The Scratchy Noose is mobbed with people Tug wouldn't let attend his funeral earlier in the day. Budge is at the door stamping hands and is worried about capacity and fire codes. Hope is working the bar and is serving tonight's drink special, a concoction of her own creation she's calling Thanatonic. As fate would have it, Tug's wake falls on my night off. That Tug launched himself into eternity with a bottle of horse calmatives was a big surprise to no one. The surprise was the 13-page note he left, filled with high-flying expectations and planning of events.
It was still dark outside when I'd arrived at Callowell Funeral Home. I brought donuts. I offered one to Mrs. Monfreid, a cream-filled pastry puff I'd picked out at the bakery just for her. "I'm sorry we have to meet like this," I said to her. "Yes, well," she said lifting her eyes from the pink box, "life is a knit, and sometimes the weave has a loose thread." Whatever that's supposed to mean. She said it with such conviction, though, that I believed her. I watched her bite into the little cake and saw the disappointment on her face that the cream-filled center was from a can and not the good kind. She set the cheap Bavarian aside and chose a cruller, the twisty design of it framing a generous void.
I say "funeral," but I use the term loosely. It was a testament of Tug's device, scripted to dramatize for High 8 a conviction that, in his words, "I ever existed." After editing we'll have ten nonlinear minutes of tangible proof. "I will this to occur," Tug says on the top of page two of the notarized treatment the sheriff found. By the end of page 13 we got the idea he'd been watching too much MTV. Which may or may not have been one of his problems. It's not my place to judge. Page one is a checklist of props, cast, and crew and appoints Mrs. Monfreid as executrix.
The mystery of birth in death is a big one. If you're into that sort of thing. I thought the "destroyer as creator" concept had fizzled out with junk bonds. Still, for a first-time project Tug's done very well. "A" for effort at least. He found a funeral director who's also a film director, one B. Stern Griffin, and friends have been assigned various roles to reenact Tug's version of reality. I don't know where he found a troupe of dancing midgets for hire, but they looked great in their little chimera costumes, each a miniature fire-breathing donkey with goat horns and bat wings on the body of a tree sloth wearing the tail of a beaver. If I didn't know better I'd swear they were the real thing.
The set was complex. Materials are expensive. Pray Tug got a grant for all this. A series of screens that fold and refold like a Chinese money-hiding wallet gave us a "now you see it, now you don't" effect. Now you see a Minotaur peering out from a thorny-hedged maze, now you don't. Now you see an icy necropolis with a crumbling tower in the rear, now you don't. Tug even made sure that the florist used only narcissus. I thought Tug's favorite flower was the daffodil and mentioned this to Mrs. Monfreid. "A narcissus is a daffodil," she told me. I didn't know that.
I also didn't know Mrs. Monfreid was not Tug's wife but his mother. Even under those bright lights she looked so young. Too young to have a 22-year-old son. I thought Tug had a wife, he always mentioned one. He never even said he had a mother. It never would have occurred to me this would be her. Mrs. Monfreid told me that what Tug meant by his wife was his drinking. She touched my cheek with the back of her fingers when she said it, which I found an odd thing to do considering I wasn't a terribly close friend of Tug's, only his bartender.
Tug called the Scratchy Noose a dreary retreat, but that didn't stop him from coming in six times a week to let us know that the knotted-rope art motif rankled his spirit. I tried steering his attention to the green and blue twinkle lights strung up over the bar, but Tug would have none of it. He did like the Lite Bright set Budge nailed to a cross beam pegged with the permanent offer: Dollar Shots Old Crow.
I'd never seen Budge before in a suit that wasn't red and made for jogging. Tug bequeathed to Budge the role of Man Condemned. Strapped to a harness and wearing a papier-mache head of a monkey, Budge followed Tug's instructions: "Writhe to suggest agony against a blue screen that later, after composite matte editing of a whirling pool of bubbling mire, will depict a spin back into the Big Round of Chaos."
I know Budge is heartbroken about Tug. I can tell by the way he keeps referring to Tug as Little Fucker. "My back's not made for this," he said. "I'm a doorman, not an acrobat." I told him he didn't have to do it if he didn't want to, he could just sit and watch.
"Who are you to say?" he barked at me, waving his yellow-highlighted script in the air. "Sit and watch? Watch what? My life go by? Sit and watch. How can I? It's written." He waved the script in my face. I told him to check the free-will clause on page eight.
Budge highlighted his script, but he didn't even have any dialogue, only parenthetical notes. He wore a monkey head, for God's sake. I had parentheticals and dialogue. A poem. A haiku, really, but a poem. This is a joke because everyone knows Tug hated poetry.
When Budge let that kid with the hair combed up like a steeple spire start poetry readings on Monday nights is when Tug began coming in as a regular. He said sitting within ears' reach of a poetry reading was a torture not even a Nazi would dream of inflicting and that he was only in to avoid another fight with his wife. "Burger jingles," he'd say out loud. "These aren't poems, these are burger jingles. This isn't a poetry reading, it's an inflatable raft on high seas. Why don't they bill it as what it is? Temporary remedy until help comes. But help isn't coming, that's what they don't know. If help were coming it would be here by now. May I please have another scotch?" Tug made me laugh. He had such enthusiasm about what he wanted to say. Enthusiasm is contagious. I'd pour him another drink and we'd both get swept away in that puissant river of scotch, tips, piss and vinegar. And enthusiasm.
