blackbirdonline journalFall 2015  Vol. 14 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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The War of the Ashes

My father, Pete, has a plan. He’s telling me about it while he pisses on five cannons clustered together outside the Visitor Center at Antietam National Battlefield. It’s early, right after dawn. No one’s around.

“How far is it to your mother’s place?” he asks. I’m facing the other way, but I know that tone in his voice.

“We’re not stealing the ashes,” I say before he can get going on the idea.

“Look, I’ll just be in and out. You can even tell her I have him. Then I’ll mail him to his sister in Florida.” Him is my stepfather, dead from lung cancer that he’d toiled on in most of his spare time for thirty years.

“We’re not doing it,” I say again, though I have to admit the idea holds some appeal. More than that, I wish he’d follow through on yesterday’s threat to go visit my mother, his ex-wife, in the hospital where she’d overdosed on pills.

“They want someone to visit her,” I’d told him when the neighbor found my number and called me. “To take responsibility for her.”

“She needs a fucking visitor,” Pete had snarled back. “A grizzly. And it needs to open its maw and start at her goddamn feet. And you’re not taking responsibility for nobody.”

This argument, the one about his stealing the ashes, will keep until we’re out of the state and into West Virginia. I just have to let him turn the idea over and enjoy it and then he’ll forget about it and be onto something else.

Right now I can hear he’s zipping up, clearing his throat for a hock and a spit. We’ve got a long drive ahead of us—twelve hours or so to my home in Kentucky and he’s smoked a joint in the gazebo of the Maryland State Monument to the battle and is mellowing out. I’ll get an hour or more of talking out of him, the anger wearing down as he goes until it’s just soft-edged pontificating on everything from why he hates Christmas and Easter to Dick Cheney to why French vanilla coffee creamer is the best thing humankind has ever done. Then he’ll get quiet, want silence or stories. He’s my father, and even though I’ve spent most of life without him, I somehow understand him well.

“These cannons look like shit in a cluster here,” he says. “Why’d they clump them all together like this?”

I’d already noticed the cannons, the odd grouping of the five of them, three facing ahead and two turned perpendicular and pushed up against the long wooden tongues that held up the cart and wheels. Just across the deserted road was Dunker Church, the center of fighting on September 17, 1862, all restored and white and showing no sign of what it witnessed that day. All told, nearly 23,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing in the battle, still the single bloodiest day in U.S. history. If you remember studying the Civil War, chances are good you’ve seen the church in Alexander Gardner’s photograph for Mathew B. Brady’s New York exhibit called The Dead of Antietam.1 1  “Brady’s Photographs: Pictures of the Dead at Antietam,” New York Times,October 20, 1862. The colloidal silver photograph shows the church in the distance pocked with artillery, an abandoned cannon on the field in the foreground and dead bodies lying bloated and pitiful across the field. It was the first public presentation of images of the dead on a field of battle that conveyed, Gardner said later of a photograph from Gettysburg, a “useful moral: [ . . .] the blank horror and reality of war.”2 2  Alexander Gardner. Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War (New York: Dover Publications, 1959).

Standing where I am, looking across toward the prim and simple church, I realize that I’m standing with the same vantage point the camera had that day, that my father’s just urinated on the ground where five bodies had lain. The cannons must have been placed to keep people from standing there.

I’d just taught the battle the week before; most of my midwestern students’ knowledge of the war was sketchy at best. Truth be told, to me, this ground where we are standing is a holy place.

For Pete, even if he’d known where he’s standing, this isn’t the case. I put a hand on the curve of the cannon’s side.

“Maybe they’re moving them,” is what I say.


We’d come to Antietam so I could see Jack, my stepfather’s son. It was Jack who’d called to give me the news that my mother was in the hospital, that they were looking for someone to take responsibility for her. They’d kept her for as long as they legally could, and someone was going to have to tell them what to do with her. They didn’t think she should leave, the signs of long-term narcotic addiction clear. To treat it—and to address the implications of the overdose—a family member or someone else was going to have to step in.

