g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
Alex is dead. I was trying to feel bad about it, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t like I came to see him so I could point into the casket and say, “ha, see what happens when you’re mean at eleven-years-old.” But I kept remembering all the rotten things he did when we were kids. Like the time he grabbed my favorite Hulk comic and held a cigarette lighter to the corner of it. It was a good one, too. Hulk versus Diablo and Taboo, two giant rock masters of molecular density. Hulk triumphs of course, just as he does when the foolish army guys try to take him down, “Hulk smash puny humans.” I guess that’s how I felt about Alex. He was kind of a puny human.
We grew up on the same block and there weren’t many other kids around, so we played together a lot, kind of like when you’re forced to play with your sister because you live in the same house. I have to admit though, Alex was funny, quick mind and good at imitating people. Once he spent a whole week being John Wayne. Everything he said came out in a big old western drawl, but as was typical of him, he carried it so far that you hated his guts by the end of it. It was like he was some kind of alien run litmus test sent to earth to see how much nonsense these puny humans could take.
Alex was the same age as me when he died, twenty-eight. He was working a carnival somewhere in Ohio and rumor had it he died in a Tilt-A-Whirl accident. I hadn’t seen him since my junior year in college, the last time I was home for the summer. My father told me when I walked in the front door. “Holy shit,” I said, standing on the rust colored carpet outside my old bedroom.
My father left the room the way it was even though I didn’t visit much, three times a year maybe, counting Christmas. I looked at the walls around me, a Rolling Stones poster, a picture of Elvis Presley from one of the movies, Viva Las Vegas I think.
The bookshelf behind my bed was still full of old Sports Illustrated magazines and comic books. I flipped through them until I found it, the corner burned brown and crusted under the plastic cover, Hulk posed in a follow through from an upper cut. “He’s really dead,” I said to myself, at the same time thinking he was too much of a pain in the ass to die.
I opened the closet and there was a red tie and a white shirt hanging next to a blue blazer in a plastic bag from the cleaners.
My father was sitting in front of the television laughing out loud when I walked downstairs. I stood behind him tightening my tie. He dipped a hand into a bowl of corn chips. I recognized “I Love Lucy” on the screen, the one where she stuffs all the candy in her mouth from the conveyer belt. I didn’t interrupt him to say I’d see him later, he was having too much fun.
I walked from the house to the funeral home, four blocks of World War II ranch houses like my own, some with additions that morphed them into “L” shaped footprints, others with swimming pools hidden behind high wooden fences. A few still had carports from the sixties, and one or two ambitious folks had added second stories and attached garages. There was a sameness to it that bugged me and made me glad I had moved away.
I walked past the schoolyard and the baseball diamond, where Alex put a firecracker in my back pocket one Fourth of July, and past Glendales Market, still open for business with their home-made chicken pies and their own versions of T.V. dinners. I was thinking who I might see at the wake, Alex’s sister, maybe Buddy Louis, who played with us sometimes. He was tall for his age, had thick glasses and always wet his pants when you pig-piled him. Then I remembered he moved to San Diego in high school, sent us picture a year later with a big Mexican Sombrero on his head.
There were only a few cars in the funeral home parking lot and the name on the white plastic sign had changed from Bruno’s to Bruno and Sons. I hadn’t been inside since my Uncle Cecil died of pneumonia when I was sixteen. I remember there were a lot of people talking and smoking cigarettes and my mother and father had a fight in the parking lot after, one of the last ones before they split up.
Bruno’s had the same brown printed wallpaper and tan rugs and it still smelled like flowers. There was a long corridor that led to the sitting room. As I got close I saw Alex’s sister standing alone in front of the casket and an elderly couple sitting in an otherwise empty row of folding chairs. They were having a loud conversation.
“No, no,” the old woman said, “he was riding in it or standing up in it or something, and he got stuck between the tilts.”
“The tits?” the man asked.
I walked over and Alex’s sister shook my hand. She was heavier than I remembered or maybe it was her full breasts and the tight black dress she was wearing.
“Thanks for coming,” she said. “You guys were buddies.”
“He was a good guy,” I lied. What I really wanted to say was, “who do you think is deader, Alex or Elvis Presley?” I pictured us having a philosophical conversation about it. “You know I wonder,” she might say, “are they all the same amount of dead, like once you cross over the time you’ve been gone is inconsequential?”
“He’s at peace,” she said, “his life was so...” Her eyes rolled to the ceiling, searching for a word that wasn’t going to sound like insane.
“Troubled,” she said. Troubled was the kindest thing I ever heard her say about him. The last time I saw them together she was screaming and pointing a finger two inches from his face yelling,“you freak!”
