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.
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.
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?”
“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.”
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.