It was just chance that I was so nearby when it happened. Pete, nearing seventy now, had decided to fly out from the Pacific Northwest and drive with me from Kentucky to Washington, D.C., where I was presenting a paper. My sister lived there with my young niece, whom Pete had only seen twice, and I’d told him I planned to see them both while I was there. That’s when he said he’d like to tag along, and I said that would be all right.

Most of my life with him had been spent on the road, rattling around the American West in his battered brown Ford pickup. When I was too young to drive, he’d pulled over to smoke, then kept driving. Once I could drive, he just pulled a towel over his head, lit the pipe, and blew the smoke out the window as we went. The smell of weed will always give me the kind of fits of nostalgia most daughters have for Old Spice.

My paper went fine. The visit was as good as it could be. It was the first time he’d been with both my sister and me in the same place in fifteen years and we did the best we could. My niece—five years old and all energy and noise—buzzed around Pete, delightedly calling him “Grandpa,” which plucked his nerves almost as much as my calling him by his first name always had.

At one point my niece ran upstairs to get something from school to show him and he looked at me, blew out a tired breath and said, “God, I hate kids. That must be why I had so many of them.”


The call from Jack had come the morning after the conference, early, and even though I couldn’t have guessed it would be then, it’s not like I hadn’t known some call like this was coming. My stepfather had been dead now for six months and my mother—legally but wholly drug-addicted, a misanthrope and righteous as a Baptist preacher about being poorly kept for most of her life—had refused to speak to me for eight months before that. At issue was her realization that our lifetime of what could at absolute best be considered strained relations didn’t add up to my dropping my partner and my life to move back to the East Coast to take care of her while he had the gall to be dying in the house.

They’d been, in many ways, the best eight months of my life.

“Look,” Jack had said, “I know you don’t want to be dealing with this but she’s been in the hospital for a week now.” The doctors and social workers had finally gotten the name of my aunt, my stepfather’s sister I’d met maybe three times, out of one of the neighbors. She’d called Jack, and he’d called me.

Now here would be the place in a decent story where any daughter worth her salt would be struck by the terrible pity of it all and would immediately hang up and call the hospital to say, “Yes, she’s my mother. Yes, I’m responsible for her.” This would be the point when a daughter would immediately get in the car and drive all day and night to get to her, to sit by her and hold her hand, to do what’s right.

But this is not a decent story. This is a story about a nearly seventy-year-old man wanting to break into his ex-wife’s house and steal a dead man’s ashes so that she won’t make good on her threat to flush them down the commode. This is the story of the daughter who looked toward the looming and unquenchable darkness before her, looked back toward the light, and chose to go home.


Two days before my stepfather died, I did the long drive across Kentucky from where I lived near the banks of the Ohio River, through the near-deserted hills of the Bluegrass Region to the first rocky edges of the Appalachians in the eastern part of the state. Diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer ten months before, he’d done three rounds of chemo and radiation despite saying he would refuse treatment, the lifelong atheist suddenly pushing against the mortality he’d spent much of his life blustering he didn’t have a thought about. The ragged mass of tumors in his left lung shrank with each round. His group emails to me, Jack, and his brothers and sisters got progressively more hopeful.

Finally, near the end of summer, he wrote us saying that his doctors were “all but saying he was cured,” which I knew was not the case. I’d talked to his doctor privately when he was initially diagnosed, and he’d said that any treatment he would give my stepfather would be purely palliative, that there was absolutely no hope of him living more than a year. As is often the case, the doctor didn’t tell this to his patient.

“With cancer,” he said, “a lot of how long someone lasts comes down to morale. You can’t tell a person there’s no hope. You do, they’re gone in a month.”

Which all put me in a hard place because Dad (as I called my stepfather)—a Mensa member and alleged “pure pragmatist”—told me two days after he went into the hospital that he didn’t want to be lied to about what was wrong with him.

“I’m not gonna be treated like a child,” he told me, angry. “I want the truth.”

