Wednesday, January 10, 2007
DEAD TO THE WORLD
The coffin parked under the canopy was the center of the crowd's quiet curiosity. Hermann had always been misunderstood but well-liked. Now, the officiating over his final repose would begin. The friar's face was sunken and pale. His emaciated appearance contrasted sharply with the plump and well-fed stuffed suits from the funeral parlor standing by their hearse in the background. Finally, he began. With slow movements, my good friend from college days, the friar, circled me with douses of holy water.
It was a respectable gathering of interesting folks from many walks of life. I was touched that just about everyone I had expected, and then some, were present at my farewell. A few were even crying. Maybe I wasn't such a louse after all. Maybe it had been a better life than I'd realized. The big turn-out was due, no doubt, to my untimely and bizarre end.
I brought the binoculars down from my eyes for a moment. From my forest lair I had the unique privilege of witnessing my own funeral. But it wasn't the joke that that I had imagined it would be - reality seldom does align with preconceived notions. That's what led me to this charade in the first place, I thought, a bit bleary-eyed on my own behalf.
Picking up my glasses again I surveyed the throng. There was my aged father. He looked grim, and little bewildered. My poor Aunt Jan was sobbing. Poor Jan. It was an awful sight. Well, at least I kept up that life insurance policy I took out five years ago and they would each get half of the $100,000 payout. That should more than satisfy my debts to them. There was some consolation anyway.
My brothers and sisters were huddled together, the married ones with their spouses. I'll miss them and their misguided but perhaps well-intentioned attitudes toward me. Ha! Just think of it - I'll never have to parse words with them again; that never did get any of us anywhere anyway. Maybe now that I'm gone they'll begin to appreciate me.
A sprinkling of cousins stood by respectfully. And there were some of my friends too. Good old Pete - my best friend - was there with wife and kids. I'll sure miss sitting around with you, drinking and raging at the world. The same goes for you, Donny, you big-hearted wild man; I'm sorry I won't be there to be godfather for your daughter. I wasn't much good at the job anyway.
Even an old girlfriend or two remembered me. There she was, Annie. I thought she and I would never part. My old dollhead - don't cry poor dollhead. I was just a curiosity to you, really; you were a shooting star crossing my path for some wonderful moments that were long behind us years before we decided to part ways. Try not to look so sad, Rachel. You loved to belittle me when you had me. There will be others to oblige you. And look at that big heart of flowers sent from that rascally European art princess, Arieta-Mariane. For her to get the news way over in France there must have been some pretty efficient orchestration by some loved one. I was truly touched, in a morbidly nauseous way.
It was sad. In fact, I'd have to say this was probably the saddest funeral of my life. And I would find that I would be mourning the loss of these family and friends for the rest of my life.
The ceremony was finished now and the crowd slowly dispersed. I laid back on the soft cushion of pine needles. Closing my eyes, I let my mind wander back, letting my "life pass in front of me," so to speak.
It had all begun in high school with a reading of Huckleberry Finn. The teacher had kept harping on the fact that this was the great American novel and did any of us know why. There were lots of responses from students - "it showed the drama of forging into the Western frontier," "Huck's friendship with Jim, a runaway black slave, exemplified the melting pot that was fueled by mutual aspirations," etc., etc. I disagreed. Oh, it had these themes running through it, I guess. But I knew the real answer and I wasn't about to share it.
My secret discovery would remain inside my locked mind ever since. Yes indeed. If anyone understood what America was all about it was me. If anyone understood the message of the book - it was me. The critical passage was where Huck staged a crime, a mishap, his ultimate misfortune down by the river with a little animal blood sprinkled over some of his belongings - he faked his own death, then set out on a brand new adventure; he destroyed his former self, then, recreating himself, he struck out for "the Promised Land" with a confederate.
That was what America was all about at its founding. It was about brave men who left the old world, men who would forsake the dust of their forefathers for a new world built on the reasoned principles of democracy. Spurred on by the passion of the so-called "Enlightenment," the Founding Fathers sought to recreate themselves within a bold new conception of the world, under God, with liberty and justice...it was a simple idea, really, to die to the world in order to be reborn to it anew. Like the renunciate who enters the monastery, I was now ready myself. Like Castro's never-ending Cuban revolution, if necessary I was also prepared to keep tearing myself down and building myself up again for the remainder of my life.
I could blame the rottenness of society for steering me in all the wrong directions, for letting me churn and idle while my life went to seed. It certainly was true - society was rotten. And my life had come to an inauspicious place. I was an anonymous merchant of unwanted information; a forgotten repository of others' hopes for me.
The American dream was now deluded and farcical. Like all grand dreams it remains only as grand as the constancy of the dreamers who illuminate them by action. Now, I, Hermann, have removed myself from you great American visionless masses. My rebirth is a solitary undertaking. It is a quest which is to be borne by me in my dissociative love for your lost vision.
I had "outdid" Huck. I had no confederate, no confidant - at least not anymore. I had only myself. And the whole world was my Mississippi. By myself, unaided and unknown to anyone, I had hatched my general plan for going underground about six years back.
It was then that I had started my research, trying to figure just how I could work out the details. I had no idea how to get around that little problem of a DNA match-up. Other than this, the hardest part seemed to be how to find a headless, handless corpse with type A positive blood. But for my DNA, fingerprints, face, teeth and blood, nothing else would positively identify me. I had no scars or tattoos on the rest of my body. My "death" had to convince the authorities, as well as those who knew me, that I was indeed dead; that it was really Hermann's cadaver laying there on the slab before them. Of course it would have been much easier, and perhaps safer in the long run, to construct a death scenario with no corpus delecti, as Huck did. But I wanted to fool the world, and especially the insurance company, so that my death was immediately established as a definitive fact.
I began my research in the library, looking though murder mysteries. Surely, I thought, someone, somewhere had cooked up a clever scheme. It would save me loads of time and trouble if only I could find some foolproof scam. But I found nothing. The more I labored over the books, the more elusive it seemed.
Then a breakthrough occurred. It was after about one year of searching, that I took out that life insurance policy - I was that convinced that my plan would succeed. Besides, it would take that long to arranged things...and wait. You see, by an extreme turn of luck, I had met a very special man. He turned out to be someone in the very line of work that could hold the key to my salvation.
One dull evening, after a fruitless session at the library, I stopped into the corner tavern for a drink. I took a booth next to two gentlemen, one of whom seemed rather unhinged. He was speaking - or weeping - in quite serious tones. I was a bit bored and my mind was quickly distracted and drawn into their conversation. As I eavesdropped, I learned that this serious-sounding man was a coroner's assistant who had just discovered he had a terminal case of cancer.
At that instant, a vague intuitive idea began to take shape in my head. I invented some excuse and managed to join the two men at their table. Before the night was through, I had managed to befriend the coroner's assistant. His name was Chester. At about the same time each night thereafter I stopped at the tavern hoping that Chester might drop in again. Finally, after three days, Chaster came walking in all by himself. At once I pounced on this once-in-a-lifetime chance, and joined him.
Well, to make a long story short, for the first time in my life I took someone into my confidence. After I told Chester about my quest, he looked at me intently for a few long seconds. Then he drew close to me, and, in a very low voice, said, "I know how you can do it." I thought my heart would jump onto the table and hop into my beer. "How?" I yelped. In a whisper, he explained. I sat there motionless, enthralled.
That evening, I went home and waited for him to die. For his secret knowledge would die along with him, and with his death, his connection to me. I suspected that there might be a whole underground railroad, of sorts, out there that knew about this cabalistic method. I began wondering if there might be a whole army out there, somewhere, waiting for others to join them - led there by some unknowable source. In fact, I uncovered some startling shreds of evidence to this effect.
It took Chester five years to die. I'll go to my grave with this secret knowledge that came to me through pure serendipity. Until then, I'll remain a nameless, faceless one with an airline ticket and a phony passport, going to a faraway land. Perhaps I would be picked-up by these "others," if indeed they existed at all. But, until and unless they find me, for now I was quietly on my way.
There was a fresh mound of dirt down below. The grave diggers were walking away. I left my lair to seed the world.
1994/ Queenstown, MD