Monday, August 31, 2009

Lazarus Goldberg

I was getting ready to tank my "three a month" streak of pieces I had going this year, when I decided to poke back into the failed novel of yore to see if there was anything worth poaching. Sure enough, I came across the character of Lazarus Goldberg, the small town's mortician in the novel. As a reminder, the novel was a first-person recollection of a kid growing up in the 70s, mainly noting the goings-on of his older brother George, a troubled rock-and-roll kid. I figured, why not, makes for a reasonable read. And as always with late summer, I feel like I'm running on empty creatively -- happens every year. September will be better. (For the record, I titled each chapter of the novel after a line from a famous 70s rock song.)


When you were young, and your heart was an open book

Lazarus Goldberg, Jr. was the mortician's son and George's best friend. His grandfather, a gravedigger Jew in Poland, had fled his homeland in the 1930's, settled in our town, and immediately married a die-hard Irish Catholic woman, who were never too hard to find in our parts. They named their son Lazarus, and he went on to open the first and only funeral parlor in town. Like his father, Lazarus fell hard for a Catholic, this time Italian. They had a son and named him Lazarus Jr.

He was the guiltiest kid I ever knew and got as close as any of us would to George. He had the nickname Bluebeard, which came about through the cruelty of kids. Like anyone else, I had my fair share of zits. A rash here and there, moving over my teenage face like a pack of epidermal nomads, disappearing after a week or two of bad angst and Clearasil pads.

Lazarus was one of those unfortunate kids with permanent acne. Hence the nickname. Regardless of the embarrassing teenage cruelty, the name fit. He wasn't a bad looking kid, with a long, straight nose and flowing black hair. But the acne spread from one cheek bone to the other. He had other nicknames. Pizza Face. Zit Boy. Abe Lincoln. But somehow Bluebeard stuck. If some kid had been born with no legs, no one would have called him Stumpy. Lazarus had no control over his face. But I think other kids were grateful that someone else was so heartlessly damned with their minor affliction.

Lazarus couldn't give a shit, and this was his saving grace. Like George, he was once an incredibly sharp junior-high kid who fell into drugs and drinking by sixteen. He had been a model airplane freak and a Trekkie. His bedroom was a monument to Boris Karloff and World War II fighter planes. Werewolves, stukas, vampires, mustangs, Frankenstein monsters and Japanese zeroes. The planes dangled from fishing wire, and the glow-in-the-dark monsters crouched all over his dresser and window sills. At night, Lazarus' room was never pitch black -- he liked his monsters over the bed. He smelled like Tester's glue.

I thought that aspect of his life was enormously cool, but I wasn't too crazy for the Stark Trek infatuation. The rare times my snooty cousin Arthur from Schenectady visited, he and Lazarus hooked up and traded Trekkie information. Vague conversations about conventions; they spoke Klingon. Arthur ate a lot of potato salad and loved the Electric Light Orchestra because they married classical music and rock. He was a smart, bookish kid who worshipped Isaac Asimov. I thought he was a corny loser, as were all kids who got a little too far into Star Trek. Trekkies were KISS fans with brains. Instead of wanting to get laid and ride around in limos, they wanted to grill Leonard Nimoy on the controversial triffid episode.

Kids like this never seemed to care what anyone, especially other kids, thought about them. This trait served Lazarus well as his face changed colors. Lazarus would be walking down the street. He'd pass a bunch of guys hanging out, and they wouldn't say a word. A few steps away, one of them would grumble, "Argh, matey, there goes Bluebeard." Lazarus would turn to see who had said it, and all of them would look away as if no one had.

If that weren't enough, he used to take crap for being Jewish, although his family were non-practicing Catholics. It was the surname -- his grandfather, after running from the threat of Hitler, was too proud to change it. His family was wealthy by our standards, but by no means greedy or flashy. I could hear the parents talking through the kids, calling Lazarus, behind his back, another gold-digging Kike, although the kids had no exposure, positive or negative, to any kind of Jewish culture. Normally, kids who inherited their parents' anti-Jewish problems would express it with a stony, intentional silence in Lazarus' presence.

