The Dead Ones

by James Pate


I don’t why I left daddy there, wasting away in that back bedroom, but I did, and that was why the police showed up to the house not long after the ambulance arrived. There were a shitload of questions between this one real tall cop and me in the kitchen. I was perched on the chair and my hands were trembling between my knees and I felt bony and small and exposed. But I looked this officer in the eyes. I said, “Sir, I can’t tell you for sure why I did it.” I kept repeating it. Or some variation thereof.

From my vantage point, I didn’t do anything wrong, even if what I’d done wasn’t exactly right. I didn’t kill him, didn’t mistreat him.

What I did do was not call anyone when he died. A few weeks passed before I finally dialed those numbers. Nine and one and one.

The tall cop took a seat across from me. “Are you sick in the head?” he asked, in a not wholly unfriendly tone. “You got something wrong with you?” He looked at me with disgusted curiosity. I was the weird-looking roach under his gaze.

I kept my eyes on him. I didn’t want to appear suspicious. I said, “I was at the top of my class in high school, and I’ve had the same job for the past ten years. I don’t have a thing wrong with me.”

“Then why did you keep him back there after he died?”

I shrugged. I looked at my hands. I would go back there, into that back bedroom, and talk to him some nights. He was dead but he didn’t seem so. Even when his body started to turn there still seemed to be something of him in there, a miniature blue flame glowing in his gut.

I wasn’t about to tell the cop this.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. “I took care of him until the day he died.”

The cop scratched the side of his face. He had a wide, pink head and eyes that looked smart one second and dumb the next. It was hard to guess what he thought. “There’s going to be an autopsy. We’re going have our guys take a good long look.”

“That’s fine. Take a good long look. You won’t find shit.”

“For your sake, I sure hope not.”

I followed him out from the kitchen. I saw two other officers in the living room searching around and picking up my books and flipping through the pages as if a note explaining my actions might drop out. They studied my paintings on the walls, the glossy oil ones I’d done over the years of snakes making love to moons and trees heavy with cats. I suspected they weren’t looking for real evidence. They were putting on a show for me. They wanted to fill me with unease, give me the sense I was terribly in the wrong.

I decided to make a brief defense. I leaned against the doorway, my hands in my back pockets. “I loved the guy. I took care of him the last three years of his life. Go ask his friends. I’ll be glad to give you their numbers. I didn’t do shit wrong. I just failed to call in a timely manner.”

The one who’d spoken with me in the kitchen brightened up. “You know, that wouldn’t be a bad idea. Give us a list of those names and numbers.” He smiled at the other two. I could see they were relishing their visit. They hadn’t had this much fun in weeks. He added, “If he had friends, didn’t they come around asking for him?”

“I told them he’d take a turn for the worse. Which was true.”

“You’re a foxy little son of a bitch,” said the cop nearest the front door. All three laughed, and I did too.

***

Twenty years ago: that was last time I had been questioned by the Memphis police. I was a punk with green hair back then, a dumb-ass kid selling weed behind a Kinko’s to an officer disguised as a shambling, aging hippie. Soon as I took the money, he lifted his tie-dye shirt, exposing the fat badge on his belt. I was arrested and charged. Mama was alive then. There was cancer growing in her lungs, but nobody knew it. When I got home she yelled and swore. She called me things I’d never heard her call anyone before. She was from a religious family, a bloodline who didn’t drink and curse and who believed Wednesday night services were as important as Sunday morning ones. Her people had climbed into the lower ranks of Mississippian wealth in the years following the Civil War and they never moved any higher or lower. “I look at you and it’s like staring at a pile of dog shit,” she’d told me.

Daddy was from Memphis, and in his youth there been some run-ins with local police. Nothing dire. A bar fight here. Drunk and disorderly there. I had thought he might be sympathetic to my plight.

Yet he had the fire of the reformed. He’d met my mother one summer when he’d been working construction down in Mississippi. He fell for her and her sober ways. She had led him to her version of the Almighty, a clean-cut god with a Gregory Peck voice.

