One weird thing is that they come in a cardboard box.
Another weird thing is that the box is addressed to her father, a typed label (Courier New) with his name and the address of the crematorium. Is that his new address? If you sent mail there, would he get it? Has anyone ever knowingly tried to send mail to someone dead before? Probably. Probably some sad kid from the suburbs or one of those people who live at the train station. Probably they have tried it before. There are so, so many more weirdos on the planet than she ever could have imagined as a child.
She’ll turn twenty-one in two weeks. It seems like both the oldest and youngest age imaginable.
“As a child.” Hear me thinking that, buddy? It’s funny.
He doesn’t answer.
For the record, it’s funny.
* * *
The person working at the funeral home appears to be roughly eleven years old. When Kate gets there she finds a sign next to the doorbell that says CALL THIS FOR HELP. Help with what? she wonders. Stamps? Cosmic assistance mailing letters to your dead father? Is the doorbell broken? She dials the number and waits. It is after noon, but the man who answers sounds like he has been disturbed from sleep.
“Hi, yeah,” she says. “I’m here to pick up my—my dad? His…”
“Oh, Kate.” It’s Charlie, the man she’s been speaking with all week. He’s kind and affable and seems more like a dentist than an undertaker. “Oh, sure. Did you ring the doorbell?” He was the one who called her to tell her they needed a new photo for the obituary. She was in the car at the time, going to Target to get her little sister some tights for the funeral that didn’t have any stylishly-distressed holes in them.
“No can do,” he’d said. “They’ll only let you run a photo of the deceased alone.” She had given him a picture of her parents together. “Otherwise it’s not clear who the obit’s about.” Her father’s name was Jim.
“I’ve never seen a woman named Jim before, Charlie,” she said, and Charlie laughed and told her that he didn’t make the rules. She found a new picture, one where her dad was alone and wearing a polo shirt. It’s a good picture but not as good as the first one.
“It said to call,” she says now, staring at the sign.
“That’s only if we’re not there.”
“The sign looks like you’re supposed to call instead of ringing the doorbell.”
“No, you’re supposed to call if you ring the doorbell and no one answers.” Charlie pauses. “I can see why you would think otherwise, though.” Probably he can’t. Probably he’s just trying to be nice.
“Thanks,” she says.
“Just ring the doorbell,” he says. “My cousin lives there, so she’s inside. She’s expecting you.”
Weird thing: people living in funeral homes who are expecting you. She rings the doorbell and the 11-year-old adult person appears. She’s wrinkled and stodgy but she has that strange haircut that a lot of babies have, blunt bangs and a severe middle-part. She’s very short, too; she stares up at Kate from beneath her heavy fringe of hair in a way that feels cold and accusatory.
“Help you?” the person asks. Help me, she thinks, considering it. How much could she ask of this quasi-woman? Loan me 10 bucks, hobbit. Would she give her a ride if she wanted? She doesn’t need a ride but just wonders if it would be a possibility. She is interested lately in pushing other people’s limits. It seems only fair. Help me, Rhonda, she thinks then, amusing herself, loopy and silly like a six-year-old. She hasn’t slept and ate a handful of sesame sticks for breakfast. “Do you have a meeting with Charlie?” She sounds kind of impatient and is wearing a mock turtleneck with pumpkins embroidered on it. It is a decidedly mature garment: they are not children’s pumpkins but the rustic, serious pumpkins of festive adults.
“I don’t think so,” she says. “I’m here to pick up my dad.” This will be the last time she is able to say that sentence. It’s also, she acknowledges, the first. She thinks of him picking her up from school in the station wagon, leaning over the passenger seat to wave at her, thinks of how you were supposed to be embarrassed when your parents waved at you in public but how she always waved back anyway. Are you an adult? she wants to ask the woman. Why are you wearing that shirt? She’s gotten away with worse questions in the last week. During the memorial she found herself sequestered in a corner by a man who was crying. He was around her dad’s age and had a gross beard and he was telling her some incoherent story about her father’s affinity for Steely Dan.
“Who are you?” she asked him suddenly. “Why are you talking to me?” He turned out to be a third cousin and she should have apologized for being rude but she didn’t. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she had asked the plumber when he told her, three days after her dad died, that fixing their sump pump would take at least a week. She apologized to him, but only so he might be charmed by her and adjust his deadline. He told her he would try to have it done by Friday, which seemed like a victory at the time.
In the front room of the funeral home, the woman softens. “Mr. Delaney?”
“Yes. Jim.” That’s what her dad always said, even to telemarketers. Mr. Delaney? Yes, call me Jim.
“Just give me a minute.” She scurries away. She does the thing that preschoolers do where she walks on the balls of her feet, tiptoeing, but she also holds her arms to her body stiffly in a way that is decidedly indicative of middle age. Back to square one with this gal, buddy.
