Snow and Ashes
…..The gray stone mansion peaked through the trees like a palace that had snuck down the hill on a lark. I parked, per instructions from the landlord on the phone, in the slanting circular cobble-stoned driveway. The house was silent, as if too proud to take notice of the riotous weeds at its foundation and the unkempt arborvitae all but blocking the windows. In the tunnel between the stoop and the front door, I found the bell embedded in a six-inch stone rosette.
…..One of the two doors swung open. Framed in the half-arch was a slim, bearded man in a tee shirt over torn sweat pants. Shorter than me, he had shoulder-length sandy hair parted in the middle and pushed behind his ears, one of which sported an earring.
….“Matt Stimson,” I said. “I called about sharing the house.”
…..The man gazed at me with a half-smile as though he recognized an old friend. “I’m Dan Spicer, the bourgeois landlord.”
…..I followed him into a baroque foyer complete with a marble floor, a majestic staircase, and a dusty chandelier.
…..“Living room’s to the left, study to the right. Both unfurnished.” He headed toward a door set into the rear wall. “This is the dining room. It opens onto the veranda overlooking Creekside Park. Steps take you to the deck on the lower level. From there you can walk down to the creek.” As he stepped through the doorway, he tripped on the threshold and nearly fell.
…..I caught him by the elbow. “You all right?”
…..He laughed. “Haven’t been all right for thirty-plus years. Why start now?”
…..We were in a long room lit by June sunshine flowing through French doors. Unmatched kitchen chairs surrounded three rough tables shoved together. An ancient television and boom box sat on milk crates at the end of the room.
…..“Grab a seat,” Dan said, “and tell me about yourself.”
…..I made it brief: ex-military, divorced, Masters in Special Ed, fourteenth year of teaching high school. Needed to be settled before the beginning of the school year in September. Hobby was weight lifting. Volunteer work with troubled children. Dan listened so intently that I wondered if he wasn’t hard of hearing.
…..“Only two of us living here now,” he said, “not counting Michelle—she’s only here weekends. Charlie—you’ll have to meet Charlie. I’m the house Jew, and you’ll be the gringo-shaygets-cracker. And Charlie . . . Charlie’s just Charlie. We pretty much keep to ourselves. No shared meals or anything—”
…..The sound of scratching came from the French doors. Dan opened them and admitted a black German shepherd who reared and lapped his face.
…..“Down, Quasi.” Dan struggled to maintain his balance. “This is the man. Name’s Quasimodo.”
…..The dog dropped to the floor with a thud. He cocked his head, sniffed, and padded toward me. When he placed his chin on my knee, I gingerly scratched the top of his head and behind his ears. He whined in pleasure.
…..Dan returned to his chair. “Freaky. Quasi’s not all that friendly. In fact, I’ve been training him to be a guard dog, you know, ready, attack—that kind of stuff.”
…..I scratched harder. Quasi licked my fingers.
…..“Looks like you got his vote.” Dan held out his hand, palm downward. Quasi lay on the floor.
…..“Your ad says sixteen-fifty a month,” I said. “I can see why—it’s a beautiful place—but I don’t know that I can swing that much. You got a cheaper room?”
…..Dan’s eyes were bright. “The small bedroom is eleven-fifty. Interested?”
…..“You bet. Can I see it?”
* * *
…..Before classes began, I was settled in a tiny bedroom on the second floor. The room at the end of the hall housed Charlie, and Dan’s room was on the lowest level, beneath the dining room, opening to the deck, the back yard, and the park.
…..Charlie and I got acquainted one afternoon when we were both in the laundry room on the lower level. Turned out he had the mental capacity of a six-year-old and worked as a grocery store bagger. He’d moved his clothes to the dryer and couldn’t get it to turn on. After he’d been fiddling with the controls for several minutes, I asked if he’d like me to see if I could figure them out. He watched me warily and finally nodded. The timer wasn’t working—I had to push it hard to get it to turn. I showed him how to do it, and when he got the dryer started, he rewarded me with a beaming smile. From then on, Charlie always sat next to me at every opportunity. I got the feeling that he liked the idea that I was as big as he was.
