The Funeral Tape

We are all watching my father and the funeral home director fiddle with the cords on the back of a TV and VCR combo-on-wheels that the funeral home provided us. The funeral apparently isn’t only interested in deceased human bodies.

“Weren’t they our age when VCRs came out?” asks my sister, pointing at the middle-aged fiddlers. “This is their iPhone.”

I shrug and take another sip of coffee. It’s good but it’s starting to make me sweat. I remind myself that sport coats are wonderful pit stain concealers. Nothing to worry about, I think. My funereal narcissism bothers me only a little.

Mom finally intervenes from her hovering perimeter stance and asks the combo-on-wheels technicians if they have done the simple things. They ignore her. I worry that my mother will raise her voice to be heard, but she marches elsewhere.

My brother walks in, looks over at what our father and the funeral director are doing, and swiftly closes the distance to the combo-on-wheels. This makes him in charge of the whole endeavor. My father and the funeral director step solemnly back to let the next generation figure out the gadgets that their generation produced. Now out of a task, they assume positions of power and muse solutions out loud to my brother who simply ignores them.

The TV loses its blue screen. We see snow. We see a picture warble and fly up to the top of the screen to be replaced by another picture. Finally, we see my uncle’s shoulders and head, overexposed and painfully pale against the whiteness of the walls behind him. The frames of his glasses are thick, much like the lenses that they hold.

My brother grabs the remote and rewinds the tape while walking to the back of the room, and we see a short backwards preview of what’s to come.

The crowd my brother walks past is a crowd half full of really old people and half full of  people whose standing with the recently deceased is dubious. Good people, nonetheless, who have heeded the call of empathy and familial duty. A couple kids play in the background, running through the immaculately decorated room of the funeral home, emitting loud and then, by decree of the seated adults, barely hushed sounds that strain against boundaries of respectful silence only so long.

The funeral home reminds me of the room my mother would never let the family go into unless we were having a “special occasion” dinner. Guests have probably eaten dinner at that table more than my siblings and I have. The chairs are dark solid oak, the sofas carry the age of their baroque wallpaper-ish fabric gracefully. Pastoral pictures in gilded frames cover the walls, the landscape saying something kitschy about death. I wonder if my mother could successfully run a funeral home. There is potential.

My father walks up to the front of the crowd and spreads his hands out for silence. I see a small smile as the trick works. My father was never good at commanding a room.

“Thank you for your patience,” he says. He almost goes full on with the smile but switches to reverence, extending his hand toward the combo-on-wheels.

“Larry decided that he wanted to be the one to say goodbye to all of you. Unfortunately, he used a dead format to do so.”

He purses his lips. My sister calculates a breath of derision. A small tittering of laughter from rows down in the back placates my father.

“I want to thank Jeremy, my oldest, who helped us work this all out for Larry.”

The crowd looks at Jeremy and smiles or stares. One half may have realized Jeremy only helped with the combo-on-wheels, the other half profoundly realizing that the younger generation, despite their selfish mien, has stepped up in the care for a deceased family member’s funeral arrangements. Jeremy, still holding the remote, gestures his acknowledgement with it, and I reminisce on the elegance of old school brick remotes.

“My brother was a quiet man. So I will end with thanking you all for paying your respects to Larry. As we will see, Larry appreciates it too.”

His wording is poignant to only our immediate family who knows that my father has not previewed the tape. He couldn’t be bothered to find a VHS player. He is trying to get away with winging it. It’s rare to see a parent go through such performance stress, and it’s guiltily wonderful to be part of the audience. My father finally nods his head at Jeremy who mechanically raises his arm and points the remote control at the combo-on-wheels. The audience stares at my brother as he does so. They, as well as I, were primed for a longer and more reverential speech.

