a Leonard Irving story
A Leonard Irving story,
retold by Daniel Borgström
Back in the early 1960s, when people still wore neckties to funerals and I was in my twenties, I came to San Francisco and found myself a room at one of the seedy run-down hotels in the Tenderloin district. That was where I met Jack and Penelope Hamilton, an elderly couple living two or three doors down the hall from me. I'd known them only briefly when one day I happened to see Jack in the lobby, sitting by the window as he often did, but on this occasion looking terribly downcast and forlorn. Tears were dripping down his cheeks.
"Is something the matter?" I asked, sitting down next to him. He was relatively small, rather thin and wiry. We customarily exchanged greeting, sometimes a few lines of conversation when we saw each other in the hall or lobby. I remembered him telling me he'd been a seaman. That's about all I knew of him.
"It's Penelope . . ."
I nodded sympathetically, expecting to hear that she'd left him.
"Penelope is dead."
I hadn't realized she was ill. As I say, I hardly knew them. I tried to think of some words to console him, sat there with him for a while. As I was about to leave, I said, "If there's anything I can do, please don't hesitate to ask."
Jack put his hand to his chin, as though in thought. "There is something," he said, and asked me to accompany him to the memorial, where he would scatter Penelope's ashes on San Francisco Bay.
The ceremony would be the following afternoon, and I had made other plans for that day. But poor Jack. Now he was suddenly all alone in the world. I didn't really feel I could say no.
But what could I wear? In a thrift store down on Mission Street I found a dark blue suit for a very reasonable price. It was a size too large for me; there were also several cigarette burns, noticeable ones, or at least I noticed them. It was what I could afford, and would have to do. It'd be just for an afternoon, and I hoped Jack wouldn't disapprove. I doubted that he would even notice; he didn't seem to be the sort of person who would. Nevertheless, out of respect for Penelope I couldn't look too shabby.
The next day at the appointed time, at about noon, I was waiting for him in the lobby when I heard the rickety old elevator grinding its way down to the bottom floor. With a clatter it opened and out stepped Jack. He was dressed fine and proper, clean white shirt, even a necktie. Really spiffy, quite elegant in fact. And not only that, he looked bright eyed and all, really in good shape.
For an instant I just looked at him, almost gaping, not knowing what to say, not thinking to say "Hello Jack," or some usual greeting. I guess it could happen to almost anybody -- one of those extraordinary moments when you find yourself caught totally by surprise and say things in a way you didn't mean to say, and I said, "Jack, you're sober."
And right then, having said that, I immediately realized I shouldn't've said that, but I had. But before I could think of how to somehow smoothen it over, Jack responded pleasantly, taking it in a stride and actually quite proud of himself,.
"Yes, I'm sober, and so I shall be, forevermore."
"I'm very glad to hear that," I said, seeing that my unfortunate words hadn't landed badly at all.
"It was Penelope's dying wish," he said solemnly, "that I give up drinking. Permanently." He paused, allowing me a moment to let it all sink in, then continued. "Her last words were, 'promise me Jack, promise me,' and I did. And I tell you, it's a promise I'm keeping and going to keep till my own dying day."
"Good for you Jack!" I said, then added, "And good for Penelope!" Now funerals tend to be sad events, but this one was starting off really well, with a bright side. I didn't say that to Jack.
And with that we set out for the dock, to find the boat that would take us out on the bay. I glanced at my watch. Five after twelve. We figured it would take about twenty minutes to get to the landing, so we were in good time. The sun was shining nicely, a warm sunny day in this generally cold city. It really was setting out to be a good day. We were in as upbeat a mood as a funeral occasion might permit. I guessed that perhaps this was the way Penelope might've wanted it; she'd accomplished something with her death that she'd apparently been unable to with her life.
Jack was talking about Penelope. In contrast to the previous day when he'd hardly said anything other than to ask me to accompany him, he was quite loquacious, talking almost non-stop as we went. We walked to Powell Street, boarded a cable car taking us up over Nob Hill and down towards the waterfront. Jack pointed to places as we rolled along, recalling memories and adventures he and Penelope had enjoyed together, their simple pleasures, strolls through Chinatown, meals at their favorite Italian restaurant in North Beach. Jack's words were punctuated by the occasional clanging of the cable car. Being new to the city, I was unfamiliar with many of these places. "That's Telegraph Hill," I heard him saying as the bell resounded again. "Penelope and I were planing to go and climb to the top of that tower you see up there. We never got around to it. There was so much we were going to do, we just didn't get it all done. And now she's gone." Jack fell silent, tears welling up in this eyes.