…..Meanwhile, Dan treated me like a long-lost brother, and Quasimodo lavished me with more affection than I could handle. Michelle turned out to be a college junior at the university who was working as a lifeguard for the summer. She was majoring in European history and was delighted to learn that I had heard of the Esterházy dynasty. But I saw little of her—when her car was parked out front, neither she nor Dan was much in evidence.
…..On one of those bittersweet afternoons in late September when the leaves are telling you they know they have to die soon, I arrived home from school to find Dan lolling on the veranda off the dining room. Next to him was a mountain of blue ice and silver cans overflowing a galvanized tub.
…..“Hey, dude, ditch the tie and come tip a few,” Dan called through the French doors. His speech was clipped and self-consciously precise, as though he were trying not to slur. “I bought a case. I’m cel-e-brat-ing.”
…..“What’s the occasion?”
…..“I’m a grad student and it’s Tuesday.”
…..I left my coat, tie, and briefcase in the dining room and crunched my way through scattered ice to the vacant chair beside him.
…..Dan snagged a can from the tub. Ice cubes flew like frightened birds. “Here you go, amigo.” It slipped from his fingers, bounced once with a thwack, and rolled under his chair. He was on his hands and knees after it. “Goddammit.” He clambered to his feet and grasped the ring on the can, trying to pop it open. I snatched it and ripped off the tab. Foam shot into the air and flowed over my hand. He wiped the can on his tank top.
…..“You’re a grad student?” I asked.
…..Dan waved the question away. “Long story.”
…..He finished his beer and reached for another, toyed with the tab, and gave me an apologetic smile. “Would you mind, bro?” He handed me the can.
…..I opened it. “How many have you had?”
…..“Getting on toward dinner time. Maybe we should get some food into you.”
…..“Not while there’s brew waiting to be drunk,” Dan said. “Chug-a-lug that and have another.”
…..Charlie, dressed in overalls and work gloves, came through the door carrying pruning shears. When he saw me, he gave me his special smile.
…..“Doing the pruning?” I asked.
…..Charlie’s smile turned proud. “I love doing it.”
…..“Bet you do it like a pro,” I said.
…..Still grinning, Charlie headed down the stairs into the garden.
…..When he’d disappeared, Dan turned to me, his eyes luminous. “You’re, like, so good with Charlie.”
…..“He and I have an arrangement,” Dan said. “He doesn’t make much money so he does some chores around the house and I give him a break on his rent. He likes to take care of Quasi, but I don’t let him do any of the attack training.”
…..“How’d you meet him?”
…..Dan touched his beer can to his lips but didn’t drink. “Let me tell you a story. My dad was a lion. By the nineteen-seventies when Sis—that’s my older sister, Esther—and I were born, he’d built New Hope Drugs into a multi-million-dollar business. But, me, I was a leftist rebel—dropped out, lived on the streets of San Francisco, and saw what happens to homeless disabled guys. Dad all but disowned me.”
…..He wiped his mouth. “Then one day, Esther found me. She told me Dad had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease. I went home, started classes again, majoring in Social Work. Dad was more and more disabled, but the old bastard refused to slow down. He died in a car accident. Sis and I suspect that he lost control and that’s why it went into a telephone pole at forty miles an hour.”
…..Dan stared into the trees. “He knew he was dying, so he set up everything for my mother and sister and me. When Mom died, Sis and her husband didn’t want the house, so I took it. She and John got the furniture and most of the money except for a trust fund Dad had set up to keep me going until I finished school.” He laughed. “Guess he never realized how long I’d drag out grad school working toward a PhD in social psychology and microeconomics. The main thing, though, was that I had this great house and for the first time in my life I could do something for guys who had no place to go. Then I found Charlie living on the street.”
…..I winced. “So I’m one of your charity cases?”
