An installment of Harrison Scott Key's monthly humor column, Big Chief Tablet.
I grew up in a family where women did things for men. If you tell a roomful of my male relatives that dinner is ready, they will walk to the unset table and sit like dutiful children, waiting for the meal to be chauffeured to them by the nearest woman. If these men are in the living room watching football and desire a glass of tea, they will announce this need into the air, as if calling an audible at the line of scrimmage.
"Tea!" says my father. "Woman, brang me some tea!"
And my mother, like a trustworthy offensive linemen, will spring up from her position of repose in a quieter district of the house and fetch him a glass of tea. I grew up believing this was the way of the world, that women did things for men, and that men let them. And perhaps this really is true in places like Albania. I am not sure. Over the years, I was disabused of this false belief many times over by empowered young maidens who, when out of habit I requested they fetch me some item, suggested that it might be more convenient if I went to hell instead.
I can remember one especially tender moment at the home of a girlfriend, during my mid-twenties, as we shared a supremely comfortable sofa and watched a movie. She was a modern woman, this lover. A fibers artist, a muse to many, a friend of important writers, sensitive, temperamental, fractious, heavily medicated. She sat up, for what reason I know not, maybe to fashion a handbag from an afghan or construct a bottle tree from her prescription vials.
"Hey, can you bring me a glass of water?" I said.
She looked at me like I'd asked to wear her panties on my head.
"Get it your goddamn self," she said.
We parted ways soon after.
And despite the fact that I was sure this woman would have inspired me to write many fascinating tales of psychological terror shortly before murdering me with a darning needle, she did teach me an important lesson, which is to wait thirty minutes after your lover takes her meds before asking her to assist with your hydration needs. Thereafter, I was more sensitive to the boundaries of today's Modern Woman, and I have attempted to practice and refine this sensitivity into my own marriage.
Most days, I ask very little of my wife, only that she manage the quotidian affairs of the children and prepare the occasional taco. I do not ask for the bed to be made, although she does it anyway, as if to prove a point. I do not ask her to wear pearls to dinner, or even to cook every night. I like leftovers. I beg her not to throw them out. And I don't ask her to stop texting her sister about their diarrhea, because I know diarrhea is important to her. And I don't ask her to stop reading books about vampires who are fond of J.Crew sweaters, because at least it gives her something to text about besides diarrhea.
I don’t care.
I don't even ask my wife to make sex with me every night, as would be my preference. Or really even every week. Sometimes, I forget what she looks like naked.
"Stop it," I can hear her saying. "We had a meeting just two days ago."
That’s what we call it: a meeting.
"I think we need a meeting," I will say.
"But we just met," she says.
"That was two months ago."
"Days," she says. "Two days ago."
The point is, I love my wife and ask very little of her. She does the bills, I do the lawn, etc., etc. But there is something I've asked of her for many years, a simple request that she refuses to honor. I have asked her six times in ten years, and each time, she denies me.
When I die, I want a jazz funeral.
"What are you talking about?" my wife asked, the first time I brought this up, about a year into our marriage.
"You know," I said. "Drums and horns and whatnot. Maybe a sousaphone."
"At your funeral?"
"It's a tuba."
"There will be no tubas at your funeral," she said.
"A whole parade," I said.
"This is a funeral you're talking about, right?"
"Right," I said. "A jazz funeral."
"No, no, no. Absolutely not," she said.
"But don't you love me?" I said.
She paused. She had to think about it.
I first visited New Orleans at age twelve, on an overnight fieldtrip with other Mississippi schoolchildren and teachers whose task it was to inspire us with the variegated biology of the Audubon Zoo. Instead, it was the biology of the French Quarter that consumed our psychic energies, hypnotized as we were by the pair of mechanical legs that snaked out of a hole in the wall of a Bourbon Street teat facility. Our teachers marched us from Café du Monde to the Ripley's Believe or Not! Museum to see a shrunken head, but our eyes were detained en route by the Polaroids festooning the façade of the strip club, depicting the very unshrunken breasts of naked dancers in attitudes of sexual degradation.
"What are they doing?" we asked our teachers.
"Gymnastics!" the teachers said.
In the space of a single day in New Orleans, as Walker Percy suggests can happen, I had seen more naked people and nuns than I had thought could be found in a North American city. I had smelled, in the same inhalation, coffee and chicory and vomit, and I had heard strange music that struck me as funny, old, cartoonish, a sort of Americanized theme for The Benny Hill Show. What it was, of course, was Dixieland. But at the time, I had no name for it and was forced to define it simply as "not Van Halen."
On subsequent visits, I was further exposed to the alluring contagion of this sound, until such time during college, after a lengthy chastening of my musical tastes, when I rounded a corner in the Faubourg Marigny and was confronted by a jazz that sounded less like Pete Fountain and more like the Isley Brothers played at very high speeds. Where Dixieland bands were peopled by older musicians who looked like porters at the Hotel Monteleone, this band, standing in the middle of the street in wading pools of their own perspiration, looked more like Public Enemy playing battered instruments that had been thrown from the roof of the Hibernia Bank Building and then run over by a school bus. Rising above it all was the colossal floret of a tuba whose sound throttled my intestine, the call of a drunken elephant seal in rut.
