Lisa Levchuk

Easy Street

 

My father is rid­ing in the way back. Truth be told, it isn’t real­ly my father rid­ing in the way back, it is my father’s ash­es. The oth­ers were all busy, so I agreed to dri­ve to the funer­al par­lor for the pick-up. I took my father’s car because, while alive, he refused to ride in anyone’s car but his own. He was a bit obses­sive about it. If my moth­er insist­ed, we might take The Buick, but he pre­ferred dri­ving his own car, The Chevy. The Chevy is more a truck than a car. It’s an old Blazer that smells like my father, or rather it smells the way my father smelled after he got old. When I arrived at the funer­al home for the ash­es, I had no idea that I would have to make oth­er deci­sions as well. No one explained that my father’s ash­es would come in a white card­board box – the kind of box in which Zappos or Amazon.com would be ship­ping the new san­dals I ordered a day or two before. This box was not addressed to any­one. It was a blank white box.

I want­ed in the atri­um while the assis­tant funer­al direc­tor went to get what remained of my father.

Is that what they put you in?” I asked him. “A white card­board box?”

Most peo­ple trans­fer the ash­es to an urn,” he said.

I can see why,” I said.

I real­ly could not fath­om them putting the ash­es in a plas­tic bag. I tried not to exam­ine things too close­ly, but I believe the bag was secured with one of those wire and paper strips that come with Baggies – twistie things, we called them. I had not seen a twistie thing in awhile and it brought back mem­o­ries of all the oth­er things I hadn’t seen in awhile – the col­or­ful pipe clean­ers we used to col­lect for no good rea­son and the pix­ie sticks filled with sug­ar we poured down our throats at lit­tle league base­ball games.

We have a selec­tion of urns down­stairs,” the funer­al direc­tor told me.

Do you remem­ber pix­ie sticks?” I asked.

I do,” he said.

I loved those things,” I said.

We descend­ed into the base­ment where we had recent­ly picked out the mahogany cas­ket in which my father lay dur­ing the view­ing. We paid extra for the mahogany know­ing full well it would be set on fire. I didn’t want to bury him in the cas­ket. My father was so claus­tro­pho­bic he bought dress shirts with necks two sizes too-large and was the only per­son over the age of twelve I ever met who wore clip-on ties. The oth­ers want­ed to bury him. No one knew what the hell he want­ed because he left us with­out instruc­tions, so we com­pro­mised – cre­ma­tion and then bur­ial. I was the only one who felt cer­tain we should scat­ter him to the wind.

I have to admit that I real­ly do not like funer­al par­lors. In fact, had I not been an adult with some degree of self-con­trol, I would like­ly have bolt­ed back up the stairs and demand­ed some ice cream or a few pix­ie sticks.

Holy cas­kets galore!”I said.

I stopped myself before ask­ing do you ever lie down in one of these just to see because I real­ized a long time ago that it is often best not to say what is going through my mind. Passing the cas­ket dis­play, I whis­pered the words what the fuck holy jesus over and over like a safe­ty mantra until I ceased pic­tur­ing myself lying inside one of them.

Once, I went to the funer­al of a baby who died after being alive for only five days. The cof­fin for the baby who lived five days was white with gold trim. After the bur­ial, the moth­er of that baby wouldn’t leave the grave­side. What the fuck holy jesus? Fortunately there were zero child-size coffins in the base­ment; they prob­a­bly kept them in the back with the oth­er extreme­ly depress­ing items.

Here are some urns,” he said.

I for­got to men­tion that it’s Saturday but the funer­al guy was still wear­ing a navy suit with a dark tie, which was fine because I real­ly didn’t think I would have liked him to be dressed in Bermuda shorts or a tank top. There were few­er urns to pick from than I thought there would be. Most of them looked as though they had been designed with women in mind – they were rather fem­i­nine.

How about that carved wood­en one?” I asked.

I decid­ed that my father would pre­fer to be in a wood­en urn rather than some­thing both ceram­ic and pos­si­bly made with a woman in mind. The one I select­ed was about the size of a hat box and was craft­ed from some sort of light col­ored wood.

