Whenever I finish a movie on DVD, I can’t help watching the “Extras”—all those deleted scenes and low budget interviews and director comments over the soundtrack. Sometimes I even watch them before starting the film. So in the spirit of miscellany, here is an outtake from The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress. It was one of the first essays I wrote touching on the central material in the book—the aftermath of a break-up and the process of recovery—long before I knew I was actually writing a book. It lasted in the manuscript right up until the last minute, when, at the urging of the very wise Adam O’Connor Rodriguez—an editor with a razor sharp eye and even sharper pen—I decided it was extraneous; its exposition covers too much of the same ground as other chapters, and it didn’t fit naturally in the final sequence. Still, it’s a piece I have a lot of affection for, in part because it set me off on the wild journey that this book became. It first appeared in Puerto del Sol.
Let’s Go Bowling: On Dignity for the Dead
The walk down the beach had been pleasant and easy. The wind was at my back, the sun on my neck. I was happy in a wistful sort of way, indulging in a pang of loneliness and melancholy, in feeling like an artist. A busy semester had just ended, my grades turned in the day before, and I’d come out to the coast for a brief writing retreat. I’d worked for an hour this afternoon, made myself an early dinner, drunk half a bottle of wine, and come out to watch the sun set over the ocean, still a novelty for an easterner after almost a decade in Oregon.
I enjoyed feeling both proud of myself and sorry for myself at the same time—proud of my independence and dedication to my craft, sorry that I didn’t have a lover to go home to after the retreat was over. I’d been single for too long now, recovering from a relationship that had ended badly, with a canceled wedding and an abundance of humiliation, pleading, and pain. It was time to get back on my feet, I told myself. It was time to live again. And really, there was nowhere else I’d rather have been at that moment, and I was sorry now only when I’d walked as far as I could and had to turn back.
And instantly, things were different. The wind stung my face and made me squint. The low sun slipped behind Haystack Rock, a volcanic plug sticking a few hundred feet out of the waves, and suddenly my sweatshirt was too thin for the chill evening air. I smelled rotting fish and seaweed. Self-pity began to overwhelm pride, and for the first time all day I wondered what I was doing, wasting my time alone on a windy, freezing beach when I should have been back in the warm city looking for love.
Sand blew against my cheeks and into my mouth. I felt grit between my teeth. At least I thought it was sand, until I shaded my eyes against the red horizon and saw two women a few dozen yards ahead of me, bending over the surf. One of them was pouring something from a little box or pouch, and whatever didn’t hit the water clouded around their feet and coursed in my direction.
Ashes. It took only a moment to realize it, but by then my sweatshirt was dusted. I tried to get out of the way, but wherever I moved the wind found me. Finally I just turned my back and waited it out. The ash was mostly finer than sand, but every so often larger grains pelted my neck. I can only assume they were bits of bone. I tried to spit out whatever had gotten into my mouth, but combined with my saliva the ash had turned to a clumpy clay, and it was hard to loosen from my tongue. No doubt I swallowed some of it.
This was awful, sure, but my first instinct was to giggle. The same thing had happened to Jeff Bridges’ character The Dude in the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski. The Dude’s friend Walter, played by a blustery John Goodman, stands on a bluff outside Los Angeles and delivers a eulogy for their dead bowling teammate, Donny, eventually digressing into a rant about the mistreatment of Vietnam veterans. He then spills Donny’s ashes from a Folger’s can, most of which blow straight back into The Dude’s face, clouding his sunglasses and whitening his beard. It’s a hilarious moment at the end of a hilarious movie, capturing the absurdity of mortality and the futility of trying to honor the dead. With his memorial left in the hands of a friend who never showed him any respect when he was alive, what hope does Donny have for the dignity he deserves now that he’s gone?
I’d just laugh the whole thing off, I thought. I’d have a funny story to tell friends when I got home. A funny story to tell a potential lover, maybe, something lighthearted and morbid to show that I was tough despite my small frame, that I could take a few knocks and keep smiling.
The barrage ended. I turned back into the wind, squinting again. The two women had straightened above the surf. They were both in late middle age, both overweight, with short frizzy hair and sallow skin, wearing baggy Capri pants and loosely-knit sweaters. The one who’d done the pouring, who was carrying the little box or pouch—I still couldn’t quite make it out—had reddish brown hair, obviously dyed. She was barefoot. Her thick ankles seemed uneasy on the soft sand. She was clearly the bereaved, while the other, who wore tennis shoes and whose hair was gray, had come to support her. I don’t know how I know that, but I’m certain of it. There was a subtle difference in their expressions, the gray-haired woman’s face showing concern, the other’s free of anything but anguish.
Her husband’s ashes, I guessed. Or those of a son, killed in Iraq. Or of an unmarried sister, left to die alone in a sparsely furnished flat.
The women had seen me. Or at least the bereaved one had, and though I’d brushed the ashes off my sweatshirt, she must have realized what had happened. They started up the beach toward me. I didn’t want to face them. They deserved privacy, I thought, but more important, their grief scared me. I knew how raw it would be, how humbling. But unless I changed direction and headed away from my motel, I had no choice. The sun was nearly set, and my skin was beginning to prickle with cold. I kept my head down as I walked, but as the women drew near, I couldn’t help glancing up.
The gray-haired woman gave me a tight, dispirited smile, lips pressed together briefly and then parting. There was understanding in her look, I thought, and apology. Maybe even recognition of absurdity, though without humor. My own giddiness was gone.
The bereaved woman held my gaze as I passed. The wind blew her stiff reddish hair around her ears. Her eyes were wide open and stunned. Her heavy cheeks sagged. Her mouth opened and closed, but she didn’t say anything. She gave a quick shake of the head, in disappointment, it seemed, and maybe even in anger. I understood why. She’d come here to mark her loss, and now the final memory of her husband or son or sister would include this skinny stranger in need of a haircut and a thicker sweatshirt, who’d swallowed the remains of someone she’d loved. The dignity owed to the dead had been tainted by the ridiculousness of life.
And then they were behind me. I trudged forward into the wind. Any sadness I might have felt for the woman, any empathy, was momentarily overshadowed by the sudden relief I felt at getting away from her, and the greater relief at being alive. The sting of my cheeks, the cold prickling of my skin, the pang of loneliness, all of it was so welcome next to the scattering of ashes and bone.
Soon, however, I began to wonder about my own inevitable scattering. Would I want my loved ones somber and grief-stricken? Would I want them inventing a dignity for me in death that had been so elusive when I was alive, that didn’t reflect canceled weddings and groveling and heartache? Or would I rather they dump my ashes into strangers’ hair, slip it into food at fancy restaurants, smoke it in crack pipes, keep my spirit alive with the sad comedy that had characterized the majority of my waking hours?
But even then I knew it wasn’t really for me to decide. The ritual honors the living only. The speech Walter makes on the rocky bluff has nothing to do with Donny or even with his dead buddies in Vietnam. It has everything to do with his own inexorable life and the blustery way he’ll continue to charge through the world. It’s a speech of defiance, a denial of humbling mortality.
After The Dude vents his frustration and grief following the shower of his friend’s ashes, Walter hugs him, shakes his head, and says, “Hey, fuck it, man. Let’s go bowling.”
Who would carry on so stoically after I was in the ground or on the breeze?
The sun was gone. The wind suddenly died away. I hurried back over the dunes to my empty motel room and my half-finished bottle of wine.
To buy The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress, go here.
Scott Nadelson is the author of three story collections published by Hawthorne, including Aftermath and The Cantor’s Daughter. A winner of the Oregon Book Award for short fiction, the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize, and the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award, he teaches creative writing at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University. He lives in Salem, Oregon.