Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Old Friends

I ran into my old friend Harold Hockalugie the other day down at the mortuary. Normally when I run into folks down there it’s because they have legitimate business to attend to. They’re either making arrangements for someone recently deceased, or they’re stuffed into a bag in the back, waiting for someone to make arrangements for them. But not Harold. At least not usually. Usually he visits to buy an urn - not because he needs someplace to store the incinerated bones of a loved one, but because he needs a nice place to spit.

“Hey you fucking necro-rhetorician,” I imagined him shouting like he usually did when he caught me down there on one of his urn buying trips. I, myself, am not a mortician. Nor am I a rhetorician, necro or otherwise. I just like hanging around dead people, especially dead people who look as if they might sit up and shake your hand at any moment. I am convinced that one day this is bound to happen, so I talk to them, tell them stories, sing to them, put on puppet shows, show them pictures on my iPhone (this is tricky because the mortician, Solly, doesn’t like me opening their eyes), tell jokes, read to them, until the time comes when they get planted. When people criticize my friendliness with the dear departed, I assure them that, when they go, and so long as they don’t choose the barbecue, I will give them equally friendly treatment. For some reason most of them don’t find my promise of post-mortem friendship worth a shit. That’s okay. They’ll thank me some day.


The last time I saw Harold was Detroit in '68 and he told me "all romantics share the same fate some
day, boring each other in some dark cafe,".....Aww hell, there I go again. I apologize. This is bound to happen from time to time: song lyrics that have gotten stuck in my brain like a mosquito in anthracite crack loose and dance across my synapses until they come spilling out my fingertips onto the page, random and irrelevant. I’ve never been to Detroit. I have been to Matteucci’s, a foul-smelling, dark, dank, dingy hole-in-the-wall on Greenfield Ave. I sometimes go to Matteucci's for a glass of red after a couple of hours with the stiffs across the street at Chapel of The Hills.

Last time I was there Hockalugie was holding court in his typical cruel fashion, raking so-called friends, acquaintances, family members, public figures and so on over the coals, relentlessly ripping new assholes left and right. I could hear him from the parking lot before I walked in the door, and, knowing if I didn't show myself he would eventually get to me, I snuck in the back. I took the darkest booth in the joint, way back in the corner where hookers often provide oral ministrations to those clientele that don’t want to be seen walking across the parking lot to their car. In a town that is now populated with a plethora of young multi-millionaire investment bankers/part time little-league coaches, discretion is key. Hence the action in the booth.  

Fortunately the booth had been cleaned just that morning, so what was usually sticky, compost-odored red naugahyde smelled like Pine-Sol. It took awhile for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. As they did, I gradually saw Hockalugie sitting on a matching red leatherette bar stool with a half dozen guys hunched over the bar listening to him rant.

“So, you wanna hear something really fuckin’ bizarre?” said Hockalugie in his trademark nasal whine. “You know our friend Dan Diddy? The so-called writer that can’t even write his own fuckin’ grocery list? The writer that got one fuckin’ book published by some two-bit fly-by-night operation run by that Italian chick with the big hooters? You know the fag I’m talkin’ about?” The guys in the group nodded. Of course they knew. I had been a part of this gang for forty years. I recognized all of them, especially Gary Guzzler and Wally Whacker, both in their early sixties like me, both headed for the establishment across the street in short order from the looks of them. “Well, old ‘Danny-Don’t-Know-Diddley’ hangs out across the street at Chapel of The Hills and talks to the stiffs!” Howard dripped a long amber lugie of tobacco juice into Wally Whacker’s beer while Wally poured a bag of chips down his gullet. “He’s a necro-rhetorician.”

The guys looked at each other, chuckling so obviously that it’s clear not a one of them knew what it meant.

“Wow, really?” Wally Wacker asked. “What a fag.” Wally looks like one of those beached jellyfish you find on the coast in late July with his enormous gelatinous ass drooping like tallow over the edges of the barstool. His basset-hound jowls wiggle when he talks, sending ripples through his blubber that wriggle to his feet and back up again until his whole body is a jiggling mass of strawberry jello. Born big, his family tried everything from liposuction to hypnosis to psychoactive diet pills, all to no avail. He is also as dumber than a cow. “Wasn’t Richard Pryor a negro-dietician?”

