Ashes of Old Lovers

Ashes of Old Lovers

In Issue 77 by Jo-Anne Rosen

Ashes of Old Lovers
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That couldn’t be my father on the phone. Forty years had gone by without a single card or message from him, and for all I knew he was dead. No, my elderly neighbor was teasing me.

“Pete dear, I’ve got a client on the other line,” I said.

“Mary Edwina, please listen.”

I listened. Pete could not have known my horrid middle name.

“I’m Edward Keller. I’m your father.”

“Hold on,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”

I told the client I had to take another call. But when I switched lines again, the caller had hung up. “Goddamn it,” I muttered. Was that really my father? Why couldn’t he wait a minute past forty years? Had he been impatient? Quick-tempered? I couldn’t remember. He wasn’t around much and then he was gone.

Nana said he was a salesman who was mostly on the road. And when he was home? A blank. But it must not have been too awful or why would his leaving have troubled me for so long?

He left after my mother’s funeral. I was only ten but already as tall as Nana. Daddy towered over us, thin and somber in a dark suit and sunglasses. Afterward, Nana, eyes red from weeping, took me home to live with her.

Six months later he married a woman who wanted nothing to do with his first family. I saw my stepmother only once and disliked her immediately. They left Los Angeles and moved halfway across the country, for starters.

Until I was eighteen, Daddy sent me a birthday card with a check every year, and Nana got monthly support payments. After that he vanished. He didn’t come to my wedding. He didn’t know he had a granddaughter.

I walked down the road to the mailboxes. It was still cool in the shade of the redwoods. Dogs barked as I passed their yards, on cue. Had anything changed?

When I returned, this message was on the machine.

“Mary, it’s your father again. When you can spare the time, please call this number.” The number was an L.A. exchange.

He picked up the phone after several rings, his voice querulous and thick with sleep. “Keller,” he said.

“This is Mary. I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“We got disconnected.”

“I suppose we did.” I hesitated. “I must say, it was a shock to hear from you.”

“I’ve been looking for you, Mary. For five years. Someone helped me Google you, finally. Thank God you’re still a Keller.”

I told him I’d written letters and emails to Edward Kellers in several states over the years.

“Where on earth were you hiding?”

“I wasn’t hiding,” he replied testily. “I had obligations.”

Meaning, I assumed, to my jealous stepmother. She’d had a stroke seven years ago and died two years after that, he told me. They had lived in Puerto Rico twenty-five years.

“How did you wind up there?”

“It was affordable,” he said. “And what have you been up to, Mary?”

I gave him the short version: moved to San Francisco, taught high school English, married, divorced, raised my daughter Kate.

“So. I’m a grandfather.” He sounded wistful.

“Kate is still in San Francisco. She’s twenty-nine.”

“I hope to meet her soon.”

“We could visit you.”

He cleared his throat. “I’d like that very much.”

“We’ve a lot of catching up to do,” I began, but he went on.

“What I really want to do is relocate to your area.”

“Oh,” I said, taken aback. “You mean somewhere in the North Bay?”

“It’s lousy being alone when you’re old,” he said. “Criminies, this joint’s depressing.”

I dug up the shoebox of old photos Nana gave me. Inside were mostly baby and toddler snapshots of myself. The formal portrait of my parents on their wedding day I had long since removed and framed. I lingered over a few of my mother in her teens, her face eager and open. Kate looked a lot like her. The photos of my mother and me must have been snapped by my father. I could see his shadow in one.

I fished out the only other photo I had of him, darkly handsome in a sailor’s uniform, smiling jauntily at the camera. I am seated on his shoulders, his hands gripping my ankles, my arms around his neck, staring intently at the top of his head.

I didn’t remember that happening. I remembered only the possibility of a memory, a faint and elusive recollection of pomade in his hair, imagined so often it seemed real. There were yellowed tape marks on the back; it had once been part of a collage on my bedroom door, along with photos of friends, Mom and Nana, as if I could cut and paste him back into my life.

Pete limped into my kitchen, cane in one hand, a plate of brownies in the other. He'd hoped the smell of baking would rouse Taffy from her bed, but she hadn’t budged. Pete lived across the street with his daughter, who’d moved in after his wife died a few years before, and I’d assumed to help the old man out. But Taffy was ill more often than not.

Over coffee, Pete informed me that Taffy was seeing a psychic healer now. “She’s a bundle of nerves, my Taffy apple. You know, she talks about you all the time. I wish she had some of your zip.”

