"Go ahead, man, she's waiting for you," Wayne urged, grinning as he punched Linc on the shoulder.
Sprawled on the floor, the girl straightened her skirt over pale thighs. A spate of rain rattled the shed's roof. As Linc hesitated, the girl taunted, "Are you doing it or not? 'Cause I got other plans today, y'know."
* * *
Forty-four years later, Linc wavered at the double doors of the funeral home, debating whether to scurry back across the puddled parking lot to his rented Ford. He wasn't expected here; in fact, nobody would know an academic conference had brought him to south Florida this week. He'd sent flowers to the funeral home and cards to the family members -- a more than adequate response.
The damp doorknob gave a chill to his fingers, a weird contrast with the morning sun that burned through after the early shower. The rectangular boxwood framing the portico's white columns radiated a preposterous green, and yet the shrub smelled dusty even after the rain. If the setting itself felt so out of whack, what was he doing here? He shifted his weight awkwardly and adjusted the glasses on his nose.
Yet Linc was fond of his aunt and uncle, the lone survivors of their generation, and hadn't seen them in a couple of years. The pretentious academic sessions had left him hungry for authentic conversation, even about ungainly topics like death. As for the deceased, his cousin Wayne Shit-for-Brains, the family's black sheep who'd burned out his liver at fifty-nine, Linc figured he could avoid saying what he really thought.
Inside, the lobby stretched the full fifty-foot width of the building, carpeted in a deep tan flecked with burgundy. In the center stood an eight-foot, three-tiered marble fountain, perfectly dry, that established a tone at once dignified and bereft. Adding to the effect were brass chandeliers, café-au-lait walls with dark cherry wainscoting, plush sofas upholstered in a murky brown floral pattern, and huge wood-framed mirrors flanked by sconces of artificial flowers. As a historian of science Linc seldom studied decoration, but it occurred to him that the material culture of death might make an interesting article -- sometime.
Along the spacious hall ahead, big double doors of the same dark cherry as the wainscoting opened into further rooms. At first no living thing was visible, but in a moment a young man in a tight dark suit strode from the back, and Linc busied himself in signing the register, set to one side under the discreet sign indicating that Wayne P. Todd could be found in Visitation Room 1A. The meagerness of the list, no more than two dozen names, demonstrated that Uncle Hank and Aunt Harriet had kept this a quiet affair. Linc himself wouldn't have known about it except for a belated call to his cell phone from his cousin June, who'd presumed he was home in Chicago.
When Linc finished at the register, the young man, hands folded at his waist, murmured that it was the first room on the left. "Thirty minutes remaining of visitation, sir, and then the service will be held across the hall." The plump neck bulged above the dark blue tie and pinstriped vest, while the pink face emanated calm, discretion and not a trace of the dampness Linc felt on his own temples.
"Is the family there now?"
"I believe, uh, the family has momentarily retired to the Family Room." The voice was as unmarked as the young man's skin.
Approaching the double doors, Linc had a brief misgiving about his clothes, a herringbone sports coat, ten-year-old tie and taupe slacks that had lacked a good crease even before the four-day conference. But Aunt Harriet wouldn't care and Uncle Hank wouldn't notice. As for Wayne himself, he'd been known for attention-getting outfits inappropriate for the occasion, such as the tan sharkskin suit he'd worn to his niece's semiformal wedding, the last time Linc had seen him.
Room 1A was a vast empty expanse of carpet. At least so it appeared to Linc, whose eyes took a moment to register the people seated along the walls. At the far side, he then saw, the coffin rose in a gleam of polished wood and gilt handles among banks of flowers. Not returning any glances, he coaxed his feet across the distance until he looked down at a waxen effigy that bore little resemblance to his cousin. The shrinkage was incredible. In that sharkskin suit a few years ago, cruising around the wedding reception with drink in hand, calling out to old acquaintances, Wayne had seemed robust, still strikingly attractive though half-soused, and far more vigorous than his gangly, balding academic cousin. Now, though the full head of blondish brown hair remained, the face had shriveled. The torso in a dark gray suit (probably purchased by June for this occasion) dwindled to a wafer under the brilliant white bedding. Though he felt neither love nor loss, Linc had the sensation of being poked hard in the gut.
After ten seconds by the casket he began calculating the minimum length of time for the process of "paying respects." What an ironic phrase, he muttered to himself.
* * *
It had never been Linc's idea of an enjoyable vacation, but nobody asked his opinion. Every two or three years his father would drag the family to Florida toward the end of summer -- the worst possible time for Linc, a bookworm allergic to hot weather. The adults liked "visiting," as Aunt Harriet called it, though to Linc this seemed a strange word for what took place. The men -- Linc's college-educated sales manager father and his younger brother Hank, construction supervisor for a home builder -- mostly sat around in the air-conditioned "Florida room" drinking beer and watching TV. The women smoked cigarettes in the kitchen and whispered to each other and went out shopping. The children, meanwhile, were assumed to be good playmates because of their similar ages, whether or not they shared interests. Linc's little sister Mattie and cousin June did spend hours creating fantasies around June's stuffed doll collection, but the middle kids, Anne and Tommy, had few common traits except addiction to TV cartoons. As for the two eldest, himself and Wayne ...
According to one of Linc's Sunday School teachers, in the "way-back of time" Michael and Lucifer had hung out together as archangels before Lucifer went to Hell. The year Linc turned 14, he decided that he and Wayne were kind of like that. He was the goody-goody boy, never in trouble, pure of action and (mostly) mind, though with his skinny arms he could never have wielded Michael's flaming sword. Wayne, on the other hand, was an exact rendition of Lucifer on earth, with a gleaming smile that radiated light, a handsome face glowing with friendly enthusiasm, a strong athletic body and a mind of pure deviltry.