His sidekick, Gary Guzzler, is a body-builder: what you might get if you took Wally, hung him upside down, dipped him in boiling liquid copper, froze him, then took a blowtorch and a chisel to him. Guzzler’s muscles are not only sculpted into unnatural shapes resembling rodents and small farm animals, his head is about the size and shape of a small butternut squash, completely hairless and buffed to a high sheen.“Shit, Wally. Your fat has gotten into your eustachian tube. Dieticians and rhetoricians are two entirely different things. A dietician is what you need. A rhetorician is like a musician without music.”

“Jesus”, Harold shouted. “You fuckin’ idiots don’t know the first thing about necro-rhetoricians, for chrissakes!” Harold Hockalugie suffers from classic “little man” complex. That's not saying much. Almost everybody feels small around me at 6'6" 240lbs. But Harold's little man complex is in play even when he's with folks his own size. 

Years ago I did some work for his landscaping company, back when we were real friends in our twenties and thirties, were in each other's weddings and so forth. Even then, he never missed an opportunity to take me down a few notches, or a few feet. If he was wrong, as he almost always was in matters not related to digging trenches, laying sod, identifying plants, installing irrigation, raking topsoil, measuring, cutting, operating power tools, driving the truck and proper fertilization techniques, he made sure it was because the topic was unimportant, thus not worth a shit anyway.
"I tell ya sometimes I feel like Ricky Ricardo with you guys, always 'splainin' something. When I tell you that our old friend Dan is a necro-rhetorician, I'm telling you that he likes to do it with..."

Suddenly Trixie the bartender - a tank-topped, flat-chested, beady-eyed, oblong-headed trailer trash chick with a Rod Stewart seventies layered hairdo of several auburn shades - decided to set these old bastards straight. “Don’t say it, Harold. You’ll just make an ass out of yourself, which you can ill-afford. First, Lucy was the 'splainer. Second, you fucking pencil dicks know about as much about the English language as I know about…” Trixie the bartender stopped and considered the glass she was polishing, her long yoga-stretched biceps contracting and expanding as she thought. “...I was gonna say as I know about cars, but I actually know a lot about cars. In fact I know a lot about everything, including necro-rhetoricians.”

“Okay you skanky bitch, what are they?” shouted Wally, drooling like Jabba the Hut.

“Alright you worthless fucks. Let’s start with ‘necro’ - Latin for ‘death’ or having something to do with death. As in necromancy. Now, I’m assuming you all know what rhetoric is?”
The guys were now flummoxed. The idea that this guy they’ve known since high-school, captain of the golf team, basketball star, football yell-leader, president of The Great Guys Club...this pillar of the community - me - would hang out in the mortuary and converse with the stiffs was simply impossible to entertain. Wally, Gary and the others now turned to Harold as if he’d just called the pope a dicksmoker.
“Uh, did I say necro-rhetorician? I thought I said necro-mortician.” Harold was the type of guy that would go to his grave insisting that he was right and frequently rewrote history up to the latest thirty seconds to cover his ass.

“Oh for chrissake!” Trixie howled. “A necro-mortician? That would be a little redundant, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah, and repetitive, too!” Wally shouted.

“Not to mention basically saying the same thing twice,” Gary added. Harold was crestfallen. Here he had a whole story about my conversations with dead people and what a sick old fuck I had become all teed up, only to see it fall victim to semantics.
I decided I had all I could take, so I slid out from the dark booth, skulked down the hall and out the back, then around the building, past the life size models of Jake and Elmore and the mural of James Dean, Jack Kennedy, MLK, Elvis, Brando and Marilyn, and through the swinging front doors with the porthole windows.
“Hey fellas!” I shouted. I pulled up a stool next to Gary and ordered a glass of pinot.
“Oooh, a glass of pinot. Whattsa matter with you, Diddly? Can’t drink normal beer like the rest of us?” Gary took a big gulp off his bottle of Stella, hardly a “normal” beer, while Harold hocked a lugie about twenty feet across the room into the trash can by the front door. I'll admit, the lugie-hocking, the farting, the never-ending lewd comments were part of what kept our brains young while our bodies were falling apart at the seams.

“Dan, the boys have a question for you about…,” Trixie hesitated. Their conversation had been so disjointed she wasn’t sure how to put it. “...about what it’s like to be a necro-rhetorician.”

