Plan A is to take a regular-sized coffin that I got in the back room there, a nice mahogany veneer, real rich and shiny, and I can break that leg he got left and kind jimmy him into the thing. Nobody but you and me would know…”
by chuck kramer
When my daddy died alone in Paducah, Kentucky, my brothers told me I had to drive down, pick up his body and bring it back to Grand Rapids, Michigan so we could bury him in the family plot.
“Why me? Can’t one of you go get him?”
“You’re the only one with a truck,” my oldest brother Ben said, “Besides, you were always his favorite, his princess, the girl who could do no wrong.”
“I was not,” I whined. “He beat me as bad as you boys.” Mike and Ethan exchanged a look like I was crazy but didn’t say anything. They knew it was true. They stood up and went to the door, leaving me no choice. I always got stuck with the dirty work. It was one of the unwritten rules in our family.
“Don’t fuck things up like usual. We’re depending on you,” Ben told me over his shoulder as he left and went out to his car.
That made me frantic. I hate when they focus on my shortcomings like dad used to do. That’s why I was glad when he took off and went back home to the south after his lumber business failed, telling my mother he could no longer abide winter and snow and her. My brothers and I understood—my mother was hard to take. We rarely heard from him after he left. It was clear he’d rather not abide us either.
He spent some time in Atlanta, then plunged down to Mobile until hurricane Betsy beat his butt and drove him north. He putzed around Tennessee for a few years with a bald-headed Buddhist and when she left him, he settled down in a trailer court outside Paducah, just before he ran into the semi on the interstate and lost his leg.
After the accident things changed. He’d call me up late at night to tell me about his pain. He wanted me to come to Kentucky to take care of him, said I was the only one of his children he could depend on. I said I couldn’t do that-I had a husband and daughter who needed me. Then he’d tell me I was a disappointment and an ungrateful child for letting him suffer all alone, hundreds of miles from home, and hang up in my ear.
That would make me crazy and I’d double-up on my meds and go off on a cleaning rampage, scrubbing the bathroom floor with cleanser and starching all the bedroom curtains. As if I didn’t have enough to do raising my daughter and keeping track of my drunken husband without having to deal with deal with his lame-ass guilt trip.
But now I had to drive all the way to Kentucky to get his body so we wouldn’t have to pay to have him shipped home. That didn’t do my mental condition any good. I did two loads of laundry while I was trying to puzzle out how I was going to do that.
When I finished folding the sheets with the roses on the border, I called the funeral home that had picked up his body and they gave me directions. I made a pot of coffee, filled my thermos and headed out for the interstate at one in the morning. Figured I’d make good time without having to fight traffic.
I woke my daughter before I left. I told her I was bringing grampa’s body home. “That’s nice,” she mumbled sleepily across her pillow.
“I’ll call you when I get there, let you know when I’ll be back,” I said.
“OK…have a nice trip,” she yawned and turned over, pulling the sheet over her head.
Paducah was buried under gray clouds when I crossed the Ohio at 9:30 that morning. I realized I was hungry and stopped at a McDonald’s to eat. As I chewed my Egg McMuffin, I remembered how happy I was as a little girl when Daddy would buy me a Happy Meal. I’d share my fries with him and he’d rave, “The best fries in the world.”
It was nice to spend time with him and make him laugh but that changed when I got older and he wasn’t there. That was like a hole in my life, a big problem, and now that he was dead, he was still causing me problems. He died broke, leaving no money for a funeral, and that’s why I was chewing on a bad breakfast sandwich in horse country on the way to retrieving his remains.
At least things can’t get any worse, I told myself, as I finished the food, drank my coffee and went back to my truck.
The funeral home was a one story brick square at the edge of a pasture. It had no windows except at the front facing the street. A huge wooden canopy spread over the entrance on faux plantation columns but failed to camouflage the bunker’s industrial grimness. Mr. Furlow, the undertaker, was a whippet-thin, gray-haired man with buck teeth and an acne-scarred nose. He was nervous and kept glancing away as he talked to me behind his desk.
“I don’t usually handle the dead if they’re indigent but that’s my brother-in-law’s trailer park, so I made an exception when your daddy died.”