That one is beau­ti­ful,” the man said. “It’s the last one.”

I wor­ried that it was going to be wild­ly expen­sive which my father would have hat­ed.

I’ll tell you what,” he sur­prised me. “I can let you have it for free.”

Wow,” I answered. “My father would love that. He hat­ed spend­ing mon­ey.”

It’s the last one,” the man said.

Boy, that went well, I thought to myself. I hoped the oth­ers at home would like it, but I didn’t see how any­one could object. My father had a lit­tle col­lec­tion of carved Asian peo­ple and this box remind­ed me of some of those fig­urines. One of the fig­ures I was plan­ning to keep with­out telling the oth­ers was a carv­ing of a very old man sup­port­ing him­self with a walk­ing stick. The old man beard’s was point­ed and he wore a small hat. My father col­lect­ed carv­ings of birds as well. Birds and Asian peo­ple. If you want to know that truth, my father was a fair­ly mys­te­ri­ous guy. There were a lot of things about him that I nev­er under­stood, the fas­ci­na­tion with birds and Asian peo­ple being one of the more minor mys­ter­ies.

I car­ried the urn myself past the cas­kets and up the dark stair­case to the foy­er. The funer­al par­lor had about four rooms that all looked exact­ly alike – same brown pat­tern on the same brown car­pet, same yel­low­ish cur­tains, same dimen­sions. In my house there are many rooms, I thought to myself. My lat­est job was teach­ing in a Catholic school and even though I am not Catholic and can count the num­ber of times I’ve been in a Church in the past ten years on one hand, I was get­ting some­what famil­iar with the life of Jesus. Honestly, every one of these rooms looked the same. I won­dered if the rooms in Jesus’ house all looked exact­ly alike and if my father was sit­ting in one of them look­ing out the win­dow watch­ing me score a free urn for his ash­es.

Are you sure you don’t want to charge me?” I asked.

Yes, I’m sure,” the man said. “As I said, it’s the last one.”

Would you like me to place him in the urn?” he asked.

Sure,” I said. “That would be great.”

He opened the white card­board box and lift­ed out the bag­gie con­tain­ing my father’s ash­es.

Could I sprin­kle them some­where?” I asked.

I wasn’t plan­ning to do any such thing because the oth­ers vot­ed unan­i­mous­ly against the idea; I just want­ed to know if I could.

Just don’t tell me if you plan to do that,” he said. “I’m not telling you what to do, I’m just ask­ing you not to tell me if that is your plan because scat­ter­ing the remains is against the law.”

Really? With all the tox­ic crap out there in the world you can’t sprin­kle a dead man’s ash­es on the ground?”

”Just don’t tell me about it if that is what you’re plan­ning,” he said.

Don’t sweat it,” I told him. “Everyone except me wants to bury him.”

My father loved the out­doors. He loved plant­i­ng trees and flow­ers. My father loved being alive and mak­ing oth­er things live, as long as it didn’t cost too much mon­ey. His fru­gal­i­ty was leg­endary. He bought the plants oth­er peo­ple reject­ed and made them grow. It pleased him most to take the scrawni­est, most dead-look­ing plants at the nurs­ery – he’d get them for half price or even noth­ing. And then he would make them grow. And in sim­i­lar fash­ion he made him­self grow rich. He took the clients no one want­ed and he bought the land that no one thought had val­ue. Whether he was moti­vat­ed by love or spite, I couldn’t say. But he enjoyed noth­ing more than get­ting a lot of a lit­tle. That is how I knew he would be proud of me for not spend­ing mon­ey on an urn. The cas­ket would have made him nuts. I could hear him: God damnit! Why spend that kind of mon­ey on some­thing you’re plan­ning to burn? That’s like burn­ing mon­ey. He like­ly would have been utter­ly dis­gust­ed at the waste­ful­ness of it. But it was his mon­ey to waste. And now his mon­ey was our mon­ey. I won’t be rich for long, I sus­pect. I spend a lot for very lit­tle. You don’t know the val­ue of a dol­lar, my father always said. You think mon­ey grows on trees. You’re worth less at thir­ty than you were the day you were born. That last com­ment was made in ref­er­ence to my sub­stan­tial cred­it card debt, a debt I’ve since paid with my father’s mon­ey.