But they didn’t tell him. And neither did I, despite his request. And my mother, on hearing the stuff about morale, certainly wasn’t going to do anything that might shorten his life. She seemed to react to his diagnosis like it was a personal affront, the sole breadwinner in the house not only not working but soon to be permanently out of work.

She tried to phrase it differently, of course.

“You can’t go,” she said to him one morning in the ICU, the bitter voice I was used to taking on suddenly the approximation of a little girl’s. “I can’t live without you,” she added, by which she meant, with him gone, she wouldn’t be able to handle her day-to-day life. He’d been her caretaker, the secret keeper of her various addictions, and her sole provider for much of their lives.

He’d rolled his eyes and looked away from her, then wheezed out, “Let’s not do this again, okay?”

It wasn’t my business, that part of their lives, and I didn’t want it to be. So I stayed out of it.

But when the email came to me and Jack about him believing he was nearly cured, it was too much to bear. Jack, who’d taken to going to radiation treatments with his father to spend time with him, pulled the doctor aside and told him what Dad had said.

The doctor had sighed, shaking his head. “I’ll talk to him,” he said, and he did, told him after radiation one day that my stepfather needed to stop fighting this all so hard, that he needed to make plans. Begin dealing with it.

This was October, summer pushing too far into autumn and everything feeling unseasonably warm and close. Dad called me and told me he wasn’t going to do the last radiation treatment he’d been planning, the one he thought would cure him so he could “get back to normal.” I said okay.

Two weeks later, the cancer had spread to his heart.

“I guess it’s game over,” he said on a voice mail message, left while I was teaching. “It makes sense. I feel like . . .” A long crackly pause across the distance between us. “. . . ‘the end is near,’ as they say. Don’t know why. Just do.”

I knew why. I teach a seminar on death. People whose bodies are actively dying will often tell you they know they’re close to death.

Time to make the trip.


The first Death: the kind man—young and dark-haired with a full beard. I don’t remember his name, but he would often come to watch my sister and me when I was three or four. I don’t remember his name, but I remember his smile and how safe I felt with him.

Then he just vanished. I never saw him again. Years later, I asked what happened to him and Pete told me that someone had slipped a tab of acid in his Coke at a party without telling him. He’d vanished for several days. Everyone was worried, Pete said. He was a tightly wound law school student and it wasn’t like him to disappear like that.

Finally he’d come to our apartment in the middle of the night when I was sleeping. Pete asked him where he’d been and he said he’d been in Hell.

We were driving another time when he told me this. I was twenty or so and we were on the highway outside Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

The Hell,” Pete said. “Like the actual place. I just told him he’d gotten hold of some bad shit. He didn’t do drugs and he didn’t know what the fuck had happened to him. I told him to go somewhere and sleep it off and it would all be fine in a day or so.”

The kind man agreed to go home and left, but no one ever saw him again. They found his remains a few weeks later in the woods with a bullet in his head.

But like I said, I didn’t know about what happened to him at the time. I just remember the vanishing, the sense of here and then not here, not dissimilar to the way Pete himself vanished for almost ten years, then for blocks of months or years throughout my life.

The dead weren’t to be feared in my mind. They just weren’t here.


But they are, aren’t they? Like my grandfather—my mother’s father, Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. This is the man who drove up the gravel drive of the house my mother was raised in while my mother clandestinely visited my grandmother with Pete and her two young kids. I watched him from where I was playing with my sister near the hunting dogs’ pens as he climbed out of the truck carrying a shotgun. He went in the screen door, there was a commotion inside, and then the bathroom window shot open, Pete and my mother spilling out onto the grass. We were grabbed, thrown into the back seat of Pete’s VW Bug, and he backed down the driveway, going fast.

Then he was flying down the one-lane road back toward the highway. I remember being both exhilarated by the speed we were going and very afraid. My mother was crying and Pete was shouting at her, screaming really, saying that they should “put a fence around this fucking place and set it on fire.”


Later, the first Viewing. My grandmother shrieking that her husband’s hair was parted on the wrong side.

“He hates his hair parted like that!” she cried. I was eight. She was terrified. The mortician was so surprised he took his own comb out of his pocket and parted the slicked-down, steel-gray hair to the other side.

