by Hugh Fox
FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS/LAST RIGHTS (250 pages).... A ninety year old dies in a retirement center in Pomona, California. She has one son. He has just visited her (one of his regular biennial visits) the week before, when she was already close to death. Now he goes back for her funeral and finds out that his mother's brother's daughter's husband, his mother's nephew-in-law, has been handling his mother's finances for the last five years behind his back. And it seems that this same cousin, Trudy, has inherited everything. What the son (Fred) decides to do is take whatever he wants and simply leave before the burial. He is angry and feels betrayed. His mother always wanted him to be a doctor, but he is a college English professor. She hated him for that. He was raised a Catholic but his grandmother was Jewish and he has converted to Judaism. In the course of the conversion he found out about his grandmother's being Jewish. His mother has always hated him for that, never admitted to him that her mother was Jewish, but told all the nurses in the retirement center.
Old Mrs. Eagen was a kind of mixture of Bette Davis in DECEPTION, Lana Turner in BACK STREET, Joan Crawford in MILDRED PIERCE, and Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BOULEVARD. She was monomaniacally determined to marry an M.D., amass all the jewels and money she possibly could, and toward the end of her life, turn on her grandchildren and her son.
Fred, the son, finds out that his cousin Trudy has been going out to visit his mother a couple of times a year, every year for the last 5 years. He has talked to her a number of times during those years but she never mentioned a word.
He has just seen his mother a week before, now he doesn't want to confront Trudy and her sister, a Catholic nun who lives in a convent in Burbank. He hasn't seen Trudy for 24 years, Sister Samuel for 35.So he and his wife take some silver jewelry, a 12 place sterling silver set and a Mexican silver and tea set...and leave.
As soon as they get back to Michigan, everyone descends on them to get the loot. Fred's second oldest daughter, Priscilla, makes an appearance and demands that she get the silver....he had been intending to give it to another daughter (from his second marriage), Penny, who is getting married in a few months. But Penny is so hysterical and nasty that he gives in and simply gives her the silver. Priscilla's mother, a Bolivian Spanish professor, gets on the phone and says she wants a brooch that she had given Fred's mother 25 years earlier: "It's not for the money, I could buy and sell you in the marketplace, it's for the sentimental value. I had to put up with her (and you) for decades. What a waste of time!"
Fred goes to a lawyer and the lawyer writes to California about the will and it turns out there was no will, merely a letter from Mrs. Eagen to Trudy, her niece, saying she wanted her to have everything. Trudy has come forward with that letter.....only Trudy's husband calls Fred and tells him "We don't think it's right that Trudy gets everything, we want to turn it over to you." Fred tells him "Well, I want you to have ten thousand, at least...."
The great irony is that when Fred checks the values of things it turns out that he has a totally inflated idea of how much everything is worth. The diamond rings he found among his mother's things are cracked and maybe worth a couple of hundred each. Most of the jewelry is art deco from the 1920's, maybe $20.00 for a pair of earrings. Even the sterling silver flatware is on sale at a local department store— $1,800 for a 12 place-setting set. The Mexican silver tea and coffee set Fred had thought must be worth twenty thousand. He is offered $5,000 for it...which he refuses.
What exactly was his mother all about? That is one of the basic questions of the whole novel. The other is a statement about GREED, how greed undercuts and takes precedence over all over emotions. No one even says "I'm sorry about your mother." In the same way his mother herself could never relate to Fred or anyone else because of her overbearing PRIDE. So the whole universe of the book turns on these two poles: GREED and PRIDE. And Fred himself seems to be nothing more than a chocolate mousse of sad sack humanity— the sentimental outsider.
Chapter IX (The last chapter)
His mother had been wearing them two visits back when she sat and twisted them around on her fingers, the Mexican silver tea and coffee very polished and prominent on top of the TV, and stared at him in triumph obviously thinking the whole time, "Look at all the diamonds.....you'll never get them....look at the silver...you'll never get that...you went against my WILL and I will punish you from beyond the grave...."
