Gary was driving his van past the speed limit to make an appointment with an overflowing toilet. He swore when his cell phone rang.
“Hello,” he said, unaware that this call would change his life.
“Gary, it’s Phil.”
Gary noticed Phil’s voice cracking a bit, unlike his usual cocksure-older-brother-push-it-in-your-face tone.
“Hey Phil, what’s up.”
“When’s the last time you talked to Dad?” Phil asked.
“Saturday I unclogged his toilet.”
“Gary, I just found out, that … Dad … is … dead.” There was weeping on the line. Phil was crying. Gary swerved past a group of soccer moms’ SUVs parked outside a red-brick school and parked behind them.
“Whaaat? That’s impossible.”
“Apparently it is possible, because the medical examiner just called me,” Phil said. “They called me, in fucking California, when you’re living right next-door to him.“
“But what, Gary? Where were you?”
“This can’t be right.”
Gary put Phil’s call on hold and punched in his father’s number. It rang once and went to voice mail. Must be turned off, Gary thought, and switched back to his brother’s call. Phil hadn’t realized he’d been on hold because he was in mid-rant.
“ … and they didn’t find him until—”
“PHIL,” Gary shouted. He felt an icy, logical calm take possession of his brain, a complete detachment. This can’t be happening, he thought. Phil just kept talking.
“Celia and I are taking the first flight out there… She’s buying tickets on the internet because I’m too fucking upset to do it… oh, and the medical examiner is supposed to call you at three o’clock. He asked me to call you first and break the bad news… so you wouldn’t hear it from a stranger, like I did.”
Gary winced and looked at the clock on his cell. It was 2:57.
“Shit, Phil, I’d better end this call, it’s almost three.”
As he pushed the End Call button, Gary felt his hand shake. Maybe he wasn’t as calm as he’d thought.
He jumped as a few monster raindrops pelted the van windshield, suddenly, like gunshots. He looked out at the sea of vehicles parked around him. Every car had a young mother behind the steering wheel waiting for the kids to get out of school. Some of them were standing beside their cars, chatting, but suddenly dispersed in the rain, climbing back into the big cars. He reckoned he must be the only male parked here.
He couldn’t remember his dad ever picking them up from school. Mom always took care of that. Mom took care of most things when he and Phil were growing up. Dad went to work every morning; came home in the evening to eat dinner; then he went to bed after watching TV. Weekends he was out on the golf course. Dad was practically a stranger, and Gary’s recent reacquaintance with him had not been pleasant.
“Jesus,” Gary muttered. “Dad’s dead.”
His cell rang and he nearly dropped it. The clock read 2:59.
“Hello, yes, this is Gary Mitchell—”
“Hello, Gary. Where the fuck are you?”
Startled, Gary held the phone away and checked the caller ID.
Shit, he thought. It was the man with the overflowing toilet that he should have been fixing at this very minute.
“I’m sorry. Something came up—”
“I don’t care if it’s Christ’s second coming.” Gary heard running water in the background and a woman’s voice raised in anger. “The damn water valve’s broken and … Anyway, I called 24-Hour Plumbing and they’re on the way. Your prices may be low, but don’t think I’m ever calling you again—”
Gary pushed the End Call button, his hands shaking worse than before. It was exactly three o’clock. Rain was coursing down the windshield like the Mississippi River, and the school bell rang. It was loud enough for him to feel its vibration, and he watched all the moms around him turning ignition keys. Through the rain he could see all the kids exploding out of the school, happy to be free, unconcerned with the rain… A yellow school bus waiting in the school parking lot revved its engine and levered open its doors.
This time when his cell rang, Gary didn’t startle. He had a firm grip on it and answered in a level voice.
“Gary Mitchell here.”
