©1996, 2011 By Bob Litton
I don’t like cemeteries. It’s not that I’m superstitious or afraid of the dead; although I doubtless would be, were one of them to suddenly stand up before me in a confrontational sort of way. No, I don’t like cemeteries because they remind me that we never cease being consumers.
Recently, however, I got a job at a warehouse about seven miles north of here, and the road to it runs by a cemetery. It’s a very extensive graveyard on the west side of the road; a sign on the east side announces that the fallow acreage there is reserved for “future development” — meaning more bodies, grave markers, and biblical statues. The older site is shaded by plenty of scrub oaks and cedars, with an occasional elm spanning a pathway. A mausoleum shaped like a late Roman era basilica backs up handsomely to the road I traverse each day in my beat-up old Ford pickup. That building and others not as apparent are of white brick. The low grillework fence which surrounds the cemetery is black.
My sister, I thought on my initial journey up the road, is buried there. I wasn’t sure, because I was only eight years old the last time — one Easter Sunday — my parents took me to her gravesite. Eight was also her age when she died of a brain tumor a year before I was born, although I didn’t know that the day we stood there in the tree-lined section where she lay. My parents had hoped I would be a reincarnation of her, I believe, and never really forgave me for being something else. On occasion — usually her birthday or her deathday — they would put one of her dresses on me and murmur things I can’t recall, or don’t want to recall. Maybe that Easter when we stood out there musing beside her grave was when they finally realized I wasn’t she, for we never went back again. Together.
Driving by the cemetery a few weeks ago, I wondered if it actually was the one that contained my sister’s plot. There was room for doubt, since at least half a dozen other graveyards are scattered about town. I also wondered if there was a clearly visible marker. Perhaps it was small and overrun with grass.
Thinking about her made me think about my father, who died five years ago at eighty-two. I never had called him “Father” or “Dad” or “Pop” while he was living. He was for a time, when I was small and dependent, “Daddy”. That was how I thought of him when he lifted me up to his face and kissed me wetly and held my cheek against his own — a curved, bony plane covered with “stickers”, as I termed his overnight beard growth. Then, when I became a youth, and especially when that emotional chasm yawned between us, he was “Pappy”. To my brothers, I always spoke of him as “Pappy”.
He was a philandering old fraud, Pappy was. His dark brown eyes gazed predatorily from each side an aquiline nose in a narrow face. One of the harsher products of the Great Depression, he looked upon everyone, including his own family, as prey designed for his survival. A business deal, even the simplest, wasn’t worth considering unless he could introduce a little chicanery into it. He also kept everything, from forty-year-old utility bill stubs to yesterday’s grocery store coupons, stashed away pack-rat fashion. When I was still a child, Mother divorced him after he came home once too often with lipstick on his neck. He left our apartment to go live in a small brick building he owned in a part of town aswarm with used car lots and pawn shops. A some-time sign painter, he worked, as well as slept, in that musty old building and collected things — old beer bottles, old magazines, chicken coop wire, lengths of nail-studded lumber. Someday, he apparently imagined, such items might be exceedingly scarce and therefore deliciously valuable. One thing, if nothing else, the Great Depression had taught him: dearth equals worth. A small, hand-written sign he tacked over his kitchen door frame constituted his daily meditation: “Think a million! Every day, think a million!” And who should gainsay him? Just think of all those relics retrieved from the sands of Egypt one sees in museums: how priceless they are, even the bits and scraps of clay and papyrus! All one had to do is hold onto something — anything — and wait.
When the death sickness came upon him, I was living about four hundred miles west of home. My eldest brother, who housed Pappy in those final weeks, told me the old man had been difficult, always making loud, strange noises in the night, demanding attention, ranting occasionally. I could believe the claim about Pappy’s ranting, because he had always done that. However, number one brother is given to exaggerating his own virtues, so I doubted just how self-sacrificing had been the attentions he had lavished on the old man. As for myself, I had been estranged from Pappy for ten years, ever since he had bellowed out in a pub to a mutual acquaintance, “I wish that boy would go ahead and kill himself and get it over with instead of talking about it all the time to every therapist who hangs out a shingle!” My other brother, number two in nativity, hadn’t spoken to the old man for twenty years, not since Pappy had shortchanged one of his friends in a hamburger joint Pappy had operated a few years. None of us, to say it all, grieved at the funeral.
But we all three appeared at the funeral parlor; as did Mother, although she spent the time sitting on a rear pew and chatting with some of her former in-laws. Pappy, I had to assume, was in that silver box up in front of the eulogist’s lectern. Organ music came in to us from somewhere: I couldn’t see any organ. I felt sorry for the hired minister as he stood in the aisle trying to condole with people who weren’t grieving. Brother number one had apparently warned him what to expect, however, for when he finally went up to the lectern he talked about the Prodigal Son. The burden of his talk was that there is some good in the worst of us and that it is never too late to turn one’s life toward virtue. I wondered if Pappy, in his last hour, had concluded that virtue might be its own reward, after all. The preacher earned his pay that day.
