Gregory J. Wolos
Section 1.0: Cremation and Waste Ethics
(1.1) In no way can human remains be treated as waste.
(1.2) Even so . . . the environmental impact of cremation must be minimized.
— The International Cremation Foundation Guide to Cremation Practice, p. 3
Gil, my neighbors’ German Shepherd, is a retired cadaver dog. The Nelsons got him through some connection with the state police. Gil is in his prime — he’s got thick muscles rippling under his glossy black and tan coat. I’m not privy to the career arc of cadaver dogs, so I don’t know if he was entitled to an early retirement or if he screwed up and got fired. When Gil frolics with the Nelson children on their front lawn, his jaws gape with barking I don’t hear — I’ve been deaf since the explosion at the crematorium two years ago. I’m sure you heard about it — the story hung in the national news for months. On mornings like this one when the two older Nelson children are at school, Gil lies on the family’s gated front porch, and his amber eyes melt over me.
Before the explosion that deafened and neutered me, I loaded deceased loved ones into a cremator and poured the ashes into urns. I also took care of the grounds. According to investigators, the ninety-three-year-old former physicist I’d slid into the cremator had packed his intestinal tract with plastic explosives and detonating chemicals. 2100 degrees Fahrenheit set them off. The force of the explosion blew me twenty feet through a window onto the lawn I’d mowed that morning. I woke from a month’s coma to find myself seared as smooth as a Ken doll between my knees and waist. A permanent forest fire now roars in my ears. My survival was hailed “a miracle.” The crematorium’s two other employees were trapped in the front office and burned to death.
The cremator operator is not legally responsible for checking the guts of ninety-three year olds for incendiaries, so I’m set for life, thanks to my settlement with the corporation that owns the crematorium. The corporation, in turn, lost their own suit against the hospital that released the physicist’s body without an autopsy. The ruling determined that there’s nothing suspicious about someone that old dropping dead. My ex-wife, Linda, was entitled to half of my award.
While he stares at me, Gil rests his muzzle on his forepaws, the tip of his nose poking between the railings of the Nelsons’ porch. Now and then his tail lifts and falls. Linda and I had been having trouble well before the explosion. Our three-year marriage had been a mistake from the start, she said. We’d met at a party, and she thought she’d overheard me say something witty, when really it had been somebody else. For years she’d quoted the joke: “Did you hear about the fire at the circus? The heat was intense!” and I’d taken credit for it. When she told me I’d grown morose and didn’t say funny things like I used to, I confessed that I’d never told the circus fire joke in the first place. We argued about things like whether or not to have kids, which is something couples should get straight before they marry. I didn’t see the point — if nothing else, the crematorium job I’d held since dropping out of college had taught me that all stories end with the same flammable page. Kids are no different than everyone else: potential ashes. Just add fire. Linda told me I have a “botoxed soul,” but refused to explain what she meant.
Linda is a real estate agent and coordinated with federal and local authorities to find me a home in this neighborhood. These agencies don’t know what to make of me. They don’t really think the explosion was a terrorist attack, and they don’t actually suspect that I had anything to do with the “percussive event,” but since the physicist’s motives have never been proven, I linger on their radar. The Nelsons’ house and mine are the only two homes on this cul-de-sac. The family knows I’m the guy from the crematorium explosion. They’ve received detailed information about me, and I have a written report about them: husband Ed, wife Nina, and the kids, whose names I’ve forgotten. I learned all about Gil from the report. The Nelsons have had him for a year. Everything has to be written down for me — I can’t read lips, and I don’t have the patience to learn signing.
I’m not about to ask anyone, but I wonder if Gil, before his retirement, sniffed over the scorched rubble of my crematorium. Did he help collect the bits of the physicist? Would he have confused the bodies lined up for incineration with those of the freshly killed — Nick the manager and Becca his secretary? Would he have caught wind of their not-so-secret affair? Maybe Gil pawed at the ashes of my genitals and filed away my scent in his memory.
I’ve read about my event on the internet. Blowing up a crematorium didn’t make sense to anyone. The terrorism talk flared up, then burned itself out. The forensic experts concluded that the physicist had swallowed the explosives the day before his death and that his clogged system triggered his heart attack. Circumstantial evidence suggests that he’d intended to self-detonate the following evening at a testimonial banquet given in his honor by the tech firm he’d been retired from for twenty-five years. The physicist’s seventy-year-old daughter said her father had been “looking forward to the event for months.”
“The reception was to have been attended by some of the nation’s most pre-eminent thinkers,” the director of the tech company said. “The loss would have been incalculable. And tragic.”
I’m no scientist, but on sleepless nights I pretend that I’d been invited to that testimonial. There’d be a phone call canceling the event — the guest of honor just passed away — heart attack — perhaps the impact of such excitement on an old man’s system should have been considered. Then another phone call — an explosion! — and sobering gossip among my fellow invitees regarding the physicist’s probable intentions. I would understand what it felt like to have a target lifted from my back that I never knew existed. I’d ponder the vicissitudes of fate and vow to take nothing in life for granted. When I get tired of pretending, I fondle the warm piss-bag strapped to my thigh and doze off to the purr of flames.
At first I protested splitting my settlement fifty-fifty with Linda. She threatened, only half-seriously, I think, to turn me in to the FBI. “I’ll tell them you always had suicidal thoughts,” she said. “I’ll tell them about your obsession with the ‘fire at the circus.’” She forgot the joke wasn’t mine.
The Nelsons know I’m deaf, but the implanted catheter tube that drains into my piss-bag is information I keep to myself. Ed, Nina, and the two older children wave at me aggressively when they see me. They open their mouths so wide they must be shouting. My voice punches through my sternum when I answer “Hello.” When the older boy and girl romp with the toddler, they mouth two syllables, so I think of him as “Eep-eep.” Nina Nelson’s bright red lips form the same syllables when she leaves the baby on the porch with Gil. Eep-eep spreads himself atop the lounging dog, his chin on Gil’s head. While I rock in my chair and try to read the paper, their gazes tighten around me like boa constrictors.
This spring morning the sky is a sharp blue. Nina Nelson exits her front door with Eep-eep on her hip. She’s holding a clipboard. When Gil rises to greet her, she says something to him, and he sits, tongue lolling. She steps off her porch, secures the gate, and crosses the grass between our houses. She’s studying her clipboard as if it’s a hand mirror. I don’t get many visitors: a weekly nurse to check my equipment; grocery deliveries; a lawn service.
Smiling, Nina Nelson mounts my porch steps. She has the same china-dish complexion and blue eyes as the baby she jostles. She hands me the clipboard, and mother and child look down at me like moon astronauts watching earthrise. The message is printed in italics:
We hope you’ve been getting on well. We speak often to Linda, and we’ve tried to give you time and space to adjust to your new home. We’d like to have you over for dinner soon. Maybe a backyard barbecue in the summer.
But today the Nelson family would like to ask you for a big, big favor. We’re supposed to leave in two days for Disney World — it’s the children’s April break, and they’ve never been. But last night our kennel called and informed us that they’re infested with fleas, and all pet-boarding reservations have been canceled.
I glance over at Gil, who’s panting at us from the Nelsons’ porch. When he sees me look at him, he lifts his head. Nina Nelson, guessing how far I’ve read, points at the dog, grins, and nods. I pick up where I left off:
We’re keeping our fingers crossed that you could care for Gil during our week at Disney. All the other kennels are full, and you’re our last hope. Our other friends are on vacation, too, or are allergic to dogs.
I peek up: Nina Nelson’s eyes are moist.
Gil will be easy to care for. He’s very obedient. We’ve measured out food for his breakfast and dinner. He only needs walks around the block in the morning, afternoon, and evening. He could stay in our house or in yours — we promise, he hasn’t had an accident since we’ve owned him! Attached is a list of phone numbers: ours, the vet’s, and the Disney hotel’s. Also a feeding schedule.
So what do you think?
I sneak another look at Gil, then hand the clipboard back to Nina Nelson. My thumb lifts from my fist and my head bobs: my body has agreed to the proposition before I’ve had time to think it over. My neighbor’s red lips stretch into a smile of relief.
“You need to enjoy vacations while you can,” I feel myself say, wondering how much my injuries have changed my voice. Nina Nelson nods gravely and pokes the clipboard toward Gil: she’s going to introduce us to one other. She starts to hand me Eep-eep before pulling him back and bounding with him from my porch back to her own to fetch the dog. The baby’s eyes rise and fall with his mother’s steps, but don’t release me.
Gil is staying at my house. It’s half the size of the Nelsons’. Both homes were built within the last decade. All of my interior surfaces — walls, floors, counters — are off-white. Everything seems laminated. Gil watches me connect a fresh piss-bag before I pull on my pajamas.
“Easier than a walk around the block,” I tell him. Gil’s also neutered, like all cadaver dogs. It helps them stay focused on dead bodies instead of females in heat. The first night of his visit, Gil abandoned his bed and jumped up on mine. When my mattress heaved, I kept my eyes closed as the big dog settled his bulk against the backs of my thighs. I hadn’t thought of marriage’s casual contact for a while.
The exploding physicist didn’t leave a suicide note. Nothing in his notebooks, nothing on his computer or in cyberspace. If a note had been in his pocket, the forensics experts who sifted the charred splatter of his entrails would have reassembled it. On the internet I find foggy pictures of the physicist as a young man. He holds a pipe and poses with famous scientists whose names are almost familiar. The same decade-old driver’s license photo of me turns up again and again. There are Facebook selfies of my crematorium boss and his secretary. When I scroll through these pictures, I’m reminded of photographs of my parents from their wedding album: slim and youthful, they blazed with promise. Both died gently, Mom in a hospice bed, Dad a year later, stretched out on his living room carpet where I found him, white and cold as marble.
Tonight I dream of the Nelsons at Disney World. Though I’ve never been there, it’s as easy to imagine as heaven: the family poses for pictures with Goofy and Mickey and Donald; they spin in tea cups and gawk at Cinderella’s castle; they float in jungle lagoons and point at mechanized elephants and crocodiles; they crow at the escapades of Caribbean pirates. In fact, Nina Nelson texts often. “We’re having fun!” she reports. “The weather is great! How’s Gil?” I’ve replied, “Great. Nice. He’s fine.” My dream follows the Nelsons to “It’s a Small World.” The exhibit’s theme song plays in an endless loop that out-roars the fire in my head and reminds me of Beethoven’s last words: “I shall hear in heaven.” The Nelsons and their fellow vacationers ride past frozen-faced animatronic children outfitted in international costumes. There’s an explosion: all heads, human and animated, jerk up. The sky falls in burning chunks. The hall fills with smoke. Fake children topple from their pedestals. A burst of flame illuminates the shrieking face of Nina Nelson. Limp Eep-eep dangles from her arms. Everything shudders as the walls of “It’s a Small World” implode. Then I’m outside, in the dark, watching from above. A cloud of glowing smoke blooms from the carnage and takes the shape of a gigantic, eyeless mouse head.
I wake to find Gil looming over me, his forepaws planted on my chest, compressing my diaphragm. “Gil — ” I grunt, and pat my piss-bag — it’s unpunctured. The dog sticks his cold nose in my ear, and I smell his fishy breath. Maybe he scented the Nelsons in my dream and wants to dig them out from under the plastic corpses of foreign children. Unless he’s after something deeper. My smartphone flashes on my night table, and I push Gil off — he’s as heavy as a boulder. There’s a fresh message from Nina Nelson: “Mickey-shaped pancakes for breakfast!” Sunlight streams through my bedroom window. Nine o’clock already? We’re an hour late for Gil’s walk.