…..Dan’s face glowed the way it had during our first interview. “As soon as I saw you, when Quasimodo fell in love with you, I knew you were the right guy for this house, and—” He laughed. “I’m getting ahead of myself.”
…..“Wait a minute,” I said. “Why me?”
…..“Ask me when I’m sober.”
…..“You drink like this when Michelle’s around?”
…..“We’ve been having, like, difficulties,” Dan said. “She might not be here this weekend.”
…..“Maybe she doesn’t like it when you drink.”
…..Dan’s eyes locked onto mine. “Just hang with me for a while, okay?”
…..He straggled to his feet and headed down the stairs toward his room, beer in hand. I watched him go. Alone, I finished my beer watching dusk settle over the back yard. Something wasn’t right here, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. With a shake of my head I squeezed my beer can until it collapsed and stood to gather the four cans Dan had left behind his chair. The weight of the first one told me it was still full. I checked the others. All full, with their tabs in place. Dan had opened them with a can opener.
* * *
…..Michelle did show up at the house on Friday evening. She and Dan cooked together and shared dinner on the deck. Saturday morning around eight, I went to the kitchen for coffee. Michelle was in the breakfast nook, newspaper in front of her. She wore jeans and a halter-top showing off her deeply tanned skin, lambent in the morning light. Her amber hair was in a ponytail tied with a scarf.
…..“Look who’s up and about,” I said.
…..“Hi, Matt.” She smiled. “Dan went back to sleep.”
…..I took my coffee to the table. “Mornings are kind to you. You’re positively glowing.”
…..Her smile blossomed. “I’m in love.”
…..“Not to overstep my bounds, but he’s—what?—fifteen years older than you?”
…..“Who cares? Most women spend their whole lives without having what I have.”
…..Charlie sidled in, his shy grin in place.
…..I heard the French doors in the dining room open, and Dan, frowsy with sleep, materialized in the kitchen doorway. “Was wondering where you disappeared to.” He lumbered to the table and bent toward her. She smoothed his tousled hair.
…..He kissed her. “Let’s take our coffee to the deck.”
…..They left hand in hand.
…..Charlie watched them go and turned to me with tears in his eyes. “You help Dan, okay?”
…..Charlie frowned at the floor and shambled out.
* * *
…..Sunday afternoon, I did laundry. When I transferred my clothes to the dryer, I couldn’t get the timer to turn, no matter how hard I leaned on it. I made my way from the laundry room through the empty library to Dan’s room. The sound of a television game show filtered through the door. I tapped. Quasimodo woofed, and the door opened.
…..“Hope I’m not interrupting,” I said.
…..Dan waved me in. “Michelle headed home. We had a little . . . never mind.”
…..The room was large, maybe twenty by twenty, with a door leading to the deck. An end table with a bong, a canister, and matches stood next to an unmade double bed.
…..Quasimodo advanced, tail wagging. I rubbed his head.
…..Dan beckoned. “Grab a chair.”
…..I settled by the desk.
…..Dan flipped off the television and sat on the bed. His right leg jiggled.
…..I decided to make it brief. “The dryer’s broken.”
…..“I have a service contract. Number’s on the laundry room wall. Call them.”
…..“That was quick and easy. Thanks.”
…..“I’ve been thinking,” Dan said. “There’s an apartment over the garage—used to be where the servants lived. It could really be nice if I could get it spruced up. You’re out and about in the world. You know any down and out guys who need a place to live?”
…..“Why don’t you and Michelle use it? It’d be a lot more—” The grimace on Dan’s face stopped me. “None of my business.”
…..“It’s not that.”
…..“Anyway . . .” Dan shrugged. His fingers were trembling.
…..I stood. “I’ll call about the dryer.”
…..As I turned to leave, I saw my reflection. An oversized mirror covered the door to the library.
* * *
…..With onset of autumn, my room, the smallest in the house, was getting crammed with books and student assignments. I asked Dan if I could move my workout bench and weights to the unfurnished living room—nobody ever went in there anyway—and did my regular workouts there three times a week.
