Near the end of his eulogy, Bennett takes a folded-up sheet of notebook paper from his coat pocket. He unfolds the sheet and holds it up, as if he were a child doing show-and-tell or a prosecutor displaying a piece of evidence. He says, “Here’s a sample of how Hal occupied himself when most of America was fast asleep.” On the paper are Hal’s descriptions of what Bennett’s snores sounded like on a night they shared a motel room in Florida. Hal, a New York book editor, had presented Bennett with the list the morning after, saying, “I can’t imagine how your wife stands it.” While Bennett had gazed at the blue-lined paper and the penciled writing on it, so ephemeral-looking in the tropical light, Hal said, “My favorite is ‘trout surfacing to swallow a fly.’ The sound you made was just a pop, kind of a relief after all those death rattles.” Hal had laughed, possibly to suggest no harm was intended, but Bennett, thin-skinned to a fault, hadn’t cracked a smile. He’d suspected Hal of making up every other description.
Two months later, standing before a microphone in a loft in lower Manhattan, sweating through his starched white shirt, Bennett reads from the list of snores, skipping the descriptions he considers clinkers. (How can a snore, even the most baroque one, sound like an “I.E.D. detonating”?) “Coal tumbling down a chute” is not bad, if a little archaic, and Bennett allows himself to grin when he hears someone in the audience laugh. He is reading the list because he believes it illustrates well enough Hal’s “playful wit.” He doesn’t mention that Hal was pouring vodka down his throat while writing in his notebook. That aspect of Hal, among some others, Bennett has saved for his final story, the one he is on the brink of telling, the one he knows might be better left untold. Isn’t the first duty of a eulogist to do no harm? Why can’t Bennett just say something nice and go sit down?
* * *
Bennett met Hal Froehlich in 1970, when they were freshman roommates at a small college in Wisconsin. After they graduated, they went to New York together. Their friendship became uneasy around 1990, when Hal bought Bennett’s first novel, possibly out of the kindness of his heart (or so Bennett imagined that Hal had insinuated). When, three years ago, Hal rejected the long-in-coming next book (“because, I am sorry to say, it is, to be honest, a disaster, and I don’t see how you can fix it”), Bennett stopped talking to his friend. Then, this winter, out of the blue, Hal sent Bennett an email proposing they meet down in Florida to “play shuffleboard and ogle the shorebirds.” Bennett didn’t respond. A few days later, Hal called and made a little speech about how a friendship ought to be able to survive a “literary disagreement” and added that he had persuaded their mutual friend Peter Christiansen to join them. Hal considered it a coup to get Peter to leave his ranchette in the high desert of Oregon for a reunion in as crowded and as humid a place as Florida. When Hal called, Bennett, who was in his mid-fifties, was in bed, listening to his six-month old baby, Camille, snore. Camille was badly congested. Hal sounded drunk — he slurred words, he lost track of his previous thought — but Bennett said he would consider Hal’s proposal, after consulting with his wife. “Give her my luf,” Hal said, “and the same to you and the baby.” He didn’t sound disingenuous.
When Bennett wrote the first version of his eulogy, he didn’t include any reference to Hal’s descriptions of his snores. He opened with a reference to the Florida reunion — “The last time I saw Hal Froehlich, he was talking to a child on a Florida beach, asking her if she’d seen any bananafish that day” — but then Bennett veered away from those events into the more distant past. The more distant past was safer, or, anyway, there was more to choose from. Bennett had re-read many of the letters Hal wrote to him during the typewriter era and dozens of the hundreds of emails that preceded what Bennett thought of as the ruptures; many of the words that the other eulogists would use to describe Hal (“warm,” “puckish,” “generous,” “incautiously curious,” “loyal”) Bennett thought applied to the pre-ruptures Hal.
On the flight to New York from Milwaukee, Bennett was looking over his eulogy — he deleted a fulsome word, then restored it with a sigh — when the plane began to bounce around. Bennett was afraid of flying, and it was often his strategy during these moments (or eternities) of turbulence to root around in the backpack at his feet. Digging among his belongings and cataloging them (motion sickness pills, baby aspirin, photograph of Camille, stress ball that Evan, his son from his first marriage, had given him years ago) seemed to ease his mind for as long as he kept his nose in the pack. (To his seatmates, it must have looked, bent over as he was, as if he was about to vomit.) On that afternoon in May when he was flying toward Hal’s memorial gathering and digging through his pack, Bennett came across the piece of paper with Hal’s penciled jottings. He was surprised to see how clear Hal’s handwriting was, given the fact that during their Florida reunion Bennett had watched Hal’s hands shake as he spooned cereal into his mouth and lifted his mug of morning coffee. There, in Hal’s small, left-handed script, were “death rattle (warm-up?”) and “death rattle (the real thing??).” And there, too, on the backside of the paper, down in the left-hand corner, like a footnote, was something Bennett had failed to notice when he looked at Hal’s handiwork two months ago. It said, “I forgive you for yr novel. Wanna forgive me for my sins?”
