Bo and I did not know of the fish until we opened the funeral home doors. A large framed poster read: “Frank Varinski. 1920-2008. Gone Fishin’.” Half a dozen easels lined the walk up to the coffin, presenting countless images of the man fishing: from the back. From the side. Maybe three or four actually showed his face. It was not a unique face for an elderly man, especially one who fought Parkinson’s for the last ten years of his life. What struck me was Bo’s grandmother, whose body appeared in many pictures from the neck down. From the neck up we could only see a book. An umbrella. A jacket. This determination to not be photographed ran back through decades. Even at Bo’s baptism, she managed to hide behind her son who, at that point, was already wide enough to make that easy.
“What is with that woman?” I dared not whisper her name. Why? Because Grandma Varinksi scared me shitless. Frankly, I cannot imagine how Death had the guts to enter her house. Oh, she can look all sweet, baking Christmas cookies and canning her grape jelly, but the moment you infringe on family business—as I apparently did in marrying her grandson—or set her down to a card game her entire self transforms. All feebleness vanishes in those talon hands, and her dark irises click as a camera lens shutter closes in to focus so her pupils are dots fixated on you. Her mouth shrivels in upon itself, and when it opens language pours out the likes of which make you think you’ve entered a Quentin Tarantino movie. Thank God I never learned canasta.
“Hey, here’s a nice one. Out of a thousand.” Bo pointed to his grandparents sitting together on the pier, backs to the camera.
“Yeah, I had to sneak that one,” Bo’s uncle saddled up alongside us. The lenses of his thick glasses were spotted several times over with dried tears. “You know your grandma. Now that’s the only picture we’ve got of them together in the last ten years.” He started to say something else, but a loud slurring voice stopped him. “Oh god, it’s Kenny. You two go by your grandma.” A nondescript suit by the doorway turned up the Vivaldi, glared at us, and returned to staring straight ahead. Clearly, Grandma Varinksi wasn’t going to allow anyone or anything to interrupt her mourning.
My fingers twisted through Bo’s. Do we have to? Bo squeezed back, and walked us towards some tables instead. At first I thought these were some extravagant parting favors for those who came to the funeral—Frank’s gone fishin’, now you can to with your own pole and set of lures, complete with commemoration! Nope. These were all Frank Varinski’s. These were, according to his family, the culmination of his life.
His aunt came up then, face doughy and wet. “Aren’t they pretty? We couldn’t find his favorite, so we just put them all out. Did you want one?” I was about to say yes, a lure would be fine, but she wasn’t pointing at the lures. Propped up next to the lures stood heavily shellacked plaques. Each plaque was lined with fish heads: innards out, skin and bone stretched so mouths gaped with tiny teeth. The skin was nailed down millimeter by millimeter all the way around. Yellow-black eyes stuck in a stare wherever I bobbed my head.
Bo grabbed my shoulder and flashed a smile. Stop that! To his aunt: “Dad’s coming.”
She nodded vaguely. Bo’s dad had never left the limbo between approval and loathing in forty years. “Have you said goodbye yet?” We politely followed her to a coffin with fish leaping forth from every corner. “We get to keep those after the service,” she said, “to keep Dad close.” She bowed over and kissed the corpse. I could see the faint reflection of the epoxy holding his lips together, not to mention the heavy flesh-tone powder coating his skin. When Bo’s aunt lifted her head, tiny pools of tears remained trapped in the sands of face powder.
I opened my mouth to decline, but Bo squeezed my hand. Not a word. We stood awkwardly next to the coffin instead and watched the tear pools dissipate.
“Oh my, this is so lovely!” Enter Bo’s Grandma Hold, a widow for decades. “Well isn’t this something? What pretty hummingbirds! Oh my god, what happened to these, are these fish? Well that’s disgusting. Oh hi, Bo! Well it had to happen sometime, right?”
Bo maneuvered Grandma Hold and his father as best he could towards relatives and not fish heads. I fled the corpse kiss and found myself in the far corner of the parlor, away from all the pictures and lures, with Grandma Varinski. She sat alone watching a film of her wedding. The transfer company had been good enough to add a soundtrack of light jazz piano.
When it came to the Varinskis, nothing mattered more than family. If Bo’s mother hadn’t left the house to, of all the foolish things, get married and start a family of her own, then she would have never died of cancer. See Bo’s aunt and uncle? Never left the house, and nothing’s happened to them in fifty-some years. Healthy as horses. Mildred Varinski made sure of it, just like she would never let anyone mess with the family blood in her grandson, the one good thing out of her daughter’s mistake.
And then I showed up, the preacher’s kid who still rather liked God despite His antics.
Now the two of us sat together on a couch that smelled of lost Kleenex and potpourri. “Hi, Grandma.” (I was allowed to call her that.) She nodded stiffly, her lipstick a shade brighter than a stop sign and already smeared. “Who’s laughing at the camera right now?”
“She’s certainly enjoying herself.”
Grandma Varinski let out a quiet chuckle. “No kidding.” And on she went about relatives I had never met, planning the wedding, their first apartment above the deli and how the smells drove her crazy during pregnancy. “Never gained a pound because I only ate salami and watermelon. And pickles,” she added. Her talons remained tight on her handkerchief, wringing whatever life was left of its torn stitching. We sat together there for most of the visitation, with only brief interruptions by relatives. Her other children remained near the coffin, while Bo took in every picture and fish head with his father and Grandma Hold. “That’s him, right? He looks so good!”
A new nondescript suit glided over, paused to say, “We’ll be gathering the family for the procession now,” and rolled on through the parlor as if on skates. I held out my arm. The talons never let go of the handkerchief, but they sort of perched on me, too, like she was okay to touch me, so long as she had a buffer. We shuffled together passed all the photographs and fish heads in silence. I gave her to Bo’s uncle and continued with Bo and other relatives, some almost recognizable from their polyester selves sixty years ago. A syrupy version of Wind Beneath my Wings and the colored windows depicting doves and lilies made me feel like I was walking into cotton candy.
I clutched Bo and exhaled for what felt like the first time in hours. I survived.
“Maybe you two are finally good now,” he whispered to me as we sat down. Bo had never made his family a condition of our union, but there was no denying he cared for them and there was no denying Bo stood in the center of his grandmother’s universe. No matter my actions or words, I was The One Who Took Bo Away. Maybe now I could be The One Bo Brought In.
The music paused, I think, because Death decided to take one final jab at Mildred Varinski. If you aren’t familiar with Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna,” I suggest you put it on now, for this is when that masterpiece made its mark on the day.*
The chaplain signaled us to stand while the Varinskis walked down the aisle, audibly crying, cymbals and choirs hollering overhead. Who made this music loop? Where was that bouncer with the volume knob? To further prove Death was having fun, the choir shifted into its hushed staccato just in time for each Varinski to kiss their dead. I could see the tear streams on his face from my place, and I knew they were hurting, but dammit, this song and the fish and Good God one of them is actually putting a pole into the casket. I bit my lip, hard, DON’T SMIRK. The choir swelled as the casket closed. Gongs resounded as Bo’s uncle and aunt slumped towards the pew.
But not Mildred Varinski. She did not slump. That woman walked tall and alone. Her make up may be smeared in grief, but no one, not even Death, could ruin this moment. She looked upon her husband’s legacy within her children, her daughter’s legacy within her grandson.
And that woman narrowed her eyes on my face and knew I was not holding back tears.
*Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”