Work sometimes demands odd things from you, things you’d otherwise be able to avoid easily enough, like attending the funeral of the mother of a woman you’ve hardly ever spoken to. This was thirty years ago, when I was fresh out of college with a degree in English and working at a large plaintiff law firm that specialized in toxic tort litigation. My great plan was to make money for a year or two, study for the LSATs, and then head off to law school. This was my great plan because I didn’t have any others, be they great, good, fair, or lousy. The woman I’d barely spoken to worked for the same attorney that I did, Mr. V. She was one of his several paralegals. I, on the other hand, was what was called an “administrative assistant.” My duties consisted of everything that baby-voiced Karla, another of Mr. V’s paralegals, could afford to shunt off onto me. Mr. V was a brash loudmouth who always wore dress shirts with French cuffs and heavy starch. He smiled constantly, without joy, and with teeth that were much too white. Just for kicks, he enjoyed finding small ways to embarrass everyone who worked for him, everyone but the most-veteran member of his group, the paralegal whose mother had died (and whose name I can’t remember, so let’s call her Edie, because she reminded me of Edie McClurg, the actress who played the principal’s secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which had come out five years earlier). This sometimes involved songs that he would sing about us in the hallways. Edie never had songs sung about her, which is why he forced all of us to go to her mother’s funeral “as a demonstration of our love and support.”
My great plan to go to law school to become an attorney had died long before Edie’s mother did. In fact, it took only a couple of months at the firm for me to figure out that if practicing law meant living a life like the ones I saw being lived around me, I wasn’t cut out for it. Too much stress. Too much pressure. Too much work. Earning decent money, I
realized, wasn’t necessarily worth drudging through eight hours of shitty tasks five days a week, and if I became an attorney, I knew it would be substantially more hours than that, especially during the years I would spend as a junior associate. So, instead of studying for the LSATs during my free time, I started writing a novel (all evidence of which was destroyed not long after completion) and looking into pursuing an MFA in fiction. Oblivious to my rather comfortable middle-class privilege, I decided that I needed to find a way to make a life for myself while avoiding the conventional nine-to-five workaday world for as long as possible—forever, preferably.
At the firm, I spent forty hours each week ordering medical records and chest X-ray films from doctors and hospitals for hundreds of people, sending said medical records and films to pulmonologists for evaluation, and tracking the results. If the diagnoses came back as asbestosis, it was bad news for the people carrying around those unhealthy lungs, but it was good news for Mr. V. If the diagnoses came back as mesothelioma, a much rarer thing, it was terrible news for the people struggling to breathe, but it was a goldmine for Mr. V and the people’s families, who would soon enough be legally reclassified as survivors and heirs. I also spent hours and hours summarizing brick-thick deposition transcripts of coworkers of plaintiffs being asked questions about products at job sites from decades earlier (Q: Do you remember ever using XX Pipe Covering made by Y Company? A: I saw a lot of their joint compound, I know that. Q: But what about their pipe covering? It came in blue packaging. A: Probably, but it was a long time ago. I remember the pipe covering made by Z. We used that a lot.). I numbly mumbled what I had been trained to identify as key information into a Dictaphone and then passed the tapes onto one of two silent typists whose ears never peeked out from under headphones and whose fingers never stopped dancing. I wanted to die, for them and for myself. The law firm filled three floors of a large office building in a hip neighborhood. There were dozens of people like me and dozens of people like Edie working for the twenty or so attorneys who were all more or less like Mr. V. The place was a bustling hive of genuine do-gooding paired with genuine greed. No one other than baby-voiced Karla, but especially not Mr. V, ever paid me much attention unless I screwed up. Really screwing up usually involved blowing the statute of limitations for a client (by, for example, missing a diagnosis in the plaintiff’s medical records that had set the clock running earlier than previously thought), and thus for Mr. V. I tried hard not to really screw up because I didn’t want to ruin the chances of any of the workers done so wrong by these manufacturers who had long pretended not to know of the dangers of asbestos, but I also didn’t want Mr. V angry with me because he was really good at yelling humiliating things at people and also because, even though he was short and rather bird-boned, he scared the bejesus out of me.
