I described James as “the man with a tooth.” That’s it, one tooth—and no sense. His ex-wife Christina claimed he had great horse sense, which was good since he was a stable hand at Pimlico Race Course. Perhaps she meant that he had the sense of a horse, since that animal has been known to eat itself to death, and James had the sense to drink himself to death. Or was it drugs?
Christina was known as the keeper of strays. She had Casey the black Lab and Giddy the cat—and James—to show for it. Even though she divorced him three years ago, she never wanted to leave him. He left her no choice.
At eight months pregnant and with two-year-old Paul by her side, there Christina stood on the curb outside their apartment. They’d just been evicted because James had gambled away the rent money again. Despite her desire not to leave James, everyone in her family told her she couldn’t stay with him, so she went home to live with her parents, Ann and Martin. I wished I could say they lived happily ever after. If they actually liked and respected each other that may have been possible, but Christina didn’t like or respect herself, and Martin and Ann made for tough critics, so there they were—animosity leaking out all over.
James led a life of convenience, which galled Ann to no end. He showed up at his former in-laws’ to see his sons Paul and Matthew when he felt like it—and he didn’t when he didn’t, even if he’d promised them that he’d be there.
Last Sunday Christina called to tell me James had died—of Hepatitis C? of cirrhosis of the liver? Hard to pin down with so many choices. He’d died on their wedding anniversary. She said, “Some people think it was strange we still celebrated our anniversary, but we still loved each other. I danced his hospital bed around the room.” Her tone told me it was a happy lark. History told me he was barking at her the whole time.
I called the house later and got Ann, and I asked her how Christina was doing. She said, “She’s happy now. She sees herself as the grieving widow.”
She told me Christina was planning to hold an ashes ceremony at the race track. How fitting to commemorate his lifestyle by scattering his ashes where he’d destroyed his life.
I understood wanting to feel as if you belonged in this world. I understood the desire to be loved. But I had chosen to eschew the familiar for the healthier, no matter how scary and foreign the first step—and the next step—could be, because if belonging to a world encourages and preys on destructive behavior, then get me on the next bus to somewhere else.
With these thoughts surfaced my real dilemma: What does a person wear to a funeral at a race track? Ann suggested blue jeans. I said, “Would that seem disrespectful?” She said, “99.9% of everyone there will be in jeans, and some of them might even be clean.”
And I worried about my irreverence!
So off I went to Pimlico on a sunny fall day. I had this image of poor dregs of the earth working the track (James’s one tooth came to mind), and the thought of being robbed for drug money made me leave my diamond studs at home. Upon arrival I saw an Yves St. Laurent clutch and black leather jackets mixed in with muck boots and torn flannel work shirts. These people worked—hard jobs for a meager living.
We gathered track-side.
James’s mom Adele talked first, about how God never gives us more than we can bear, but “God, to lose my husband and my son in one year is too much.” Mind you, the husband’s ashes had been scattered at the same track for the same reason as his son’s—death by Jim Beam—three months earlier. She went on to say, as her hands shook and her eyes teared, “James was a son, a brother, a husband, a father.” Technically, she couldn’t be faulted there. Then she read a poem, imploring, “Always remember my smile. Remember my kind words and not the harsh ones. Remember my good deeds and not what I might have done wrong.”
Clearly James had counted on people’s kindly selective memory for years.
As Adele finished Christina cleared her throat, called Paul and Matthew to her side, and stood at the rail holding the black laminate box filled with ashes. She welcomed the people surrounding her, “James wanted you to be here, because you were always family to him.”
She thanked the woman who hired hot walkers at the track, for inviting Christina back last summer to work there again. “That was the happiest we’ve ever been. This place was home to me, where James always wanted to be, and this is where I have to say goodbye.” She broke down and sobbed, and the kids broke down and sobbed. Finally she managed to say, “But I never want to say goodbye to James, because I still love him.”
And therein lay the problem. A person couldn’t let go if she believed the sinking ship was her salvation—and Christina was nothing if not a believer in boat anchors.
Mother and sons, joined at the hip, staggered to the center of the track.
A woman behind me was trying to turn on a boom box to play James and Christina’s favorite song. It blasted once, Adele wheeled on the person and snarled, “What the hell was that?”, and we all turned our attention back to the track.
Christina opened the plastic bag filled with grayish-white cremains and held it for Paul and Matthew to scoop out handfuls of their father’s ashes. Like any eight-year-old boy, Paul flung it with a sidearm heave across the track. Matthew chucked mittfuls of it underhand straight up in the air so the wind caught most of it and swirled it around, landing more on him than on the ground. When they were done the boys were smudged with the stuff, as they wiped their hands on their coats and jeans.
Thoughtful people handed them paper napkins to wipe their hands. Being conscientious little boys who never littered, they threw the garbage in the trash can.
