Part 12: The Funeral (Part 2)

This is an excerpt from my novel Caroline. See the previous chapter here.

When mom looked at me sporting a fashionable bowtie she was delighted and asked me where I learned how to tie a tie. Of course I gave her an evasive smile and jammed myself into the car to embark on a trip to the cemetery. Of course Cupertino is a town that has a high cost-of-living, and apparently also a high cost-of-dying. Even buying a burial plot around there is more expensive than a place more out of the way, such as Gilroy. So we packed together in the car for a long journey which, depending on the traffic, takes more than an hour. But as we headed out for the highway Caroline did not cry; she withheld her tears for three weeks after her parent’s death, so there was no question that she could withhold her tears for the duration of the trip to the funeral.

Throughout the trip I couldn’t help but look at Caroline, especially since she was attired in Emily’s fancy yellow dress, the one with the puffy sleeves and frilly collar and hem. Her bare, delicate lower legs were poised in such a graceful manner, and the fact that she was wearing a thin veil of makeup made her especially beautiful that day. This time I couldn’t even pretend that I wasn’t constantly looking at her, staring at her for half of the ride. My attention towards her was broken only when we passed redwood forests, because I was constantly thinking that I must see the last glimpse of such majestic beauty before the progress of ‘civilization’ irrevocably destroys it. Caroline apparently enjoyed the attention I was giving her, she didn’t mind my blank stares and smiled slyly when my eyes were looking towards her instead of outside the car window. At times I noticed Caroline was glancing at me in her own evasive fashion, as though like me she had reasons to hide her true feelings towards me.

We arrived at the cemetery, indicated by a small sign by the side of the road reading “GATES OF PEACE Funeral Home and Wedding Services.” I thought that it was merely a typo on the sign but as we drove past the we we saw a couple, the man wearing a tuxedo and the woman wearing a white gown, on the lawn sliding rings on each other’s finger in front of a field of headstones.

“They’re having a wedding right on a cemetery,” I said, “isn’t that a little inauspicious?”

“Four weddings and a funeral,” Caroline responded playfully, then smiled sourly but still in a cheerful mood, “you’re not superstitious, are you?”

“Definitely not, my mother once took me and a bunch of my schoolmates to visit a cemetery on a Halloween night. I remembered it to be quite a boring experience, the grass was very well-manicured and the tombstones were nothing more than blocks of rock with names carved on them. I saw no cobwebs, creepy overhanging tree limbs or wandering ghosts of the dead. In fact I was rather disappointed by the mundaneness of visiting the cemetery by night, I might as well have been eating a piece of celery or slaughtering a pig, except it was even quieter.”

“Then why are you complaining about weddings taking place in cemeteries?”

“It’s mostly the symbolic meaning, what message are you sending reciting your vows in a field of corpses? That your relationship with your future spouse is about as dead as those people in the ground?”

Caroline laughed, the sound of which reverberated throughout the car and nearly broke the glass and almost blew out my ear drums.

“Are you okay back there, Caroline?” mom asked, thinking Caroline was screaming because she had cut herself.

“I’m perfectly fine,” Caroline said with a straight face looking at mom.

When mom’s attention switched back onto the road Caroline looked at me again with her playfully mischievous face.

After the car was parked I realized why a cemetery would be such a perfect place for a wedding. There is a chapel situated on the right of the cemetery where any type of religious service, be it wedding or funeral, could be held. The rolling hillside which is owned by the cemetery but is as of yet free of unsightly tombstones is a perfect place for putting on weddings. There were a few taking place that day. I watched the couple, with a rabbi by their side, having a wedding on top of a small hill as I walked towards the chapel.

We all entered the chapel and sat ourselves on the benches in the back; the funeral the proceeded ours hadn’t yet concluded, the body of an unknown stranger was still on the stage, and the organist was still playing a somber tune. Not soon after we had sat down four men in suits walk up to the stage and carried the casket out of the chapel, the entire crowd that seemed to fill the pews began to stand up but it seemed to take forever for everybody to file out of the building. At this point I was beginning to believe that the funeral for Uncle Cecil, and don’t even mention Aunt Dana, will last for eternities, considering the amount of time it took simply for people to enter and exit the chapel.

