Thursday, January 06, 2005

Thursday Fiction: "Papa Taylor" (Chapter 1 of "Lucky Man")

Louis Fielder shifted his weight from one side to the other, trying to find a comfortable sitting position in the ancient folding chair. He tried to make small, imperceptible movements, so as not to distract from the proceedings. Though he wasn't particularly engaged in what went on around him, the last thing he wanted was to deal with an irritated mourner. Or his mother, who was weeping quietly to his left.

This was the first funeral he'd ever attended. He'd seen funerals on television and movies, and from this dim reflection, he formed his assumptions on the proper tone and emotional state of attendees. But even though he was related to the deceased, he felt nothing. Not even ambivalence. Not quite disinterest, but close.

His mother had begged him to come. His mother had learned the long-standing maternal technique of asking in a way that threatened dire repercussions if denied. Passive-aggressiveness was a genetically-passed trait on the Taylor side of the family, and Marie Fielder (nee Taylor) was no exception to the tradition. She entreated Louis, saying that "Papa Taylor would have wanted it that way." Though he did not reply at the time, Louis thought, "Papa Taylor couldn't remember my name half of the time. He called me Larry for a whole summer when I was 10."

Louis' father, Daniel, had originally told Louis that he could stay home while his parents went down to Houston for the funeral, but Marie insisted that "the whole family" should be in attendance. "It's important," she argued. Rather than question the vague importance and to whom this importance belonged, Daniel acquiesced. Daniel Fielder was a strong man, a decisive leader, but he knew when not to argue. When his beloved wife was dead-set on something, her cause became his. In Daniel's mind, that was a pretty good definition of marriage.

So there Louis sat, at the end of the row of folding chairs beside the grave site. It was oddly cold for a Houston morning, even if it was early January. Not that the Fielder clan wasn't used to cold weather--it wouldn't get this warm back in Chicago until late spring--but Louis hadn't brought any cold-weather clothes. He pulled his arms close to his chest to try to conserve warmth. His suit-coat was thin and useless against the steady north winds.

Louis watched the minister. He was tall, bald, and looked like he was used to officiating funerals. His dour expression had the air of a practiced veteran. Louis wondered how many funerals he's performed in his career. Quite a few, Louis considered. Maybe as many as half the stiffs in this cemetary were buried by this guy.

Louis felt a tiny pang of guilt for not paying attention to the services at hand. Since it was the first emotion he'd felt all day, he went along with it, and turned his attention back to the gentleman in the box.

His grandfather, Linus Taylor, was a Texas oilman in his youth, though as time progressed, his luck in the fields declined. Wisely, Linus left the oil business and began investing in local businesses. By his sixties, he had amassed a small but comfortable fortune. He spent the next twenty-three years of his life in Houston, spending little of his money, reading, and watching the news.

Louis never got to know his maternal grandfather. This was a pity, as Linus was the only living grandparent Louis had since he was seven. His paternal grandfather, Joseph Fielder, died shortly before he was born; Joseph's wife Gladys, a few years later. When Louis was seven, Mary Taylor, his beloved grandmother, succumbed to multiple cancers. When that happened, Linus closed up. He became brittle, gruff. He was never cruel--that can be said in his favor. But any warmness the old man had was buried with Mary, in the very plot next to the one he now occupied.

One can assume that Louis did in some way love his grandfather; he would likely attest to the fact. But that love was not the fondness that one idealizes a grandchild to have for his aged grandsire. Rather, it was an love based out of obligation, or--if you prefer a kinder term--out of volition. Louis loved his grandfather because he wanted to. He knew that love for your parent's parents is "the way things should be," at the very least. Anything less would sadden his mother. So Louis was careful to be respectful and solemn, creating the artifice of sorrow as an act of will.

(Do not judge Louis to be a hypocrite, dear readers, for he is not. But at this moment, when he felt nothing for the man in the casket, he put on a show of sadness, to comfort his grieving mother, whom he dearly loved.)

At last, the service ended, and the small group of mourners formed a line to convey their condolences to the family. After the first few almost-strangers gave Louis a hug, he excused himself and went for a short walk. His mother didn't notice, and his father assumed he "needed some time."

Louis went down the hill and up the next, walking down a row of stones garnished by the occasional flower arrangement. He saw a young boy nearby, sitting on a stone two rows over. He stopped and said, "Hello."

"Hi," said the boy.

"What's your name?" asked Louis.


"My dad's named Danny, too. I'm Louis."


"What are you doing out here, Danny?"

"Visiting my daddy."

Louis felt a pang of sadness in his chest. "I'm sorry, Danny."

"Why are you here?"

"My grandpa died."

The very composed child asked, "Do you miss him?"

After a moment, Louis said, "I didn't know him that well. So, just a little, I guess."

"That's good."

"Yeah." Louis looked up and saw who he assumed to be Danny's mother hurrying up the hill. When she saw him, her eyes narrowed, so he waved and said, "Gotta go, Danny."

Danny saw his mother's expression, too. "Yeah. Bye."


Louis walked back to his grandfather's grave site. It felt strange to contemplate that concept--Papa Taylor's grave. He started to feel something like sadness in his gut, at last, and welcomed the feeling.

His mother turned to him and asked if he was all right. He nodded, and she gave him a hug. His father walked over and helped Marie to the nearby car.

Louis wanted to go home. His mother had told him that they had to stay an extra day to be present for the reading of the will, "just as a formality." He wanted to leave all the same. The city was foreign to him, strange. He wanted to return to the familiar.

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