This is the first post of our December Theme Week. In honor of the holidays, the theme is Festive Reunions. Look for four more great twists on the theme tomorrow through Friday!
Our first post is written by Guest Contributor, Dennis Nau, who has had a dozen or so short stories published in literary magazines and another five or six on the shelf. His novel, “The Year God Forgot Us,” was published by North Star Press, and he should have a second novel ready for publication in about six months. Enjoy!
He just sat there in his wheelchair in the church basement and laughed. All of his 325 pounds shook and they shook so hard it could wake the dead. Well it didn’t wake Francis, upstairs in a casket.
Vernie tried to say something and then just started laughing once again, something you don’t often see at a funeral. “It’s nothing.” The rest of the family just pretended that we hadn’t heard him laughing. We didn’t want to embarrass him in public. Another week, at Christmas dinner, the subject of Vernie’s odd behavior would certainly be discussed in hushed tones.
He laughed, yes he did, at his own brother’s funeral, and then some person, probably me, would be sure to say, “Well, that’s Vernie,” as if that statement could explain everything. It usually did.
My brother Steve gave the blessing before the funeral meal. He’s a priest.
Francis and Vernie were my uncles. Francis had a heart attack when he was up maybe 100 feet on a silo, hit the ground with a thud, went out in style, Vernie says. The eulogy from my brother caused grown men to catch their breath. You’d cough, once or twice and try to pretend that it was just indigestion. I took out a handkerchief to wipe some tears away.
They were a pair, those two, my mother’s older brothers. I remember, as a young boy, watching out the kitchen window for Vernie and Francis to pull into the driveway in Vernie’s International or Francis’ Nash. Vernie would get out and laugh and hitch up his belt. Francis walked about ten degrees inclined toward the future. It was as if Francis was saying, “Let’s get on with it.” He was always the first one in the door, a patch over his right eye.
Vernie was slower, with laughter that billowed for some length, like thunder. “What’s the hurry?” That was Vernie’s attitude. There’d be jokes and candy and hugs, and a new baseball. Neither of them ever came empty-handed. They’d make my brother Steve read them his homework, and I thought about how someday I would be old enough and lucky enough to have homework too. They’d bring pork chops. We didn’t have many pork chops back then.
Francis was a late bloomer. He didn’t get married until he was 43. I was the ring-bearer at his wedding, the first time I ever wore a tie. Vernie never bloomed at all, well, not in that sense anyway, though it wasn’t for lack of trying.
He had a crush on Doris, the clerk at the grocery store in the late fifties, but never did ask her out directly. He’d write a personal check for his food. Vernie never dated the check, and one afternoon at the bank, Doris noticed.
“I think I should call the police. This is an illegal check.”
“What do you mean?”
“The date section of the check isn’t right. It just says, ‘You available?’”
“Vernie does that all the time. The checks are always good.”
Doris never returned any sign of interest. The writing on the date section began to change.
“You got a sister?”
Vernie owned 400 acres free and clear, worth a fortune in those days, still worth a fortune. Although our town, like every other town, had its share of desperate women, none were desperate enough to take on Vernie.
He didn’t bloom, but didn’t exactly whither either.
My mom worked at the cheese factory in New Ulm and we got by. I don’t know how. Me and my buddies would smoke dope in the basement when I turned 16 and giggle like fools. We’d burn incense to cover up the smell, and mom had no clue what we were really doing. She liked the smell of the incense, would bring us cookies and hot chocolate, and we’d listen to Janis Joplin. My friends used to laugh at her behind her back.
Vernie and Francis went out hunting one year and shot maybe the biggest Bull Moose in the history of the state of Minnesota, a moose the size of a pickup truck. The head was mounted in the Sportsman’s Club, where it sits to this very day. There’s a small plaque beneath it. Shot by Either Verness or Francis Fischer, September 12th, 1963, 115 yards. They both shot at the same time, fearless white hunters that they were, and one shot went through the forehead. They couldn’t figure out whose shot it was. The smart money would have been on Vernie, because he had two good eyes, but then smart money never followed my uncles.
