Mildred “Hattie” Effinger Jones, 1920-2001. Dying in your sleep, peacefully, at the age of 81 seems as good a way to go.If you’re the husband left behind, waking up to the woman you’ve spent most of your life with, that may be cold comfort.
Hettie’s husband seems to be keeping together pretty well, though, telling off David for doing his job: selling other people their graves. “You can’t take advantage of me because I’m old! I’ll kick your ass!” the recalcitrant Mr Jones growls, followed by “I don’t want you to cut her or stick her or pickle her like an egg!” (Ruth, much less recently bereaved, seems completely out of it, staring at her pots and pans as if trying to gleem the meaning of life at the bottom of a kitchen appliance.)
Mr Jones turns out to be more high maintenance than most clients, though, stopping by the Fishers’ in the early Sunday morning to see his wife, finding only Claire who doesn’t “deal with the dead people”. When Brenda turns up, looking for Nate, she finds the two of them sitting on the sofa, the old man fallen asleep on Claire’s shoulder. For all her prickly demeanour, the Fisher girl is surprisingly adept, if unwillingly, at comforting the clients.
In the meantime, Nate follows the trail of a mystery: in his father’s ledger detailing the business transactions, a number of clients obviously paid for funerals in other ways than cash. Investigating these cases, Nate finds out a few things about the late Nathaniel Fisher that he hadn’t even imagined before. “He was such a kook!” one woman says about the man he’d always known to be straight as an arrow, followed by the admission that she supplied Nate’s father with high-quality pot, on a monthly basis.
Finally, at an Indian restaurant, Nate finds that his father had made a deal with the proprietor: he’d bury the man’s wife for free, and in return he can use the storeroom as a place to be whenever he needed to get away. What did he do there? Play solitaire, listen to rock music, light up a spliff. Have a drink. Get away from his family? Meet girls for afternoon trysts? Nate’s imagination supplies the images (including one of Nathaniel Sr. firing at passers-by with a precision rifle, cackling maniacally). It’s clear from the expression on his face what Nate thinks: he didn’t know his father at all.
Talking of not knowing your parents: at church, Ruth and David bump into one Hiram Gundersson, hairdresser and former lover of Ruth. The man’s obviously quite eager to rekindle the flames of passion, now that Ruth’s husband has been in the ground for a decent amount of time. Hiram’s not the only suitor at Ruth’s doorstep, though: Nikolai, the Russian proprietor of the flower shop supplying Fisher & Sons makes his interest in her quite clear.
Nate’s getting comfortable in his father’s room, lighting up and going through his dad’s bag of dope, talking to the dead man. “This business gets under your skin. It’s like a fucking virus,” the senior Fisher says. “What the hell did you do here? Who the hell are you?” Nate asks, frustratedly, only to have his father retort: “So many questions. Why couldn’t you ask them when I was still alive?” One never does, though, does one? “It’s okay. I couldn’t answer most of them anyway,” Nathaniel Sr. adds, “unlike now – now I’m a fucking prophet. That’s one of the perks of being dead – you know what happens after you die and you know the meaning of life.” Cue stoned giggles from the dead man who’s obviously enjoying himself much more than his son. Death becomes him, it would seem.
Nate’s brother David’s not having the best of times either, helping out at the church’s soup kitchen in the hope that it’ll keep his mind off things (and especially of Keith walking out on him), only to have his own personal stalker Tracy and even his mother’s ex-lover Hiram turn up as helpers. Not that much later, we see him cruising a local gay club, obviously looking for some comfort. Any comfort, as long as it’s not a neurotic, stalkerish funeral tourist like Tracy, that is.
Talking of stalkers: Billy Chenowith turns up at Claire’s school with a camera, appealing to her natural teenage narcissism. His questions about his own sister’s relationship with Nate suggest that he wouldn’t mind being disturbingly close to Brenda, more so than to any other woman. When Claire calls him the next day, he brushes her off: “You’re, what, 16? What do you think I am, a pedophile?”
When Nate shows David his father’s room, his brother is less understanding towards Nate’s curiosity: “People are allowed to have private lives. I don’t care if he brought women back here to fuck – I don’t care if he brought men back here to fuck.” “I know you’re pissed off about a lot of shit, but I didn’t make any of that shit happen. Oh right, yeah, I abandoned you. Well, you know what? I’m not your father. I’m not the one whose responsiblility it was not to abandon you.” A sarcastic David thanks his brother for the honesty, “wrapped as it was in such a bouquet of condescension.” Nate obviously thinks that honesty and frankness is always the way to go, no matter how damaging it can be, while his brother’s rather less convinced that being open and honest works out all that well. And David definitely doesn’t take projection all that well, least of all from his brother.
Later that night, Mr Jones is still sitting next to his wife’s coffin. As Nate touches his shoulder, the old man’s head falls. The loneliness of going on without Hattie would seem to be too much to bear. Just ask David, looking forlornly at passing police cars, hoping to catch a glimpse of Keith. Ask Ruth, plucking up her courage to knock at Hiram’s front door. Some people seek to be alone. Some people can’t bear it.
- So, Nathaniel Fisher Sr. was a regular Virginia Woolf. Minus the writing, and the suicide. And breasts.
- Brenda’s wacko brother Billy meets Nate’s wannabe-wacko sister Claire. You think she might find him and his self-destructive wildness interesting? Hey, it does take ten minutes or so before we see the two of them exporing each other’s tonsils.
- Mr Jones, when Claire doesn’t want to let him into the house: “Help! There’s a white girl trying to cripple an old black man!” He sure knows how to get what he wants, Mr Jones, doesn’t he?
- More Mr Jones gems: “Lady, I can see it from here, and I’m blind and deaf. You need to get yourself laid!” Not exactly the kind of words Ruth is used to – but as much as a cliché it is, the man might have a point.