THE CARDIOLOGIST SAID Max Wody’s heart was hard as iron and that’s what killed him. It shouldn’t surprise you that these words offended his wife and three daughters. Two of the girls—really I should call them women—mentioned this in their eulogies. I always knew he was a good man, but to hear what they had to say about him made me wish I knew him better in these later years when heart disease had actually softened his heart. I wish I’d come to see him last summer when he’d invited me back to our hometown in the Midwest rather than now. I guess nothing but a funeral would have brought me back.
It was odd to meet his children again as adults. It was even stranger seeing people I’d come to know only through photographs, having watched them silently age through the images on Christmas cards. In a strange way, it was like meeting celebrities, especially since they are all so extraordinarily attractive. Of course, the girls didn’t remember me. His wife, Liv, remembered me more from stories than from when we knew each other briefly, practically as kids. She said he’d still laughed about the stories of my drinking. Ordinarily, this would have annoyed me. I don’t like it when people bring up my drinking because it’s not funny to me, and stopping was the hardest thing I ever did, including my divorce, which never would have happened if I’d quit drinking sooner. But at the visitation I let her tell her girls about a particularly embarrassing story that involved me naked, some plastic wrap, and a pool table. It broke the tension, but that’s not important. What is important is how beautiful Liv is. I would have let her get away with anything. Their three daughters are beautiful, too, and so are their granddaughters, particularly the little girl who sang at the funeral. There was something majestic about her that I wish I had the talent to describe to you. I will get to her. From a certain perspective, she could be the most important character in this story.
Since Liv and her three daughters—Ingrid, Monica, and Anna—are going to Hawaii to spread Max’s ashes, it was a Hawaii-themed funeral. Everyone wore Hawaiian shirts and leis were passed out and there was a luau-style party after the funeral, for which the weather ended up being perfect. After the visitation I had to buy a Hawaiian shirt that I never ironed. This ended up being a sort of break for me, because my best suit was tighter than I remembered. I could hardly breathe holding in my gut. I’d put on a lot of weight since I stopped drinking. More than I realized, apparently. I guess I’d been eating a lot to satiate that ravenous thing living inside me, whatever it is.
It was a good funeral, a fitting tribute to a good man. There was an optimistic young priest with long, fashionable hair who seemed, to the point of affectation, concerned with sounding relatable and down to earth. While he was talking I remembered how my ex-wife once told me that Jesus Christ had come to her while she was sleeping, dressed in the flannel and blue jeans of her recently departed father. Now, I’ve read the Bible, and when people tell me things like this and I listen to people talk about the God they’ve shaped, I realize that everyone wants their religion to be way more flexible and customized than I would say there is proof for in the Bible after a critical glance or two into it, especially when I was once looking there for meaning. But I’ve always kept quiet on the subject, because whatever gets people through something like this really can’t be that bad. Truth is a dubious thing, right? And I myself also know a thing or two about self-deception. Well, this priest had his ideas about Jesus Christ and God and how to reach the people. For a schmuck, he was pretty earnest. He played the guitar and sang and mentioned repeatedly what a cool guy Jesus is and how neat it will be to leave these bodies—he called them temporary shells—to meet the man. He might have moved me more with his thoughts on Jesus and Simon and the other three fishermen in the Sea of Galilee if my mind had not been so preoccupied.
It was the little girl singing that got to me. First off, two of the daughters, Ingrid and Monica, spoke, and they did their father justice. They spoke about how he lifted boxes while bringing food to the poor and how he’d grown so gentle and contemplative, even philosophical, in the last years of his life after the first heart attack. Guilt hit me here again that I’d missed out on spending time with this more thoughtful version of my friend. They also talked of him coaching soccer and softball and daddy-daughter date nights and what a wonderful grandfather he was. I didn’t doubt it. Max was taking on new shapes in my mind. Monica wrote her words in the form of a poem about a nightlight he went out to buy her late one night when her other one burned out and she was frightened. She said, “Like that nightlight you plugged in you’ll shine from above, and home’s where I’ll be heading to capture your love.” She cried at the end. Just about everyone was crying with her.
