The following is the last in a seven-part series about two disastrous years in the author’s life. In this chapter, the author avoids getting into a fight at his cousin’s memorial.
On a Friday morning in June, I wake up to a text message from my mom and one from my dad, both saying to call Sarah.
So again, I know what this is. Dante has passed away sometime in the night. Sarah seems fine. She told him everything she wanted to tell him that night, stayed with him all night. We can move now from dreadful waiting to productive planning: there will be a memorial get-together Sunday at her house. Theo flies out, but her flight is delayed and she has to stay the night at the airport before she can get here. A bunch of people post on Dante’s Facebook wall. Someone says, “I remember your moms always goin out of town and us getting high as hell in your room. It’s always love my nigga.” Which doesn’t make sense, because Sarah didn’t go out of town that often.
On the dining room table, Sarah sets up a shrine to Dante, with baby pictures, recent pictures, every age in between, some framed, some not, a banner that says “Survivor,” an SF Giants hat, and a Giants teddy bear signed by pitcher Jeremy Affeldt, who visited Dante at the hospice center after Theo emailed the Giants organization. People, Dante’s friends, Theo’s friends, friends of the family, teachers at Malcolm X, bring trays and plates and platters of cookies, cake, cheese, meats, pies, lasagna. They bring boxes of beer and bottles of wine, but Hope and I still have to keep running out to get more beer.
Hope and I, as things are getting underway, joke to each other (and if you have never joked while grieving, I highly recommend it) about how long it will take for the two of us to become stumbling drunk idiots at this thing, embarrassing ourselves, putting our arms around people, crying, rushing around making speeches, “Wait, wait, I just wanna say one thing…”
It takes about two hours. That is, I do make a speech to an assembled group of young people out front on the steps, including Hope, Amanda, and Theo. I insist on it. It goes something like this:
The Waggoners are a bunch of miserable bastards. We’re pessimistic, we’re negative, we’re misanthropic. And that’s okay, that’s fine. It’s a coping mechanism and it works for us. And yet, here we are, in what can only be described as our darkest hour, and we’re having a great time. And not only are we having a great time, we’re having a great time with people. With lots of people. And those people are here, being nice to us, because of Dante. That’s something he’s given us. That’s something he was capable of creating much more than any of us are. And that’s something we should keep in our hearts. This is for you, homie.
And I pour out a beer on the sidewalk. All of us cry more than a little, for the first time that day.
There’s a little dog with brown curly hair at this gathering who is running around with Chance and having a great time. The dog’s owner is a skinny young man around my age with dead eyes and a perpetual smirk, the older brother of someone Dante was friends with in kindergarten. He’s some kind of nutrition expert who works with kids in some capacity, and I hear him mentioning this to people around me suspiciously often, as though he’s “networking” at this wake.
He’s sitting around with us on the porch and starts holding court about how he hates when people take pictures of their food and post them on Instagram. “People should just live in the moment,” he says. “It’s like they’re just doing it for attention. Like they need their experience to be validated. It offends me as a photographer and as a foodie.”
I say that I like food pictures. If my friend is having a nice meal, I don’t mind seeing it. I feel happy for that friend. I don’t get to see some of my friends that often, and so even something like a plate of food makes me feel more connected to them, and I like that. I also like selfies. I like pictures that my friends take of their own faces, because again, I don’t get to see everybody’s face so often, and I think my friends are a generally good-looking bunch, so to see their faces in any capacity makes me happy, even if they’re being vain.
This is the weekend the San Francisco Pride Parade is happening, and later, this guy, the dog owner, photographer, and foodie, says, “My friends who live in San Jose are all like, ‘We wanna come up and see Pride!’ And I’m like, man, I know all about that, I grew up here, I’ve seen Pride since I was like five.”
I can’t contain myself. I say, “Wow, your friends must love you.”
I let the moment hang awkwardly and then go inside. I drink some more Sam Adams. Later I run into him, and we are alone together on the back porch. He says, “You know, normally if someone talked that way about me and my friends I would knock them out.”
I say, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” and keep walking.
Shortly afterward, Hope, Theo, Amanda, and I take Chance for a walk. I tell them what just happened. I tell the story lightly, but as I keep talking I realize I am beyond furious. “Oh, sure, it’s okay to come into my aunt’s house and fucking network and let your fucking goddam dog run all around the house like you fucking own the place, like anybody has any idea who the fuck you even are, you miserable goddam worthless motherfucking, fatherfucking creep, just come in and threaten me, at a wake, at my own cousin’s wake, you moron, you garbage person, Jesus Christ I hope something unspeakably horrible happens to you, I hope you are ripped apart by wolves, I hope…”
I am sort of watching myself go off on this horrible rant. My vision is fuzzy. I’ve never felt quite like this before. I say more things, things that I don’t even want to talk about having said. The dog is getting scared by how I’m acting, and everyone’s telling me so, but I keep talking. I just won’t shut up. I won’t stop saying incredibly mean things about this person I don’t actually know.
