Flags and Ashes

By Jessica Standifird

            I’m here to pick up Dad. He is on a shelf behind the funeral director’s desk, surrounded by awards the funeral home has won. Brass etchings in stained wood: NFDA Pursuit of Excellence 2005, 2006, and 2007. Official Inductee to the Hall of Excellence 2008. Dad is in a plastic box, brown with a pebbled texture. I’m out of my skin, signing some kind of paperwork. Policy. Procedure. Business as usual.
            The funeral director sets the dadbox on his desk next to a framed picture of someone I can’t see. A wife, a kid, a stock photo of a family he pretends he’ll go home to tonight. He fluffs the papers I just signed and puts them in a file with my dad’s name on it, Richard Dale Finney, then slides Dad’s ashes to the left, next to the funeral director’s business cards. Paul Denfeld, the funeral director’s name is Paul. Dad and I are face to f… well, what’s left of him.
            The air-conditioner hums against the 113-degree heat outside, and the smell of Pine Sol runs under everything. You’d never guess we are surrounded by desert, empty lots of blackened volcanic rock and the occasional tan industrial building. In here it is all comfort and forced perfection. I lift the box and set it on my lap. I’m surprised by the weight of my dead father. The bottom of the box is cool on the tops of my thighs. My arms automatically tense to keep from dropping him.
            “Don’t forget this,” Paul the funeral director says. He flips his blond hair to the side with a casual wrench of his neck. His skin is starting to show signs of age. Sagging here and there, wrinkles settling into his forehead. He pushes another box toward me—a wooden, triangular box.
            Wait, has someone else died?
            “We took the liberty to frame it. We do for all our veterans,” Paul says.
            “What . . . I don’t understand, all our veterans? Oh, that’s right, Dad was a veteran,” I say.
            I’d forgotten.
            “Sorry, I’m a little tired,” I say.
            I hold onto Dad with my left hand, and pull the triangular frame toward me, stare into the glass hovering just above the folded flag.
            I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to touch it. He never talked about his time in the military, I don’t even know which branch he served in, just that he worked in telecommunications. I’m not even sure how I know that. I have the sense that he didn’t like the military.
            Dad gets heavier and I shift my legs to reposition him. The flag feels like an honor, but my father was not an honorable man.
            Paul sees my hesitation and offers me an out. ”Do you want me to carry it for you?”
            I nod my head and we walk outside. I wish my son, Chris, was here. He’d offered to come along but I didn’t want him to get upset. But he’s seventeen, a mature seventeen, he would have been fine. He would have been a comfort.
            Why did I feel I had to do this alone?
            “It’s the grey truck,” I say. I immediately feel stupid for saying it. It’s the only vehicle in the small lot, parked right in front of the door to the funeral home.
            Paul and I step off the curb to the Dodge Dakota that is mine now, but is still Dad’s in my head. I open the passenger door and set his ashes on the seat. I stare at the hole in the metal buckle and try to imagine the mechanics of how it works, sliding into its counterpart, clicking into place…do I buckle Dad in?
            Paul hands me the flag, and I have no choice anymore. I thank him, take the shadowbox from him, and place it on the seat next to the dadbox. I can’t stop staring at the flag. It looks so clean and bright against the fading grey of the truck’s interior.
            “Here’s my card. Call me if you have any questions,” Paul says.
            I can’t look away from the flag, so I just nod and curl my fingers around the card when he places it in my hand. I listen to his footsteps fade, the door to the funeral parlor whisper shut.
            It feels disrespectful to put the flag on the seat like this. It seems like it should be in a place of honor.
            Honor. My father called me fatty four-eyes and hit me with a belt from the time I was five, and by seventh grade he had moved on to fists. He molested me until I reported him to the police at fourteen. He was meanest when he was drunk and it was his alcoholism that finally killed him.
            The desert sun sinks into my back. None of this feels real. Dad being dead, burned and poured into this plastic box, the flag next to him like the awkward silence after a bad joke.
            I shut the door on the flag and get in the driver’s side. Climb into the seat worn smooth by his years as a delivery man. I don’t understand how I can be starting the truck, pulling out of the parking lot, and driving with Dad’s ashes in a truck still so thick with his life—the smell of cigarette smoke blowing through the vents, stacks of newspapers ruffling in the back, change in one cup holder rattling, a pair of his glasses in the other, rubber bands around the turn signal switch. So much of him surrounding me—  and then there’s that flag.

*~*

            We get back to his condo, and I heft him up the stairs, leave the flag for later. I run into his neighbor, Joan.
            She startles and asks, “Is that him?”
            She is leathered and dark in a neon green bathing suit, headed to the pool with her tight blond-grey curls and flip-flops.
            “I think so,” I say.
            She pats my shoulder with that head-tilted, bottom-lip-pushed-out, sympathetic look, “I’ll miss him. We used to sit on the deck in the mornings and drink our coffee, you know.”
            “Oh.”
            “We’d talk for hours. He was a good man.”
            The cartoon-colored striped beach towel falls from her arm to the floor of the balcony and it ruins the moment she was trying to have. I’m okay with that.
            She laughs an, “Oh!” and says good-bye.

*~*

            I move the flag from room to room. I set it on top of the bookshelf in the den, but it feels garish and out of place. So I try the office, look at it perched on top of my writing desk, but that’s not right, either. So, I tuck it away in a box, next to Dad’s ashes, deep at the back of the guest room closet, unsure where either of them belong.

*~*

            Chris and I are packing for our move to Portland and come across the flag and the dadbox. He is nineteen now and moving out on his own.
            I put the flag in my lap. It feels lighter than I think it should. The colors are faded from the thick layer of dust on the glass.
            “What’s that?” Chris asks.
            “It’s Grandpa’s flag, for being in the military,” I say.
            The walls in the room are blank, our lives slowly melting into the cardboard boxes scattered on the floor around us. I set the flag on the ground between us.
            “Grandpa was in the military?” he asks.
            “Yeah, I don’t know when or with what branch, though.”
            “Cool. I bet we could find out if we wanted to,” he says. There’s a pride in his eyes. Chris has been wanting to go into the military for a while now, and has a lot of respect for his friends who have enlisted.
            “I don’t know what to do with it,” I say. “Do you want it?”
            “Yeah,” he says.
            I lift the dadbox from its cardboard tomb. It also feels lighter than I remember. I set it on my lap, lean forward a bit, and wrap my arms around it.
            Chris picks up the flag and it settles into his hands.

 


Jessica Standifird is a writer and musician living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared most recently in Unchaste Anthology II, The Manifest Station, and is upcoming in Alchemy and the Ladybox Zine Trilogy. She is currently working on a memoir tentatively titled, A House Where Silence Is Failing. She also plays ukulele in the dark cabaret band, Bright & Shiny. You can find out more at jessicastandifird.com.

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