Then the first Receiving Line and the sound my mother made as a man began working his way up the line. I glanced down from where I stood beside her (good daughter, loyal daughter) and saw him, face a mass of scars, like a quilt made out of skin. I stared.

“I’m sorry,” the man said to my mother.

“It was good of you to come,” she said in this strange, strangled voice, and I remember she took his hand.

“Well, I really came just to make sure he was dead.” He tried to say it light, as though the two of them were sharing a joke. Later I found out it was my grandfather who’d done that to his face.

No one would do the eulogy, even though the church was reasonably full. So when the time came, the stalwart Southern Baptist preacher took the pulpit himself.

“We all know what kind of a man Frank was,” he said, looking stern. “But all I can say is that you shouldn’t judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes.”

Then he sat down again.


On the way to see my stepfather that last time, I made it to Jack’s house just as the sun was going down. I’d never been there before because we’d only known each other for a short time. When my mother and stepfather got married in 1974, I was six and Jack was four. We played together occasionally, and I remember liking the idea of a brother at the time. Then we moved north from Georgia and we didn’t see him anymore.

I asked about him once we’d settled in, asked my stepfather when Jack was going to be coming to live with us. My stepfather didn’t answer. He just got up from the couch and went upstairs, my mother in tow. Ten minutes later, she came downstairs and took me hard by the arm, teeth clenched in the enraged expression she’d wear the last time I saw her, as well.

Five words. “Never mention that person again.”

Jack was twenty-nine before his father would see him again, the contact negotiated secretly around my mother by my grandmother on that side. She had known Jack his whole life. She was elderly and had some sway over my stepfather with a proverbial last wish.

I saw him sometimes, but Jack and I were never close. We were cordial but not much else, both of us regarding the other like sentries on opposing, very well-established fronts. Strangely, we were much alike: wary, gentle, fiercely independent. Utterly certain of being alone in the world and of our complete expendability.

Jack wasn’t there when I got to his quirky Civil War-era house. A text told me he was sorry to be late, still at work but on the way. Three miles back I’d passed the Visitor Center at Antietam National Battlefield. I hadn’t been there in ages, so I got in the car and went back.

Dunker Church with its cannons. The Cornfield. The East Woods. The Sunken Road. I taught this battle, so I knew all those landmarks by heart. To understand how we deal with death in this country, I tell my students, you must start in 1862.

I was alone, the park about to close. I took a few pictures of the stone fences, the embattlements, the obelisks that invoked Eternity beside the cornfields that now grew only millet for birds.

Jack texted he was home and I went back, drank a cup of coffee with him and his partner. Then we drove the last two hours to the hospice together in the dark.


Pete’s ranting about my mother wanes as predicted as we cross out of Maryland under a blanket of gray clouds that are threatening snow. He’s old now and worries about the weather and is driving like an old man. It’s strange to see it on him because he’s never given it a thought before. Once, after a monsoon rain in the Arizona desert, we were nearly swept off the road in a flash flood because he ignored the signs warning us not to cross running water on the desert road.

My mother’s neighbor has called again and left a message with more questions. He knows that I’m going back over the mountains, that I’m not coming. He’s told the doctors and the social worker what I told him: she has family she’s kept in contact with over the years—two brothers, a sister, and her mother, the latter still alive in a nursing home.

“I gotta take a piss and get gas,” Pete says, pulling off at a Flying J truck stop just over the West Virginia line. “Talk to that guy while you pump the gas. And tell him not to fucking call you again.”

It’s cold and the wind is coming down off the Appalachians, funneled to the valleys. I know the neighbor can hear the flap of it on the phone’s mic, but I’m doing what I’m told and pumping the gas. At some point I mention my sister, probably in reference to where I was when he first called.

“You have a sister here?” he asks. “Maybe she could come—”

“No, she hasn’t spoken to my mother in twenty-five years,” I say.

“But wait, I’m confused,” he fumbles in. “Your mother said you were an only child. Well, you and Jack that is—”

“I’m sure she told you lots of things,” I snap at him, “But what I’m giving you are the facts.”

