by Nan Wheeler
I was shuffling through my nightstand drawer when I came across the two letters. They were dated 8 years apart and represented all that was left of, at best, an always-tentative relationship.
I couldn’t resist removing the papers from their envelopes as I sat on the side of the bed and opened them.
What struck me first was his choice of paper. He always used green steno paper with the red line down the middle, and it was always frayed at the top where it had been ripped from its spiral binding in impatience or haste, as if the pages might never be mailed if he didn’t do it right now.
The second awareness was that he always wrote in pencil, yet never erased. Any error or change of thought was merely struck through and begun anew.
With his usual unconventionality, he could never decide whether to write on the half line (much as a stenographer would have) or to take the entire length to express a thought, so that until you caught the flow, the words seemed not to follow one another but have a mind of their own.
He’d been wickedly funny and self-effacing, once referring to his use of a pencil being connected to not being allowed any sharp objects at “the home“. In life he had reminded me of Johnny Carson in his 30’s. But now he was dead and there would be no more letters.
I had gotten off the plane at Hartsfield International Airport and found my way through the maze of tunnels to the Hertz stand. The drive from Hapeville, through Atlanta and on to Woodstock took a shockingly short amount of time. Vicki (I could never get used to calling her Sue even though she’d changed her name years ago) had given good detailed directions and within 45 minutes I was turning onto the road leading to a set of RR tracks just beyond which, on the right, sat Woodstock Funeral Home.
That was to be my signpost to go over the tracks, hang a left and continue down the road toward the trailer park where Vicki and my 7-year-old niece Kaitlan were waiting for me. There we’d wait for the rest of the family; my brother’s two boys from
his first marriage, Robbie and Billy, and Vicki’s mom. Once we were all accounted for we’d go back up the road together to the funeral home to say goodbye.
That’s how I came to be at this fork in the road.
I could see the big clapboard building from the corner and though it was only two minutes away, I must have asked myself a hundred times if I should stop, or make that left turn that would take me on to Vicki’s.
I turned right and parked in front of the funeral home. There were no other cars but I was surprised to find the door locked. It’s not as though they’d been expecting me, I just assumed that a funeral home was like churches used to be -open all the time.
Looking back I realize how ludicrous the thought was. I’d been to enough funerals to know that funeral homes have viewing hours and in-between the staff need time to prepare for arrivals and departures. Much like trains in a small town they might run daily, but not on the hour.
Contribute my lapse of funeral etiquette to shock. My brother had been dead less than 36 hours. In that brief amount of time I’d received the phone call from his wife telling me he was dead, how he’d died, where she was currently living and directions to get there. I’d been given all the relevant info on how my brother’s body was being returned and what would be its final disposition.
Then I’d been caught up in the details of searching for the lowest airfare and discovering that having a “family emergency” didn’t mean that the airlines were going to be helpful and attempt to make a trying time more manageable but instead were going to insist on extra details and documentation; corroborating ID along with a certified death certificate or a copy of the obit, preferably naming you as next of kin.
Though my brother and I had not spoken in a couple of years, the “whether” or not to go was not an issue. The “how” to get there was a major one. My husband and I were squarely in the middle of a financial meltdown.
He’d been out of the corporate world for some time since our move from California in 1989, when we’d headed to upstate NY where he could commit his time to writing.
We’d both worked off and on but at low paying jobs not designed to keep us in the style we preferred.
Two trips a year to Europe had been common before we moved, now a trip to the grocery store had to be carefully orchestrated to coincide with money on hand and who had possession of the single car in the family.
So, my first thought when Vicki said there’d been an accident was, “I hope they don’t want money ‘cause we just can’t spare any this time”. In the past we’d been fortunate enough to have the means to help them out once or twice.
Asking had never been easy for them and Danny always left it to Vicki to make the call.
I didn’t relish having to tell her that they were probably better off than we.
After hearing what had happened that thought quickly changed to “How the fuck are we gonna pay for this?”
Like I said, there was never a thought of me not going. Some things are not negotiable. Fortunately, we still had credit cards that weren’t maxed out.
We picked the card with the biggest available balance, my husband helped me pick out some clothes to take and we packed up the car, headed for the airport and I was on my way to Vicki’s.
That was the plan. I was following the directions with every intention of going directly to Vicki’s when I came to that curve.
Off to the right I could see the funeral home with the big sign out front and that rental car veered to the right as though pulled by a magnet. I knew what I wanted to do, had to do. I had to see Danny. I had to see him now, and I had to see him alone.
That’s how it happened that I was standing on the porch of the funeral home.
A gentleman who clearly expected no visitors met my door knock. He was wearing a short-sleeved white shirt with an open collar, no tie, and no jacket. I’d forgotten how hot it gets in the south, even in September.
“I’m Nan, from New York.” I said. “I just got into town, I’m Danny’s sister.” I didn’t need to be more specific. Distant relatives on my Daddy’s side had operated that funeral home for
decades. My brother and his family had grown closer to them since their move to Woodstock the previous year.
