"Did a man like this deserve a funeral?"
APRIL 20, 2023 BY MAGGIE MILSTEIN
There's something mean about cremation, to make a body completely useless. "Ashes to ashes" is just a metaphor for the quantum universe, not a recipe. We aren't really made of stardust. Manson once said, "Sanity is a small box; insanity is everything." Maybe funneling his ashes into a little carton would somehow restore sanity to the world.
*He died in November, the month of gratitude.
In 2017, Charles Milles Manson, or "Charlie," expired in Bakersfield's Mercy Hospital after eighty-three years on Earth. He had been transferred there from the California state prison in Corcoran, where he had been incarcerated since 1989. There are conflicting accounts of what exactly killed him, but it's fair to say that an octogenarian Charles Manson was about as healthy as one might imagine. His death certificate names acute cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, and metastatic colon cancer as his pale horses, but he had lived with a litany of afflictions since he first shuffled into Corcoran. He lived in the Protective Housing Unit, or P.H.U., a ward for prisoners who, because of their colorful histories, couldn't survive in the general prison population.
I spent the greater part of my twenties interviewing prisoners in an old visitation room outside the P.H.U. I started the project in graduate school. I wanted to explore the emotional lives of elderly prisoners, an overlooked demographic in the carceral system. A criminal is sentenced to life in prison—then what? What does it mean to grow old behind bars, and what keeps the soul alive? Some prisoners were easy to talk to. Charlie, who famously loved to mess with interviewers, was best understood through observation and anecdotes.
My favorite: A prisoner walked into the communal bathroom and found the elderly murderer perched on the commode, sucking on a pitiful joint that, in the delicate lifecycle of prison contraband, had slipped into the unit via officer or orifice. Asses to ashes, butts to butts. To the intruder, Charlie may have looked more like a 1950s housewife puffing on a filtered Viceroy than America's most dangerous man sucking down a crotch roach. To Charlie, it was surely a moment of profound reflection.
I imagined him roosting, eyes closed, smoking his boot-scrape ganga while pretending to be surrounded by braless, smiling women with long, dirty hair. Maybe he was reliving one famous, perfect scene:
His girls waist-deep in a dumpster, their skin and hair shimmering, joyfully pulling out garlands of limp vegetables as if it were a victory garden.
In that moment he was young, even though his body was so stiff with arthritis that, instead of a king on his throne, he would have looked more like the Tin Man splayed on an oilcan, heartless. By some accounts, the little man was standing on the toilet rim. Regardless, he was in his element. He didn't need to stunt, to act the fool. No throwing food, no yelling, no bitches of varying ilk. He could cogitate. Maybe, in the winter of his life, Charles Manson had turned to introspection and asked himself,
"Who in the world am I?"
"Get the fuck off the shitter, Charlie!" yelled the intruding prisoner, pointing to an air vent that was blowing skunk smoke out the bathroom window towards the yard where two notorious snitches happened to be chilling.
"You get the fuck out!" squawked Charlie, as he returned to the world.
It was incidents like these that made almost everyone in the P.H.U. hate Charlie. It wasn't because he was Charles Manson. It was because he burned popcorn in the communal microwave and made everything smell like shit. He always nabbed the last avocado from the visitation snack cart and left piles of candy wrappers on the table.
He was inconsiderate.
He was a "tool."
Now the tool was just a thing, a whatchamacallit. A dead body. Someone else's problem. But whose?
When Charlie's condition began to deteriorate, both the prison and the hospital tried to keep the situation confidential, but when he was transferred from the prison infirmary in Corcoran to the general hospital in Bakersfield people began to talk. As international news outlets broke the story, the world waited to see if Charles Manson could really die. He seemed more spectral than mortal, and although I never bought into any supernatural concept of "evil" it was clear that Charlie had a superhuman and deeply serendipitous tendency to escape death. A horrific childhood in violent boys' homes. An adolescence in and out of prison. A reign of terror and a death sentence that was later commuted to life-in-prison by Furman v. Georgia, a Supreme Court case that, in 1972, temporarily ended capital punishment in the United States and retroactively saved the lives of death row inmates. He spent his middle age and golden years in some of California's toughest prisons, and although he spent the last stretch of his sentence in protective housing, Charlie was still beating the odds at every darkened corner. At the time of his death, he surpassed the average American man's life expectancy by nearly five years.
