Monday, October 26, 2009

stain, Part IX

flag  n.  1  a piece of cloth with distinctive colors, patterns, or symbolic devices
vi. 2  to lose strength; grow weak or tired

Working through the crowd at the mall, heading to Sears to get a new tie.  A poster shop’s opened up where the old candle and incense store used to be.  Farrah Fawcett’s sitting in the front window, smiling at you with her head thrown back, her nipples poking up under her one-piece, the right one pointing at the door.
     The place still reeks.  Sweet smoke, perfumed wax.  Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ new single, “Refugee,” thumps with too much bass out of four Bose speakers hanging in the corners.  Somewhere, somehow, somebody musta kicked you around some.  Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin stare down bigger than life from the back wall.


These are our heroes
Jim, Janis, and Jimi
Casualties of war
A war fought by many
Defiance, rebellion
Call it what you will
Is there a rock-n-roll heaven
Or did rock shoot them to hell

Generations change
No two are alike
They don’t share the same heroes
See things in different light
It’s often the elders
Are condemning the young
For the heroes they’ve chosen
For the things that they’ve done

But these are our heroes
Jim, Janis, and Jimi
Casualties of war
A war fought by many
Defiance, rebellion
Call it what you will
Is there a rock-n-roll heaven
Or did rock shoot them to hell

“Hey, man.  Need some help?”  The mustache looks Cheech, but the voice is more Chong.
     “Nah, man.  Just lookin’.”
     “That’s cool.  We got T-shirts over on that wall,” he points to the back, then jerks his thumb over his shoulder toward the register.  “Rollin’ papers and bowls are up front.”
     Check out the paraphernalia.  It’s all laid out in the glass case.  Not much to see, and what they do have is way overpriced.  Not even one bong.  Fuck this place.  Ain’t got sh—  What’s that on the shelf?  A round stand, bunch of little flags in it.  An index card up against it with “Desk Flags” in black magic marker.  A few American ones up front, three or four North Carolina ones around one side, a couple of Stars and Bars around the other.  That red and yellow one in the back looks familiar.  Ask to see it.  The guy takes the stand down, pulls the flag out.
     “The Marines, man?”  He lays it on the counter.  “You don’t look like no Gomer.”  Must be talking about my ponytail.
     “Nah, man.  It’s not for me.  I was thinkin’ about gettin’ it for . . . for my dad.  How much?”
     “Buck and a half, man.  You want it?”
     “Yeah, what the hell.”  Pull a couple of ones out of your pocket, toss ’em on the counter.
     Cheech ’n Chong punches some keys on the register.  It dings and spits the drawer out.  He picks up the ones, shakes his head at you while he un-wads ’em, lines up the George Washingtons.  He snaps a clip in the drawer up, puts the bills under it, snaps the clip down, digs your change out and hands it over, pushes the drawer closed, asks do you want a receipt.  Just shake your head back at him.  He picks the flag up, holds it spread in front of him with both hands.  A gold eagle sits on top of a gray globe that’s got a gold anchor running through it, like an arrow through a Valentine’s Day heart.  The eagle’s got a white banner over its head with red letters on it.  “Semper fidelis,” Cheech ’n Chong reads.  “Sounds heavy, dude.  What’s it mean?”
     It does sound kind of familiar.  Probably heard it from the old man.  Maybe just “semper fi.”  The guy’s waiting for an answer.  “You got me, man.  I don’t know what it means.”
     He rolls the flag up, snaps a little rubber band around it.  “Need a bag, man?”
     “Nah.”  Just stick it in your back pocket.  Let’s get to Sears.

