Rapid River Magazine Short Fiction Winner
Clyde has resided in my garage for the last two months. I go out there often just to chat, but he doesn’t say a whole lot. Actually he doesn’t say anything. I tend to ramble on and on about things that I know must have no interest to him. It’s like we live in two different worlds. After all a dead man must have a whole different set of priorities from an angst-ridden middle-aged boomer with excessive credit card debt.
I have to be careful whom I tell about Clyde. It is easy to see how the wrong person could jump to conclusions. Am I some maniac with a secret attic above my BMW Z3 filled with decaying body parts or maybe even a completely intact cadaver stuffed by a close taxidermist friend? Or worse, is Clyde just the tip of the stiffs making me a serial killer disguised as a novelist.
First off, I want to set the record straight. I absolutely do not have a secret compartment in my garage. The whole time Clyde has been out there he has always been in a sturdy, small box inside a large brown shopping bag with no logo of any kind on it.
When Henry Bost the third, the current operator of Bost Funeral Homes dropped Clyde off at my front door, the third generation interment king was wearing a bulky red turtleneck sweater, denim dress pants with reverse pleats, and spit-shined ostrich cowboy boots. He seemed more like he was returning from a successful trip from the mall than delivering my bagged father-in-law.
“Come in,” I said, my eyes immediately dropping to his left hand toting Clyde.
Henry walked in with a slight swagger or sore boot feet, I wasn’t sure which, dropping the bag on the floor with a thud. I would have none of that. I quickly picked the bag up and placed it on the coffee table next to the book with pictures and history of Faberge eggs.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Henry the third said solemnly. “We will be here for you as long as you need us,” he said reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a folded envelope. I could see the words, FINAL BILL, typed neatly. He handed it to me, and we both seemed to run out of words at the same time. After what seemed like eternity, he said, “I’d better get on back to work. The holidays are busy for us.”
I hadn’t thought of dying having a season, but then again I could see how an abundance of Bing Crosby songs and eggnog might surely be the cause of untold numbers of deaths.
“I don’t know if I can take it anymore,” I said pacing the garage a few weeks later. “Some days I wish I was dead.” I loved expressing my inner most thoughts to inanimate objects, but my not uncommon tirade drew no response from Clyde’s box. I had become quite fond of my father-in-law while he was alive, and of late, had also gotten to enjoy slipping out by myself and chatting to him when life got me down. A monologue has its virtues.
My wife and I decided that it would be fitting to have a private ceremony for her father at a later date in the spring at which time we planned to sprinkle the remains of Clyde at Lake Glenville. Clyde liked to boat and fish there whenever he could. Having never dealt with the ins and outs of cremation before, we were not quite comfortable leaving him on display in the living room for the next few months, nor were we any happier keeping them in the garage, but practicality won out.
“Jim Cargill stole that client right from under my nose, Clyde. I worked with that company for weeks, and Jim strolls in and nails him after one round of golf. It’s not fair, I tell you, not fair at all.”
The Z3 in the garage seemed to creak a tad bit that I took for support. Clyde, however, did not even peep.
“And then to top it all off, the very same day, we get a fax from the head office. They want me, not Jim, you know, but me, they want me to fire five people in the next 30 days. Said our overhead was killing us.”
I looked toward Clyde’s box that we still had in the shopping bag. Even with a light wind blowing into the garage, there was no indication that Clyde was responding in any way, but I decided venting was healthy even if it happens to be to a dead man.
“David, is that you?” Denissa called from the kitchen.
“I’m going for a ride, sweetie,” I called back.
“Sweetie? You’ve been hanging around the Huddle House a little too much lately,” she cooed back.
I didn’t answer. Clyde was teaching me the power of silence.
“Come on, Clyde,” I said picking up the shopping bag. “ I need a little air. Let’s go for a ride.”
“Why don’t you take those two old batteries to the dump, while you’re at it,” Denissa called out.
I figured that telling a man sealed up in a box that you need a little air sounded silly, but that’s what was great about our latest stage of relationship. I didn’t have to watch my words.
It always surprised me how heavy Clyde had gotten since death. I mean he was a slight man, couldn’t have weighed more than 130 lbs soaking wet. They say you lose 23 grams of weight at death, but I swear Clyde didn’t lose an ounce. Somebody said it was the weight of the bones that made the ashes so heavy. That or just the heavy weight of a long life, I guessed.
At first, it felt strange, riding around with a dead person in the passenger seat, but gradually it seemed almost normal and slightly spiritual. As I drove around powered by my convertible’s 350 horsepower hemi engine and listened to audio tapes of gurus touting the need for a simpler way of life, the ashes to ashes thing that Clyde seemed to represent seemed fitting. Besides there was some satisfaction in the glancing over and seeing a human life so neatly boxed and bound, giving me faith that Jim Cargill could also soon face the same fate.