He opened the box again and this time lift­ed out the bag of ash­es. For a moment I thought I could smell my father’s coat, the pale red hunt­ing coat that always smelled of smoke and wet leaves in the fall. My father wore that coat when he went out­side to work plant­i­ng all those tress and bush­es and flow­ers he got for cheap. He wore that red coat for twen­ty years or more. He wore it until the sleeves frayed and the red cloth became so worn it appeared black. I planned to find that coat as soon as I got back to the house. I want­ed noth­ing more than to be wear­ing that coat and the red check­ered hunt­ing cap with the earflaps.

The oth­ers want to bury him next to my moth­er in a grave he pur­chased but nev­er intend­ed to use. I say he nev­er intend­ed to use the grave not because he explic­it­ly stat­ed a desire not to be buried, but because my father believed he might be the one per­son who could live for­ev­er. He didn’t plan on death, only life. He plant­ed over one thou­sand trees on the two-hun­dred-acre farm he bought – a farm they told him wasn’t worth the price. He chuck­led when he told that sto­ry, the sto­ry of how Tom Gunther told him the farm was not worth the price. Tom said I was crazy, my father said. My father turned out to be right again. He was right for the mil­lionth time. Sure, to the untrained eye, that farm looked like a big mess of tan­gled vines and over­grown prick­er bush­es. But to my father eyes it looked like every­thing he ever want­ed. That farm gave him the place he need­ed to ride a bull­doz­er and chop things down and plant over one thou­sand trees. Some of the trees were hol­ly trees that have since grown from the size of Barbie dolls to the size of a man stand­ing on anoth­er man’s shoul­ders.

The funer­al direc­tor lift­ed up the bag and placed in inside the new wood­en urn that I got for free.

Another thing about my father in addi­tion to fru­gal­i­ty was that he always wore a hat – a real hat, a seri­ous hat like a Fedora or a Homburg, nev­er a sil­ly hat like a Bowler or a Porkpie hat. I think I nev­er mar­ried because men stopped wear­ing seri­ous hats to the office or any­where else for that mat­ter. When my father arrived home from his law office at exact­ly five-thir­ty every day, his fedo­ra would be slight­ly cocked and his beard would be just a bit shad­owy. He let me stand on the toes of his shoes and we could dance togeth­er like that for as long as I want­ed. My moth­er might yell from the kitchen that his Manhattan was ready and the oth­ers could yell from their rooms, but my father let me stand there on his feet pre­tend­ing to dance for as long as I liked.

You’re not going to sprin­kle these ash­es any­where, right?” the guy asked me.

What do I look like? A scofflaw?” I asked.

That was a word my father used. Scofflaw. When I went to col­lege and got about fifty park­ing tick­ets my father called me a scofflaw. My father was by the book. Except for a few things. He used to tell a sto­ry about an old man with no fam­i­ly who worked for him help­ing him plant trees and that guy want­ed to have his ash­es sprin­kled on the ocean when he died. But with­out bat­ting an eye or sub­se­quent­ly los­ing a moment of sleep, my father sprin­kled him on the rose­bush­es in the back of our house. That made my father a scofflaw, I sup­pose.

 

I’ve got my father in the way back now.I turn on the radio to drown out the sound of my think­ing because my father is right there and I sus­pect maybe he can hear my thoughts.

Believe it or not, my father’s car has a cas­sette play­er and I find a Patsy Cline cas­sette in the hold­er by the door. Now there is anoth­er mys­tery. Who knew that my father lis­tened to Patsy Cline while he rode around in The Chevy?

There is so much you don’t know about me.

That is my father talk­ing from the way back.

Why don’t I know? I ask. I am only slight­ly sur­prised to hear him talk­ing because the car smells so strong­ly of him that he could be sit­ting next to me.

Patsy sings.

There are things that you can’t know. And things I would nev­er have told you even if I’d lived anoth­er hun­dred years.

But you are my father, I argue.

I wait but he doesn’t say any­thing else.

Feeling bold, I say, I demand to know why you liked those wood­en carv­ings of Chinese peo­ple and why you nev­er told any­body that you liked Patsy Cline?

Accept that there are things you will nev­er under­stand.

Did you love me? I ask.

No answer.

Did you love me more than the oth­ers?

What do you want me to do with your ash­es?

It is at that moment that I see the red lights in my rearview mir­ror. Goddamnit to hell. I’m not entire­ly sure whether it is me or my father speak­ing.

I roll down the win­dow and wait. The lights are flash­ing behind me and I’m think­ing that my father would kill me right now if he could. I’m won­der­ing if the police­man will let me go if I tell him I was dis­tract­ed because my father’s ash­es were speak­ing to me from the way back.

The police­man is the old­est police­man I have ever seen. The truth is that I have nev­er been pulled over by any­one over the age or about thir­ty-five and this guy appears to be near­ly eighty. Okay, maybe sev­en­ty-five, but he is way too old to be dri­ving around in a police car. He’s wear­ing sun­glass­es but the wrin­kles around his eyes are deep. His face is shad­owed by gray hairs that cul­mi­nate in a point­ed lit­tle beard. There are hairs grow­ing from his ears the way there were hairs grow­ing from my father’s ears when he got old.

Let me go you old geezer is what I want to say as I hand him my license and reg­is­tra­tion. Despite his advanced age, his behav­ior is much like all the oth­er cops I’ve encoun­tered. He doesn’t speak. He reach­es for the doc­u­ments with his veiny, wrin­kled hand and walks back to his car. I wait for my father to yell at me or tell me what to do, but he has gone silent.

The police­man returns sev­er­al min­utes lat­er with my license and a pad on which I assume he has writ­ten me a tick­et.

Do you know how fast you were going?” he asks.

I don’t deny that I was speed­ing, sir,” I say. “But I think you would be sur­prised to dis­cov­er the rea­son.”

When the old cop lifts his glass­es I see that he is Chinese. I am so tak­en aback that I for­get all about the talk­ing ash­es for a moment.

Wait,” I say. But I can­not tell him how com­plete­ly shocked I am at see­ing a Chinese police­man.

You were dri­ving eighty-five miles per hour,” he says. He low­ers the glass­es.

And you are Chinese,” I want to say.

And what is the sur­pris­ing expla­na­tion?” he asks.

My father,” I answer. “My father is inside that box in the way back and I thought he was talk­ing to me.”

He walks to the back of the truck and peers in the win­dow.

Your father must be a very small man,” he answers.

No,” I clar­i­fy. “It’s his ash­es. His ash­es are in that box and I want to scat­ter them to the wind but no one else wants to do it.”

Did your father instruct you on what to do?”

No,” I tell him. “He might have been about to tell me, but then I got pulled over for speed­ing.”

Life is a series of trans­for­ma­tions,” the police­man tells me.

I know,” I say.

Every liv­ing thing must die.”

A trac­tor- trail­er zips by so close that the police­man grabs my door han­dle to steady him­self.

It’s against the law,” I tell him. “You can’t scat­ter peo­ple.”

I know the law,” he says and smiles. His teeth are per­fect­ly straight and per­fect­ly white.

He rips a tick­et from the pad and hands it to me. I had almost for­got­ten that the rea­son for our lit­tle vis­it was my speed­ing. When I look back, he is already walk­ing to his car. I stare down at the tick­et and can­not find the amount of the fine. In the space where a num­ber should be, I see the words scat­ter him.