…..Half way through my Monday night routine the first week in October, Dan, wrapped in his faded Army fatigue jacket, trudged in, beer in hand. He frowned while he waited for me to finish my military presses.
…..I dropped the dumbbells on the weight bench and paced between sets. “God, aren’t you hot in that jacket?”
…..He walked with me but couldn’t keep up. With a wrench of his shoulders, he lowered himself onto the bench and took a slug from the can. He couldn’t sit still.
…..“You’re acting like a teenager,” I said, “with a bad case of the hornies.”
…..“Need a favor, dawg. Guy’s coming tomorrow at four to install the new dryer. Any chance you could be here to let him in? I’ve got a doctor’s appointment.”
…..I mopped my underarms, picked up the weights. “I’ll come straight home from school. Get up. I need the bench.”
…..He stood, leaned against the wall, and waggled his foot. I started my last set of presses. When I finished, I noted my weights, reps, and sets on my chart. Dan upturned his beer can into his mouth but the beer ran down his chin onto his neck. He sat next to me on the bench and squeezed the can until his hand was shaking. It didn’t crush.
…..“Will you sit still?” I slugged him lightly on the shoulder. “Looks like Michelle’s holding out on you or something.”
…..“We’ve been having, like, problems.” He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out another can.
…..I took it from him, pulled off the tab. “Man. I think you should lay off the booze.” On my feet, I put the dumbbells in the rack, took two larger ones, and turned toward the bench.
…..Dan tossed the empty can across the room. “I might . . . Michelle and me might break up.”
…..I stopped in mid-stride.
…..“She’s a kid,” he said. “Not ready for anything, like, serious, you know?”
…..“So who’re you, Methuselah?”
…..Dan put his elbows on his knees and hung his head. “Feel like it sometimes.”
…..“Be patient with her. She’ll grow up.” I draped my arm over his shoulder.
…..“Not fair, that’s all. It’s expecting too much.”
…..“Dan,” I said, “don’t hurt her.”
…..He lowered his face toward his spread knees and shuddered.
…..“What does she want?” I asked.
…..He shook his head.
…..I let go of him. I’d left a wet line across his shoulders. I took my towel from the bench and swabbed off the sweat.
…..He quivered like a dog shaking off water and got to his feet. “I’m going to get another brew, then see if I can get in some sack time.”
…..He started out. At the door, he stumbled, laughed, and straggled out of sight.
* * *
…..A November mild as May. Most evenings I spent as Rehearsal Manager for the school Winter Concert scheduled for mid-December, but on Veteran’s Day, a holiday, Charlie and I shared the lower deck with the falling leaves for what we jokingly called “happy hour.” As twilight faded, Charlie refused my offer of a Miller Lite: “Dan says I’m not supposed to drink that.”
…..“We should ask Dan to join us,” I said.
…..Charlie shook his head. “Michelle’s here.”
…..“What’s up with them?”
…..“Guess we should have held our party up on the veranda,” I said. “Wouldn’t want to disturb—”
…..“No!” A muffled yell. A woman crying out. Quasimodo barked. Dan’s door flew open. Light stabbed the darkness. Figures in the doorway. Charlie whimpered. Dan and Michelle were shouting at each other, the dog barking and hopping.
….I stood and called to them. “Hey, you guys, cut it out. Come on and have a brew with us.”
…..“You don’t like my religion,” Dan yelled, “then fuck you.”
…..“Why’re you doing this?” Michelle cried.
…..“Bitch!” He swung back his arm as if to strike her. She ran to the stairs and sprinted to the veranda. Dan wobbled toward us. “Fuckin’ bitch.” He staggered through his door and slammed it.
…..Charlie was crying.
…..I dashed to Dan’s door and pounded. “I want to talk to you.” I tried the door. Open. On the threshold, I stepped on glass shards, kicked a full beer can. The mirror on the door to the library was a web of cracks reaching out from a five-inch hole in the middle. Dan was face down on the bed. His body was rigid, his face in the pillow next to his bloody fist. Quasi had his front paws on the bed, his ears thrust forward.