Then the two oldest granddaughters spoke. Lena, who is eight, read from construction paper about how much money he always spent on her and enumerated specifically how much he spent on one particular day, making it sound like he was a miser who recounted to her every penny spent. This made the crowd laugh, and she stopped reading and looked confused, then suddenly pleased that she’d struck a note, however unintended. Finally, there was the real magic. Bibi was given the microphone. She sang “Amazing Grace.”
From where I was sitting near the back, I couldn’t see the child clearly, but I remembered her from the night before, running around with the other children at the visitation. Her voice was almost numinous. As she sang, she became the embodiment of comeliness, as though she represented all things graceful in this world. She was like a little angel, or a manifestation of what I would have wanted my own child to look like if my wife could have had children. In short, she seemed to represent the impossible—things lost or things never to be found. As she sang, my insides did strange things. I melted. I wasn’t thinking of my friend or the unreal voice exploding from this tiny child that shattered my heart. I wasn’t even thinking of myself, at least not consciously. I felt drunk, and I remembered weeping like this at times deep in my worst drunks when I couldn’t remember if I was alive or dead, sleeping or waking, a man or a child. But I wailed, and I hadn’t cried like this since I’d been sober. The woman next to me handed me a tissue, and I appreciated this kind act of communion among strangers brought together by the death of a mutual friend.
I wasn’t planning on going to anything other than the visitation when I’d left for my hometown, but now it no longer seemed possible that I could be there for any other reason than to spend every available second with them. The Wody family—I couldn’t imagine leaving any of them at this point, ever. I was infatuated as I hadn’t been with anything since my youth. All that mattered was Liv and her daughters and her granddaughters. There was also Max—maybe I wasn’t quite so obsessed with him, I don’t know. I did feel kinship with him. And it bothered me that I could have spent so much time with all of them if I’d come to see Max when he was alive, and I wanted to resurrect him, to go back and warn him of his impending death or, more so, to replace him somehow. Yes, I wanted to be Max when he came back. To be embraced with inhuman revelation by his daughters. I wanted to hold them all in my arms. I’d like to become Jesus to them all and die tortured for them so they would love me more than Max.
My heart is a fractured, dreaming entity.
These thoughts were in my head as I drove to the luau, and of course there was the little singer, Bibi. Her voice was reverberating in my head. That preacher should have closed it all with her song rather than his speech about Jesus and the fishermen. I’d missed his metaphor. I can’t remember his point. How vain and vacuous words are next to music.
Since people had stayed in clumps conversing after the funeral, I ended up being one of the first people at the party, and I went down through the finished basement, past two mounted plasma televisions and a classic video arcade game, out to the pool. This was some place these people had, and I was thinking of how no one used to have this much money in this town when I saw the bar to the right of the pool. My guts freefell, plummeting down into my crotch.
Whiskey, rum, vodka, tequila—so help me God, I never wanted a drink so badly in my life. The varicolored bottles, refracting new glory in the sun’s resplendent rays, glowed like some magical elixir that would bring solace to my troubled heart. My equilibrium has always been a tenuous matter, and I had to ask myself with the utmost sincerity if sobriety was still worth it. Maybe there was still a chance for me to be somewhat happy somehow, and it was hard to say which avenue would make me less miserable ultimately. Drunk or sober? This was the crucible of my life once again before me.
When the guy who owned the house asked me what I wanted to drink I said that a Coke would be just fine, and I plowed through Cokes by the fence behind the bar and smoked half a pack before Max’s daughters started showing up. Then I grabbed an open vinyl strapped chair by the pool. Liv arrived and moved through the crowd like the movie star she evoked. Black sunglasses, snug sundress, I followed her with my eyes. What if I moved here and kept an eye on her? Was she planning on eventually moving on with another man? Had she and Max discussed this? Dammit, I could have known such things. Max had been fifty-five, like me. She was fifty-two. She had years left in her life. Men would lust for her. Undoubtedly they already did.