One might assume that Charlie's life choices weren't conducive to creating real, lasting connections, and that finding someone reliable to claim his body would be his final inconvenience. His last smoking microwave. He had very few living relatives and even fewer who were willing to talk to him. He had people who called him a friend. They wrote to him and, sometimes, Charlie wrote back. If they were lucky, the friend would receive a trinket made from his body hair. I assumed that the state would cremate Charlie's body or bury it quietly and departmentally in a pauper's grave in Bakersfield, one without a view of the orchards or the mountains.
I imagined his ashes being flushed down a government toilet like a belly-up goldfish. It seemed like a befitting send-off until I realized that, if ghosts existed, Charles Manson would haunt those pipes forever. When it comes to the afterlife, most modern people are more willing to chance their souls than their plumbing.
I think that Charlie, like many of us, stayed alive out of pure spite. I think that Charlie, like many of us, stayed alive out of pure spite. His last day, November 19, 2017, became the first stop of a long, absurd journey to the great beyond. On that day the proverbial worms burst through the woodwork. Self-identified "friends" of the deceased believed that they were the true keepers of Charlie's corpse, and some even claimed that they were his blood kin. His biological grandson, a young family man from Florida named Jason, fought them in court for nearly four months to gain custodianship of his grandfather's remains, hoping to dispose of Charlie quietly and respectfully.
Jason won his case, but during four long months of court deliberations, the corpse developed frostbite. Parts of it began to crack and stew. For whatever reason, be it freezer burns or the eager anticipation of a verdict, the thing was transferred to a refrigerator, which soon proved to be too warm. The body began to soften and putrefy. The coroner's office put it back in the freezer, which, they hoped, would slow the death down. My mother, a Jewish convert from an old Southern Baptist family in Alabama, had always warned me about re-freezing something that's already been warmed over. It was like leaving in the skeleton of a roasted chicken for more than a day ("You gotta take it out and pop the wishbone"). It was like trying to take back a piece of gossip.
By the day of the funeral, Charlie's corpse was a soft cheese. Les Peters, the director of the Porterville Funeral and Cremation Center, would go on to say,
"I was anticipating that the remains would be in the freezer. That was not the case. The largest problem I had was that, just as if you were in a bathtub for an extended period of time and your fingers start to wrinkle up from the water. There were some fluids in the bottom of the bag that he was in, even though they had an absorbent cloth. That, for many months. That's just what I was dealing with, to the point where it was just beyond repair."
It was 2020, nearly three years since Charlie's death. Thanksgiving was coming. I was working as a bookseller for an independent book and gift store that had survived the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, WWI, and WWII. In the 1940's, booksellers from the store smuggled reading materials to interned Japanese Americans and were shot at by tower guards. Sometimes that anecdote was the only thing keeping me at work, and I reminded myself of it whenever I wanted to walk away on my coffee break and never return to the long lines, slipping masks, and the ever-present film of sweat and sanitizers.
I'd look at an ornery customer, smiling with my eyes, and try to explain the disruption of the supply chain.
"The book you're looking for isn't available because books need paper. And ink. And glue, I guess. Can I help you find something else?"
I winced while fumigating a pile of James Patterson books that had been sighed-on. I walked up to strangers and asked them to pull their masks up over their nose, and some moved closer to me, growling with their eyes, as if to say, "I'm in a fancy L.A. bookstore. Don't look at me as if I just crawled out of a storm drain in Bakersfield."
I knew it was time to leave when the Halloween tchotchkes went on sale. Sugar skulls on deep discount. Bestsellers about serial killers were replaced with cookbooks about crockpots and warm tummies. Being surrounded by death felt a lot safer than seeing each room in the store swathed in the warm colors of late fall. Some patrons spoke freely about their upcoming Thanksgiving gatherings. About traveling. Hugging their loved ones. And they would do it all again for Christmas.
The virus would just have to wait.
I left my job before the first egg was deviled.
As winter came, I performed my civic duty by lying naked in my king size bed for days at a time, eying the day's headlines between flitty little naps. The novelty of the "novel" coronavirus had worn-off. The fear had changed. No one was singing from their balconies anymore.
My family and I were healthy. It was as though someone had smeared our doors with lamb's blood. Once a week I'd get in my car and drive around Burbank, the San Fernando Valley, the greater Los Angeles metro area—anywhere I desired, with the understanding that I couldn't stop and get out anywhere. I'd sit in my parked car, listening to the now-late John Prine, crunching on waffle fries, and staring at the birds in the tall palm trees. Sometimes one of L.A.'s rogue parrots would come along and cock its head, and I began to believe that even the crows were concerned about me. Where was my flock, my murder? I had to remind myself in my solitude that none of this was about me. None of it was personal. That was the good thing, I guessed, about viruses: they simply didn't care. They wouldn't look you in the eye when they did it. They weren't witchy that way.
The makeshift morgues began to ooze and stink.
I thought of Charlie Manson's body rotting in the fridge.
Had I done the right thing by giving him a funeral? I had only interacted with him a few times during my prison research. Sometimes I just observed him out of the corner of my eye as I spoke to another inmate, and nearly every time I saw the same thing: an old man staring off into an invisible sunset. Old Charlie had become an unlikely countercultural icon. I understood the complexity of the case: the mania of the girls, the brain-sucking drugs, his dubious legal representation, and, of course, his horrific upbringing, but all those roads ended in a pregnant woman being stabbed sixteen times while her child suffocated inside of her. I knew that he had never really cared about anyone but himself. I knew that, even if he hadn't participated in the murders, he fed off them like a cannibal.
Did a man like this deserve a funeral? Had I done the right thing?
I thought of the COVID-19 victims who'd never get one. Mortuaries were turning families away. Flesh sweetened under tarp. Some people swore they could see a dark atmospheric haze encircling the city from the crematoria burning all night long.
I had given Charlie one thing he'd probably never showed another person: dignity. When his body was released to Jason, it was immediately clear that pulling off a secret funeral for Charlie was going to be an expensive feat. Jason, a kindly Christian man with a large family to take care of, took on the burden alone. I offered my help, and he accepted it graciously. I wouldn't understand the significance of my action until Lockdown, when I'd lay naked in bed, watching millions of people face death alone.
My late bubbe, a Holocaust survivor, had left me a little bit of money. She earned it from her job as a checkout lady at a Brooklyn dime store. I used some of it to pay for Charlie's cremation, about $500, as well as some food and flowers. I didn't know if she would have been proud or mortified. Was this the delicious irony of a man with a swastika in the middle of his forehead burning up in a crematory at the hands of a Jew? Or was it her only granddaughter spending her inheritance on some sick paskudnyak?
What did the Evil Eye see?
I remembered the day I met Charlie in 2014. I had expected to see a biblically old man, a grizzled sinner languishing outside the gates of Old Jerusalem, a castaway—but found a guy more Midwestern than Levantine, whose nose had naturally widened over the years, slimming and softening his eyes by comparison. He looked almost honest. When referring to Charles Manson in the prime of his life, some people described him as Christ-like in appearance: shaggy, big-eyed, and rawboned, there is a cheap irony in his past resemblance to the Son of God, one that he probably cultivated to add legitimacy to his claims of mystical power. But as he grew older, his petite frame, which had once contrasted screamingly with his megalomania, had become stocky and slow-footed, his head a weighty bust meant less for the tabloids and more for the greased lane of a bowling alley. He had a beard, now gray and relatively kempt, and though his skin was doughy and shadow-less his eyes were as soft and expressive as a pig's. As he sat at a visitation table in clean blue chambray, he looked less like America's most dangerous criminal and more like the Maytag Man, waiting fist-to-cheek.
He was soberly deliberating between a Snickers and an Almond Joy, pointing to them without touching their wrappers like a scholar reading Torah. He hobbled over and gave me a moony smile.
"Ah, Maggie! Did you have a good trip?" He held out his little, chalky hand. I shook it, expecting it to be cold and moist, but found it soft and stuffed, a few degrees warmer than my own.
His young girlfriend, Star, sat next to him. They didn't touch. Loved ones were allowed nothing more than a brief kiss and hug at the beginning and end of their visits. Hand holding was tolerated in moderation.
She was twenty-five, like me. Her hair fell to her shoulders in a deep, middle part. She'd grown it past her breasts, then shaved it off for Charlie. She'd allegedly cut an "X" in her forehead, then healed for Charlie. Her hair was back, for now, and her pupils bubbled up like tar.
It seemed as if the weight of her little body kept the heavy, government-issue chair from flying around the room in the fingers of a poltergeist. She looked like Charlie's other girls, but to be fair, so did I: dark hair, baby face, yearbook grin. I resembled Leslie Van Houten, the psychopathic prom queen, while Star favored Susan Atkins, Charlie's lead girl who wrote "PIG" in blood. I didn't cultivate the look. Star told a reporter from Rolling Stone that Charlie was going to marry her and denied any connection to Atkins, saying,
"That bitch was fucking crazy. She was a crazy fucking whore."
I returned to my seat and gazed at Star, wondering what it means to be twenty-five. Maybe it's the age when a girl realizes that her existence is finite and begins to imagine "another life," a space filled with her happy, unreasonable dreams; in another life, I will become something more. Her fantasy is a prison she can neither enter nor escape.
A photograph of Eva Braun was taken a few months after her twenty-fifth birthday. She sits on a plank in the middle of a rowboat, her eyes smiling at the camera, her long, tapered fingers wrapped around the handles of the oars. It's clear that her swimsuit was truly white, though the lake appears the color of the moon. Hitler would later give Eva a color camera under the agreement that she, and only she, could take candid shots of Der Fuhrer (he called her his chaparral, a German word meaning "a nice little girl of no importance"). By the time this photo developed, Eva had tried to kill herself. Twice. Once when she was twenty and aimed her father's pistol at her heart (she pulled the trigger and the gun jerked, unloading into the muscle of her neck), and again when she overdosed on sleeping pills the spring of her twenty-third year. Historians claim that Eva made the attempts to "get Hitler's attention." In this photograph she is twenty-five, a woman kept, rowing the River Styx. She isn't allowed in boardrooms. She can't sleep in his bed. She isn't an official member of the Nazi Party, though she lives in its headquarters for the rest of her life in a place nicknamed "The Grand Hotel." Hitler believes that, to capture the heart of a nation, he should appear sexually available, so Eva pretends to be his secretary. But he will bring her banned makeup and clothes and keep his pillow promise, marrying her the morning of their suicide. She doesn't see a politician in him, or Der Fuhrer, or the man who murdered my family. She sees the promise she made him: "From our first meeting I swore to follow you anywhere even unto death. I live only for your love."
Star told Rolling Stone, "People can think I'm crazy. But they don't know. This is what's right for me. This is what I was born for."
A question plagues Philosophy 101:
Would you kill baby Hitler?
This question exists purely—and conveniently—in the hypothetical. To me, a more practical test of empathy is: How would you dispose of Hitler's dead body?
Should every member of society, regardless of their actions, get a funeral?
Should every member of society, regardless of their actions, get a funeral? Was it wrong for American armed forces to give Osama bin Laden's body a proper Muslim burial at sea? Did Pol Pot's wife have the right to lay her husband on the funeral pyre that she had built with her own hands?
Imagine you're an American GI in 1945 whose division has just raided der Führerbunker. You discover Adolph Hitler's body on a couch next to Eva Braun's (let's, of course, pretend that their bodies weren't dragged outside and burned in the garden by the S.S. per Hitler's wishes). You're a war hero and have been given the privilege of deciding what to do with the corpses. Would you separate the couple, or keep them together? Maybe you would have Eva embalmed and shipped back to her family because, after all, she was just a nice little girl of no importance. Or maybe, depending on your view of the afterlife, you would bury her next to Hitler.
What preparations would you make for the newlyweds?
Maybe you've spent the last few years crouching in a dark forest watching the ice pick off the noses and toes of your soldiers. Maybe you were kept warm only by the fantasy of infanticide, of smothering baby Adolph in his warm Bavarian bassinet.
Now you're looking at his dead body toppled over on a couch. It's angled away from the body of the young woman who loved him, their bottoms touching while their sides and heads lie against the damask cushions, as if they had been separated by a burst of intractable laughter. A soft book that has fallen open to its middle. You allow your men to prop up the bodies on the couch and take a few pictures to send home. But there's only so much viscera even a soldier can take. They all want the two gone now. You stare until you are asked for orders.
Is it true that a society can be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members?
What's more vulnerable than the corpse of a generation's most hated man?
It was March 2018, four months after Charlie's death. Jason and I divvied up our funereal responsibilities. I would pay for the cremation and some flowers and refreshments and Jason would get the rest. He found a church and crematory in a small town about forty minutes straight to the east of Corcoran. The pastor was willing to perform the service in total secrecy. If word got out that Charles Manson's funeral was happening only a few hours from L.A., it would be like wildflower season. As if Charlie's rotting body were rolling fields of unpickable orange poppies, or maple leaves alchemizing in fall. The peepers––journalists, history buffs, tweeters, festival goers, biker gangs, young millennials, old deadheads, professors, grifters, hot girls, ne'er-do-wells, nightcrawlers, church groups, nice folks, normal folks, and oh why nots––would have descended on the San Joaquin Valley, winding through the grapevine past the runaway truck ramps and broken down vans, through the gate city of Bakersfield and the promise of clean toilets and ten page menus, past the cold rivers of catfish, up to the roadside fruit stands and back again, shucks and pits bouncing off the pavement like hail. Jason and I feared another Woodstock. The few people on the guest list were sworn to secrecy; the only person I told was the man who would soon be my husband. Pulling off the event quietly would be a difficult feat in the age of social media, but not an impossible one.
I remembered the prison microwave. The burning buttered popcorn. Charlie had a way of leaving a stink long after he'd exited a room. He was ruthlessly petty. I remembered the time that he wasn't allowed in the visitation room because he had refused his routine geriatric vaccines. The prison considered him a "biohazard," a fact which secretly delighted me. The visitation room still had a few stations with glass barriers and phones, and I remembered coming to interview a prisoner and seeing old Charlie with his face and hands pressed up against the glass in puerile angst. Star sat on the other side and scratched the glass with her fingernail.
I knew that Charlie's personal sphere of influence was no longer planet Earth. He still had followers, but he wasn't pulling any strings beyond the grave. His corpse was no longer the corpus. But his legend had compounded and grown into a body bigger than Charles Manson could ever be, with an orbit that outpulled the magnetism of a single man. And although I couldn't see it, I could feel it tug at the scruff of my neck as I pulled into the damp, empty parking lot of the Porterville Funeral and Cremation Center.*
I stood outside the parlor, waiting for the doors to open. Jason had planned the funeral, a decidedly Christian one, and I wasn't completely sure what to expect. I was surprised, however, that there were no uninvited guests.
Jason's wife walked up to me and whispered, "He looks good." Who? I wondered. Who were we looking at? I assumed that she was referring to Jason, a man who surely faced a day of many reckonings.
The door opened, and a few guests and I slowly entered the parlor. I carried some refreshments and a little box of yellow flowers.
The casket was out.
The casket was open.
Audrey was referring to Charlie. I never entertained the idea—or the possibility–of a viewing.
I crept up to the casket, which was festooned with a hill of yellow flowers.
He had the same slab of skull but with a face stretched thinly over it like vellum. His hands were sheathed in clean white gloves, fingers interlaced over his belly. The mortician had received a Charlie-shaped cesspool and had to make it show-worthy. By the time he made it to the casket, Charlie didn't look like he had been dead for half a year. By some miracle of pancake makeup and epoxy, there were thin, placid lips. A nose with a ridge. Eyes sunken but serene. Cheeks stretched so tightly that they actually took a few years off him. His eyebrows had lost their wooliness but had been drawn thickly in, their bows curving a little too far downward in the style of the great Golden Age actresses. Think Hedy Lamarr, maybe even Vivian Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. His long beard had survived. His swastika was fine, too.
The mortician was a true artist, but like all artists, they had their limitations: Charlie's hands just couldn't be saved. So, they did the next best thing and hid them completely under clean, white gloves.
I wasn't used to open-casket funerals. I wasn't really used to cremations, either. Jews bury our dead as soon as possible with the casket closed. We give a person back to the teeming, hungry earth. A dead body should be fresh and whole. To us, the 20th century only underscored the indignities of the charnel house. If you really want to blot someone out, burn them into a powder and sweep them away.
I stared into Charlie's white gloves, trying to make out the shape of a fingerbone. I knew that I had no right to judge the burial practices of another. We could have built a pyre for him and set it out on Lake Tahoe. We could have given him a sky burial on Mount Whitney and let California condors nip his bones clean. We could have buried him then dug him up every year and included him in the Freeman family's celebrations ("Please pass Grandpa Charlie a piece of devil's food cake"). These were all real practices from people around the world, one just as legitimate as another. Today we would put Charlie's body on display then burn it in the crematory. This was an honored and normalized ritual, but it felt a little grotesque, a little mean.
I drew my eyes back up to Charlie's head. I noticed how absurdly large his nostrils were, as if he were one of Roald Dahl's witches, and the canals of his ears looked as if someone had shoved their thumbs in the holes and spread them apart, forcing a smile.