He tells me my mother’s brother doesn’t want to take responsibility for her either, though he’s a cop and does give the neighbor permission to take my stepfather’s handgun collection out of her apartment. The doctors still don’t know what to do with her, though they are keeping her long enough to get her off the narcotics.

“The apartment’s full of . . . you know, feces,” the neighbor tells me. “She stopped walking the dogs, I guess.”

I don’t even know what to say to that.

By the time Pete comes back out of the truck stop, carrying a cup of coffee in each hand and a bag of Lay’s in his teeth, I’m finished with the call and the gas. I’m also crying. Just a little, but crying. It’s hard to breathe and the cold wind’s howling and I’m hoping nobody notices as I try to pull it all back together again.

Pete put the cups of coffee on the car’s roof, slamming the chips down. I will always remember the feel of his hands gripping hard on either side of my head as he looked down at me.

“You are not taking this on,” he said. He gave my head a hard shake that hurt a bit. “You understand?”

I nod. I’ve made my decision. There’s no going back. I’d never forgive myself for it, I knew even then. But I don’t tell him that.


It was late when Jack and I got to the hospice, but the staff wasn’t bothered. My stepfather had told them “his kids” were coming to see him, his daughter “all the way from Kentucky,” and the nurse on duty was sweet and sympathetic to my long trip.

“He’s really happy you’re here,” she said to me as she led both of us down the hall to his room. Jack talked easily to her—he visited often and knew her by name. She knocked softly on the door and opened it with the quiet greeting, “Look who’s here!”

He looked like a baby chick, sitting cross-legged on the middle of his bed, swollen and vaguely jaundiced with no eyebrows or lashes and only a little tuft of white fuzz on the very top of his head. His arms, always densely covered with black hair, were as smooth as mine now. The wall behind him was painted with a mural of all the characters from Winnie the Pooh. It was all very strange. But he was smiling and he was very glad to see me, and it made me glad I’d made the trip.

We made small talk, the three of us together, for a half hour or so. Jack, a musician, retrieved his father’s Martin from the corner, one of two guitars he had and treasured above anything else. They were, in fact, really the only personal things he had. Jack sang softly, no pick, brushing the strings gently with calloused fingertips.

Then, after 11:00, Dad looked at me and said: “You must be exhausted, driving all that way. You should head back to Jack’s place and get some rest.”

“Nah, I’m fine,” I told him, but I could tell keeping up the charade was wearing on him. We all knew why I was there. We all knew I had to drive back the next day, a Sunday, because I had to teach the following day. “You might be tired though.”

He was swallowing a lot, his eyes wide and rimmed with red.

“Yeah, we should go soon,” Jack said into a beat of silence. “How about I wait in the lounge and you two can visit by yourselves for a bit?” Dad was looking down, still swallowing, like he was pushing everything that was threatening to come to the surface back down into the cage of his chest. I nodded and Jack left.

We weren’t going to make it long, I knew. We’d made a life from not saying things to each other, not showing anything we felt. It was safer, and he had always been more comfortable with things this way.

“Almost midnight,” he said, glancing at the clock and sniffing. I don’t know why he said it.
“Yeah.” I played along. “Almost my birthday too,” I said, because it was. My birthday was the next day.

“It’s your birthday?”

“Yeah.” I smiled.

His face fell. “I’m sorry, you coming all this way—”

“No, it’s good. It’s fine.” I laughed. It was funny to me in an off-center way.

“Well . . . happy birthday.” He smiled and took my hand.

I smiled back and gave it a squeeze. “Thanks.”

There was a long silence, both of us looking down.

“Hey, I’m going to give Jack both my guitars,” he said finally. He was back to looking at his hand, the one not in mine. “I know I always said you could have one of them, but you don’t play and—”

I did play, but I didn’t say. “No, it’s fine,” I said, because I wanted Jack to have the guitars. Dad was so proud of them. “He should have them. They’ll get played.”

