I knew long before dead Uncle Milton's jaw fell off that I wanted to be cremated.
Before he lost his jaw, Uncle Milton was the reason I returned to the neighborhood. Surprised by that first homecoming, at the smallness of everything, at how good the stoop appeared, its stairs solid and swept, I took the steps two at a time. Milton Base was dying, and while I felt confident he couldn't care any less about me, Mom urged me to return home before he died.
When I walked to my old bedroom where Uncle Milton was moved after his last stroke, I thought I was too late. He smelled dead. The single window permitted only a pale gray light to bleed through the thin curtains. And though I walked heavily to the room, stomping to warn him of my approach, he didn't move. "Uncle Milton?" I shouted, thinking I should call my littlest brother Rob, who at 13, would be grossed out and thrilled to confirm a death, the perfect story for the bus stop crowd. Listening for breathing I couldn't hear, I held my own breath and called Milt's name again. Nearly standing on my toes, holding the doorjamb for balance, I feared inhaling his infected air. I scanned all of the possessions I left behind, now contaminated and needing to be burned. Lamenting the stuffed monkey, the third place ribbon from the high school art contest, and the empty Junior Mints box from my first date, I imagined the spitting inferno when Uncle Milton suddenly heaved one foul cough and hocked a tremendous lugee. I could hear it in his mouth congealing and jiggling, and I thought he would choke on it. I shouldn't have worried; he spit it into one of Mom's metal mixing bowls sitting on the floor by the far side of the bed.
Choking back my own nausea at the chiming smack of the phlegm wad against the metal bowl, I crept into the room, repeating his name again, but this time quietly, not wanting to arouse another chunk of congealed mucus from him.
He grunted, the only greeting I had ever known from him. To my knowledge he only had three words. I would hear all three before I beat it out of the house and back to my apartment where I laid my hands on the peeling walls and thanked the good Lord for clean air and freedom from Milt.
"How are you feeling?" I asked and received the same initial groan in response.
"Do you need anything?"
"Beer," he groaned, lifting his arm in a labored point at a mug surely not intended for beer under my mother's iron fisted care. Picking up the mug, I saw green tea stains, the latest of mother's natural cure-alls, so tasteless they could do neither harm nor good. On the table lay other remnants of ingestibles nearly untouched: whole-grain toast, sliced ginger, and incense sticks still in the wrapper. Poor bugger. Death by aromatherapy.
"Do you want anything else besides a beer?" I asked, wanting to grant this dying man at least one of his last wishes, but not willing to wrangle with Mom over it.
"No," he rasped, rolled over, and farted for punctuation. This was a surprise, not the fart, but the missing request for a cigarette. Not willing to fight Mom over this either, I could leave a couple for him by the bed. After I was long gone, he could light up. Mom would think one of my brothers gave them to him.
"Okay, well, I don't want to disturb you," I muttered already backing out of the room, eager to get out before having to inhale any more death.
"Cigarette," he nearly whispered. It was a single, wistful word. Had it been a name, I would have said he loved the woman passionately and devotedly for sixty years. But my Aunt Gretch, or Wretch as we called her, died seven years ago, and he hadn't loved her or even liked her for the last twenty-five of their thirty-year marriage. As repulsive as Uncle Milt could be, Wretch revolted us even more. Black hairs protruded from the moles by her gaping mouth, which spewed rank breath and incessant demands I wear dresses and not chew gum. Instead of Gretch Base, Milt loved Cigarette. Holding my breath, I walked to the table, my hand in my jacket pocket, and left my last three cigarettes for him and a pack of Marlboro matches. I nearly tripped over the mixing bowl on the floor, and when I unintentionally settled my eyes on it, I saw the vile masses Milt choked up. Swirls of bright crimson mixed in the olive, lumpy slop. Zipping my pocket and fighting to swallow back the bile rising in my own throat, I looked to his eyes to see his thanks and instead saw only whites, his lids half shut, his eyes rolled back. I thought he might be dead again, and this time I didn't stay to find out for sure.
