Lake Tahoe, Nevada, Late Summer
I pulled open the top of my one-piece bathing suit and poured a good amount of my ex-husband’s ashes down the front. It felt like gritty talcum. When I let go of the elastic front, some ash dust puffed up into my face. I managed to resist licking my lips but I could feel it in my eyes. The best thing to do was to just hurry up and jump in the lake. So I did.
The lake was heartlessly cold — it’d just as soon kill ya as anything; freeze a body into a sunken, blue-veined, alabaster statue. But I’d been in this lake many times, water so clean a child could drink it through a straw. I knew what to do. Big breath, start kicking. My goal was an outcropping of granite rocks not too far away. The idea was that as I swam the ashes would dissipate from my suit and follow the drift in some spiritual, afterlife way. Peaceful. But I kind of felt the way I would feel peeing in someone’s pool. I was pretty certain it was illegal to dump human remains in the environmentally protected Lake Tahoe. But this was our lake. Ben’s lake.
Dead at 58, heart attack. Imagine being attacked by your own heart.
I could see some of the ash coming out and floating on top of the water. Little pieces of Ben, floating away, sinking, glinting like mica in the late afternoon sun. He was literally next to my heart. I remembered the way Ben looked behind the oil-glossed wooden steering wheel of his Boston Whaler, a place that did not require a college degree. The big mackinaw trout and the smaller rainbow, color ghosted out of their scales as they drowned in the air. The smell of pine needles and fish scales, the thwack of the waves on the side of the Whaler and the thwack of the fish on the deck. Ben cleaned the fish with efficiency, but I felt the little deaths and smelled them on his fingers.
Did I love him then, in those early years when we went fishing and after we jumped off the side of the boat together and cooked the fish in a cast-iron pan over a rose-gold fire? On those nights, when it was cold even in deep summer, I know I loved his shoulders and the way he filled up the space of the plaid flannel sleeping bags, side by side, zipped together.
I climbed out on the rocks, expecting my suit to be empty. But as the water shed off my body, I realized the bulk of the ashes remained in my suit and had turned into a sort of mud, clumping to my skin. The weight of it pulled my suit down a bit and collected at the low point of my one-piece. I sighed. He was in parts of me I had not intended. I had no choice but to pull open the leg of my suit and start pulling out globs of ash. It was wet cement. I had to shake it from my hands and hunks of it splashed into the water or splat onto the rocks. This was not what I had in mind. Most of it ended up on the granite. The thought came to me that when the ashes dried in the sun it would look like those rocks that are covered in bird droppings and harvested for fertilizer. I wondered how long it would take for Ben to erode.
Oh well, I had tried. To do something nice. When I got home I had to shower the rest of the ashes off and watch my ex-husband go down the drain in a swirl of gray. Some of it clumped around the drain and I used my toes to squish him down. I threw away the suit. Who wants that memory? Then I realized that part of Ben was in the garbage too. What a mess. No wonder people bury people.
I still had his prosthetic arm though. With the hook hand and the tattoos.
Two Months Earlier, Five Days before the Wedding
My darling friend Debbi was with me when the phone rang in the car. I put Piper on speaker phone.
“Mom, where are you?”
“I’m with Debbi driving back from the nursery. I got a gardenia plant.” Piper probably doesn’t even know what a gardenia is, doesn’t know that if a wedding could be contained in a single flower it would be the elegant gardenia. “Coming down the mountain if I lose you.”
All the gardenias ghosted away.
Could I have planned for that?
A pull-out presented itself just around the bend, a little safety sanctuary. I wanted to accelerate, vibrate, teleport myself to my daughter. So Debbi was going to have to do the driving.
Debbi said I was — what’s the word for the way to feel when the man whom I was married to for 15 years and I divorced 20 years ago dies? I don’t know if there is a single word. There was a time I wanted him dead. But we had reached an armistice years ago.
I could feel relief. In old age Ben would have been a burden on the kids. He was a house built of sticks. Or I could feel a sort of laurel-wreathed victory that the living has over the dead. Or I could have felt numb, the way I feel when I smell pine branches encased in icicles in a December forest.
Plus, we had all lost our handyman.
“I don’t even know where to bury him,” was the last thing Piper said before we hung up the phone.
“I know where, I know exactly where,” I said, and all the things I could be feeling, could be thinking, dissolved into melancholy, and I felt like a sad guppy in a cloudy fishbowl.
