He lay there with one hand slightly raised in mid air off his chest, his ﬁngers curled almost into a claw.
Richard was gone. Laid out in questionable repose, he was the victim of a bad heart and an inept funeral director. Doctors and morticians had failed him, both in his hour of need and now his presentation.
He was the only man I’ve ever known who was the victim of a black bear mauling. It was early spring before much of anything edible was available, so the sleepy bears were out of their rotted logs and from the undersides of stone outcroppings full of bad dreams. They had gone to bed hungry and now they woke even hungrier and more ornery than usual.
Richard’s garbage can contained the sugar residue of emptied soda cans, a magnet for bears who are notorious for having a sweet tooth. So when Richard pulled on his boots but didn’t bother with his pants early that morning, he had no idea what the next few minutes would bring when he opened his basement door to investigate the noise.
In the predawn darkness, he rounded the corner of his house to come almost eyeball to eyeball with the bear that was trudging his way toward the same corner but at a ninety degree angle to Richard. Both were startled, but Richard’s memory in those next few exciting moments was never reliable. All he later remembered was being on his back,kicking at the bear which had left some pretty nasty claw marks in his leg. Somehow or other he crawled backwards, kicking furiously, and got back inside the house and slammed the door closed.
When he recalled the story later, he laughed in his slow way at what he told the nurse at the local hospital. Seems as though the doctor had changed his mind and decided that Richard needed a rabies shot in addition to some extensive attention to his leg. As the nurse helped him out of his pants to clean the wounds and give him his shot, she smiled and asked him if he had soiled himself as a result of the attack. Without a blink, Richard said, “I guess we’re about to ﬁnd out.”
He was a good old boy who was a carpenter and loved to ﬁsh. To some eyes, that was about as close to the deity that he got, since he also loved to chew tobacco and had a taste for more than his share of the barley and the grape. When I ﬁrst moved here some 18 years ago, he was the Man Friday to another old geezer who reigned as monarch of this small neck of the woods where I have found a good life. These two came knocking at my door on a cold and slushy February morning to “welcome” me to my new home. Richard didn’t say much, just smiling at the city boy who thought he could move to the country without the country changing him all that much.
Over the years, I grew close to Richard and enjoyed his company. He had a mean- tempered old beagle named Sam who was always a star in one of Richard’s stories. Sam was a roamer and frequently found himself as defendant in more than a few questionable paternity suits by irate neighbors whose sweet young things were now carrying Sam’s pups. He was also an expert at retrieving a crippled squirrel shot out of a tall hickory. On the downside, he was temperamental and would pout and get ornery himself if he didn’t get to ride around with Richard in his dilapidated but reliable ancient Chevy pickup. They would just show up on occasion to “check in” on me.
In such moments, Richard was always entertaining and never demanding. I gave him a bottle of my home-made wine once and later when asked how he liked it, he said “Not much, wasn’t sweet enough.”
Honest and laconic are two words that come to mind to describe Richard. He never craved any attention and preferred to be on the sideline rather than in the bright lights. As my wife and I milled about the funeral home in the gritty West Virginia county seat close by to where Richard lived with his wife and near his two boys and grandchildren, I wondered what he would have thought of this gathering. He didn’t want a big “to do” about his funeral, his wife told me, but there was a large crowd of older folk there anyway that night. Most were in the farm clothes they wore every day and were laughing and seemed to be enjoying the chance to get out and socialize. I only knew a few but all were welcoming to us. It was quite a wake.
As I stood there, I remembered Richard in earlier times, when he would kid me about living out here alone and having to do all my own domestic chores. He once pulled in the drive when I was hanging out clothes which greatly amused him. He also grinned and asked if I was still going back “to the city” on Fridays to visit a girl friend and ﬁnd“some relief.”
As we approached the old boy for the last time, we couldn’t help but notice a split log in the form of a wreath instead of a bouquet of ﬂowers on the cofﬁn. It had Richard’s handsaw embedded in it with his hammer, drill and square all arranged as part of the overall tribute. His sons had made sure he was going out in a beﬁtting manner.
He was a good man and a good father. He was also “the gift” to them and to the rest of us, too, that ultimately keeps on giving.
Borrowing the phrase “After all living have turned to dust and ashes, in the ruins of cities alien archeologists will judge our civilization by such relics” from the poet Marge Piercy, I can only pray that Richard, too, has now found his own relief.