At first, news of that move had floored me. None of Daddy’s kin had been particularly close or kind to us during our growing up years. You couldn’t really blame them. Although the moonshine business had been a lucrative one for them back during prohibition, long before they got into real estate and chickens and became prosperous, my Daddy was the only one whose fascination with alcohol only intensified after it became legal again.
He’d been a mean drunk, especially to family, given to rancorous late night phone calls or unexpected visits. He became persona non grata to all but one of his 10 siblings.
I think Danny wanted a chance to change their memories. To have them remember Daddy as he did, some fictionalized, tragic but lovable victim.
“Oh, yes, well they‘re not here.” The now visibly perspiring man said, “They’re all coming at 7:00.”
“I know. They’re waiting at Vicki’s, uh, Sue’s house for me, but I’d like to see Danny now.”
“Well, I don’t know”, he replied while looking around as though someone was coming any minute with an answer. “He’s not in a room. They didn’t want one since he’s going to be cremated. He hasn’t even been cleaned up. No one has seen him.”
That last statement was what I’d hoped for. I took it as a sign. No one had seen him. I could still be first.
“Look, I understand what you’re saying and I’m prepared. I just want a minute alone with him. No one will know. I promise. I won’t tell anybody.”
“Well”, he took a long pause here, “OK, but please, don’t tell the rest of the family”.
He took me through a narrow corridor to an even more narrow stairway leading down to a very small room. In it were a loveseat, a chair, one desk and a desk chair. You could have stood in the middle of the room and touched everything in it.
My eyes were immediately drawn to a pair of well-worn cowboy boots on the floor by the desk, then to a wallet with a belt buckle atop it on the desk. They belonged to Danny. It was as though my brother had walked in under his own steam and begun to disrobe in preparation for what lay ahead.
I was still trying to orient myself as I moved a little further into the cramped space, the funeral director just inches in front of me.
Where were we? I knew the viewing rooms were all upstairs and that Danny wouldn’t be in one of those but I thought he would be in one of the preparation rooms.
I’d viewed my mother and mother-in-law in rooms like those in the still too recent past. I was often elected final arbiter of how “natural” the corpses in my family should look before going on; too much blush, she never wore her hair like that, wrong shade of lipstick, etc.
But we seemed to be nowhere I could identify until I noticed a door to the left of the loveseat.
The director opened it onto a narrow hallway and there, in an open corrugated cardboard box balanced atop three metal folding chairs, lay what had been my only brother.
He was still wearing his trademark jeans, white sox, and plaid shirt.
There were a few cuts and bruises on his face and part of his hair was matted with blood. I remember being shocked at his mustache.
We hadn’t seen each other in eight years and I had never seen him with a mustache. I was also shocked at how gray he’d gone. I suppose I always thought of him the way he looked when he got out of the Marines in the ‘60’s. Tall, lean, good looking, the whole world his oyster.
Now all I could think was “What killed him?” he looked like he’d just been in a minor fistfight.
I knew, of course, the gruesome and somewhat heroic details – he’d been driving an 18-wheeler on a long haul in Tennessee. Some elderly couple had pulled in front of him. He too quickly changed lanes to avoid hitting them, the momentum carrying his rig over the divider and onto its side where he lay still alive, probably staring at the Toyota that hit him head on.
He remained alive at the scene but died shortly after at the hospital from internal injuries.
I asked the director to leave me alone for a few minutes.
I looked at Danny as though I were memorizing him, staring too long at the dingy toes of his white sox, the wrinkles in his shirt, wondering why they’d bothered to remove his boots and belt buckle, then remembering he had sons and boys would want those kinds of things as reminders.
I was taken aback at how fresh he looked. Later I would chalk that up to lack of embalming fluid and whatever else they use to make the dead look so dead.
I wanted to talk to him. I wanted the past to be different, because now it was irretrievable. As long as he’d been alive there’d been the hope we could do re-writes, his letters hinting at a past I didn’t remember but wanted to. It was a past where we were close and he loved me and I knew it. It was like the past he concocted for my father, a replacement for the unbearable truth.
I touched Danny’s hair and kissed his forehead. I had never experienced such a sense of aloneness.
I had buried my father when I was 21, my mother when I was 37, and now my only sibling was dead and I was only 45.
We had never been a close family, but the extent of our dysfunction had kept all of them with me daily. Through all of my traumas, therapists, and suicide attempts they had been silent, invisible watchers.
And then there were none. No chance at reconciliation, no chance at forgiveness, no more hopes of fixing it.
As I left the funeral home and drove on to my sister-in-law’s home, a song came on the radio that was a big country music hit at the time. It was sung by Lori Morgan and said something like “If you’ve watched, as the heart of a child breaks in two, then you’ve seen a picture of me without you.”
For some reason it seemed to express exactly how I felt and I began to sob.
I stayed in Atlanta for three days and every time I got into my car that song would come on and I would bawl like a baby – a baby sister who just lost the big brother she never had and never would have.