After the Fire
I didn’t know what to say when my father announced that he wanted his ashes scattered from Schaeffer’s bridge after he died. We were alone together in a hospital room at Lakeville Medical Center. My wife, Sandra, had just left for work, and my mother was down in the cafeteria.
“Cremation?” I said.
“That’s right, Ansel Adams. Cremation. What of it?”
“But you sold coffins for a living,” I said. “Wouldn’t you want to be buried in one?”
“You heard me,” my father said.
“Mom isn’t going to be happy about this,” I said. “You already bought side-by-side plots.”
My father turned his head toward the television mounted in the corner of the ceiling and waved the comment away. On TV, a dying woman reached out an IV-wrapped arm and squeezed the hand of her lover. He pressed her hand to his face and told her that she would always live on in his heart. The electrocardiogram next to her bed blipped steadily, recording heart rhythms in little green peaks and valleys that looked nothing like the Pocono Mountains, and then it flat-lined.
“What a load of crap,” my father said, changing the channel. A central line hung from just below his right collarbone, tunneling through his chest to his jugular. The cyclophosphamide drip hung from an IV pole next to the bed. On the windowsill a bud vase sat filled with three maroon Germinis Sandra had picked out at the florist’s shop in town. “Better to buy him one of those funeral wreathes,” I’d said at the time. “At least he’ll know what he’s looking at.” But Sandra had insisted on the daisies. When she stopped in on her lunch hour and set the little bouquet down next to the plastic cup of Jell-o on the tray beside his bed, my father thanked her but didn’t even glance away from where he was watching the Braves play the Astros. The first game of a double header.
That was three hours earlier.
“What are you two talking about?” My mother padded in from the hallway. A smudge of something red stained the corner of her mouth.
“Nothing,” I said. “We were just watching baseball.”
I’m an only child, and I grew up living at the funeral home on Scott Street with my father and mother. The house had viewing rooms for wakes and services, and a white carport out front where my father parked the hearse. Our living quarters were located on the second floor. Every Thursday afternoon, the casket maker would drop off that week’s inventory, and my father would stand at the edge of our driveway and watch the men in their lifting belts unload the various coffins from the back of the boxy moving truck. Gasketed brass. 20-gauge steel. Rich mahogany. And, once in a while, particleboard. Our yard was pitted and rutty, and it would have been easier to take the boxes in through the front doors and then down, but my father insisted that the men carry the caskets to the basement through a pair of storm doors located around back. He didn’t want them to disturb the ambiance of the parlor, he said, with their loud voices and their grunting and their muddy work boots.
My father had no hobbies. He didn’t fish or hunt or golf. He didn’t even ski in the winter. He worked seven days a week—the director and sole employee of Stevens Funeral Home. In the mornings, he interviewed families about their wishes for upcoming funerals. Sometimes I’d watch him from the shadows at the top of the stairs. With my head poking out through the wooden rungs in the banister, I could just barely see into the front parlor.
My father wasn’t an especially warm man. I never saw him kiss my mother or even rub her back. And he wasn’t like my friends’ fathers—men who playfully punched their sons in the arm or grabbed them in headlocks and tousled their hair. His idea of affection was to toughen me up, he said. I wasn’t a very athletic kid—I couldn’t run fast, or throw a spiral, or bat in the winning run. I scared easily. I cried at thunderstorms and monster movies. And when I got a little older, I found that different things choked me up. Photographs—the Hindenburg, Emmett Till, The Burning Monk, Kim Phúc, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, Tiananmen Square.
“They’re only pictures,” my father said. “Don’t be so sensitive.”
But when he spoke to the living relatives of one of the deceased, he was different. He’d crane his neck compassionately, his voice low and gentle. If he was speaking to a woman, he would sometimes reach out and pat her hand reassuringly. With men, he’d clap them firmly on the shoulder and slowly nod his head as though he shared with them some heartbreaking secret about life.
In the afternoons, my father arranged burials with the cemeteries, signed death certificates, ordered flowers, and prepared obituary notices for The Morning Record. He oversaw the scheduled wakes and memorial services held in the two viewing rooms in our home. Then, after dinner, he would disappear into the basement. He always forbade me and my mother to go downstairs. “Only licensed professionals allowed,” he’d say at dinner, spearing at the vegetables on his plate and sipping from his cup of coffee while my mother stared out the kitchen window at the blank headstones he kept lined up in the backyard, our miniature cemetery. Just to make sure we understood, he kept the basement door locked at all times, the only key carried on a ring he kept in his pants pocket.