Our ride ended near Fisherman's Wharf. From there we found our way to the pier where the boat was tied up at its landing. A bunch of harbor seals were sunning themselves on a floating platform nearby. As we approached our boat, I said, "So where's Jimmy? I think that's his name isn't it?" I was asking about Penelope's son, her son by a previous relationship.
Jack shook his head. "I guess I forgot to tell you. He won't be here today."
"He's in jail. They arrested him last night."
"Again? What for this time?" I asked, then realizing after I'd spoken that wasn't the best way to phrase my question, but as before, Jack took no offense. He told me whatever it was, auto theft or something like that, I don't remember exactly.
"Too bad," I said. That was all I could think to say. I'd never actually met the guy.
A seagull flew low overhead, squawking in its loud, shrill seagullish voice.
"Say, I wonder where everybody is," I think it was Jack who said that, or maybe it was me. There were to be half a dozen or more parties of mourners going out in the boat this day, and we were still the only ones there. It was just us.
"Maybe this isn't the boat," I said. It was a cabin cruiser. Not a very large one. "You said six or seven groups of people are all going to be riding in this?"
"That's what I was told. Each party can only bring three mourners."
"Three time six. That's eighteen. Where would they put us all? I think we're at the wrong boat."
"Ella May." Jack was looking at the name, painted in large green letters. "That's the one they said."
A fellow wearing a yachting cap came strolling down the floating dock platform with a six-pack of beer in his hand. He climbed aboard, proceeded to open a can, then turned to look at us. "You fellows looking for something?"
I told him who we were and asked if this was the right place. The man in the yachting cap, presumably the skipper, pointed to a sign announcing that the funeral parties would be gathering at 3 p.m., and the boat would sail at 3:15.
I glanced at my watch. Ten minutes to one. We'd gotten the time wrong and were two hours early. Well, better that than being late.
We set out down the street, in search of a coffee shop, Jack talking about Penelope as we walked.
"She died of a heart attack," Jack was saying. "That's what the doctor told me." Jack shook his head. "Totally unexpected. Never even guessed that she had a weak heart, or any such problem."
"How old was she?"
I nodded, that seemed really old to me at the time, downright ancient. Strange when I look back on it and think of how things seemed to me then. I was only about twenty-three; I'll be turning seventy-five this summer. It seemed to me that she'd lived her life, and was ready to die.
"And you? If you don't mind me asking."
"Go ahead and ask. Anything you want to know. I have no secrets, none that haven't already been revealed. Yeah. I'm sixty-three."
He went on to tell me bits and pieces about his life. A few years in the Navy, later a sailor in the merchant marine till he lost his seaman's papers. On shore leave in some port he got drunk out of his mind. His ship sailed and he wasn't aboard. It'd happened more than once. "Alcohol has been the curse of my life," he said, "I just couldn't ever leave that bottle alone." After that he worked on the railroad, finally retiring after a serious injury. All he could remember of it was that he'd woken up in a hospital bed and they'd told him he'd been wandering around on a freeway and stepped in front of a truck. "I don't remember any of it," he said mournfully. "That's the way it is when you drink and can't stop drinking. You know I went to Alcoholics Anonymous for years and years, been to so many AA meetings you couldn't count them. Didn't help much. Didn't help at all. Finally Penelope's dying wish got me to seeing the light. Oh Penelope! If only she could see me now. She'd be so proud!"
Jack paused to light a cigarette. "Take it from me, one who's been down that road. Don't ever start drinking. Don't even touch the stuff. It'll bring you nothing but sorrow. My drinking caused Penelope a lot of pain. Poor Penelope!"
Having gone two or three blocks without seeing a café, we happened to pass a bar. Jack abruptly interrupted his recollections of Penelope and suggested we go in, into this bar.
"Yeah, that's what I said. For coffee. You didn't hear me?"
"I did hear you. But I don't think it's a good idea," I said, trying to express myself diplomatically.
"We don't want to get too far from the boat landing," he said thoughtfully, persuasively.
"I suppose not. Still . . ."
Jack dismissed my fears and objections. "The bar'll have coffee. Don't you worry. Every bar has coffee. No such thing as a bar that doesn't serve coffee."
