My Uncle, The Dead Man
Billy Edkins’ wake was standing room only, which to this day still baffles me. Is that disrespectful to say? It’s not a knock on Bill. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m sure my great-uncle was an alright guy, paid his union dues and all that. It’s just — I wondered, where did he get off? The rest of us have to put in a certain type of familial work literally every day of our lives: attending family barbeques, listening to our aunts babble about their new face creams, helping friends move apartments even though we really would rather be spending our Saturdays doing some much-needed napping. Bill wasn’t about any of that. Why sit in someone else’s kitchen, or on someone else’s couch, when you have a perfectly good kitchen and a perfectly good couch all to yourself?
Billy Edkins’ wake was standing room only, which to this day still baffles me.
And yet the entire old neighborhood had shown out for him, long lines of people from Travis with nicknames like “Metal Man” and “Hunner.” Old men appeared with stooped backs and scraggly beards, who had known Bill from high school and had come down to the funeral home after seeing his obituary in the Staten Island Advance, the local newspaper, and leading obituary provider. Women with big hair and jowls pulled downward came into the wake touting prayer cards like talismans. And of course my family was there — my mother, my father, my brother, my cousins and aunts and uncles, and my great-uncle’s four other brothers and sisters. My grandfather, the eldest of the siblings, served as an ambassador for us all, shaking hands and greeting the masses with the vigor of a particularly unfavorable mayoral candidate. Barbara Decker was also there, eyes stony and her mouth a thin, straight line. I tried to avoid eye contact.
Most of these randoms hadn’t seen Billy in at least five or ten years.
The room had that cloying scent all funeral homes have — a mix of fresh flowers and stale perfume, of carpet cleaner and little mints left out in dainty glass dishes. Conversation in the room ran at a low hum, thick with the familiar twangy Staten Island accent that is two parts bastardized Italian and one part garbage disposal grind. I sat in a hard-backed chair and drew on the back of a napkin I had found in my purse, a favorite pastime of mine for when I was trying to minimize contact with others at family functions.
The room hushed as Metal Man — his given name was Kurt — took his place in front of the casket. In this voice that sounded like tires on gravel, he began to describe Billy’s days as a stock car racer. Staten Island’s Weissglass Speedway would be full of kids from the neighborhood, and Bill would give them a show, whether that be in a race or a demolition derby. Demolition derbies were Billy’s forte — his cars would survive even the most brutal beatings thanks to the multiple bulldozer batteries he packed into his trunks. He and his brother Charlie would buy old clunkers for $20 from their father, who owned a junkyard. I looked around the room and tried to unwrinkle the faces of the men and women, tried to imagine them windblown and electric as they cheered for the squeals of tires and the smell of rubber. Bill, with his junker coupe and his bulldozer batteries, slamming his way through the night.
Kurt was halfway through his story when I started to zone in and out, events from the week prior flitting through my mind like stray dust motes. Who really was Billy? To the crowd, he was a beloved speed demon; to his family, he was a beloved ghost. I tried to piece these personas together and find some congruence, a kind of common thread, but the room was too musky and the whispers a little too soft. The colors around me became a little duller, the sounds a little more muffled. Billy was lying waxy and still in his coffin, and I realized quite inexplicably that I had spent more time in a place with him dead than alive.
His body had been lying in my aunt’s house for six hours by the time the man from the funeral home had arrived, though by then we had shut the door of Billy’s room in fear of a smell. The funeral director apologized for being so late; he had to collect his wife to come deal with the body. My mother tried to shepherd me to bed during this process, but instead, I watched from the stairs. The man and his wife wheeled Bill outside — a memorable exit for someone who I had met maybe 10 hours before. Nobody in the room cried, but my grandmother did ask me if I wanted cake afterward.
Nobody in the room cried, but my grandmother did ask me if I wanted cake afterward.
For me, this was the end of Billy Edkins: not with a bang but a forkful of chocolate. Later that night, my mother would tell me he died at 4:30 p.m. We were sitting in bed together, listening to the ocean lap up against the dock. The windows were cracked open, but my aunt’s beach house had cooled considerably from the previous night. The room had that shimmering dreamlike quality that rooms have at 2 a.m., as if the world had stopped spinning and the stars had stopped burning, and I were just left there with my ouroboros thoughts and my twiddling thumbs.
“I sent you to church with Pop-Pop and Grandma because I knew he didn’t have much longer to go,” she said. “I didn’t want Grandma to be here. You know how she gets. Crazy,” said my mother, the “zy” wandering away in the crowd of a yawn.
“She did alright,” I said. If my grandfather is bedrock, and mother is granite, my grandmother is balsa wood. But she hadn’t even cried as much as we thought she would. We had walked into Billy’s room after we had returned from church, and all together, we had regarded his body. It was dusk, and the setting sun cast great, long shadows across the room. Everything was very still. I pictured us all in some kind of renaissance painting, one where all the subjects wore jeans.