Sitting a few seats from me, someone told her that eating could commence now that she was here and asked if she would like to go get things started at the buffet. I took the opening to jump up and hustle to her. “Liv, can I grab you a plate?”
“Peter, you came!”
“Wouldn’t miss it…for my very soul.”
“That’s so great. And yes, I would like a plate. I am so hungry and it feels great to sit down. So thank you. Just throw anything on it. I’m starving. I haven’t been eating so well, as I’m sure you might guess.”
I was looking around for Bibi while gingerly placing on Liv’s plate ham, pork, fruit kabobs, and what someone called Hawaiian salad, which was marshmallows, Cool Whip, mandarin oranges, and coconut. As I walked it to her after inspecting it for geometrical and aesthetic order, I smiled to see that Monica, now wearing a black bikini, was standing by her mother’s chair talking with her. Liv thanked me, took the plate, and asked her daughter if she remembered meeting me last night.
“Of course I remember Peter,” she said. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mom.”
“Well, I don’t know. There were so many people.”
“Dad used to talk about you a lot, Peter.”
I had noticed on meeting her that Monica had a protruding eyetooth. When I first noticed it, it seemed to detract from the beauty of that facial cradle where it was ensconced, but now, out here in the sun, there was something enticing about it. Something feral. It was like a razor blade resting in silk. They all had dark hair, but hers was as black as that bikini, dyed no doubt. Vestiges of sun-block were streaked lightly on her shoulders. Her skin was very pale, but again what might have seemed a flaw in someone else only added to her gorgeousness.
“You know, you have no idea how much it means to me to hear that,” I said. “Your dad was the greatest man I ever knew. And your poem, by the way…that was about the best, most moving poem I ever heard. And I’m a fairly avid reader and writer sometimes, so I think my opinion might count for something. Are you a poet? I tell you, it touched my heart. He would have been so proud. No, let me correct that, he is so proud. Staring down at you from that better place that Father Thomas spoke of.” What the hell was I saying?
“You’re so sweet!” she alleged and jumped at me with an enthusiastic hug. Her small breasts pushed into my chest, and I could feel the vertebrae beneath my hand. Only a thin layer of milky skin separated me from her white bones, and I thought of her bone marrow—tender and pink—when a cannonballer splashed us. I wanted a drink.
A voice emanated from our side and we looked down at its source. “Momma, throw me in the pool!” It was Monica’s youngest daughter. To be honest, I am confused on some of the kids’ names, but I think hers was Harriet. She was wearing a pink lifejacket.
“Sure, honey,” Monica said, and stepped toward her.
“No, let me do it!” I interrupted. Worried that I sounded a bit odd, overzealous, I continued, “You should get some food, Monica. There is an unbelievable spread over there.”
“Okay,” she said, smiling. “Thanks, Peter.”
We stepped to the pool and I picked up the child. I was sweating and I could feel my heart racing and palpitating and I wanted to swim, because there was something alluring and cool about that blue pool, like some sort of sanctum. But I wouldn’t want anyone here, let alone these lovely women, to see my hairy back and this huge gut as white as a dead fish. I lifted the child high and held on to the moment. I felt like I was about to baptize her. I could smell chlorine and wafts of someone barbecuing nearby. Oh, to be young again. To start all over just one more time. One more chance was all I needed.
“C’mon, mister! Throw me!”
“Call me Uncle Peter,” I said.
“Throw me, Uncle Peter!”
I mumbled only to myself, “Verily, my child, in the name of squandered youth, I baptize thee.”
