Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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2633 words
SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Trunk Ashes

by Bud Jennings

A trip to the beach on the first day of a summer break should be celebratory, so I wasn’t intending to include my father’s ashes. Then I lifted out the beach chair and saw the cardboard box wedged there in the corner of the trunk, and felt guilty. My family had believed I’d taken care of this last October, so it was only the ashes that might accuse me—and they weren’t very vocal on the subject.

As I climbed the stairs that straddled the dunes, the bag flapped against my back, as if Bud, my father, were nudging me to move a little faster. But I still lingered at the highest point of the boardwalk, a wider platform with the perspective of a guard tower. Trees gave way to shrubs, that yielded to sea grasses, that were overtaken by the sands, that were swallowed and spit out by the surf. A panorama so sublime I’d sometimes shudder—when I was only home on a visit from Boston, then New York, and finally Paris. The situation could be worse; I could have grown up in Alaska or West Virginia and been doing my sonly duty there.

He died the summer before: cerebral hemorrhage, coma for twenty hours, and then dead. Too fast to think straight. The day after the funeral, Mae (everyone called my parents by their first names) and I were at the kitchen table when she dropped the news that her finances were in a shambles. Years before, she’d insisted my father take the pension option without survivor benefits. “I was so afraid to be alone, and I thought,” she mumbled through tears, “that if I’d fix it so I’d have nothing if he went first, then God wouldn’t leave me abandoned.” My headstrong mother had made an ultimatum to the Almighty, and lost. Like Lucy Ricardo—but with a husband who doesn’t question anything—she didn’t avoid impulsive shenanigans. A few years after they were married, when Mae couldn’t decide which color to paint the living room, she called the newspaper to put an ad in the afternoon edition. The callers assumed the low price was a misprint, and my father didn’t know the house was for sale until he arrived home from work to find two men fighting over it on the front lawn.

Sitting there, looking down at her fingers pulling at the hem of her nightgown, she seemed so fragile, but I wasn’t sure if her hunched shoulders were a ruse to make her appear vulnerable, more sympathetic. She was eighty but crafty. She looked up at me, her cheeks wet with regret, and I hated myself for being cynical. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “really, I’ll take care of it,” without any way to do that. My teaching salary in Paris didn’t leave much at the end of each month; I couldn’t send her enough to do much good.

But, strangely, as if to prove Mae’s influence over the divine, the phone rang ten minutes later. My old high school principal was offering condolences and a job. An English teacher had just resigned, and he wanted to fill the position before going away for Labor Day. I had to take it. I made phone calls to cancel my rentrée—what the French call the return to normal life after a vacation away. With renewed faith in divine intercession, Mae was smiling at the ceiling fan as she sighed, “God works in mysterious ways,” while I was thinking, God has a sardonic sense of humor.

My father’s ashes and I sat on an old sheet spread across the white sands. Crane Beach is vast, especially at low tide, and there were maybe only a dozen other people, distant smudges without gender or history. I stared at the ocean’s horizon, wistfully imagining the curvature of the globe sliced away to reveal a straight line between my position and Paris. A breeze came up from the ocean, like a blast of air conditioning. A ranger riding by in a buggy with huge donut wheels nodded to me, and the uniform made me worry for a moment about the laws for disposing remains.

It was only half of the ashes there with me. Mae had been torn between releasing them from Crane Beach in Ipswich, the seacoast town where Bud had been born, and placing them beneath a cemetery grave marker, where she could plant geraniums on Memorial Days. My sister Mary Jane proposed the contents be halved—a serving for the ground and a serving for the sea. At first it seemed irreverent, but in a quick go-around the kitchen table, my family decided Bud would have voted for the practical compromise.

He’d died on a sun-bleached August morning, and the burial happened on a dark October afternoon pelted by raw, horizontal rain. The “anatomical gift” had travelled in a hearse to the medical school and the ashes rode back to us in a UPS truck. At the cemetery, as the priest led the final sign of the cross, Mae turned to me and said, “All right, now you can bring the rest of him to Ipswich.” I walked Mae to my sister’s car, holding the umbrella so she could light her cigarette. Once she was in the seat and belted in, I said, “You don’t mean today, right?... It’s a friggin’ typhoon here. The coast will be worse.” Even among my freckled high school friends, my Irish mother was the most adept at guilt. “I really think your father deserves your attention today,” she almost cooed, brushing her fingers along my cheek. “He never told you the weather was too bad when you wanted to go to the pet store to get a guppy or a turtle.”

