At some point we just admitted we didn’t know how to mourn. We, the de-ethnicized Americans. Jewish people know how to mourn. Mexican people know how to mourn. Indigenous people know how to mourn, within their individual tribal customs. But some of us have been here so long we forgot where we were from. A cultural framework shows you what to do, makes some decisions for you so you’re less at sea to process this thing that is impossible to process. They are gone. So. Wear black. Wear white. Sit shiva for seven days, forget about comfort, cover the mirrors, forget about appearance, that doesn’t matter now. Then stand up and go back to your life. Walk in jazz funeral processions, and the music will move from dirges to dance tunes. Chop up the body and feed it to the vultures. Bury the dead in a coffin shaped like something they loved in life, a rose or racecar or guitar. A year after their death, disinter the body and dance with it, dress it in new clothes, throw a parade, tell them all the news. Dismember, roast, and eat the dead. Kill a member of another tribe to satisfy your rage. Throw a shovelful of dirt on the coffin, each mourner. Take pictures of the embalmed body. Keep locks of hair. Leave the body with useful tools, your best jewelry, flowers, prepare them for the other side. Some communities still know what to do. But some of us lost loss, forgot.
The Irish Americans started inviting us to their merry wakes, their funerals. It helped. To celebrate their life joyfully, be intimate with the body, it worked for us to collectively remember why it was worth it to love them. Don’t cry, it will keep the soul here. Then to watch a public performance of mourning—that helped, too. We could watch a woman keen, and it made us feel more pity and sorrow than if we were to cry, and it purged us.
Maeve MacNamara—the most famous keener in the world—knew, though we didn’t, that the term catharsis was originally a medical term for the expelling of menstrual and reproductive fluids. What the body doesn’t need anymore, to restore balance. We all knew the term as the reason we turn to art, the reason seeing someone else play out a tragedy helps us with our own. When the keener straightens her shoulders, lets us see her tears, then walks away, we follow her out of that space.
So, we agreed upon consensual reverse colonization—Ireland didn’t impose their cultural customs on us, but they let us adopt them.
But of course it doesn’t totally work.
Maeve gained her fame because she was beautiful, but not so much to be unattainable. We all could be her if we tried a little harder. We could never be Beyoncé, we knew that. No matter what we bought or who we hired to do our hair we could never be Janelle or Adele or Angelina or Andreja or Rihanna or Gaga or Jazz or Kim or Gwyneth (though we don’t really want to be Kim or Gwyneth anymore). But Maeve wasn’t so styled, her skin didn’t look so plastic. Maybe if we knew what mascara she used we could look so awake. Her arms were a touch plump, barely, so we could maybe accomplish her musculature with a bit of light lifting. And we understood her talent was cultivated, she worked at it, so she felt like us, what we could be if we’d chosen to perfect a skill other than secretarial arts or how to draw blood from a five-year-old without tears.
None of us could afford to hire her to mourn our dead. But we didn’t resent her for that, either. Because we’d all seen her work, were all so moved when she channeled our grief over Prince, Bowie, Left Eye, Whitney … she set the bar so high that the keeners we hired were excellent, had to be to stay in business—Siobhán from down the block was wonderful when Mr. Wilson died, and Sinéad was just as good when our grandmother passed. If we could hire Maeve MacNamara we would, just like when in junior high when we had extra babysitting money we bought Guess jeans because the triangle on our butts did make us feel cuter, even though our moms were right that jeans from Sears could fit just as well. Maeve was out of our league, but not so much so that she made us feel bad about our keeners or our mom jeans or watching the royal wedding on television and not being invited. She made us happy in her sapphire fascinator. And when she keened for Brexit, we all felt a little better about that severing. And then when she keened for the end of the United Kingdom—Ireland reunited, Wales and Scotland independent, the Queen off all the money except in England, everyone else on the Euro—she knew without us having to tell her to make it a little bit jubilant, to allow a trill of possibility in her voice, to help us not feel too bad that a dynasty was dying. The modulation of sorrow and terror and love in her keening was sublime, she didn’t need a production crew and lighting direction to perform, we knew that Givenchy for a rockstar’s overdose was mailed to her apartment in Flatbush—she was good but she couldn’t afford that—and the Versace for the last woman to die of an illegal abortion in Ireland was a gift, the suit she wore for Holly Woodlawn was given because the filth of the grave looks so good on Chanel.
While we wanted to be her, she didn’t make us stop wanting to be ourselves.
Evelyn Sullivan, Maeve’s new protege, met Maeve at her apartment in Flatbush to walk to Brooklyn Fare to keen Anthony Bourdain. Maeve walked to any keens she could in New York to settle her mind, prepare. In Crown Heights, while talking about their favorite bagel joints and delis, Maeve stepped on a spot on the sidewalk and met a hungry ghost. Her first thought was, I will die in this place.