After everybody left mom walked up to the preacher and talked with him. Even though the chapel was dead silent and the acoustics was good, I couldn’t hear them because they spoke in such soft voices. Mom then asked us to raise our small butts off the benches and move up to the first row. The preacher stood back and yelled, “Crank up the music, Connor, we have another wooden box coming through.” Organ music quickly started to fill the chapel with a somber march, which quickly turned the mood of the entire chapel into one appropriate for a funeral. Six men carried a casket through the front door and onto the stage. The casket fell on the stage with a rather loud thump, the six men began massaging their arms, presumably because the casket was so heavy it strained their muscles.

Poetry Friday: Flowers in Spring

Flowers in Spring

Tender buds burst forth in spring
Explode in purple, yellow, white and blue
The flowers shed their winter coats
Spread their frills in proud display

Petals wide open, swaying in glee
Receiving kisses from mouths of bees
Spreading pollen, love and joy
To the rhythm of sweet bird songs

To Like or Not To Like?

One of the problems I encountered as I use Twitter and Facebook more and more is what to do with the “like” button. To be completely honest, if it were up to me I wouldn’t use the like button at all. There are many different reasons, let me list a few. The first is that I think the word “like” is getting severely diluted by its use on Facebook. A picture of a cat in a paper towel tube gets hundreds of “likes”, why? It seems the most trivial nonsense gets the most attention. Should we waste our “likes” on puppy pictures, videos of celebrities stumbling, or captioned images that went out of fashion years ago?

The second reason is that I hate being constantly solicited for my opinions. Maybe it’s my neurotic nature, but I put a lot of intellectual effort in the decision to “like” something on the Internet. At the most basic level, I want my “likes” to be fair so people will be judged by the merits of the material they post, but this is not always possible. Often I would read a tweet or Facebook post, then moments later think to myself, “I actually like that tweet/post, but I just didn’t feel like giving it a ‘like’ this time. Should I scroll back up and ‘like’ it?” At other times I feel the exact opposite. The problem is how subjective giving “likes” are. I feel like I’m being constantly forced to be an art or literary critic of other people’s work.

Back in the “good old days” when there was only television, a program would be ranked by how many people watched it. There were limitations to this method, but there was one advantage in that we as viewers played a passive role, we didn’t have to try our hands at critiquing every television show out there. But on the Internet we are constantly asked for an unsolicited opinion. Every Youtube video, Facebook post or tweet has that “like” button at the bottom asking you to be a critic of that piece of work, almost against your will. Sometimes I do like a tweet or Facebook post but couldn’t be bothered to click the “like” button because making such a decision is too difficult. It was much better in the days where I can be a passive viewer who simply be a brainless vegetable.

The third reason I find it difficult to give “likes” is because I am afraid it would send the wrong message. Should I like a vaguely racist joke that I find funny? What if I alienate some of my friends because they found out I “liked” some political candidate they disagree with? Finally, I know that marketers are watching what I “like” and targeting their ads based on it. I know that if I “liked” a pair of shoes I might be bombarded with shoe ads until the end of the universe.

Before I become a cranky old man (or woman in my case), I realize there is an important role for the “like” button. We all like getting attention and feedback from other people, and the “like” button does that. Otherwise using social media would feel like walking into a cocktail party, trying to have a conversation and have everyone ignore you. Of course, there are other methods for giving attention to other people on social media, such as writing a comment or message to them. But with our busy lives there’s not always enough time to write an entire message, especially to a stranger you never met in real life. The “like” button fills in this gap. In the future people will find other methods besides the “like” button to register this attention, but in the mean time we are stuck with it.