When I was eighteen, six years after the fire, he brought me down to the basement with him for the first time. Of course, I had, by that time, figured out what he was doing down there—embalming the dead bodies that he drove to our home in the hearse at all hours of the day and night, black body bags wheeled down to the basement on a gurney, through the storm doors as always. I had caught my father unawares a few times as he hunched over the sink in our kitchen in his stained canvas smock, drinking down a glass of water and staring out the window at the birdfeeder off the edge of our porch. He’d always cross his arms in front of his chest when he saw me, tucking his hands under his armpits, as though he were embarrassed, exposed. “Well, back to the grind,” he’d say.
Once I became old enough to start giving serious thought to my future, he began suggesting mortuary science. “Why not take up the old family business?” he’d say. But I had other plans. I’d become interested in photography after taking an elective in high school, and my teachers seemed to think I had some talent. They’d already written me application letters for a handful of colleges with prestigious art design and photojournalism programs. Whenever my father started in on me about becoming a mortician, my mother would step in and say that I had already found my calling. “There’s great honor in being a steward of the dead,” he’d answer. “And it’s provided us with a decent living.”
No one could argue with that.
Nor could anyone accuse my father of being an unkind neighbor. At least once a week, before dinner, he would do repair work for Deirdre Cassidy, the young school teacher who moved to Scott Street a year after we did. She bought a foreclosed home with her husband and they had just started to renovate the dilapidated place when a drunk driver killed him on his way home from work. Naturally, my father had taken care of the funeral arrangements.
It usually took him a little over an hour to finish up work over at Ms. Cassidy’s house. He’d appear from our basement with a hammer in one hand and his grandfather’s heavy oak toolbox in the other and trudge across the street. My mother cooked dinner while he was gone, hearty Ukrainian dishes like borscht, haluski, and pierogies that she prepared at the kitchen sink overlooking the nameless gravestones. When he returned, my father always entered through the garage, kicking his shoes off at the door, his face red from physical exertion, his thin hair mussed and sweaty. “I replaced molding today,” he’d announce, on his way to the shower. Or, at the dinner table, he would say, “I repaired a hole in the dry wall,” as he leaned back and pushed his plate away, fishing for his cigarettes in his shirt pocket. My mother and I would exchange glances. My father may have had good intentions, but he wasn’t much of a handyman. I tried to imagine him hammering away, pulling up rotting floorboards, stuffing his head under a kitchen sink, but I couldn’t. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that he was doing more damage over there than good.
“Well, listen to me, Bob Villa. It wouldn’t kill you to do a little home improvement around this place once in a while,” my mother frequently said, scraping the dishes at the sink before dropping them in the dishwasher.
“She’s all alone over there,” my father replied every time. “Have a little compassion.” He’d get up from his seat, pull his key ring from his pocket, and that would be the end of the argument.
I work for The Morning Record, and my wife, Sandra, is a lawyer. Over the years, I’ve taken maybe a dozen photographs of dead bodies. It’s sort of become my trademark. Recently, one of those photos won a local award sponsored by the Jacob Lake Foundation. In the photograph, two firefighters carry a charred body from the old Lake House hotel. The older fireman trudges forward, head bowed, eyes down, soot staining his rutty face. The younger fireman is looking directly at the camera; he’s taking up the rear, his face tired and blank, and yet there is something unnamable about his stare, something terrifying. In the background, you can see smoke billowing out from the building. I took the photo through a crack in a wooden fence that separated two property lines.
I wish I could say that I’d put some thought into that photo, but really it was pure luck. It happens that way sometimes. I had only stepped back behind the building next door to make a phone call. When I looked up, the firemen were coming out. The telephoto lens was already on my camera, and so I just pointed and snapped off as many shots as I could before the men disappeared around front. By the time I got into the darkroom, I had forgotten all about it. Then the faces began to appear in the developing pan.
Sandra doesn’t understand why I don’t want a family—children—and I can’t explain it to her because I don’t know why myself. It isn’t like I’m afraid of being tied down. We’ve been together eleven years now, and I have no intention of ever loving another woman. I don’t even dislike children. I just know that every time talk turns to starting a family of our own, pregnancy or adoption, my stomach tightens up and I feel the undeniable urge to grab my Nikon and take a walk in the woods behind our house.
