Wake for Florence Green. (The old babe faceplanted on the dinner table at the Briar House Care Home, splashing soup.) A number of cultural gerontologists are present, have flown in from research centers the world over, many of them looking a little dry and making little rustling sounds when they move. I note that everyone’s suits seem to be a size too large, indicating either delusions of bodily grandeur or the slow sag of bodily decomposition. There are history buffs, disaster addicts, honored servicemen and several Greens ensnarled in the equipment of affliction. I snuck in earlier, having bribed an unpaid intern, specialty embalmment, and am sitting in the last row.
A jolly man breezes his way to a sturdy lectern and starts to deliver the eulogy. It is Barry Rand, CEO of AARP, speaking: “Florence Green, who lived to be 110, was a waitress in the WRAF. She met and dated dozens of pilots but she never flew. She worked hard. She had a lot of friends and had a great deal of fun in her spare time.” Some applause, in the form of rustling tweed. “Florence Green was not only a veteran – she was a supercentenarian. How many of us here can say that about ourselves?” I note that none of us can say that about ourselves, but some of us come pretty close. “Florence always said that the Great War was the best time of her life, a splendid, lovely time. For her, Versailles signaled the end of the party. Florence never went to France. So here’s to a happy and healthy year. In the name of Ethel Percy Andrus, amen.”
I appreciate the inherent contrast of a brief eulogy with a life that bridged millenia. I appreciate contrast. We rustle amongst each other, exchange remarks, repair to the banquet hall and find our namecards (I assume the role of “Gary Filch,” who couldn’t be here today) and take our seats.
Preprandial repartee gets me going, they don’t know this but they speak playfully and compliment in code, getting me going. They insult each other’s shoes. They’re all agoraphiles. Not just once has anyone here absently removed a twig from their hair or tried to explain their grassy knees. A girl appears slowly ambling, absently removing a twig from her hair. She says, “I am at the height of existence.” She looks like a waitress on a cruise in a movie about the cruise titled Bankers Away. She might be. She walks around the hall saying things like, “Just think about all the things we won’t be, “ and “We found love in a hopeless place.” Under my table Barry Rand lies supine and has the look of a patient hiding a dose. I don’t ask what he’s doing there. When laughing, the girl throws back a hand lifting invisible plates. “I could just die,” she bursts. Rand rises from the floor and dusts his clothes. He catches the girl’s eye and she begins her come-hither slither, writhing to a number in her head.
“I am the opposite of all I have known.”
“I am Barry Rand.”
“It’s not that I find beauty in ugliness, but beauty in contrast. I can see the inviting luminance of beauty, but I look the other way, look for something yet shapeless in the dark. “
“My problem, haha, I’m usually groping for something shapely in the dark, for example.”
“In my mid-twenties I began to see what kind of person a person had to be. More helpfully, all the kinds of people she didn’t have to be.”
“I think I can offer you some money-saving discounts, if you catch my drift.”
“Get the fuck out of my sight,” he repeats.
I think I love this girl, this possible waitress, this deft beauty (Robert Payne on Chaplin: “The deft beauty of his clowning illuminates the space he dances in.”) who loves contrast as much as I do. Florence Green, who lived to be 110, most likely loved contrast. I imagine the meals she served to contrast with mortar fire, bubble and squeak and death. I imagine a squadron of DH10s dropping payloads of flour sacks. I imagine Florence at seventeen, getting nailed admirably by an officer in the larder. All of these fancies contrast beautifully with the fact that Florence Green lies cold in a coffin in the parlor next door.
We are served great bowls of Scotch broth, in honor of the early bird special at the Briar House which was Florence’s last perception before keeling over. I snap my fingers and tell a server, “Yes, another Scotch broth, hold the broth, single malt if you can. Florence Green, who lived to be 110, anecdotally loved Scotch.” I sit in silence, noting the airborne odor of hardware store peculiar to old age, until a bowl of Scotch slides under my nose.
The girl’s demeanor is soccer-maternal now, making sure everyone hydrates, making sure everyone gets a pamphlet titled How Sturdy Is Your Belief Structure? which concludes if you don’t pray or stand by your faith then your structure has already crumbled, is already as sad as a Kansas song. Believing in nothing but unintended consequence, I know that my structure is sound. Rand begins to talk, to sweat while thinking about talking, and hits the floor after thinking about a response to the question How are you? What he was thinking about saying is I can’t remember what I was thinking about this time yesterday. The memory problem. The incredulity problem. Florence Green, who lived to be 110, most likely experienced these problems.
I remember that I’ve seen the girl on TV, live local and lascivious, interviewed by a woman anchor who later suffered a nervous breakdown because she thought Sherlock Holmes was on her tail. The mere mention of a deerstalker would send her into hysterics. What does it mean to my society when beautiful anchorwomen go off their meds? This is an issue I wish the pamphlet would address.
“Excuse me, but I saw you on TV. I saw the dress they made you wear. The stately brick-colored dress. You were like an art teacher in an idiot town. It was a brilliant contrast.”
“Brilliant, if I may be so bold.”
“A bold contrast is all it takes to make me want to love,” she says.
“Gary. How do you do.” We shake hands, boldly.
“Connie. How do you do. You seem very sturdy. They tell us to say that. I’m just handing these out for cash. As a matter of fact, I used to teach pottery in Ponchatoula.”
Rand bolts up from the floor and says, “Good – I remember. I was thinking about bringing cue cards to parties.” He rises, dusts his clothes, and strides to a table ensnarled with several Greens. A former poet laureate and current sundowner shouts to Rand, “With the language of the modern world a better world is woven.”
Rand is beaming. “Poetry is an activity many retired persons enjoy today. I’m sorry for your loss. Florence was a beautiful lady.”
“Florence?” shouts a Green.
“Is that you, Florence?” shouts another.
Connie and I fade out and then emerge in the neighboring room, a gallery of sorts, where young people are hurrying to identify each other’s personal brands, young people like us. What were we doing with people like the late great Florence Green? There are new brands to wield, to sear into the mind of a loved one. (Although I’m not sure how to sell the Gary Filch brand.) The show is called Death in Degas, it’s a popular success (“Vraiment Degas-lasse, in a good way,” writes Roberta Smith) and no one wants to take credit for its conception. Each frame contains a shocking and macabre sort of answer-portrait to The Dead Fox. The crowd talks to itself.
“I dunno, the fox, I just. Felt a connection.”
“Forced a connection. “
“’Forced a connection’.”
“It must’ve been something to force a certain idea to feel a certain way. “
“I felt great.”
“But what do you think of the re-context? Is death any deathlier today than it was a hundred plus years ago? Is there more heft to death repurposed, does it have a meatier role, am I boring you.”
“I feel great.”
“I just feel.”
“Connie,” I cry, “for god’s sake, let’s get out of here before they start to talk about Biz Stone’s rescue tortoise.”
“I love to see a man take charge. They tell us to say that, sorry.”
“Who are you?”
“Who are they?”
“Biz Stone’s rescue tortoise?”
We fade out and repair to the banquet hall, slowly, because Connie has decided to walk like a tortoise. Nobody notices, the hall is filled with variously mobile leafeaters, what’s one more groaning hunchback?
“Connie. Okay. Get up.” She hisses at me, slowly, then collapses like a marionette with its strings cut. Rand glides over. “What,” he says, “is this the meaning of?”
“Shh. She’s moving.”
Connie assumes the tortoise pose, which outside of any ashram just looks like the insolence of a child on strike.
“What is she protesting?” Rand asks.
“Old age, maybe?” I say to Rand.
“Get her the fuck out of my sight.”
“And burn that yoga mat,” he repeats.
Children, eagles, corpses, and chairs, all source objects for today’s yogis favorite poses, coincidentally all things found at Florence Green’s wake.
A young boy with strong, load-bearing arms walks out with a tall tiered cake. This is it. Everyone’s silenced at the sight of the cake. Meandering jowls now settle. The Green table holds its breath. Paramedics are called on account of the Greens’ respiratory history. The paramedics talk over the bodies.
“Looks like we got another one.”
“They just fall in our laps.”
“I’m very distressed by my Native American heritage.”
“Albert Green is part Cherokee. Was. He just checked out.”
“I just can’t stop crying when I come home from this.”
“This is what you signed up for. Death is part of it. Just don’t feel it.”
“I can’t feel.”
“Never feel,” says the paramedic bravely. They stack the Greens departed and hurry out.
The young boy with the cake is shooed away by Rand and what’s left of the Green table begins to breathe.
Connie and I fade into the kitchen, where the young boy is duly assaulted by crock-wielding Connie. She finds a knife and slices the cake. “I knew when I saw the cake, I would do anything for a taste.” Blood starts to sneak from the boy’s head. I nudge him with a foot.
“Connie, this boy is dead. I’ve checked his vitals, and he is dead.”
She moans. “Coconut.”
“Help me get him out of here. We can put him in the coffin with Florence. Get the legs.”
“I have a pamphlet on how to get the legs of a ballerina without taking a step.”
“I don’t believe you anymore.” I think of the anchorwoman, once a babe, now an eater of hair, and how Connie must be to blame.
“I never believed you, Gary.”
“Just help me here. I’m trying to cover up a murder.”
To our great delight, the Kossoy Sisters have begun one of their famous murder ballads in the banquet hall. They’re a little shrill, causing many of the wakegoers to tune down their hearing aids. We drag the boy’s corpse unnoticed. Is this contrast, or just utter madness? I wonder.
Florence Green got her wish. She’s now in a place where everything is different, where the postage is free and there are no wars, although Florence Green loved wars. As an appraiser of contrast, I am hugely tickled when we dump the boy on top of tiny Florence. There is some struggle slamming the lid shut. Connie and I take a seat in the front row, looking in each other’s eyes.
“My name isn’t Gary Filch.”
“That’s okay. I’m not Connie either.”
“Who are you?”
She kisses me and I taste coconut.
“I’m so glad to live in a world with multipurpose spaces.”
“Yes. Let’s go back to the gallery.”
Hand in hand we stride to the gallery, where everything is quiet. The crowd is horrified at the sight of a large tortoise.
Derick Dupre lives in New Orleans.