This essay actually should have been written several months ago. Grad School, alcoholism, and Broadchurch all have a way of devouring your time rather nibbling carefully at its edges like it promised to do and the next thing you know the deviled egg of an afternoon that you had to write that review of a short story a friend of your published in an actual journal and not some piss-for-shit blog, is now been swallowed whole and all you’re left with is one dirtied shlub of relish still stained with powdery yolk and mayonnaise.
I was talking to a friend of mine who works with me in the Writing Center at my university while she smoked a cigarette, when another friend of mine came out to talk. I admit, knowing full well that she and several of her close acquaintances and family are reading this, that I had secretly been hating her for her recent news that Review Americana was publishing not one, but two of her short stories. My loathing of her though was honestly just soft jealousy and I was incredibly happy for her. I will take down the voodoo doll I’ve nailed to the dart board, but only after mid-terms. A man needs his comfort after all. We got to talking again in which case she asked me, “Jammer, would you review Burying Fletcher for your blog?”
Now in my immediate circle I know of a number of people who have expressed admiration for this site, regular reading, and some who would like to publish essays/short stories/poems etc. when they get the chance. So far however, only two have actually followed through and one of them is my sister which isn’t pathetic at all. The fact that both essays have been “liked” by more bloggers than any of my actual posts is beside the point. Naturally I was honored that she would ask, slightly flustered to answer positively, and I do believe I was actually seven coffees in that day so my response was probably in Farsi mixed with early fifth century Hindi. I said yes, but did not actually get around to reading the story until two weeks ago.
Dear reader, I was floored.
Naturally being an English major I know plenty of friends who “write.” This is a quaint way of saying they’ve written one paragraph of a YA vampire novel and then ducked out to watch Once Upon a Time on HULU. Despite this charming description of several of my compatriots I do know of six or seven writers who earn that title and I knew that Sue Newcomb Mowrer deserved that label, but until I read Burying Fletcher I was not truly aware how close I was to a living breathing author. The reader may feel that I’m being a kiss-ass here, which granted I tend to be from time to time, but they may not feel so inclined to call me such after reading the following paragraph:
When Pop died, it was in California, miles and miles from his heart, miles and miles from a Kansas life so cussed and so cursed that he had abandoned it half a century before, leaving behind the few bits of a barn that hadn’t been burned that final winter, stick by stick when there was no money for coal, dragging a Kansan wife and Kansan child in his wake until the absence of land forced him to stop. In all those years between departure and death, he had mourned the absence of Kansas from his feet. His people were there, waiting on him, come on back, son, come back, and he yearned to be counted among them. Even the brother who had died in the war, lost forever in the roiling water, had been anchored to the flat, hard ground in marble. Kansas was home. It was always home. It would always be home. It could never be anything but home. And in Pop’s telling and retelling of the stories of that life, of the life he had lived and left and mourned, it had become my home, mythic in proportion and scope, it was Paradise Lost and Paradise Found, it was the new Promised Land. He could not rest outside it. I could not rest until he did.
During my honeymoon trip my wife and I drove, she drove, I wasn’t allowed to drive her nice car though I was in charge of picking songs on Pandora while she drove, through the state of Kansas in a day on our way to Colorado, and never before I have I been so happy to see Jesus in my life. The odd billboard bearing the man’s likeness were the only signs that life existed in the dull green infinite plane. Kansas to me was, to quote Sean Bean in Fellowship of the Ring, “a barren wasteland” of empty lands and windmills and once we crossed the state line I believed honestly in my heart that I would never feel moved by a description of that territory ever again.
Listening to Newcomb read the passage, and looking over these words while she read, I know of few paragraphs that have the capacity to so alter the state of a reader. I bleed for Kansas in these words, and recognize their mythic quality.
This paragraph also reminds me of my Old Man.
My favorite story about my grandfather is that he almost disowned my parents. His real name was Elbert but nobody ever called him that, no one dared called him that. To me, to my parents, to his wife and friends, he was “Bo.” Bo Smith was all and ever was, and when he found out my mother was pregnant with me he made sure to let my mother know that she was not going to name me after him. The sentiment was, “Don’t you dare name that boy after me, I’ll never speak to you agin.” Despite the fact that a drunk Rugby player gave me the name “Jammer” first, my mother heeded Bo’s warning and named me Josh instead. As such old Elbert didn’t have to disown her and my dad.
I’ve written before about how much my grandfather meant to me, and still does, but in many ways that memory is polluted by archetypal bias. Elbert “Bo” Smith was a man I remember, fondly though somewhat dimly before he had the stroke and much of his character was wiped clean making a new man I didn’t recognize and, I admit this to my great shame, didn’t want to be around when I was a kid. Sickness disturbed me when I was younger, much more so Leatherface and psychos on the back of horror VHS tapes, and so seeing a man who had once been so strong reduced to a 180 pound weakling was repugnant. The reader may immediately deem me an evil monster who should rot in hell, but they should stop quoting Henry Kissinger, because he’s a prick, and take into consideration that I was around six years old when it happened and sickness can be difficult to observe realistically when you’re a child and sensations seem stronger. Elbert didn’t seem like my grandfather after his stroke, he didn’t seem like “Bo” anymore, he seemed like some person occupying his form, and while there were elements and a few occasional vocal rhythms my body and mind knew and trusted as grandfather, that man seemed torn from me.
The last time I saw him alive he wept, or I seem to remember him weeping. It was our last day in Pasadena and before we packed ourselves into our car, even at that age the family car seemed ungodly, unnecessarily miniscule, and I went to say goodbye to him before suffering that grief. This trip has a crushing finality in my memory because, by this point, Bo didn’t even leave his bedroom. He’d had one leg removed and several attacks that required a nurse and in complete honestly I don’t remember saying goodbye, nor do I remember giving him a farewell kiss. I just remember the shape of his body beneath his blanket. It wasn’t emaciated, it just wasn’t his, and when I went into the front hall to leave I remember a sound that still manages to break me. It was the sound of the old man crying. I didn’t want to hear it and I left the house, and I still haven’t forgiven myself for that. I never will.
I let the Old Man down.
I can’t speak for what it feels like for a woman to lose her father, or a grandfather, but I do believe I’m not far off the mark when I refer to Elbert, “Bo,” as “the old man.” Grandfathers assume an odd position for young men. You recognize them as the men who fathered your own father, but your own father seems to be an odd, mysterious sort of being who honestly feels more like he just gathered into existence rather than was born and suckled into manhood. If such is the case what is the arcane energy that makes the bones of grandfathers?
Burying Fletcher may be a short story, but it falls within the odd category odd Creative Non-Fiction, a relatively new genre of creative writing that isn’t really new but seems to be experiencing a surge of new interest at this time of, to quote Alan Kirby, Psuedo-Modernism. Sue Mowrer tracks the death of her father, the funeral, the absurdity that surrounds funerals, and the final laying to rest of his body. Now it’s easy to dismiss the narrative of mourning for, at times, and by its very nature, it has become rather commonplace. Listening to people describe their emotional torment and eventual renewal is something likely to be found in the copy of Reader’s Digest one keeps next to the can rather than a real artistic statement. This is the reason why it most likely took me so long to get to Fletcher. As society we seem to have become inured to death until it is happening to us directly.
As such it’s tricky to really convey how people process death into their lives without bringing much disruption to it and avoiding cliché, but Mowrer succeeds when describing walking out to the van that will carry Fletcher away:
Neighbors are watching out their kitchen windows now, gaping, gawking, cringing, praying that Death will be content with just one soul. Oh, sweet Jesus, someone died. Someone died and they’re carrying him right out the front door. Why aren’t they using a hearse? Is it the coroner? Did you want more toast? Do you want me to warm up your coffee?
Mowrer’s artistic achievement is in revitalizing this narrative, making it something relevant, and rather than dwelling on the personal tragedy of mourning making the grieving process secondary to honoring her father.
