Standing outside the church in Orange, Virginia, where the funeral for his first wife was just held, my godfather advised me that, “Life. You can never be sure about life. But death. You can be sure about death.” Even though I was only about twelve years old at the time—and even though he spoke them in the most solemn tones imaginable, pausing at all the right places for maximum dramatic effect—I knew that these words of his were far from the most profound I’d ever hear in my life. In fact, I knew that what he’d just said was as useless as a pile of horseshit to a city boy.
Which was what I was, a city boy. A city boy, who for the first time had gone out to where his friends would go whenever they said they were going “to the country” for the weekend. That “the country” had an actual name—Orange, Virginia—I didn’t know until that day. But what I did already know, or at any rate what I felt, was that my godfather, even though he was some sort of respected figure in our corner of the Philippine community in DC, was as far as I could tell something of a flake, at best. And at worst, maybe even a phony.
What did I know? I was twelve years old. But what I saw didn’t impress me. He was maybe sixty years old, a Filipino man in possession of a certain measure of elegance, a man whose attention to each detail of his movements seemed to clash with the rough demeanor of his white, American wife. She was loud, he was soft-spoken. She was fat, he was thin. She was from the country, he was from another country. All that was beside the point, because what I noticed above all and what bothered me was his apparent lack of affection for her.
She was a drunk. I’d hear stories from my parents about how she’d be gone at night for hours, then would come back beaten and bruised from wherever it was she went. It was after one of these episodes when she came home and passed out, and by the time my godfather finally checked on her she was cold and still. Hers was the first funeral I ever attended. Hers was the first dead body I ever saw. And going out to Orange, Virginia for the funeral with my Dad was the first time I ever went out into the country—or at least it the first time I remember going out like that, far from the big city, to the sort of place where, forty years later, I’m now living.
And the thing was, I kind of liked her. Her name was Tammie. She was a coarse, unrefined, double-wide sort of woman with a big raspy laugh who never failed to look you in the eyes, while my godfather always seemed to be looking somewhere else and wishing he were somewhere else and with someone else. I certainly liked Tammie more than I liked my godfather, who was never the sort of person I’d turn to for advice, guidance, and all those other tools for living a godfather was supposed to be able to provide. And even though Tammie was no beauty at that point, I could tell by her eyes, by her cheeks, and by those stray moments when she’d hold her chin up high as if everyone looked like shit next to her, that she was once stunning.
And I could tell because the daughter Tammie and my godfather had, the daughter who was the mother of the earliest friends I remember, had the most beautiful eyes. Small, shy, and quiet, she was framed more like her father than her mother, but one thing she got from Tammie were those eyes, eyes that even when they were looking off into the distance made you think she was actually looking at you. That daughter’s marriage also broke up, and I wondered if the fifties, when my friends and I were born, was just some hot and heavy time when everything was loose up until that moment when someone got pregnant, after which it was time to get down to the business of raising the child. A business some of them weren’t prepared for or were reluctant to get into. Of course, then, their choices were more limited, in a lot of ways. Or at any rate, a choice was a lot harder to come by.
Then, one night last summer, as Heather, Maggie, Julien and I were heading down to Main Street where Maggie’s voice and piano teacher would be performing outdoors at the Gazebo, Maggie noticed something on the side of the front porch steps. And what she saw were two big leopard slugs, and the leopard slugs were doing it. Seeing two creatures in the act isn’t all that unusual a thing, but leopard slugs are a different matter altogether. These slugs are all hermaphrodites, and when two slugs get together they lick each other for awhile, after which a long and slimy white penis emerges from each slug, then together they intertwine; after sperm is exchanged, each slug can go off and lay its eggs. That’s when things are going nicely. Sometimes, though, they have difficulty separating. That’s when one or sometimes both slugs will chew off the other’s penis.
As Heather, Maggie, and I were watching this take place of the side of our front steps, Maggie kept saying, “Oh my God!” She was grossed out and didn’t understand what the slugs were doing, but at the same time she couldn’t stop watching them.
When the slugs were done, we finally started moving down the sidewalk. Maggie kept asking, “What were they doing? What were they doing?”
I briefly considered saying, “Life. You can never be sure about life…,” except I’d adapt it to the situation at hand: “But making babies. You can be sure about making babies.” That, I realized almost immediately, would be just as lame as what I’d been told forty years earlier. Because after a life lived together, even if it didn’t turn out the way he’d wanted it to, there had to be something better to say. Something to say to me, his godchild. Something to pass on to the younger generation.
As it was, neither Heather nor I were quite ready to explain to Maggie what the slugs were doing. To say that sometimes, whether it’s people or animals, things get kind of weird and messy and unpleasant. “It’s kind of a grown up thing,” Heather finally explained. Then we continued walking down the street.
As we got closer, we wondered why we still couldn’t hear the music from the Gazebo, then wondered if the show had been cancelled, or brought indoors because of the possibility of thunderstorms. But we kept on walking.
This photograph shows Maggie, in silhouette, standing on the corner at the point where we started to hear the music.