This story first appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Volume 71 (1), Winter 2004, 140-143.
I am a man of simple tastes. I would never have hired personal attendants except that I am also old and infirm. My father would be the first to point out that old and infirm are not inevitably linked, but in my case, by age 90, I had no teeth, my digestion already was shot, and the only nourishment I could tolerate was mother’s milk. Wanted: a dozen lactating women of liberal views. Excellent pay, light duties, some travel required.
Scarcely a week after I had crossed the Rubicon of dependency on others, my father sat down to breakfast, tucked into a plate laden with sausage, eggs, grits, fried green tomatoes, and rye toast slathered with butter, all washed down by strong coffee laced with honey and whipping cream, and announced that he was planning to marry again. He was 106 at the time and had been a widower less than a year. He said, “An active sex life keeps a man young—but not young enough to cruise singles’ bars. The thing is, I need a wife. I’ve asked Ephedra to marry me and she has accepted.”
“Ephedra,” I said and sipped my milk. She was the cook’s assistant. Ephedra means good woman. Or maybe that’s Evandra. In any case, I fervently hoped Ephedra would be a good woman, though she could hardly be considered a woman of any sort at the time. She was barely sixteen. Ephedra would be Father’s tenth wife. “She’s very young,” I said, and took another sip of milk.
Father attacked his grapefruit—broiled with brown sugar—and shrugged. “As old as I was when I married your mother.” He glanced my way. “If I had to subsist on nothing but mothers’ milk, at least I’d get it right from the source.” He waggled his eyebrows at me and chortled. “Grab all the pleasures you can, son, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.”
My mother had been father’s first wife. He’d made an honest woman of her and saved me from being a bastard. Twenty-five years his senior, she died giving birth and he was never long without a wife thereafter. Ephedra was just his type—healthy, good-looking, dusky-skinned, with a supple body and a ready laugh. I could see why he would ask her to marry him. But why would she say yes?
Father said, “Did you know that Ephedra is from the Marquesas Islands? No? Well, she wants to go home for a traditional wedding. A woman’s first wedding is a big deal, so of course I said we will. It’s the least I can do. But the thing is this. I have to walk to my father-in-law’s house on a human sidewalk. The wedding guests lie down in the street and I walk to his house stepping from back to back, and if there aren’t enough people to pave the entire route, the people at the beginning of the walk run to the front to be stepped on again. After the ceremony, I eat raw fish that’s been filleted on the body of the best man, we exchange presents and preside over the feast, and then I escort Ephedra from her father’s home to mine—or in this case, to my hotel room—again walking across the backs of the guests.” Throughout this recital, he had been shoveling in breakfast, but now he paused. “I want you to be my best man. Of course we’ll take with us any of your brothers and sisters who are able to travel and want to go. Grandchildren, too, I suppose. But most of them are too old to be part of a human sidewalk. All of Ephedra’s relatives will serve, of course, but she’s been gone many years and has few friends left there now.” He polished off the last of his fried tomatoes. “The thing is, I need to hire some people to help with that sidewalk business. There’s no way my usual allowance will accommodate the extra expenses of a wedding.” He glanced at me, expectation clear in his look.
I questioned him closely about having fish filleted on my body, not that there was any doubt in my mind that I would agree to all he asked. Many of my siblings were dead already. But even if they all still lived, as his first born, Father’s welfare was my duty. Fortunately, I have more money than we could spend in ten lifetimes—even lifetimes as long as ours—so his maintenance was not a financial burden. Wanted: 100 people with broad backs, interested in new experiences. One week’s employment, unskilled labor. Good pay and all expenses. Some travel required.