For five years after that, I never concerned myself with the fate of the silver box, which I assumed had actually been aluminum or stainless steel. Brother number one, who had seen to the funeral arrangements, had accepted responsibility for the remains too, surely. He enjoyed being responsible for family affairs, I thought.
It wasn’t until I had moved back to town and got this job north of the cemetery, with the result that I had to drive by the graveyard twice every day, that I began to wonder about my brother’s attention to duty. A few months ago I turned fifty and became more melancholy than ever before. Beginning to compare myself with Pappy, I came to realize I hadn’t developed my potential much more than he had. Other than being a tad honester and a good deal better educated, I was just as much a drifter and failure in life as he. Moreover, Pappy had at least obeyed the biblical injunction of “be fruitful and multiply”, think what you will about the fruit. I felt an almost gravitational force pulling me toward that same nether world where Pappy had existed. I envied Pappy in his new state of Nothingness….In his box? I longed for an end to it all, but not in a box! And that’s how I came to wonder where the silver box was.
What had my brother done with Pappy’s ashes? I remembered what Mother had told me when she learned Pappy had left half his small estate to his girlfriend: “If it were up to me, I’d dump him in the trash can!” That was a harsh sentence, even for one who perhaps deserved it; but my brother had the silver box, so I kept my mouth shut. You have to put up with a lot from people who are eighty, especially when they are your mother.
One Friday in October the spirit possessed me to call my brother and ask him what he had done with Pappy. My sister-in-law answered the phone.
“He’s gone with a friend to pick up a horse,” she said. “Do you want me to have him call you?”
“I’m not sure. All I wanted to ask him was what he did with Pappy. Perhaps you know.”
“I think he gave him to your mother.”
“Oh no,” I said softly.
“Why don’t you try her and call us back if she doesn’t have him?”
Mother’s line was busy. I didn’t try again until the next day, and I didn’t want to call then. I had developed a severe case of obsessive anxiety about what effect her angry, crazy disposal of Pappy’s remains would have on our relationship. The bond between us had not been very strong since the end of my childhood. Then, shortly after I turned seventeen, she remarried; and she and her new husband sold their home and moved to California, partly because he had family out there and partly to get away from me. With the fifty dollars she sent each month I rented a room from a kind, albeit eccentric, little old lady who had a fondness for anything in the shape of, or decorated with, ducks, models of which she had scattered all over her living room. And I managed to finish high school.
So, we were never close toward the end, my parents and I, and when we did see one another it was more often than not through happenstance than purpose: Pappy had an uncanny knack for boarding the same bus I was already on, regardless of the route or the time of day. Nevertheless, ever since he died and I moved back to town, I have made a regular habit of visiting Mother every Sunday. The fact that I make the five-mile drive to her house apparently means more to her than my entry into her living room. There, she half sits, half reclines on her couch, watching “The Lone Ranger” or “Lassie” and working a crossword puzzle. She neither says much nor complains if I leave after perhaps only a quarter-hour. We never embrace or utter endearments. We are very subtly quite mutually exclusive.
Finally, on Saturday, she answered the phone; her tone hinted to me my sister-in-law had forewarned her. “Yes, I have the remains? What do you want with them?”
“Well, I’m not sure, but I thought the proper thing to do would be to spread them over Sister’s grave.”
“I was going to have that done once, but the cemetery people wanted to charge eighty-five dollars. Then, when I found out how much your father had stolen from me, I could not bear to have him near my dear, sweet, precious little girl.”
“Well, I’ll talk to you about it later.”
“Yes. You can talk to me about it later.”
Now I had a new quandary. Mother hadn’t yet committed the unforgivable, but she had put a wrinkle in the only plan I had. After the way Pappy had treated her, I could sympathize with her distaste for having him intimately disposed near her only daughter. I mused about other possibilities: a local scenic lake? a creek that quietly meandered through the inner city? the site where his old building stood, now a school’s graveled parking lot? No, the only appropriate place was still his daughter’s grave.
On Sunday, I arrived at my Mother’s house at the usual time — in the middle of “Lassie” — but in an uncustomary mood of single-minded determination. I sat on the piano bench and tried to get interested in “Lassie”.
“She’s protecting that sick old man’s garden from gophers,” Mother explained. “I really like Lassie. She always does good deeds for people and she’s so smart.”
Mother arose suddenly and went into the bathroom. When she returned, she was squeezing drops into her left eye. “I almost forgot to take my medicine,” she said. She had had surgery for a cataract in one eye and suffered from glaucoma in the other. After administering the drops, she held a daub over the eye, half masking her face.
“Where’s Pappy?” I asked.
“I’ll have to find him. I think I remember where he is.”
She went into the guest bedroom, also her sewing room. The closet, I imagined. She returned with a grey cardboard box.
“It’s heavy,” I said.
