Fiction

Eulogy

By: Alan Swyer

Flying to Connecticut to attend his father-in-law’s funeral, Artie Shore found himself in a quandary.  Expected to join his wife, her siblings, and their spouses in saying a few words at the gathering, he was hard-pressed to come up with anything even vaguely or remotely positive.

Instead, what kept coming to mind were the times that he stood up to the man who expected the rest of the world to defer to him, even to the point of inviting special treatment when he called an airline, hotel, or restaurant and introduced himself as Dr. Guthrie.

To Artie’s dismay, his wife and her siblings not only accepted behavior that he viewed as both narcissistic and condescending, but actively colluded with it.  Until, that is, he started stepping in.

That began two years after the birth of their son when Molly, during a phone conversation with her mother, was asked what day they would be arriving for Thanksgiving.  “I’ll talk to Artie and let you know,” Molly said.

“No, you won’t,” Artie stated once she hung up.

“But it’s my home,” Molly replied.

“Did you have fun last year?  Or the year before?  Or enjoy the weather?  Or like walking on egg shells while your mother was cooking?”

“Still –”

“Still, nothing.  Does your mother even like kids?”

When Molly shrugged, Artie spoke again.  “Besides,” he stated, “this is your home.”

The email Molly sent engendered an immediate protest from her father.  Seeing the Caller ID, it was Artie who answered the phone.  “It’s time for us to be assertive parents,” Edgar – never Ed, and certainly not Eddie – Guthrie promptly demanded.

“Not happening,” was Artie’s response.

“I-I beg your pardon!”

“In case you didn’t notice, we live 3,000 miles away, are financially independent, and happen to be parents ourselves.”

That confrontation did not warm an already fraught relationship.

Word of Artie’s stance quickly reached Molly’s brother and sister.  As did Artie’s rejoinders on other occasions.  One took place at a Santa Monica restaurant on a summer visit from Dr. and Mrs. Guthrie, when Edgar peered at the wine list.  “Anyone who thinks there’s a difference between a $10 wine and a $100 dollar bottle,” the self-styled arbiter of everything proclaimed loudly enough for far too many to hear, “is a damn fool.”

“And anyone who doesn’t has a Naugahyde palate,” responded Artie, who received an under the table kick from his wife.

“You’re being too hard,” Molly said later that night when she and Artie climbed into bed.

“Actually I’m being restrained,” Artie replied.  “Who was it who once wrote that you were a disappointment since you were three?”

“It’s not like your parents are perfect.”

“But at least I acknowledge they’re nuts.  Whereas your brother and sister –”

“Yeah?”

“Put your parents – your father especially – on a pedestal.”

“And I?” asked Molly.

“Sure you want an answer?”

Molly ruminated for a moment.  “Still –”

“So tell me, why does your father expect to be waited on hand and foot?”

“Not all the time.”

“Whatever you say,” said Artie.  “And why did he try to bribe your brother with a trip to Europe when Cliff announced plans to marry Eileen?”

Molly bit her lip.

Another face-off occurred on the Guthries’ next trip to California.  Despite Artie’s misgivings, Molly, in an attempt to be a good hostess, scheduled an outing to the Museum of Contemporary Art.  Stepping into an exhibit of one of Artie’s favorite artists, Edgar Guthrie shook head at the sight of paintings by Mark Rothko. “Who’s he kidding?” asked the supreme arbiter of taste in what was far louder than a stage whisper.

“This is not the time or place,” said Artie.

 “As an artist, I’m entitled to voice my opinions.”

“You’re an artist?”

“You’ve seen my work.”

“Which is why you’re an artist like I play for the Lakers.  You’re a Sunday painter.”

Lunch in the aftermath was far from warm and fuzzy.

When Molly’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, though it meant that he had to assume responsibilities as both mother and father, plus sole caretaker of their Golden Retriever, Artie bit his lip while Molly spent months yo-yoing back and forth between LA and Hartford, as well as countless hours on the phone.

Once Lily Guthrie passed away, Artie hoped there would be some respite.

Instead, demands from Edgar Guthrie increased exponentially.

“Why’s he so damn helpless?” Molly asked rhetorically when, for the fourth evening in a row, dinner with her husband and son was interrupted by a call from Connecticut.

“I could tell you he’s sad, or lonely, or frightened –” Artie offered.

“But?”

“There’s a saying you may have forgotten.”

“Okay –”

“People don’t change, they become more so.”

Molly’s response was a sigh.

Despite his true feelings, Artie tried to be understanding about Molly’s tendency to drop everything whenever his father-in-law voiced a desire, a need, or a demand.  Family time was interrupted, social events were canceled, and outings were scratched because Molly needed to find a plumber in Connecticut, schedule dental appointments for her dad, or even fly cross-country because the patriarch was feeling sick, hurt, or needy.

But when, on July 3rd, Edgar Guthrie insisted that a back pain necessitated Molly’s coming to the rescue, Artie finally balked.  “No way in hell you’re getting on a plane.”

“But –”

“Aside from the fact that you, our son, and I have commitments – and that it’s all but impossible to get a ticket the day before the 4th of July – all you’re doing is enabling him.”

“Meaning?”

“How many times have you flown in to help with something that he’d already gotten over, or forgotten about, by the time you arrived?”

Molly frowned.

“Don’t you realize,” Artie went on, “that no matter how much you indulge him, there’ll always be a next time?  And a next time?  And a time after that?”

“I-I guess.”

“Want the truth?”

“I suppose,” mumbled Molly.

First, you’re not an only child.”

“And?”

“Whatever approval you’re hoping for ain’t coming.”

As his flight continued eastward, Artie dozed for fifteen minutes or so, then thought about the last trip his father-in-law made to California before giving up air travel. 

On a Tuesday, after taking a early morning walk with the family’s pooch, Artie entered the kitchen, where Edgar Guthrie was downing a bowl of cornflakes.

“Morning,” said Artie, who received not even the slightest acknowledgment.

Without another word, he went into the backyard.  “That’s it,” he announced to Molly, who was watering her herb garden.  “He goes, or I do.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Three days in a row I’ve said hello after walking Tess, only to be ignored.”

“Maybe he didn’t hear you.”

“And maybe I’m the Invisible Man.  No way I’ll be ignored in my own house.”

Molly took a deep breath.  “I’ll talk to him,” she promised.

As an awkward detente settled in, Molly approached Artie when he got home from work late the next afternoon.  “Is it tomorrow night that you’re being honored?”

“Yup.”

“Maybe it’s better if my dad and I stay home with Jeremy.”

“Okay.”

“Anyone I know going?”

“Chiachi.  Rosen.  Pickens.  Most likely the Currens.  Probably some others as well.”

“I’ll get a sitter.”

“How come?”

“I’d be conspicuous in my absence, and that’s not right.”

“But a sitter means you’re bringing your father.”

“That okay?”

“For me?” asked Artie.  “Or for him?”

The event, which was organized by singer and minister Solomon Burke, for whom the term “Soul Music” was created in the days when black clergy considered Rhythm & Blues to be the devil’s music, took place at a Compton church called the House Of God For All People.

An anomalous figure in the midst of women sporting hats the likes of which he had never seen before, and men attired in brightly-colored suits not found west of Crenshaw Boulevard, Edgar Guthrie sat with Molly in a row that included a father and son dressed entirely in purple, from socks to fez.

Throughout the evening, which featured songs by the Clara Ward Singers, a combination of preaching and Gospel from Solomon himself, plus a “Man Of The Year Award” to Artie for his work writing about and reissuing R&B, Blues, and Southern Soul, Edgar Guthrie seemed as misplaced as if he had entered a parallel universe.

When at last Artie, after being embraced by Solomon, his musicians, and many of the people in attendance, led Molly and his father-in-law toward the parking lot, Edgar, who had never displayed the slightest bit of interest in the man who married his daughter, stopped and studied him.  “How do they know you?” he asked.  “And why do they like you?”

Artie allowed Molly to supply an answer.

The next evening, Artie received a call from Solomon Burke.  “Going to Ike Turner’s funeral?” he asked.

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

“I’m supposed to do the service.  But I’m thinking that if you’re not there, I’ll duck it.”

“If you really want me there,” said Artie, “I’ll go.”

The funeral, which was held in an airplane hanger, was a spectacle unlike any other, with drug dealers flaunting their wares, men and women dressed inappropriately, plus police accompanying some mourners who were allowed to leave prison to attend.

Taking it all in beside Artie Shore were his wife and his incredibly out of place, awestruck father-in-law.

Then came a spectacle that cast an even great pall:  Phil Spector, out on bail from his murder charge, took the podium and gave a misogynistic rant that began about Tina, then encompassed all women.

Incensed, Solomon Burke grabbed the producer by the arm and forced him to get down on his hands and knees and, despite his Jewish background, accept Jesus Christ as his savior.

Once more Artie was embraced by countless people as they headed toward the exit, then grabbed by none other than Little Richard as they stepped outside.

“My man!” Richard exclaimed, giving Artie a hug.  “I ain’t been seeing you in forever!” 

Taking the Bible offered to him by Richard, Artie was about to lead the way toward his car when suddenly his father-in-law stopped.

“How do they know you?” Edgar Guthrie asked once again.  “And why do they like you?”

Artie could barely restrain himself from laughing.

As the three of them drove out of the parking lot, Molly turned to Artie.  “You as hungry as I am?” she asked.

“I’ll call Harold & Belle’s,” Artie replied.

“What’s that?” asked Edgar Guthrie from the rear.

“A Creole place where we go for Mardi Gras –” said Molly.

“And after funerals,” added Artie, who quickly placed a call via Bluetooth.  “Can three of us come by in fifteen minutes or so?” he inquired once someone answered.

“Sorry, sir,” said the voice at the other end.  “We’re booked until 3 PM.”

“Is Denise there?” responded Artie.

“Won’t make any difference, sir.  We’re totally booked.”

“Just do me a favor and tell Denise her friend Artie’s coming in.”

Undaunted by what he was told, Artie pulled up in front of the restaurant, then led Molly and her father through the front door.

In a sea of black faces, it took the host no time recognize the new arrivals.  “As I told you, sir, we’re booked until –”

Suddenly he was interrupted by a woman who came scurrying over.  “Lamar, you idiot!” shouted Denise, the owner.  “That’s not some white guy!  That’s my friend Artie!”

Immediately she gave Artie a hug, then smiled at Molly and her father.  “Nice to see you,” she said, leading them to a prime table.

As they were finishing their feast of oysters, gumbo, and fried chicken, Artie, aware that the next day would be a special one for his father-in-law, stated that he was heading to the men’s room.

That his announcement was a subterfuge became clear when out from the kitchen came a dish of bread pudding with whiskey sauce and a lit candle.

As one, the entire restaurant stood and serenaded Edgar Guthrie, a man with precious few experiences in the black community, with the Stevie Wonder version of “Happy Birthday.”

Leaving the restaurant after parting hugs from Denise, Edgar Guthrie stopped and faced Artie.  “How do they know you?” he asked yet again.  “And why do they like you?”

Those were the stories, Artie realized, that he would tell at his father-in-law’s funeral, which not surprisingly bore no resemblance to Ike Turner’s.

Categories: Fiction

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