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Excerpt:
The Glen Rock Book of the Dead

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Counterpoint, 2008 (hardcover)
Counterpoint, 2010 (paperback)

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Marion Winik, Glen Rock Book Of The Dead

Here are three of the 51 portraits – mini-essays or prose-poems, most around 300 words – that make up the book.

The Neighbor
d. 1978

He appeared at our bus stop one day in sixth grade with his blond crew-cut and goofy smile. His father had become principal of the high school, and they'd bought the mysterious house two doors down from us in the development. While all the other houses had flat green lawns or perhaps a single weeping cherry, this house had so many trees, you could hardly see the front door. The only member of the family we really knew was the dog, a huge wooly brown Airedale named Chumleigh who caused great hilarity and panic whenever he managed to bound away from the person holding his chain. The boy, on the other hand, stayed on the leash. Which was short, since his father was the principal. No, he could not come out to play Spud. Or ride bikes. Or take bong hits. If we ever asked, which I'm not sure we did.

These days, if you want to know a secret, you just turn on the television. Back then, there were only three channels and none of them had shows where people who were not professional actors wept and threw chairs at one another. Secrets were simply more secret, which meant rumors were more baroque. For example, people said the reason our music teacher was a little strange was because he had run over his own child playing in leaves in the driveway. It was hard to stop worrying about this. There were huge piles of leaves in those days, particularly in front of our neighbor's house, with all those trees.

My neighbor killed himself in his first year of college. My mother saw it in the paper, and no one else has mentioned it since, nor come up with any further details. How can this be, that we have no idea what happened to this boy, that no one remembers a single conversation with him? Today I found his father's phone number on the Internet, which took about ten seconds, and I called it. I told him that I was thinking about his son. Because our old class is having a reunion, I said, fumbling for an excuse. I heard he died? There was a long pause. He said, yes. He did. Have fun at your reunion.

The Driving Instructor
d. 1985

How many poems can you write about your father? Maybe one for every day of your life. Your father is the poem inside you when you wake up in the morning, the poem like a spine, shaping how you stand and sit, the poem with you on the toilet, the sink, the coffeepot, the poem that leans back into the driver's seat and spins the steering wheel with one practiced hand. Turn left. Left goddammit. For Christ's sake, learn to drive. Anger, forgiveness, duty, money, jokes, your father is the chairman of all these departments. We used to say, remember what an asshole he could be, but now we can't remember that anymore. What's left is the assholes we are.

Whole religions were made up so people could see their father again, and you don't have to be Jesus or Abraham Lincoln to have your actual biography dwarfed by your never-ending story in other people's heads. A thin gruel of memory thickened with everything that's happened since. Twenty-two years out you can hardly taste the stuff you started with but you just keep stirring, stirring, and putting the spoon in your mouth. Every day there is another thing he never saw: my children, my books, my houses, my aging face, the sweet little dog we have now, the latest morons in Congress and the NFL. The things I learned and the things I never have been able to. My disappointments, which would have disappointed him as well, so I might have hidden them. In dreams my father is sitting at the kitchen table, young and smooth-jawed, looking suspiciously like my teenaged son. The phone rings, he answers it, Hey Daddy, it's me. And look at this, still he gives the phone to my mom.

The Realtor
d. 2006

If you live long enough, life sends you plenty of indignities to rise above. Hangovers, cheap workmanship, the faithlessness of men, the death of loved ones, the signs of aging, the vicious pettiness of people when it comes to real estate. You must focus instead on the joy. To sail through life as she did requires a rare combination of high standards, low expectations, and undimmed enthusiasm. A thick, tough, yet beautifully moisturized and preternaturally radiant skin. The first time I saw her at a party, a tiny woman with a big Texas accent and a fine purple wool coat, it was clear she had it all figured out. I asked for her card. It said Realtor, but might as well have been Realist. For many years it remained in my pocket, an ace in the hole.

When we got into so much trouble selling my house, a crazy mess of misunderstandings and buyer's remorse that spawned a lawsuit of Dickensian absurdity, she took it in stride. She knew the exact way to manage these things: big smile, great insurance, leopard print suit and high-heeled boots. This was a gal who had twirled flaming batons for Wetumka High. But our day in court would never come, instead a stupid settlement that gave me a permanent rankle in my justice-bone. Ah, let it go, honey, she told me. The house is crooked, you're not. She opened a bottle of wine she and her writer husband had brought back from Europe and we drank it in her cool, leafy backyard. Tell me all about him, she said, meaning the guy I was moving across the country for. She knew there was little that can't be fixed by a glass of Bordeaux and a juicy love story.

If you live long enough, life sends you the indignity you can't rise above: cancer that kills you in three months, with so much pain you could eat your own pillow. Her dapper husband and ancient mama at her bedside in the hospice, praying her out. Ah, honey. I'd rather think of The Realtor as I saw her in Venice, giggling with her best friend in the ladies' room of a castle, a silver head and an ivory one bent together, still girlish at sixty-some, though both knew how much hurt a woman can bear.

Excerpted from The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, Marion Winik (Counterpoint, 2007). Reprinted with permission of the author.

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