The Company of Ashes
Levi was too high to drive. He slobbered against the passenger window as I drove his fifteen-year-old Dodge. When the police lights flashed in the rearview I did not panic. I crammed three pieces of gum into my mouth and practiced touching the tip of my nose.
Fooling a cop wasn’t hard. Cocaine and alcohol canceled each other out. Watching shiny cop shoes approach in the side mirror, I practiced speaking soberly.
“It’s his car. It’s his car. It’s his car,” I said.
The cop tapped the window. After I rolled it down, he put a light in my face and started to laugh.
“He made me drive. It’s his car,” I said. We were both laughing.
The cop wiped his mouth until his face was serious. He reached for my ear as if to produce a quarter and grabbed the joint I’d stored there. He was a decent guy, I could tell, and I’d just given him a story he’d tell ‘til death.
“Step out of the vehicle, son.”
My second arrest in a year. Levi spent a night in the drunk tank; I was sentenced to eight months in a halfway house. I never spoke to Levi again.
I was living in the halfway house when Levi died. I read about it on a local news website. His name had been plugged into Drunk Driving Template. The accompanying photo could’ve been named Stock Image of Car Wrapped Around Tree.
I told Father Patrick, head of the halfway house, that I had an interview across town. He let me borrow his Honda—my transportation to the funeral. It was in Frankfort. By leaving Louisville I was violating the conditions of my probation. I drove exactly the speed limit. I worried a cop would pull me over for a burned out brake light and throw me in jail.
The funeral seemed like a fifty-year high school reunion. Clusters of elderly men and women dressed in stiff suits chatted in the viewing room. I snaked my way to the casket. In it was an old woman wearing a peach suit with enormous shoulder pads.
A small woman with a curved spine and a cloud of hair appeared at my side. She touched the dead woman’s face.
“She looks good,” the woman said.
“Mm,” I said.
“Are you the son-in-law?”
“I’m in the wrong place, lady.”
I reached the correct funeral home as the funeral was letting out. From my car I saw Levi’s parents getting into their car. High school faces were cutting up in the parking lot.
I didn’t stop. I went for a drive—past my dad’s duplex, through the drive-in at Hardee’s, around the capitol. I wound up at Levi’s parents’ house. I parked on the street and waited for them.
Their pale Cadillac pulled into the driveway around dinner time. Levi’s mom was wearing a navy suit and his dad had on jeans and a gray button-up. His mom kissed me on the cheek and his dad shook my hand. They didn’t mention my arrest.
“We have something to ask you,” his mom said.
I said sure. She veered into the living room and I showed myself to Levi’s room. Climbing the stairs I felt like I was in high school again.
Levi’s room was different than it’d been in high school. Hotel art, wicker furniture and old lady trinkets had replaced his posters, futon and stacks of CDs. But Levi had moved back in with them after my arrest. His air mattress was in the middle of the floor. The blanket and sheets were wadded up from the last night Levi had slept in it.
The toilet was running.
Levi was the only kid I knew who had his own bathroom. His mom made him clean it, which he never did. I opened the door and was surprised by how filthy it was. Uncapped toothpaste sat on the dry sink. A mess of toilet paper rolls, clothes and hair covered the floor. It reeked. I lifted the toilet lid. There were the last remains of Levi—shit that had disintegrated into a brown mossy layer on the dark water.
“Oh sweetie,” Levi’s mom said. She was in the doorway and was holding a tray—milk and cookies.
“I should go.”
“No, hey, stay. Sit with me a minute. It’s about the ashes.”
I sat on the wicker loveseat. She set the tray on the floor and went to close the bathroom door. In the mirror I saw her nose make a repulsed bunny-like shudder. She looked in the toilet. That’s all that’s left of him, I thought. She shut the lid and flushed.
The will assigned the task of scattering the ashes to Megan and Nolan, high school friends, and me. We were to scatter the ashes in a ravine on Levi’s uncle’s farm in Henderson, Kentucky. A year passed before Megan, Nolan and I agreed on a weekend to make the trip. By that time I was out of the halfway house and working max hours as manager of a dingy apartment complex in Louisville.
I couldn’t believe Levi, at twenty-two, had written a will.
I rode in the backseat of Nolan’s Volvo. He drove the windy country roads and, to recreate our high school years, blasted the Ramones, Misfits and Dead Kennedys on the stereo. We didn’t talk much, but I gleaned that Nolan and Megan lived together. They were a “thing.”
For six hours we searched for the farm. It got dark. Megan pored over maps. It rained. We got frustrated and bickered.
Nolan parked behind a locked farm gate. “Is this it?” he asked.
“The sign says McClatchy.”
“But we’re looking for Hullette.”
