Notes: A longer than normal notes section for a longer than normal post. Here’s the thing. As I write this story, I’m realizing that this is going to take me some time. I mean, generally I try to make the stories on my blog long and fulsome, but this one in particular is going to be a doozy, simply because I cannot bring myself to rush any of it. I don’t write (or read) contemporary often, I don’t have a good sense of where the perfect scene break is, or how much is too much, and I find myself unable to hurry up to get to the physical side of things. There will be a physical side, never fear, but it could be a while before I start in on it. So I’m going to try to make this as satisfying in every way as possible, and ask that you stick with me.
*One more note, concerning this part in particular: there are a lot of religious, specifically Christian references in here. It’s a funeral. I’m not trying to be preachy or condescending to anyone or their beliefs. I just needed to write a funeral and this is what happened. So, there you have it. On with the funeral!
Title: Love Letters
Part Three: In Which David Foster Wallace Brings Us Together
Ben was late to the funeral service. Not by much, but by the time he got to the church the vestibule was empty and the doors to the nave were shut. When he tried to open one, he found it locked. Locked. What the hell? Who locked people in for a funeral?
There was no one else in the vestibule. The parking lot of the Central United Methodist Church was packed with vehicles, a lot of them police cars, but apart from a few officers stationed out in the lot, there was just Ben. The slightly-wheezy strains of an old organ drifted through the walls, and Ben sighed. Well, now entering would just be awkward, even if he could figure out how to get in.
He hadn’t meant to be late. He really hadn’t, no matter what his brain was telling him about subconscious desires and avoidance tactics. It had taken way too long to get out of the airport and onto I-85 last night, and by the time he’d pulled into the Hampton Inn, in his cheap red rental Kia, Ben had been dead on his feet. He’d fallen into bed until noon, not even bothering to take off more than his shoes and coat, and by the time he woke up and realized he’d just fallen asleep in the suit he had to wear to the funeral (because Ben hadn’t been thinking very clearly when he’d packed, and had brought five pairs of underwear and no socks) it was too wrinkled to salvage without help. That meant hauling out the ironing board and burning his hand twice in his hurry to press his shirt, pants and jacket. He’d even managed to wrinkle his tie; how did someone do that? He had to look up on his phone whether it was even advisable to iron a tie, and by the time he was done, dressed and had a cup of coffee, it was fifteen minutes to 2. The church wasn’t that far, but the Kia didn’t have GPS and Ben got lost once on the way there. Needless to say, the morning hadn’t gone well.
And now the afternoon was shaping up to be just as stellar. Ben sighed and leaned his forehead against the locked doors, shutting his eyes and letting his mind drift. The organ music had died down, and muffled words were now being spoken. Ben’s whole body was prickly with fatigue and unquantifiable grief, hitting him all the harder because he had no idea how to deal with it. How did you mourn someone you had never met, yet who had been such a part of your life? How did you deal with the absence of a person in the abstract, knowing that you’d never write their address out again, never email them, never get funny, random texts to your phone? How did you deal with the fact that you’d deleted so many of those messages, and now wanted nothing more than to have them back? Hundreds, thousands of words that you wished you could hold and smell and taste, words that had given you the shape of a man, the meanings of his mind and the bounty of his heart. Words were usually Ben’s solace, but right now he felt bereft of even their small comfort.
“Excuse me, son.”
His head felt like an almost immeasurably heavy weight, but Ben managed to lift it off of the worn wooden doors. He looked to the left and saw an older man in a simply black suit and white shirt, inexplicably paired with a sweater vest, approaching him.
The man looked him over with slightly pursed lips. “Not a reporter, are you?”
“No,” Ben managed, obscurely happy that his voice sounded normal, not hoarse and sore like it felt. “I’m not a reporter, I’m a friend, but…it looks like I’m a little late for the service.”
“A friend?” The man looked a little suspicious. “I’ve never met you before, and I’ve known the Kuzniars my whole life.”
“Long-distance friend,” Ben admitted. “I just flew in from Denver.”
“Oh. Army buddy, huh?”
“No, I was never in the army,” Ben said.
“Well, there are a lot of people here from the university, too, so I suppose it’s not surprising that I don’t recognize everyone.” Ben let that assumption lie as the man continued, “I’m Gregory Dalloway, I head the bible study operations here.” He held out his hand to shake.