When that photograph of the firemen was featured on the front page of the paper and reprinted by the Associated Press, Sandra called my father to tell him the news. It was one more effort in a long line of attempts on her part to get us talking. She thought my father was the answer to our problems. She thought that if I talked to him, I’d come to understand my apprehensions and my fears; she thought I’d make peace with the idea of fatherhood. But I knew better. When she handed me the phone, my father on the other end, and said, “Talk,” I relented. I pressed the receiver to my ear and asked him if he he’d seen my firefighter photo in the paper.
“I did,” he said. And for a moment he sounded impressed. “There’s something undignified about it, isn’t there?”
I didn’t ask if he meant death itself or my efforts to capture that moment on film, and he didn’t offer further explanation.
Our funeral home was located at the end of the street, three-quarters of a mile from an open field and the highway onramp, and the only other home visible from our driveway was Deirdre Cassidy’s house—an aluminum-sided ranch, dwarfed by a pair of ominous looking maples. You could see how it had been a nice house at one time. The picture window in front didn’t have blinds, and Ms. Cassidy would often sit in a wingbacked chair in the evenings, a gooseneck lamp arched down at her side, and watch television. The rough shingles on the roof had begun to chip and fall off. The grass needed a mowing. The driveway was gravel—mostly dirt, really—and pitted like the PA turnpike. A rusted out Oldsmobile, long and boxy, sat perpetually parked in the driveway. The paint had begun to peel from the finish, and if you looked closely through the top of the hood, you could see the word “head” spray painted in loopy black scrawl, and above the trunk the word “ass.”
“You’d think, if your father was going to spend so much time over there, he’d do some outside work,” my mother said. “So we don’t have to look at that eyesore.”
Once a week, the pizza girl would screech into Ms. Cassidy’s driveway and jog up to the front door, her ponytail bouncing where it stuck out from the back of her blue ball cap. And every Wednesday, a cleaning service would pull up in front of the house, and the maids would plod up her front porch steps like linemen. They always wore the black and white uniforms, which was strange, because I had thought that was only something you saw in movies. They carried blue plastic buckets in the crooks of their elbows and mops slung over their arms. The woman in back wheeled a hefty green vacuum cleaner. It was like watching a SWAT team preparing a tactical entry.
One day, during the year of the fire, my father was late from one of his restoration crusades, so my mother sent me over to find out what was wrong. I didn’t especially want to go. M*A*S*H* was on TV, and I started to complain, but she shot me a quick-as-you-please glare, and said, “Get your butt moving, child.” And so I trudged across the street and up Ms. Cassidy’s driveway, the sun at my back orange and low like one of those photographs you see on postcards from Key West or Boracay. Inside, the lights were dark. Ms. Cassidy didn’t seem to be sitting in her wingback, and when I stepped up onto the porch, I didn’t hear any hammering or sawing. As far as I could tell, the air was still and noiseless behind the door. I could see wires hanging where the doorbell usually was—another home repair project—so I knocked a few times. Nothing. I glanced across the street at our own home, a behemoth against the backdrop of the deer-eaten woods and the overgrown, flat-topped mountains. I could see the light in our kitchen. I knocked again, louder this time for good measure.
I knew they were there because her car was still in the driveway, but I wasn’t sure whether I should try the door or not. Finally, I grew impatient. I opened the door a crack, and I poked my head inside.
“Hello?” I said, leaning forward and then stepping into the foyer. No one answered, but I heard some noises and followed the sounds to the back room. It was small and dark, the window blinds drawn. In the center there was a sofa with a soft-looking afghan thrown over the back. Next to it, sat a tiny, unfinished end table, and on the walls were photographs—a close-up picture of Ms. Cassidy and her husband mugging for the camera, a wedding photo. My father’s feet dangled over the arm of the sofa, his ratty work jeans cuffed at the ankles. At the opposite end, I could see the back of Ms. Cassidy’s head.
“Dad?” I said, and both my father and Ms. Cassidy sprang to their feet.
“Oh,” she said. “Hello.”
