Good Use

By Michael J. Compton

t last, my father turned completely to stone.  The calcification that had begun in the joints of his hands had spread to his knees, his feet, his back, until gradually all the soft tissue, even the sagging wattles of his neck, had leeched away and been replaced by microcrystalline chirt.

My mother had found him in the garden, where he insisted on working every day, even though he had become so rigid that he had to be carted out in a wheelbarrow like a load of mulch.  When I saw him he lay like a toppled garden ornament, his face pressed into the dirt, the weeds, as if celebrating their final triumph, already shooting over him.

As with everything in his life, my father left very specific instructions as to his final disposition in death. He was to be cremated. “Cemeteries are a waste of good land,” he always said. “Good land should be put to good use.” But he hadn’t foreseen the nature of his death, and there was some discussion as to whether his instructions still applied. Since stone did not burn, I pointed out, it would probably be best to bury him. But my sister, the gardener, objected, citing father’s dislike for cemeteries: “Dad always said we should just throw him on the compost heap and let him feed the vegetables.” But I argued that he only meant it as a joke. “Besides,” my brother, the artist, said, “Stone isn’t biodegradable.” “Then we grind him up, like fertilizer,” my sister said. “Look at him,” my brother snapped, pointing to the corner, where father stood propped up like an umbrella. “Isn’t it obvious? He’s a statue.” “He won’t stand up,” my sister argued. “I’ll make a base,” he replied.

It was then that my mother, who had been sitting so quietly we had forgotten she was there, said, “That’s enough. Your father said he wanted to be cremated, and that’s what we’ll do.” The issue thus settled, she left us to work out the details, and went to the kitchen to bake cakes and pies for the guests she was expecting for the wake.

But the issue, as it turned out, was not settled. The cremation did not take. Rather than reduce him to ashes, the flames of the crematory instead rendered father’s crude stone into fine, fired ceramic. We seemingly had no choice then but to bury him, but the cemetery director informed us that he did not inter “statuary.” Taking the director’s words as a cue, my brother set to make father into a sculpture, but mother objected strenuously. “I can’t have him standing over me like that,” she said, adding strangely, “Not any more.” We found her words disturbing, and decided to store father in the tool shed, at least temporarily, so as not to upset her further.

The house, at that time, was in some disrepair, which my mother said was my father’s greatest regret about his illness—not that it caused him physical pain and suffering, but that it made it difficult for him to work.  Although she didn’t come out and ask directly, she hinted that it would have pleased father were we to take up the repairs he had been forced to neglect. So my brother and sister and I began to spend weekends at the house repairing leaky faucets, replacing rotted siding, laying new tile in the kitchen.  It was in the course of performing these repairs that I hit upon an idea.

My father’s last unfinished project was a bread kiln for my mother. It was to be built outside the kitchen, under the rose arbor on the patio, just like the one father remembered as a boy in Italy.

Father had already bought the materials and drawn up the plans in great detail. It only remained for us to follow his lead. As my brother and sister began laying the bricks for the base, I noticed something about the color and texture of the masonry.  It was nearly the exact yellow ocher color and fine grained texture as that stone of which father was composed.  Inspired, I told them not to finish the job until I got back, and after retrieving father from under the dusty tarp that also covered the roto-tiller, I hurried him to the stonecutter’s shop where he had worked for many years.  The owner was reluctant to take the job, but father had a friend there who agreed to do the work on his own time. He set to the task with great care and affection.  When he finished, the man told me, his eyes brimming, “Your father. He’s the best.” His use of the present tense, and the loving way he caressed a brick as he spoke, made me wonder if he was referring to my father the man, or the masonry.

The thirty-seven bricks he gave me only weighed a total of about ninety pounds, and I expressed surprise that a man of my father’s size had produced such a small yield. But the stone cutter assured me that if one wanted perfect, rectangular bricks (“You didn’t want brick-bats did you?”), there were only so many that could be cut from the irregular shape of a man.  As a geometer (teaching in the county schools), I had to agree.  And in truth, the number—thirty-seven—appealed to me.  It is a prime number, and I thought it quite appropriate that a man like my father—who was so readily reduced, in the physical sense, to his parts—was, on a more profound level, irreducible except by one and himself.

We didn’t tell mother what we had done until the job was completed.  When we showed her the finished work she said nothing, only ran her hand along the streak of bricks, slightly darker than the others, that made an irregular band across the dome of the kiln.  “I’ll make panettone,” she said quickly.  “Your father’s favorite.”

We had used only nineteen bricks, saving the rest for two other jobs we had noticed around the house. Nineteen bricks for the kiln, eleven for the crumbled corner of the stoop, seven for the crack in the hearth—nineteen, eleven, seven, all prime numbers.  To me, there was something of poetry about it.  And mother, despite what she had said about father “standing over” her, seemed to find comfort in having him around, making himself useful even in death.

In fact, we all found comfort in the house now. Every weekend the three of us—my brother, sister, and I—would walk up the stoop, the scrape of our shoes on the pale bricks seeming to chirp, “Hi Dad, Hi Dad,” with each step. We would let ourselves in without a word, just as we had as children, letting the grunt of the heavy, oaken door announce us. One of us would fetch the wood as another lit a fire in the hearth. We enjoyed a fire even on warm days, and would sit and admire the bright swan of ocher that spread against the dark red of the original bricks as we munched cookies or fresh-baked bread. Mother especially liked the fire, and would often comment that we rarely had one when father was alive. Fires, he thought, were a waste of wood.

After a time, we had the house in tip-top shape—new paint, a new roof, storm windows—but it seemed the less we were needed, the more we tended to visit. Like father, we became fixtures around the place, visiting nearly every day. It was important, we felt, to keep mother occupied and in company so that she wouldn’t brood or feel lonely. We would always find her in the kitchen, arms dusted in flour, hair in a bun, whipping up something special for dinner.  By way of greeting, we would each plant kisses on her forehead, kisses that seemed to leave ovate craters in her plump, white skin for many minutes afterward.  She would tell us what kind of bread she was baking that day—focaccia, grissini, buccellato—as we stood over her, watching hungrily as her kneading fingers melted into the dough.

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Michael Compton is a screenwriter and an instructor of English at the University of Memphis.


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