Tuesday, June 12, 2018

#33 Stories: Day 33, "Memory," an unfinished novel

No. 33: "Memory," an unfinished novel set in Boston and Maine
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. Thus ends #33 Stories.

I have been working on this novel off and on (recently, mostly off) for many years. I may never finish it. I hope I do, for it represents a significant thematic and stylistic departure with roots in my early writing days when, like so many other dreamers with a pen, I had pretensions of The Great American Novel. "Memory," I like to believe, would have been -- will be? -- at least passably good.

The real-life St. Mary Star  of the Sea church, Deer Isle, Maine.

The opening of "Memory":

Chapter 1
Friday, June 8

A passerby traveling the road that descends into the village of Stonington on Deer Isle, Maine, at eleven o’clock on that cloudless morning of Friday, June 8, would have observed a scene that could properly have been described as peaceful and pretty.

Framed by a white steepled chapel to the left and the harbor and the emerald stepping-stone islands of Merchants Row beyond to the right, the cemetery with its carefully trimmed grass and abundance of weathered tombstones presented itself as picturesque in that old-fashioned New England way. The oaks and maples shimmered with fresh young leaves in a spring that last week had turned unseasonably warm, a delightful development, all agreed, after a winter that had continued stubbornly past Easter, when four inches of snow fell, ruining the egg hunt and sunrise services. Only the irregular mound of back-hoed earth beneath an old green tarp might have brought unpleasantness into the passerby’s mind.

A new grave had been dug. And there, next to it, was its designated occupant, about to be lowered in.
Measured by the numbers, the living who had joined the deceased in her final moments above ground were an unimpressive assembly. This was the assemblage: Fr. Bertrand Lombardi, the septuagenarian pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea, the island’s only Roman Catholic church; three part-time employees, the full staff, of Bragdon-Kelley Funeral Home; and 16 mourners, all but one of whom, a tall and handsome dark-haired man in his mid 20s, were middle-aged or elderly. The oldest was a wheelchair-bound man who was in the care of an aide and encased in an Afghan, despite the smothering humidity and the heat, 82 degrees and rising.

And thus a passerby might have assumed that the recently departed had been a person of no particular import, in the larger sense: a local who had passed a quiet existence, troubling no one outwardly and likely having made a meritorious contribution to the gene pool; or a native-born returned after decades from a more tax- and climate-friendly place (Florida, if one had to guess). The sort of ordinary person who had been the subject of an ordinary obituary with an ordinary outdated black-and-white head shot in the local weekly, The Ellsworth American. An obituary rich with “dearly” and “beloved” and other such flowery but superficial adjectives composed by a funeral-home director with tearful input from a family member with no desire for candor, let alone full disclosure, at this Most Difficult Time of Greatest Need.

And that assumption would have been correct: The deceased’s obituary had indeed appeared in The Ellsworth American, in yesterday’s edition. It offered little more than an age, a birthplace, names of relatives and a request that in lieu of flowers, donations in her name be made to Haven Home Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Burnt Cove, Deer Isle, ME, 04627.

In her 89 years, the existence of Rose O’Reilly Grey had been confirmed in published form only three times before. The first marked her wedding to Bill, the man in the Afghan and wheelchair, on August 23, 1947, in a Charlestown, Massachusetts, church: a two-paragraph story without photo that ran in the Boston Sunday Advertiser together with a dozen similar accounts of the latest post-war couples who had committed to their role in bringing forth the Baby Boom. The second was a story in the Bangor Daily News in July 1963 commemorating the tenth anniversary of Joyland, a small theme park noted for its mini-golf, batting cage, petting zoo, Tilt-A-Whirl and 25-cent lobster rolls that Rose and Bill had opened and owned: Ten Happy Years at Deer Isle’s ‘Family Destination,’ the headline read. At the time this cheery representation of Joyland had been published, Rose was five months pregnant with Jack, her only son, the middle-age man who stood today with the 24-year-old Dylan, Jack’s only child and her only grandchild. Her third previous appearance in the paper concerned something terrible: her inclusion in the obituary of her daughter, who occupied the grave next to that into which she herself was about to be lowered. BRENDA O’REILLY GREY, February 1, 1948 - June 29, 1970, With the Angels Now, the small granite stone read.

Sweaty in his unaccustomed suit, the middle-age Jack Grey was endeavoring for a better take of the priest’s incantation over his mother’s coffin: a costly zinc-lined, hermetically-sealed container that state law had required the undertaker to use, given the condition of the corpse.

Jack always sought perfection in his work, but the location of the grave and his proximity to it were conspiring to foil him. His ideal shot would have been the coffin framed by the grieving assemblage, with the harbor, islands and open Atlantic in the distance. Though a critic might legitimately have dismissed it as cheesy (the final journey, bread upon the waters, yadi-yadi-ya), it still would have carried some metaphorical heft, in Jack’s estimation. But the sun reflecting off the water created an overwhelming backlight that washed out the coffin, the heart of the shot –– and his video camera, a Panasonic HDC-SDX1 Ultra-Compact Full HD, was powerless to correct it. And while he could have finagled a decent representation with the magic of Final Cut, in principle he was opposed to such manipulations, holding them to be a form of unacceptable fakery, which had no place in his personal work (his professional work was another matter). Or so he had deceived himself into believing.
An additional complication was the fact that maneuvering for a superior angle would have caused further unmissable disturbance: through his holy farewell words for the mother, poor old Fr. Lombardi was belatedly processing what was unfolding with the son and he was rather concerned by the behavior. In the priest’s view, this was no Kodak moment. It was a view evidently shared by Jack’s son, Dylan, who seemed poised to angrily snatch the camera from his father, if not smack him. “Dad, what the fuck,” Dylan whispered.