I looked into the faces of my drinking buddies with a wry smile, wondering what they were seeing when they looked back. Another old guy, shaped like a giant 6'6" gunnysack, fortunate enough to have retained a full head of silvery hair but unfortunate to have picked up a pair of prodigious manboobs, an extra chin, a bulbous nose, bad teeth, watery bloodshot eyes given to frequent weeping and thick bifocals. I was no rhetorician, nor was I mortician, or a dietician. My back was so wasted I didn't even play golf anymore, or at least not without a few Vicodin and a pint of Hornitos. I was simply a curious guy with a hunch that death was no more permanent than anything else in the universe. 

It was at times like these that I wished Matteucci’s had a more diverse clientele. Had there been a few Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians - hell even a few Kentucky fundamentalists or South Carolina evangelicals -- the conversation about life after death would have been more stimulating. Instead I was stuck with a half dozen white males that were born in the fifties. Could anybody blame me for preferring to converse with the stiffs? At least I could write-in my own sensible repartee, rather than having to listen to the senseless blather of these hopeless halfwits.

“You know, Diddly, you’ve turned into a real prick these last few years,” Hockalugie said, sort of out of the blue. “A real necro-rhetorician. You would rather talk to dead people than talk to your friends.”

The rest of the guys were taken aback by Hockalugie’s sudden vitriol. What had I done to piss the guy off, other than walking into a bar on a Friday afternoon and ordering a glass of red wine? Nobody else seemed to care that I had been at the mortuary across the street for the past couple of hours chatting with the stiffs.
Friday was best for necro-rhetoricians because the stiffs would be dressed in their Sunday best, ready for their funeral and for all their relatives to come and pay their last respects. I gave them pep-talks, reminded them that their souls, if they had not yet departed their current body, would soon go off to start a new life in a new body of their own choosing to do exactly as they pleased. I explained that I believed this because nobody had proven otherwise, so why not go with the best possible scenario?

Harold Hockalugie spat into a paper bag that had been filled with popcorn. “You know why I didn’t invite you and Denise to my 60th birthday party?” He had always had a crush on my wife, and was in the process of making a play for her thirty five years ago when she chose me instead. Denise wasn’t even slightly miffed that we weren’t invited. She saw Harold, who had been single for the past twenty years after divorcing his first wife for getting addicted to tranquilizers and painkillers, as a mean-spirited tyrant who drove his wife to drugs with his relentless psychological abuse. To her, our old circle of friends were nothing more than a pack of whining coyotes who, when together, prayed on whomever was absent. “I didn’t invite you because you’ve turned into a self-important, conceited, arrogant prick.”

As if this was new, surprising information. I was just as unsuccessful then as I had been for the past thirty years, writing books that nobody read and other embarrassing business blogs that paid less than minimum wage. Had I lived in Mumbai I might have been living like a king. But I lived in San Anselmo, but not for long. I was selling the house I shared with my late wife, the house where we raised two kids. I would be moving out soon. 
“That’s okay, Harold,” I said. “I’ve been hoping after all these years that you would be able to forgive me for growing up in a generous, well-to-do family, and for consistently kicking your ass on the golf course." It was true. He would never miss an opportunity to berate me for the gifts my parents heaped on my sister and I. I thought about trying to explain the serious strings that came with accepting their gifts, but that wouldn’t have changed his perception of my sister and I as trust-fund, country-club babies that would never have to work for a living, even when I was breaking my back working for his landscape company.

“Harold you stupid cross-eyed motherfucker,” Trixie wailed, slamming a new bottle of beer down on the bar for fat Wally, who, like Gary and the others couldn’t understand why Harold was so upset with me. To them, my strange necro-rhetoric was just another in a long list of quirks that had always kept me on the periphery of our group, along with my obscene height. “Why do you have to criticize every little thing that you don’t understand? Is it part of your idea of being a true American?” Trixie couldn’t even talk to Harold without belittling him in some way, and Harold was not alone. She had it in for everybody except me, it seemed, which made her rather gamey looks a little easier to handle.

“Oh fuck you, Trixie. Why don’t you and Mr. Necro-Rhetoric here go do a little Kama Sutra in the blow-job booth.” Harold said with a wave of his hand. The color was rising in his pock-marked cheeks above his salt and salsa mustache and beard and beads of sweat popped out on his high forehead just below his receding gray, brown and auburn hair. Ever since I’ve known him, Harold has sported a thick walrus mustache that is as much a fixture on his face as his short, flaring nose and the bags beneath his sienna eyes. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen his upper lip except in photos from grammar school.