By the time Bennett stopped peering at these lines, the plane had steadied itself. He put the sheet of paper into his coat. He looked again at his text for tomorrow. He remembered the last night he saw Hal, the night after the night Bennett had snored so colorfully. Hal had asked Bennett to forgive him then, too — though not, as Bennett recalled, with anything that could be construed as contrition. In the first draft of his eulogy, Bennett wrote that he “loved” Hal. He didn’t allude to any of Hal’s “sins.” He tried to keep bitterness and resentment out of his voice, those feelings that he was so good at nursing. What could candor possibly accomplish?
* * *
The Florida trip almost didn’t come off. About ten days before Bennett was to fly down to Sarasota, he received an email from Peter saying that Hal had recently had some sort of seizure, possibly a stroke, and that he was now being looked over by a neurologist and cardiologist. Peter told Bennett that when he was in New York last fall, he’d had dinner with Hal. “Hal put away about six drinks and hardly touched his food. I assume that the reason Daphne” — Hal’s wife — “didn’t join us for dinner was that she no longer cared to be a witness to her husband’s drunks, at least not his public ones. He went off on everybody — you, me, the squirrels that eat out of his bird feeder. Though the only thing that was really embarrassing was when we were returning to his apartment and he did a spastic dance in front of people lined up to go into a jazz club. Not that anyone but me, this being New York, paid much attention.”
When Bennett received the news about Hal’s seizure, he was almost relieved. He’d had second thoughts about attending the reunion, though the idea of briefly escaping winter in Wisconsin as well as his housedad duties was appealing. He sent Hal a Get Well email, along with the suggestion that the reunion be postponed until the following spring, “when I’m sure we’ll all be ready for those early morning shuffleboard games.” To this, Hal responded with a long, contentious message, saying that Christiansen had passed along “misinformation” and that all the tests showed that he, Hal, was as “hearty as a fucking thirty-year-old oak.” All that happened, he wrote, was that he “blacked out for a minute — bit my damn tongue, too! — and then Daphne rashly called 9-1-1, which landed me in some godforsaken ER, next to a young woman who could not stop saying ‘Help me! Help me!’ (Nobody did; I wouldn’t have, either.) I was there for sixteen hours; during the moments when the woman or somebody else wasn’t shrieking, I read Mailer’s novel on the Hitler boy.” He added that “wild horses, or an actual stroke, for that matter” would not keep him from the Florida reunion.
When Bennett got off the plane in Sarasota, Hal, along with Peter and Peter’s girlfriend (a last-minute addition), greeted him. Hal was in his vacation clothes: sandals, cargo shorts that fell below his knees, sunglasses, a T-shirt that said “Good Pig” on the front and “Bad Pig” on the back. He looked a little thinner and perhaps an inch shorter than he’d been that late spring afternoon three years ago, when, just before delivering his judgment of Bennett’s novel, he ran Bennett’s ass all over a Central Park tennis court. Hal’s face had a glow that more than a day’s growth of stubble didn’t overshadow. His hair, though going white, was plentiful. His dimpled chin still asserted itself in a combative way, perhaps in defiance of that dimple. Whatever was behind the prescription sunglasses was not apparent at that moment. But Hal’s voice was clear and warm, none of the late-night slurs and wobbles that Bennett heard on the phone. When Hal hugged Bennett, he said, “Great to see you. Welcome to paradise, or its ruination, depending on your point of view.” Peter, shaking Bennett’s hand, said, “Ruination, but the sunshine makes it tolerable.”
* * *
Bennett learned of Hal’s death in the New York Times. He bought the paper at a coffee shop on the north side of Milwaukee, where he and his baby daughter sometimes passed an hour during the long afternoons. He liked the baristas at The Green Bean, in part because none of them had so far said (as one at a rival coffee house had), “Your granddaughter is so cute.” The coffee was good here, too. And there was a children’s play area, though Camille, at ten months, was more interested in crawling away from the play area than in staying put and guiding wood cubes along a wire maze.
The headline on the Times obit said, “Harold Froehlich, 55, Editor and Author.” Bennett had stared at it, and then looked away from it, as if to give it a chance to disappear. Camille was scooting across the rag rug toward the sneakers of a goateed young man, a fact that her father registered but didn’t thoroughly process. When Bennett looked again at the obituary — Hal’s was at the bottom of the page, under a longer one about a rodeo star — the news was still there: Hal no longer existed. Bennett read the obit once in haste, as if greedily, and then again, as if to see if there were anything left on the bone.
