*Image: “#25 Rain” by Ramsay Wise, 24″ x 30″ Spray Paint and Acrylic on Canvas
By Eric Barnes
When someone dies in the North End, there is a funeral. Many people attend. It is our only communal act. There are really no other reasons for a crowd to gather.
There is a church downtown that still has a minister, an older man I see sometimes near the corner store or near the church itself, where he sweeps the wide steps leading up to the entrance. The minister holds services each Sunday, and from my windows I can always see a few people making their way to the church on Sunday morning.
When there is going to be a funeral, the minister nails handwritten signs to the telephone poles around downtown. It’s a short announcement, listing the name of the person who has died and the time of the service.
Often, a few hundred people attend, far more than ever go to a Sunday service. Far more than the dead person could have possibly known here.
There are Bibles and hymnals in the long wooden pews of the church, but the minister doesn’t have us open them. He is a small, thick man who stands at the front of the vast sanctuary, the dead body in a very simple casket on the wide altar, and reads from notes he has written. This was once a Catholic church, but he is not a Catholic. His notes come from many religions. Christian and Muslim and Jewish and Hindu. He sometimes mentions Buddha. He sometimes mentions the Greek gods. Roman.
The group always sings Amazing Grace.
The group always stands in the pews at the end of the service, silent for a full minute.
Even here, there is something strange in the unexpected depth of the silence of the crowd.
The group always follows as the casket is carried out of the large sanctuary. The crowd stands on the steps of the church, watching as the casket is slid into an old hearse, the minister saying a last thought, a prayer of sorts, not specific, speaking toward all of us on the steps. Then he gets in the hearse and drives the body away.
What he says is not important. He emphasizes this. What matters, he says, is the process. The gathering. The continuation of this ritual.
The group watches the car drive off. It is very quiet. Not silent, people do talk. But not many, and not loudly.
And then everyone walks away, leaving in many different directions. Returning to their homes or to their scavenging of the abandoned factories or to the corner store to get that week’s food. A few hundred adults, some very old, some younger than me, about half men, half women, white or black or Hispanic or Middle Eastern or Asian. We wander off. Few say good-bye.
It’s hard not to do the math, not to realize that every funeral marks a diminishing of our numbers. Enough of these funerals and, finally, no one will live here in the North End at all.
An air raid siren wails from a horn on top of a building near mine. In a moment, a siren in the industrial zone joins the wailing, then another from the neighborhoods stretching south, then more than I can manage to follow.
This happens. Roughly once a week. Preprogrammed civil defense tests that have continued automatically. I picture people in the South End hearing these sirens spinning up to their horrific pitch. The warning cries from a deadened place, an empty place, an area of waste and abandonment and danger.
The sound is very loud. Rising, then falling, then rising to nearly a scream.
People in the South End fear this place. They fear the unknown and unfamiliar, and they fear even more that they too could, somehow, end up just like this.
We are not some distant, foreign land. We are not far away from them at all.
The sirens seem always to get louder. Each drop in the sound followed by a rising wail even louder than I remember.
And so I can only stand at my open window. Hands over both my ears. Pressing hard, now harder, closing my eyes, whispering to myself, It’s almost over. It’s almost over.
It’s not that we were ever bombed. No one was.
People simply gave up. And moved away.
There is another funeral today. The first in three months.
The minister tells me the man died of a heart attack.
“How do you know for sure?” I ask him.
We are standing in the basement of the church. The body lies on a wooden table, a white sheet pulled over it.
The minister glances at me. He has a density to him, the minister. The thickness of his chest, his unexpectedly short arms and legs. I realize for the first time that he’s Hispanic.
He is looking down at the body.
“I was a mortician,” he says. In a moment he says, “I still am.”
The fluorescent light overhead reflects pale, cold blue off the sheet covering the body. The minister’s profile is pale as well, his skin turned almost green by the light. He keeps his black hair cut close to his head, wears a black sweater and black pants.
“You’re not a minister,” I think to say.
He smiles slightly. Shakes his head. “No.”
The two of us are quite sure the dead man is not from the North End. The minister knows many people here. Knows the scavengers and the people who hang out near the corner store. He gets around the North End.
“Making myself available,” he says. “That’s what I do. And I’ve never seen this man.”
The minister acts like he knows me, yet we’ve spoken only a few times. But, I guess, this is just his way. The minister found me walking near the church. He asked me to follow him to the basement. He asked me to witness the death certificate as he signed.
I sign my name, too, now. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that.
On the steps of the church an hour later, a crowd has gathered quietly for the funeral. Two hundred or more. Most people have come alone, although there are some people who arrive together. There are a few couples, older people, who help each other up the steps. Some of the crowd is fresh from scavenging, the only work left here on this side of the city. Twenty men and women with their clothes and hands and faces turned chalky white from the work they’ve been doing that morning. Their eyes all shine, wet, their lips a bright and unnatural red, shining too, and they have jewelry they’ve scavenged from abandoned homes wrapped tight around their wrists and forearms and throats, so that as they stand together they look like some sort of tribe, nomadic or warlike or cannibals or saints, arriving together to witness the funeral rites.
