I came up from the basement at Vesterhoff’s and noticed in the biggest of the viewing rooms everyone was on the floor, on their stomachs, no less, and with their arms extended forward. There’s not a sound. The bier and the flowers under the lights and here’s this worship going on. What religion was this? All the years I’ve been working for funeral parlors and I’d never seen anything like it. The next day I ran into Vesterhoff and he told me I’d walked past an armed robbery.
I was telling this to the great-uncle of the girl who just married my son. Once the reception started, he came over to talk to me. He told me he’d never met a freelance embalmer before. “There you are,” I said, “a profession of excitement and danger.”
I retain some Norwegian accent even after living in America all these years and the next thing the man says is how much he’d like a Viking funeral. I hear this sort of thing a lot. The body on a boat and the boat, on fire, sent off toward the horizon. He said, “But I’m sure it’s not allowed. Everything is restricted now.”
“Of course you can do it,” I told him. “Almost anything is possible to arrange. You’d want to plan ahead, though. Maybe even have the boat and a gallon of pitch ready. And a large brush to get the pitch all over yourself. Hire someone who’d be able to shoot a flaming arrow into the boat as it takes off with you. Don’t leave all that to your family. It could turn your funeral into a scavenger hunt.”
Now he suspects I’m having him on. He turns and moves toward my wife on the other side of the table. I’d put him past ninety. One of Dad’s pending customers, as my children would call him. Old as he is, the dream of a Viking funeral doesn’t appear to be something he considers imminent.
It’s a big wedding, our youngest son, Dan, and Carmen. They say a man always marries his mother. My own mother died when I was young and I retain only a slight memory of her, but I believe there’s some truth to this. You might think Carmen, who’s short and dark, couldn’t be less like Laura who is very tall and ginger-haired, but they’re both in the travel business and Carmen tells the same kind of long involved stories that Laura does. My wife is the Tolstoy of anecdotists.
Dan, in the meantime, looks and sounds like my father. His voice can unnerve me over the phone or if I’m hearing him from a different room.
My father’s voice—soft and full of hesitations—was not a lecturer’s voice, though lecture is what comes to mind when I recall him. He had a tendency to instruct. He studied Norwegian history, pre-history in fact, the first peoples after the ice age. He had been preparing for museum work when the Nazis invaded Norway during World War II. Everything, pleasure and complaint, changed to become something it wasn’t or disappeared. His city was bombed. He ended up with my mother’s family. They owned a small farm way out in the country. It’s where I was born. When Laura later described it, she used the word picturesque. This was kindness.
My father wasn’t made for farming. He was a perfectionist. “Nature needs to be messy,” he’d tell me. Of the work we did, the messiest seemed to be when we’d be up all night helping the cows giving birth in spring. I say spring with levity. The weather could be terrible. For their survival the newborns were kept in the dark barn where they stayed dry and out of the wind. When it was truly summer my father waited until my sister and I could join him before he’d say, “Tid,” the word for “Time.” Then we’d open the door and, one by one, these young animals walked out into sunlight, first with shyness, and then, to our delight, they’d begin leaping and gamboling and spinning, very joyful at the shock of seeing the world. The tone of his voice when he said “Tid” was the closest I’ve come to religion.
His lost chance at working in a museum stayed on his mind. I can’t remember a time he wasn’t telling me about the very first of us, a time so far back I couldn’t imagine it. The ice covering the country had receded, revealing land. People came up from the south.
“In boats?” I’d ask.
“Boats that they’d made by hand. They watched the ice unlock the sea. They finished their boats and set sail. Days in a world of dark water. Finally, they see some green ahead. The boat thumps and onto shore. You can imagine the first footprint. Then another.”
“What did they say?”
“Ha ha. HA HA HA.”
“Does that mean hello?”
“It means ha HA! Why would they say hello? There was nobody there.”
He’d describe stone tools. He’d ask me what I thought those people used for shelter. I should someday have the museum apprenticeship he’d missed. But there was none to be had. I recall him at the table, helping me write letters, telling me we’d find something. A position that would support me. One particular afternoon, when word came that another possibility had failed, he lost his temper and went out into the late sunlight hollering at the sky.
When he finally prevailed on some friend of a neighbor’s relative—in Malmö, Sweden, yet—to bring me on, it was in the funeral business and we both had a good laugh at that. “There’s a living in death?” “How much of a living should the dead give?”
But the man to whom I was apprenticed disliked Norwegians. Or he simply disliked me. It seemed he wanted someone who appreciated his practical jokes. He saw himself as a kind of character, a celebrity even in his tiny corner of the world.
But I was painfully homesick. And in a form of homesickness I experienced my late mother’s voice returning vividly to my memory. It was as though she were speaking at my ear—her high, phlegmy voice, full of music. Cholly? Almost three syllables to say Charlie. As though she were again calling me to her. Cholly? The first time I heard her in my head like that I had to sit down.
Not long into my apprenticeship—I was reading instructions for how to calculate the solution to the size and weight of the body—I felt a sharp sudden pain at the back of my head. The man had struck me. I told him not to do that. I was very careful when I said this because I couldn’t lose this position; at the very least my father would be devastated. My instinct was to hit back, but a further instinct believed this was what he wanted, a reason to toss me out. I wouldn’t give that to him. But I was afraid if I said nothing he might begin doing worse. He complained that I was morbid, and this was a burden to him. “I have enough dead people as it is,” he said to me. “You look too serious.” He was obligated by contract to teach me. Beyond that he wouldn’t talk to me.
The strange thing was that I was capable of being very light-hearted. But I could hardly then begin showing that side of me. And he was no one whose company I could enjoy. So I became increasingly depressed which only supported the man’s opinion of me. Being myself around him was impossible. In addition to being hit, I felt as though I didn’t quite exist. I couldn’t say which sensation was worse.