She excused herself and I took a turn at the casket thinking I might as well get this over with. I knelt and mouthed the first few lines of a Hail Mary just in case, then I reached in and touched Alex’s arm with my finger. I really wanted to stick a pin in it like I’d seen in a gangster movie but I just pressed slightly as if I was poking something made from a taxidermist.
Then someone said, “Hey.”
I glanced over my shoulder.
Then again, “Hey. Down here.”
Now I always considered myself to be a reasonable person, did okay in college, maybe drank too much a time or two, smoked a little weed on occasion, but pretty much a grounded individual. If you knew me, you’d say I was level headed, I think. I never claimed to have seen a ghost, never knew anyone else who said they had, but at that moment, when I looked down into the casket, there was Alex, eyes open, lips parted, the makeup caked and cracked at the edges of his mouth. I could feel my face get flush and my heart beat faster.
“Nice to see you,” he said. “Though I expected you a little earlier.”
I looked behind me and Alex’s sister was chatting with the elderly couple.
I turned back and whispered. “Alex?” Of course it was Alex, who else would it be. My throat felt tight and I couldn’t catch my breath.
“Oh, and just to let you know,” he said. “Elvis isn’t here.”
“The question you wanted to ask my sister, who is deader? Me or Elvis? He actually hasn’t crossed over yet.”
The sense of panic seemed to vanish from me. “He lives,” I said.
“That’s what they told me. They’re very thorough. They would know.”
I looked back and forth to the room again, then asked, “Do you know everything I was thinking?”
“It’s one of the perks,” he said.
“Then you know I thought you were a pain in the ass and a chronic liar and a cheap bastard.”
“I had to be. You’ll see.”
“When?” I asked, thinking this was all some kind of morbid sign.
“When will I see?”
“Sorry,” he answered with a smile, “that’s classified.”
“If you’re dead,” I asked, “how come you’re able to talk to me?”
“There’s a slight window, a courtesy visit. So you can see who comes to the wake and shit.”
“Then you get to hang out with the Old Man before you get recycled. He’s got a big cool house.”
“Are you alright?” Alex’s sister tapped me on the shoulder. There was a line of ten or twelve people waiting to kneel in front of the casket. The elderly man leaned forward. “We don’t have all day you know.”
My finger was still pressed into Alex’s arm. It left a mark, like pressing into a bag of sand. I tried to squeeze the imprint on both sides, hoping to smooth it out but it just seemed to move it around.
Alex’s sister took my arm out of the casket and led me over to a chair. “We know how much you’ll miss him,” she said. “We all will.”
No. I wanted to tell her. “Yes,” I said, thinking that even now Alex had something on me, even in death he was carrying on with his know it all behavior. Did he really know Elvis wasn’t dead? I could never believe him.
“Come on,” she said, “I’ll walk you out.”
She held my arm all the way to the back parking lot whispering soothing little things like “now now” or “it’s okay.” She stopped beside a blue Volkswagen Bug and opened the door. “Sit for a minute,” she said.
She slid over from the driver’s side close to me. “Do you remember the time you two dressed up like Ninja Turtles for Halloween?”
“I remember,” I said, “Alex got to be Donatello.”
“You guys did that martial arts thing and broke my mother’s planter. Talk about pissed.”
She opened the glove box and pulled out a joint rolled in yellow paper. “I think we could both use a break,” she said.
“Where is your mother?” I asked.
“She went a little nuts after Alex joined the Carnie. She’s in a home, sits all day watching reruns.”
The space grew instantly smaller between us as we passed the weed. “Really,” I said, thinking of my father back home.
After a few more passes, she put her head on my shoulder.
“It was really nice of you to come,” she said, and I felt her hand on my thigh. “Alex would have wanted me to comfort you.”
I shifted in my seat and rolled down the window to get some air and my gaze wandered to the parking lot. There was Alex standing against a U-haul van playing with a yo-yo. “Get ready,” he said, “she can suck a tennis ball through twelve feet of garden hose.”
“That’s your sister, Alex!” I yelled.
“You okay?” she said.
“Poor baby.” She smiled sadly.
I jumped from the car. “This is way too weird.”
“Call me,” she yelled, as I jogged away across the parking lot, “there’s things of Alex’s you might want.”
Twenty minutes later I was standing in front of my father’s house, looking at the peeling red paint along the gutters, the slightly over grown lawn. I couldn’t bring myself to go in. I knew he would have on Sanford and Son or some rerun from Nick at Night and he’d be stuffing his face with a bowl of popcorn. I just couldn’t bear it right now.
