Living, Dead or Otherwise (the beginning of the book I used to wanna write ’til I realized I had nothing to say)
I wrote this in the early 90’s, when I decided I was going to write a book about my first boyfriend, who was a mortician at the Frank A. Bliley Funeral Home in Richmond, Virginia, where I was going to school at VCU. At that time, I didn’t think a “gay” book would go over, so I changed the gender of HK (the real one) to “Heidi.” I wouldn’t do it now, but while those years were both two of the best and two of the absolute worst of my life, I decided to leave it alone because A. I’m lazy and it is really hard writing about that time and B. Six Feet Under came along and pretty much covered everything except the torturous relationship.
The year I lived in the funeral home we threw a party, a big one, Purple Jesus in a Hefty-lined casket and all. I had sent out invitations a couple days before, and that night went around in the hearse collecting my friends, all kids from my college, a large urban one spread out over a dozen blocks and a couple away. The dorms were all highrise, really and truly the only reason I ever went there, although I only lived six months on an nth floor before I moved in with Heidi on the second of the Frank K. Bolden Funeral Home. We lived in her small, three-room apprentice quarters, the party we held below in one of the viewing rooms, lucky that night to have nothing more than chips and booze on display. Of course, as the night wore on, the party progressed, and like anybody’s worst fear in a place like that, the thing moved. They discovered the casket display room, where almost everybody had a lay-down in the pricey models and griped about the rip-off straw underneath the for-looks velvet lining. Later the party got serious and downstairs to the embalming room to check out “the slab,” where Heidi got her jollies turning on that godawful machine that made phlemetic, sucking, and then choking noises even when one of its metal tentacles wasn’t poking into the belly of some 200-pound sow. I was told that when he was running the show, Mr. Bolden would make everyone who worked for him refer to the stiffs as “guests.” Me, I never heard Heidi refer to whatever kissed the ceramic there as anything but rich asshole Jews and poor bastards before the home went to the mafia, and niggers, bums and charity work afterwards. The only thing on the table gruesome that night was upchuck out of one girl while I was explaining how the whole thing swung to about a 70 degree angle and how any goosh from the cadaver could just flow into the little all-around trench, through the drain at the foot of the thing, and to a waiting commode in the middle of the room that everyone had been asking about. At least she made it to there the second time, after I told her not to be ashamed or embarrassed, that we saw a lot of that here, although usually not so warm and never out of a mouth. “Besides,” I said, using a water jet to hose the first stuff down, “This gives ya’ll a chance to see how the whole process works . . . See?”
And of hosing down, I just about had to do it to two guys I caught having a go of it in our most expensive oak model casket. Hey, fags are OK by me and everything—most of the people I hung around with were theater majors—but they happened to be doing it in one that Heidi and I had just recently tried out, and well Christ, some things are sacred. Something about a funeral home just brings out the animal in people, I had been noticing, youth versus death and all that stuff. I remember the last time Heidi and I drove away from that place thinking how much of my blood had been spattered over the walls within, how violent and passionate place it had actually been. But that night, and really most of the others, I suppose that funeral home was just reminding people of something else that was pretty much inevitable, and that you just had to do.
“Sorry, Alex,” the one I knew said. “This place is just so . . . so . . .”
“Spit it out,” Me with a smile.
“Fucky,” saying so as he pulled himself out of two boxes.
Highlight of the night was later, when we ran out of eats and called Domino’s for pizza. We crouched in the dark, I creaked open the door when I heard the bell ring (“Make sure they bring it to the front,” I had told the lady on the phone.) and then everybody behind me screamed at the top of their lungs when I flung the door open. I should tell you that we were notorious at this particular outlet, for another time, when my best friend Sheila, before-breast-reduction Dev and I stripped on some mysterious cue when we heard our extra cheeses get to the door. You should have seen the look on that big black guy’s face, more amusing and less hard before Sheila feigned mounting me on my haunches as she wrote the check, and Dev did a sideshow by twirling her tits in a little loop-dee-doo. We wanted to call back later to see how many delivery dudes would arrive with a second pizza, and how much clothing we could possibly put on. You could tell the guy who brought our pizza party night had heard of us, because he just faked a heart attack, rolled his eyes and came on in for a cupful from our casket—the second time that night one of those things had been reduced to a couple layers of embalmed fruit.
And it was about this time that Heidi got me over to a side and decided, in her words, that “They’ll have to go.” She had done the familiar stalking thing starting about an hour before, following me with her eyes and just staring mean when I forced myself to look up.
“You’re making me look like an asshole,” she spit, aware, I guess, more than ever this night of the 11 years separating her from my 20, and most everybody else’s at the party.
“Can’t you just relax for a minute, Heidi,” I tried to sooth, knowing a mood of hers like this could only get worse. “Everything’s going great, and nobody thinks you’re an asshole. You’re just acting like one right this minute.” That was in the days when I could still talk back to her.
Then she did something unfamiliar, and pretty original. She smiled her sweetest, bent toward me as if to kiss me, and then took out a large hunk of my nose cartilage with the teeth she had just been speaking through. She went upstairs to our apartment and slammed the door behind her.