Larry’s picture has been paused on the screen since the rewind, and the face Larry has been making is not one of serenity and calm but one of tense eyebrows and the slack jaw one gets when letting loose a really big exhale. I am thinking Larry is preparing himself for technical difficulties, which is why I suspect he recorded his farewell speech on a VCR instead of the computer with the built-in camera we bought him for Christmas three years ago. I suspect either Larry didn’t think computer video recording was reliable or didn’t know where to start. Either way, Larry opted to forgo the humiliating educational lesson from our family technology expert, Jeremy. Possibly, because when Larry was setting up his new computer, Jeremy hum-drummed computer jargon to my uncle about printing and learning notable keyboard shortcuts and archiving emails, clicking and circling the mouse around things of import, while my uncle glared at the screen and finally asked, in the hard edged tone of those who have been inconveniently delayed in asking a question, if he could make the text bigger.

Unpaused, Larry stares at the camera, blinks, stares some more, then fiddles with his pants by pulling them up. He sits up farther in his chair and holds the pose. Tension builds until he satisfyingly jerks into motion.

“Hello. This is Larry Fallcreek. It is Friday, February 27, 2009.”

Larry looks at his watch.

“It is 11:15 a.m. I am at home and am making this video in lieu of my likely death sometime in the future.”

Two years have gone by since this tape was made. I look at my father’s expression. His body seems bent toward the screen, as if it was about to pick him up like a good smell does to a cartoon character.

“In truth, this idea came about because I saw an article on the internet. It’s never too early. Sudden things can happen. All that.”

In the end, it was a heart attack. Very sudden.

“So if you find any earlier dated tapes, don’t watch them. I’ve…”

A phone is ringing. There is the creaking of chairs and the rustling of clothes as people check their purses and pockets.

“Excuse me,” Larry says and gets up and walks out of frame. The ringing stops.

“Hello? Is this a person? No. Robot.” There is a sharp plastic on plastic collision before Larry walks back into the frame and sits down. A black cat jumps up onto his lap, and Larry gently puts it down on the floor.

“This one article said that I should devote such tapes to explaining things that I might not have felt comfortable telling you while alive. I should also make amends with people I need to make amends with. Loose ends are unhealthy, even when you are no longer a part of this world.”

I catch my mother glaring at my father who has just projected out a large sigh.

A different cat, a tabby, jumps up on Larry’s lap. Larry pets it unconsciously and then sets it gently down on the floor, which takes too long and, I note in my millennial way, should have been edited out for brevity.

“I’ve never been one to hold grudges, and I certainly don’t want to take any animosity I may have with anyone to the grave. Rest assured that whatever argument we may have had, if it is still ongoing, etc., I have forgiven and forgotten it.”

Larry symbolically wipes his hands clean and shows both of them, palms out, to the camera. Larry is lying, of course, but I cannot ruin his last known idealistic delusion.

We hear a cat meow.

“I love you too,” says Larry and gives a wet, puckered kiss to a cat we can’t see. The sound of the kiss stretches the range of speakers on the combo-on-wheels and makes my hand itch to illogically clean my ear out. So far, this is the only love present in this recording and this funeral.

“Now, recently, there has been a thing with this video on the internet, and I wanted to set it all straight cause this thing has been a pain in my life, and I don’t think people have given me quite the measure of concern or empathy that I deserve.”

Larry is most certainly referring to the YouTube clip that my brother uploaded after the only Thanksgiving we ever had at my uncle’s house.

That year, Larry had just bought a new house with some investment money he had finally cashed in. Larry, a bachelor all of his life, had decided to move out of his apartment and settle down into some property. With this, came an extension from the family to christen the house with a communal family holiday, the closest one being Thanksgiving. I’m not sure Larry ever agreed to this, but it was put forth and acted upon nonetheless.

Larry rarely left his apartment and kept this going with his new home. For family occasions, when Larry’s genetics played a part in his presence, we always nominated someone to be the one to “go and pick up Larry.” It was a rite of passage in the family, and something teens with new driver’s license were eager to do.