…..“Dan,” I said.
…..“Go ’way, man.”
…..“What the hell’s going on?”
…..“The bitch won’ leave.”
…..I sat on the bed and put my hand on his shoulder. “She wants to be with you.”
…..“Dan, you’re plastered.”
…..He flopped on his back. His face was twisted in rage, his teeth bared. “Get out.”
…..The dog sprang to the floor and turned toward me.
…..I edged from the room and closed the door. What the hell— I wandered into the darkness of the backyard toward the park. Big trouble’s brewing. If Dan keeps this up, he’ll lose Michelle. But it isn’t any of my business. The pieces don’t fit together. It’s almost as if Dan’s drinking is the symptom of some other problem. Drugs? Something criminal? I edged back onto the deck and bumped into someone. The sound of swallowed sobs stopped me. “Charlie?”
…..“Dan’s my good friend,” Charlie said in a choked voice.
…..“It’s the booze,” I said.
…..“Dan’s sick. We gotta help him.” Crying hard, he put his hand on my arm. “You help him, okay?”
* * *
…..For the rest of the week, I watched for a chance to talk to Dan while Charlie was tending to Quasi, but Dan stayed in his room and kept Quasi with him. No sign of Michelle. Charlie moped around the house like he was at a funeral. Sunday night, Michelle, minus her usual wave and smile, came in and went straight to Dan’s room. I loitered on the deck but heard nothing. Finally, after dinner, I sat in the dining room with coffee trying to get caught up on grading papers. I was down to the next to the last essay when the sound of a slamming door made me look up.
…..Thumping and rattling. The French doors from the veranda flew open. Michelle weeping. Dan screaming at her. She careened into the room and ran headlong into the tables. Papers and coffee cup went flying. Dan, behind her, grabbed her hand and yanked her toward him. She shrieked. I leaped to my feet and blocked his arm as it swung to strike her.
…..“You out of your fuckin’ mind?” I yelled.
…..“Get out, bitch,” Dan rasped.
…..She wrenched her hand free and raced out the door to the foyer. Footsteps, then the front door banged.
…..Panting, I turned to Dan. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
…..Tears streaked his face. “I did it. She’s gone. She won’t be back.”
…..With a tremor, as if from old age, he shuffled in place until he was facing the French doors. He staggered through them. Dragging footsteps across the veranda and then his uneven footfalls down the stairs. I heard him open the door to his room. He was sobbing.
* * *
…..The following night I had parent-teacher conferences, so I got home past nine. As I let myself in, Quasi’s bark, unexpectedly close, made me jump. The dog, poised by the open door to the study, wagged across the foyer. I went to the study. In what had been a bare room were Dan’s bed with him in it, his desk and computer, and his chair.
…..He raised his hand in greeting. “Welcome, brother.”
…..“Don’t ‘brother’ me. After last night—”
…..Sadness filled his face. “Matt . . . please?”
…..“Why’d you move up here? How—”
…..“Come on in and close the door. Charlie helped me. I’ve been waiting for you.”
…..I shut the door and sat. Quasi put his paws on my knee and licked my face.
…..“Quasi,” Dan said, “behave.”
…..The dog immediately dropped to the floor but looked up at me. I petted him.
…..“I was sure that first day,” Dan said, “that you were the man. Quasi picked you.” He slid to a sitting position. “I pretty much knew by last spring what I had to do. Nobody I knew could take it on. You know what I’m saying?”
…..I scratched the top of my head. “Haven’t the foggiest.”
…..“Thought maybe you’d sorted it out. The drinking freaked out everybody except you.”
…..“I couldn’t believe you were a crunk head.”
…..“Get comfortable. This’ll take a while.” At a flat-hand signal from Dan, Quasi lay on the floor and rested his chin between his paws. “First, I want your promise that nothing I tell you will leave this room. No one is to know. Not Charlie, nobody.”
…..“I don’t want any leaks that might get to Michelle. Let her think I’m the bastard who kicked her out. You promise?”
