Schrader’s Misdemeanor

By Robert Wexelblatt

he court house looked like a new elementary school and had a funny odor too, nearly as I could tell a sort of mixture of acrylic carpeting and french fries.  The lighting was wrong, muted fluorescent bulbs of the kind favored by shopping malls.  Accustomed to the pillared piles of the North I couldn’t help feeling the place lacked a certain dignity, not unlike me.

 

Though guilty is pretty much what I’ve been pleading since puberty, I’d never actually done it in a court of law.  Imagine my anticipation, the sleepless night, how I pictured myself standing before the Law.  The actuality proved a disappointment, though not a bitter one.  If you’re a delinquent, have violated the mores of the tribe, you have a right to expect a show, an impressive philippic from the prosecutor or a screed from the bench, at the very least an opportunity to bow your head in token of remorse.  In fact, marring my immaculate criminal record of sixty-six years was no more bother than getting a haircut—less, a haircut can take half an hour.

 

Hustled in by Kinderman, the thirtyish lawyer Sheila selected from the Yellow Pages when she decided to update our wills, charged by the bailiff, a scrawny fellow with a pair of handcuffs hanging from the back of his belt, asked for a plea by the uninterested judge, I delivered myself of one contrary Kinderman’s advice.  The judge said fine, knocked his wooden hammer, and, pfft, we were out of there.  Outside, a second court officer, also underweight, put his hand on my shoulder and pointed me down the corridor.  I went into a small office where I wrote a check for a hundred and seventy-five dollars, the sum of my debt to society, and handed it over to a lady with fussily styled hair and an accent from the heart of Dixie.  She was even more polite than the bailiffs, smiling and issuing me a florid receipt written with a fountain pen charged with peacock blue ink.  “Thank you . . . Mr. Schrader,” she said, thoughtfully examining my check in order to call me by name.  So I paid up and that was it, more or less; shorn and shriven.  The overall impression was that I was more customer than criminal.  When I came out Kinderman, who had been laying for me in the hall, slapped me on the back, shook his head, and said he really believed he could’ve gotten me off.  On the steps outside he mentioned he’d send me his bill.  I didn’t ask what for.

 

It was only ten-thirty but the parking lot was already hot as Hades.  At the side entrance three chained black prisoners stood sweating beside a police van.  I tried to feel like them.  They were not customers, not in orange overalls, not in manacles.

 

From across the sun-blanched asphalt, Detective Freyling, my arresting officer and sole witness for the prosecution, threw me an affectionate wave and wagged his finger in an avuncular fashion, then climbed into his grey, unmarked Ford.  You could tell by the way he drew his long legs up he was a Clint Eastwood fan.

 

The parking lot was bordered on one side by four so-called Royal palms, primitive, Dr. Seussish trees.  Sheila loved them, saw them forming the foreground of romantic sunsets; but, whenever she waxed poetic about the things, I’d say that palm trees evolved for giant lizards to rub their scales against, not the dry skin of retired college administrators.  It was Sheila’s idea to move down here.  First, there were the vacations, then a sabbatical semester, and, finally, lock, stock, and the two bookcases she allowed me.  Here in Elderland you can forget about playing old for the young, which is okay; still, there are times when I’m revolted, when I’m overwhelmed by the conviction that Florida, as my grandson Jason succinctly puts his negative appraisals, sucks.  With Jason, things are either awesome or they suck.  Well, I had one of these suckish moments in the parking lot of the court house.  Parking lots are terrible spaces, open invitations to forgetfulness and agoraphobia, not to mention violence and death.  I cheered myself up with the thought that, though I’d missed the freedom rides and voter registration drives of the sixties, at least I’d managed to get myself busted down South once before I kicked the bucket.

 

I’d been able to keep Julie McAllister and Ellen Hacker out of the business only because Detective Freyling was a relatively good sort, at least to old white men and white women.  I remember how he was waiting for us at the dock, one foot picturesquely up on his unmarked Ford’s fender, how he drew me aside, explained the nature of my transgression, and offered not to charge Julie if I didn’t give him a hard time.  I have to admit that I like his assuming gallantry on my part.  We shook on it.  Then he said I should follow him down to the station for the paper work.

 

A little swearing from Julie in the background as we drove off.  But no handcuffs.  No fingerprinting.  No speech about my right to remain silent.

 

Guilty, I’d said.  I plead guilty, Your Honor.  It came out smoothly, far more easily than saying my own name.  Being one of those atheists who believe in original sin, I’d spent my whole life red-handed, so to speak.  A dutiful husband, Your Honor, but nevertheless an evildoer, a polluter of the seas, if that’s how you insist on looking at it.

