I was carrying my father’s ashes to their final resting place when I tripped and fell. The one thing my father had asked was to have his ashes spread over the waters of that canal. Now a light breeze was carrying them as far as the nearest ailanthus.
I warned an approaching neighbor, “My father. Please watch where you’re going.” This neighbor, a car salesman with whom my father had argued, put out a hand. After a moment, I let him haul me to my feet. While I watched, he knelt carefully on one knee, took up a leaf, and began scooping ashes into my urn.
I told him angrily, “It’s not your family.”
“Can I help you?” asked a third party. She wore a red velvet dress and party shoes. In fact, she was the beautiful woman whom my father, watching from our window, nicknamed Carmen. That Carmen isn’t anything like your mother, he’d say.
By now, my father’s ashes were drifting helplessly into the street.
A car pulled over and three guys also from the neighborhood looked out. “Can we help yous?” These guys spent all their time driving around. My father called them those good-for-nothing greasers. An immigrant, he was proud to use slang. With my mother gone, he could use it all he wanted. He could get drunk and talk about people all he wanted.
“‘You,'” the beautiful woman emended. “I can’t help it,” she explained, “I’m a schoolteacher.”
“You ain’t a nun, are you?” one of the guys asked.
“Goodness, no, I teach public school.”
“How do you do? I’m Moe. This is Larry and Jonathan.”
Soon, Moe was waving his big arms for cars to stop while Larry and Jonathan were gathering my father’s ashes with their baseball caps.
“He was a good man,” the car salesman abruptly said.
“No. Yes,” I agreed.
“He was a man of his times,” the schoolteacher suggested.
“I think he helped me get my car out once,” Moe said. “You remember that blizzard, teacher?”
We all nodded our heads, remembering the winter that refused to end, the April snow shower that turned into blizzard after blizzard. There were ashes then too, but they were scattered across the snow so we wouldn’t fall. I suspected Moe of misremembering. Probably he had helped shovel out my father’s car, an old Buick hardly worth the trouble it had caused.
“Here’s a bit,” said a newcomer and flicked ash onto a sheet of newspaper.
“He asked that his ashes be dumped in the Gowanus,” I told them all. I put the lid back on the urn very carefully.
The woman in the red dress adjusted her sateen shoulder strap. The car salesman began dusting off his knees, then stopped. Little bits of my father could very well have been clinging there.
“When I was a kid in nun school,” Larry said, “they taught us how the air we breathe, it’s the same air Jesus breathed. It gets recycled.”
“No wonder you have bad breath,” Jonathan told him.
“I tell you what,” Moe suggested, eyeing the schoolteacher, “we’ll escort you.”
“Unfortunately I’m late for an appointment,” the car salesman man said. He dusted off his knees again. I wondered if he was secretly glad about my father, who had never forgiven him for selling us that lemon.
I felt more comfortable talking about my father once the salesman had departed. “My father never asked for hand-outs,” I said. “He came to this country a young man, with a stolen passport. He often thought people were cheating him. He had no friends, except my mother.”
They all looked so sad. I shook my head. Larry whacked me in a nice way across the shoulder blades. “Hey!” I said because the urn almost slid again from my hands.
“Friends,” the woman sighed and shrugged. Her black hair bounced.
“You look nice in that dress,” Moe told her.
“Yes, but all people see is my physical beauty.”
“Shall we?” I asked, because I could feel the rites of life impinging on the rites of death. I wanted to tell them all something more about my father, but all I could think of was, after my mother left, my father shopped. The more he drank, the less he ate, but nonetheless, he filled his shopping cart with snacks he’d thought I wanted: oatmeal cookies, bars of bittersweet chocolate, Dutch-apple flavored yogurt. He would drag the shopping bags into his gloomy bedroom and peer over every item on his receipt. He hated being tricked.
We walked on, a short cortege. People streamed out of the subway past the man who croons into his paper cup, “Girl, you must have been a rainbow.” Another man stood nodding. The neighborhood has changed, more young people moved in, people with money, but this listening man will still watch your tied-up dog for a quarter.
For a brief while, my father worked at the veterinarian’s clinic. He was the man who took the dogs away when they needed shots and brought them back the next day, or not at all. He cleaned their cages and made sure they were comfortable when they woke up, if they woke up.
My father had always wanted me to succeed. I should go to school, become a veterinarian, be what he would have been, had things happened differently. I felt in him the lack of responsibility for his own behavior. I wondered how many animals he’d had personally put to sleep.
“I think I remember your father too,” the woman in red said abruptly. We were walking down Smith Street toward Second Avenue by now. “One day, when I couldn’t get my car out, he stopped to help me too. This was a long time ago, though.”
“He was the guy who talked to the guy who watches dogs, right?” That was Moe.
I nodded. In fact, my father had stopped to talk with the dogs, some of whom he’d met in his brief professional life. He called the dogs’ owners putzes and losers. He called our neighbor, the salesman, that slimy bastard, because he’d sold us the Buick. It was because of that car my mother left us.
