The old man’s smooth hair was dark, nearly black. Flecks of silver showed heavily at his sideburns, but they never intruded farther up than that—the top of his skull sanctified of old age. And his manicured mustache held the same silvery tightness as his sideburns. He sat upright in his chair and his fingers followed the tangible line of aging as they pushed the hair behind his ears—darkness above, silvery light below.
A glass of red wine rose to his lips, and he stared down his driveway at the approaching headlights. The truck came down the lane and pulled up slowly. The engine died and the headlights snapped shut, throwing the garage door into darkness: a pale ghost in the night. A small light fixture stood beside the front door, casting rebellious shadows across the porch.
“Whatta you want?” the old man said. “A beer? I’ll grab’ya one.” He didn’t wait for an answer from the figure in the car. He rose with ease and walked inside to retrieve a can of Coors Light. When he returned, the man, forty-six years his junior, was seated in the chair opposite his, looking out into the dark front yard, listening to the cars quietly slide by beyond the treeline. He reached out a hand to the old man and took the beer.
“Thanks Jerry,” he said easily. The old man took his seat again, joining the other in gazing at the differing blacknesses beyond the glowing rim of the porch light. The man across from him sat leaning forward, elbows on his knees, the can of beer resting lightly in his hands. His left foot tapped the wooden boards quickly: tempering his release of energy so as not to destroy the world. He was thick, square, and clean shaven—a sturdy traveling trunk made man. His skin was weathered from the sun and his hands stained by the earth.
“Got any tomorrow?”
“Yea,” Jerry said. “A guy from over on Spruce Street, Ed Parnell. You probably never met him, he was an older guy. Didn’t go out much. I don’t know if you would’ve seen him around.”
“I’ve heard the name, but yeah, never met him.”
“His family is devastated. I feel bad for them.”
The foot tapped against the boards. It stopped and he lifted the beer to his lips.
“Well you are a different man than I, Jerry.” He took another swig. “You can’t feel bad for every family you see. You’ll feel bad for the rest of your life. You do how many funerals a week? Sometimes two? You’ll die of grief if you feel bad for every family that survives a dead man. And there are many men in line to die.”
Jerry took a sip of wine and looked down at the younger man’s wide feet: dry dirt was integrated into the torn leather and the thick rubber sole; the left boot was tapping again. His eyes moved to his own immaculately shined shoes, the required footwear of a funeral director. Dirt, four hours old, clung in morbid mounds to the shiny black. He loosened his tie and unfixed the top button of his shirt.
“How was the one today?” the man asked.
“Sad. As they always are.” Jerry brushed the hair behind his ears, rubbed his mustache with delicate fingers.
“Jerry, you need to learn to stop feeling for these people. Show some empathy, start feeling from higher up.” Four hour old dirt? Or two thousand year old dirt? Or eighty-one year old dirt? “You need to realize it’s only death.” His foot stopped tapping as his energy went into words. His left hand raised off the silver can and reached out toward Jerry, suspended momentarily in the void between them. “You’ll go through it too one day. I’d’ve thought that in all the years you’ve been a funeral director, you would have gotten more callused to death. I don’t know how you do it—how you still feel like that for these people. You need to dislocate a little bit, see everything from a higher perspective.”
“Is that what you call empathy?” his black eyebrows raised; his silver mustache smiled. “The ability to see everything from a higher perspective?”
“Yea,” he shrugged, then took a long gulp of beer as the tapping began again. “Don’t put yourself in the shoes of another, put yourself in the shoes of the world, of Everything. Death—it happens all the time, it’s part of living, you can’t let it kill you each time you see it.” He leaned back in the chair and let out a long sigh.
Higher up, feel from higher up.
“Brent, as you said, I am a different man than you.” He pushed the hair behind his ear and scoffed with respectful restraint, a horrid laugh from his lungs. “And Brent,” he paused, hesitating on the brink of the question, “what did you feel when your mother died? Do you forget that I directed your mother’s funeral? I saw how you were.”
The smell of freshly dug ground. Two years ago, Jerry thought. Brent had just moved to town with his mother. She was all he had: given life by her, raised by her, and cared for by her until she was too old to do so. Then Brent had nothing but a hole in the ground and a coffin. The smell of earth: Her earth? Ed Parnell’s?—not in the ground yet. Are they both the same?
She died after suffering a massive stroke, leaving Brent alone for the first time in his life. Jerry was the first person Brent came to know in town, not out of shared interest or a sense of friendship, but out of the bindings of the living burden of the dead. His mother’s funeral was attended by Brent, Jerry, and two old women from the church. It probably rained earlier in the day, or the smell of earth wouldn’t have been so strong. The two women of God said nothing; they made an appearance on behalf of the town. Perhaps on behalf of their own souls. They stood like stoic symbols of grief: unapproachable and transcendent. As they lowered his mother into the earth, Brent wept softly into Jerry’s shoulder. He had met him only three days before.
The diesel of Brent’s truck lingered around the porch; Jerry looked into Brent’s eyes. Instead of tears, he saw piercing clarity. His face was steady, and the sting that Jerry had expected did not manifest on Brent’s face. Brent’s foot tapped rapidly before ceasing at its apex; he lowered it slowly to the floor.
“I don’t think I wept for my mother that day,” voice far away. “I wept for something much bigger than her. I wept for the world. And for death itself.” Sigh. Contentment.
“My mother always told me, ‘Don’t cry for me when I die.’ She didn’t say it in a mean way, you know? She just said it in a way that made it all seem alright, like it was supposed to happen. You can’t cry about things that are supposed to happen. So I cried for death itself, not for my mother. She wouldn’t have liked that.” He let out a short laugh, lifted the beer halfway to his mouth, then let it drop. Perhaps a dead woman’s coffin dirt smells different if her death is supposed to happen.
“You can’t cry for everything, because none of it is any different from you. What makes me better than the next guy? What makes me better than a child or an old man? In each of us there is the seed of life, a spirit, or whatever you want to call it. But the spirit in them is also in you. It’s in each of us. If you cried for everything with that spirit that died, hell, you’d be crying your eyes out 24/7.” Lean back and sigh, you great philosopher. Contentment.
The two men sat silently, the only noise the rapid tapping of Brent’s thick foot upon the boards and the occasional white-noise hum of cars on the road. Jerry swirled his wine and Brent looked at the shiny silver of the porch light reflected in his can.
“Well Brent, sometimes you need to feel something as an individual. You can’t live in the world as God. It’s arrogant.”
Jerry rose from his seat, his glass of wine half full. Brent drained his beer and handed the empty can to the old man.
“And Brent,” he paused in the door’s threshold. “I hope when I die, you weep for me; not as some symbolic spirit of the world. But I hope you weep for me because you are my friend, because I am something important, something significant to you.” He looked at the younger man steadily, trying to pull an oath from his bowels. “Goodnight Brent.”
The screen door shut with a clatter. The storm door followed. Brent walked down the porch steps, stepped into his car, and backed down the long driveway to join the road beyond the trees.
“Brent,” Jerry said over the telephone a week later. “I need you to drive me up to the doctor. I’m not feeling well.” His voice was wet and labored.
Brent found Jerry in bed. Jerry croaked out a greeting, his hand rose a few inches, then fell back to the sheets. A fever ran through his body: the sheets were soaked in sweat and the room smelled of corpse dirt. Jerry shivered under the covers and coughed up thick mucus. He spit into a coffee can beside him. Reminds me of my father, can and spit, spit and can.
“Jerry, I need to bring you to the hospital,” he said quietly as they staggered down the stairs with the old man’s fleeting weight upon his frame. “I need to take you right now. You don’t look good. We can’t go to the doctor.” I spit into it because it still smells of coffee, still smells of my father. Can and spit, spit and can.
The pneumonia was severe. It sat deep within Jerry’s lungs, displacing the air needed for life. Like corpse dirt thrown atop an open grave. Brent sat at Jerry’s bedside, waiting for doctors, waiting for others.
“My family should be here tomorrow,” Jerry coughed. “They are flying in from New York. They should get here tomorrow, so I just need to be here until then.”
“It’s just pneumonia Jerry. Don’t say that.” He touched the stitched edges of the sheets, brushing them back under the frame of the hospital bed. “I’ll stay here with you tonight until your family comes. Then I’ll get out of your way.” His eyes flickered at Jerry, then to the medical machinery; it blinked back. Corpse dirt. “I’ll be here, just let me know if you need anything from me.” He pulled his dirty hat down over his eyes and leaned back in the chair. “Just give a yell. I don’t sleep that heavy,” he smiled at the old man from under his hat. His foot began to tap. It rung loudly against the floor of the hospital, carrying out into the hallway like the clicking of a metronome, like corpse dirt thrown too quickly upon the coffin.