I dropped her in, and she disappeared beneath a swell of foam. My God, I thought, she’s going to drown. I prepared to jump in after her, but the little lifejacket jerked her back above the water. Catching her breath in a struggle, she blinked the chlorinated water out of her eyes. Then she smiled. “Again!”
I pulled her out and did it again and then again. On the fourth throw, my back was hurting, and I felt her shoulder pop a little as I was pulling her out. She slipped from my fist like a little fish.
And this is where everything fell apart.
“Throw me!” I knew that voice. It was the voice of an angel. I looked down and saw Bibi, mirthful enthusiasm on her face. I hadn’t noticed her swimming, although I had been keeping an eye out for her. She must have slid into the pool while I was speaking with Monica and Liv. I stared at her. Two teeth were missing, and her hair was soaked back to give full view of big eyes, brown as her hair. She squinted against the sun that pelted us sharply from behind me. This kid was bigger than life.
I wanted to talk to her about her singing, but it seemed a strange thing to do, so I grabbed her beneath her armpits, and in a moment of remarkable cosmic serendipity I somehow placed a finger on an artery, for I got a precise feel of her furious heartbeat. I never felt anything like that heartbeat. Do all children’s hearts beat so fast? It was fascinating and yet macabre. I felt lightheaded and thought of her grandfather’s muted heart and felt the mutual guarantee of her and my death, but still I wanted to maintain that hold on her heartbeat. It was like holding a hummingbird cupped in your hands. This sort of magic doesn’t happen every day, and all of this was crashing through my brain as I prepared to throw her. I wanted to feel that heartbeat again and again. When would I ever feel a child’s heart beat against my chest? No one, after all, would ever have a child with me. Yet I had to let her go. If I only could thrill her enough by matching her powerful voice with my own sober strength, maybe she would come back, like Harriet kept coming back, and maybe I would feel the heart throbbing even faster. So I launched her, so hard that she twisted in the air above the pool, a hideous scream stifled by the water that her face smacked into. Halfway across the pool, her feet went under last.
Then there was commotion and crying and I was apologizing, saying she slipped. Everything blurred like I was drunk. I was going to leave. I should have left, should have snuck out against Bibi’s crying, but I felt I still had business here. So I went to the bar. I took a red cup and poured a shot of Coke in there. I took the whiskey and filled the cup to the brim. I turned around. No one was looking at me. I could smell the whiskey like a rabid dog coming for me, and in that very moment I knew as clearly as I’ve ever known anything in my life that sobriety was never worth it. What a fool I’d been to think so. In three profound swallows the whiskey was in my gut, and tears filled my eyes. Holy water. My esophagus burned. On some biological level, there was a panicked confusion on whether to let this thing inside me or reject it.
“Goddamn, that burns,” I said to no one as I dropped some ice into the cup. “Probably should have eaten something.” No Coke this time. No lies.
I sat by the pool next to some woman who’d flown in from Florida. I wasn’t listening to her, and yet I caught that fact, because she said it so many times. She must not have been given the credit she wanted for coming all this way for the funeral. What did I care if the country really was going to shit, as she suggested? I told her it had always been shit. But I wasn’t really listening to her inanities. Because I was feeling real magic again. The magic I’d missed and had been looking for since in empty magicians’ hats. That feeling when your blood warms and your mind cools. You can actually feel your blood heat up as the alcohol hits it and your grateful heart, suddenly primed, spurts it throughout your body, up into your brain, all the way to your toes and your fingertips. Someone should feel my heart beating now. It is faster than Bibi’s. Is it any wonder people drink? The only wonder is that there are people who don’t. There just can’t be any other drug this good, but I guess this must be what they say heroin feels like when it first hits you. Maybe I’ll try it too someday. Since it’s all over now. No turning back.
I am drunk now.
“Bibi, do you want your Uncle Peter to throw you in again?”
“Go to hell! And you’re not my uncle!”
I have to laugh at this in spite of it all.
