“I’m not crying,” I whispered into Scott’s shoulder. I leaned over his wheelchair and clung awkwardly to the parts of his torso I could reach in that position. I needed to hide my laughter somehow, because Scott’s sister hated me enough without throwing a fit of funeral giggles into the mix. The family — both warring families, in fact — stood in untidy rows around the plot. No one else seemed to find the gravediggers’ coffin-top antics funny, but from the moment they leapt atop the closed casket, shovels in hand, I was lost. I laughed into Scott ‘s shoulder and thought about running.
It started with a trip to Detroit a year before. I’d tried dating. I’d met terrible men. Scott seemed different. His profile made me laugh, and his emails complimented me without implying that he’d like to refrigerate my head. We talked for hours on the phone, sometimes late at night. He told me about his wheelchair and cerebral palsy, but the information didn’t phase me. I’d grown up on TV shows where the guy in the chair can do anything non-chair guys can do. They danced and sang and did laundry and played murderball.
After initial online and phone talks, we made plans for me to come see him at his place in Melvindale, a part of the Detroit metroplex that isn’t quite downriver, but that is generally considered inconvenient to anyplace decent you’d want to go. Melvindale houses many of the oil refineries that line I-75 south of Detroit. One of the holding tanks is shaped like a basketball and has a Pistons’ logo. This bit of whimsy does nothing to improve the smell of burning methane, a sour, gassy odor. The charmlessness of Scott’s malodorous town (people call it “Smellvindale”) should have served as a kind of cosmic warning. But if there’s an internal voice that tells most women to flee certain men, it never speaks to me. My brief history of dating creeps should have taught me invaluable lessons about men’s personal hygiene, going Dutch and knowing when to bail, but I never actually slept with anyone for the first 35 years of my life, and found that the learning curve involved in romance made Mt Everest look like the escalator at Sears. I just felt so grateful for any male attention that the parts of my brain in charge of common sense and self-worth lost signal the minute I caught a whiff of off-brand aftershave.
Scott’s apartment should have prompted flight. It should have prompted cleansing fire, because that seemed like the only real workable solution. He’d confessed that his little apartment court had yielded two dead bodies since he’d moved in. He said something about the tragedy of crack and the bad ideas people have about Russian roulette…after smoking crack. He made these ideas seem charmingly gritty — just more tales to burnish his urban hero cred. Scott grew up in central Detroit. Every other house on his block had burned, and the dingy white siding on the enduring structures made the street look like a mouthful of broken teeth. Scott’s childhood home had had stairs. The only working bathroom was on the second floor of the house, and his mother carried him to it every day for most of his childhood. When the family eventually moved into a ranch house in Wayne, the motivation wasn’t Scott’s disability and a desire for something accessible, but a hand-illustrated letter from Scott’s mother’s ex-boyfriend. The letter came from prison, provided helpful info about an upcoming release date, and included drawings of severed penises and dead bodies. Scott, his younger sister and their mother moved soon after this note arrived.
Scott liked to describe his elementary school as “black.”
“If you turned it upside down and shook it, one white kid would fall out. Also, one kid in a wheelchair. They’d both be me,” he said.
“Once when I was 12, some kids made fun of me for the chair,” he said. “I said ‘What’s the matter with you people?’ meaning assholes who’d make fun of a kid in a chair. An eighth grader overheard, and ended up leading the whole playground in a chant of ‘Redneck, redneck’ at me,” Scott said.
“Jeez,” I said, as I made an illegal left onto Outer Drive. We’d been listening to a radio story about the ex-mayor’s prison sentence. “Did that chair have Confederate mud flaps on it? What the hell?” I asked.
“It gets better,” Scott said. “You’ll never guess who that eighth grader was.”
“Unlikely,” I told him. “I don’t exactly keep a roster of all the kids you went to school with.”
“No, you don’t get it,” he said, repressing a giggle. “It was Kwame Kilpatrick!”
Scott couldn’t help the wheelchair that Kwame made fun of. Scott’s mother gave birth to Scott at 24 weeks, resulting in his cerebral palsy. Given that this happened in 1972, the fact that he survived at all seems distinctly miraculous. Almost a virgin birth story, given Nancy’s youth, small stature and shining innocence. In pictures, she looks young and fresh and deeply sad, even as the 35-year-old mother of a new high school graduate. I painted her once as a Christmas gift for Scott. No matter how long I looked at her face in that graduation photo, I found it hard to remember just a few seconds after putting my supplies away. She seemed unformed and unfinished, as if violence and poverty stunted her growth or at least forced her to develop in a small, neatly composed way, like a bonsai tree. Scott’s sister, Erica, has the same child-face as her mother. Her eyes, wide-set and strikingly dark, glare hatefully out of a round, unlined face. Multiple sclerosis paralyzed Nancy at 40, and pneumonia killed her at 45. Erica blamed herself for her mother’s death. She hired the last aide to care for Nancy, and the aide had had a cold. Nancy once threatened to have old friends in gangs take care of me. She did this in the kitchen at Scott’s house, while I stirred a pot of chicken soup and ignored her.