Wayne never seemed as conscious of the mismatch as his cousin. As soon as Linc showed up, Wayne bubbled over with schemes, things they could do together, which usually began with funds from the parents. "Me and Linc wanta play miniature golf and go to the arcade," he'd tell his mother, who would act reluctant at first and then negotiate over the price. Or in later years, as Wayne grew more sophisticated, he'd make these proposals within earshot of Linc's father, who liked showing off his success in life by being quick with his wallet.
That summer when Linc had just passed his fourteenth birthday, Wayne was almost fifteen and a half, and from the start his ideas had an edge to them. "We could hitchhike to Pompano," he said. "I know this guy who's a tattoo artist, he can get us some dope -- uh, I mean" (with a sidelong glance at Linc), "some Southern Comfort."
Linc's response was typically timid and clueless. "What's Southern Comfort?"
"You never had any?"
"You got a treat comin,' man. It's the best whiskey there is."
"I don't really ... "
"How 'bout we get you a tattoo of a rose on your bee-hind? Nice pink one, your mom'll never know," Wayne sniggered.
By the time Wayne approached the parents, a different scheme had emerged. "Linc wants to ride the motorbikes down by the docks, but I don't have enough of my allowance left to treat him. Can we do some chores or somethin' to earn ten bucks?" The pretense of wanting to work turned out perfectly, for the boys ended up with $20 from Linc's dad, $10 from Wayne's mom and the easy job of "cleaning up the backyard," which Wayne interpreted to mean tossing the fallen limes and palm fronds at the neighbors' cat.
"We shouldn't scare him so much," Linc protested feebly.
"Aw, he's used to me," Wayne claimed. "Why's he come over here if he don't like the game?"
They hiked about three-quarters of a mile through back streets, stopping once to look into a fenced yard where "this huge Doberman tore off a mailman's arm" (no sign of the dog) and another time to scrounge half a cigarette off the sidewalk. "That's been in somebody's mouth," Linc pointed out. "No prob," said Wayne, "just cut off the filter, but lookit that color, it was some classy chick, don'tcha think?" As he held up the butt, he ran his forefinger along the pinkish-orange lipstick smear, tasted the fingertip, then smirked and stuffed the thing in his pants pocket.
It was close to noon and Linc was already fading from the heat, his northern jeans sticking to his legs while Wayne's beach pants rode loosely on his hips. The dense air burst into droplets on Linc's nose and brow, though his mouth felt crackly-dry. They cut through an alley, past a tumble of garbage cans, onto a four-lane street whose recent asphalt coating stung the nostrils. In the distance Linc saw a cluster of sticks in the air -- masts, he later figured. Directly across the street, inside a chain-link fence, under a sloppy sign "RENTALS HOURLY DAYLY WEEKLY," they met a man who seemed to have visited Wayne's artist friend more than once. On his bulging upper arms the heads of boa constrictors peeked from under the sleeves of his T shirt.
"Two bikes," Wayne demanded. "We got money for a couple hours."
No reaction except that one snake slitted its eye at them. So Wayne dug into his pocket, the first product of which was the cigarette butt. The proprietor crossed his arms. The $20 bill, which came next, brought a guttural acknowledgment and a thumb toward a row of machines along the fence. "Them little ones."
Linc had supposed they were taking some sort of amusement ride. When he understood they were renting genuine motor-powered bikes to drive on the streets, he hung back.
"We don't need a license?" he asked no one in particular, and no one answered him. Wayne was already wheeling a bike toward the gate, while the proprietor, money in hand, retreated to his rusty trailer.
"Hurry up," Wayne called. "Grab one. Let's go!" A burbling roar drowned out his voice.
Linc struggled to pull a front wheel out of the rusted metal slot where it rested. The bike seemed twice as heavy as his own at home, and its mind was set on napping by the fence. By the time he reached the gate, Wayne had whizzed down the block and circled back in a cloud of racket.
"Uzza madda?" Linc heard Wayne yell.
"How do you start it?" Linc screamed back.
"Ick star!" Wayne hollered, pointing down.
Linc's face burned. How was he supposed to know -- ? Oh, "kick start," he finally guessed, and identified the likely lever protruding from the motor. When he tried to stomp on it, his foot slipped and he skinned his ankle. Muffling his cry of pain, he tried again and a throaty snarl answered. He mounted the bike, arms and legs shaky, and puttered after Wayne, who had turned three circles and was tearing down the street, dodging a Buick sedan.
Luckily there was scant traffic. In a block or two Linc's nerves calmed, and the wind in his face whipped away the sweat. If a cop stopped him, he'd say that his cousin had said -- But maybe this was actually legal? With the pavement blurring underfoot, the storefronts and pastel houses zipping past, the shadows of palm trees dappling the road, the ride wasn't so bad. In fact it was fun -- breeze slapping his hair -- and he let out the throttle to keep up with Wayne.
Approaching the first red light, Wayne swiveled in his seat with a big open-mouthed hoot. Linc suddenly liked and admired his cousin. He squeezed the handbrakes, thinking he'd pull up next to Wayne and exchange a few words.
The brake lever on the right clicked against the handlebar, offering no hint of resistance. The one on the left had scarcely more effect, and Linc rocketed toward the intersection.
Part One of Four
Article © Sam Gridley. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-01-23