My Great-Aunt Mary Rose had turned to my grandfather, breaking the stillness, and said that she couldn’t believe it. Right as Bill was dying, an ice cream truck had gone by blaring “glory, glory hallelujah.” At this, my grandmother had welled up — this was a sign that Billy was clearly in a better place. My mother made eye contact with me, and I patted my grandmother on the back and walked her out of the room. This, however, was the extent of the histrionics, and for that I was grateful.
Right as Bill was dying, an ice cream truck had gone by blaring “glory, glory hallelujah.”
My mother sank into the pillows, and I sank into the sound of the ocean. The preceding days stretched behind us like a long row of funhouse mirrors, endless in size and shape and distortion. That was Billy’s life in his last days, I had come to learn, an endless funhouse of stories and moments that seemed half true and something that someone stripped from a dark comedy. A litany of extraordinary events and interesting characters had rank and file marched up to our door: Bill’s wife Evelyn, featured on the local news after doctors found a 50-pound tumor within her. Billy, confusing a Cold Stone Creamery for a crematorium in an attempt to pick up Evelyn’s ashes after her death. A groupie from the old neighborhood in Staten Island, Barbara Decker, who followed and supported Billy’s every move as he severely and rapidly declined.
“Barbara got in bed with Bill you know, when she came over a couple of days ago,” my grandmother told me shortly before his death. He was wheezing in the next room, what my mother called “the death rattle.” My mother was in there with him, applying morphine to his gums.
“She climbed into bed with him. She’s crazy,” said my grandmother. Barbara was a family friend for many years and had always struck me as a little odd — she was a packrat with a specialization in antique dolls and oil cans that approximately zero other people wanted — but not actively harmful. She lived alone at the very edge of Travis for many years among her dolls and old boating equipment, before the MTA knocked on her door and asked to build a bus depot in her yard. I didn’t know how she and Mary Rose had crossed the threshold from acquaintance to friend, only that Barbara loved her dearly and had loved her dearly for some time. On Wednesday nights, she would drive my great-aunt and her grandchildren to Carvel, and together they would get the two-for-one sundae deal.
“You know,” my grandmother told me, later still, as Billy coughed in the next room. It’s horrible to wait around for a man to die. You’re all sitting there, staring at one another and then looking away when he cries out through the doorway. “We think Barbara flushed Evelyn’s ashes down the toilet in the RV when she and Billy drove down to Daytona.” No one had been able to find the urn after that, my grandmother told me. I didn’t know what to do with this information — it sat there in my lap, and I regarded it as one regards a particularly peculiar animal at the zoo.
It’s horrible to wait around for a man to die.
This awkward nonchalance, this feeling of a non-event, permeated the entire experience. When Barbara called a few hours after Billy’s death to request that he be buried in fresh underwear, it brought a round of giggles. Mary Rose would riff on Barbara rapid-fire, breathless with a dazzling array of cheeky insults that wedged a little too close to biting for me — she would comment on Barbara’s hair, her smell, and her sanity. Later, I would analyze my discomfort: what turned Barbara from friend to foe? She had been around much more than Billy had in the previous five or so years at least; where was her support? Her rallying cries? Her band of understanding misfits, who would accept her even if she had called my grandmother a whale to her face (as my great-uncle had done)?
In the face of death, however, all doubt is wiped clean from one’s mind. At that moment, we were a collective, and that collective hated Barbara with a passion. At the mention of her name, my grandmother would roll her eyes and stick out her tongue seemingly in time with the roll of the waves slapping up against the dock outside, like a metronome: bap, bap, bap. My grandfather would shake his head and hold out his hands, and we would argue what to do about Barbara as families tend to argue on occasion — aimless and without malice, to fill up the time. The mood in the house would oscillate between seriousness and silliness, and when one person would crack a joke, the rest would laugh timidly, expecting a shushing that would never come.
The crowd in the funeral home laughed, Kurt took his seat, and all of the color flooded back into the room. I peeled the glaze from my eyes.
People were moving around Billy, getting up one by one to speak. So in life as in death: Bill in front of a crowd for one last time. People who had known Bill from here, or there, or around all spoke in turn. They told their stories, but it was Kurt’s image that image stuck with me for long after —Billy, alone and on fire, and the crowd, a single mob connected by the sound of metal hitting metal. I wonder if Barbara Decker was there, watching silently in the group with tightly clasped hands.
It was dark by the time the wake was over. I left in my customary way: begrudging holding the hands of aunts, kissing the cheeks of uncles, and awkwardly hugging cousins. Between patting Aunt So-and-So and high fiving little cousin Whose-It, I saw a shock of white hair move swiftly toward my mother, whisper something in her ear, and move away again. In front of the casket and amid my relatives, I watched Barbara silently walk out the back door and into the strange night.
By Victoria Merlino
Illustrations done in collaboration with the New Media Artspace at Baruch College. The New Media Artspace is a teaching exhibition space in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Baruch College, CUNY. Housed in the Newman Library, the New Media Artspace showcases curated experimental media and interdisciplinary artworks by international artists, students, alumni, and faculty. Special thanks to docent Jose Daniel Benitez for creating artwork for this piece.
Check the New Media Artspace out at http://www.newmediartspace.info/