The thing she likes about people who work at funeral homes is that they don’t apologize. They’re entrepreneurs. Death peddlers. They talk about terrible things like cornea donation and condolence books like they’re talking about what kind of wax you’d like on your car. It’s not bullshit, for which she has an especially low tolerance lately, so she likes it, even though she also hates it.
She sits on a bench right next to a placard from a wake that happened yesterday for someone named Shirley Templeton. It’s a funny little thing that she would tell her dad if he were alive and that she would tell her mom if there was even the slightest chance that her mom would ever find anything funny again. She realizes that she is laughing in her head at a dead person, and even though the person was probably old because no one under seventy-five is named Shirley, she quickly, discreetly sweeps her hand across her chest in the sign of the cross. Forgive me, Father. Sorry, Shirley. She’s played that fucking hand game more times in the past month than she ever has in her life and now she’s started to do it all the time, reflexively, whenever she hears an ambulance drive by or smokes a cigarette or thinks mean thoughts about someone. Her mom had to remind her of the proper direction, Forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder. No, your left. That’s my left. She is just pressing her palms together in closing when the woman returns. She’s holding a box to her chest and has a manila folder in her left hand.
Did you ever think you would be being carried like a baby in a cardboard box by an adult child in a pumpkin turtleneck? she asks her dad, still not standing. Did you know that was going to be a thing that happened to you?
He doesn’t answer.
“Okay, we’re all set,” the baby-person says, and Kate finally looks up.
“What’s your name?”
“Bridget,” she says, and Kate wants to laugh again. Bridget the Androgynous Infant Undertaker. A skit, surely, somewhere, in some world, that would be funny and watched by millions. She doesn’t have the fortitude to make herself remember it. “There’s just a few papers I need you to sign,” Bridget says, and then she hands over the box. It’s oddly heavy and there is a strange sifting noise from within that makes Kate think of cat litter. What if she just booked it right now? Before she signed the papers? Was that something people did? Probably. Maybe possibly even the same people who wrote the letters to the crematorium. I just almost kidnapped your ashes, she says to him, and again he declines to comment. She rests the box on her canted hip, like it’s a toddler, and takes Bridget’s proffered pen.
There is a little cardstock form with blank spaces for her to fill out. She writes in her dad’s name and the date.
“It’s 12:27,” Bridget says from near her elbow, and she writes that in too. At the bottom there is a signature line, and below that a long blank that says Relation to Deceased. Kidnapper, she says to her dad, making the joke again in case he missed it the first time. Amateur Mortuary Scientist. 1967 Wheelchair Basketball Great. World’s Best Boss. Craigslist Killer. Hill Person. Last Woman Standing.
She signs, writes Daughter, and hands back the form.
“Now what?” she asks Bridget, and Bridget smiles a little bit too brightly.
“We’re all set,” Bridget repeats, and Kate feels a surge of irrational anger. We’re not all set, she thinks. We’re not anything, Benjamin Button. She is offended by the word “we.” Who’s “we,” buddy? It never sounded presumptuous to her until today.
“That’s all,” Bridget says. “I see on here that… someone named Carol—”
“Yes. Your mother declined to purchase an urn, it says here,” Bridget says. “But if you change your mind, just give Charlie a call.”
“I’m not putting him on the fucking mantle,” her mom said the night he died, hugging Kate’s little brother Luke in her lap, taking unpracticed sips of whiskey out of a wine glass. She was holding a crayon aloft in one hand like a cigarette, throwing out her arm dramatically like Janet Leigh as she made this proclamation, looking tinier than Kate had ever seen her. She covered Luke’s ears gently with her palms each time she swore. “I’m not putting him in a goddamn urn.” (“Urn” counted as a swear word in this particular set of circumstances, apparently, and Luke had squirmed with irritation in their mother’s arms.)
Her dad had taken her mom to the senior prom, and Kate was allegedly conceived shortly thereafter. Her sister came along seven years later, and then Luke, when Kate was fifteen.
“We’re nothing if not mathematically sound,” was one of her dad’s jokes. He called Luke “Caboose” and it made her mom redden in an indulgent, smitten way that always rendered Kate at once embarrassed and strangely proud.
Weird thing: a prom date who lives in an urn.
“Okay,” she says to Bridget. “This is everything?” She cradles the box against her waist, digging a sharp corner of it into the flesh of her hipbone. Bridget grimaces at her, a botched attempt at a smile.
“This is everything.”
* * *
Her father. A few years ago, at his own mother’s funeral, a lengthy and impossibly Catholic ordeal, open-casket and receiving line and sequestering pen off to the side full of unruly children eating Cheetos, he’d said, “Put me in the toaster when I die, kid.” She’d chastened him, head at a weird angle so as to avoid looking at the embalmed, coiffed body of her grandmother.
“Don’t say that,” she said. “Don’t talk like that.”
“Just letting you know,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulders. He was wearing a suit and his arm felt woolen and heavy. She rested her head against his chest anyways. “I’m just letting you know for when I’m not here.”
“Where are you going?” she asked. It was an old joke, one exchanged offhandedly and haphazardly between all of the members of her family during exasperating times of strife, a trite and comfortable web:
“You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”
“Where’re you going, Mom?”
“France, baby. I’m going to France.”
You got to make these jokes, she realizes now, only when you were certain of the fact that you would be staying in one place. It was fine for your exhausted mother to joke about running away to France only because there was absolutely no chance in hell that she would ever do so. Your dad was allowed to tell you to put his body in a toaster oven because to do so was to acknowledge the absurdity of such an outcome.
She shared this story, the toaster part, at the memorial with her uncle Peter and he said, “Well, it’s good that he was at least able to tell you what he wanted.” Peter was her father’s younger brother and had seemed suddenly and unfairly vibrant, comparatively speaking, decidedly alive before her in an ill-advised Beatles tie.
“It’s not good. He wanted to be here,” she said flatly, and that was another thing she had to apologize for that day, because when she did so she kind-of accidentally also spilled some coffee on her uncle’s pleated funereal pants. Forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder.
Weird thing: pleated pants.
“You’re right, kiddo,” Peter had said, clapping at her arm, regarding her with a wariness that had now become commonplace.
“Thanks,” she said, dutiful shell-shocked kiddo, and then she went outside to smoke a cigarette.
* * *
She’s worried that she’ll drop him but she doesn’t. She hugs the box to her all the way to the car and then she puts him in the trunk and then she stops halfway to her door and goes back and retrieves him from the trunk and brings him to the front with her. She sets him on the passenger seat. I’m not making you wear a seatbelt only so people don’t think I’m a crazy person, she says to him. Otherwise I would.
Weird thing: putting your father’s ashes in a car.
She doesn’t trust the radio to be adequately prophetic so she turns on the CD in his stereo, The Soft Parade, remastered. She bought it for him for his birthday last year and mocked him as he opened it, because does any Doors song exist that doesn’t sound like every single other Doors song ever recorded?
“I like what I like, smart aleck,” he’d said, and then he thanked her and kissed her head. And then he put it in his car stereo, apparently. He’d gotten this car after she left for college three years ago. The interior is robotic, blinking, bafflingly complex. She will never know when or why or how he even learned how to work the stereo. The Soft Parade is in there now and that is all she knows.
She turns the key in the ignition and it seems for a second like it might not start, but then it catches. She pulls away from the curb and glances over at him to make sure he’s okay. Someone behind her in an Audi honks at her and she calls him a moron, quietly, under her breath.
* * *
She tries to think sacred thoughts while she’s driving because it seems like kind of a seminal thing, driving your father’s ashes home in his car.
I love you more than anyone, she says. I miss you. It feels dumb and trite. She tries singing along to “Touch Me,” the only song on the album whose lyrics she half-knows, but that feels predatory and untoward. Couldn’t you have been listening to Van Morrison? she asks. Couldn’t you have been listening to some goddamn Louis Armstrong? He couldn’t, apparently. Where in the fucking fuck are you? she asks. You’re too tall to fit in this tiny fucking box. Then, meekly, feebly: Sorry I’m swearing.
Years ago, casketside, to where are you going?, her father replied,
“Where do you think, kid?”
“France,” she said, and he nodded, the wooly, human weight of his sweet funereal arm—his grief, his confusion, his newfound orphanhood, his quiet affection—comfortably fitted around her shoulders.
“Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on how nice you are to me.”
“I’ll be nice,” she said.
He’d kissed the waxy part in her hair. “I know you will, kid. Me too.”
It’s actually not that nice, she says, opening the sunroof, to completely ignore someone when they are giving you a ride home. She drives past the shoe repair store, the 7-11, another funeral home. She wonders if there is another Bridget staggering around inside, in another Halloween turtleneck, waiting for another her who has lost another father. She drives past their old house and the car makes another noise like it’s about to give up.
Weird thing: fancy Hondas having carburetor problems when you are trying to chauffeur your dad’s cremated remains.
Equally weird thing: sump pumps.
Weirdest thing: your dad’s cremated remains.
Are you in France? she asks him, waiting in the left turn lane. He would hate France, reject the pretension and the guttural R sounds and how strange everyone was there. He might enjoy the bread. It is possible that he would be able to choose a side about the prime minister.
Her dad would hate France, but he could maybe be a tiny bit happy somewhere else, without them, possibly, if he had to be.
She reaches to touch the box and that, too, seems like it should be accompanied by some kind of supernatural sensation, but it just feels like cardboard. Maybe he’ll send her a postcard.
Surely, certainly, perhaps someone somewhere has mastered the art of sending postcards from France.