“Benjamin DeWitt,” Ben replied, returning the gesture. Gregory’s hand was warm and dry and solid, rather comforting after the stale coldness of the wooden door. “But please call me Ben.”
“Well Ben, then you can call me Greg. These doors were locked just in case reporters tried to sneak in and get illicit photos—the local rags have been all over this tragedy since it happen, of course—but there’s a side entrance I can take you to where we can slip in nice and easy.”
“I don’t want to make you go out of your way—”
“Everyone should be able to pay their respects,” Greg said firmly. “And it’s no trouble, son, I was heading that way anyhow. Come right this way.” He led Ben back outside and around the front of the tall, red brick building to a smaller door, with another police officer stationed outside of it. The officer and Greg exchanged a solemn nod before Greg opened the door.
The sound was suddenly much clearer, the pastor speaking in a stentorian voice from the pulpit, which augmented by the microphone was almost too loud. The church was long and tall, and the sound echoed a little. Ben suppressed a wince at the renewed ache in his head and followed Greg into a nearby pew, where the black-garbed mourners barely gave them a glance.
The front few rows of the church had garlands of flowers draped over the backrests and down the sides, and Ben assumed that those seats had been saved for the family. They were all full, as were most of the pews in this place. Up front next to the preacher was an easel holding a large picture of Brody in his police uniform, looking unsmiling and resolute. The man had never been particularly photogenic when it came to formal pictures, Ben recalled; the candid ones he occasionally sent along were much better representations of what Ben knew of his warmth and liveliness.
Ben shook his head a little and tried to focus. Once he got over the sheer volume of the words, he was actually able to appreciate some of what the pastor was saying. “For although the Lord took Brody back into his heavenly kingdom far too soon for those of us left behind, we must remember that God has promised us all that the last enemy to be defeated shall be death itself, and that those of us who believe in him shall find everlasting life in His embrace. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.” The pastor directed his gaze slightly upward and held out his arms.
“Dear God, we ask you to heal the broken in heart and bind up their wounds; mercifully look upon those who are at this time bereaved. Be near them in their sorrow, and let their sorrow draw them nearer unto you. Now that earthly joys and comfort fail, may the things unseen and eternal grow more real, more present, more full of meaning and power. Let your strength sustain their weakness; and your peace fill their minds with perfect trust in you; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.”
“Amen,” the congregation murmured. Ben didn’t say anything; he had never been a religious person, but he enjoyed an articulate speaker, and the pastor was certainly that.
The pulpit was ceded to a man in uniform who turned out to be Brody’s police chief. His introduction was awkward, and a lot of the things he said were clearly in-jokes with the rest of the force, who were the only ones who chuckled. Then he got down to the meat of it.
“When Brody and Max went on patrol on New Year’s, none of us expected this. We could never have known that a simple traffic stop would turn into such a horrible accident; we could never have known that that young woman would lose control of her car exactly there, while driving drunk, and run straight into our officers’ parked car. I spoke with Max this morning at the hospital, and he wishes he could be here, but the doctors won’t let him leave yet. But he sends all his love and support to Brody’s wife and children, to his mother and sister and brother,” there was a moment’s hesitation before the word “brother” that Ben would have wondered more about if he hadn’t been reeling from finding out how Brody died, “and rest assured, your husband, your son, your brother will get justice. It might be cold comfort at this point, but I’m afraid,” the man had to stop to clear his throat, “I’m afraid that’s the best I can do. That and let you know that we’re all here for you. All of us. Brody was family to the force, and you’re still family.”
Muffled sniffles and sobs drifted up from the crowd, and Ben wanted to join them. Hit by a car? Brody had been hit by a car? He had survived wars, one tour in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, only to be run into by a drunken reveler? It was almost inconceivable, and clearly Ben wasn’t the only one who thought so.
More people got up and spoke about Brody: police officers, neighbors, old friends from high school and college. They all said the same thing, what a wonderful man he was, a devoted father and husband, a great athlete, a good cop. They all said the same sweet, empty things. Where were the real memories, though? Where were the stories about his beliefs, his dreams? Brody had been more than a paper doll, more than a boy scout, squared-off, All American and pure like the driven snow. He had been intricate, intimate, arrogant, afraid. He had loved his son more than life itself, and had learned ballet with his daughter. He had a Blue Devils tattoo on one shoulder and Cheryl’s name on the other, but he’d only been sober for one of them.
