By Julie Benesh
At my mother’s funeral an elderly man I didn’t recognize—I now think he may have been some kind of funeral hobbyist—leaned in to ask me if she were “disfigured,” and whether that was why her casket was closed. I said I’d not seen her body, as I edged away from him, reaching for the pin-striped sleeve of my then-husband.
Almost 18 years later, at my dad’s funeral, I was more mature, a sophisticated divorcee, but the world remained as crude as ever. A man I didn’t know said, “I always called him DAD. D-A-D.”
Drunk and disorderly? Was he literally calling out my dad’s alcoholism? A casual diagnosis of what actually may have finally killed him? I felt the floor was moving beneath me; my heart pounding, stomach swirling.
He responded to my bewildered look: “Deal after deal. DAD!”
I spun away, dizzy; the impatience of others was my biggest trigger, and to the more nefarious among my adversaries it made me look like prey, making everything worse.
“He was ALWAYS SELLING SOMETHING!” the man bellowed.
Always Selling Something? That’d be ASS. So I guess it could have been worse. I just wish the guy had smiled a little as he said it.
So my dad’s side hustles in the seventies through the early aughts were perhaps a little ahead of his time, a harbinger of the gig economy to come. Some, like his sales of Christmas trees, planted and harvested by hand, and of the homemade maple syrup that stank up the house every spring, were relatively respectable, would now be considered Etsy-appropriate, or at least Etsy- adjacent. Others, like the sports wagers sub-contracted from his bookies, or his distribution of illegal fireworks, somewhat less so, more Dark Web-ish, or, at best, Craig’s List-y.
But how does any such enterprise compare unfavorably with becoming the kind of person who goes to funerals to taunt the bereaved?
Yet an even worse remark came from my dad’s ostensible ‘friend’ who told me, with haughty drama, that my father had “squandered over $100,000” on the meth dealers around the corner.
I already knew about this; he was loaning them money (to help them go straight). And buying their affection, being his version of a neighborhood philanthropist. I had seen my dad’s spiral notebook of accounts, block letters in pencil… and this “friend” was also in there and owed him about $12k (which I never attempted to recover).
The indignant friend’s slick hair bounced with conviction. “That should have been your money!” In other words, those tweakers had jeopardized his line of credit!
“Well, he earned it,” I said. “His to do with whatever he wanted.” He’d come a long way, at least financially, from where we had started.
My dad’s former girlfriend (who was, incidentally, also his brother’s wife’s sister’s daughter), was playing the widow and had confided to me in hushed tones that one of the meth ladies had stolen from his desk a blank check (that she later made out for $30,000 and forged his name to), while her sister meth lady “distracted” him. (I imagined something on the spectrum between burlesque and a lap dance, but who knows– maybe she was just doing card tricks or telling jokes?) The credit union had to cover it, and she was arrested for fraud.
He had been admitted for tests on Thursday night, during his final, gradual, sudden, illness, the what he’d thought was a cold that turned out to be esophageal cancer that erupted into sepsis. I’d talked to him on Friday and said I’d see him Sunday. This meth lady had called him, apparently stricken on Saturday and he’d unplugged his hospital room phone against her tender assault. It was likely the DTs that actually killed him that night when I failed to get there in time with a bottle in a paper bag, per the nurse’s furtive, elliptical instructions–she’d also promised, as nurses never do, that I’d see him again, and more than once. I got the call to the contrary at 4:00 in the morning Sunday, minutes before my scheduled airport ride arrived.
A few months later the county prosecutor wrote to tell me that Meth Lady had pleaded guilty, was sentenced, and that she, by all appearances, was sincerely contrite.
Julie Benesh has been published in Tin House Magazine, Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader, Crab Orchard Review, Florida Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and other places. Her work has earned an Illinois Arts Council Grant and a Pushcart nomination. Julie has an MFA in fiction from Woodrow Wilson College, lives in Chicago with two cats and a lot of books, and works a day job as a professor and department chair of psychology.