“Yes, Mr. Mitchell, this is Ben Thompson, County Medical Examiner. By now you must’ve heard—”
A car horn blasted behind Gary and he glimpsed an angry mom in his side mirror. He rolled down the driver’s side window and gestured for her to drive around him. He continued gesturing at all the cars behind him. When he rolled down the window, a wall of after-school noise hit him: screaming kids, shouting moms, the uniformed crossing guard blowing a whistle. Christ.
He clutched the cell tight to his ear with a clammy hand. His arm gesturing out the window was getting soaked in the rain. He could barely hear what Mr. Thompson was saying.
“ …offer my condolences… Do you know where the City Morgue… If you could come down… arrangements to have the body…”
“What?” Gary shouted, pushing the phone practically inside his ear. “The morgue?”
“Yes, on South Whitcomb, near the railroad tracks—”
“I’m on my way,” he said.
Jerking his rain-soaked arm back inside the van, he studied his saturated sleeve and swore. The entire left side of his shirt was wringing wet from the open window. Now it was his turn to lose his patience with all the inert vehicles around him; he leaned on the horn and tried to bypass traffic until the crossing guard banged her fist on the van windshield.
“Emergency,” Gary yelled through his still-open window. The crossing guard studied his face and then waved him through the line of cars.
It didn’t take long to reach the morgue. Gary parked the van and walked down the dreary entrance hall in a daze.
Christ. Who ever thought I’d have business in the—
“Mr. Mitchell?” A heavy-set man in a tan suit intercepted him. “I spoke to you on the phone. My name’s Ben Thompson.”
Gary shook the man’s hand, then recoiled. Thompson must’ve noticed, because his grim smile faltered. He appeared to be studying the wet left side of Gary’s shirt with interest, but Gary offered no explanation. It seemed like too much effort.
“Come into my office,” Thompson said, opening the door and pulling Gary inside by the elbow. “Sit down,” he said, steering and planting Gary in a hard-back wooden chair in front of a desk. Gary noticed a white lab coat hanging on a coat tree, and a trashcan filled with discarded latex gloves and McDonald’s wrappers. The room stank of formaldehyde and fast food. Gary felt his gorge rise.
“Well,” Thompson said, heaving his bulk into a swivel chair behind his desk. The chair squealed in protest and Gary jumped.
“Are you all right?” Thompson asked him.
“Of course I’m not all right.” Gary gripped the arms of his uncomfortable chair.
Thompson cleared his throat and kept a hand over his mouth for a moment or two longer than necessary, his eyes on Gary.
“I have your father’s personal effects,” Thompson said.
When he rose from his chair, it squealed again. He pulled open a metal file cabinet drawer labeled H-M that also squealed, and withdrew a plastic package that he handed to Gary.
“Do you recognize these things?” Thompson asked.
Gary gripped the package with hands suddenly turned into claws. Through the plastic he saw his dad’s ancient wallet, beat to shit, and a familiar keychain. Gary noted that the plastic package resembled the Seal-a-Meal dinners his mom used to prepare for freezing.
“Mr. Mitchell …” Thompson prompted.
Finally regaining control of the bones in his fingers, Gary turned the plastic-wrapped wallet and keys over in his hands. There was Dad’s unlimited movie pass. Dad liked movies. He rode the bus out to the theater and didn’t even have to get his car out of the garage.
“These are my dad’s things,” Gary said.
“Mr. Mitchell, are… you… all… right?”
Thompson appeared to be eyeing him like a specimen on a microscope slide.
“Can I see the… I mean, my dad?” Gary asked.
Thompson coughed, shut the squealing file cabinet drawer, and sat back down in his squealing chair.
“I’m afraid the body is not suitable for viewing.”
“What do you mean?”
Thompson frowned. “The body was unattended for five days.”
Gary felt light-headed. Bright lights popped like fireworks in front of Thompson’s face.
Jesus, am I going to faint? Gary wondered. He could picture his dad dying in his sleep, the body lying in bed for five days until that nosy neighbor smelled something and called the cops.
“Thank you,” he told Thompson. “I should probably go—”
Gary started to stand but Thompson motioned him to remain seated.