After which I snuck down to the embalming room to clean my profusely bleeding wound up with some Everclear I hadn’t put in the punch, and then went back up to the party, shaken and crying everybody thought about our large rottweiler locked in the garage that no, they couldn’t see. It was too early in those two years for anybody I knew to even suspect what really might have gone on; I hadn’t yet told any of my soon-to-dwindle friends about Heidi’s temper, or her bite, or her grip or about the night she shoved a bag of chips down my throat, Dorito-by-Dorito. Right then I just wanted to get everybody the hell out, so I loaded up the hearse with people who were concerned about my nose or too drunk or lazy to walk home, and drove ’em back. I was pretty well lit myself, but this was years ago when driving drunk wasn’t a mortal sin, pure evil like it is today. And let me tell you something about driving drunk: If you’re going to do it, do it in a hearse, because no cop, nobody is going to stop you, no matter how bad you’re weaving, how much blood is soaking the handkerchief you’re holding to your nose, or how many legs are sticking straight out from the rolled-down back window.
Alcohol had a lot to do with me and Heidi. She always liked a big gallon of Gallo red around the home, while I’d buy a 12-pack of Miller Lite every other day so I could have five that night and reward my moderation with seven the next. We met at a bar, in fact, a place called “Much More” that had once been a swank disco but had followed trends and John Travolta’s career and by then had gone urban cowboy, with one of those big mechanical bulls you could ride and make an ass out of yourself on. My excuse was that the place was a block away from my dorm, The James Madison, an old hotel the school was renting out while they constructed new ones; hers, I really didn’t want to know and never asked.
I just started seeing her there, at the end of the front bar, not long after I had adjusted my early morning classes and made myself a Thursday, Friday, Saturday and sometimes Sunday night regular. Heidi’s pale, glow-in-the-dim face made it easy to see that she didn’t mouth the words to songs, and talked to hardly anyone but the bartender, kind of like me at the other end. She never danced; neither did I. I think that people’s attraction to one
another works the same way as water trying to seek its own level, and that you become interested in or end up going home with someone pretty much like yourself in the looks and brains department. That’s why ten-to-one any really content couple you know looks alike and why you never hear any good-looking or smart people going around saying stupid things like opposites attract. Anyway, we made a handsome couple, there at either end of the bar. Striking, even, but only on a second glance. Amusing, probably, in light, dumb barspeak. And people to be run away from, you could bet, once you got to know ’em. We both were uncomfortable looking people, our natural happy faces the kind that provoke first lines like “It can’t be all bad,” or worst of all, “Smile,” in a retarded sing-song voice that they couldn’t possibly think would turn us on. Heidi was obviously several years older than me or most anybody there, and even back then I thought of places like that as somewhere to go alone, look for a little pussy, and wonder why at 20 I was already pretty much sick and tired of everything.
I slouched to six feet most of the time except the first couple minutes anywhere I thought I had a chance of getting laid. Heidi, on the other hand, carried herself at about the same height, but like a lighthouse, always standing up by the bar and never leaning all over it and perpetually perched on a stool like me. She would cock her head around in neat little 45 degree increments, while I keenly observed everything and everybody through eyes that my face wouldn’t follow, were a nice bloodshot blue so I was told, and apparently made you think I was on the verge of a nice long nap at a peculiar place and an odd time. We both had blond hair, mine short, neat and (a big word that year) preppie, a little more polluted looking than hers; way past her shoulders, straight and with a little fuck-me bang that would fall over one of her eyes every now and then. Her eyes were those unfocused kind that looked like baked marbles, so that by the time I figured out I had caught them she had been staring at me for some seconds, and making looking immediately away as I did seem all the more stupid. I can tell you the color of her eyes were gray because hers to this day are the only ones I’ve ever been able to look directly into, having been racked with acne since I was 10. It cleared up alright, just in time for college, leaving me with a baby face and lots more spending money, but a habit also to this day of looking even lovers right over their shoulder. Heidi had an upside-down triangle head and a German look to her (“She has an accent,” was one of the only things Lon the bartender knew about her). She paid for her drinks with lots of crumpled up dollar bills. (“She’s a student somewhere,” was the other). Oh, and she always wore a big, white, knee-level lab coat.
Which I guess would make people think she was a doctor, albeit kind of a looney one, seeing as how she was always wearing the same damn thing, and always seeming just off work and out for a few, a couple times this week in fact, and last week too, come to think. Yet she stayed late the times I noticed, leaving about half an hour before the overhead lights were blinked and the management became surly and finally just yelled at everyone to get the hell out, me included although they knew I got a kick out of it and kind of left me to myself. She always left alone because she had pretty much been let alone, her looks the kind to be admired and stared at only while you were in a huddle of friends, talking about something else, where you could feel safe and make yourself unattainable, like you thought she was. Chickenshit stuff, really, and I guess you could have counted me among the fertilizers.
