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You’ve probably seen the photo. From the front page of the Cincinnati Post the image went viral. Against a background of night sky and yellow flames, four firemen in full gear struggle to carry a coffin out the front door of the funeral home. Their knees are bent, their shoulders tilted toward the coffin, their free arms extended for attempted balance. They look like Olympic weightlifters pressed into some new team event. There is debris on top of the wooden coffin, and it appears singed though it’s hard to tell from the photo that was picked up by every news organization and website with caption writers waiting for just such an opportunity. “Saving the Dead.” “Risking Life to Deny Death.” “Living Courage and Dying Dignity.” “Death Be Not Proud” was one of the more literary tags. The tabloids were unrestrained. “Burial, Not Cremation.” “Passing Through The Gates of Hell.” “Fire But No Pyre.”
The funeral home is close to where I live in Clifton. I was out for a walk that night, saw the fire engines converge, and lucked into the shot with my cell phone. My wife used her contacts at the newspaper to get the photo in circulation. The person in the coffin had died at 82, and her church had bought the coffin because, as the minister said in the paper, “Leora was from down home, and she used to say, ‘When I pass, I want to go down in the ground like the good Lord intended, not up in the air.’ ” One member of the congregation said, “Thank those heroic firemen and the Lord. We had Leora’s laying out in the home, and now we can still have her funeral in the church and put her proper where she belongs, in a grave with a nice headstone.” The news stories identified a bank where money could be deposited to buy Leora a new coffin, and the Post reported enough contributions in one day to purchase a replacement. “This time,” the minister was quoted, “we sending Leora off to glory in a metal box.”
It was a feel good story for Cincinnati because the firemen are white and Leora was black, though the firemen probably didn’t know that when they lugged her coffin out to the street. The fireman who was interviewed by the Post reporter the day after was modest: “We saw pretty quick we weren’t going to save that wood frame building, but the funeral director was screaming about a body in there, so we went in and got her.”
“It looked like a struggle,” the reporter said.
“Yeah, it would have been easier to pull the lady out of the coffin, but that just didn’t seem right.”
Leora had an afterlife on social media. Two Facebook celebrity pages, one with a photoshopped image of her head popping up out of the coffin. “Mighty hot this life after death,” the cartoon balloon says. Another says, “Straight to the mausoleum next time.” People were tweeting about Leora as if she were alive, imagining what she would do with the money left over from her metal coffin. “Get myself a better doctor,” “Marry that fireman,” and “Buy more life insurance.” Friends in other cities who saw the coverage of Leora and my photo credit sent me emails or tweets. “The post-Terminal Tour?” was a favorite. A former student said, “Now you can give up writing and take up photos.” My daughter Sara left a message on my machine: “Mom says she’s going to hire one of those firemen to replace you on the Tours.”
I’d been out of Terminal Tours for six years, but it’s what many remembered about me, maybe because of Passing On. Doing those bucket-list tours, I was most concerned with getting my clients where they wanted to go, keeping them happy, and bringing them back alive. Once they were home, I was on to another trip. I didn’t see my clients in their final stages, and I didn’t think much about the after-death stages—choosing a funeral home, deciding on cremation or burial, the laying out or funeral, the gravestone—that were important to Leora, her friends, and, I guess, the firemen who brought her coffin out of the flames. But eventually I was forced to think about these stages when I took an old man named Rorque to Lourdes. He died in one of the healing baths, and I had no end of trouble getting his body back to Cincinnati for burial. I was sued by his son, my wife and I lost our house, I quit the business I’d always hated, Ann and I split up not long after, she took over the Tours, and I wrote Passing On about the Tours to help pay my legal expenses.
That book got me a job teaching Creative Non-Fiction at a crappy, drive-through hometown school I called Queen City College. Queer City College to some students, Quasi College to much of the faculty. After I published Passing Through about my comic year at Queen City, I moved over and up to the University of Cincinnati where I teach Creative Non-Fiction and Fiction Writing. The students and salary are better at U.C., and the department head has not foolishly assumed I would be the player-coach for the department’s intramural basketball team. I still do freelance travel writing for Hell Magazine, but I’ve had trouble finding a subject for another book. “Fear and desire,” I tell my students, are the keys to narrative. I fear I won’t get the promotion and tenure I desire without a book written while I’m at U.C. I move around for the Hell essays, which you can see on my website (www.terminaltours.com), but nothing I’ve covered has moved me toward a longer form. I knew I didn’t want to write about myself again. Even if I did want to, nothing dramatic was happening in my life. Would readers want to know about my unemployed wife Kara, who wants to get pregnant, or my unmarried daughter Sara, who needs money for law school, or my unrelenting former wife Ann, who now insists on royalties from Passing Off because she was actually the one who wrote my first memoir about playing in the Greek Basketball Association? Small-world problems partly involving money. It was a prime mover of my other books, but I was tired of it just as I was tired of myself as subject. Augusten Burroughs I was not. I wanted to get outside myself.
When I read the stories about Leora, I thought, now there would be a worthy challenge: reconstruct a life for this woman far different from me, a woman remembered now only for “cheating death” as if she were some funny female Lazarus with no backstory. The book would be an oral history. I’d get to travel to Mississippi and interview her relatives there, listen to stories about the Great Migration from the farm to the city, relate tales of life in Cincinnati before my time. I’d call the book Passing Down, the history of an invisible woman being passed down to the present by a barely visible author. But, very quickly, I registered what James Henderson, my old African-American friend from Greece, would say: “You too light to be up in Leora’s life, Key. Step off and leave that to the sisters.” Although I’d played my whole career with blacks and met some of their families, the biography of an old black lady from the South, no matter how earnest, was probably too much of a stretch. History began for me at ten when I started bouncing a basketball off the walls of a shed, preparing for my career in passing off.
