Story of the Week: www.shortstoryamerica.com; Anthologized, Short Story America, Volume 1
It is September 22nd, the first day of autumn, which means that Mr. Pfeiffer will reach into his narrow closet for one of his long-sleeved white shirts rather than the short-sleeved ones he wears throughout spring and summer. This is no work-mandated uniform. Quite the contrary. Several of his prior jobs required him to wear a silly smock (one with a logo of a dancing hamburger) over his crisp white shirts. At the Video Vault, in fact, they made him slip on an oversized lime green tee shirt that said “Ask Me About the New Releases!” Ridiculous for a 43-year-old man!
In addition to a dignified appearance, Mr. Pfeiffer tries to maintain one other propriety—that he be called Mr. Pfeiffer rather than George. He takes comfort in the instant, if erroneous, sense of respect he feels when people say mister when referring to him. Sometimes customers mistake Mr. Pfeiffer, with his graying hair and serious expression, for the manager.
At the Shoe Palace, Mr. Pfeiffer’s current workplace, he doesn’t have to cover his white shirts, there are no silly hats, and he rarely has to speak to anyone; customers find their own sizes and try on the shoes themselves. This is ideal, and that’s why he’s determined not to be late again (the blasted bus!). He doesn’t want to give Tina, his barely-out-of-high-school manager, a reason to can him. She’s not fond of Mr. Pfeiffer the way she is of Sean, the other employee whose tattoos she’s interested in. Not that Mr. Pfeiffer would want to yak on about movies and bands and TV shows, anyway.
Mr. Pfeiffer buttons his cuffs, then checks his small room to see that the hot plate is off and the window is cracked one inch for air. He has his hand on the doorknob when the phone rings.
It couldn’t be Mother. After all, he always calls her, and faithfully. Has she ever phoned? Does she even have his number?
He is surprised to hear his aunt Violet’s voice. “George, dear,” she begins.
As Mr. Pfeiffer’s mind spools back through his infrequent childhood visits to his aunt’s town, where they would sit on a patchy municipal lawn watching fireworks, he hears Aunt Violet say, “I’m afraid your mother is gone, George. Has died, I mean.” It happened several days ago. In her sleep, apparently. Violet is calling from his mother’s house and only just now found his number, underneath some cookbooks.
Aunt Violet is a sunny woman, her voice not made for such news. Mr. Pfeiffer pictures her standing in the plain kitchen, talking on the yellow wall phone. Just where he pictures his mother every other Sunday. “How are things in . . . St. Louis?” his mother would ask, pronouncing the name as though it was the unheard-of capital of some foreign country, knowing that her son is proud of the fact that he moved from his hometown of Percy and has managed to hold his own in the city all these years.
She had never expected that her son, who never displayed any nerve or ambition, would do such a thing. She did not know that stinging loneliness can propel a person to rare action. Every June Mr. Pfeiffer would arrive home for four days, making the nine-hour bus ride back to the shady and indifferent streets of his youth, to be received like a distant relation.
“She’s at the mortuary now. You’ll have to come home, Georgie,” his aunt is saying. “I’ll call and order the cremation—that’s what she wanted—but I need to get back to Milford and someone has to take care of the house, and the bills. There are a lot of bills, I’m very sorry to say.”
“But my job,” Mr. Pfeiffer protests.
“Well, surely you can take some time off,” his aunt says.
She doesn’t know how hard it is for Mr. Pfeiffer to find a job, and what anguish he goes through each time he must find another, and how at present that worry eclipses the remote wonder he feels at the fact that his mother is “gone.”
He tells his aunt that he will see what he can do.
“All right then, George. Take a day or two if you must. But I don’t think you should leave the house unattended for long. Percy is not the town it used to be.”
Mr. Pfeiffer is late when he walks under the big molded plastic glass slipper with pink and gold bubble lights blinking around the name Shoe Palace. Tina, stationed at the register, rolls her eyes at Mr. Pfeiffer as he ducks down an aisle to begin work. His task is to prowl through the maze of towering shelves, re-mating footwear the customers have left tossed about. He straightens displays, and restocks the shelves with boxes of slick-soled shoes.