This morning, Gil is uninterested in our usual route and strains at his leash toward every side street. He looks back at me with eager eyes, and I imagine his voice:
“Burr-nee — ” he begs. Bernie is the nickname my ex-wife gave me because of my job. I’m Ethan to the nurse who checks me for infections. She met Gil yesterday. “Nice doggy,” she wrote on the dry erase board I use for messages. She showed the note to Gil and bared her teeth in a laugh. The woman looks to be about as old as my mother was when I was in grade school — about the age I am now. She’s my second nurse. The first had long legs and wore a short skirt. She knew I was some kind of celebrity. She wrote me a note after checking my catheter: “Your wound is like what some of the boys back from Iraq have. But more exotic.” Her printing was childish and barely legible. “Exotic” might have been “erotic.” I emailed her supervisor and requested a different nurse “for personal reasons.”
My father was shot through the hand in Korea. He couldn’t make a fist after, but his clawed fingers were perfect for throwing a knuckleball. One flew over my glove once and smashed my nose. Is it south that Gil wants to go? All the way to Florida in search of the Nelsons?
“They’re fine,” I tell the dog. “I got a text message.” But he’s so insistent that I give in and follow his lead.
My next message from Nina Nelson is “Thunderstorms,” followed by a sad face made of a colon and parenthesis. Here, the sky is a spring blue so crisp it hurts to look at. Since I stopped resisting, Gil has settled into an easy trot.
“Florida is a long way off,” I say, and he flicks me a glance. We’re on a quiet suburban road. Only a few cars pass, but we encounter other pedestrians, some also with dogs. A round woman with an enthusiastic poodle makes a face both apologetic and accusatory and hoists her pet to her chest. At the next corner we meet an old man, coincidentally led by a German Shepherd. The old man’s dog is heavier and less handsome then Gil. We let our dogs touch noses. The guy twitches fingers at me as if he knows I’m deaf, and his hand reminds me of my father’s. The night Dad died alone in his house, he called me at two AM.
“I’m all backed up,” Dad whispered, as if he was sharing a secret. “I need Ex-lax.”
He wanted me to go out and buy him a laxative. No, he hadn’t called a doctor. Unless the woman next to me in bed was pretending to sleep, Dad’s call didn’t wake her — this was a few years before Linda.
“Everything’s closed,” I said.
“I’m going to blow up,” Dad whined.
I told him I’d be there by noon the next day.
Gil and I have walked a long way. Front lawns are greening. Yellow forsythia brighten some yards, and there are beds of daffodils in others. A few houses are decorated for Easter: cutouts of colored eggs are taped in windows and plastic ones hang from trees; an adult-sized, inflatable Easter Bunny lurks under the flaming blossoms of a crabapple tree. Soon I’ll need to replace my piss-bag. I always carry a spare. The road we’ve been on comes to an end at a park, and Gil pulls me onto the gravel path leading into it. Around us are monuments. A cemetery? It’s drawn my cadaver dog like a magnet. But I don’t see any headstones, and the monuments are actually plywood silhouettes of dogs about the size and shape of Gil. Maybe this is a pet cemetery. Gil pauses at a nearby cut-out dog, lifts his leg, and pisses on it. It looks like he’s marking his own shadow. As we move on, I remember what these dog silhouettes are for: they’re spread around the park to keep flocks of geese from shitting all over the green space. The crematorium manager found “Decoy Dogs” like these in a catalogue once and asked if we needed them for our grounds, but I told him geese were the least of our problems.
The park’s grassy fields end at a forested hill. Steel towers carry high-tension wires up and over its crest between pines and budding oaks. The path Gil and I follow connects to a grassy swath beneath the rising progression of towers. The trees would provide enough cover for me to switch in a new piss-bag. It occurs to me that Gil has honed in on the scent of something dead. Maybe behind the next tree, the next bench, the next dog silhouette, we’ll run into something horrible. Maybe a crow dropped whatever was left of my prick way out here. “Please, Gil,” I pray as we hurry forward, “don’t find a baby.”
If a cadaver dog had led forensic experts to the few ashes I left at the site of the explosion, might my little pile have been mistaken for more of the physicist’s remains? Maybe the experts would have found bits of a shopping list I’d had in my pocket and guessed it was the old man’s suicide note: “Bread . . . butter . . . bacon . . . beer.” Maybe they’re struggling even now to break the code.
Abruptly, Gil stops and sits, his nose in the air: he’s looking up at something. Hovering far overhead is an orange hot air balloon with a small black gondola. The balloon drifts through the cloudless sky toward the forested slope, and Gil lifts his rump and follows. The balloon seems to be descending, but perspective is difficult. I don’t know if it’s a full-sized balloon. The gondola looks empty.
After my nose stopped bleeding from Dad’s knuckleball, he washed me up and drove us to the Dairy Queen. We licked vanilla cones in the front seat of our station wagon and listened to a baseball game on the radio. I couldn’t taste the cone and resisted an urge to plunge my throbbing nose into it. We could see the car dealership next to the DQ through the windshield. Tethered to a new pickup truck was a miniature hot-air balloon, orange, with “BEST DEALS” printed across it. The balloon floated maybe a hundred feet over the dealership. It shifted in the breeze and looked like a fishing-line bobber on the surface of a lake. I’d never been fishing with Dad. He said there were no good places nearby. Through teary eyes I watched my father watching the balloon: he had tears in his eyes, too. God, he loved me.
My phone hums in my pocket — a message from Nina Nelson, no doubt. Maybe the storms have moved through Orlando, and the family has joined the others strolling down Disney World’s Main Street. I envision the crowd as a battalion of black cut-outs of moms and dads and children — human versions of the dogs Gil and I have passed through. But to my surprise the marching shadow families cast colorful reflections in the puddles I see them stepping over.
The phone stops buzzing. Gil sits again, and I almost stumble over him because I’m watching the orange balloon angle toward the wires and towers — it will miss them, at least on our side of the hill.
Sing along with the bouncing ball! That’s what jumps into my head when I see the balloon so close to the wires — from musical cartoons older than my parents I watched on Saturday mornings at sunrise. A ball hopped along the words to a song played by goofy animals, and I remember joining in, though I’m not sure I was old enough to read. The music led me. But now I wouldn’t hear the melody. It’s tough to imagine karaoke for the deaf.
The balloon is gone. I look down at Gil, and he’s squeezed his eyes shut. His ears lie back, and his jaws sip at the empty sky. Burr-nee, he howls — the sound buzzes through his leash into my palm like audio-Braille: Burr-nee!
If the balloon had fallen into the towers and wires on the other side of the hill, wouldn’t there have been a flash of light? At least some smoke rising over the crest? Gil spins me around with a lunge, and I almost lose my grip on his leash. He’s taking me home. We race over the gravel path and through the pack of shadow dogs. No chance to change my full piss-bag or answer my phone.
“Gil — ” I pant. Burr-nee, hums in my hand, then up through my wrist and arm to my shoulder. Whatever amount the Nelsons demand for this dog, I’ll pay. If my crematorium money can’t buy him for me, what good is it?
GREGORY WOLOS‘s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in A-Minor Magazine, JMWW, Yemassee, Post Road, The Los Angeles Review, PANK, The Baltimore Review, Mad Hatters’ Review, A cappella Zoo, Superstition Review, Jersey Devil Press (“What’s Yours Is Yours” a few years ago), and many other journals and anthologies, both online and print. His stories have earned two Pushcart Prize nominations and have won both the 2011 New South Writing Contest and the 2011 Gulf Stream Award for fiction. Two recent collections were named as finalists for the 2010 and 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. He lives and writes on the northern bank of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. For more information regarding publications and commendations visit: gregorywolos.com.