Funeral for a Friend (new short story)


It was dreary in the bar, a real dive.

An experienced connoisseur of places that stank of fear and desperation, I found this place dismal even by my admittedly low standards. Every stereotype was being played out here; the unfaithful husband on business but also on the make, the wayward wife supposedly out at ‘girl’s night’ but really looking to hook up with the stranger.

The place smelled of sweat, perfume of varying costs, spilled liquor and cigarettes. You saw the long-time alcoholic who had given up hope and drank alone in the corner. You saw the barman eying him, knowing exactly when to cut him off and send him on his way–likely to another bar. You saw the hooker who was sizing up who might pay her the most with the least effort on her part.

I was in a great place to view it all without being disturbed.

Mostly, because I was invisible.

At least to those in the temporal state.

What I am and what I represent is hard to explain. I don’t remember ever NOT being around. I don’t remember ever NOT being busy. Tonight, there was a lull in business, so I decided to take a well-deserved rest.

I had about an hour. An old lady with lung problems at 11:20. She would be found in the morning by her landlady, who had come to collect the rent. A young kid who wandered into a area with a non-fenced swimming pool would be at midnight. The parents would wonder how he got out of the house, which of them should have watched him more closely, and later would divorce over it. It was an old, sad tale.

Because of the nature of my busy trade, I had numerous staff who worked for me. They handle the usual sad, but inevitable things, the heart attacks, the car wrecks, the suicides and murders. These days, I picked only those that had some element of interest for me. Whether it was something about the person being dispatched or something about their lives, or impending deaths.

I suppose you’ve guessed by now, who I am. Over time I’ve been called a number of things. Anubis, Yama, Thanatos, or just plain Death. My favorite is the Grim Reaper. That one really cracks me up. For there is nothing grim about me. I’m the guy you’d gravitate towards at a really good party. Rod Serling had it right. If a human actor were to portray me, I’d more likely resemble Robert Redford than Billy Bob Thornton.

Tonight, I was just soaking up the atmosphere. I never expected to have company.

Here she came, though. Beautiful, sexy, the kind you would hate to see take their last breath. Long, raven hair, ruby lips with the perfect bow curve. Emerald eyes. The kind of woman who would be beautiful without makeup first thing in the morning. A full, womanly body, plump in all the right places. I’m not a man, never have been, but for a moment, this goddess made me wish that I were.

I decided to be casual as she approached me. Perhaps an applicant for a job? If so, she was hired. Who wouldn’t want to follow her to the grave–or anywhere else for that matter?

She sat by me, watched the scene as I did for a time, commenting on nothing. Then, slowly, almost as if thinking about every half inch she turned, she faced me. She drew out a graceful, slender hand. “Irkalla” She said, her voice sultry and appealing, just deep enough to make a man think of all sorts of delights. But then again, I’m not a man.

I thought quickly. No need to play games. “I suspect you know who I am,” I said, meeting her smoldering eyes directly.

“Yes.” She turned back to watch the predictable, sad antics of the mortals around us. “I have been one of them. Or, at least when it amused me to do so.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. I’m very well traveled. Athens, Milan. Constantinople. London, most of Europe.” She drawled out the itinerary as if talking about a not particularly exciting grocery list. As if it had all become boring for her. I heard that bit of world weariness in her voice that made her seem for a moment….vulnerable?

With a momentary surge of a lust I’d never before felt, I leaned toward her, feeling greedy to savor this lush morsel, and not just in the earthly sense. Would she be an unexpected addition to my list tonight? It seemed odd that I didn’t know in advance. I didn’t keep track of all deaths, there were far too many, but as I said, I did stay informed of the impending interesting ones.

“Easy now,” She said calmly, reaching a hand to push at my chest. Gently, gently, she pushed, but the pressure felt like fire. I had never breathed, but I felt like I needed to catch a breath. I’d never had a heart beat, but something inside me was making a frightful noise. I felt the sensation of a new emotion….fear?

“I feel like we’ve met before.” I said, pulling back, hoping that these previously unknown sensations would go away. She smiled impishly, her green eyes seeming to reach out and grab at my own. Or what passed as my eyes. I had the outward appearance of a body so that I wouldn’t frighten those who I came to dispatch.

“We have.” She said, “In all the places I mentioned.”

Her hints were maddening. Yes, I’d been in all those places. Sometimes for prolonged periods of time, but not in centuries.