She was tall and gaunt—nothing like my mother—and her long blonde hair parted neatly in the center of her head, showing a straight white line of scalp. She wore a wrinkled shirt and a long denim dress, and her toes seemed to splay and grip at the hardwood floor.
My father’s shirt was unbuttoned down the front. He touched his shoulder and pumped his fist a few times. “I wasn’t feeling so well all of a sudden,” he said, pushing his fist against his chest and leaning back over the couch. “Something with my ticker.”
I didn’t know what to do. I stood frozen, panicked for a second. Then I clambered down the stairs. I didn’t even stop to wonder, until later, why Ms. Cassidy hadn’t called a doctor—why, if he was so suddenly ill, she’d simply sat there with his head in her lap. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was happening. But in that moment, I wasn’t thinking. I flew across the street and burst through the front door and stammered out some explanation to my mother. I was frantic, and I couldn’t have made much sense. But I eventually managed to convey the basic message. Dad was having a heart attack. He was dying.
My mother frowned and cocked her head and told me not to speak nonsense.
I grabbed her hand and tried pulling her toward the door, but she wouldn’t budge. And then my father shambled in through the garage doorway, his boots in his hand, and made his way upstairs.
After dinner, my father apologized. “I’ll admit, faking a heart attack was in bad taste,” he said, shoveling mashed potatoes into his mouth. “But a little prank never hurt anyone. It’ll toughen you up.” He absentmindedly swished the coffee in his mug.
It wasn’t much of an apology, but I knew it was the best I was going to get. I didn’t really care either way. My father was a bully. And a liar. When he left the table, my mother scraped our plates into the sink and ran the garbage disposal. She wiped her hands on the dishtowel, then reached into the pocket of her apron and slapped a bronze duplicate key down in front of me. “If your father thinks it’s so much fun to frighten people,” she said, “give him a taste of his own medicine.”
* * *
After I graduated from Penn State, I moved back to Lakeville and got a job working for The Morning Record. The newspaper offices were located in a low brick windowless building, and I spent a lot of my time running errands. When I did get a real call, it would usually be some mundane assignment—a basketball game, a ground breaking ceremony, a society function. Still, I managed to build up an ample portfolio of snapshots, and the editors all liked me.
One afternoon that winter, my father called me and asked me to drive him to see the oncologist. “I think it might be serious,” he’d said on the way.
When he walked out to the waiting room a little over an hour later, followed by the doctor, I knew something was gravely wrong. “You’ve managed to scare me yet again,” I said.
“Well, now I know how it feels to be embalmed,” my father said as he lay in the hospital bed, watching the chemotherapy drugs drip down into the IV tube.
“How do you feel?” I asked, emptying my bottled water into the vase on the windowsill.
My father looked over at me. “How do you think I feel?” he said. “My body is killing itself. I must be doing great.”
“You are doing great,” I said, sitting down in the chair next to the bed. “The doctor said so himself. Especially for someone your—”
“My what?” my father said.
“Age,” I said. “Someone your age.”
My father snorted a little, and I gently moved the tube from his chest so that I could smooth out his bed sheets. Truthfully, the doctor hadn’t said anything of the sort. He’d stood outside the nurses station in his long white coat, a bony hand pressed against one of the eerie salmon-colored walls, and said, “The chemo is doing more damage than good right now.” I’d read up about chronic lymphocytic leukemia. I knew it was incurable, a cancer of the bone marrow, and that it progressed so slowly that many patients “outlived” the disease, meaning they died of natural causes before the cancer had a chance to significantly hinder the body’s ability to fight off infection. My father had kept his illness from me for years.
“Stop messing with that cord,” he said. “You’re just like your mother.”
I looked at my watch. Sandra had taken my mother out for a real dinner. No more cafeteria food, she’d said. They were supposed to be back forty minutes ago. I knew better than to think it an accident—she was being late on purpose. The last thing she’d said to me before leaving was, “Talk to him. Call him a bastard if you want. But say something.”
“What’s taking your wife so long?” my father asked.
“She thinks we should talk,” I said.
“What’s her deal, anyway?” my father said.