And when Larry finally showed up, the family would adulate and hug and smile while Larry made his way to the sofa where my family would mostly ignore him. There he sat for the entire night until dinner, and then he would sit there until someone decided to pry themselves away from the hubbub to drive him home.

On that Thanksgiving, we arrived at Larry’s two hours early, because my mother wanted to make sure that Larry was cooking the turkey correctly, something my mother was horrified to learn that Larry insisted on doing himself.

Larry’s figure was in the huge window at the front of the house when we pulled up. This was some sort of sign we couldn’t figure. But he waved and walked slowly out of frame.

We had just started the long process of getting out of the car when the two-car garage door opened in that lugubrious way, and we could see Larry, slowly revealed. More waving from Larry. I’d never seen Larry wave or think he would be the type to do so. He had always been a head nodder. But my father turned the car back on, got it out of park, and pulled into the garage.

“Hello,” said Larry, before walking back into the house and leaving us to unpack.

There were two major things that confronted us inside Larry’s house. My father was the first in. He immediately turned his head around to eye my mother, making wide nostril movements. My mother swore under her breath. And when my mother and father stopped again beyond the doorway, leaving no room for my brother, sister, and me to clamber in and relieve us of all of the stuff we were carrying, we knew something was wrong.

The smell was urine oriented. And it was either rotten ammonia or the smell of things ammonia degrades and releases into the atmosphere.

“Larry,” said my father. “How do you feed them all?”

I respected the politeness of this first question.

“You just spread it out on the floor here. That’s it.”

“On the kitchen floor?”

“It’s like fertilizer.”

Larry only recently acquired a place in which he was responsible for a garden and grass seed, and I think we all doubted his familiarity with the metaphor.

I pictured Larry unleashing cat food in huge jets, flinging the pebbled food far into the living room and redirecting to fill the gaps.

My mother shook herself from her trance and started unloading all of the pots and pans and hors d’oeuvres and the other stuff we brought with us. She said nothing, but her honed and forceful movements were enough.

It took us a good 20 minutes to enter the living room and sit, making polite conversation along the way, mostly with each other, slowly edging our way into that house. Our main objective was obviously eyeing the different cats that settled in various places. Our mother took a more productive approach. She swirled around the kitchen, looking for necessary cooking or serving implements in Larry’s drawers and cupboards, not letting anyone help her.

“That’s a lot of cats,” said our father.

“This neighborhood was full of them when I moved in,” Larry said. “They must have been abandoned or lost at some point. There is a creek out back behind the yard. Just started putting out food and water on the back porch. The ones that let me pet them, I took inside.”

“You know your sister is allergic to cats.”

“I think that’s just because she hates them.”

“I don’t know, Larry.”

There was nothing to do but stay on the couches, watch TV, and occasionally watch our frantic mother in the kitchen. Our clothes, we knew, were lost to cat hair. My father asked Larry for a tour, and I suspected this was pretense for privacy. This left my mother, the unwitting receiving hostess, to answer the door. Whenever a guest arrived at the front door, my mother would run from the kitchen to the front door, greet the guests and when the guests noticed the cats, my mother asked for their coats. A subtle misdirection. We only heard a few muffled swears and appeals to a higher power as family started piling in the house, weakly rivaling the number of cats.

In two hours, we knew to walk slowly so as to not send something scurrying and yelping, disrupting a semblance of stasis. We looked before we sat down and reacted in our own ways to the cats that tried to pile onto the new seats our laps made. No one tried to brush off cat hair anymore.

“Okay,” my father said. “Dinner is ready. The kid table is in the family room and the rest of us are in the dining room. Get your plates. Time to go.”

We unhurriedly lined up for food that some of us had been waiting a year for, taking care to scoop out a polite portion, leaving the greedy portions for seconds. The adults, with their plates full, all sat down at the dining room table, and the kids, mostly younger adults that could not fit at the adult table, stood in the living room, too afraid to sit down. My father led the family in grace, a symbolic affair, and everyone started digging into the food.