 

I turn off the radio and wait for fur­ther instruc­tions but there are no fur­ther instruc­tions. I stare into the side mir­ror as the old, Chinese police­man pulls back onto the high­way. When I look back down at the tick­et, the words “scat­ter him” have been replaced by the word “warn­ing.” I search the tick­et but I can­not find the words “scat­ter him” any­where.

What do you want?” I ask the car. “Do you want to be scat­tered?”

No response.

How am I sup­posed to know what to do?” And as I ask the ques­tion I real­ize that this feel­ing of not know­ing what to do now extends well beyond the deci­sion at hand. Because it dawns on me that I may nev­er know exact­ly what to do again.

I dreamt you died once,” I say. “And the scari­est part of the dream was that there was no one to tell me which plants were weeds and which were flow­ers. I was too afraid to go into the gar­den because I thought I might kill every­thing.”

No answer.

I pull back on to the road and dri­ve about two miles before I turn off onto anoth­er road. I think I know where I am, but I am not cer­tain until I see the sign for Easy Street. This is where my father bought his first piece of land. Ever. He brought me here one Sunday morn­ing not long before he died to show me this spot because it meant a lot to him. He told me that he had deed­ed this land over to me and that while it was not worth very much at the moment, I should not sell it because one day they would put in sewage and water and the land would become more valu­able.

Easy Street was not what I expect­ed. It was most­ly over­grown thick­ets and trees with a few not-very-nice hous­es, the kind of beat-up, mys­te­ri­ous hous­es from which it was pos­si­ble to imag­ine a long-held kid­nap vic­tim emerg­ing on the evening news. The place my father showed me was still a vacant lot that ran back about two hun­dred yards before hit­ting more wild over­grown bush­es. My father told me about how many years ear­li­er, before I was born, he used to dri­ve to that emp­ty lot on Easy Street when­ev­er he could because he owned it and because he liked to walk around and plan the future. Being a bit spoiled and mate­ri­al­is­tic, I was dis­ap­point­ed in my land. I had imaged Easy Street as a place of wealth and lux­u­ry, swim­ming pools and man­i­cured lawns. I did not care to own land in prox­im­i­ty to mod­ern-day hill­bil­lies. My neigh­bors kept goats in a wire fence and chick­ens in box­es and used rust­ed old swings for patio fur­ni­ture. I could see the twin­kle in my father’s eye as he reg­is­tered my con­fu­sion and dis­may. He enjoyed mak­ing my moth­er angry by wear­ing third-world suits and cheap shoes to fan­cy par­ties. He rel­ished oppor­tu­ni­ties to show how lit­tle he cared for the fin­er things.

Don’t you like it?” he had asked.

Sure,” I said.

Maybe you’ll make friends with your neigh­bors,” he said and chuck­led.

I pull over when I find my father’s land. My neigh­bors must be out because the lawn chairs are emp­ty and their goats are in a shed. I think about the lit­tle girl they may be keep­ing in the base­ment and won­der if I should take a peak in the win­dow. But then I remem­ber the ash­es and I go to the way back of the car and open the gate. I lift the wood­en urn out of the back and car­ry it with me to the fur­ther­most edge of the first piece of land my father ever bought. With trep­i­da­tion, I take off the lid and remove the bag of ash­es. I put the lid back on the urn and use it as a makeshift stool. Sitting there on the urn I imag­ine my father as a young man walk­ing around and around this prop­er­ty con­tem­plat­ing his future. He laughs to him­self when he con­sid­ers the fool­ish­ness of those who do not rec­og­nize the hid­den val­ue of the land around them. My father must have liked to be alone and to feel the soil beneath his feet, the soil he owned. The soil that now belongs to me.

After my father died, I called a real estate bro­ker and gave him the lot num­ber of the prop­er­ty on Easy Street so that he could put it on the mar­ket. I want­ed what­ev­er mon­ey I could get for it. I want­ed to buy a pair of suede Manolo Blahnik dri­ving moc­casins that cost near­ly five hun­dred dol­lars and I fig­ured the prof­it from my land would be my mad-mon­ey. I would save the oth­er mon­ey from my inher­i­tance and set up a retire­ment account. But I was enti­tled to some fun, I fig­ured. My father nev­er spent his mon­ey or sold his land unless he was plan­ning to acquire some oth­er piece of prop­er­ty. I don’t sell; I buy, he said.My moth­er was furi­ous with my father because he nev­er let her buy new fur­ni­ture.

