Posts Tagged ‘redemption’

Phil’s Funeral: A Short Story Set in South Portland, Maine

July 6, 2018

 

I asked for yesterday off at the grocery here in South Portland, Maine. I wanted to drive a small troupe of our associates up to a mid-morning funeral in a little community north of Portland. The deceased was one of our long-time grocery clerks, so the store was supportive. We took Methuselah, the Shoestring Chapel’s van. Some of our associates show up at the Chapel off and on, and I volunteer there, as sort of the lay minister and custodian. It’s a pretty informal place. You don’t have to believe anything in particular to come. You don’t have to believe anything to come.

Phil was only in his late fifties. He was a reliable worker, but tight assed and tight lipped. When he did say something, it wasn’t pretty. He’d tell you loud and clear if you screwed up or you were in his way.

“Movvve it!”

I only saw Phil smile once. Some new kid was standing on the end of an empty U-boat yacking. Phil pushed the boat from behind because it was in his way. The kid fell backwards onto the boat with a huge bang. He didn’t get hurt much and his friends had a big laugh.

We all knew Phil was in constant pain from his swollen legs. Suffering makes most people self-centered and angry. You have to cut them slack. A couple months ago his congestive heart disease turned really ugly, and so did his temper. It got harder to forgive Phil. God knows, he never said he was sorry. Phil took a medical leave from work. No one thought he would come back. No one wanted him back.

Seven of us associates made the trip to Phil’s funeral. Trudy, Wes, and me from center store. Three girls from the front end. And Bob from the deli. Bob had gone to high school with Phil. The girls didn’t know Phil well but wanted to escape the front end for a day. I was surprised Trudy wanted to go. Phil was especially caustic towards her. And she gave it right back.

“Trudy, this will be a good chance to make peace with Phil,” I told her.

“Peace hell! I just want to see the S.O.B. flat on his back with his lips sewn shut.”

“Trudy!”

“OK, Mike. I didn’t like him. I never liked him. But I’ll be polite and see him off on his way to wherever. God knows he’s been a presence in our lives.”

“Don’t kick his coffin, Trudy,” laughed Wes, “Sewn lips or not, he might sit up and rip you a new one.”

It seemed like a good time to shift topics. “OK, Phil wasn’t friendly at work,” I offered, “but he was human. Everyone has good points. Phil must have cared about someone. Bob, you knew Phil growing up. What do you remember good about him?”

Bob thought for a while. “Well, I was in classes with Phil, but I never met his family. He told me he had a dog he took care of, but it ran off to the neighbors.”

The front end girls were texting and giggling about their friends’ messages. I interrupted them. “What do you girls remember about Phil?”

One of the girls looked up. “I remember Phil only had two pairs of pants.”

Wes spoke up. “I remember Phil liked cretons spread on biscuits.”

“Was Phil French?” I asked.

“No. Don’t think so,” said Wes.

I couldn’t think of anything winning about Phil either. He did his work but he didn’t give anything extra. He never seemed to take any pleasure in what he accomplished. I’d tried to chat with Phil a few times to loosen him up and maybe lead him to have a little fellowship with the other associates at work, but all I got were one-word answers, or sometimes just a grunt.

Phil had gotten mean after he got sick, but he had never been friendly. I figured when we arrived at the viewing we could talk with Phil’s family and friends. They could tell us something about what he was really like. Away from work. Maybe his family would talk about things they remembered. Phil’s warmer moments and what he was like as a boy. I wanted to meet Phil’s old friends.

We had read online that there would be an hour visitation ahead of the funeral service, followed by the burial at a nearby cemetery. I drove up and parked Methuselah on the street in front of the funeral home.

“Hey!” said a funeral assistant. “Can you park that thing farther down the street?” I let the others out and moved the van onto the next block. The guy was still gesturing to go farther, so I parked all the way at the end of that block. The guy stared at me walking back. Well, I see his point. We custom painted Methuselah ourselves, and it does have a lot of upbeat messages and colorful artwork. Looks a little off next to a black limo. And Methuselah smokes quite a bit from a bad gasket. Smokes under the hood even after the engine is off.

The funeral parlor was a grand old building on Main Street. Pretty nicely kept up. Phil’s brother and sister were there along with Phil’s nieces and nephews and a bunch of their kids. I didn’t see any friends. Just Phil’s family and a few of those old ladies who go to all the funerals. The kids were either laughing together or busy on their phones. A few of the real little kids were running around and hiding behind the shrubbery.

