I woke up alone, hungover, in Archer Portnoy’s coffin. Just a typical Saturday morning, another day in the life.
Archer Portnoy’s coffin is huge. If it were a car, it would be a Hummer; if it were a home in a trailer park, it would be a double-wide. And it is tricked out beyond all belief. If MTV decided to scrap Cribs and do a show about deluxe coffins, Archer Portnoy’s would be first on their list. If there were a TV show called Pimp My Casket, the producers would give Archer Portnoy’s coffin a two-hour special feature.
Archer Portnoy’s coffin is easily the most luxurious item in my otherwise low-key apartment. The exterior is made of burnished mahogany, with polished nickel fastenings (not silver – silver tarnishes way too quickly, especially six feet underground). Inside, it boasts a deluxe sound system built into the satin-tufted side panels with state-of-the-art surround-sound speakers delivering tuneage throughout the burgundy interior. One of the long lateral panels conceals an insulated compartment just the right size for storing a bottle of champagne and a couple of glasses; a shorter panel at the head of the coffin slides open to reveal a box of tissues, a bottle of water, and a small assortment of books. The lid of the coffin is usually open and there is a clamp-held lamp on an adjustable arm attached to the rim, permitting the occupant(s) to read in comfort if the mood strikes.
The coffin sits on a large, sturdy marble platform that rises to about waist-height on me (I’m five foot four). Like the coffin, it was custom built. To get in, simply snap open two strong nickel latches that hold the long edge of the coffin upright; it hinges downward and you can scootch your butt onto the satin and slide yourself in. Raise the panel, flip the latches closed and there you are.
Archer Portnoy thought of everything when he designed this baby (well, everything but the bar and the sound system: those modifications were dreamed up by yours truly); but the truth is, he kind of had to. The man weighed over 400 pounds and, at the age of thirty-four, he realized two things. One was, although he was by most standards still a young man, in his state of health a sudden death was not unlikely. The other was that given his incredible size, dispatching his remains with proper dignity and ceremony would present some challenges. Fortunately, he had the money and the brains to navigate a solution.
In the mid-1990s, Archer Portnoy was a very rich young man who’d conceived and launched a graphic arts studio in Ottawa. He loved computer games and cartoons, and he built up an excellent stable of artists and computer whizzes at the peak of the high-tech craze. Unlike other companies, which became wedded to chip and wire technology, Archer Portnoy’s company managed to stay ahead of, and even forecast, many consumer trends and was constantly shifting its products to address the rapidly evolving business landscape. Archer expanded from supplying graphics and animation to external clients to designing his own programs, and launched some apps exclusively for hand-held devices which pretty much cemented him as a primary player on the scene. However, with success came pressure and apparently Archer’s favoured method of stress-busting involved cramming high calorie snacks down his neck practically non-stop. That, plus the tendency of people in his line of work to do nothing but sit around tapping computer keys all day, contributed to his becoming what society delicately likes to call “a lard-ass.”
The way I heard it, Archer Portnoy’s physician gave him a complete crapola score on a routine physical somewhere around 1999, and told him that there was so much fatty buildup in his arteries and around his heart that he could have a coronary if he so much as sneezed unexpectedly. Archer Portnoy may have been a fat guy, but he had a well-developed sense of what was and was not dignified, and he quickly decided that it would be most undignified for him to snuff it suddenly, leaving his heirs with the tiresome task of removing the roof of his house so a helicopter could airlift his dead bulk off the premises. Ergo, he commissioned this coffin, and the marble platform on which it rests, so that he could sleep in it every night and spare his loved ones the unpleasant necessity of having to find someone strong enough to heft him off the bed should he die in his sleep. The platform, when Archer owned it, had lockable wheels so his heirs could easily glide him from his house to the funeral parlour, much like a hospital stretcher; and as he spent most of his time in a scooter chair with a hydraulic seat, it wasn’t difficult for him to raise himself up to casket height and simply roll in each night.
A rational person would now ask me why Mr. Portnoy would have put his considerable intelligence and considerable money into this casket to house his considerable earthly remains, and then not be buried in it? I asked that question too, at Archer Portnoy’s estate sale. And nobody could tell me. “Mr. Portnoy’s final wishes made it very clear the casket was to be sold,” the estate agents said.
I didn’t give too much of a damn at that point, because I was in desperate straits and Archer Portnoy’s coffin looked like a darling solution to a dire problem. I had the money (odd but true…and that is a story for another time). As soon as I looked at its beautifully tufted satin and its confining vastness, I saw both safety and luxury. Kind of like when you’re driving a Mercedes. In fact, aside from my last car (and I haven’t owned a car in nearly a decade), Archer Portnoy’s coffin is the only thing I’ve ever bothered purchasing insurance for. Money aside, I value it very highly: that box is the only place I can catch a decent night’s sleep—and by decent, I mean more than three hours at a stretch.
On this particular day, having risen reluctantly from my coffin, I shlumped into the bathroom and spent a ridiculous amount of time urinating. It actually hurt my head to pee. It’s like my body was so dehydrated, it grudged even that waste water abandoning the desiccated wreck it had become. As soon as I’d flushed and rinsed my hands, I sloppily shook my toothbrush out of the mug by the sink and filled the mug with water from the faucet. It tasted like old mint and dust mites but I drank two mugs down anyway.
