I own one suit (charcoal gray) and one pair of dress shoes (black) to wear with it. When it comes to dress-up, I'm not really a Technicolor person. I bought them at the same time about six years ago to wear to my grandmother's funeral. Since then, I've worn them exactly twice; once to a friend's wedding and once to the funeral I'm going to tell you about.
Since I work for the U.S. Forestry Service as a ranger in Idaho, I spend most of my time outside and that means suits and ties are definitely not a requirement for the workplace. I'm also a thirty-four year-old single guy so I don't get dragged along to PTA meetings, community socials, ballet recitals, evenings at the opera or any of those things that require one to meet certain social conventions for dress and deportment.
My name is Jakob (Jake) Laar. I was thirteen when my family immigrated to the US from Estonia after the breakup of the USSR so I guess that makes me an ethnic Finno-Ugric, but then you might have guessed that from the name. (Just kidding; most people don't have a clue what a Finno-Ugric is, or care.) I'm five feet, eleven inches tall, about a hundred eighty pounds, strong and healthy. My fitness routine includes a daily aerobic workout, either in my little home gym on an elliptical runner or jogging along forest trails. I do some weights but I go for lots of reps and strength rather than a bulky, misshapen body.
I'm practically fanatical about the kinds of food I eat, I never smoked and I rarely drink more than two beers at a sitting and that was true even in my oat-sowing days at Colorado State University where I got my degrees. I suppose some would call me a health nut but hopes for immortality don't enter into it; everybody wears out eventually. I just don't want my body feeling like crap and degenerating into an amorphous blob while I'm still using it.
I believe I can honestly say I'm a little above average in the looks department, although I'm not so vain as to I think women consider me a hunk. But then I'm confident they don't find me repulsive, either. My body may be a little furry for some women's tastes but in spite of the current fad, I don't feel compelled to shave any part of it except my face and I only do that because my employer doesn't agree with me that forest rangers should present more of a rustic look. Of course this wouldn't apply to the lady forest rangers, although, I can think of one of my female coworkers who appears to be kind of sexually ambiguous.
I'm pretty well educated. I have a BS in biology and an MS in Forest Science. I read voraciously and I have a passion for music, especially classical, jazz and soft rock although I appreciate virtuosity in most genres. Good bluegrass really gets me going. Religion plays no part in my life simply because my brain is so steeped in the sciences that a supernatural anything makes absolutely no sense to me. My Roman Catholic mother lives with the certain knowledge that her only child is doomed to eternal damnation in the flames of hell. (Catholicism was unusual in Estonia; in fact, it was strongly discouraged under the old Soviet regime so when we immigrated, my mother made up for lost time and decided we should all aspire to sainthood. She's worse than a convert.)
As far as my sex life is concerned, I'd say I was serially monogamous; that is, I've had several lady friends through the years but only one at a time. None of my relationships has lasted for more than a few months because that's about how long it takes the squeeze du jour to conclude that anything as serious as marriage is just not in my plans and go off to explore more promising pastures.
It's not that I have anything against the institution of marriage. I just don't think I'm cut out for it and that attitude would surely wind up making us both miserable in the long run; sort of an unspoken barrier to total commitment. My partner would feel obligated to try to correct my errant thinking and I'd feel obligated to suggest (in the kindest way) that she fuck off. Not a good formula for matrimonial bliss. I suppose that makes me one selfish bastard but it's who I am.
Obviously, since I do have relationships and I am powerfully addicted to sex, I'm not a hermit or even close but I like my privacy and I'm quite comfortable with long stretches of solitude. I'd probably be an ideal pick for an extended space jaunt if they supplied a good porn library, a couple of Fleshlights and an adequate supply of lube. A properly programed, anatomically correct female sex robot would be even better because I could pretend she was real and there would be no question of where the relationship was going.
OK, enough of that. I'm not trolling for a mate so I'll stop with the bio. Well, a couple of other minor details: I shower often, I maintain good oral hygiene, I'm a Leo and my favorite color is Kelly green. So there, that's me in a nutshell.
The funeral in question was that of my mother's brother, Uncle Vladimir. At first I tried to beg off attending but Mom went into an absolute tizzy and finally browbeat me into submission. We're not Jewish but she could effectively contend for the "Jewish Mother of the Year" title when it comes to inflicting guilt. If you're a Jewish mother and you're offended by that, I apologize. See how it works? Anyhow, she moaned and kvetched that the dearly departed would be appalled that I disrespected him so much as to not attend his final send-off. It was no use arguing that the dearly departed was stone cold dead and would have no opinion about the matter one way or the other. She was convinced he would be watching from on high. As if!
My opinion of modern-day funerals is that they're the most incredible scam ever perpetrated on the general public. The cholesterol myth and the Iraq war are close behind. While it's perfectly reasonable and proper for family members to get together to console each other over the loss of a loved one, being manipulated into to feeling compelled to lay out thousands of bucks to a funeral service to pretty up the corpse for one last look and plant him or her in an indecently expensive box escapes all logic to my way of thinking. Talk about masters at playing the guilt card! Well it's obvious isn't it; the more expensive the funeral, the more you loved the former occupant of the corpse in the box; oh, and the more highly you'll be regarded by those who make it their business to keep tabs on those kinds of things. Even if you choose to have the body incinerated, you're going to take it in the ass to pay for all the trappings. Go figure!
See, I think many Hindus have the right idea: Build a bonfire in the back yard. Look, the body is going to oxidize and decompose in any event, isn't it? The only choices are whether it's gong to be fast or slow. When I go, I want my un-embalmed body to be dropped naked out of a plane or over the side of a ship into the middle of the ocean. The thought of being fish food doesn't disturb me in the least. The fish might appreciate it if you chopped me up into bite-sized pieces first. Being planted inside a box inside a vault doesn't even benefit the grass growing over the grave.
Yeah, yeah, I've heard it all before. This is an argument I'm never going to win so let's just agree to disagree, shall we?
OK, so I take a few days off to fly back to Pittsburgh and stay with Mom. Dad's in an extended care facility with advanced Alzheimer's so he's blissfully ignorant of all the claptrap surrounding his late brother-in-law's demise. The house is jam-packed with relatives because Uncle Vlad (as in Vlad the Impaler) was pretty much thought of as the family patriarch. And stinkin' rich. Personally, I never liked the guy. He was meaner than a junkyard dog and so tight-fisted he squeezed every penny 'til Abe screamed for mercy. Old clichés, I know but so apt.
And you know what? I doubt there was a single member of the extended family who had any love for the old skinflint anyway. Through some perverse, twisted logic, I suppose some of them attended the rites hoping to be favorably mentioned in his will that was scheduled to be read immediately following the funeral; like he was going to make his final decisions about the disposition of his wealth from the great beyond and after he saw who did and did not showed up. I was totally confident that, my own attendance notwithstanding, I would not be a legatee because he knew very well that I thought his most endearing quality was that he was an accomplished asshole. What's more, I told him as much on more than one occasion. I'm not anywhere close to wealthy but I certainly didn't have any designs on his personal holdings. I'd never be able to not think of all the people he'd conned, robbed and trodden underfoot through the years it took him to accumulate them.
Most of the older women in our clan still adhere to the old-world attitudes about the division of labor and I don't mean that in the Marxist sense. Those who grew up in the old culture still considered men's work to be men's work and women's work to be everything else. Ergo, the ladies were busy bustling around in the kitchen whipping out enough food to feed the entire neighborhood while most of the men sat on their oversized derrieres sucking on beer cans and shots of vodka and lamenting the sad state of just about everything. It seems to be a favorite pastime of East Europeans. Sometimes my own cynicism makes me fear I might have inherited that same curmudgeon gene.
After I unpacked and was reintroduced to various and sundry aunts, uncles, cousins and other persons of indeterminate relation, I discretely snuck out the back door to the gazebo to read and enjoy the warm air. Dad and I built it together as a present for Mom's fortieth birthday when I was in high school. It was too open to be of any value as a hiding place but it was nestled in among some tall trees and provided an esthetically pleasing place to just hang out. I'd enjoyed many a book under its roof.
I tossed the cushion from the chaise onto the floor, flopped down with my head on a throw pillow, brought up an album of romantic adagios on my iPod, opened my book to the marked page and settled in for a peaceful afternoon read.
Alas, it was not to be. I hadn't even made it through a dozen pages before a female voice squeezed in around the ear buds and beckoned my attention. It was my intention to be politely dismissive, if there is such a thing and discourage any idle chitchat.
"Am I disturbing you?" asked the intruder. My mind said 'Well, Duh!' but my mouth said, "Not at all." This before I even knew to whom I had just fibbed.
I turned my head toward the source and standing just outside the gazebo was someone strange to me; a rather pretty woman about my age, tall, slim and dark haired, reasonably well-formed and not looking like she was all that sorry for disturbing my solitude.
Her smile was disarming as she added, "Of course I am. I'm sorry (pronounced sory in the Canadian fashion) but I was just looking for some place to escape the crowd." She raised her hand holding an iPad.
Maybe I didn't want to chase her off after all. I waved my arm around in a sweeping circle and said, "This is a good place. Pull up a chair or a piece of floor and relax."
"Thanks, I will. I don't do well with these kinds of events; too busy and too much phony grief. I've only been here five minutes and already I feel like I'm suffocating." She climbed the steps and settled into an Adirondack chair, first turning it so she could prop her feet on the cushioned bench that made nearly a full circle around the inside of the railing. She was dressed in mid-length shorts, a loose top and sandals. I had to admire her long, tanned and muscular legs; a sure sign that she was no sofa spud.
She caught me eying her critically and introduced herself. "You probably don't even remember me, Jake. We haven't seen each other for nearly twenty years. I'm Sarah Richards, your long lost second cousin on your father's side from Toronto. I think the last time we met up was at a family reunion back when you were in high school and I was about to be."
She was right; I didn't remember her. "I'm sorry. I hardly ever forget a pretty face but I didn't even know I had a second cousin named Sarah."
She laughed. "Flatterer! Don't feel bad, though. As I recall, at the time, you were smitten with a blond cheerleader and completely ignorant of the mousy girl with glasses who had a big crush on you. I had to suffer in silence because we're related and nobody would have been sympathetic to my cause."
"Well, I can hardly picture you as mousy and I apologize for the snub. But I'm all grown up now and my manners have improved." I nodded at her iPad and asked, "What are you reading?"
"Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything'. It's the most fun I've ever had reading about facts and figures. Very entertaining."
"Yeah, I enjoyed that one. He makes a powerful plea at the end. Have you read 'A Walk in the Woods'?"
"I did. I'm really into hiking so it was kind of a 'must read'."
She skooched down in the chair getting comfortable and said, "Well, I'm sure you didn't come out here to indulge in small talk. I'll let you get back to your book."
I smiled at her and did just that.
A couple of hours later, another far less pleasant voice broke into our mutual peace. My mother clomped up the steps and said, "So there you are! Dinner's in fifteen minutes so you two come on inside and quit being so antisocial."
We compromised. We made nice to the people as we sidled our way along the buffet line to fill up our plates then beat a retreat back to the gazebo to dine in quiet leisure. Sarah snagged an open bottle of Beaujolais and two glasses on the way out the door. She turned out to be a very pleasant dinner companion indeed.
My second cousin had done well for herself since we almost met twenty years earlier. She'd earned a BS in nursing and went on to become a nurse-anesthetist at a large medical center in Ottawa.
She was married for a couple of years to a guy who turned out to be the poster boy for male chauvinist pigs. Apparently he'd been the epitome of kindness and chivalry during their courtship but morphed from Jekyll to Hyde shortly after their nuptials. She did her damnedest to make it work but finally dumped his sorry ass the day he drunkenly blurted out at a dinner party that his wife was the best fuck in all of Ontario Province. That was six years earlier and she'd been too gun shy from the pain of that experience to peek behind door number two. The only good thing to come out of the marriage was her seven-year-old daughter, Amy who was staying with her aunt while her mom attended the funeral.
It was none of my business but I didn't understand why she felt any obligation to drive so far to attend the last rites of such a distant relative and said so. She nodded and smiled her agreement, saying, "Dad thought it would be a rare chance to reconnect with a lot of relatives we'd probably never see otherwise. I volunteered to come along to help with the driving and whatever."
"Well, from a selfish point of view, I'm glad you did. You've already made my stay much more pleasant than I expected it to be."
"Why, thank you, Jake. Likewise!"
Sarah and I had managed to share a lot of our personal lives by the time the party broke up. We were enjoying each other's company so much that we completely lost track of time and hadn't even noticed it was getting dark until her dad hollered out the back door that they were getting ready to head back to the hotel.
"Oops!" she laughed, "Time flies when your having fun. It wasn't my intention to monopolize your time, Jake, but I'm not sorry (sory) I did. I haven't had such a nice evening for some time. I hope we can do it again."
"It's now on the top of my list of things to do. Are you planning to stick around after the funeral day after tomorrow?"
"Afraid not since I'm with Mom and Dad and they're heading back the morning after."
"Well, that gives us almost two full days. Do you run?"
"How'd you guess?"
I glanced down and said, "You don't get beautiful legs like that sitting on your backside."
That earned me a beautiful smile. "I thank you for the compliment, kind Sir."
"I asked because I thought I'd drive over to Three Rivers Stadium in the morning and get in a few miles along the river path. I'd be happy to pick you up at your hotel if you're into some hard breathing and sweating." I wondered if the double entendre might have been a bit too coarse. I knew she was too bright to have missed it but she chose to let it pass.
"You bet! Thanks, Jake, I'd love that. What time?"
"Um, say about seven before it gets too warm. I can pick you up at the hotel entrance."
"I can see the stadium from my window so why don't you just park in the hotel lot and I'll meet you in the lobby."
"Deal! How about I buy you breakfast afterward. Of course I may be a little funky after the run but I'm sure we can find a greasy spoon somewhere that won't object."
Sarah patted my arm and said, "OK, here's a better plan. You bring a change of clothes and you can use the shower in my room. There's a very nice restaurant right there in the hotel."
I liked that plan. "Great! See you at seven."
The lady was nothing if not punctual. I'd only been waiting in the lobby for a couple of minutes when she appeared at seven on the dot. She was decked out in snug-fitting shorts, a short top that barely covered her assets, a sweatband around her head and a pair of expensive-looking running shoes.
She snaked her arm through mine and we headed for the entrance. "So what kind of run did you have in mind, Mr. Laar? Is it going to be an easy jog or are we going to put some real effort into it?"
"Tell you what, Ms. Richards, why don't you take the lead and I'll follow. If it turns out to be too much for me, I'm not so macho that I won't beg for mercy. How's that?"
"I like the way you think, Sir." As soon as we were outside the door, she took off down the drive at a moderate pace. I was right behind appreciating the view.
She didn't set a blistering pace but by the time we slowed to a cool-down walk across the hotel parking lot fifty minutes later I felt like I'd done a pretty darned good workout. We'd run what I guessed was in excess of 10K and she never once showed signs of flagging. The lady was very fit. I stopped by my rented car to grab my clothes before heading to the fifteenth floor and her room.
Sarah insisted I be first in the shower. I thought about dropping a hint about a shared shower and a little hanky-panky but she'd so deftly sidestepped my earlier experimental probes that I had to assume she just wasn't interested. Too bad because she was definitely a woman I wanted to get to know much better.
The breakfast of Belgian waffles was way too high in simple carbs but sometimes you just have to let go and indulge yourself even if your pancreas screams in protest at your body's demand for insulin. I promised myself that I'd balance it with something extra high in fiber for lunch; maybe some leaves, twigs and tree bark. We chatted and sipped our coffee for another hour after we finished. Fortunately, the restaurant wasn't crowded so the waiter didn't feel compelled to chase us off to free up a table.
I accompanied Sarah back to her room and said, "Guess I'll see you tomorrow at the funeral."
"Tomorrow? I was planning to invite you to dinner tonight. You know, as a payback for the run and breakfast. I thought maybe you could suggest a nice local restaurant since you're more familiar with the area."
As Nanki-Poo exclaimed in The Mikado, "Modified rapture!" My hopes were renewed! "Well, I haven't lived here for quite a while but I do remember a great Thai restaurant just a few blocks from here, close enough to walk. Does that sound good?"
"Sounds great. I think I could do with a little spice in my life."
OK, did she mean something by that or was I deluding myself? Well, if we were going to play suggestion games with each other, I'd call her bluff. "If it's spice you're looking for pretty lady, I'm your man." I bobbed my eyebrows up and down a la Groucho for effect.
She laughed and deftly sidestepped, "Mom and I are going to do a little shopping this afternoon but we should be back by six or so. How does sevenish sound?"
"Perfect. I'll be knocking on your door at sevenish, sharp. Uh, this Thai joint isn't really all that upscale so casual is fine."
"Well, I'm not an upscale date so that's OK with me. See you later." Before she stepped into her room, she leaned over and gave me a little peck on the cheek. Maybe it wasn't a clear signal but it sure as hell wasn't a snub.
The priest who was going to conduct the services was there when I arrived back at Mom's house. He was circulating through the family members who were graciously bestowing the expected obeisance and accepting his official condolences in return. Mom saw me sneak in through the front door and attempt to make it up the stairway without being noticed. No such luck.
"Jakob!" she practically shouted, "Come say hello to Father McEwan."