He dreads the thought of approaching Tina to ask for a favor. Mr. Pfeiffer is always the first to be let go, and he is confused about whether it’s because he is old or because he is Mr. Pfeiffer. Ever since he lost his long-term job inspecting needlework sets when Kraftee Kits went out of business, he’s only managed to find teen jobs where his coworkers complain to each other about their parents, talk about their crushes, and look sidelong at Mr. Pfeiffer as if he might be some kind of spy from management.
Still, Mr. Pfeiffer is not interested in work that requires more than he can deliver. He recalls too vividly his short-lived attempt to work in menswear at Hinks department store a few years earlier. He made it partway through the training program, had almost mastered the register and price tag codes, when the twenty-year-old instructor with the loud voice and modish suit announced that the last day would be devoted to role-playing to prepare for difficult customers. Mr. Pfeiffer had somehow forgotten about the customers.
Even the pain of high school, growing hot-faced and sweaty when called on in class, seems like yesterday. He’s no rocket scientist, as the kids say. Still, he can put in a decent day’s work and come home to his small apartment above the linoleum store and feel relief, a kind of happiness.
In Percy, he will have to talk to people, take care of things. Mr. Pfeiffer steadies a stack of shoeboxes under his chin. His heart gallops with anxiety that is far more immediate than his distant, through-the-gauze thoughts about his mother.
It is lunchtime before he makes his request. Tina’s eyes skip down to the blue plastic nametag pinned to his pocket, one Mr. Pfeiffer supplied.
“I’m sorry, George,” Tina says, looking over his shoulder now, her eyes tracking movements out in the mall. “You’ve got to go, of course. It’s your mother and all. But I’ve got to have a stock boy. I’ll have to get someone in here to help Sean, and I can’t just throw them out when you get back.” Her eyes return to him. “But check in if you want to.”
So. Just what he expected. Mr. Pfeiffer recedes to the back of the store to finish what he had begun—stacking the platform tennis shoes. The dull scent of rubber brings to mind his mother’s crepe-soled footwear and her thick ankles.
At lunch when he stands at the register so Tina can go to the Food Court for her corn dog and Diet Pepsi, he looks wearily down the polished mall corridor at the clusters of strolling teens laughing and punching each other.
It occurs to Mr. Pfeiffer that since he will have to find another job, he may as well leave right away and without permission. He opens drawers in the counter until he finds his paycheck. A longhaired youth in a black trench coat walks in and picks up a hobnailed boot from the featured display. “Got these in a 10 ½, man?” the kid asks. “Aisle 4,” Mr. Pfeiffer says, striding out of the Shoe Palace so briskly that he imagines leaving wind in his wake.
Outside the mall the world is so bright he raises a forearm to block the sun.
In his studio apartment, the faint smell of damp plaster and coffee grounds is not welcoming. The windows rattle when buses pass on the street below, and the strong mid-day sun that slants in the window makes his little haven look shabby. He fills a suitcase with shirts for the current season, his carefully pressed slacks, and a topcoat.
Mr. Pfeiffer rides a bus to the main depot at the edge of the city where he boards a Greyhound. Schlocky businesses yield to rusty industry, to jumbled outskirts, to bland farmland, to open road. As the scenery hurtles by, Mr. Pfeiffer enjoys a tiny moment of triumph, recalling how he stormed out of the Shoe Palace. This is quickly scuttled by job and money worries—his punishment for being nervy. It is too much to think about all at once. He will deal with it when gets back to St. Louis. Right now every mile brings him closer to Percy, the town that strips him of the illusion of dignity he has courted.
Mr. Pfeiffer thinks of his mother now and pictures her the way she was during his youth—brown-haired and towering and smelling faintly of tinned vegetables from her job in the cafeteria. Her skin seemed to carry a fine dusting of flour, or maybe it was just the grainy white stockings she wore, as if she were a nurse of food. Even when he lived with her, he seemed to see her from far away.
