next day after the death: the funeral home.
Two familiar words we think belong together in
a natural tandem. It’s the opposite of a home,
of course, but if you’re going to have a
funeral, you want a word like HOME, not PLACE
or certainly FACILITY.
I’ve been to this place before. All Arts
& Crafts furniture, woody and solid and
comforting. Hushed and dim. Displays with a
style you can only call Remembrance Kitsch, I
guess. The whole lot of it makes me wince, as
I’m of the belief you prop the box on the
table in a bar and everyone sings songs and
tells tales. He was a hilarious guy, did I
ever mention that? Loved to laugh and make
others laugh. I saw him in sorrow and he wore
it as a man will, and the grief he carried
lasted long past the ceremony in a rented
hall. I get the whole thing about giving a
venue, a place for sadness, but I wonder if
the number of people who would be offended if
the room was full of big-band swing and Buck
Owens would outnumber the people who smiled
the moment they entered.
We had a consultation with the nice pastor
from the church, and I walked him out to add a
few details he might have for the homily, how
Dad’s charity seemed aimed at the places that
took in orphans and kids from bad situations,
because that’s what he’d known, and here I
lost it. This would be the pattern, I guess.
Hold it all together around your loved ones,
and spill your guts to strangers after you’ve
said four syllables. But it’s not grief as
much as the unexpected surge of furiously
intense love and admiration and the
maddeningly small things that pierce you -
there were two bottles of honey on the shelf
at his house, sent by the Indian School he
supported. There was a magnet on the fridge
that showed a bus with happy kids, actual
photos in the windows, and it was called the
LILEKS HOPE BUS or something - they sent it to
all contributors who probably pledged a
He felt bad for those kids, all strangers,
all far away, and he wanted to help them.
DRY FACE and go back to the room because we
have to choose the program. Note to self:
pre-arrange preferences for these things. My
daughter knows what fonts not to use, at least
there’s that. Page through the selections,
find the proper boilerplate for the inside
left-hand side. All ghastly. Either goopy
he’s-with-Jesus (honest to GOD, the footprints
in the sand story? Really?) Or stuff that
suggests a long struggle and we should not cry
now because he’s free. He was a religious man,
a believer, but all of this is just rote and
“You mentioned he was a pilot,” the nice kind
Director said. “It’s not in there, but we have
a poem about flying.”
“Slipped the surly bonds,” I said, “and
touched the face of God.”
“That’s the one,” I said, and he went to
fetch it. Sister and Dave approved. It was not
only perfect, it had a connection - that was
played when the TV station went off the air
when I was growing up.
Then the casket and vault selection. Cars
have fewer options. You enter the room where
the models are displayed, and I’m pretty sure
everyone who has ever come here is screaming
internally. Suddenly imagining their loved
one, shrunken and desiccated and remade with
the mortician’s art into a waxy parody - no,
no, no, that’s not him. He left. He left his
body behind. This is an elaborate ceremony
worshipping a suitcase someone never picked up
at the bus station -
But then, no, calm, focus. He wanted to be
buried at the cemetery next to Mom; had the
plot for a long time. Of course, this is what
you do. Get a grip and make your selection.
The handles come in different finishes. One
day you’re talking to your dad about how he
flew a plane on his birthday, and seven
revolutions of the planet later you’re
weighing matte or polished for the coffin
One day you're talking to your
I always picked up when he called, but now
and then you miss one, and he’d leave a
There was probably his voice in a file on my
When will I have the courage to play that
That would utterly unstring my bow - the
ordinary normality of it, the commonplace
certainty that he’d be there when I called.
The phone in my pocket felt like it weighed a
There was a veteran’s casket,
customizable by branch of course, and you
could add a Navy tint to the vault as well. We
went with that. Flag draped. Open coffin.
Pending what we hear back from the autopsy.
Because we still don’t know exactly what
Back to the house. I listened to old radio
shows and cleaned out the bedroom drawers and
closet. Everything was clean and neatly
folded. Found some old items in a drawer that
bore setting aside - Mom’s childhood Bible,
which had a 2005 picture of Daughter tucked in
amongst Colossians. Some pennants!
A Texaco money clip, which I set aside for
Dave, along with a special anniversary Texaco
tie clip. He ran the station. These things
ought to go to him. Except Holy Crow, a custom
Lileks Oil lighter. That I pocketed.
Some coins from around the world, and I do not
understand why my Dad saved pennies. Of
course, part of the reason for his success was
that he understood the value of money, period,
and if he taped some pennies from 1959 to a
piece of paper and labeled them as such,
perhaps he thought they’d be worth something
some day. Depression-era mentality, perhaps.
True to his generation, the papers in the
Important Metal Drawer I found around midnight
indicated he was not a man who put all of his
eggs in one basket.
Oh, the suits. Don’t think he ever gave one
away. I checked the label and store of origin,
and I could see Chuck, the salesman at
Northport Clothiers, how I would play with the
shoe-shine machine whenever I went there.
Who had red shoes? This was for visiting
What time was it?
What day was it?
Have I eaten?
I had, hours before. Well, let’s go get
something fast. The only thing that could make
an impression was Taco Bell - wanted spice,
pepper, that would do. I drove to the one I
knew, by the mall. The doors were locked.
There were cars at the drive-through five
deep. But no one inside. I’ll tell you what
happened, I think: they couldn’t find anyone
to work the inside, because labor is so tight.