Jack rolled a few seconds more, slid the camera back into his jacket pocket, and bowed his head. He’d deal with the shortcomings of the footage somehow, later.

This simple philosophy -- somehow, later -- had frequently characterized decisions in his life, with frequently poor results.


So far, the entire day had conspired to foil Jack.

Dylan’s flight the evening before from Los Angeles to Bangor, by way of Detroit, had arrived three hours late, and so it was after 2 a.m. when father and son had reached Boyce’s Motel -- and nearing 3 a.m. when Jack finally nodded off, which meant he had barely slept four hours when things got underway, at 7 that morning. Breakfast of English muffins, yogurt and tasteless coffee had sucked, to put it bluntly. His suit emerged lint-covered and wrinkled from his garment bag, not that he was standing on fashion today (or ever). The battery on his Panasonic was low and he’d lost the recharger inside one of the six pieces of luggage, four still in the trunk of his car, that he’d brought with him from his home in Boston. The memory card on his Nikon D3x, which he used for stills, was full, requiring an emptying transfer to a backup drive. Dylan, who was even less of a morning person than he, was moving in excruciating slow-motion, spending nearly half an hour in the tiny bathroom doing God-knows-what. The day continued its downward trajectory at the funeral home, where the director took offense when Jack repositioned the lilies surrounding the coffin and clicked away with his Nikon, using fill-in flash.

“This is highly unconventional, Mr. Grey,” the director said. “I’m not comfortable with you taking pictures.”

“Yeah, Dad, put it away,” Dylan said.

“Trust me,” Jack said, “she wouldn’t have minded.” In truth, as Jack knew, Rose unquestionably would have minded.

“Mr. Grey, please,” the funeral director said. “Surely you don’t want to remember her like this.”

“You’d be surprised,” Jack said.

“We provided you with prayer cards, remember? Lovely remembrances with the 23rd Psalm and that lovely photograph of her. You told me you yourself took it.”

“This is more, how shall I put it, conclusive.”

“Are you high or something?” said Dylan. The caffeine was starting to perk him up.

“I’m serious.”

“Wow. And you think this is the time and place for this.”

“As your grandmother used to say: no better time than the present.”

“Jesus, Dad. Really?”

“It’s for The Project.”

“I figured. Please stop. I’m begging you.”

Jack did stop shooting and he left his Nikon and Panasonic in the Bragdon-Kelley limo, a 1990 Cadillac Fleetwood with very low mileage, when they arrived at St. Mary Star of the Sea; much as he wanted to film the service, he maintained a modicum of respect for the inside of a church, especially this small, simple one where he had spent many hours as a child. Though the close-up would have been stunning, the logistics of shooting from his seat, inches from the coffin, would have been too conspicuously inappropriate, anyway -- even for Jack, whose career had put him and his cameras in countless places they were unwelcome.

Once Fr. Lombardi began his eulogy, Jack immediately regretted his decision: there would be no second takes, of course, and what he heard would have been impossible to script. He thought of dashing back to the limo, but there was every chance that by the time he returned, it would be over. He would have to rely on memory, though, if the pun can be pardoned, his was not of the photographic sort.

Interior of the real-life St. Mary Star of the Sea, Deer Isle, Maine.
Technically, Catholic law forbid a true eulogy: the priest was permitted a homily interpreting the choice of Gospel and incorporating the essential themes of mercy, salvation, grace and eternal life, and a few general words about the life, death and presumably heaven-bound soul of the deceased were permitted, though not encouraged. But Fr. Lombardi, originally a Jesuit, considered that edict, issued by the Vatican in its 1989 Order of Christian Funerals, to be –– in a word –– baloney. During the dark pre-Vatican II days of the 1950s and early 1960s, in the small parishes beyond the immediate finger-wagging glare of the diocese, he had listened to sorrow-filled spouses and children and siblings who wanted acknowledgment from the pulpit that their recently deceased were not merely yet another of the baptized and confirmed faithful -- though they were that, too, one had to believe -- but also individuals who had uniquely walked the earth leaving a unique life story, worthy of telling, if only in summary. And so, early in his priesthood, he had begun to personalize his remarks, to the immense gratitude of those left behind. It made funerals a little less depressing, in his view (since he was a kid, dead bodies had always sort of creeped him out, he couldn’t help it, never could move past it), and also minimized the griping that could follow burial, sometimes continuing for months or years. Such dissatisfaction surely negatively impacted collections, though a direct link could not be proved.

