I’m trying to fill out the claim form, the one that’d been chilling for months in an envelope I wouldn’t open, the one you might ask about if you were here and half-listening to me whine, the way you half-listened when you had headphones on. Why can’t you open it? you’d ask. I don’t know, Son, I think it’s my hands it’s my rheumatoid arthritis, I just can’t do it, I’d say. What arthritis, Dad? you’d say. Yeah, what arthritis? I’d say. Huh? you’d say. See? I’d say. Yes I mean no I mean I don’t know are you still talking? you’d say, and you’d huff out a laugh or feign half of one and go back to your music.
We were never big here on logic or sense, you and I, but there are so many yes-no-I-don’t-know disconnects in this form, fronted with a letter that begins We, The Life Insurance Company, are here to honor our commitment and help you with your claim. That word claim. As in mine. And this word: Beneficiary. As in me.
There’s a little “Name of Beneficiary” box I can’t bring myself to fill in—it’s my non-arthritic fingers, you see, my midnight blue heart, I mean, my fuzzy logic brain, I should say. The Beneficiary box is below and to the left of another little box—that box is curt and calm and I want to say coy but I probably mean clear, clear as in crystal, clear as a full-throated belief in Crystal Light because I believe in me and you and a dog named Boo Berry. The “Cause of Death” box. That box. I say it out loud, all staccato and sullen, like the dialogue on the TV show Dragnet: It was Thursday, January 3rd, and it was cold in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of the nightshift, the one where the sad-sack moon can’t find the sun, and the animals fret and freak about the quake they know is coming, and the EMTs say “sorry we couldn’t save your son” and they say this with their eyes.
I’d say the words to you, all curt and calm, all somber and sullen: Name of Beneficiary. Cause of Death.
You’d look at me and say I didn’t talk like that, did I talk like that? and I’d say Sometimes you talked like that, sometimes we all talk like a Dragnet Guy. Maybe you’d huff, maybe you’d laugh if I said things all somber and sullen, things like How’s that? Yes, ma’am. Haven’t been able to open the envelope. It’s my hands. It’s my rheumatoid arthritis hands. Don’t believe me, do you, ma’am. I guess I don’t have arthritis. I guess I don’t have a condition. The way you always said you guessed you didn’t have a condition, the condition that’s connected to the words I’m going to have to squeeze into that “Cause of” box. I have to squeeze them in, I have to squeeze them all in, I have to bring myself to fill out this form, I have to get somber I have to get sullen I have to because I’m the Beneficiary, I’d tell you. What’s a Beneficiary? you’d ask. How’s that ma’am? I’d say.
And you’d slip off your headphones and it’d be all calm and curt and all Just the facts ma’am and all sullen and sunless and you’d say Are the boxes too small? Is the world too chill? Is the moon too sad? Are the words too clear? Are words ever clear? Are words just like moonlight that is there when it isn’t there? Are words more like snakes, the kind that hiss and shed skin? Why are we talking about words? Why are you talking to me about all this? Why is all this so hard for you?
And I’d wring my hands and say I don’t talk like that, do I talk like that? and you’d say Sometimes you talk like that and I’d say Know something, Dragnet Guy? and you’d say What’s that, Beneficiary? and I’d hear it, there, I’d see it, there, the name for me, there, above the little box. And there. The me inside the box. But my hands, my Beneficiary hands, I’d say, reaching out to touch your face, your hair, your beautiful little boy hands. What’s a Beneficiary? you’d say, all curt and coy, and you’d slip on your headphones, half-listening to the restive little boxes that are whispering that’s right nice and eeeaaazzzy pal nice and chill as I breathe and begin to fill and fill and fill them in.
Pat Foran is a writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His son Cory often made statements in the form of questions. A favorite: “Is this boring?” When he asked-said this, he was always, always, always right.