When all he wanted was a little old shriveled up mother he could go to and cry over, "I love you, Mom, I'm going to miss you with all my heart. You're a wonderful person. I can't tell you how much I love you.....," and then she would have died and he would have rent his clothes and wailed it lot to the stars and gone to the grave and mourned and lit candles and prayed Kaddish, until Peace finally came to him along with the too acute realization that he was next.....
The next day Fred got a letter from Fred III, "Dear Dad, enclosed find a copy of a holographic will my grandmother sent to me some years back, in which you get all the THINGS and the money is distributed equally among the children. I can use whatever I can get because I am planning to go into Law School. With my bi-lingualism and Ph.D. in Education and a law degree, there will be no stopping me....
And sure enough, there it was: "I HEREBY BEQUEATH ALL MY THINGS TO MY ONLY SON, FREDERICK EAGEN JR........"
Went over to Kinko's and Xeroxed it and sent it down to Larry. So many things in the air now. Worried about the French coming in August. 30....that's what they'd said. Thirty Parisians. My God, and here he was living right in the middle of the student slum, the house next door with one of the attic windows out and a big mattress stuffed in it, a coat rack on the porch, everything sagging, the gutters half off, another mattress in the driveway, an empty vodka bottle on the ratty-looking lawn, tufts of grass here and there, like the way hair gets when in the advanced stages of syphilis....
Penny would be back from Scotland in, what, three weeks. Aaron going to Paris until August and then he'd come back for the wedding. Worst case scenario— for him not to show.
Fred went out on the porch and sat down on an old wooden lawn chair that he'd found in the garbage ten years earlier and just stuck on the front porch and there it had stayed like a monument. Babs upstairs trying to clean up her room. He'd have to paint/have painted the front porch. It should be all stripped down to the bare wood and started all over again instead of half-scraping and then you paint and it's all uneven. Maybe five coats. tan coats, even it out that way
It was so wonderful to finally be outside. The guy across the street with the dog was sitting reading, the dog on a rope sitting there, the whole street lined with old trees halfway to their full summer leafiness. Like a wave of green breaking over his eyes. Facing west, the sun behind the trees and houses across the street, the whole town and campus full of flowering shrubs and trees, after such a long winter everything suddenly erupting into bloom, an Anise Magnolia down the street that somehow no one had ever destroyed, notch your fingernail into one of the leaves and the air around you suddenly was pungent with the smell of Anise.... bio-engineering, my ass, let it all rush over you the way it was.....
Phone ringing inside. He started to get up but Babs was too fast for him, brought it out to him.
"Thanks, pal....." Getting old. 46 on her last birthday. But he liked the idea of her aging, their aging together, was moving into old age himself like slowly pulling on a new pair of stiff leather gloves. Kissed her and she went back inside with "Wait until you see my room....l don't know how I ever accumulated so much junk....." Junk coming down on top of them like a continual rain. Pizza coupons, credit card offers, every time you pick up your phone if you use XYZ International, you get 500 miles on your frequent flyer record for Zambizi Airlines.....
"Hi, Dad...." Allegra down in Chicago. "How you doing, pal?"
"I just finished classes. It looks like I'm getting about a B-plus overall average, and I've got this summer job baby-sitting for this woman lawyer in Highland Park. It's kind of far from Rogers Park, but she's going to pay me a little extra for gas. And I've got my darkroom set up in my apartment. I want to do a lot of pictures this summer. And I called up Rick, you know, my old art teacher from high school, and we're going to see a film together at the Fine Arts theater next week. I don't know what I'm after with that man, but there's like this 'thing' inside me pushing me......"
"The Life-Force," he laughed, "if it wasn't set up the way it is, if everyone was as gun-shy as my pal Lear Schmidt in San Francisco, the planet would be peopleless. It's depressing around here, all these assholes on roller blades with hockey sticks in their hands, you never see couples, like the guy across the street, The Man with his Dog....you want to fuck, have children, get on the moving sidewalk called Life....it's great...."
Built like a Maltese Earth-Mother, all his girls were that way. Even Priscilla would have been if his mother hadn't given her some kind of dread of being anything else but anorexic. Bonita right off a paleolithic cave wall, breasts like baker's sacks of flour. Two abortions the year he and Jeannette had gone to Spain and left Bonita here in this house alone with a couple of his students and her mother had arranged for the abortions and when he'd gotten back she was institutionalized as a paranoid schizophrenic— that was the year/occasion....goddamned Concepción.....if she'd had the child/children..... .let it just happen.....
"It's so good to hear you talk the way you do about things.....you're so....you know what I mean....." "l'm a shaman. It finally rubbed off. I don't even have to take the sacred drug, I just blink my eyes and the Presences are there....." Blinked his eyes, and they were there, a sense of divinity closing in around in, soft north wind and all the flickering, sun-speckled green.....
"I wish you'd move back down here. We could go out for coffee afternoons, go to movies and plays together. It'd be great! And Josh really needs you now. You know how Mom is, a growing Male Presence threatens her....."
"Well, he'll be up here for the summer in a couple of weeks. But Babs signed up with some sort of job-finder for the Chicago area and if she gets a place, OK, I'II retire. I went over to the retirement office last week and they're sending me the retirement package. Counting social security it could come to something like a little less than three thousand a month...." "That's not so bad....."
"But....on the other hand....there's this house over by Concepción. 1924. Five bedrooms, $154,000....that's not bad, given the current market values....if Penny's going to be here part of the summer, and your mother, and then Priscilla's going to have her kid......" "But I thought she's not talking to you....."
"Well, she's got some temporary mental problems, OK, you know how things turn, change, revert back....it's not easy, all her complexes about getting fat and she's getting fat anyhow, ought to get fat, relax.....in a way I just hate to retire, I love to watch their faces when I start talking about Japanese Jomon pottery in Ecuador or Indus Valley Script in the Andes, Sumerian and Sanskrit loan-words in Quechua...sometimes it's hard to figure out exactly where they come from, like our word SNAKE, take off the S and pronounce it like an Anglo-Saxon, NA-KE, compare that to the Sanskrit, NAGA, Sumerian-Akkadian NAKU, Hebrew NAKASH...or the way it is in Bolivia, Tia-wa-NAKU....I could really use a better library than what we've got here....like the University of Chicago....." "See....come on down....come on HOME!"
Fred's head filled for a moment with cousins he hadn't seen for years, old classmates from college he'd lost contact with, The Big Clock ticking, find them, get back to them, there's not much time left for any of us now.....
"Let's see if Babs can get a job. But at any rate in the meantime I'II come down as often as I can...." "And stay longer!" "I will. And good luck on your date. I'II pray to the Great God Pan! Take it easy cutie, I love you...." "I love you too...."
And he clicked the phone off, put it on this massive wood table with a big brass ashtray right in the middle and curved wrought-iron legs that he'd also found in the garbage ten years earlier. East Coker was a great town for garbage end of Spring Term-beginning of Summer Term, and in the Fall...this immense migratory interchange taking place every year, old hordes leaving, new hordes moving in...he'd have to go down to the Housing Authority at City Hall and complain (again) about the house down the street, he could just imagine Aaron's uncles and aunts coming from their chateaux and fancy apartments and seeing the mattress stuffed in the attic window, the sagging gutters.... you want everything not just nice but perfect. Penny sent off into the world with a bang and not a whimper
Nothing modest about her tastes in dresses She'd picked it out down in Chicago the year before, all beaded and fake pearled, flounces and trains and a huge mist of a veil. And he wasn't a bad looking guy. Two professors. Am Echod, a nice synagogue, all the angles of the building up like wings, like the whole building was an angel about to take flight, windows in all the angles so the whole place was always filled with light.
He'd invite his cousins from Chicago, even if they wouldn't come, all his old hippy poet friends who were now fat and plush and loaded. Some of them would come, Larry from New York, Lear from San Francisco. Too bad there wasn't a Versailles for rent for the wedding weekend, too bad he wasn't Jim Cash and hadn't sold out (DICK TRACEY, TOP GUN, THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS) and lived in an immense glass gothic castle..