As the sirens start screaming, I look up, to the bell tower on the church. The siren there, atop the tall brick tower, is quiet. I see the minister up there.
The minister has managed to disconnect that siren.
Even from down here on the street, I think I can see him smiling.
The minister and I are in a playground not far from the church. He is drinking from a glass of what he says is bourbon. “Do you want any?” he asks.
I shake my head. “No, thank you.”
Still I allow myself just the one drink, at night, alone in my room. People who live here have ways of managing their lives. You have to, here in a place so abandoned. If you don’t, I’m sure you’ll stay all day wherever it is you sleep, motionless, alone, the kind of place where it seems likely you’ll die.
It begins to rain, very lightly, the drops touching my hands and face. The minister and I are both sitting on one of the park benches.
“I remember once giving a woman money after sex,” he says, looking toward the half empty pond and the low, black trees around it. “Not paying for it. Although I would have. I mean, I’d done that before. More than once. But that time, the woman I was with, I just knew she needed the money.”
I don’t know what has started this thought for him. Maybe the bourbon, I think. Maybe the rain.
“I am starting to replant the courtyard behind the church,” the minister says. “I’d like to see some things grow.”
I find myself tapping my hand lightly on the arm of the bench, affirmation, though I don’t think he needs that.
The minister fills his side of the bench, yet his bare feet barely touch the ground.
Bare feet even in this cold and wet.
He is nodding, to himself I think.
“I’ve done things I would rather not remember,” he says, “So in my mind I am constantly changing the subject, trying to keep myself from remembering.”
His feet swing, the soles just touching the grass underneath us, a silent metronome to his talking.
“I gave her that money,” he says, his small fingers wrapping around his glass as he lifts it to his lips. “Just twenty dollars. And she began to cry.” He sips again. “But the thing is, she took it. She took that money. Put it in the pocket of her long dress. We had sex other times. I never handed her money again, though. Instead, I left money on a table, wrinkled up, like it had fallen from my wallet, so that it looked forgotten, looked like I wouldn’t notice that, each time, she took it with her.”
Rain touches my hands, lightly, and I look up, squinting, and can see each drop as it falls toward my cheeks.
“Don’t you think,” I ask, “that the lie was as much for you as for her?”
It’s a moment, but he smiles some. Barely.
He says quietly, “Yes. I’d never thought about it that way. But yes.”
When there’s no wind, you can hear even the faint drops landing on the leaves of the garden around us.
“There are much worse things I have done,” he says. “To others. To myself.”
In a moment, I ask him, “Where did you do those things?”
He is still looking away from me, toward the plants growing along the base of the stone benches along the wall. “Back there,” he says. “In the South End.”
It’s a long while before I respond. “But not here,” I say. “You haven’t done them here.”
His feet swing. He smiles slightly. “That’s right,” he says.
There’s a smell to a rain like this. Something warm and close and not at all bad.
“It’s quite remarkable,” he says. “To plant something in my garden. To see just a few flowers begin to bloom.”
We are quiet for some time. The rain falls so lightly that my hands are barely wet and the water hasn’t reached through my hair to my scalp. I drink from my coffee, and the minister sips from his bourbon and I watch his feet swing, slowly, evenly, brushing drops of water from the blades of grass.
He shrugs, as if responding to something I’ve said. He smiles again. “I don’t really know why I moved myself into that church,” he says. “Of all places, a church. But I grew up going to church. I grew up believing a place like that had meaning. I grew up believing a place like that brought out the good in people.”
I press my finger against the arm of the bench, the finger sliding, the beads of water collecting on the skin and fingernail.
“I guess,” he says, pushing his hand across his eyes, “I guess I grew up believing in the idea of redemption.”
My finger is wet to the knuckle with the collected beads of rain. Water that is so clear. It’s surprising, really, that the water here would be so clean and clear.
I touch it to my tongue.
“You should plant some things,” the minister says. He’s looking from the pond to the dead trees around it. He wipes his eyes again. “There’s hope in planting something new,” he says. “There really is. People should know that. Everyone needs to know.”
Sometimes, new people do come here. It surprises me, every time.
The minister, he seeks them out. Meets them. Welcomes them to this place.
“I assume they come here for the same reasons we did,” the minister says to me. Along the wall behind him, bright yellow flowers, tiny and in the hundreds, have bloomed in a swath reaching up at a slow angle from the ground to twenty feet high. “To make a life for themselves,” he says.
“What kind of life?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Maybe something quiet. Maybe something satisfying and simple.”
When the air raid sirens go off the next day, I realize there are fewer of them. Someone has disconnected more of the sirens.
“Strangely,” the minister says as we walk through his growing garden behind the church, “I have become my best self here.”
In another week, when the sirens go off, only three sirens scream out.
“I wake up,” the minister says as he sits on the steps of his church, “and look forward to the day.”
I sit as far back in the church pews as I can. There are forty people here. More than ever before.
“What is it,” the minister asks, standing at the pulpit, “that I find so pleasant about this place?”
In another week, I realize, the sound of the sirens is gone completely.