He, of course, had not died that day, or any of the ones soon to follow. Instead he hung on calling out his mantra "No, Beer, Cigarette" with the dedication of a monk. My mother kept him wishing for death with doses of brussel sprouts, beets, cabbage, St. John's Wort, and vats of green tea. I comfort myself with the thought that my cigarettes were probably his last. Nearly seven weeks later Mom went in with his tray of tea and toast and found him dead. His mouth gaping, a pile of drool still glistened in the pocketed lines of his cheek. Merciful eyelids revealed only crusty white slits. Genuinely surprised by his death, Mom stumbled at his bed and kicked his spittoon bowl; the sludge oozed to the carpet and soaked in.
His death was the second time I came home, and though I was again pleased to see the stoop, I hated my room, curtains open, light glaring on all my defiled belongings.
I stayed for the wake and burial, and thought it fitting that the day shot sleet down on us, Milton's last revenge.
That was a year ago. Then, last week while Mom carted the boys between detentions and practices, Pop took a call from a Mr. Hudson. It seemed that old Milton was quite a heartbreaker in his earlier days and was married to another woman whom he left for Aunt Gretch. How he didn't regret that move everyday of his life I will never know.
Pop filled me in on the Hudson situation when I called to tell my parents I would come by Saturday morning to finish cleaning out my room. After a year away, Mom and Pop were pushing me to move my things to make way for their office. I didn't ask what kind of work they might do in this office, given that Dad drove a dump truck and Mom answered phones for the insurance agency three blocks away.
When I asked him about Milt's first wife, Pop could only remember the cookies she made for him, marshmallows melted over Nilla wafers. My mouth watered at the sweetness, and in those brief seconds I mourned my loss of the first Mrs. Base as my great aunt far more than I ever lamented Gretch's death.
Dad reported that Milt's first wife, the considerably older sister of Mr. Hudson, kept Milton's name all this time, as well as pictures of him in her bedroom. To the surprise of her family, Mrs. Base's will required that she be buried beside her only husband Milton. The rest of my family marveled at the assumed hidden correspondence through the years, wondered where the secret letters were stashed, imagined furtive meetings for coffee and walks in a quiet park. For my part, I took it as a sign that they had not exchanged a single word since he left--otherwise Mrs. Base would have known the miserable man he was and wouldn't have shared even cold mud with him.
Pop explained to Mr. Hudson that not only had Uncle Milton remarried and was buried with his second wife, but that there was simply no more room in the cemetery. Without regret, Dad informed Mr. Hudson that even our family could not be with our aunt and uncle in our eternal and everlasting because the cemetery was full.
The following morning, adorned in Mom's yellow dishwashing gloves, I sat in my old room next to a half-full trash bag and shoeboxes of pictures and notes from some already forgotten high school friends. I was feeling dangerously nostalgic. While I read an old Bazooka gum joke, Mr. Hudson called again. I heard Pop greet him by name and then grunt "Okays" and "Hmms." As the conversation continued, I gathered Mr. Hudson was willing to pay for a new plot where both Uncle Milton and Mrs. Base could be buried side by side. Pop, normally entirely unaware of other's wishes, said, "Well Mr. Hudson, that's a fine offer, but I don't think Aunt Gretch would like to have her husband taken away." I thought this entirely untrue because Wretch's favorite demand was for Milton to "leave her in peace."
After several moments of silence, Pop asked, "All expenses?" Then a brief pause, followed by, "That is very generous Mr. Hudson. Very generous. If that would truly make your family happy, then I think we can make this happen." The men exchanged meeting times and good-byes. As Pop hung up, he began whistling a wandering tune. Whistling and walking down the hall, he paused his feet but not his song at my door, and then sauntered into my room, a rare occurrence.
"So you are letting them move Uncle Milt?"
"You don't think Mom will be mad?"
"Nope, they're my relatives. All I have to do is verify the ID numbers on the caskets tomorrow morning and sign the release. Hudson is filing all paperwork and paying all fees for the exhumation." He smiled, pleased with himself. He looked around my room, noting the missing posters from the wall, the sides of the mirror free of pictures and fortunes from cookies, and asked, "Do you want to go?"
I blame the smell of faded ink on folded paper, dried carnations capped with dust, and burned down candles. I said sure.
The next morning, with mist still rising in the cemetery surrounded by a decaying neighborhood, Pop and I finally met Mr. Hudson, a little, clean man, all business and propriety in dark suit and smoothed back hair. He checked his watch constantly. Behind him, the operator of the crane set the first casket onto a flat bed truck. Bold capital letters spelled out "Bosler Burial Vault Co." along the length of the bed. Released from the belts and chains, the casket sighed. It cut dark and sharp against the smeared day.