He didn’t say anything, that morning when I had returned home from the arrest. He raised his hand instead, smashed me across the face. Blood from my lips spat on the wall.

I cleaned up, after that. I let the hair dye grow out and away. I applied once more to art schools. I never married, never had kids, but my life grew settled and enjoyably dull. I spent time in the backyard, drinking coffee.

After the police left and I had the house to myself again I kept thinking about that teenage arrest and how my parents had looked at me. I wondered what my mother would say if she knew I’d left Daddy back there in the bedroom for those weeks. I wondered what Daddy would say. I wondered, for the first time, if that blue glow I sensed deep inside of him was furious, wishing it could find a way to tell me to get him prayed over and buried.

Let them be upset, I thought. Let them shake their fists at me from paradise. I believed in a different God. Mine understood things no human ever could, and judged us accordingly. My God was fat and tended to chuckle. He had much in common with Santa Claus. If you had such powers over time and space, you would laugh a lot too.

So I imagined Him.

In the now quiet house I picked up my smartphone and began with the calls. I stepped out on to the back porch as I talked. The sky was a crisp hot blue. It was nearing the middle of May. Flowers and ferns and ivy were spreading themselves out in my backyard, soaking in the balmy air like an old dude in a sauna.

I said the same to each one. Daddy was gone, dying in his sleep. What I left out was that the night he’d died was in late March. I thought it best to keep it simple.

Alice was the last one I phoned. She had been more than a friend to Daddy. After my mother died, they’d dated off and on. She was a secretary at the plumbing business he worked for. She loosened him up somewhat, got him drinking a little again. He told me she was like some of the girls he’d dated as a young man. “I knew it,” she said.

“I wasn’t surprised either,” I told her. “Sometimes what surprised me most was he made it this long. He’d been falling apart for years.”

“I had a dream last night. He was standing at the foot of my bed telling me he was going on vacation. He had on his fishing vest.”

I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t inform her if his departing spirit had visited her dreams, it would’ve been weeks ago.

She said, “Can I come over tonight? I’ve got some things of your daddy’s you might want.”

I didn’t want her to. It meant I’d have to clean the house. I’d not had anyone over for a long time, due to the smell, and I hadn’t vacuumed in ages. But no excuses came to mind. “How about around eight?” I said.

“Eight it will be then,” she told me.

I turned off the air-conditioners and I opened the windows. I had grown accustomed to the scent of rot, finding it slightly sweetish and not unpleasant, but I knew Alice might have a more customary reaction. Earlier, it had taken a good five minutes before the tall cop removed the handkerchief from his nostrils.

I took a bottle of Lysol from the kitchen pantry. I must’ve sprayed half the can. I got the ceiling fans going. I made a pot of coffee to get the smell of it in the air. I walked out and breathed the outdoor scents and came back in, trying to check on how I was doing.

All the while I thought about him, my late father, the man who was no more. Mister Nobody Now. I thought of him not as he was when he dwelled among the living but as he was in bed, his eyes closed, his hands hardening.

I was an only child.

I was an artist and Home Depot manager.

At the hour of my death I wanted to dissolve into the hot May sky.

Cooking is also a good way to cover a scent. I took chicken out from the fridge and stir-fried it with hot peppers and garlic and a handful of tofu. Despite my lankiness I am a good eater. Nervous energy keeps me slender, and I am forever shaking my legs when sitting and pacing around when thinking. Sleep is the only time I grow still.

Right on the hour Alice appeared, dressed in raven black. She’s fleshy, probably twenty or thirty pounds overweight, but compact and muscular. She looks like she could throw a punch that would daze much larger men. She came in and I offered her a chicken leg. She sniffed the air and said yes. We ate on the back porch, the birds chirping nearby as indifferent to us as sunlight. “I have a box in the car,” she said.

“You do?”

“The stuff I thought you might want. Your daddy’s things.”