“Pallbearers need to go to the back of the car.”  The hearse driver was talking to me and Don.  Yeah, no shit.  Where the hell else would we go?  “The head will need to point toward Main Street, so we’ll have to turn around before taking him in.”  He pointed to a short wooden stake in the ground near the green and white striped tent that covered the hole and the white wooden folding chairs sitting in front of it.  An orange ribbon on the stake waved in the breeze.  “Pass that marker there, switch hands, turn around, and carry him in.  You fellas got that?”
     “Yeah, we got it.”  That came out a little more pissed than I meant it to.
     “Take it easy,” Don mumbled.  “The man’s just doin’ his job.”
     “I know.  I just wanna get this over with.”  It was cloudy as hell, and kind of cool for the middle of August.  It started to rain a little as soon as we got to the back of the hearse.  “Picked a helluva day to get buried, didn’t he?”
     The nurse’d ripped the blood pressure cuff off his arm, joked how he was gonna live, at least through her shift.  He didn’t.  They’d called it a mild heart.  Said we shouldn’t worry.  Wasn’t even any need to put him in Intensive Care.  Sure as hell wasn’t any need to put him in there now.

You lived a block away from Rich & Thompson's Funeral Home for eighteen years without ever setting foot in the place.  The old lady wanted you and Don to go give ’em some clothes to bury the . . . the body in.  The three of us went through his things.  The carbine was still standing in the back of the closet.  She was set on finding something other than the old tan suit he wore to mass on Sundays.  “He’s not gonna embarrass me in that get-up ever again.”  Don found a gray jacket in a pile of clothes Aunt Elsie’d dumped off at the house when Uncle John died.  The sleeves weren’t even—Uncle John’s left arm had been a couple inches shorter than his right—and there weren’t any pants to match.  She handed Don the pants from the tan suit.  “I guess you can take these old things after all.  Besides, he could be wearin’ nothin’ but his boxers and nobody’d know.”
     Don laughed.
     She took his white shirt from the hanger, his old navy blue tie from the nail inside the closet door, his black wingtips from under the bed.  She handed ’em all to Don as she went.  “Don’t just standing there doin’ nothing, Jim.  Get a pair of socks from the dresser.”  You knew which drawer he kept ’em in.  The same drawer where you’d found your bowl.  The same drawer where he kept the key ring with the two little Master keys.  They were right where you’d left ’em.  You lifted ’em out while nobody was looking, stuck ’em in your pocket.  Been carrying ’em around ever since.  There was only one pair of dress socks.  Black, with holes in both heels, and in one of the big toes.  You showed the old lady.  “Those’ll haf’ta do.”  She gave the socks to Don.  Me and him were almost out of the room when she called after us.  “Be sure you tell ’em to button the jacket so that stain on his tie doesn’t show.”  She shook her head.  “That man shoulda worn a bib.”
      Don tossed me the clothes as we walked down the hall to our room to get changed.  The old lady wasn’t about to let us go to Rich & Thompson’s wearing jeans.  I got my new gray suit out of the closet, laid it on my bed.  Graduation present from the folks.  Don got the same thing, only navy blue.  The old lady took me to the mall for the suit.  Had a hard time convincing her that both plaid and polyester were out, at least as far as I was concerned, even if Sears didn’t know it yet.  She wouldn’t give in on the bow tie though.  Said it made you look like you were "somebody."  The old man about spit up his beer when he saw that red clip-on piece of shit, after we got home and the old lady made me put on my new duds to show him.  When I came in from work the next day, he was standing in the living room holding a new navy blue tie.  A real tie, one of those straight ones like he wore, one that you have to tie yourself.
     “Cost eight bucks,” he mumbled when he chucked it at me.  “Don’t mess it up.”
     “Hey.”  Don was putting on his white shirt with the button-down collar.  I was picking lint from my new tie.  “You gonna get that dressed up?”
     “Nah, I just wanted to make sure this stuff was clean.  Wouldn’t wanna embarrass the old lady at the funeral.”  I put the tie down, got a hanger from the closet, folded the tan pants over it, hung the old man’s shirt and Uncle John’s jacket on top.  Don was tucking his shirt in his good pants.  “You think we oughta take a belt?”  Don shrugged, said he’d go ask the old lady.  As soon as he’d left the room, I rolled up my tie and shoved it in the pocket of Uncle John’s jacket, then put the old man’s tie in the closet with my suit.  I put on my corduroys and Sunday shirt, pulled the hanger of clothes over my shoulder, met Don in the hall.
     “Got the belt,” he said.  It was the black leather strap.  It was cracked in the middle where it’d been doubled over so many times.

