I wake up to the shrills of a 95-year old leather faced woman audibly weeping, tears being shed over the untimely death of her eldest grandchild. Heroin took another one, unfairly and unjustly. She’s surrounded by family, friends, neighbors, people she’s never met, people she’s known for decades, people she’ll never see again. I learn she raised this boy, the one whose picture is propped up on an end table in a tacky, pharmacy purchased gold frame. His eyes look sad, mismatching his grin that exposes yellow crooked teeth.
I had nodded off, slumping over slightly on an uncomfortable folding chair situated in the back of the floral scented room dotted with tissue boxes. As I try to sit up, in order to shake the drowsiness, my thin sweater gets caught on an exposed splinter, pulling me back in. I can’t sleep for shit these days but I’m calm here at the Greenwich Village Funeral Home, at ease. Everyone talks about popping Melatonin at night to cure sleeplessness, haven’t they heard of whiskey? I try to swiftly free myself from the hold of the splinter by whisking my arm forward, which only forces a thread to unravel as I am released, resulting in a small yet visible hole. Fucker.
No one has taken notice to me here. No one ever notices me at these things. Perpetually invisible. I float in and out of the deepest, most despairing moments of these people’s lives, just as the ghosts of these former tangible beings do, whose corpses are rolled out in wooden and metal boxes after being dampened by tears. I soak it all in for pleasure, learn their stories and fill in the blanks when needed since I can only figure out so much via eavesdropping. I create games, to keep it all interesting, fresh, new: what shade of foundation did they use to create that awful orange, thick texture on their sunken in cheeks, Neutrogena 05 or 08? Did they glue the lips together this time or sew them shut, in order to properly achieve that deceitful purse? Duping the audience into believing that this poor soul died donning a smile.
This has all become an obsession. I fiend for it like an addict – the sadness, the woe, the lost wails: “Why me! Why me!” – although a gripping sense of need assumingly less severe than what this dead boy before me felt during his darkest days, a need he fulfilled, leading him to his untimely death, to his jugular being slashed, to his body being dumped free of blood and the foreign poisons that brought him here tonight.
I feel something as I internally mull over the life story I gladly created for him, a twinge of sadness, perhaps? I don’t typically feel what is supposedly coded in “our” DNA, I defy human nature, asking myself everyday why do I get to stay when all of these interesting people must leave? I’m numb, usually, but when I’m here I feel something.
I’ve had my fill, I conclude, I’m replenished for now. As I make my way through the darkly clothed bodies I force a smile, commanding my eyes to express sorrow and my deepest sympathies at those who try to place me. I tuck a St. Christopher bookmark into my back pocket that has Matthew DiContello’s name etched in script on the backside with the years of his life printed underneath (March 7, 1984- November 1, 2011). It’ll be added to my shoebox stash once I return home, my trophies. I sign my name in the log as I always do, Chloe Clemente.
I walk down 7th Avenue greeted by the crisp cool air of November. The breeze stings, I never dress warmly enough in the fall. The smog of the passing taxis cakes over the scent of professionally arranged bouquets that lingers in my sinuses.
I begin to list in my head, one by one, all those whom I’ve lost to addiction. I can’t seem to find an end to the tally quickly enough. It continues for three more blocks, only to be paused by the neon lights of Pinkberry. I go in because I have to – my life is controlled by needs, wants, desires – and I order up a cup of frozen yogurt with cocoa pebbles. I hand over my VIP card full of holes, a new punch brings me one step closer to scoring a freebie.
I allow my brain to freeze as I inhale my dinner and walk the rest of the way home. The FroYo increases my chill, causing me to shiver and clutch my arms pleading for warmth. I think of what’s on deck. I think of tomorrow. I dread work but yearn for the fresh faces to fill the obituary section of the New York Times website in the morning. The new articles and black and white photographs, depicting happier moments, will wash over those that were there yesterday, sending them away. Not only are they dead but now they’re yesterday’s news. I’ll choose carefully, reading each one once, maybe five times, in order to properly select which funeral home I’ll be spending my evening inside tomorrow night, who’s lost life I’ll mourn along with those that loved them once.
As I scour the latest deaths, my attention is always first caught by the artists’ obituaries, igniting my imagination as I envision my own – “Chloe Clemente: street artist, photographer, poetic writer” – but sometimes I stray towards the more interesting stories instead or, like tonight, drug related deaths. On an adventurous day I’ll coolly honor a high profile obit, just so I can provide myself with a challenge later on when I’ll be told my name must be on “the list” in order to gain entry into this exclusive ceremony. I’ll test my talent for deceit, lie my way into the room as I cry on command, pushing moisture from my tear ducts, in order to catch a glimpse of the famous stiff limbs, freshly deceased.
Selecting only one obituary out of the group, one wake to attend, isn’t easy but it’s a must. I never visit two funeral homes in one day. Two cases are far too much research, too much of getting to know someone just to have to let them go as you retreat from their life’s celebration. I like to at least provide that much respect, dedicating my day to one sole and one sole only, basking in their listed hobbies or previous professions like jazz or French cinema that I’ll discover by Googling their name or looking up an old Facebook page.
The next morning it’s raining. The drops of cool water aimlessly fall from the sky, darkening Manhattan’s mood and lighting mine. I press a pot of Stumptown coffee and hurry to my laptop, refreshing NYTimes.com. New faces, mostly old, sparsely young, pop up as the page loads: a painter, architect, lawyer, doctor, supermarket clerk, politician, student, teacher, appraiser, used bookseller, dancer, model. New York City. America. Eclectic tastes, varied existences, everyone unique, no two alike. These stories intrigue me everyday without fail, complete my thirst for a well-rounded idea of how people are supposed to exist.
Each person, every individual gets his or her fair turn. I devote my attention to all the obituaries, reading every word, never scanning, never skipping. I reread the painter’s obituary, the dancer’s, the model’s, but ultimately find myself returning to Jack Hower: used car salesman, beloved husband, father, and grandfather. So plain, so simple, so intriguing. Born and raised in Queens, haven’t visited there for some time.
I follow my typical routine, making sure he’s right for me, and browse the Internet for some goods, for some additional information and insight into this man’s life. There are a few articles that arise, catching my eye, mostly from local newspapers. He’s a good Samaritan, as so it may seem, having once served as a volunteer fireman and rescuing children from a burning apartment building. You don’t see this simplicity anymore: an average Joe who religiously visited the town tavern religiously, every weeknight, who road a hog with his buddies every Saturday in the summer and who came home to a feast of pot roast prepared with love by his stay at home wife. I hit print with each new discovery, tucking the pages into a yellow folder that I label Jack Hower. I scribble down the funeral home’s address and I stuff it into my back pocket for advisement later.
The red line takes me to work where I man the register and answer the most unimaginable, most unpredictable questions and please for advice at at Purple Passion in Chelsea, my best friend Jo’s S&M shop. She sells anything you could possibly desire, including the generic goods like pet costumes, whips, chains, bondage, you name it, she’s got it. People are into weird shit, and lucky for me, I like stories, so I soak it all in. She let me take on hours when I was fired from my old gig for being an unpredictable now show. She also allows me to leave when needed in order to satisfy my needs, she’s aware of my obsession and supports it, clearly she advocates obsessing over the inexplicable.
I knock on the tinted door and am buzzed in. It is necessary, as enforced by law, to keep the place locked at all times, monitoring those who wish to come in in order to keep out the youngins. I must admit, the best part about this gig is when UPS comes in. If a resident of the apartment complex next door isn’t home, the delivery person will leave their package with us for safekeeping. A note is tapped to their door, instructing them to pick up their package at Purple Passion. It never gets old, the moment they waltz inside, thinking to themselves, “I live in Chelsea, I’ve seen it all,” only to have their eyes unconsciously bug out of their head as they take notice to the extra thick dildos, leather leashes, plastic muzzles, and spiked whips they must pass to get to the counter.
I fill Jo in on today’s Queens based selection and further inform her of the others who passed away. She listens, trying to recall if she recognizes any names of the deceased, she doesn’t. People stroll about the store with coffees, some comfortable with their surroundings, some embarrassed. Some come in half naked, some wear hats, sunglasses, hoods, some arrive in head to toe leather, some come in pastel sundresses. Everyone likes it some way, their way. Everyone’s different and everyone has a freak inside, whether they let it fly or not is their prerogative but everyone wants to experiment sexually and only few are privileged enough to have the confidence to ask or boldness to demand it. There’s something for everyone, outlets everywhere.
These days I surround myself with Jo and her friends who are frequent customers. I find myself not have many people of my own recently and have discovered I fit in better with the creatures of the night, those I never dared to associate with until recently. When my mother passed away I went into darkness, into despair, shutting myself out from old high school friends and those I’ve met along the way. They just didn’t do it for me anymore.
As I catch the reflection of my tattoo off the top of a solid gold anal bead, which rests like crown jewels in the glass case below me, I’m reminded of the night I had it done, the night I discovered my mother lifeless and laying on her back, skin blue after choking on her own vomit. The tattoo is taken straight from one of my favorite books, a drawing of a tombstone with the phrase Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt etched within.
I buzz a man into the store, he reminds me of the unassuming type Jack was. It causes me to create short X-rated blips of Jack in my mind, imagining the blow jobs he sure paid for and hand jobs he got in secrecy under the town tavern’s bar top as ZZ Top blared and 8 balls were hit.
Time has come for Queens, for Jack, for my relief, my refresh, my calmness, my serenity. I escape the bondage and ride the blue line for what seems like forever. Knowing what’s to come makes it bearable. I brought my folder along for the ride, to review the material and bask in his wholesomeness. The funeral home is smack in the middle of a wide, dilapidated street. Bums huddle under an overpass in order to keep dry only to be dampened by the tires spit water at them as they speed past. The moist street causes steam to rise off the pavement, as the evening turns warm in the strangest way.
A fire truck roars outside the funeral home. Jack’s buddies cheer and shout his name before entering in unity and forcing a solemn demeanor, which I’m sure is hard after six or eight pints.
I walk inside and clasp my hands together, squeezing them tightly for comfort, which causes my knuckles to turn white. My adrenaline arrives like a freight train, my heart pumps blood rapidly throughout my body, reaching the tip of my toes with a fierce and unexpected arrival. Nerves, joy, despair, sadness for life, excitement for death, all intertwined, indistinguishable. I inch closer toward the amber carpeted room that fake nailed women and rough looking men trickle out of, instantly smelling the freshly cut flowers and butterscotch candies.
I turn sharply with anticipation, searching, quickly finding his cherry wood casket. My eyes follow the smooth lid trimmed with silver until I arrive at his mustachioed face, skin a bit grey, a bit white, from too much powder, one shade too light for his complexion. His blazer is pinned with medals and flags and pictures of Jack are hung throughout the room. The smell of alcohol penetrates, those with red faces and wet cheeks are the culprits.
There they are, the family: Donna, the wife, Jack Jr., the son, Kelly, and Rebecca, the grandchildren. I smile to those I pass and take a seat in a folding chair in the back of the room, my secure cockpit that allows me to survey the room, dot my I’s and cross my T’s, as I complete the life story of Jack Hower: used car salesman, volunteer firefighter, beloved husband, father, and grandfather. I close my eyes and allow it all to sink in, allow my calmness to enter, peace to penetrate, and I slowly drift off into a starless space.