I might not have noticed him, if he hadn’t come to so many services. He was always early, took a seat alone at the very rear of the chapel, where he sat quietly, waiting for the rest of the mourners. He kept reappearing, sometimes two or three times in a week. He’s 50 years old, more or less, slender, balding with that dark dusty wine vinegar skin of heavy drinkers, the anarchy of formless dirty clothing that goes with it, and an unsteady broad based walk. But after a few months he starts to dress better, looks much better than when he first started coming.
For twenty one years, and 243 days I’ve greeted people I don’t know, dressing myself in earnest concern, and dark clothing out of respect for their pain and loss, attentive to their every need. Here in New York City the friends and family of the dead know one another, but they are strangers to me, as I am to them. I can tell you, even though I’m around people all the time, hundreds of them, it’s a lonely job. They look right through me, and I understand, because I’m not really there. I’ve grown a waxy grave looking mask to my face, that doesn’t come off easily now, like my daddy before me and my dead uncle who ran our shop in Visalia thousands of miles from here. Maybe that’s why I’ve never married or even been close to it. My only passion is Keno, but I can’t get away often anyway. Most of the time I have to settle for TV and Netflix. I read a lot though; but I tell you the truth: I’m completely alone in this life, and have always been, even when all my relatives were alive. It’s like, born alone, live alone, die alone. I don’t believe there’s anything after that, just like there was nothing before. My life is just watching bodies leave for emptiness. But they aren’t like me. They could have lived here for a while.
I always stand at the back of the chapel to help late -comers, and tend to details. That’s why I noticed the man who kept reappearing at most of the services. Now he most always carries a small tape recorder, turning it on during the eulogies, or when people at the end of the service speak about the deceased. I’ve never seen him greet people. Never seen anyone speak to him. He’s always outside the crowd, even when he’s in the midst of it. Like me, in a way.
He never goes to look at the body when there’s an open casket; gets up just before the end of the service and leaves. Then he seems inappropriately content, with a peaceful, almost pleased look on his face. You can see why I was curious.
He never signs the register, so one time I make it a point to take it to him and ask if he’d like to sign. He gives me a vacant look, like he doesn’t know what I mean; then, after a long pause, but still without a word, he takes the book and scrawls his name with great difficulty in big block letters. It says” WIANNEE”. Nothing more. I ask how to say it and he pronounces it with a glottal stop after the i, like an Arab. Must be, I think.
So after this has been going on for about six months, we’re having this rosary on a Thursday evening; he is the very first to arrive, and I can’t resist. I just have to ask.
” Good Evening Sir.” I say. He looks startled and a trifle embarrassed.
” O’. Ye’; t’ank y’u. Lovely wea’er t’nigh’. “He says. He pulls his neck inward very hesitantly in a sort of humble or self deprecating manner like a shy turtle, and softly repeats, “Ye’, g’d e’nin’.” and turns away. But I push on. He’s not going to get off so easy.
” I hope you’ll forgive me if I ask you a question sir?” For the first time he looks directly at me, but averts his gaze quickly, and I proceed without waiting for an answer.
” Please don’t take it wrong, but I noticed that you were here on Monday, for Mrs. Shrumpf, and again on Tuesday, at the Bacciagalupi service, and two times last week.” He’s looking at the floor like he wants to pull his head completely back in under his shell, and says nothing, so I just keep pushing. “I was just wondering. Are you with the newspaper or something?”
“No.” he says, “Jus’…” He searches for the word, and looks so uncomfortable, that I start to feel embarrassed myself. After all it’s not my business, really. He starts to turn away, but I still can’t let it go.
“Please forgive me, Sir,” I say, “I don’t mean to be rude or intrusive at a time which must be very stressful and sad for you.” He looks at me now for a long moment, and gives me that little turtle nod, but this time he doesn’t look away, smiles, and says a bit guardedly,
“no’ a’ tall. Th’ fac’ is, I don’ know th’ de-ceased.” He splits deceased into two syllables and accents the first. ” ‘s tha’ Ca’mona?”
“Yes sir.” I say, and my mind is running at 100 miles an hour trying to get to where he’s at. “Mr. Anastasio Carmona.” but the first clutch of mourners arrives suddenly, and I have to attend to them. As he turns to sit down, he adds absently as if to himself“ Ca’mona. ”
The crowd thickens, and then fills the chapel and everything proceeds as usual; he contentedly leaves early as always, without another word. For several weeks I don’t see him; for some reason I’m disappointed, and I keep looking. Then on a Friday night, we have a rosary for a doctor who is very much admired and loved by his patients. There is a big write-up in the newspaper and I expect a filled and first class event. As my uncle would say a remunerative sadness. Then, about 20 minutes beforehand, Wi’annee, reappears, and for some reason I don’t quite understand myself, I’m happy, and almost relieved to see him. Maybe it’s that he’s the only mourner I really know well. Maybe the only person I know.
“Good evening Sir, it’s good to see you again,” I say. I smile warmly and stretch out my hand to him and then suddenly fear I’ve lost my correct funereal manner and have greeted him like a friend at a social event. But he doesn’t notice, and clutches my hand, splitting his face in a big yellow tooth grin. “Goo’ ta’ see ya’ ‘gain.” he says. He is still holding our handshake. “Y’know,” he goes on,” I bin tinkin’; We coul’n’ finis’ our ta’k’. Would’t be OK ta’ ha’e lunch a’, say, Danny’ Grill t’morra’?” I hesitate and he continues.
“’t don’ ma’er when.”
I’m uncertain. I’m free tomorrow. He seems harmless; but you never know. Then I hear myself say “Okay, tomorrow about 11:30?” “Good.” He says, ” Name’s Wi’annee. Dad al’s say me Y.”
” Y”? I say. And he says,
” I don’ know Y!” And we laugh so loud I have to look around to see if there is anyone there. Lucky we’re still alone.
” Mortimer”, I say, ” Terra, like on the sign out front. But call me Mort.”
So Saturday morning at 11:30, he’s there. After exchanging pleasantries over lunch, Y starts his story:
” Mos’ folks’d in-vi’e y’ f’ a drin’ t’ talk. No’ me. ‘m a al-colic. Din’ know t’e de-ceas’d. T’e one’t die’. On’y ‘n t’e o-bi’uries.” I must appear as puzzled as I feel, but he continues. “OK. Y’see, li’e I say. I’m a al-colic. Al-colics ge’ de-presss’. I done ‘t all. All t’e cure’, the med’cine’; bu’ no’in’ wor’. Grou’ se’ion’, couch se’ion, de-‘ox., AA, no’in’. Al’ys jus’ a drunk. Wort’les’. Alo’ne. Los’ ev’r’ne, a’ ‘cep’ my oldes’ brother. He ‘us a rott’n bastar’, jus’ like me, an’ a drunk too. I ‘us al’s broke, could’n ge’ ‘nough work ta’ keep us in t’ sauce.”
I just keep quiet and listen as he keeps splitting his words and moving the accents around. He continues. “OK. Y’see, li’e I say. ‘m a al-colic.
“M’ bro’er die. My uncle from I’ly come. All ‘s family. ‘is ex-wi’e. All ‘is loser frien’s. His fun’ral ‘as… bitch’n’. Can’ say you w’y, ‘xac’ly, bu’ I’ ma’e me feel gooood. ‘E’s a ly’n’ dead, new sui’, ever’bo’y tal’in’ ‘bou’ ‘ey love ‘im, he’s ‘fun’, ‘e gi’e ya’ w’ate’er ‘e ‘ad… ‘gen’rous t’a faul’’, ‘ey say’. B’ t’wern’ true, n’ ‘din’ ma’er. Ma’e’ me feel… rea’ goood ’bout ‘im, an’ ‘bout me. O’, yea’! I ‘us real drunk a’ter. Bu’ I ‘memb’r ‘at fun’ral. Nex’ day, I look ’ t’ o-bits ‘n fin’ me a good loo’in’ de-cease.
” I din’ drink; too ex-ci’ed. Star go’n ‘ta fun’rals. o’bit’ sa’ goo’ fun’rals Friday’, Saturday’, Sunday’. So I sto’ drin’in’ weeken’s a’fore ever’ one ‘at looks good. Nex’ monrnin’ I see th’ o-bits again; if there’s a goo’ un’ I stay clea’. Now, y’see, I still cou’d ’ drink, bu’ don’ no more; I don’ miss a goo’ fun’ral. I love ’em all. When you’ dead, peo’le don’ ‘member who y’ was, jus’ ‘member who they wish y’ was. Who ‘ey wan’na be. ‘S whatcha call” …again he gives me that turtle bow while he looks for the word; he finds it and it comes out as two words four syllables ” re-dem’sh’n. ‘sa good fun’ral word!”
A long pause and a pleased look, like he just sold two top of the line coffins to thirty year olds, with full bore paid services. ” Don’ ge’ de-presse’ no more, no’ ‘nough t’ drink. ‘Sleep good, t’inkin’ ’bout the nex’ ‘un.”
He pauses, and I ask, “What do you do with the cassette tapes, Y?”
” I wa’e up, 3, 4, o’clo’. Turn on m’ ta’e player. Y’know? I sleep agin’; li’e THAT.” He looks down, moves his coffee cup from the right to the left side of his plate, and back again, and sighs with contentment.
” So anyway’, ‘at’s wha’ I wann’a tell ya’. An’ as’ ya’. ‘s ‘t OK ta’ kee’ a comin’?. Oh. An’ d’ya min’ ‘f I call ya’ Doc, jus ‘tween you an’ me? ”
Doc?” I say.
“Yea’.” Y’see , t’ on’y trea’men’ work f’ me ‘s a’ your place. M’ cure ‘s … You. You an’ t’ o’er un’erta’ers. Bu’ yours ‘s t’ oldes’ an’ mos’ “… he searches for the elegant word, dipping his head …” bes’ …es-tablis-hmen’. Y’ ge’ the bes’ de-ceas’ , tha’ ge’ the bes’ Eu-lo-gies, n’ all.” He looks at me, pleased, with his explanation.
” Uh” I say, “Doc; you mean like a psychiatrist?”
” Yea’.” He nods knowingly. ” Psy- chi-atrist. ”
“ OK. But now let me ask you something. What is your last name?”
“ ‘ don’ ‘ave ‘ne.”
“Y that’s what your father said! Y he said it! But I’ve never heard a name like Wi’annee.
“Tha’s b’cause ain’ none. My ma di’n name me ‘til t’e cris’nin’. W’en t’e fat’er ask m’ name she say UGene. Fat’er say, ‘Wi ‘an E?’ She say, OK, fat’er, Wi’annee! She say write that in. Tha’s me!
I don’t know just what to say right off. I know better why Y acts as he does. And I don’t mind being his psychiatrist of sorts. ‘Doc!’ To think that funeral services, or the praises for the dead are a kind of a treatment! I think to myself that we should run eulogies on reality TV, like a Mortician Judy. But then I realize there’s more to it; I like Y. Wi’annee. I look forward to seeing him at my funerals and rosaries. He gives the service something extra. Something personal. Something real; but only for me. It’s my connection with someone, a real live person. That’s something you can’t find in the dead, or among bereaved strangers. So I agree. ” Sure, Wi’annee, call me Doc. It’s a free country, isn’t it? I’ll just have to call you…well, ‘Y.’
” Y?.” says Wi’anee. And we laugh at that too.
And that’s the way it’s been for four years now. I still like it that Y calls me ‘Doc’. It does make my own profession seem a bit more ‘classy’ now, doesn’t it? Other people call me that sometimes now too, because they overhear us. But they don’t know the ‘why’ of the Y. When Y’s there I like the services better. Strange that I still don’t know his last name. Maybe it’s true, he has none. But if there were one, I wouldn’t want to know it, like it might impact our friendship. That makes no sense, I suppose, but there it is. Whenever there’s a really good eulogy or just a speech about a de-ceased, we look at each other there in the back of the chapel, and he winks at me, and flashes that yellow grin, and dips his head in his turtle way. Later, we share the good ones, the good lines, and talk about them, usually on Wednesday over lunch. Eulogy is a fine word, from those Greek geeks, meaning to speak well about someone. Y and I like that.