The obit writer got the facts right. Hal was born in Rockford, Illinois, the son of an insurance agent and a high school math teacher. After graduating from college in 1975, Hal worked at three different New York publishing houses before finding a niche at Rainey, Gray & Starks (or, as Hal called it, after it was bought by a multi-media corporation, Stark Raving Gruesome). The obituary quoted one of the writers he edited, a woman in her mid-forties, who said Hal had “old school tact, which didn’t keep him from being honest with me.” She said, “I loved the notes (illustrated with his quirky drawings) he sent me when I was being mopey.” Hal’s drawing skills had led him to try his hand at childrens’ books. Two were published. The first, about a construction worker’s pneumatic hammer that runs away from him and becomes involved with a sousaphone that somebody has left on a park bench, was dedicated to Bennett’s son, Evan. Hal and Daphne didn’t have children. Besides Daphne, to whom he was married for twenty-eight years, the only other survivor named in the obit was a brother, who lived in DeKalb, Illinois.
The obit said that, according to Froehlich’s wife, Hal had died of a heart attack.
When Bennett finished staring at the obit, he watched a baby play with somebody’s untied shoestrings. When he realized the baby was his, he went and got her. She protested when he lifted her into his arms, twisting and squirming like a fish on a hook, and he said, a bit sharply, “Stop, Cam, stop, please.” The goateed man gave him a look, as if Bennett (steely gray on top, two days worth of stubble on his jaw) might be the sort who would shake a baby out of anger. Bennett gave his daughter a bottle and packed her into the stroller. They headed toward the lake. It was a sunny spring day, though the breeze off the lake gave the air a nip. They walked along a lakeshore path, past the boat basin, past a man doing tai chi in an empty green space. Camille fell asleep. Bennett sat on a bench and called Daphne. Somebody else answered the phone and made him explain who he was before he was handed over.
Bennett hadn’t seen or talked to Daphne in years, since long before the ruptures. They saw a lot of each other during the decade and a half Bennett lived in New York, but after he moved back to Milwaukee, in 1992, Daphne seemed to withdraw. So, for that matter, had Hal, who had scorn for Bennett’s flight from New York. “Back to the land of milk and blandness, eh?” he said. When, in 2000, Bennett left his wife and son for another woman, the distance between him and the Froehlichs grew. At one point, Hal, who was a godparent to Bennett’s boy, wrote to Bennett to say that he and Daphne regarded Bennett’s abandonment of his wife and son as “stunningly stupid,” “the choice of a selfish jerk.” This email was the cause of the first rupture. Hal added that he was going to turn over the “burden of dealing with your next novel” to another editor, “who might cast a less jaundiced eye on it.” Hal later changed his mind on this. For a while, Bennett allowed himself to imagine that Daphne had somehow moderated her husband’s position.
“Bennett,” Daphne said, almost cheerfully. “How’re you doing? So good of you to call. How is Evan? And your little one” — she was searching for the name — “Carmen?”
“Everybody‘s good,” Bennett said. “Camille’s right here, sleeping the sleep of the innocent.” A picture of Hal popped up in his head, asleep by the motel swimming pool, Mailer’s Hitler novel resting on his naked chest. “Jesus, I’m so sorry. I was shocked.”
“It hasn’t sunk in that I can’t call him at the office. Right now he’d be all jolly and talkative, after a three-martini lunch.” She fell silent.
The lake breeze slipped down the neckhole of his sweater and chilled him. Finally, he said, “Hal was a good companion. He had this touch with writers. He could humor us — or most of us. Like what that woman said in the Times about his old school tact and all.” Bennett had not meant to get off onto the subject of writing; he had not meant to sound like some pompous-ass writer extolling himself by extolling his (former) editor.
“He slept with her, you know.”
Bennett had not known that, though there was a time in the mid-nineties when he guessed from Hal’s emails that he was seeing somebody. That would have explained, in part, Hal’s outraged tone when Bennett wandered away from his first wife.
“He told me and I forgave him and we went on.”
“That was good of you to forgive him,” Bennett said. There was an echo in the phone line, and Bennett heard himself say the sentence twice. It sounded even more fatuous the second time.
“We were up at our house in Dutchess County when it happened.” Was the subject still Hal’s infidelity or had she moved on to something else? “You remember the house, don’t you?”
