I’ve lost hold of time these days. It’s been four months since Pops passed, but the house looked nearly the same. Six years of peeled paint and tarred-over roof since the last time I saw it in person. Sis sent an occasional family photo, but the house was only a backdrop. I remember thinking how the people seemed smaller posed in the front yard. Now the house itself looked small as I stood in front of it.
I talked to Pops sometime last year, when Sis called to make sure I had my same number. She invited me home, and when I said no, put Pops on the phone. He was losing his landline and wanted me to have his new cell number.
“Just in case. You’re still part of this family,” Pops said before handing the phone back to his daughter.
“Could you add the charge to the auto-pay?” Sis asked. As if she knew what those last two words meant; like they weren’t as foreign as an ATM or computer.
Pops’ disability check paid for food, gas for the Oldsmobile, and his cheap cigarettes; the rest was covered with auto-pay. I opened a credit card in his name and had utility bills and such paid automatically. I couldn’t send money to Sis or she’d drink it away, and we had to keep Pops’ house going because he refused to live anywhere else. Sis had moved in and out twice since Mom died, preferring a ratty apartment to living with lectures. Still, each time she moved, Sis was in walking distance. Came by most every day to check on Pops, spent a few hours cooking, cleaning, or writing me letters.
I rarely read what Sis sent. The notes were always the same and every one ended with an invitation home. I would pull out the photo instead, hoping something had changed.
Then her letter arrived with my address penned with uncharacteristic boldness. The envelope was somehow crisper than usual, its adhesive purposeful. I read the details of Pops’ death and saved the photo for last. Pops had taken the picture of Sis and our longtime neighbor, Lottie. They were smoking and drinking coffee in Pops’ sad, piled-up kitchen. My eyes grew tired just looking at it. I wondered how long had it been since someone other than family sat in that room.
The next week, another envelope followed, this one from Lottie. My sister had told her where to write me. Sis died one week after the old man, as soon as she’d seen to family matters. Lottie said there was nothing for me to do but come home; the Dead Fund had paid for it all.
Four months later I was at Pops’ door, knocking, with full knowledge that no one would answer. It seemed like the polite thing to do after all this time. The hide-a-key was still there, stuck to the bottom of the iron boot-scraper, the magnetized box all but welded in place. Sis had her own key, so I couldn’t imagine the years since someone had removed the spare. The bottom of the boot-scraper was crusted with dirt, spider silk, and brittle pine needles, so thick I had to pound its heavy frame on the cement walk in front of the porch to dislodge it all.
The ancient hide-a-key shattered rather than release its magnetic hold, just like family. I had tried hard to stay broken from them, but obligation remained. In relentless lessons of self-reliance, Pops had given me the will to separate from everyone, especially family. Like a hard scab, it had taken four months to scratch past my childhood, down to my responsibilities. It was there, standing alone at the front door, when I realized blood had iron in it. And a magnet always pulled.
After all that fuss with the boot-scraper, the aluminum screen door was locked from the inside. This was the same screen door I had carefully clipped with tin snips, making a rectangle in the mesh so the mailman could shove junk mail and circulars directly to the slot in the front door. I crimped the bare rectangle with four neat strips of aluminum, covering all ragged ends of screen. I thought the door looked like it was originally built that way, but Pops took a level to it to show me it wasn’t square; he couldn’t let a project pass without reminding me how lousy I was with tools.
I kicked the dirt and debris into the dead grass and replaced the boot-scraper before trudging to the back of the house. One of the panes in the back door had been patched with cardboard and duct tape, so a key really wasn’t necessary to gain entry. Thanks to auto-pay, I was greeted by electric light and gas heat. The kitchen was pin-neat for once.
The memories of the house came with familiar smells: stale cigarettes, Pine-sol, and damp must. I had never seen these counters uncluttered and didn’t recognize the ancient wallpaper. Boxes had always been piled two-deep against the walls for the pieces and parts that Pops might someday need. He wasn’t like those TV hoarders—he scavenged with purpose, stacking each carton uniformly, like a cinder block against dependency. This fence kept out those sissy handymen who thought they could fix things better than Pops.
Sis must have spent the week before she died cleaning Pops’ house. Except for four months’ worth of envelopes and advertisements piled below the mail slot, there was not a speck of clutter. A layer of dust coated the furniture in the living room, and the ragged carpets were uncleaned, but there were very few signs that for 64 years a man had lived in this house; or, by the spotless porcelain surfaces in the bathroom, had died there.
Pops had taken to the tub instead of the emergency room. His decision to die alone didn’t surprise me as much as the place he went to do it. Except for this last time, Pops would take showers instead of baths. Baths are for sissies, he always said, for guys dumb enough to lay in their own sissy filth. He must have had those thoughts when he started to get cold and his only choice for warmth was hot water and to lever-up the bottom drain to fill the tub. By the time Sis got to him, the water was cold and colored like pink lemonade. Pops’ body was all the more wrinkled from the water, his clothes floating around his thin limbs. The drain at the top of the tub had done its job and kept the water from spilling over, but the hours of streaming faucet had faded the color of blood and urine to a bare tint.
Pops had been cutting a new pipe for the kitchen sink when the hacksaw blade snapped. From the rags and the catch basin by his TV chair, Sis figured he sat there a good long while before she found him and helped Pops to the bathroom.
Who knows how long Sis sat in Pops’ chair before she went next door for help.
We always knew what to do with the Dead Fund. When I was a kid, it was one of those family stories that always cropped up at Christmas. No matter how poor, the folks would have a nice present for Sis and me, then Mom would craft a wondrous meal from meager fixings, and Pops would dig the strongbox out from under his bed.
“When we’re gone,” he would say, thumbing through a rubber-banded stack of wrinkled bills, “use the money to pay the cemetery. We already got the plots and names on the headstone. There’s enough here to put in death dates, plus more to pay any remaining household bills.
“I don’t want to be beholding to no one.” He said it like a mantra.
The words must have resonated with Sis, because no matter how much she needed a drink or stretched a month of groceries, she never touched the Dead Fund—not until Pops was gone and she had ordered the years of death chiseled in, hers included. Sis had planned everything, even placing the note on Lottie’s front porch, letting the woman next door know what she’d find.
It must have been hard for Sis to ask for help from an outsider, even one as familiar as Lottie. If Pops had taught us anything, it was to rely solely on family. We’d heard it often enough for distrust to be inherited, a blood trait like bad eyesight or crooked teeth. For Sis it was a trap, baited with the other gospel Pops preached: go forth and multiply, add family, bring me grandbabies.
The presumptions that pushed me away pulled Sis apart. Pops’ house was the only place his daughter knew that wasn’t inhabited by strangers.
Call the police, the note to Lottie read, do not come over yourself. They found Sis in Pops’ tub; no water this time, only the straight razor.
Sis had told Lottie what to do afterwards, what to put in the strongbox. It was waiting for me in the refrigerator, next to a cold bottle of beer. I took both and placed them on the kitchen table. Twisting off the top, I took a long pull and set the bottle cap next to the plastic rooster napkin holder.
The strongbox was unlocked. The key was one of the things inside. A rubber band was there, hanging slack, circling two limp tens, all that was left of the Dead Fund. When I lifted out the bills, the other two objects were revealed: Pops’ straight razor and a Polaroid of the family headstone.
In the picture, black marble spread across four plots like a long, low headboard. On its top were the words THE KOWALSKI FAMILY, stretching the length in bold, white, perfectly-spaced letters. On the face of the headstone were three beloveds, the same adjective chiseled for each of father, mother, and sister. The fourth space read Samuel, Son.
I placed the photograph on the table in front of me and picked up Pops’ straight razor. Safety razors were for sissies, I remembered, hinging the blade in and out of its ivory handle. It was his father’s, my grandfather’s. The razor was Pops’ only link to the past, a treasured heirloom meant to be handed down to son or daughter, whoever first extended the lineage.
Sis found a better use for it and cut off one of the two remaining branches in the family tree.
The Polaroid drew me in again—four names on dark marble and one missing date. That space of stone was so black, laden with such vacancy, it begged to be filled. I could hear Sis asking me to come home again.
I flipped the photo over to bare white, the same color as the painted letters of my family headstone. I was alone for the first time in my life, with no one to return to, any place I’d ever been.
—DL Shirey has had several fiction and non-fiction pieces published, most recently in Unbound Octavo, The Literary Hatchet, and SaturdayNight Reader. He writes from Portland, Oregon, where it’s now raining, most likely.