“Just follow the balloons,” Warren, the son and heir to the Judkins pennies, told me. My wife’s brother married into this stump-humper family, whose patriarch of fools finally fell victim to better living through chemistry. “Oh, but Daddy knew how to party, bro.” Warren told me. “He ain’t really dead. He’s just lying back, waiting for the drugs to kick in.” And he laughed and called me “bro” a few more times, though he’s the whitest man in New Hampshire.
I knew they’d all be laughing when I saw the red balloon with a smiley face marking the turn off Route 3. I’d half expected it to say PARTEE, but no, they’d kept the proprieties and written JUDKINS FUNERAL in black Sharpie.
Blue, green, yellow, the balloons guided my wife and me through the twisty roads from asphalt to gravel to dirt. I’d never been to the Judkins estate, but I told Louise they’d probably hired a bright striped, hot air balloon to hover over the shack.
“It’s not a shack,” she said.
I tried to think of smart answer but she was right. We arrived at a long, split entry with a lawn full of swings, slides, and trampolines, and a drive loaded with oversized pickups fit for hauling the ocean going liners and condos on wheels all Judkins aspired to.
Starting in the entryway, a line of purple balloons led downstairs where the family room had been turned into a roadhouse. Warren Judkins, in open flowered shirt, pressed white pants, and black safety shoes, grabbed my hand like he was snatching a t-bone off the grill.
“Hey,” he said, “did you come to have a good time or did you bring your wife?” He grinned, pushed me aside. “Oh, hi, Louise.” He hugged her just long enough to piss me off.
“Don’t stand there lonesome,” his mother, the Widow Darlene, told me. “Grab a drink. I paid for top shelf liquor. Like my new ‘do?” Although she was sixty, she’d had her hair frizzed and frosted. She hung a pointed finger above her head and twirled. “I feel as fresh as the night Daddy picked me up on the Bennett’s Barn dance floor.”
Harold Judkins, the guest of honor, sat partially propped, a bottle of 151 on one side of his folded hands, a panatella on the other. His pompadour flared white across the casket pillow.
“Between Daddy’s d.a. and your dome, we could turn the lights off,” Warren told me. “Do you wax it or does your wife polish it with her—Hey, Cuz!”
His shout and quick stride across the room, as if he might tread mark the tile, saved him from a dressing down. When Louise stuck a drink in my hand, I said I’d suffered enough of the boorish Judkins. “Harold’s the lucky one,” I said. “He can’t hear these buffoons.”
A gaudy collection of Judkins, their followers and hangers-on, filled the basement, each shouting above the other, joking, cackling, preserving only enough dignity to keep their clothes on and their snot and saliva in their head. Louise said something, which naturally I didn’t hear.
“Too damned noisy,” I said.
The Widow Darlene tapped my shoulder and whispered in my ear. “Wait till the D.J. arrives.” A swirl of alcohol and tawdry perfume watered my eyes. I sneezed and coughed.
“Need a drink, bro?” Warren slapped my back.
“We’ve paid our respects,” I told Louise. “Which is more than these louts know how to do. Tick, tock.”
Bang! Bang! Bang! All around the room Judkins armed with needles popped balloons.
I pulled Louise outside to our car. She yanked her hand away.
“You,” she said, “are an ass.”
Even the sun seemed garish.