It was 1992 or 1993, and I was living in Chicago because my dad had passed away, leaving my mom and brother to run a family electrical contracting firm. Danny had passed the contractor’s exam (a feat for one so young), but he still had to complete his electrical union apprenticeship, and I thought I could help run the company until he completed his studies and could devote his full attention to managing the business. I also intended to live with my mom for awhile and help cover some of her living expenses until we could figure out how my dad’s pensions would work.
I left D.C. after eighteen years of living there. My sister Kathy stayed behind. I left many dear friends and a good job. It was a crazy time in my life, a time when things all the time seemed upside down and inside out and I longed for peace. It was a time like what I’m going through now.
One of the people I left behind was a new friend named Sherry. She was as outrageous a person as I have ever met. The first time we met she was my “floater secretary” during my regular secretary’s absence. She was irreverent, disrespectful, hilariously funny, and completely inappropriate. There are times when I think of outrageous things to do or say, but I bite my lip. Sherry had no such filter to keep her from getting into trouble. The first time she made a bad mistake in the workplace, she strode into my office, shut the door, placed her hand on the wall, bent forward and flipped up her skirt. She announced that she was prepared to be spanked for her behavior. In direct contradiction of this behavior, her underwear read “F*CK U.”
I think my mouth fell open. “I am not interested in spanking you,” I said. “Firing you, yes, but spanking an adult is not something I do.” Oh. I can be so prissy that my mom once said she wished I had done something really bad as a kid so I would know you can get past it. I have. Mom just doesn’t know about those mistakes.
Sherry flipped her skirt back down and sat in one of the empty chairs in my office. “Well, I’m not interested in getting fired,” she announced. She raised one eyebrow.
We stared at each other. It was not the first time I had heard of workplace spankings. I managed luxury hotels before I went to law school and saw many surprising things in that line of business. On one occasion, the hotel’s owner summoned me and a coworker to his office and announced that he knew that I and this coworker had circulated an informal newsletter at one of the hotels. He did not care for the gossip included in it. My coworker immediately stepped forward and claimed sole responsibility. The owner shook his head and said, “I recognize Cheryl’s verbiage.”
My coworker offered to let the owner spank her. At that point he laughed hysterically and threw us both out of his office with a stern warning to refrain from further outrageous behavior.
On a later occasion, while I was an attorney, a word processing employee and “floater secretary” mishandled an assignment for me. She worked in a word processing pool and was not someone I knew well. Her supervisor instructed her to go to my office and apologize. She came into my office, shut the door, apologized, and then asked me if I would like to spank her. Deja vu.
I do not think I am the sort of person who ever liked receiving spankings. I strove very hard not to receive them and have no interest in delivering them.
I told the woman’s supervisor what happened. And the word processing employee was not terminated. I have always wondered whether someone else in the law firm was called upon to administer the discipline I could not. You meet unusual people in my profession.
Sherry was assigned to work for someone else after she worked for me. He was a powerful partner in the firm. While she worked for him, he traveled to Alaska on business. In those days, there were no laptops available to take on business trips. We did not have cell phones. There was no such thing as an unlimited calling plan. Sherry accidentally disconnected the partner while he was on hold. When he called back, he was FURIOUS. And he told her at length what an imbecile she was. Then he asked her, “Have you any idea how expensive it is to make a call from Alaska?”
Her answer? “Hold please, while I call the phone company to find out.” Then she put him on hold.
Even after she lost her job, I kept track of Sherry. We met occasionally for lunch. She told me about her failed marriage to some former hockey player. He was doing time for a crime I cannot recall. I met her son and her even more unspeakably hilarious mom. She brought some boss who seemed not altogether indisposed to spanking to my home to watch a movie and share a pizza. During the movie, Sherry excused herself to visit my bathroom.
Imagine my surprise when I visited my bathroom and found a sink full of shaving cream and hair. While she was in my bathroom, she decided the boss was going to get lucky that night, helped herself to my supplies and shaved her legs in my bathroom sink while the rest of us watched the movie. My mouth still hangs open when I think about it.
I ended up leaving DC to return home to Chicago. We stayed in touch. I think I need a few friends who express personality traits so long suppressed by polite company that I might forget anyone possessed them but for these friends’ company. I need shocking once in awhile.
I have already written in my blog I See Dead People, about Sherry’s death. https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/i-see-dead-people/. She died in her thirties of a brain aneurysm.
I actually got the news from the woman from the word processing department who also asked me if I wanted to spank her. She was assigned to me as a “floater secretary” for the day and took the call while I was at lunch. She decided not to have the caller leave me a voicemail message. She delivered the news in person as a kindness to me even though I had tattled about the spanking incident.
Sherry’s family wanted me to know that she might have wanted me to be her son’s legal guardian. She had told family members that she had written a will to that effect, but, her cousin thought it might not have been anything as formal as a will. The cousin thought Sherry might have written her wishes on a cocktail napkin and put the napkin in her car’s glove compartment for safekeeping. The cousin said that I was welcome to attend the funeral, but should be ready for a backwoods brawl if I tried to take the child back to Chicago.
I am not a properly maternal person. I teach, so I do enjoy the company of young people. But the people I teach are in college and post-college settings. Children are not my thing. I never stick out my arms to hold people’s babies. I do not pat the seat next to me and say, “Come sit here and I’ll tell you a story.” (In fact, I think other people’s insistence on such access is a problem. It seems inconsistent to put children on their guard against Stranger Danger and then insist they submit to “familiar strangers'” hugs and kisses.) I like adults.
I called an attorney from Tennessee to find out what the ordinary estate rules were for that state. When I spoke to Sherry’s mom, I told her that I had never spoken to Sherry about estate planning, had never agreed to be a guardian for her son, and planned to attend the funeral but had no intention of taking her grandson.
Sherry’s mom was not unfriendly. She welcomed me to come for the funeral but warned me not to listen if the cousin who first contacted me hit me up for money before, during, or after the funeral. “She will tell you that Sherry didn’t have enough money to pay for her own funeral. That’s true enough. But we will find a place that will bury her. Everyone knows you gave Sherry the money to move down here so they figure you have money they could find a use for.”
My mom warned me sternly not to go to the funeral. “You’ll just be asking for trouble.”
I flew down to Tennessee later that week for the funeral. I took a cab to Sherry’s sister’s home. Sherry had two sisters. Both were more unusual than Sherry. They were angry and violent. Sherry told me that she had a fight with one sister and, when Sherry turned her back, her sister lobbed a toaster at the back of Sherry’s head. It caused a concussion. Sherry’s sister had married a violent man and he had overwhelmed her violence with his own.
The other sister was very sick, but a secretary to some powerful DC lawyer. As a result of that relationship, she walked around in the mantle of his power, blistering with vile words anyone who upset her. She never raised a hand against Sherry, but that sister could wound with words and did.
Sherry’s mom was unabashedly funny in the way that the TV show Hee Haw was funny. The words might be simple, but the mind was sharp as a tack. When Sherry was married to the hockey player, mother and daughter visited his family in Canada on Canada Day. The in-laws were a bit pretentious and belabored the fact that Canadian fireworks were going to outshine anything you could see in Tennessee.
On watching the much lauded fireworks display from the in-laws’ lakefront condo, Sherry’s mom was asked to compliment the display. She responded, “I can fart higher–and in more colors!”
The house was a lovely home, but you could tell there were going to be problems as soon as I arrived. The cousin hit me up for a thousand dollars to help pay for the funeral. She told me that the mortician was working on Sherry as a favor and the cemetery was a sort of “potter’s field.” I was given the impression that a thousand dollars was needed or we’d be burying Sherry in a potato sack.
My hostess came down from her bedroom in what can only be described as a cocktail dress. It was black, but cut up and down so I knew at once the color of her underpants and that she wore a garter belt and stockings rather than pantyhose. No bra.
