He could plunk out the ribs of a ballad on his bass, tripping his fingers up the strings like an expert hopscotch player headed home. Carburetors were no mystery to him, nor the niceties of occult quadratic equations. He could capture your true face in gobs of paint daubed on canvas and dress out a sheep. His knife would slit the pelt off gently as a mother peeling a wool pullover from a child. The day before EasterJack always had a feast at his place on Easterthe lamb would be hanging upside down from the bough of a blossoming plum tree in his yard, curing for the barbecue, a red rose stuck in its rectum.
Jack could show you how to whittle, how to solve riddles, explain secret techniques for sharpening a chainsaw or making sopapillas that melt in the mouth. His demonstration this afternoon is the way to hold a funeral.
The sky is the color of worms that expired in yesterday's puddles. The break in the rains is temporary. A sullen gray ocean is already busy tugging a front down from the Aleutians. Birds know it and are silent, but the mourners following the pickup to the cemetery are strumming guitars, tootling on pennywhistles, sawing violins, beating drums, dancing, munching on tidbits from the banquet that kicked off the procession, trading Jack stories, laughing, weeping. It seems that everybody is at the funeral, that the town must be as emptied of its folk as the little town by river or seashore on a certain famous Grecian urn.
"Who else," asks a sprite in postal uniform, "could toss sticks into the surf as if he were teaching the sea to fetch?"
Jack rides in the bed of his pickup, a vintage candy-apple red Chevy stepside with chrome bumpers polished up bright as funhouse mirrors. He carpentered his coffin out of French wine crates from a friend's upscale restaurant. Though the wood is heavily lacquered, sonorous appellations still appear here and there, testifying to the fact that Jack used only prime vintages for his casket. As we make our way over the train tracks to the gate of the graveyard, I overhear an older Japanese woman talking with a man shaking the spittle out of his clarinet.
"In my country, they say the hototogisu, the cuckoo, sings eight thousand and eight times, then chirps blood and dies."
The number, of course, is a palindrome. Does it contain some rarefied, yin-yang Oriental wisdom? Is it possible that songs, and life, go backwards from the end as well as forwards from the beginning? A hand grabs my arm before I'm able to tease out a satisfactory answer.
It's the voluptuous Misty, dressed as though she's ripped half a rainbow out of the sky. She could be Aphrodite on the prowl, if Aphrodite were partial to pink slouch hats. She falls into step beside me.
"You know those talks you have sometimes after? Pillow talk, I guess you call them. Have you ever asked your lovers what they were thinking about?"
I give Misty a noncommittal grunt. I'm thinking about the last time I saw Jack, sitting in a red vinyl chair at the shoe store, shoe boxes heaped all around him. His lips grimaced around the unlit briar pipe clenched in his teeth as he tugged on a Red Wing boot. Sturdy, was his opinion, but not enough give in the leather. It would take weeks to break them in.
"I'd never been kissed like that before. Not down there. On a one-night-stand kind of thing."
Jack didn't have weeks. He could hear the creaking and sighing inside himself, like a eucalyptus grove in a high wind. He was already planning his funeral.
"Candlelight leaping from the rose window over the entrance to Strasbourg cathedral," says Misty. "That's what Jack said the kiss set him to thinking about. It's all cattywampus because there's a spire missing. He'd gone there one Easter for midnight Mass years ago. He was outside, having a smoke, and there was a fine, light snow falling."
He wished it to be a feast, a carnival. Dying reminded him of leaving the house for an extended trip. You check to make sure the lights are out, no faucets dripping, no windows left open. You're about to hop into the car and drive away when you wonder if you remembered to turn off the thermostat or lock the back door. Most likely you did, but to be absolutely certain, you go back inside.
"The stained glass was pitch black," continued Misty, "much blacker than the sky. Probably because of the lead. And then, suddenly, when thousands of candles were lit almost all at once, scraps of light like shoals of colored fish began leaping from the rose window."
I must've given him a funny look. He quoted a phrase from Santayana about how the only cure for birth and death is to enjoy the interval. Even the dying need shoes. Good shoes.
"What a tongue!"
Jack confessed that he'd always been rather picky about his footwear. As a matter of fact, shoes are how he ended up living here so long, within eyesight of the plume rising from the smokestack of the lumber mill. While wandering along the coast, he'd landed a summer job working in the woods and torn up his boots. He came into town to purchase a new pair. He'd been studying the boots on display for quite some time, the only customer in the store, when the saleslady asked him if he was going to be much longer.
"And all the while Jack's kissing me there, he's been recalling how he sat outside on the wet curb, awed by the swelling chorus, the Easter hymns, watching swarms of fish swimming through falling snow. Into the nets of midnight, he said."
Jack figured it was the clerk's way of showing displeasure at his choosiness. Maybe she was even worried that he was going to slip out the door with a pair when her attention was turned elsewhere. He answered her, rather sharply, by saying he wouldn't dream of buying shoes he hadn't sniffed and caressed for at least a couple hours first.
Great, she smiled at him. She had to run a few errands. If anybody stopped by, he should say she'd be back in twenty minutes or so.
Jack knew then that he was in the right place.
"Can you imagine?" gasps Misty, her mauved cuticles digging four crescent moon shapes into the sleeve of my leather jacket.
The whine of bagpipes draws the crowd of mourners to the edge of Jack's grave. He'd traded an oil portrait for his plot, located on a rise overlooking a swath of the Pacific, where the first swells of the coming storm are kicking up whitecaps. Five different bands launch into as many different tunes as the coffin is winched into the rectangular hole beside a pile of sweet-smelling black soil. Then there's silence, a terrible silence like the bawling of oceans who've lost their way home. And then, instead of a eulogy, there's a final Jack tale.
The teller, an Irish musician who played with Jack while he was touring Donegal, flew to the States to visit with him before he passed away. One night they got roaring drunk and Jack made the Irishman promise to do him a final favor. The dying man left the kitchen and returned with the only thing he'd ever stolen, the jawbone of a legendary Celtic harper. He'd gone to pay his respects at the harper's grave, and found the bone there among the weeds. It had worked its way up through the soil, the way boulders do in the fields of New England farmers. Now Jack wanted the Irishman to spirit the purloined jawbone back through customs and return it to its rightful owner.
"Next thing you know," says the Irishman, fishing the jawbone out of his knapsack, flourishing it like a banner, "Jack sets it on the table, tilts a bottle of pricey Cabernet on the teeth and lets the wine pour out. `Bet you haven't had a taste of that in a while,' says he to the jawbone."
A few moments later, mourners file past the grave, each tossing a handful of dirt into the hole. So many mourners, those towards the end of the line, including Misty and me, have to scrabble in the hard ground, for the freshly dug earth is gone.