I was a new consciousness, almost 5 1/2, standing over my first corpse.
It was that of a man of 55 who looked 69, its face covered with velvety grey make-up creased by small dark red rivers, covered by a lacy shroud. We kids agreed later that he looked a lot like Frankenstein — the eyes seemed sewn shut. I noticed a fly standing on the lace and thought: Don’t they know? and made a mental note to ask someone about them.
The strange mourners of our neighbor O.E. McCann filed past the raised display, which was right in the middle of his aged, uncooled house. O.E. was a war hero, had had two appendages blown away, or so we were told, in some war or another.
Everyone in 1959 sat on porches, and O.E. sat on his, which had formerly been the home of my maternal great-grandfather, a chubby overalled carpenter who died a few years later before we little kids could get to know him. Desultory hounds and children with nothing to do wandered up and sat on the porches, which were cooler in the summertime than the weedy yards. But we didn’t go to the old house’s porch after O.E.’s family moved in. They had two sons, one whom collected motionless cars and piled them around the chicken coop behind the house — Paul — and Bill, who practiced punting a football from his yard into our yard. (Bill turned out to be quite a freak, later — I’d run across him in a Kmart and he’d act oddly astonished. Bill was one of those doomed by his size to be set apart and either groomed or shunned, to become a hero of some proportion (Vietnam) or a martyred monster, a Grendel.)
Did I mention that my bedroom window looked directly down up on O.E.’s porch?
Before he died, O.E. could drive a car. How? we wondered, tossing pine cone hand-grenades onto the roof of his house — how? Someone, possibly the legendary hump-backed creature called “Uncle Ned” (he who drank beer with O.E. on the porch on Sundays), with the help of the boys, built him a ramp which he used to wheel himself out to his old 1950 Plymouth, which his wife would park on the little road separating their house and ours.
Eventually it was discovered that he had cancer, like my mother.
Packed off one cold December day to the hospital in Siluria. “He’s dead,” said my male relatives. “Sad thing to see,” the womenfolk muttered. Mirable dictu — he came back with one of his arms gone, alive but — slower. Less visible. Snow fell a few days after his return and O.E., amidst great ceremony (it seemed, but we were kids, who knew?), was rolled out in his wheelchair to see it. I watched from my foggy side window: the rust-colored roof as well as the unpainted wood of the house becoming calligraphed by the snow piling up in its elbows and eaves, the old man’s breath coming out in big white plumes, unaccountable mists and vaporizings whirling off the snow and over the tops of all our houses….
He was quite a horrible man. Despite ourselves, we kids saw him as a neighborhood ogre whose sons were unwholesome oafs. Stocky, red-faced, raucous voice laryngitic even late at night while I tried to sleep, my brother’s snores on one side, O.E.’s hackings out the window on the other side. Still salt-&-pepper hair in the usual crewcut, greased by sweat. Ernest Borgnine on a very bad day.
The cancer chewed him up within a year of his last limb-loss, though, and the funeral was held there in the old Elliott house. Packs of formally-dressed folk thickened in front of the house, their cars parked wildly amidst the browning mimosas of late summer. The brothers decorous, black-suited, their football jowls hanging like useless tissue.
Why was I, so young, allowed to file through and take a peek? What point was there in showing a first-grader-to-be such a thing? The fireplace was immense, the ceilings seemed higher than the ones at church, and the odor of old ladies’ perfume mingled unhealthily with man-smoke and that of food being cooked in a back kitchen.
Why did the flies light on Mister McCann’s lace cover and struggle so to get close to his face?
Because he was a vegetarian, I was told.
The next year, my favorite dog was born under Mrs. McCann’s house. When the house was torn down, some years later, a brick cosmetology school was constructed on the site.