I took a seat on the curb and looked down the tree-lined street, a slight breeze moving the leaves and the thin branches. There was nobody out, just the familiar line of houses neatly set in place as far as you could see, the late afternoon shadows falling on the sidewalks.
“I’m looking for the man who shot my paw.” Alex rolled by me on a skateboard, his best John Wayne voice. He was holding his hand up and pointing at it with the other one, “Get it, paw. Shot my paw.” He skidded to a stop, kicked the board up. “You really are broken up aren’t you?”
“Not really, Alex,” I told him.
“Then why did you come at all? Why even show up?”
“It’s what we do. Pay our respects. We need to make good guys out of dead people for some reason.”
“I wasn’t really a bad guy, was I? I mean just a pain in the ass right?”
“Not really my friend, Alex. You were never really nice to me.”
“Ya well that makes two of us.” He looked away, then back. “What about the time I took the blame for the broken planter.”
“You didn’t. You blamed me.”
“Oh...the time I beat up Bobby Stockwell for you?”
“That was for me?”
“If I recall, he stole your bike.”
“But you didn’t like him either.”
“That’s a stretch, Alex.”
He looked at the board in his hands. “Anyway, thanks for coming. I gotto get back, the priest is going to say a few words, wouldn’t want to miss my own eulogy now would I?
He dropped his board to the street. “I’ll see you when I see you, Pard.”
“Is it frightening?”
He stood staring for a few seconds. “Dying?...a little, but when it’s over, you feel like it wasn’t that bad. Some of the ladies here tell me it’s like having a baby.”
“Would I lie to you?”
“You mean I would have.”
“You always did. You lied to me when you told me to jump off Dizzy Bridge, then half way down you stood up.”
“I remember that,” he said, striking a nostalgic pose. “I was sitting on the bottom making like I was swimming. Man you smashed your face good.” He laughed.
“I broke my leg, Alex.”
“There were plenty other times too. Like when you dropped the baseball cards into my bag at Glendales.”
He had a smirk on his face. “I know. I know.”
“That old man kicked me in the ass. Called me a thief. Called the cops, remember? And you just stood on the sidewalk laughing at me.”
“Come on, it was a joke.”
“It was a lie, Alex.”
We both got quiet and he looked away.
“Well then you won’t miss me much will you?” he snapped.
“No, I won’t.”
He started off on the skateboard.
“When?” I yelled.
He stopped. “I told you I can’t tell you that,” he said. “If I break that rule it’s limbo city.”
“Since when did you play by the rules.”
“Since I died.”
I paced on the sidewalk and he rolled closer to me.
“How many rules are there?” I asked.
“Nothing like the commandments,” he said. He rocked on the skateboard. “I could never do this when I was alive. Look at me now, a regular Tony Hawke.” He flipped it and landed it sweet.
“Impressive,” I said.
He rolled even closer. “Why did you come? Was it because somewhere deep inside, for even just a moment or two, we were buddies?”
“I came because you died and I didn’t, Alex. I can’t lie to a dead guy.”
“You came to one up me!”
“Damn that’s cold,” he said, then cupped a hand to his ear. “Shit, he’s ready to close the prayer book.”
He looked hard into my eyes. “Just remember this, a person is a person to another person.”
“You learn that up there?” I pointed to the sky.
“No, some old Charlie Chan Movie. And just for the record, you don’t go up.” He pointed over his head. “You just sort of go.”
He had a foot on the board, working it back and forth.
“Tell me something, Alex,” I said, “does everyone get to come back like this, like you did?”
He hesitated for a moment, almost bashful. “It cost you some time with the Old Man,” he said. “And you have to have a good reason for doing it.”
We stared at each other.
“Call my sister, okay. I got some cool old baseball cards may be worth a few bucks.” He smirked. “And don’t mention it,” he said. “Or you could mention it if you want to tell folks what a swell guy I was giving you an old set of baseball cards.”
“I don’t think so, Alex.”
“Whatever. Later, Dude.” He pushed away on his board, zigzagging down the block beneath the trees, until the darkness swallowed him up and the sound of the wheels faded with the rush of nearby traffic. I stood there thinking, we are who we are because of the people we meet. I’m sure I had heard that somewhere or read it in a book, but I couldn’t remember where.
“You coming in?” my father asked, standing in the doorway with a plastic bowl of junk food, “Hogan’s Heroes is on.” He held the bowl up like an offering with both hands. “I got your favorite,” he said, “pretzel rods.”
I walked up the steps and grabbed one. “Sure, Dad,” I said, and took a bite. On the way in I looked down the empty street one more time thinking that maybe I would call Alex’s sister before I left, see just how cool those baseball cards were.