My uncle insisted his wake take place on a train and that he be alive for it.
We had buried my grandfather, my great grandmother, and a cousin, not to mention all the people before I was old enough to remember, and we always held vigils over their bodies and feasted on cold cuts and soft cheeses afterward. But Uncle Aldo had seen a movie where the main character attended his wake for all of his family members to honor his memory and he knew that’s what he wanted.
Somehow, some were surprised by this even though, at this point, we should know to never be surprised by what Uncle Aldo does. Aunt Isabella used to have to explain him a lot, the clothes he wore, the things he said. He had a stage of only wearing colorful suits no matter the occasion or the weather and another stage where he carried a cane despite not needing one to get around; the stage he was in now was a combination of the two. But she reaped the benefits sometimes as his eccentricity was also romantic. Once, he filled their bedroom with so many sunflowers that she couldn’t get out of bed and he delivered all her meals to her on silver platters. And that was just a Tuesday. When he was my age, Uncle Aldo invented a board game, using us kids as guinea pigs for all the rejects, that won him big money so he retired from the banking business and sat atop his fortune. That money paid to rent out the whole train.
In the invitation each family member received, Uncle Aldo said he was dying from old age, in his sixties. He was always one for parties which meant he was one for drinks and smokes and rich food. The doctor gave him five months. Hence, all of my aunts and uncles and some grandparents and cousins and nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters were all on the Coast Starlight 11 from Seattle to Los Angeles.
Our whole family started in Canada, up in Vancouver, but after people got married and went to school and grew up, we all trickled down the west coast. Uncle Aldo said this trip would be able to pick everyone up along the way. And end in the sun, where the stars go.
I came on at King Street Station in Seattle with my parents and sisters. My younger brothers would hop on further down in Washington and Oregon and everyone else would follow down to California. We were handed champagne as soon as we boarded. And I quickly learned that this happened often.
“Miles, my boy, how are you?” Uncle Aldo slapped me on the chest, wrapping his other arm around my shoulders. I didn’t get it; he looked as healthy as a horse.
“Good, good, Uncle Aldo. How are you?”
“Never better! Happy to be getting my whole family together!”
He gave my father, his brother, the longest hug. And did so to each descending member.
He’s absolutely loving this but he’s also hating this. Your uncle was always one for extremes.
I sat down next to Aunt Isabella who had gotten here even before Aldo did. Her voice was always quiet, almost a whisper, almost like a conversation in italics. It was funny how she offset Aldo in almost every way. We looked on as everyone caught up and kissed cheeks and quieted Aldo’s booming voice. It was actually a beautiful day in Seattle after days of nothing but clouds. The sun seeped in through the window and warmed my face.
“And I guarantee you he will still try sneaking a cigar or glass of wine here and there,” I said.
Honey, I guarantee you he will not try and sneak it.
My aunt was used to sitting and observing as she spent her days as the unofficial neighborhood watch in a neighborhood that didn’t need watching. They lived in a house fierce enough to not be messed with and thus their neighbors lived similarly. Sometimes she caught drug deals between the rich kids with nothing but time and money to waste but, most of the time, she found lost dogs or cats. Long, dangly earrings hitting her cheeks when she turned, writing notes and turning back, completely silent except for the noise of her gum-smacking.
Although only sisters-in-law, my aunt and my mother acted like sisters. Stealing themselves away from others to have their own conversations littered with inside jokes. And, while they loved like sisters, they also hated like them too. My mother spent her summers, when she wasn’t teaching elementary school, following the production crew of Midsomer Murders near the southern coast of England. Behind each other’s backs, they tsk tsk’ed the other one. They each thought they were living better, smiling from the sides of their eyes.
“My mother talks about you all the time. I don’t even talk to her that much and know that she talks about you all the time,” I told her.
I know, I know. I talk about her all the time too. Don’t worry, dear, there’s still plenty to be said.
Now that my family was on board, my teenage sisters finding seats across from each other so they could take each other’s picture, my parents crowded Aldo with glasses of champagne gripped in their hands. They stood there smiling like they had actually never smiled before. I could tell they were asking questions without asking the questions they wanted to ask. Usually, these wakes were somber but, in this case, it felt more like a family reunion and we sometimes forgot to be sad.