All that day I'd worn the face of complacency, but under it I was petrified. I'd never been onstage before, in front of the scrutinizing eye of a camera. The imagined judgment is excruciating. The day started so early, I wouldn't have let B. Stern Griffin anywhere near me with that camera if it hadn't been for the oxygen tank Tug had rented to keep us looking fresh. Hope got it easy. Hope got to operate the Death puppet, a skeleton mask on stilts with cotton candy in one hand and a club in the other. You can hide behind the Death puppet and it's not going to matter if your hair's not combed. But Hope doesn't comb her hair; I suppose that's how she got the part. Oh, Tug, why'd you have to do it?
Mrs. Monfreid's endurance was impressive. A day on the set is no easy feat. Nor is it easy on the feet. Still, she did seem a little grim. Rightly so. I'd be grim too if I were cast to belly dance at my own son's funeral. Tug made a mistake, though, with wardrobe, directing Mrs. Monfreid to wear a sari. It's not the belly dance they do in Bombay, I think. The sari got snagged on one of the chimera's horns, and Mrs. Monfreid looked as though she were about to cry. To cheer her up, I told her Tug seemed to have undergone quite a serious shift in consciousness recently. I told her Tug could never have masterminded such an undertaking six months ago, not the way he let one day slip into the next without the slightest effort to develop even a hobby. "Oh, Tug had his hobbies," she said. I don't want to contradict the woman, but sometimes a mother does not see every side of her son.
One afternoon at the Scratchy Noose Tug and I were joined by a gentleman who took our silence as a cue to start in on airy, feeble small talk. He asked if I had any ambitions. All I could do was look at him. As a steward of conviviality I rarely have the occasion to speak my own mind. This man, however, was really pushing the limit. Fortunately, Tug did my talking for me. He said, "Can't a person just be what's in front of you? Can't this just be the moment you were meant to see without your having to search for layers of hidden meaning? Damn it, man, glean what you will and then move on." The man said I looked as if I might have something else in the cooker. I assured him I did not. "Ambition is for pigs in a trough," Tug said, "rooting for a truffle and calling it accomplishment."
Tug was a ticket taker at the racetrack. "Living the life of drudgery is a fate worse than death," he said one evening he'd come in after work. He asked me how I did it. I told him it wasn't that bad, I tried to keep positive and not think about it. From my viewpoint, why suffer? I told him suffering was a sin and that it's a bartender's job to ease the suffering of others, thereby stripping them of their sin. "Well you're not doing a very good job of it," he said and asked for another double. "I guess every one of us is going to hell. You've got a lot of work to do." I asked him how he got to be so negative. He said he wasn't negative. He said he was the most positive person I would ever meet.
Mrs. Monfreid's abandoned Bavarian had been taken up by Budge, who was sitting on a pew with his shoes off, rubbing his feet, waiting for his cue from B. Stern Griffin, when a loud crack sounded. More of a crack-pop. I thought it was the pew Budge was sitting on, but it was one of the set lights burning out. B. Stern gave three chimera the keys to his truck to go to the light-rental place, but when the chimera opened the door to leave, a group of outsiders tried to sneak in and watch. I know Tug had more friends than were invited to participate but, according to the script, "Absent from the set will be opportunistic lookie-loos and fair-weather acquaintances hanging around, feigning grief in front of my mother." Tug even went so far as to indicate that "Mrs. Monfreid is the only person allowed to grieve, but she must do it in a way that relays simultaneous joy and sorrow. All others are lying bags of wind." To represent this group, Tug hired a bagpipe player who played "Gloomy Monday" seven times and "Amazing Grace" once, for Mrs. Monfreid.
"Hope," I said, "you don't need any more oxygen, you're the Death puppet, you're just using it as a time killer in between takes. Go outside and have a cigarette." She pretended not to hear me. She also ate all the crescent cookies I brought from the bakery. Budge told me to let her have her crutch. I said if she needs a crutch she should use a stilt from the Death puppet.
B. Stern Griffin had trouble getting Tug (casket A) out of the frame for the dove shot (casket B). In this scene 22 doves fly out of the coffin when the lid is opened. According to notes, "To keep the flock in place until it is time for them to fly, a very fine net is drawn over the open casket, then is slowly removed just as the casket lid is shut, and voila, case closed." The hardest part was actually making the casket lid look like it was opening of its own accord. The timer Tug had rigged was faulty, causing the coffin lid to jerk open suddenly and then rise gradually at a reluctant pace. I suggested Hope operate the Death puppet to open the lid, but B. Stern said he would do it pulling strings.
Mrs. Monfreid agreed to do my makeup for the taping of my haiku segment. She lined my lips and colored them in with the same Pomegranate Power she wore, and I could smell her sweet breath on me as she said up close, "Do like this," stretching her mouth flat across her face. I mimicked her huge fake grin. When the camera was ready I took my place in front of an altar Tug made with empty orange juice and milk cartons covered with crepe.
Nudged Atropos so
it is apropos we light
for Tug a candle.
(Light candle and exit. Enter Mrs. Monfreid.)
Outside the Scratchy Noose the Tug fury is raving on. "We want in! We want in!" This is one happy hour that will last well into the night. Where are the cameras now? Budge has set out candles all over the place, which is also drowning in poppies. Mrs. Monfreid gave Hope the snagged sari and she's wearing it as a turban. A wispy shred dangles into the flame of a votive and ignites, and I watch the burning tatter consume itself, gaining momentum in less than no time, then, with an abrupt flash--as if Hope's head were not a few more inches up to fuel it--the reckless little spark puts itself out.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Dan Grzeca.