One Shotgun, Two Ways

Uncle Leroy’s bare arm was pressed against the vinyl seat cushion for so long that when he unstuck himself to stand and deliver Cousin Darryl’s eulogy, the creases that remained were shaped like the design on a fresh-opened pat of butter. But what could you expect, wearing a cutoff shirt to a funeral? We tried telling him each time we had one of these damn things (the number was getting up there now) that they were supposed to be places of respect, but he always responded that Cousin Darryl (or Sister Patricia or Grandma Diane or Toothless Jim, whoever might be sunnyside up in the casket that week) wouldn’t have gived one fuck what he wore. He had stumped us there, so we let him dress how he pleased.

Hell, he’d likely be laid to rest sleeveless—and soon, by the look of him—so we took the whole ordeal as a premeditated dress rehearsal. Today, for added style, he wrapped a tie around his neck (knotted that fucker, all right, just like you’d tie a noose) and let it hang between his apish tits like a pendulum counting down his final days. It featured a selection of music notes cascading out of a trumpet, overlaid on a pastel gradient. Nobody knew where the hell he got it, but there was something about how it clashed with the dirt and grease stains on the rest of him that made it work.

He was the patriarch of us now, since the year had been filled with one death after another, the last of which was old Grandpa Lorenzo, the sole Italian in our ancestry, save the mixed remains of his DNA in bloodlines scattered across the county. He had come to America with the rest of them, way back when, that old story too boring to retell, and settled down in our town, took up roots here when the Italians and Croatians were boxed together down on the old levee, where the homes and buildings still bare the markings of Eastern European influence in their architecture.

Grandpa Lorenzo, so old and so resuscitated at the end that he no longer felt that the Emergency Room was the right place for him to go—what’s the emergency in an old, dying man? So with Uncle Leroy in tow, old Lorenzo heaved himself into county general for his first heart attack, then second, a collapsed lung, and, finally, a stroke (though the tow reversed for this last one, an almost-comedic piggyback ride toward death’s door, starring old Lorenzo and Leroy, though still to general admittance all the same).

Fond, fond memories now, now that he’s dead and gone and Uncle Leroy’s the oldest cat in the junkyard. Cousin Darryl wasn’t even close to the top at 43, when it came his turn to dance with the devil, the poor bastard. Life did have its little surprises though, even when the clear signs of death began to tinge Cousin Darryl’s cheeks more and more each time we saw him at the funeral parlor. Nobody is ever expecting the call, the town gossip that follows you around in hushed whispers for a week or so.

And now here he was, the star of the show, all of us gathered around his casket and staring in, staring at each other, wearing am-I-next faces, silently placing bets of smutted dollar bills, loose change, and cigarettes, the transfer of currency muted beneath tables, as to who it would be.

Cousin Darryl’s mom, Aunt Lila, a mess on a good day, her belly usually full of some malefic cocktail of god knows what, upon hearing about the death of her only son, found herself transported somewhere darker still. She might actually be the next to go, we thought; bets were stacking against her in the imaginary bookie’s ledger circulating throughout the funeral parlor. She showed up in a wheelchair, nobody sure why, since we had seen her at Lorenzo’s funeral just the week before, covertly dropping a crumpled pack of Slims into his coffin, a peace offering, a don’t haunt me, you fucker pittance, both legs fully functional, almost a spring in her step; everyone knew she hated the yellow bastard anyway.

Sometimes illness just worked that way, coming up out of nowhere, we told ourselves upon seeing her spindly legs folded over in the wheelchair, a pair of skid socks acting as bright, pink shells covering her carbuncled feet. Here one moment and gone the next, like a keg at a family reunion. She was wearing an oversized sweatshirt with a faded teddy bear appliqué on it. It was all so sad.

It was sure as shit that our bloodline could be traced back through the history books to nearly all of the great biblical tragedies we learned and forgot in Sunday school. It had to be fate, our personal brand of misfortune we had been subject to over the years. If the drugs didn’t kill us then something else did—an intoxicated truck ride through the flats or an adjacent neighbor’s meth lab explosion. We were a damned people from the start, and boy did we know it, though we were proud none the same. Our time was numbered, our headcount dwindling each week. Who would keep the mugshot photographer at the county jail salaried after we were gone? Crime was down across county; it was the end of us.

The parking lot was lousy with our trucks and junkyard wannabes, all parked pell-mell, a junk drawer of worthless kitchen utensils out in front of Schmitz Funeral Parlor. Beside the thick, oaken doors stood the hearse, erect and polished, a stark contrast to our sagging tires and slutty fenders. We could only imagine what Schmitz must have thought of us, tramping in there week after week, dragging in the mud still fresh on our boots from the burial the week before, carrying out another box to bury in the cheapest plot of whatever graveyard would take us, wherever dirt was the softest. We joked at Lorenzo’s funeral that we owned more acreage alive than dead at this point, but it wasn’t a joke, it was the goddamned truth if you thought about it long enough.