…..“I don’t get it,” I said.
…..He looked past me. “When Dad realized he was dying, he put both Sis and me on the New Hope Medical Plan in perpetuity. He knew that with his version of ALS there was a chance that the genetic disposition would be passed on. Sis’s home free. I’m not.”
…..I didn’t move.
…..“You understand?” he asked. “I’ve got it. Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”
…..I opened my mouth. No sounds came.
…..“There are about ten tests,” he said, “They subjected my beautiful male body to magnetic resonance imaging, put needles into my muscles, gave me electric shocks, scanned my brain, tapped my spine, x-rayed me until my piss sparkled. The symptoms are increasing faster than they expected. Until last month, they thought I’d have another year. Now they’re not sure. They put me on Riluzole a year ago to slow the disease down. Didn’t work.”
…..“Your sister knows?”
…..He nodded. “When things get bad, I’ll go to her place in Cleveland.”
…..“No. She’s not to know.”
…..“Dan, that’s not fair.”
…..“She’s only twenty, Matt. She doesn’t need this. If I’d known . . .”
…..“What do you want me to do?”
…..“Let everybody think I’m drying out. I’ll need your help. Like, I can’t put my shoes on. I moved up here because I can’t manage the stairs anymore. Check in before you leave for school and after you get in at night. Don’t go around looking like the angel of death. Do your usual bullshit—you know, like, school stuff and weights and everything.” He watched me without blinking. “Fair enough?”
…..I nodded. “Sooner or later it’s going to be obvious—”
…..“That’s when I clear out. I want you to take Quasi when I . . . go to Sis’s. You and Quasi are made for each other.”
…..“What about the house? Your stuff?”
…..He waved his hand. “Later. Any other questions?”
…..“When’d you find out?”
…..“I began noticing symptoms three years ago. Scared the hell out of me. For a long time, I didn’t get tested. I didn’t want to know. One night last winter, I fell down the stairs. Told Michelle I was drunk. That’s when I went in for the full battery. They sent me to Johns Hopkins. One by one, all the other explanations were ruled out. About the time you moved in, I couldn’t button my shirt. So I wear tees and tanks. That’s when I decided Michelle had to go.”
…..“Don’t you think she’d want to know?”
…..“You don’t understand. At the end, you can’t sit up anymore. You can’t talk. You can’t take a shit without help. Your mind and your cock function just fine, thank you, but your breathing muscles shut down. You die of suffocation. They give you morphine so you won’t panic as you’re dying. You want me to put her through that?”
…..I fought off a shudder.
…..He tilted back his head. “I don’t want her ever to know. When the time comes, tell her I’m in California. Taking courses at Stanford. Something I always wanted to do. She’ll believe it. But . . . Matt . . .” He leaned forward. “Check on her, okay? Be sure she’s all right?” He sighed. “That’s enough for now. Be sure to say good night to Quasi. Leave the door open so he can get out. I’ll need your help in the morning.” His eyelids fluttered. “I want to wear jeans sometimes, but I can’t zip my fly.
* * *
…..As the days grew short and the nights cold, Dan pretty much stopped leaving the study except to go to the bathroom. I told Charlie he had the flu, then hinted that it had turned into pneumonia. Charlie just looked at me, his face blank.
…..When I got in from school one icy December night, I tapped at the study door and went in. The room was dark. The air was sickly sweet with marijuana smoke.
…..“Leave the light off,” Dan said, “and close the door.”
…..As soon as I sat, I felt Quasi’s head on my knee. I chafed behind the ears and heard the growl of bliss.
…..“Called Sis today,” Dan said, “Told her I’d be flying out there on the nineteenth. That’s a Wednesday. Can you drive me to the airport?”
…..“I won’t be able to make it to the bathroom much longer. And there are some things I won’t ask you to do.”
…..“I’d be willing,” I said.
…..“No. It’s decision time, Matt. Only three things I care about. Michelle, that’s done. Quasi, he’ll be with you. The house. I know what I want to do.”
