Andrew Marlowe Bergman
What Happens When You Die
Sebastian was never meant for Kentucky. We buried him seven months after we moved there. He was born on a farm east of Des Moines and my parents adopted him and his sister, Sybil, when they were a few months old. She might have survived a while in Kentucky if not for the loss of her brother.
Sybil was a bitch. The only time she ever purred in the fifteen years my parents had her was seven months before Sebastian died, in October of 1992 when my mother nearly died during her final pregnancy. My mother lay across the couch tucked under blankets and clutching a paper towel because we had no money for luxuries like Kleenex and Sybil would come up to her, leap from the floor to the arm to the back of the couch and purr at my mother’s sickness.
Nobody cried when Sybil died.
When Sebastian went, we held a vigil, like a shiv’a, but only for a day, so I suppose you’d call it an ‘echad. One of my parents, likely my father, set Sebastian’s body across the foot of their bed. His tail and back were still black and the black still came over his head forming that famous Siamese mask which marked his breed. His body was still the color of wet sand. My parents lined my little brother, my sister, and I up to pet him one last time. My sister, Mary, the youngest of up went first. While she cried, my brother leaded back and whispered to me: “Didn’t you stick your finger up Sebastian’s butt?”
“I was two, you jerk,” I said. In that moment, I wanted to shove him into the bed, but the last time I did that he landed face-first on the frame and needed six stitches to close the gash across the bridge of his nose. We were still living in Illinois then. I’d been seven and him five. Kids fight. I got spanked in the hospital while they were sewing him up. By the third stitch my brother realized that my mother was spanking me every time he screamed, so for the last three he screamed more than he needed to and while he left the hospital with a sucker and a sticker and a smile, I left with a limp.
Standing there at ten and eight, a week after Thanksgiving, all I wanted for Christmas was my cat back. The duplex we shared was doled out with decorations: our walnut nativity with a built in music box that would play “Joy to the World,” and hadn’t begun to splinter yet, our plastic tree whose branches we had to reinforce with pencils and pipecleaners, the multicolored Christmas lights that didn’t quite survive the journey south, my Cub Scouts decorations that unfortunately for me did—a Santa Cone made of cork board and construction paper with a cotton ball beard and epileptic eyes, a paper plate snowflake, and too many ornaments made with eager, but unpracticed hands. Our duplex felt like how my parents described what a funeral should be: a celebration of life.
How do you celebrate the life of a cat? Especially one whose most famous moment involved a two-year-old sliding his finger up its ass? Sebastian had no ticks and he had no quirks. He was never moody. He was never mean the way Sybil was. He was just good. A plain, simple good that makes the words plain and simple even more pathetic than they already are. Sebastian was so good he was boring. He liked to cuddle, that was something. Of all the nothing I could think of him, I couldn’t understand why I was so upset. My mother cried because she’s a crier. My sister cried because she was already a kinder and gentler soul at five than most people are in their most selfless moments. She buried her face in his body and came up red and swollen with a few stray hairs stuck to her face.
My father had told me that it was okay to cry while I was still a boy, but that I’d be a man soon, and crying was about to become a luxury. My parents had the puberty talk with me by then, so I already understood that when I impulsively snuck into the bathroom to play with myself while thinking about our neighbor and occasional babysitter, that the change had already begun.
My brother quickly pet Sebastian and said good-bye and then it was my turn. His body was still warm. Maybe it was because it was December and the heat, for once, was on. Maybe it was the procession of hands. Maybe it was my sister’s face. I swear to you, though the cat was warm. I looked to my father, who was still a few years away from grey hairs and obvious wrinkles, and asked him what was going to happen to Sebastian.
“I can’t bury him in the yard, so I’m going to bury him off the concrete stairs on the walk down to Kroger. I’ll find a good tree for him and his body will make it stronger.”
I knew about bodies and decay. My father has had two burial fantasies that I remember further back than I remember: in a burlap sack under a tree and the ever-awesome flaming Viking funeral. The part about the yard was more complicated. The people we shared the duplex with were the daughter and son-in-law of the landlord. They had called Child Protective Services on us once not knowing the difference between child abuse and people being loud. When the CPS officers came to school to talk to each of us they asked if we were afraid of our father. Each of us in turn laughed at the question. When the CPS officers found my mother at home with our baby sister, Brenna, they looked around the house, saw the toys, the books and the hundreds, literally hundreds of photos of smiling happy kids and decided there was no need to follow up, apologizing to our mother for taking up her time.
