Formaldehyde

I am standing next to a newish, extremely sleek, jet black hearse. It is negative 4 degrees Fahrenheit and I am hungover. Not the kind of hungover where I am incapacitated or violently regurgitating whatever concoction I ingested at 2am last night. Nope…just enough to be mildly irritable. I’m kind of caught in the nebulous grey zone between slightly nauseated and a touch “hangry” for corn beef hash.

I am waiting for the young heir apparent to the Carrington, North Dakota (pop. 2,014) undertaking business to roll out a silver coffin from his gleam-mobile. In it rests the remains of my grandmother. We have traveled nearly six hours from Minnesota to bring her back to a place she hasn’t lived since 1978.

I am a pall bearing expert by now, having carried all 4 of my grandparents to their final rites. This one is different though. It’s a 4 man job. Myself, my older cousin Davy (who used to be in the Navy) and two skinny teenagers who are my Uncle Ed’s kids. As the casket is slowly wheeled into our arms, I think “this isn’t so bad,” I just gotta get this thing up that steep icy staircase and just past the lobby for the viewing. Then the entire weight of the thing seems to drop out of the clouds and onto my forearms. “Jesus Christ!”, I think to myself …wait… did I just say that out loud? I hope not.  Why is this thing so fucking heavy?  Oh yeah…all the other times I’ve done this there have been 6 people. Not 4.  I remember carrying her husband out to his hearse and thinking…wow, this is nowhere near as heavy as I thought it would be. It was the same for the other two grandparents I’ve carried as well. I just figured it was due to the fact that they were all so frail and old when they passed.

Last night was one of the greatest nights I’ve ever had in a strange town. We got in about 1:30pm. My uncles, my cousin Davy, and a few others were there. It has just snowed about 6 inches and had literally stopped only about 15 minutes before we got there. Around 3pm, my Dad and his brothers were already contacting all the shirttail cousins from my Grandmother’s side of the family and preparing to go have beers. That’s what you do in small towns in the middle of nowhere. You go have the beers. We pull up to “The Shamrock”, a legendary local saloon. It is a Sunday. The whole town seems to be shut down like it’s 1955 and everyone is at church.

Kitty corner from the bar is a tiny police station. A female cop yells to us from across the way in a cartoon Marge Gunderson voice: “OOOH you must be looking for so & so, he closed up late last night and may not be in to open up until 5 or soooo. Head down the block to Finch’s Five Spot if you want some beer.”  We all stand ankle deep in the new fallen snow…jaws agape to the permafrost below…speechless. My dad’s brother finally breaks the silence – “Ok! Thanks!” he says merrily.

We see a Ford Truck with a giant plow attached to the front of it furiously pushing powder all over the place. The guy yells at us from the driver side window. “Oh it’s my cousin Scotty!” my Dad says. My dad is pumped. They exchange pleasantries…their voices boomeranging off the decrepit downtown Carrington brick buildings. Something about making sure we stay there and wait for him?  I don’t know…I don’t care… I just want to jump into my escape hatch of Coors Banquet Beer and swim around until this becomes fun. And it will. It always does.

I am sitting in a 2nd-row pew in the Carrington Federated Church. I think this town is so small they just mashed all the religions together into one church and called it good. The casket is pushed down from the back by the undertaker heir. “Damn.”, I think. “That casket spray is pungent.” The smell gets stronger… and stronger…until I am suffocated by it. Then I remember. This is the 4th time I’ve thought there were “too many flowers” on the casket. This isn’t the fucking flowers. It’s the embalming fluid or maybe some disinfectant they have used to clean the body. I hate that smell. It’s like rotting plants mixed with Windex and vinegar. This seems worse than normal. Is the hangover worse than I thought?  Am I just being a wuss? BE STRONG. BE A MAN GODDAMNIT. YOU ARE 42 FOR FUCKS SAKE. No…this is an insane amount. I am smelling it from 15 feet away. Usually, you just get a slight whiff of it when you are carrying the casket. Holy hell. This shit is intense. Like that one dude, the doofus you knew in high school who doused himself repeatedly with the bottle of Drakkar Noir that he kept stashed in his locker. You know, the dude you can smell coming from three counties away? Or the lady who stinks up the elevator with her overpowering old person perfume. Did they give grandma a double dose because they have to store her in an igloo for 4 months until the ground is thawed out enough to bury her this spring? Did she get a full body chemical bath like Vladimir Lenin gets every year? The undertaker heir is not taking any chances.