Vernie and Francis would take over the taverns in town six nights a week when I was a kid, telling stories and buying beer. Francis was about 5’ 10,” weighed maybe 160 pounds, with a body made out of spring steel. Vernie was our very own Paul Bunyan, a giant among men, a kind-hearted, but don’t get him angry sort of person.
Gabe Murphy made some comment, disparaging, about my mother in 1962 or ’63. One punch and Gabe lost most of his chin and nose. They looked like Laurel and Hardy, Francis and Vernie, but they acted more like the Marx Brothers. Francis would go home first from the bars, for he had a wife, Eleanor, a patient soul, the kind of wife most valued by our family. Vernie, all 300 and some odd pounds, could stay until closing every night and be up to do chores next morning.
Francis quit going to the bars every night right after I turned 12, when his son Earnest was born. He cut back to just Friday and Saturday nights. He hadn’t quit going to the taverns when his daughter was born. He told me later that he had no worries that his daughters would try to copy him. “Sons are different. They take after their old man, whether you want them to or not. I don’t want him to turn out as worthless as I did.”
“Uncle Francis, you didn’t turn out worthless.”
“What have I done worthwhile, except give you two cousins?”
“Well you shot that moose.”
“Don’t ridicule me son or I’ll talk to your Uncle Vernie.”
Uncle Vernie played football with Bronco Nagurski, blocked for him on that famous 86 yard touchdown run in 1929. Bronco got All-American honors that year, both on offense and defense, the only collegiate player in history to do that. Vernie only played football for one year. “This football stuff is no good,” my grandfather told him. “They play it during harvest season.”
Vernie fought in the Pacific Theater with the Marines during the war. Francis was in North Africa and Italy with the Army. He followed Patton north, lost his eye to shrapnel while he was playing poker in a tent just outside of Rome.
Vernie had the big laugh, but Francis had all the small stories.
“I swear, he’d wait for me Danny, that county cop. I’d be hauling sweet corn up to Glencoe. I’d take back roads. A few miles out of Glencoe the flashing lights would go on. It didn’t matter which route I took. Cop would pull me over. ‘I think you’re overweight,’ he’d say. Same bastard every time. He’d walk back to his car and pull out a couple of paper bags. Then he’d climb up into the back of my truck, and start filling up the bags.
“He’d throw them into the backseat of his car. ‘There, I think you should be light enough now.’”
Vernie got the cop good, loosened all of the lug nuts on his tires one day in broad daylight, outside the coffee shop. The cop was two miles out of town before his wheels fell off.
Death and laughter. That’s our family legacy. My dad was killed by a tornado in August, 1952. My mother died when I was 23 from an aneurism. Eleanor died a year after Earnest was born. Francis’ daughter, Joanie, was killed in a car accident when she was 25.
That’s our family. We gather for Easter, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas, to celebrate. In between, it seems, we go to funerals.
Vernie, you must quit laughing, I thought to myself in the basement of the church. Your brother’s dead. What could be so funny?
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
Well, of course, it was something, probably something to do with the time he got shot in the ass at Iwo Jima. “I didn’t really even feel it, Danny, just noticed that the back end of my fatigues were wet. I figured I wet my pants. I said it aloud. I was ashamed of myself. I believed that I was going to die on Iwo Jima and my buddy, Corporal Arneson, would have to tell Ma the news.
“‘Did he have any last words?’ Ma would ask.
“‘He said, ‘I wet my pants.’ I was relieved to find it was only blood.”
Vernie used to tell that story and after nine or ten beers he’d drop his pants and show every person in the tavern his scar.
Vernie had to lose weight before the Marines would take him. My dad had to wear elevator shoes to his physical before the Coast Guard would take him. Francis was the perfect specimen. It didn’t really matter that he could hardly read or write, because he could tell a good joke.
“Ok. Ok. I’ll tell you the truth.” Vernie giggled once again in the church basement and blew his nose. “I couldn’t help but think about it, the time Francis and me shot that moose. We got our license, and we were up in Milaca. We stopped at the Legion Club on Friday night and we just drank and told one story after another, and we had a lot of stories to tell. Saturday morning we got up and just drank and drank.