Now his eyes were welling over, his mouth turning down, his flushed chest heaving a bit. “I don’t have anything to give you then,” he replied, and the misery was there, the grief in both of us rising.

“I don’t need anything else from you,” I said, and it was true. He’d given me both nothing and everything already: he’d stayed with my mother, taken care of her, and thus let me live my life.

And because I wanted to tell him something good, because there was only one word that had ever meant anything to me, I said: “Thank you for always being my friend.”

Family had always been so fraught and angry and filled with pain. Then I told him that I loved him.

Thankfully he seemed to understand. “You were mine too,” he whispered. “And I was always proud of you. I want you to know that.”

He made a little sound in his throat. He held my hand in the palm of his and looked at it hard, ran his thumb over mine. Then he reached up and touched a strand of my hair. I realized he was memorizing my face, and it was just too much. So I kissed his cheek, his forehead, and held him. He whispered that he loved me and I got up and left him there.


The next morning, sun just up, I left Jack’s and headed toward the highway. The dawn was stunning over the battlefield and I pulled onto the deserted access road, stopped the car in the middle of the lane, and got out beside the millet field. Their gold heads were still in the cool morning mist, crows drawing broad shapes overhead.

I was forty-five that day but felt much, much older, old as this place with its persistence and its stone fences and its still, bronze statues of dead men.

Time to leave, I thought. Time to go home again.


The next day, my mother called Jack to tell him the hospice had complained about us making too much noise and disturbing the place. This was a lie, of course, since the hospice staff had been nothing but gentle with both of us. Jack demanded to know who had told her that, and she wouldn’t say, referring vaguely to a nurse. He told her he was going to call the hospice and hung up on her, and when he did, they said no one had called her or reported any such thing.

“Punishment,” I told him over the phone.

“For what?” he nearly shrieked. “I don’t understand!”

But there was no point in trying to explain it to him.

Just as there’d been no point in explaining why, the next day, when the hospice called to tell her that Dad wanted to go home to die and they’d all agreed it was best, that my mother told them if he came home, she would not take care of him.

The hospice and the social workers were baffled, Jack said, but I wasn’t as shocked as everyone else. She’d told me this long before, in one of the last conversations we had.

“He’s not coming back here,” she’d spat, righteous, on the phone. “Who’s going to take care of me? I’m sick and I’m not taking care of him. Plus I don’t want to have to wake up one morning and him just be there lying dead. Why do I always have to do the nice thing?”

I was sickened by the cruelty of it, but I said nothing.

After all, we’d done our share of fighting at the hospital already, one of the reasons I’d left—to get our tension away from my stepfather’s hospital bed. The first was a tussle over her endless antagonizing about “that nigger Kenyan in the White House,” when I’d cut her off in mid-rant and told her that I hadn’t come all that way to listen to her political rants. When she kept at it anyway, now looping what she believed to be my views into the derision, I’d slammed down my fork and leaned over the table in a sudden, blinding rage.

“No one,” I said as quietly as I could, hating the way my voice began to shake. “No one in my life talks to me like this. No one.” Stunned, and furious, she got up and left.

What finally did it was when she’d kept telling Dad she’d die without him. I told her, as gently and as kindly as I could, that it would probably be best not to say that, that it would make him feel like he was letting her down.

Her teeth clenched down. It was night. We were in the hospital cafeteria, Jack there too and trying to stay out of it by staring miserably at his miserable plate.

“Oh, here we go,” she mocked, as she’d always done. “I’m not going to analyze every word that comes out of my mouth for you.”

“This might be a good time to start analyzing everything so that we’re sure we’re saying the right things,” I shot back.

She started to reply with that same acid, shaming tone and something old and frightened in me just tore away.

“Just stop,” I barked, and it was loud enough to turn some heads. Now I was compromising her carefully constructed appearances to strangers, the Unforgiveable Sin. Maybe knowing that it was finally over was what finally let me say it, what I’d always been holding in:

Stop hurting him.

I was dead to her. It was written in the chiseled, furious look on her face. She got up and left again. Jack and I watched her go, me crying those frustrated tears I had grown up wearing by then.

