Fiction by Jeremy Broyles
Setting up the flowers was Dixie’s favorite part of her new job at the Wendell Funeral Home. Nothing could undo what disease or unlucky accident had done to those lying within open caskets or handed over to grieving loved ones as boxes of ashes that had once been bodies, but flowers—if only for a moment—made the impossible enterprise of saying goodbye a bit less impossible. Everybody loved flowers, even at a funeral.
Dixie walked this particular wreath of blue and white blossoms—she knew nothing of names, only that all were pretty and impermanent—to the head of Mr. Neil whose craggy, pitted nose jutted up and out of the plush white coffin that would close down on him forever in a few hours more. The dead did not frighten Dixie. They were stiff and silent, but they were still just people.
“Put yours down by his feet at the other end,” Dixie said to her daughter, Deborah, who had volunteered to help with this afternoon’s setup. “Put it at a little bit of an angle so it’s like the flowers are holding Mr. Neil. Just like that. Perfect.” And it was. The two wreaths would carry him away.
“Is that everything?” Deborah asked. “I want to get back home.”
“I wish you’d stay. I thought tonight we could go out to dinner together.”
“I already told you I couldn’t. Besides, Mom, there aren’t that many restaurants in this town, and none of them are worth spending money on.”
“But you love C and C’s,” Dixie said.
“When I was eight years old, Mom. Even then, it was only the cheese crisp I liked. How hard is it to melt cheese on a tortilla? Angie and I can do better for cheaper on our own.”
“So there’s nothing I can say to change your mind?”
Her daughter, now unrecognizable from the one she’d raised, crossed in front of Mr. Neil and his coffin to kiss her on the right cheek. “Not a thing,” she said and left the chapel by the back door secreted to the side.
Dixie followed, but Deborah was already at her car with keys in hand. “I’ve been here a few weeks now,” she said. “Mr. Wendell has taken good care of me. I could treat us to dessert. You must still like fried ice cream.”
“I got everything I came for,” Deborah said as she flashed the manila envelope containing her birth certificate, “and I made good on my promise to help you. We’re square, Mom. I’ll talk to you soon.” She put the envelope in the back pocket of the ugly, belted jeans that were the only thing Dixie saw her wear anymore and opened her door.
“Okay. I love you, Debbie.”
Her daughter stopped with only one leg tucked into the car. She shook her head toward the floorboards. “That’s not my name anymore, Mom, and you know it’s not.” She spoke toward the floorboards too.
“Of course it is,” Dixie said. “I’m the one who gave it to you. I knew who you were before anyone else in this whole world. Even you.”
“Maybe,” said Deborah, and that was her name, “but you don’t know me anymore.”
Then she was in her car and gone with a chirp of her tires as she accelerated out of Wendell’s parking lot and toward the highway that would take her down the hill to Phoenix and the woman she called her wife. Dixie didn’t care who loved her daughter or who her daughter loved, but why did she have to be someone different from who she was for that love to fit? She was Deborah, and there was nothing at all wrong with that. Dixie was never going to call her own daughter Alex no matter what paperwork she filed.
Back inside, Mr. Wendell was waiting for her. His ill-fitting suit draped from his slight shoulders down to the heels of his thumbs. His shoes needed to be polished too. But his soft face, which drooped like his jacket, was as warm as Dixie had come to expect. “Is everything okay?” he asked. “You look a little vexed.”
“It’s nothing,” she said. “Thank you for asking though.”
“Nothing,” Mr. Wendell said. He smiled more in the folded skin around his eyes than in his mouth. “It’s never nothing when it comes to our children, is it?”
“No,” Dixie said, and she smiled too, “I guess it’s not.”
She’d known of Mr. Wendell nearly all her life. Big Bug, Arizona, was big only in name. She didn’t like to think of the town as small; after all, stature could be built by more than just population. The town, she’d decided, was an intimate one. But that intimacy meant there were no hiding places, and secrets did not stay secret long. When Dexter left her, she’d become Big Bug’s favorite orphan. The townspeople treated her to humiliating condolences and fitted her with “poor”; her very name had been replaced with “poor thing” or “poor dear” that they didn’t bother to muffle behind a whisper. All those years with Dexter she’d been in possession of a currency she didn’t know she had until it was gone. Now she felt the pinch of her poverty in every somber headshake people saved for death—of bodies or of marriages. She felt so much less than what she used to be it was like she wasn’t a person anymore. Not a whole one. Not a wife. She was still a mother though, but it was to a daughter who felt less and less like her own.
Within that messy, inescapable intimacy, at the butcher’s counter of Downen’s Market, she’d had her first real conversation with Mr. Wendell. They’d shared pleasantries about meat orders—he was picking up chops for the family while she was having come chuck ground. As they spoke, he looked at her and not all the places where more of her had once been. Before he walked off with the prize of a family meal wrapped in heavy paper and cradled into the crook of his elbow, he told her—without pity in his voice—to let him know if he could ever do anything to help. While she waited for her own humble dinner—without Dexter, her poverty was also now literal—to be packaged, she decided that the most human of all the people in Big Bug was the one who spent the most time around the dead.
“Just remember,” Mr. Wendell said to her now as the preparations for Mr. Neil’s funeral neared completion, “you can let me know if you need anything.”
“I will, Mr. Wendell. Thank you.”
“I don’t suppose I’m ever going to be just Alan to you, am I?”
