Johnny America


A Fu­ner­al, from the Book of Misunderstandings


Illustration of a spinet piano, with color running over the top lid.

The day was a per­fect­ly gloomy No­vem­ber Sat­ur­day, dark, damp, and chilly. Vo­gel, a pro­fes­sor of mu­sic who had lived alone since his long-ago di­vorce, dread­ed the prospect be­fore him but du­ti­ful­ly took the Brooks Broth­er bag out of his clos­et and ex­tract­ed the navy-blue suit in which he had been mar­ried. It still fit and did ser­vice for wed­dings and fu­ner­als. He no longer thought of the irony that the rit­u­als of joy and grief should call for the iden­ti­cal uni­form. He did re­flect that, over the decades, fu­ner­als had come to out­num­ber weddings.

Dean’s on­ly one let­ter away from dead. That’s what Vo­gel had replied when asked if he’d be a can­di­date the last time the job opened. Now the man who took on the po­si­tion had died, and Vo­gel re­called his glib crack with some shame. A heart at­tack took the dean on Wednes­day night. Fri­day brought an obit­u­ary in the University’s dai­ly with all the con­ven­tion­al com­men­da­tions, chiefly from oth­er deans, plus the Provost and Pres­i­dent, but on­ly a cou­ple from fac­ul­ty, and none at all from stu­dents. To Vo­gel, all ad­min­is­tra­tors were guilty un­til proven in­no­cent. He pre­tend­ed not to have re­ceived the mass email ask­ing him to eu­lo­gize the dean, a de­cent teacher of vi­o­la who had, in his view, gone over to the Dark Side. He and the de­ceased were not what could be called sim­pati­co. Ear­ly on, they had ar­gued about a new hire which rather iced their re­la­tion­ship. Their last con­ver­sa­tion had been at the an­nu­al alum­ni re­cep­tion. Vo­gel had talked, os­ten­si­bly with good hu­mor, about the im­por­tance of ad­min­is­tra­tors. The dean had just de­liv­ered a self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry speech lard­ed with what he called “met­rics”: mon­ey raised, build­ings re­fur­bished, rank­ings el­e­vat­ed. Ad­min­is­tra­tors love num­bers. Met­rics was al­most the dean’s fa­vorite word. Vo­gel had once joked to a col­league that per­haps he would be­gin fil­ing his an­nu­al re­ports in iambic tetram­e­ter. Af­ter the speech, Vo­gel and the dean found them­selves to­geth­er near the bar. Vo­gel was start­ing on a sec­ond gin-and-ton­ic and, pro­voked by the dean’s ad­dress, ob­served that the height of their office’s ceil­ings and salaries were com­pen­sa­tion for the knowl­edge that, though they be­lieved them­selves to be pro­pri­etors, ad­min­is­tra­tors were, in fact, par­a­sites. The dean af­fect­ed to chuck­le, but it was clear he was offended. 

“Oh, come now. Re­al­ly? Par­a­sites?”

“Use­ful ones but, yes, par­a­sites. And I can prove it.”

The dean gri­maced, looked long­ing­ly across the room, then snarled. “Okay, prove it.”

“Well, it’s sim­ple. Imag­ine there are ad­min­is­tra­tors like you but no fac­ul­ty like me — and no stu­dents. Would the place still be a university?”

The dean frowned and emit­ted some­thing be­tween a chor­tle and a growl. Vo­gel pressed on.

“Now sup­pose there are fac­ul­ty and stu­dents but no ad­min­is­tra­tors. Of course, the place would be a sham­bles, a chaos. But it would still be a uni­ver­si­ty, wouldn’t it?”

They both laughed, not at all con­vivial­ly, and the dean ex­cused him­self. Now that the dean had sud­den­ly died, Vo­gel felt re­gret at the mem­o­ry. It was one of the rea­sons he felt oblig­ed to at­tend the dean’s fu­ner­al and, if it couldn’t be avoid­ed, say some­thing ap­pro­pri­ate to his wid­ow and chil­dren — he thought there might be two of the lat­ter. He knew he had to pay his re­spects; more­over, he knew he ought to be seen pay­ing them.

The fu­ner­al was at the Pres­by­ter­ian church, 2 p.m., re­cep­tion to fol­low. Vo­gel, not a church­go­er, looked up the di­rec­tions on Google maps. A life­long fear of be­ing late for a class or a con­cert had made Vo­gel al­most patho­log­i­cal­ly punc­tu­al. The dri­ve took less time than Google es­ti­mat­ed, and he ar­rived at 1:35. 

The stone church was square, sol­id, plain, and bluff, with red dou­ble doors. Its musty smell took Vo­gel back to the Sun­day morn­ings of his child­hood when the prayers were te­dious, and even the short­er ser­mons felt in­ter­minable. He had yearned to be out­side, be­yond the stained glass, on his bike, play­ing ball. But he had liked the mu­sic, and saw that the church had a small loft that was filled by an elec­tron­ic or­gan with no room for a choir. He al­so spied an old spinet in a cor­ner to the left of the pulpit.

About fif­teen peo­ple were al­ready there. A few were seat­ed but most were clumped at. the front, chat­ting in sub­dued voic­es. He rec­og­nized no one. He had met the dean’s wife on­ly once. She was, he thought, an anes­the­si­ol­o­gist or pe­di­a­tri­cian, and didn’t at­tend aca­d­e­m­ic events. If she and the dean gave din­ner par­ties, he wouldn’t have been in­vit­ed. If he had ever seen the dean’s chil­dren — two? three? — it would have been long be­fore they grew up. Would the provost or pres­i­dent at­tend? It was pos­si­ble, but Vo­gel doubt­ed it. 

More mourn­ers ar­rived, the men dressed as he was; the women wore hats and dark dress­es. He didn’t spot any of his col­leagues. Who were these people?

An ex­pen­sive cas­ket, dark wood, high­ly pol­ished, with bright brass fit­tings, was set up be­low the pul­pit. It was open, but no­body went near it.

Vo­gel had a sud­den mis­giv­ing. He took out and un­fold­ed the notepa­per on which he’d writ­ten the di­rec­tions. Pres­by­ter­ian Church, 2 p.m. He’d as­sumed there was on­ly one Pres­by­ter­ian Church, the First. He picked up a hym­nal, looked in­side the cov­er. Prop­er­ty of Sec­ond Pres­by­ter­ian Church.

At that mo­ment, a woman at the front of the church turned and stared at Vo­gel. Then she ran up the aisle, al­ready in tears.

“You came!” she cried, seiz­ing the hand with­out the hymnal.

Two more peo­ple, a young man and a young woman, made their way up the aisle.

The woman, still clasp­ing Vogel’s hand was clear­ly moved and she spoke rapidly.

“It was the last thing he said, his dy­ing words, that he want­ed to make it up with you, that he had to apol­o­gize for his bul­ly­ing, for cheat­ing you over the busi­ness, for shut­ting you out, for be­ing such a bad broth­er. You got my let­ter? I wasn’t sure of the ad­dress and, when you didn’t an­swer or come to the hos­pi­tal — ” Here, she paused and turned to the two oth­ers, ev­i­dent­ly the chil­dren. Vo­gel tried to ob­ject but she went right on.

“It’s your Un­cle Harold. He’s come!”

“There’s been a mis­take,” Vo­gel start­ed again; but the wid­ow, threw her arms around him, said she un­der­stood why he had every right to ig­nore her let­ter, but it meant so much that he was here now. The chil­dren looked at Vo­gel in­tense­ly and smiled. They too were ea­ger to talk.

“I’ve won­dered about you my whole life,” said the young woman with re­al feel­ing. “The on­ly pic­ture we had was of Dad and you when you were kids.”

“You look a lot like him,” said the young man. “It’s re­al­ly amaz­ing you’re here. It means so much to Mom — to us, too.”