For relief I would head out every single night to the bar and a table with friends. I was there when a tall pretty girl walked in. My friends hailed her to join us. She was on vacation, she told us, checking out the planet. This was Laura. Lawwa. From New Yawk. We teased her about her accent. This allowed us to hide our reaction to her body. I moved as close to her as I could, but the competition for her had already begun.
She came back the following night. Touring around like a nut, she told us, and I’m dying for a good beer. A good beeya.
Everything seemed to happen to her. Joining us in the evening she’d have encountered something earlier that we were not going to believe. Her world was full of people who told her the most amazing things. Wait’ll you hear. These same people we would have passed on the street earlier without noticing them. I don’t believe she ever finished a glass before taking off again and leaving us to miss her. We were all in love with her.
* * *
The bride’s great-uncle isn’t able to talk with Laura because of the two grandchildren crawling over her shoulders and head. When he finds himself the sudden interest of a jelly splotched two-year old and just misses a sticky hand, he nods a farewell and dodders over to where he’d been aiming himself all along. Annette, our second child. He’s introducing himself to her like some swain, some young stud. Good God. At his age.
Annette is more than a match for him, diplomatically speaking. She works in public relations. She has sent worse cases on their way with a look of contentment. It’s the same thing you do, Daddy, only mine are breathing.
But to see him up on his toes and fairly blushing. Not about to go gently is he. And not much time left before he lands on a cold metal table. I imagine him, as I did almost daily my apprentice instructor. I would be wearing my gown and face protector, the apron, gloves—haute hazmat. I’d cut near the collarbone and find his carotid and the internal jugular, nip in and connect the machine to each. Scrub him down hard to send the solution through him. It is astonishing how fresh and rejuvenated the skin looks with the infiltration of embalming fluid.
There, Annette has talked him around to face in the other direction and he’s looking for his wife and his empty chair. Now I realize Charlie, our eldest, standing with his glass raised, a microphone in the other hand, has managed to alert the room to the little scene. Everyone’s watching the great-uncle make his way over to his table as though he’s still a young man, vital. I find I like him.
Charlie’s voice comes over the amplifiers. You would call his personality eerily calm. He works with a science foundation studying deep-space. They consider what the earth will be like a million years from now. “Everything we take for granted will be completely different.”
“The only thing you’ll recognize is the sound of laughing.”
* * *
During my apprenticeship one of the friends I’d made, who’d just finished medical training, took me to view an autopsy. He was at a hospital not far from me, instructing students, and enabled me to join the group. That afternoon I was given more than just the slight window my work gives me into a human body. I’d studied anatomy and I’d seen charts depicting the human interior, but nothing came close to this. The entire torso was opened wide.
Describing it to Laura I compared it to pictures from a reef where the colors and shapes below the ocean were a great surprise. Or the shock of seeing photographs from outer space, which I hadn’t realized would have colors. I just hadn’t considered what was really there. The skin is something of a liar. Inside, everything is very bright, jewel-like, the gall-bladder of all things. My medical friend was aware of what I was going through with the apprenticeship.
I told Laura this back when she had again joined us one evening. I wanted something to happen. She was sitting across from me. I waited until she’d finished describing the amazing occurrence she’d experienced earlier—crossing the street for this woman was epic. Anyway, I told her I had been to the hospital that day. She looked stricken. “Not as a patient,” I’d said and told her the reason I’d been there. I described the colors, the brightness inside the body.
She leaned forward, studying my face. It was that moment that I believed I had a chance with her. She was taking that measure that women do, that millisecond in the eye, the calculation. “Hold on,” she said. “Wait. To cheer you up he took you to an autopsy?”
I’ve heard her retell this story. Most of what she remembered I hadn’t noticed that night. She included descriptions of my friends around the table and I had never before realized how peculiar each was.
Anyway, that was the beginning. A very long time ago. A small wedding in Malmö. Then the children came. I see myself for many years half-dressed and running toward anyone crying. It didn’t seem that either of us had time to think. Then they left. When the first grandchild was born Laura told me we were back in business. I will be dead in one year, though I was told months, six, possibly seven. The same thing that took my father.
My sister is sitting near Laura and doing a stoic, sympathy kind of thing with her clenched jaw and I wish she and my silent brother-in-law were less grim. Just as well. At their best they’re a complaining, suffering pair, always with a remark to belittle. I’m surprised they showed up.
“They’re only here to see if I’ve become some sort of wreck,” I told Laura when we were getting dressed. “So they can wallow in it. So they can say, ‘Oh. He’s become a shadow of himself.’ It’s the only way they’ll ever like me. They hope I’m miserable.”
I have made no plans for a Viking funeral. I’ve made no plans at all. I will be distracting myself up to the very end of it. My father was like that. After I was finished with my apprenticeship and had a job—a good one with good people—I went home during a February when he was at the very end. He told me his intentions for the garden that summer while we both understood he had only a few days left. He gave detailed and specific plans for the peas, “Erter,” as he would have called them. The tomatoes he wouldn’t plant in the same place as they take too much from the soil. He was deciding where he’d put them.
I think his voice held the reason for the phenomenon that I experienced later that night. When I went up to bed, I was struck by how safe I felt in my father’s house. Here I was a young man, tall and fairly strong, while my father could hardly move, could hardly breathe, yet I was certain that whatever trouble came through the door, however frightening, it would be my father rising up and protecting me.
I wonder if our children, when they’re home, which they are often enough, do they enjoy the same delusion. Do they share the sense of safety that I took from my father until his last breath when I became a reliquary of his voice, everything I heard him say, from “Ha ha” up to and including how best to stake the peas and where to plant the tomatoes.