who cannot tell your grief,
I can consume
nations of sufferers
I am the good parasite—
Let me live.
—Frank Fagan, “The Good Parasite”
I wore my black dress. It was sunny. The long-sleeved one. It was 84 degrees. I didn’t eat anything. It was a size too small. My hand steady but heart pounding, I signed the guest book Maria, and then I went to the ladies’ room. I looked ghastly. My skin was pale, too pale against my straightened black hair, my eyes were dark, grim. My lips were too red. It was my first time. I took a deep breath and cupped my hands beneath the water and drank. I dabbed my mouth with a paper towel. I inhaled deeply and walked calmly out the bathroom door.
I read it in the paper, the news about the 87-year-old man who went to bed quite literally with a bump on his head and never awoke again. He was going to be at the funeral home on 48th and there would be a memorial service on Sunday, September 2nd.
Once inside Room C, I discovered there were too few seats. One in the center of the second row left, one on the left in the sixth row right. There were fifteen rows, twenty across, nearly full. He was not alone.
I made my way to the sixth row right. I sat next to an old woman with bluish hair that matched her blue dress. She had an embroidered handkerchief in her hand, and a black purse with a large metal buckle on her lap that looked like a doctor’s bag. She made an effort to smile. Our arms brushed as I sat down. “Excuse me,” I said, and she crunched up her mouth in an effort to be kind without words. I sucked on a mint.
The ceremony was also kind. He’d lived a good life. He’d been a son first, then a sibling, a soldier, a husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather. It was not an extraordinary life, but it was probably mostly good, or at least he was. He’d probably had watermelon on hot Sundays in summer. I’m sure he didn’t hug much, but when he did, it was fierce. I’m sure he drank occasionally. I’m sure he was a good worker, less so a lover, but that he’d been better with his great grandchildren than with any children that came before. I’m also certain that when he died his hands were still calloused.
When it ended, I excused myself again and slipped out the main door. Then I bought a watermelon and ate the whole thing.
Monday afternoon I went to the funeral home on 64th. This time it was for a child, a little boy. He’d accidentally hung himself on a swing set his parents had just built. His sister had seen it happen. She was six. She was not at the service.
I wore a baby blue dress. Black did not seem fitting for a child.
He was beautiful. He had bright red hair and freckles. He still had baby fat. He wasn’t dressed in a suit. He wore a sailor’s hat, a pair of navy blue swimming trunks, and a hooded green sweatshirt. He was going to the beach. He’d lived in Iowa his entire short life; he’d never been to the beach.
There was talk about his favorite toys: a fire engine, a dog with a missing eye named Fred. They were in his casket. His mother sat still, barely breathing. The father, he was mannered. He smiled. He nodded. He stood motionless. The Preacher spoke of angels, of love, of sandboxes, of summer. He tried to make sense out of none. He knew the boy. It wasn’t right. The boy had had grandparents on both sides and a great grandmother on one.
I spoke with the great grandmother. She remembered me. She knew me from church, or the church picnic, or at least she thought she did. She thanked me for coming; she thanked me for my blue dress. She said that all the black in the room made it seem like it was a funeral when it was just a day at the beach. Then she walked away, chewing gum.
This morning I clipped the obituaries from the paper, carefully curving the scissors, exactingly isolating the names. I organized the type on the table, from young to old, then the women and girls, men and boys. Then I organized them according to the number of people who had survived them. Then I organized them according to which ones had a photograph and which didn’t; then which funeral home; then alphabetically by name. I settled on alphabetically by name. It was the only way that seemed, ultimately, fair.
The album I had purchased at the store was an acid-free, three-ring binder. I could add more pages if I wanted, whenever necessary. I spent most of the morning carefully placing the obituaries in order from Brimer to Thompson. I occasionally reconsidered my choice of assemblage.
I would see the Croftons on Thursday. Mr. and Mrs.—newlyweds. Car crash. Alcohol involved, but they weren’t drinking. No, not them. I wore a dark blue pantsuit and a red wig. I was back on 48th; the funeral director looked at me quizzically, with confused, or maybe concerned, recognition. The Croftons had no children, but they had parents, two on one side, and a father on the other. I embraced the father, Joe, and explained I was a co-worker of Mrs. Crofton, his daughter. I knew what she did and where she worked—the paper had told me. She was beautiful, I said. She was always punctual, pleasant, and perceptive. There were times when she had comforted me. I was momentarily his daughter incarnate and I glowed, if not for him, then for me. He longed for her and for now I had given a part of her back to him. I also gave him a mint.
November was a cold month. Winter came quickly; autumn had left us in early October. I drank a lot of coffee and had too many dreams. I wore leg warmers in the living room, but sweatpants to bed. The obituaries were abundant. The cold had caught some by surprise, particularly the poor. Furnaces needed repair; electric bills had gone up.
