His body was driven to Greenville, a thirty-minute ride, where it was incinerated and poured into a small brass canister. At the funeral service, I sweated through my bra, underwear, and black dress in that hundred-year-old Episcopal church, which creaked and moaned in the July heat. It seemed indecent for anyone to see my bra straps, so I wore a thin sweater that only furthered my discomfort. Beads formed at my hairline. All of the tissues allotted for tears were used on sweating foreheads. Nobody cried. One of my aunts was present, while another refused attendance due to “grievances,” and the third was long dead from a childhood boating accident. We flipped through brittle hymnals and sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” a quiet and unenthusiastic crowd at best. The priest spoke of my grandfather’s rocky personal relationships, his quarreling children, and a banking career that had garnered many enemies. “Nicholas,” the priest said, “lived a full and complicated life. He will answer to God.”
My dad tensed.
At the wake, I organized food over the counters and kitchen table. Spiced rum cake, cubed ham, deviled eggs, sugar cookies, ambrosia salad, fried chicken. I sliced lemons for the sweet tea and found an extra reserve of napkins in the pantry. Nobody directly acknowledged the horrible service, especially not to a family member, but when I passed my father’s study with a vodka tonic in hand, I saw two old ladies slumped like rag dolls in the oversized leather chairs, gossiping with hushed voices and wide eyes. The bookshelves were full of binders that organized the entirety of my dad’s construction company. The building codes were endless: fire code, plumbing code, mechanical code, electrical code, energy conservation code, and so on. I wished a couple of those binders would fall on top of the ladies’ heads. They had picked junk mail from a pile of letters on the desk, flyers pinched between bony thumb and forefinger, and were leisurely fanning themselves. The smell of rosewater perfume drifted into the hallway.
The fatter of the two said, “What an embarrassment.”
The waif leaned in, as if to expose a dark secret, and added, “The priest might as well have mentioned the infidelities.”
“Don’t forget the bankruptcy.”
“The way he harped on Nick…”
“Harped, he did.”
“He was living in squalor, you know.”
“Outside the city limits.”
“With the rednecks.”
I polished off my drink and shook the ice cubes, unsure if I was subduing my anger or encouraging it. I stepped into the doorway and with a prize-winning smile, said, “You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” which shut them up.
Of course, later that evening, when guests finally left and the heat subsided and a single bat looped through the backyard, there was plenty of bad-mouthing. My dad and his sister, only two years apart, sat on the patio with a dish of salted peanuts and a jar of whiskey that my dad bought from a drywall man for ten dollars. They sipped and coughed and told stories with their tongues covered in shredded nut meat, as was my grandfather’s habit. He was dead but he was everywhere.
In 1965, he started a bank that flourished, then fizzled. In 1972, he purchased an entire city block in downtown Greenville that became a vacuum repair store, insurance office, and ice cream parlor, all of which burned in an electrical fire. In 1980, he traveled abroad and began collecting European girlfriends. In 1981, he pursued a young beauty in Cypress and was stabbed by a competing suitor. In 1990, he began teaching economics at Clemson University. In 2005, he took gold in every track and field event at the Senior Sports Classic, and when he couldn’t breathe anymore, he gave up jogging and played competitive ping pong at the YMCA. He coughed into a handkerchief. He lost muscle, then color. He put his portable oxygen tank in the basket of an electric scooter at the grocery store, piled fruit and pastries and cheeses in a pyramid over the cylinder, and charged everything to a credit card that he never intended to pay off. Asleep one night, the oxygen tube fell out of his nose. He turned blue. He lay unconscious next to fields of black cows. Maybe he dreamed of milk and sugar, mind melting like ice cream under a bright star. In 2012, he died.
Most of those stories were new to me. I didn’t know that he lived in Cypress and was stabbed by a fisherman in a dark courtyard and would have died if a stray dog didn’t keep him awake with yipping and licking until morning, when someone finally found him thirsty and soaked with blood. Nothing so exciting had ever happened to me and even though it wasn’t fair to compare one life against another, I felt like the most boring person alive.
My aunt recounted a family beach trip in which my grandfather snuck away every night to pick up women. “To that grimy bar that