Bennett remembered the house as it was years ago, from before when Hal and Daphne began to remodel it, when it was still a truck farmer’s shack, with pitted cedar siding and dingy linoleum flooring. The Froehlichs and the Bennetts were all in their late thirties then. Bennett remembered drinking until late at night with Hal and Daphne in what Hal called the “parlor,” listening to John Coltrane and Bill Evans and Arthur Blythe on the portable cassette player, which was turned down low, because Deb, Bennett’s wife, would’ve been upstairs with Evan, singing him to sleep, her whistle having been wetted with the bourbon that Hal served in jelly jars. Bennett remembered thinking as he sat in that parlor how he would have loved to sleep with Daphne, with the woman who was all curled up like a cat in that tense little body, but Hal was his friend and there was no way Bennett would have even really considered doing it, except in his head. Bennett loved those times with Hal, talking about music and books and politics and the Mets.
“I remember it well,” Bennett said.
“It was Saturday, I think. I’ve lost track of time in the last couple of days. Yes, it was Saturday afternoon. I was doing something in the kitchen. And I looked out the window and I saw Harold sitting next to this tree he planted right after we bought the place.” Daphne was one of the few people who called her husband by his given name, a name that put Bennett in mind of redheaded Nordic warrior-kings from the Middle Ages, men who took no prisoners. “It’s a plum and it was just coming into bloom. It flowers for a week, and then the blossoms fall and it’s no longer the thing that heightens your mood to look at when you’re on your second martini. Sometimes I think Harold drank for just that moment, you know, when you see something beautiful and you’re happy. Even drunks have those moments, even if they can’t remember them the next day.”
Bennett remembered a moment from the Florida reunion. He and Hal and Peter and Peter’s girlfriend, Alice, were sitting in deck chairs in the crabgrass that lay between the motel and the beach. The sun was going down. They were drinking wine. This was the last day that Bennett would ever see Hal, the day that Hal asked the little girl on the beach if she’d seen any bananafish, the day after Hal presented Bennett with the list of snores. Hal asked Bennett if he remembered the opening lines of Wordsworth’s “To Sleep.” Hal’s cap was pulled low over his pink face and his chin was tilted up, as if he were trying to balance a thought there or tighten for a moment the flesh that had gone slack beneath his jaw. A squadron of pelicans flew overhead and across the empty white beach toward the Gulf. They banked left and dove into the water, one right after the other, as if choreographed. Bennett said that he had missed the class on Wordsworth. Hal recited the opening lines of the sonnet — and another: “Come, blessed barrier between day and day” — and then Alice, who had not been particularly effusive to date, revealed that she’d taken half an Ambien the previous night. Peter said, “Anybody want to eat?” Hal said, “I could sit here for another hour or two. Is there any more wine?”
On the phone Daphne said, “I think the first thing I noticed was that pages of the manuscript Harold was reading had fallen out of his lap onto the grass. I noticed this even before I noticed my husband. It’s like you notice the debris of a car wreck before you notice the person pinned behind the wheel.” Bennett wondered if the image of Hal sitting among the scattered pages would always stay in her mind, shouldering out other ones. “It was a breezy day and a couple of the pages had blown down the hill to the vegetable garden. His head had fallen forward onto his chest. It was after lunch and I thought maybe he was taking a nap. He’d limited himself to two glasses of wine. Do you take naps, Benito?”
Benito was a name she hung on him not long after she and Hal started going out. She used it when she was feeling giddy and affectionate, and sometimes also when she was teasing him for the side that kept him from letting his hair too far down.
Bennett said, “Sometimes when Camille naps, I squeeze one in, too.” He gave the stroller a little push.
“I take naps,” Daphne said. “Even when I’m at the office. Especially when I’m at the office.” She worked for an arts foundation. “I actually have a rug that I keep under my desk and I curl up there for ten or fifteen minutes. Like in kindergarten.”
Bennett didn’t believe that Daphne ever really did take a nap, if in fact she did get under her desk. She was too driven. “A little dreaming during the day is probably good for the psyche,” Bennett said.
She didn’t seem to hear what he’d said. She said, “He wanted to be cremated. No funeral. A friend is picking out an urn for me — for him, I mean. We’re going to have a memorial service later on. A gathering, not a service. I don’t know how to talk anymore.” She gave a laugh that was like a snort.
She hadn’t finished the story of how Hal died, had she? Did she lose her train of thought or did she get scared when she was telling the story? How long did Hal sit in the chair under the plum before Daphne went out to check on him? Bennett didn’t think it would be right to ask her to finish. “I’ll be there. Just let me know when.”
“I’m sure Harold would be pleased if you spoke, Bennett. You’re one of his oldest friends.”
“I’ll be there,” Bennett said again, though this time he thought of having to get in an airplane and also of what he would say about Hal.
“I’m going to bury him myself — this weekend, under the plum tree. This man he played tennis with is going to dig the hole. I don’t know if you ever met him. He fixes Volvos at a shop up in Dutchess. A very sweet guy named Olwyn. A black mechanic who plays tennis and reads books and has a Welsh first name. Harold would sometimes give him manuscripts to look over. He said Olwyn always knew exactly what was missing and just how to fix it, if it was fixable.” Bennett wondered if Hal gave Olwyn his second novel, the one that was now in a drawer. “I think he knew a couple of months ago he was going to die soon. I don’t know if you noticed that when you saw him down in Florida.”
