I disposed of a body yesterday.
Or rather the lower half of a body.
He had been living with us for about ten years.
After we moved to Maine a few years ago, we left him behind in an apartment we still maintain in South Orange, New Jersey, though he never paid a dime in rent.
We had come back to New Jersey for a few days this week to attend the memorial service of a dear friend who had passed away and when I got to our apartment, I realized I had nothing to wear. It was then that I discovered our freeloading boarder was wearing the only decent pair of pants I had.
His own funeral service in 2006 coincided with an art exhibit I was a part of, in which a few dozen local artists opened up their studios to the general public for one day in June. It was called The South Orange/Maplewood Artist’s Studio Tour.
Art lovers mounted wooden steps and traversed our front porch and entered our home through the old front door and immediately blended in with a small crowd of the intellectually-curious who had gathered reverently around an open oaken half-coffin, of my own construction–perched upon two saw-horses. Beautiful white flowers from Lotus Petals and Gefkin Florists in Maplewood ornamented the display and lent an air of solemn reverence.
As one woman looked down upon his supine lifeless form and then glanced up at me with a slightly- puzzled look on her face, I asked her,
“Do you want to touch him? He’s anatomically correct.”
She averted her eyes and quickly walked away toward a small crowd gathered in a corner looking at drawings of human figures credited in the lower right-hand corner to an artist who called himself, “P. Dirt.”
Half Dead had been born earlier that year in our driveway. I had been his Dr. Frankenstein and he my monster. He never went out. He had no friends that we were aware of. If he had a name we never knew what it was. He never spoke. He was just there all the time. We sometimes referred to him as Half Dead, as in “Half Dead fell over and toppled down the stairs last night while we were sleeping.” Or, years later when we were selling our home, “Half Dead scared the Hell out of the real estate broker who went into our bedroom.” He was formed from chicken wire and paper-mache and I dressed him in an old pair of black pants and put on his socks and on his feet I placed a pair old antique black high-button men’s dress shoes from the early 1900’s, which I had purchased decades ago, for no particular reason, at a flea market in New York City.
He had style.
To celebrate his arrival into the world and in an effort seemingly geared toward bonding with him, I drove him around to many of the places I frequented in those days and took his picture in front of each of them.
We went to the post office in Maplewood, which has since been torn down. Unlike many who detest standing in line, I actually enjoyed engaging in friendly banter with those I randomly encountered there, and when my turn came, I traded sarcastic quips with Charlie, the guy behind the counter, who always seemed slightly less-forlorn than usual when he saw me. I photographed my friend with the shiny black shoes just outside the door to the post office, standing beside the American Flag.
He was a proud American.
Then I took him across the parking lot to the Maplewood train station, where I again photographed him –on the now-empty platform– as if he were waiting for a train into the Big City, a small leather briefcase at his side.
And he with no hand to pick it up.
That photograph turned out so well that without any objection from him, I made it into a poster and postcards and refrigerator magnets and they were sold for a year or two in the little coffee shop inside the station in Maplewood, with half of the proceeds from each sale going to help a local animal shelter, a favorite charity of the woman who ran the shop.
I also took his picture outside my doctor’s office on Springfield Avenue and then we walked over to Dunkin Donuts® next door, where I often bought coffee. As I was photographing him, a middle-aged woman customer had been observing us through the window. As I clicked away with my 35mm camera, she became increasingly agitated. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore and she left the store and came out to confront me.
“What is going on here? I don’t understand—are you selling pants?”
“No, ma’am. I’m an artist.”
This information did not seem to greatly alleviate her skepticism. She turned away, without any further questions and walked back into Dunkin Donuts shaking her head as if to clear it of some terrible thought.
But that was all years ago.
Yes, today–right now, in fact–I needed those pants for the memorial service. My friend would have to involuntarily become undressed so that I, could be properly dressed. He would have to sacrifice his dignity so that I could save mine.
Had an artwork ever done as much for its creator?
The time for the memorial service was fast-approaching and my wife would be back with the car at any minute. There was no time to waste.
I lifted him up and placed him on the bed. I slipped off his shoes and socks and then undid his belt and removed his pants. He uttered not a word in protest. I was surprised at how light he was. He was never heavy, but seemed much lighter now.
I tried on the pants he had been wearing for the last decade.
Of course they did not fit.
I pulled on an old pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt and snatched him up off the bed.
I tucked him under my arm and went out into the hallway and pressed the button for the elevator, hoping no one would come out of their apartment and see us like this.
We took the elevator downstairs to the big green metal dumpster behind our apartment and I flung his sorry ass atop a pile of cardboard boxes.
There he spent the night.
I went to the memorial service for our friend wearing my old blue jeans and a coat and tie. I looked fine as long as no one looked below my waist.
That night, as I lay awake trying to fall asleep, I began to feel bad about what I had done.
I thought about my old friend out in the dumpster. My wife had inquired as to his whereabouts. I mumbled something about needing his pants. She seemed a little upset that he was no longer around. I dozed off into a fitful night’s sleep. Once, as I was turning over in the middle of the night, I thought I heard the straining groan of an approaching garbage truck and the subsequent dull clunking of a dumpster being emptied.
The next morning I awoke feeling a terrible sense of loss. It had been almost 24 hours now since I had so rudely thrown my friend out.
“Did the garbage truck come in the middle of the night and haul him away?, I wondered.
I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. Didn’t my friend deserve better than to wind up in a landfill somewhere– or be shredded and re-cycled and reborn as a stack of brown paper bags in some dark back room?
Wasn’t he in fact a work of art?
I quickly dressed– and foregoing the two-minute wait for the elevator, bolted down the stairs and race-walked to the dumpster behind the building. Someone had added more cardboard boxes to the dumpster, but with a little digging, I found my old friend and pulled him out. As I walked away with him once again tucked under my arm I turned around and glanced at the dumpster full of boxes. One of them had a cartoon face on it which seemed to be smiling at me almost in approval.
Safe inside our apartment once again, I dressed him in his old clothes and stood him up in the corner across from our bed. I slept well that night.
I was so happy to see him the next morning when I woke up that I rolled over and went back to sleep.
And I dreamed the dullest dreams possibly imaginable.