He was destined to be an outsider. George wasn't, but converts appear more zealous than true believers. George told me how he used to go over and help Lazarus build those small boats inside bottles. They would start out with a clear head, but after an hour or two of inadvertently sniffing glue, they'd both get loopy and conversational. They'd talk about girls, or the lack thereof, and how school was such a bad joke, how many of the students were even bigger assholes than the teachers. George found out that Lazarus didn't know much about rock and roll, aside from the occasional Top Forty song that no one could avoid.

So one day, George invited him up to the attic and broke out his favorite album of the time, Diamond Dogs, by David Bowie. The front half of the cover was a painting of David Bowie all done up in his glitter make-up laying out all spindly and bare chested. The back half of the cover revealed David's lower torso, which was that of a dog's. The album itself was loosely based on George Orwell's book 1984. Heady stuff for glitter rock, and it wouldn't have made it if David Bowie hadn't been so talented. It was George's favorite kind of music -- the kind that could kick your ass, yet make you think.

Once Lazarus heard the title track, he was converted, and it wasn't long before he and George were sniffing glue and lighting those plastic models on fire, recreating the Battle of Britain at the town dump. He was the perfect foil for George. Where George was sarcastic and quick with the put downs, Lazarus let people say too much then be intimidated by his silence. It was only his defense mechanism, but people thought they had to prove themselves to him. He was like his biblical counterpart, stalking the earth in total silence, while everyone stared at his haggard face and wondered what to say.

George called him Laz, for short, because it was rock and roll. The name stuck, although George was one of the few to call him this. Adults called him Lazarus, and other kids called him Bluebeard. Some nicknames were too dead-on. He never was openly offended. In fact, he used to go to Halloween parties as Bluebeard, throwing on an eye patch and gluing a stuffed parrot on the shoulder of his Jimi Hendrix brocade jacket. Without a doubt, he was the smartest kid I knew, in or out of the classroom. Where George would be out in a corn field all night doing mushrooms then flunking a test the next day, Laz would get as high, take the same test, and get an A. Had they been in a band, George would have been the lead singer, and Laz would have been the rhythm guitarist who wrote all the songs.

Whenever Laz found himself in front of a mirror, a place he tried to avoid, he'd pause, take an appraising glance at his reflected image, and murmur, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, what did I ever do to you?"

Most of George's other friends weren't as smart as he was, so he and Laz had an unspoken bond of intelligence. They often debated the true meaning of rock and roll in the attic.

"Rock and roll is art," George would state with a flourish of his hand. Laz would snicker, as would I, and George would throw a Creem magazine at my head.

"George, man," Laz would drawl in his slow voice of reason, "rock and roll is entertainment. Damn good entertainment. Beats the shit out of Larry Ferrari and his magic organ."

Larry Ferrari was a Philadelphia performer who had a television show broadcasting on the ABC affiliate we picked up on cable. He looked like a used-car salesman with slicked-back hair and played Lawrence Welk shit on a Wurlitzer while little girls in tutu’s and senior citizens tapped dance all around him. We once saw him playing at Hershey Park and ran in the other direction.

"Don't put it in a museum, man. It's not a painting. Yeah. It is a way of life. Of looking at the world. But one day, we'll both abandon it."

"Never," George hissed. He was listening to one of those never-ending Yes songs about hobbits and rainbows.

"Never's a long time, man. Don't you think it'd be kind of pathetic if we were listening to the same shit twenty years on?"

Laz was a visionary, but George either didn't believe in his vision or was too afraid to acknowledge it. He predicted the turgid, repetitive quality of AOR radio back when it was still relatively fresh and innovative. That's an easy call to make today, but back then, it was near sacrilege. He loved the music as much as George, but maybe having a mortician for a father made him believe in endings.

He swore he'd never be a mortician, the worst, most morbid job in the world. They lived in the top two floors of a three-story, the bottom floor being the actual funeral parlor, with "the room" in the cellar. "The room" was where Laz's father prepared the corpses for viewing. All kids were forbidden to go anywhere near "the room." From what Laz said, it was more frightening on a sunny day than any graveyard on a foggy night. It was real death. And his father's job was to make real death look somewhat human for the final goodbye.

"What's it like to die, man?" George asked Laz one day as we sat by the apple tree before sun down. Like any other kid, George was fascinated by death, talking about suicide a lot, but never really doing anything about it. He was bright enough to know that everyone got depressed to a certain point. And it passed.

"As if I'm the expert," Laz said. Talking about death didn't make him uptight, but since it was his father's business, it must have seemed old hat. His family lived death.