To Fr. Lombardi’s knowledge, Rose Grey had never missed Mass on a Sunday, Holy Day of Obligation, or her and her husband’s wedding anniversary and birthdays. He had twice been assigned to St. Mary Star of the Sea, in the 1970s and again since 2001, and this whole time, she had kept the same pew: front row, left, facing the pulpit, an increasingly fortuitous choice of seating as her hearing had declined in her later years and she had refused to surrender to a hearing aid. She had been head of the Ladies’ Sodality in the 1970s and early ‘80s, when the sodality still existed, and she had run each year’s Advent bake sale back then. She had visited his confessional box weekly during his first tour but less regularly during his second, when confessions in general had seen their popularity plummet, despite its more inviting renaming, Reconciliation. Which was fine by Father Lombardi, who had learned in his beginning priestly years that true misdeeds of the sort that might have interested him -- bank robberies and embezzlement, for example -- never surfaced in the confessional. Petty lying and stealing, cheating, swearing, underpaying taxes -- all sins, to be sure, and in need of absolution but hardly seat-grippers -- constituted the great majority of what was disclosed to him in the shadows on Saturdays from 4 to 5 p.m. The good stuff, it seemed to him, had all migrated to TV.

The priest began his eulogy, as he typically did, with a humorous personal anecdote.

“We all know how Rose loved her yard sales,” he said. “Up until very recently, you would see her around town every Saturday, driving her beloved Subaru as she scouted for rare treasure.” Not-so-rare castoffs, and her house is filled with them, my problem now, Jack thought. “And we all know how generously Rose donated many of these treasures to the annual Christmas Bazaar. Well, this one year…” The rest of the anecdote detailed how Fr. Lombardi had spied a certain Velvet Elvis at that bazaar and how another parishioner out for a bargain recognized it as her own from years before and how this parishioner had sold it at her yard sale, and then that buyer a year later had offered it at his sale, and so forth and so on, said Velvet Elvis imprisoned in the loop until it reached Rose, who was frequently the final destination in the cycle. The anecdote drew laughter from Dylan, who on his childhood visits with Grammy had been her partner on her yard-sale adventures. The two of them often found cool toys and even once a Nintendo Gameboy still in the box, at a cost of pennies.

The remainder of the eulogy was a tribute to Rose’s character. She was, Fr. Lombardi said, “the very definition of an exemplary wife, mother and grandmother,” a woman who had “experienced great sorrow in her life,” an allusion to her long-dead daughter, but also “great joys and blessings” including “a son and grandson of whom she was justifiably proud” and a “dear little feline named Baby who was her constant loving companion.” And who nibbled on her dead ear before her body was found, Jack thought, though he doubted Fr. Lombardi had learned that disturbing detail. Mrs. Grey had dutifully kept her wedding vows, the priest said, the “in sickness and in health” vow most notably when her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and she uncomplainingly shouldered his increasingly engulfing care until it overwhelmed her and Medicare approved his one-way admission to Haven Home nursing and rehabilitation center. She had been “an upstanding citizen,” “a good neighbor,” and “a loyal Red Sox fan virtually from birth.” This latter statement was true.

In closing, Fr. Lombardi spoke of Rose’s reputation in town as someone with never a bad word for anyone. “In short,” the priest concluded, “she was God’s faithful and humble servant, an inspiration to us all, who has earned her eternal salvation at the side of Our Lord.”

This was rich! How ironic! And how wonderfully it would have translated to the screen. Jack, who had been an altar boy during Father Lombardi’s first assignment but had not seen him again until this morning, assumed that the priest’s exposure to Rose had been entirely peripheral; surely, he knew her only as the faithful congregant and, most recently, the old lady he occasionally bumped into at Burnt Cove Market or a yard sale. Unless she had revealed more in the confessional than Jack suspected, the priest, like so many others, had been misled (deceived would be too strong a word). For this was not the entirety of the mother Jack remembered.

 This eulogized character was not the person who requested and received literature from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, though the postman, along with Jack, would have recognized her. This was not the woman who had contributed ten dollars from her zero-cost-of-living-adjusted Social Security check to the successful Tea Party-backed gubernatorial candidacy of Paul LePage, though the donation was duly recorded by the Maine Ethics Commission and remembered by Jack, who chastised her for it. This was not “Rose from Downeast” who regularly called the Howie Carr Show, home of New England’s angry and spiteful, a program that originated in Boston and was broadcast on her favorite station, WVOM in Bangor, which also carried Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity -- though Jack could attest to that. This was not the woman who owned every one of Elvis Presley’s albums, along with the complete collections of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the early Rolling Stones  -- though Jack could have pointed them out, there on the living-room shelves they shared with the Sinatra, Lawrence Welk, Lennon Sisters, Mitch Mitchum and Herb Alpert records. This was not the woman whose most prized treasure was nothing scrounged at a yard sale but the 1952 Kennedy-for-Senate flyer personally autographed with her name by the future president himself  -- though Jack was aware of that, too.

Nor was this the woman who died questioning God. Jack himself did not know that woman -- though Liz Orcutt, someone Jack’s age who had befriended Rose in her dotage (a friendship both had successfully kept from Jack, who had once been romantically involved with Liz) could have attested to that. And to much more, as Jack would discover...