That man must have seen it all, Aunt Celeste murmured of the parlor director to Sister Linda while we all sat around, half of us hankering for a stiff one or a smoke, another half of us with a dip in, and the final half pissed off at no less than three other people in the room for some reason or another. And if he hasn’t seen it all, well, he’s going to by the end of us. Schmitz milled around the atrium, saying nothing—his usual checklist of condolences had been exhausted after the first three of our funerals. By now there was nothing left to say, both ways. We grunted our hellos and he screamed internally for us to please not break anything this time.

Aunt Celeste dabbed at a tear forming in the corner of her eye. Poor Cousin Darryl, she thought, that fucker’d be the life of the party if he were here. She recalled Lorenzo’s funeral service, how Darryl had brought out a guitar and played a few licks of some forgotten tune Lorenzo probably had listened to from the old tube radio while he sat on his porch with a 40 sweating next to him, like a king surveying the kingdom he created. Someone was always bringing something out in our clan, some surprise or another. She remembered how Cousin Darryl had egged old Schmitz on, tried to get him to join in the chorus of You Are My Sunshine, ruffle his feathers a bit, nothing harmless, mind. She remembered that we had a nice laugh about the whole ordeal afterwards. We were almost a functioning unit when we were making fun of others.

When it was high time to settle down (believe us when we say it took a while), we all sat in the congregation of chairs horseshoed around the open casket, behind the little in-house preacher who teeter-tottered back and forth slightly, using the pulpit as a support. No one was sure of his name, nor did we see the need to ask. He had grown just as used to our fuckery as Schmitz; by now he didn’t even pause when one of us belched, or shouted out some disagreement with the words of the sermon, or blew our noses too loudly, comically. We had never learned the meaning of the words “inside voices, if you please.” He knew that everything was performative when it came to our kind, and he was just another guest star in our B-list cast of degenerates.

The old boy had prepared the most basic of sermons for Cousin Darryl: that he had been taken from this earth too soon; that he was a good man with a heart of gold; that his memory will live on forever. These had to be chapter headings in the funeral preacher primer, but we thought it hit too close to home, every word of the goddamn thing. We were suckers when it came to thinking of our departed as pure, plain and simple. Hell, that’s just humankind’s way, ain’t it? Someone sent a blast from their nasal trumpet way in the back, apparently moved by the words. Then another one came out. Someone farted out of grief. The children laughed at the noise, too pure to understand, too damned to care.

We were all remembering Cousin Darryl as if he were here only yesterday—though that wasn’t too far off from the truth. We could almost hear his cackle when the preacher said, Darryl may have left the world, but he left it a better place (Ha! Left tit! You hear that, Leroy?), or how he could hock a loogy almost perfectly between the gaps of sentences like a response—but that might have been Great Aunt Betty, the first to use the skill, who sat in the shadows at the back, shifting between this realm and the afterlife (she had long since been speculated to die next, but the bitch was tough as nails and, as the rumors went, might have dabbled in dark magic years and years ago).

After the sermon, which blended with the last as it would the next, we had a little time to come up and say our two cents if we liked. And let me tell you, we liked. Here was where the real waterworks would start. Dark times managed to bring out the choked, stunted version of love we all shared for each other, too little too late. We were creatures who ruled the darkness, after all. The underbelly of the county, the base for all its problems, the ones who spit on your onion rings when you pissed us off at Burgermania. The ones who uncapped manholes and explored the sewers just because. Who, well into our 40s, sold cigarettes to middle schoolers for their weekly allowance. The type of people your average citizen wanted rid of, swept under the rug. We were often the discussion points of town hall meetings, where motions were raised, subcommittees formed, to make our existence inside county lines forbidden.

So it all made sense to us when our two cent’s worth told of how much of a fuck up Cousin Darryl had been, how he didn’t care about school, except for the spraypainted neon cock, his handiwork, that still blazed in the catwalk of the auditorium. And it made sense when Aunt Lila wheeled herself to the front of the pulpit to tell the story of when Darryl had to be removed from his Pre-K class because he latched onto the student teacher’s hair when she wouldn’t give him a second Juicy Juice.

Even Old Aunt Harlow stood, propped up on a cane, and blessed the room with her gravel heap of a voice, took us back to our own childhoods, back when each of us were just kids stomping the town from one end to the other. It was a real heyday back then; at least it kept the police off their asses. She wasn’t sure what had happened to get us where we were today: sad, dwindling in number, castrated by society like a pack of mongrel dogs. She looked at each of us in turn, her jowls quivering, and said that Darryl had tried to keep the spirit of us alive up to his dying day. Several Fuck yes he dids were stitched together in patchwork quilt unison. So, goddamn it, old and revered Aunt Harlow concluded, don’t let his efforts go to waste, you hear?

