Joseph Clayton Mills ‘Eighty-eight Keys’

  1. When attending a funeral, one must always wear black.
  1. A black suit hangs in my closet.
  1. Therefore, naturally, I should simply have worn this solemn black suit, which was after all an excellent suit—expertly tailored by English tailors, who are the world’s supreme tailors—and made of the finest worsted wool.

  1. This was precisely the difficulty. My only black suit was tailored from the finest worsted wool–a fabric that is known for its quality, its durability, and its remarkable warmth–yet the funeral of my wife was taking place in the so-called dog days of August, which is a month that is notorious for the most unforgiving, relentless, and merciless of heats.
  1. Was it possible that I could wear my seersucker suit instead? My seersucker suit is made of cotton. My seersucker suit breathes. My seersucker suit, in direct contrast to my black wool suit, is perfectly designed to accommodate the August heat.
  1. Yet this seersucker suit, which is the appropriate attire for August—the ideal attire, for example, for a picnic on the lawn, and the perfect wardrobe for a stroll at the seashore—is the worst possible attire for attending the funeral of one’s wife. The same seersucker suit that at the picnic or at the seashore is absolutely ideal becomes, at the funeral of one’s wife, absolutely ridiculous; moreover, it makes anyone who wears it ridiculous, as well.
  1. I am far from caring what others might say, and I care still less about what they might think. Nevertheless, I concede that the grief of a man who is dressed in a solemn black wool suit is grief to be taken seriously, whereas the grief of a man who is dressed in a seersucker suit is grief that is meant to be laughed at.
  1. It is absolutely impossible to wear a seersucker suit to the funeral of one’s wife, because it is absolutely impossible to wear anything less than a solemn suit of black worsted wool to the funeral of one’s wife.
  1. It is equally impossible to wear a solemn suit of worsted wool and stand by the yawning mouth of a freshly dug grave under the murderous blaze of an August sun.
  1. Therefore, one must pose oneself the question: why did she choose to kill herself in the month of August?
  1. If she had executed herself, for example, in the month of November, when the bleak umbra of the leafless tree lengthens towards inhospitable horizons, I could have understood her decision quite well. If she had assassinated herself in the month of January, when the frigid nights are interminable and the sunlight is a ghost, it would have been right and proper. If she had killed herself in the month of March, which invariably crushes ones feeble hopes for an early spring beneath the brutal, suffocating weight of a late snowfall, I would have been unsurprised.
  1. The winters in this awful city are of excruciating length and diabolical tenacity; ergo, people massacre themselves in droves in the month of November, they slaughter themselves by the thousands in the month of January, no one escapes unscathed from the month of March without pondering the panacea of suicide, but there is absolutely no reason in the world to kill oneself in the month of August–unless, that is, one wishes to deliberately inflict upon a widowed, grieving husband the torture of wearing his black wool suit.
  1. Thus, one must draw the inescapable conclusion that my wife knowingly and maliciously finished herself off in the month of August, that she purposely selected the hottest month of the year as the perfect time in which to unveil her suicide plot, because she was well aware that my only black suit was made of worsted wool and intended, with the perfidious cunning that was her hallmark, to inflict this black wool suit torture upon me.
  1. Given the choice between two impossibilities, I was forced to devise a compromise, as follows: in my mind, I dressed myself in my seersucker suit, but in my body I crawled into the suit of solemn black wool. In my mind, I dressed for the weather, and in my body I dressed for the occasion. In my mind, I donned my ridiculous seersucker suit and withstood the mockery of the crowd, and in my body I donned my black wool suit and suffered her black wool suit revenge.
  1. My legs, one after the other, went into my solemn black wool pants. I buttoned up my starched white shirt and affixed the cufflinks to my French cuffs; I pulled on my black wool jacket, one sleeve after the next; I folded my pocket square and slipped it into place; and I struggled to tie my somber necktie into a double Windsor knot, which is the only knot that one can wear to the funeral of one’s wife, the only knot that is serious enough, dignified enough, and profound enough to befit such an occasion—not the half Windsor knot, not the four-in-hand knot, and not the Shelby—the double Windsor, the necktie knot nonpareil.
  1. Unsurprisingly, my attempt to tie the double Windsor know was an unmitigated disaster. It had always been my wife who had tied the double Windsor knot for me, it had been she who had straightened the necktie whenever it had gone askew, it had been she who had tightened it when it was loose and had loosened it when I gasped for breath; but now the double Windsor knot was irredeemably awry, and with her gone I was absolutely helpless before its intricacies. Left to my own devices, I found that this double Windsor knot proved to be an impossible task.