I didn’t know. Talking wasn’t one of my strengths. Sandra spent most of her time trying to get me to open up, and I spent most of my time trying to make her stop. We’d been to a marriage counselor on two separate occasions. Sandra had dragged me. The counselor had made us sit next to one another on a small velvet sofa so that our knees rubbed. Sandra did most of the talking. Both times, when the counselor asked me what I thought, I said, “I don’t see why the rush to change.” We weren’t unhappy. Quite the opposite, in fact. We lived in a nice house. We took turns cooking dinner. We went to the movies once a week, and stayed in bed until noon some Sunday mornings. It was just that “family” thing that plagued us.
We never went back to counseling after that.
“Listen, Dad,” I said now. “I love you, okay? You always did right by your family, and that’s all that matters.”
My father slipped a finger beneath the gauze pad on his forearm where the nurse had drawn some blood earlier. “What do you know about any of it?” he said.
One afternoon, when I was eleven, I waited until my father left in the hearse to pick up a dead body, and then I snuck down into his embalming workshop with the little key my mother had given me a few weeks before. I locked the door behind me with a satisfying click and crept down the wooden staircase into the dank stone room below. It was almost three o’clock.
The room smelled like formaldehyde and wintergreen. A large metal fan sat at the bottom of the stairs near the storm doors to the outside. It had been raining all week, a driving rain that soaked everything and made the blacktop in front of our house glisten, but now sunlight filtered into the room through a tiny window in the far wall. Below it sat a wooden work bench with a metal vice attached to the end, and a rust-stained sink that looked big enough to wash clothing in. An electric razor hung from a hook on the wall. A blow dryer rested on the edge of the sink, and I pictured my father as a barber, washing the hair of his customers, but I knew that the only hair my father would be washing was the hair of the corpses he brought down here to embalm. A dozen rubber hoses dangled from the basin and draped over a large cylindrical machine that had a biohazard sign slapped on the side of it. It looked a bit like the blender my mother used to make milkshakes for us in the summer. A metal operating table sat in the center of the room. I shivered a little in spite of myself.
Over in the opposite corner, a number of wooden caskets sat propped atop sawhorses. I walked over, careful not to touch anything, and poked my head inside one of the open coffins. It was large and empty, and the maroon velvet interior was soft beneath my fingertips. I tested it to make sure it didn’t automatically latch, and then I reached in and fluffed the little satin pillow near the head of the box. My father would be back any second. I grabbed the stool from the work bench, and, using it to boost myself, I carefully climbed into the casket. The heavy box clattered a bit on the sawhorses, but it didn’t topple. I lay down with my head propped on the little pillow, my feet not touching the other end of the coffin, and then I reached up and closed the lid.
The dark didn’t frighten me. I was used to sleeping in pitch black; I’d never had a nightlight. In fact, I liked to wrap the blanket on my bed around my body like a cocoon, burying my head beneath the pillows until it was too dark to see anything. I’d lie there listening to the sounds of the house settling in its foundations. Now I stared up at the coffin lid before me. I knew it was there only inches from my face, but in the dense black confines of the casket, I could only imagine its cushy lining.
When I heard my father open the storm doors, I held my breath, the metal bolt sliding across and the doors slamming open, one then the other. Everything was muffled inside the casket, but my ears had adjusted to the darkness and the silence, and I followed my father’s progress in my mind. It was like listening to a television commercial from three rooms away. I heard him muscle the gurney down the stairs, grunting a little as the wheels clacked on each concrete step. I heard the click of the plastic orange work light he kept hanging on a hook above the metal table. I lay back and let my cheek brush the silky cushion beneath my head. I wanted this to be perfect. I wanted to give him the fright to end all frights. I wanted to make him pay for what he had done to me and mom.
A few minutes passed, and other than the occasional shuffling noise and the soft sounds of my breathing, the basement was silent. I didn’t know where my father was in proximity to the caskets, but I knew I’d have to risk opening the lid a crack to find out. I pushed hard on the heavy lid and it peaked open just a little, and I was able to sit up in the dark and look out from the little sliver of light. My father sat on the low stool with his back to me, his elbows resting on his knees. He stared down over a body on his metal table, and I could see that he’d taken off his glasses and set them on a stainless steel tray like the one my dentist always used to hold his picks. My father’s shoulders moved up and down, up and down. He let his head drop to his chest and hang there for a second. Then I heard a little choking noise, a low groan, and he wiped at both of his eyes, fumbled his glasses onto his face, and stood up. He clicked out the little portable torch above the table and marched back upstairs, locking the door behind him.
