A Quarter Cup
by Molly Beach Murphy
Thanksgiving in Coastal Texas is always a gamble. Sometimes you need to bundle like a New England school kid, other afternoons roast above 90 degrees. And whatever you expect, it will be the opposite. It was on such a day, when I had dressed for Brooklyn and ended up with heatstroke, that my mother called my brother Matt and I into her room and pulled from the closet a breadbox sized plastic bin.
“It’s your father.,” she said.
The air got thick, the ghost had just walked in. Dad had died just a few months ago. Perhaps, I should have fallen to my knees in tears but I stared at that blank Container Store looking bin and had just one thought, “Gross.”
Mom broke the silence. “I want us to spread them today.”
Of all days. What had come over her? But I knew better than to ask a question like that.
“Maybe just out in the Gulf. I think he would like that.”
There was no plan for the spreading of the ashes because there was no plan for Dad to die. There was no plan for anything, each chaotic day was filled with decisions no one knew how to make. And after months of tax and funeral and estate business, we were running on fumes. So this suggestion sounded as good as any other.
“Aunt Janice wants some of his ashes.” my brother Matt said.
My stomach dropped. Dad hated Aunt Janice.
“She wants to put them at the cemetery near our grandparents.”
Dad and Janice had been involved financially in some investments that I knew nothing about, except that they had gone bad about 10 years ago and so did their relationship. And in a small town, you feel bad terms. You feel it in the grocery store and at the highschool football games. Everyone knows everyone’s business. Aunt Janice hadn’t come to see us when he died. Story goes that when she heard, she fell to her knees and sobbed and wailed and the whole family rushed to her. She was so distraught that no one in the family felt they could leave her. And so, no one came over. No one brought casseroles. That swarm of people you hear about swooping in after a death, it was nowhere to be found. What good is a big Catholic family if not in times like these? My Uncle called to say he could not leave Aunt Janice and he hoped I understood. All I understood was that I could not sleep, I had no idea what time it was, apparently I no longer had a father and there’s no fucking casserole.
Mom, ever the voice of reason, broke in, “We should give her some.”
“Are you serious?” I said.
“Your father does not care about his ashes. If we don’t give some to Janice, then we will have refused her her own brother’s ashes. And what will we do with that?”
She was right even though I wanted to slap her. “But- how do we do that?”
“I dunno- get a ziploc bag from the kitchen?”
We took the box up to the kitchen. Matt pulled out a sandwich bag.
“That’ll tear,” Mom said, “ Get a double layer freezer one.” Like this was some prized venison.
I whipped out the biggest baddest most industrial looking ziploc in the kitchen. And we all just stared at the box. No one wanting to open it. Everyone hoping someone else would be brave enough to do it.
My Dad always took on the unenviable tasks. Once a neighbor asked us to use our kayaks to help dump the remains of a newly dead beloved cat. Dad took the cat, who was wrapped tightly in a box, and kayaked out into the Gulf to bury it. When he got out there and dropped the box, it floated. It was taped too air tight. So Dad had to open the box, fill it with water, before it sank. What a neighbor.
With a heavy snap, I opened the box. Today I would be my father’s daughter.
“Measuring cup!” I barked like a surgeon for her scalpel.
Matt handed me the instrument.
I looked at the measuring cup. “This is a whole cup.”
“That’s too much. We hate her remember? Get a quarter cup.”
I took a deep breath. and I scooped. Grey dust, so fine a powder it created a cloud as the cup disturbed it. It could have been powdered sugar or flour or a beach on the moon.
What was this scoop, I wondered. His knees? His spleen? His penchant for gambling? Would this part of him mind being given to Aunt Janice in a double freezer ziploc?
With Aunt Janice’s scoop set aside, we trained our focus to the real task. What to do with the rest. We looked out the window of our little house on stilts. Out to the Gulf of Mexico.
“We will put him in the gulf,” Mom repeated, I assume to convince herself that it was a good idea. “Someone will take your father’s kayak out. He loved that kayak and he loved paddling out to visit the dolphins. I think it would be nice.”
It was true, Dad loved this two person banana yellow kayak. He’d won it in a poker hand, a point of obnoxious pride. Almost every morning just before sunrise, when the light is soft and the water still, he drug it down to the shore and out into the Gulf. On the rare occasions he convinced me to go with him, we’d paddle ferociously out. As the waves come in towards the shore you are supposed to speed up against them, the speed should launch you over the wave. Without proper power you will inevitably just wash back ashore even on the calm days. You topple over on the choppy ones.
I’ve never had any arm power so it was mostly Dad’s strength that got us out past the wave line and out in the calm, where there is just a gentle bob of water and the sun peeking out over the horizon.
It’s a full and peaceful quiet out there. I remember one morning we turned around to look at the shoreline. All the houses now small and far away.
“Everyone wants to live on the beach,” Dad said, “but then you come out here and your whole perspective changes. You wonder why people want to hang off the edge like that.”
My mother and brother and the black container store breadbox all trained their eyes on me.
“But I just scooped it!” I said. “You guys gotta do something.”
Mom and Matt averted their gaze. They had always been the shy ones. The introverts, The play by the rules, color in the lines, never answer the door ones.
We drug the yellow kayak down the rocky path to the beach. I carried the box. On this hot Thanksgiving afternoon the water was choppy. I hadn’t kayaked, or hell, done any athletic exertions in months. At the shore, I sit in the boat- warm water lapping at my butt,the box squeezed between my legs.. My brother hands me an oar and, like a dead Viking ruler, he and mom pushed me out to sea.
It’s hard to paddle with your father’s ashes in your lap. It’s cumbersome and unwieldy. I turned back to the shore to see my mom filming with a little old camcorder. Jesus.
Of note: cremation costs about $1100. Cheap as far as funerals go, but my god that’s a lot of money. I had a lot of money in my lap!
The waves were breaking big. I did what Dad had taught me, paddling hard directly into the wave with all I had. I made it over the wave, had just a split second to feel proud of myself before crashing down to the surface. Salt water up my nose in my eyes. But the box remained tight in my lap. I got out far- as far as my Dad would ever take me. My arms jello from the paddling, but it was finally calm. That full silence, that gentle bob. I opened the box.
I wish I could have cried. But I was too worried about falling out. I pulled the bag of dust out and lay it down over the side of the kayak.
Then it came.
The wind. Right in my direction. I knew my fate. This was the Big Lebowski. The ashes were going to blow right in my face and I would be a cliché. With a quick paddle to turn away from the wind and a lean over the side of the boat- the ashes started to fall into the gulf.
They made a sizzling sound, like a steak on a hot grill. Some chemical reaction to hitting the water. The ashes got all over the side of the boat and stuck there. Then when I tried to wipe them off they stuck to my hands. I looked at my palms- covered in my father’s ashes. In some primal instinct that I didn’t know I had, I wiped my palms on my face. The grit of the ashes rubbing down my cheeks like a rich person’s exfoliant.
And then he was gone. The powder drifted away from the boat. I splashed water on my face. Hoping that some microscopic piece would stay there, some tiny piece- a spleen, a knee, a penchant for gambling, on my face forever.
The only thing left was a small little quarter cup in a double freezer zip-loc baggy. Weeks later I would deliver this baggy to Aunt Janice. Parked in her driveway at the previously agreed upon time, the bag in my lap, I opened it one last time. A little puff of dust leapt into the air. I walked up to her doorway with the bag. There I found a note.
“Ran to the salon! Leave it in the mailbox!”
In a kayak, the going back is always much easier than the ride out. You just let the waves wash you in. But before I began to paddle I turned toward shore.
There they were.
Matt and Mom, with her camcorder, and all the houses hanging off the edge. So precarious looking. Sure to, at any moment, fall into the abyss.
Molly Beach Murphy is a playwright. Her work has been developed by New York Theater Workshop, Ars Nova, Williamstown Theatre Festival, New York Stage & Film, and Page 73 productions among others. Published works have appeared in the Santa Ana River Review and The Hairpin. You can find her online at www.mollybeachmurphy.com and on Twitter at @mollybeachmurph.