But that photo and its circulation stuck in my mind, so I turned to fiction: someone burned down that funeral home, and then that someone set fires in other funeral homes in Ohio and nearby states. This wouldn’t be a murder mystery because those incinerated were already dead but a death mystery—what were the motives of the person or group setting the fires? Was the arsonist a victim of an unscrupulous funeral director? Was the arsonist protesting against the high expenses of the funeral industry? Could the arsonist be someone from a different culture, maybe even a Muslim, disgusted by American rituals? And the one I liked best: the arsonist was rebelling against death itself. “Death be not proud,” as one of the captions had it.
Maybe it was the failure of my friend Alice’s “tour for the cure” in Passing On to go on and on and on that drew me to this last motive for the arson story. Perhaps it was all my other terminal clients, not one of whom went into spontaneous remission and miraculously survived their diagnoses. Or my parents who went early into the rocky Vermont ground. Or my own fear that—despite being a healthy 44-year-old with low cholesterol and no family history of heart disease—I could drop dead at any minute. This fear was like an anti-prescription that I had to swallow before breakfast and before bed. I tried to counteract the script with a half hour on the exercycle after breakfast and after dinner. Move or die.
I knew my fear was irrational, probably something left over from my years on the court. If you’re an athlete, you live by luck. Every time a player jumps, he knows it could be his last leap. Come down on the floor and jump again. Come down on a player’s foot, tear your ACL, and limp the rest of your days. Kareem played in the NBA more than twenty years. Len Bias’s heart exploded before he ever played a game for the Celtics. Breaks of the game. It can make you or break you. There’s good luck and what the brothers called “hood luck,” dying young. “Keep it simple,” my high school coach used to say. You’re lucky to be alive, and then you’re not. After I retired, freakish bad luck suddenly ended my second career as a referee when I tripped on a television camera and blew out my hip. Run and done.
When I was hooping, I loved to deceive my opponents and surprise the home crowds with my shifty fakes and flashy no-look passes. If I wrote the novel, I might surprise myself, discover some secret motive for the arsonist and the author. I’d written about fifty pages of the fiction I was calling Passing Strange when Kara and I found out what sudden, surprising, and strange were in the presumed safety of our apartment. My brother Patrick, who lived 800 miles away, rang our entrance bell at 7:30 one Sunday morning in May. I had no idea how Patrick found us. Since I realized he’d screwed me out of my half of the Vermont farm we inherited from our parents, we hadn’t been exchanging Christmas cards. We also hadn’t talked on the phone for years, and Kara’s and my number was unlisted. While he was riding up in the elevator, I had time to calm myself and speculate. I assumed Patrick located us with some secret law enforcement technology, although his knowledge of police work seemed limited to pointing the radar gun and writing speeding tickets to tourists late for their Friday night cocktail parties at Killington.
Pat stood at the door with a small suitcase and a framed photo of Mom and Dad in a paper shopping bag. Before saying anything, Pat pulled a pistol out of his jacket pocket and put it on the table next to the door, as if the weapon was his claim to a spot in the Keever-Schmidt household.
Low, Key, low, I thought to myself.
“We don’t allows guns or smoking in the apartment,” I told him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I’ve been carrying that illegally since the bus crossed over into New York State.”
“So what brings you and your pistol to Ohio, Pat?”
“I needed to get away for a while. Debt collectors were exerting pressure.”
“Debt collectors” were the loan sharks who fronted Patrick money to lose gambling online and in casinos.
Kara had never met Patrick, but she also knew who the collectors were. She always told me, “Your brother has an addiction, it’s like drugs, he’s not in control.” But seeing Patrick, his pistol, and his suitcase in her apartment on a Sunday morning seemed to reduce her empathy. She didn’t introduce herself. She just said, “Do they know where you are now?”
“You’re Kara,” Pat said. “I’m sorry to meet this way, but I have no other place to go.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, “but you didn’t answer Kara’s question.”
“They can’t make a connection to you. My name is still McKeever.”
Many years ago my agent did some fancy paperwork and changed my name from McKeever to Keever, Kyvernos in Greek, so I could play in Athens. To lawman Pat, I was living under an assumed name, one that meant “steersman” or “governor” in Greek.
“How did you find me?”
“Through the university.”
“The switchboard gave you my home address?”
“I identified myself as a police officer and told the operator I was trying to locate the son of a couple who had just died in an auto accident in Vermont. I told the operator a Cincinnati officer would come to your home to deliver the news.”
“Mom’s inhaling carbon monoxide from the Dodge thirty years ago was no accident.”
“So I stretched the facts a little. Anyway, they gave me your address. It was quick.”
“Quick,” Patrick said. The seventeen-hour bus ride with its Podunk stops wouldn’t have been speedy, and I’m sure Pat fumbled around a bit finding our street, but given the fact that we hadn’t spoken in five years Pat’s strange presence in our dining room was definitely sudden, as if he’d plummeted in from a sky diving accident and we had to clean up the mess. Pat was a mess; his clothes looked like something handed down from a bigger man, his face appeared to have been shaved in the toilet of a moving bus, his complexion had a yellowish tint, and his hand trembled when he finally shook mine.
“I’m sorry, Mikie,” he said to his younger brother, the surviving sucker of the McKeever family, “but I really need to talk with you.”
When I didn’t reply, Kara looked at me, looked at Patrick, glanced at the pistol, looked back at me, and went into our bedroom.
After she closed the door, Patrick delivered the real surprise: “I’m a dead man.”
“The loan sharks put out a contract on you?”
“No. I’m dying, Mikie. Cancer. I need your help.”