Anthony had always been bothered by the hills and valleys of the cemetery, had never been able to reconcile in his mind why the place was not one flat plane of grass. Intellectually, he understood that people were buried in a more crude manner in days gone by, that the earth collapsed around them as their coffins buckled under the weight (or disintegrated thanks to the appetites of the creepy crawlies their burials had displaced), but he wanted all of that reality to be undone. He wanted for it to not be so.
As he stood beneath the oak that shaded his mother’s grave, he looked out across the churchyard toward the small parking lot beyond its wrought iron fence, and he wondered where the boy could be. Anthony squinted. He’d left his glasses in the car, had never gotten used to the things and hated how they stuck to his skin when he sweat, which he was doing today in earnest. Two hands wrapped around the handle of his cane, he was swaying on the spot, and as the bottom of the cane sank ever so slightly into the warm and pliant dirt, Anthony wondered if he should have eaten before coming here. It was early, yes, but it was already a hot one at five in the morning, and the pills that should have drowned in his stomach already were instead wading around down there like children in a kiddie pool, with not enough room or water to do anything but splash and jump and splash some more.
Anthony refocused, casting his glance downward at his mother’s new marker. It was simple stone, a wedge of granite chiseled with the pertinent information and embellished only by an understated floral flourish at each of the four corners. Anthony smiled as he imagined his son’s reaction, as he imagined the boy’s unspoken disappointment that Anthony’s love for symmetry had won out again. He could almost see the boy’s sneer melting awkwardly into a frown, then the slight upward turn of the corners of his lips as he tried to placate his father with a smile he did not have in him.
‘A single corner would have been best,’ the boy would admit when pressed. ‘Or two corners, probably the top left and bottom right, if you had to.’
But where was the boy to say these things, to make Anthony delight in his son’s discomfort? Where was he?
A crunch and crackle of gravel announced the car’s arrival some ten minutes later. Anthony, now leaned up against the oak and dozing, blinked three times before his eyes were right again. And it was only after the third blink that he was sure it was the boy. Or, rather, that it was the boy’s car. For the boy had still not stepped out of it.
The flowers, thought Anthony. As long as he remembered the flowers.
But when the boy emerged from his jalopy, the creak of its rusted door hinges sending a flock flying from the trees overhead, he was empty-handed. He was empty-handed, and Anthony was not surprised. Anthony simply sighed and brushed a hand across the seat of his pants to tidy himself up. He didn’t think the oak had left any evidence of itself upon him, but he sure as shit didn’t want to look the part of the careless old man that his son took him for.
“The flowers?” said Anthony, once the boy was in earshot.
The boy stopped in his tracks, digging his hands into the pockets of his ratty cargo shorts, his shoulders slumping forward in the hooded sweatshirt it was too warm to be wearing.
“Too complicated a request?” said Anthony.
“I forgot,” said the boy, stepping forward, looking at the grave instead of at his father.
“So?” said Anthony. “What do you think?”
The boy sneered, then frowned, then mumbled just clearly enough that Anthony could decipher the garbled mess of syllables: “I think it’s dumb she had to wait this long for a stone.”
“It took a long time to find her,” said Anthony.
At this, the boy finally locked eyes with his father. “She’s buried right beside her parents, man.”
“But no one was sure,” said Anthony. “The church’s records were lost in a fire, and all the extended family remembered was an old yarn about her fighting with her father for a place in the family plot. Nobody could remember how it turned out.”
“Why not just dig her up then?”
“Statutes, limitations,” said Anthony, tapping the cane into the ground for emphasis on each pause. “They wanted signatures from every descendant of the big guy there in the back, in case something was disturbed during the exhumation that shouldn’t have been.”
“Whatever,” said the boy, turning away from Anthony again and refocusing on the stone.
They stared together for a moment before Anthony asked, “Too much embellishment?”
The boy shrugged, grunted.
“I wouldn’t ask,” said Anthony, “if I didn’t want your opinion.”
“You could’ve gone with one,” said the boy. “Or maybe two, maybe like diagonally across from each other.”
Anthony nodded, satisfied at how his prediction had played out. “I wonder what she thinks,” he said.
The boy scoffed. “She don’t think nothing, Dad. She’s dead. Her thinker’s been worm food for seventy-one years.”
“You know what I meant, Tony.”
The boy turned on the spot, waved a dismissive hand at Anthony, and started toward his car.
“Wait a minute,” said Anthony, hobbling along after his son as fast as his cane allowed. “Now wait just a goddamned minute.”
The boy laughed as he opened his car door, the rusty hinge sending another crack echoing across the yard. “Goddamned?” said the boy. “In a churchyard? What, is that like a dozen fucking Hail Marys or some such shit?”
“We’re not,” said Anthony, panting, leaning against the fence, “we’re not Catholic.”
“We,” said the boy, pointing a finger first at Anthony and then at himself, “are not anything. I don’t believe in your invisible friend in the sky.”
“You believed in your grandmother just now,” said Anthony.
“Just now when I talked about her rotten corpse?” said the boy.
“Before that,” said Anthony. “When you were on about how dumb it was that she waited this long for a stone.”
“I’m not having an argument with you!” shouted the boy.
And now it was Anthony’s turn to laugh, which he did.
The boy said nothing until his father had stopped. Then he spat, “Are we going to get some fucking flowers, or not?”
Cruising westbound on 28 in the early morning light, scanning both sides of the road for someplace that might sell flowers at this hour, Tony did his best to absorb his father’s jabs without retaliation; one well-placed comeback would be enough to clean the old man’s clock, after all. And so, Tony kept his eyes on the road and his ears on the low rumble of the exhaust pipe he could only put off fixing for a few days longer. He nodded every once in a while to let his father know he was listening, that some of the wisdom was getting through, but that was about it. Otherwise, he refused, in the parlance of his times, to put up his dukes and get down to it.
Or was that my time? he thought to himself. Pat Benatar? That was ’85, right? When you’re 8, is that your time?
Tony reached for the phone cradled on his dashboard, clicking and holding on the button beneath its touch screen, but before the robot in his phone could answer, his father slapped Tony’s hand away.
“Hey!” said Tony.
“You fiddle with that thing while you’re driving?”
“I fiddle with all sorts of things while I’m driving,” said Tony. “Some of them, I thought you’d rather not see.”
Tony reached for the phone again, and again his father slapped his hand away.
“I’m trying to figure something out,” said Tony.
“Figure out where to get us flowers,” said the old man.
“I’ve got a question that needs answering,” said Tony.
“And what?” said the old man. “Your phone’s going to answer it?”
“She might,” said Tony.
The old man laughed. “Our ancestors named their ships, I named my car, and you, you name your phone.”
“Can I ask her and get this over with?”
“You keep your hands on the wheel,” said the old man. “I’ll push the damned button.”
“Push and hold,” said Tony. “And be quiet.”
The old man did as he was told and the phone’s built-in robot chimed that she was ready to listen.
Tony asked her: “When did ’Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ come out?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Tony saw his father scowl, saw the old man about to speak, and so he held a finger to Dad’s lips to shush him.
The phone’s robot chimed again, then said, “Let me think about that.”
“Pat Benatar?” said Tony’s father. “You risk our lives for a question about Pat Benatar.”
“Okay,” said the robot. “Here’s what I found.”
Tony cast his gaze on the screen to see what the answer was, but before he could read what the robot had found, his father was yelling again.
“Eyes on the road,” said the old man. “I’ll read it!” And with that, dear old dad plucked the phone from its holster and held it so close to his face that the robot mistook his schnoz for a finger. The screen lit up, swapping black background for white.
“What did I do?” said the old man.
“You blew your nose with it,” said Tony, shaking his head and flipping on his directional.
“I was trying to read it,” said the old man as Tony pulled onto the shoulder and snatched the phone back.
Tony tried to figure out where his father’s beak had taken them, discerned that it was the detail page for Benatar’s song on Wikipedia, and scanned for the relevant information.
“1980!” he said a moment later. “Well, shit.”
“Shit what?” said the old man.
“When you’re three years old,” said Tony, “is that your time?”
The old man harrumphed the most harrumphed harrumph he had ever harrumphed.
“So no then?” said Tony with a satisfied chuckle, delighted he had gotten under his father’s skin.
“You’ve got it backwards,” said the old man, stone-faced. “Time doesn’t belong to you. You belong to time.”
What they found when they found someplace was a dilapidated convenience store, a pot of withered carnations squeezed in between its slushy machine and its soda fountain. The water in the pot was green, bordering on brown, as filthy as everything else in the godforsaken place.
As the boy filled an enormous plastic cup with diet cola from the fountain, he told Anthony, “There’s nothing here we can plant.”
Flustered, Anthony spat back, “We can’t plant anything!”
“Haven’t you been listening?” said Anthony. “We’re not allowed to put anything in the ground.”
“So, what, we’re just going to leave a bouquet?”
“Yes,” said Anthony.
“Who are we leaving it for?” asked the boy, fastening a lid to his veritable vat of soda.
Anthony did not dignify this with a response. Instead, he began to rifle through the carnations, looking anything that showed the slightest promise. A single unblemished blossom was all he was after now, anything pure at all.
The boy—and he was still a boy to Anthony, even if the hair sprouting from his ears and the thirty-seven years worth of canyons cut into his rocky face begged to differ—he had never learned to appreciate the unadulterated. Tony was the product of another time, Anthony supposed, but he knew that he himself was also to blame.
In his 40s by the time he’d decided to father a child—or, well, by the time one of his grad students fibbed about her birth control and decided for him—Anthony had always been too tired to truly be a parent. Or busy. And/or. Too busy to play ball and too tired to teach. Too tired from being a teacher. And didn’t that beat all?
At the checkout a few minutes later, the large woman ringing them out admonished the boy, told him he should show his father some more respect. And the dead.
“And you should stop eating all those Ho Hos,” said the boy, waiting for her to deposit their change in his open palm, “but we don’t all do what we should now, do we?”
Back at the gravesite, Tony sipped at his Big Gulp while his father bent a knee to set the flowers down. Despite himself, he did wonder what Old Lady Dorothy would think of the tribute they’d brought for her.
But then he shook his head, for she hadn’t lived long enough to be an old lady, had never really been a Dorothy — “she was a Dottie,” his father had told him — and, besides all that, it was ridiculous that he should be trying to imagine the reaction of someone who died thirty-three years before he had even set foot on the planet.
“Why do you shake your head like that?” asked the old man. “What thought are you trying to suffocate before it begins?”
“That’s a mixed metaphor,” he said.
“What’s a mixed metaphor?”
Tony sighed. “You don’t shake something to suffocate it,” he explained.
The old man grunted, stayed silent for a moment, and then, unable to help himself, said, “You’ll do whatever you can to kill something that makes you uncomfortable.”
“And why shouldn’t I?” said Tony, taking a knee himself and straightening the arrangement of the bouquet to his liking.
“Sometimes,” said the old man, grumbling as he stood up, “being uncomfortable pays dividends.”
Tony stood now too, his own knees cracking as he did. “Maybe,” he said. “Trouble is, I never understood what a dividend was, Dad. Never understood why I might want one.”
The old man looked as if he were about to speak, but then he stopped himself. Then he squinted and shook his head and Tony couldn’t help but smirk in reply.
“You’re busting my chops,” said the old man.
“I thought I was busting your balls,” said Tony. Then, after a moment, sensing that joviality might be the mood of the day, or at least the moment, he added, “Which do you think would hurt more?”
The old man laughed for a good long while, longer than Tony thought his lame joke deserved, but then something caught Dad’s eye and the old man sobered right up. He was staring at the tombstone again.
“She would have agreed with you,” said the old man.
“What?” said Tony.
“She always thought I overdid things,” said Dad, a tear in his eye and something catching in his throat. “She might’ve said it didn’t need any embellishment at all, just a good typeface and the right piece of rock.”
“Dad,” said Tony, touching his father’s shoulder gently, not sure if it was the right thing to do.
“You would’ve liked her,” said the old man. “She was like you. Full of sass, full of — ”
“Shit?” said Tony. “I’m pretty sure you’ve told me more than once that’s what I’m full of.”
“Spirit,” said the old man. “If you’ll forgive the religious connotation.”
Tony squeezed his father’s shoulder now, not caring whether it was right or not. “You need a hug, old man?” he asked.
It took a moment, but the old man nodded. Then he said, “Yes, I think that might be just the ticket.”
And so, Tony wrapped his arms around his father as they stood atop the dust and bones from whence they came, atop the dust where their bones too would soon remain.
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