The train rumbled to life again and chugged out of the station. We headed south. With the sun warming my body and the gentle swaying of constant movement of the train below me, I tried not to fall asleep. But I folded my arms across my chest and closed my eyes. It wouldn’t be until we got to California that the party would really start. That’s where most of my cousins lived.
Growing up, I liked to think that we wouldn’t be the kind of family to fight over money. In my thirties working as a librarian with a rich uncle about ready to croak, I realize that that’s just not the case.
Uncle Aldo would run into the room, hopping on one foot like his momentum caught him off guard, and, in a singsong voice, order us kids into his workshop. Uncle Aldo and Aunt Isabella didn’t have kids of their own so they treated their nieces and nephews like their kids, usually making their house the meeting point for us all to hang out. Pulling us away from our video games, our friends, and our homework, he sat us around the game table. We were the ones that told him the instructions were hard to understand or that the game was just not fun. But Uncle Aldo had so many ideas and so many versions that we sat down at that table hundreds of times. We groaned all the way there, slumped in the chairs. As an incentive, he said he would give one of us all of the proceeds from the game he didn’t already spend when he died. We didn’t understand that that would be decades away but what we saw was either money or no money in a kid’s world of empty pockets.
Although eccentric, Aldo was firm in keeping his word. When the other adults heard about this, they chastised him for making this a competition and bribing us with money. But, like with everything else, he just shrugged his shoulders.
He knew this, he knew he would pay out eventually, and he was grateful for the board game that actually garnered his fortune but you were to never mention it to him. It was like a baby that he had nurtured but then it grew and turned on him, becoming unfamiliar and ugly. He would give you the silent treatment if you so much as said the name.
One of us was hoping to collect on his promise while on this trip without having to mention it.
“Miles, my boy, get your head out of that book and come help me.” Uncle Aldo said this so much when I was young that I thought my name was Miles Myboy. And, although he was the one that pulled me away from them, he was also the one that bought me all the books I wanted.
I was named after the miles and miles of distance my parents tried to put between each other. My mother went on her summer vacations almost 5,000 miles away to be close to a TV show. And when she came back, my father left immediately to travel all around the world as a flight attendant, gone for weeks at a time. They loved each other enough to stay together in marriage but not in the same city. But, wherever they were, they always came back to hold the other’s hand for a funeral. The two of them kept having kids so they wouldn’t be by themselves and, after three boys, they kept going until they got a girl and then got another girl. But through everything, we always looked happy in our Christmas cards.
Everybody called Aldo, when he was in college, Big Swig because he was always guzzling water. He once drank so much studying for his statistics exam that he had to be taken to the ER. He called it water intoxication or over-hydration. That wasn’t the real reason he was called Big Swig but everyone went with it anyway. He really did go to the ER before his stats exam though.
In the doorway, he drank like it was his last drop. He steadied himself with his feet as he steadied his glass held up over his head with both hands.
My middle brother got on in Tacoma with his wife, both professors at the University of Puget Sound. My younger brother got on in Portland. They were also in the race to see who could win over Aldo. Their eyes lit up when they saw him, their hugs involved a lot of back-slapping, and they looked like actors acting like he was their dearest relative. But when I got close to them and Uncle Aldo, they were talking about the weather.
Down the aisle of the train, you could hear him thump along the way like he was on a catwalk. The cane he was sporting was wooden with a crystal duck’s head that his fingers curled around the beak of. Tonight’s look was a suit in matador red, a midnight blue shirt underneath, and a white pocket square. I noticed a puff of smoke that followed him as he walked past like he was the caboose of the train.
You know, I don’t care what anybody says, I still think he’s stylish.
“I do too. You think I could pull something like that off for my wake?”
Don’t joke, Miles, honey. How about going for a wedding first?
“I would need somebody to marry first, Auntie,” I tell her like she doesn’t already know about my last relationship that’s already been over for three years. “What did he wear to your wedding again?”
Oh, you know the story. I’ve heard it a thousand times but, seeing the Pacific Coast roll by outside with the sun shining on us, I want to hear it again. He wore a bedazzled white suit, much like the dear Elvis Presley wore but no one was thinking of The King when they looked at your uncle at the end of that aisle. And people used to ask me, Did you feel upstaged? and I would tell them, No I felt matched. Every good candle needs a good flame.