The drone of the bus engine is so steady, and the high-backed foam seat so comfortable, and the sun coming through the window so pleasant that Mr. Pfeiffer drifts for a moment, experiencing the simple pleasure of being in motion, of being on his way somewhere. A light excitement rises in him, like colorful pebbles stirred up from a silty river bottom. Just the tiniest glimpse of strong color before things settle again. He would like to travel longer with this feeling—the pleasant prick of possibility—but safe here on the bus from having to do anything but be happily expectant.
Getting off the bus in Percy, Mr. Pfeiffer considers a cab because of his large suitcase, but the thought of streaking down the broad streets in a bright yellow taxi and arriving too quickly in front of his old house makes his armpits prickle.
Soon he is on his old route home from school, carrying his suitcase instead of his metal lunchbox, and noticing that this part of town looks rundown and outdated. The corners of the old residential neighborhood that gave way to cheap stucco businesses a few years ago—nail parlors, video stores, Quickie Marts—already look trashy and in need of repair.
His own street seems unchanged. It is deeply shaded; the trees, their leaves just beginning to redden, form a full canopy over the road. At the sight of his white house with the chipped green trim and the single-car garage sagging at the end of the grass driveway, a flood of nameless feelings sweep over him. Out of habit he walks around to the back and enters through the utility porch where sour rags hang hardened over the edge of the deep concrete sink.
Inside, the house is ordered but stale. There is a note from his aunt Violet: “Georgie—I’ve done my best with the house. Adele is at Shipner and Stout’s. I told them you’d come for her.”
Mr. Pfeiffer goes directly to his mother’s bedroom. He opens the closet to view the dark floral dresses hanging there. He surveys the jars of cream and the antacids on her dresser. It is odd, mainly odd, that she is not in another room getting ready to go to work, or moving in her slow grand way through some household task. He strains to recall the warmer times before his father died, when he was four or five, and she was happy. Once widowed she seemed puzzled, as if she had no idea what to do with this remnant of her past life, this small boy. The job she took in the cafeteria of Mr. Pfeiffer’s elementary school soon became a career. Food service. She grew impervious to complaints, accustomed to ignoring the hopes and desires of children.
In the still rooms, he looks at the painted furniture, the yellowed shades with their crocheted pull rings, the familiar octagonal pink and black tiles of the bathroom, his mother’s large red toothbrush aslant in the glass. Finally, he lugs his suitcase to his bedroom with its metal wastebasket printed with college pennants still sitting under the small maple desk. He falls asleep on the green chenille spread of his twin bed.
In the morning Mr. Pfeiffer goes for a walk. He ends up at his old elementary school, where he watches the children chase each other shrieking across the playground. A thin child in a plaid jacket stands off to the side, watching a game of four-square. Mr. Pfeiffer’s stomach feels heavy with the child’s loneliness. He nods, thinking he knows this feeling of awkwardness and exposure, when the boy is waved over to play. Feeling slightly betrayed, Mr. Pfeiffer goes home.
As he walks up the driveway, he hears something moving in the bushes at the side of the garage. A dog?
In the narrow space between the fence and garage, a teenage boy is peering through the long-broken garage window. Mr. Pfeiffer hadn’t expected to speak to anyone today, never mind confront an intruder.
The boy spots him. “Hey, you George?”
“Mr. Pfeiffer,” Mr. Pfeiffer says, clearing his throat to collect himself. It is the first time he’s spoken in days.
“Okay,” the boy agrees. “I’m Wade. Been around here taking care of a few things for your mother.”
“Mother has passed,” Mr. Pfeiffer says, giving Wade a slightly triumphant look.
“Yeah, I know. I meant before, before she ‘passed.’” He edges sideways to the front of the garage, brushing through a thick growth of calla lilies. A cool dank air comes with him.
Standing in front of Mr. Pfeiffer, Wade seems to take up a lot of room. It is not that he is especially large, although he is thick-shouldered. It is more the impression he gives that he is quite at ease and will stay there in the yard just as long as he likes. His glossy black hair swings into his light blue eyes like bird wings. The smell of stale cigarettes drifts off his flannel shirt as he reaches for the pack in his pocket. Mr. Pfeiffer thinks Wade, who looks high school age, should not be roaming through yards on a weekday morning, but he doesn’t say this.