Jeremy was always the first in line at a family buffet and the first one with an empty plate. His efficiency in slopping as much food on his plate irked all of our polite sensibilities. We were all modest with our first portions. He was not. But he never had seconds. Further, he was a shoveler, rarely chewing his food as it went down his esophagus and into his stomach. This posed a few medical problems when he was young, but he didn’t learn from them. So, when he finished leagues before us all, he pulled out his smartphone and started videoing.

“Consumer hell is tomorrow, which, as we know, is our cultural milestone for the beginning of the Christmas season. So what does everyone want for Christmas?” he asked in the mock voice of a parent interviewing their young kids.

“A cat,” I said.

An obvious joke, but it started it nonetheless.

“An indentured cat lady or cat nanny.”

“Seasonal cat sweaters with Catholic leanings.”

“A large scratch post entitled ‘We’re Going to Need a Bigger Scratch Post.”

“A Generator That Runs on Feline Fur.”

“A professional camera with an infinite amount of space for all the cat pictures I’m going to take.”

“Holy,” said my father from the kitchen. He had come back for seconds and was standing in a doorway. There were at least 10 cats up on the kitchen counters having their way with our Thanksgiving dinner.

“Off!” yelled my father, making flamboyant umpire moves at the cats. One or two scurried off the counter, but the rest stayed firm in their eating stances, as if the food was immediately life sustaining, not even eyeing my father for potential danger.

We heard the clank of silverware on plates and saw adults staring from the other room and then others getting halfway up in their seats to further fill the door frame with disembodied heads. My father was the only fount of movement, now flailing at the cats who scurried and then reclaimed their spaces. We stood up to do something but became stuck again, transfixed at my father and transfixed by the door frame of adult heads who were also transfixed.

Cats are opportunistic beasts. This distraction was poignant, and we were not surprised as the disembodied heads turned, letting out cries that matched our father’s.

“Piranhas,” said my sister.

The dining room table was overtaken. Cats climbed like quick zombies over our feet. By now, some cats had carried some food to the floor. We stood, looking down at a world of skittish consumption and hisses and spats and scrambling. This was where my brother realized that he has been unconsciously videoing the whole thing. He moved into action. We didn’t notice.

“I’ll never forget that night,” says Larry, the seriousness of his face on the combo-on-wheels contrasting with the low quality of the video. “Those cats were something I needed. Sometimes you don’t know what you need in this life. They are all gone now.”

Larry hardens his face and braces his eyebrows. I wonder if he is going to look around the room, as if he can see his persecutors through the camera’s lens, but his eyes remain straight into the camera.

“I am a lonely man. And it’s always been mostly by choice. Not anymore.”

The room is quieter than before, even though no one has been talking; everyone is waiting. Larry is obviously lying about this too.

“Jimmy, you bastard. You were the one who called. I know you were.”

Larry points at the camera, gets up and the screen goes blank, cutting off a slew of Larry’s profanity as he tries many times to turn off the camera.

Jimmy, my father, maintains eyesight at the now up-and-down film fuzz displaying on the combo-on-wheels. Everyone has turned in their chair to look at him. It was my mother who called animal control. There is, apparently, a pet limit for households. But I wonder more at how my father will tell them that Larry eventually went back to collecting cats, as hinted at in the video, and it was my father who, frustrated with Larry not picking up the phone, went over to Larry’s house.

I see my father standing in the kitchen, robbed of all motion, thinking only about the moment just before, when he wrestled with unfamiliar keys in the lock and opened the door and heard skittering — little forms scattering across the floor. And then the unveiling of Larry’s partially eaten body on the kitchen floor, empty bucket of cat food upended next to him. It is the reason for the closed casket funeral, and I’m wondering if anyone will ask about that.


TJ Wilson is a high school English teacher that just started publishing fiction and nonfiction. He writes essays about education and other nonfiction things on his personal website at www.thomasjosephwilson.com. He currently lives with his lovely wife and a scarily gigantic but well-meaning dog in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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