“Could you guys hang on to the dog?” says Theo. “I just need to go inside. I’m not feeling well.” She walks quickly back to the house.
On his radio show The Best Show on WFMU, Tom Scharpling once had a call-in topic called, “You Went Too Far, Now You Are the One Who Is Wrong.” That’s me in this moment. All this time, I’ve been so powerless against the random catastrophes both happening to me and all around me, and I’ve only had the power of rhetoric—in school, in working with scripts, in making fun of Berkeley, in that speech I’d just made a few hours ago—and now I’ve misused it horribly.
Theo leaving gives me a moment to catch my breath, but I don’t relent. “And he’s some kids’ nutritionist? Like what does he do, go to schools and say, ‘Damn, you fuckin’ kids sure eat piles of shit and fucking garbage every day, Jesus Christ, you sure are eating the wrong fucking thing here at this school, you stupid little bastards, you poor wretched fucking urchins, don’t you know this shit is from Monsanto? You little cretins, don’t you know you’re supposed to eat motherfucking kale and quinoa all goddam day? But don’t take a picture of it! Whatever you do, don’t take a motherfucking picture…”
I stop. I go back and apologize to Theo. I drink some more beer. It’s dark now. People are leaving. The group of people who are roughly my age are now sitting around the kitchen island, and we are talking about nothing, really, kind of getting ready to say goodbye. Then our friend, the dog-owner/photographer/foodie/real tough guy says, unprompted by anything, “I’m just saying, if someone said they were going to knock me out, I’d take it seriously.”
“Get out,” Hope says to him. “You have to get out now.”
“Hey, I’m just saying. I’m a guest here, and he should have showed me more respect. That’s all I’m saying, just be more respectful.”
“You’re not a guest here anymore, because we’re asking you to leave.”
“I grew up with these people,” he asserts, as if that—look, I don’t need to explain to you why that’s such a ridiculous thing for him to say in that moment.
“You have to get out now.”
He gets his dog and leaves calmly. I stand around and talk about anything else for a few more minutes. Theo goes to bed. Hope is staying over. I say bye to Sarah and hug her, and say bye to everybody else Sarah’s age who is hanging around with her. Amanda and I walk out into the night, toward my car.
I drive home smiling.
Five months later, on Thanksgiving, I drive to my aunt’s house late in the morning. I had some friends over the night before for “Friendsgiving,” so I bring some leftovers in Tupperware containers: cranberry sauce, persimmon chutney, and banana bourbon upside-down cake. “Ugh, you brought leftovers?” Sarah says. “How cheesy is that?” We’re still waiting for Hope, who hasn’t left the Mission yet.
Sarah has three thick wooden doors in the trunk of her car that she wants me to help her move. I don’t know where they came from, and I don’t ask. She apparently tried to take them to Urban Ore, a local warehouse that accepts and sells most objects of any kind, but they didn’t want these doors.
I’ve been writing about Sarah and Dante for the past two semesters in creative-nonfiction workshops. If I were in therapy, maybe I would’ve been able to write about a wider array of aspects of my life, to a less exhausting effect, but I’ve been putting off looking into different therapists because, you know, Obama.
Many of the lessons in the creative-nonfiction workshop center around the idea of finding and opening metaphorical doors in your work—looking for places in your writing to open new doors that lead to further exploration. I think about this as I carry Sarah’s detached doors through the backyard and into the back entrance to the basement. Sarah opens yet another smaller, darker entryway to a crawlspace and turns on the light inside. It’s inadequate, just a single buzzing tube in one corner of the room. When I bring the rejected doors inside, she situates them in a corner. I go back upstairs. She locks up.
Sarah barbecues the turkey on a grill outside, with a pan in the grill to catch the drippings. The gravy she makes, full of mushrooms, can only be described as masterful. It’s dark by the time the turkey is cooking, so it’s impossible to tell if it’s ready without bringing it inside. I hold a pan, and Sarah impales the turkey at both ends, lifts it, and, with a great deal of effort, places it in the pan. Inside, I jab the side of the turkey and see bright pink. I carry it back out.
“Naw. Still pretty raw deep in there.”