“That thing in there run?” Wade wants to know. He lights a cigarette and squints through the smoke. Mr. Pfeiffer recognizes this type of bold and careless boy. He is the type others follow because he doesn’t care whether they do or not.
“The car, you mean?”
“The car. Yeah,” Wade says.
The old Rambler once belonged to Mr. Pfeiffer’s grandmother. He learned to drive in it; it has not been roadworthy for years.
Wade feels otherwise. “I told her—your mother—I could get it running. She was going to give it to me, for wages. For the work I did.”
“Wages?” This is the type of boy who might con Mr. Pfeiffer.
“Yeah. Let’s see . . . There was some kind of leak in the kitchen, and then I swapped out a rotten board on the porch. Stuff like that.” The report delivered, the boy reaches his arms high above his head, stretching extravagantly this way and that and yawning as if he could take in all the air in Missouri. Then he shakes his head like a dog shaking water off its coat, as if to wake up. Mr. Pfeiffer is momentarily stunned by how enjoyable stretching and yawning suddenly seem. He swallows a rising yawn.
“Mara Dugan? You know her?” Wade asks. “She’s my grandmother. Used to play cards with your old lady. That’s how I got tapped to fix some stuff over here. Thing is, I never been paid.”
“Well,” says Mr. Pfeiffer. “I’ve only just arrived—from St. Louis. I need to see what’s what first.” He feels good saying this.
As Wade looks back at the padlocked garage door, Mr. Pfeiffer thinks that it is possible that his mother offered this boy something that had no value to her in order to procure his help. Also, this Wade could be the type of boy who leaves and never comes back.
The next day, as Mr. Pfeiffer sorts through papers and bills at the yellow Formica table he looks out at Wade bent under the hood to inspect the engine of the old Rambler. Mr. Pfeiffer has agreed to let Wade see if he can get the car running, but he has not agreed to give it to him yet. He has seen the new plank on the porch step, shiny nail heads lined up neatly, and the bright new fitting on the pipe under the kitchen sink. This work does not equal a car, even a car that doesn’t run. There are other jobs that maybe this boy will do. Mr. Pfeiffer does not want to seem like a chump. He ought to make a list of things that will make the house look better to buyers, things that won’t require materials from the hardware store.
Wade comes to the back door now and then. They do not speak. Phone. Bathroom. Water. Then he’s gone, the garage doors pulled shut, the rusty padlock dangling open from the hasp. Mr. Pfeiffer is both slightly relieved and slightly disappointed when he looks out and finds the yard empty.
Released from his post at the window, he wanders through his old home, wondering who will live here next. A noisy family with kids who will spill out the front door to cook up games in the street with friends? A pair of newlyweds? A family that brawls and yells? He wonders if the house will sell, or if the bank will take it. His mother proudly and foolishly refused the government assistance she was entitled to with her medical costs. Property taxes are long past due. Why had she never mentioned this? Mr. Pfeiffer may have to abandon the house, ride the bus away from all this. It is not an unpleasant thought.
The backyard and the garage have softened in the golden haze of late afternoon. Mr. Pfeiffer sets a kitchen chair on the lank grass outside and sits, tipping back as the legs sink into the shaded soil.
A clothesline dips across the rear of the yard. The ordinary trees of his childhood are bigger. Mr. Pfeiffer gazes at their spreading branches and wonders how other children might make use of them. A fort in the willow tree. A tire swing?
Toward evening, he roams through town, motherless, grown-up, the soles of his discount Shoe Palace shoes making a gritty sound on the sidewalk. He sees burger joints, donut shops—the types of stores where he would work. He passes the shoe store, a “Sorry We Missed You” sign hanging inside the door. He remembers the store; it is the kind that measures your foot and laces the shoes onto the customer’s feet. Where they bend down and press a thumb against the end of the toe to check for proper fit and ask, “How does that feel?”