I waited for a moment, until I was fairly certain he wouldn’t be coming back down. Then I scrambled out of the coffin and over to the table. On the tray sat a pair of sutures. A dozen bottles filled with strange liquids—chemicals with funny names like Arterial Chromatech, Humeglo, Jaundofiant, Permafix. A clear plastic jug labeled Dry-wash, and a jar of something called Wound Filler, which looked like Ben-Gay. I yanked the torchlight down from its hook above the table, clicked it on, and pulled back the white sheet that covered the body. When I saw Deirdre Cassidy’s face, I knew why my father had been crying. She didn’t look the way I remembered her. On that table, she looked small. Her hair was limp and her face was somehow bloated and emaciated at the same time—the cheeks and forehead swollen, the jaw line thick, and yet her teeth seemed to stick out from her mouth. Her skin was pale and waxy, the lips tinged just a little purple. I stared at the body for what felt like a long time, and then she opened her eyes.
I didn’t know then what I would later learn, that in death a person’s body dehydrates, that the eyeballs often sink back into their sockets so that the mortician has to place a solid textured cap in the cavity to keep the eyelids shut. At the time, I didn’t know what I was seeing. She could have been coming to life in front of me. I staggered backward, my arms flailing, knocking a few of the bottles from the tray table. They crashed to the ground. Frightened, I dropped the torchlight. Its super-hot bulb shattered against the stone floor and ignited the spilt chemicals almost immediately. I panicked. I sprinted up the concrete steps to the sunlight of the backyard, letting the storm doors slam shut behind me, not caring who heard.
From the inside of the basement, I could hear the popping sounds of chemical jars bursting. My face pressed to the window, I could see the flames spreading, reaching up toward the ceiling. I knew I had to get help; I had to tell my father. But no sooner had the fully formed thought occurred to me than he came bursting out of the storm doors himself, a body thrown over his shoulders. He looked over at me. His eyes were wild, his hair mussed, and his expression was that of surprise and heartbreak. He looked betrayed.
Then he disappeared back down into the basement, his shoulders dipping behind the open red doors, his head vanishing around the corner. I stood at the edge of the porch, my hands trembling. Smoke blocked my view through the little window in the foundation. My father was gone for a long time that second trip, and I began to worry that he’d been trapped by the fire, that he’d sucked in too much of the toxic chemical smoke, that he wouldn’t be coming back up again. When he did reappear, he carried Deirdre Cassidy’s body in his arms, as though he had somehow managed to save her from dying a second time. His face was red with a black smudge across the cheek. He let the body drop onto the wet grass; then he doubled over a little, breathing heavily and pressing his hand to his mouth.
When he looked up, his face seemed tired, resigned. I didn’t hold my hands out in front of my face to frame the picture, but part of me wanted to. From then on, it would be the way I always remembered my father.
When my father died, Sandra and I sat in bed, our hips touching, and she massaged my knuckles. “He couldn’t have been an easy father to grow up with,” she said.
“He was always scaring me,” I said. I told Sandra stories about my parents, and about Deirdre Cassidy’s eyes. I told her about setting the basement on fire, and my father’s brave efforts to rescue the dead. I said, “I don’t even have a picture of him.”
Hours later, long after she’d fallen asleep, I went downstairs and sat in the dark, looking out the patio door at Pocono Run. I could hear the black water burbling over the rocks and the sound of rain pelting the eaves. A family of raccoons passed in front of the motion-activated flood light, their masked faces illuminated briefly before they disappeared into the woody brown reeds along the water’s edge.
It was chilly outside when I walked to the car. Standing in the driveway, it sounded like it was still raining, but it was only the sound of the water dropping off the trees; the rain had stopped. The wind picked up, bustling my robe as I climbed behind the wheel of Sandra’s Ford Focus, and for a moment, I considered going back inside and telling her where I was going—considered asking her to join me. But I didn’t. The inside of the car smelled like peach air freshener, thick and cloying, and I cracked the window to let in the moist air and the scent of rain.
I coasted through the silent streets of our neighborhood, foot barely touching the accelerator. I wasn’t in a hurry; I had no place to be. I wasn’t oblivious to the irony—tomorrow, I would have to find a funeral director and make plans for my father’s service. My mother would never settle for cremation. She believed in a good old fashioned burial—a gravestone with his name on it, his body lying next to hers for the rest of eternity. A fate my father had probably been hoping to avoid.