I looked at my plate. I had an impulse to rise from my chair and hurl it through the air into another yard. It was good to no longer be living with a corpse. There was probably something unhealthy about having him rot in the house. I stared up at her. “What kind of stuff?” I imagined old toothbrushes, dead batteries, toenail clippers.

“Pictures mostly. When we started dating, he’d bring them over. He showed me pictures of you as a baby, of your mama.”

“He had his sentimental streak.”

“I thought it was nice. He really loved your mama.”

“Yeah. They got along okay.”

“These last months, every time I called you said he didn’t want to see anybody. Was he depressed? I remember how down he’d get. Some mornings all he wanted to do was stare at the wall and drink his coffee and feel awful about things.”

I thought of the yellow and blue spots that had appeared Daddy’s cheeks, and I thought about how his hands had turned to stone. “Alice, I need to tell you something you might find surprising.”

I could hear her tensing in the wrought-iron chair.

“I lied when I called you today.”

She sat forward. “You mean he’s alive?”

“No. He’s dead. That much was true.”

“Then what the hell.”

“He died weeks ago. I never told anybody about it until today. I finally called nine-one-one and had them haul the body away.”

She stared at me. She wore sunglasses and I wished she didn’t. I wanted to see how she was looking at me.

I told her, “Don’t ask me why I did it. There are reasons but I haven’t been able to articulate them. Not even to myself.”

“Jesus.”

“Part of it was he didn’t seem dead. People talk about the soul leaving the body but it didn’t seem like that. He still seemed in there. He seemed to be in this incredibly deep sleep.”

“But you’re not crazy. You knew he wasn’t. Not really.”

“I’m not crazy, no. I didn’t really think he’d come back. It was just a thought I couldn’t seem to shake.” I stood with the plate and walked into the heart of the yard and threw it like a discus out from sight. It must have landed in weeds or a flowerbed because it made no noise. I walked back and took a sip from the Corona by my chair. I looked at the blue sky. “I can get that box, if you want.”

Alice led me to her Toyota. I lifted the box, balanced it on my shoulder. It was heavy and stunk of mildew. She followed me back inside. We had another beer and talked about the old man. She said Daddy had only had sex with three women in his life, and she was one of them. She said she had been the one to talk him into dying his hair black. She said he had been stunned when he’d found out she had never read a word of the bible, and it turned him on a little. He called her a heathen in bed.

Then she said, “I need to see the room.”

I must’ve looked confused.

“The room he died in.”

I warned her about the aroma. Even with the windows open all day, and the vigorous cleaning I had done, the smell lingered hard in that back room. She said she thought she was tough enough to handle a bad smell.

The bedroom door had been shut and I opened it and led her in.

She wept when she entered. I cried too. It was the first time since his death I had done so. Here was the place where he had come to an end. All the rivers of his life flowed into this room with yellow wallpaper and black floorboards. The smell was atrocious. Gray hairs clung to the pillows. A small vomit stain was caked on the daisy-patterned bedspread. Alice touched the pillow. She ran the tips of her fingers along the place where his head had left an indent. “There was nothing particularly special about your dad,” she told me. “That was why I liked him.”

I nodded. “He wasn’t good or bad. He was strictly in between.”

“There was no one like him though.”

“No. There was not.” I added, “He was my dad, and I can’t say that about anybody else. Him being dead won’t change that.”

Her eyes rose up to mine and her expression said, “I would like a few minutes.” I tried to make my eyes say, “Take whatever time you need.” I stepped from the room and closed the door and lingered in the quiet of the hallway. I heard what sounded like clothes being dropped to the floor. I heard springs creaking. I heard a sheet moving. I heard weeping. I was impressed by how little the stink of the room seem to bother her.

I asked, “You okay?”

She laughed this acidic, bitter laugh, and answered yes, she was all right. “I’ll be out when I’m done,” she explained. Then I heard her crying again. I went into the kitchen to finish the chicken that remained in the skillet. It’d turned cold and greasy. Fat stuck to my fingers, my lips. The last of the sun lingered in the windows.

I’d never been so hungry.

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