He is passing the Quickie Mart, thinking he wouldn’t want to work in such a place with all the ruddy-faced men dashing in for liquor and what-have-you after work when he hears his name, “Ey! Mr. Pfeiffer!” shouted from the parking lot. It’s Wade, leaning against a red car with wide tires. Wade bends to say something to the boy in sunglasses in the driver’s seat, then strides across the lot to Mr. Pfeiffer.
“Favor, man? Think you could get us some brews?” He holds out a five-dollar bill and smiles, making the smallest effort to charm.
If Mr. Pfeiffer says no, there might be unpleasantness. Or if he says no, Wade might not return to work in the garage. Mr. Pfeiffer is surprised that this seems like a loss.
Wordlessly, Mr. Pfeiffer takes the money. He stands in line holding the very cold cans of beer, and then he is riding in the backseat of the red car. He feels awfully low, close to the street. Wade is recounting an exploit to the driver. Jensen, he’s called. Mr. Pfeiffer wishes they wouldn’t drink the beer in the car. They drop him off in front of his house and squeal away, with Wade shouting out the window that he’ll be over later.
He’ll be over later.
Mr. Pfeiffer feels drawn now to the back of the house, to the windows that look out into the yard. The rear fence and the sides of the garage are dense with calla lilies, their tight white blossoms beginning to unroll, their leaves a green so dark they seem to contain the shade.
He returns to the breakfast table where the most urgent bills are now on top. Might there be something he could sell? To give him more time? But there is nothing of value in the painted furniture or the thick round rugs his mother chose so carefully from the J.C. Penney’s catalog.
The best he can do is cut expenses and get the house sold. He will let Wade have the car; otherwise the boy will want cash. He will ask Wade to do a few things first, such as dig out the big, dead shrub at the foot of the front steps, hammer out the dents in the mailbox, and fill in the ruts in the driveway.
The red car returns, dropping off Wade and a girl whose flat tender belly shows. Her hair, the color of pennies, is cut in tufts. Wade becomes busy with the engine, doesn’t pay her much attention, which is probably why after a while she comes and knocks on the back door.
“Mind if I use the phone?” she asks, then steps past Mr. Pfeiffer and shoots a look around the kitchen. “Huh,” she says.
She phones Jensen to come and get her, sits down at the table, makes herself at home. A girl in his kitchen? Her shirt is too short. Her hair, bizarre. Her expression, near fatally bored. Mr. Pfeiffer knows that this is the way with teens. Maybe he should have something to offer these kids to eat.
“It’s hot as fuck out there,” this girl says. She is looking down at the table, rocking a teaspoon back and forth on the yellow oilcloth. “Say,” she says, looking up. “Has there been a girl come by here? Frizzy blonde hair? Name of Denise?”
Mr. Pfeiffer is distressed by her language, but keeps his cool. He counteracts her lapse with dignity. “I have not seen such a girl. In the event that I do, shall I tell her you asked after her?”
“You kidding, Jeeves? You shall not!”
Soon Jensen arrives and she is gone with a roar and a screech.
Others come, mainly boys, who lean into the engine with their beer cans, play loud music and now and then cast looks back at the house. Girls come and go with the boys. They are apparently inessential when the boys have each other, but who knows what goes on outside of this yard? At night, for example.
Whenever one of the teenagers approaches the backdoor, Mr. Pfeiffer feels his heart rise up and beat in his head. He is unsure if this is fear or hope. But the teenagers come and go without threat or overture.
Wade has begun leaving his tools overnight in the garage, his shirt thrown over a bush. Mr. Pfeiffer sets two old wooden chairs in the yard, close to the kitchen chair he brought out the first night. He spends some time with their arrangement. Facing each other looks intentional, lined up looks too ordered. Finally, he achieves something that looks like happenstance.
By now, a week has passed, and he must head back to St. Louis to look for work while he has the money for his return ticket. He is fretting about this when the man from Shipner and Stout’s calls again, asking Mr. Pfeiffer to come claim his mother’s ashes. He has set out once before and turned back, not ready to be handed his mother’s remains.