Dad and I walked to the headstone Milt and Gretch shared. Unsure if that too would be moved, I supposed I should ask, at least for Mom's benefit, but didn't. Mom, so consumed by my brothers' schooling--Scottie's violent high school career and Rob's pervish middle school stint--didn't have the energy to fight Mr. Hudson or Pop. Unable to face her own guilt at not having visited the gravesite since Milt's funeral, she chose to work the concession stand at Scottie's wrestling meet instead of coming with us.
I laid my fingers on the smooth top of the granite, feeling the cold deep in it. Uncle Milton's newly added date of death appeared charred compared to the weathered gray of the stone. The cramped hole that lay before it didn't look big enough even for a casket. Breathing unsteadily, I unzipped my coat to feel the cool air. Consumed by ditching this town, I couldn't imagine wanting to be buried in it.
We watched as the second casket began its ascent from the yawning hole. The cemetery director, who shouted to the man operating the crane, looked as unsettled as Mr. Hudson looked impatient. The director waved us over and explained that because of misfiled paperwork, the cemetery records were unclear about whether or not Uncle Milton was buried where he was supposed to be. The director would need to open the casket, and we would need to identify him.
Milton's lugee thwacked the side of the mixing bowl in my memory, and my knees gave slightly. Pop, the one who taught me to stand up when I fell down and to quit-crying-or-he-would-give-me-something-to-cry-about, felt my repulsion. Touching my shoulder, he told me to wait in the car, that he would be along in a few minutes. For the first time since childhood when I looked for Dad's praise for my capture of a squirrel, which he batted away because of its foaming mouth, I really stared into my Father's eyes. So surprised was I by the softness that lay there, I stayed.
The cemetery director signaled the crane operator to halt the path of the casket as it rose above the hole. Without the creaky sound effects I expected, the manager opened the casket. A whoosh of stale air slapped us. Uncle Milton, dressed in a dark jacket and tan pants too big for him, looked odd. I realized he was smiling. An expression so severely out of character for Milt, I let out one short burst of laughter. I slapped my hand over my mouth and kept my head down, not wanting to meet anyone's accusing eyes. I couldn't veer my stare from Uncle Milt. Caught in frozen hysterics, his jaw loomed wide, guffawing at death. His mouth beamed a berserk sneer. A slight breeze blew back a curtain of mist, and the casket, still suspended above the ground, gave the shortest of swings. The pulley groaned. The cradled coffin swung towards us, hiding Milt's face. Pop and I instinctively stepped back from the looming box. Like the pirate's boat ride at the carnival, the coffin paused at the crest, then lurched away from us. Eyes riveted, all of us watched the opposite sway reveal his face. At the peak of the swing, Uncle Milton's jaw fell off his face.
This time my father erupted with his own quick, hard laugh. As the slow motion pendulum swing continued, Uncle Milt's jaw hyper-extended into an absurd smirk. His false teeth nearly skipped from his face, now unhinged. My father stepped back; I followed. The cemetery manager had watched Milton too and immediately began a series of stammering explanations, including the tendency of tendons to slacken and decay so the face shifted, possibilities for reattaching Uncle Milton's jaw, and though he expected something like this, he apologized for not warning us, and then seemed to regret it hadn't been more gruesome. Mr. Hudson stood still, his feet locked to the ground.
Pop took a few more sidesteps, nodded to confirm that the body was in fact Milton Base, and waved to Mr. Hudson. Pop's words bulged out of his throat, "Best of luck to you Mr. Hudson. They're all yours now!" And with a kind of jubilance, we rushed to the car and to Pop's favorite bar, where he bought me a beer, and then a second and third, and with each fresh draught, we toasted to Uncle Milton's jaw.
Dad smiled, chucked a fist to my shoulder, and said, "Promise me. Promise me you'll never dig me up. No better yet--burn me. I don't want anyone seeing me all broken and falling apart. Have a big fire. A bonfire. Like at the football games. Sneak some booze in too. Get some flasks. I'll tell your Mom," he laughed, but stared directly at me. He was serious.
I nodded and swallowed the good ale. "Me too Dad. I want to go that way. All in a fire."
He raised his glass, "Ashes to ashes."
I clinked my mug against his. Dust to dust.
© 2005 by Heather Goodman.