“We had an audience, Andy.”
“Sunday morning we knew that we should go to church but we drank more beer. We’re going to have to go out and get a moose somehow, Francis says. It seemed like a lot of work. Then this Indian says maybe he could get a moose for us and we wouldn’t have to leave the Legion Club.
“It seemed like a good deal. I want a buck a pound, he said. We offered a nickel. We settled on 15 cents. How were we to know he’d get such a big moose? It cost us over 200 dollars. That Indian left the club at 3 o’clock and was back at six. I’d never seen an animal that big. Stunk to high heaven. It seems there was a big apple orchard nearby and the apples would fall to the ground and rot and ferment and deer and moose and even bears would eat them and get drunk and pass out. The Indian just put a rifle up to the temple of that moose lying on the ground and pulled the trigger. We paid him just like we agreed, but we weren’t happy. It should take more work to kill a moose.”
“It was more work than drinking beer on a barstool at the Legion Club.”
“Well, that’s true.”
“Uncle Vernie, how’d you keep it secret? You guys could never keep anything secret.”
“We made a bet. I bet Francis a new John Deere Tractor, model 1010RS that I wouldn’t tell. He bet me that same tractor that he wouldn’t tell.”
“It’s a beautiful machine. We hatched the whole plot up in Milaca, made up the story, swore an oath, all on a Sunday afternoon.
“I wish he had told somebody, the little shit. I didn’t think he could keep a secret.”
“Francis even kept it secret from Eleanor?”
“She was a good wife to Francis, Eleanor; she really was. But she wasn’t exactly a new tractor now, was she?”
My brother in his sermon during the funeral said that he wished there were more men in the world like my uncles. The world needed more people who would be their brother’s keeper. The world needed more people who would bring pork chops to their nephews and make them do their homework.
The world needed people who would treat their hired men with respect and give them a bonus after the harvest was in, who would make a woman who was a cashier at the hardware store feel attractive because you wrote her a check.
I take Vernie to chemotherapy. His days are numbered. At night he tries to write jokes and stories that I should tell about him for the eulogy at his wake, but usually he just starts laughing. I push Vernie down to the Senior Citizen’s Center every Wednesday and Saturday in his wheelchair. He lives with me now, and keeps the old women, and they mostly are old women there at the Senior Citizen’s Center, in stitches. When he told the story about Francis digging that grave, they had to pick up Mrs. Dahlman with a rescue squad vehicle, she laughed so hard that she fell down.
“It was ’32 or ’33, I don’t remember. Francis must have been about 17. Roger Ruschmeyer had died and Francis agreed to dig the grave. He got 40 cents for his labors. But, somehow, Francis got into the church wine.”
“The communion wine?” Mrs. Dahlman asked, horrified.
“Of course not. Francis was pretty devout when he wanted to be. It was the homemade rotgut stuff that old man Evenson made from the grapes that grow down by the river valley. He brought that wine to every church function, funerals and weddings and baptisms. The pastor didn’t care as long as Evenson served it out behind that back grove of trees. Well, we’re out there at the gravesite, and the pastor says, ‘Let’s have a moment of silence for Roger Ruschmeyer.’
‘Then there’s this low rumble, like it might be a dead man’s indigestion. We look around. There’s a low rumble again. We look at the casket. We look at each other. The sun was out. It couldn’t be thunder. The pastor says a prayer. More rumbles. We all stare at each other, thinking maybe we should call the coroner or mortuary or sheriff, to make sure Ruschmeyer was really dead. Turns out, Francis was snoring at the bottom of the grave, shovel in one hand, bottle of wine in the other. The bottle was empty. My dad would have killed him then and there if there weren’t witnesses around.”
“My God, it’s a little chilly. Do they still serve a little brandy in this town, Danny?”
“I’m sure they do.”
“Well, we should check it out, just to be on the safe side. Why don’t you wheel me into Tammy’s Tavern. Tammy’s a desperate woman if I ever saw one.”
Not that desperate.