“Yes, of course,” Mr. Pfeiffer says, then hangs up and walks directly out the door and up the sidewalk before he talks himself out of it. It’s just that he is afraid of his mother’s ashes. What will he do with them? Ride with them in his lap back to St. Louis? And how undignified to carry them across town like a sack of groceries. But he is ashamed to ask if they can be delivered, and worried that there will be a charge for this, not to mention a much bigger bill to pay.
All this causes him to gradually circle back to the house where the kids are. He perches on a chair in the yard to rest. Wade wipes his face on his shirtsleeve and nods to him. The others look at him impassively. Going in the backdoor he hears a newcomer say something about “the old fart,” hears Wade say, “Fuck off, man.”
Later, Mr. Pfeiffer washes out his white shirts in the deep sink on the utility porch and hangs them on the line, clamping weathered clothespins along the hem. It feels good, almost comfortable, to be busy with something while the kids cluster around their own project. They hand Wade tools and try to best each other in stories of car repair triumphs.
There is sun on the back of Mr. Pfeiffer’s neck and a pungent smell of broken leaves. He doesn’t want to go indoors where nothing changes and it is tick-tock quiet. The yard has possibilities. He begins to imagine small improvements and goes a bit far. A pond, he thinks. A pond with fish. What is a pond, after all, but a hole in the ground with water?
Yes, he, too, will have a project. Feeling a rare energy, he approaches the garage. “Wade, have you seen a shovel around?” he asks. It comes out sounding chummy and natural.
Wade’s ratchet wrench doesn’t pause. “Front of the house, where I dug out the bush,” he calls from beneath the car.
Out of boredom, or to kill time waiting for Wade, Jensen and another boy lean against the garage and watch Mr. Pfeiffer begin a modest hole in the center of the lawn.
“What’re you doing there?” Jensen asks.
When Mr. Pfeiffer announces his intention, Jensen says, “Lemme see that a sec,” and motions for the shovel. The other boy tells Mr. Pfeiffer he shouldn’t be playing in the dirt wearing his fancy clothes.
“This is all I brought with me,” he tells them. Wade, taking a cigarette break, plucks one of his shirts off a bush and tosses it to him. Mr. Pfeiffer puts it on over his short-sleeved shirt. It is soft and smells of cigarettes and motor oil. The kids look at him in Wade’s red and black plaid shirt and laugh, not affectionately, but not cruelly either. It’s the laughter of people who know a thing or two about you.
The young people take over the pond project, digging, throwing dirt at each other, lying down in the excavation with their arms crossed over their chests in eternal repose.
Mr. Pfeiffer is reminded of his mother at Shipner and Stout’s. He hasn’t forgotten her by any means. He pictures her now, nosing her Rambler into the garage as she arrives home from work. Why had they never eaten dinner outside? He imagines laying out silverware on a picnic table while in the kitchen his mother prepares a scaled-down version of one of her cafeteria creations, to be carried out on a tray. They could have had a picnic table. Why not?
He must take care of his mother. And the bills. The bills he thought he could ignore acquire a new urgency, as Mr. Pfeiffer realizes, with a clarity that rarely visits him, that he wants to stay right here. To live his life, to relive his life, here in this house. He is surprised by this. But it is so, and of course it means he must find work again. He prefers not to think about what will happen when work on the car is complete, when Wade and his friends can pile into it and drive away.
A job is easier to think about. To work at a place where he will be unknown and overlooked, he can no longer abide. Perhaps he could be a crossing guard who shepherds children safely across the road. He’d protect the quiet, clumsy ones who walk head-down behind the clusters of backpacks. But Mr. Pfeiffer is no longer sure he’d spot the right children.
In the evening he sits in the yard on one of the chairs and gives more thought to all this. Wade takes a seat next to him, hands him an icy, silver can of beer. Mr. Pfeiffer wonders how they get “sixers” when he doesn’t ride with Jensen down to the Quickie Mart. He tastes the beer, bubbles stinging the roof of his mouth, its light sour taste expanding in his throat. He likes the companionable feeling of sitting with someone who is also drinking and thinking.
“You staying here, you think?” Wade asks.
“Perhaps. However, there are some problems with that idea,” Mr. Pfeiffer says, feeling the relief of confession.
“Like money owed is the main thing, I guess,” Mr. Pfeiffer says, gently squeezing the sides of the can and considering his small savings account in St. Louis.
“Yep, always money,” Wade agrees, standing up and draining his beer, then pitching it at the garbage can.
Mr. Pfeiffer thinks, What if Wade got a job, as a mechanic, say, and rented a room? Maybe some of these other kids need a place to stay, cheap. Maybe they could pay something.
No, he decides, immediately. He likes things the way they are. Almost like friends who come and then go, leaving the memory that they’ve been there. And since this has happened, the possibility that it may happen again.
“How is the car coming along?” Mr. Pfeiffer asks.
“Head gasket’s on, got it all put back together. Gotta round up some tires somewhere, but I got some ideas about that.” Wade turns and looks at Mr. Pfeiffer suspiciously. “It’s mine, right? And you got the papers on it?”
“Yes, but I ask for two things in exchange,” Mr. Pfeiffer says. Wade opens his mouth to protest, but Mr. Pfeiffer holds his ground. What he wants is simple for a boy like Wade. “I would like you to help finish the pond,” he tells him. Their heads turn in tandem to the gouge in the center of the lawn and the small piles of dirt heaped around it. Mr. Pfeiffer watches Wade gauge what it will take to finish it.
“I’m going to need a ride.”
Mr. Pfeiffer is familiar with the backseat of Jensen’s low-slung car with its thunderous muffler. Such cars full of hooting teenagers often passed him on his walks home from school. Now he is being taken to Shipner and Stout’s to collect his mother. Jensen and Wade have never been to a funeral home. They laugh easily, like they’re going to a party.
The ride has jogged loose a stopper in Mr. Pfeiffer. He is awash in memories, recalling his mother vividly now. She is in the car beside him, her white cardigan over her shoulders connected by the silver chain. He can feel her wide hand patting his knee. There, there, now, son.
Life could have been entirely different; he could have had all kinds of childhoods there in that house with his mother. And she with him. It is a sweet regret that is oddly cheering.
Wade and Jensen wear black tee shirts, Jensen’s has a slogan Mr. Pfeiffer doesn’t understand. They peer and point into the visitation rooms as they saunter after the small undertaker. Mr. Pfeiffer and the boys take seats in front of the desk where a large box of tissues is pushed to the edge near them.
A folder is opened and the man makes marks here and there. He tells Mr. Pfeiffer that his mother had long ago pre-paid her expenses, but that there is still the matter of the . . . Wade stands up, “What kinda bullshit is that? It’s paid for, or it’s not.” The man smiles indulgently and begins an explanation about fluctuating costs and dates of agreement, while Wade paces impatiently. Mr. Pfeiffer motions Wade to sit down, but really he is touched. He writes the man a check and in return is handed a large waxed box labeled: Adele Marie Pfeiffer.
On the way out, Jensen disappears.
Wade and Mr. Pfeiffer wait in the car. “Why’d you give in to that little shit?” Wade chides.
Mr. Pfeiffer shrugs and tells him that the check will bounce, which makes Wade nod, impressed. “Yeah,” he laughs, “what’s he going to do, repossess her?” Then he stops himself. “Sorry, dude, that was harsh.”
Jensen dives in, breathless. “Didn’t you want to see where they work on the bodies? They got hoses and drains in the floor, man!” He pulls away from the curb as if he’s being chased.
Wade points at the box of ashes in Mr. Pfeiffer’s lap. “What next?” he asks. Mr. Pfeiffer is at a loss. All he can summon are TV images of Princess Diana’s funeral, which bring to mind her tomb on an island in the middle of a private lake.
When Wade arrives the next day he brings two tires, a folded tarp, and a small workforce with shovels. Girls show up, sensing something festive. Even the kitchen girl and her frizzy-haired rival appear.
Wade is eager to be done here, Mr. Pfeiffer thinks. He will not like what Mr. Pfeiffer is about to ask for. He follows Wade, who is rolling a tire to the garage. After he leans it against the wall, Mr. Pfeiffer says, “Wade, I would like for the pond to have an island.”