Got in the car. My nice new fantastic
technologically savvy car. Siri, find me a
She found the one where I was. I asked her to
find me another and tell me how the hell to
get there and off we went.
As I’m driving I realize something: Fargo has
changed for me. Forever. It’s a relief, and I
For all my life coming home was fraught,
because for the first few years the returns
were fraught. So much guilt for going. So much
guilt for feeling a sense of intellectual
estrangement from my parents, because of all
the stupid stuff of youth, and the invisible
but omnipresent sense of your previous history
- you know, all the stuff you don’t remember
and the stuff they still hold dear from
childhood. It forms a strange opaque barrier
through which your conversations pass. I
wasn’t the cherubic lad whose 4th grade
picture hung over my bed like a fargin’
And it would all have been so much more
relaxed and better and happier if I could have
just excused myself once for a cigarette. So
much worry roiling behind the dam - and that
was my Mother, God bless and keep her. The
emotions I had from that were duly
transferred, as if by a legal proceeding, to
my Father, even though he had stopped worrying
about me the minute I was gainfully employed
in my occupation and married. He checked that
one off, and was no doubt impressed I had
found someone so smart and personable and
gorgeous: obviously I was not going to end up
a former consignee.
(A consignee was a term for a type of
relationship with a distributor; he had been
one early in his business, and sometimes when
we were driving around and there was a bum
staggering out of the Bismark Tavern he would
say, with flat dry intonation, “former
Nevertheless, entering the city limits always
hung a weight around my neck, the sense of an
unpaid obligation. And this persisted even
though trips home were a joy. His marriage to
Doris gave him new life and purpose. After she
died, we got even closer, and had long
conversations into the night about everything.
Now and again, I have to say, we tied one on.
Dad was never a drinker, but I think after he
hit 89 and found himself alone again he might
have said: oh. Well, there’s this. He’d have a
rum and coke. Last time I was back and we all
went out for dinner, he invited us back to the
house for some Captain Mogen David, which made
me scratch my head: uh what? Rum and
coke. Captain Mogen David.
Dad, Mogen David was that awful sweet Jewish
sacramental wine. You mean Captain Morgan?
Crinkly grin: I suppose so if you say so.
It has a pirate.
And so we’d stay up late and listen to the
country station and talk about everything, and
get a bit lit.
When I woke the next morning the coffee would
be made, there’d be sweet rolls out, and a
note that he’d gone to the Mall for the walk
and meeting with his friends, and I was
welcome to join.
So there wasn’t any guilt in arriving.
Just the guilt upon leaving.
Now? There’s no one back at the house to
anticipate my arrival, or ask why I had to run
out. Even if I wanted to run to the grocery
store or duck to the coffee shop to use the
wireless, the question hung in the air: why do
you have to go?
Because I do.
And now I am in the exact same place, which
is why I make sure my daughter knows: wish
you could hang around! I’m sentimental that
way. But go! GO! Leap, fly, GO!
The car spoke: THE DESTINATION IS ON THE
LEFT. TACO BELL.
I parked and went in. Ordered two tacos and a
chili cheese burrito. There was a guy talking
loudly on his cell, and two other people
waiting for orders. Dinner rush.
Fifteen minutes later, I was wondering what
was taking so long.
Twenty minutes later, no tacos, I got out my
receipt and looked for the code and URL, and
went to tellthebell.com and gave them WHAT
FOR. Although I stalled on the question about
being satisfied or dissatisfied with my food -
couldn’t tell! DON’T HAVE ANY!
One of the patrons who’d been ahead of me
walked up to the counter, and I figured I knew
why and should offer support, and press my
case individually. It had been 25 minutes.
The clerk who took my order appeared, and
looked at us with a strange sense of
“Twenty-five minutes for two tacos?” I said.
“Really?” I gestured to the woman who’d also
approached. “You’ve been waiting longer. Are
you waiting for tacos?”
“Tostados,” she said.
The clerk stared at us. Then said: “What did
you order?” By now a group of five had
entered, and was waiting to order.
“Two tacos,” I said, “and it’s been 25
“Excuse me,” said the Dad of the group that
had just entered. “What did you say?”
“Twenty-five minutes for two tacos,” I said.
“We’re outta here,” he said to his family.
“Let’s go to Taco John’s.”
I would have done the same except it took me
years to realize I don’t like Taco John’s.
The counter guy wandered back into the
kitchen without saying a word. Amazing. I gave
the tostado-woman a shrug that said “can you
And then she said: “Is your name Jim?”
Uh - yes. Why yes. She was from the Cities.
Read the column.
“And you’ve just seen me berate minimum wage
employees, so this isn’t my best self here on
Then she said we were in the same class at
I couldn’t place her, to be honest, and
compensated by saying I was sure she was ten
years back. No way she was Class of ’76. Oh
you flatterer you. What brought her here?
She was cleaning the house of her mother, who
had just died.
Well. Huh. Same. Dad.
Another Taco Bell employee appeared and put
down a sack of tostados and a sack of tacos.
We picked up our sacks and wished each other
I completed my survey - NO MY TACO WAS NOT
VISUALLY FULL - and drove home, thinking I
should stop at Happy Harry’s because Dad’s
probably out of Captain Mogen David.
But I was in no hurry. Fargo had changed. It
looked different, it felt different, it had no
restraints, no rules, no obligations. The
adolescent’s dream: no one to ask where I’d
been or what I’d done. Freedom.
And it's a whirlwind of ashes.
TOMORROW: The Funeral. Updates because they
were done and because life goes on.