She tried to think through suffocating fear. Where am I? Brooklyn. What neighborhood? Crown Heights. I know this. I learned this one. I know his name.
She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t hear Evelyn screaming at her.
Trayvon Martin. No. Tamir Rice. No. Sandra Bland. No. Where am I? Brooklyn. Amadou Diallo. No, the Bronx. Stephon Clark, Alton Sterling. No. Not here. Michael Hansford. No, the Bronx. She fought against the terror of not being able to make her lungs work. George Floyd. Not here. Jacob Blake. Alive. Breonna Taylor. Not here. Brooklyn. Finally, she was able to say, “Saheed Vassell,” and was released.
Evelyn pulled her into her chest with her strong arms and said, “Oh my god. I didn’t know we were on his block. I’m so sorry. Can you breathe?”
Maeve was gasping. But breathing. She nodded.
A woman watching from the bodega across the way walked over and sat with them on the sidewalk. She wore a blue scarf that matched her eyeshadow. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know that’s rough. But we don’t mark it on purpose. We want people to meet him, and remember.”
Maeve was jangly with adrenaline, but able to say, “I understand.” Breath. “I remember him.”
“And you’ll never forget him, now.”
Maeve nodded. Evelyn kept her hand on her back. “I always wonder about the black men and women who died in their homes,” Evelyn said. “In prisons. In their grandparents’ backyard. Do you think the family just learns to walk around that spot?”
“I wonder that, too,” the woman said.
“Or do they step on the spot once a day, every morning on their way to make the coffee? And say their name, say their name, say their name,” Maeve said. She was sobbing.
The woman from the neighborhood smiled. “You seem like a nice white lady. Or at least one who’s trying to understand.”
“I’m sure there are ways I’m a total asshole,” she said with her face in her hands. “Thank you for checking on me.”
The woman nodded and went back to work.
Maeve shook her hands to sling the tension out, she held them level and saw she was trembling. She wiped her eyes, stood, and started walking, and Evelyn didn’t question if she was okay to still do this. Maeve talked to steady her voice. “My mom’s grandparents came to the US from County Clare, which is why her parents named her that. They knew she’d lose the family name and banshee, McInerney, when she married, and they wanted her to always have a reminder of the county she came from. She described their banshee as young and quiet, her portent washing bloody clothes, no matter the type of forthcoming death. She wore a red cloak and had bright red hair. She was terrifying, mom said. When her grandparents emigrated, the family merry waked them, because they knew they’d never see them again.”
“Wow,” Evelyn said. “That’s wild.”
She’s so young, Maeve thought. Then, “I never met my great-grandparents, but my grandfather told me when I was a kid that his father met a hungry ghost on a patch of hungry grass in County Clare. He had a bit of bread in his pocket, just in case, as everyone in Famine regions did, knowing how many died. So he got away. But he said it was awful. I always wondered if people had hungry rugs in their homes, hungry beds they had to throw out because that’s where the family Famine death had happened.”
“I’m okay. Still alive. Let’s go keen Tony.”
Maeve liked to show up to the end of a wake, then process with the mourners to the cemetery, if that’s what they chose to do. Part of her pay was food and booze, which she loved almost as much as she loved sex. Having a drink and a bite reminded her she was still alive, loosened her up, and the family and friends liked to see that the keener was a human, before she launched into her sublime mania. She’d been to Brooklyn Fare only once on a date, so she knew how spectacular it was, and she knew that Eric Ripert, Andrew Zimmern, Sean Brock, David Chang, Deuki Hong, Angela Dimayuga, Marcus Samuelson, Anthony’s ex-wives and girlfriend and daughter, and probably a few others, had dinner there the night before, César Ramirez eating with them from behind the counter. Today there was just going to be simple street food and cold beer. Celebrating all the sides of Tony.
Maeve wasn’t surprised to see Anthony sitting up with a beer in his hand. She figured he’d been there the whole time, was never laid out on their silver counter. She was wearing black skinny jeans and a Ramones t-shirt and heels, and people told her it was perfect. She was happy to see Rose MacGowen tending to Asia Argento, and Frances Bean hugging Ariane. Evelyn seemed a little star struck in her New York Dolls t-shirt she borrowed from Maeve, like she wanted to meet everyone in the room, but was too shy to talk to anyone. All the chefs were there, nursing last night’s near-certain debauchery with fried foods.
Maeve ate an astonishing eggroll, a cabeza de vaca taco with super spicy salsa, chicken heart yakatori, and a shot of ceviche.
“I never met him,” she said to Evelyn, like she’d suddenly realized.
Eric Ripert came to speak to Maeve. “I wanted you to know how happy Tony would be that you’re here. He thought your keen for Jim Harrison was so wonderful, because you talked about food, not just words. How much Jim loved and reveled in both. He said you’re the only thing that helped, because of the way you honored who Jim was. I’m excited to hear you pay your respects.”