I still screwed up, though as far as I know I never really screwed up. These screw-ups happened for a variety of reasons. I screwed up because I was disorganized. Because I was bored. Because I was angry about having to spend so much of my life so bored. I screwed up because I screwed off. Because I was in love with a woman, whom I would later marry, who worked for another attorney. I screwed up because I fell asleep in my office after staying up too late either watching old Jimmy Cagney movies or working on my terrible novel. Because I resented not being allowed to listen to 94.5 in my office, which meant I didn’t get to listen to bands such as Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Inspiral Carpets, both of which I had gone to see at my favorite club downtown with my former college roommate. Because I resented that I’d been wrong about what I’d halfheartedly planned to do with my life. I screwed up because I was immature and didn’t care, and also because I didn’t care that I didn’t care.
Something else I resented: being forced to go to the funeral of a woman I never knew to demonstrate my love and support for a woman I barely knew at all. I’d hardly ever even spoken to her administrative assistant, my equivalent. I especially resented it because, if I wanted to stay employed, Mr. V and his joyless smile could force me to do just about anything he wanted. Nonetheless, being given an opportunity to get out of work for a few hours did eventually transcend this resentment, and this is because, unsurprisingly enough, I saw my job less in terms of what I needed to accomplish by the end of the day (as do good employees everywhere) and more in terms of how best to kill the most time possible while waiting for 5:00 to come around and uncuff me. Attending a stranger’s funeral, I realized soon enough, was definitely a more effective eater of time than such ploys as holding a silent phone to my ear while pretending to be on hold with a hospital’s records department, reading a book while sitting on a toilet with my khakis still buckled, or simply walking the halls with a swollen accordion file tucked under my arm while wearing a look on my face that said Do not attempt to speak with me if you know what’s good for you; some urgent shit is going down and it involves what’s in this file and my getting it somewhere fast. All that I learned before attending the funeral was that Edie’s mother had been sick for a long time before finally dying in hospice care at her home. Yes, this was sad, but Edie herself seemed far from young to me, so her mother must have been ancient. In other words, from the perspective of a twenty-two-year old, so what, really? Death came to the old. It happened.
I only remember one thing about the funeral. Edie’s mother had had a nurse who cared for her in her final days (or months or years, I didn’t know). The nurse had grown very fond of Edie’s mother and was very sad about her death. So, to honor Edie’s mother, she wanted to sing a song, which was okay by me. Anything that lengthened the service and further delayed my return to the office was a good thing. The nurse stood by Edie’s mother’s casket and began to sing. I have no idea what song it was, but it doesn’t matter; no song ever written should have sounded like this. Within just a few seconds, her voice established itself as truly monumental in its unabashed awfulness. I was sitting in a pew next to Lyle, the only other male who worked for Mr. V. He was a paralegal fairly close to my age and a good work buddy, which means I never spoke to him again after I left the firm not long after. As the song buffeted us, I struggled to suppress the worst possible reaction in such a solemn circumstance: laughter. How could she be so cruel as to compel us to undergo an endurance test? I held my breath. I squeezed my hands into fists and clenched every clenchable muscle. I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted blood. And out of the corner of my eye, I could see that I had infected Lyle, who was now similarly struggling and thus intensifying my own struggle. Caught in a cruel symbiotic loop, we both grew sicker and weaker as we further poisoned each other’s air. Eventually, we ruptured.
If you’re old enough, or merely an aficionado of seventies television, this scenario may call to mind one of the most famous sitcom episodes of all time, “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” from the sixth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired on October 25, 1975.1 In this episode, after the ignominious death of Chuckles the Clown, a children’s-show entertainer, during a parade (which involved an elephant mistaking him for a very large peanut), Mary chastises her co-workers at WJM-TV for making inappropriate jokes about a fellow employee of the television station. During his funeral, however, she succumbs herself to irrepressible laughter when the presiding priest begins recounting for the mourners some of Chuckles’s most famous characters (such as Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo and Billy Banana) and catchphrases, including “a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.” After Mary’s disruptive outburst, the priest asks her to stand. She expects to be scolded, but instead she’s encouraged to laugh some more because, as the priest observes, nothing made Chuckles happier than laughter and sadder than crying. Mary then bursts into sobs that rack her body until the scene fades to commercial.
Edie’s mother had never been a clown, I assume, so our laughter was received much less warmly than Mary’s. In fact, a funeral attendant approached us from behind our pew and quietly but sternly asked us, the only ones in the chapel having difficulties of any sort, to leave if we couldn’t immediately get ourselves under control, which was something we both were struggling mightily to do but failing miserably at. What’s interesting is that I don’t remember whether we left the service or not. Did we wait for the others outside or did we manage to compose ourselves? I simply don’t remember. I don’t even remember if Mr. V chewed us out later. Nothing remains in my memory but the laughter and my painful inability to wrestle it into submission, which strikes me as bizarre. Shouldn’t I remember? Why don’t I remember?