“He blamed him­self ter­ri­bly, es­pe­cial­ly to­ward the end,” the wid­ow bab­bled. “It was prostate can­cer, Harold, months of the most ter­ri­ble pain, and, to­ward the end, when he was just skin and bones, all he talked about was you and want­i­ng mor­phine. The phys­i­cal suf­fer­ing was aw­ful, but his re­morse was even worse. He loved you, Harold. He loved you and it was killing him that he couldn’t apol­o­gize, that he couldn’t see you and beg for­give­ness and say goodbye.”

Vo­gel hes­i­tat­ed. Such in­tense re­lief be­side such pain was stun­ning. He made a de­ci­sion that sur­prised him. He de­cid­ed to say nothing. 

The or­gan­ist struck up the first chords of “Abide with Me.”

“Come,” said the wid­ow, pulling his arm. “Come up front. You have to sit with us, the family.”

Vo­gel went with them to the first pew. The wid­ow sat to his right, the daugh­ter to the left. He lis­tened to the minister’s eu­lo­gy and dis­cov­ered that the dead man was named George and had lived an or­di­nary life, a bour­geois one. He played golf. He had a lot of friends. He had been a fair boss and ran the fam­i­ly Chevro­let deal­er­ship hon­est­ly — the busi­ness half of which Vo­gel sur­mised ought to have gone to his broth­er Harold. George had been ac­tive in the Ro­tary, a sup­port­er of the church, en­joyed fam­i­ly va­ca­tions in na­tion­al parks when the chil­dren were lit­tle, spon­sored a Lit­tle League team, was a pil­lar of the com­mu­ni­ty, lov­ing hus­band, de­vot­ed fa­ther, and so on. Through it all, the wid­ow held Vogel’s hand tight­ly and wouldn’t let go. 

A golf bud­dy spoke briefly, al­so the dealership’s sales man­ag­er, then the min­is­ter, but no one else.

The or­gan­ist start­ed a qui­et ren­di­tion of a hymn Vo­gel rec­og­nized: “God Our Help in Ages Past.”

Vo­gel rose with the oth­ers. The cas­ket was right in front of them. The fam­i­ly ap­proached it for the fi­nal farewell, the wid­ow go­ing first. She leaned down and whis­pered some­thing. Then the chil­dren stood to­geth­er. The daugh­ter wiped at a tear and her broth­er put his arm around her waist. Then the three of them looked to­ward Vo­gel, smil­ing, nod­ding. He stepped for­ward and looked down at the face of the dead man. The fu­ner­al home must have worked hard to make him look so healthy, with sus­pi­cious­ly full cheeks and lips just shy of rosy.

Vo­gel looked down at the face of the dead man. The fu­ner­al home must have worked hard, used make-up, man­aged to make him look al­most healthy; the cheeks were sus­pi­cious­ly puffy and rosy. He looked close­ly. There re­al­ly wasn’t any re­sem­blance; yet Vo­gel felt strange­ly moved. He leaned down and kissed the corpse’s cold fore­head and, as he looked up, spot­ted the spinet. He went over to it, and every­body hushed, in­clud­ing the or­gan­ist. He sat, opened the lid, looked over his shoul­der at the wid­ow, then be­gan. He played the first two min­utes of a piece of Bach’s.

When he stood up, every­one was star­ing at him, some with sur­prise but oth­ers al­most with reverence.

The wid­ow rushed to his side, put her hand on his arm, her head on his shoul­der. She was weeping.

“Oh, Harold. That was so love­ly. George nev­er men­tioned that you played. What was that beau­ti­ful music?”

“A capric­cio by Bach. It’s called ‘On the De­par­ture of a Beloved Brother.’”

Hear­ing the ti­tle, the wid­ow near­ly col­lapsed from ex­cess of feel­ing. Vo­gel sup­port­ed her un­til the son and daugh­ter took over.After that, the four of them lined up be­side the cof­fin to re­ceive the mourn­ers who had al­so queued and came for­ward, two-by-two. There was much hug­ging and con­dol­ing un­til the for­mal­i­ty dis­solved in a gen­er­al milling about. That was when Vo­gel made his es­cape, when took his departure.

Filed under Fiction on May 19th, 2023

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Hazi wrote:

Bra­vo! Just the right bal­ance of hu­mor and heart.

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