When I merged onto Old Route 209, I opened the car up. I rounded a curve, crossing the double yellow line just slightly, the headlights illuminating the foliage along the shoulder of the road. I passed the Episcopal Church where Sandra and I were married, its public calendar advertising the weekly event in big black letters: a colloquium on composting with worms sponsored by the Maple Ridge Women’s Institute. The car’s tires peeled across the wet pavement, and the little sedan surged down Primrose Hill, past the old-fashioned ice cream bar that held classic car night every third weekend of the month, the needle on the dash pushing sixty. I used to take Sandra there back when we were still dating. It felt like a hundred years had passed since then. At age forty I felt old, and I knew that if she woke to find me missing from our bed, she would wonder where I was.
I hung a right at Bebe’s Diner and followed the pitted Army Corps of Engineers’ service road along the contours of Grady’s Lake. The road was narrow, stretched around the waterline like a taut rubber band, and there was no shoulder on the lake side. If, on some rare occasion, two night drivers met going in opposite directions, one would have to stop to let the other pass. But, of course, I was all alone out there, the only car on the road. In fact, I felt like the only person alive in Lakeville, and if the sky were clearer, I might have been able to see the moonlight on the face of the lake. I drove fast, and at one point rounding a curve, it felt as though the wheels of Sandra’s car had skittered over the edge of the road, out into space, suspended above the water, though I knew that to be impossible.
A person could die at such speeds.
I took my foot off the accelerator and let the car coast for a while until I reached Schaeffer’s bridge. I pulled onto the shoulder of the road and left the headlights on, illuminating the bridge abutment, its dark steel structure, its crisscrossed mesh surface that seemed to hover mere feet over the water. It was the kind of bridge that got slippery when wet, the kind of bridge that never felt solid beneath your tires. I walked out onto the center of it and imagined myself tossing ashes into the lake. I tried to think of what I might say, what eulogy I could offer to do justice to my father, to the enormity of his life and his death, but nothing came. I walked back to the car and dug up two handfuls of gravel from the shoulder of the road. Then I retraced my steps and tossed them out into the night, not seeing them strike the surface of the water, but catching the occasional silver edge of a ripple. It didn’t feel the way I wanted it to feel, the way I thought it should.
Almost thirty years after the fire, standing at the foot of my father’s hospital bed, I had confessed. It was the last conversation we ever had. “I was the one who started the fire in the basement,” I told my father. And for a moment, I thought maybe he would blow up, disown me. Hoped for it even.
But the moment quickly passed. My father shook his head. “Boy, you’re a piece of work. You think I didn’t already know that, Snapshot?” he said. “I knew that all along.”
I tried to imagine now what my father must have felt when he was called by the medical examiner to retrieve Deirdre Cassidy’s body. Had he crossed this bridge in the hearse on his way back home? Did he see the hole where her car had skid on the wet metal and split the railings before plunging nose-first into the lake? Could he picture the tail end of her car jutting out from the water, its rear wheels pressed up against the support beams below the bridge’s surface, raindrops pelting the back windows? My father did his job like a consummate professional, I was sure of that; he would have ferried her to the funeral parlor like any other body, caring for her as though she were alive. I pictured him, head bent over her casket, softly crying; then I walked back to the car and drove home to Sandra.
Six years after the fire, long before the cancer, my father took me down into the rebuilt basement and showed me my second dead body. It was the middle of the summer. I’d gotten work as a life guard at the public pool, and I made a little money on the side taking photographs of couples at the park and selling them for two dollars a pop. The University of Kentucky had already accepted my undergraduate application, and I was waiting to hear from the Visual Arts Department at Penn State.
My father worked day in and day out at the funeral home.
One Sunday morning, he grabbed my arm while we were sitting at the breakfast table. I hadn’t eaten yet. I was reading the newspaper, scanning it mostly for the photographs.
“I want to show you something,” he said, and before I could argue, he led me down into the basement. I knew what he had planned; I knew he was going to try to convince me to become an embalmer, to take up his line of work, yet again. He’d already explained on many occasions that he could train me; I could serve as his apprentice. And I repeatedly told him that I had no interest. Still, I followed him. I was curious.