 

I had to laugh at the irony.  I’d been arrested for carrying out Sheila’s last wish and she was always such a stickler about the law.  All those years she did our taxes I couldn’t once convince her to cheat even a dime’s worth.  A respecter of parking meters and speed limits was Sheila, fastidious about all the ways people like us come into contact with the Rules.  She didn’t know this one though and, of course, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

 

Freyling and I had met a year before and that was because of Sheila too.  I had been selfishly off on my morning bike ride when the stroke crumpled her in the Winn Dixie parking lot so that, when. two days later I got a call from a detective, I thought for a moment I might be under arrest for allowing an unaccompanied woman with hypertension to buy chicken.  Freyling offered condolences and told me he was holding Sheila’s wedding ring for me.  Hadn’t I noticed it was missing?  No, of course he understood why I wouldn’t have noticed.  A great shock, of course, a terrible shock.  He was very sorry.  He explained about the ring in his tough, solicitous voice in which there remained a soupçon of Jersey.  I had the idea that he was pleased with himself, that he considered this a sweet part of the job.  “The EMS guys are trained to remove all jewelry before they drop people at the hospital.  I’m afraid, you know, the orderlies . . .  Did you get your wife’s wallet back?  They needed that for the insurance card and I.D.  Yes?  Good.  Anyway, Mr. Schrader, the ring’s here waiting for you.  I’ve got it right here in an envelope with your name on it.  Come by any time.  Just give your name at the desk and mention mine.  Detective Freyling.  F-R-E-Y-ling.”

 

Eleven months later he busted me, just happened to be gazing out at Julie’s boat in the bay that morning and somehow figured out what we were up to.  He was shrewd, kind, brave, bigoted, and fond of telling war stories.  When I went to pick up Sheila’s ring, he had a fresh one.  “It happened outside the Winn Dixie, didn’t it?” he said, meaning the death of my wife.  “Well, this colleague of mine was down in that exact same parking lot just last week—you know, shopping with the wife.”  Was this a reproach, an accusation?  “About eight-thirty, you know, just getting dark, and this doped-up dickhead pops out from behind a van and pulls a knife on his wife.”  Freyling was grinning.  “My pal was a little behind with another cart.  He could see the kid was nervous, and that’s always dangerous.  ‘Okay, bitch, the money,’ says the jerk.  Joe ditches his cart, dashes around the car, and steps in front of his wife.”  Freyling leaned forward menacingly and broke into dialect, waving an upturned fist as if he held a knife in it.  “‘You gonna be a hero, m’fuck?’“  Freyling paused, maybe to let the suspense build, maybe to make sure I knew that deep down I shared his anger and fear, his hatred of young African-American males, even making a face to show how certain he was of it.  Then he picked up a pencil. “You know there’re some civilians want to make it so we’re not allowed to pack our Glocks when we’re off duty.  Yeah, real smart idea.  Anyway, my friend pulls out his nine millimeter and puts one through the bastard’s head.  Kapow!”  Freyling pointed with the pencil just above the parabola formed by his two well defined eyebrows.  Then he leaned back for a little politicking.  “It’s a public safety issue, Mr. Schrader.  A police officer isn’t ever entirely off duty.  In fact, that’s how I retrieved your late wife’s ring.  The ambulance guys gave me a call at home.”

 

It’s risky to break the law if you’re black.  Your retired white folk in air-conditioned Hondas, on the other hand, look like victims, smell like prey, make good customers.

 

 

White folk live in they birthday cake houses next the ocean.  You can hear they air conditioners hum like a choir, windows never open.  They big white cars.  They clothes, they smooth white boats.  Lie all over theys beaches gettin dark, gettin cancer.  Black folk squat in tarpaper shacks, no windowglass, four blocks in.  And in.  And in till you get to where not even gators’ll go the air so mossy marshy you think you drowinin if you yawn up wide.  Forgive him his trespasses, Auntie Pearl used to say, puttin her hand on my head, draggin me off to church.  You go over that line what you think goin happen to you?  It’s like you dyin of thirst and they dangle this big drippin glass of lemonade in front of you all cool and wet and say, now just you dare touch it, sip it, slurp it down.  You see the lemonade on the TV and then you see them drivin by in they lemonade cars, shrivelled up little white ladies lookin scared and even worse the flashy pink lemonade men with they music boomin and all.  Blue done dared me.  He did.  Just last week he done knocked over some lady and got him fifteen dollars and we bought beer and when we drunk three each he dared me, called me pussy, called me rev’rend cause I didn’t want to go stickin no knife in nobody’s face for no fifteen dollars, even gave me his own knife.  Auntie coughin, Jasmine sayin candy, candy and Uncle Billy moanin and limpin round so’s he can’t work no more, not like theys work he’s not up to doin.  What I’d like is to get up north like maybe this knife of Blue’s cut me a path to Detroit or even New York.  Yeah, I’d’ve dared my way through all the white ladies in the world but I don’t want to slice nobody and I real scared and I need to scare the shit out of this big ugly white man; who’d’ve thought he got a gun just my damn luck but surprise or no surprise don’t mind much neither, cause maybe up north ain’t even really up north while dead is dead anywhere.