As I turned onto Main Street, I noticed I had forgotten to seat belt Clyde in. I always tried to remember, partly because of habit, and partly because I didn’t want to face Denissa if Clyde spilled out due to some nincompoop rear ending me. I started to right the wrong when Emma Whitaker noticed me as she came out of the Hallmark store and waved. I, of course, waved back. Only the transplanted Yankees in town didn’t know how to wave. Celia and I had a history together. I had debated asking Celia to marry me right after high school, but she took care of my quandary by running off with Calvin Arlington and having a slew of kids.
“Clyde, when you married Denissa’s mom, was she the first girl you wanted to marry? I mean did you let any get away.” I had just watched the Dr. Phil television show where he said that eighty per cent of all questions are disguised statements.
Clyde’s bag did wobble a bit, but I didn’t take that as a yes or no, but a result of the many potholes along Main Street. It wasn’t that I really believed that Clyde’s soul or essence was still riding shotgun with me, but the physical presence of that box in a bag did seem to somehow comfort me.
I watched Celia’s full rump in my rearview mirror as she got into her car, an old minivan with a large dent in the hood, as Clyde and I continued toward our destination. We passed Oaklawn Heights, our town’s largest cemetery, the old Burger King, and the new Zacksby’s chicken joint, and then Clyde’s old real estate office. His sign was still out by the road, “Free maps of Buncombe County,” it read, but a chiropodist had taken over the place. A newer sign read, “Put Your Best Foot Forward.”
“Clyde, you sold a lot of houses in your day,” I said. That is what I had said to him a hundred times before while he was alive. “I bet you miss that, don’t you, selling homes to new families and old retirees.” After he sank into dementia, Clyde told me a thousand times about the day he sold the same house twice, once to Straw Tolley, whom he knew didn’t have the money, and once to a young couple whom he knew did. Turned out the young couple couldn’t get their loan, and Straw came back and paid for the house in cash. Clyde would smile his toothy fake teeth grin and light up a cigarette. I had gotten very tired of that story, but now, that day, I’d given a month’s salary for him to tell it to me one more time.
It wasn’t the conversation that I had grown to love as much as it was how our game of tag. Not the running around kind of tag, but Clyde’s own version of the game. Whenever Denissa and I would round up the kids to leave my in-law’s house after a visit, we all knew exactly what was going to happen. Just as soon as we got into the car, Clyde would throw down his still smoking cigarette on the ground and motion for us to role down a window. Then he would saunter up to the car and jam his hand through the open window, tagging one of the kids or even Denissa or I and call out, “Last tag!” We always let him win. Then I would watch Clyde light up another cigarette and watch us drive off. More than once I thought I saw him quickly wipe a tear off his cheek with his sleeve.
The last time Clyde and I played tag, I won, but it wasn’t really a fair contest. He had become bedridden and couldn’t move his hands. I tagged his big toe as I left the hospital room, and yelled out, “Last tag.” I knew it really was and by his face he knew it was, too. You just can’t play tag with a box of ashes.
Finally we arrived at the landfill. I rolled down my window and told the custodian what I had to leave with him. The man had crevices in face deep enough to fall into and eyebrows grown into a gray unibrow.
“You’re Clyde’s son-in-law, ain’t you?” he asked.
“Sure am,” I answered proudly.
“Bet you miss the booger, don’t you.”
“Sure do,” I said.
“He ever tell you about selling the same house to two people on the same day?”
“Uh-huh,” I said pulling out a five-dollar bill to pay for my sins of excess.
The old man took the bill, opened the gate, and smiled. Not at me, I was sure, but at the thought of Clyde. I smiled, too. A legacy like that is hard to come by.
I drove on in and stopped at another specific area where I was allowed to leave the used up, forever dead batteries. I looked over the vast wasteland of disposed objects, seeing the last place that most of what filled storage sheds and closets finally called home, and then it hit me.
I quickly belted Clyde in, and head back home. Not to mine, but to his.
Clyde had disliked the nursing home we had finally settled him in. Disliked is not the most appropriate word to describe his feelings; detested, hated, and fought with a fury better described Clyde’s last days at Happy Valley. He did not go gentle into that good night, he did not go anywhere, but down into the depths of despair. The last six months of his life the only thing he whispered to us was, “Get me the Hell out of here.” He only wanted to go back to his home, to his porch, to his kitchen with a stove that only worked sometimes and a washing machine that never worked.
Denissa and her sister had not gotten around to selling the family house yet. It remained empty, basically unrentable from years of neglect. Clyde knew how to kick this and pat that and get by, but he evidently took his secrets with him as nobody else could perform his tricks. The rock cottage just sat there like a lonely dog watching for its owner to come riding back up the driveway. It wasn’t Clyde but me who finally pulled up, parking by the white swinging gutter and the broken green plastic porch table. I didn’t’ need a key. The front door popped opened for its master as if it knew who was in the bag. All the furniture had been sold, but the one torn Lazyboy. I placed Clyde or what was left of him on the recliner, and I plopped myself down on the dirty shag carpeted floor beside it. I just sat there in the dark, musty house and waited. Waited to hear how he sold the same house twice in one day. Now that he was home, I knew he could get around to telling me one more time.