The seven of us came up to Phil’s brother while he was checking out the tag on a newly delivered vase of flowers. I told him how sorry we were for his loss. “We all worked with your brother at the grocery store.”

“I am happy for you,” Phil’s brother said, and he turned away to check more tags.

Phil was lying there in the box. I expected him to look relaxed and peaceful, but he still looked pissed. His hands were folded over and the middle finger of his right hand was curled up a bit. Not exactly how I’d like to greet St. Peter.

The service was short. The family’s preacher had never actually met Phil, so he gave a standard spiel about God’s forgiveness and love. He worked in that Phil had always been hard working and responsible and how he had never done anything really wrong. He also mentioned what faithful church members Phil’s brother and sister were. A hint of salvation by association, I guess. He left Phil’s final judgment up to God, but I noticed his tone wasn’t hopeful.

None of the family spoke. From where we sat at the back, we could see that everyone ahead of us was working a mobile device, mostly cell phones but also notebooks, tablets, and even a couple laptops, even Phil’s sister in the front row was on a phone. All those thumbs going up and down in silent devotion was oddly like a congregation of contemplatives counting their beads. The only exception was Phil’s brother. He spent the time scowling out a window.  The three front-end girls who came with us had been the only ones there to shed any tears at the viewing, but they now had their phones out too.

After the memorial service Phil’s brother stood up. He announced that there would be a reception after the burial “for the family” in the basement of their church. He gave us a cold eye.

Once we left the service we had a huddle.

“It’s pretty obvious Phil’s family doesn’t need our emotional support,” said Wes.

“I guess you’re right,” I said. “They seem to have already arrived at the stage of healing and acceptance.”

“OK,” said Trudy, “we’ve seen the last of Phil. I don’t need to see them plant his box to know he’s not coming back.”

“And you don’t want to see where he’s buried,” Wes smirked, “in case you want to come visit him?”

“Visit him! Not unless I spit on his grave.”

“Trudy!” I interrupted, “Phil is on his way to God. He wasn’t outgoing but he wasn’t evil. He just became angry because he was sick. We have to forgive that anger and try to remember Phil with love.”

“Phil’s family grew up with him. You can sure see how much they miss him. If you want to believe Phil is on his way to God, Brother Mike, that’s good of you. But I think when they put Phil six feet down that will just be the first step before a much deeper descent.”

“Well,” said Bob, “I really wanted to meet his family. None of them ever came to our events at the school. His brother and sister graduated before we came in as freshmen. But none of his family will even look at me.”

“I think I want to go home,” wailed one of the girls, waving her phone.

“I hope this hasn’t upset you,” I said.

“No, Evan wants me to send him pics of me in my new bikini, and I don’t have it with me!”

So we skipped the burial. I put another quart of oil in Methuselah and we left for home.

I dropped my co-workers off and parked the van outside the Shoestring Chapel in Knightville. I felt pretty depressed. What kind of life had Phil lived that his death seemed to matter so little to his family? And what kind of judgment could he expect from God, if the judgment of those who knew him on earth was so cold?

It was a warm day for April in Maine and still early in the afternoon, so I decided to walk down Waterman Drive to Thomas Knight Park in order to clear my mind. Knight Park is a wedge of parkland jutting out into the Fore River, where the South Portland end of the old Million Dollar Bridge once stood. It now sits in the shadow of the Casco Bay Bridge. The park still has a bit of the old brick street with its trolley rails from the early 20th century, when the trolley cars ran over the old bridge between the lanes for autos. I like the feel of history there, plus the view of the harbor.

As I reached the park, I met Bernie Bastardo on his three-wheel bike. Bernie was out collecting cans for redemption and he had a huge bag of them strapped to the little cart he pulls behind his bike. Bernie has worked maintenance at our store off and on for years. He’s also a semi-regular at the Shoestring Chapel. Mostly he hangs out on the streets and in the city parks.

“That’s a good haul of cans you’ve got there, Bernie.”

“You haven’t seen the best part, Brother Mike.” Bernie dug out a fifth of watermelon flavored vodka, about a third full, from a side pouch on his bike. “Look, Mike, this was almost full when I found it!”

“Is that stuff really fit to drink?” I asked. “And, Bernie, the bottle’s been opened and left lying along the street.”