  1. Of all the knots that one is called upon to tie in one’s life, the double Windsor knot is by far the most difficult to master; of all the obstacles that one faces in life, the tying of a double Windsor knot is perhaps the most insurmountable obstacle; and of all the crimes that she perpetrated upon me, by far the worst was to abandon me to confront the double Windsor knot alone and unaided.
  1. You will tell me that a man should know how to tie his own necktie. You would be absolutely correct to do so. A man should be well versed in the art of tying a necktie. The ability to tie one’s own necktie is fundamental to the very definition of what it means to be a man.
  1. A man who cannot tie his own necktie is, by definition, not a man, but is a child.
  1. Ultimately, a man who cannot tie his own necktie is helpless before the onslaught of the world, against which a double Windsor knot is the best and only defense.
  1. The world is perpetually on the attack, and a man who cannot retreat to the fortress of a double Windsor knot is at the mercy of the world, which has no mercy.
  1. For a man who cannot tie his own double Windsor knot, a necktie is nothing more and nothing less than a hangman’s noose.
  1. A man who must depend on others for the tying of his necktie is doomed to annihilation, and what is more, he should be doomed to annihilation. A creature who cannot tie his own necktie, to be frank, deserves every vicious blow that the world inflicts.
  1. An inability to tie my double Windsor knot is therefore no excuse, but it was as a direct and immediate consequence of my inability to tie my double Windsor knot—despite devoting three-quarters of an hour to the bitter struggle—that I was led to commit one of the most egregious faux pas that one can commit at any funeral, much less the funeral of one’s wife, which is the unpardonable sin of tardiness.
  1. When arriving at a funeral, one does not want to keep the corpse waiting.
  1. Of course, it would be equally impermissible to show one’s eager anticipation of the internment by arriving too early.
  1. When arriving at a funeral, one should always be precisely on time, which is to say neither a moment too early nor a moment too late.
  1. Alas, in this world everything is always done too early or too late. Sometimes the one, and sometimes the other, but nothing is ever done at the right time.
  1. Only in music, and only when the music is played properly—and in this world the music is never played properly.
  1. If a tune is supposed to be played in 4/4 time, we play it like a waltz. If the band plays a waltz, we dance a polka. If the tempo is correct, our instruments are out of tune. If by some miracle our instruments are in tune, the composition is guaranteed to be tasteless and kitsch.
  1. If the tempo is correct, and the instruments are in tune, and the composition is the work of a Beethoven or a Bach, then you can be absolutely certain that the audience is tone-deaf.
  1. In this world, in short, a musical disaster is guaranteed, no matter what.
  1. My wife loved music more than anything else in life, but she was never one for punctuality. She always lagged behind the beat. The truth is that my wife always needed a conductor to wave the baton. With her, everything was played at the wrong tempo and slightly out of tune. My wife lived a life that could best be described as a study in syncopation and atonality. With her, every action was the right action, but taken at the wrong time. Every precaution was taken, but only once the damage was done.
  1. Even her suicide project was undertaken too late to accomplish any good.
  1. There is little that is quite so pathetic as to commit suicide at an advanced age. If one murders oneself at twenty, when one is still in the first so-called bloom of youth, there is an inevitable consensus as to the tragedy. The loss of a young life full of promise—no matter how unpromising that life might have been—is universally bemoaned.
  1. In contrast, when one kills oneself at her age, there are certain individuals who can only shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes, and wonder what could possibly have taken her so long. After all, it had been clear for years that her life was a hopelessly botched job.
  1. To live too long under circumstances such as hers was certainly an embarrassment to all concerned.
  1. When one sees an old man or an old woman, one should always raise a suspicious eyebrow, because in a world like this one there is nothing quite so suspect as survival. To live too long in a world like this one is always a dubious accomplishment. One does not reach a ripe old age in this world without covering oneself in infamy of one kind or another.
  1. When I arrived at the funeral­­—gasping, panting, strangled by my badly knotted hangman’s noose of a necktie, sweating like a pig, and egregiously late—I was shocked to see the disastrous turnout. It is true that she was less than popular, and I was not surprised to see that her friends were not here, because her friends did not exist. But where were her enemies? I would have thought that there would be scores of them assembled to gloat over her now that she was defenseless. I would have thought that every seat would be full.
  1. And where were the curious? The curious are always in a hurry to gather around a corpse, especially the corpse of a suicide. The place should have been infested with them. I would have thought that they would all have come in a swarm to pick over her bones.
  1. Instead, I arrived to discover only a handful of wretched specimens from her middle-class monstrosity of a family, obese and dull-witted, shedding their counterfeit tears, gathered for no other reason than to gawk and to gossip. Now that she was dead the tongues of her family would not stop wagging. They had always suspected and now they had proof that my wife was a madwoman.
