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  My friends and I met before the wake at The Expansion to have a drink -- to nod at his empty place behind the bar and calm our insides a bit before the occasion. We were all very somber with our first, quiet, reverential sips as we made our toast to Cliff. In fact, we were all a little ill at ease with each other, in spite of the fact that we had known each other in our debauchery in a multitude of humiliating and ecstatic ways for years. We knew how to be uproariously joyous -- while drunk -- around each other. We could be over-the-top irrational and verbally abusive in public -- while drunk -- around each other. We could be quiet and darkly moody -- while drunk -- around each other. We could be sober -- but about to be drunk -- around each other. I don't think that after all these years we could share this collective sense of sadness and fear without the glue of liquor to bind us together.

After awhile we left the bar together and walked up the street toward the mortuary, which was just one block away. My feet were heavy and my breath uneven as we got closer. I just stared straight ahead, trying not to think. Just to get there. I walked up the two stone stairs to the open door, where we were greeted by what had to be a cartoon character. I don't want to be unfair by surmising just what kind of person you have to be to open up your own funeral parlor, but I can't help it. No matter how nonjudgmental I try to be, I can't, I can't imagine that it could be pretty little Tiffany the cheerleader, or Joe Shmoe next door who talks about chicks and six-packs. This man was the poster boy for morticians. The perfect stereotype. He was gaunt, his face drawn and withered, his greeting low and quiet and strangely disagreeable.

I stepped into the lobby and took a few seconds to get my bearings and take a few deep breaths. Far off, through the double oak doors, down the red carpet, passed all the pews, perfectly centered in front of the cross, was the shiny, enameled casket. With the cover open. My eyes just glossed over this, trying to suppress the visual information in my head, but it was too late. My stomach lurched and my ears buzzed nauseously, usually a precursor to a big, embarrassing public faint. Something I have been know to do on occasion when I'm feeling claustrophobic. I snapped myself on the wrist and walked over to the guest book where I hovered territorially for several minutes, deeply engrossed in the two signatures on this particular open page. I read them over and over until they became a mantra in my head. Finally, my friend touched my elbow and motioned for me to join them.

A woman was sitting on a bench near the doorway to the chapel and she nodded and smiled at me. I don't know why, but I was a little rude to her. I had never seen her before and for a moment I felt possessive of Cliff, like, who was she smiling and nodding at me in my grief as if I could spare a moment to acknowledge a complete stranger? I don't remember walking -- it seems like I was floating, like I was being gently pulled toward the casket, arm in arm with my friend, until we reached his grieving wife who I hugged tightly and offered my deepest, most sincere condolences. Betty cried and talked about her disbelief and her pain. My eyes filled with tears for her. This was so terrible. So awful. I didn't look into the casket. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, but I couldn't look yet.

Between Betty and the casket was a picture of Cliff. A picture of an alive, smiling Cliff. I looked at him in that picture and in my mind said what I wanted to say to him, which was "thank you".

And then I turned to his body. For a second, it took my breath away. It was a shock. It bore almost no resemblance to the man in the picture, to the man in my mind. And then my shock disappeared and I felt almost relaxed. I stood over him and examined his closed eyes, his rouged cheeks and lips, his powdered, taut face that had obviously been manipulated in some way to appear pleasant. I was transfixed. I couldn't stop staring and I knew I was behaving like a rubber-necker at a bad accident, but I couldn't tear myself away just yet. I was pulled out of my reverie when I heard someone say, "He looks good." I turned around to see who had said that but she was walking away. My time staring at the shell that was in the casket was over. Looking at him some more was no longer an option without calling some embarrassing attention to myself. I went over to a pew and sat down.

Again, someone said, "He looks good." The third time someone spoke those words I almost lost it, but I couldn't say anything. But to myself I wondered loudly, What do you mean he looks good?! He does not look good. He looks dead! He looks good and dead!

How could they be saying this? Had they not looked in the same box that I had? So I learned something new. This is what people say at funerals. They really do. It's not just a script in a movie. People really do say that at funerals.

I looked up when a soft-spoken, friendly voice, said to me: "Thank you so much for coming to my father's viewing. It means so much to us to see that he had so many friends. Now, what is your name and how do you know my father?"

My eyes met the eyes of the young woman who was addressing me. The same, soft, sincere eyes that Cliff had. It was the woman whom I had snubbed sitting on the bench outside the door. The stranger at the wake of the friend for whom I grieved.

I didn't know he had children. I had never thought to ask.

ęCopyright 1999 by Leslie Edwards

 
 
About Leslie Edwards

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The Glass and the Bottle (1912) by Pablo Picasso
 
 

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On Leslie Edwards

Leslie was the first writer I knew who publicly, unashamedly called herself a writer, no matter what she was doing to make a living. I met her in Atlanta when she came to substitute teach an aerobics class I was taking at my apartment complex. She was a good teacher, but I realized she was different from the other aerobics instructors when she started making these witty side remarks under her breath. She made them to herself, I suppose, because she figured no one else would get the joke. She laughed and I laughed and that day we became friends

Leslie has sent me pieces of her writing over the years. In the last year, though, she seems to have hit her stride, writing a series of first-person pieces, of which A Wake is one. Others were published on the op-ed pages of the San Francisco Chronicle.

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