Songs I put on the mix CD for my father’s funeral:
1. Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” because my dad always said the dock Otis wrote about was the next one over from where our houseboat was moored in Sausalito.
2. “Freaking at the Freaker’s Ball” by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, because he claimed to have interviewed them for a newspaper once, and it seemed to be an appropriate description of the people coming to his funeral.
3. “Hallelujah,” because it seemed like a good song for a funeral. I used the Leonard Cohen version because my sister said he liked Leonard Cohen, even though the Jeff Buckley cover is far less corny.
4. “G.I. Blues” by Elvis Presley, because my dad always told people he was stationed on the same army base in Germany as Elvis.
5. Shred-rock cheesefest “Surfing With the Alien” by Joe Satriani, because I was listening to a tape of it when I was 14, and my dad pointed at the cassette desk and said, “Now, that’s a riff.”
6. Two songs by Joe Tate and the Red Legs, perhaps the only band from the Bay Area not to make it big in the late ‘60s, which I’m told made them the cornerstones of the local scene and part of my father’s social circle.
7. Any song by Janis Joplin, because he insists she lived next door to him on The Haight, though, as usual, no one can confirm his claim. I go with “Me and Bobby McGee” because “Ball and Chain” is too long.
8. Another Elvis tune, “U.S. Male,” because my father worked as a mailman before mov-
ing us to Oregon and pursuing his long career in afternoon naps.
9. “Hello Mary Lou” by Ricky Nelson, because though my childhood seemed to indicate otherwise, I’d really like to believe he loved my mother, whose name is Mary Lou. Making this mix was my only job in preparing for the funeral. My mom and my sister Julia took care of the snacks and flowers, but most of the arrangements were handled by Avram, the man who took care of my father’s affairs after we could no longer stand the sight of him.
Maybe my mom knows Avram’s last name, or his backstory. But to me, he is mononom-
med and mysterious, like Prince. I could easily find out what his deal is, but I don’t want to. For years now, Avram has been lurking about the shadows of my life, attending my perfor-
mances or taking photos of me on the street and then spiriting the dirt back to my father. Agent Avram was on the case even before the dementia set in. The collection he amassed, now in a metal box in my bedroom, was stalkeresque.
Once Arnie, my father, moved into assisted living, Avram began giving my father’s phone number to friends I hadn’t seen in years, hoping they would deliver it to me hundreds of miles away, and I would call and heal the father/son relationship. But what Avram didn’t understand was that I didn’t want to heal anything, I wanted to forget I shared genetic material with this man. I was so good at it that I often came across as an orphan. Now, my seemingly small role in the funeral feels as gargantuan as the gulf between my father and myself. The act of putting together a mix tore those walls down in a flash, plunging me back into the emotional chaos of trying to understand a man who seemed to delight in distortions, even before the mental illness caught up to his warped perceptions. It took me a week of procrastination, three days of anguish, and four false starts. I would have rather loaded his body into the incinerator myself than had to puzzle through my record collection to find what songs best celebrated the life of a man I’d spent a lifetime working to forget.
And now, after all that, the tunes and the turmoil, the memories and the memorex, all the synagogue has is a fucking tape player.
“It can play tapes? Well, that’s okay then,” my mom says when I inform her.
“Maybe if it was 1987,” I snort. Sarcasm echoes hard in an empty, high-
My mother seems not to notice, totally comfortable believing you can play a CD in a cassette deck.
“I’ll figure something out,” I grunt. There are few life skills I possess. Inasmuch as it can be called “a life skill,” music is one of them. I suspect my mother knows this, part of why the CD is all she asked of me.
She returns to the synagogue kitchen to make coffee, and I start opening cabinets and drawers near the lectern, searching for some way to play the mix. The clickety-clack of boot-heels echoes through the room behind me. I turn and see the rabbi approaching. He looks too young for this job, about two years older than me.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” he says, putting one hand on my shoulder and grasping my palm with the other. We are alone among the pews, so there is no way to dodge or escape his prolonged handshake or the sincere well-meaning of his gaze.
“Well, you know, shit happens,” I shrug.
My plan was to show up, smile, and not say what I was really thinking. I blew it right out of the gate.
“Um, yes, I suppose it does,” he concedes.
“Hey, do you know if there’s a CD player here? I made a mix CD, but all I can find is a tape player.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “That’s Sheila’s department, not mine.”
“Is she here?”
“She will be shortly, but you know, if you want to talk at all — ”
“Oh don’t worry. I’ll figure something out.”
Talking about my father is the second to last thing I want to do. Talking about his death with someone who is guaranteed to steer the conversation toward the sort of metaphysical hooey that so divided our relationship is the last. I did six years of hard time in Sunday School and remains as Jewish as can be when it comes to sarcasm, gesturing wildly with my hands, and all other manner of cultural stereotypes, but my only remaining interest in the actual religion is seders, the world’s most compelling form of dinner theater.
I hustle back into the next room, where my sister is laying out the snacks. Cheese. Fruit. Cookies. A baked apple crisp. Hot water for tea. I don’t remember if we ate this well as children. Arnie’s cooking style was a little more experimental.
“How’s it going?” she says.
“The rabbi said he was sorry for my loss and I said shit happens.”
“You’re not wrong.”
“I know,” she says. “We just have to get through this and then we never have to think about him or deal with any of this ever again.”
I seem to recall my mom saying the same thing about our extended family when her mother died only a few years earlier.
“The temple only has a tape player,” I say.
“You made a CD, right?”
“Did you look everywhere?”
“Well, try looking again, I guess.”
“A regular genius, you are.”
“I’m just trying to get through this also you know,” she says, rearranging the cookie trays on the Titanic for the umpteenth time.
I’m slightly stung, but she’s right. My all-encompassing awkwardness feels positively atmospheric, like a fog filling up the temple, but I know I left first, leaving her to face nearly a decade of my father’s pining for me, never once seeming to appreciate her. She’s more dutiful than I am, but she wants to be here as little as I do.
I return to the dais in the next room to futz with the audio equipment. The Chanukah story springs to mind. The Maccabees returned to the sacked temple and found only enough oil hidden in its cubby-holes for a single night, but the oil miraculously lasted eight nights. I don’t find any oil, just a few prayer books, an old microphone, and that same fucking tape player. Then, I have my moment of Maccabee. It’s not a tape player — it’s a dual-deck, with a a CD slot as well. I put the CD in, hit the play button, and turn up the volume to hear Otis croon that he’s sitting in the morning sun.
I return to the next room feeling victorious. But as soon as I step into the snack room, the feeling fades. The CD is only playing in the temple room, and now people are filtering in, congregating around the snacks as if this is some sort of wedding.
Cussing under my breath, I recruit my sister to stand in the doorway as I return to the dais and try every knob on the mixer, shouting at her to ask if there is any change. No dice. I release my sister from duty and take a seat in the pews, frustrated, just as the driving beat of “Surfing With the Alien” comes on. It was the song I was most looking forward to hearing, perhaps because it will make no sense to anyone in the room. The punk in me was even hoping they might find it a bit distasteful. But the temple is empty. Except for the damn clickety-clack of a certain helpful rabbi approaching behind me.
“You got it working.”
“Only in here.”
“We might have a portable CD player you can use in the next room.”
“Yeah? That’d be great.”
“I’ll just have to ask Sheila,” he says.
“Is she here yet?”
“Of course not,” I grunt.
“She’s on her way. Should be here anytime.”
“Okay. Just find me when she gets here I suppose.”
I go back into the snack room again and stand by the door with my sister, shaking hands and greeting people as they enter as if I’m one of those poor fucks posted at the entrance of a Wal-Mart.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” is a common refrain. “I’m sorry for your’s,” I say back to most of them.
A woman I’ve never met asks if I remember her. I don’t. Someone tells me they knew my father for 10 years, to which I politely say, “I didn’t.” My father’s mechanic introduces himself and tells me all about Arnie’s transmission issues. I barely recognize my uncle when he arrives. Homelessness and a serious kidney problem have not been kind to him.
Avram is inching toward the entrance, so I decide it’s time to circulate.
The first person I bump into is Carol, a family friend who tormented the younger me at dinner parties with whatever macrobiotic food craze was big with aging hippies that week.
Carol shows me a box of memorabilia she brought and has spread out on the table. There are old photos, newspaper clippings, and a coloring book some enterprising bohemian penned, which includes a pencil sketch of our old houseboat.
“Also, I found this,” she says, handing me a CD. “It’s Joe Tate and the Red Legs.”
“Oh. I made a mix. I put two Joe Tate songs on there,” I say.
“Right, but this is a whole live performance,” she says. “Play it when you get the chance.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I say, somewhat bitterly.I turn and find myself face to face with the woman I didn’t recognize.
“You know, I’m a baby boomer,” she says. “And the feminine is very important to us, and — ” Her eyes well with tears. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a smooth, polished rock. “I want you to have this, it’s a moonstone,” she says. “It represents the feminine, and if I can offer you any advice, it’s to explore your feminine side.” She presses the rock into my hand.
The satire of this moment is overshadowed only by the sincerity of the grief shining like moonstones in her eyes. This time, I manage to follow the original plan and clam up.
“Thanks,” I say, putting the stone in my breast pocket. “I’ll look into it.”