"No, man. But you told me your dad makes you help out."

I pictured Laz, dressed in a gray hospital gown with a matching face mask, squirming in that cold, fluorescent tomb as his father went over the fine points of applying lipstick to an old woman's cold, dead lips. It struck me that our father did the same with George and me on Saturday mornings by making us help him fix his car. Laz thought for a while before he answered.

"I don't know what death is like. But I can tell you this much, man. Whoever you are is gone. There's a big piece of meat that was your body. I believe in heaven and hell."

People tended to keep quiet when Laz spoke. There were three or four other kids hanging out with us, and they all stopped their conversation to hear his answer.

"What's it like to look in a dead man's eyes?" George continued.

"Like looking at a beat-up, old teddy bear with coat button eyes."

Lazarus smirked, then started laughing at his answer. George laughed along nervously, as did all the other kids.

"You don't feel anything when you look at a dead body, George. I'm sure you can relate to that."

George started howling in laughter. He loved to have Laz put him down, especially in ways other people thought was harsh. It was as if Laz understood his dark side and wasn't afraid to take shots at it. All the other kids thought George was too cynical and intense. Laz had some view of the complete picture, and he didn't feel at all threatened. My parents probably understood him best, in that unspoken, natural way, but they didn't understand rock and roll, which was so much of George's secret heart.

Laz's father was a little strange, but he liked George a lot. He often invited George over for dinner. The man would slip rubber ears and noses from "the room" into a mound of mashed potatoes. Being fascinated with death, George would ask him about his profession, and then spill the gory details to the whole neighborhood during ghost story nights in the summer. Strange, ugly stories of exploding corpses and dead bodies that sat straight up in the coffin and screamed. Laz's father gave George his favorite teenage put-down. Whenever one his friends got too rowdy in public, George would moan, "Man, you're about as subtle as a farting corpse."

For Laz, the worst part of the whole death routine was the idea of make-up. Every corpse put on display at a wake needed that final makeover. Some even needed a shave and a manicure. Laz told us he thought death was the Grim Reaper in a pillbox hat. He rang the door bell with scythe in hand, and exclaimed, "Avon calling!" Once inside, over tea and crumpets, he would do an informal skin-tone test with colored scarves then tear the soul from the lady of the house.

That kind of humor was necessary for a 16-year-old kid to routinely apply rouge to dead faces. Laz and George were so much alike, using gallows humor, rock and roll and cheap drugs to hide from their fathers' hopes. The major difference was when some rock star like Alice Cooper sung a stupid, catchy song like "I Love the Dead," Laz would see right through it. George would believe in it, if not for the meaning, then for the intention.

Naturally, everyone thought George and Laz were lovers. That only seemed to happen with off-center, long-hair, non-athletic guys who spent most of their time alone, like George and Laz. They told jokes that only each other got. So, once again, kids being kids, they had to think of something nasty to cover their own insecurities. Laz seemed to understand that so many kids were narrow-minded assholes, their only saving grace being their youth, which would go one day soon, but it bothered George. He wasn't big or strong enough to run around beating people up. So he got a reputation for getting higher than anyone, and damn near everyone his age seemed to be stoned all the time. Getting high was his sport. The more you could abuse yourself, the closer you could fly to the sun and come back, the stronger your soul was. If that were really the case, George had the soul of a warrior, and most of his friends would gladly die with him in battle.

Laz and George remained friends through those years, but drugs definitely put a distance between them. Laz was a gentle soul who liked pot, mushrooms, and, on a good, peaceful night, maybe some acid, if people with the right head were around. George was a gentle soul with a fighter's heart. So he'd try almost anything -- if heroin had been available, he would have tried it. Luckily, that was far outside our small-town price range and life style. Cocaine wasn't popular yet. Speed, acid, crank, downers. Cheap drugs. It didn't matter. The most amazing thing was people never knew when he was stoned. I did -- he was so much nicer with a head full of acid. But he could snort a few lines of crank, then sit and talk with our mother about her Irish roots for the next two hours, and she'd be flattered that George seemed to care so much about our heritage. This was a kid who found his place in life with the advent of remote control television.

