I drove to the outskirts of town to an elaborate and overly showy funeral home that was set back from the road on a huge plot of immaculately landscaped lawn. At the end of the long driveway I parked under the carport out front.
There was a kid running a vacuum cleaner over the carpeting in the big chapel off the entryway. I saw him glance at me out of the corner of his eye the moment I came in the door, but he went right on with his noisy work for a full minute before finally shutting down the machine and acknowledging my presence.
I told him what I was there for and he gloomily trudged off down a hallway without so much as a word. He was probably thirty feet away when he turned and motioned to me with an irritating little flip of his hand. “This way,” he said.
I was trying to decide how old I thought the kid was. I guessed he was maybe in his early twenties, and was likely, I figured, an intern, or the undertaker’s son.
I remembered that I’d filled out some sort of paperwork regarding the particulars of cremation on the day I’d identified my grandfather’s body at the hospital, but the details were more than a little hazy. I do know that I hadn’t actually read much of the information they’d given me. I did, though, have a vague memory of being asked to choose from what seemed like a dizzying set of options and plans. I also knew that I’d chosen the least expensive option available.
The kid entered a little waiting room that almost looked like the receptionist’s area in a dentist’s office. He went around behind a counter, jerked a file from an open cabinet, and slapped a bunch of loose papers on the counter. As he hunched over them and filled in some of the blank lines, scribbling so aggressively that I could hear the scratch of the ballpoint pen, I said to him, “Did you have a nice Christmas?”
“Great,” he said without looking up. “At nine o’clock on Christmas morning I drove 30 miles alone and had to move the body of a 350-pound man from the second floor of the farmhouse where he lived with his mother. So, yeah, lovely day all around. Ho-ho-ho.” He then more or less shoved a pen at me and muttered, “The bottom line. On every page.”
While I signed the papers he skulked away through a pair of swinging doors that were made of smoked glass. When he returned a moment later he was carrying a small, plain, cardboard box. He flipped open one of the box flaps and tilted it in my direction. “The urn’s inside,” he said. “Plain, unfinished oak.” He then handed the box to me with no more care than with which someone might hand over your dry cleaning to you.
“How do you wanna pay for this?”
I shrugged. I certainly didn’t have enough cash on me, and the registered check my father had sent me was still sitting in my motel room. “Do you take credit cards?” The kid merely held out his hand.
He took my Visa and ran it through one of those old-fashioned contraptions that emboss the numbers on a waxy receipt with a bunch of carbon copies. His first two attempts were so aggressive that he shredded the receipt and had to start over. When he finally succeeded and shoved the thing across the counter for me to sign, I asked him who ran the place.
“I do,” he said. “I’m the manager.”
“So you’re a mortician?”
He shrugged insolently and said, “Call it whatever you want. I’m the manager.”
“I guess it never occurred to me that funeral parlors had managers,” I said.
“Learn something new every day,” he said without looking up from his paperwork.
I thanked him for his time and carried my grandfather’s ashes out to the car. I sat there under the carport, staring at that box on the floor of the passenger seat. Dean Martin was singing, “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” on the local radio station. I moved the box from the floor mat to the passenger seat, where I could keep my hand on it when I braked or went around a corner.
Santo was waiting outside my room when I pulled into the motel parking lot. I got out of the car and held out the box.
“Well, here he is.”
“That’s Charlie?” Santo said.
“That’s Charlie,” I said. “That’s my grandfather.”
Santo merely stared, and I put the box back on the front seat.
“I’m headed out of here,” I said. “I talked with Bob Porter, and everything’s square.”
He nodded, and stood there as I packed my bags, hauled them out to the car, and then went across the parking lot to drop off my room key.
“Did you have a nice visit?” the woman at the desk asked me.
“Very nice, thank you.”
“God bless you,” she said.
When I came out of the office Santo was still standing right where I had left him a moment earlier; he didn’t appear to have moved an inch.
“What will happen now?” he asked.
“It’s in Bob Porter’s hands. He has all the paperwork. I’d suggest you give him a call, but I’m pretty sure you’re going to make out all right.”
Santo nodded in the direction of the box in the front seat of the car.
“What will you do with Charlie?”
“I’ll take him,” he said.
I looked at him for a moment. He was such a tough, broken-looking man.
“That would be great.” I handed over the box and said, “What will you do with him?”
“I’ll keep him,” Santo said, tucking the box under his arm.
I wished him luck, shook his hand, and said goodbye.
“Will you be back?” he asked.
"You never know," I said. "I’ll be sure to drop you a line if I’m ever in the area. Maybe we can have a rematch on the golf course."
He smiled briefly, then nodded, turned away, and headed back across the parking lot.
As I drove away from the motel a moment later a light snow was beginning to fall. I looked at the dashboard clock and counted on my fingers: I’d be back in Chicago in just under five hours.
As I turned a corner onto Main Street and pulled up to the one stoplight in town, Kenny Rogers was on the radio, and I smiled, even as I had the oddly painless revelation that I had wasted my life.
I was waiting out the red light when Santo suddenly appeared on the opposite side of the street, and I watched as he shuffled down the sidewalk with my grandfather cradled in his arms.
Somebody behind me honked, or I think I would have sat there and watched him until he disappeared from view.