…..Water gurgled. A spot glowed red on the table. The bong. “Here’s the deal. This place has become a refuge for Charlie. I wanted to look for other guys like him. Then I found out I was sick, and I didn’t know how I was going to keep it going. I knew somebody’d have to take it over. Then I found you.” He sucked, held his breath, released the air from his lungs. “So I want to sell you the house.”
…..I laughed. “I haven’t got that kind of money.”
…..“How does one dollar sound?”
…..Quasi nudged my hands with his nose. I’d stopped moving.
…..“Sis doesn’t want the house,” Dan said. “Dad’s law firm will handle the details. You have to promise to keep the place as a refuge for Charlie and men like him.”
…..“You’re the kind of man I always wanted to be. I watched you with Charlie. You kept my secret. I trust you.” He paused and sucked. “And Quasi chose you.”
…..Grassy fumes stung my eyes.
…..“Get the apartment fixed up,” Dan said, “and move into it. Then when you hook up with a woman, you’ll have a beautiful place to share with her. That’s what I wanted to do with Michelle before I found out . . .” He swallowed. “No one is to know about this as long as I’m living. I’ll tell Charlie I’ve asked you to fill in for me while I’m away. He doesn’t need to know I’m not coming back.”
…..“I think Charlie already knows.”
…..Silence, then, “He would, wouldn’t he? Poor guy. I love that pitiful son-of-a-bitch.”
* * *
…..I arranged for a sub to take my classes on the nineteenth. I got up early, fixed Dan breakfast, got him into jeans and a sport shirt with buttons. After I helped him into his coat, I carried his luggage to the foyer.
…..“It’s time,” I said.
…..“No hurry,” Dan slurred. He licked his lips and said with careful enunciation, “Help me up.”
…..With me at his side, he shambled to the foyer. “Except for my time on the street, I lived my whole life in this house. Take better care of it than I did, okay, Matt?” At the front door, he grasped my hand. “Do something for me. When Quasi dies, have him cremated and spread his ashes on the back lawn.”
…..I helped him into the passenger seat, locked his seat belt, and headed out. While we were on the freeway, I glanced at him. His hands were tightly clasped and he was gazing straight ahead. As we slowed for the airport exit, he turned to me.
…..“You’ve been great. Wish you could come with me.”
…..“Other folks can do more than I can.”
…..“I only want to say, like, you know, thanks. Especially for agreeing to take the house and look after Charlie.”
…..The airport sign blurred past. I pulled up in front of the terminal. A uniformed airline agent waited with a wheelchair. I put the car in neutral, hopped out, and helped Dan into the chair.
…..“This is it, buddy,” Dan said.
…..“I’ll park and come in.”
…..“No way. Does it embarrass you to be hugged by a man in public?”
…..I knelt on the sidewalk.
…..Dan clutched me with shaking arms and held me tight. “So great you came along when you did, Matt. So great.”
…..I wanted to thank him for everything but couldn’t find my voice. The attendant wheeled the chair toward the glass doors. As they went through, Dan swiveled, saluted, and smiled casually, as though he were leaving for the weekend.
…..All the way home, I had to blink to clear my eyes. How long would it be? I hoped they’d give Dan enough morphine that he’d sail away from life high, tripped out, zonked like endless orgasm.
* * *
…..Without Dan the house felt like a soulless shell. Charlie and I gave Christmas a token celebration and ignored New Years. By mid-January, I’d run out of things for Charlie to do, so he and I started refurbishing the apartment. He was a hard worker and stronger than me. Looked to me like we could have the place shaped up by summer. When we got the larger of the two bedrooms painted, I took pictures and emailed them to Esther. February brought heavy snows, so I worked alone in the apartment and had Charlie keep the driveway, the steps, and the walks shoveled.
…..Late one Wednesday afternoon, the phone rang.
…..“Matt? This is Esther, Dan’s sister.” Her voice wavered. “I knew he’d want me to tell you right away. He’s dead.”
…..My throat closed.