Too bad his mother hadn't been someone else, benign and white-haired, The Great Goddess become Winter, the Patron of Old Age and Peaceful death. instead of lying there like a wounded Harpy trying to scratch the nurses and crowing about being from the other side of the tracks
Well, she wasn't from the OTHER side of anywhere. but THIS side.....
What was so wrong about being Jewish? No death-camps here, be what you want, expand out to the dimensions of your secret desires...and he got so much out of it personally, Friday night and going over to temple, although you weren’t supposed to call it temple and he hated to call it shul and be reminded of the millenia of lost Jewish wanderings after the Diaspora, strangers in strange lands....and maybe no milk with meat was silly and it was silly to not eat shrimp and lobster and pork and keep two separate sets of dishes and all the rest of the paraphernalia of keeping Kosher, but hardly anyone he knew did, and if you did, it invaded your whole life, sacralized Time..... wouldn't his mother have been better off being Jewish, some way-out liberal reform temple, lots of committees and endless tables of little cakes and cookies after Friday night and Saturday morning services. endless friends, coming into sacred space and having hands reach out and grab her hands and the voices of endless friends mouth her name, "Mildred, so how are you, so how's your son..?" and she could have answered. "So how can a stinking shleper of an English professor-anthropologist be? Would he listen to me and get an M.D......"and the answers would have come back, "He's got a job, he doesn't drink, it could be worse...," surrounded by soft, self-mocking, ironic Jewish humor instead of always taking the hard line she took: FOLLOW MY COMMANDMENTS OR ELSE.....
So she'd hit him with the ultimate Or Else Disinherited. The claw from beyond the grave.
What did he care...... it all moved so fast, Napoleon blurred with Louis XV, Nefertiti became the name of a hair dye. Caesar became pizza, if you weren't erased entirely you were punned beyond recognition....
Would he live to see Priscilla's daughter finish college? Would she have more?
What was she going to call her? How was she going to be? Probably a little nuts, The Nut Gene was busy in the Eagen family....he didn’t for a moment believe that his mother's mother's mother had been going to a doctor for medicine and she'd been crossing a train track and she was deaf and a train had hit her accidentally...the way their grandmother had told Trudy before she’d died......bullshit... .if she'd died being hit by a train, she'd jumped in front of it....that was part of the blood-curse that had haunted his mother's whole family, nothing to do with Jewish but with being MAD..like his fathers sister ending up in a nuthouse as an old lady. Bonita nuts, and how nuts was he, as the evening sun went down feeling depression descend over him like a load of black dirt, burying him alive....Freddie was right, he was a bi-polar personality and would have taken medication, only one look at Bonita and you never wanted to take an aspirin again, weekly blood tests just in case her medication was destroying her blood.. leukemia. wasn't that what it could cause....so you straighten out a few psychological kinks and you destroy your blood....he’d rather hear voices like Jean D’Arc....there was a hotel in Paris he'd stayed at years, years, years before. with a statue of Jean D'Arc all patina’ed in bright gold, right next to it. ...
He wished Jeannette would pull out of her depression. Penny coming back from Scotland deserved more than that, having a sad sack of a depressed mother sitting in the first pew in the synagogue. The Mother of the Bride, like a weeping willow, a rainy day on legs...
Couldn't it all be a rush of wings and gold trumpets, a Fanfare for the Triumph of the bride...? Couldn't imagine Penny 32. but in ten years that's where she'd be Like Babs. he'd first met her when she was.... what, 31, and now she was a sexy shrivelling-up 46, and it was like yesterday that he'd first gone down to Brazil and Jeannette had brought her home. "One of my best students. she wants to take private lessons now..." Shouldn't have started anything with her, shouldn't have touched her. And how could he have ever thought a harem was going to work— in East Coker, Michigan yet?!?! Not that it made any difference To touch or not to touch.... Like the bones he had in an artfully made glass case on the upstairs bathroom.