I first learned my dad was mortal late one afternoon during my sophomore year of high school when he had his first massive heart attack. He had collapsed, a devastating sneak attack by that wretched, traitorous heart, in the presence of almost fifty colleagues, men of the Sheriff’s Department who, bless God in all things, were all well-versed in the finer points of restraining Death. Over the years, between heart attacks and hospital stays, Pop was the picture of health – it was all so curious, so misleading, so irritating. He’d buck bales into the barn, he’d break horses, he’d drink and he’d curse and he’d wish he could beat the bejeezus outta them what’s got it coming. He said it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right that a man like him didn’t just drop dead off his horse in the middle of some open range, a man like him shouldn’t have to die by littles. It was a travesty and it was wrong.
It’s difficult not to make someone else’s struggle and heart-ache so separate from your own, but I confess that as I read Burying Fletcher for the first time I was struck by how much I thought of “Bo.” Looking at photos of the actual Fletcher don’t seem to help my struggle much either since it seems both men had a fondness for a particular style of hat. Both men seemed stolen from a different time in America, where the models of masculinity were allowed a precious animosity that tried it’s best to be domestic and, apart from the embedded patriarchy and sexism, actually did manage some loving nature. The stories my father would tell me of “Bo” whupping his hide and suffering crushes on Ginger Rogers and Vera Allen are the images and feelings, but there’s more to it than that. Where we bury the Old men matters, and the way we keep their rhythms matters all the more.
Mowrer describes seeing her father in the hospital,
He leads us back to where Pop is laying, lines coming out of everywhere, plumbed in places you wouldn’t think likely, two in his chest, two in his abdomen, one in each side, a catheter leaking light bourbon into a collection bag. He’s completely bare except for the tubes, some tape, and a large modesty pad. My mom and sister stop at Pop’s feet, holding hands, whimpering, and wiping their eyes. I go to the far side, by his head. Look at you, Pop. You’re a mess. I can’t let you go out anywhere unattended, can I? Mom looks at me like I have lost my mind, and she has a fair point even if I don’t want to give it to her. Look at this hair, Pop. Where’s your comb? Did you leave it in a bar? His eyes dart wildly under the lids. He’s not waking up, the nurse assures me. It’s just a natural reaction to stimulation. My ass. He can hear me. If there’s one man on this planet who can open his eyes on elephant meds, it’ll be my Pop. I use my fingers to rake, pulling and pushing, tugging his hair into place, smoothing the cranky parts. With every run of my fingers, his eyes slide around under those lids so recently released from surgical tape like he’s trying to follow my hand through his hair. I finally get those damn horns knocked down into place, and I say, Now you look like I can take you someplace. But you’re gonna have to put on some clothes first, Pop, ‘cuz damn, I can’t take you out anywhere lookin’ like this. The nurse is horrified. I don’t give a tinker’s rip. Talk to him like he’s a baby, and he’ll know something’s wrong for sure, and I’m not having it.
Six weeks later, I take Pop home from that damn hospital, away from Dr. Shark Eyes, away from nurses who think I’m nuts, away from tubes and hoses and needles and monitors that beep all night long. I stay on at the house for three more weeks until the wounds have cleanly sealed, and he is able to wobble around more or less on his own. One morning, though, while he sits in his recliner watching me clean the incisions and applying Betadine followed by fresh bandages, head down, Pop says to me I saw you. I heard what you said. What, Pop? I didn’t say anything. I saw you. I heard you…there. What did you see, Pop? Where? I was there. I heard what that doctor said to you in the hospital…in the waiting room. Pop, you were three rooms away. I know what you said. I saw your mother and sister crying, they believed the doctor, but you didn’t. You knew I was waiting. You sent him back and made him do his job. You wouldn’t give up, so he couldn’t. Doc finally knew, but you knew all along. You knew. Yes, I did.