“You need to contact a funeral home as soon as possible and have your father’s body removed from the morgue,” Thompson said. He produced a sheet of paper and handed it to Gary. “This is a list funeral homes, with the most reasonable ones listed first.”
Gary was blanking out, clutching the plastic bag with his dad’s wallet and keys, but he managed to accept the sheet of paper.
“So,” Thompson said. “For the record. When is the last time that you saw your father alive?”
“Saturday I unclogged his toilet.”
Thompson’s forehead wrinkled. “Your brother told me that you live next-door to your father.” His chair squealed. He took up a pen on his desk and started taking notes on a pad. “We called your brother because we found his name and phone number on a piece of paper in your father’s wallet.”
Gary shifted in his narrow wooden chair, thinking it reminiscent of an electric chair but probably not as comfortable.
“Your father died of a massive coronary. I don’t think there was much suffering.”
Gary nodded. He laid the plastic bag and piece of paper on his lap and hooked his fingers around the chair legs to steady himself.
“Did you know about your father’s heart condition?” Thompson asked.
“No, no,” Gary shook his head. “I doubt if Dad knew about it himself. He never went to the doctor. Ever.”
Thompson scribbled something on his notepad and Gary felt two streams of perspiration dribble down his sides. His wet shirt was beginning to feel cold against his skin. He wondered if he were legally responsible for his dad’s death… manslaughter? Oh God.
At length, Thompson looked up from his writing and stared directly into Gary’s eyes.
“So you weren’t living near your father because of his bad health, then?”
Gary shook his head.
“No. I’d just gone through a divorce and lost almost everything in the settlement. Dad offered to let me live rent-free in half of his duplex and I was desperate.”
I sound like the son from hell, Gary thought. Thank God I never had any kids.
“And you hadn’t seen your father since Saturday?” Thompson probed.
“No. I… I’d been spending the night at my girlfriend’s place. In fact, I was thinking of moving in with her—”
Gary paused to take a deep breath. His heart was pounding. Christ!
Yes, he had been sleeping with the new girlfriend, Rachel. He’d met her on a service call, when he’d pulled a half-mile of her long blonde hair out of a shower drain.
“Your mother is deceased?” Thompson asked.
“Yeah.” Gary cleared his throat. “Mom died of cancer. Dad sold the house and moved into a duplex. He wanted to rent the other half, but couldn’t find a tenant.”
Little wonder he couldn’t find a tenant, Gary thought. The old man was hard to look at, and even harder to live with. Instead of charging rent, Dad had asked him to perform menial household tasks—Clean my fridge. Wash my car. Take out the garbage—and never said thanks for any of it, never even smiled. He just sat in his chair supervising Gary like he was still ten years old. When Rachel invited Gary to move into her place, he felt like he’d been granted a reprieve from prison.
Gary sucked in his breath. Did Dad ask me to do all those things because he was too sick to do them himself? Maybe he wasn’t thinking too clearly with a bad ticker. Maybe his bad heart made the old man irritable and ungrateful—
Gary groaned and Thompson stared at him.
“I think we’re almost done here.”
Gary nodded and the plastic bag slid off his lap, wooshed across the slick linoleum floor and stopped under Thompson’s desk. Thompson rose from his squealing chair and retrieved the bag on hands and knees, striking his head on the desk as he rose.
Rubbing his head with one hand, he extended the bag to Gary with the other.
“Thank you for your time,” Thompson said. He didn’t sound grateful, though. His eyes were cold and accusing. “When your brother gets here, please offer him my condolences.”
“Sure,” Gary mumbled. The look in Thompson’s eyes had changed to one of, disgust?
What the hell. Without shaking Thompson’s proffered hand, Gary turned and left.
Shuffling out of the building and outside into the now-sunny afternoon, Gary crossed the street to his van, which he’d left unlocked, my God, and tossed the plastic bag and paper onto the passenger seat. He started to slide into the driver’s seat when he remembered passing a bar on the corner. Opening the van’s rear doors, he changed out of his sweaty rain-soaked shirt, kneeling in the back of the van. He had lots of clothes back there, since he’d been living in transit, mostly at Rachel’s place.