I again had the perception of having bodily sensations. I could feel blood pumping in veins where there should not be veins. A shiver in skin that had never responded to cold, heat or anything else. I’d been on ships–the Titanic, and guided hundreds out of life. I never felt the icy cold of those waters. Now, I felt a positive chill.

“Are you ready to go?” She asked gently.

“I’m not sure what you mean.” I said, fear now a true part of what I feeling. Who was this woman? What did she want with me?

She pursed her lush lips. “I’m disappointed.  After all, I’ve told you my name.”

I thought  hard, conscious of a headache, something that had never happened before. Those places she’d visited, places I too had once visited, long ago. They had a common thread, I was certain of it, something to do with my job…..

Milan. Constantinople. Europe. London.

Plague.

I saw her smile. But she worked for me if that was what she was. She must. Why did she want me to come along with her?

“You don’t quite get it, do you?” She asked. I shook my head.

“Well, its nothing like a hostile takeover. I hate confrontation.” She held up a mirror. I looked, now completely horrified. The face looking back at me was not immortal. The hair was straw white, lusterless. The eyes cloudy with age. The face, lined as if it had survived multiple eons. The mouth, toothless. I was old beyond belief. I felt the ache of every joint in a body I now realized was my own.

I had become a man.

“Yes, I am plague.” She said, gently, putting the mirror down. “I’m also earthquake, I was there at Pompeii. I have been here forever. Long before you. You thought you were in charge of things. I merely let you work for me. But as with everyhing, there is a time to end things. You were getting too jaded. I need to promote someone else, who will take the job seriously. I am Irkala. Do you know me now?”

And suddenly, I did. Irkala was the goddess of the dead. I hadn’t heard much about her in a few millennia. Hadn’t known that while I was unaware of her, she was very much aware of me. She was in fact, if you wanted to call it thus, my supervisor, my boss.

“You may think I am unkind. I’m not. I fear that you might be at times. You were looking only for enjoyment from this job, not seeing it as a necessary part of life. Part of the order of the universe.”

She waved her hand, and I saw several heads drop on tables as if falling naturally to sleep. However, I knew that they were not asleep.

She touched my arm, and I stood up, following her towards the door. I took a last look at my bar-mates who were no more.

Soon, I knew, I would understand what it was like.

 

 

 

 

 

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Tom Petty–Why we didn’t want it to be the last dance


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I know where I was when Elvis died.

Well, sorta.

But only because we were on vacation, where I had access to a beach and all the fun stuff that goes along with that. Instead of that, or organizing food drives for the army park’s homeless (but extremely well fed) cats, I had to sit by my mother, as she held a personal wake for the King.

We listened to all of his songs, because that was all there was on the radio. Then we listened again. I was in 8th grade with an attention span to rival a snails, and I suffered through the day long experience.

To hear my mother, it would have seemed that everything good in life died with Mr. Presley. Once home, she then went out and bought all his records. I really didn’t get what all the fuss was about.

Which brings me to Tom Petty.

I was driving down the road to my apartment. I heard a DJ say, as if everyone knew what he was talking about (and I think most everyone did, I’d just not been on social media that day) how the world was better ‘just because Tom Petty had been in it.

WHAT?

That was my immediate reaction, then a heartfelt ‘Oh, no!” Surely it could not be true.

And, actually, it wasn’t–yet. At the time I heard that, news sources were jumping the gun, reporting the singer’s demise, when he had been taken off life support, but was still, as the papers later put it, ‘clinging to life.’

I had a pessimistic feeling about it though, as being taken off life support is rarely a move towards recovery for many of my clients. I woke up, early that morning, and it was confirmed. Tom Petty had truly died.

I was tearful, shocked, and felt that it could not be happening. How could someone as young and full of life as Tom Petty be dead? In the weeks since, I still fight a sense of it being surreal to me. I sort of know (or think I know) how my mother felt when her idol, Elvis Presley, died.

Maybe.

I wouldn’t go so far to say that Tom Petty was my idol, but he was definitely one of my top three favorite singers for many years, along with such heavy hitters as Paul McCartney and Paul Simon. In company with Jimmy Hendrix and Neil Young who sometimes jockeyed for position.

It really wasn’t for the work with the Heartbreakers. I got into Tom Petty for his solo work, and stayed into him because of that. “Mary Jane’s last dance,’ and “You don’t know how it feels” especially.

The latter was my theme song while in Wilmore. I liked to blast that one from car windows as I passed near the seminary in hopes that one of the judgmental souls who named me unworthy of being a student there were listening, and might have an “Aha” moment about themselves–and perhaps about me.

