When I was younger, I honestly can’t remember how old I was when my grandfather passed away, maybe twelve or eleven, I attended his funeral and did everything in my power to avoid looking at the body. It was open casket, and while I had been to at least one funeral before I head never actually seen a dead body, let alone the body of my grandfather. I still remember the night he died because I remember Dad answering the phone regularly, his mother calling him with updates. The old man had had one his legs amputated, some disease that was never fully explained to me, and when I sat in the dark and heard the phone ring one last time I knew he was gone. My grandfather was, and is still is a model of masculinity for me. He was a fantastic dancer, chain smoker, unashamed gun owner, stern Democrat, and for at least forty years he welded oil pipes. I’d known him before the stroke, before his mind had been wiped clean of every word he’d ever learned over the course of his life, before he’d been reduced to pissing in plastic cups and shitting on a padded toilet seat that made it a bitch to pee whenever we went down to visit. I didn’t want to look in the casket. Not because I was afraid of death, but because I wanted to be alone when I did it.
For me it was about strength, it was about facing the old man and having a small intimate moment. My grandfather was a man I loved and respected and I waited patiently by a bouquet of flowers that felt and smelt like chalk until I saw nobody by the body. The herds of old ladies decorated in pastel greys and pinks, there might have been pinks and if there were what kind of outlandish pimp dresses in pink to a funeral? I walked up to the casket, ready to say my goodbye when my grandmother jumped me out of nowhere. She and three women I didn’t recognize or know and care for at that moment shoved me along carefully up to the casket. The figure appeared. I stood my ground. I looked in.
His suit was the blue color I associated him with. It wasn’t a passionate color you could taste with your tongue, it was the blue of a man who spent his life working. His hair was stiff and pointed up, and the color was off. His hands were tucked above his waist, a position he had never and would never assume. But it was his skin and lips that I remember most. His color had been creamy peach with wet leather, his Cherokee blood always coming through, and his lips had been swallowed up by the color appearing only moderately pink. Now his skin looked like the wrong foundation and his lips were purple, clamped shut.
I broke. Seeing the old man I just broke. My grandmother, as if feeding off of my emotions began to cry herself and said something along the lines of “oh honey,” before her crowd surrounded me. I managed to shake them off and march down the aisle until I was in the front room. People watched me but I didn’t care, I tucked myself into a corner, stuck my head between my legs, and wept. They’d turned my grandfather into a sex doll.
I bought myself a copy of David Sedaris’s book When You Are Engulfed in Flames because the cover was a Van Gough painting, Skull with Cigarette, and I love skeletons, and I love David Sedaris, so the two of them together promised only brilliance. I know buying myself a book for Christmas and expecting my parents to wrap it sounds selfish and monstrous, but in my defense Barnes & Noble was offering free gift wrapping, plus everyone in my family does it. My father usually gets three presents for Christmas because he’s purchased some fancy tool that’s taken up half the space in his garage and so the lingering gifts are usually a NCIS DVD and some book about Naval warfare. The reason for buying the book though had less to do with skeletons than it did the author. I’d read Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls and written a review of the book and not long thereafter I began collecting the man’s work to complete my library with every intention of reviewing them as well. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk came and so did Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim too, but for whatever reason the muse didn’t call, she’s such a drama queen, it was her sister and it was only once, but when I finished the last essay in the collection, The Smoking Section, I knew I couldn’t pussyfoot out this time.
But what does the book have to do with my grandfather and a shit mortician’s make-up job? About every essay in the collection of When You Are Engulfed in Flames has some element in it that addresses the issue of death; each story is designed to address or hint at mortality and, since it is David Sedaris, absorb the absurdity of the event that spawned the realization. Sedaris’s style of self-immolation, coupled with ego padding make this exercise as hilarious as it is morbid.