There were whispers about the other sister. She had arrived late for the wake, insisted on delivering a long speech about her own health issues and how she should have been the one being buried, and then had passed out, putting an end to the evening’s festivities as everyone had to rush home to tell their family, friends, and neighbors about the “hillbilly” (not my word choice) event. The family had taken the sister to the emergency room to get her checked out and had not gotten “home” until midnight. Everyone was tired.
I was several times told that the family would fight me to the death for Sherry’s son. I was told that the attorney who once got lucky after sharing pizza and a movie at my DC apartment had assured the family that, if Sherry had prepared a will naming me as legal guardian to her son, then “that will would never pass across the desk at a probate court’s offices.” I was asked if I knew the whereabouts of the cocktail napkin.
When it was time to go to the church, Sherry’s mom said she would drive me and the cousin to the church in Sherry’s car. I thought someone else should drive, but the car had a stick shift, and I can only drive an automatic. I got into the backseat because, if I had gotten into the front seat, the temptation to open the car’s glove compartment would have been strong. Sherry’s mom asked her son-in-law for a few pointers. He leaned into the car through the driver’s window. Sherry’s mom got a little excited.
She threw the car into reverse, hit the gas, and all four of us hurtled down a wooded hill until we crashed into a large enough tree. The son-in-law was lucky we didn’t kill him. All of us had mild to moderate whiplash that we decided to ignore.
We continued on to the church. As we drove, we realized that the trunk of Sherry’s car had been damaged. The trunk was stuffed with Sherry’s belongings that had been removed from her apartment so the family could avoid incurring more expense. While we drove, articles of Sherry’s clothing fluttered out of the flapping trunk and blew off into the humid breeze the car stirred up. Other members of the family later reported that a blue bra had slapped against a windshield and someone else had caught a pair of underpants as a keepsake.
At the church, the casket was open and set at the front of the church. Sherry’s sisters had an unhealthy fascination for their sister’s corpse. The sick sister redid Sherry’s makeup and ended up putting the cosmetics back in her purse. The other removed an immense, black hat from Sherry’s head and slapped it on her own head. She declared that she was going to wear it because (1) the brim would be crushed when the casket was closed; and (2) I think, most importantly from her point of view, she looked better in it and it matched her black dress!
Someone had set the church’s organ to play what I would describe as spirituals. When the first notes of The Old Rugged Cross pealed out, it was a rousing rendition a little more appropriate at a revival than a funeral and so loud that many in attendance exclaimed and batted their homemade fans until one of Sherry’s sisters ran up to adjust the volume. She announced that we could all rest assured that Sherry knew we were seeing her off in style. “That music was loud enough to be heard in the far corners of heaven and hell.”
I sat in the row behind the family. I was introduced as the lawyer “who had come to steal Sherry’s baby.” Sherry’s “baby” was about eight or nine years old. He stood up and removed his belt, folded it in half, pushed his fists together and then pulled them apart so the leather of the belt made a loud smacking sound. He called out loudly, “That’s right, now I’ve got the belt.”
He looked up at his supposedly abusive uncle for approval, and I wished that there was a will naming me as his legal guardian. But the boy had a father who would one day get out of prison and come looking for him and Sherry’s family was where she had brought her son when she seemed to have a premonition that her death might be near, and I had no legal standing to protest these people’s claim to the boy because no one had found even a cocktail napkin with my name on it, and I am a lawyer and do not lay claim to others’ children without even a phone conversation to indicate that a person means to have her beloved boy placed in my care. As you might now suspect, this will be a moment I never forget, a road not taken, a cause for regret. I am ashamed to say that I did not even stay in touch to monitor the situation.
People got up to say a few kind words, but they mostly spoke about themselves. One of Sherry’s sisters told us how she was going to keep Sherry’s hat forever because it looked better on her and she felt certain Sherry would agree. The other told us more about her illness and her fears that she would die before her own young child was old enough to remember her. She let it be known that her boss’ law firm would fight me tooth and nail if I tried to take Sherry’s boy back to Chicago with me. The boy cried then and I wondered what Sherry had said or done to make everyone look at me so suspiciously. I hardly knew this boy. I probably had known her for a year or two. It had not been enough time for me to develop any relationship with this boy, given my lack of interest in other people’s children.