Not knowing how to make my objections felt, I went along with him into the bar. Stepping out of the bright sunlight into the dimly lit parlor, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. I glanced around at the unfamiliar surroundings. Behind the counter was the dark shape of a large man, presumably the bartender, washing glasses, and along the wall were signs for various beers.
"Two coffees" I said decisively as I sat down on a bar stool. I considered it best to take the initiative and make totally sure we drank the right thing. "You do have coffee, don't you?"
The bartender affirmed that he did. Then asked me for my ID.
"I'm only having coffee," I objected. I felt slightly self-conscious in my oversized suit that seemed to hang on me like a tent.
"Doesn't matter," said the bartender. "I have to see your ID. If you're underage you can't be in this place. We card everyone."
Everyone? I wondered if he'd card Jack. He didn't. I showed the bartender my ID, and he turned to get our coffees.
Jack was about to light another cigarette but paused, holding his arm with the lighter suspended, frozen in mid-motion, and said, "Make mine whisky." Before I could voice any objection, he said to me, "Penelope would understand."
It had all happened so fast. So suddenly. I wanted to tell the bartender NO - NO - NO. I wanted to yell out a loud "NO!" I wanted to say to Jack, "Remember Penelope's dying wish!" But I didn't say anything. I didn't speak. I realized in that instant, as though by some spiritual revelation, that nothing I could say would make the least bit of difference.
"Penelope would understand," Jack said again. "Penelope would understand." He said it again and again and again. "Penelope was a woman who understood things. She knew what life was all about. She knew . . . " Jack went on, non-stop. "Women don't always understand. The fact is, most of them don't. They just don't. Men don't either. Most people don't seem to understand. Penelope was a person who did. Penelope understood." Jack said that with the full authority of one who knew what he was talking about.
Maybe Penelope really would understand. I didn't. There are times, and this was one of them, when I don't seem to have words or thoughts or feelings or even fears. I just sat there, staring at the wall across the counter in front of me. My eyes fixed themselves on a bottle, "Demerara Rum" in large letters, and "Royal Navy" in even larger letters. I remembered hearing that the British Royal Navy got its supply of grog from the Caribbean. What a bizarre, irrelevant thing to be contemplating at a moment like this! It then occurred to me that my eyes were by now accustomed to the darkness of the room.
The bartender was brewing my coffee. He poured Jack's whisky and set it in front of him.
"You have one too," Jack broke my silence. "Whisky for both of us," he told the bartender. Then, turning back to me, "It's for Penelope. To her memory. I'm paying for it. You save your money." He pulled out his billfold, glanced in it, and said, "I'm a bit short. Can you spot me a five till my check comes in?"
I took out $5 and gave it to Jack. To the bartender I said, amending the order, "Whisky for him, coffee for me."
Jack did not argue, he took a sip of his whisky, drinking it slowly, thoughtfully, presumably savoring the taste. He then resumed what he'd been telling me of his life with Penelope, pausing now and then for a sip from his glass.
My coffee arrived, and I likewise sipped it slowly, listening to Jack recounting another anecdote about Penelope. These were good stories by any standard, and Jack told them well. He had a gift of gab, a talent for storytelling. "You ever write any of those stories down?" I asked him. He shook his head and ordered another whisky. "This is my last one."
That last drink was followed by another last and final drink, and that one by yet another, and so it went. His speech was becoming slurred and his sentences disjointed. He was telling of a time he and Penelope very nearly broke the bank at a casino in Las Vegas. He stopped in mid-sentence, his mind seeming to wander off.
"So what happened?"
A long silence.
I asked again. This time he shook his head as though to rid himself of the grogginess, then muttered something I understood to mean they hadn't had sufficient funds to tide them over a temporary losing streak.
I glanced at my watch: twenty to three. Nearly two hours had passed! "Time to go," I announced, "Let's get moving."
He looked around the room. as though seeing it for the first time. "We gotta go somewhere?" His voice was totally slurred. Clearly, he was drunker than I had realized.
"Yes. To the boat landing."
"We are? What for?"
"To scatter Penelope's ashes," I reminded him. "Penelope's memorial."
"Damn it! I forgot!" Poor Jack. He looked terribly distraught. "I missed . . ."
"We didn't miss anything," I assured him, taking another look at my watch.. "Not yet anyway."
"It was today, wasn't it? Penelope's memorial."
"Yes. It's today, in a few minutes and we need to hurry."
I guided him to the door and out into the bright sunlight. I squinted; Jack seemed equally unable to see for the glare. Supporting and steadying him as he stumbled along, we headed down the street.
While Jack had been guzzling booze, I'd been drinking coffee, one cup after another and now I was as wired as he was drunk. I might not be able to sleep for a week, I thought. Then splat! I fell flat on my face.
"You okay?" Jack extended his unsteady hand to help me up.
Somehow I'd tripped. I was okay, just a skinned knee which hurt a bit, but I consoled myself by telling myself that my injury incurred in the course of doing something for a worthy cause, for the memory of Penelope. But it wasn't just the skin off my knee, I'd torn or scrapped a large hole in the leg of my pants. Now I really did look like a disaster in this suit, this oversized suit that from the beginning had hung on me like a tent.
With me limping and Jack staggering, leaning on each other for support, we made our way to the landing, arriving just as the boat's engine was sputtering to life. It was getting ready to leave and we just barely made it.
The skipper eyed us somewhat dubiously, then waved us to get aboard. I took it that he'd seen drunk mourners before and perhaps understood that grief and bereavement can be hard to handle. I wondered if he'd drunk that six-pack we'd seen him bring aboard earlier. If he had, I just hoped he was more sober than Jack, or at least better at holding his liquor.
We clambered aboard, over the gunwale and down where we squeezed in among the mourners. It was a sort of hollow space just aft of the tiny cabin. We sat on a long wooden bench that curved around the inside of the hold, or whatever they call it, forming a horseshoe facing towards the stern. Overhead was a large canvas awning to protect us from the sun, wind and waves. Only the stern was open to the outside. There was a tub of roses. Glancing around the hold, I saw there were a dozen mourners. filling the boat to its fullest capacity. We were all just crammed in there, tight as tight could be, like sardines in a can. Jack had told me there'd be six or seven funeral parties here, each party limited to three persons. This being the situation, I guessed these memorials were being done on the cheap. These could not be wealthy people. Nevertheless, they were all suitably dressed, trying to look their best.
And of course I was also trying to look my best, which was why I'd bought myself this suit. I feared the others were looking at my skinned knee which was protruding from the ripped trouser leg; I tried to discreetly cover it up as best I could. My suit being dark blue made it slightly less obvious that the cloth was stained with blood. I also discovered a large tear in the sleeve of my coat, presumably also from my accident. By now, even Jack, who'd looked so spiffy this morning, also looked rather disheveled, and between the two of us we probably gave the appearance of having come from a bar-room brawl.
The skipper unfastened some lines, the engine warmed up to a gentle roar, and we were moving, motoring out into the bay, the dock receding into the distance behind us.
Jack was sitting on my left, seemingly oblivious to our surroundings. Immediately on my right, squeezed up against me was an elderly lady, looking exceedingly prim and proper. Straight laced, I'd say. Hair in a bun, perhaps a retired schoolmarm. She reminded me of my second grade teacher, a true harridan who used to get on my case, all the time, for everything and for nothing.
The docks behind us kept getting smaller and farther away. Then a view of the city began to open up, all of this astern, the only direction in which anything could be seen. I leaned forward and turned my head left, looking past Jack who was now snoring softly. San Francisco was so beautiful above the water, shimmering in the sunlight, behind it the east bay cities, hills and mountains rising above them. Before long we were passing by Alcatraz Island, the prison. I'd heard it was closed, or soon going to be closed. What a scenic place for a prison. I mused on what it might it be like to be imprisoned on an island in the midst of such a beautiful bay, such beautiful surroundings.
We seemed to be heading in the direction of the Golden Gate bridge. Jack sort of mumbled something from time to time, and I tried to look invisible.
The schoolmarmish lady didn't say anything. She didn't even look our way. The people who'd been secretly eyeing my skinned knee and bloodstained trouser leg weren't looking at me now, didn't seem to be anyway. Nobody seemed to be saying anything. The engine would've drowned out our voices anyway. Nobody was smoking, probably out of respect for the dead whom they were mourning. Jack woke up and reached into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette and fumbled around with his lighter, finally getting it to light.. Nobody seemed to notice. I think they were trying very hard not to notice.
The motor slowed down, went silent, and the boat glided to a sort of stop. With the skipper and a clergyman-looking person officiating, the parties were called up. The first party consisted of three mourners. The clergyman (I assumed him to be clergy since he wore vestments) gave each person a large red rose, then spoke a few words. They scattered the ashes, and then laid their roses on the water.