Take for instance a passage from the essay Monster Mash:
Even as a child I was fascinated by death, not in a spiritual sense, but in an aesthetic one. A hamster of a guinea pig would pass away, and, after burying the body, I’d dig in back up: over and over, until all that remained was a shoddy pelt. It earned me a certain reputation, especially when I moved on to other people’s pets. “Igor,” they called me. “Wicked, spooky.” But I think my interest was actually fairly common, at least among adolescent boys. At that age, death is something that happens only to animals and grandparents, and studying it is like a science project, the good kind that doesn’t involve homework. Most kids grow out of it, but the passing of time only heightened my curiosity. (110).
For the record I never dug up any pets when I was a kid, but I did have a similar morbid curiosity with death that eventually spiraled into a fondness for Heavy Metal. A habit of mine was stealing away to the horror section of Hastings to look at the DVDS that promised an endless sea of mutilation and blood. It was never that I wanted to kill any of these people, but there was some contentment in being so close to death. It was an abstract concept that, like Sedaris explains, only happened to people older than myself. Looking at the movies, and other gruesome pictures similar to it, was a way of learning early of my mortality so that later, when I began to recognize more and more that death happens to everyone, I was prepared. Thanks Freddy Kuregar. Actually fuck Freddy Cruegar, Long Live Michael Myers!
The reader may get the impression that Sedaris’s book is only about the morbid end of life, but this isn’t the case. Sedaris is able to execute a wide variety of deaths both literal and symbolic. In his essay Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie he describes his tendency to dress himself like “a hobo,” meaning that his selections of clothes are not avante garde so much as ”take what you can get.” In the essay his father recommends a bow tie:
My inner hobo begged me not to do it, but I foolishly caved in, thinking it couldn’t hurt to make an old man happy. Then again, maybe I was just tired and wanted to get through the evening saying as little as possible. The thing about a bow tie is that it does a lot of the talking for you. “Hey!” it shouts. “Look over here. I’m friendly, I’m interesting!” At least that’s what I thought it was saying. (60).
I thought much the same thing myself. I own five or six bow ties, however they aren’t the GQ modeled cloth masterpieces that I don’t know how to tie. In fact they’re the kitsch mass produced bowties decorated with moustaches, the Gryffendor logo, the Union Jack, and, my personal favorite, the black and white polka dot all of which are held on the body by a black elastic band. My bow ties don’t scream out culture and sophistication when I wear them, they scream out to people “Hey! I’m interesting! Ask me something!” They’re also a rejection of the standard tie I was forced to wear to chapel every Thursday for twelve years of my life. Last year during National Coming Out Day I wore that polka dot tie as well as a royal purple button down shirt, a solid black vest, and a black kilt as I handed out free condoms and candy to passing students who laughed. The kilt was the main element of my outfit and, much like the bowtie, it was supposed to be odd and strange and funny and weird. I wanted people to laugh at me and enjoy themselves and the bow tie was the bow on my beautiful package and I wish I hadn’t just written that.
This thought entered my head as I read the preceding quote, but a page later my world melted in an existential panic.
It was my friend Frank, a writer in San Francisco, who finally set me straight. When asked about my new look he put down his fork and stared at me for a few moments. “A bow tie announces to the world that you can no longer get an erection.” (61).
Imagine my panic and terror as I pictured every women and every man staring at that bow tie as I handed them condom with a smile on my face. The thought that drifted through their heads as they saw the connection of the bow tie and the rubber. Did they laugh at me then or later? Did they craft malicious visions and mockeries in their minds picturing me explaining to some girl or my wife that this never happened to me? Oh god they were smiling, what did they think of me, what did my wife think of me? And this of course kept me reading as Sedaris went on to perfectly explain this panic:
And that is exactly what a bow tie says. Not that you’re powerless, but that you’re impotent. People offer to take you home, not because you’re sexy but because you’re sexless, a neutered cat in need of a good stiff cuddle. This doesn’t mean that the bow tie is necessarily wrong for me, just that it’s a bit premature. When I explained this to my father, he rolled his eyes. Then he said that I had no personality. “you’re a lump.” (62).
My bow ties sit in the back of my closet next to an aluminum skeleton. I haven’t the heart to wear them for a while.
