The Greyhound Eulogy

"The Greyhound Eulogy" appears in Matrix, #74, Montreal, QC, Summer 2006.
I'm first in line to board the Greyhound, first bus out this morning. I stow my baggage and claim a window seat. My hair's still wet and I've not slept yet. The other passengers know enough to avoid me. The Greyhound backs out of the gate with every seat full except for the one next to me.

Montréal disintegrates in our wake. Long flat farms fall by the wayside. In a ruse of springtime, the sky is so blue that the fields look green. Notebook open on my thigh, 'She was a storyteller,' I scrawl in an asphalt-shaken hand. Have to start somewhere.

We stop at the border at Lacolle. 'Everyone off the bus,' an armed guard orders. We deposit our carry-on baggage on the pavement - knapsacks, laptops and purses slump in an intimate heap. The morning's colder than it had appeared to be through the Greyhound's tinted windows. The March sun's much too much for winter-blanched eyes.

Inside, the border guard asks me: "Where are you headed today?"

"New York City," I say.

"And what is the purpose of your visit to the United States?"

"I'm going to my grandmother's funeral." My passport photo glares at him.

"And have you ever had any trouble entering the United States before?" Even as he asks me this, he looks away.

I've crisscrossed this border back and forth for thirty years, but never for a funeral. Cary-on baggage retrieved and back on the bus again, I write a note in the margin: 'Know your audience.' But I don't. Nothing more comes to mind for miles.

Three passengers get off the bus in Plattsburg. Three new passengers get on: a run-down mother flanked by beefy daughters. Even they know not to sit with me. The girls bicker non-stop all the way to Saratoga; one kicks at the back of my seat. 'She loved children,' I write in my notebook, because there are some things you just can't say in a eulogy. Like: 'Both her children lived as far away from her as possible.'

In the town of Glens Falls, N.Y., the Greyhound passes through a protest in progress. On one street corner, amid a cluster of hand-printed placards one small sign stands out: 'Another veteran against the war.' On the other side of the street, a wind-warped banner reads: 'America is worth fighting for.'

I write: 'Always the optimist, she brought humour to every situation,' and try to remember her favourite burning Bush joke.

There are other protests in other towns. American flags flutter down the highway. Beyond Albany the billboards begin to sell products with brand names I've never heard of, legal advice and heath-care coverage and auto body repair. The highway signs read like emotional cryptograms: Yield, Merge, Keep Right, Tolls Ahead, To Tunnel. 'She loved puzzles,' I write. The New Jersey Turnpike shimmers; the Holland Tunnel nears.

All day long, far-flung family has been filtering in from out of town. The closest relatives live most distant. All the known beds of Queens are already full. I spend the night in Brooklyn, alone at the loft of a friend. "You poor thing," she says, as she hands me the keys.

When she leaves, I lie down flat on my bus-bent back on her polished concrete floor. I dial my grandmother's phone number and my mother answers: "There you are," she says. "People have been calling." The nephews and the neighbours, the rabbi and the mah-jong ladies - each now thinks that they knew my grandmother best. One day back in New York and all my mother's reasons for leaving have edged into her voice. She never had two good words to say about her mother. Now she passes on her second-hand eulogy suggestions hurriedly, the resume of a stranger.

She died in her armchair. Heart failure, they said.

"I'll never understand my daughter," my grandmother had said to me so often. They say these things skip a generation, but I'm pretty sure I'll never understand my mother either. My grandmother and I were so much alike, whatever I say about her tomorrow will be too revealing.

I always slept well in my grandmother's apartment, lulled by the grinding familiar siren sounds of Long Island City. But I lie awake in the strange noises of Brooklyn writing and rewriting to a chorus of conversations from elsewhere in the building, sirens seeping in from the city, the vibrato of the BQE.

I fall asleep with all the lights on.

I wake up in the morning pen still in hand. Uncapped. An awful stain of black ink in the sheets of my Brooklyn friend's bed. There's no time for breakfast. My notes are as garbled as yesterday's small-town protest signs. I have to rewrite everything on the subway. I have to transfer three times to get from Williamsburg to Queens. At an in-between station, I sit on a bench and there's a drip over my notebook; water washing away words. Someone will read this, years from now, I think, and think that I was crying.

My grandmother's apartment smells of old geraniums, and also, something more recent: ammonia, a bite of bleach. The cleaning has begun. I head for the sofa. The other furniture has all been re-arranged. The room has been readied for after.

What do you call a family gathering before a funeral? A bunch of strangers, in from out of town. Looking at the floor, anywhere but at each other. Waiting for a ride out to Astoria Boulevard, anxious for the funeral to be over, not thinking yet of the burial or the shiva or their long drives home.

My grandmother was the only one everyone else was still speaking to. Without her, no one knows quite what to say. Only my mother. She's sitting at the dining room table clattering through a series of one-sided telephone conversations.

"Who are you talking to?" I holler from the sofa.

"I'm going through her date book," she says. She's cancelling her mother's appointments, breaking the news to the dentist and the hairdresser like a pro.

My brother will not sit down. He leans against the hallway wall silent as a tombstone. His shiksa wife bustles in and out of the kitchen. She's excited. She's never been to New York City before. She brings me a plate of scrambled eggs without asking. I fall a little bit in love with her and no one tells her she's mixed the milchig silverware with the fleishig plates.

I'm still writing the eulogy. The Greyhound, the Brooklyn and the Subway drafts have yet to merge. My uncle Sidney plunks himself down on the couch, right up close beside me.

"My Sidney went to Stuyvesent," my grandmother used to tell us all the time. As if we didn't know. Sidney was the genius. Sidney was the favourite.

It's been seven years since I last saw him. His wife has not aged well. Grey-skinned and thin as a crumpled cigarette stubbed out on carpet, my Aunt Mini has ground herself into my grandmother's armchair. Sidney does not look at her, or that chair, his mother's chair, where she dropped dead two nights ago.

Sidney keeps on sitting next to me.

"Writing today's journal entry are we?" he says. Clearly not the genius my grandmother thought he was. I stare at him.

"I'm writing the eulogy, Sid."

"Oh," he says.

He reaches under the coffee table and fishes out a pair of shoes with a magician's flourish; conjuring up memories of the card tricks he entertained me with when I was very young. And it occurs to me that it had never occurred to him that eulogies get written. And now it has. He slips his shoes on, stands up, and walks away.

J. R. Carpenter 2006.

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