"What is this glorious sound?" I asked.
It was the Rebirth Brass Band.
Immediately, I started to dance. Right there in the street, like a Holy Ghost apostle. It was a new kind of dancing, not really like dancing at all, more like I was fighting off an invisible swarm of Africanized bees while simultaneously trying to complete a walkathon and a bowel movement.
"What's happening to my body?" I said to my friends.
But they were not there, for they had run to seek medical assistance, concerned that I might be having a stroke.
"Take it to the Street" by Rebirth Brass Band (1992)
"I really hate this music," my wife said.
I'd been playing Take it to the Street on a Sunday drive. For my money, it's Rebirth's best record. Their cover of Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" is worth whatever the thing costs, the kind of music I would play when marching into battle, whence I would vanquish my enemies by seizing control of their booties. And isn't this what a good Christian burial should be, an annihilation of that most nefarious and ultimate malefactor, Death?
But my wife hates these songs.
Early in our courtship, I learned that her musical tastes could not be trusted. On our second date, feeling roguish enough to pry open her case of compact discs, I discovered names like Creed and Edwin McCain and the Backstreet Boys, which made me wonder: Is this woman emotionally stable? Only moments before, she had seemed so healthy, so beguiling, so richly manifold in her proclivities, and yet her musical tastes suggested an undiagnosed mental illness.
She pushed one of these discs into its felted playing slit.
"Backstreet's back, alright!" she sang.
"Where have they been?" I yelled, over the music.
"What?" she said, turning it down.
"I was just wondering where they went."
"Where who went?"
"The Backstreet Boys," I said. "They say they were back. Where'd they go?"
"I don't know."
"This is the stupidest music I've ever heard."
"I don't care," she said, turning it back up.
It was even worse than I thought.
A few months later, we were married.
Like Rhett and Scarlet, we honeymooned in New Orleans, which afforded me an opportunity to redeem this woman's musical failures. As we drove the two hours south to a house on Magazine Street, I quietly hoped my new wife might fall in love with some of the music I was driving her toward, music that seemed to hold a delicious secret about what certain parts of heaven might sound like. On the fourth night of the visit, I knew it was time to take her to the Maple Leaf for Rebirth's regular Tuesday night gig.
"Wear comfortable shoes," I said, smoking a cigarette on the balcony.
To say that my wife was attractive would be silly. She was a dancer, her body shaped by balletic exertions, but small and blond and girlish as a pixy. In public, heads turned, wondered what sort of drugs I had given to hypnotize her into a relationship with me.
"How do I look?" she asked. She stepped onto the balcony in a fitted dress and heels that made me feel ashamed at having fooled her into marrying me.
"I said comfortable shoes."
"These are all I have."
"You can't dance in those."
And, of course, she did not dance. Instead, she stood on a bench, against the wall, two feet above the boiling heads of the crowd, far and away the best thing to look at in the building, friendly enough to allow young Tulane boys to present her with offerings of gin and flattery before introducing them to the modest array of gems and precious metals on her ring finger.
"I'm married," she yelled over the music.
"To who?" they yelled up at her.
"The one by the stage, having a seizure," she said.
She was a good sport, but not for long.
A year later I convinced her to move to New Orleans, which we did, and took her to see another brass band at a different bar, but the Saturnalian glow of our honeymoon had dimmed, and instead of standing on a bench, she stood in the bathroom and cried. She hated the music, she said. It was too loud. It hurt her ears. She covered them with her hands and asked me to take her home.
Over the years, it got worse. We'd be in the truck, and I'd put something entirely pleasant into the stereo—David Bowie, say, or Jimmy Smith—but always, always she hated it. She especially hated Phish. Somewhere in the thirtieth minute of a song—these are long songs, played for people with an excess of free time—just as the music was preparing for its great narrative revelation, my wife would eject the disc.
"Oh my word," she would say.
"Are you kidding me?"
"This music is making me crazy."
"Don't ever do that again," I’d say.
But she would. Again, and again. Coltrane, Zeppelin, Ravel, this music upset her greatly.
"It makes me sad that you hate my music," I said.
"It’s just so loud."
I didn't know what to say. The woman listened to the radio. The radio. She can memorize entire songs by Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and other melodious necromancers in two or three listens, like some kind of savant, and has even begun to sully the innocence of our children with this aural tripe, who will forever believe songwriting should approximate the content of a tenth-grader's Twitter feed.
But whatever. It’s fine. I just want good music at my funeral. It is all I ask.
"No way," she said, when I brought it up again in the fifth or sixth year of our marriage.
"I would do it for you," I said. "I'd even hire the Backstreet Boys to sing hymns."
"They broke up."
"Well, that finally gives them an opportunity to come back."
"Now you're just being mean."
"I'd sacrifice a goat at your funeral, if that's what you wanted."
Really, I would.
