Dead Dad’s Club: An Excerpt from BIG RAY

This weekend we have an excerpt from the novel Big Ray, by Michael Kimball, just out from Bloomsbury and getting rave reviews. Big Ray’s temper and obesity define him, at least to his family. When Big Ray dies, his son feels mostly relief, dismissing his other emotions. Yet years later, the adult son must reckon with the outsized presence of his father’s memory. . . Shot through with humor and insight, Big Ray is a staggering family story—at once brutal and tender, disturbing and beautiful. 

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I don’t remember the name of the funeral home that took care of my father’s dead body, but it had a somber name. I don’t remember the name of the funeral director either, but I do remember sitting across the desk from him as he told my sister and me what the options were—burial or cremation, casket or urn, open or closed. There could be a funeral with the body or a memorial service without a body.

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The funeral director suggested we might not want an open casket and then wrinkled up his face. It was his gentle way of letting us know our father’s body had decomposed during the five days before anybody realized he was dead. The funeral director also let us know my father would require what was known as a Goliath casket and that would cost extra, if we decided we did want to bury him in a casket.

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As far as we knew, our father didn’t make any arrangements for himself. We didn’t know how he wanted his death to be handled. We didn’t even know if he wished to be buried or, if he did, if he wished to be buried in a particular cemetery or in a particular city—Lansing or Las Vegas or even San Clemente.

We didn’t know if he wished to be cremated or, if he did, if he wished for his ashes to be kept in an urn or scattered in some particular place in the world—a river or a lake he used to fish in, one of the casinos where he used to play poker, or maybe one of the drive-in restaurants that served draft root beer and his favorite Coney Dog.

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One of the awkward parts of deciding what to do with my dead father was when my living mother offered one of the cemetery plots she had inherited from her parents. This meant my father would have been buried with my mother’s family and my father would have hated that. Also, it seemed wrong, the idea of their two dead bodies being buried next to each other forever after they had divorced.

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We decided on a memorial service instead of a funeral service. My father would not have wanted a minister to say anything about his life. My father would not have wanted anybody to say anything about his life. I understand the implications of that. I didn’t always do what my father wanted me to do.

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We decided to have my father cremated. It avoided the question of an open or a closed casket. It also avoided the posthumous embarrassment of the Goliath casket. These were quiet ways we honored our father.

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I paid for as much of the final arrangements as I could with the money from my dead father’s wallet. I put the rest of it on a credit card.

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Having a dead father is distracting. Sometimes, in the months after he died, I forgot where I was driving a car or what I was doing in a particular room. Sometimes, I would find myself just standing in the middle of the kitchen or looking at myself in the mirror over the bathroom sink.

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I wanted to think the death of my father wasn’t affecting me, but I forgot to pack any nice clothes to wear at my father’s memorial service. I didn’t bring a jacket or a tie or even a belt. That’s how I realized I wasn’t being myself.

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Whenever I think of my father being dead, I feel like I am somebody else. Whenever I am not thinking about my father being dead, I feel like I am being myself.

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Generally, a funeral service or a memorial service is supposed to take place within several days of the person’s death, but my father had already been dead for five days before anybody found him so the memorial service was three days after that.

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A lot of people sent flowers. Most of the people who came to the memorial service were family, but there were also a lot of old neighbors, a few people who he went to high school with, and the guys who he played poker with. I know some of these people attended the memorial service out of a sense of obligation, but it was more people than I expected, and I wanted to think a good number of the people cared about my father. It made the end of his life seem a little less lonely than it probably was.

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Toward the end of the visiting hours, a woman who nobody seemed to know walked into the memorial service. She looked at me and said, You must be his son. She said, He left his mark on you.

I disliked her as soon as she said it, but I kept talking with her. I didn’t want to be anything like my father and I wanted to know who she was. She turned out to be a nurse who worked with my father’s doctor. She said my father always talked about his kids and he always made her laugh. I was surprised to find out my father talked about my sister and me with strangers. I didn’t feel like we were talking about the same person.

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I am the only person who traveled a great distance to be at my father’s memorial service.