This skeletons though brings me to my favorite essay in the collection Memento Mori. His partner Hugh wanted a skeleton for Christmas and so he hunts for one, he finds one originally but the store won’t sell it claiming it’s their mascot, and when Hughs opens it the first thing he does is hang it in their bedroom.
I assumed he’d be using the skeleton as a model and was a little put off when, instead of taking it to his studio, he carried it into the bedroom and hung it from the ceiling.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked.
The following morning, I reached undder the bed for a discarded sock and found what I thought was a three-tiered earring. It looked like something you’d get a craft fair, not pretty, but definiitly handmade, fashioned from what looked like petrified wood. I was just holding it to the side of my head when I thought, Hang on, this is an index finger.
I don’t think of myself as overly prissy, but it bothered me to find a finger on my bedroom floor. “If this thing is going to start shedding parts, you really should put it in your studio,” I said to Hugh, who told me that it was his present and he’d keep it wherever the hell he wanted to. Then he got out some wire and reattached the missing finger. (153).
This story seemed to possess a special relevance for me because everything I write is in front of a skeleton, or really behind it. My wife has had, ever since she was a little girl that growled at people, a fascination/reverence of skulls and skeletons, so much so that when she turned sixteen she asked her parents for a complete one. Now an actual human skeleton can run anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, so the model she got was fake but still somewhere around $180. The bones are obviously fake; when the light shines on them they have a dull plastic sheen and a few “teeth” are “missing” giving the appearance that this plastic person was a meth addict in their pathetic plastic life. She’s glued a moustache to the face, and when I first met him, for it is a he, he wore a purple beret. My wife informed me that his name was Harold.
I know some men that would have been put off by a skeleton right next to the door when they walk in, the kind of woman that keeps a skeleton summons images of witches severing penises with their fangs before boiling them in iron pots to high pitched cackling, but I didn’t. Growing up watching Tim Burton films on repeat ad nauseum I didn’t feel afraid or put off by Harold, in fact I loved the guy. I would greet him every time I entered her apartment. After we got married there was a small conflict of where to keep him in our house, but it didn’t take long for him to wind up in my office.
The similarity, or that moment when I recognized a similar development in my own life had a certain charm, as did his later examination of the fact:
It’s funny how certain objects convey a message—my washer and dryer, for example. They can’t speak, of course, but whenever I pass them they remind me that I’m doing fairly well. “No more laundromat for you,” they hum. My stove, a downer, tells me every day that I can’t cook, and before I can defend myself my scale jumps in, shouting from the bathroom, “Well, he must be doing something. My numbers are off the charts.” The skeleton has a much more limitec vocabulary and says only one thing: “you are going to die.” (154).
When I look at Harold from sitting in my desk I see his ass first, or really his hollow pelvis and coccyx. Harold ass doesn’t tell me that I’m going to die, but really that my fat ass is one day going to be gone, and that’s a troublesome thought as I sit in front of my computer, literally surrounded by books, writing and sending out essays hoping somebody somewhere will give a shit and read them. I’ve taken to using Harold as a kind of Coat rack. He wears my hat, my scarves, and holds my Barnes & Noble Catch-22 bag for me in one hand. Very well dressed gentleman he’s become these days. Whenever I get home the first action I perform is shuffle to my office, say hello to him, and say something or other before returning him his hat. ‘Here you are sir, thanks for letting me borrow it.” Harold’s become the man in the office, occupying and watching after the books in my absence, and it’s come to the point that, if she tried, my wife would never be able to take him back.
Harold doesn’t just tell me, remind me, that I’m going to die, he reminds me that I only have a certain amount of time before I do. That work needs to be done, but that it doesn’t matter anyway because you can only ever appreciate the complicated riddle of a skulls smile until death stops being something that happens to grandparents. Staring at a skeletons ass really gives you perspective in this life.
These musings and memories are not meant to be indulgent but rather to be illustrative of Sadaris’s ability to capture the little moments and decisions in his life and note the absurdity of them. When You Are Engulfed in Flames tackles the day to day experiences that remind the writer of death, whether it’s the complete death of individual existence, or else the death of someone he knew and was. It is a platitude, but each morning a person is reborn and given an opportunity to do and be more than they were before, but as is often the case we simply fall into a pattern of life because our desire for comfort and familiarity takes precedence. Death is, as Camus and countless other observed, the ultimate absurdity, or as Eric Idle put it best, “for Life is Quite Absurd, and death’s the final word.”