Honestly, I laugh about that now. A little more maturity and common sense down the road, I know that a song that encourages folks to ‘roll another joint’ is not likely to make a person more redeemable.

However, it spoke for my defiance, and anger, as well as my hurt at being rejected. Tom Petty sang perfectly, with just enough attitude, for my generation and others, the soundtrack of angst. Made it sound universal. Relatable. And his words gave hope that ‘this too, shall pass.’ It would eventually get better.

He was the face of everyone who has ever been unfairly treated, underestimated, or screwed by the Establishment. He was out there, living, doing his best, because even if others didn’t understand him, he knew that he really was okay–perhaps even more okay than those who judged him.

One of my first reactions was that he was ‘too young’ to be gone. Then I found by reading various accounts, that he was in his late sixties. Listening to his music, I always thought he had to be my age. He seemed to really get what it was like to be in my shoes, in my life, what it was like to ‘be me.’

Weeks past, I have wondered why I haven’t seen more coverage about his demise. It was all over the internet of course, but you didn’t see it taking front cover of major magazines, or even sleazy tabloids.

Now, the later would have pissed me off, because in death, Tom Petty had become saint like to me, not to be spoken of with any sort of slur. But Tom would have been the first to tell you that he was no saint.

He drank and partied hard in the early years, he-chain-smoked, and he considered himself ‘a reefer guy.’ He’d seen a long time marriage end in divorce. He’d experienced deep depression after his friend, George Harrison died. He could be, ‘cantankerous.’ He freely used the ‘f’ bomb, and didn’t care if it offended those around him. He was an admitted recovering Heroin addict. He didn’t like those whose politics he didn’t favor using his music for propaganda, but loved it when Barrack Obama used one of his songs.

In short, he was real.

And truly, I think the media, even the tabloids, have treated Tom Petty’s death with respect because the man demanded respect. Even if you didn’t like or get his music, you had to respect the man himself for the stands that he took in a world where he could have chosen to back down and take an easier road.

And, I’m not saying that we should all run to the nearest head shop and light up, folks. I wasn’t really thrilled about the ‘let’s roll another joint’ part of the song that I loved, not if it led one young person to think drug use was cool. However, Petty, an adult, was talking about HIS life. He was the rebel who didn’t compromise, who didn’t back down.

As with the true greats, once he became financially comfortable, his music, in my opinion, got immeasurably better. Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers proved that. It took me longer to appreciate the Traveling Wilburys. I have a knee jerk tendency at times to reject anything ‘weird’ and the team of Wilburys seemed that way. Later, I listened and learned not to judge so quickly.

With his death, I thought you’d hear, as when Elvis died, a day of his music on radio stations. Didn’t happen, at least in my neck of the woods. A Rolling Stone Commemorative Magazine came out, and I snapped it up. While waiting for an oil change, I bought his greatest hits including most of those with the Heartbreakers.

I had pretty much worn out Wildflowers, but wanted to listen, post Petty’s life, with a different ear. And, as I listened, I found that music that I had largely ignored such as “American Girl,” “Refugee,” and “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” took on a new life to me.

From reading, I found that Tom Petty had penned most of the lyrics. And when it wasn’t sandwiched in between music that meant more to me in the late seventies, or stuck in the backwash that was the eighties, I realized, with a bit of shame, that this stuff was original…..and worth listening to again. Then, again after that.

Tom Petty and his band didn’t go into the cheesy prom song mode like Journey and Foreigner after their original success. They didn’t repeat the same song over and over as did some of the Hair bands of the 80’s. Each song was different. Each song had something that made it special. A chord, a turn of a phrase, or maybe a totally crazy (but unforgettable) video.

It’s been three weeks now since the world got the news. The guy that everyone (at least his fans) thought would live forever, didn’t. And if you look at his final pictures, he looked exhausted. Ready for a long rest.

The family have been the epitome of class throughout in how they have privately mourned, and laid the legend to rest. Wherever Tom is, I’m sure he would likely approve–and possibly be humbled.

His career was 40 years of original, ass-kicking rock and roll that will be remembered after all the bubble gum and ear-rot of the 80’s and 90’s and the ‘dull’enium are forgotten.

He showed us that some things were worth taking a stand for. He reminded us to be, as he learned to be, grateful for the good stuff.

He was a man who made mistakes, but one of those mistakes was definitely not a tendency to compromise. That was what made him and his music great.

Rest in Peace, Tom. We didn’t want the dance to end.

However, we’re glad that it went on as long as it did.

 

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