Fuck. These were things Ben wanted to share, things he felt like these people, all so sad, should know. The knowledge might not help some of them, but at least it would give them some perspective. But it wasn’t Ben’s place to speak, and he wasn’t brave enough to get up and just do it, not when he was so far on the outside of everything here.
The next person to get up and speak came out of the very front row. He was young, younger than Ben, and looked washed-out in his black suit, his skin too pale and his enormous blue eyes ringed with dark circles. His hair was black as well, and unnaturally tidy, just a little too long to be combed over the way it was. He wasn’t tall and he wasn’t wide, and his heart-shaped face was drawn and tired. In spite of all of that, he was still the most physically arresting person Ben had seen in a long time. Maybe it was the tilt of his eyebrows, lifted mischievously at the outer edges, or maybe it was the wide fullness of his lips, a little chapped but still sensuous by simple virtue of their perfect shape. Maybe it was how he stood, a little diffident, a little bowed with the weight of his grief but still upright, still trying.
Then he spoke, and Ben knew if there was a Hell he was going there for enjoying the sound at a time like this, but this was not a voice that belonged in such a slip of a man. No high tenor, this was a firm baritone, with just a hint of roughness underlying it that probably came from exhaustion, and Ben found himself leaning forward to listen to what came out of this man’s mouth.
“There isn’t much I can say that you haven’t already heard,” the young man said, his huge, haunting eyes scanning the room, seemingly searching for something. “But I wanted to share one of Brody’s favorite quotes with you. I think it gives us some insight into his attitude towards life.” He glanced down at the piece of paper between his hands.
“’ You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard. ... How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.’” The young man cleared his throat, then said, “It’s from—”
Infinite Jest, Ben thought, reeling a little. He knew because he and Brody had read the book at the same time, while he was on his first deployment. They did nothing but throw quotes at each other for three months while getting through the massive tome. Ben had liked it; Brody had loved it. How did this guy know? Ben refocused on the pulpit.
“My brother lived these words, every day. He was always ready to learn, and he wasn’t afraid of failure if it meant he would eventually improve as a result. He shared that philosophy with his family, and I know that I, at least, benefitted from it.” He smiled, and Ben went a little limp in his seat at the sight of Ryan Kuzniar—because that was who this had to be, Brody only had one brother and now that Ben was paying attention, he could see the strong resemblance they shared—smiling that perfect smile. It wasn’t broad, but it was still bright.
“Another of his favorites from that book was the saying that no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable, and I think that’s something we could all stand to remember today.” Ryan’s eyes were shiny, and new tears fell into old tracks already on his face, but he kept his smile. “It’s hard,” he said, more softly now. “It’s hard not to give up and scream and swear and make other people be strong for you, but Brody would never have put that burden onto someone else if the roles were reversed, and he’s always been my role model, so…” Ryan inhaled deeply. “So I’m doing my best.” He shrugged a little. “That’s all any of us can do.”
He stepped down from the pulpit, and losing sight of him was almost painful to Ben. He didn’t have time to dwell on it; the pastor was back at the helm, and his voice rang to the rafters.
“The family has decided to hold their reception here in the Fellowship Hall instead of at their home. After they’ve exited first, please feel free to head downstairs and join them in remembering our brother in Christ, Brody. There’s plenty of food too, thanks to all you ladies, so don’t stint.” He smiled briefly, then said, “Now, if you would all follow me in the Lord’s Prayer…”
Ben let the murmured words of the congregation flow around him, focusing instead on the calm he felt following Ryan’s brief, genuine speech. That, those words had been exactly what Ben had needed. They grounded him; they gave him the sense of connection that he, not a member of this church, not a member of this community, had been sorely lacking.
After the final amen, the organ began playing again and the front two rows of people stood up, turned and began to file down the center aisle. Ben watched them avidly, hoping for another glimpse of Ryan, but he was sandwiched in the middle of the crowd, and the only bit of him that Ben saw was the top of his head, slicked down and shiny. Once they were gone, the rest of the people began to get up and leave.
Ben sighed. That was it, really. He could go now, if he wanted to. It might be better if he did; the family was going to be swamped with sympathy, he probably wouldn’t get closer than five feet to any of them. He could leave, take his invitation with him and never know who had sent it, and that would be…
Unacceptable. It was a mystery, and Ben hated an unsolved mystery.
Greg turned and looked at him. “Are you coming to the reception, son?” he asked kindly.
“Yes,” Ben replied. “Yes, I think I am.”