“Right, so, keep driving.”
Around midnight we postponed the search until morning. Nolan drove back to my truck, which I’d left on the side of the highway. It was a two-lane road lined by dense woods.
“You guys still camping?” I asked.
“With it raining like this?” Nolan said.
“Don’t wuss out,” Megan said. “We can get the tent up in a second.”
They slept in the Volvo and I slept in my truck. The traffic made shushing sounds. I arranged my raincoat on the passenger seat and pressed my cheek to the cold window. Within seconds my legs were throbbing. My phone rang. Megan.
“Am I on speaker phone?”
“Hands free. On the stereo,” she said. “Nolan has the bass way up. You sound like god.”
Headlights from passing cars filled the cab and then snapped off.
“Where do you think Levi is?” Megan asked.
“Isn’t he in your car?” I said.
“She means heaven-wise,” Nolan said. “He’s on the floor.”
I cracked the window, stuck my fingers in the rain, dug my pack out of my raincoat and lit a cigarette. My phone beeped—low battery.
“You’re all alone,” Megan said. “How about Levi stays with you?”
“Ashes ain’t company,” I said.
“How do they catch the ashes?”
“I almost don’t believe he’s dead.”
“They put out the fire and scoop them up.”
“Of course he’s dead. His ashes are at your feet.”
“But no casket?”
“They couldn’t do a casket—”
My phone died. I put on my raincoat, flicked the cigarette into traffic and walked across the grass to the woods.
Megan out her window: “What are you doing?”
“Pissing,” I said.
I felt my way through the trees. A thorn stuck in my jacket and released with a snap. The highway quickly disappeared behind the trees. I unbuckled my pants and started blindly pissing. I wanted to believe in the afterlife. Then I could talk to Levi again.
“What happened?” I asked.
I smelled smoke. Fire light danced on the treetops. Levi was an adventurer. So was I, when he dragged me along. Investigating weird light in the woods—Levi was dumb enough to do that. In his honor I buckled my belt and followed the light.
I came to an open patch of ground that was canopied by tall trees. A burly man was lying on his back, warming his feet by the campfire. Bald on top, gray strips of hair covering his ears, sleeveless leather vest. He grinned at me. I started to wave and then noticed a boy.
The boy’s wrist was handcuffed to his ankle, and he was sleeping on his back, leg in the air, in the position of someone falling from a high-rise. He hawked up a breath.
“Um,” I said.
“My child-friend fell asleep,” the man hissed in a friendly way.
“Why’s he like that?”
The boy’s cuffed hand pulled against his ankle, tugging his foot to his chest.
“Are you a bounty hunter or something?” I asked.
“Kind of,” the man said, chuckling. “Not really. The child is safe.”
“You can’t keep him chained like that.”
“We’re actually bonding. We were just having fun and he fell asleep.”
“Rough housing. Relax. I only have one set of cuffs. I won’t chain you. Come sit down.”
The boy’s hood fell off his face as he jolted from a dream. Lips smacking and fearful and then back asleep. I looked behind me for the way back to the highway and saw a barricade of bushes and vines.
“My friends are waiting.”
“Hey. I’m Hank. Why are you out here?”
“Just saw the fire.”
His thick arms ripped out of his sleeveless vest. I tugged a low branch, hoping it would break off. I needed a board, a bat—something to swing. An empty fifth of whiskey burned in the fire.
“You just stumbled on me like this?” Hank said.
“My friend died. He grew up around here, at a farm.”
“He wanted us to scatter his ashes into some ravine, like under a rope bridge. We couldn’t find it.”
“No ravines around here. Flat country. I did see something like a bridge, though. Like a foot bridge over a pond. Saw it before little buddy here passed out. A hundred yards that way.” Hank had a small flashlight in his palm. He shined it into a path that stretched into a hollow of trees.
“Where’s your friends?” he asked.
“But you’re a night owl. Unlike my friend here.”
“I better get back.”
“What about your bridge? I can show you now.”
He clicked the flashlight on and off.
“Maybe in the morning.”
“No good. We’re leaving before sunup. I have to show you now.”
Like I said, Levi was a thrill seeker—an idiot. I followed Hank because Levi would’ve.
Cutting down the path, I watched Hank’s bare feet glow white in the dark. He stepped on sharp stones and sticks and never flinched. He had the unfeeling soles of a dog.
We soon came to a boulder that half-blocked the path. An animal flopped in leaves off the path, struggling and non-vocal. As we sidestepped the boulder, Hank stopped. A fir tree stuck in my back. Wind shook raindrops from trees. Bourbon radiated from Hank’s pores.
“So what’s my prize?”
“My friends,” I said.
“We’re here. What about them?”