A tall, skinny guy met us in the lobby at Rich & Thompson’s, told us his name was Mr. Frederick.  He took the clothes, hung ’em on a coat rack in the corner, asked us to follow him to his office.  You could’ve hung meat in that place it was so cold.  The tile floor was about the same gray as Don’s model battleship.  The baseboards were black.
     Mr. Frederick’s office didn’t have a window.  His desk had a lamp on it, with one leather chair behind it and two out in front facing it.  He sat on the edge of his chair and looked at me, then Don.  “I’ll need some information about your father.”  His voice was real deep, even though he was just about whispering.  “Date and place of birth.  The names of his parents and surviving family members.  Employment.  Religious and social affiliations.  That sort of thing.”
     I looked over at Don.  He was looking at me.
     We were able to answer most of the questions, but not all of ’em.  Like, we knew when his birthday was, but Don made me call home to ask the old lady his exact age.  He was—he had been—fifty-three.  She said he didn’t have any social affiliations.
     “We now need to make arrangements for the burial.”  I wasn’t sure what Mr. Frederick was talking about, but figured getting a shovel would be a good start.  Sheriff Taylor popped into my head, strumming his guitar and singing to ol’ Rafe.  Rafe didn’t want to get a tetanus shot, and Andy was trying to scare him into it by telling him how great his funeral was gonna be.  Dig my grave with a silver spade.  Rafe finally broke down and got the tetanus shot.
     Mr. Frederick must’ve seen we didn’t have a clue.  “We need to select a coffin.  We have a range of . . . prices.  Do you have a figure in mind?”  Me and Don looked at each other again.  I just asked to use the phone instead of waiting to be told to.  The old lady said it was none of my business how much she could afford, but then said all he left was an insurance policy worth a couple thousand.  Mr. Frederick said he’d show us something from the “economy line.”  I pictured a plain pine box, but when we saw Model #300, it wasn’t so bad.  Nothing fancy, but not bad.  Kind of bronze looking, with a tan lining.  Mr. Frederick said a vault wouldn’t be necessary.  The concrete box the coffin goes in.  If you can afford one.  There was maybe twenty or twenty-five coffins in the room—creepy, man—and all of ’em were nicer than the one we got, but it still looked pretty decent.
     “Hey,” Don said.  “Nobody’ll be able to see it once it’s in the ground anyway.”
     He laughed.  Mr. Frederick didn’t.

It was just about noon when the funeral procession got to the gravesite.  It started raining real light as soon as me and Don got to the back of the hearse.  Mike was already there, blubbering like a baby and waiting for somebody to open the door and pull the box out.  The driver of the limo—the family car—pulled a couple umbrellas from the trunk, opened one up for the old lady as she got out, then the other for Aunt Elsie.  The hearse driver stood there with me and Don and Mike.  The limo driver walked over with Mr. Frederick and two other guys I’d never seen before.  Must’ve been from the funeral home.  Wondered if they worked in back.  Embalming and shit.  Good thing they didn’t want to shake hands.  Sick bastards.  Goddamn butchers.
     A little ways off from the main attraction, out of the way but not out of sight, there was a group of Marines.  Seven grunts were spiffed up and standing in a row at attention with an officer out in front.  They had white rifles at their sides, holding ’em by the tops of the barrels, the butts resting on the ground.  The old man would’ve been glad to see those jarheads there.  Didn’t tell anybody about it, but I’d called up the recruiting office downtown, told ’em that the old man had died, that he’d been one of them in World War II and had landed on Guadalcanal, got shot in the line of duty.  Asked if he could be buried in the little military section they got at the cemetery, get one of those little white headstones with a cross on it.  The sergeant said that area was reserved for men who’d been killed in battle, but that the old man would get a military footstone for his grave, and that it wouldn’t cost anything.  He asked where and when the funeral was, said he’d see that some men were sent out, that everything would be taken care of.  Didn’t know what he was talking about, but was glad to see those guys standing there.  Felt kind of good about making that call.  Hell, being a Marine was the only thing in his life I ever knew the old man was proud of.


Soldier boy
Soldier toy
Is soldier what you are indeed
Soldier man
Of Uncle Sam
The call of war the call you heed
Mr. Soldier, sir
In time of war
In time of need
Are you gonna kill me
Soldier dad
What a life you’ve had
Would soldier son make you proud of me
Soldier friend
You’ve changed where you’ve been
See things different, as the view is to me
Of soldier boy
In lines so bold
Like times of old
In a time to be

Soldier vet
Ain’t over it yet
A soldier what you’ll be for life
Civilian now
But still, somehow
Can’t shake the nightmares, can’t sleep with your wife
Big soldier man
The shell turns to sand
A shell what you are
In your wheelchair

Monuments Of Stone

Wreaths of flowers
Monuments of stone
Tombs erected for soldiers unknown
Nations of man
Follow their leader
Living forever as a monument of stone
Immortal words
Of mortal man
Carved into the soul
Carved into the stone
The stone so prim and proper
So poised and proud
The stare fixed and vacant
Gazing out above us all
Time-weathered features
Cut into stone
In time stone will crumble
As time will roll on
Time will remove
Monuments of stone

Mr. Tell-the-Pallbearers-Where-to-Go opened the back door of the hearse and pulled the handle on the end of the coffin.  Economy Model #300 slid out a few feet on the rollers mounted inside the car.  Me and Don took a handle on either side.  As we eased the box out, the other guys paired of and fell in behind us.  Wondered why we needed so many guys, thought that six would’ve been plenty, that maybe they wanted to have eight ’cause they didn’t think me and Don could hold up our end.  But when that thing cleared the car, I had to use both hands.  Jesus, it was heavy.  Got scared we’d drop the damn thing.  Was glad we couldn’t afford anything bigger.  The Deluxe probably would’ve pulled my fuckin’ arm out of socket.
     We stepped off the pavement, lugged the coffin toward that orange marker.  Wet grass and slick dress shoes are not a good combination, especially under that much weight.  Don’t let go, damn it.  Don’t you dare let go.  Just kind of shuffled along with everybody else, trying not to slip, worrying about Mike stepping on my heels, but we managed to get under the tent and set the box down without dropping it.  God, the old lady would’ve loved that.  Talk about embarrassing.
     Me and Don took the seats beside her and Aunt Elsie.  There must’ve been about twenty chairs under the tent.  Not one was empty.  There were people standing behind the chairs, and even more standing out in the rain ’cause they couldn’t fit under the tent.  Most were from the plant.  Mike was sitting right behind me, blew his nose loud as hell.  He was still crying like a little girl.  He put a hand on my shoulder, boo-hooed in my ear.  “He was a great guy, Jim.  You should be darn proud of him.”
     A couple more Marines, one with three bars on the sleeve of his dress blues, the other with two, draped the ol’ Stars and Stripes over the coffin, then planted themselves at either end.  They just stood there stiff as hell, facing each other across the box with those damn crew cuts peeking out from under their white hats.  Was pretty sure theirs looked a lot better than anything me and Don ever got on the back porch.  Heard Don talking to the old lady about that one time, asking why we weren’t getting the buzz cuts anymore.  She said this one day the old man’d had to go down to the school, and all the kids were outside.  Must’ve been recess.  And if I was out there, I must not’ve had a Winn-Dixie patty for lunch.  The old man told her two of the kids stood out like sore thumbs.  It was me and Don, and our crew cuts were what made us stand out.  He never did cut our hair again.  Once in a while he’d say I looked like a girl, but he never cut it.  Never even made me go get it cut.
     Must’ve been pollen from all the flowers, ’cause my eyes started to water.  Bent my head down, took a deep breath in through my nose, held it until they cleared.
     Father Connolly walked over from where he’d been standing under a corner of the tent, his head bowed, his hands folded on his chest, his gray hair needing to be combed.  Fucker still wears a swoop.  He’s bald on top, but grows his hair long on one side and combs it over.  Like nobody can tell.  A little wind and it sticks straight out or hangs down.  As usual—or usual when he wasn’t saying mass anyway—he was wearing nothing but black.  Like the commercial for that greatest hits album.  Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.  The man in black.  Black shoes with black socks.  Black pants.  Black shirt with black buttons under a black jacket.  There is the square of white collar on his neck, but that’s it.  Couldn’t help wondering if he was wearing black boxers too.  Nobody’d know.  I fell into a burnin’ ring of fire.  That’d be a good song for a Preparation H commercial.  And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire.  The ring of fire.
     “Friends,” Father Connolly and that damn soft voice I try not to fall asleep to during mass.  He kept his hands folded, but dropped them down in front of his—  Well, down below his waist.  “We are here to say our final farewell to Dean.  He was a good husband.”  I snuck a peek at the old lady, but she didn’t even blink.  “A loving father.”  Cut my eyes at Don.  He was smiling.  “Defender of his country.”  Couldn’t tell if the two Marines were even breathing.  He went on just long enough for my eyelids to get heavy.  “Let us remember him always.”  He bowed his head again, raised his folded hands up to his chest as he walked back to his corner, then unfolded ’em and tried to straighten out his swoop.
     The two Marines came back to life, took a step toward the ends of the coffin, lifted the flag off.  They stepped sideways together toward us, then, with their white gloves, folded the flag in thirds longways.  The corporal started folding it into triangles as he moved toward the sergeant, one stiff baby step at a time.  When he got to the end, he held the folded flag while the sergeant pulled what sounded like some loose change out of his pocket and stuck it in the folds.  Then the corporal baby-stepped back to his end of the coffin while the sergeant baby-stepped toward the old lady, each one moving in a straight line and making the turns at right angles.  The sergeant whispered something to her about pride, duty, and service to country as he handed her the flag.
     Off in the distance, the officer barked an order.  It was followed by the crack of seven rifles.  He barked again for a second volley, then a third.  Just when I thought it was over, a bugle started blowing taps.  That kind of got to me.  Goddamn jarheads.