Trixie turned around and discreetly rolled up one of the dampened bar towels Then, just as Harold was loading a fresh dip of chaw between his lip and gum, she snapped the towel and sent the can of peppermint Skoal flying, the damp chaw spilling out all over the bar and the guys, all of them shouting and cursing at Harold for letting himself get nipped by the nasty bitch bartender.

In an instant Harold was crawling over the bar and chasing Trixie, who effortlessly vaulted onto a stool on the opposite side just as he was about to brain her with my bottle of Pinot Noir, sending it crashing against the beer mugs underneath the bar in a fearsome riot of shattering glass. “Grab her!” Harold yelled, but nobody wanted to touch the ungainly wench for fear of contracting crabs on contact. Harold then ran around the end and toward us at the bar which Trixie had already vaulted over again. Now she had her baseball bat and was slapping the barrel into her palm, taunting Harold mercilessly.
“Poor little Harold,” Trixie harangued. “So mean to all the girls that he can’t get laid to save his life. Haven’t you heard, Hockalugie? Sisters ain’t goin’ for that bullshit no more.”

Again, Harold jumped up on the bar, kicking at Trixie while she swang at him - he was short enough that she could have reached his head and cracked it open like a cantaloupe. Instead she caught him on the ankle with the bat head and, howling with pain, he fell off the bar like a duck shot out of the sky, smacking his skull as he went down on the corner of a laminate table top. Meanwhile I dialed 9-1-1, and within five minutes the cops had arrived, instantly calling in for an ambulance when they saw the slow, steady stream of blood spreading across the vinyl floor.

"Uh oh," muttered Trixie. "It looks like I've killed the son-of-a-bitch."

I ran into my old friend Harold Hockalugie down at the mortuary the other day, stretched out in
a very comfortable looking casket, dressed in a gold houndstooth sportcoat, a candy cane striped shirt and a royal blue tie with a dozen little silver fly fishermen, each with a fish on the line. True to his profession, he wore Levi's button fly jeans and a full toolbelt around his waist. His beige leather Timberland workboots, barely worn in the last dozen years, look freakishly huge and uncomfortable in the silk-lined box.  I didn't know who dressed him up like that, but I told Sollie that the boots and the jeans had to go.

"Sollie, you don't get it. Harold needs to be dressed for where he is going, not where he's been."

Since Harold's ex and his three daughters had decided to cremate him after the open casket service, against his wishes, I thought we should at dress Harold in an outfit that, once he was reconstituted, would be aligned with his preferred future. So I hurried down to the Good Will and picked out a jazzy lemon yellow LaCoste alligator golf shirt and some green plaid Bermuda shorts. They even had some golf shoes in Harold’s tiny size. The outfit smelled a little musty on the drive back, but I figured it would be nothing compared to Harold’s chemical scent.
Solly and I dressed Harold and set him back in the casket. “Man it really sucks that they’re gonna torch him, he looks so good lying there,” Solly said.

“Yeah. He told me a while back that he didn’t wanna be torched. He was looking forward to stretching out under a well cared-for lawn, smelling the fertilizer, listening to the mower overhead. Right, Harold? Isn’t that what you wanted?”

Though Harold didn’t say, I thought I noticed the corners of his lips turn upward just a smidge.

“Hey, ya know, I bought a few plots over at Mt. Tam a long time ago for situations just like this. You think you can wrangle a few hundred out of his wife and kids?” I figured Solly would probably have something like this up his sleeve. He also knew I would probably foot the bill for my old friend.

“Look,” Solly said, taking me by the arm and walking me out into the casket and urn shop. “If you can scare up five hundred bucks, I’ll take care of everything: the plot, the casket, the gravestone, the burial, the whole ball of wax. Believe me, the full monty costs a lot more than a measly five hundred bucks. Even the economy package.” This was very gracious of Solly, who had brought me into to the casket and urn shop so I could see the costs and would appreciate his generosity.