My own father is still kicking hard, and I have considered how I will take it when he dies, I’m haunted by a line the character Dan in the show Roseanne says at Darlene’s wedding, “I haven’t spoken to my dad in two years.” My Dad and I, thankfully, still talk but probably not as much as we should.
Before I continue I have to confess a supreme envy of the line “I don’t give a tinker’s rip.” I’ll write till I drop and still never produce a line that fuckin poetic. The exchange near the end for me is where the real spirit of the short story exists. Not long after this Fletcher passes, I’m still crying, and Mowrer describes the funeral and the utter absurdity that is sharing the grieving process while also balancing a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s. These elements are what carefully build the complexity of her narrative and heighten the loss, but what this review is about first and foremost is about the Old Men.
Or at least it was before I re-wrote this. I observed in my original draft a pressing morbidity. I won’t ever forgive myself for walking out on my old man, but my guilt isn’t the purpose of this review. If it was no-one would bother to read Mowrer’s story after reading this. Talking with Sue again after writing the first draft she showed me a version of the story she was going to read aloud for a conference, she had cut several sentences ad passages for time’s sake, and I recognized that I was dwelling on the death rather than the burying. This was a disservice to the reader because, despite the attention paid to the sadness Mowrer’s story is first and foremost about paying respect to her father, and once the man is gone she begins the circus that is Grieving. At one point her sister walks up to her at the funeral:
Ten minutes go by and she’s back, this time in a huff. Mom wants Daddy to wear his glasses, but I think they make him look old. What do you think? Don’t you think they make him look too old? Seriously? First thing, damn it, he is old. Second thing, you just pinned two wads of flowers and a stack of pictures inside that coffin. Don’t you think he’s gonna need those damn glasses to see that shit? Frankly, I think the real question, the only question there oughta be is where the hell can we lay our hands on a big-ass flashlight with durable batteries cuz if Pop’s got glasses, flowers, and pictures, he’s gonna need a God-blessed flashlight to see that shit once he’s under a cement topper and six feet of dirt with his bone-dry ass for the next 400 years…but I don’t say that. What I do say is, Leave mom alone. If she wants him to wear his glasses, leave the glasses on. Pop doesn’t give a hot shit about it either way. She stomps off, clearly irritated with me, at my irreverence, at my refusal to take her side, at the nerve of my serving her up cold. She seems completely oblivious to the fact that this has turned into Egyptian Funeral Rites for the Dead. God forbid Pop should look old in his damn coffin. That would absolutely be the worst thing that could happen today. Shit on a Rolaid.
Shit on a Rolaid. Another one of those lines I’m still kicking myself for not writing down.
It may be a rapidly disappearing paradigm or belief, but the bones of our fathers must be laid to rest for our species reveres ceremony, particularly in the face of that mysterious creature Death. Fathers and Grandfathers are odd creatures to us. They don’t carry us before bringing us into this world, but in their own way they try and prepare us for the real world, and for that they deserve at least the respect of a real burial. I can wax philosophic as much as I want, but there is a beautiful relevance to Burying Fletcher even if you haven’t yet lost your father. Narratives of loss have become stock performances set to writing and while the platitudes and self-help books continue ad nauseum a story that truly tackles loss while revitalizing the structure is not only beautiful but profound.
She ends the story,
I wander among the graves, my hat pulled down low and my coat collar up high against the prairie wind. I look down at the names on the headstones, generations and generations of Pop’s people, my people. They lay out here on the open prairie, under the wind, under the sun, under marble monuments that will mark their spots until they’ve been worn to dust – at least 400 years. My father, just as he wanted, is counted among them, among his people. He’s home.
We owe the dead so much, but in the end we can offer only what we can. Sue Newcomb Mowrer gave her father more than just a grave, a burial, and a tombstone. She brought her father’s bones to his people and she buried him a second time, with love and true respect befitting the Old Man, in this short story.
You can read the story in full by the following the link below. I’d recommend that you do, it’s worth your time, as if that hasn’t been made apparent: