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THE REAPER N' ME
by: Max Burbank

It's been a week of death in the Burbank Household. On Friday, a deacon of the church I attend died. No matter how often one faces it, it's still shocking to find out a man like me goes to church. Indeed, I go regularly, but it's alright, I'm a Unitarian. That means like the atheist I was for the first half of my life I don't need to believe in the divinity of Jesus, and like the Jew I've always been, I'm allowed to argue with God. This was our third death this week; they come in threes, that's what everyone says, as if Death was some shitty fantasy trilogy. The man was in his nineties, and I didn't really know him, but he'd shaped the Church I'm now a member of for decades and I know both is daughters, so his passing moved me enough to attend his funeral and cry during it. It's not so shocking. I cry when I cut myself shaving. That's the kind of man I am.

Three days earlier, a good friend and colleague of my wife's 'passed away' after 'a long illness' which is a very nice way of saying she died of cancer and it wasn't quick. I didn't know her personally, but it's been very hard for my wife. It makes her think about uncomfortable religious questions I am not prone to. What kind of God would make a very nice woman suffer so, put her family through such an ordeal? Is there some sort of comfort beyond the grave? How could it be that God has a purpose when it includes miserable shit like this? I have believed for quite some time now that God is everything and has no purpose whatsoever. This does not prevent me from envisioning Him as an elderly Jewish immigrant, hugely powerful but also fairly senile and a bad dresser. He's unpredictably irritable, but He knows really good stories and like many Jews, he doesn't much care for other Jews. How is it possible I can hold such disparate notions of God simultaneously and be comforted by the paradox? It's simple, really. I'm an idiot.

The Day before my Wife's friend died, Cheeky punched his ticket. Cheeky was one of our gerbils, the patriarch of the clan, the whole reason we have a clan of gerbils instead of just two. I identified strongly with him. See, originally we thought he was a girl, and under this pretense he knocked up Blackberry, his tank mate. After fathering two litters (I'll explain in a moment) he was removed to an exclusively male tank, whereupon he grew hugely fat, easily twice the size of any of the others.

Gerbils are fast breeders, and they co-parent. The idea that male gerbils will eat their young is, while amusing as hell to parents, a complete myth. In fact, the mother may reject her young if the father is taken away. Before the first litter can be weaned, the father has already made a second litter inevitable. So, unless you plan on killing the first litter, the smallest number of litters you can have is two. When the second litter was born we moved all the boys into one tank and all the girls into another. Eventually we found homes for most of them and were left with a boy tank containing Cheeky and his son Yellow Shirty (I'll explain in a moment) and a girl tank containing Blackberry and two of her daughters, Midgey and Ruby.

When we bought two gerbils, we agreed each of our daughters could name one. My eldest daughter Theo named the black one Blackberry, and my youngest, Cordelia, who was only three at the time, named the white one Cheeky. That might not seem like such an odd name, as she (he) was an odd little creature (the gerbil, not my daughter), but at three years old she had no idea that 'cheeky' is British slang for someone who is bold and forward. You can ask her why she named Cheeky 'Cheeky' if you like. I certainly have.

When the first and second litters arrived, Theo went on a naming binge. Midgey is the runt of the litter. Ruby is an albino and has red eyes. She named several of the gerbils we gave away, even though they would certainly be renamed. She named an orangey one 'Foxglove' because it looked like a little fox, and a gray one something provoked by its gray color. You get the picture. When she named the black and white boy we were keeping 'Tuxedo', I drew the line. I can only take so much literalism.

I was fairly sure I couldn't take on more God damn stupid name. She might as well name it 'Blacky Whitey', it was unbearable, humiliating, if the poor little bastard had a brain bigger than a lentil it would die of embarrassment. I took a deep, cleansing breath and told Theo it was her sisters' turn to name a gerbil. Cordelia was watching TV or breaking something at the time and could not give the task her full attention. She glanced at her Mother, who was wearing a yellow shirt, and named the gerbil 'Yellow Shirty'.

Theodora and my Wife both thought this was a terrible name, but I loved it. For a while they gamely insisted on referring to him as 'Tuxedo', but I called him 'Yellow Shirty' and made sure I mentioned him as often as possible.

"Have you fed Yellow Shirty today?"
"Look, Yellow Shirty is playing on the wheel!"
"Look at how fit and sleek Yellow Shirty is compared to Cheeky"
"Good Lord, Yellow Shirty! Did you hear that? The President has nominated John Bolton as UN Ambassador! JOHN BOLTON!!"
"Why, yes, Yellow Shirty, I do find Marge Hellenberger Fetching, though I enjoy CSI on several levels."

Eventually they gave in, if only to stop me saying 'Yellow Shirty' every tenth word. I don't care. I did what I had to do.

And now Cheeky was dead, like Big Daddy at the end of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" except I can't remember if he was actually dead at the end or just dying. I was working late when I got the call. My wife put Cordie on the phone.

"I have very sad news, Daddy," She sobbed, "Cheeky died. We have lost the best part of our family!"

That was debatable, but I understood what she meant. Cheeky never made her clean her room or eat carrots.

"Cheeky is in a better place now," said Theo.

Actually, Cheeky was in an empty Swiffer box on our unheated back porch. The earth of New England does not gladly embrace even the smallest coffins in March.

When I was Theo's age, I'd already buried countless pets, but Cheeky is their first. Maybe the kids are better with animals than I was, maybe my wife and I help them more, maybe my pets hated me, it's hard to say. I'm fairly sure I was not directly responsible for their deaths, except for the lizard that I honestly thought would catch his own flies since I kept him in a bucket with no lid. I was very keen on animals, I still am, and they like me much better now. You know how you have someone over for the first time and you warn them to stay away from your cat, it's psychotic, it hates everyone, it killed the neighbors Great Dane, and the next thing you know the terror of your household is sitting in their lap purring and looking at you like you're an idiot? I'm the guy with the lap. But as much as I loved animals, I was equally fascinated by the rapid pace of their lives as compared to ours.

When I was about six, my Grandfather Irving came to live with us for the express purpose of dying in our house. My Grandmother had no intention of nursing him through his last days, and he didn't want a hospital so he came for a 'visit' he didn't mean to return from. These days about seventy five percent of the US Population is in some way contractually obligated to take an antidepressant. Thirty-six years ago, treatments were few and far between and often involved hooking you up to a car battery. In any case, he was slowly but surely giving up eating, and would soon be giving up rationality, mobility and life in that order. I don't know if they had Hospice care back then, but my father was a Doctor and so we muddled through, quietly skirting any laws that might have applied.

He'd been with us about a week when our next door neighbor poisoned the rats. He put out trays of Decon in his barn, the rats ate it, and feeling quite put out by his lack of hospitality made a public spectacle of their deaths. One particularly large fellow staggered to the very center of the open wooden floor and spent about an hour dying. I watched the whole thing and was deeply moved. It was like Shakespeare. I decided any Rat in love with life enough to make such a show of death deserved a proper burial. No adults besides my Grandfather were home, but I'd have chosen him anyway. In my mind he was the only one fit for the job. And so I dragged the poor, elderly, unpredictably Jew away from his death bed and the Watergate hearings (which turned out to be the only thing keeping him alive since he died mere days after they ended) an demanded a funeral. Now the only funeral I'd ever seen at this time was my Aunt's, his daughter's, who about a year before had 'passed away' after a 'long illness'. Now that I am a father of daughters, it's quite clear to me this could easily set you on the road the Old Man was now traveling. I'm not certain, but having my own death interrupted by a grandchild insisting "Attention must be paid" to the passing of a possibly diseased barn rat less than a year after I put my own daughter in the ground… Well. He did a fine job. If there's a heaven and that didn't get him in, screw the Guy that runs it is what I say.

He called the Rat 'Beloved Husband' and 'Dedicated father'. He recited the mourners Kaddish and made no complaint tat we did not have a minyon. He helped me dig the hole, and threw in the first handful of earth.

Less than a week later he became convinced he was on a riverboat. He didn't mind the gambling, but there were scurrilous characters aboard, some not to be trusted. He held the blanket up before him and read us the best articles. One morning I found him in the kitchen, warming his hands over the blazing gas burners. Then he stopped speaking and his nocturnal wandering obliged us to restrain him. And then one night he died and we put him in a Swiffer box and left him on the porch 'till the ground thawed enough to bury him. I'm kidding. But it comes to the same thing.

Gerbils live two to three years. All our gerbils have passed two now, despite their intergenerational relationship, which means we are on a deathwatch. Over the few days I've been writing this, Yellow Shirty died. I think he missed his dad and Tank Mate too much to go on. The night before he was sitting on my shoulder, taking sunflower seeds from my hand. Now he's in the Swiffer box out on the porch. I cuddled him up to Cheeky, the way they used to sleep, but the don't look like their sleeping. Still, it doesn't seem so lonely now there's two inside.

The girls cried, but less this time, which is the way of it. I took it harder. Yellow Shirty was my favorite. Mostly because of his name, but in the process of making sure his name stuck, I took him out more than any of the others, played with him more. He was the only one who'd sit on my shoulder and eat sunflower seeds out of my hand. As soon as I found him dead, I went and woke up all the girl Gerbils, something I've done just about every time I've seen them sleeping since. It'll probably kill them.

The day my wife came home from her friend's funeral, Cordie sat in her lap.

"You're sad because your friend died, like Cheeky, right?" she asked. My wife said she was.

"Do you feel as sad about your friend as I do about Cheeky?" My wife agreed she did. Just as sad. Then Cordie stroked her face and sang snatches of a song in rotation on the radio, something about just having to 'let it go'.

It's fairly clear our gerbils are not done dying. There will be more tears, more Swiffer boxes and a small but elaborate City of Dead in my back yard come spring. It doesn't seem to me we've had the Gerbils very long at all, but I run on a forty-two year old clock and it runs fast. For Theo, they've been our pets for ages. For Cordie, we have always had them. They are the best part of our family. Each one deserves a monument, and I'll see they get them.

My Grandfather's gravesite is in Philadelphia, and I've only had occasion to visit in once in all these years. Like many cemeteries, they no longer allow headstones. All you get is a little brass plaque. It's easier to mow that way. Jews do not traditionally lay flowers on graves, they place small stones. As an aesthetic experience, I feel the whole thing lacks the pomp the life commemorated deserves. If we'd buried my grandfather in our back yard amongst my animals, as I argued strongly we should, he would have had more than a damn brass plaque and a small collection of nondescript stones.

During the deacon's funeral it occurred to me for the first time that my life was, in all probability, more than half over. I took some comfort for a moment that the first few years of my life are barely remembered if at all, so this second half would seem longer. But as I said, my watch runs faster now and I never heard anybody says it slows before it breaks. When the time comes, I don't care much about the situation of my mortal remains. In every way that counts, I won't be there. Bury me, burn me, leave me in the woods behind a crematorium, whatever suits your needs, which is the whole point. Unless I croak before the first week in April, my daughters and I will gather in the back yard and I'll say a few words for Cheeky and Yellow Shirty and any of the other furry little bastards that are thoughtless enough to die before then. If I am a very lucky man I will get to bury my grandchildren's animals before my Swiffer box is ready.


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