“I’m glad you said it,” Jack said, pushing his plate away.


“I don’t understand!” Jack had cried.

But there was no explaining any of it. There was no explaining to him why, when they called my mother two days later and said my stepfather was doing badly, that something was going on and that she should come right away, she didn’t. She didn’t call Jack to tell him to go either. She was fifteen minutes away and she left Dad there with no one he loved around him as he died of the predicted, sudden heart attack with only a nurse and an on-call doctor there to send him on his way.

When Jack called me that evening to tell me that Dad was dead and that he was driving to the hospice to sit with him before they took him away, I said: “Take the Martin with you when you leave. And go get the 12-string tonight.”

“I can’t do that,” he protested. “It’s too soon—”

“She knows they’re for us,” I said. “Get them both before she decides to throw them away.”


“Poor sonofabitch,” Pete says when I tell him all this. We are almost to Charleston, so it looks like we’ll beat the snow home that’s coming from the west. At some point I ask Pete why he married my mother all those years ago.

“Well, first, I didn’t know who her daddy was then,” he says, holding up a finger for emphasis. “And second . . .” He shrugs. “It was something to do. It’s just what you did back then.”

We make it home before the storm. Pete sits in a chair in my house, his flight the next day, smoking weed and watching Star Trek. He’ll be gone the next day and it’s anyone’s guess when I’ll see him again.


My stepfather’s ashes were supposed to be given to Jack. Dad wanted them scattered in a lake he loved in the town where he grew up. It was far away. My mother had already told Dad she wasn’t going to the ceremony, so when Jack went to get the guitars the night of his father’s death, it was agreed she’d have Jack pick the ashes up from the funeral home to take with him.

Jack waited for the call, but it never came. In fact, my mother stopped returning his calls. Finally Jack called the funeral home manager to ask about the ashes, who told him that my mother had already come and gotten them.

Punishment. Predictable as storms.

She had decided Jack and I were after Dad’s life insurance payout in some inexplicable and paranoid rage. We wanted her things, she said, and “the ashes were hers.” She told all this to either my aunt or to Jack when he had finally gotten hold of her on the phone. She threatened to destroy them, to flush them down the toilet, before she’d let Jack have them.

So when she overdosed and the neighbor talked to the two of us, Jack told him what she was threatening to do with the ashes, still in the funeral home’s metal box and stuffed in the guest room’s dresser drawer. So the neighbor, when he took the guns out of the apartment, took the ashes, as well.

“I can’t give them to you,” he told Jack, “but I’ll put them in my gun safe with the pistols I’m keeping.” Jack thanked him, and the neighbor said. “And I’ll try to make sure they get to your aunt, too. I don’t think I want your stepmom to have them again.”

They cleaned up the apartment. She eventually got out of the hospital. I don’t know what happened after that.


Pete didn’t steal my stepfather’s ashes in the end.

But Jack did.

Well, he didn’t steal them as much as he just kept a little bit of them.

My mother eventually sent the ashes to his sister in Florida via UPS, so the family got to fulfill his final wish. They gathered in the town where he grew up, there on the banks of that lake he’d loved. They told stories. I’m told they sang. Sadly I was teaching in England and couldn’t afford to fly back when everyone else could get there. My mother was not there, just as she’d said.

Since Jack was the one who sprinkled his father into the water, I guess he found a way to hold onto some of him.

“I was going to surprise you,” he said on the phone this week. “But I couldn’t wait. I’m having two little urns made by a friend and I’ll give you yours when I see you again.”

“Amazing,” I think I replied, and I thanked him.

“My gift to you,” he said.

But I didn’t need the ashes, and I don’t know what I’ll do with them. I have a sprig of millet from that morning in Antietam. I have my life and the memories and the photographs.

“You should take them to Antietam,” my partner said. “Spread them on the battlefield.”

I might just do it, take us both back there to that beautiful but tragic place and leave the piece of that man I loved, the only piece I have, on that holy ground there with the rest of the free and beloved dead.  end  

Names have been changed to protect the living and the dead.

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