While writing this, I thought about contacting Lyle to see what he remembered of this day. Did he remember whether we left or stayed? Did he remember Mr. V’s reaction? Edie’s? Anyone else’s? On Google, I searched his rather unique full name. I expected to find him still laboring as a thankless paralegal for some ungrateful attorney somewhere, so I was pleasantly surprised to find him not only not working as a paralegal but working as a baker, of all things, and a 2020 semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Baker at that. In the picture on his bakery’s website, he’s holding a flour sifter while wearing an apron over a dress shirt, a bow tie, a spiffy newsboy cap, and on his face, a genuinely joyful smile. I immediately remembered his good-naturedness. And his laugh. He had a great laugh that I can still hear in my head, which isn’t so odd, I suppose, considering how important his laugh was to my most vivid memory of him. I wondered if he would remember me, but then I thought, why would he want someone from thirty years ago to remind him of a former life and funeral humiliations when he’s now baking celebrated shortbread cookies and looking so incredibly happy? I certainly wouldn’t want someone doing that to me, even for something much less embarrassing, so I did unto him as I would want him to do unto me, and I left him alone to bake his delicious-looking confections.
Very soon after the funeral, convinced that I was about to get fired for my poor performance, not to mention my poor funereal behavior, I quit preemptively and took a job at a bookstore. A year later, I enrolled in an MFA program and discovered that I loved teaching. Nowadays, when I think back to the short time I spent at that law firm, I do so with relief and gratitude. Working as an attorney, I would have been miserable—in both senses of the word. When I think of Edie’s mother’s funeral, however, I do so only with shame, but that hasn’t always been the case. For far too long afterwards, when I would relate the scene to friends over beers, I didn’t do so with embarrassment. Instead, I took great pains to convey the hilariously painful dreadfulness of the singing and the utter impossibility of not laughing in such a circumstance; in other words, it became a tale in which I starred as a mischievous and irrepressible scamp, the dude who refused, unlike everyone else besides Lyle (who would have never laughed had I not started laughing first), to pretend that the emperor’s new clothes didn’t exist. It was a story that I thought made me look, in short, fun. Cool. Now, all I can think of is poor Edie, who was probably younger at the time than I am now. How awful it must have been for her there on the front row reserved for the family, to hear laughter coming from unknown mouths behind her, especially considering how obviously heartfelt the nurse’s singing was. Off-key or not, its sincerity was nearly a palpable thing there in the chapel. It was the sound of true anguish, the purest demonstration of love and support possible. At twenty-two, completely oblivious to my good fortune, I had somehow not yet attended the funerals of any of my own loved ones. Since then I have, and as I sat through the services of these loved ones, I couldn’t help but think about how awful and upsetting it would be to hear hysterical laughter while I grieved. Meanwhile, my own funeral, while not imminent, I hope, looms several decades larger and more threateningly on the horizon than it did in those days. When it does come, karma would suggest that my casket will be met with the laughter of an entitled punk forced to attend a stranger’s funeral. Maybe my former college roommate will wax nostalgic about our early twenties and share a song that makes him think of me then. Maybe he’ll stream “Directing Traffik,” by Inspiral Carpets, and then tell the attendees how I used to sport a Morrissey pompadour, wear baggy clothes from Goodwill, and string rosary beads around my neck because I was all about being alternative and edgy. These comments will likely be met with the sort of good-natured chuckles that are so welcome at funerals, as they momentarily ease the painfulness of the moment, but maybe one chuckler will stand out as incompatible with the others. It will be sharper, louder, and it will continue after the others have faded. It will increase in both volume and intensity. Maybe they will find the music so ridiculous and dated, such a corny reminder of a very brief moment during the early nineties when the swirling sound of a Farfisa organ was a groovy revival of the psychedelic sixties, that he won’t be able to stop. He’ll be unable to erase the ridiculous mental picture of this dead old guy’s younger days. Maybe he’ll imagine the rest of my weekend wardrobe: raggedy jean shorts, white socks, black winklepicker Ox-fords, horn-rimmed glasses. Maybe he won’t be able to stop laughing at the idea of just the sort of guy who liked to tell a story about how he once laughed so loudly and for so long at a funeral that he was asked to leave, the sort of guy who thought such a story was pretty funny.
1 In 2009, TV Guide ranked it #3 on their list of the one-hundred greatest TV episodes of all time.