 

 

We were having drinks on the terrace.  Teresa had been nearly jolly greeting us at the door.  She looked good too, nice tan set off by a turquoise and hot pink sundress, robust tennis calves.  The conversation meandered from movies to the hare-brained environmentalists’ proposal to rip out the Australian pines to make space for the hideous indigenous weeds.  It was Sheila who brought up the indigenosity issue.  She happened to be partial to those pines, lovely non-palm trees that look like the cloudy evergreens in Chinese watercolors, and she asked Teresa if she’d join an organization she was thinking of putting together, a pro-Aussie-pine league.  Teresa bravely said she would and even kept up with the battle plan until, after her second whiskey sour, she started to fall apart.  Al tried to cover, ratcheting up his crude humor with a story about some shenanigans on the semi-nude beach, but Teresa’s mood sunk us all in a tar pit out of which even big Al’s reptilian jokes couldn’t climb.  “What’s the mat—” Sheila began, then guessed.  “Oh, Tree.  You went to the doctor today.”

 

Teresa spilled it all.  It was supposed to be just a routine check-up, some poking, drop of blood, then off for two sets of doubles.  But the doctor made them wait and when he emerged from whatever he was doing in back he looked grim.  Apparently they hadn’t gotten it all.  It.  “What an idiot I was not to have the whole damned thing off—both of them.  Boobs . . . boobs kill!”  She began to sob.  Sheila sprang over and kneeled down beside the chaise and hugged Teresa, buried herself between those ample, fatal bosoms.  They were both crying.  Al looked at me stricken and for a moment I thought I ought to go over and hug him too.  But I did nothing.

 

The sky looked like an upturned bowl of mother-of-pearl the sun was rolling down.  Teresa talked out the medical possibilities while Al added a few hollow optimisms as he barbecued shrimp which we subsequently didn’t touch.  After coffee, Al suggested he and I go for a walk.  “Let’s leave them alone with each other,” he whispered.  Al needed to get out.  We ambled down to the golf course and I let him talk until he didn’t want to talk any more.  I felt lucky.  I felt as if I had managed things better.

 

Sheila and I went home early, around eight-thirty.  She was wrung out and I couldn’t think of anything to say.  Tree was her best pal in all of Florida.  Before we went inside she pointed out toward the bay and made me promise that if she should go first I would have her cremated and scatter her ashes over the water, right there.  “You know how I love it, how I love to swim.  Fire and water are clean.  The very idea of the boneyard’s always made me sick.  Rotting, the worms, not to mention the ridiculous waste of money and space.  People going and looking at a pile of dirt.  And while I’m at it, no funeral either, dear.  Ghastly things.”  Owing to the occasion, it wasn’t the sort of request you could laugh off.  I gave my wife my word, silently assuring myself, as husbands do, that I’d be the first to check out.

 

 

I can’t remember a time when Sheila didn’t overshadow me, order me around, all for my own good, of course.  I hated her for it when we were kids, rebelled against her when I grew strong enough, tried to ignore her when I married Paul, but all the while I was leaning on her and never knew it.  She was my big sister and she loved to pull rank.  To tell the truth, as soon as the shock of her death let up I felt relieved.  It’s a terrible thing to have to be ashamed of your own feelings, but there it was.  I felt it was a liberation; I was on my own at last.  When she went off to college I moved into her room and changed everything around and kept at Pop until he bought me that new bed.  I hated sleeping in hers.  I tried to fight her loads of times.  Like when we put Mom in the nursing home and she worked out the finances, insisting on using up the whole estate before Medicare kicked in.  She was always right, always the level-headed one, the honest one.  Brighter, taller, better hair.  When I fell on my skates, when nobody asked me out, when I had a bad period, when I didn’t know what else to do, it wasn’t Mom or Pop I ran to, but Sheila.

 

My sister-in-law Millie was never what you’d call comfortable with me.  It was as if she suspected me of something, sensed my guiltiness wasn’t merely the disarming, neurotic dodge people usually took it for.  Sheila and I didn’t see her and Paul all that often, just the occasional holiday, except for the awful time when my mother-in-law had to go into the nursing home.  Paul and I got on all right.  Whenever they came over, the women would wrangle about the arrangements.  I’d give him a beer; we’d talk American league and movies in the den.  Paul taught high school kids U.S. history but his real passion was coaching baseball.  In middle age, Millie started up a little antique business.  Sheila was proud of her but Millie resented even Sheila’s approval.  Then I retired and we moved down here and we hardly saw them at all, only phone calls.

 

Neither funeral nor burial.  You just telephoned; it was something like ordering from L. L. Bean.  They take all major credit cards and everything is neat and clean, just as Sheila wanted.  Then they asked me, “Will you be wanting the ashes, sir?”  I remembered my promise and said yes.  They came Federal Express, brown paper around a wooden box, not even an urn.  I didn’t unwrap it.  Who knows?  Maybe the wood was Australian pine.  I knew what I was supposed to do but I couldn’t part with them, not yet.  Sheila was wrong about funerals.  Mourners need the ritual not to dwell on their losses but to finish with them.  The night she died I called Jill and George and Millie.  I wanted something from each of them but I didn’t know what.  The consolation of shared pain?  A family?  Whatever it was I didn’t get it.  And when I told Millie there wouldn’t be any funeral she didn’t seem surprised or upset.  When I said something silly about needing a ritual to say goodbye she hesitated then suggested a memorial service.  “A little thing, just for the family.”  She even offered her home because the kids lived nearer to her than to me.  “Besides,” she said, “you know how Paul hates traveling.”  And so, when I took the plane north, I had Sheila’s ashes with me, wrapped up in brown paper and labeled, just as they were fed exed from the crematorium.

 

“What the hell is that?” Millie said when I showed her the package.

 

“The ashes.”

 

“Sheila’s ashes?”  She turned to Paul and whispered too loudly, “Jesus.  Unbelievable.”

 

The service was not quite a fiasco, but near enough.  Once again I was disappointed.  Millie brought out a couple of photo albums.  We all stared at them, turned the pages in silence.  George and Allison glared at me as usual and Jill looked sullen.  Jason didn’t know what to do with himself and kept bumping into fragile antiques.  Millie kept looking hard at me.  I spoke, but badly.  To tell the truth, I broke down and didn’t get very far.  Then George spoke.  He was suave, eloquent too, though in a bitter sort of way.  Jill declined to say anything at all; she just shook her head.  Paul put his arm around my shoulders, his big coach’s arm, and I felt like a pitcher who’d just given up a winning grand slam.

 

 

The grievance against fathers is one of the données, one of the clichés of the twentieth century, or was until recently.  It looks as if the Oedipus thing got banged up in the inflation of the seventies and then Reagan gave it the coup de grâce.  My students are all into ancestor worship, a whole generation of exceptions demolishing a rule.  What this means, of course, is that my own anger is not archetypal but historical, not instinctual but personal.  I can remember the class exactly.  I was lecturing on the uprisings of 1848 and wanted the kids, who weren’t all that much younger than I was, to relate.  It was just a few years too late to draw the analogy to 1968, historical amnesia having already entered its golden age, and so I dropped some glib line about the eternal conflict between the generations.  Massinger, one of the brightest, raised his hand to say (openly! in front of his peers!) that his father was his model, hero, ideal, just what he aspired to become.  I was stunned.  Others chimed in.  The young women all claimed to adore their mothers as well as their fathers.  If there’d been a window in 505 Winslow Hall Freud would have flown out of it.  And Gide and Kafka and Nietzsche and the rest of the boys.  Just a big pendulum swing? terror of falling out of the middle class? anti-idealism? desperate clutching at the tatters of the thermonuclear family?  At that instant I felt myself outdated, decisively alienated from all these Stepford children.  Curiously, I also felt younger than my sophomores and a little envious of them, as though they had already achieved a maturity that eluded me and put behind the resentments of their sixteenth year (I refuse to believe they never felt them) while I still couldn’t be in a room with my father for half an hour without challenging him, taking offense, mucking things up.  Now I look for signs in Jason to see which way he’ll go.  Will the pendulum of history ever bring us to 1848 again? to 1968?  Allison believes it’s that my parents never accepted her.  Accepted yes, loved no.  Nobody ever got over that first Thanksgiving when she forgot to defrost the turkey and there were all those snide comments about neatness, dirt, disorder.  True, Allison never charmed Dad and maybe charm and fertility are the chief virtues one looks for in a daughter-in-law.  Or does there have to be some unmentionable sexual spark as well?  But the rancor goes deeper, back further.  To what?  I can’t even remember.  Whatever image I catch at makes me think there’s a preceding one.  And Mother acting like the moderator in a reactor, “Can’t you two talk more quietly?” she’d say.  “We’re discussing, which is quiet arguing,” he’d insist as if it were all a joke, as though it was nothing to argue with a son his humor always belittled.  Yet I became an academic, identifying to that extent with the enemy, albeit I mistrust all administrators, daddies every one, shoving the talent around like sheep.  When Mother died suddenly like that, nothing lingering that you could get used to, but quick the way she did everything she’d made up her mind to, I was thrown for a loop, went on talking to her in my head for weeks, hearing her voice calling my name when I raked leaves.  I went to phone her every Sunday morning, having to stop and remember only he would answer and that no matter what we said we’d both be talking about her absence.  Was that it?  Were we always fighting over her?  Was her death a judgment on us both?  If I’d had to choose a parent to stick around there’d be no contest but since he’s still here I’m going to make damn sure he sees how different it is between me and Jason, no shaming jokes, no contests, just to prove somebody really can learn from history.