  1. Of course, they could never understand that she was also an idealist. It was impossible for their mediocre middle-class mediocrity minds to comprehend that she could not bear them the way that they were simply because she saw all too clearly the way that they could be.
  1. She suffered from a malady endemic among idealists: she loved humanity and hated human beings, and her misfortune was that she was always confronted with human beings and never confronted with humanity.
  1. Her family loathed her and she loathed them in return, because neither she nor they could stand to see how pathetically far short of her ideals they fell.
  1. My wife belonged to her middle-class monstrosity of a family in name only; in reality, she was descended from a long line of idealists and lunatics, her true lineage was that of an idealist and a lunatic, and she was the heiress to all of their idealism and their lunacy.
  1. Whether she was an idealist first and went mad, or was a madwoman first and then developed ideals, is impossible to say and makes no difference, because all idealists are insane and the insane are always idealists. Inside their skulls, each of them carries a burden that no one else can carry: a world that none but themselves can understand.
  1. No one approved of our marriage. Her mother was dead set against it and referred to me as “matrimonial arsenic.” Her father called our marriage a catastrophe in the making, and he described her decision as “Hinderburg-esque.”
  1. In the end, they were both proved right, of course, but she would not listen. I had given her lilacs and played the piano, I had rhapsodized about Beethoven and Bach, I had dropped the names “Voltaire” and “Rousseau” into conversation—after that, there was nothing that her parents could do to dissuade her.
  1. Still, I can take little credit for our marriage. My wife deserves the credit and the blame. She was the one who plotted our marriage. She was the chief conspirator, and I was only her accomplice, although in the end it was I who was left to face the music alone.
  1. My wife thought that she was plotting an escape. She thought that a husband would be a way out of her father-trap and her family-trap, but she found herself instead in a husband-trap. She thought that she was digging an escape tunnel in the form of a marriage, but to her disgust she discovered that she was only digging a pit.
  1. And that is invariably the way that it goes. One thinks that one is digging an escape tunnel, and one diligently burrows one’s way through one’s family, one’s children, and one’s so-called career. One digs one’s way through a novel or a symphony, a philosophy or a science. One thinks that each of them is a tunnel to freedom, a way out of the ugly prison camp of life, burrows under the barbed wire in hopes of reaching the rumored skies of imperishable blue, but every tunnel collapses, one after the other, each one in its turn.
  1. My wife lived under the life-long impression that she was digging an escape tunnel, but in the end she discovered, naturally, that she was only digging a grave, and a horribly shallow one at that. Despite the long years of dreadful effort, in the end the hole was barely deep enough to cover the stench.
  1. Nonetheless, on our wedding day, my wife was radiant with hope and happiness. She glided down the aisle with terrifying grace, and the arc of her impossibly long pale throat was like the throat of a swan. I had never seen her so beautiful, and I suspected then that I would never see her so beautiful again
  1. And all at once I felt the sudden strange desire to put out my eyes, like Oedipus or Lear, so that the last sight that I would ever see would be that woman at that moment, young and beautiful and full of grace, and I would have been right to put out my eyes. I would no doubt have been hauled off at once to the madhouse but it would have been the sanest thing that I could have done, because she never looked so beautiful again, never so young and never so full of grace. Her beauty began to fade at once, and her hope and her happiness, too—but by then it was too late.
  1. In my defense, I made a valiant attempt to make her happy, but I had taken on an impossible task. My wife built a wall, brick by brick, between herself and her happiness. She put a guard tower on top of the wall, and she issued the order “shoot to kill.”
  1. The truth is that my wife always lived in a bunker. She resided in a bomb-proof bunker inside her skull. For my wife, the Russians were always at the city gates and the bombs were perpetually falling. My wife’s mind was always a bomb-shelter mind, and her mentality was always a bunker-mentality. She was always fighting a desperate, last-ditch defense against the world—moreover, a hopeless defense.
  1. I ask myself: when did things get so bad? When did things become so utterly unbearable? And the answer is that things have always been so bad, things have always been unbearable. Who knows why one day it becomes too much?
  1. Every day she would wake up with the hands of the world around her throat. Every morning, the grip would be a little tighter. Every morning, it was a little harder to breathe. One morning, she was strangled, and that was that.
  1. The miserable way that they treat the body in these places, I thought, dressing them up like dolls, powdering their faces, parading them about.
  1. A funeral is nothing but one long travesty, I thought, one protracted insult to the dead.
  1. They say that a funeral is to honor the dead, I thought, and then they proceed to molest the corpse and to treat the corpse like a puppet or a rag doll.
  1. The body should be treated with respect and instead they treat it with nothing but disrespect, I thought.
  1. Of course, the way they treat the body is nothing compared to the way they treat the soul. Every humiliation they visit on the body is visited on the soul a hundred-fold. For every insult that they deliver to the body, they deliver a hundred insults to the soul.