San Pedro de Atacama, out walking on a bluff overlooking the city with the son of the woman who owned the boarding house where he was staying, who always was hanging around with him just to hang around and maybe find out a little something about archaeology/anthropology...and he’d seen this blade stuff coming out of the ground... "What"s that. black grass?"
"Hair," Pepe had answered, 'it’s the top of someone's head....this is the old Inca cemetery...." The old Inca cemetery?
What five hundred, six hundred years old? They dug down and found bones, some winding cloth that only would have survived there in the dead, desert dryness, some pieces of pumice stone fashioned into jewelry, tiny little beads, little perforated disks, some paper thin, some fat as spindle whorls.... He'd brought them all home and Babs had strung the beads and disks on string, looked at the bones. "A little girl, about eight years old....," and he'd found a carpenter and had the little display case built, one compartment for the piece of shroud that had survived, another for the bones, another for the jewelry.... ARISE AND SING, YE WHO DWELL IN THE DUST! But you can't........ "SHIT!"
Fred started to get up to get a little cranberry juice (Prostate medicine) and ride the stationary bike in the basement for a few minutes (edema in his left foot, varicose veins...like his Grandmother) when the space-phone rang its shrill irritating ring...
What now? Concepción
"Bonita tells me you're thinking of buying a house in my neighborhood...." "I've gotta get out of here. Now it's perfectly quiet, but two AM and they all start coming out of their coffins. It's Zombieville!," he answered, couldn't keep it straight with her on the other end of the line, "l'm thinking of buying the place right across from you...." "That's what Bonita said. Three bedrooms, two family rooms. you could make a bedroom out of one of them....Clyde and the owner had a fight last year. Clyde had run into his Eterna he always parks, I should say PARKED in front of our driveway.." Hardly even noticed her accent, "hees" instead of "his," "een" instead of "in," big deal... What was she being so nice for? For months she'd be all sticks and stones with him, now PEACE again?
Probably Bonita had told her and Priscilla that his lawyer was negotiating with his dead mother's lawyer and that Trudy and Joey had said she wanted to give him all the money no matter what the so-called "will" said....there was another ten thousand in it for Priscilla. time to whiten up her teeth again and start smiling.... "No, I'm just kidding, the house I'm interested in is a couple of blocks away from you, on University Avenue...."
"University?" Like she'd never heard of it. "Two blocks east...." "Ahhhhhhhh...."
How could she be such a successful slumlord and not even know the names of the streets? She’d bought twenty-five houses since he'd walked out on her twenty-five years before, a house a year.fanatic Bolivian land-hunger. .la tierra, la tierra, la tierra, especially if it had a house full of students on top of it.... "Maybe we'll get it, maybe not.....maybe l'll retire to Chicago. that's what Allegra wants..."
"I wouldn't ever go back to a big city." "Well, Chicago....you know...." "It’s nice, but.....listen, before you buy, you ought to let me come over and look at the place, the roof, the foundation, especially the foundation. the soil in Michigan is very acid and eats up foundations. I'm having to put foundations in two of my houses— at considerable cost. But if I don't do it....there’s no choice...." "OK, once we come closer to closing on the deal, I'II give you a call..." "Take it easy, huh...." "You too, pal...." "l'm doing a book on Isabel Allende!" "I love her stuff! Kind of a female Borges!" "More like Marquez...." "Another favorite..." "Take it easy." "You too...."
Pressed the Off button. Jesus! Forty years of his life right there! Maybe they could drift into old age together peacefully. Had to repaint the whole front porch before the wedding. Thirty Parisians and him and his little shack. Maybe he could get into the other house before they came. This house built in 1904 and it already was an antique. The bones on the bathroom wall maybe 600 years old, one spear head he’d picked up in the Atacama Desert maybe 60,000 years old...(put his head back for a moment, closed his eyes. didn't really have to go anywhere or do anything right now, neither east nor west, up or down, left or right, nothing, nothing, nothing at all he had to do) and 60,000 was still only the beginning of "old."