Debbi hurried me home and I cried the whole way. A surprise of tears. Not for myself. For the phone calls we had to make, the packages of grief, like dog turds, we were going to deliver. For my son, Jude, who lives 400 miles away and no one was going to be there with him to ride out the wild. And sadness for Ben. For what he never had and what he would never get. For Steven, because Piper was going to dance right off the edge and Steven would have to be the one to two-step Piper back. For Steven and Piper’s wedding. How do you have a wedding five days after the father of the bride dies?
In the first summer after the divorce we didn’t really know how to end the marriage. Ben and I talked on the phone in the dark hours. Went for walks in the birch trees by White’s Creek. We had walked this path many times. “Ben,” I said “if neither one of us remarries, let’s be buried side by side.” Ben knew I was serious. I like cemeteries.
“That seems a long time to wait to lie down next to you,” Ben softly replied in the birdsong grove.
The Phone Call to Ben’s Sister, Angie, Who Lives on the Oregon Coast
The girl’s neurotic, it’s just a fact. It’s like it’s always Halloween night and there’s candy wrappers all over the place. Her Indian name is Runs at Mouth. Piper got in a hello and then a word-cloud surrounded us. Her voice, her excitement. Piper couldn’t interrupt. Angie spoke as if commas were beings of a lesser world. It was almost like listening to a poem. I caught Piper’s eyes with mine. We both knew it. We were going to deliver that singular edge of time where life would always be counted as before or after.
I lost my concentration and started pulling sad haikus out of the word-cloud. Finger-counting syllables in my mind.
Dad’s heart stopped like that.
He drank too much and smoked pot.
Death by KFC.
He deserved to die
He deserted his children
He reaped what he sowed.
Pretty boy, blue eyes
You never stood a true chance
Shame your mom and dad.
“Angie,” Piper finally cut in, and I shook off the haikus. “Dad died, he had a heart attack.” She had to get it out really fast and said it twice so she could put the brakes on Angie and make her hear. The circus tent collapsed and was never going up again. All the elephants went home.
Silence, but not golden. “My brother died,” Angie said, tentatively trying on the ill-fitting words. We all felt sick.
We had more calls to make. His job, his best friend. A shorter list really, than it should be. His mother. Jude.
“Oh, my beautiful boy,” said Ben’s mother, Mariam, with a sigh like the last violin note played on the Titanic. Is it a true sign of my humanity that in that moment I felt nothing but sorrow for her? All the years of flicking blame on her flicked away for the duration of that call, and I could share her pain. She had lost her son, after all. And I was worried about mine.
What this call was going to do to Jude. We saved him for last, for as long as we could.
The Phone Call to Las Vegas
My beautiful boy. He and his sister were all I cared about. The rest of my emotions I pushed to the back of the underwear drawer, right next to the gun. They can blow up later. I spent my life watching these little souls run naked into the world. I wanted to clothe them in petals.
When he was growing up I told Jude don’t do that, do this. And he listened to me, he really did. But every broken bone, every snowboard accident was a bottle of doctor-prescribed Vicodin lining up with his father’s genes. Bad genes in black jeans — that’s what I married.
Five years of sobriety, three of graduate school, and still I was worried that this phone call could send Jude straight to the Queen of Hearts, open 24 hours, two-for-one shots 6 a.m. to 12 noon. Whiskey, if you please, four deep.
“Hi, Jude,” said Piper, and I said it too. “Whatta you doin’?”
“Just got back from the gym. Making breakfast.” Bacon and eggs. His house always smells of bacon, which I think is a counter-girlfriend smell.
“We have some really bad news, Jude.” No need to stretch this out. “Dad died. He had a heart attack, it was quick.”
His reaction was immediate. “I knew it,” said Jude. I could have imagined a hundred responses and it wouldn’t have been that. “I woke up this morning and I was sad. So I just went with it. I put on sad music and cried for two hours and went back to bed. I knew it.”
“You knew it was Dad?”
“No, just something. I gotta go. I’ll call you back, don’t worry. I love you guys.” He hung up.
Oh, I’m going to worry. I’m worrying so hard I’m going to break out in a sweat like it’s hot yoga. I told Jude a dozen times, a baker’s dozen, “Call your dad, you’ll be sorry if you don’t.” Piper had her dad over for dinner two weeks ago (brisket). She had him fix things at her house and yelled at him regularly. She was going to be sad, but she wasn’t going to be guilty.
Jude was due a double shot of guilt and remorse — bitters and absinthe. I wanted to get on an airplane and fly to him, but I wasn’t going to be able to save him from that cloudy glass. Only he could do that.