“Yes. I was going to dig a hole in the back yard and bury it out there…. One of my friends told me I ought to dump it in the trash.”
“It’s none of their business.”
I took the box home to the apartment I share with my second brother and opened it. Inside the box was another box, of maroon plastic. Taking it into my brother’s room, I showed it to him and remarked quizzically, “I thought it was a silver box we saw at the funeral.”
“That was probably the one they use for show,” he replied.
The next day was Monday and another day off for me. No work and nothing else to do either. Doing nothing depresses me. I lay across my bed, fully clothed and without anywhere to go. I dozed off a while. When I awoke, the mid-afternoon sun’s beams were filtering through the slats of the window blind. This is it, I thought.
I got up, grabbed Pappy’s box off my chest-of-drawers, and went downstairs. Outside, the early fall breeze still had a nip in it even so late in the day. I drove my old pickup north to the cemetery, trusting to instinct that it was the correct graveyard. Three men in dark suits stood outside the main office chatting with one another, apparently there preparatory to a funeral yet talking about anything but the deceased. Inside, a receptionist — an old lady with jeweled glasses hanging on a strand of large colored beads — wrote Sister’s name on a card as I spelled it out for her. Then she telephoned a file clerk somewhere in another building. After waiting ten minutes, I began to fear I had picked the wrong cemetery. Finally, the clerk called back, and the receptionist wrote the plot description in one corner of a courtesy map of the cemetery grounds and gave it to me. There was a multitude of sections on the acreage, each with a name intended to solace and each separated from the others by winding roads. The map reminded me of one of those children’s puzzles I had seen on place mats in fast food restaurants. One dark square surrounded by parking space marks had an arrow pointing at it with the subscript: “You are here.”
After about thirty minutes searching on my own, I stopped a Mexican groundskeeper who was driving a tractor-mower. With his help, I found Sister’s marker between a pair of over-arching elm trees. It was small, but not any smaller than most of the other markers in the area. Perhaps there was a cemetery proscription against upright grave markers, I mused — just as there was against plastic flowers — since none was in sight. Moreover, Sister’s marker was at least slightly distinguished by being decorated with a bas-relief scene of Little Bo Peep and her flock, found.
I waited until the man with his mower had moved on to another section on the far side of some trees. When he was out of sight, I took Pappy’s box from the truck, opened it, and removed a clear plastic bag filled with chips of blue-grey and mauvish material. They looked more like shavings from a sculptor’s workbench than the sort of ashes I was accustomed to seeing. I poured the bag’s contents over Sister’s grave. Much of it rested too noticeably on the canopy of Bermuda grass: I knelt down and brushed the turf with the palm of my right hand, shaking the grass so the bits of Pappy would filter to the earth. Then I collected the box and the plastic bag, looked about to make sure none of the groundskeepers were watching, and returned to my truck.
All was accomplished. I only wished I could have been more leisurely in those obsequies; I felt the whole action had been too furtive. But perhaps that would have pleased Pappy immensely. Nothing was done up right, he seemed to believe, unless a pinch of larceny was sprinkled in.
Two days later, as I was switching shoe pairs, inserting shoetrees into my brown loafers, a small white stone slid from the toe area of one shoe and bounced against the inner heel. Without pausing, I picked the stone up and tossed it into the wastebasket. Suddenly a horrifying thought struck me: That might have been Pappy. After all I had been through to prevent Mother from throwing him out with the trash, here was I committing that very act.
I took everything out of the wastebasket, item by item, shaking each carefully as I went. Old utility bills, false starts on a résumé, coupons for products I had no use for, a pair of socks with worn-out heels, a peach pit stuck to a report from our congressman, the photograph of a girlfriend who had bought an answering machine to screen out my calls, and, finally, there at the bottom lay the fragment…of what? Thigh bone? Shoulder blade? Aquiline nose? Whatever it was, it was too small simply to put into my pants pocket. I found an envelope and taped the rock/bone to the inside of the flap. On the envelope’s front I wrote “Pappy (?)”.
The next day was a workday, but, as I said, the cemetery was along the route to my job. On my return home, just as it was becoming dusk, I turned in through one of the cemetery’s entryways; its high grillework gate would be open nearly another hour, according to a sign on one of the brick pillars. This time, since I wasn’t carrying any suspicious-looking box nor preparing to fling handfuls of ashes all over the place, I had thought I would be more relaxed, even meditative. The fact was, however, that I grappled anxiously with the clear tape which held Pappy’s ash tenaciously to the envelope. In the end, I tore at the flap’s other side. Finally freeing the fragment, I held it a moment between thumb and forefinger. Then I dropped it on Sister’s grave.
As I walked to my truck, an image of Pappy in his musty old building came over me. A bright, naked light bulb dangled on a cord from the ceiling. Pappy stood in the doorway, the bulb blazing brightly behind him like the nimbus of a solar eclipse. I was just outside, in the night. All I could discern was the grey stubble of beard on his jaw and chin. He kissed me wetly.