 

 

The kids all left after the memorial service.  George, Allison and Jason crammed into their Toyota, Allison tight-lipped with her colorless milk-fed Midwestern face, having slept poorly in the motel I’d paid for, managing a stiff adieu resembling the safety catch on Freyling’s nine millimeter.  George came over to me and we both tried to pretend that the hug we exchanged signified something more than duty.  I wondered if he looked that sour in front of his classes.  Could be that a puss of perpetual disapprobation is just what’s wanted in nineteenth-century historians.  The ones I knew did have a penchant for walking around looking like grandfather clocks, like earnest, scowling busts of Brahms or Garibaldi.

 

George offered to drop Jill at the station but they really didn’t have the room and anyway I wanted to drive her myself in my rented car, didn’t want her to leave me just yet.  George can’t love me but he’s stolid and steadier than I ever was.  He’s so irrevocably grown up I suppose he resents being made to feel a child in my presence.  Jill, on the other hand, is like a pack of cards, you never know what’ll turn up, which Jill it’s going to be this time.  The sullen, provocative adolescent who experimented with sex and drugs is still in there, also the Daddy’s girl overwhelmed by her tumultuous puberty, and the sentimental idealist who spent a year changing the world and feeding a tapeworm in Guatemala, a year during which Sheila and I never took a deep breath.  After she moved back to New York she began her interminable analysis, ran through men by the dozen, and never married a one.  But she worked hard, worked her way up as a freelance and now she’s on the staff of Business Monthly, of all things.  She specializes in what she calls “bios.”  She’s got a real flair for interviewing greedy men and potent women.  I wonder if it’s owing to a concealed identification with their competitiveness and success or the opposite, an antipathy to their relentless, well-nourished egos.  But I wouldn’t dare ask.

 

It was a short ride to the train station and Jill, tough interviewer that she is, didn’t waste a minute.  “Well, Daddy, what’re you going to do now?”

 

“Go on, I suppose.  Figure out how to be a widower.  See how well I can stand it for a few more years.

 

“You’re not even sixty-six.”

 

“Ha!”

 

“They’ll be all over you, you know.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Florida widows, of course.  You’re a live one.”

 

She sounded accusing, as if I had already picked out a wicked stepmother for her, as though the ink were even then drying on the pre-nuptial agreement, the two couches squeezed into one condo.

 

“I don’t feel all that alive,” I said candidly.  “In fact, I don’t feel much like living.  I don’t know how to go about it on my own.”

 

“So then don’t do it on your own.  Find a new companion, let one find you.”

 

I pulled the car over.  “Look, Sweetie.  I don’t think you’ve got a very clear idea of what your mother was to me.  All that psychoanalysis, all that pulling the family apart, maybe it’s led you to underestimate how tangled together your mother and I were, I mean right down to the root.”

 

She put her hand on my arm.  “Daddy,” she whispered.

 

“He told you I’m the reason you can’t settle on a man, right?  Dr. Whatsit, your shrink?”

 

“Daddy don’t—”

 

But I’d begun to percolate and it completely slipped my mind that Jill had just lost her mother.  “I made fun of you, robbed you of your self-esteem; I was such a megalomaniac that all those little boys couldn’t possibly measure up; I left you with unresolved conflicts, repressed traumas, recovered memories of imaginary abuses, ambivalent ambiguities—”

 

“Stop it.”