I’m the son of my mother
Just like any other
The son of a husband and a wife
The son of my father
The brother to his daughter
Out on my own leading my life
Black sheep of the family
Putting some distance between them and me
Got to find out for myself what’s wrong and right

But I’ve got to maintain
Body and soul
No, I can’t lose control
No more rolling the dice
At whatever the price

Got a bottle for a friend
Cigarettes constant companions
Bad company is all I keep
Don’t know what I’m thinking of
I just can’t seem to get enough
Party hearty until I sleep
Black sheep of the family
Putting some distance between them and me
Got to find out for myself what’s right, you see

And I’ve got to maintain
Body and soul
No, I can’t lose control
No more running away
Find my shelter and stay

Unbuttoned my suit coat as I walked into the living room after the funeral.  “Here, Jim.”  The old lady handed me the folded flag.  “Find a place to put this.”
     It clinked when I took it from her.  Reached inside, pulled out what the sergeant had put in.  It was three empty shells.  Three spent rifle shells.  I guess they call ’em cartridges.
     “Good Lord, Jim.”  The old lady was shaking her head.  “What’s that you got on your tie?”

I finally broke down and did it.  Made an appointment with Dr. Braxton.  Got the new tie, leaving the mall, gonna head over there now.  That Grateful Dead song, that cover they did on Shakedown Street.  A Little Rascals tune, wasn’t it?  I said now Doctor, (Doctor) Mr. MD, (Doctor).  It won’t stop.  Oh, can you tell me (Doctor) What’s ailin’ me? (Doctor).  Driving me crazy.  He said yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.  (Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah).  All you need, all you really need.  Shut the fuck up!  The old man’s been in the ground about a week now, but that’s got nothing to do with going back.  Been thinking about going for a long time.  Don’t know why.  Maybe ’cause sometimes I think I’m losing it.  But it’s not like seeing him will change anything.  Maybe it’ll do some good though.  Maybe I can tell him everything now.  Before it’s too late.

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my pen name, tj jude, is spelled EXACTLY like that. All lower-case letters, no punctuation. I write. Here you will find my novel, stain, also spelled in lower case. I post poetry on myspace and facebook. I also do artwork occasionally, mainly oil paintings. I have done some cartoons, a number of which are supposed to appear in this novel, but I have yet to figure out how to post them so that they will remain posted any longer than I am on this blogsite. As soon as I log out and log back in, they are no longer embedded in the text.