Here’s this week’s episode of The Port City Chronicle, the continuing serial novel of Gretchen, a 46-year-old criminal defense lawyer, and her family and friends, seeking love and happiness in Portland the hard way:
“How’s Grace? She having a good summer?” our neighbor Alex asked, seeing me out of the corner of his eye on the porch while he was leaning against his car reading the news on his phone. “And how’s Paul?”
“Paul’s dead,” I said. I’d already given him the longer version a few weeks ago in answer to the same question. But old habits die hard, same as Paul, my ex-husband, who had a sudden heart attack in the middle of the night out of nowhere. Alex had been asking me about Paul reflexively every time he saw me since Paul and I split up 15 years ago and Paul moved away and it wasn’t easy for him to stop.
He looked up. “Oh, right.” After observing a moment of silence, he segued to another topic.
“So who do you think is next? Spicey and the Mooch are out. Who’s the next casualty? McMaster? Sessions? Mueller? Bannon?”
This is politics lite. It’s the safest topic of conversation in our crowd these days, replacing even the weather.
But sometimes real life intrudes. I nodded agreement while running off to the cemetery for Paul’s memorial.
It did not begin well, life being so complicated.
Since many of Paul’s friends during our marriage were part of couples that drifted away after the divorce, I barely recognized anybody when I arrived with the urn. Eventually I spotted two of his friends from college, a couple I’d last seen when Paul and I visited them decades ago in our early twenties. We shook hands and went through the preliminaries. Fortunately Grace came up while I was trying to find something appropriate to talk about under the circumstances.
“I met these guys before you were even born,” I said to her, knowing she liked to hear about the life Paul and I led prior to her existence. “I was twenty and Mike and Ellen had just got back from Guatemala with a stomach bug when we went to visit them. Daddy and I picked it up and spent the entire three days in their bathroom.”
I smiled wistfully at Mike and Ellen, thinking it was a nice way to bring Paul into the conversation without being maudlin. “Thank god you guys were getting over it as we arrived.”
Ellen didn’t smile back. “We didn’t give you the stomach flu. You must have gotten it somewhere else.”
“Well, it was 26 years ago now,” I said.
I scrambled around for something that might go over better. “I remember how beautiful your house was. Your father built it, right?”
That didn’t get me very far either.
“We don’t have that house anymore. My father died.”
I observed a moment of silence myself and tried again, copying my neighbor Alex.
“So who do you think will be next to go –” I started to say in desperation.
Ellen broke in. “I’m not sure who it will be, but more of us are likely going to die pretty soon, just based on statistics, not even anything personal.”
It was a sobering thought that felt more personal than she apparently intended.
But at that point the memorial started and our conversation was interrupted. The first speaker was one of Paul’s most recent friends, a guy I’d never met before and whom Grace knew only slightly.
He opened a thick binder and began reading.
“T.S. Elliot, Hemingway, Ovid, Homer, Whitman,” he said, in a sing-song voice. “These are the people that motivated Paul. Two of my kids were classics majors so we had a lot of that stuff in the house. We didn’t have any Greek, as Paul pointed out, a big disappointment to him.”
He read random quotes from various authors while we stood in the hot sun sweating. Nobody else knew how they related to Paul.
“Was he one of Daddy’s close friends?” I asked Grace.
She shook her head. “You couldn’t say they were exactly friends. It’s more like neither resisted the other.”
But he was better than the next speaker, a guy from Paul’s gym. “What was amazing about Paul,” he said, “is how he was able to attract twenty-something’s despite being twice their age and having no money. When we went to a bar, he could always get the girls in their twenties to hang out with him. I have no idea what happened afterwards. I asked him how he did it, and he said, ‘It’s just my vibe. You don’t have any vibe, I have vibe.’ That was Paul, he had a lot of vibe.”
By this time Grace had teared up too, though there could have been multiple reasons for it.
Perhaps to clear the air, Paul’s uncle insisted we all sing “The Folk Song Army.”
He raised his hand to start but nobody sang.
“Don’t people know this song?” he asked. He was looking at Mike and Ellen, who were standing immediately next to him.
Ellen shook her head. “I don’t know it and I can’t sing.”
Paul’s uncle handed her a piece of music sheet paper. “Just take this paper and try.”
“I don’t even have my glasses,” she said. “I can’t see the writing.”
Paul’s uncle started singing on his own and a couple of other people tried to join in, including Grace, who also didn’t know the song. It certainly sounded like a dirge with no melody and everybody getting the words wrong.
Then one of Paul’s friends from Catholic school insisted we say the Lord’s Prayer. But of respect for Paul, Grace wouldn’t say it since Paul was an atheist. She started tearing up even more.
There were more speeches and everyone seemed to know a different Paul, all of them completely unfamiliar to everyone else. A few people left, claiming they needed to get out of the sun. That made Grace cry even harder. The memorial was falling apart.
There was only one thing to do. I launched into a speech about our troubled times, about Trump, about the Republicans, and how angry Paul was about all of it. Maybe Trump is what broke his heart.
I tried to stay away from the bigger topics and stick to the politics lite version, same as almost everyone else does these days except those deep into the issues.
It wasn’t the most orthodox end to a memorial but it got us all back on common ground and in our comfort zones. So long as you didn’t go too far, it was a lot easier to discuss politics than to deal with the complexities of a human soul.
Even Grace stopped crying and managed to say good-bye to people as they left the cemetery. On our way out, her closest friend, trying to help, took me aside for a moment.
“Shouldn’t we put that stuff somewhere?” she asked, pointing to the urn and the tiny coffin sitting in front of Paul’s family’s gravestone.
I shook my head. “No, it’s okay. The staff takes care of that. We don’t actually have to bury him ourselves. They put the ashes in that other thing.” I gestured to the coffin, not quite able to say the word.
“In the tiny coffin?” she said. “It’s so cute.”
That’s real life. It’s complicated – you laugh, you cry. We went to a restaurant and ate lunch.