Finding recovery is like finding God. Plenty of paths to the top of that mountain. An addict can sit around with a bunch of sad sacks at AA and talk about it. Rock climb until the wrists will hold no more. Slit a wrist. Jude did those. Why not? They work. Turns out, meditation is his jam. So when he tells Piper and me that he woke up sad and didn’t try to figure out why, just let it get tugged along by a song, we buy it.
Jude didn’t turn to the Queen of Hearts. He turned to stone. He told us later that he stayed up all night in meditation to help his father pass from this world, to bear witness. He built a stairway with a big neon exit sign out of memory and kindness and he kept it flashing until it was dimmed by the dawn. Then he wrote a letter to his grandmother. He told Mariam what he had done for her son and that when she died he would do the same for her. Only he would do it with the pure and hot intention of making her transition hard, harder, hardest. When that time comes, Jude will grind those pearly gates to dust.
Piper, Later That Same Night
God, what a day. Evening now.
Piper set up her ironing board and heated up the iron. She took the plastic wrapper off the shirt, pulled out the straight pins holding the square shape, unbuttoned the shirt, laid it on the board. She ironed her tears into the shirt. A secret message. She got out the gray wedding suit and into the inside pocket of the jacket she put two photos of her and Jude when they were kids. She put the suit, the shoes and socks, the tie, the pocket square into a bag. To take to the mortuary tomorrow. Ben’s life had no use for a suit. He bought it for the wedding. Ben told Piper the only other time he would wear it was for his own funeral, hahaha, so that’s just what she was going to do. She knew he would have preferred Carhartts. Or that jacket with the fur-lined hood he brought from Alaska, all those years ago.
Piper remembered when just the two of them went to Bryce Canyon and got caught in a windstorm. Red dust. Ben put a bandana over her face, bandit style, and they went out into the grit, just to feel it scour their skin, to taste the old earth. Face it down. Ben taught her things like that. How to throw the knife. Rip with your teeth. Sew up what needs sewing.
A Little Bit about the Arm
You’ve never made love until you make love to a man with a hook for a hand.
Well, we each had our own things to think about that night.
Four Days before the Wedding
(For the record, the only reason Ben took Piper to Bryce Canyon was because I called him and told him if he didn’t pay some attention to his daughter she was going to transfer all her love, 100 percent, to me. Which I wanted. Which I deserved. Earned. But I loved Piper, so I made that call. Honestly, it cost me something. Sorry, Piper, that I didn’t teach you how to eat grit and sleep in dirty sleeping bags. I’m just the one who bought the lice shampoo.)
Here’s what I learned about calling people to tell them someone they cared about was dead: They keep the call short, they hang up quickly. The terrorist’s bomb has just exploded and they need to count their fingers and toes, check for internal bleeding. Then they call back and the second call takes much longer. That’s the who, what, when, where, why call. And with that second call they want me to become responsible for what they need, or their concepts of what should be done. Screw ’em. Why are they even calling me? I’m the ex-wife.
Steven set us up at a mortuary. Piper and I were headed over when Mariam called. “I need to see Ben; I just need to do it.” She lives in Portland, a nine-hour drive if she can hold her pee.
“You don’t want to do that, Mariam,” said Piper. “He had a heart attack and they did an autopsy.” Piper’s a badass emergency nurse and Steven does triage from a helicopter. When Steven wears his flight suit around town people thank him for his service and give him things like free oil changes.
“I have to see my boy,” said Mariam. Sadness so sad, her heart a bug caught in amber.
And I could understand that. “Okay, Mariam, I’ll ask them what it takes and call you back.”
Piper and I sat with Morticia; I never did remember her name. Could there be a worse job? Well, I guess shoveling the body into the box was worse. I expected Morticia to be slack-handed and gratuitous but actually she was quite normal and nice. She probably had a name like Lisa. She addressed her questions to Piper — the true next of kin. I was just the checkbook. $1,300. I said no to all the extras. Piper didn’t care.
We went out to the car to get the clothes Piper brought. “You’re going to bury him in the wedding suit?” I asked, looking into the bag. I hadn’t known until that moment.
“He told me to,” she said. She looked like a mudslide about to happen. I would have followed her down. I rescued the tie, pocket square, and socks from the bag. Things Ben had picked out.
“Could we give these to Jude to wear at the wedding?” She nodded yes. Jude was taking Ben’s place and walking her down the aisle. I found a pair of boxers in the bag.