Maeve got the look on her face most people recognized, the misty-eyed face of someone who would tear up if she were allowed. “I’m such a fan,” was all she could think to say.
His best friends put Tony in a box, and put the box on a trailer behind a motorcycle, and then taxis pulled up to take all the mourners to Green-Wood Cemetery.
For this funeral they planned no readings, no songs, just Maeve and then everyone throwing a handful of dirt on the coffin. She held the mic like she was in a metal band, and began. “We know you didn’t want to leave us. You fought to be here … you didn’t let the cocaine kill you, you didn’t let the heroin kill you, you didn’t let the methaqualone, secobarbital, tuinal, amphetamines, and codeine kill you. You quit cigarettes! You chose to live and you let us watch you do it fully. You ate it all. You drank it all. You said it all and you saw it all. You woke to beautiful views nearly every morning of your life, but you woke alone. You said, ‘Look at this beautiful lake. Why am I so lucky to see it? Okay, I’ve seen it. Now I want to dive into it and drown.’ And now you have. You didn’t want to see it anymore. You didn’t leave a note. You had nothing left to say. And we are so bereft, left grieving your leaving, left missing all about you we loved.
“You told us to travel, and we did. You told us to share meals and learn about people through what they served and we did. We ate anything they gave us. We wanted to be just like you. And then you didn’t want to be you anymore. And we can’t wish for you to stay here and suffer so that we don’t have to miss you.” Maeve was alternately yelling and whispering. “We wish you didn’t suffer. We know you did everything you could. We did everything we could. You had it all and it wasn’t enough. You drank it all down, ate it all up, and it was never, never enough. We wish you still wanted to be alive, Saint Anthony The Opinionated, but you made us want to be more alive. You made us dream, you made us accomplish some of those dreams, we tried to be as fearless as you seemed.
“Some of us understand, some of us do not. Anthony Bourdain, son of Pierre and Gladys, father of Ariane, spouse of Nancy Putkoski and Ottavia Busia, lover of Asia Argento, friend to so many, why have you left us alone?
“We will think of you when we eat bone marrow. Street tacos. Noodles from a food truck. We will think of you when we eat escargot, foie gras, steak tartare, and pommes frites, even though they’re never as good anywhere else as they were at Brasserie Les Halles. When a man hands us a round of mozzarella he made himself, when we open a perfect tin of brined sardines, when we drink a beer alone in the afternoon in an Irish pub that is just fine, when we try calf brain for the first time, we will think of you. You showed us that all that fine French food is cooked by men from Mexico. You toasted La Raza. You chided us for being shocked at seeing Palestinian people’s simple meals, simple hopes. You didn’t drink in Iran. You advocated for the release of prisoners and you counseled them when they were freed. You were a feminist, helped women be fierce, held yourself to a higher standard than everyone who disgusted you. Punk. Blue belt in jiu-jitsu. Emmy winner, Clio winner, Best Food Writer, Best Food Book, honorary Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa in the Culinary Arts. You earned all the accolades.
“Your lyricism. Your swagger. Your brilliance. Your generosity.
“When we learned you didn’t come down for dinner, you didn’t come down to breakfast, you wouldn’t be filming at the market today, we sat on the ground.
“You made us love the Waffle House, that ‘beacon of hope and salvation inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered, all across the South to come inside.’ You made us a little less afraid of the unknown. You made us feel more connected with our planet and people we will never meet. You taught us that our weird is the world’s delicious.
“You made us try things.
“You made us try things.
“We watched your show from space. We watched you eat sheep testicles in Morocco, ant eggs in Mexico, raw seal eye as part of Inuit tradition, the beating heart, blood, bile and meat of an entire cobra in Vietnam. We watched you eat unwashed warthog rectum in Namibia, fermented shark in Iceland, and Chicken McNuggets in New York. Nothing human was alien to you. You will always travel with us, Tony. You made us omnivorous, nomadic, we are ravenous, we are insatiable like you but may we all want to stay.”
For him, she tore out fingers full of strands of hair, tangled in her knuckles, her scalp throbbing.
She screamed, screeched, and shrieked, and no one covered their ears.
We were so moved. Maeve McNamara, once again giving language to our thoughts, once again helping us heal. We grieved his choice so hard, but she helped us see it as a choice.
The above is the sixth chapter of Erin Stalcup’s Keen, which is forthcoming from Gold Wake Press.
About the Author:
Erin Stalcup is the author of the novels Keen (forthcoming) and Every Living Species, and the story collection And Yet It Moves. After teaching in liberal arts colleges, state schools, community colleges, & prisons in New York City, North Carolina, Texas, & Arizona, Erin is now faculty in the Writing & Publishing MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. An essay about her teaching experiences was named a Notable in Best American Essays. Erin co-founded the literary magazine Waxwing, and is the Editor of Hunger Mountain.