“Can I go with?” I asked my dad.
“No,” he said, “this is a grown-up thing.”
A month later in early January 1994 he buried Sybil. She didn’t get an ‘echad. She got whatever the Hebrew word for half-hour is and was buried next to Sebastian under a tree whose importance was only known to my father.
Three years later, after we had left the duplex in Clifton, and moved two and a half miles down Frankfort Avenue and into Crescent Hill, we learned that we would need to move the cats. A CVS was going in on Brownsboro Road and they were knocking out most of the side of the hill where my father buried them to make room for their state-of-the-art drive through pharmacy lane.
This was one of those years when we didn’t have a car, so late the following Friday night my dad walked across the road and waited for a TARC bus while I snuck out the back door and waited him to board. The 19 and the 31 busses made regular passes down Frankfort Avenue as it connects the east end of Louisville in with downtown. As soon as he was on one, I ran across the street and boarded the other. Both of us got off at Vernon Avenue, across from an old gas station which is now a classy bar, and headed down the first southern road we’d ever known. I jogged to catch him, careful of the November leaves, but I kept my distance and stayed on the other side of the street. The last thing I wanted was to be caught before it was too late. My heart raced, not from the jog, I wasn’t fat then, but with fear. I knew my father and I knew the worst he’d do was scold me, that if he were to spank me, it would be when we got home and after he’d told my mother what I’d done, but what was I doing? I’d never seen death. Not in any real way. I knew I got my name from my dad’s dad who died before I was born, I knew all my great-grandparents were dead and I knew that everyone dies eventually, but the only dead bodies I’d seen were Sybil and Sebastian.
They were three years dead and buried. I was thirteen and more a man, having almost fixed the crying thing, and definitely moved on from the neighbor and onto Playboy. Death is a part of life and being a man means facing that. I needed to know what I was facing. I’d thought of inviting Vinny, but he’d tell Mom. I’d thought of inviting Mary, but I thought she’d cry again.
We lived in apartments my whole life, so my dad was digging up the bodies with his bare hands when I snuck up on him. He was sweating and panting, three years was all it took for age to start to catch him. The night was clear and the moon high and bright, and I knew my father well enough that without seeing his face I knew what color red it was.
“Hey, Dad.” I whispered.
He jumped up, startled. He cocked his fist back ready for a fight, then saw my face.
“Yeah, Dad. Just me.” He inhaled deep, loosened his fists, and dropped his arms.
“Other bus?” He asked. I nodded and he nodded. He wasn’t happy with me, but I felt pride radiating off of him. He didn’t smile, he just waved me over.
Down in the ground were two brown plastic Kroger bags, sunken in, deflated. There were still bits of black dirt over them, but they were ready to move. I kneeled down right where my father’s knees had worn divots and reached a hand in and another. I untied the bag with the larger lump and saw fur and bones and not much else bathed in the moonlight.
“What do you think?” my dad asked.
I thought about how horrifying Sebastian looked. The fangs most of all, but the sharp contours of his skull, the black pits of his eyes, the patchy fur like mange upon the skeleton. How yellow it looked. How lean his skeleton was, jagged points of ribs. I thought about how soft and delicate he’d been in life and how vicious he looked in death. That as sweet as he was, it was all held together and up by this monster inside.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s alright. Tie the bag off. We’re going to the park on the other side of the trees. The one with that rusted metal slide.”
We didn’t speak on the way, the trees were too thick and the hike too steep. We dug the cats new graves with our hands, and poured the remains into the ground, covered the cats, and pocketed the Kroger bags. On our way back to the bus stop, Dad laughed and said that Mom would be pissed at him for letting me help.
We stood under a yellow street light waiting on the bus. A cool breeze cut through my shirt and tickled the hairs on the back of my neck. Cigarette butts and candy wrappers jostled on the ground.
I was slapping dirt from my hands and my father was cleaning his nails with the key to a car we no longer owned when I finally spoke again. “Dad, is this what happens when you die?”
He looked down at me, then back down the road. The only vehicles to be seen were parked in neat rows. Half of them were dented or spotted with rust. The city glowed pale in the distance and there wasn’t a star to be seen.
“If you’re lucky.”
Andrew Marlowe Bergman lives and writes in Elk Horn, Kentucky. His work has appeared in the TalkPoverty Blog, Tattoos: A Main Street Rag Short Fiction Anthology and elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewMBergman.