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I’m not sure if it is even legal to photograph a man in a casket, though life has since taught me it is probably super inappropriate. Not that I was the amateur photographer in question, and not that I gave it much thought at the time. My mother, in a maybe strange attempt to cope with her grief – though certainly grief is always strange – hovered over the corpse in the box, armed with her camera. Taking photo after photo of this dead man, my mother made a last hurrah of an attempt to immortalize his essence with this pixelated, digital evidence of her love for him. Of course, you can’t immortalize the spirit of someone who is already gone by focusing on the leftover body, but this act of love remains with me as my last memory of him, truly my most prominent one.
This, a strange ode to the life he lived, the people he impacted, who loved him despite, despite, despite, yes, despite. Duane.
Mom always called him, “Duane-oh,” much like he called me, “Eee-hee,” after my failed attempts to say, “Sissy,” to my baby sister. My sister’s speech nuances cemented my nickname, which I kept hearing from him until the last time I ever saw this man sometime while I was in college, when I think we had a long, conspiratorial conversation about aliens and ghosts.
“Poor Duano,” my mother announced to nobody, clicking one photo, then another. “Poor Duano,” click, “Poor Duano,” click, “Poor Duano.”
Mom said something to me, looking back over her shoulder where I stood away from the body, me not wanting to interact even minimally with the bloated shell that looked nothing like the person I know. The man I knew was hyperactive, like my mother, had always made me a little uncomfortable, like my mother sometimes did, and I always thought that was because he was uncomfortable with himself, like my mother was with herself.
As far as my mother was concerned, Duane committed suicide due to his depressive tendencies, which he expressed often through poetry I never read – that is, of course, until my mother was told the truth. His death was obviously so quiet on the scale of media and global importance, there was never a public report otherwise.
“Autoerotic asphyxiation,” my father said later, pacing, probably wondering if I would ask what that meant.
I didn’t need to ask because I already knew, though I am not sure where I learned how the term applied concretely. I can hear my mother’s voice, whispering the truth in shame, saying something like, “It means he died masturbating. Men do that sometimes. Supposedly it makes it feel even better.”
Dad’s voice, matter-of-fact, saying, “They find people naked sometimes, that’s how you know someone died doing that, you know. Hanging, completely naked, from a tree or something. Their safety release doesn’t work and they end up dead.”
Knowing what little I know of his psychology, I think his death might have been the result of both masturbation and suicide, but I will never know for sure.
There in the funeral home, filled with just a few flower baskets, I looked back at his tiny and skinny children, which I don’t have a clear count of, but I know there were more than two. They sat in a pew, huddled into the side of their social worker, who had attended the nighttime event. My mother took a few final photographs, and her expressions had begun to sound like, “Poor Draino, poor Draino.” I caught a glimpse of his swollen face – a face which had never been fat, but it was now – on the preview screen of her camera.
They were close enough, Mom and Duane. They bantered often, and one of her favorite jokes was to sing an old plumbing commercial jingle, spiced up to be what the whole family celebrated as a brilliant pun, “And away goes trouble down the Duane.”
Mom cried the normal kinds of tears you cry at a funeral while another man played Greenday on his guitar, singing into a cheap microphone, “I hope you had the time of your life.” Mom has always been very good at expressing herself – crying often, loving loudly, sometimes throwing things, more often hugging. My well-developed emotional intellect is a by-product of her profound ability to feel.
I, however, struggled with proper expression of emotion until age thirty, numb and forgetting to cry at the funeral of someone I cared about in my teens, while also weeping the same year at the funeral of someone I hardly knew. At Duane’s funeral, I felt nothing, and I didn’t cry, instead observing with a potent detachment while trying to remember this man who’d been a peripheral character in my life since before my mind was developed enough to remember things.
As I stared at the wooden pockets of the pews, the ones holding aging and smelly hymns, I stared at the rough weaving of the pew padding and I thought back to who he always was to me.
I was little, with a bowl cut and chubby legs, when he reached over my lap to buckle my seatbelt for me. He clicked the belt into the sharp square, tugging to check for security, telling me to wear the belt correctly instead of the way I wanted to because an incorrectly positioned seatbelt could cut my arm off in an accident. Older me objects. Older me knows at age four, I shouldn’t have been in a car without a booster seat, let alone in the front seat of an Astro van – in the event of an accident, losing an arm would have been the least of my worries.