The eulogies are given by my dad, my Uncle Ed, and cousin Davy (formerly of the Navy).  Dave is standing in for my other Uncle who lives in Atlanta. He is a retired Naval Commander of some distinction. He cannot travel because his wife just had some pretty hardcore spinal surgery. I bring this up because I am a bit disappointed that he couldn’t make it. 9 years ago when my Grandfather passed he gave the single most inspirational eulogy I had ever heard. The entire thing was about not being afraid to “participate in life” and to not be a spectator on the sidelines or some shit. Real Knute Rockne type stuff. I remember feeling bad because my dad’s eulogy (a quieter, more abstract tome comparing his father to the prairie wind of North Dakota) was seemingly lost in the shuffle. I still remember it vividly though, I remember being mildly impressed because I’d never seen my Dad speak in public before.

My Uncle Ed goes last. Batting clean up. He is holding a whistle and talks about all the shit he got into when he was a kid when they lived across the street from the Carrington Federated Church. Ed is, and always has been the black sheep of the family… and usually the drunkest. Not this time though…not with the skinny teens tagging along. Don’t get me wrong, I still texted him last night after cousin Scotty said the teens could go to his house and play video games with Scotty’s teens (while we drank 7,000 liters of cheap beer).  Eddie came to The Shamrock and polished off his fair share, but the mythical “Fast Eddie” never came out. This seemed like a different Eddie. A somewhat fatherly Eddie.

Eddie is now blowing the whistle around his neck and telling his mother to come home, not unlike she used to for him. The casket sits stoically beneath him. Not a dry eye in the house. My Dad is once again overshadowed in the parent eulogy sweepstakes…this despite giving a surprisingly heartfelt, earnest speech about how he was shy around girls at his high school parties and she taught him to foxtrot.

As the Pallbearers gather at the back of the church, Davy reminds me he needs to be on a certain side of the coffin on account of his missing finger from a Naval accident. I am suddenly uneasy about our descent down the steep, frozen staircase. I am now lined up next to the youngest teen, and let’s just say he is providing very little lifting power.  Holy shit we might actually drop this thing! I hear a feeble “lift, lift, LIFT!” coming out of the other teen in the back. This gives me a tiny surge of adrenaline and we make it back to the hearse with chemical-coffin and my grandmother in one piece (though I suspect all the real lifting power was coming from 9 finger Davy).

Less than 12 hours earlier I was sitting in The Shamrock next to a crane arcade game. One of those kids games in which they operate a giant mechanical claw and try to use it to pick up stuffed animals and drop them into a hole. I look closer at the machine. Mixed in with the various cheap children’s toys is a metric fuck ton of sex toys. Full-sized dildos, Porn DVDs, and other assorted deviant delights. Fucking North Dakota man.

I hear a story that night about a man who rode through the Shamrock buck naked on a horse during the “streaker craze” of the 1970s. I hear a story about my Uncle Ed stealing a bird from a pet store when he was on a field trip to Winnipeg in high school. This being the 70s, he named it “Free Blatz” (after his favorite Skynyrd song and favorite beer) and then brought it home as a pet. Eventually, my grandfather stepped on it and accidentally killed it. Fast Eddie buried it in the yard under a tree, cut out the Blatz logo from an old beer can and hung it as a gravesite marker. 40 years later during an “all class” reunion, the brothers took a stroll to their old yard and found the Blatz can gravestone still hanging from the tree in all its faded glory. Do they even make Blatz anymore?

We are drinking Kona Longboard Lager from a tap behind the bar. This is treated as a fine delicacy and all the town’s folk talk it up like it was hand delivered from Mars by a space alien. Hey, it beats the canned Coors they serve at Finch’s down the street I guess. Our small impromptu family reunion drains the entire keg.