Despite the camaraderie, Laz was such a ghost of a kid. When he was high, he pulled within himself and wouldn't say a word. George said it was like getting stoned with Marcel Marceau. This made him more dangerous, though. Laz was the one who, late at night, would run into a field full of bulls and play matador with a beer-soaked blanket. George once mused that if life were a deck of cards, he'd be King, and Laz would be The Joker, the wild card that could mean nothing or everything.

"No, man, no," Laz slowly laughed, "you got me all wrong. I don't mean that much, but I mean something. If I were a card, I'd be a One-Eyed Jack of Hearts. And, you know, man, in the land of the blind, the One-Eyed Jack is King."

"I thought Knowledge is king," George would goof on him. That was the opening line from a game show called Joker's Wild we watched every night after dinner. A silly game show that none of us would remember if television hadn't pounded it into our heads every night.

"And Lady Luck is queen," Laz would finish the opening line. They'd both crack each other up while all their stoner friends, once again, wouldn't get the joke. Even I got their jokes, four years behind them. It frightened me how either dumb and/or humorless the rest of their friends were.

"That's TV, man," Laz would grumble in his stately baritone, "this is the land of the blind."


In the tunnels uptown, the rat's own dream guns him down

Is it sad that so many of us turn out to be what we never wanted to be? I don't mean abandoning the childhood dreams of being a fireman or football hero. I mean hearing a song on a radio when you're fourteen and being so struck that you go out and buy a guitar. Or cutting up in front of your friends and realizing that you have them in tears. How many of us actually turn into rock stars or comedians? Even professional musicians or small-town impresarios? Not many. Sooner or later, it turns into another forgotten dream, more faded than crab grass on a softball field.

Of all the people I know from that time, Lazarus Goldberg Jr. is the one who walked farthest down irony's horseshoe drive way. Until we buried my father, I hadn't realized that he had come home to take over his father's business. He did it quietly, moving back home from New York City, where he had been working as a coroner's assistant. The biggest shock was that his face had healed. Just as Robert Redford managed to be considered sexy even with his acne scars, Lazarus had grown into a darkly handsome man. His black hair was as long as it had been, and the time spent examining death in the city had added an even harder intensity to his deep-set eyes. With age lines and furrows, his face had grown perfect for funerals.

Unfortunately, his wife looked like Tom Petty. It made no sense, other than it kept his string alive of being involved with women who looked like homely male rock stars.

A few days after the funeral, we went out for drinks. Even going casual, he wore a black suit with a skinny black tie. The only sign that he was kicking back was a black pork-pie hat tipped slightly upwards on his head. If Frank Sinatra had been in a heavy metal band, he'd have looked like Lazarus.

"George didn't have much to say," Lazarus said after we ordered beers at the near empty factory bar. It was about an hour after the post-work rush and a few hours before the hard-drinking kids came out.

"You noticed," I said. We had spent a lot of time together planning the funeral. He had given me 50% off the coffin for old time's sake. The man was good at his work, offering quiet comfort, not trying too hard. He had grace and style in a difficult situation. The only thing was, it never seemed to turn off. It was as if every waking hour was a funeral for him, in terms of his serious demeanor. He had dinner with George and my mother a few days after the funeral to pay his respects as a friend.

"Yeah, I didn't even recognize him. I didn't even know it was him, until I saw him standing next to your mother. Man, I'm glad I still have my hair."

"I thought you guys were best friends," I said. I've found that it never hurts to be obvious with memories. People never forget, but they have to be coaxed out sometimes. Lazarus smirked.

"I don't think George ever believed in the idea of 'best friends.' He had strong acquaintances, and I was probably one of the strongest. Sally Sullivan may have been a little closer because she was a girl at the right time. But I knew him better."

Lazarus ran his long, veined fingers over his scarred face. Even his hands looked like they were made to hold a shovel. I noticed that when the bartender took our order, she hung on every word Lazarus said and kept staring at his eyes after he spoke.

Lazarus related how he had found my mother to be basically the same person with gray hairs and wrinkles. He had found me to be much the same, too, only a little more responsible. But he said that he felt no connection at all to George. Not even a glance of recognition. Neither of them laughed or shared any memories.

"It made me feel strange," Lazarus continued, "like the life I lived back then never happened. Like I dreamed being a kid, loving rock and roll and getting high. So much of all that is tied in with George. I don't listen to those old songs or get high anymore. It doesn't make me sad, but, man, it makes me wonder. Do you guys stay in touch?"

"Not really. I'll call him once or twice a year, but we don't have much to say. I was going to ask you that, but I guess you already answered."

Lazarus shook his head.

"In my line of work, you come across a lot of strange situations. People dying for stupid reasons. The survivors doing all sorts of things, some beautiful, others ugly. But trying to talk to George the other day -- I'm not Mr. Personality, either. But I didn't get any feel for the man at all. That's my job, and I guess George is still faking people out. He got me."

"You think he's still pulling an act?" I asked.

He shook his head again, laughing for the first time.

"The more I think of it, the more I remember how much George loved Bowie. It wasn't just the music. Each album was different. George always hit on that. You'd have a Ziggy Stardust, and then a Young Americans, and then a Heroes. Each album sounded like someone different made it. I thought it was the music he was into. But I think George liked that idea. Who knows who David Bowie really is? David Bowie probably doesn't even know."

"So, if you're like me, you feel out of touch because he won't be doing any Ziggy Stardust songs in concert."

Lazarus laughed as we made our way through our beers.

"That would be lame, man. None of us want to be Ziggy Stardust any more. Maybe he’s left us behind. But it wouldn't hurt to see the line of reason leading to the way he is now. I'll tell you, man, it was unnerving."

"Sometimes when I think of George," I said, "I remember those lectures adults would give us back then. One especially. Remember how when you'd make a funny face and an adult would catch you, he or she'd say, 'Be careful, smartey pants. If you hold that face, it might stay that way.'"

Lazarus grimaced and laughed.

"Well, for one thing, now that we're around their age, don't you ask yourself what kind of brainless lunatic would say such shit to a kid?"

"Yeah," Lazarus said, "my Dad did the same thing with farting. Warning me that one day I’d crack a rat for kicks and shit my pants. He was right, too."

"Thanks for sharing. Sometimes, I think maybe George did the psychological equivalent of holding a funny face. I guess we all do when we grow up. Only the funny face is very sober and serious, and it isn't really who we are, but we wear it to get by. I think George made one of those faces in his head, and now it's who he is."

"Serves him right, that naughty boy," Lazarus whined, mimicking the nasal squawk of a school marm.

"What you said about faces," Lazarus went on, "it reminds me of how I feel when I have to look at a dead body."

I blushed, and Lazarus noticed.

"Please, don't get upset. I'm only going to tell you something about my job. Nothing terrible. It's the faces. They say that when you die, all that's left is only a body. But you can tell a lot by that final face. Some people's eyes look like they're watching clouds on a summer day. Others like they're staring into a black pit. Some faces are pure peace, and others are fear. That face is the one your parents warned you about. I never knew most of the people I lay to rest. So I can't say a thing about their character. But I tell you, I honestly believe the essence of a person's life can be seen in that last look. It happens every time. I get ashamed, like I'm seeing something too personal, more personal than any nudity. I have to turn away and wipe tears from my eyes, even if it's a total stranger."

I wondered about my father's final face, but I didn't ask Laz what he had seen. It comforted me that we could talk so openly after all that time. I reminded him how he swore he'd never be a mortician.

"Yeah," he grunted, as if I had shown him an embarrassing picture of himself.

"Look at us. The only thing weirder than you being a drug counselor would be if George was. The world's a strange, ugly place, man. Not friendly. Not the world we grew up in. And we thought that world sucked."

"I don't really miss those days," I said.

"Me neither. But you got to admit they were easier. Maybe because we were young. I find myself doing shit my father did. Laughing a certain way. Having a favorite chair that no one else can sit in. Thinking about kids like they're all maniacs and scumbags. Bizarre shit I can't seem to control. I don't particularly like being a mortician. Too bad it can't be like the old days when George and me would get high and run away from this shit."

Our drinking didn't lead to regrets as much as easy memories. The old days weren't all that great, but no better or worse than today. Drinking with Lazarus made me feel like Major Tom, floating in my tin can far above the moon. The planet earth was blue, and there was nothing we could do.

"Sooner or later, you got to stop running," Lazarus said with a sad smile. I half expected him to wink and hand me his business card.

I remembered how he had avoided mirrors as a teenager, as if he were a vampire trying to conceal his identity. Bluebeard, hiding from his terrible face. The taunts from other kids were one thing, but the mirror was too honest. Now, the mirror had become his friend.

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