Pneumonia was rampant. I had walking pneumonia and I didn’t want to get anyone sick. I found myself busy with my album. Of particular interest was the single man, 38, who worked out of his home. He’d fallen asleep at his computer. His neighbor had left a cigarette burning when she went out dancing. Three apartments had burned, but he was the only one home on a Saturday night. The funeral was the following Saturday evening at six. I made a beautiful widow. My black dress was cut above the knee and nearly below the breast. I was on a date, though no one else knew it.
Hair curled, cheeks pinched, I sauntered in this time. I wanted to give him what should have kept him home on a Saturday, not literally, but figuratively. There was a small turnout, mostly what seemed to be other stay-at-home boys in their thirties and forties. I raised eyebrows. Bill spoke to me, as did Tom, and Jim. How did I know the deceased? Was he a freelancer for my company? Was I one of the other neighbors? Was I family? I explained that I lived in an apartment building down the block, and that we had bumped into each other frequently since we seemed to keep similar schedules. Tom offered that I must have been talking about his early morning visit to the Grind & Brew. I agreed. There was much smiling. Too bad I didn’t know him better they said. I again agreed.
They were desperate for me, not only in their grief but with their sex. They were lonely, all three of them, lonely for a life that would not end like my not-so-handsome, but horribly appealing man-boy, lying in wait for me in his casket. I hugged them each. I cried. No, I sobbed. Then I reapplied my lipstick in the ladies’ room, fluffed my hair, rejoined them momentarily, giggled appealingly, and walked out one foot directly in front of the other as I’d once been taught models do to make their hips swing all the more seductively.
When I arrived home I wore a black negligee and created my altar. Little Boy Blue would rest on top of the short plastic table under the window in a light brown frame. I suppose it might seem strange to others, should they ever find him there, that his picture is a clipping from the paper. One would think I would have a real photograph of my lover. I spent some time dreaming about who he was to me. None of my scenarios seemed to work, except that perhaps I was his secret admirer. I’d desired him from afar in the coffee shop each morning and he died before I had a chance to reveal myself. It made the most sense, perhaps, because to at least some degree it was true, though I’d never before been in the Grind & Brew that I now frequented, especially on Saturdays when they made blueberry scones, my favorite, and I’d never met him alive. I did bring him espresso and a scone every Saturday now, though.
Winter was long. It seemed spring would never come. Boating accidents were far from a reality. There would be no swing set deaths in January, not February either. There were no roofers taking a plunge, no prom night car accidents. There were car accidents but not of the festive kind, not past New Year’s anyway. Winter was for the lonely and the old, mostly, except for the skiing accidents, the snowmobiling, the black ice. I mostly kept inside when I wasn’t at work. I mostly kept busy with my album.
I read my album and re-read it. I continued to debate my choice of assemblage. I could not make sense of the obituaries. They had an order, but there was no order to what they contained.
On a Wednesday the sun shone. I was emerging from a long hibernation. It had been raining for five days. Spring showers. Saturated earth. The rain had made it hard to bury the dead, and the roads were slick. There were numerous car accidents in the paper, more it seemed than there had been all winter. I went to my first funeral in months. It was that Thursday night. It was for another middle-aged man.
Although after the Croftons I no longer approached the same funeral home more than twice, if I could control myself, this time I saw someone who had been at the same funeral where I had been months before. I had been a co-worker before; I was a co-worker now. These were two different companies. The man was perplexed and a bit disturbed. He remembered me. Didn’t I work for a computer company? Didn’t I work with Joe? I had to explain I had only been working with Joe for a few months; I had previously worked with Sam. But I blush, so I blushed deeply. I thought I had been discovered. What to say? Who goes to funerals for people they don’t know? You would think people would consider it nice, but they wouldn’t. Why shouldn’t we honor the dead though? Why aren’t we allowed to honor the dead we don’t know? What is so sick about it? I wanted to know.
I managed, awkwardly. I should have worn the red wig, I thought to myself. It makes me look unlike myself, I think. It also makes my blushing less apparent. I left shaken, frightened, I had seen someone else’s ghost. I stopped by the coffee shop. I ordered a latte. I held it between my hands remembering the cold, warming my hands with the heat of a latte on a 75 degree day. I was cold and more lonesome than I had yet been among my dead. I wanted the embrace of a warm body, the steaming of something more than a coffee cup.
When I returned home, I sat with Little Boy Blue and listened to the Beatles. I rocked and cried, cried and rocked. Little Boy Blue put me in a trance. We were alone but we were alone together. And then I wanted another funeral but I was afraid. Would they see inside? How could I reenter the world of the living among the dead?
I slept a long sleep. When I awoke, I sat at the kitchen table staring blankly at the obituaries in the newspapers that had been piling up on my doorstep. Where were they? Where were the ones I needed to find? I blinked, straining to read through tears. Where would I find them?
It was a family of four: father (38), mother (36), daughter (11), son (8), daughter (18 months). Murdered. I didn’t know what to wear. I didn’t know who I might be. How could I blend in? What did he do? She? The paper didn’t say. Would anyone recognize me? Who might know me? My city seemed to be shrinking the more funerals I attended.
