Ashes

by Nancy Antle

Tara found her daddy in the mailbox.  She’d been in the middle of packing when her mama asked her to go out to the main road to check to see if the mail had come yet. Tara’d been half afraid that she’d find a letter from OK State saying that they were sorry, they’d made a mistake she couldn’t come to Stillwater after all – even though she knew it was more likely there’d be junk mail or the electric bill.  She was curious when she saw the carton inside until she realized what it was.

The prison where Daddy died from lung cancer had given them the option of having Daddy’s body donated to science to avoid the cost of shipping him back to them – something they didn’t want – and paying for a burial plot.  Oklahoma University said they’d cremate his remains and return Daddy when they were done with their research. Still, it was unsettling to find him so close to home even though he couldn’t do anything to anyone anymore.

Tara put the box on the kitchen counter and stared at it.  There wasn’t much to a person after they’d been burned to ashes, Tara realized.  It was hard to believe that all that was left of a man who had been six four, 250 pounds with two hammers for fists and a stare that could make you quake in your shoes was a box of ashes the size of a toaster.  She had almost forgotten what it felt like to be around him.

“What are we gonna do with him?” Mama asked.

“Mitch and I have a plan,” Tara said.  “You don’t have to worry on it.”

“I’m not worried,” Mama huffed.  “I’d just like him outta here for good.”

“Jesus, Mama,” Tara said.  “He can’t do nothing to you now.”

“But he weighs on my mind.  Makes me think on all the mistakes I made.”  Mama put a gentle hand on Tara’s shoulder.

Tara didn’t like to point out that maybe he was going to always weigh on her mind whether his remains were in the house or not.  She didn’t want to plant that seed if by some miracle it wasn’t already there.  She picked up the box full of Daddy and opened the front door letting it slap loudly behind her.

Outside, she called to her two black lab mutts, Duke and Lady, to come and she tromped with them down the dirt road.  When she got to the barbed wired fence that marked Mr. Strickland’s land she scrambled through the wires and so did the dogs.  She walked through the pasture where a couple of lazy cows eyed her as she passed but didn’t move from the spot where they were chewing scrub grass.

This was the walk she’d taken over the years whenever Daddy was home and on the verge of exploding.  Usually she read the signs – glasses clinking in the kitchen cabinet when he slammed the door, the hiss of a beer being opened — and made it out of the house before he erupted but sometimes not until after.  Either way she could always count on a walk to soothe her.  She loved hearing the blue jays screeching over head – their feathers luminous in the sunshine.  The sound of them gave voice to her anger and calmed her.   Of course, Mr. Strickland and the Camfields had helped too.  She had always been able to count on them.

Tara wasn’t sure who she was going to be when she was away from this place.  She’d never lived anywhere else.  Hell, she didn’t even know what she was going to major in in college.  Her adviser, Dr. Preston, who she and Mitch visited in the beginning of the summer, suggested journalism and Tara had said sure – even though she had no idea why she might want to do that.  She’d worked on the school newspaper and reckoned Dr. Preston was just trying to find anything that might interest her.  She assured Tara that she could always change her major later if she didn’t like her first journalism class.

Mitch on the other hand – valedictorian and president of Future Farmers – had always known he wanted to be a veterinarian.  He signed up for all kinds of biology and chemistry and math classes.  Tara knew she’d never in a million years be any good at those kinds of courses.  She hoped they would stay best friends even though they’d have no classes together.

Duke and Lady trotted on ahead of Tara as they neared the spot where Mr. Strickland had his hounds penned.  There were seven of them – all beagles – and they set up a baying, howling din as soon as they caught wind of Tara and her dogs.  They jumped up on the sides of the huge pen, their claws scratching at the wood.  She could just see the tops of their noses.  She reached her hand inside and patted one or two that snuffled towards her and they licked her hand.

Mr. Strickland liked to turn the dogs loose late at night and listen to them howling in the woods hunting for whatever critters they could find – raccoons mostly.  He didn’t care if they caught anything.  He just liked hearing them.  Tara reckoned it made him think on his younger days before arthritis crippled him – back when he could have been out there with them racing through the woods.

Mr. Strickland had taken Daddy hunting with him years ago but Daddy was a sonofabitch even at fifteen – smacked one of the beagles so hard that he had to be put down by Doc Forsyth a day later.  Mr. Strickland quit inviting Daddy after that even though Daddy swore on a stack of bibles that he wasn’t the one that hurt the dog.  Mr. Strickland told Tara he’d always felt guilty like maybe he should have worked harder at reaching the fatherless boy but Tara didn’t reckon it would have made any difference if he had.