We moved from the track towards the canteen where a Miss Niki had set out cookies and coffee. I sidled up to Christina and walked with her. I felt myself speaking in platitudes. No real connection, no real heart.
A young man, Latino, beautiful dark curly hair and blue eyes clear and light as water, came up to her and offered her a race towel. It read “Nose for Nettles” or some such horse name. He said it was from James’s favorite horse. Christina took it without a word. I said, “Oh, gosh. That’s so nice.”
Who knew? He could have been James’s drug dealer, but I still thought it was a kind gesture that deserved acknowledgment.
The workers’ canteen was pretty dreary, although “functional” would be kinder. It had to serve a lot of people who worked in a dirty work environment. People quickly got their food and took to tables and chairs, knowing their way around.
I didn’t know anyone to talk to, so I had wallflower eyes as I cast about for something to look at. Pictures of James had been taped to the wall—as a boy, a young man, a husband to-be at their wedding rehearsal. (I was the only person in the wedding photos smiling, probably because I wasn’t getting James as an in-law.)
There were James and Christina cooking dinner at home and playing on vacation —why wasn’t he ever smiling, not even with his kids?—and the leading-horses-out-of-the-stables photos, where perhaps he was smiling.
I searched, but I never found the coffee urn, so I had some orange juice and a cookie, and I tried not to stare as I eavesdropped, for lack of knowing what else to do.
I overheard one man tell another to be sure and sign the card. Next to the card was an industrial-sized margarine tub with a scrap piece of paper rubber-banded to it with a scrawled note: For The Boys. (Surely these people didn’t know Christina and The Boys lived in a mansion.)
I realized not everyone was washed. My sensitive nose was upset by the sour body odor, but something more. With time I realized it was also sour liquor sweat.
Still feeling awkward, I finally sat across from a woman who’d been sitting alone since we’d first entered the canteen. She never looked at me.
One of the stable hands produced another tape player, and at long last we heard James and Christina’s song, John Denver singing a duet with Placido Domingo that was lofty and loud. Adele announced in an angry tone, “I can’t stand this,” before she left.
Of course, as expected—and per chance envisaged by James as he planned his ceremony just before his death—Christina and the boys broke down.
I went to hug them. Paul broke away from the pack, wanting to be alone. (Me, too, Paul.) Christina mouthed to me, “Go watch him.”
So there Paul sat on the floor in the pool room, with the pool table and the pinball game and the poker machine, trying to be alone, and me kind of watching him because I still had nothing else to look at, poor kid.
I moved to the door that led outside and turned my back to the room, trying to give him a little privacy, so I was unintentionally listening to Adele’s conversation. She was telling people that if she wanted to walk around the house naked there was no one left to mind but the dog. I tried to smile, strangers who had met before but didn’t remember each other, but she wasn’t responding.
I have an over need to include people. I think some people have an under need to include.
After twenty minutes of my awkwardness, I thought, ‘Christina’s always saying, “This is home. The boys are safe here. They’re family here,” so why the hell am I staring at her son?’
Right when this dawned on me and I started to leave, Christina came out and said, “You don’t have to watch Paul.”
“Good, because I’m pretty sure he just wants to be alone. I think he’s okay.”
“Of course he’s okay. He’s safe here. This is family.”
I went inside and listened to a speech from Miss Niki, how James was one of her children and how James always told Paul and Matthew, “Go hug Miss Niki,” and how Christina gave her school pictures of Paul and Matthew that she had on her living room. The young Latino came up to Christina and gave her a picture of James sprawled out on a sofa in the service shed. He told me in a discrete and respectful tone, “James sold me his car just before he—” near whisper “—he passed. She’s his widow. She should have this stuff I’m finding in it.”
Technically, can an ex-wife be a widow?
I left as Miss Niki gathered people for The Lord’s Prayer. Again, platitudes from me to Christina, saying things that probably would seem supportive of her delusions and past-tense fantasies, but what was I going to do, slap her and yell, “Snap out of it!”?
I said, “I’m going to head out if you’re okay.”
She smiled that beatific smile of belonging and said, “I am. I’m with family.”
(God, it gets redundant.)
We made plans to go out Monday night, to talk (I was planning my get-therapy, get-a-new-life speech already), and I left.
She called late Monday afternoon, sounding hang dog, to say the boys were having a meltdown and she couldn’t leave them.
She often said things to them like, “I’ll never leave you alone” and “No one else would have us,” which made me wonder if they had meltdowns and she was there for them, or if she worded things that worked them into a meltdown so she felt needed.
Before she hung up she told me they’d had a great time at the track (must have gotten a whole lot better after I left). Later that day they’d held their private ceremony at James’s favorite fishing pond where they’d scattered the rest of his ashes. Christina told me that before they headed back to the house Casey the Lab went and rolled in them.
When I saw the old girl again I gave her an extra belly rub for knowing the true value of the man, and I whispered in her long, silky ear, “Next time you’re at the pond, feel free to tinkle on his ashes for me.”