Mercifully, Sheila chooses this moment to arrive with a large boombox. I take my leave of the woman I don’t recognize, set the boombox up by the snack table, and put in my CD, not Carol’s. Eager to share my one contribution to this crowdsourced performance art, I hit play.
But Otis is lost in the noise of shared memories. I turn up the volume. But there is no happy medium that can pierce the din without sonically assaulting anyone getting a cup of coffee. I do my best to ride the volume knob for a few songs, but it’s futile. No one can hear.
That’s when the rabbi calls us back into the temple for the actual service. Annoyed, I hit stop on the boombox and move back into the room with a useful stereo. I sit at the front, all the way to the right.
As funerals go, this one is pretty much an open mic. The first act is a pair of Czech accordion players who, unlike me, get to share their musical memories to an attentive audience. They’re followed by a parade of speakers and “poets.” A man Arnie knew from his retirement home talks about how much he respected Arnie for his time serving in the Special Forces. Another man claims to be one of the original beat poets in New York. The mechanic relays the legend of Arnie’s dodgy transmission once again.
“I always liked working on his car because he’d tell me such great stories while I did,” he throws in.
My mom gets up to speak. Chuckling, she compares Arnie’s life and legend Big Fish,the Burton movie about a man who struggles to forgive his father for filling his head with tall tales as a kid, tall tales he sees as outright lies once he grows up. That’s one take. But for me, my life with my father always seemed closer to Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, a memoir by Nick Flynn about his experiences meeting his father for the first time when his father checks into the homeless shelter Flynn works at. Flynn’s father was a self-destructive wreck of a man who’d spent his life chasing the great American novel, but had never put down more than a few chapters. In Big Fish, the father lies to his son. Arnie’s lies were a major rift between us, the single biggest reason we stopped talking when I was 18. But what stood out to me about Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was the father’s total self-deception. He wasn’t an absentee alcoholic loser because he was obsessed with a pipe dream long past its prime; he was a writer.
That was what Arnie used to call himself, how he introduced himself. A writer. But on the day in school when we all had to share what our fathers did, I said he slept on the couch a lot. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said he had a hard time convincing his wife that time spent staring out the window was actually time spent writing. The difference between F. Scott and my father is that F. Scott put pen to paper. Arnie seemed to prefer dictating the great American novel to his mechanic.
In yet another tacky move, the rabbi announces a cap on the open mic, trying to move the evening along before it gets stale. For a man who supposedly specializes in the human spirit, he doesn’t seem to grasp empathy. Both he and Avram keep looking my way, prodding me with their eyeballs to get up and share. But there isn’t enough time, enough patience, enough anger. To scratch the surface would take an hour, minimum. And the moonstone-wielding grayhairs from Planet Woodstock aren’t the kind of people who want to hear finely articulated rage. Everything I have to say that’s fit for human consumption is on the CD.
Avram and the rabbi give up, sing a brief prayer, and send us all back to the room with the snacks and CD player, the CD player which is now blasting out the long-lost live recordings of Joe Tate and the Red Legs.
“Fuck it,” I mutter, tossing my CD aside and hitting the snack table.
Tiny snack-cheeses in hand, I leaf through the gathered pictures and clippings. One picture of my father looks almost exactly like me. It reminds me of think of a time when I was a kid, and he brought a picture of my grandfather at my age to a restaurant, then approached all the other tables, pointing at the photo, and then at me, shouting, “Don’t you think it looks just like him?”
People slowly filter out. The woman I’d never seen before is one of the last stragglers. And it’s not because of the snacks or the lively conversation. She has the look of someone without anywhere else to go. But once we start packing everything up, she ambles off into the night, looking genuinely devastated. I truly am sorry for her loss. The person everyone had described at the funeral sounded pretty cool. He just wasn’t the man I knew.
We begin loading the various funereal implements back into the car. But even with the help of Avram, our shadow-uncle, there just aren’t enough hands to carry everything and hold doors at the same time.
So Avram props the door open with the urn.
And with that, I’ve had enough of this circus. I leave my load on the floor and make for the parking lot.
But as I’m walking out, Avram catches me and hands me a manilla envelope.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“It’s Arnie’s writing,” he says.
“His writing. All of it I could find, anyhow.”
Being all too familiar with my father’s shenanigans, this seems like the setup for some elaborate prank or life lesson that will end in therapy. The long-rumored but never-before-seen Complete Arnold Gross remains coiled for attack in the palm of Avram’s hand.
“I made a copy for each of you,” he says.
There are about a million things I’d like to say to Avram, and almost an equal number of places that envelope full of emotional bile can be shoved. But all I manage is, “Huh.”
Unsure of how else to make the moment end, I take the envelope and walk out into the rainy Oregon night, the only remaining window to my father’s fucked-up head tucked under my arm.