 

“You don’t get it.”

 

“Stop!”

 

“It really is all my fault.  Even if he’s an idiot, Whatsit’s right!  If I’d been with her—”

 

“Daddy!” she pleaded.  Her face was full of tears.

 

Maybe my daughter was forgiving me, which is what I probably needed just then.  There’s nothing more disarming than a breakdown and I was having them at regular intervals.

 

Mother was the one who meted out the punishments, organized the schedules, laid down that baseline of worldly wisdom you never quite shake off, a mixture of prejudices and common sense, attitudes frozen in a past that may even have existed.  But like all practical people she lived chiefly in the present and immediate future, a little like the corporate lions and jackals I interview (the men always start by asking if I’m single, the women if I have any kids).  Splendid in a crisis, steadfast and loyal to her friends, but having to be propitiated when she lost her temper:  chasing George and me around the dining room table, no use threatening us with paternal wrath because we all knew Dad was too much of a child himself and would always identify with our crimes, forgive them in advance, far more at ease teaming up with us to put one over on her, preferring me to George so crudely I couldn’t even take pleasure in it but anyway had to pay the price for it with him and Mom, too.  And because I didn’t marry within acceptable chronological parameters they didn’t know what to make of me and because of Dr. Gutenbach feared for their reputations so now I feel like half an orphan whose father sees her, in so far as he can see her at all, as a complicated sin for which, thanks to his blithely inverted egoism, he believes himself guilty.  I ought to write a song about him.  Sometimes I Feel Like a Fatherless Child.

 

 

When I got back from dropping Jill at the train station, where there had been hugs and semi-sincere resolutions about mutual visits, Paul was waiting for me in the driveway.  He rubbed his cheek as if checking to see how much his beard had grown during the morning’s perturbations.  I had been with Paul often enough to know that rubbing meant Millie-trouble.

 

I got out of the car and, in my daughter’s best manner, asked straight out, “So what’s the matter?”

 

“Well,” said Paul, as if with reluctance, “I think you ought to know Millie’s been more than a little moody lately, I mean since Sheila died.  It’s hit her harder than you think, I mean harder than she wants you to think.”

 

“Why wouldn’t she want me to think that?”

 

Paul, realizing he’d said more than he should have, just shrugged and looked solemn.

 

“Come on.  Millie could barely stand Sheila.  They called each other, what was it?  Once a month maybe? Talked for two minutes?”

 

“I know, I know.  But Sheila was Millie’s big sister and now’s she’s the last of the family.  It’s hit her really hard.”

 

“Ah, the last barrier to mortality gone.”

 

“What?”

 

“Never mind.  What’re you actually trying to tell me, Paul?”

 

“It’s about the ashes.”

 

“What about them?”

 

“Well, you see, Millie wants them.  At least some of them.”

 

“What?”

 

“She told me about it last night.  She says she doesn’t trust you to do the right thing, whatever that means.”

 

“Wait a minute.  She wants Sheila’s ashes?”

 

Paul shifted his weight from foot to foot, squirming, rubbing his chin like mad.  He moved a little closer, as though afraid Millie would hear him from inside the house.  “She’s been talking to them, talking to the ashes.  I heard her this morning before you and Jill got up.  She was sitting in the kitchen talking to the box.”

 

He looked so stricken I couldn’t help grinning.  “What was she saying?”

 

Paul didn’t grin back.  “I only wanted you to be ready,” he said stiffly, crossing his arms, body lingo for boundary.  Sheila often remarked on my annoying knack for finding the wrong things funny.

 

I started to go in but Paul took my arm.  “Are you going to let her have some?  That’s what she’s going to ask you.”

 

I didn’t answer.

 

Millie was seated at the dining room table which had been cleared of its big funereal flower arrangement and the four silver candlesticks.  Before her lay the package of Sheila’s ashes, an open newspaper, a kitchen knife, and six small, ornate boxes, the sort cufflinks and collar studs used to be kept in.  Antiques.

 

“Sit down,” she ordered.

 

I sat.

 

“I don’t expect you to understand this but I need some of Sheila’s ashes.”

 

“Oh?”

 

She looked at me not beseechingly, not for a moment granting me the right to refuse, but scornfully, as if my feelings didn’t enter into the matter at all.  I was only being informed.

 

“I’m going to save some for Jill and George too.”

 

“What?”

 

“They may want them later on.”

 

“Did they say—”

 

“They may.  I’ll keep the ashes here.  I’ll phone them in a week or two and let them know.  It’s too soon.”

