Voices: The Unusual Case of Eliza James–Part VII
Author’s Note: For the first six installments of Eliza’s story, scroll past the previous blog entry, a poem entitled Winter.
Eli Paxton moved more like a Praying Mantis than a man. Watching him contort his almost six-foot-five frame into the back booth of the diner was a study in resolve. He slid across the worn gray vinyl, finally drawing his feet under the table. Only then did Jason and Eliza take their seats opposite him.
A weary-eyed waitress, her hair pulled back into a tight angry bun, appeared beside the table. BATTRICE was inscribed on her name tag, no doubt the result of either an inept or hasty manager who’d seen no reason to correct the error.
“I’m Bea. What can I get you?”
They all agreed on coffee. Nothing more, prompting a contemptuous glare from BATTRICE.
“Don’t rent tables here,” she blurted. “If you’re not gonna eat, don’t overstay your welcome.”
Eli Paxton unfolded a wrinkled twenty from his shirt pocket and slid it across a table that was still damp with ammonia and water. “Okay if I pay in advance? You can keep the change.” BATTRICE offered a grunt of approval and picked up the twenty.
After exchanging some pleasantries, and Eli’s admonition to “Call me Pax. All my friends do,” they settled into an unusual exchange.
“Your father was something of an enigma to me. He had no better education than most of us. But he was familiar with all sorts of things. Said he read a lot. History. Science. Even philosophy,” said Pax. “Did you know that?”
Liza shook her head. Jason admitted he remembered his Dad reading every evening and that there were books all over their home. Books his mother had thrown out after his father died.
“Once, over lunch, I asked him what his favorite book was about. Just idle chat, you know. I figured it would be book about history or science. But he surprised me.”
Jason and Liza gazed at Pax, hearing an almost reverence in his tone.
“What was the book?” asked Liza.
Pax took a sip of his coffee and grimaced. “Bleh. Worst coffee I’ve ever had.” He paused. Took a sip of water, swished it, then swallowed. “It’s called The Bardo Thodol,” he finished.
“What?” asked Jason. “Never heard of it.”
“Me neither,” said Liza.
“Not likely you would have heard it by that name. Maybe not even by the English translation of the title: The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
Pax went on to explain that their father had read lots of religious texts. “He read Catholic scholars. Stuff about Egyptian beliefs on the afterlife. And some ancient Jewish works too. He was always looking into things about the afterlife.”
“I don’t remember anything like that.”
“Don’t suppose he would have talked much to you about it, Jason. He didn’t talk to me that much either. But your father was kind of hung up on the idea that matter couldn’t be destroyed. And that whatever was inside of us, he figured, couldn’t be destroyed by death either.”
After several refills of their coffee and increasingly antagonistic stares from BATTRICE, the three of them realized they had worn out their welcome in the diner. Jason and Liza had peppered Pax with questions, most of which he wasn’t able to answer. In the end, Pax offered them a summation.
“You’re Dad figured if there was an afterlife, then you should be able to communicate with those you’ve left behind. He wasn’t a nut about it. More matter of fact.”
“Mr. Paxton—Pax, I mean—can I ask you one more question before you go?”
“Sure thing, Liza.”
“Why did you come to our mother’s funeral?
Pax cocked his head, lowered it a bit and gave his neck a quick scratch, thinking. The reluctance he felt hung over the table like a foreboding cloud.
“Mmmh,” he grunted. “Eh. It sounds crazy. Even to me.”
Jason could see BATTRICE headed their way. This time she wasn’t carrying a carafe of coffee. He urged Pax to finish. “Please, Pax. Why did you come to the funeral after all these years?”
“Gah. Might as well say it. When your father died, I was a pallbearer. When we were carrying him to the graveside, I’d swear I heard him whispering to me—from the casket. Scared the shit–pardon my French–out of me. Swore I’d never tell anyone. Never have until today. Never went to your father’s grave again. Never came by to see your mother. I think I wanted to see if I heard anything like that come from your mother’s casket.”