My grandmother tried to put me in a booster seat when I was somewhat older, and I hated it because it was hard, so I managed to get away with not sitting in one sometimes. Like I managed to climb up on cabinets to get out food when nobody was there to do it for me. Like I managed, because I managed to do things a lot, like to not burn down our mobile home when I cooked a burger wrong – looking back, I think, where was everybody when I was a kid? Asleep? Gone? Sometimes potently present, my parents played games with us, like kickball – and sometimes, I watched movies, made my own food, and entertained myself alone with no sign of those mostly kind and always loving people, my adult roommates who were also my parents.
If my parents were roommates, Duane was the slim, dark-headed guy who showed up to the party. He emitted a darkness I was never able to put my finger on; I only knew that I didn’t like to be alone with him because something about him was quietly impending and uncomfortable. I’m not sure how real karmic consequences are, but if they are real, Duane seemed to really have done something awful in this life or a former one.
Somewhere in my adolescence, Duane was burning brush at my family’s property and poured gasoline into the wind. The wind caught fire. He burned his skin so badly he could hardly move afterwards, but was too broke to visit a hospital, so my father regularly and tenderly dressed his wounds with bottled water and other first aid tactics until Duane healed. Duane’s brother, who had terrorized him for much of his life and looted his house after death, encouraged Duane to sue my father. Duane never did, probably because he loved my father, seriously disliked conflict, but probably also because my father had nothing to take.
There is a house deep in the woods, just beyond the wild and tangled brush – people from home might say, “Over yonder” – past tall grass that waves its goodbyes and warnings in the wind. That grass had grown over the heads of Duane’s little girls, who swished and crunched through its tangles and thorns, when they wandered through those weeds in the dark to find a neighbor when their dad didn’t answer the door to his room for an entire day.
What did those little girls do all day, while their father lay hanging above his bed? Did they watch cartoons? Argue with each other? What did they eat? I have, of course, been on the internet since the day of Duane’s funeral, looking at the profiles of the children he left behind, left on planet Kentucky lonelier and poorer. They’re young still, they all have babies of their own now, and they talk about their love lives, maybe about a job at McDonald’s, about motherhood. Sometimes they post about flashbacks.
The old house is not visible from even the satellite images on Google Maps, which makes a lot of sense, given that its inhabitants were the kinds of people who despised the government (even if there are whisperings of Duane covertly working for the government and Microsoft) and feared big brother. That house saw many gross things like death and overt racism, likely also including despicable hooded men in white celebrating their hellish, dangerous opinions in an annoying circle jerk of a tradition.
This, the site of his end.
I’m not sure if it was out of morbidity or simple curiosity, but just before the funeral and burial, we visited Duane’s home – that sagging house, out of the way in Somerset, Kentucky. The home was a gift to him from a now-dead criminal, a militia reject and radio pirate. Steve Anderson wasn’t exactly arrested for saying horrible things about people who were different from him, but there is an angry part of me that wishes he was thrown in prison for that, but furthermore, I do also respect our rights to speak freely, even when I hate what is being said. Surely his white supremacist content was of interest to law enforcement both federal and local, but he went from a man with despicable opinions to a wanted man because he shot at a police officer.
We visited the house with a friend of my father, a quietly gay man who (from what I understand) despised Duane, but who still attended the funeral and burial out of respect, as well as accompanying us on this strange journey to the site of his death. The friend was nervous, saying, “Let’s get out of here,” and, “This is seriously screwed up.” I remember a, “Can we please get out of this house, already?” and the sight of his freckled face, pink with distress. Somehow, though the dead man in question called him words I don’t use, though the dead man referenced many people – especially marginalized ones – by offensive words, nobody was dancing on his grave.
The way my father tells the story, the charred skeleton of the cross the KKK once burned in the backyard was still there when we arrived to view the place of death, though I missed it as we parked the car and walked inside, through the unkept home and to the room with the deathbed.
The entry point was in the basement, where the door was blown off by law enforcement coming to seek out the former owner of the house, Steve. Near the door, there was a torture chamber. From what I was told, it was constructed for pleasure. I remember it so vaguely it is as if I viewed it in the dark. The restraints had settled in the corner of a damp basement, and I tried not to envision Duane playing adult, sexual games with his lady. I also tried not to imagine his professed darkest moment, dictated to me by people who knew him, when he watched his wife have sex with his brother on the floor in his living room – though the circumstances surrounding the moment are unknown to me, whether he chose to watch, whether he was forced, whether he laughed or cried.
My eyes fell on a laundry basket in the room where Duane either killed himself, or accidentally died at the height of pleasure – or both. There was what might have been an innocent hook in the ceiling, had it not somehow sustained enough weight to kill a man. My eyes fell on a strap, strung across the unmade bed, one which I wondered about, but I didn’t ask.
To everyone I spoke with, it was as if the probable truth was more unbearable than suicide, but I think I’m more okay with him dying accidentally than on purpose. Nobody has ever said whether or not his children saw his body. As I exited the bedroom that day, I pressed my palm against a wide gap between the door frame and the door. There was enough visibility to see intimate moments, including those that ended in death.
I’ve often wondered what the children saw that day, and on others, including the day their father watched their mother engage sexually with their uncle. I’ve rarely envisioned what Duane must have looked like, there on the bed, hanging enough to die, doing things I wouldn’t have otherwise ever considered. Now, considering him sexually, considering parts of his body I never have, I feel unaffected, which affects me much more than any of this ever will.
I don’t have a clear understanding of whether or not I was okay with being there, in this living crypt, shrouded in a spirit of racism and bigotry that the superstitious might chalk up to negative energy.
Conspiracists will tell you we’re in some sort of a matrix, and Duane could have totally been one of those people, though this particular conspiracy theory we never spoke of. Geniuses are often the ones who say things like, “Our universe comes down to binary code,” at least (that is) according to the clickbait I’ve seen and the conversations I’ve had with people who are into that sort of thing. They say life is like some sort of computer game, that we’re experiencing a life in code. Essentially, this is the computer guru’s way of saying, Life is but a dream. Though that seems extreme, I will agree that life is, indeed, a trippy thing. Innate narcissism maybe leads the human race to believe in an inherent value to our lives, or maybe we do matter, but then it all ends in death, so which matters more? The life part or the death part?
Maybe a death that sounds like a bad joke, a death hypersexualized and masturbatory, didn’t define a life. Or maybe it did. I’d like to say this disaffection I have toward the deceased is due to an extreme trauma response, but cathartic honesty reveals something much more horrifying: dislike. Though I waved and said nice things to him, though I was respectful when interacting and I think I cared about his wellbeing, and though I knew him my entire life, the truth is he’s always made me extremely uncomfortable, though I wasn’t aware of my light disdain until now.
Me, I’ve always been able to love broken, monstrous people due to my upbringing. Honestly, to survive in a culture of certainly twisted, sometimes criminal, often violent human beings – as I was immersed in my younger life due to the nuances of our particular brand of poverty – you have to love complicated people. Boundaries are blurred, in this way.
I know why I didn’t cry at Duane’s funeral. Because I didn’t love him, strange as that is to uncover. Truthfully, I had never accepted him in our lives because, as likeable as he could be, my soul had already rejected him long before his death. Because complicated people are everywhere, and those people were so routine in our lives, it was strange to the people in charge of me that I rejected people I deemed vaguely bad, though I was too young to articulately define the whats and whys.
For years, I’ve turned this question over in my mind, lamented it, struggled with it, choked on it. What determines the worth and value of a human being – what makes a person worthy of love? As a person on social media, with a platform and a brand, I stand by my belief that we should give the world love, but I stop with idealism when that philosophy is interrupted by the boundaries I’ve constructed as a result of my heritage. If love is simply an action and it requires us to respect people despite their choices, that is something I can stand behind and do. If love is both an action and the way I feel, and if honesty is a driving value in my life, then the truth is I have not love for many of the people I always thought I did.
I have always loved complicated people, but not him, no, not him. I, however, do not think my lack of love for him translates to an absence of his worth as a human being. He left a very small, yet somehow still enormous, hole in the world when he made what amounted to a mistake – or when he made a very strange statement about his life. The darker part of my mind wonders if it wasn’t an accident – if he chose suicide, and he chose what he considered a vulgar suicide, one that might make a loud testimony. I still don’t know what I think that bottom line meaning would have been.
Circumstances are so interesting, in many ways infuriating, think the children left behind by a preventable tragedy, think the people who mourned an intelligent man who was also a bigot, think death by kink.
Rebecca Kirschbaum is a writer from Appalachia and the Bluegrass. Her work has been published by Still Point Arts Quarterly, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Furious Gazelle and The Nasiona, as well as seen on stage in San Antonio and San Diego. She is the recipient of a Write Well Award.