Tara considered Mr. Strickland’s family dump as she passed the rusted out washer, the bedsprings and the hundreds of bent and rusted cans, their labels long gone.  She thought she could just sprinkle Daddy there and not take him clear to the Camfields to remind Mitch about what happened that night.  She could just tell Mitch the ashes were never returned if he asked – which she was pretty sure he never would.  Maybe she could save Mitch from thinking on Daddy again but she knew that was just wishful thinking.  Mitch probably thought of her daddy whenever he looked in the mirror.  Daddy would always be a part of him now.  Tara wondered if Daddy had known the truth – that Mitch wasn’t her lover and never would be – if it would’ve made any difference.  Or if it would have been worse.

Tara took the right half of a fork in a path that led away from Mr. Strickland’s place and towards the Camfield place.  As she pushed her way through the weeds that had grown up over the ruts she got the first whiff of pig shit.  She could find her way to Mitch’s place blindfolded – or in the pitch dark of a moonless night – just by following her nose.

She shifted Daddy to her other arm and kept tramping.  The Camfields had dogs too and she could hear them starting up warning barks making a surprise visit out of the question.  She and Mitch hadn’t planned on telling his folks what they were going to do with daddy.  She thought Mrs. Camfield might not see the sense of the thing seeing as how religious she was.  She was big on turning the other cheek and forgiveness – something Tara had not considered when it came to Daddy.  She was pretty sure that Mr. Camfield would be all for the plan seeing as how Daddy had almost killed his only child.  About the only good thing to come out of it – besides Daddy getting sent to prison – was that the Camfields had finally realized there were worse things than having a gay son. Even though they weren’t exactly ready to announce that fact to the congregation of the Lakeview Baptist Church.

When the smell was near to overwhelming the three German Shepherds came barreling out to greet them, barking but tails wagging.  They weren’t much bigger than Lady and Duke but Tara’s dogs were the visitors and they knew how to behave.  They stopped dead still while they were sniffed up and down from butt to mouth and back again by the shepherds.  Then all the dogs ran off into the woods barking and wrestling and growling.  Pretending to fight.

When she got to the house she saw that the pickup was gone but Mrs. Camfield waved at her from the kitchen window and pointed toward the barn.  Tara creaked open the barn door and was assaulted with the even stronger scent of pigs and what sounded like a hundred grunts and snorts and squeals.  Mitch was at the far end of the room bent over a stall hosing down a big sow.  He looked up and smiled at her and waved.  She waved back and walked towards him.

“Daddy came back today,” she said when her shoulder was touching his.

She felt him look at her so she turned toward him and held up the box so he could get her meaning.

“Damn,” he said.  He heaved a sigh and stared at the box, until a grin lit up his face.  He reached into the pocket of his tight fitting jeans and found his knife.  He held it out to Tara.  Before she took it she reached up to his face and ran her fingers across the scar on his eyebrow where the hair wouldn’t grow anymore and then down the jagged red line along the side of his face where a boot – Daddy’s boot – had split his skin and fractured his skull two years ago.  She kissed his cheek, then took the knife.

She unfolded it while she held the box wedged against the slats of the stall.  She stabbed the tape on top of the box and slit it open.  Inside was another box covered in dark green velvet, as if the funeral home was trying to make the ashes look well tended and cared for so loved ones left behind would be pleased.  She thought it looked like a cheap Christmas box you’d find at the Dollar Store.

Tara took the lid off the green box and inside of that was a sealed plastic bag.  She stabbed that too and made a long slit in the film.  She handed Mitch his knife.  He rinsed it, dried it on the leg of his jeans and put it back in his pocket.  Tara met his eyes and he nodded, barely, beads of sweat on his cheeks now.  She turned up the box and dumped Daddy into the mud and pig shit in the stall, careful not to get any on the sow.  Chunks of bone fell out along with the ashes.

Some of the ashes drifted free, and Tara was sorry to see that.  Mitch saw them too and sprayed them with a fine mist of water then pointed the hose back into the stall until she couldn’t tell the difference in Daddy or the mud or the shit.

Nancy Antle wrote books for children and young adults published by Dial, Viking and Simon and Schuster for thirty years before deciding she’d rather write for an older audience. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern CT State University and is now restarting her writing career.  Her short stories have been published or will be published in CT Review, Noctua Review and Los Angeles Review of LA.  She also works as a mentor with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

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