DEAR ABBY: I’ve waited almost a year after my mother died to write this letter. I am one of five children, and obviously the only one who even cares if the date gets put on our mother’s tombstone.
Is there a polite way of mentioning this to my brothers and sisters? I make minimum wage and can’t afford to do this myself or I would. Any advice would be helpful.– NO NAME, CITY OR STATE
I’m going to do something which simply doesn’t happen very often, which is recommend one of my esteemed counterparts: Cary Tennis. Just kidding! That shrublet couldn’t advise his way out of a three-foot-high noodle forest. And it’s important to keep in mind that in this scenario the noodles are cooked (al dente).
Who I really meant was Miss Manners. Miss Manners says it is rude to point out the rudeness of others. This can lead to quite a pickle, sometimes! But it’s important to remember that breaking this rule by both sides led to the Third Punic War. Carthage sent a fruit basket and Rome didn’t respond! Carthage really should have left well enough alone. But no! Elephants. Always with the elephants.
This, of course, reminds me of when I was an older girl, almost a woman, when they passed the first phase of all the proper burial laws like you have today. My parents were up in arms then. In the old days, you could just lay a body to rest almost anywhere, really. As long as it was far enough away from the water supply.
The morning of the last truly grand funeral I was to attend, I am ashamed to tell you I was actually excited. It was my Great-Great Uncle Kilgore. I didn’t know him well and he lived in another territory, so none of us really knew him. It was set to be more of a catch-up than an occasion of deep sadness. Mother met him once when she was a girl, during some kind of trip to hand off a cousin for a wedding, but all she remembers is that he smelled like gin and wore a ushanka, even in the house. What man over twenty-four doesn’t, though?
Uncle Killy had made it to the other side of 100. How far in he was, we are not certain, because this was when they routinely burned down orphanages during quarantines and outbreaks. Mother’s best guess was 104, based on some signatures from a moldy old Bible she found in our attic.
We traveled for four days. I’ve forgotten most of the trip, which was uneventful, except for passing through two towns that had the painted sign of cat-on-HVAC on barns and garages, which meant that everyone was down with the gollywompers. In the second town the painting was only half finished, and Father said the sign painter must’ve died mid-brushstroke. How my younger brothers and sisters screamed with laughter as Father mimed clutching his throat and keeling over like the painter did! We didn’t want to catch what he had, not while we were on the road, let me tell you!
We made a pretty good guess then that this was why our neighbors never came back last summer. And that was all right with us, because we took over their garage to dry our weed in (the Andersons had already gotten to the house).
We got to Uncle Killy’s town and found it out of quarantine, which was a relief. Though if you ask me, the younger ones were just glad to take a trip anywhere, even if we would have turned back immediately. Mother marveled at the fact that the old gallows were in place, and that the townsfolk still clung to the tradition of decorating them with flower garlands every week the ground wasn’t frozen. It was the only detail she seemed to remember from her last visit as a girl.
We met our people out by one of the big barns that was nearly emptied of grain, since winter had just ended. There was a marvelous feast that night. Father told us to savor every bite since the canned meat, a delicacy, was hard earned by slaying some folk in another territory and digging it up from a secret underground cache. We children reflected on this as we surveyed the display of empty gold cans the meat was stored in, arranged into a pyramid, their labels long destroyed with time. The younger ones had never had MSG and it was a real treat. Mother reminded us that we should profusely thank our distant relatives for serving us like this. What showoffs!
A breeze blew through the barn, first announced by the flickering of the tiki torches outside the door. We children looked up from our dinners as the ropes creaked against the old rafters. My smallest brother said he was worried that Uncle Killy’s body would come down on us while we were eating.
“It’s lashed up good, dummy,” I said. This was no sibling rivalry. Sput really was dumb as a bag of hammers. The summer after that we think he fell down an old mine shaft or into a ravine. No one was certain and I’m pretty sure Mother and Father didn’t bother looking too hard.
“Was he really a bear?” Sput asked quietly. He blinked his beady eyes and paused with a bite halfway to his mouth. From where he was sitting, Uncle Killy looked like a dead bear on its back hanging from a net of ropes. I understood his confusion, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to smack him on the back of his head and take his meat.
“No,” Mother said. “They cut a bear open and sewed Uncle Killy up inside of the bear.”
“No one knows, Sweetheart,” she said. Liar.
We were put to bed in a different barn that night, thank goodness. I didn’t want to sleep with that creaking above me, especially since I was pretty sure I had seen something drip from the bear’s carcass onto the dessert table. The adults stayed up and caught up, doing whatever they needed to do to reconnect as a family–drinking, fucking, hammerfighting, and so forth. I think Mother was hoping to be knocked up by one of our distant cousins with bright green eyes. We were told if we woke up early to go play by the creek and not wake up any adults, as they were sure to have hangovers and/or concussions.
Sput was up first, and shook me awake. I was assigned to him and always had to help him when Mother or Father weren’t available or were working. I did have a pang when he disappeared later, because I knew that would put me in line to take over the care of Mother’s next baby and I didn’t relish raising another one. Sput was a screamer and a barfer when he was small.
“I have to go,” he said.
“Bye,” I said.
“Aaaaabby I will wake up Mother!” His whining was making the other kids stir, and I knew they would all need something too.
“If you wake up Mother you’ll be strung up next to Uncle Killy,” I warned.
His eyes went wide and he shut his stupid mouth for a minute.
“I’m scared of this place,” he said, barely above a whisper.
I wouldn’t admit it, but I was too. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and we walked out into the morning, his sticky hand in mine. I hadn’t gotten a good look at the meadow surrounding the barns yesterday evening, since we were quickly ushered inside for dinner. I could hear birds and enjoyed the sight of dew glistening on the new-sprouted hay.
I took Sput to the creek, downstream from the barns.
“Go here,” I told him. “I’ll be over there.” I pointed to a stand of pricker bushes that were thick enough to shield me from view, though they hadn’t entirely leafed out yet.
I had my skirt hiked up around my hips and was letting it rip when I heard the scream–a woman’s. It felt too good to stop so I gave it a few seconds more before I cut my stream off. I figured whatever it was, I probably couldn’t help anyway. I heard a crunching nearby and saw that Sput had run over to where I was, dinger flapping in the breeze, piss dribbling down the front of his pants.
“Abby! I see your butt!” he laughed.
“So what? Put your pecker away, dumbass.”
We rushed back to the big feast barn, where the adults now gathered, and I saw some kids were being held back or shooed. At twelve I thought I was too old to shoo. I was right–Mother let me come forward and stand next to her. Uncle Killy’s young widow wept, surrounded by some of our cousins.
“This is not going to end well,” Mother said, sotto voce. I remember focusing on her fresh black eye as she spoke. “Gather up the kids.”
The breeze from last night had stuck around, still licking its way through the barn, playing at the ropes, which had been cut and freed from their burden. Their frayed edges yielded no clue as to the location of Uncle Killy’s body or the bear that contained him: vanished.
My advice to you, NO NAME, CITY OR STATE, is to buy a Sharpie and decorate your mother’s tombstone any way you damn like. Future date it, see if she walks again. There’s a reason your other four sibs don’t give a rat’s rannuculus about your mother’s final resting place. It’s all you.