“No one wants to be buried commando,” said Piper, squaring up, stepping back from the edge.
Morticia looked in the bag and handed us back the shoes. They don’t burn shoes. “We don’t actually put the clothes on the body. We just lay them on top. It’s $450 extra to dress and make the body presentable.” I looked at Piper.
This is something that I know. If Piper died, she wouldn’t go in the box naked and have clothes put on top of her. And I wouldn’t let anyone else dress her. I would do it myself. I found I understood how Mariam felt. But when I called Mariam she didn’t offer to pay the extra $450.
I thought of a night, so many nights ago, when Ben fell asleep on the couch and I came out to get him. He had beautiful skin. The moon was coming through the window, but his skin was the candle in the dark. The blanket had arranged itself in a twisted way, exposing his body as if he were a model in repose for a classically trained painter. His missing arm, his flat stomach, breath rising, falling. I wished I had the nerve to ask Morticia how much extra for me to dress him.
Piper didn’t blink when I said we were fine with the standard deal. Then Morticia brought out Ben’s arm and laid it on the table. They don’t burn prosthetics either.
A Bit More about the Arm
The tattoos are hula girls. Pinks and greens. A tiki torch. I think Ben used Tommy Bahama shirts for his patterns.
On our first date I reached across the table and ran a finger up a florid hibiscus. “What’s the story?”
“I was born without it.” My fingers dropped back to the cold hook, pressed my fingerprint onto the metal.
“You don’t miss what you never had.”
“I like the tattoos.”
We kept dating. Eventually the family albums came out. Thanksgiving. Baby Ben at the beach, two arms reaching up as if the sun were his to keep. I flipped him the stink eye. He countered with the bad-liar shrug. Later that night he said, “Frostbite.”
Just because I was sleeping with him didn’t mean I owned his past. But everyone knows the past is never past. It isn’t even over.
What Really Happened to the Arm
How to explain Sand Mountain? Two miles of Nevada sand dunes rise 600 feet in the air, completely incongruous with the low pinyon pine and the borax washes of the high desert that surround it. The dunes appear out of thin air, a mirage, a broken hourglass, all of Time poured out.
Seriously, Sand Mountain is so out of place it seems a faerie tale. And it is extraordinary, one of only 35 places in the world with documented singing sands. When the sand moves, it sings, it whistles and barks, booms and roars. It gives voice to the desert and to Lake Lahontan, which gave up the ghost of water nine thousand years ago, the prevailing winds prevailing upon the remaining sand of the exposed lake bed to Rise up, Brothers! and make the dunes.
Mariam and Pete took their children, Ben and Angie, out to Sand Mountain. Really Pete was drunk before they got there because he was always drunk, it was just a question of how much. Today, too much. Pete put seven-year-old Ben in the ATV with him and headed straight up the mountain.
“I remember being afraid,” Ben finally told me. “When we got toward the top we were so vertical I remember thinking the sand would pour over and bury us. We were digging in deep and there was a wake of sand behind us. Dad had on goggles, but I didn’t and the sand was needling my eyes. I thought we were burrowing into the mountain, rather than going up. And then Dad flung the ATV over the crest of the dune, full speed, and we went out into the air, as if we could fly, and for a moment I thought we could. But as the ATV stopped flying and started to come back to earth, Dad fell sideways into me and his body pushed me out. My arm landed under the ATV.
“You would think the sand would be soft, no? But it’s not. It’s as hard as a chopping block. My forearm looked like steak tartare.
“Did you know there’s a butterfly out there — the Sand Mountain Blue? It’s the only place in the world it lives. Right before I passed out one landed on my chest.”
How can a mother stay with a father who’s a drunk? Pete died relatively young, but it wasn’t until after Angie and Ben were adults. She never left him. What was it about my destiny that kept this critical piece of information from me until it was too late, until I was already in love with the beautiful one-armed boy? How could I have expected him to know how to be a good husband, a good father? He knew more about hiding in the closet than he did about one-two-buckle-my-shoe.
When Ben started drinking Tequila Sunrises with the sunrise, like they were in cahoots, I was out. He could live inside the lyrics of a George Thorogood song if he wanted, but I was out.
Morticia was looking at us. Business was done; it was time to go. I always liked that damn arm. I picked it up and tossed it in the trunk of the car.
Three Days before the Wedding
Piper called. We were waiting for Jude; he was driving home. “I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t want Dad talked about at the wedding. I can’t be, ‘Oh, you look so beautiful, congratulations. I’m sorry about your Dad.’ I can’t go back and forth like that.”