Poetry Friday: Phantom, The Fence

 

Phantom

Phantom mistress of the night
Rules the darkness with sharpened claws

Slides through cracks like slithering snakes
Pounces and jumps with flowing grace
Kills its prey with silent stealth
Rests its paws, then purrs and meows

When daylight comes she curls and sleeps
A slacker in fur, lazy and meek

The Fence

Rugged fence posts, erect and tall
Stand like brothers to form a wall
In the heat of day or chill of night
They stay on guard but not to fight

Marked by wrinkles carved by time
Wearing wrinkled coats of lichen
Aged by years of sun and rain
They still stand straight with stolid faces
Follow their duty with tireless will

Part 11: The Funeral (Part 1)

This is an excerpt from my novel Caroline. Read the previous chapter here.

One morning, seemingly without warning, mother asked us to don on our formal wear. I didn’t understand why but Caroline apparently did. She was very perceptive, noticing how mom was dressing all in black and Emily was in a black gown with black shoes, Caroline immediately ascertain that they were going to her parent’s funeral. While the most of us were polishing our shoes and eating a light breakfast (funerals usually don’t elicit hunger in most of us) Caroline locked herself up in her room, refusing to come out.

Her dress was well-starched and well-ironed; we weren’t able to afford any formal wear for her but found a pair of dress shoes our neighbors tossed out onto the curb and polished it with used motor oil (we can’t afford shoe polish) until it’s spick-and-span. We even applied a little makeup on her and darkened her eyebrows, yet she cloistered herself in her room. Mom was concerned she wouldn’t attend the funeral and said, “Ricky dear, could you go to your cousin and convince her to come with us?”

Being the ruling dame of the household I could not disobey my mother, although I hate it whenever mom uses me as a weapon of subterfuge to force another person to do something against their will. I went and knocked on the door of my room, and asked, “Could I come in and get a tie?”

For a while I thought Caroline had decided not to open the door under any circumstances, but my tie excuse apparently deceived her into thinking that I was merely coming to retrieve a silly piece of silk and did not have ulterior motives, so she opened. I wasn’t planning to wear a tie but since it was my pretext to come into her room I’d look like a liar if I didn’t, so I decided to put on a nice, quirky bowtie. As I was struggling to put it on I asked, “We’re burying some dead people today, do you wish to come join us?”

Caroline did not respond, she merely sat on her bed and stared at the floor, almost unaware I was in the room. I ran up to her bed, jumped up and sat on it, sending ripples of vibration across its surface. Caroline responded to the bed’s motion by stretching her neck, but after a few minutes she returned to her lackadaisical self.

“Well, the truth is that we’ll not be responsible for burying them, a backhoe has probably dug the hole which the caskets will be thrown into. The pallbearers will actually carry the caskets and lower it into the grave so all we have to do is sit and watch the somber procession, the boring eulogy given by sappy relatives and the preacher doing the whole ‘dust to dust’ thing. I heard they’ll be serving shrimp cocktails, light hors d’oeuvres and chilled sauvignon blanc as concessions so it might be fun, you can drown your sorrows in ‘Napa lightning’ as I call it.”

Caroline moved her head a bit, I didn’t know what it meant but I was glad she was responding, and what I said didn’t go into thin air. I fiddled with the tie a little while but the ‘bow’ part of the tie keep turning out funny, it was getting frustrating to the point where I said, “Shit! Why can’t you tie behave yourself?” The “s” word got Caroline’s attention, she turned around and showed her sublime face (even at such a young age a meager dab of makeup accented her natural beauty so much that I was a little taken away when I first saw her dolled up), took the tie from my left hand and started tying it for me.

“The tie goes around like this,” she started to explain, tucking the tie underneath my collar, making me feel embarrassed for my previous attempts wrapping it over my collar. For quite a small girl she had strong hands, but she was quite gentle tying the tie, making sure that she wasn’t strangling me as she tightened the bow. The whole time my eyes were paying attention to her face, her faced looked rather indifferent as she focused attention on my neck, she might as well be reading a newspaper or a textbook. Her fingers moved so naturally, as though she was born to tie ties. She was very quick and I was very satisfied with the results, as a matter of fact I even looked at myself vainly in the mirror to inspect my tie and adjust it.