The next morning, a man, his wife, and two daughters entered the room. Jerry’s son leaned over him and hugged the frail body, racked by the effort of a thousand nocturnal coughs. The infection was not responding to antibiotics. One day, 24 hours, the doctor has given. Or is it four hours, or two-thousand and fifteen hours? Or no hours at all?
“Brent, this is my son,” Jerry said weakly. The two men shook hands.
“Nice to finally meet you Brent.” The son’s face was quiet, but the eyes spoke. He pursed his lips, shook Brent’s hand, and pulled him forward in a hug. I love them.
“No, it’s my pleasure,” Brent said. “Jerry, I’ll leave you guys alone now. I’ll head home, but I’ll come back tomorrow to check in on you.” He bit his lip—a lie. Jerry looked at him; a boy caught red handed.
“Don’t be a fool Brent. I won’t stay ’til the morning.” He turned his palm upward and beckoned Brent closer with his thin fingers. “Stay here with my family to see me off.” He coughed. “I want you to be here today with me, and tomorrow if need be. The farm can wait. The corn will still grow. The sun will rise. The dirt will hold and nourish the plants. But for today, I want you to be here with me.”
The floating and soft speaking white-coats made Jerry comfortable. Clear drugs flowed into his veins and they gave him pillows. His granddaughters sat upon the bed with him, making jokes and talking about their memories. Ten years ago? Tears held like icicles in his son’s eyes, and his daughter-in-law touched the old man’s hand often. What of this flesh? Five years ago?
Jerry smiled often and spoke little. Brent left the family alone for a couple of hours, wandering the halls of the hospital, pacing the white lines of the parking lot, looking at a blue sky with pillowed clouds above him. When he returned, Jerry asked for a moment with Brent. The man, woman, and children left. The door clicked shut. Brent took a seat beside the bed.
“Brent, I wish you had lived here when my wife passed away,” he said thinly. “I was a lonely old man then. She was sick for so long,” he stopped talking, inhaled, and coughed. “For three years. She clung to the bit of life that remained in her. She was in pain for three years. I could do nothing about it but sit at her bedside. Tell her that it would be alright. Kiss her goodnight as though. It would be the last time.
“The world became sad for me. I lost faith. Couldn’t find God anywhere. Or in anything I did. When I went to work I put on a mask. A false smile. Sympathized with each mourner, because I was like them inside. I didn’t know what we were doing it all for. I wasn’t sure if there was any Being. One to receive souls. Souls of these bodies that we care for. On earth.”
What of the flesh. What of the soul?
“But you have helped me. To see something beyond my blindness. And sadness. Brent—I don’t care if you don’t weep for me. I know I will be dead tomorrow. There is nothing you can do about it. Nothing I can do about it. It does not matter whether you weep for me or not. Because you are right. There is so much more in the universe. Than the individual death. The death of an old man.”
Corpse dirt smells like star dust.
The coughing quieted as he spoke. A silver smile creased the weathered face and the eyes spun glistening webs.
“Thank you. For being so near to me this past year Brent. I was a sad man. But you were my friend. It helps, in the end. To have a friend like you. I can’t thank you enough.”
Brent sat still: the next movement would break the cosmos apart. A single jerky motion: he grabbed hold of the old man’s hand and embraced him with his mighty frame. Jerry whispered a final note of thanks to the younger man, and Brent left the room.
The next day, at 6am, Jerry McGovern died of complications from pneumonia. His son, daughter-in-law, and two young granddaughters were at his bedside. In the corner, Brent stood respectfully, watching the last tangible acts of earthly love. Jerry’s last labored breaths passed from his body and into the world, and the machines harmonized a single haunting note. Brent reached out and touched the naked foot of his friend—what of the flesh? He turned, left the hospital room, and walked slowly down the hall.
The watery marks that dotted the bone white tiles were a prayer to his friend. They followed him down the hall as he heaved in a heavy breath, filling his chest with the air that Jerry had given forth. He held it close within him. Brent wept, his arrogance falling to the earth with each cascading tear. He spoke a word of thanks to Jerry McGovern.