My father wouldn’t see the sense of a burial at sea when an early-season nor’easter would only blow him back into my face, so I drove off and called a friend for dinner. The needs of the dead could be postponed. When I got home, Mae believed my elaborate concoction that included a seagull watching me as I let the ashes fall into the water. I didn’t feel guilty about it. I was the dutiful son that inherited Mae and her bills.

My parents had sold the house I’d grown up in when my father retired, and my parents and my sister Jude since occupied one half of a ranch-style duplex. When the elderly couple on the other side moved to assisted living, my sister Mary Jane and her two roommates took their place. It was a shanty-Irish version of the Kennedy compound: Jude worked full-time and took college courses at night; Mary Jane, agoraphobic, bipolar, and debilitated by anxiety, lived with a psychiatric nurse and a social worker, old friends qualified to manage the occasional panic attack. Mary Jane’s twin, Kathleen, squeezed in with the girls after her marriage broke up, just a month before Bud passed away. At night, they’d sit around the kitchen table in one apartment or the other, and talk. About my dead father. About money. About memories. About gastrointestinal complaints. I’d usually recede into the den, the vacation crash pad turned permanent, monastic cell, and correct high school kids’ essays. There were nights I’d sit and listen to the voices, the feminine intonations, and wondered if my father had felt outnumbered.

Piping plovers were bringing their chicks down to the water to hunt for things tunneling beneath the corrugated flats. I looked down at the box, pale blue with black speckles, like an iris. Whenever I was home for a visit, Bud would draft me for some errand, really so we’d have time alone, “just us men.” Because it was the last time I could say anything to any form of my father, I told the box, “I remember every conversation.” We talked about Wall Street criminals at Meineke, about global warming at the dump, and on our way to the DMV, an abstract discussion about AIDS came to a head at a stop light. “You’d tell me if you had it, wouldn’t you?” He had stories about the Depression, the war, the rush of fear that made his arms tremble when he held each of us for the first time. “There’s no way to prepare for that kinda responsibility,” he said.

With the sun beating down on it, the box was warm—not at all like the cold forehead I’d kissed after signing the forms that released the body to the medical school. All that was him was gone. There was as little of his essence on that gurney as in the box of dust. It had been more than just the excuse of weather that had extended my father’s tenure in my car. It provided material, after all, for riffs at dinners with my old high school friends. “It’s a portable mausoleum.” “Port-a-body!” “Is the wake open-trunk or closed?” The ashes became a shtick, and the shtick was a reason for the ashes to stay where they were.

I picked up the box and shook it, listening to the contents bounce up and down, and then opened the top to pull out the clear plastic bag. Suspended throughout the gray powder were bone fragments. One of these was larger than the others, a shard the size of an ant that could have come from anywhere: the index finger that had pointed to words in picture books—to the Aurora Borealis the night a freak solar storm had blown that spectacle over New England—or a heel that had strolled this very beach.

In fourth grade, our teacher demonstrated the difference between a physical change and a chemical change. She crumpled a piece of paper—physical change—and then dropped it into a pail and put a match to it—chemical change. Reduced to this dusty, inalterable transformation was the father I’d known: the blue eyes, the white hair that forested his arms, the faulty heart valves that had worried all of us when I was a kid. Mae and Bud had started their family late, and when I asked Mae what Frankie Golio’s mother meant by hot flashes, she said, “Poor thing. I used to have those back in ancient times, when I was her age.” My parents were hourglasses whose upper bulbs would empty before other parents’.

Atop the wooded hill overlooking the beach is a mansion, where Mr. Crane lived before his property was bequeathed to the sun-bathing public. When we came to this beach as kids, our father would sometimes tell the story of Mr. Crane, who made his fortune building urinals. “I’ve heard of ‘piss poor,’ but that was piss rich.” My father was a gentle iconoclast. One lazy afternoon when I was a teenager, he and I were watching a TV documentary about Eastern religions. Monks in orange robes were chanting; their bald heads lined up beneath a bank of golden Buddhas. Bud leaned around the back of his recliner, bellowed over the reverberating incantations, “Can’t tell me God doesn’t love hearing prayers like that,” undermining all the nuns and saints who’d decreed Heaven the property of baptized Catholics.