I hadn’t been down in the basement since the fire. My father had managed to restore most of the workshop to the way it had been before. Black char marks covered the concrete walls. But the electric razor still hung on its hook above a brand new metal workbench. The sutures and the rubber hoses and the blow dryer lay next to the wash basin where they had in the past. The various fluids and creams, formaldehyde and mastic compound, were now lined on shelves next to that strange blender-shaped machine I remembered so clearly. And the heavy industrial fan sat in front of the storm doors.
A body lay beneath a sheet on the stainless steel table, and I could see the dust motes floating in the light that filtered through the small rectangular window. My father tugged on a surgical mask—the kind he wore to mow the lawn—and heavy rubber gloves. He threw his canvas smock over his shoulders, and stepped toward the table. I took a step back, and he frowned and pointed that I should stand beside him.
“I want you to see this,” he said, clicking on the new Lumina light and pulling back the sheet. On the table lay a girl about my age. It wasn’t anyone I knew, but a girl from a neighboring community, someone I’d never met in life. Still, it felt wrong to see her naked there in front of me. I was embarrassed for her, for myself.
“She wasted away in a hospital bed for three months before she died,” my father said, standing back, as though to admire his work. “And yet she looks healthy, doesn’t she?”
I nodded. What else could I do? He was right. Her skin looked firm, natural. The face full and vibrant. She might as well have been asleep. I had an urge to photograph her. And yet, I couldn’t look at her. I felt claustrophobic. I thought about Deirdre Cassidy. I stared down at my shoes and the scuffed concrete floor.
“This will be the last image her parents see of her,” my father said, pulling the sheet back over her face. Then he looked at me and shook his head. “Just lock the door on your way out,” he said.
Later that afternoon, while my mother sat on a lawn chair in the shade and slept and I snapped photographs of the hummingbirds that came to the feeder by our kitchen window with the Minolta I got for my birthday, my father ambled out onto the back porch. He carried two glasses of iced tea and sat down next to me on the porch steps and squinted out at the yucca plants growing along the treeline. A cloud moved over the sun, turning the backyard purple, and I played with the f-stop setting on the camera, wishing I owned a light meter. When a ruby-throated hummer buzzed briefly at the feeder, I snapped a few shots.
“Any of those going to be good ones?” my father asked, peeling some of the black powder coat from the wrought-iron railing.
“Maybe,” I said. “It’s hard to tell.”
“I finished dressing her,” my father said. “She’s in the casket now. It’s a nice casket.”
“That’s good,” I said.
“You know,” my father said, lowering his voice. “I’d hoped someday all that would be your job.”
“I know,” I said.
“It’s an important job. It’s like being an artist. Only your work is only seen once.”
Another hummingbird darted toward the feeder. It hovered in mid-air, then lighted on the little perch, dipping its long narrow beak into the little flower-shaped hole where it sucked out the syrupy red sugar water.
“Aren’t you going to get that one?” my father asked. He looked over at me, and then back at the feeder.
I shrugged. “He’ll be back,” I said. Out in the lawn, I could see my mother stirring in her chair. She pulled her floppy straw hat from her head and wiped her sunglasses on her T-shirt.
“Show me how to use that thing,” my father said. “I want to take a picture of your mom.”
I pulled the camera from around my neck and put it in his hands. I set it to an appropriate shutter-speed, and showed him how to zoom by twisting the lens. “You want to break the image down into thirds,” I said, “horizontal and vertical. Like tic-tac-toe. The middle box is the best. You want the focal point in the middle.” I stood behind him and showed him how to use his knee to keep the camera level and still. “The lens is your eye,” I said. “Whatever you see inside the viewfinder is what you get when you pull the shutter release.”
My mother stood up and stretched, placing her hands on her head and staring up into the translucent blue sky. Her back was to us. We took picture after picture, and I taught my father to visualize the image before he snapped the photo. “Don’t just click,” I said. “Use your imagination.”
My father took a few more pictures, and then he let the camera dangle at his neck. “Think any of those will be good ones?” he asked.
I shrugged. “It’s hard to know until the film is developed.”
For a moment, I thought my father would ask more questions, but he only nodded, as though this made perfect sense to him. Around us, the hummingbirds zoomed in and out at the feeder as if it were an airport, and in my peripheral vision, I could see my father cock his head a little while I waited for him to make the next move.