“No crime in being poor; but me and my family got the money to buy him a casket and bury him right,” I said, taking my checkbook out of my bag. “Just show me what you got and I’ll pick one out and be on my way.”
“Well, that’s sort of a problem.”
“You’re daddy wasn’t no ordinary man,” he said, his glance veering off the bridge of my nose to stare at the wall.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Well, he wasn’t a regular sized person, over six foot six, way I measure, and I just don’t have no casket big enough for a man his size.”
I wasn’t expecting that. I started to tremble the way I always do when things jump out at me. “Can’t you order one?”
“Course I can but that’ll take time. Thought you wanted to get out of here and be on your way.”
“I do. My brothers have the wake scheduled for tomorrow.” I could picture the scowl on Ben’s face if I told him I couldn’t get Daddy home in time for the services. Shaking his head and saying, “There you go again, fucking things up. I shoulda known better than to send you to do a man’s job.”
“Well, I got two possible solutions,” Mr. Furlow said, shooting a glance across his desk that ricocheted off my chin.
I nodded and tucked my hands under my thighs to keep them from shaking. I hated making decisions.
“Plan A is to take a regular-sized coffin that I got in the back room there, a nice mahogany veneer, real rich and shiny, and I can break that leg he got left and kind jimmy him into the thing. Nobody but you and me would know cause I can arrange him so he looks real natural and all.”
“You’d break my dead daddy’s leg?” I asked. “How would you do that?”
“I got me a workshop out in the garage with a good ole ball peen hammer. Couple of good, hard cracks on that long leg of his ought to do the job and in he goes, nice and peaceful. I’ll put a smile on his face and folks’ll say, ‘He looks so serene,’ when they stand over the casket and say a few prayers.”
“I don’t think busting up my daddy’s body is a good idea. What’s Plan B?”
“Plan B is stick him in the oven and burn him to ashes. I’ll put ’em in a nice, brass urn and he can ride back to Michigan with you in the front seat.’ His eyes skipped up to the ceiling and gazed at the light fixture. “Now Plan A with the embalming and that fancy mahogany coffin and the bone crushing-that’ll run you $5,979. That’s special, low family pricing ’cause of my brother-n-law.”
“I ain’t got that kind of money. We can’t afford nothing like that. Besides, I can’t bring my daddy home with a broken leg. My brothers’ll kill me.” I started to cry. Mr. Furlow inspected his fingernails until I blew my nose and wiped my eyes.
“Cremation will only be $700 with the urn and I can have him fired up and cooled off by noon.”
“I’ll take it,” I said.
He stood up. “You wanta watch me work?”
“No, sir. I do not want to see you burn up my daddy.”
“Then just sit here and watch the tv,” he said, using a remote to turn on a large, flat-screen tv behind me. Dr. Phil appeared almost life sized. “I’ll bring the urn when I’m done,” Mr. Furlow said as he went out the door.
“Have you ever thought about how your behavior affects your parents?” Dr. Phil asked a sulking teenage girl with tattooed snakes crawling up her arms. I looked at the screen and began to cry. “Had I been a good daughter to my daddy?”
He didn’t think so. He’d told me that over and over in those phone calls for help. “How can you leave me alone to fester among strangers, a gimp on one leg? Don’t you have any feelings for the father who loves you?”
“The father who ran out on me?” I asked. There was a stunned silence full of hurt and confusion at the other end of the line and then he hung up. I had tried to not only be a good daughter, keeping my brothers in line and caring for my weeping mother who couldn’t get over his leaving her for a Tennessee trollop, I also worked at being a good wife, calling Charlie’s boss to cover for his hangovers, and a good mother, raising a daughter who now that she was grown and working at Target, always lifts an eyebrow when I put on that red lipstick she thinks is too flashy.
I pulled out my cell phone and called my daughter. “I’ll be leaving with his ashes in a couple a hours.”
“They won’t like that. Ben wants a body for people to look at.”
“They can look at the urn. It’s a nice brass urn.”
“Why couldn’t you just bring his body home? That’s what Ben and the others want.”
“He couldn’t fit in the casket. He wasn’t the right size.”
“Really, mother,” she drawled and clicked off.
I put the phone away and started to explain to Dr. Phil how I was saving thousands by having Daddy cremated but his face disappeared from the screen, replaced by a toothpaste commercial singing about the joys of a fresh mouth.
I got up and began to straighten the magazines on the coffee table. Then I rearranged the papers on Mr. Furlow’s desk and dusted it off with a Kleenex.
When I had the office neat and tidy, I went out to the parlor on the other side of the hall. The chairs were all over the room, so I straightened them into rows of ten facing the empty bier at the front of the room.
I sat in the front row when I was done and stared at the empty space above the bier which had a familiar look to it. I wanted to fill it with something, something good. I looked around the room for something I could put there like a vase or a wreath but I couldn’t find anything so I just sat in my chair, staring and waiting.
Mr. Furlow finally came into the room and handed me the urn. “He’s all yours,” he said.
We went back to the office and I wrote him a check. He walked me out to my truck and watched me secure the urn to the passenger seat with the seat belt. “Y’all drive safe now,” he said, slamming the door.
As we drove north, I could feel my daddy’s presence in the car and I tried to explain things to him. I told him I never wanted to be a teacher but I did it because he admired his mother who taught third grade for thirty-seven years. Gram was a crabby woman who’d pinch me if I got too loud when I was a kid but he adored her and I adored him. I told him how my brothers were all lazy liars, bad-mouthing him after he left so my mother’d give them some of Grampa’s money. I told him my daughter didn’t love me and that broke my heart.
He listened, didn’t argue with me, didn’t try to explain away my fears and feelings. That was a first. It felt good. In fact, when I pulled off the highway and rolled into Grand Rapids, I felt better than I had in years.
I drove home and had the urn under my arm as I came into the kitchen through the back door. My daughter was making coffee at the stove. “They’re waiting for you, Mama,” she said, turning off the burner and leading me into the living room where my three brothers sat glumly staring at the TV with the sound turned off.
“So it’s true,” Ben said, scowling at the urn as I put it on the coffee table and sat on the sofa. “You had Daddy cremated.”
“I sure did.”
“I didn’t want you to do that, I shoulda known you couldn’t bring him back without fucking up.”
“Then you shoulda gone and got him yourself.”
Mike eyed the urn with a frown, scratching the gray stubble on his chin. Ethan took a cup of coffee from my daughter, who had a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, and took a sip before putting it down next to Daddy’s ashes.
“Ought to be ashamed of yourself,” he told me. “We wanted to give him a fine send off, have people come by and take a final look. But what do you do? Bring him back like a handful of soot, the bad end of a trash fire.”
I glared at him and he looked surprised. “Maybe that’s all he was-a bad man come to a sad, lonely end.”
Ben leaned forward, his eyes squinted tight with anger. “Don’t talk about my daddy like that. He was a fine, fine man.”
“Don’t give me that, Ben. He was a runner. Things got tough with mom, he ran. He ran out on us. And he never stopped running, always moving when the mess he made got too big to deal with.”
Ethan sipped at his coffee, his eyes on mine. Mike lit a cigarette and watched the smoke drift up and fade away.
I turned to Ben and continued, “Only reason he stopped running the last few years was he lost his leg. Couldn’t get away no more. Now he’s back. I brought him back best I could and that’s more than he had a right to expect. Now let’s bury him and be done. Time to move on to other things.”
“You are a cold-hearted bitch,” Ben said and stood up. “Come on, fellows, let’s go. It stinks in here.”
They rose to their feet and followed Ben out the door, Mike slamming it behind him. My daughter sat down next to me and crushed her cigarette into an ashtray. She leaned forward, gently fondled the urn with the palm of her hand and then took my hand in hers. I turned toward her and found her staring at me with a strange, new look in her eyes. I smiled and sat back.
She returned my smile and said, “Mama, we have so much to talk about.”
(illustrations: kurt eisenlohr)
Chuck Kramer is a Chicago writer of fiction, poetry, and journalism and is currently the vice-president of the NewTown Writers and host the organization’s live lit reading series. He also co-host Weeds Poetry at the Hideout, work on the editorial staff of the Chicago Quarterly Review, and is a workshop coordinator with the Chicago Writing Conference. Chuck occasionally freelances for the Windy City Times and his journalism has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times, and Reader. In addition to his published stories, he has written two unpublished novels and is currently working on a third Boom! August 1968. More from Chuck Kramer can be found in the Vault of Smoke.