Bennett said, “He seemed a little shaky, though not as if he knew he was terminal or anything.”
“He re-did his will just before that TIA or whatever it was. He brought the will home one night and handed it to me and said, ‘Just in case I croak during the next thirty or forty years.’”
* * *
Olwyn is in a dark blue suit. He doesn’t wear a tie, but the top button of his white shirt is buttoned and so is the middle button on his jacket. He is tall and thin. His skin is the color of a pencil shaving and he has a dash of a moustache and he wears big square-framed glasses too large for his small elegant head. He doesn’t look as if he has spent a moment under a car hood. His hands tremble a little, as he reads from his text. There is no podium to hide behind here in this Houston Street loft that belongs to a painter Daphne knows. Only the microphone stands between the eulogist and the hundred-odd souls who are Hal’s colleagues and friends.
Olwyn reads from his script — hand-written on legal sheets — without looking up. Once he moves a page farther from his eyes and then he moves it closer and finally he says, “Wish I could tell you what that word is. I’m going to say ‘generous.’ Hal was that, for sure.” Olwyn has a soft voice that the microphone, which has a bug in it, plays havoc with.
Olwyn tells a story about Hal coming to Olwyn’s grandson’s christening. “After the service was over, Hal said to me, ‘When the preacher asked the congregation to renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world and such, I’m afraid I didn’t join in. So if Tayshaun’ — that’s my grandson — ‘falls in love with a beautiful girl or takes a liking to Peking duck or Art Tatum, you can blame me.’ Hal was in favor of beauty. He believed in a steady diet of what he called ‘aesthetic nutrition.’ He didn’t see how a person could listen to Fifty Cent when he could put on Art Tatum or Duke Ellington. Once we went to a bar at the Holiday Inn out near where I live, and this man in a red blazer was singing show tunes and Hal said, ‘Ol, this guy makes my head hurt, let’s go somewhere else.’ So we went, but first Hal dropped a ten in the snifter on the piano. I said, ‘He might take that as encouragement,’ and Hal said, ‘Even bad singers have to eat.’”
Bennett thinks of Hal in the ER, turning a deaf ear to the complaints of the woman in the next bay. Hal was selective in his generosity. But who isn’t? How many homeless people did Bennett slip past today, averting his eyes, while walking to this loft? How many more will he slip past on his way home?
Bennett looks down at the opening line of his eulogy. “The last time I saw Hal Froehlich, he was talking to a child on a Florida beach, asking her if she’d seen any bananafish that day.” Last night, Bennett rewrote some of his talk, but not the opening. He wanted to give a sense of the whimsical Hal, the Hal who, however self-consciously, would strike up conversations with children, and this scene came to mind. Bennett’s narrative goes on, “The little girl, who was perhaps eight and was more self-possessed than is perhaps good for an eight-year-old, looked straight at Hal, as if she might have actually read the Salinger story or at least had some experience dealing with crackpot adults on Florida beaches. Eventually, she said, ‘No, have you?’ Hal said, ‘Why, yes, I have, and it was a bit green behind the gills for a bananafish.’ I think I noticed the girl smiling. Hal had that gift for breaking through even the more hard-boiled among us, for getting us to be ourselves, whatever those selves might be.”
Bennett may have invented the little girl’s smile. It might have been more of a grin or even a wince, like those gastric winces of the newborn that look like smiles. Certainly it wasn’t a broad toothy smile. And Bennett omitted from his talk the scene that followed. After taking in the comment about the bananafish being green behind the gills, the girl scampered off toward a clump of adults. Hal said, “Children are such unreliable conversationalists,” and he and Bennett continued up the beach. Some moments later, a woman wearing a black two-piece bathing suit and an NYPD baseball cap materialized at Hal’s elbow. She was short and compact and looked as if she could punch a hole through a wall. She said, “What did you say to my child, you pervert? Just what the fuck did you say?” Hal threw his hands up in defense and said, “Madam, madam, please calm yourself.” The woman would not be soothed, even after Hal appealed to Bennett, who had backed a few feet away, to explain to her that Hal’s question to her daughter was entirely innocent. Bennett did not get a word out of his mouth before the woman said, “I don’t care what your pervert friend says. If you ever come within a hundred feet of my daughter again, I will have every cop in this state on your ass.” Hal had said, “Madam, I’m not a child molester. I was merely making conversation. I write childrens’ books. I will send you both of them if you give me your address.” The woman said, “You must be joking. I don’t care if you write encyclopedias. Don’t ever talk to my child again.” She stalked off.