“If you do that you’ll crack your makeup from going up-smile, down-smile,” I agreed.
“Well, yeah, but I was thinking more about my emotions,” she said.
Angie called, “What are you doing with Ben’s arm?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I think I’d like to keep it. I feel it belongs to me. He used to throw it at me when we were kids.”
He used to throw it at me when we were fighting. Here it comes. People claiming things. “I burned it up with his body.” Nothing belongs to anyone except Piper and Jude. And maybe me.
Here’s what I learned about calling people to tell them someone they cared about was dead: They keep the call short, they hang up quickly. The terrorist’s bomb has just exploded and they need to count their fingers and toes, check for internal bleeding.
Mariam called. “I heard you and the kids are cleaning out Ben’s apartment tomorrow. Why so soon?”
“Well, because Piper and Steven are going on their honeymoon and I don’t want them to come back to that. So this is the time that everyone is here to get it done,” I said.
“I can be there in a few weeks. I’d like to go through some of his stuff.”
“Mariam, that’s not going to happen. The kids are going to take what they want and the rest is going to the dump. His rent is due in a week. If you want to pay it, I’ll lock the door and you can go through what the kids don’t take. I’m not paying his rent.”
“It just feels like you’re sending his life to Goodwill,” Mariam said.
She did not offer to pay the rent. “I don’t care. I don’t care about anyone but Piper and Jude. This is what works for us and this is what we are going to do.” Did she honestly think I should pay the rent to wait for her? Did this woman forget that I hate her?
“Will you keep his pillow and one of his shirts for me?”
She had just lost her son. “Yes.”
Really it wasn’t my best day.
Two Days before the Wedding
Jude, Piper, and I drove over to Ben’s house. We didn’t know what we would find; none of us had ever been there.
How invasive to go through someone’s belongings when they didn’t have a chance to curate, to leave out the proper things, set up the story. They say dead men tell no tales, but their stuff does. His weed and pipe were by the stove, a bottle of Jack on the shelf above, right next to the salt and pepper. A steak in the fridge, a little past its prime, but who isn’t. His bed was made. We found letters and photos of the kids, cards and artwork they had sent him, Father’s Day cards and bills and IRS notices. This is your final notice! Damn straight on that one.
I looked around the sad artifacts and suddenly I wanted to smudge his house. I wished for sage and twine and to open all the windows and set Ben’s spirit free. It seemed the holiest thing to do in the wreckage of this ransacked space. By his reading chair was an ashtray and a carton of little cigarillos, two-to-a-pack in red-and-white packaging. We went room to room, opening windows, except those held fast by layers of old paint. Smudging Ben’s home with smoldering cigarillos.
Ben would have liked that; I know he would.
Day of the Wedding
Piper was as beautiful as a bright idea presented in lace and tulle. When Piper took Jude’s arm the three of us believed Ben was with us; if it’s true that he can be, he was. And then we mostly forgot about him. Piper was marrying the right man and they married in my garden with the stream and the granite bridge, the Japanese lanterns and Japanese maples, passionately red. Winks of gold and orange koi. Debbi said, “You gardened 17 years for this day,” and in that moment that felt true.
The band had asked us if we wanted them to play any special songs. Secretly I asked for Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” It is Piper’s and my song. I went and got Piper, and Jude came too and we danced together. Yes, I was drunk. The café lights were just now coming on and the twinkle lights in the stream, just like I’d planned, looking like fallen stars. Color everywhere, and all the people we love and a soft current of goodwill that hinted of gardenias.
Partway through the dance Jude said, “We talked about it, Mom, and we’re glad it was Dad who died and not you. It would be so much worse if it was you.” Piper was agreeing. “We’re giving it to you. We love you more.”
I might like to think that the better part of me would have spoken up for their dad. But I didn’t. It was the best dance of my life. There will be none better.
A Last Bit about the Arm
It’s in the trunk of my car. I don’t bring it in the house, but it goes with me wherever I go. Every once in a while I let a bag boy bring my groceries out just to watch his face when he sees the detached arm, the hook and hula girls, when I open the trunk. Freaks ’em every time.
Laura Newman is the author of two collections of short stories, The Franklin Rookery for Wayward Babies and Parallel to Paradise. For more, visit lauranewmanauthor.com.
From the book The Franklin Rookery for Wayward Babies by Laura Newman, published by Delphinium Books. Copyright © 2021 by Laura Newman
Featured image: Shutterstock
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