Brushing his hair and tucking in shirttails, Gary crawled backwards out of the van and locked it up.
Can’t believe I left the doors open, Jesus Christ. Damn lucky there’s anything left, and that’s all I need, to lose more money—
Walking toward the bar, Gary felt a blessed sense of normalcy return. He supposed he’d better enjoy himself as much as possible before Phil arrived with his sister-in-law Celia who gave him hell even when he was on his best behavior.
It occurred to him, then, that things were looking up. The medical examiner hadn’t threatened to call the cops. He was off the hook.
Dad had been miserable without Mom to wait on him and, forgive me God for thinking this, but maybe he was better off dead. There would be an inheritance. He and Phil could sell the duplex and split the money. After that, he and Phil could go their separate ways. Dad had been their only connection, and Celia could go to hell.
After the funeral I’ll take Rachel to Mexico, maybe Hawaii, somewhere with a beach.
As he pulled open the barroom door he smelled stale beer and sweat—that mixture of odors hanging around every bar he’d ever encountered.
Sunlight had been banished from the bar: the windows had blackout curtains. The gloom was saturated with cigarette stink lingering from before the smoking ban. The bartender looked ancient, wearing an outdated tie, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. A toothpick protruded from his lips and a stained dishtowel rested on his shoulder. The place was dead silent and dust motes danced over empty tables.
“What can I get you, mister?” the bartender asked.
“I’ll have a Heineken.”
Gary had planned to order something stronger, but now he didn’t seem to need it.
He was the only customer.
He sat on a stool and glanced at a silvered mirror behind the bar, thinking for a scary moment that he saw his dad’s reflection there. Sweet Jesus.
Gary’s cell rang, but he switched it off. Who did he feel like talking to? Nobody.
The bartender set a bottle of Heinie in front of Gary. “That’ll be three bucks.”
Gary gave the bartender a fiver and told him to keep the change.
“Hey, thanks,” the bartender said. “Mind if I turn on the TV? I like to catch the early news before the evening rush.”
Gary nodded and gulped his beer: There was something about that first swallow that sent him straight to Paradise. As he savored the moment, closed his eyes and felt his bones start to melt into the barstool, he heard the TV whine into life. He glanced up at a big screen that reduced the newscasters into gigantic pixels that his eyes struggled to assemble. He felt a shaky smile lift the corners of his mouth and knew he was beginning to relax, though his mind strayed back to the crisis at hand.
I don’t miss Dad. I don’t miss him at all. How am I going to cry at the funeral?
The early local news was co-anchored by a boy-girl team, and Gary watched them routinely only to see the girl. She was smiling at him now in the gloomy bar.
“Well, Bob,” the girl teased her co-anchor. “I’ve got a question for you. How often do you think they clean the bathrooms in the Cineplex on Pine Drive? What do you think?”
Bob scratched his chin. “I hope they clean them once a day. Isn’t there a law about that?”
Karen looked smug. “Apparently not.”
The camera zoomed in on her face, splitting it into a mass of disconnected bits on the big screen. Her voice richocheted around the bar like thunder:
“This morning the Cineplex manager had to break down the door of a handicapped bathroom because something didn’t smell too good in there. And—” Karen grew more serious, “He discovered the body of an elderly man that had lain there for five days without being discovered.”
The bartender glanced over his shoulder at Gary.
“Can you believe that?” he asked, shaking his head. “Poor old man must’ve gone to the movies by himself—I mean, he must’ve been alone for nobody to look for him… and then, his family doesn’t even check up on him for five days… a helpless old guy like that. His family oughta be shot.”
Saturday I unclogged his toilet, Gary thought.
Dawn Lowe asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
This fiction was inspired by a true story: http://nydn.us/1M5KU4D