After a year, I wanted out, but I pushed on. I’d drive to Detroit on weekends, dreading the sight of refineries, and wishing more than anything that I could just turn around and go home. One of my last trips to see Scott involved his grandfather’s funeral. Grandpa Bob lived on Scott’s block growing up, and had actually been Scott’s biological grandfather’s best friend. A black GM worker, he’d met his second wife at AA. This had outraged his existing wife and all but one of his adult children.
Bob left most of his money to one of Scott’s cousins. Erica found a lawyer to defend Bob’s estate from the estranged children and grandchildren who lined up for cash after he died. Erica found the funeral home to bury Bob. Unfortunately, the funeral director took his cues from both sides of the ensuing feud, which is how I ended up in a black funeral home in Detroit at a service with dueling printed obits.
The one Erica commissioned mentioned all of Bob’s relations — both blood kin and the neighbors who’d cared for him and his wife for more than 30 years. The shirttail bio family’s only mentioned Bob’s first marriage, and each one bore a hand-written note that read “Thanks, Grandma Betty — you’re the best!!!!”
I’d arrived for the funeral at 9 am, though the service wasn’t scheduled to start til 11. My directions to the place might’ve worked, if Fort Street hadn’t been undergoing permanent construction, or if I’d had GPS at the time. There were detours around old detours. When we made our fourth trip past the sewage treatment plant, Scott started crying while somehow also screaming at me. We’d gotten lost because I refused to come up the night before, he shouted. We’d be late to the service and everyone would whisper that it was because of the fucking chair. He punched the car window for emphasis. Repeatedly. I cringed and tried to keep his aunt’s latest set of verbal instructions straight in my mind. We finally found the funeral home a few minutes later.
No one cared that we were late. No one noticed. After a hellish two hours driving the wrong way on broken streets in abandoned neighborhoods that reeked of solid waste treatment and abject hopelessness, the bizarre eulogy unfolding before me seemed so surreally funny that it was all I could do to keep from laughing. I kept thinking about the Mary Tyler Moore episode where Chuckles the Clown dies. How none of his work colleagues from the TV station could help laughing on hearing the news that the clown, dressed as a peanut, had been shucked to death by a rogue elephant. The minister wanted us to clap if we loved the lord. Scott clapped. Scott was an atheist, but the idea of offending a rude group of hostile strangers bothered him more than pretending to care about God. I sat silent and refused to clap, despite Scott’s death glare. When the minister asked us to stand if we loved Jesus, Scott didn’t try – wheelchair, etc. Scott stared pointedly at me, but I kept my seat, too. He kept staring, though, so I got up.
“That’s right! Stand if you love the LORD!” the minister wouldn’t let it go.
“I’m saving myself for the Easter Bunny,” I told Scott, not bothering to whisper. I stomped toward the exit, intent on checking my email in the ladies room, and ran right into Erica. As the minister advised us all to “Check yourself before you wreck yourself,” Erica and I locked eyes and shared a moment of mutual incredulity.
“What the fuck?” I mouthed silently at her.
“I didn’t pick that asshole,” she told me as I moved closer. She whispered this. “Granddad wasn’t religious. This is all them,” she said, gesturing at the right side of the room where Team Grandma Betty had assembled. She actually introduced me to Bob’s only non-estranged son as Scott’s girlfriend, as if she and I were on civil terms. As if she hadn’t threatened me with her gang ties (“Her gang ties are my gang ties, and those guys all have wives and jobs now,” Scott had assured me). I smiled and shook the guy’s hand.
At the cemetery, we all stood awkwardly together: blood kin, neighbor kin, and me, the idiot who’d committed herself to a man who screamed at her and called her names. I felt glad when the funeral director, an ancient black man who looked like he’d been carved out of walnut, told us that the graveside service would be brief. A pair of gravediggers moved to lower the coffin into the vault so that a blood daughter and Scott’s cousin Tory could take turns throwing flowers into the hole and we could all get the hell out of there. The gravediggers got about half an inch deep before the coffin stalled. It stuck against the sides of the vault. Whispers went round the crowd. I heard the funeral director’s raspy bass whisper “Too big for the Goddamned vault” about ten seconds before the gravediggers did something unimaginable – they climbed on top of the coffin and began jimmying away at its sides with shovels. At that moment, my struggle with the absurdity of the whole shitty situation exploded inside me. I wanted to laugh. I was going to laugh. I clung to Scott and laughed until tears ran down my cheeks. Erica put a hand on my shoulder. I collected myself, and the gravediggers solved the coffin problem by cutting the guy ropes. The box dropped – Thud! Bang! – and the tossing of flowers and dirt commenced rapidly. The funeral director told us there would be no procession back to the home; he didn’t feel like it.
I wheeled Scott over the rough, muddy ground towards my car. I thought about escape. I thought about the Starbucks Americano I’d drink as I drove back to Toledo at the unofficial Michigan speed limit of 90 miles an hour. As we moved toward the paved path where my car was parked, the funeral director shouted for attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the hearse…needs a jumpstart.” I dropped Scott off at his place, hit the Starbucks right off 75 in Allen Park, and got the hell out of dodge.