The guy behind the counter of the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s department handed me a shoe box and said, ” Here you go, buddy. Here are your father’s remains.”
Begrudgingly, I took them, not excited in the least to be doing this. I blame it all on Ancestry.com. Two weeks earlier Clayton Redding Jorgenson had died destitute and alone in a tiny dented up Airstream at Green Valley Estates, a fancy name for a low rent trailer park in the Sonora Desert on the outskirts of Pyrite, Arizona. I hadn’t seen him in over forty years, not since he’d left me and my three younger sisters and my mom the day after Christmas in nineteen seventy-eight when I was nine.
A week ago Mom had gotten the call. Seems an overachieving intern working for the county coroner’s department had tracked down Clayton Jorgenson’s family. He called Mom and told her about what had happened to her long departed husband.
“Just about gave me a heart attack,” was how she explained it to me later when she asked me to come over.”I didn’t know what to do, so I called you.”
Thanks a lot mom, I thought sarcastically, but understood. His leaving so many years ago had drawn the family closer, and, me, being the oldest, was who Mom figured she could count on to talk about it. She was right. “I’ll be right over,” I told her.
We made ourselves comfortable with mugs of coffee in the kitchen of her tidy apartment in Long Lake, Minnesota, a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis. A warm summer breeze puffed through the window, ruffling the yellow print curtains Mom had made. She was handy that way.”What do you think we should do?” she asked.
It didn’t take but a moment for me to give her my two cents worth, “I think we should flush those damn ashes down the toilet.”
She frowned at my suggestion, being a way more forgiving person than me. “Sam! You don’t mean that.”
“What? You don’t want them sent home, do you?” I blurted out. Jesus, I thought to myself, that would be way too weird.
“No. No. Nothing like that,” Mom said, hesitating only a moment before answering, a pregnant pause that made me think maybe she really did want those pathetic ashes sent back to her. But, I was wrong, thankfully. “No. I just think we should do something nice with them.”
We? Nice? The guy had left my mother and four kids and never looked back. Not once.”Really?” I said, hoping I sounded as caustic as I felt. “I’m not sure he deserves anything nice,” I said, figure quoting around nice.”
“I know, Sam, I know you do,” she said, reaching out and taking my hand. “I just think he deserves something more than being flushed down the toilet.”
“Yeah, well, sorry about that,” I said, not feeling very sorry at all.
Mom continued like I hadn’t said anything, “Remember, I was married to him. I did love him, you know. I never remarried. I suppose I thought maybe someday he might even come back to me.”
Really? Come back? I never knew. Good lord, how sad could one story be? “Mom, look, I’ll tell you what. I’ll go out there and dispose of his ashes in a respectful manner. If I do that will you just try to forget about him and focus on living the rest of your life without pretending he might be coming back? Because, believe me, he’s not.” Mom was seventy-six and had been dealing with diabetes and a myriad of other health issues for the last ten years. Who knew how much longer she had to live? I leaned across the table and hugged her. “Please?”
She hugged me back. “I will, Sam. I’ll try. I really will.”
So that’s what brought me to Arizona and the sheriff’s department a week later. I took the shoe box after politely thanking everyone who came out of nowhere to stand around and watch the rather macabre transaction taking place. I even thanked the intern, a twenty something guy with hipster glasses and slicked back hair, wearing dark slacks and a white, short sleeve dress shirt with a skinny tie. He looked kind of like early Elvis Costello. Then I went outside into the one hundred and fifteen degree July sun, gasping for breath in the heat.
I drove out a few miles past the trailer park where he’d lived and turned onto a wash board county road, drove another mile and then parked. I was probably ten miles from Pyrite out in the middle of nowhere. I tried to picture what it must have been like to live in the desert like he had in a aluminum covered trailer the size of a child’s bedroom, baking in this kind of heat. What must his life had been like? All I could find out from the sheriff was that he lived by himself and worked as a cook in a diner at a truck stop off Interstate 40, fifteen miles away. He apparently didn’t have many friends, at least none the sheriff could find.
I was mad that I had to do this, but also surprised to find that I was a little sad that his life had turned out to be so…well, so sad. I didn’t kid myself; I could have done more research. I could have looked deeper into his life and found out more about him. I could have done something to get to know the man who planted the seeds in my mother that spawned me and my three sisters. I could have, but I didn’t. I’d moved on years ago. Did I resent him? Sure. Did he ruin my life. No. I wouldn’t let him. I had a wonderful wife, a good job and two great sons. I wouldn’t have changed a thing about how my life had played out. I didn’t need to know anything about him, nor did I want to.
I stepped out of the car into the blast furnace heat. He’d chosen to live in the desert and that’s where he’d spend eternity. I walked in about one hundred feet off the road to a lone spinney cactus. I looked around. I was completely by myself. A more desolate place in a land of desolate places I could not image. I opened the shoe box and took out the plastic bag that held his ashes. I undid the twist-tie and held the bag high, turning it to spill the contents out. As I was doing so, a fickle wind blew up and caught the ashes sending a cloud of them over me, covering me with his final remains. I couldn’t help it, I laughed out loud at the irony. My dad. It was the closest I’d ever been to him.
With his ashes finally scattered, I let a minute go by, listening to the wind and listening to the silence of the desert. Then I dusted myself off and headed back to my car. My father was gone. Finally. But his impact remained. Unfortunately. I needed to get home and spend some time with Mom and see what could be done about helping her to get on with the rest of her life; help her to see that now after all these years, out here in the wide open desert with the hot wind blowing, there was nothing left of him. He really and truly was gone for good.
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared in CafeLit, The Writers’ Cafe Magazine, A Million Ways, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet and Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review. You can also check out his blog to see more: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.