There are hangovers you have to sleep off, hangovers you have to walk off, hangovers you have to eat your way through, and hangovers where you wander aimlessly through the rooms of your small apartment, tearing at your hair and groaning periodically, because sitting down, lying down, or eating anything are all completely out of the question. This hangover was of that latter variety. As the apartment isn’t very big, I was soon travelling the same ground and groaning louder each time I looked out the window or (even worse) looked in the bathroom mirror at my own reflection, and realized that nothing felt any better. Or looked any better. I tripped on the cats every second or third circuit.
After an hour or so’s painful pacing, I felt steady enough to attempt some food. I got the coffeemaker going and once that toasty smell began to circulate, I immediately began feeling that there was a possibility I would live through this agony after all. Feeling adventurous, I poured myself some water (into a clean mug from the kitchen, this time) and swallowed two extra strength Tylenol. As soon as the coffeemaker quit burbling I fixed myself a giant mug of brew with some evaporated milk (so thick and rich and yummy) and threw in some brown sugar for good measure. The first sip was absolute manna, and holding the warm mug against my face made my headache feel better.
Two big cups of coffee made a massive improvement in my general health and well-being, and enabled me to tackle the delicate matter of introducing food to a stomach that still felt as though it was pickled in vodka. I started off nibbling some lightly buttered toast; this actually made me feel awesome. In fact, the few bites of toast awakened a raving hunger beast in my guts that suddenly began craving everything from BLTs to pizza and wings, but since all I had in the fridge was bread and eggs I had to make do with a couple of fried-egg sandwiches (toasted, with lots of ketchup on the side for dunking). Does that ever happen to you? Going from queasily hungover to ragingly ravenous like that? It happens to me all the time. One of the reasons the ass of my jeans is getting to be rather too well filled-out, I imagine, but fuck it: no food tastes better than the stuff you eat after a really good session of get-yer-drink-on. And a nice big pig-out can help a hangover in ways you wouldn’t believe…or maybe you would. In any case, on this particular day, it set me up just fine and helped beat back the headache pretty well too.
Now that I was fed, caffeinated, and reasonably sure I was going to make it through the day without projectile vomiting, I decided I should check on the gentleman I’d been out with the night before to see how he was holding up in the aftermath of our excesses. My phone’s a mobile one with one of those headset gadgets so I continued pacing while I waited for the speed dial to kick in. It was six or seven rings before a groggy voice answered the call.
“What do you want?”
“Really, Dale,” I said. “Where are your manners?”
“Fuck you, Cousin. I feel like whale shit today and it’s totally your fault.”
“How do you square that?”
“Because you took me away from a quiet, innocent evening at home and poured beer down my throat til I practically passed out. Then you brought me home – at least I think it was you who brought me home – and left me on the fucking floor. Which, now that I think of it, might have been an act of charity. It would have really sucked to regain consciousness at six this morning to find myself puking in my bed.”
“You puked on your floor?”
“Gross. Okay, now you’re making me feel bad.”
“I hope so.”
“I don’t mean guilty, I mean physically bad. I’m barely getting over my own nausea, I don’t need a Dayglo description of yours.”
“I don’t care. I hope you feel bad. I hope you feel worse. I hope you puke in your stupid coffin and drown in it.”
“So what do you want?”
“Just seeing how you are. Say, what are you doing tonight? Feel like coming out with me?”
“Tonight I’m going to do what I was planning to do last night before you came over and nagged me into keeping you company.”
“You mean you’re going to sit on your gigantic ass and play Diablo online with nerds you’ve never met.”
“Dale, that’s pathetic. You spend way too much time alone. You need to get out more.”
“You say that, but your liver isn’t the size of a Crown Victoria this morning. Or maybe it is. It should be, that’s for sure. Either way, I’m not doing jack with you tonight, I’m staying in. I’m staying in all day. God, I feel awful.”
He really did sound terrible. I began to feel rather sorry for him.
“Listen,” I said, injecting a soothing and caring tone into my voice. “Stay in, you probably should if you’re feeling that rotten. But let me come by and take care of you. I’ll bring you some food and aspirin, and at least get you on your feet. And I’ll leave you alone after that to do your dumbass gaming or whatever it is shut-in sociopaths like you do when their cousins aren’t adequate company.”
“Nah,” he answered, sounding a little less grouchy than previously. “That’s cool of you and all, but I’ll get over it. Seriously, Tryx, I don’t want any company today. I’ve taken some Advil and I’m going to phone out for a shawarma or something once my gut settles down a little. I’ll be fine.”
My instinct was to bully him until he gave in. I could picture Dale, unshaven, slumped in his big recliner with his eyes half closed and one huge hand resting protectively on his wide, grumbling tummy. After all, it was partly my fault that he was ill and I realized that leaving him alone to barf on his floor the night before probably hadn’t been the smartest decision…my only real defence being that I had been too messed up myself to realize he was in worse shape than I was. It would soothe my guilt a little to go over to his small, cluttered apartment and nurse him back to a reasonable semblance of normality. However, I wanted him to keep liking me and perhaps a little absence from my company would make him appreciate me better next time I called. I decided to give in.
“Arright, have it your way. But listen, call me if you need me, okay? Anything you need, or just some company. Don’t suffer in silence.”
Dale yawned. “Fine,” he said. “I’m sure I won’t need to, but it’s a nice offer. I guess I’d have to call you at the office if I need you?”
I frowned. “The office? Dale, why would you call me at the office? It’s Saturday.”
There was a puzzled silence at Dale’s end for maybe five seconds. Five seconds, during which a cold dread began leaking into my guts as I glanced at the wall clock in the kitchen. The hands stood at twenty minutes to eleven.
“Tryx,” Dale said patiently. “It’s Friday.”
Cursing wildly, I threw the phone at the charger and tore out the door.