…..“This afternoon he took the car keys from my purse,” Esther said. “I don’t know how he got the car out of the garage, much less on the road. Went into a telephone pole about a mile from here. Killed instantly.”
…..“His speech was failing. Next week he was going to have a feeding tube implanted and be fitted for a mask to help him breathe.”
…..Maybe she needed to talk. It hurt to listen.
…..“He was so grateful to you,” she said. “He loved the pictures of the apartment. Last night he asked me . . .”
…..Her voice failed. I waited.
…..“He asked,” she went on, “that you and I spread his ashes on the back lawn—if you agreed.”
…..“John and I could fly down a week from Saturday and do it Sunday.”
…..I hesitated. “Esther, did Dan say anything? Before he took the car?”
…..“No, but he wouldn’t have. No notes or anything.”
…..“So we’ll never know—”
…..“We know,” she said.
* * *
…..It took me a long time to pull myself together. When I could talk without crying I went looking for Charlie. I found him in the kitchen eating cereal.
…..“The phone call was Esther, Dan’s sister. He’s dead, Charlie. Killed in a car accident.”
…..Charlie wept soundlessly.
* * *
…..On the appointed Saturday, I met John and Esther at the airport and settled them in Dan’s old room. We agreed that Dan would want the scattering to be done without ceremony. The following morning, we gathered in the dining room. Esther, in jeans and a parka, sat next to John, a polished wooden case twice the size of a cigar box in her lap. Charlie, somber but dry-eyed, said nothing.
…..“It was a pleasure to meet you, Charlie,” Esther said.
…..“Charlie is Dan’s kind of people,” I said.
…..Esther smiled. “I know.”
…..The four of us passed through the French doors to the veranda, freshly cleared of snow by Charlie, and moved down the stairs, then fanned out in a semi-circle on the snow-covered lawn. Quasi stood beside me. The sky darkened and fresh snow flurried down on us.
…..“Dan didn’t want any prayers or eulogies,” Esther said. “He wanted Matt and me to share the spreading of his ashes—”
…..She looked at the house. Quasi, suddenly alert, woofed.
…..Coming down the stairs from the veranda was a woman in a black turtleneck and jeans. Her honey-colored hair was pulled into a ponytail. Quasi streaked across the yard, spinning snowflakes in his wake, and bounced up the steps. Whimpering, he rose on two legs, plumped his paws on her shoulders, and lapped her face.
…..“Michelle,” I said in a hoarse whisper. “How did—”
…..“I called her this morning,” Esther said.
…..“Dan didn’t want her to know.”
…..Michelle told Quasi to heel. They descended the steps together, and she hugged Charlie and me. “I got here as soon as I could.”
…..“I’m sorry,” I said. “Dan made me promise—”
…..She shook her head, put her arms around me, and rose on tiptoe to kiss me. Then she faced Esther. “Thanks, Sis. May I call you Sis?”
…..Esther’s face cracked. She ran the back of her hand over her eyes and handed Michelle the box. “You scatter his ashes. Matt and I will help.”
…..As Michelle opened the box, the snowfall thickened. The three of us started at one end of the lawn and walked side by side, casting handfuls of gritty ashes. Quasi, head down, stayed close to Michelle. When we reached the end, we reversed direction. Two-thirds of the way on the second pass, the box was empty. Charlie put his arm around Esther.
…..Michelle watched the flakes cover Dan’s ashes. Then she turned toward the stairs to the veranda. We followed. I brought up the rear. Half way up, I glanced over my shoulder. Quasi stood on the deck looking at the lawn. He raised his head and sniffed the air, then trotted to me and licked my hand.
© Tom Glenn
Most of Tom Glenn’s prize-winning short stories and three novels draw on the thirteen years he shuttled between the U.S. and Vietnam on covert intelligence assignments before escaping under fire when Saigon fell. A linguist in seven languages, he writes and speaks frequently on war and Vietnam. His fourth novel, The Last of the Annamese, set during the fall of Saigon, will be published next year by the Naval Institute Press. Tom appreciates feedback. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment.