The problem with not being able to speak ill of the dead is that it often leaves one with nothing to say. This cultural quirk irks you; gossip is one of your great loves. The possibilities of the situation tantalize you; the defenseless corpse of a man you were not fond of, an emotionally vulnerable audience, and a pulpit. How unfair that the circumstance is rigged to leave you speechless.
You sit in the front pew, dressed in your fashionable black outfit, and listen to the minister drone on about Chester. The things you learn about him. You never knew that Chester was loved. And by so many; family friends, and mostly, in His eternally abstract way, God. Chester was an atheist. The hypocrisy of this excites you. You adjust your custom made shades and contemplate life and death. How similar you think them to be. Both so full of expectations and with an alarming absence of certainty. Funerals help remind people of the similarities. You want to use the eulogy to make people squirm.
Still, you will have to watch what you say. Chester’s mother is here. A tiny, pathetic creature. Her small pale hands cradled yours as she implored you to deliver Chester’s eulogy. She was almost apologetic. You believe she should be. She did give him that name. Chester. Chester Fields. You have been told he was a breech baby. She must have been inspired by the painkillers. You begin to think that this large funeral, with a fibbing minister, paid pallbearers, coerced mourners (what other kind?), is some bizarre form of revenge on the part of Chester’s mother. But against who? You decide to let the thought go.
You begin to wonder what Chester would think of this. Maybe he is in heaven right now. After all, God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell. He is not a sadist. Perhaps a bit of a masochist, but definitely not a sadist.
So if Chester is in the heaven you imagine, he can see and hear everything that is happening right now. Even read minds! You wish you could too! The things Chester could hear. Erotic fantasies, mundane shopping lists, hair salon gossip. Ecstasy. You heard one of the pallbearers say that Chester should have been cremated and his ashes scattered in a cat box. What would he think about that? You wonder if Chester would feel the contempt his memory holds.
You let your mind meander back to when you remember Chester, trying to find the spot he first provoked ill will. You cannot find one. Chester was always a slug. The resemblance was remarkable. He had a fat, white, hairless body, certainly not made for fashion fads. But you still cannot find a time when the antagonism began.
You do remember particular events. Such as the day the class bully, now deceased, caught on to the humour in his name and everyone took turns holding him down and farting on him. By the time the basketball team decided to shave off Chester’s pubic hair, only to discover he didn’t have any, it was routine to torture him.
Back to the task at hand. The eulogy. What to say? The minister keeps looking at you as he sermonizes. Must be your stylish outfit. Or maybe he knows that behind your sunglasses, your eyes are a sea of perplexity, distraction, and fear. Yes, your are scared. Scared, because today, people expect you to tell the truth. Granted, it is only because it would be more entertaining than any gossip about Chester you might relay, but it is still the truth. Horrors. What to say, what to say.
You push the truth issue from your mind. Everyone lies at funerals. The minister lies to the mourners, the mourners lie to the minister, both lie to the family, and the body just lies. You think it is lying that ties life and death together.
You begin to think of your relationship with Chester. All your life you watched him screw up. You never helped him, only felt sorry for him. You remember the day he died, how he received the skull fracture that killed him. forth, in an attempt to encourage it to choke up a can of soda.
You can still hear the sharp crack of his head on the floor, as Chester toppled the machine squarely upon himself. You still remember that your first thought was that Chester preferred Pepsi.
The minister has finished and he steps from the pulpit. He walks by you, trying to catch the light at the proper angle so he can see through your sunglasses. You know he’s not looking for the designer’s name. He wants to see your eyes.
You rise and walk to the pulpit. Still unsure of what to say, you remember someone once told you that funerals weren’t for the dead, they were for the living.
You adjust your glasses and say, “We all loved Chester…”
This story was written for the first creative writing course I enrolled in, circa 1984-85, taught by Dave Williamson. I think it was the first story I’d finished that other people read. Heartfelt thanks to Kim Cornwell, wherever you may be, for pressing me to take the course.
Copyright © Todd Besant. All rights reserved.
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