Two Ways To Say Goodbye To Milford
Looking down at his brother Milford as he rested in his caramel colored coffin, Howard Zeleznick thought the funeral director made him look like a fruit. If that skinny four eyed Lithuanian ghoul showed his face in here, Howard would give him a piece of his mind, because even if the rest of his family was too upset or too polite to tell the hard truth, Howard certainly wasn’t. No, sir. Everyone could count on Howard to tell the truth.
Peggy, standing beside him, said, “They did a nice job on him.”
“Nice? He looks like he flew around with little wings all his life.”
“Honey, Jesus. He hit his face when he went down from the heart attack. They had to cover up the bruising.”
“What do you know about it?”
“My Uncle Charles was an undertaker.”
Sure he was. Howard was so glad they lived on the other side of the country from the collection of kooks and weirdos that was Peggy’s family. Visiting them once a year was all Howard could stand, and he could barely stand that. He remembered Uncle Charles. He had to lean in close to hear anything the man said because he never talked above a whisper. And what he said was never worth leaning in and getting a wet ear to hear.
Where’s Julie, anyway? Howard checked the faces around the viewing room but didn’t see her. Milford’s housekeeper Frida had said at breakfast that she’d been a basket case ever since Milford went down. But Howard couldn’t believe his younger sister would miss the funeral just so she could curl up somewhere and cry. She’ll miss my eulogy and everything, Howard thought as he patted his breast pocket to make sure the note cards were still there, and it’s bound to cheer her up.
Howard found Frida near the entrance where she was passing out programs. Her black, floor length dress made her look extra dumpy, especially since she was wearing flats. Howard felt like he was talking to a little kid. “Have you seen Julie?”
“Has anyone checked her house?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. If she doesn’t show in ten minutes, I’ll call, if you have her number.”
Howard didn’t have her number, but Peggy remembered it and wrote it on the back of Frida’s program. Peggy was always good for remembering numbers and birthdays and addresses and directions—the only woman he ever knew who was any good at directions.
Returning to the viewing room, Howard looked around for someone to mingle with, but, bad news, Ken Carmichael found him first. Ken ran the Farm Co-Op and was close with Milford. They’d both been President of New Pastoria Kiwanis at one time or another. God they were boring. So small town.
“Howard, I just wanted to express my condolences.”
“Program says you’re giving the eulogy.”
“I do a lot of public speaking. I’m a member of Toastmasters, you know.”
“I suppose it would be inappropriate to suggest you picture us all in our underwear.”
“I guess it would.” Howard said, hoping his tone would end the conversation.
Ken took the hint, but started chatting with Peggy. He got all oozy over her, and Howard thought it would be fun to punch him out. Not that Peggy would go with him. Ken was fat and bald and sweated even in cold rooms. And his eyebags, God they were big enough that he’d have to surrender them to the skycap if he ever wanted to fly. Howard hated to stand there listening to the two of them chatter away without once including him, and before long he was to the point where he felt like doing a handstand just to get their attention. Finally, after they’d updated each other on their kids’ college news, Ken said, “You making any more movies, Howard?”
Suddenly thrilled with Ken’s company and his interest in his wheelings and dealings, Howard said. “As a matter of fact, I’m just starting a new one.”
“What’s it about, or would you rather not talk about it?”
“It’s about dope pushers from outer space.”
Ken nodded, “I see. Interesting.”
“Well, you know, I think it’s important. It has a good message for the kids.”
“Great. I look forward to it.”
“You’ve seen my movies?”
“I…well…I saw one. Yes. The Criminal Craving.”
“What did you think?”
Ken looked like he’d just swallowed a chicken’s thigh bone. It took him a few seconds, and a lot of clicking in his throat, before he managed to say, “It was a thriller. I like thrillers.”
“Thanks a lot. I appreciate it. A lot of people say that to me. Yeah. I wish I could’ve gotten Milford to come into the movie business with me, but I couldn’t get him away from heavy harvesters. That’s all he ever cared about.”
“I don’t know.” Ken said. “He had his hobbies. That World War I plane he was building.”
“Oh, yeah.” Howard said. “Twelve years and it never flew. He and my sister sure wasted time on that.”
“We all waste time in our own way, Howard.”
“Not me. I like to think of myself as the most productive member of my family.”
“I’m sure you do. Excuse me.” Ken walked away.
Spotting the side-eye Peggy was giving him, Howard said, “Don’t look at me that way. I can feel your look.”
“I’m not looking at you any particular way, dear.”
“I saw a look.”
“You think you did.”
“Are you saying I’m crazy?”
“Yes, dear. I’m saying you’re crazy.”
“I can see where Molly gets it from, that’s all I’ll say.” Howard said. Of course, he didn’t really know Molly got her sharp tongue from her mother. But the only thing Molly could’ve gotten from her old man was a solid left hook, to hear Peggy tell it. So by process of elimination…
The ushers closed the doors, and the minister stepped up to the podium to start. Howard and Peggy took their seats, with Howard on an aisle so he could easily get up to deliver Milford’s eulogy. Howard came to regret this almost instantly, because sitting on the aisle meant putting up with having to rise to accommodate mourners who preferred the middle seats. Why couldn’t they go in from the other side and bother that old bat at the other end of the pew? She didn’t have to get up half as often as Howard did.
Once everyone was seated, the Hammond organ started playing and the Reverend got going. Looking up at the ceiling while the Reverend droned on about ashes to ashes and dust to dust, Howard mused at how much more it must’ve set Milford’s estate back to get this viewing room with the glass ceiling. Milford never invested in any of Howard’s pictures, but he could afford a nice room to lie in while he was dead. That was Milford. Looking more closely, Howard spotted some white dribbles of bird shit on the glass, and this made him smile. It wasn’t perfect. Something Milford paid for wasn’t just so. If Milford were alive, he’d be demanding his money back.
Come on, Reverend, wrap it up, Howard thought. He wanted to get to his speech, which he’d put aside revisions to Dope Dealers From Outer Space to work on. It was perfect. Tremendous. Funny yet sad. Everybody would love it. There were probably people in here not looking forward to it, thinking Howard would mess it up. Peggy read it over last night and scrunched her face like a cat smelling its own shit. But Peggy never knew what was good. He’d show her. He’d show them all.
“And now, I’d like to ask Milford’s brother Howard to come up and say a few words. Howard.” The Reverend stepped back. Howard kissed Peggy on her cheek, got up, and strode to the podium like a man about to receive a league bowling trophy.
“Thank you, Reverend.” The faces in front of him seemed so full of expectation, the sun shining down on them. Howard, this is your moment. They will all respect you.“You know, as Milford’s little brother, I’ve been following him my whole life. I wore his old clothes. I watched him court girls before mother let me meet girls. I remember one time—Marjorie, close your ears—that I snuck into the back seat of Milford’s Packard while he went out sparking with Vera O’Herlihy, who happened to be a Catholic, by the way, Reverend. And I was there all the time they canoodled. Milford was like a jack rabbit, let me tell you. Vera’s bra and bloomers landed right on my head. That was something, believe me. Now that he’s gone, I wish I could make up for him in the skirt chasing department, but I can’t tackle anything that moves. I’m married, you know. Anyway. you can start listening again, Marjorie.” Howard glanced at Marjorie. To his surprise, she wasn’t smiling. Oh, well, she’s an old pill. To hell with her. Howard went on. “And as luck worked out Milford was the first to die. I hope I don’t have to follow him into that for a long time. I don’t think I will. I’m in good health. I’m happy. Where Milford and I parted company was that he went into Dad’s heavy harvester business, even though I don’t think he ever wanted that. He wanted to be creative, but he also wanted to do what Daddy wanted. He didn’t have the guts to face him and say no. So into the business he went, and he did well at it. Very well. But I think the stress of it wore him down and made him old before he was old. And he was always jealous of me for taking the risk involved in getting into the motion picture business.” Howard saw Marjorie’s look, old Pruneface. “You know it’s true, Marjorie. He stayed in the business because of you, you and the kids. I’m not saying he’d have been happier without you, but you know. Don’t worry. You’re in the will.” Howard returned to reading his note cards. “See, Milford was always the responsible one. That’s what our parents said of him. Responsible Milford. Good-for-nothing Howard. Cute Julie. Well, who’s here? Who’s holding things together now? Me. I’m doing it. And I’m glad to do it, because I’m here when the family needs me…”
At that moment, a great rumbling from above rattled all the glass in the ceiling, and everyone looked up. Overhead, polished and glistening, a red and white World War I biplane buzzed the funeral home. A great “oooh” erupted from pews, followed by a rush for the exits as the plane rose into the blue summer sky.
“Julie.” Howard muttered. The funeral home quickly emptied, and the black clad mourners, standing on the grassy strip outside, watched the plane dive, buzz them, rise, and dive again. Feeling like his chest was on fire, Howard turned away from the spectacle and looked down at his remaining pile of useless notecards.
He didn’t see Peggy next to him, “I guess she finished it.” she said. “Amazing. I didn’t know she was so mechanical.”
“Come on, Howard. Don’t be a pill. Let’s go watch.”
Peggy went out to join the others. Traitor. If she had any loyalty, she’d stay here, watching Howard as he tore his note cards in half, then their halves in halves, then those halves, then those, just to avoid looking up.