I would have as soon kissed Uncle Vladimir's cold, dead lips but I put on a smile and tried to appear pleased to see him. "Good morning, Father. It's kind of you to drop by."
"Not at all, not at all, my dear boy. It's my duty to offer comfort in times of sorrow. Your mother tells me you work for the U. S. Forestry Service now days." Father McEwan was ancient, probably not far from his own funeral and of the old school, hard-nosed Irish Catholic brand of priest. He was as set in his ways as a statue and as intolerant of sinners as the Ayatollah.
"That's right. I'll be heading back west day after tomorrow."
"Oh, so soon? I was hoping we might have a chance to visit privately before you left."
"Uh, sorry but I really need to get back to some important work. Maybe some other time." That was a bald-faced lie but I'd have said anything to avoid one of his interminable pontificating lectures.
"Then perhaps you might drop by this afternoon. I'm sure I can make some time in my schedule."
"Sorry, Father, no can do. I'm meeting some friends this afternoon and I have a date with a pretty lady this evening." Part lie, part truth.
He put his arm across my shoulder and leaned in close to say, "Jakob, your mother and I are quite concerned about the state of your soul and she was hoping I might offer you some council, perhaps coax you back into the flock."
"Mm, I'm afraid there's not much chance of that, Father but thanks for your concern."
He turned to Mom and shrugged as if to say, "I tried."
But Mom was not one to let sleeping dogs lie. "Jakob, if you don't go to confession before the funeral mass you can't take communion! You'll be an embarrassment to the whole family!"
"Ah," I said, finally catching on, "so it's not my soul you're concerned about so much as you're afraid your atheist son will embarrass you. Tell you what, Mom, I think I have a remedy for that. I'll sit in the back of the church so you won't have to step around me to get to the communion line. How's that?"
She could see she wasn't going to win this one. "Oh, you'll be the death of me, Jakob! Why must you be so wicked?"
I shrugged and ventured, "Don't know, Mom. Bad genes? Gotta run now so I guess I'll see you later. And don't expect me for dinner." I clapped Father McEwan on the back and lied, "Nice to see you, Father."
I was upstairs just long enough to grab some extra cash and a light jacket in case it rained, then I escaped down the back stairs and drove toward the park. I had no plan to fill the time until I met up with Sarah but I had no intention of hanging around Mom's place. On a whim, I called Sarah on my cell and asked if she and her mom would like some company on their shopping expedition. They would.
Sarah's mom turned out to be a lot more entertaining and a lot less parental than mine so we actually had a great afternoon meandering through the mall. I justified my intrusion on their afternoon of shopping by serving as their personal redcap.
Around six, Sarah's mom and dad went down to the hotel restaurant for dinner so Sarah and I decided to have a drink at the bar before heading to the Thai place. She ordered a glass of red wine and I had a Heineken's. We settled into a booth and scooted close enough together that we were touching at the hips and shoulders. Being allowed into her personal space made me feel warm all over.
I opened with, "Thanks for letting me come along on your mother/daughter afternoon."
"Thanks for offering. Oh, and thanks for being such a willing pack mule."
"My pleasure, Ma'am. I really like your mom."
"And she really likes you. When we were in the shoe store, she said something about wishing you'd been around back when I was shopping for a husband. She never liked my ex from the first moment she met him and I eventually learned that her intuition was right on the button. Unfortunately, that didn't happen until after we were married." She giggled and added, "I'm pretty sure hasn't given any thought to the fact that we're related."
"Well yeah, but not close enough to really mean anything." I knew that comment vaguely implied something sexual but I wanted her to understand that our family connection was absolutely no barrier as far as I was concerned.
She gave a little shrug and said, "That's true. It sure wouldn't have stopped me jumping your bones back when you were in the tenth grade and I was a giggling little teeny-bopper."
"Maybe you should have persisted. With a little effort, we could have scandalized the whole family." What the hell, I thought to myself, just go for it! "That's still within our power, you know."
Sarah pulled back away from me and put her hand on her chest a la Blanche Dubois. "What? Scandalahz the family? Why, Cousin Jake, Ah do b'lieve you'ah tryin' t' have you'ah way with meee!"
With that, there was no mistaking that we were definitely playing 'the game' so I went along with the comedy. "Mah goodness, don't go gittin' me wrong, girl! I'm not just interested in you'ah body, although Ah'd be plum tickled t' death t' git t' know it a lot bettah."