At long last, it was Uncle Leroy’s turn to deliver the final speech, a time-honored tradition bestowed on the oldest male of the clan. Up he wobbled, his naked arms aswirl with indentations of the chair, unearthing a full bottle of whiskey from somewhere on his gigantic person. Now here was a man who knew how to please a crowd. His speech, all but three words, managed to say it perfectly. For Cousin Darryl. The bottle was uncorked and passed around, each of us taking a hearty swig in turn, to honor our fallen. Those of us who still felt a sting from the whiskey knew that it was Cousin Darryl calling to us from the grave.

Once everyone had their fill—hell even the newborns’ bottle nipples were dipped once for good measure—the bottle made its way back to the front with a few pulls left, to be placed inside Cousin Darryl’s casket, wrapped delicately between his hands. With that stroke of finality, his brow stippled in sweat from the effort of the speech mixed with his own private bottle of whiskey finished before the service, old and noble Leroy made way back to his chair. It was high time to close the lid on Darryl’s story forever.

Schmitz stood at the back of the parlor, smiling to himself at how docile the service had been this time. It was almost textbook, and this coming from a man who had seen his fair share.

If only Brother Bubba hadn’t brought out the shotgun from under its splotched velvet cloth.

If only he would have told someone about the plan first so they could have warned the faint of heart.

He thought it’d be a nice surprise: burying Cousin Darryl, his own brother, with the shotgun they purchased together from Walmartillery, as they liked to call it, the one they took turns shooting down on the river bottoms, at the acre of land the family had purchased together, our own Louisiana Purchase, down by the same tracks that had claimed several of our own on fateful nights when the liquor and drugs thought it would be a good idea to walk along the rails, where we could smoke and shoot up and mud and fuck and die as we damn-well pleased.

If Cousin Darryl hadn’t died then maybe that glittering barrel, spit-shined for the occasion, would have stayed far away from old Schmitz, still at the back counting his chickens before they hatched, and his heart wouldn’t have given out when he took sight of the barrel pointing accidentally his way. He clutched at his chest as if trying to pull the sickness out, unable to speak, his moans muted and blending with our own bellows at Bubba to Put that fucking thing away, you cocksucker and the like. Those among us who were pregnant hid our full bellies from him, tucked our faces into our torsos and turned in our chairs, afraid of fleeing the scene, not wanting to miss the spectacle that might unfold. To think of the stories that would be told of this day!

But he ignored all of it, his big, pockmarked face puckered up into a grin or what he thought a grin might be, the first or second in his life, as he approached the preacher, now turned to stone, unable to see the dying Schmitz at the back on account of his cataracts and all, the crispy hair that sprouted from his ears curling up in fear.

Schmitz must have surely felt like Cousin Darryl had felt, there in the back of his very own funeral parlor, the place he had seen so much death come and go over the years, propped up against the wall, his mouth muttering syllables, perhaps pleas for help or maybe swears, cursing us further into hell for bringing him to an early grave. Death is the true unifier, a wiseman once said; I think one of us had read it on a fortune cookie once. Schmitz had sure known a thing or two about death, all right. He had seen it all now, through the right lens, the same as us, right up in his face like the glistening rifle. They like to make you think we’re as different as night as day, our lot and the rest of the town, the normal folks. But at the end of the day we’re all the same. There was a real lesson there, but not ours to learn. We were too busy with the shitshow up at the pulpit.

Out spilled a grunt from our family’s finest. Here you go, Brother, he said as he consecutively fired a round into the roof. He looked around at our faces, the crazier of us grinning like Chessy cats, the milder of us not sure whether to be impressed or wonder where the next bullet might go. But Brother Bubba was done shooting, and placed the shotgun inside the casket and slammed it shut with a noise that resounded a note of finality over the funeral parlor more than the gun firing had.

The shot had put Schmitz over the edge and on to the afterlife without so much as a goodbye, bless his soul. We cheered him on in death, but really the cheers were for Bubba, now that we knew he hadn’t lost his fucking marbles any more than the rest of us had, now that the danger and been placed into the arms of a dead man, next to his bottle of whiskey.

The pregnant women sighed—half out of relief and half out of disappointment (that’s it?)—and unfolded themselves from their own fetal positions. Their babies rolled over in their bellies, unsure if they dare risk being born into such a place, into such a family. The sun bled in from the doorway beyond the parlor where we all sat, breathing and scheming, dying and farting, waiting to join the procession to carry us on to whatever place we could terrorize next.

Photo by @skradi, shared via Unsplash.

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