I stepped back and gazed at the casket.
Yes: Nestled in a puff of crème satin was Charles Manson's body. He had been dressed in a cotton t-shirt the color of burnt caramel under a long-sleeved gray button up. The casket had been closed, charitably, below his hips. A red bandanna had been tied around his neck and knotted to the side. He was dressed like a good guy, more likely to hike the Appalachians than tramp around the Hollywood Hills. More cowboy than outlaw. Maybe these clothes meant something. Maybe this was a "look." I don't know if this was the outfit that Charlie himself would have wanted to wear to his own viewing, and maybe it was just whatever the mortuary had on-hand, but I think that the curatorial force behind these choices was trying, somehow, to redeem him. As if to say: This is who Charlie always was and always would be: a naturalist, a creative, a humanitarian, and just a laid-back kind of guy. A Jim Henson type––but not a master of puppets. If someone who knew nothing about Charlie walked into the room that day and saw him lying in that plush rental casket, they might assume that he was just a good-ole-boy (apart, of course, from the swastika). As the great designer Alexander McQueen said, "Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment." Maybe this outfit was Charlie's aesthetic prison break, his last great escape.
The body had experienced an almost necromantic transformation, rising from its own waters like the Birth of Venus.
I reached out and poked him deep in the swastika, his forehead soft like nougat.
When it was time to close the casket, a few men removed the flowers and spread an American flag on top of it, then a Confederate flag on top of that, to honor Charlie's "rebel spirit." My small box of yellow flowers sat next to the casket, their little faces watching the pastor, who began.
"When Manson was born, he was imprinted with an image of God. It has been destroyed, in a sense, by his actions. But it's still there. Because of that, yeah, I'll step up before people to do a service, even for a mass murderer like Charlie."
All he could do was read off the biographical details of Charlie's life. His birth in Ohio on November 12, 1934. How his mother traded him for a pitcher of beer. How he spent most of his life in the system. The pastor had to be mindful of both the victims and the funeral guests and not make any unwanted assertions. What resulted was a lecture that, when paired with the falling March rain, lulled us away from the image the pastor was trying so desperately to sketch. The room had the energy of an inclement weather day in an elementary school, the kind of day I often prayed for as child, when contact sports and food fights were shelved for board games and careful sips from thermoses of hot soup. As if it were time to pop a movie into a VCR and just write the day off. As if the spackled cadaver of America's Most Dangerous Man weren't rotting just a few feet from me and I weren't in a small room in the middle of nowhere, defenseless, with Charles Manson's most ardent supporters.
As the pastor pushed through his eulogy, the enormous biker sitting next to me began to snore. His snores grew louder and louder, until they reached a crescendo so tremendous that I had to shove him in the side. He woke up, smacked his lips, then fell back asleep.
We all adjourned to the crematory room. Charlie's body was transferred to a simple wooden box and put on a conveyer belt to an incinerator. The pastor asked if we wanted to help push Charlie into the great beyond, or if we wanted to watch behind glass. I walked into the crematory room and put my hand on the box closest to the mouth of the oven. Others joined behind me. A tall white man with long, shoe polish black hair wailed a nonspecific indigenous chant and beat a drum. The others wailed with him as we all pushed Charlie into the fire. He felt like nothing, as if we were little occultic girls at a sleepover, levitating a body with just the tips of our fingers.
The cremation would take a little while, about three hours. I was invited to the scattering, which would take place that evening at a stream deep in the Sequoias, in a place that could never be found. I politely declined, for reasons obvious.
As I pulled out of the driveway, I watched brown smoke billow and twist from the crematory chimney, sublimating Charlie into the mist.
At the scattering, Jason turned around from a prayer and found the guests scrubbing their faces with ashes.
My own bed, Christmas 2020. The air conditioner in my apartment is running all day and night. I love the feeling of a frigid room, of crisp sheets skimming my body. There's no plague miasma, no place for anything to breed. All clean. I haven't worn street clothes in weeks. I haven't smoked weed since March. I spend a lot of my time in bed naked, reading the news. Once or twice a week I allow myself an outing. I drive around and look for parrots in the palms.
This isn't what "terror" is supposed to look like, I think. It's supposed to look like the Invasion of Poland, like death squads and screaming infants. I've lived a privileged life in the United States, but I've seen terror on the screen: a man diving headfirst from the North Tower, a surge of salt water into the Ninth Ward, endless streams of children running out of their schools with their hands on their heads.
Terror is supposed to be dark and kinetic, I think. It isn't a midday nap in a cool, sunny room.
I play music while I steam in the shower. Sometimes Lead Belly comes on, and if my husband is close enough to hear it, he moves away. He likes the songs but is terrified of their recordings, how they crack and skip between the warbles. To him, it sounds like a ghost waltz.
He has nightmares about a ghost wife. I have nightmares about the ocean.
The pandemic truly began when we stopped being able to care for the corpses, I've had them for years, and it used to be the same scenario every time: the tide recedes, unbroken shells everywhere, and only I know that a tidal wave is coming. No one believes me except my family. We find the tallest building and run up the stairs, then watch from the roof as the wave takes out everything around us. The nightmare has changed since the pandemic began. Now, everyone knows that the wave is coming. No one is out collecting scallops and sand dollars. Everyone is running for tall buildings. The mountain overlooks are teeming, their brims brimming, and there will never be enough room for everyone. I read that these nightmares signify that the sleeper is overwhelmed. I usually dismiss dreams as byproducts of a rapidly cooling mind, but I seem to run from the wave nearly every night.
We're being stalked. Our apartment is bright and cool and soft, almost palliative, but we know that at any time an invisible young woman with a deep middle part and a buck knife could straddle our chests and end our lives.
A few years from now, after the vaccine, my friends and I will gather again at Musso and Frank's over chilled martinis and Pickford Pasta. We'll giggle and howl as if we're holding handing, spinning, our heads thrown back by centrifugal force. Waiters in red tuxedo jackets and black satin bowties will dip in to refill our carafes against the chinois walls that still have Charlie Chaplin's cigar smoke clinging to them. The specter of wallpaper yellowed by the long dead will only make us feel that much more alive as we ask for more cognac in our Sazeracs. My friend's eyes will wander in opposite directions like a hunchback's in a belfry as he tries to look me straight in the face, slapping the table and screaming:
"You killed Charles Manson!"
"He was already dead!" I'll scream back.
"Well, then you killed him again! Pushed him right into the fire! FOOMP!"
Now, in my bed in late 2020, I cross my wrists above my head and stretch my body hard into a question mark. I had begun my research in the Protective Housing Unit at Corcoran with academic intent, to interview and observe elderly prisoners so I could understand their emotional worlds. By the time Charlie died, I acted out of my own emotions. I used a Holocaust survivor's hard-earned pittance to try and give an infamous antisemite a dignified end. The Nazis hadn't given my bubbe's two sisters and mother the same consideration. It's unclear if they were shot dead in their home or if they were led out to a deep pit and ordered to undress. Eighty years after the Shoah, a Google Image search of "naked Jewish women" won't immediately show erotica or pornography like it will for every other ethnic fetish; instead, up will come old photos of fleshy, dark-haired women, some holding their babies, pressed up against each other in line, awaiting their execution.
And Bathsheba, bathing on the roof.
I imagine myself back in der Führerbunker, Adolf and Eva growing tight as bratwurst, my men looking to me for answers, and I know that whatever I would do for the couple, I would have to do for Charlie.
I think of the first weeks of this pandemic, the virus tracker ticking up with new death in Los Angeles, each one a novelty. Although the situation was frightening, it didn't truly become terrifying until the number of bodies exceeded our ability to dispose of them, when the smells began to waft from refrigerated trucks on the roadside. Hospital breakrooms are packed with fleets of bedside teleprompters, ready to go, the last communication between the living and the dying, and these devices have become far more terrifying than the dead bodies themselves, just as a pile of corpses will never be as terrifying as a pile of soft little shoes. I am terrified in a cool, sunny room, wondering where my own body could go.
Let Mrs. Pot get dirt under her manicure and pat together her husband's pyre. Let Bin Laden slip quietly into the wine-dark sea. Let Adolf and Eva burn up in their garden and let Charlie's ashes drift away deep into the Sequoias. Let a body be incinerated, entombed, pecked, or exhumed. A rotting Manson on display is better than one that has disappeared.
Otherwise, there's no release, only the unmitigated terror of imagination. Grief becomes superhuman. The pandemic truly began when we stopped being able to care for the corpses, just as tsunamis begin months after the wave hits, when cab drivers pick up ghosts wandering aimlessly by the sea.