“I never knew you know how to tie a bowtie.” Caroline smiled slyly and said, “My father taught me a thing or two. He used to sit me on his table before work and watch him dress, he laid out his ties which I liked to play with. Noticing this, he taught me the Windsor knot, the half-knot and the bowtie, now I know them all.”

“Is that all your father taught you?”

“Well, let’s see; he helped me out with my math homework. The heck, he virtually taught me math; I was often too sick to attend school and what I learned was mostly through him. He read me everything, from Clifford the Big Red Dog to Time magazine, all those months which I couldn’t leave my bed he was always beside me, wearing his hairnet, surgical mask and gloves. He tried comforting me all the time, often using his sense of humor and never-failing optimism. I had always been afraid of clowns, nonetheless I didn’t mind when my father dressed as a clown for Halloween, with his gentleness he took what were boogymen in heavy makeup and wigs and made them appear to be the most kind and understanding people.”

“You seem to remember many positive experiences of your father,” I remarked rather innocently.

Caroline’s face lit up as though she was experiencing an orgasm (girls of her age don’t have orgasms, at least I thought), she laughed delightfully (although to ears that are not used to her voice this would sound like the blood-culling screech of an eagle), and said, “Daddy was a wonderful man, truly. He was there with me the most of the time when I was sick, we saw each other at least once a day if not more, and he even gave up his job which garnished us with the salary that was necessary for my medical treatment, for years we lived mainly off of welfare.”

“And how about your mother, what were your memories of her?”

She was struck with terror, her face twitched before she broke down into tears, “Mom! Her brains, brains, everywhere, and not a piece of it in her head!”

“I’m sorry, but could you remember anything about her when she was alive?”

Her tears abated and she started reminiscing, “She’s the one I miss the most. I don’t think, with the possible exception of the time I’m enjoying a good banana cream pie, there is a moment that I spend without thinking of my mother. They told me that her death was painless, but I couldn’t believe it with so much blood spilling out from the back of her head.”

I thought she’d be forever mourning her mother in her room, so as I was about to leave I told her, “Mom said you can stay in your room if you want to, she understands you’re too distraught to come to the funeral.”

After sobbing for half a minute she said with her whimpering voice, “No, I’ll go, I want to say goodbye to them for the last time when I still have the chance.” It was rather unexpected that she would come along, I guess my fears of my failure to convince her was just self-flagellation. Perhaps I do have a persuasive personality that is characteristic of all snake oil salesmen and politicians.

Poetry Friday: The Garden of Words Not Yet Born

I tread a path so old and worn
Rambling freely, feet so blithe,
To the Garden of Words Not Yet Born
Through my wild and untamed mind

Water daily with patient care
On the seeds of future hope
Spring fertile mental grounds
Many words of wondrous kinds

Some are beautiful but shy
And turn their glowing faces away
From the golden sun
Others are strident and confident
And strut their pomposity
With fanfares of arrogance
Some are elegant
Like graceful ladies twirling in ball gowns
Some are bewildering
Like flashing explosions of fireworks
Still others are ugly
But still sway to attract attention

From disgusted passersby
Yet I can’t help but love them all
And caress them with tender love
For I have given birth to every word

And love them all
A bewildered passerby
Stare in awe at the sublime
Living alongside the vile

Then shook his in bemusement
I can only reply
“This is the Garden of Words not Yet Born
Every word is a precious child
There are no weeds to pull or plow
The ugly ones still should be loved.”

Part 10: My Sister’s Clothes

This is an excerpt from my novel, Caroline. Read the previous chapter here.

Caroline continued to keep to herself; she hardly talked to other people, even at the dinner table when we had lively conversations. Most of the conversation in our household was Emily begging mom to buy expensive clothes, usually ending with my mom chastising her for being too spendthrift. Caroline didn’t seem to need any new clothes, she got by on the hand-me-downs from Emily. Mom saved them hoping one day to reuse the clothes on me (though honestly, I don’t look good in a skin-tight red shirt with a midriff and equally tight, low-cut jeans and a strapless bra).

Note to the reader: The protagonist of this novel (the same person narrating the story) is male.

Generally speaking, Emily’s clothes were too big for Caroline, but due to our ultraslow budget such things as comfort and fit had to fall by the wayside. Caroline looked rather strange with oversized clothes, one of Emily’s old T-shirt reached all the way down to her knee, she could tie a belt around her waist and wear that shirt as a dress. But mom wouldn’t allow Caroline to use her clothes in such a fashion. The only piece of clothing that fit Caroline well as a yellow dress that Emily outgrew when she was three years old.

(Emily was a large person from birth, the doctors even told my mother that she needed a Caesarean. But through her iron will and what must have been a very wide vagina she gave birth to Emily the traditional way, with a lot of pain and heavy breathing.) It was the only piece of Emily’s baby clothes to have survived; she threw most of them away long ago when I outgrew them. She used to dress me in clothes Emily had outgrown even though they were rather girly. She once received a complaint from daycare when I showed up in a pink dress with matching pink princess Jasmine socks. Despite this she continued putting me in dresses at home until I outgrew them at the age of 7. To her, the price of me being embarrassed in public wasn’t worth the cost of buying new clothes. Fortunately there are no photographs of me dressed as a girl; mom was too cheap to buy a camera.

I felt sorry Caroline did not get any new clothes. We were poor, but not dirt poor since we were able to afford to buy a house, and I’m sure there was some money left over from paying the down payment to use as a slush fund to do with whatever we wished. The real reason Caroline did not get any new clothes was my mom’s stinginess, which has a legendary status in the annals of humanity. She once ate a sausage that was clearly marked “NOT FIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION” because it was two cents per pound cheaper than another brand of sausage. Spam was a cut of meat too expensive to be served very often, and Manwich was like filet mignon. For most of my childhood I ate parts of animals that people wouldn’t even feed to their dogs, but I never asked mom what was in our lunch for fear of loosing my appetite.

As for buying clothes, she even considers Goodwill too fancy a store to shop at regularly, opting to pick up clothes, along with clothe-hangers, that neighbors and friends threw out. Our wardrobe consists mostly of clothes that other people have grown out of or gone out of fashion, so there were lots of baby clothes, psychedelic T-shirts and disco suits. Interestingly, I’ve only gotten positive responses when I dressed like John Travolta at school, so my mother’s parsimony was not necessarily bad. In any case I still believe that Caroline would look prettier if mom coughed up the money to buy her new clothes.

Nonetheless Caroline still look graceful in whichever dress available to her, and since she opened up a little I enjoyed looking at her whenever she walked past me. I was a little sneaky, I glanced at her when I thought she was not paying any attention to me, then glanced away when she started looking at me. I knew that she knew I did this, it bothered her a little as I will discover later on, but she at least understands that I was too embarrass to share with her my feelings.

Throughout the next few weeks Caroline started opening up just a little bit, like a young bud preparing to burst open in the heat of the morning sun. It might have been my imagination but when she looked at me she doesn’t appear hostile anymore, she was obviously not elated but at least I know it didn’t look as though she was ready to punch me.

She was starting to talk, just a little, such as during dinner when she opened her mouth and said in a very brazen manner, “Three bean salad?! But this only contains pinto beans!”

“Actually it’s soybeans; I can’t afford pinto beans,” my mother said in the spirit of an unusually good mood.

I would like to believe that I played a role in opening up Caroline. It would have been a great boost to my ego if I had the ability to help a person to overcome her life of tragedy and become a well-adjusted individual. But probably the shock of her parent’s death was wearing off and she was beginning to acclimate to living with a new family, making her less reclusive and more open. One thing was clear though, she talked more friendly in front of me than any other person she was acquainted with. It might be due to the fact we were both ten-years-old and therefore had an intimate understanding of one another’s thought at this stage of psychological development. Perhaps I was the only one besides Caroline who spent most of my days hanging around in the house (during the day mom was at work and Emily spent her time near Oaks Theater with her friends) and was in contact with her for longer periods of time and able to develop a deeper relationship than with anyone else she knows. But I would like to believe that Caroline was attracted to me because of my magnetic personality and god-like attributes.