for somewhere to put my legs. I was uncomfortable. She seemed in no rush to swallow any of this medicine.
"I have been having trouble with music," she said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"The other day I went to put on a Ramones CD. And I couldn't listen to it. I got this idea running through my head that I should not be listening to music I already know note for note. I have a limited time and there is a lot of music. So I went out and bought a collection of Wagner. The Ring Cycle."
"How do you like it?"
"I couldn't get the CD case open. You know how those cases can be. My hands started shaking." Now she lifted her fingers to her lips and slipped a pill in, leaning against the couch and letting her head fall back, exposing her throat. Her skin had been pale and sallow in the afternoon sunlight, but was perfect now. The candle picked up a verdant olive tone, and her eyes shone darkly beneath a black satin kerchief.
"I thought some music might calm me down, so I put on the Ramones."
That night, when I leaned across the candle and tried to kiss her, she was kind enough not to notice.
I picked Herbie up at the emergency room when he had an infection from a dirty needle and needed to get the sore on the back of his knee treated. While I was helping him limp from the emergency room to my car he was complaining that he had to get up the next morning for a meeting with a construction foreman and a client to schedule a project.
"These fuckers always want to meet at eight AM. They never sleep in. Don't trust people who do not sleep in."
I lay awake on his couch that night, and I heard him slipping out of the apartment at 7:30, dragging his left leg a bit as he headed to his car.
Those weeks before the overdose were like watching weeds overrun a neglected garden. All the precarious forces he had organized into something resembling normalcy had begun to rebel against his control. His leg never healed correctly, and the mixture of heroin and painkillers turned his energy level down a notch he just didn't have. He missed appointments and lost paperwork. Clients had begun to suspect something and work had become hard to find. Suddenly, Heb was short of money and hustling for drugs in a way he had never had to. He was dirty and desperate and dealing a little to make ends meet. He got arrested for possession of marijuana with intent to sell, and Mother made me wait almost forty-eight hours before putting up the money to bail him out. Leaning on my shoulder as we stepped out of the back door of the county jail, he smelled like urine and disinfectant. His hair was matted and his suit was caked with something black.
"You have $200 you can lend me." It was not a question.
"Yeah," I answered. "Mother thought bail was $2,000, but it was only $1800."
"I know," he said, folding the bills and slipping them into the pocket of his suit jacket.
I slipped out of the apartment while he was in the shower to take the dirty suit and some other things to the dry cleaner. I stopped and bought a double order of Chinese vegetables in garlic sauce at the takeout on Old Country Road. He was gone by the time I got back. At the coroner's office the next day he was lying on the slab dressed in his pale linen suit. His shoes were shined, sitting next to his bare feet, one big toe tagged with his identification. He had gotten a haircut and a manicure. His skin was still pink and firm, but there was no doubting that he was dead. He was just good-looking dead.
My late night visits became a regular occurrence. I found it hard to stay away, though my flirtations went unnoticed and the heat I felt when I took her hand or arranged to brush against her in some narrow corridor was entirely my own. She never acknowledged my advances, turning her head so I kissed her cheek goodbye, stepping out of the hook of my arm as soon as we were across the street.
There were a lot of people in her life, I watched them leave her apartment on those nights I sat in the café across the street and watched her door. I noticed how often her sister or her friend Kate appeared in her stories. There was a Cal I was jealous of until I found out he was a family friend in the priesthood. It seemed she did not need me for anything more than what she was paying me to do.
But as she lost weight and balance and mobility she welcomed my company. The first night she needed help getting to bed I promised I would wait until she was asleep and then let myself out, knowing full well I would spend the night on the couch. After a few nights on the couch I moved into a cot beside her bed. Not every night, but a few times I was there to help her back to sleep after a night terror. Then one night she had chills and I slid under the blankets and spent the night warming her. She slept fitfully while my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness and watched her breathe. In the dawn I studied her skeleton and touched her skin, soft as petals, fragile as dried leaves.
After Herbie's funeral, people came back to the house. Not many. The chaos of his final weeks had made him a pariah, and few of his business associates even sent flowers. Friends of Mother's and neighbors, a girlfriend who had only recently broken up with me, and Father Hal sat in the living room and sipped coffee. Mother stayed in the kitchen, drinking vodka.
"Son," Father Hal said, suddenly breaking the awkward silence, "you have given your mother a great gift, putting into words her grief, the grief we all feel at the passing of . . . Herbert." He hesitated over the name, and we all returned to staring at a spot on the carpet.
Later, Mrs. Whitehurst, pressing next to me on Mother's couch telling me how much she liked my words of comfort for Herbie, asked if I would say a few words about her mother, who had died that afternoon. I mentioned that I barely knew her mother. Mrs. Whitehurst insisted she would pay me. My career as a eulogist began.
The day of Valerie's funeral I sat in a drug store across the street from the church, occasionally touching the folded sheets in the breast pocket of my suit jacket. I sat at an old fashioned lunch counter, littered with the small items that sell in such a setting—blank CD's and breath mints, vitamins that increase your sexual potency and triple A batteries. I drank several cups of coffee and watched the activity across the street. I was there for several hours; other customers had to reach around me to get cigarettes or pay for their shampoo. I had a clear view of the hearse and the priest greeting guests. They all wore gray and black, though the priest had a bright green prayer shawl that reminded me of Valerie's kerchiefs. I tried to pick out Valerie's family, but with everyone looking down at the sidewalk it was hard to see resemblances. The coffin went in first with everyone shuffling behind it. A few stragglers arrived late and then the steps to the church were empty. I thought about the candles and the altar, went through the order of the mass and wondered what readings the family might have chosen. I tried to guess what the priest was going to say, but my mind was blank—not even the most standard of death clichés would come to me. Of course, there would be no real eulogy, because I was across the street drinking coffee. I expected someone might come out looking for me, maybe just a head peeking back out through the doors, searching up and down the street in case I might be late, but it did not happen.
Fifty minutes later the same crowd came out, and now I could see Valerie's mother. She looked up at the sky, her face flushed with emotion. Valerie's sister—like Valerie with hair—leaned heavily on the older woman's shoulder. Men scrambled to get their cars in line behind the hearse, and there was a burst of hurried conversations to make sure that everyone had seats in the appropriate cars. Even among this activity there were a few people standing around, awkwardly social, lighting each other's cigarettes and kissing each other goodbye. I counted eleven cars following the hearse around the corner and off towards Sunrise Highway, and a few minutes later the steps to the church were empty again. I knew if I sat there a little longer I might see a wedding party pull up.
I paid for my coffee, tipped generously and walked up the block to the Long Island Railroad station to wait for my train home. I sat in the waiting room and tore a copy of The Daily News into little confetti-sized bits, dropping each one to the floor until a small pile built up at my feet. I imagined that any minute someone would walk in and the rush of air from the door would blow The News around the room, but no one entered. A prerecorded voice called out train destinations in a monotone that seeped from the speakers and blanketed the room.
The truth was that I had tried to write a eulogy and couldn't. The only sentence that came to me was one from that first eulogy—the one for Uncle Herb: "Today is not the day we start crying for Herb, but the day we can finally stop." I wrote that sentence a hundred different times on a hundred fresh sheets of paper, before admitting that it, too, was a lie. Sitting in the Long Island Railroad waiting room, I tried to say the line aloud now, but Uncle Herb's name stuck in my throat. I tried to say Valerie's name, but it sounded like a sob. I sat looking down at the pile I had made of The News, waiting for someone to come along and let it blow away.