Hal turned back toward the motel. Up ahead was a flock of pipers, skittering across the wet sand. He said, “America has become such a stupid country. The kid will grow up in fear of men who say the word bananafish within range of her precious ears, and the mother will spend the rest of her life driving to the gym in her Bradley tank and watching the cynics on FOX News spread fear.” He went on in this vein.
Bennett didn’t say anything. He wondered how he would react if his daughter were to tell him that a man who looked like Hal — sunburned, three days worth of stubble, surfer’s jams that he hadn’t tried on before he bought them, the Good Pig/Bad Pig T-shirt — had mentioned bananafish to her. Applefish or plumfish would have been safer, surely.
Hal said, “Of the ten persons on this beach who are reading books, maybe one is not reading drivel. We should hire one of those planes that do sky advertising and have it fly over with a sign that says, ‘Don’t Be Stupid, Read a Good Book.’”
Bennett said, “It might backfire to suggest people are stupid. As an advertising strategy, I mean.”
Hal wasn’t listening. He was dancing now, while chanting, “Don’t be stupid, read a good book.” His dance was like one Bennett had seen him do in college, when he was tripping. Three or four times they’d done LSD together, and Hal had spent at least some of the experience dancing with himself.
He held his arms out to the sides, fluttered his fingers, and revolved slowly. His head flopped around like a bobble-headed baby’s. At random moments, he thrust his pelvis forward. “Don’t be stupid, read a good book.”
Hal’s muttered chant became a shout. A pair of beach-walkers wearing pith helmets detoured to higher ground. The sandpipers hurried away. Bennett walked a couple paces behind his friend. Then Hal stopped dancing and turned to Bennett and said, “You want to get laid tonight?”
“No, Hal,” Bennett said. “I’m married.”
* * *
After he reads from the list of snores and offers commentary on Hal’s writing style, Bennett says, “Is it possible to sum up another human being’s life? Isn’t whatever we say that pretends to be definitive likely to be only part of the story — and perhaps, at gatherings such as these, more kind than true? How do we sort out a person’s many selves? The stories we tell about the dead are more about us than they are about him, aren’t they? Once Hal told me that if I was going to write so-called realism — and ‘God help you,’ he added, ‘not that I believe there is such an entity to help you’ — I should at least have the courage to be honest and call death death and not ‘passing over to the other side, wherever the fuck that might be.’”
Somebody in the audience makes a bird-like sound that might be a laugh, a titter, or a cry. Bennett pauses. He is standing right at the edge of telling his last story about his old friend.
* * *
The discovery on the airplane of the scrap of paper with the list of snores led Bennett to rewrite the end of his talk. He wrote it on his laptop last night in the closet-size room in his hotel, a former SRO. He typed as the air conditioner rattled in the window — it was a beautiful spring night, but it was not accessible from this room — and as he occasionally stole a look at a woman (or was it a man?) dancing with herself in the apartment building next door. He wondered if he would have the courage (if that was the right word) to read the new ending at the memorial gathering. At one in the morning, unable to sleep, he went out for a walk. He walked down lower Fifth Avenue, toward Washington Square, and then he crossed over to Sixth Avenue and walked back uptown. He turned right on Eleventh Street and passed a vest-pocket Jewish cemetery where, he recalled, he and Hal had loitered one night, smoking a joint, after listening to Pharoah Sanders play wild saxophone at Sweet Basil. Some of the dead in the cemetery had been there for two hundred years; some of the gravestones looked as if they’d been gnawed on. “Imagine being dead,” Hal, who was then in his late twenties, said, “and not being able to hear Pharoah Sanders or buy a slice of pizza at one in the morning. I got the munchies. You?” Not quite thirty years later, Bennett passed the cemetery and continued across Eleventh, toward Fifth Avenue, thinking it might be better to read only the stuff about the snores and skip the rest. He walked the same route he’d walked ten minutes ago, passing the same drunk resting his ass on the same patch of concrete, passing the same couple arguing in the same illegally parked car. By the time he was back at the hotel, he’d changed his mind and resolved to read all he’d written.
Bennett took the first version of his eulogy to the gathering, in case his nerve failed. In this version, he ended with a story about a time not long after he and Hal arrived in New York from Wisconsin and how in the summer evenings they would sit on the fire escape ladder outside their apartment and listen to the guy in the apartment above them blow funereal tunes on his bagpipes and wait for the young woman who never lowered her shades to come home and begin to undress. On one of those evenings, Hal had said how happy he was to be alive right then, while sucking in all the grimily sublime New York air along with a little reefer. He’d shouted his happiness. “Yee-ha!” Bennett, too, had been happy; all of those early days in New York were like an episode out of a boy’s adventure book, and Hal was his companion in it. But he left that ending in his backpack next to his chair when it was his turn to speak.