 

I looked down at the box and reminded Millie that Sheila said she wanted her ashes scattered over the bay.

 

“You already told me.  But you didn’t do it, did you?”

 

“I couldn’t—”

 

“Exactly.  Then you ought to understand.”

 

“But I’m going to.  I’m going to do it.  Just not yet.  It’s absurd to keep little bits of her here and there.  It’s, it’s sick.”

 

“Oh really?  You think it matters that they all go in the drink?”

 

“I’m not sure any of it matters, Millie.”

 

“Ha!  So then you might just as well throw them in the trash, right?”

 

I was indignant.  “If I was going to do that why would I lug them up here?”

 

Millie grabbed the knife in a way that reminded me of Detective Freyling’s story, and cut the brown wrapping paper.  The box was plain white pine but well made, tongue and groove, nailed shut with brass brads.  I watched with horror as Millie inserted the blade to pry open the top.  Yet I didn’t stop her.  As for the coach, he was hiding in the dugout.

 

You imagine.  Ashes.  Somebody’s ashes.  You picture the residue from cigarettes, vestiges of wood fires, a fine dust, an insubstantial powder easily blown away by a strong breeze.  Not so.  Sheila’s ashes were like gravel, mixed with startlingly recognizable bits of bone.

 

Millie wasn’t expecting it any more than I was.  “Look!” she cried.

 

Paul rushed in from the kitchen.

“Jesus, Millie.  You scared me.”

 

“Not what you’d expect,” I said.  Neither of us was prepared actually to see Sheila.

 

Millie poured the ashes out in a mound on the newspaper then used the knife to separate out six thin lines.  She worked with the expertise of a cocaine addict, neatly scraping each line into one of her tiny boxes.  Paul stood behind her, his hands resting protectively on the back of her chair.  I looked up at him and, half-closing his eyes, he shook his head, warning me to let it be.  On the phone a few weeks later he told me how Millie had placed each of the boxes at a strategic point in the house, on the landing, in the bathroom, how she was still talking to them.  “She says it comforts her to have Sheila around.”

 

Paul re-nailed the pine box, and the next morning I left for Florida with my share of Sheila, with what was left of my wife.

 

 

There’s the one about the red shoelace and the one about calling the manager a son-of-a-bitch, the one about touching your left testicle and the one about throwing a kiss to some girl in the grandstand.  It’s a game of superstitions, of rituals—and why?  Because between the routine grounders and the strike outs comes the unrepeatable.  There are hidden powers all over the diamond.  And if there are hidden powers why shouldn’t Millie talk to her little boxes, her bits of Sheila?  I thought she was going nuts but in fact she’s been easier to get along with since the talking began, not as tense, less morose, kind of like she’s coming out of a long slump.  She doesn’t whine so much now.  I guess Sheila bears the brunt of her dissatisfaction so when she wanted to know if it bothers me I said not at all, dear, not in the least, and didn’t even hint that I get spooked sometimes, didn’t ask if she’d at least take the box out of the bathroom.  My brother-in-law’s not a bad guy but Millie never trusted him, insists she didn’t want Sheila to marry him in the first place and go off for those two years in Nebraska or Kansas or wherever it was.  Sheila was alone in that parking lot she keeps saying.  Died by herself, with strangers, in a parking lot.  And remember, she says, when he made that stupid joke about her blood pressure, how she shouldn’t get so worked up about abortion or HMOs or whatever it was because her face looked like a monkey’s bum?  She believes he came between them, manipulated Sheila about the nursing home, turned Sheila against her.  You can see how it is with his kids, she goes on.  George and Allison can’t bear him and Jill’s still going to that psychiatrist.  How could she trust him with all the ashes?  Cremation.  Sounds like some dairy process.  Best to keep my mouth shut.           

 

 

Ellen Hacker, whom I knew as an optimistic if not altogether merry widow, was the one who nudged me into it.  She started in at the pool one afternoon (Trust me, you need it) and kept at me (You’ll have a better time than you think) until I gave in (Just wait, you’ll be grateful).  Though it had a more respectable and less alliterative name, Ellen called it simply Grief Group.  It convened on Tuesdays and Fridays in a reception room at the Methodist church.  Nobody in particular was in charge.  The Group governed itself by the direct democracy of loss.  These surprisingly gregarious hens and crones and geezers took me in, waited for me to lose my reserve, prodded me to break down then joshed me to lighten up, asked me out to dinner and movies, popped in to visit, and in general made a fuss over me.  Of the three men in the Group I was by far the youngest and easily the biggest wise-ass.  I had at last found my audience; my humor was a hit with the bereft.

 

Group was not unlike something that might have gone on in high school, the hormonal nonsense included.  The one time I asked Ellen to go for a bike ride with me she turned me down with a leer and a wink.  “Oh, I’m not at all athletic—except for bedroom sports.”  Grief may have been the left hand, the intermittent bass, but the busy treble was a sort of continuous salon music.  If in Florida nobody has to be old because nobody’s young, in Group nobody had to mourn because everybody was bereaved.  Loneliness, vacancy, melancholy conveyed no distinction and therefore no special rights.  The unwritten rule was that everybody was allowed one and only one crying jag.

 

They bunched around me; the women teased like Merry Wives badgering Falstaff.  Everything went smoothly until that Friday when, in an access of fellow feeling, I told the story of Sheila’s ashes.  As often happens, what began as a joke wound up a confession.

 

“Don’t tell me you’ve still got them?” Viola asked indignantly.

 

“In the bedroom, actually.”

 

General hub-bub, outrage.  “Well, I think it’s high time you let go,” huffed Ellen, who had become a little proprietary about me.  “Time you did what Sheila asked you to do.”

On this point there was unanimity.  The word closure was prominently bandied.  The next Tuesday Ellen informed me in front of the whole Group that her friend Julie McAllister had promised to take me out on her thirty-footer early the next Saturday.  Nothing simpler.  Just do it.  Of course I gave in at once, grateful to be bullied.

 

Julie’s about forty-five, a svelte golfer, a good manager of engines, sand traps, watercraft, and me.  We hit it off from the moment I came on board with Ellen when she offered me a cup of black coffee and asked with a Bogart twitch if I’d brought the dingus.

 

It was a lovely Saturday.  Not much humidity at eight a.m., only a few cirrus filaments stretched above azure water, pelicans sweeping low, gulls wheeling above, real tourist board weather.  In just ten minutes Julie’s inboard had us off Sheila’s favorite beach.  A few pallid tourists were already spread out, a gaggle of children splashed in the water.  Invisible on the beach road lurked Freyling, leaning photogenically on his bumper, nine millimeter at his hip, surveying his beat through narrowed Eastwood eyes.

 

I had hardly slept the night before.  I was nervous, the way you get before a final exam.  I clutched the pine box with both hands.

 

“Can we stop here?” I asked.

 

“Sure,” said Julie, cutting the engine.

 

The boat rocked a little but I found I was able to stand up without much difficulty.  I went to the side and leaned mournfully over it.

 

“Hey!  Aren’t you going to say something?” Julie asked.  “A prayer, a eulogy.  Something.”

 

I set my feet as firmly as I could and looked at the box.  Of course I was going to say something, but it was hard to speak in front of the two women, though maybe easier than it would have been had I been alone.  Julie came over and patted me manfully on the back.  “Hey.  Just forget us and talk to her, to—”

 

“To Sheila,” said Ellen expertly.

 

Talking to ashes is my sister-in-law’s department, I almost said.

 

I shuffled my way to the stern, turned my back on the women, and held the box out before me like a pagan offering.  Bits of language bounced around my head:  ashes to ashes, the curfew tolls the knell of parting day, I heard a fly buzz.

 

I took a deep breath and spoke to the box.  “I’m sorry, sweetheart, so sorry I wasn’t with you in the Winn Dixie parking lot, that I didn’t know how to keep you alive, that I haven’t even kept you together.  I’m sorry for all my tantrums and rotten jokes.  I’m sorry things turned out the way they did with the kids.  I’m sorry if it’s my fault you and Millie weren’t closer.  I’m sorry for the two awful years in Nebraska. I’m sorry I didn’t challenge that cop’s racism and for all the times I held my tongue at school and came home and took it out on you.  I’m sorry about the Australian pines.  I’m sorry this took me so long, old thing.  Forgive me.  It’s awful being without you.”  My knees were buckling but, as they say, I’d expressed myself.

 

Then I realized I hadn’t opened the box.  I couldn’t just dump the whole thing in the water.  Ashes had to be scattered.  What a dazzling anti-climax.  I turned around, tearful, baffled, chagrined.  Julie was there with a screwdriver and an understanding smile.  She patted my back again then gently took the box from me and discreetly retreated into the cabin to pry it open.  In the meantime Ellen took my hand and I realized that I had never heard her speak about her husband.

 

“Ellen, what was your husband like?”

 

She smiled almost shyly as she answered, “Actually, my dear, astonishingly like you.”

 

 

——————–

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies.  He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.  A short novel, Losses, is to be published later this year.


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