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What do you say to the dead who return to look you in the face? Not one of these zombie apocalypse scenarios, but just one dead person, someone you know. Could you bear the small talk? Maybe it’s a relative, your father for instance. Your deceased father now staring at you from across the kitchen table.  There is a full cup of coffee in front of him, but there is no steam rising from it. The spoon, the creamer, the jar of sugar all sit untouched in the center of the table. The little clock radio fastened to the bottom of one of the cabinets is not playing his favorite radio station, the greatest hits of the sixties and seventies. The room is silent except for an occasional car passing on the wet street outside and the sound of something sizzling on the stove where your stepmother is busy. She turns and sets a plate of white toast and two eggs-over-easy in front of him.

Dead and gone six months. You know this because you stood over his open casket in front of a room full of people you barely remember, touched his cold hand to make sure he was really dead, marveled at the pinkness of his cheeks, the strangeness of eye shadow, the unnaturalness of it all. You knew at any moment he would open his eyes, sit up in the satin-lined box, point a yellow finger at the room full of mourners and laugh. But he never did that. He just lay there, stubborn, on display between wreaths of white flowers, in silence except for that awful, angelic music and the occasional muffled cough or sniffle from somewhere behind you. You squeezed your wife’s hand, feeling her helpless gaze upon you. And the longer you stood over him, the angrier you got. Angry enough to make your vision blur. Angry enough to make you tremble. He’d always been a joker, but that shit wasn’t funny. You thought about grabbing a bunch of those white flowers and smashing them over his painted face. Enough already! But what if he still didn’t move? What then?

Six months after the funeral, you’ve returned, tasked with sorting through his personal items, picking out whatever you want to take back with you to Florida in the back of his beat-up work truck, which is your inheritance. You woke early this morning and went down to the basement to sort through a musty trunk of old letters and cracked photographs until your stepmother’s footfalls began to trace the length of the house above you.

The trunk was full of things he’d collected over the years and couldn’t bear to part with, for whatever reason. It was mostly evidence of the life he lived before you, when he was younger than you are now, none of it particularly valuable. There was a small Catholic hymnal with yellowed newspaper clippings about high school basketball games sandwiched between the red-edged pages. One featured a black and white photograph of him in mid air during a layup: skinny white legs and tall socks, biting his lower lip, hair tipped in sweat, eyes locked on the rim, an opponent’s outstretched arms, wide eyes and mouth emerging from the left edge of the frame. The heading: ST. PAT’S BEATS RIVAL WATERFORD IN STATE FINALS. Another article debunked a local mystery involving a rash of monster sightings in nearby woods. Investigators discovered a roughly humanoid plywood cutout wrapped in saggy burlap, painted black, with two round orange reflectors nailed to the head. It had been placed in various spots among the trees near County Line Road over the course of several weekends, appearing, at least in the headlights of passing nighttime motorists, as some sort of alien or Bigfoot creature with glowing eyes. Local teenagers were suspected.

There were letters and postcards, and military memos. There was a series of photos of an explosion: a skinny, brown mushroom of dust rising one frame at a time from a grassy field into a powder blue sky somewhere, presumably, in Southeast Asia. He’d been a demolitions guy, an experience that later landed him a gig working lights and pyrotechnics for a touring band in the States. The job didn’t last long. None of them did.     

Then there was the cardboard cigar box and its contents: three paper clips; a stubby carpenter’s pencil; a photograph of a woman holding a baby in a pink jumper; a child support enforcement letter from the State of Oklahoma on behalf of, you presume, the woman holding the baby; a matchbook from a bar in Amarillo, and a business card from a drug rehab place in Tacoma with a hand-written phone number on the back.

            Before coming upstairs, you unwrapped his army dress jacket from its plastic bag and even tried it on. It was surprisingly tight in the shoulders, and the sleeves left your wrists exposed. When you were a child, he was bigger than anything. And fast. He was a comet whooshing by. Blink and he’d be gone, maybe come around again in a couple of years. You told the kids at your birthday party once that your dad was a movie star. Remember that? He was out in Hollywood, shooting in some back lot, chasing bad guys, sliding over the hoods of cars, prop pistol in his hand, did all his own stunts—or maybe it was real. And for a while, even you believed it. You saw him on the ABC Sunday Night Movie. He was guest star on Kung Fu.

            But how small he looks this morning, sitting at the kitchen table. Not sick small, not frail. More the way he looked before the cancer went to work on him, but not larger-than-life: other than life. Not quite transparent. You’re fairly certain that you’d feel his flannel shirt on your fingertips if you reached out to touch him. But you won’t.

            You open your mouth to speak, but your stepmother cocks her head at you, holds a finger to her lips. Her eyes narrow, pleading: Don’t. You think of Anne Frank in the attic. That’s when you notice the odd quality of the light in the room. Soft. Fuzzy and dark around the edges, like a bad Sears portrait. It’s what your wife, the would-be photographer, would call vignetting. 

You pull out the chair directly across from him and sit. He sees you, studies you for a moment. Then he smiles. It’s the fascinated smile of an infant. There is no recognition in his eyes. You’re just something new. His memories are stowed in a trunk in the basement, growing mold. Disintegrating.

Now he’s staring at the cup of coffee and the plate of eggs and toast. His brow furrows in confusion or worry. Your stepmother grabs the salt and pepper from the center of the table and sets it next to his plate, but this only seems to confuse him further. He takes a deep breath and reaches out, his hand hovering for a moment before grabbing the pepper. He shakes coarse ground black pepper into the cold instant coffee and stirs it with a fork. Then he looks at you with only his eyes, searching for clues, or a hint, or maybe hoping to gauge his performance so far.

But there’s really nothing you can do except shake your head. And try not to blink.

 




      
Aaron Coder is a writer and educator living near St. Petersburg, Florida, and a graduate of the Program for Experienced Learners at Eckerd College where he majored in creative writing and humanities. He spends his free time fumbling with acoustic instruments, wandering the wilderness, getting outwitted by fish, being tolerated by his children (barely), and, once everyone else is finally asleep, reading and writing short stories and poems.



The death of a family member marks the end of a relationship, but there are pieces left behind. Some of these we understand, some we don’t. “Oddments” evokes a recurring dream I had after my father’s death from an aggressive form of cancer, and, though fictionalized, is an attempt to make sense of some of those things that were left behind.  

 


 




  


Copyright 2009