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I still don’t like my father, but I still miss him.

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My father’s best friend for most of his life was Stanley Rogan. They went through school together, joined up for the Marines together, and stayed friends with each other even as each of their wives left them. At the memorial service, I asked Stanley to tell me a story about my father and he told me about a night of drinking in San Clemente, California, in 1960.

My father and Stanley had been out at a bar near the beach, then gotten into some kind of skirmish with some surfer guys. The police showed up and Stanley remembers my father and him running out the back of the bar, through backyards and alleyways, and then hiding in somebody’s sailboat until they were sure nobody was chasing them anymore. Stanley said, It felt like a chase scene in a movie.

They snuck back to the apartment my father shared with my mother and, by the end of the night, they were crushing empty beer bottles in the garbage disposal (a relatively new appliance at the time) and playing the radio as loud as it would go. Eventually, the garbage disposal jammed and the radio stopped playing. After that, my father unplugged the radio and started swinging it by the cord around and around over his head. Then my father would let the radio fly across the living room and yell, Play, damn it, as it crashed into the walls of the apartment. This did not stop until the radio was broken into pieces and they were out of beer.

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I don’t feel like that guy was my father.

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After my father died, I found it difficult to accept any kind of sympathy from anybody. People called on the telephone to offer their condolences. They sent flowers and cards and I did not want any of it. All I could think was this, It’s better that he’s dead. I resented the idea that my life might be better if my father was alive.

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The day after my father’s memorial, my last day back in Michigan, I played poker with some of my old friends from high school. We played tournament style, no limit hold’em. I bought in for myself and for my father.

We kept an empty chair at the poker table and an open beer in his cup holder. We dealt him cards and I folded each hand for him. I threw in poker chips for my father each time the blinds came around the poker table until he didn’t have any chips left.

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After my father died, I felt like I was the only person with a dead father. But then I remembered my sister has a dead father too. And then I started to remember all the other dead fathers of people I have known. Tom McMahon’s father died when we were ten years old. Ian Brinkman’s father died when we were in sixth grade. Bess Simpson’s father died while driving to pick her up at the airport over the winter break during our sophomore year in college. Lois Van Epps, her father died in an airplane crash. Jim Durbin, his father died of Leukemia. Donna Tepper’s father died from a massive heart attack and Doug Wheeler’s father died from a brain aneurism. Jenny Messing’s father died two months before my father died, but the family had known he was going to die for years. They were happy he had lived as long as he did.

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I didn’t know it until my father died, but there is a kind of dead dads club for everybody who has a dead father. There isn’t an initiation and you don’t get to choose to be in the club. You just are in the club—and you are a different person because of it.

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One of the things I didn’t expect about the dead dads club is the jokes some people with dead dads tell. This is especially true for people whose fathers died before they should have, which is nearly everybody with a father.

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What’s funnier than a dead dad? A dead dad in a clown costume.

How do you make a dead dad float? Two scoops of ice cream, one scoop of dead dad.

How do you make a dead dad float? Take your foot off his neck.

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At first, I couldn’t laugh at the dead dad jokes, but then I started to imagine my actual dead father in the jokes, which made me feel better about the fact that he really had been my father.

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What’s sicker than driving over a dead dad? Skidding over him.

What gurgles and spits up and then shits itself? A dead dad.

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What’s the difference between a dead dad and an onion? You don’t cry when you chop up a dead dad.

What’s the difference between a dead dad and a Styrofoam cup? A dead dad doesn’t harm the atmosphere when you burn it.

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After my father died, it felt like he was still here but invisible. I could sense his presence. Sometimes, it felt like he was standing in front of me and I couldn’t see around him. Other times, it felt like he was pushing down on me and trying to hold me there.

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About Michael Kimball

Michael Kimball is the author of The Way the Family Got Away, Dear Everybody, and, most recently, Us, and his novels have been translated into a dozen languages. His work has been featured on NPR's "All Things Considered," and in the GuardianViceBomb, and New York Tyrant.He is also responsible for the project Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard) and a couple of documentary films. He lives in Baltimore. Visit his website: http://michael-kimball.com.

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