Our cousins got on in California, all right after each other: Redding, Chico, Sacramento, then Davis. The odd one out lived in Santa Barbara. I pride myself on convincing her to move there as, when we were kids, I said that that’s where Santa Claus must live. As an adult, she got a job out there and couldn’t resist.
California was beautiful but it’s amazing how much every place looks the same from the window of a train. Much like the window from a plane, my dad would say. It made us feel like we were everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It only went away for the moon. But I was always surprised to see it again in the morning when, usually I wake up to the rain that helped drift me to sleep. This is the kind of weather where you can go outside with a book in your hand without having to worry about damaging it.
Because there was barely a break between spots, I stood up in order to hug and kiss everyone that came through like we were already a receiving line at a funeral. Instead, I liked to think of it as the end of a basketball game. Like when you were a kid and everybody got in a line with their hand out to high five the other team in their line with their hand out. Everyone saying, “Good game,” without looking up as to not look too congratulatory or not too disappointed. I thought about this too long as I said hello to all of my cousins and their wives and husbands and kids that I even high-fived my cousin’s wife.
I watched them all clamor around Uncle Aldo, checking his pulse, massaging his shoulders, taking the drink out of his hand and the cigarettes out of his pocket. As if this would cure him. As if this would win them the money.
Marjorie looks like she’s lost too much weight. And those kids are awfully skinny. What is she feeding them? Or not feeding them?
“Mom told me she’s on a health kick and is making her whole family do it too. But Rich put his foot down if you couldn’t tell by those loose-fitting jeans. And those kids are crazy, in a new town every weekend for soccer tournaments and baseball games. I don’t know how they all got so sporty when Marjorie’s idea of athleticism when we were kids was running around the house with my glasses before I could catch her.”
Oh, you kids. I do remember that. But I didn’t know about all these sports. And, you know, it’s about time for these new eating habits after years of her pushing around my asparagus at every Easter dinner. I guess I need to come down here more.
She seemed sad like she had done something wrong but, out of everyone, she was doing the best thing. “Yeah, I’m sure they’d like that.”
We were pulling into Los Angeles in the middle of July and the sun was just setting even though it was already eight o’clock. We started the speeches an hour ago in Simi Valley with his idea to end when we pulled into Union Station at sunset. My other cousins and brothers went up and gave impassioned homages to our uncle with tears meant for the silver screen. My father cried tears I’d never seen him cry, meant only for behind closed doors. I went up and thanked him for my library that he had helped curate over the years, inspiring me to turn it into a job. He always wrote notes in the books that he left me and I said I would really miss those notes. My sisters went up and, without a screen or projector, passed around a laptop that had a slideshow of pictures of Uncle Aldo throughout the years.
The train jostled our raised glasses of champagne when we toasted Aldo. We stood with feet wide apart to keep our balance. This was not the time to ask the dying man why he wanted to have his wake on a train. I sat down in my seat and looked out the window and guessed why.
Finally, it was his turn to speak although the sun had already set. The lights came on and lit the aisle, giving him a spotlight. The train was stopped so he rested one hand on his cane and one on his drink, no need for balance.
“Hello, hello. My face is dry but that is only because I think I will cry enough in heaven. I’m sorry, I might be the reason there will be even more rain in Seattle.” People laughed through their tissues. “Your stories have all touched me. So much more than you know. And although we were never able to have children, I’m so glad and so proud to be able to call you my children and my brothers and sisters. And while this may not have been the best circumstance to all gather, I’m so happy we could all be here and I could see everyone all together.”
He paused and everyone was silent.
“Of course, I’m sad that some of us couldn’t be here today. Most of all, my beautiful wife, Isabella, who was taken from us too soon. The hardest times of my life have been the years without her, in my adolescence before meeting her and for these last three years after her death. Although I will leave all you, I can be happy knowing I can be reunited with her soon. I know she’s here with us. I can hear her earrings and can smell her peppermint gum.” His eyes glistened and everyone smiled.
“I don’t really know how to end a speech to myself during my wake other than saying thank you and I love you.”
Some of us expected him to just drop dead right then and there while the others wanted to hear who would finally get his millions.