“They’re probably wondering—”
“I found your bridge. Now what do I get?”
We were outside the woods. Darkened farmland stretched into more darkness. Hank shined the flashlight on the bridge—ropes and planks that spanned a pit. Faint moonlight bled through the clouds.
I toed the first plank of the bridge. Everything shook. I pictured myself stepping where a plank was missing and falling to my death.
“You’re crossing?” Hank asked.
When he approached, I took a few steps on the bridge.
“Come on, kid,” he said. “Now you know where the bridge is. You can check it out in the morning.”
“My friend wants to be here. I can’t see anything.”
“If this flashlight dies we’re done.” He laughed and shook the handle ropes.
“I can’t leave you here, kid. Come on.”
He put the flashlight in his pocket and came after me. The light glowed blue through his jeans. A car sawed down the distant highway. The bridge jolted when Hank slipped on a wet board. Laughing, he grabbed the handle for balance. I could feel his heat, hear his breathing. I started to run, but slipped and fell against the rope handle and then off the bridge.
I thought I was falling to my death, but fell only a few feet. Then I smacked hard on the mud. I crawled, palms chopping the mushy ground as if swimming. My right hand slapped something wooden, a curved board—a small upside-down boat.
“Kid, you okay?”
I lifted the boat and crawled underneath. Through a missing slat I saw the flashlight shake across the waterless pond. It was filled with vinyl siding, lawn furniture, a Volkswagen Bug with no wheels, moths.
“You fell to your death.”
“Leave,” I said.
“Come on out. I’m no villain here to grope you.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Now why assume me bad? Tell me that at least.”
“Son of a bitch, go.”
“I go and you’re stuck. Out here ‘til light, no moon to show the way.”
I felt safe under the boat. The ground, wet mounds from sunken lives, smelled like a leaky basement. I covered my ears and pulled my knees under my stomach as if in an earthquake drill.
Then I remembered the boy—the chained boy. He needed help.
Hank hollered from the woods: “Now how do you think this makes me feel?”
After a while, I crawled out from under the boat and staggered forward, feeling the darkness with my hands. I kicked something plastic and imagined dumping Levi’s ashes in the pond. Levi here forever. The feeling was insignificance.
In the morning I went back to the highway. I was relieved to find that Hank hadn’t slashed my tires. My breath smelled deathly. My jeans were covered in mud, but my raincoat had protected my shirt. Megan and Nolan looked tired but clean, like they’d spent the night in a hotel.
“If you wanted to sleep in the woods you should’ve said so.”
“We worried all night.”
“Your problem is? You’re selfish,” Nolan said.
I led them back to the bridge. We cut through Hank’s camp. He was gone. There was a clump of black stones where the fire had been.
The bridge, slick with dew, spanned a man-made pond. It looked like a toy for children—a set for staging stick sword fights and dramatic death scenes. I pictured Levi clasping his armpit from a stab wound and falling sideways off the bridge.
“Why build this bridge,” Megan said. “You can walk around the pond in like three seconds.”
“This isn’t the right bridge,” Nolan said.
“It’s the only bridge,” I said.
“But the will mentioned a ravine.”
Nolan and Megan huddled together, surrounded by the brown day. Megan held the urn against her stomach.
“This is it,” I said. “Give me the urn.”
“This isn’t it.”
“Of course this is it.” I reached for the urn. Megan tried to keep it from me. I pried at her fingers.
“You’re going to spill it,” she said, and then let go so that didn’t happen. I cradled the urn to my chest and ran onto the bridge. Nolan swiped at me, but he didn’t follow me onto the bridge. A destroyed house, possibly dropped in the pond by a tornado, was under my feet.
“Damn it, B.J. This isn’t the right place,” Nolan said.
“There is no other place. How many bridges can there be?”
I knew this was the place. I could’ve been wrong. I saw the boat—last night’s shelter, sunken in mud. I aimed at the boat and threw—urn, ashes, Levi. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see him land.
Behind the wheel of my truck, I waved for Megan to pull around. I plugged my phone into the cigarette lighter. It rang the second I turned it on. The screen said NOLAN. We spoke a few seconds of we’re cool, of course we’re cool, it’s all good, we really should get together.
Rain clouds. I pictured the pond filling with water and swallowing Levi’s ashes. I turned off my truck.
It was sprinkling when I reached the pond. The urn was lying on its side. The cap had fallen off and an ounce of ash had spilled. The open mouth seemed to say woe is me.
I took him home. The urn sat in the passenger seat. On the slow drive, passing drivers glanced at me—wet finger-combed hair, nodding, searching. I considered pouring the ashes out the window to keep their interest. I wanted to distract them from where they were going.
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