* * *
Bennett says, “So I thought I would tell you one last story about Hal. This also happened when I was down in Florida with him. It was the night after the night he concocted that list of snores.”
He glances up from his text and sees Daphne in the front row in her sunglasses and dark dress. He can see from the way her mouth is set that she expects to have to endure what she has to endure here today, but no more than is necessary.
He looks back down at his script. The words dance around impishly, as if they have minds of their own and will shake themselves loose from the paper. He will wait until they settle down. As he does, he feels sweat leaking from under his arms, leaking down his neck and blotting the front of his starched shirt, slipping over the ledge of his eyebrow into the bloodshot pool of his eye. He looks up and sees two people whispering in the middle rows. He sees that Daphne is holding Olwyn’s hand now. Olwyn is looking down at the floor. Daphne seems to be trying on faces. She gives Bennett a half-hearted smile.
The words don’t settle down. He fingers sweat out of his eye. What is that Latin phrase about not speaking ill of the dead? To refrain from doing so is more than just a matter of decorum, isn’t it?
At last, Bennett says, “I brought the wrong pages with me. Sorry. So let me end with this. As he did with Olwyn’s grandchild, Hal served as a godfather to my son. I don’t recall that Hal said anything memorable at Evan’s christening. Religion usually riled him up, but maybe he decided to hold his tongue that day. Anyway, he was a good godfather to Evan, and sent him gifts every birthday and Christmas, wrote him letters illustrated with his drawings. Even when, especially when, Hal and I were going through a period, following my divorce, when we weren’t talking too much, he was good to Evan. Perhaps he thought shoes needed to be filled. He had that fatherly instinct, that touch with children.” Bennett searches for an ending but can’t find one. He says, “Thanks” and walks back to his seat.
* * *
Bennett sits alone, near a window, eating from a plate of crudités. He watches a man in a black turtleneck embrace Daphne, and then, a moment later, sees Daphne standing alone. She has taken off her sunglasses. She looks lost, as if she has just been plunked down at the funeral of somebody she doesn’t know. She looks at Bennett and Bennett looks at her, and then they both look away. Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” is on the sound system. You can barely hear it above all the chatter in the loft, the elation of the survivors. Bennett’s flight back to Milwaukee leaves in four hours. He will be glad to be on it. He will have a couple of drinks before he boards and gets through whatever turbulence the plane runs into.
A man in a dark suit appears before Bennett, his trouser bottoms puddling over his brown shoes. He is thin, almost gaunt, and doesn’t quite inhabit his suit or even his white shirt; the collar is a size too big. He has a narrow strip of beard that clings to his jaw like gray moss to a tree branch.
“Dennis Froehlich,” he said. “Harold’s brother.” He holds his hand out and Bennett shakes it. Dennis’ palm is soft and moist. Bennett doesn’t see much resemblance between Dennis and his brother, except in the jaw, which juts a little under the fringe of beard. Compared to Dennis, Hal was almost robust. Dennis looks as if a brisk wind would lift him off his feet.
Dennis says, “I thought you were going to go where most eulogists fear to tread. But then you took another tack.” The expression on Dennis’s face is one of curiosity, not disapproval.
Bennett says, “Hal was a good guy, except on those occasions when he wasn’t. Kind of like the rest of us.” He puts a chunk of cauliflower in his mouth; he has cleaned his plate and is ready for seconds.
Dennis takes a handkerchief from his coat pocket and shakes it open and then loudly blows his nose. “Pardon me,” Dennis says, “I have a cold.” He refolds the handkerchief and puts it back in his pocket. “Yes, I agree. In a nutshell, Harold was a good guy, except when he wasn’t. Which was more often than what one might hope for.”
Bennett recalls Hal talking about Dennis, saying that his brother taught mathematics to Illinois farm boys and played bridge on weekends with farmers’ widows. “My long lost cipher of a brother,” Hall called him.
“Did we meet at Hal’s wedding?” Bennett asks. He remembers Dennis’s parents being there, modest, reserved people.
“I skipped it. Whenever I was around Harold, there was always a chance we’d have a fight. I know I look kind of wimpy, but I have a bad temper.” He laughs.
* * *
At Dennis’s suggestion, they go outdoors. They walk west on Houston and then turn up Sixth Avenue. The traffic noise is deafening, but the sunshine and spring breezes feel pleasant, almost unreal. Bennett smells hot dogs cooking and garbage fermenting and a trace of the ocean. After a few years in New York, Bennett came to like those days when he could catch a whiff of something vaster than the city.