...So many days, so many billions of neurons of memories, reduced to the contents of a cheap box at my side. I stood, surveyed my solitude, and took the ashes down to the water. The surface was a motionless slate that occasionally rippled to catch a fleck of sun. Minnows schooled at the water’s edge and darted away as I stepped in. A storm had knocked the Gulf Stream off course, and the water was warm, so I continued without the pain of early summer New England water. With Crane Beach’s soft gradient, at nearly a quarter mile from shore, the tide was still below my knees. I walked more, thinking I’d take Bud past the sandbars and away from where the afternoon swarms would swim and piss.

After college, I shared a basement apartment with my first real boyfriend, but within six months, it was clear that I was challenged by the standards of commitment—and the boyfriend’s roving eyes were as loose as mine. My father drove down in his pickup truck to haul my stuff and me to a studio across town. We took a break and sat on the bed, the last thing to go. Bud draped his arm across my shoulders. “It’s hard when things don’t wind up the way we’d like. But you can’t expect anything in life. If you do, then you might be disappointed.” His voice echoed through the empty apartment and sounded like authority.

A cloud passed overhead, and the sudden darkening brought me back. I could see my feet, but the sandy bottom had disappeared behind a blackened reflection of the sky. Checking that no one was around, I opened the bag, scooped out a handful, and inspected the mound before a passing breeze sheared off its tip. Less than a year before, I’d jumped up from the breakfast table, “Later, Dad.” He was disappointed I couldn’t hang out longer over coffee. I apologized to the ashes, explaining that I’d thought I was only home for a few weeks, was late to meet a friend—and hadn’t known that Bud didn’t have all the time in the world. I tipped my hand and watched the ashes cascade into the water.

Unaware of how ash and water typically relate to each other, I was spellbound as my father’s ashes created a bloom that was like cumulus clouds, like cream poured into coffee, white against infinite black, ringing my legs. The billows stretched outward, unfurling until I was at the center of a halo of white water, milk-white, ceiling-white. I poured more of the ashes into the ocean-father mixture, almost entirely emptying the bag. I walked slowly to the edge of the chalky storm, to investigate the churning, puffy domes that continued their expansion. It was now bigger than a house’s foundation and was getting wider. A distant noise startled me, but there was no one walking the shoreline who might see this anomaly and call the rangers. I twisted the bag—with just a few tablespoons of my father left there—and tied it in a knot, then another knot, and slipped the parcel into the pocket of my shorts. A memento.

Facing the open sea, I kneeled so the water was touching my chin, and from that vantage point the alabaster surface appeared to stretch into the far-off mist lounging across the surface, the border shared by water and air erased in fiery white. I dove under and opened my eyes, saw glinting curtains of sunlight in every direction. Maybe the whiteness was some ghostly message, or just the normal reaction of human ashes in seawater, no more magical than flaming paper turning to cinders in a bucket. But I’d never heard anyone mention this kind of phenomenon before—and had never seen it in any of the movies with a scene of ashes scattered to the sea.

Marking the end of low tide, shallow swells began to form. I wanted to see the cloud from a distance, and I made my way purposefully out of the water, up the beach to the elevated stairs leading to the parking lot. Once at the platform above the tallest crest of the dunes, I stepped up on a bench, and it was impossible not to spot it, the silvery medallion floating on the ocean.

The tide was growing, waves were hitting the shore, and the churning was starting to break up the white cloud. An unexpected visitor was dissipating slowly, leaving behind a sense of wonder I’d thought was only possible in the electric cities I’d temporarily called my own.

SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Bud Jennings

completed the graduate creative writing program at NYU, and his writing credits include pieces in Gertrude, 34th Parallel, Educe Journal, Superstition Review, Christopher Street, and Between C & D. An excerpt from a novel he just finished was published in Coloring Book: An Eclectic Anthology of Fiction and Poetry by Multicultural Writers (Rattlecat Press, 2003). He received a finalist award in Fiction/Creative Nonfiction from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and two residencies from the Blue Mountain Center.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury