Saturday, December 17, 2011


Looked at from the street, Comedy and Tragedy are relatives, who—for reasons of economy—live together, side by side.

For now, all you really need to know about the characters depicted in the unfolding drama is that two families have been cast here by Fate. The set consists of a duplex dwelling that was converted from a carriage house early in the 20th Century. Our family purchased their palace (It needs a little work. But you will love it.) in 1970, the year my brother was born. We live on the left, at number 139, my grandparents on the right, at 137.

On the right side, the audience will see a victory garden, less ambitious than the one tended by Mr. Crockett on PBS, perhaps, but full of treasures nevertheless: cucumbers, peppers, rhubarb, carrots, parsnips, tomatoes, onions, and chives. This is where I dug up a crusty dime minted in 1857.

Beside the garden, there is a pleasant patio full of potted plants sheltered by a large corrugated aluminum awning. Here, men with aquamarine anchors tattooed to their hairy forearms are invited to smoke—veterans of campaigns in the Pacific—exiting with a discrete cough through a side door.

They would never be left alone with their cigarettes, however. These men were always carefully attended by my grandfather. He would excuse himself from the living room like this:

“If all you gals are going to do is gossip, I’m going outside to smoke with Jim.”

“Francis, one of these days, I am going to hit you over the head,” my grandmother would hiss.

Francis was not a smoker himself, or a drinker, or a veteran anything, actually, except for my grandmother’s rolling pin, Chinese checkers and the vinyl chloride vapors of Goodyear. (Enlarged heart, flat feet, 4F. Sorry, son.) Still, he played the role of gracious host to perfection. He will succumb to cancer while I am holding his hand.

With that same hand, on a rickety wooden gardening table, beside the clean blade of a spade my grandmother used for transferring her plants to larger pots, he would habitually place a chipped ashtray decorated with tiny pink and purple pansies. On the reverse side, the glaze bore the legend, ‘Made In Occupied Japan.’

For some reason I could never fully fathom—maybe because he was more ornery than everyone else—the only visitor allowed to smoke in the house was my uncle John, a recently retired shoe salesman. When he insisted, nobody resisted.

When my grandmother tripped, running up the stairs, shouting, “Dad, Dad!” I smiled. When she was forced by grief to complete her journey by crawling on aching knees, bawling like a baby, I almost laughed. I had never seen my grandmother act like a child before. I thought my grandfather agreed. He stood—dentureless—in a pair of periwinkle pajama bottoms and a V-neck t-shirt on the second floor landing—trying to make sense of things.

He was getting ready for work. Third shift.

“Ma, Ma, what is it?”

He lifted her gently by her elbows from where she knelt. While I am sure it took only a few seconds, it seemed like an eternity had to pass before my grandmother could gather her wits together sufficiently to blurt out, “Oh, Francis, John is dead. He had a heart attack.” I had no idea what a heart attack was, but it sounded pretty serious to me, even worse than death.

Suddenly, I felt like crying, too.

In fact, I did cry. So did my brother. I think we were watching Jeopardy! when the phone rang. The tangy scent of fried liver and onions hung in the air. My grandmother was in the kitchen, singing something incomprehensibly lovely, as was her habit, when doing anything dull, like washing dishes.

We had no idea what was going on. Uncle John had never died before. Nobody in our family ever had died until that day—not to my knowledge. What are you supposed to do under such circumstances?

After my grandfather inserted his clean teeth—grimacing in the mirror, pressing a thumb against his upper plate, making sure it was sealed against his gums strongly enough to resist the forces of gravity and permit difficult conversations—he closed the door. I sat on the stairs. I heard a tap gushing into the sink. He emerged a few minutes later clad in a pair of dark slacks, a white shirt and a sea-gray acrylic sweater with a Greek meander design dancing up the sleeves. He smelled ever so faintly of Barbasol.

After making a few quick phone calls, my grandmother drifted off to her bedroom, sobbing again, selecting something suitable to wear to my Aunt’s. My grandfather tied my brother’s shoes while she took her turn in the bathroom.

He took us next door and explained the situation to my mother, before driving my grandmother to stay with her sister, Aunt Midge, and then on to work. He always kept an extra pair of work clothes in the trunk of his car.

As I had already eaten dinner, I rejected the trembling dish of goulash my hysterical mother offered to calm me down. My brother was not a liver fan, so he may have sampled some. That, I don’t remember.

You see, I was confused. I wanted an explanation. Unable to articulate my actual desires, I asked for a Windmill cookie instead. Only my grandfather ate those, of course, and he was backing down the driveway: we didn’t have any.

By way of a compromise, my mother peeled a Ho-Ho and placed it on a plate, still half-wrapped in tinfoil. I didn’t want a Ho-Ho. I was told to stop being a brat or go to bed. I opted for brattiness and went to bed. It was already after 8:00pm, anyway. I saw no reason to sit in the kitchen and sulk.

48 hours later, a prophylactic whisper in the funeral home foyer informed me that my favorite uncle had passed away quietly on his porch, napping beneath The North Tonawanda News, after eating fish and chips at Arthur Treacher’s.

I may not like liars, but I have always admired a lie told with élan. This is part of the appeal of fiction. My mother plucked a pen out of the air that seemed to be swinging rather too freely in space and time from a chain of brass BBs fixed to little a pulpit. She signed for all three of us: Kathleen, Eric and Kyle. She carefully laid the pen to rest in the shadowy valley between the pages of the Visitors Book before she led us to the casket.

My father was at work. He would be dropping by to sign the book and pay his respects to Reality later.


Chweebus said...

Sorry to be so irreverent but...I cracked up over ...

"Uncle John had never died before"

Eric Norris said...

I am delighted that you laughed, sir!

I was hoping somebody would!

la mujer libre said...

Sharp but tender. Funny but touching profound. I loved.

Eric Norris said...

Thanks! It is only a draft of a larger piece.

There are more of these peculiar memories to follow, so stay tuned...