“Well, it’s nothing I’d ever buy. But it’s free! Some kids probably panicked and threw it out a car window last night. When they saw a cop car coming up behind.”

“And you enjoy it?”

“The vodka part is for real! The watermelon flavor tastes fake. Still it’s a blessing on my day.” Bernie did a little happy dance around his bike until he tripped over a loose piece of pavement. I helped him up and suggested we sit down on a bench nearby.

“I don’t think it’s a blessing from God, Bernie. More like a temptation from Satan.”

“But, Mike, it is a blessing! I don’t have to buy any hooch today, so now I can use my can money to buy food at McDonald’s.”

“Bernie, maybe you should come back to work at the store and see if you can live a regular life for a while.”

“No thanks, Brother Mike, I’m doing fine right now.”

We watched the traffic on the bridge for a while and caught glimpses of boats through the bushes as they moved along the river.

“Bernie, I went to Phil’s funeral this morning.”

“I heard he died.”

“None of Phil’s family seemed to care. It was like they had had been dragged into some pointless motivational meeting at the store and they were just waiting for it to be over so they move on to something important.”

“Well, Phil was OK to work next to, before he got sick, but he never was friendly or interested in anyone else.”

“But if you grew up with someone, wouldn’t you remember them with some warmth? Especially when they died. They must have shared some good times.”

“I never saw any warmth in Phil. Never knew him to have any good times, either.”

“No, neither did I, Bernie. And that’s what worries me. How can anyone never do anything at least a little endearing?”

“I don’t know if everyone has a likeable side, Brother Mike.”

“Trudy insists Phil is headed for hell.”

“She would! I’ve heard them fight.”

“I can’t believe that Phil is condemned to hell, Bernie, but Jesus does say that we must love one another.”

“I don’t know that people always show love by being nice.”

“True. Some people feel love but hide it to protect themselves. Maybe Phil’s meanness wasn’t what he felt in his heart. Maybe he just hid himself behind a lot of attitude.”

“Never saw him give anyone a kind look.”

“I don’t know that you can be saved by a love that doesn’t show itself in kindly acts. If love really exists it must show itself in good works.”

“What if a man verbally abuses his family, Brother Mike, maybe even beats them at times, but he gives up his life trying to save them from a fire? Because he loves them.”

“Wow, Bernie! I guess his sacrifice might show the kind of love that could save him.”

“So what if the fire never happens? He still loves them inside.”

“Yes.”

“When Trudy looks at me she sees a useless drunk. I’m sure she thinks I’m going to hell. Well, Mike, Trudy doesn’t know me! She has no idea who I am inside. And you, Brother Mike, I bet you’re different inside from how people see you. You talk a lot about your life, but you’ve got feelings you’re protecting. You’re not comfortable showing people every thing that’s inside you.”

“Yes.… I failed someone in my life, Bernie.… She was a close friend, intelligent, energetic. She would do anything she could for those close to her. But she had used heroin earlier in her life. And it came back. I could have intervened. I could have taken the chance of putting myself between her and her returning addiction. But instead I distanced myself, Bernie. I didn’t make the effort that she needed.”

“But she didn’t want you to intervene.”

“I think she did, Bernie. Of course, she would have resisted an intervention. I would have had a real struggle with her. But I think she wanted someone to care enough to make that struggle. There was still time when I found out. Then she was dead.”

“You couldn’t change her if she didn’t want to change.”

“I should have tried, Bernie. We need to keep trying to help because at some moment, at some just-the-right moment people may want to change. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life, but my deepest regrets are all failures of omission.”

We watched five bicyclists come down Ocean Ave., round the curve by the park and shoot off up Waterman toward the Greenbelt Pathway.

“I wouldn’t have guessed this, Brother Mike.”

“No one here knew her and I don’t talk about it. But I live with it inside every day”

“No one knows who we are inside.”

“It could be Phil really was just the self-centered and short-tempered person he seemed to be. Or he could have been someone very different in his heart.”

“Phil might find a home in heaven, Brother Mike.”

“And Trudy just might meet him again when she gets up there. You know, Bernie, I think God may have room in heaven for grumpy angels.”

“Yes, so do I. But if God wants peace in paradise, I bet he’ll send those two to opposite corners.”

 

 
Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

St Thérèse of Lisieux statue at Calvary Cemetery in S. Portland, Maine. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

St Thérèse of Lisieux statue at Calvary Cemetery in S. Portland, Maine. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Advertisements