COPYRIGHT Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder. All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.
The funeral-home director was the same guy who'd handled Mom's arrangements. He was a warm, amiable guy with hair a few shades too black and a large bristling mustache. His name was Frank—"just like your dad," he pointed out. He showed me into the funeral parlor, which looked like an underfurnished suburban house with oriental rugs and dark furniture, a couple of rooms off a central hallway. His office was small and dark, with a few old-fashioned steel file cabinets and some framed copies of paintings of boats and landscapes. There was nothing phony about the guy; he really seemed to connect with me. Frank talked a little about when his father died, six years ago, and how hard it was. He offered me a box of Kleenex, but I didn't need it. He took notes for the newspaper announcement—I wondered silently who would read it, who would really care—and we came up with the wording. I struggled to remember the name of Dad's older sister, who was dead, even the names of his parents, who I think I'd seen less than ten times in my life and just called "Grandma" and "Grandpa." Dad had had a strained relationship with his parents, so we barely saw them at all. I was a little fuzzy on Dad's long and complicated employment history, and I may have left out a school where he'd worked, but I got the important ones.
Frank asked about Dad's military record, and I only remembered that he'd done basic training in some army base and never went off anywhere to fight and he hated the army with a passion. He asked whether I wanted to have a flag on his coffin, which Dad was entitled to, as a veteran, but I said no, Dad wouldn't have wanted a flag on top of his coffin. He would have railed against it, would have said something like, "The fuck you think I am, John F. Kennedy lying in fucking state?" He asked whether I wanted to have the army play "Taps," which Dad was also entitled to, and he explained that these days there wasn't actually a bugler, they usually played a tape recording at the graveside. I said no, Dad wouldn't have wanted "Taps" either. I told him I wanted the funeral and everything as soon as he could possibly arrange it. I wanted to get it all over with.
Frank called the Catholic church where we had Mom's funeral and scheduled a funeral mass for two days off. There were no out-of-town relatives, as far as I knew; the only survivors were a couple of cousins and an aunt he never saw. There were a couple of guys who I guess could be considered friends of his, even though they hadn't talked for years; they all lived locally. He asked whether Dad had a suit I wanted him to be buried in. I said I thought he might, I'd check.
Then Frank took me downstairs to a suite of rooms where they had caskets on display. They all looked big and garish, just the sort of thing Dad would have made fun of. I remember him ranting once, around the time of Mom's death, about the funeral industry and how it was all a monumental rip-off, how they charged you ridiculously inflated prices for coffins that just got buried anyway, so what was the point, and how he'd heard they usually replaced the expensive coffins with cheap pine ones when you weren't looking. I knew that wasn't true—I'd seen Mom's coffin lowered into the ground with the dirt shoveled over it, and I didn't think any kind of scam was possible unless they came in the middle of the night and dug it up, which I doubted.
Because of this suspicion—that was his excuse, anyway—Dad had picked out one of the cheapest caskets for Mom, cheap pine stained to look like mahogany. "Believe me," he'd said to me in the funeral home when Mom died, when I was a slobbering mess, "your mother didn't believe in wasting money."
But I wasn't going to do that to him, even though he was dead and wouldn't know any different. I drove a Porsche, I lived in a huge apartment in Harbor Suites, and I could afford to buy a nice coffin for my father. With the money I was making from the job he kept ranting about. I picked out an elegant-looking mahogany one that had something called a "memory safe" in it, a drawer where you were supposed to put stuff that belonged to the deceased.
A couple of hours later I drove home and crawled into my never-made bed and fell asleep. Later in the day I drove over to Dad's apartment and went through his closet, which I could tell hadn't been opened in a long time, and found a cheap-looking blue suit, which I'd never seen him wear. There was a stripe of dust on each shoulder. I found a dress shirt, but couldn't find a tie—I don't think he ever wore a tie—so I decided to use one of mine. I looked around the apartment for things I thought he'd want to be buried with. A pack of cigarettes, maybe.
I'd been afraid that going to the apartment would be hard, that I'd start crying again. But it just made me deeply sad to see what little the old guy had left behind—the faint cigarette stink, the wheelchair, the breathing tube, the Barcalounger. After an excruciating half hour of looking through his belongings I gave up and decided that I wouldn't put anything in the "memory safe." Leave it symbolically empty, why not?
When I got back home I picked out one of my least favorite ties, a blue-and-white rep one that looked somber enough and I didn't mind losing. I didn't feel like driving back to the funeral home, so I brought it down to the concierge desk and asked to have it delivered.
The next day was the wake. I arrived at the funeral home about twenty minutes before it was to begin. The place was air-conditioned to almost frigid, and it smelled like air freshener. Frank asked if I wanted to "pay my respects" to Dad in private, and I said sure. He gestured toward one of the rooms off the central hall. When I entered the room and saw the open coffin I felt an electric jolt. Dad was lying there in the cheap blue suit and my striped blue tie, his hands crossed on his chest. I felt a swelling in my throat, but it subsided quickly, and I wasn't moved to cry, which was strange. I just felt hollow.