I’ll end with one last observance. In the collection is an essay entitled Old Faithful, which also appeared in The Best American Essays of 2005. It begins with a small and ominous line:
Out of nowhere I developed this lump. (228).
One of my history professors, who I later discovered to be bat-crap crazy and despised by many of the people in her department, shared to me one day that she never thought she would become that old woman always discussing her health problems. It was a small matter-of-fact statement, not really conversation, but it was eye opening. No friends of mine discussed their health because, apart from hang-overs, nobody really suffered any problems. Illness, like death, only happened to old people. But Sedaris uses this ailment to touch upon a different direction. His partner Hugh offers to lance the boil, and after opening it up, dry heaving, and cleaning it they wind up back in bed together.
When my boil was empty, he doused it with alcohol and put a bandage on it, as if it had been a minor injury, a shaving cut, a skinned knee, something normal he hadn’t milked like a dead cow. And this, to me, was worth at least a hundred of the hundred and twenty nights of Sodom. Back in bed I referred to him as Sir Lance-a lot.
“Once is not a lot,” he said.
This was true, but Sir Lance Occasionally lacks a certain ring.
“Besides,” I said. “I know you’ll do it again if I need you to. We’re an aging monogamous couple, and this is all part of the bargain.”
The thought of this kept Hugh awake that night, and still does. We go to bed and he stares toward the windows as I sleep soundly beside him, my bandaged boil silently weeping onto the sheets. (238-9).
Looking at this passage I think about the fact I’m about four and half months away from my second wedding anniversary. Edith and I have not been married long, but we were engaged for three years before we tied the knot. Our relationship is nowhere near an aging monogamous couple, but I’ve found already a real comfort in the companionship, and looking at this essay I think about the likeliest scenario of such an event. My wife wouldn’t lance the boil, nor would she offer to, but I know as soon as I mentioned it she would disappear into her phone and within an hour she would find the diagnosis, home-made recommendations for the proper way of treating it, three doctors in town I could go see the next day, and she would carefully, and lovingly, pester me into submission before my masculine façade bullshit could take over. And if that didn’t work she would raise one eyebrow and my spine would melt.
When You Are Engulfed In Flames doesn’t prepare the reader for death, so much as it readies the reader to recognize the strange beauty of life and its oddities. There are few books that possess a wondrous assortment of experiences and observations about mortality that can still make you laugh. Sedaris’s book will most likely find its way next to Johns across American, for often his work is found in the humor section beside MAD books and biographies of Amy Poehler, but the reader that picks the book up hoping to find something to read while he squeezes out a turd will most likely be bumfuzzled and left wondering at the skeleton on the cover smoking his cigarette wondering what’s so funny.
When You Are Engulfed In Flames can be found at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Hastings, and Wherever books are sold.
I really wanted to squeeze this quote in somehow but I hit the 3000 mark and I didn’t want to push it too far. It seemed a crime though to review this book and not give the reader, arguably the best paragraph written in the entire work. Please enjoy:
Shit is the tofu of cursing and be molded to whichever condition the speaker desires. Hot as shit. Windy as shit. I myself was confounded as shit, for how had I so misjudged these people? (167).
Speaking a true vulgarian, Sedaris doesn’t just write this passage, as physically manifest truth in written words, not to mention validate much of my personal vocabulary.
**Writer’s FINAL NOTE**
I realize the reader may get the wrong impression by my introduction, that there is a lack of reverence for my grandfather, after all GOOD grandchildren don’t compare their grandparents to sex-dolls. Well allright cry-babies, if you’re so damn sensitive here it is, one of my favorite photos of the man.
Elbert “Bo” Smith on the right, Portrait of the Writer as a young yet incredibly handsome man on the left.
My grandfather was a good man and I miss him everyday. If can’t get the joke then fuck off.