Dennis says that this is his second trip to New York, his first having been during high school, forty years ago. “We saw U Thant at the U. N. and went to “The Ed Sullivan Shiw.” Senor Wences was one of the performers. Both Harold and I tried to do ventriloquism when we were boys. Harold had no talent in that area. He couldn’t figure out how to sound like anybody but himself — or how not to move his lips while doing it.”
They sit down in a vest-pocket park near Bleecker Street. An older woman in a black dress and sturdy black shoes, her gray hair in a bun, reads a book, periodically looking up to check on a baby sleeping in a stroller. The baby’s head has fallen against its shoulder; he — or she? — sleeps as if miles from the racket of the city.
Dennis says, “So, what was the story you were going to tell?” He offers Bennett a throat lozenge from a tin. Bennett declines. A man in a Yankees shirt that falls to near his knees passes in front of their bench, nodding his head to whatever is playing in his ear.
“It was nothing, just some self-justifying act of revenge on a dead man.” Bennett wants to leave Hal behind and go back to Milwaukee, but Dennis isn’t going to let him get away so quickly, it seems. In Dennis’ brow there is a knottiness, tenacity. He probably doesn’t take those bridge games with the farm widows lightly.
“I’ll tell you a story, then you tell me yours,” Dennis says. “We’ll bury Hal again.” He laughs again.
Dennis’ story begins with Hal using a cherry bomb to blow up a model ship Dennis built — Hal was twelve, Dennis eleven — and ends with Dennis standing above a sleeping Hal with a kitchen knife in his hand. “I stood there for five minutes watching Harold breathe. I was a watchful kid, despite my temper. I watched the knife go into his throat a half dozen times. I was in a trance. And then I saw his lips moving and heard his voice. He’d been pretending to be asleep. He said he’d already said he was sorry—our dad had made him say it—and why was I standing there with a knife like some maniac pirate in “Treasure Island”? He could make literary allusions at twelve. I said he had to say sorry again, like he meant it.”
“Did he?” Bennett asks.
“Yes, “ Dennis says. “I would’ve killed him if he hadn’t.” Dennis takes a lozenge from the tin and unwraps it and puts it in his mouth.
“My story isn’t quite as dramatic,” Bennett says. “Similar theme, though.”
“Did he say he was sorry?” Dennis manages to grin while sucking on the lozenge.
“Yes, he said it.” Bennett is not going to be pressed to tell his story, it seems. He is not sure he is grateful for this; there is a part of him that is willing to tell the story if Dennis twists his arm just a little. But maybe Dennis doesn’t care to hear it now.
“Sorry isn’t ever enough, is it?” Dennis says.
Bennett doesn’t answer, though he doesn’t disagree. They look simultaneously at a woman walking by. She is beautiful and seems only somewhat aware of this fact, if that is possible. She is dressed inexpensively and carries a canvas book bag on her shoulder and holds her head in a way that gives the impression she is thinking of something far off, such as an old boyfriend back in Ohio. Dennis looks away from her before Bennett does. How much “aesthetic nutrition” is enough? Why is forgiveness so hard?
Dennis says, “Still, I’ll miss him, despite everything.”
Bennett, rising, lays a hand on Dennis’ shoulder, meaning to convey comfort or solidarity or something useful, and says, “OK, well, see you again sometime, I hope.”
Dennis looks up at Bennett, and with that laugh that now sounds a little crazy to Bennett’s ears, says, “I doubt it.”
* * *
Bennett is gazing into the window of the Barnes & Noble at Eighth Street when a man in a long green wool coat soured by sweat and cigarettes and urine and the emanations of previous wearers perhaps, says, “Hey, man, let me bend your ear with a story. If you like it, you can give me a couple dollars.” His eyes look as if they’ve been at least partly open for a hundred years, but he can’t be too much over forty.
“OK, sure,” Bennett says. “Then I’ll tell you one.”
The man gives Bennett a studious look. The lines on his forehead converge at a point between his eyebrows. He has a scabby sore on his lower lip. He says, “You first.”
Bennett tells the story about Hal, the one he omitted from his talk, reciting it almost verbatim from how he wrote it down last night. He can’t quite believe that he is telling the story — and so easily, too, as if he were a veteran street performer — and that this stranger is listening, even while he is jingling whatever is in his coat pocket (something heavier than coins), even while he is scratching his beard, twitching. Near the end of the story, after Hal, drunk and on his back on the beach, asks for Bennett’s forgiveness for his various crimes and Bennett says, “OK, I forgive you,” Bennett adds, “I stood there above my friend quivering, as if I had just watched myself surrender something I didn’t want to surrender.” Bennett pauses. The line now sounds a little awkward, but at least there is truth in it.
The man in the green coat says, “All that self-pity and whining you people do. Who gives a fuck somebody was mean to you? Tell me something new. Why can’t you be happy? Why can’t you love your brother? Change your life, motherfucker, then tell me a story.”