Spring 2006

 

 

 


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words are all anybody ever says
Thomas Novak

I walked past his lifeless body in its bronze casket and only took a cursory glance at the bloated caricature of my best friend. I gave his mother a hug, and I shook his father’s hand. I took my seat. The weight of this reality nearly suffocated me. Teddy wouldn’t be at my super bowl party, my baby’s first birthday or any of the other things that we had talked about on the phone only a week earlier. Ted’s Dad said some words, and opened up the floor for people to share memories or prayers. If you were an old school Baptist you could say that the spirit moved me, or if you were an armchair psychologist you could say that I was having a reaction to traumatic stress, but what happened next is remarkable considering my distaste for crowds and public speaking. I stood up, and I started frantically recounting the first story about Teddy that had come to my mind.

“Ted and I were on the subway in London. We were headed to see Buckingham Palace. We were standing in the aisle across from a man sitting in a seat bundled up in a filthy tweed trench coat, which seemed strange considering it was July.”

People chuckled uncomfortably.

I continued. “This guy was staring at us for about three stops when he finally said to us in an exaggerated British accent ‘fresh from the colonies ay boys?’”

I felt like a clown, but the spirit was muscling me about.

I continued. “So, Ted and I smiled at him politely and went on with our conversation about the night before. The man in the tweed trench coat got all wound up. He started spitting out random words. ‘I um goin’ to Piccadilly. me mum’s gonna buy me a Coke. four and fifdy quid it ‘tis. rot! rot I say!’ Then he stopped talking and stared at us again. Except now, every so often, he would wink at Ted. We tried to continue our conversation, but every time the guy would wink at Ted both of us would start to laugh. Then things got weird.”

I was self-conscious. I felt more like a jokester at a Friar’s Club Roast than a man eulogizing a good friend, but had I been in control of my actions I never would have stood up at all.

I went on. “Then, at the next stop an old lady with a walker barely made her way onto the train. She took the only open seat, which was next to the man in the tweed trench coat. The man looked at the lady, and something in his eyes changed. He took off his glasses and wiped them on his dirty trench coat. He pulled out a comb from his back pocket and ran it through his greasy hair. Then, he turned to the old lady, and he said. ‘’ello luvley. You’re a pretty thing.’ The man picked up a crumpled newspaper from the train’s floor and threw it at the old lady. He said. ‘I brung ya a paper deary, now how’s about a toss.’ Ted yelled ‘Hey knock it off.’ He moved towards the man and tried to look as mean as he could. The man was sizing Ted up for a fight. After what felt like ten minutes, but probably was only thirty seconds, the man reached around to Ted’s backside and goosed him. Then he stood up and ran to the front of the train laughing hysterically, and knocking people over on his way.”

I sat down searching the room for reactions, but all I saw was Ted’s dad smiling. I felt good that I gave the old man a chuckle at such a dark time.

I had known Teddy ever since I could remember, and I could have said something more eloquent or comforting to the people at the wake, but like I said before I was moved by the spirit, or reacting to trauma or whatever. There is a list of things you say at a funeral like “sorry for your loss,“ or “he was a good man” or any other phrase that has been made meaningless by overuse. People who say them can‘t think of something personal to say. It is like they don’t care or can’t feel. I was not going to insult the memory of Ted by saying something completely meaningless, but I wasn’t sure my caterwaul was any more weighty.

At the end of the wake I stepped outside for a smoke. A lady was standing there waiting for her husband to pull the car around. She was dressed in what I imagined was her uniform for funerals and formal fundraisers, and she must have been fresh from the hairdresser because the smell of Aqua Net lingered about her. She broke the uncomfortable silence.

“I liked your story.” she said.

I thanked her. I took heavy drags off of my cigarette and tried to pretend I was alone.

“I do believe it’s true that he will live on in our memories” The lady went on.

I smiled, snuffed out my cigarette and walked back into the funeral parlor before she could finish. Because of her clothes, hair and her sensitive-sounding-but-not-too-engaging manner of addressing me I presumed she was a champ at etiquette. I was annoyed that she couldn‘t say anything important to me. The truth is she was half right, and half full of crap. Teddy and I were close. So close that parts of who I am are borrowed from him, and parts of him were borrowed from me. So, a part of Teddy lives on in me, and a part of me is going to be buried with Ted. Couldn’t the Aqua Net lady see that now I have no one to share the memory of the man in the trench coat with? Couldn't she see that now I have nobody to drink beer and crack jokes with? Most importantly, couldn't she see that no one was going to know me like Teddy knew me? I wanted to tell the Aqua Net lady were to stick it, but I didn’t want to ruin the occasion.

I walked over to the casket and took one more look at my buddy. There he was dressed in a sweater he never wore while he was living, and with his hair combed in a way that never once combed it--not even for a first date. I looked at his face which had been fashioned into a grin, and I started to get a lump in the back of my throat. I could feel someone standing behind me so I turned around. It was Ted’s dad. I looked into his eyes and I could see his pain. His eyes told me that his heart and his life were laying in that casket.

I have spent my whole life saying words. Words for this, words for that. I saw the look in that old man’s eyes and I couldn't think of any words at all, at least not any good ones. Maybe it was the spirit, or a reaction to stress, but I think what I said was “he was a good man, and I’m going to miss him.” Sometime during this regurgitation of common funeral pleasantries a picture of Teddy’s grinning corpse flashed in my brain, and it hit me like a lightning bolt. Death is not hard for the dead. It is only hard for the living, so hard that nobody can say one thing about it that makes any sense.

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