“All I ask in return, Dan, is that instead of comin’ in here and laying your ‘self-determined’ afterlife schtick on the stiffs…”

“You mean my ‘necro-rhetoric?’”
“Yeah, that too. I want you to get out to the nursing homes and the hospitals while these folks are still alive. Give ‘em your schtick but also put in a good word for Chapel of The Hills. Tell ‘em we specialize in the self-determined afterlife, and can get them set up with a new body for free.” Solly and I wandered back into the embalming room. Harold was still there. There were several other stiffs as well, cooling their heels in closed caskets until it came time for their official viewing. I had prepped each of them for their next move and had received no objections.
Solly’s proposal was enticing, but it also meant that I would be out among the living again, which I wasn’t so sure about. Besides going across the street to Matteucci’s and trips to the grocery store, I hadn’t been out and about since my wife had passed away almost two years ago. She wanted her ashes scattered where the Pacific Ocean meets the San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge, a sort of graveyard itself given it’s status as number one suicide spot in the world. My wife’s father had taken the Golden Gate Bridge to the afterlife, which was the main reason she wanted to be scattered there.
I ruminated on Solly’s proposal while I picked over Harold, ensuring every hair of his mustache was in line and his pock marks sufficiently filled, arranging his hands in his pockets, then across his chest, then over his head, and finally leaving one hand on his head and the other on his belly, just to see if he would start to rub and pat, rub and pat: a trick he never mastered while living, the poor bastard.
“Okay Solly, it’s a deal,” I finally said when my wine alarm went off and my feet starting moving toward the door. “I’ll scare up some dough from the guys across the street.” I figured the gang would want to see Harold planted in the ground like a tree, just like Harold himself might have planted a tree in the ground. Especially under a frequently manicured lawn that looked like a fairway. That's where I got the idea to start planting folks on golf courses, with yardage markers on their memorial in-ground plaques. To avoid disturbing the golfers, the burials would happen at night after an afternoon service in the clubhouse. Of course the only way to visit your dear departed loved one would be to play nine holes, or caddy. They love the idea in Sweden. 

Trying to get the old gang to invest a dime in Hockalugie's proper burial was more challenging than I anticipated. He had insulted everybody in our group one way or another, and we all had to go back a long, long time to remember when he was just a simple funny guy lookin' for a beer and a blow job, back when our requirements for happiness were just that simple. We came up with $450, and Solly went along with us.
It's true that Trixie is not nearly as hard on me as the other guys. It can't have anything to do with aging any more gracefully or handsomely than Wally, Gary, Billy, Arnie, Larry, Teddy, Dave or Harold (now known as the Great Single Guys Club). So it must be something else. Now that it's been two years since I lost Karen, maybe I'll give her a call and find out what she's like when she's not a baseball bat-wielding right hander with a preference for low and outside pitches. After she does her time for manslaughter, of course. I wonder if she would like to join me on these visits to The Redwoods, Greenbrae Care Center, the Tamalpais and Smith Ranch. If anybody can liven up somebody on their last legs, it's her.
For now I'm on my own. Just the other day a decrepit old guy at the Greenbrae Center - a commercial salmon fisherman whose family had abandoned him, so far as I could tell - told me that he loved my idea about the self-determined afterlife. He loved it so much that he made reservations for a plot at Chapel of the Hills, and even wanted me to drive him over there so he could pick his casket and make a few song requests. Driving the old fisherman from Greenbrae down Sir Francis Drake then over to Red Hill Avenue just about did him in, but he made it back to the GCC, so itchin' to get going on the next life that I thought he might check out right then and there. 
We buried Harold Hockalugie in a remote hole near but not under the eucalyptus trees he despised. It was just us guys and a non-denominational preacher (Trixie was already cooling her heels in the clink). We all forgave him for the last twenty years of little-man nastiness, and prayed in our own way that he would come back tall and handsome with a penis like an anaconda.

Then the rest of us went down to Matteucci's where a very comely young woman - the antithesis of Trixie - was polishing her nails behind the bar, just waiting for us. After we got our drinks we retired to a booth where we drank in silence until Wally raised his hand to speak, as if he needed permission.

"Guys, I have a question," Wally Whacker said, jiggling all over, "What the hell is a necro-rhetorician?"

The group was silent. Since I was the one accused of such behavior by our departed friend, I figured I was supposed to come up with something. Finally, all eyes upon me, I said:

"It's what some lonely guys do when they think they have no friends."

And we laughed, and drank, and laughed and drank some more until it was time to go home.

Now on der Kindler for $2.99