Next party, same thing. And likewise the next. Finally.
"Hamilton. Penelope Hamilton."
"That's us," I nudged Jack, taking him by the arm. He stood up, unsteadily. The two of us stepped to the stern of the boat. The clergyman passed us an urn containing Penelope's ashes. I took it with both hands, letting go of Jack, trusting that he'd take care of himself. He and I each received a rose, then faced out over the water. We were just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge; the Marin headlands to the left and the city to the right. A panoramic view of the bay on a clear sunny day; a pelican flying overhead. The boat bobbed gently under us and a soft ocean breeze touched my face. The clergyman was saying his piece, but I wasn't listening, I was absorbed in the seascape, now watching the pelican make her dive. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jack drop his rose on the water.
Other people apparently saw it too. Someone spoke to Jack, interrupting the clergyman: "You're not supposed drop your rose until after the preacher finishes. Then they scatter the ashes, and then after that you drop your rose."
I think it was one of the mourners, a fellow sitting near the stern where we stood. Anyway, I remember it being said. Jack suddenly came awake.
"My rose!" he said. "Where's my rose?
"You dropped it on the water," I said, in a voice barely above a whisper.
"Like the fuck I did! I want my rose! My rose for my dear Penelope."
There was just silence around us. Only the sound of the waves splashing against the boat. That, and Jack's voice, ringing out over the water.
"I want my rose!" and not receiving one, he said it louder. "I want my fucking rose! My fucking rose!"
"Could my friend have another rose?" I requested.
"Fuck no!" snarled the skipper, losing his cool. "He had one and he threw it away."
"Here," I said. "You can have mine." I tried to give it to him, but he waved me away, saying, "I want my own fuckin' rose!"
"Oh just give him another rose," the clergyman said to the skipper.
The skipper took out another rose, and saying to Jack, in a low voice, a bit slurred, "Here's you're rose, asshole!. Your fucking rose. Now shut the fuck up!"
For a moment I feared Jack would take issue with that, and with the skipper not being fully sober either, the situation would immediately escalate into a drunken brawl in the midst of this funeral event. But, Jack seemed to have heard nothing. He quietly accepted his rose, and after an awful minute the ceremony resumed. The words were said, the ashes scattered, and Jack and I both laid our roses on the water. Then I guided Jack back to where we had been sitting, and we took our seats, with me sitting as before, next to the schoolmarmish lady. The next party of mourners was called up to the stern of the boat, I watched them receiving their roses.
My cheeks seemed to be burning hot, I must've been blushing. Guys aren't supposed to blush, and that made it all the more embarrassing.
I glanced around the semicircle of mourners. Nobody was looking at us, they were looking straight ahead or down at the deck. They seemed to be pretending nothing had happened. The lady sitting next to me was pursing her lips, and I knew she was going to say something to me. Inwardly I cringed.
Jack was lighting another cigarette. Nobody else was smoking, nor had anyone else smoked during the entire event.
The lady reached into her purse, taking out something. Then she spoke to me.
"Young man," she said firmly but very gently, "I think you need a drink." And she handed me a bottle of brandy.
June 6, 2016
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PENELOPE'S MEMORIAL is my fictionalized retelling of a Leonard George Irving story. Penny and her husband were a couple he knew while living at the Elk Hotel in San Francisco. She died around 1977 and Leonard accompanied the husband to the memorial event on SF Bay. Leonard wrote the story and read it at the SF Writers Workshop. I've collected most of Leonard's poems, over 400 of them, and also many of his short stories. But the one about Penny's funeral is lost.
Leonard would've been about fifty at the time of the incident, and he knew the couple quite well. In my retelling the narrator is young fellow in his early twenties who doesn't know the couple very well. Nevertheless, I retain the basic story elements: the two mourners stop at a bar for a few drinks, then show up drunk for the ceremony. The husband loses his rose and demands another. "I want my fuckin' rose!" he says in front of the boat full of mourners. There was also among the mourners a very properly dressed lady who carried a flask in her purse and offered Leonard a drink -- I didn't totally make that up.
Leonard George Irving was born in Scotland in 1924; during World War II he served five years in the Royal Marines. Later he sailed in the merchant marine, and eventually came to America. He and I met at the above mentioned San Francisco Writers Workshop. We've traveled together in Mexico and cut firewood together in Vermont.
For poems by Leonard Irving, also articles about him.