Biographical Note on Hugh Fox:
HUGH FOX -- "Like Charles Ives, like Herman Melville, Hugh Fox is an American original ...There is no one else writing like him today."
(Richard Morris, author of TIME'S ARROWS, THE FATE OF THE UNIVERSE, THE EDGES OF SCIENCE, ASSYRIANS, etc.)
Sixty-four books published, among them:
I. MYTHOLOGY /ANTHROPOLOGY: THE GODS OF THE CATACYSM (Harper's Magazine Press, 1976), FIRST FIRE: CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICAN INDIAN POETRY (Doubleday Anchor Books, 1978), THE MYTHOLOGICAL FOUNDATIONS OF THE EPIC GENRE—THE SOLAR VOYAGE AS THE HERO'S JOURNEY (Edwin Mellen Press, 1989), II. NOVELS: HONEYMOON/MOM (December, 1978), LEVIATHAN (Carpenter Press, 1980), SHAMAN (Permeable Press, 1993), THE LAST SUMMER (Xenos Books, 1994), III. POETRY: THE FACE OF GUY LOMBARDO (The Fault, 1976), ALMAZORA 42 (Laughing Bear Press, 1982), JAMAIS VU (Dusty Dog, 1991), THE SACRED CAVE (Omega Cat Press, 1992), DRAGON ISLAND (Minotaur Press, 1994), IV. CRITICAL WORKS: HENRY JAMES: A CRITICAL OVERVIEW (North American Mentor Books, 1968), CHARLES BUKOWSKI: A CRITICAL AND BIBLIOGRAPHICAL STUDY (Abyss, 1969), LYN LIFSHIN: A CRITICAL STUDY (Whitston, 1985).....
Stories, parts of novels, poetry, articles and plays in:
BIG CIGARS, NEW YORK QUARTERLY, WORMWOOD REVIEW, KANSAS QUARTERLY, BOGG, ANOTHER CHICAGO MAGAZINE, MICHIGAN QUARTERLY, WESTERN HUMANITIES REVIEW, SOUTHERN HUMANITIES REVIEW, BAKUNIN, ASYLUM, EXQUISITE CORPSE, BLACK BEAR REVIEW, ARIZONA QUARTERLY, CENTENNIAL REVIEW, MASSACHUSETTS REVIEW, PAPER RADIO, ATOM MIND, CREAM CITY REVIEW, MENU, BLUE JACKET (JAPAN), RIVER RAT, PEMBROKE MAGAZINE, NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW, JAMES RIDER REVIEW, OLD CROW, LILLIPUT REVIEW, GRAFFITI OFF THE ASYLUM WALLS, HOME PLANET NEWS, WISCONSIN REVIEW, PORTLAND REVIEW, ATELIER, RAMBUNCTIOUS REVIEW, CALIBAN, PACIFIC COAST REVIEW, IGNUS FATUUS, THE BLIND HORSE REVIEW, PRINTED MATTER (JAPAN), NEW ORLEANS REVIEW, HEARSE, NEW LETTERS, ABRAXAS, TRI-QUARTERLY, SOUTHWEST REVIEW, THE IMPLODING TIE-DYED TOUPEE, THE VINYL ELEPHANT, MANGROVE, WRIT (Canada), etc.
Teaches in the Department of American Thought and Language at Michigan State U., and taught at Loyola-Marymount in L.A for 10 years. Originally from Chicago (b. 1932), B.S.(Hum.), M.A from Loyola in Chicago Ph. D. from U. of Illinois, studied Latin American Literature under Mariano Picon-Salas at the Mendoza Foundation in Caracas and on an OAS grant for one year at the U. of Buenos Aires, has taught 2 years in Brazil, a year in Mexico, 2 years in Venezuela, 1 year in Spain, OAS grant as archaeologist/anthropologist for a winter of research in the Atacama Desert in Chile. A founder of COSMEP—The International Organization of Independent Publishers, currently on Board of Directors.