  1. Every tasteless indignity inflicted on the body of the dead, of which there is no shortage, is replicated one hundred times over on the soul of the dead, I thought, and as if on cue the dour-eyed preacher, who had been circling the corpse like a vulture, perched at last at the pulpit and commenced to dispensing his platitudes and panaceas.
  1. The drivel that came out of the mouth of that hired lackey, that mercenary mourner who was unmistakably interested only in collecting his fee and snatching up his thirty pieces of silver, was beyond description, and I was compelled to sit and listen patiently, sweltering in my black wool suit, while he hurled insult after insult at her in the guise of showering her with praise.
  1. It was then that I noticed the smile on her face.
  1. It was then that I noticed that they had decorated her face with a smile.
  1. It was then that I noticed that, in the most unnatural manner, they had adorned her face with a completely implausible and unacceptable smile.
  1. In life, she had never worn a smile, but had invariably worn a frown.
  1. Since the day of our wedding, her expression had been, without fail, an expression of disappointment.
  1. Since the day of our wedding, she had never smiled; at most, she had smirked, and occasionally she had sneered, but I could say with absolute certainty that, since the day of our wedding, I had never seen her smile.
  1. Never a smile and always a frown, but as soon as she was safely dead they did not hesitate to disfigure her.
  1. Admittedly, a smile on a corpse is nothing so terribly unusual—the funeral parlors are filled with cadavers that, to all appearances, are blissfully happy; the cemeteries are stuffed with grinning skulls; and if you turn to the obituaries, you will be greeted with nothing but grainy black and white photographs of the dead smiling their interminable insipid smiles—but a smile on this corpse, of all corpses, is impossible.
  1. If they had buried her with a smirk on her face, or with her lips arranged into a derisive sneer, I could have borne it, but her lips were twisted into an unmistakable smile.
  1. At first, I deluded myself with hope; I tried to placate myself. I thought to myself that it could be a smirk in lieu of a smile. It is quite possibly a smirk, I thought at first, because that would be conceivable, that would be understandable, but a smile would be inconceivable and beyond the bounds of understanding, and so I could not conceive it and could not understand it.
  1. In that awful light, in that grim, pallid, stained-glass light, it was at first quite difficult to tell whether it was a smirk or a smile, and from a certain angle, it could perhaps be mistaken for a smirk; but when I approached more closely, when I examined what is perhaps best described as the scene of the crime with complete objectivity, when I subjected the arrangement of her lips to properly scientific scrutiny, it was absolutely clear to me that it was nothing other than a smile.
  1. The inescapable conclusion was that it was no smirk, no grimace, no sneer, because I know a smirk when I see one, I am a connoisseur of the sneer and an expert in the grimace, and it was none of these.
  1. It was utterly certain, as horrific as the possibility was to contemplate, that they had inflicted a smile upon her corpse and that this smile had left her mutilated beyond belief.
  1. It was as plain as day that she, who had never grinned like an idiot in life, had been compelled to grin like an idiot in death and that those who had, in life, subjected her to every indignity had not hesitated to visit upon her another indignity, a last indignity, a parting indignity after a lifetime of ceaseless, unrelenting indignity; but I maintain that the corpse should be treated with dignity, that even if the corpse has never been treated with dignity in life, in death the corpse should be treated with dignity.
  1. She should not be forced to grin like an idiot through eternity.
  1. Yes, we are all forced to grin like idiots in the end, and yes when the flesh is gone and only the skull is left, the skull will wear a stupid grin until the end of time—but on that day of all days at least I would not have it, I would not allow it, and I would not accept it.
  1. Perhaps it is true that I am out of my mind with grief, but I have the right to grieve.
  1. Everything is over; everything is lost. I know exactly what I am saying. I am speaking the truth. The only the time anyone says anything that is not a lie is when they are broken.
  1. If I could have saved anyone from this miserable world, this world that is so much like a burning house, so much like a sinking ship, so much like a cancer and a scaffold and a nightmare and a grave, it would have been her.
  1. I do not understand how it came to this.
  1. I am not surprised that it came to this, but I do not understand it, I cannot understand it, and I refuse to understand it.
  1. Therefore, in front of the assembled mourners—which is to say in front of the preacher and her middle-class monstrosity of a family, which is to say in front of no one, because neither he nor they were a mourners in the true sense of the word, in the only sense of the word that matters—I leapt to my feet, I staggered to the catafalque, I reached into the casket, and I wiped the smile from her face.
  1. I arranged her lips—which would surely be the last lips that I would ever kiss, and just as surely be the last to ever kiss my own—into an unforgiving frown.
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