It was an average Saturday afternoon during an average week when something unusual finally happened to Jackson Schmidt. One minute he rode his Schwinn through the park on a gloriously sunny day. The next he keeled over, falling from his bike, pain filling his chest.
Like a tiger, the heart attack had sneaked up on his prey, sprang into the air, and its teeth bit into his chest. His glasses crashed onto the cement pavement. By the time Jackson hit the ground, the heart attack brought his thirty-seven years to a quick stop. He was dead.
Between twelve and one the following Wednesday, the mourners started arriving for Jackson’s funeral mass. The white chapel stood beside the large, red brick Saint Anne’s Catholic Church. The chapel was only about a third filled.
Scattered around the chapel, Jewish people, Catholics, some no faith at all. Most of the mourners were co-workers. Others knew the family. Only a few were family. From the turnout, one could have said that the deceased had not made much of an impression during his life.
Jackson’s corpse of a body was much too short for the coffin, short like his father, not long and lanky like his mother. He rested on the soft red satin, hands folded in front of him, a map in his right hand, the map representing his passion for mapmaking. A pianist played Beethoven softly in the background.
Jackson felt like a soldier, standing in line to be reviewed by his commander. And there she was. His mother. A woman in her fifties looked down on the open coffin of her son. Her sister, and Jackson’s godmother, Brigit, known to everyone as Git, stood at her side, her arms around his mother, Catherine Conor Schmidt.
The corpse sang to himself, “The Schmidt’s are here, And all the Conors too, To honor the Jackson they hardly knew.”
Then he said, “Boy. Aunt Git, you sure brought out the infantry. All that’s missing is the general. Oh, hi, Mom.”
“Your Aunt Git contacted everyone in both families and at your work too.” Catherine, known to one and all as Katie, said as if she thought the poor dead guy could hear her.
“I tried to contact some of Jackson’s friends,” Git said to his mother. “You know, I don’t think he had any friends. Just a few co-workers.”
“No wonder he never got married. I kept insisting he date. But he just wouldn’t. Of course, there was that Liz. She had to go and die on him. Just like he went and died on me.”
His mother reached over and tightened his tie.
The corpse knew she couldn’t hear him but still he said what he said, “Ouch. Damn this tie is tight. It could choke a guy. And I didn’t die on you. I didn’t have any choice. I had a heart attack.”
“I kept telling him,” Mom protested, “to eat right. Which he did when I was around. But who could know what he was up to on those bike rides.”
“I never once,” the corpse said, “ate anything you wouldn’t approve of. And some of that stuff I hated the taste of. Dad never made me eat tofu and yogart.”
“It looks just like him,” Git said softly. “So natural.”
“How can I look natural?” the corpse asked. “I’m dead and there is nothing natural about this corpse.”
“How can he look natural? He’s dead,” his mother repeated. She was sobbing. “He wouldn’t be caught dead in that suit. Oh, I forgot again. He is dead so he doesn’t have any choice. What was I thinking when I gave them the okay for the suit?”
The corpse’s big toe started itching. “Oh, no. Oh, God, it itches. I wish I could scratch.”
“It’s okay,” Git comforted. “He looks fine.”
“It is not okay,” Mother came back. “Such an unappreciative son. The bastard left me all alone.”
The corpse looked up at her as if to say, “You’re not alone. You’ve got Dad.” He didn’t stutter. Jackson couldn’t believe it. He didn’t stutter. Maybe this dead thing wasn’t so bad after all.
“That son of a bitch. He wouldn’t even show up for his only son’s wake. ”
“That is because you wouldn’t allow him,” the corpse screamed. “It was you who chased him away from the viewing last night. Not me”
“That’s because,” his mother said, “he wanted to do that crazy Jewish thing with his friends. And we were having a wake. Geez, couldn’t he have some respect.”
“The kaddish?” Git said. “At least, I think it was that.”
“No,” Jackson corrected her. “It was another prayer. Baruch dayan ha’emet, I believe.”
“Why wouldn’t you let him?” Git said. “This is his son. For God’s sake.”
The corpse had that corpse-like look on his face like some of the guys Git had dated in college. Jackson suddenly realized he was starting to smell, and he didn’t like the smell. It was moldy. He would have frowned if he could have. The itching had finally quit.
“Jackson Patrick Schmidt,” Catherine turned her attention to her son, “you had to go and do it, didn’t you? You had to go and die. After all my entreaties.”
“Now, Catherine,” Git said, “it’s not his fault.”
“Of course, it’s his fault. What am supposed to do? Divorce his father and become a nun?”
“Finally,” the corpse spoke up.
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Finally.’ You’ve been trying for thirty years,” the corpse said. “So now’s your big opportunity to get the divorce over and get on with your life.”
Catherine said, “And now I will never have any grandchildren. Is that how you treat your mother?”
Git led Catherine away from the coffin, saying, “You can always borrow my grandkids, you know.”
Two of Jackson’s co-workers at the museum where he’d worked, Tom Dressler and Maddie Benn, stopped by the coffin. With their plain, Midwestern, American Gothic faces, Grant Wood would have easily recognized the two. They wore their plainness like a coat of arms, these two of good American stock. Jackson had spent many a late Sunday afternoon playing croquet on the museum’s back lawn with them.
Maddie was the first to speak, “Jackson, we have some good news.”
“We’re getting married,” Tom finished her thought. “Maddie has agreed to be Mrs. Dressler.” There was much pride in his voice.
“I didn’t know you were dating,” the corpse spoke back.
“We weren’t dating or anything,” Maddie said. “It was all of a sudden.”
“I asked her out last week.”
“And yadda yadda yadda, here we are engaged.” Maddie gazed over at Tom. If you can be sad and happy at the same time, that would have been the way Maddie felt, standing in front of that coffin. “We’re going to miss you at the museum. It won’t be the same.”
“Congratulations, guys,” the corpse said, then the two moved on. Then Jackson wondered how the marriage would succeed. After all, she was a Quaker, he was Southern Baptist. He imagined the two having sex while Tom quoted John 3:16 to her. He would have laughed out loud but he couldn’t. He was a corpse.
Paul Dorris, Jackson’s boss, came to the coffin. He wore his usual white suit with the black bowtie and the glasses much too big for his face. “Jackson, I am going to miss you.” The man was sobbing. “I can’t think of anyone that was more of a delight to work with. And irreplaceable. I have no idea who can take your place.”
“How about Doc?” the corpse offered. “I mean Professor Conrad Owens. He is imminently qualified.”
“I was thinking about offering the position to your Doc friend. But I don’t know. I’m not sure he’d be willing to work for what we can offer.”
“Oh, he would. He’s been wanting to settle down somewhere the last few years.”
“By the way, did you hear the news. Tom and Maddie are getting married. And I didn’t even know they were dating.”
“I know. They told me.”
“We’re going to offer the museum for the wedding. Well, guess this is it, Jackson.” Dr. Dorris reached over and patted the corpse’s chest. “You shouldn’t have problems getting a position where you’re going. Do me a favor? Tell my old boss, Dr. Evan Smithers, he was wrong. I did make it to be a museum director.” The director laughed at the thought of his revenge. Dr. Smithers hated him, and he hated Dr. Smithers. Then Dr. Dorris remembered this was a sad occasion and he sobered himself. “Well, so long.” And Dr. Dorris was gone to his seat in the church.
His father, Samuel, came to the coffin. His eyes red, tears weeping and running down his face, his yarmulke on his head, respectful for being in a house of God.
Once as a boy Jackson asked his father, “What happens when you die, Dad?”
His father who never lied to his son did not lie this time. “I don’t know, Son. I don’t know.” If his father had been asked at this particular time, he would still have said, “I don’t know.” But on this day of all days, the day of his son’s farewell, he would have also said, “It is possible that your mother is right. That there is a place called heaven and it is a wonderful place.” Samuel reached over and squeezed his son’s hand with all the love he could pour into it.
If corpses could cry, Jackson would have bawled his eyes out. Though his father did not hear him, he said,” Dad, you were a great father. You were the man I always wanted to be and could never be. Thank you for all you passed on to me.” Samuel felt his son’s words and gave Jackson’s hand one final squeeze. Then he kissed him on the forehead with all the love a father can have for a son. He walked away from the corpse, crying.
Joey Abbott, his father’s business partner, best friend, and Git’s second husband, stepped up to the side of the coffin. “Well, Jackson, I don’t know what to say. You were a good man and you tried your best. What with your parents, you had a lot to overcome. Them splitting up and getting back together all these years. Buddy, I don’t know how I would have dealt with all of that.”
Then Joey started to move on. He stopped and returned to Jackson’s side. “Listen, I would like to ask a favor. I love Git and all. But, my God, Ashley…if you have a chance to see her wherever you are off to, tell her this. That there isn’t a day since we broke up after high school that I don’t think of her. Please.”
Jackson made a mental note of Joey’s request.
“Thanks,” Joey said, squeezed the corpse’s hand, and moved on to his seat beside his wife.
Then there was Doc. “I am going to miss you, Buddy. I am going to miss you a lot. And thank you for your friendship. It has been a pleasure.” Then he too moved on, the last of the line to say goodbye to Jackson Patrick Schmidt.
Jackson had rather enjoyed the occasion if one can say that one enjoyed his own funeral. The pianist playing his favorite Beethoven and the people showing up, even though there weren’t that many people, less than thirty, he had rather enjoyed it all.
The priest began his homily. “Today we come to celebrate the life of a young man who left us all too early.” Now why did he want to go and say that. His life wasn’t that much. He felt he was just taking up space that another could use much better.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jackson spotted the ghost of his Uncle Saul. He was here to give him a send-off, whatever that meant. Jackson wanted to call out to his uncle but corpses are not good at that sort of thing. One minute his uncle was there, the next he was gone. And suddenly Jackson felt very very alone. He guessed that was the way of things.
The priest continued with his words, praising Jackson for being the good son, the good employee. He would have said the good friend but that did not seem to be on any list that Jackson would have belonged to. Finally, the homily was over and the mass continued. And the lid of the coffin was shut.
Jackson felt the six pallbearers carry him out to the hearse. He felt the hearse slowly moving, then it stopped. The pallbearers carried the coffin for a few minutes. Finally, they stopped and set Jackson down at his final resting place. From within the coffin, he heard words mumbled. Soon everyone had left.
Jackson waited. And he waited. And he waited. Then he felt the coffin lowered into its grave and the sound of dirt pouring over him. It was at that moment that Jackson realized how alone he was. He shut his eyes and tried to get some rest. Being a corpse, that should have been easy. But he couldn’t sleep. So this was it.
It came to him that he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. He was alone in this wooden box and under six feet of dirt. There was no room to move. Even if he could move and turn over on his side. He never enjoyed lying on his back. Why hadn’t they buried him on his side. He felt like shouting, “Hey, this is no fun anymore.” But who would hear him? After all, he was dead.
Suddenly Jackson felt free. Lighter than air.
Jackson Schmidt woke to find himself floating through a sea of clouds. “Whoopee, I’m flying,” he screamed and did a couple of somersaults. He eased down, his body getting closer to the ground and closer. He landed, standing up. Everything was fog. It was quiet. Deathly quiet. Not a sound. Then the sounds began with a bird singing.
“Well, this isn’t so bad,” Jackson said.