Cyril Kornbluth’s death came as a very bad thing that had suddenly happened to all of us, but it wasn’t really a surprise. Cyril’s doctors had told him, definitely and explicitly, that his heart had been worn out in the Bulge. It was barely able to continue to pump blood around its system.
It wouldn’t go on doing it, either, unless Cyril made some revolutionary changes in his lifestyle. Step One: no more cigarettes, coffee or alcohol — ever — for the rest of his life. Very, very limited amounts of spicy foods, and even more limited amounts of salt. Any deviation from any of this, ever, would have about the same effect as putting a gun to his temple and pulling the trigger. He would very quickly die.
Cyril took what the doctor told him seriously. He even tried to follow the doctor’s orders. When he came out for a brief stay with Carol and me, Carol baked him salt-free bread and cooked him fully dietary meals. Cyril ate them, without showing any signs of pleasure — I could see why, because I had tasted them for myself.
We didn’t do any writing, though. We didn’t even do any talking about writing. When I tried to get something going by showing him a section from my current work that I wasn’t feeling good about, Cyril took the pages from me and scanned them. Then he handed them back to me. “Needs salt,” he said.
And he went home, but, of course, Cyril just couldn’t live that way.
He stuck it out as long as he could, perhaps as long as a couple of months, and then he decided that he’d rather be dead than living like that. So back came the booze and the cigarettes and the salt shaker and all the other things that made Cyril’s life worth living and sure enough, next thing you know, his limbs were jerking and his eyes were rolled up in his head and he was busily dying on the train station platform.
All right. End of story for Cyril. The new major characters were Mary and the boys.
Cyril and I had had our ups and downs, but we had been through too much together for me to even consider walking away from their needs. I got dressed and jumped in the car and drove, as fast I could, through the hundred miles or so of rush-hour traffic between Red Bank and Levittown. Mary was waiting for me at the door, quite distraught — but, blessedly, sober.
First thing, we had to decide what on that list most urgently needed doing. There were a lot of contenders for the top need. She needed money for buying stuff, mostly food, for the kids and herself that day. They needed money, lots of it, to keep on providing for herself and the kids for the rest of their lives.
They needed to know what to do with Cyril’s corpse, which was, if I remember correctly, at that moment in the back of a station wagon borrowed from somebody in the Levittown Fire Department and parked at the curb in front of the house. They needed to know if there were documents to file, as there surely were, to properly record the fact that Cyril was now one with the ages.
That wasn’t the end of the urgent needs, but it was sort of at least the end of the easiest ones. We had some big, big breaks. What I had been dreading as the toughest of problems to deal with turned out to be the easiest. Mary wasn’t the first widow of a GI to fine herself in exactly that situation. She might’ve been about the one millionth. The government itself had set up the Veterans Administration to make sure that everything a veteran needed was available to give and, since negotiating with even a friendly government agency can curdle your blood, a horde of new veterans’ organizations produced a ton of smart, energetic, can-do volunteers to get the widows and orphans all the help they needed.
“What you’re entitled to, Mrs. Kornbluth, is so much for yourself and so much for each of your sons. It takes a little while to get started, though. Do you need money right now? Of course you do. There’s a special emergency lump-sum package we can get for you. I’ll start on that right away.”
They were, in short, wonderful. They almost made me cancel my intention to never join the beer-bellies of any veterans organization. But not quite.
The last disposition we had to deal with that day was Cyril himself. Happened my maternal grandfather, that bald and stone-deaf old man who had lived with us for part of the last years of his life, had been cremated near by. I checked some addresses and made a few calls.
And then Mary and I went to the front door of the crematorium, the station wagon with Cyril’s body tagging along behind. Somebody took the wagon and Cyril to the back entrance, while Mary and I were seated in a small auditorium, maybe fifteen or twenty seats, facing a drawn curtain. Music was playing. It didn’t take long. The drawn curtain rolled back. There was Cyril, looking very grave but otherwise about as he always looked, in a shirt, tie and jacket in one of those cardboard “coffins” they use for cremations.
They gave us a few minutes to look at him. Then Cyril and his casket began to roll away, into a pair of double doors that had rolled open behind him. I think we actually saw flames. I know we definitely felt heat. Then the double doors closed and the curtain came back down, and that was the last I ever saw of Cyril.
At some point Mary got a cardboard carton, not unlike the packaging that your milk comes in from the supermarket, that contained Cyril’s ashes. I don’t know what she did with them.
Part 3 coming up soon