The next day after the death: the funeral home. Two familiar words we think belong together in a natural tandem. It’s the opposite of a home, of course, but if you’re going to have a funeral, you want a word like HOME, not PLACE or certainly FACILITY.

I’ve been to this place before. All Arts & Crafts furniture, woody and solid and comforting. Hushed and dim. Displays with a style you can only call Remembrance Kitsch, I guess. The whole lot of it makes me wince, as I’m of the belief you prop the box on the table in a bar and everyone sings songs and tells tales. He was a hilarious guy, did I ever mention that? Loved to laugh and make others laugh. I saw him in sorrow and he wore it as a man will, and the grief he carried lasted long past the ceremony in a rented hall. I get the whole thing about giving a venue, a place for sadness, but I wonder if the number of people who would be offended if the room was full of big-band swing and Buck Owens would outnumber the people who smiled the moment they entered.

We had a consultation with the nice pastor from the church, and I walked him out to add a few details he might have for the homily, how Dad’s charity seemed aimed at the places that took in orphans and kids from bad situations, because that’s what he’d known, and here I lost it. This would be the pattern, I guess. Hold it all together around your loved ones, and spill your guts to strangers after you’ve said four syllables. But it’s not grief as much as the unexpected surge of furiously intense love and admiration and the maddeningly small things that pierce you - there were two bottles of honey on the shelf at his house, sent by the Indian School he supported. There was a magnet on the fridge that showed a bus with happy kids, actual photos in the windows, and it was called the LILEKS HOPE BUS or something - they sent it to all contributors who probably pledged a certain level.

He felt bad for those kids, all strangers, all far away, and he wanted to help them.

DRY FACE and go back to the room because we have to choose the program. Note to self: pre-arrange preferences for these things. My daughter knows what fonts not to use, at least there’s that. Page through the selections, find the proper boilerplate for the inside left-hand side. All ghastly. Either goopy he’s-with-Jesus (honest to GOD, the footprints in the sand story? Really?) Or stuff that suggests a long struggle and we should not cry now because he’s free. He was a religious man, a believer, but all of this is just rote and banal -

“You mentioned he was a pilot,” the nice kind Director said. “It’s not in there, but we have a poem about flying.”

“Slipped the surly bonds,” I said, “and touched the face of God.”

“Why yes.”

“That’s the one,” I said, and he went to fetch it. Sister and Dave approved. It was not only perfect, it had a connection - that was played when the TV station went off the air when I was growing up.

Then the casket and vault selection. Cars have fewer options. You enter the room where the models are displayed, and I’m pretty sure everyone who has ever come here is screaming internally. Suddenly imagining their loved one, shrunken and desiccated and remade with the mortician’s art into a waxy parody - no, no, no, that’s not him. He left. He left his body behind. This is an elaborate ceremony worshipping a suitcase someone never picked up at the bus station -

But then, no, calm, focus. He wanted to be buried at the cemetery next to Mom; had the plot for a long time. Of course, this is what you do. Get a grip and make your selection.

The handles come in different finishes. One day you’re talking to your dad about how he flew a plane on his birthday, and seven revolutions of the planet later you’re weighing matte or polished for the coffin handles.

One day you're talking to your dad

I always picked up when he called, but now and then you miss one, and he’d leave a message

There was probably his voice in a file on my phone

When will I have the courage to play that back?

That would utterly unstring my bow - the ordinary normality of it, the commonplace certainty that he’d be there when I called.

The phone in my pocket felt like it weighed a hundred pounds.

There was a veteran’s casket, customizable by branch of course, and you could add a Navy tint to the vault as well. We went with that. Flag draped. Open coffin. Pending what we hear back from the autopsy.

Because we still don’t know exactly what happened.

Back to the house. I listened to old radio shows and cleaned out the bedroom drawers and closet. Everything was clean and neatly folded. Found some old items in a drawer that bore setting aside - Mom’s childhood Bible, which had a 2005 picture of Daughter tucked in amongst Colossians. Some pennants!


A Texaco money clip, which I set aside for Dave, along with a special anniversary Texaco tie clip. He ran the station. These things ought to go to him. Except Holy Crow, a custom Lileks Oil lighter. That I pocketed. Some coins from around the world, and I do not understand why my Dad saved pennies. Of course, part of the reason for his success was that he understood the value of money, period, and if he taped some pennies from 1959 to a piece of paper and labeled them as such, perhaps he thought they’d be worth something some day. Depression-era mentality, perhaps.


True to his generation, the papers in the Important Metal Drawer I found around midnight indicated he was not a man who put all of his eggs in one basket.

Oh, the suits. Don’t think he ever gave one away. I checked the label and store of origin, and I could see Chuck, the salesman at Northport Clothiers, how I would play with the shoe-shine machine whenever I went there.

Who had red shoes? This was for visiting clowns perhaps?

What time was it?

What day was it?

Have I eaten?

I had, hours before. Well, let’s go get something fast. The only thing that could make an impression was Taco Bell - wanted spice, pepper, that would do. I drove to the one I knew, by the mall. The doors were locked. There were cars at the drive-through five deep. But no one inside. I’ll tell you what happened, I think: they couldn’t find anyone to work the inside, because labor is so tight.

Got in the car. My nice new fantastic technologically savvy car. Siri, find me a Taco Bell.

She found the one where I was. I asked her to find me another and tell me how the hell to get there and off we went.

As I’m driving I realize something: Fargo has changed for me. Forever. It’s a relief, and I hate it.

For all my life coming home was fraught, because for the first few years the returns were fraught. So much guilt for going. So much guilt for feeling a sense of intellectual estrangement from my parents, because of all the stupid stuff of youth, and the invisible but omnipresent sense of your previous history - you know, all the stuff you don’t remember and the stuff they still hold dear from childhood. It forms a strange opaque barrier through which your conversations pass. I wasn’t the cherubic lad whose 4th grade picture hung over my bed like a fargin’ Orthodox icon.

And it would all have been so much more relaxed and better and happier if I could have just excused myself once for a cigarette. So much worry roiling behind the dam - and that was my Mother, God bless and keep her. The emotions I had from that were duly transferred, as if by a legal proceeding, to my Father, even though he had stopped worrying about me the minute I was gainfully employed in my occupation and married. He checked that one off, and was no doubt impressed I had found someone so smart and personable and gorgeous: obviously I was not going to end up a former consignee.

(A consignee was a term for a type of relationship with a distributor; he had been one early in his business, and sometimes when we were driving around and there was a bum staggering out of the Bismark Tavern he would say, with flat dry intonation, “former consignee.”)

Nevertheless, entering the city limits always hung a weight around my neck, the sense of an unpaid obligation. And this persisted even though trips home were a joy. His marriage to Doris gave him new life and purpose. After she died, we got even closer, and had long conversations into the night about everything.

Now and again, I have to say, we tied one on.

Dad was never a drinker, but I think after he hit 89 and found himself alone again he might have said: oh. Well, there’s this. He’d have a rum and coke. Last time I was back and we all went out for dinner, he invited us back to the house for some Captain Mogen David, which made me scratch my head: uh what? Rum and coke. Captain Mogen David.

Dad, Mogen David was that awful sweet Jewish sacramental wine. You mean Captain Morgan? Crinkly grin: I suppose so if you say so. It has a pirate.

And so we’d stay up late and listen to the country station and talk about everything, and get a bit lit.

When I woke the next morning the coffee would be made, there’d be sweet rolls out, and a note that he’d gone to the Mall for the walk and meeting with his friends, and I was welcome to join.

So there wasn’t any guilt in arriving.

Just the guilt upon leaving.

Now? There’s no one back at the house to anticipate my arrival, or ask why I had to run out. Even if I wanted to run to the grocery store or duck to the coffee shop to use the wireless, the question hung in the air: why do you have to go?

Because I do.

And now I am in the exact same place, which is why I make sure my daughter knows: wish you could hang around! I’m sentimental that way. But go! GO! Leap, fly, GO!


I parked and went in. Ordered two tacos and a chili cheese burrito. There was a guy talking loudly on his cell, and two other people waiting for orders. Dinner rush.

Fifteen minutes later, I was wondering what was taking so long.

Twenty minutes later, no tacos, I got out my receipt and looked for the code and URL, and went to and gave them WHAT FOR. Although I stalled on the question about being satisfied or dissatisfied with my food - couldn’t tell! DON’T HAVE ANY!

One of the patrons who’d been ahead of me walked up to the counter, and I figured I knew why and should offer support, and press my case individually. It had been 25 minutes.

The clerk who took my order appeared, and looked at us with a strange sense of disconnected incomprehension.

“Twenty-five minutes for two tacos?” I said. “Really?” I gestured to the woman who’d also approached. “You’ve been waiting longer. Are you waiting for tacos?”

“Tostados,” she said.

The clerk stared at us. Then said: “What did you order?” By now a group of five had entered, and was waiting to order.

“Two tacos,” I said, “and it’s been 25 minutes.”

“Excuse me,” said the Dad of the group that had just entered. “What did you say?”

“Twenty-five minutes for two tacos,” I said.

“We’re outta here,” he said to his family. “Let’s go to Taco John’s.”

I would have done the same except it took me years to realize I don’t like Taco John’s.

The counter guy wandered back into the kitchen without saying a word. Amazing. I gave the tostado-woman a shrug that said “can you believe this.”

And then she said: “Is your name Jim?”

Uh -

“Jim Lileks?”

Uh - yes. Why yes. She was from the Cities. Read the column.

“And you’ve just seen me berate minimum wage employees, so this isn’t my best self here on display.”

Then she said we were in the same class at high school.

I couldn’t place her, to be honest, and compensated by saying I was sure she was ten years back. No way she was Class of ’76. Oh you flatterer you. What brought her here?

She was cleaning the house of her mother, who had just died.

Well. Huh. Same. Dad.


Another Taco Bell employee appeared and put down a sack of tostados and a sack of tacos. We picked up our sacks and wished each other well.

I completed my survey - NO MY TACO WAS NOT VISUALLY FULL - and drove home, thinking I should stop at Happy Harry’s because Dad’s probably out of Captain Mogen David.

But I was in no hurry. Fargo had changed. It looked different, it felt different, it had no restraints, no rules, no obligations. The adolescent’s dream: no one to ask where I’d been or what I’d done. Freedom.

And it's a whirlwind of ashes.



TOMORROW: The Funeral. Updates because they were done and because life goes on.



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