I remove the twistie-thing from the bag­gie and stare at the ash­es. Somewhere in that lit­tle bag is all that is left of a man and a mahogany cas­ket. I regret that we did not put his fedo­ra on him in the cas­ket. Lost in my con­tem­pla­tions of the mys­tery of fire, I don’t hear my neigh­bor until he is stand­ing beside me.

Are you Peter’s daugh­ter?” he asks.

This is New Jersey but my neigh­bor has a twang. My neigh­bor is wear­ing over­sized jeans held up by a tight­ly cinched belt. His blue shirt is stained with sweat. His hair is pure white.

Yes,” I say. “My father left me this piece of land.”

I place the bag on the ground beside me.

I am sor­ry for your loss,” he says. “I read about it in the paper.”

Thank you,” I say. “He was very old.”

I’m not cer­tain why I keep telling peo­ple that my father was very old when he died. I’m not sure who I’m try­ing to con­sole.

Your father helped me out more than once,” the man says. “The town want­ed to take the house. Your father rep­re­sent­ed us in court.”

He did?” I ask, not know­ing quite what to say.

He nev­er charged us noth­ing,” he says. “I owe him a great deal.”

I’m sure he didn’t mind,” I answer. “I’m sure he want­ed to help.”

Your father was a good man. And he knew how to make let­tuce grow.”

I didn’t know that, about the let­tuce,” I say.

He gave me some tips and I got great let­tuce.” He points to a gar­den over on his prop­er­ty that looks rather out of con­trol to me.

I sit on the urn.

You ever need any­thing, you just ask,” he says. He smiles and I see that he has a few holes where there should be teeth.

Thank you,” I say.

Thanks to you,” he says.

I watch him walk back to the strange house next door. I pick up the bag again and strug­gle with my con­science. I leave my father on top of the urn and go all the back to the Chevy to exam­ine the tick­et one more time for the words I can no longer find. I car­ry the tick­et and a brown paper bag and return to my father.

Here goes,” I say.

I recite the The Lord’s Prayer as best as I can remem­ber as I wave the bag around in cir­cles over my head. It takes a minute before I real­ize I am cov­ered in ash­es. Falling to the ground, I roll in the grass until I am damp. I run full speed to the Chevy and back again shak­ing my head so that I don’t have bits of ash in my hair. A goat stares at me from his wire pen.

When I am fair­ly sure that I have got­ten myself clean, I take the match­es from the glove com­part­ment and return to my stool. I dig a small hole in the dirt and place the tick­et and the paper bag in the hole and then light a match. When I gath­er the ash­es and place them in the plas­tic bag, there are not near­ly enough to fool any­one. I have noth­ing left to burn and begin to despair when I spot a met­al garbage can on my neighbor’s prop­er­ty. My guess is that he burns stuff in that can.

The goat con­tin­ues to mon­i­tor my move­ments. I don’t ask per­mis­sion because I don’t want to explain why I am doing what I am doing. I reach into the bar­rel and grab a hand­ful of cold ash. I place a cred­i­ble amount in the bag and close it with the twistie thing. My neighbor’s wife waves to me from a bro­ken win­dow. I wave back.

As the wind kicks up I think I can see my father’s ash­es reshape them­selves into the fig­ure of man fly­ing past me and into the woods. I think to chase him but real­ize that I can­not fol­low him into the trees. The oth­ers are wait­ing for me. As I return the bag into the emp­ty urn, I notice a few ash­es caught in the hairs on my arm. I slow­ly rub them into my skin.

 

 

Lisa Levchuk is author of Everything Beautiful in the World, 2008 FSG BYR. Her short fic­tion has appeared in The Crescent Review and in the online pub­li­ca­tion 2paragraphs.