“Caffeine and sugar are my friends,” I laughed. But I pushed the coffee away and toyed with the brownie.

“He looked at me closely. “You seem a little distracted,” he said.

“My long-lost father rang me up today,” I told him.

“You’re not serious?”

“I thought it was you, pulling my leg. But no, he’s the real McDad. Out of the blue.”

Pete clapped his hands. “It’s a miracle.”

“A miracle? I haven’t seen the man in forty years. Why is he showing up now?”

“He wants a chance to heal the wounds?” Pete suggested.

“I’m guessing he wants better accommodations.”

I phoned my daughter at her job in a Silicon Valley tech company.

Kate was astonished to learn “a Gramps has Googled himself into our reality,” as she put it. “I'd beam him up here, if I could,” she added.

I told her I did not want to become a caregiver for an aged parent who’d never cared much for me. “He’s been looking for me since my stepmother died, but what about the previous thirty-five years?”

 “You don’t know what he’s thinking,” she argued. “Or what could happen when you see each other again. Bottom line, we don’t know how long he’ll be around. At the very least, we can pick his brains for family and medical history, stuff like that.”

I said I'd think about it and get back to her.

After my eighteenth birthday, all my letters to him were returned stamped “No Such Person at This Address” and “No Forwarding Address.”

I used to daydream about him showing up unannounced, minus his spiteful wife, tall and elegant and overjoyed to be with me again. “How I missed you,” he'd say, “my darling Mary.” He had been under her spell, and now he was free.

That much was true. He was free now and, for whatever reason, wanted to reconnect with me. Kate could be right. We might not have much more time. But what if he lived another ten or fifteen years, and we hated each other?

I asked Kate if she could help me move her grandfather, but she couldn’t arrange time off from her new job.

When Taffy learned I planned to drive to L.A. by myself, she offered to keep me company and drive part of the way. “It’s such a long trip. I can help with the moving too.”

I looked at her, for a moment at a loss for words. That sweet plump face, like her mother’s, the same furrowed brow and corkscrew gray curls, and like her father, so eager to be of service. What had happened to her? She was the only person I knew who actually wrung her hands. She rubbed them together constantly while talking. I couldn’t bear to be around her for more than half an hour, tops. I thought Pete was a saint.

“Oh Taffy, that’s so kind. But I should be alone with my father when we reunite.”

“Of course,” she said. “That was thoughtless of me.”

Since my car was too old and problematic for the trip, I rented a large comfortable sedan. My father said he had only a few things he wanted to keep, which I figured would fill up the back seat and trunk. I told him he could stay with me while looking for his own housing, that we’d find a residence suitable to his needs and pocketbook.

“You can stay with me a couple of weeks,” I said. “A month or two at the most.”

“That’s understandable,” he said curtly.

 “I need my own space,” I added, to make it perfectly clear. “I work out of my home.”

The Sunrise Manor was an oversized ranch house that accommodated half a dozen residents. There was nothing but ranch houses for miles around. For residents without a car, it would be a virtual prison.

I got out of the rental car and saw a man seated in the shadow of the porch on his walker, peering at me.

“Mary Edwina?”

“Yes.”

I came closer and he stood up. He was about my height and thin with thick silver hair. He had piercing blue eyes and a beaked nose, which fascinated me. I hadn’t remembered his profile — the wedding photo and the snapshot of us together were taken straight on.

I hugged him briefly. He patted my back.

“I’m all packed,” he said. “I hired an aide to help me.”

“That was resourceful,” I said.

He smiled, showing gleaming dentures.

“So, we can blow this pop stand, pop?”

“You said it, toots.”

He insisted on taking his recliner chair because it was better than any bed and also a large trunk, a drop-leaf table, more chairs, a chest of drawers. I had to rent a trailer, which delayed us several hours.

“I might drive straight through,” I told him. “Are you comfortable sleeping in that seat?” But he was already dozing, chin on his chest, mouth open, his breathing ragged.

He woke from one of his many naps at sunset and gazed at the crimson and orange- streaked sky, and said, “Thank you for rescuing me from that hellhole.”

And a little while later.

“I want you to know something.”

“Yes?”

“I’m not afraid to die.”

That’s when I learned Daddy had accepted Jesus. He favored the Catholic Church but didn’t have the time or patience for the requisite conversion, so he’d settled for the Anglican rite.

I hadn’t thought about this in many years, but I was positive Nana had told me my father was Jewish. I remember her saying that I wasn’t because my mother wasn’t. I asked him if he’d been raised in the Jewish faith.

“I’m a Jew for Jesus,” he explained. “I’ll be ready when the Messiah comes again.”

It was dark when we arrived. There are nine steps down to the deck, and he navigated them with difficulty.

“A ramp would be nice,” he said. “If you expect me to visit.”

“I’ll visit you, Edward.”

A stony-hurt look I would come to know all too well settled on his face.

“Of course, you’re always welcome here,” I hastened to add. “It’s expensive to put in a ramp. I’m a renter, and I can’t afford it.”

I settled him in the guest room, which in summer is the best room in the house, with a sliding glass door opening to the deck and a view of the creek. In winter it’s so cold I close it off and use it for storage. The next day two neighborhood boys moved in the furniture and boxes. I carted out my books and clothes, and my father made himself at home.

I was in my office before dawn, editing a grant proposal and writing promotional materials for a nonprofit client. Then I began to research county housing agencies and social services for seniors.

Edward slept late. When the door to the deck slid open, I came downstairs. He was standing in a frayed robe by the railing gazing at the creek bed. Hearing me, he turned and smiled. “Why Mary, you’ve got a little corner of paradise here, haven’t you?”

“Yes, I do.” I came over to the railing. “You’ll think otherwise in winter when the rain never stops. Do you drink coffee, Edward?”

“I will today, though I’m not supposed to.” And he winked at me.

Kate left work early to beat the traffic and arrived in time for dinner. I’d set a table on the deck, and Edward and I were sipping wine and batting off mosquitoes when she clattered down the stairs.

“Your granddaughter,” I announced.

“Oh my gosh,” he said, gazing at her. “The image of your mother.”

He meant my mother, Kate’s grandmother, whom we both resemble, in fact. But Kate more so, being young, her vibrant blonde hair swinging as she walked toward him with arms spread open.

“Hiya, Gramps,” she said. He rose with the agility of a younger man to embrace her.

Over dinner she coaxed him to reminisce about his childhood in Cleveland, his parents and siblings, all of which was news to us. I never knew there were Keller aunts and uncles, probably cousins somewhere, too.

“We didn’t keep in touch,” he said, spreading both hands in a gesture of resignation. He talks with his hands, I noted, like me. Had I learned to do that at his knee or was it in our DNA?

After he’d gone to bed, Kate helped me clean up.

“He’s darling,” she said. “Let’s keep him.”

“Easy for you to say. He’s not in your guest room.”

“Mom?” She looked at me closely. “Are you okay with this?”

“It’s fine, so far. But a little unreal. I mean, you know who your father is, right? You know that he loves you. I don’t know diddly squat about this man.”

“Well, here’s your chance, then,” she said a little sharply.

“And another thing,” I went on. “He’s the first man who left me. And he wasn’t the last. I’m sure that affected all my relationships.”

“Hey, you left some guys in the dust yourself,” she chided. She meant I’d divorced her father. A sweet guy and a good dad, he wound up boring me to tears. I wasn’t sure Kate had forgiven me yet.

Pete and Taffy came over to meet Edward on Sunday after church. Pete had baked an apple pie, which Taffy carried for him. She wore a puffy-sleeved pink dress that made her look like an oversized child. I took the pie from Taffy, and she clasped her hands together and trilled, “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Keller, we’ve heard so much about you.”

Pete winced, but my father seemed unperturbed. “Likewise, young lady,” he said. “Did you bake that pie?”

“Oh no. Daddy’s the baker in the family.”

“Zat so?” He regarded Pete curiously.

“Yep, they call me Pete the Baker. I learned my trade in the Navy.”

“Where did you serve?” my father asked. “I was at Guam.”

The two men swapped war stories and I half listened, unable to recall anything I’d overheard or been told as a child. I didn’t know he’d been on a battleship for two years.

“I couldn’t bake a pie to save my life.” Edward held up gnarled hands. “It’s a job just holding a fork now, I tell you.”

I took the pie into the kitchen and Taffy followed, visibly drooping. “I won’t have any,” she said. “I can’t eat apples or anything sweet anymore. I’ll help you serve.”

When we brought out coffee and slices of pie, Pete was describing the churches in our town and their locations.

“We attend Congregational services,” Pete said. “You can join us next Sunday if you like. I volunteer in the soup kitchen afterward, but Taffy’ll drive you home.”

“The pastor is wonderful,” Taffy enthused.

“It doesn’t hurt that he looks like Sean Penn,” I put in, and Taffy giggled.

“Oh, you girls,” Pete said.

Edward frowned. “I’m not shopping for a church with a movie star minister,” he said. Then he turned to Pete and ignored us.

Hey Buster, I was thinking. Look sharp, over here’s where your bread is buttered.

Taffy flushed deeply and after a few minutes said her goodbyes.

I phoned Kate and told her how rude Edward was.

“You’re overreacting,” she said. “He’s a straight shooter like you.”

She suggested we could live together, as Pete and Taffy did, despite their differences.

“Gramps can help with rent and other expenses. You could afford to hire someone to cook and clean, which would simplify your life.”

“And why should I turn my life upside down, in the first place?” I inquired.

She was quiet for a beat or two. I could hear a keyboard clicking. Kate was multitasking.

“Because families should stick together and he’s all the family you have, except me,” she said. “What good would it do to warehouse him when that's not what he wants?”

I held my tongue. I was thinking, didn't you just leave home the other day? Isn't this my life now, at last?

I arranged the photograph of Edward and baby Mary on the fridge door with a magnet, and he put on his reading glasses and studied it carefully.

“I’ve never seen this before.” he said.

“Did Mom take the photo?”

“I don’t remember. She must have.”

“Where was it taken? It looks like a park.”

He shook his head. He didn’t remember anything either.

Kate drove up on Saturdays or Sundays, and she and Gramps entertained each other for the day. She took him to see the giant redwoods and drove him to the coast to watch the ocean swells break against Goat Rock. They went shopping in little boutiques and brought treats to me like peace offerings — champagne grapes, a Stilton cheese, or smoked wild salmon.

At least once a week we three dined together, usually at home. Edward was never so chatty alone with me as when Kate was present. It wasn’t just the wine; we had a glass or two every night. She could draw him out and I could not.

He told us more about his childhood in Cleveland and his parents, who had immigrated from Poland or Russia, he wasn’t sure which. He was the youngest of seven children and they lived in four rooms above the family grocery store, where he worked from an early age. He hadn’t been back to Cleveland in fifty years.

“I was the black sheep,” he said with a sly grin. “I ran off to California and married a goldenes shicksa.

After Kate returned to the city, Edward seemed to deflate a little. Perhaps I was less fun to be with, more easily distracted.

Our days settled into a tolerable routine. I put out breakfast and lunch for him and then retreated to my office.  Edward liked to go into town to inspect the three blocks of shops and cafes along the river. I’d drop him and his walker off at a café twice a week and pick him up in time for his afternoon nap. On Sunday, I drove him to church.

Dinner was ready no later than 5:30 and I joined him for that meal. When he said grace, I said Amen. But our conversation was superficial, as though we were skating warily over a thin surface. Neither of us broached the subject of Edward’s living arrangements.

What I wanted to talk about was my mother, Lillian, but I knew it would be easier with Kate around. What he wanted to talk about was Kate.

“She’s on a career track,” he’d say proudly, unconsciously parroting his granddaughter. “There are no glass ceilings in the age of information.”

I think we were both relieved when she bounced down the stairs every weekend.

“Your grandmother was a beautiful girl,” Edward mused, gazing at Kate. “Every inch a lady.”

“Where did you meet her, Gramps?”

“She was selling china,” he sang. “Until the crowd got wise.”

“Mom, translation, please?”

“It’s a pop song from Edward’s heyday about love at first sight.”

“That’s right,” he said, amiably. “It was a blind date. Her friend was dating my friend. I had a pretty good job, then, mind you, selling cars, and a swell car, too, a ‘39 Ford roadster. Our first date I drove her out to the beach, and her long yellow hair fell out of the scarf and was flying loose in the wind. I looked at her and thought this is the girl for me.”

Lillian’s mother did not approve of the new boyfriend because he wasn’t Catholic. So, he had to woo Nana as well.

“What a beautiful, high-spirited bride,” he murmured. “I was never so happy again.”

“So, your marriage was happy?” I asked dryly and Kate glared at me.

“Blissfully so, in the beginning. But then,” he hesitated and stared at his plate. “Her pregnancy was difficult. That’s when she began to decline.”

Did I know this before? Not in so many words, yet somehow it was as familiar as my own nose. I could imagine what came next: sick wife, screaming baby, time to hit the road, maybe play around.

“Mary, you have a birthday coming up this month.”

“You remember?” I was startled.

“Of course, I remember. Wasn’t I there? Good Lord, fifty-nine years ago. A regular bundle of joy, you were, too, healthy, squalling, look out world, here comes Mar.”

Edward offered to take us out for dinner on my birthday and Kate and I brought out our calendars and agreed on a date. Then we each had a glass of port, and Edward and I lit up the small hand-rolled cigars he’d found in a shop that day. Kate watched us blowing smoke rings somewhat askance.

On my birthday, Edward presented me with an indigo-blue silk scarf, which he had picked out himself, he wanted me to know.

“It’s lovely. And it matches my dress.”

Kate gave me a half liter of very good port, a small box of truffles and another box wrapped in tissue paper.

Inside the box I found a short, wide-mouthed ceramic vase with a blue-green glaze; it was a pleasing shape and color and had a large cork top. I turned it around. On the other side, inscribed on a raised slab like a label were the words “Ashes of Old Lovers.”

Kate giggled nervously. Edward seemed puzzled.

“Very funny,” I said flatly and lifted the cork and peered in. It was empty.

 “What’s so funny?” Edward asked. “Death isn’t the slightest bit funny.”

“All my former lovers are still alive,” I assured him.

“I’m sorry,” Kate said, blushing. “I couldn’t resist it.”

The scarf Edward gave me was a thoughtful gift, but the vase was suspect. What is the subtext here, I wondered. I hadn’t been with a man in five years, but there had been plenty before, whereas Kate had always been picky about her boyfriends, something of an elitist.

I made an effort then to spend more time with Edward. We watched old movies on TV and reruns of Law and Order. We didn’t talk much, but I began to feel comfortable having him around. Don’t sweat the small stuff, I reminded myself every day.

Until the evening I came downstairs to find him watching footage from Iraq on the Fox channel. I sat down and listened for a while then asked what he thought about the torture scandal.

“Why don’t they just shoot ‘em and be done with it?”

“You mean, kill the prisoners?”

“That’s what I’d do. Kill them before they kill us.”

I was too shocked to respond.

He looked at me bleakly. “War is hell,” he said.

I phoned Kate to report this conversation.

“So, he’s red and you’re blue. That happens in lots of families.”

There was more I hadn’t told her yet, that I’d willed myself to ignore.

“He bitches about Pete, his good buddy. Pete’s ‘holier than thou,’ he says.”

“Maybe he is, just a little, don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t. He can’t spend as much time over here as Edward would like. That’s why he’s bitching. And he’s mean to Taffy. ‘I don’t suffer fools gladly,’ he tells me.”

“You don’t, either, Mom.”

I stayed calm, though I felt like snarling at my insolent pup.

“Alright, so I don’t gladly suffer fools, I just suffer. I put up with them. But you know I’d never be cruel to Taffy. And Edward was. He’s basically selfish.”

“Whoa, that’s harsh.”

“You don’t think he’s selfish?”

“I think he’s expressing his honest opinion. I understand where you’re coming from. You've got abandonment issues. But that’s history. You could try to be a little more objective.”

Late one afternoon, working under deadline, I was startled by a crash from below. I looked at the clock: 6:30. I rushed downstairs to find Edward leaning on the kitchen counter for support, at his feet the splattered remains of yesterday’s pasta and shards of broken glass.

“I was hungry,” he said.

“I lost track of time,” I apologized. “Sit and relax. I’ll clean up and fix dinner.”

He navigated carefully to the dining table, and I put out crackers and cheese for him and peered into the fridge. Not good. I hadn’t had time to shop for groceries. But there were canned tomatoes and pasta in the closet, a few cloves of garlic. I dug out a bag of frozen peas.

“Here we go, Edward. Pasta Surprise!”

He began eating without benefit of blessing.

“I need to eat early,” he grumbled. “Or I can’t get to sleep.”

“I know that. Look, we need to have a talk.”

He kept eating, doggedly.

“I’ll be at a conference two days next week. Pete says he’ll bring food over, or Taffy will. But Edward, I can’t always be here for you, and neither can they. So, let’s talk about your options.”

He lowered his fork and said, “I like it here. I can hire someone to cook and clean, and you’d have two less things to worry about. I’ll pay for a ramp. And the heating bill in the winter. I don’t want to go to one of those homes where everyone is half dead.”

“You don’t have to do that. There are alternatives. You just need some assistance now and then, like with food, right? And some lively neighbors.”

He nodded warily.

“So, what about senior apartments, low rent, younger people. You hire someone to come in an hour or two a day or you get meals on wheels. You make new friends. There’s activities. Kate and I visit, take you out for dinners, take you to doctors. Same as now, but you’d be independent.”

I already had the brochures. The apartments were in towns twenty miles distant from my home but closer to San Francisco and Kate.

“Look, this one has a hot tub and heated pool. Just the thing for arthritis. And elevators, by the way.”

“It’s a possibility,” he said, fingering the brochure. “But isn’t staying here also an option?”

“I told you at the start I need my privacy. I said one month at most. It's been two.”

“But you’re my daughter,” he said, staring intently at me.

I stared back. “And? So?”

“I would not have thrown my father out of my home,” he said stiffly.

“Your father didn’t walk out on you and show up forty years later, did he?”

He bristled. “I had conflicting obligations. I did my duty as best I could.”

“And I will do mine. I promise you that.”

Not wanting to end the evening on a sour note, I poured the good reserve port into two dessert glasses and lifted mine for a toast.

“Here’s to your new life, Edward. To new friends. To family.”

He clinked my glass, stony-faced.

“To family,” he said.

Kate made one last pitch over the phone.

“He’s been so happy there, Mom.”

“I need to get my life back.”

“Who’s the selfish one, now?”

“Fine, if that’s what you want to call it. He can move in with you.”

Silence. Then Kate confessed she was seeing a man who could be “the one.”

“I’d move Gramps in, but this is the worst possible time. Can’t you hang in a little longer?”

“The short answer is ‘no.’ The longer I wait, the harder it will be.”

“I’m very disappointed,” she said coolly.

I took my father to look at several senior independent living complexes. He decided on the Harmony Villa in Santa Rosa, which had a swimming pool and hot tub, and was close to a shopping plaza, and Kate and I moved him in.

Not a week went by before the complaints began. It was as if he’d been on his best behavior, but now he didn’t have to anymore.

“The pool isn’t hot enough and the hot tub’s too darn hot.”

“Have you talked to the manager about it?”

“It’s like talking to a wall.”

The hired girl didn’t show up on time, or if she did, couldn’t cook anything digestible. The next one was stealing his laundry money. He couldn’t understand them. Why couldn’t they speak English? The food from Meals on Wheels was always late, never hot, and usually tasteless.

Whatever I did was never enough. Kate had better luck. He was at his best, she reported, when she took him to the Episcopal service in Santa Rosa on Sundays and then out to brunch, charming and talkative, attentive. If she couldn’t manage to come on Sunday, it fell to me to attend church with him.

It was a lovely old chapel with twelve stained-glass windows representing the apostles. The pastor wore a flowing white chasuble and when he raised his arms, they looked like wings. My father always took communion, and I never did. He asked me once what sort of Christian I was and seemed troubled when I told him I’m agnostic.

“You’re in my prayers, Mary,” he said earnestly.

I thought his spiritual interests were largely practical, an insurance policy for the too rapidly approaching life hereafter. Or lack of it.

Kate began missing church more frequently. This did upset him. Nor did he cheer up when I explained she had a new boyfriend.

“So why can’t she bring the boyfriend?”

“It would be a little premature. She’s not sure how serious this is.”

“She thinks I’ll scare him off?”

“What about you?” I teased. “Any new girlfriends this week?”

“I got to beat ‘em off with my cane,” he sniggered.

Here was the upside of life in a senior residence. It was loaded with widows. Edward was still attractive, and he had all his hair. The nice woman across the hall sometimes cooked for two and brought him a plate. Every morning but Sunday he’d walk over to the community room to read the paper and drink free coffee. Soon the women gathered around him. Some afternoons he got into a poker game. He was as happy there as he could be.

Complaining was part of what made him happy, I decided, like scratching an itch. When he ran out of immediate personal concerns, he could always rail against Democrats, illegal immigrants and queers.

Before long there was a new focus for his ire. Kate broke up with the boyfriend that we never got to meet. She wouldn’t tell us anything about it. I figured Mr. Dreamboat wasn’t serious enough, or she was too fussy, or maybe it had been a fantasy. Some Sundays she was too depressed to show up. When she did, her eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep.

“Why are you moping over some no-goodnik,” Edward admonished.

After ten months in the Harmony Villa, my father suffered a stroke. His neighbor across the hall had a key and found him on the floor by his bed. An arm and leg and part of his neck and face were paralyzed.

He could still make himself understood, though his voice was a croak.

“End of trail,” he told me.

“People do recover from strokes,” I reassured him. “But you’ll have to go to a nursing home for a while.”

He grunted and looked at me reproachfully.

“I’m not a nurse,” I said.

I wasn’t going to let him or Kate guilt-trip me. I had those forty years of absolute neglect on my ledger. And he must have worked out a balance sheet in his mind, where eighteen years of child support entitled him to unlimited and unconditional eldercare.

We found a little over $8,000 in his account. That would be gone in three months, I figured. I got very busy, spending hours on the phone and in and out of agencies and nursing homes. I fell behind on work and had trouble paying my own bills.

The nursing home was the best I could find given his circumstances. He didn’t like it and let everyone know.

I managed to get over there twice a week to check on him, Pete and Taffy visited, and his neighbor at the Harmony Villa. Kate never missed her weekly pilgrimage now. But Edward weakened visibly between our visits. He lost weight and was unresponsive. After a while, he didn’t have the energy to complain. I think he simply lost the will to live. Even Kate’s presence failed to rouse him.

“Why am I still here?” he asked her.

On a cold, wet night I found Edward wheezing badly and gasping for air. No one was tending to him, nor had a doctor been summoned. By the time I got him transferred to the hospital it was too late. A virulent strain of pneumonia had acted quickly on already weakened lungs. Kate rushed up from the city. He was still conscious when she arrived. I really believe he waited for her before letting go. He scarcely noticed I was there.

Kate choked up. “Oh Mom, he’s gone.” I put my arms around her and stroked her hair. This was her first intimate experience of death. She trembled against me. She really did love the old man, perhaps as much as I’d loved Nana.

I felt emptied out. It was the queasy hollow feeling of something left undone. I’d had my father restored to my life for almost a year and now he was gone forever, and what had come of it? Not even a pretense at reconciliation. Had I really tried? Should I have let him stay with me, after all? Would he still be alive if I had?

Since he’d left no specific instructions, we decided to have him cremated. Kate wanted to do something special with me. “We both need closure,” she said. She would write a poem or a ritual, and we’d go to some lovely place to sprinkle his ashes.

Meanwhile the rest of my life imploded. Two checks bounced. My computer hard drive crashed. The transmission went out on the car. And my skin erupted in an itchy rash.

I got the car towed and picked up a rental and came home. There were five messages from clients wanting to know when their work would be finished. And the ashes were ready to pick up in Santa Rosa.

I hauled the computer to the car. The last person I wanted to see just then was Taffy, but it was too late. She was about to get into her car but then came across the street to hug me.

“I’m so sorry, Mary. I meant to come by sooner, but I’ve been under the weather. Will there be a service?”

“Not really. Kate and I’ll do something private with his ashes. Look Taffy, I’m on the run, I’ve got to get this computer to the shop.”

“Can I help in any way?”

“I don’t think so. I have to see a client, then my doctor, go to Santa Rosa, get the ashes, and I won’t bore you with the rest of it.”

“I’m on my way to Santa Rosa to see my friend, Samantha. I can pick up the ashes for you. It’s no trouble.”

It wasn’t a chore that I relished, and she was so eager to help, yet I hesitated.

“Are you sure you’ll be comfortable doing this? Not everyone would. You’d be handling a box of ashes. Think about it.”

“No problem. Just tell me where to go.”

So I gave her the address and phoned the mortuary to let them know she was coming, and we both went about our business.

When I returned with a loaner computer, Taffy’s car was not in the driveway. I had plenty to do and I figured she was still visiting her friend.

It was twilight when Taffy appeared at my door, empty-handed.

“Is the box in your car?” I asked.

“I don’t have it,” she said.

“Where is it? Did you pick it up?”

“Yes.”

“So where is it?”

“I’ll tell you. I need to sit down. May I have a glass of water, please?”

This is the story she told me.

After visiting her friend, Taffy drove to the mortuary, and they gave her the box. It was much heavier than she expected. She put it in the back seat of her car and drove away.

Suddenly a dreadful feeling overcame her. Her skin goose-pimpled, and her entire body began to shake. She realized Death was riding in the back seat of the car. She pulled over and jumped out. It was impossible to drive another yard much less twenty miles back to Guerneville. So, she took out her cell phone and called Samantha, and Samantha got in her car and came right over.

She had already talked to Samantha about our family dynamic, so Samantha knew that I didn’t like my father and didn’t want to pick up the ashes myself yet had a duty to fulfill.

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “When did I ever say I didn’t like my father?”

Taffy looked confused. “Everyone knows you didn’t.”

“Never mind,” I said. “Go on.”

Samantha’s solution was to put the box in her car, along with Taffy, and drive to the nearest open land, Mount Pleasant Memorial Park, where they would sprinkle the ashes, which she was certain needed to be returned to earth at once. But when they reached the memorial park, Samantha realized they couldn’t simply drive in and scatter ashes. It wouldn’t be legal, and the security guard might notice them. She decided to drive slowly around the perimeter while Taffy sprinkled ashes out the window.

It was windy up there and ashes blew back into the car. Taffy shrieked, but Samantha kept driving. Finally, she slowed and directed Taffy to lean out the window and toss the box over the fence. Afterward, Samantha drove back to Taffy's car and gave her a psychic cleansing.

“I took care of it for you,” she concluded.

I listened, not really comprehending. It sounded like a fairy tale.

“So, where’s the box?” I asked again.

“I told you. It’s in the cemetery.”

I was thunderstruck. This was a true story?

“Oh my god. Why didn’t you just take it back to the mortuary?”

“I didn’t think of that. And Samantha said, she said…” Taffy faltered. Her eyes teared up. “You’d want me to take care of it,” she finished weakly.

“Omigod, what’ll I tell Kate?”

“You want me to tell her?”

“Omigod, no. No. I’ll tell her.”

Taffy looked so miserable, I put an arm around her and said, “Don’t worry, it’ll be okay. Thanks for taking care of it.”

“We did say prayers for his soul.”

“That was good, Taffy.”

She stood to go. “Mary, don’t tell my dad, okay?”

After she left, I poured a big glass of wine and drank it. Then I poured another.

I felt guilty as hell, then angry, then really, really sad. But why should I care if his ashes were missing? Why did I feel cheated? Because I’d always felt cheated. It wasn’t fair to Edward, either. It isn’t the slightest bit funny, he’d have said.

When Kate called to ask whether I had the ashes yet, I took a deep breath and told her what had happened. She was quiet for a long moment.

“That sucks big time,” she said at last.

“What are we going to do now, Kate?”

“Maybe we can find the box,” she suggested. “It might have some ashes in it.”

She took the next day off work and met me at the gate to Mount Pleasant. It was a bright, cold morning and calm. The wind would pick up again in the afternoon.

Neither Taffy nor Samantha, when questioned, knew exactly where the box had been tossed, nor were they certain it had gone over the fence. They had driven “with the sun,” Samantha said, possibly halfway around the cemetery. The box was corrugated cardboard laminated with a faux wood grain. It held another, smaller box of gilded tin and inside that was where she’d found the bag of ashes.

I drove clockwise around the perimeter, slowing to a crawl where the road hugged the low fieldstone fence, and Kate leaned out the window peering.

I parked and we got out and covered the ground on foot. Kate clambered over the fence. After a while she dropped to her knees in the long grass. “What’s this?” She held up a tiny shard of what looked like bone and passed it to me.

“Alas, poor Edward,” I said.

“Mom!”

“Sorry.”

“Anyway, it’s probably an animal bone,” she said, not looking at me.

“He wasn’t a happy man, Kate.”

“You did the best you could.”

“I’m not sure I did.” I was abruptly, unbearably, sad. I’d even botched his funeral. He was scattered to the winds, gone again.

Kate pressed on, determined. She found a bit of powder that could be ash. Next, she spotted a dark shape and dove into a bush and pulled out the carton. Inside was a muddy tin, and inside that, a plastic bag.

“There’s still ash in the bag,” she said, triumphant.

Kate carried the box back to my car. I was giddy with relief and had to lean on her for support.

“Do you want to scatter the rest now, Mom?” she asked.

“No,” I said, and she looked at me, puzzled.

“I have the perfect vase for it, Katie, with a cork plug.”

“Oh no,” she moaned. “He didn’t like that vase at all.”

“That doesn’t matter,” I told her. “I’m bringing him home.”

About the Author

Jo-Anne Rosen

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Jo-Anne Rosen’s fiction has appeared in over 30 literary journals (among them, The Florida Review, The Summerset Review, The Write Launch, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Big City Lit), and has received a Pushcart nomination. She earned an MA in English Lit from the University of Miami. Presently she is a book designer living in Petaluma, California. Since 2010 she has published Wordrunner eChapbooks, an online hybrid chapbook/journal and co-edited the Sonoma County Literary Update. What They Don’t Know (2015) is her first fiction collection. See joannerosen.us for more information.

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