It is roughly 4 months later. June. I make the trek back to Carrington for the burial. The ground has been deemed sufficiently thawed for our grandmother to finally be laid to rest next to my grandfather. This time, since school just got out, I bring my 7-year old with. We have never been on a road trip together. It is glorious. We stop to see the albino buffalo in Jamestown, ND (pop. 15,387) and do all sorts of fun touristy stuff. She gets to see her cousins from Georgia and we are able to visit the old stomping grounds of our ancestors in Grace City, ND (pop. 63). I marvel at the fact that 2 families in the middle of nowhere somehow came together and shot out spawn all over the United States. We visit the abandoned gas station my Great Grandfather (and namesake) used to run in Grace City. A ghost town. Nothing there.

I am standing in a cemetery with my daughter and my brother. It is windy as fuck and unseasonably cool for June. One of the locals sneers, “It ain’t windy in North Dakota unless the potholes have whitecaps!” That’s a good one I think, I am going to use that on my Facebook check-in. I am wearing a short-sleeved polo with little sailboats all over it in a cheeky tribute to my grandparents who loved sailing. Yeah…there are actually places you can sail in North Dakota (they also sailed in many other places of course). It is too cold to be in short sleeves and the wind is howling across the barren plains like some two-bit 19th-century novel.  The Naval Commander gives me one of his old beige coats, I think it is probably a boy’s small. I look like a supreme douchebag from hell who was dressed by Cosmo Kramer. My hair is a windswept Picasso.

We are waiting for everyone to get there from town…it is a bit of a hike into this no man’s land. My daughter is having the time of her life chasing her cousins around. I scan the cemetery and realize that there are probably more dead people buried here than the entire living population of Grace City, ND.  I see my Great Grandfather’s tombstone. I’ll admit that it is a bit odd seeing a tombstone with your name on it (even if the middle name is different). I have 2 sets of Great Grandparents buried here, and now both Grandparents as well. I see my father’s and uncle’s names on their tombstone. My father has told me he wants to be buried here too…but only as some sort of dark joke to be played on the rest of his family. He shows me the plot he has bought for himself (he is currently unmarried, thrice divorced). “I just want to make everyone drive all the way out here again, heh heh heh.”

I begin to smell something vile behind me and I immediately know the casket is near. Fucking formaldehyde. I stand next to the casket with my daughter moments before they lower it into the ground. The wind is whipping the putrid, wilted-flower Windex stink directly into my nostrils. I am not hungover. Not even close. I had a few beers with lunch yesterday, but just mostly chilled with my daughter that night. Maybe 2 beers with dinner…I can’t remember. We stand silently as some of the women lay roses on the coffin. It lowers. Everyone is solemn. I think about how I am going to explain what is going on to my daughter on the way back to Carrington. But she seems oblivious, just happy to be on an exotic adventure in a foreign land.

That night I knew every damn relative I had within a 20-mile vicinity was going to rage all night at the local Carrington watering holes. There were even more relatives in town than the last go around. We all drink light beer in the hotel bar while the kids run around after the service. After a few hours, everyone goes back to their rooms to ready themselves for the big night out. Uncle Ed has a big shit-eating grin on his face. No kids this time. I feebly attempt to get my cousin from Georgia to let my daughter hang out with her kids for a spell that night. No dice. They are going to bed early while her southern gentleman husband gets treated to a proper North Dakota shellacking. Waves of jealousy pour over me…but at the same time, some sort of animalistic instinct to protect my daughter overpowers my wants and needs. Funny how that works.

Later, just before my daughter’s bedtime, I decide to try and have the best of both worlds. I drive over the hill to the edge of town to the world’s tiniest liquor store. They have the worst beer selection I’ve ever seen. I am very particular about beer. I am a snob. I ask them if they carry Drekker, the hippest new brewery in the midwest. They only deliver to the Twin Cities twice a month and beer dorks wait impatiently outside liquor stores for the beer truck to pull in around 3pm every other Thursday. Drekker is building a giant new beer hall called “Valhalla” this summer and hopefully upping their deliveries to Minnesota. I am obsessed with this beer like I was obsessed with finding an Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card in 1989. I need a goddamn Brain Freeze Raspberry Lime Smoothie Sour, or at least an Ectogasm IPA. I’ve been drinking shit beer for two days.

“You don’t have Drekker?” I ask incredulously. Fucking heathens. How is this possible? It’s made in Fargo, a mere 2 hours away! I find some shitty New Belgium raspberry summer beer and a six-pack of Voodoo Ranger. Later I text a picture of the haul to my next door neighbor back home…a beer connoisseur of the highest order. “Look!” I mock…”The best beer I can find within a 150-mile radius!”  “Yuk,” he responds. This is his standard response to just about any beer that isn’t meticulously crafted in small batches by humble independent local beer artisans.

I am awoken around midnight to loud mumbling outside the motel window. Ed is back. Yep, we are sharing a room with him tonight. My daughter is in a dead slumber next to me. Ed comes barrelling in hammered to the nines and still bellowing at bar level volume. Every other word is a swear. He is yammering on about some “younger bar sluts”…I think that he thinks they were actually hitting on him.  I gently remind him that there is a 7-year-old sleeping in the room. He gets marginally quieter but is still stumbling around loudly in the dark. Uncle Ed is in his 60s now, he’s reached the “oh he’s just a funny old man” stage. I look at my daughter…she is still sound asleep. Probably dreaming about buffaloes and horses and running around with her cousins.

“Where the fuck’s my machine?!”, Ed warbles in a wry self-deprecating way. It’s still kind of dark, I think only the far bathroom light is on. I have no idea what the fuck he is doing. He is pulling out a giant box and fumbling with knobs and cords. Oh wait…is that a CPAP machine?  Am I watching a drunk guy try to hook up his CPAP machine in the dark?  This is amazing. I am giggling silently. He finally gets the apparatus running and it sounds like a fucking spaceship is taking off. My daughter sleeps through it all.

When Fast Eddie was my age we would hang out sometimes and drink beer. I remember going over to his little-rented house and watching the OJ chase the summer after my senior year of High school. Ed introduced me to Neil Young, The Who, and other classics in a time when I only cared about Grunge and Gangsta Rap. He was the first person I ever knew who tried to make his own beer, back in the early 90s. He had a friend named Slug who tried to get me to smoke weed out of a Mountain Dew can when I turned 18. Jesus, there was so much fucking paneling in that little shithole house. His beer turned out awful. All sediment on the bottom like gravel and pure alcohol on top. I drank some anyway.

In the morning we wake and eat breakfast. Everyone goes their separate ways, a few of us start the long journey back to Minnesota…a few more stay behind for a couple more days. On the way home I talk my uncles and my Dad into stopping in Fargo for lunch. I take my daughter to a record store and I stop at Drekker. After eating lunch in a hip remodeled old building, now turned restaurant/bar, and named “The Boiler Room” …we say our goodbyes. My uncle and my Dad heading back to the Twin Cities…and my Dad eventually having to drive another 2.5 hours (8.5 hours total) back to his home in Winona, MN (pop. 26,928).

As I cross over the river from Fargo, ND (pop. 120,356) to Moorhead, MN (pop. 43,122) the sun is beating down. It is a perfect June day. Summer is here. For real this time. No more overcast, windstrewn North Dakota cemetery weather. I look back at my daughter. She is happily playing with her iPad, faux Beats headphones emblazoned with characters from the movie Frozen rest upon her ears. She looks like a cute little Dr. Dre. As I drive I see a billboard that just says “Smile.” I smile at the Smile billboard.  My Jeep is filled to the brim with scrumptious 16 oz. silos of Drekker beer, Drekker pins, Drekker hats, and even a Drekker Brewery sticker that I will proudly place on the back window of the Jeep when I get home.

I am dumb and happy, like an American.

That was 143 days ago. The last 25 of those days, I have been sober.

Smile