I went home for winter break and shook down my sister’s room in the name of research. I found a photograph of a bare-knuckle boxer who looked like he was assembled in a distillery about a century ago. My sister skipped black nail polish and went directly to clipping exceptionally moving obituaries out of the daily paper, so I assumed the photograph was of her boyfriend’s cancer-stricken father. His sickness had become a simple mania by which she came to function.
She busted me looking through her dresser. The photograph was actually of our grandfather, our father’s father, of whom no pictures were thought to exist. “I found it in the basement. Mom and I are going to have it reprinted and framed and give it to Dad for his birthday,” she said. “And you almost fucking ruined it,” This was enough to summon our mother who, like my sister, found her first love in the idea of death. Often, the two of them would wear matching bathrobes and look online for affordable mourning jewelry, rings and broaches that contained woven hair from the head of the honorably deceased.
They ignored me. Each of them held a bottom corner of the photograph and looked at it with tears in her eyes, overjoyed, again, to be crying for everyone who ever lived except themselves.
Three semesters of college had familiarized me with spatial relations between wine that was fortified and people who were not. My girlfriend was twenty and, therefore, in a constant state of reinvention.
She called me daily at my parents’ house to tell me how much of an idiot she used to be. “This one time I stayed out all night and then when I got home in the morning I threw my key to our apartment on the table in front of my boyfriend and told him that I did a bunch of coke and fucked a dude and we should probably break up.”
I was standing on the front porch watching the dogs play in the snow and enjoying it only slightly more than that conversation, so I asked, “Did he agree?”
“Eventually,” she said.
I listened to my family name off local dead people and soon enough began to wish I was one of them. Issues concerning mortality were silently divided up: my uncles took nervous system failures, my parents took miscellaneous brain degenerations. They yelled out names and occupations for the benefit of one another, but everyone was too busy thinking of their respective nearby corpses to listen. Keith from the gas station, Marta from the Mexican restaurant.
“Alfonso Ribeiro from Silver Spoons,” I said, though he was still alive. “April Lerman from Charles In Charge. Missy Gold from Benson.” Both alive.
Five people who have worked at the hardware store had died in the last eight years. The last two senior volunteer librarians had heart attacks. One of the brothers in a local cover band had an aneurysm last spring.
“Frank Bonner from WKRP In Cincinnati,” I said.
One of my aunts turned to me and said, “I loved that show. Is he really dead?”
I said, “Sure,” and didn’t blink.
Though it seems both universal and obvious, the only reason I even had a girlfriend was because she had no one else to date. One night, she told me that one time after having sex with her last boyfriend, he told her she was too fat to be naked in front of other people and that they were broken up. Then he asked her to put a pizza in the oven on her way out, which she did.
I never found any of that to be particularly attractive, but it played to the sense of healthy competition that I lacked. That seemed important.
We gave my father the picture of his old man and he didn’t cry like I hoped he would. I once heard a comedian say that all father/son relationships are fights to the death, but I didn’t want to see my father cry as a matter of weighing my character against his. I just wanted to see what it was like for a man in my family to have emotions.
Not long after we all reached a familial saturation point, my girlfriend called to tell me that one of her ex-boyfriends had died. I didn’t ask which one.
“He jumped into the river as a joke and the current grabbed him,” she said, incensed, flustered into endurance.
I said, “Shirley Hemphill from What’s Happening!!”
She didn’t say anything. Then it hit me that Shirley Hemphill actually was dead, that she had kidney failure. Her gardener was the one who found her.
“Mabel King,” I said. From the same show. Died a month before Shirley. Diabetes. And Fred Barry, too, who died a few years later, recovering from a stroke. My girlfriend hung up and I said his name anyways, thought of that old gag, reruns of Rerun, and Fred Barry himself, fat tucked into suspenders and dancing as if everything moved around him.
Ryan Werner is a janitor in the Midwest. He is the author of the short short story collection Shake Away These Constant Days (Jersey Devil Press, 2012). He has a website called www.RyanWernerWritesStuff.com.