The sick sister ended the eulogies by losing her footing. Her husband ran forward to catch her before she could fall and strike her head a second time in as many days. I cannot recall whether I spoke (I always speak) or what I said (if I did speak, I cannot imagine what I could have said to save this sad and crazy memorial). I don’t want to go back and read my journal entry. I remember enough from that strange day.
The pastor delivered his own sermon. I have already written about how Sherry’s recent declaration of her faith in Jesus Christ meant she was already in heaven “with Elvis . . . and Jesus, too.”
It was a long drive to the cemetery. A friend of the family contributed the plot. It was a field of green grass, some of it long enough that you knew no one got around to mowing every week. There were very few headstones and the ones that were there were small and flat. It was the kind of sunny day in summer when the air is so thick with humidity that you wade through it. The cicadas and crickets and every other manner of insect whined in a cadence that rose and fell but never quieted enough to let you form a clear thought. There were flies that pestered. My heels sank in the dirt. The grass was coarse and raspy against my nylon-covered ankles.
We gathered by the grave under a yellow and white canopy, all of us fitting in its shade if not beneath its covering. The hole was dug and you could smell the soil that someone had covered with a length of artificially bright, fake turf. The minister was taking his time as he picked his way from the parking lot. The casket rested on a sling of leather belts. There were children present and they had started to run about the cemetery playing tag.
Sherry’s sister, the one who hit Sherry with the toaster, threw herself down at the very edge of the grave and commenced to cryin’. I am talking about grief that seemed out of proportion to her demeanor. She stretched out onto the fake turf like she meant to climb into that grave, too. But she reached back at one point to straighten her skirt so we saw a little more of her legs and behind than was polite but a little less than would have been downright salacious. The hat never slipped from its perch atop a topknot of careless curls. The woman’s husband bent down, picked her up in his arms and carried her back to their car so prettily. For all the crying, I cannot recall a spilled tear.
The rest of us were frozen by the tableau.
I had arranged for a limousine to pick me up at the cemetery. It was finer than the hearse. It was an odd contrast to the collection of attendees’ cars. When the pastor finished his prayers, I said goodbye to Sherry’s mom and just walked away from the whole mess. I am not usually a coward, but I felt I had been dropped into a hot mess of family stew that was so poisoned that I had to get away from it.
When I got home I still had plenty of troubles and sorrows of my own to address. But I felt like I had briefly wandered onto some movie set. All of the classic signs were there. It was a place in which the observer squirms and thinks, “Oh, don’t go there. Don’t get in the car. Don’t open the door. Please don’t look in that closet. Whatever you do, do not go into the basement. Don’t trust them. For crying out loud, can’t you see the danger here?”
In movies, the person does what no one else would do. She succumbs to a bad case of stupid and for her troubles she is roundly punished. And the rest of us take our lickings with her. We are scared within an inch of our own deaths by the prospect of what will happen to one who has been lured into a danger from which there can be no escape.
I did not tread further. I let the limousine whisk me back to the airport. I caught the last plane to Chicago for the day. I picked up the burdens of my own life–bookkeeping for a failing family business, grief from the loss of a father and then a friend, a crazily demanding job in a place with its fair share of strange people–and I tried not to look back.
In the times during the last two years when things have been upside down and inside out people have told me that, if we could trade our problems for someone else’s, we would still take up our own burdens and carry on.
I think they are right. It’s tempting sometimes to try on someone else’s cares and woes and imagine we could handle them, even handle them better. But our own cares are familiar and we often have years of preparation for handling them.
But, every once in awhile, I think about a place in Tennessee where I watched men lower a casket into a grave in the midst of a tragic stew of family drama and I wonder, if I turned back and opened the door, whether I would find all my worst fears realized or flowers growing despite the tears that would surely fall because I still miss Sherry.