It was a grand outpouring. The entire city’s population appeared to be there. The paper later reported that it was the largest funeral attended since the Mayor’s. I felt utterly alone and inconsolable. There were so many people between them—the mother, the father, the children—and me. It was dizzying. I could barely breathe; the crowd was stifling. It was suffocating. When I rose to leave, every bump of the eyes left a gash. I made my jagged way. I was racked. I was keeling. I was going to give but I had nothing to offer. I despaired of purpose, and then numbly walked home.
I needed to embrace and be embraced by the grieving; I needed to console the inconsolable, so my next appearance was at a baby’s funeral. I thought no one would wonder why I was there. Certainly no one would suspect I knew the baby. I couldn’t be a co-worker; I could just blend into the crowd; there would certainly be a crowd.
Sally had died in her crib. The article in the paper was educational, intended to inform current and future parents of the threat of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The church community was reaching out to the family, would hold a benefit, donations could be given to a local organization dedicated to the support of bereaved families of SIDS.
I wore the baby blue dress again. I could hear my footsteps as I walked into the church. My steps reverberated from the ornate ceilings. I thought perhaps that I was in the wrong church. Perhaps it was the church down the street? As I entered the cathedral, I saw only two rows of mourners, the priest, and the casket. The casket was very small and white. It was closed. It looked like a toy, like a doll’s crib, only enclosed. My heels clicked and heads turned. The sudden onslaught froze me. It was quickly clear that this was a private funeral, family only. They stared at me and I at them. One, two, three, four, the seconds passed as I stood frozen in place.
I quickly considered my next course of action, to speak or not to speak, how to undo what I had done, how to minimize my intrusion. I nodded with understanding and turned and slowly walked towards the door, aware of the eyes penetrating the back of my dress. I considered the possibilities. They certainly couldn’t be thinking that I had intended to arrive at the baby’s funeral. No, I must have gotten the church wrong. I was supposed to be somewhere else. I wasn’t wearing black; perhaps I was on my way to a wedding and it was simply a mix-up. Perhaps I thought there was a mass this afternoon. Maybe I was coming to confession? Did I have something to confess?
I sat in my car, staring emptily forward. I had heard only the key in the door, the closing of the latch, the sound of my positioning in the seat. What was I doing? I didn’t know but I couldn’t stop. I needed to do this; it needed to be done. Not for me, no not for me, this isn’t about me, I insisted, but about them, for them—the others—the ones who need me.
I gathered myself. Then, on a beautifully sunny day, I wore a white linen skirt and an ivory blouse and I attended the funeral of a woman close to my age who had had an aneurysm. There was no warning. She was standing next to the water cooler at work filing papers into a cabinet when she fell. I didn’t know this until I arrived at the funeral home, of course. She had been surrounded by people but she had been alone. She had lived alone, like me. She was single, like me. She was still alone—solitarily deceased as we all are, both the living and the dead.
The funeral attendees were mostly co-workers. She had a brother. He was unable to be thankful, unable to speak. He sat alone in the front row wringing his hands, head down. I sat alone in the third row left, an unoccupied void between us, watching him wring his hands and wondering how I would stand and leave, how my legs would support me, whether I could walk without collapsing.
I suddenly realized that I had been and was an uninvited guest. I looked at the brother again, eyes darting from him to the outsiders—the co-workers—and to him again and again, and again, rapidly. And then I turned my eyes on myself: I am not family. I am not a friend. I am not a co-worker. I am nobody. I am not here. I cannot be here.
The room was dizzying as I clung to the chair, my mouth suddenly dry and full. It was as though I had been eating all afternoon. I could eat no more. I clasped my hands fearfully over my lips. It was like trying to trap hundreds of escaping flies inside a jar. The purging, the swirling abundance, I thought I would vomit and then lurch forward onto the floor.
My mind darted from idea to idea, spinning, spiraling. But this could not be about me, this woman’s funeral; it must be about her. I had no right to steal this moment from her, this brief moment. I had no right to take it from her brother, to try and absorb his pain.
And then I saw it.
I was there on the altar. I was in white, I was white, and the room was empty. There were no black suits, no blue dresses, no ivory blouses. I saw myself rifling the pages of my album, my guestbook. My guestbook was blank, except for my name on the first page, the pages of my album now nothing but acid-free blankness. The terror. The sheer whiteness lying sandwiched between endless carnival-mirrored black leather uniformity, and then all went blue.
They were framed perfectly: my sister (hit and run, 12), mother (breast cancer, 39), father (heart attack, 52), brother (suicide, 27), and Little Boy Blue were standing behind him and beside him, smiling.
There above me, not wringing his hands, not waiting for me, but peering down was the dead woman’s brother, digesting it all, eating my grief, like thousands of flies feasting. And then I felt an embrace.
“The Grief Eater” originally appeared in Picayune Literary Magazine.