The wedding was eight years ago and took considerably longer than a week. Ephedra asked the cook to be her matron of honor. The cook agreed with alacrity, in spite of having to have raw fish filleted on her naked body for consumption by the bride. The cook is married to the butler, who refused to let her go naked in public without him there to protect her. Their daughter was too young to stay alone, and their fifteen-year-old son said that if The Brat got to go, so should he. The gardener took offense that he would be denied a perk enjoyed by his apprentice, no matter that the apprentice was the cook’s son. My milkmaids reminded me that they had been hired with the expectation of some travel required. Soon the chauffeur, housekeeper, maids, and stable hands demanded equal treatment, and then everyone lobbied to take their spouses, significant others, roommates, and children. Ephedra told father that preventing well-wishers attending the wedding would curse their union. In the end, the R.S.V.P.s totaled 273—plenty of people for ceremonial purposes—but The Human Sidewalk stood firm on their contract, so we had to take them as well. The round-trip lasted four weeks—the flight from Los Angeles to Hawaii covering less than half the distance and the remaining voyage beset by bad weather and motion sickness—and the overtime pay for The Human Sidewalk was astronomical. The wedding party swelled the island’s population by nearly ten percent. The feasting alone lasted three days, and that was after two days of ritual purifications involving mud packs, salt rubs and the application of palm oil, during which I stole away to visit Paul Gauguin’s grave.
When they returned from the honeymoon, Father’s grey hair had fallen out and Ephedra was expecting their first child. By the time Ephedra had their second child, Father had sprouted a head of curly brown locks and a full beard. Their marriage seemed to be particularly harmonious, even by the standard of Father’s first nine.
For their fifth anniversary, they went to New Guinea. Father always was a good trencherman, but I must say he went overboard with the Fore’ tribesmen. He contracted kuru—the laughing death—transmitted only when someone eats the brains of an infected person. It’s slow acting but always fatal. Ephedra became clinically depressed but got better as father got worse: the more he laughed, the more she smiled.
A while back, Ephedra bought a talking tombstone from the Living Perpetual Monument Company and drove Father over there to have himself filmed and his voice taped. In the middle of the reading for the little ones—Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham—he laughed so hard and so long that Ephedra, fearing that he might asphyxiate himself, called 911. When the rescue squad arrived, Ephedra was laughing, too, gasping for breath and struggling to explain why the call wasn’t a joke. Finally convinced that it was serious, the paramedics started laughing, too, but managed to do their duty and get Father to the hospital. Father’s laughter hit the emergency room like a tsunami. Nurses doubled over with giggles. Tears streamed down the orderlies’ cheeks. Doctors tried to hide smiles and stifle snickers while they bent over the gurney. Father made the evening news under the lead, “He Almost Died Laughing.”
Father’s fits of uncontrollable laughter went on for months. He died last night, shortly after dining on three pounds of pork, two pounds of bread, and a pint of wine. Now he’s lying in state at Herschel Southern Drive-Thru Mortuary, resting peacefully behind plate glass. Most of us siblings gathered in the Chapel of Memories, but all day today grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and the idle curious have been driving by to pay their last respects without leaving the comfort of their air conditioned cars. They get out fast enough at the house, though. No one wants to miss the food and drink, the bell-ringing and drumming, or dancing by the light of the moon. It is very trying. The mourners trample the rose gardens, pass out in the guest houses, and ask why I drink nothing but milk.
The funeral itself will be day after tomorrow. Ephedra wants everything done in the traditional way. A man’s sons—if there are enough of them—should carry his casket and her sedan chair. Father had 23 sons, most born to his first five wives. Those of us still living being too weak and infirm for those tasks—or, in the case of Ephedra’s two boys, too young and weak—the eight oldest will walk beside the pall-bearers, each of us holding a black satin ribbon attached to a rosette on the coffin. Ephedra is in the bathroom now, shaving her head. She will be carried behind the coffin in a matching sedan chair, accompanied by the next eight sons—black drapes closed of course—keening and crying that her youth and joy are buried with Luther, that she will never laugh again or raise her eyes to another man. Father would appreciate the ritual lament. And then he would tell her to check out the sedan bearers and grab all the pleasures she can. Wanted: sixteen strong, fit, good-looking men, 5’11” to 6’ tall, of military bearing. One afternoon only. Good pay. Uniforms provided. No travel required.
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