“What!” Wade puts his hands on his hips and glares. “Not fair.”
“I am thinking of putting Mother’s ashes there,” Mr. Pfeiffer says quietly.
Wade frowns at the ground. Mr. Pfeiffer can see he is figuring out how much work it would take. Wade lifts his head and looks at his crew. “I’m not gonna make any promises.”
The kids excavate with gusto, the idea of death seeming to add relish to their work. Three or four dig at a time, goading each other with crude comments. A few girls take turns with the shovels, shaking the dirt out of their sandals afterward. Kids need a project, Mr. Pfeiffer guesses. He feels entitled to sit nearby and watch.
Two Quickie Mart bags have spilled over in front of a Styrofoam cooler. “You need a table out here,” the girl with penny-colored tufts grouses, righting the bags and rummaging for a snack.
Later, when Mr. Pfeiffer is inside making a sandwich, car doors slam and engines start. Looking out, he sees the yard empty, a breeze lifting the corner of the blue tarp. He sets his sandwich on the counter and goes outside. The cars are gone, but important items remain—the cooler, the shovels, the Rambler. An assortment of sweatshirts cast off in the heat of work decorate the bushes. Mr. Pfeiffer inspects the hole. It is three feet deep and eight feet in diameter; earthworms poke out of the moist sides, wriggling in exposure. The dark soil that has been removed is mounded in rich, fragrant heaps. All this has been beneath the hard surface and lackluster grass. Perhaps it can be spread in the old flowerbeds along the side fence, where a few roses struggle on.
Looking at the hole, Mr. Pfeiffer is relieved that his mother will not be in one. He tries to imagine an island now, uncertain how or if Wade will form one. It occurs to him all at once that an island is just that—an island. A lone thing.
Mr. Pfeiffer is moving soil to the flowerbeds one shovelful at a time when the kids come back, first the red car, then two others. They file into the yard, pushing each other and arguing about who collected the most rocks, which are the best rocks, who was the most daring in making off with them. Mr. Pfeiffer smells beer as they collect around the pond where Wade directs lining the hole with the tarp. Others carry rocks from the car trunks, creating a big pile of stones of varying shapes and sizes.
Wade shows Mr. Pfeiffer three metal classroom wastebaskets with Percy Union School District stenciled on the sides. “We’re gonna put these suckers in the center and fill them with dirt and rocks. It’ll poke up out of the water a bit. You can put something on top if you want. Or add more dirt and grow something. Suit you?”
Mr. Pfeiffer nods, impressed. “Clever,” he says, pausing a moment before adding, “I am sorry to have put you to any trouble, but I have changed my mind about the island.” Wade rolls his eyes and sighs in exasperation, but it is clear that he is relieved. “I do very sincerely thank you for your efforts,” Mr. Pfeiffer continues. “You’ll excuse me though, please. I really must take care of something inside.”
“You’re stuck with a fuckload of rocks then, Mr. P!” Wade calls after him.
The kids are securing the edge of the tarp along the rim of the pond with rocks, arguing about whether or not it will hold. “You nimrods! Fold the edge under before you put the rocks on!” Wade tells them.
In the house Mr. Pfeiffer goes to his mother’s room to fetch her ashes from the top of her dressing table where he placed them when he returned from the funeral home. It seemed the logical place. Now he picks up the box and brings it to the living room. Adele Marie Pfeiffer. The contents shift as he carries the box and he is surprised again by the heft of the ashes. He wonders if they weigh what a newborn might.
He sets the box carefully on the mantle and sits down in the armchair beside it. He hadn’t expected to spend time with his mother in this manner. He hadn’t thought he would want to.
Mr. Pfeiffer is thinking now about how he will take care of all this. About work, of course. About what it might be like to take someone’s warm foot in his hand and slide a pump onto it, and check for fit. To watch the customer walk around a bit, tentative at first as she pauses before the floor level mirror. To listen to her concerns; to offer his counsel.
There are shouts and squeals from the backyard, the sound of water running. They’ve got the hose going now. Before long there will be a small body of water.