Things are already breaking from a flow of memory to fragments of memory. I will try to put this back together when I sober up. If I sober up. I drink to remember what I want and to forget what I want. It’s a bargain with myself. And if I do sober up and start to remember what new bad memory I’ve made in experimenting with these potions on my memory, I’ll pour more booze on these memories and it will work more miracles. I won’t even be afraid to die. I may, in fact, even want to die. It’s the only way for me to stay alive. I can even forget this day, as I’ve managed to forget whatever it was my wife said about my dismal, wasted life.
In and out of the bathroom, I drink all the whiskey and it’s on to vodka. I have the bottle in my hand and drink straight from it. This shit tastes like antiseptic, which, let’s face it, is what it really is. A cleansing on these burns. I am trying to tell Liv something. I want her to know I’ve shed tears for her husband, and I am so drunk I cry now to her too. What am I saying? Something about how I feel the world moving on relentlessly without Max. I say, look at all these people here. Look at all this life. What business do I have to say this? I need to clarify. That must have sounded cruel. I am trying to tell her I know how sad she is, because I’ve lost my wife. She says, yes, but your wife is still alive. She smiles indecipherably. She is humoring me, trying to be nice, and I want her, so I drink some more. I can’t think of what I’ve said now, but I can tell she is no longer merely annoyed by me but alienated. Disturbed. I tell her Max is in heaven with Jesus. I am not too drunk to use Father Thomas’s words, and I call Jesus cool and heaven neat.
At some point I am crawling to the pool. I take my shoes off and wash my feet.
“You know, Father Thomas isn’t the only one to read the goddamned Bible. I’ve read it too.” I am talking to myself, bathing my own feet that Jesus has never washed. “You know, Simon—that fisherman—he is also called Peter, like me.”
There’s two ways to forget—two ways to reconcile yourself not only with human time but cosmic timelessness, too. One is the booze and the other is God. I’ve tried like hell to get drunk on God, but it just didn’t work for me. It would be one thing if I met Jesus while fishing and he filled my nets with so many fish that they almost burst. Who would need faith then? This nothing would have been something, and I’m not just talking about my life here. I sure as hell wouldn’t have denied Jesus then. And if, unlike Jesus, I couldn’t walk on water, I would still crawl in there and take the water into my lungs, because I would know then what was coming. I would know it was all true. I would take crucifixion myself if I knew heaven was waiting behind my irrelevant last breath. And whether I was crucified right side up like Christ or upside down like Simon it really wouldn’t make a difference. Because if I had seen the miracle I would no longer know anxiety when eternity was certainly waiting. But as it is, I am pretty sure this is all we have. So I may as well be drunk.
I take off my clothes and strip down to my boxers. I have found God, and I am no longer ashamed, even aware, of this repellant body. Father Thomas was right about one thing. These bodies are only temporary. I can walk on the water now. Maybe not as long as Christ did, but at least as long as Simon.
Unholy baptism. I step into the water and instantly go under. It is dark and cool. I think of Max. Dead Max. I’m underground with him. The voices are distant. Mumbles of incoherent arrogance and shallowness. The water is deeper than I dream. If I don’t drown, I hope someone will call a cab for me. For I am too drunk to drive. Take me to my hotel. For I do not have a home. Not here, in my hometown, or back where my wife and I used to live. And if I do die, I hope someone will compose a brief eulogy for me. Preferably on construction paper. All you’ll need is a crayon. Even one that’s been rubbed like Max and me down to a little nub. You really don’t need to say much. There isn’t much to say. Here lies a man who was always thirsty. He found salvation in a bottle and then in a pool.
And if you think of it, sing me a song, too. Meanwhile, we’ll be swimming with these fish, breathing water and whiskey like amniotic fluid, choking, waiting to be snagged in a fishnet, waiting to be reborn. Waiting to be eaten. Waiting to sober up long enough to die. Or rather to be drunk enough not to think about dying. Drunk enough not to feel it when it happens.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.