I figured her to be about 30, the white coat, you had me. “A med student,” I would say to Lon, “a very poor med student,”; “Maybe she doesn’t wear anything underneath it,” Lon would bet. Armor or something, I would think to myself. But one Friday night I remember because I knew I could get drunk enough to go up to her and not have to worry about being late for some early 11 o’clock class, I decided to find out.
I waited until I was fortified enough to get to that magic point where I knew nothing was going to stop me, like how you are when you take that one sip that triggers your feet into taking control, walking your body away from the middle of who cares what and out the door to the place where they know you’re going to get some sleep. Automatic pilot, kind of, although this happens well before that and it’s your dick doing the navigating, hoping that mouth of yours can talk it into a nice soft landing. Nevermind that I was about half a beer away from just waving to her with my hand under my chin, like a He-man Woman Hater out of that old Little Rascals episode. Or that at the same time I blasted off my bar stool (Witnesses to this fateful night would have said slunk) she was whipping out a beeper from her coat pocket, putting on horrible, military-issue-like horned rimmed glasses, checking her watch and making a beeline for the door. In no great rush, it seemed, enough time for my gut to do a nosedive, a sharp pull-up from my throttle, and recovery.
“Excuse me,” I yelled outside the front door and to her a couple feet away, quickly lowering my voice after miscalculating how far she had got. “Umm…” I wowed her with, my face forming this sick frozen grin that I hate on everyone else, my eyes darting right and left like I told you about, only this time to census anybody else I was making a complete fool of myself in front of.
“Am I your type?”
“Get back in here with that bottle.” My eyes: Ah there we go, the doorman. That’s two.
She turned around with an unlit Marlboro in her mouth (I’d seen ‘em), not looking surprised or like she didn’t have time. Her voice, in the first non-TV or movie German and sexiest ever accent I’d ever heard:
“I don’t know,” she paused, lighting her cigarette with a box of those cool Red Hat matches, “What, exactly, type is that?”
“You mean what type am I? Or are you trying to get me to guess what type you like? Or are you unsure of what type you like?”
“Does that actually ever work for you…that line? Do you really get some kind of response?”
“About fifty percent of the time.”
“And the other fifty percent?,” she said behind an expected puff of smoke.
“I get laid.”
I noticed that when she smiled she didn’t show any teeth, and I thought for a second that if she was from Germany, she must be from East, having had cruddy teeth all my life and always aware of someone’s upper lip not coming up when I told them that when I grew up I either wanted to be a cadaver or the little man who screws caps on toothpaste tubes. I liked people who smiled and didn’t show teeth. Heidi had a nice smirk.
“Are you a doctor,” I said, immediately cursing myself.
“That one doesn’t work either,” and with that turned around and headed down Broad Street, taking long strides, cutting me short.
“Here’s your fucking beer,” I grimaced and gave to the bouncer, who believe you me would be the main character about now if this stuff was verbatim. I then proceeded to take my own broad leaps down the street, kind of on tiptoe, so as to be cool and not let her know I was following, hell, running, after her.
But I gave that up after I almost caught up with her, and then with some psychic permission, was allowed to match her pace, several feet behind. I attempted one more time to be cute and really turn her on.
“I used to work at 7-Eleven once, you know, and I had this really smart little smock with day-glo 7s all over it. Man, I used to wear it all the time when I went to discos.”
“. . . All the time.
“Of course I only took that job so I could go around and take a little bite out of everything I ever wanted to try but didn’t never want to buy. “
Another cough, and a cigarette butt was dropped to the ground in front of me. I avoided stepping on it so as not to jinx this escapade macabre. She had walked well past the parking lot for the club, and I figured she lived in one of the tony condo mid-rises down the street and had walked to the bar.
“And I used to take quarters out of the upside-down Jerry Lewis telethon umbrella too, because, well, just because I just hate him. Don’t you? I mean I used to think of that smarmy bastard crying for a day and a half once a year on TV with all those retards and then I’d just slam those quarters into Phoenix, you know, the video game. I’m pretty good at it I can make a quarter last about fifteen minutes and little kids will come and stand around and watch me play. “
We turned a corner, and I realized I was wrong about where she lived.
“So . . .There you have it. I quit that job.They wanted me to come in and take a lie detector test and it started interfering with my schoolwork, really suddenly.”
We went half a block to one of the alleys that city was veined by and used for rowhouse parking, and I realized I was wrong about what she did for a living.
“I have to go and pick up somebody,” she said, talking around another, unlit Marlboro while unlocking the driver’s side, and giving me a good, hard look for the first time. “I may need some help.”
“Cool.” I said, mentally adding “Christalmighty stay” in front of that and “whatever happens” after.
“I’ll pay you twenty bucks.”
“I’ll take it.”
So I did, into the same 1967 Lincoln hearse that for the next two years black people that pulled up to me at intersections would ask me did I want to sell the thing and if so for how much.
Her name was Heidi Kirschtein, she said it as we got in, and she would be the love of my life and I one of the ends to hers.
But having to fire me once for eating jellybeans in the thing during a 64 car procession, after being nailed by a fist-shaking family member in the lead car in front of me, didn’t really have anything to do with it.