We’d reached Second Avenue and gone beyond, toward the bank of the canal. A garden, renowned for its red roses, had once prospered there in the days when they called it Gowanus Creek Canal, and fish swam into it from the sea. Unlike my father’s Buick, we knew, a subterranean propeller, like some mythical underwater beast, had recently come back to life. The canal water now flowed constantly, but its sediment still contained poisonous waste. It still shone a strange shade of pink.
Nonetheless, all along the near bank, people were toiling to replant the once-famous garden. Even at this late hour, they pricked garbage onto long spears and then rattled them over plastic garbage bags. Others were also building a new fence to discourage littering. There were, I saw, many used condoms on the ground. They reminded me of my earliest childhood, when the secret of the bright circles had not yet been revealed. My mother had not yet threatened to leave him. She still believed he would stop accusing people and find a job.
I explained what my father wanted but the gardeners frowned. “Do you know how much garbage gets thrown in here?” they demanded. “Not to mention, raw sewage, all these years after we brought the matter to the city’s attention. The mayor just doesn’t care.” They shook their spears.
“My father never asked for anything,” I told them. “He liked animals better than people. I was unkind after my mother left. Perhaps you knew her. She used to love this place. She wanted the garden restored. But she didn’t like when people came here to do private things. She wasn’t understanding when it came to youth.”
“Youth,” the woman in the red dress said. She stood to one side, looking beautiful.
“I tell you what,” the gardeners said finally. “You can throw in his ashes, but we won’t watch.”
“Thank you,” I said but they’d already turned their backs. My neighbors and I walked carefully around the newly tilled soil and low signs that read the names of plants and flowers and the dates of their planting. A shock of yellow iris brought me up short. “Were these growing here already or-”
“A miracle,” someone joked. It was Moe, trying to get the woman in the red dress to smile.
“We thought they would look nice,” someone else explained without turning around. “We bought them at the Korean deli.”
I saw that the irises were actually cut flowers in aluminum-foil “pots.”
The sun was setting. I’d promised to scatter his ashes within twenty-four hours of his cremation. Dying, he’d glared into my face as if daring me to break my word. He’d never wanted to talk about his childhood. If I was so curious, I could write to his sister in Jerusalem and she could tell me lies, lots of lies.
Farther north, toward First Street, a houseboat and another houseboat were moored. I had last stood here with my mother, the day before she left. The air tasted like snow.
A nearby sign said, once the Gowanus Creek was home to many species of birds and fish. Then the Creek became a canal. Brownstone, transported on barges from New Jersey, was used to build the nicer neighborhoods, such as Park Slope and Cobble Hill. Lumber, fuel, and cleaning products were manufactured and transported along these banks. A tannery stood at the very spot, across the flowing water with its currently poisonous sludge, where I stood gazing.
My mother had helped to make that sign. She had worked hard to disseminate such facts about the canal and had once talked my father into boating down it. The rides, funded by volunteer organizations and the Borough of Brooklyn, were free. My father wouldn’t let me come but I could watch them shove off. They sat a little apart, their heads turned like tulips on the stems of their necks, away from each other.
The day she left us, my father decided to get his money back. My father said that lousy Buick didn’t work the day we got it. “Oil,” the car salesman said. He smiled at my mother in a way I didn’t like. Adele, he called her.
What, what oil? my father shouted, you can’t fool me, Mister, this is America, a car runs on gasoline. Gas-o-line.
Snow fell. My mother climbed in the car and began honking. Then the windshield wipers got started. She looked crazy as a bed, my father shouted. “Bedbug,” I told him later, crazy as a bedbug. But by then, she had handed him the car keys.
I’m sorry, Dellie, the salesman said.
You, my father said. He swung his fist, but it was snowing; he fell to his knees.
* * *
“I know a prayer,” Larry said suddenly and cleared his throat.
I didn’t have the heart to explain about my father’s Jewish atheism. It didn’t matter, anyhow; Larry opened his mouth and shut it. He shook his head like he had water in his ears. Moe stood gazing into the canal, as if our futures lay in its not-very-profound depths or perhaps in the beautiful woman’s vanishing reflection. The gardeners were getting restless. They had soil to mulch and flowers to weed. They had to attend a planning meeting and wouldn’t get to go home and wash off until past dark. I opened the urn.
I didn’t meditate on my father’s life as his ashes fell into the water. Instead, I felt the confines of my own life, like the narrowness of that canal. My mind swirled and eddied and flowed on to a place like a sandbar. Perhaps Moe, Larry, and Jonathan would ride around as before; perhaps the teacher in the red dress would grow old. Or perhaps something unexpected, wonderful, would happen.
Wind stirred the reeds on the opposite bank. My father’s ashes lay on the surface for a while, then, flowing south, quickly began to sink. The gardeners had begun again to labor when the beautiful woman and the three guys and I turned west, toward where the sun sets, and began our own brief journeys home.
Beth Bosworth‘s work has appeared or will appear in Seneca Review, Hanging Loose, The Forward, Image, Bridge Magazine, Calyx, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of A Burden of Earth and Other Stories (Hanging Loose, 1995) and of the novel Tunneling (2003). She edits The Saint Ann’s Review and teaches Writing and English at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn.
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