"A good Christian burial" by Katherine Sandoz, 7" x 7", acrylic on index, 2013
My wife has always hewn to a high Protestant flavor of funeral, where hearts and minds are as firmly sealed as the caskets. She favors a bookish ceremony with hymns and homilies, no dead body anywhere on the premises, except maybe in the pews, the entire ceremony taking place in some holy grotto suffused in choral sounds belched out of an organ the size of an industrial grain elevator. To be able to weep on such a cold and abstract occasion, one must enter the room already sad, or carrying a Vidalia onion.
Funerals in my own family are no better, really.
They do not take place in churches, but rather in the surrealist antiseptic horror of the funeral home, where the open caskets are only slightly more upsetting than the architecture. Like bad community theater, these events feature strange people who smell of mothballs and soup, everybody wandering slowly through a building the brightness of a bat-cave, preachers with an Ed Sullivan haircut plucked out of some midcentury pulpit, clichés about A Better Place Now, interminable silences filled only with the coughs of the tubercular and the terrifying sound of an elderly woman unwrapping a peppermint over a period of several years, followed by a little cathartic weeping and, if all goes well, at the very end, a large bucket of chicken. The music is forgettable, prerecorded, ungainly, a Sandi Patty hymn on a cassette tape that smells of cigarettes and boxed wine. There is no celebration, no joy. All the hangdog seems to suggest that we don't believe in paradise and Streets of Gold. Our dead, when they die, seem to be going to South Dakota.
"Would you be sad?" I asked my wife. "If I died first?"
"A little," she said. "Maybe."
"Would you get married again?"
"Um, yeah," she said. "A doctor this time. Also, he will be nice. A nice, loving, gentle anesthesiologist."
"You two sound very happy."
"Oh, we will be."
"Just promise you'll give me this funeral," I said.
"Sure," she said, lying.
The problem is, She thinks I am being silly, juvenile. She likes to believe she is the pragmatist, the realist, the adult in the marriage. This, from a woman who once spent thirty minutes trying to explain to me how humans breed with vampires.
"I'll Fly Away" by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band (2004)
What I am realizing is that she is never going to do this for me. Perhaps it is too much to ask, to hope that my mourning wife will pull herself away from grief and plan something as elaborate as a jazz funeral. How would one even begin to organize such a thing? What songs would the band play? Where would they march? To the cemetery, which would likely be miles and many six-laned interstates away, a distance much too far, even for the healthiest tuba players? And if they did march, how would everyone know to follow? And after my body was lowered into the oblong earthen slot, how would all the white people know it was okay to dance? Would they need to be drunk first? Should cocktails be served during the funeral, to loosen them up? And will my life insurance cover eighteen kegs of Michelob? And will we need to rent a mule-drawn wagon for my body? And would it be offensive to carry the Michelob on this same wagon? And does it have to be a mule?
So many questions.
And my wife doesn't like questions, especially when she is being courted by nearby anesthesiologists.
Besides, I've never even been to a jazz funeral. I have no idea how they work. All I know is the music, and how it makes me dance, and how I don't want people to be sad. I don't care if they play "Amazing Grace" on the pipes or the middle section of the Jupiter movement from Holst's The Planets, which would be nice. I don't care if they sing "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder" and "Mansions Over the Hilltop" or even Elvis Presley's "American Trilogy", a medley of moving numbers that would compel all those wearing hats to remove them and salute the nearest flag.
I don't care.
And when it's over, and they roll my body down the aisle, I don't care whether they roll it to an idling hearse or a mule-drawn wagon or past a shopping mall or into a verdant wood. Because I will be dead, and funerals have never really been for the dead. They are for the others, the living.
Just the other day, my wife and I were at a bar. A good friend was having a birthday, and here we were, in a vast, dark room lit on one end by a spotlight projecting down onto a mechanical bull. The name of this bar was Saddlebags.
As was to be expected, there was a floor for dancing, anchored at one end by a large boot the size of a small Soviet satellite, in which a disc jockey presumably hid himself out of shame. People from all walks of prison poured in, gathering around the floor, preparing to dance. The music began. I like country music, I do, but I do not like line dancing, or any sort of dancing where conformity is the ideal, where men hold onto their belts like their pants might try to run away, as any sensible pair of pants would want to do in such a situation.
"Are you two going to dance?" a patron asked.
"Oh, no," I said.
And yet, there she went. My wife. She had even worn boots. She did not know the dance, but after a lifetime of learning Swan Lake, it did not take long. She watched, imitated, mastered the steps quickly. I found purchase on a step above the dance floor, to see her better: my wife, mother of my children, skinny jeans tucked into a pair of cowboy boots she'd borrowed from the babysitter, ten years later still the best thing to look at in the building.
"I am a lucky man," I thought to myself, watching her pivot and smile. "For that woman lives in my house of her own accord, and I get to make sex with her on a fairly regular basis."
A woman like that should not be underestimated. Perhaps she will honor my dying wish. Perhaps a mule can be found, and a tuba. Who knows? After all, she is a Modern Woman, full of surprises.