“I don’t suppose so,” Dixie said. “I know Mr. Neil is waiting on us, but could I ask a question of you?”
“I was just curious if you’d considered clearing the stock of urns out of that one room. It might give you some extra space for an office or a place to sit and talk with folks’ families.”
“What stock of urns do you mean?”
“Just right over here,” Dixie said.
Wendell’s Funeral Home was nothing more than a misplaced piece of colonial architecture that looked all the more absurd for its placement in the American Southwest. Some homesick Puritan must have left behind the beloved North Atlantic several decades ago out of desperation for the riches of the desert—silver in Nevada, copper in Arizona, and, God willing, gold in the ground of both. It was unlikely any of those riches came to be, so perhaps that nameless Puritan using what money could be cobbled together built this house as a reminder of that homeland—bouldered and leafed greens and oranges and yellows—out here in the wilds of the waterless, sand-smoothed West. How that home, then, came to belong to the Wendells was another mystery Dixie did not know. But at some point, a crucial wall was knocked out and a chapel sutured on to the hole to turn this house into a funeral home. Dixie led Mr. Wendell through what would have been a sitting room on the other side of which was a closed door. She turned the knob and gestured to the cramped shelving stacked with urns—all lidded and still in the unlit room.
“These ones,” Dixie said. “I thought you could use the room if you could find another home for them all.”
“Dixie,” Mr. Wendell said, “this isn’t unused stock.” He stepped into the room, turned on the light, and pulled her inside with him. They couldn’t fit more than a couple of steps beyond the threshold before the shelving, and the urns they held, blocked their path. “These are the folks who go unclaimed.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that from time to time, a person’s ashes aren’t claimed by anyone. It’s illegal for funeral homes to dispose of human remains, so we’ve just kept them here in this room since back when my daddy owned this home.”
“People don’t come get their people?”
There were dozens upon dozens of urns in the room, and every one of them held somebody. What she thought was an empty room turned out to be filled with people—all of them in jars like the cookies she used to secret away from Deborah until after she’d eaten her dinner, vegetables and all.
“Mr. Wendell?” she said. “This might be the lonesomest place I’ve ever seen.”
# # #
Dixie had never bothered to get her driver’s license; she’d had her older sister when she was younger. Dexter came along not long after and, in short order, had given up on trying to teach her the intricacies of the manual transmission after she filled the cab of his truck with the acrid smell of burnt clutch during their first and only driving lesson. Deborah had been an eager chauffer after she had taken to stick shift with an enthusiastic talent Dixie lacked. She’d been content to ride in the passenger seat, making conversation about the scenery smearing outside her window. Now, however, no one was left to drive her anywhere, so Dixie walked. To the market, to Wendell’s, and back home again. Her feet still blistered, usually at her left heel, but she’d learned to wear an extra pair of socks to soak up the blood before her shoes stained.
Tonight’s walk was a guilty one. She tried to focus on Mr. Neil as she thought he deserved. After all, no one would ever see his face again except in the memories that had already been made. So, as had become her custom, Dixie studied his face from above before anyone arrived, and she noted the tuft of brown hair atop his head holding out against the white. But Mr. Neil looked an old man, and she hoped his long life had gone unhaunted by regrets. For all her staring earlier in the day, however, Mr. Neil was forced to the back of her thoughts like an exorcised ghost. She walked the dirt shoved to the side of Big Bug’s craggy roads thinking hard on the people now cremated and contained in jars on shelves within a room no one visited.
The long, skinny tubes of perpendicular neon green and pink framed the windows of all eight units belonging to Duncan’s Restaurant, Gift Shop, and Motel, and arriving back to her home that wasn’t hers at all always came with a flinty kind of humiliation made all the more scraping by having to live at the place that had fired her. She didn’t know who at Duncan’s had tattled, and she doubted she ever would. Not that it mattered. She couldn’t deny what Mr. Duncan heard about her. She had, in fact, lain on the beds before she cleaned the rooms as she’d been hired to do.
“I can’t have that kind of laziness at my motel,” Mr. Duncan had said. “This isn’t a place for layabouts, Dixie, and I won’t be employing one.”
She’d done her best to explain it wasn’t laziness at all, and even though she lay, she didn’t lay about. Dixie just wanted to see what the customer was going to see, and that customer was going to see it from the bed. She had learned to capture the face of those in open coffins by first capturing the image of the room so as to know how it should be cleaned. Mr. Duncan, though, was a wooden man who would not yield. He said she could go on staying in unit eight at the employee rate, but she would no longer be an employee. She unlocked the door to home, such as it was, and looked forward to being off her feet.
“Dixie?” Mr. Duncan’s voice jolted her from behind. “I’d like to talk to you for a minute.”
She put her keys—also not hers; they were loaned to her from Duncan’s and Wendell’s—back in her handbag. “Of course, Mr. Duncan. How are you this evening?”
“I’ve thought on it for a spell,” he said, “and decided at the beginning of the month, you’ll need to pay the full rate for the room.”
“The full rate? But we had an agreement. You gave me your word, Mr. Duncan.”
“And I kept it. Now I’m giving you a different word, and I aim to keep that one too.”
“I can’t afford the full rate though. I can barely afford the current one.”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something. Everyone says you’re a clever gal.” Mr. Duncan was the kind of ugly that used to be handsome. But too much weight in the belly and thick around the jowls squatted him down into a round, heavy ugliness. Dixie imagined he was prettier as he slept when nothing was left to grab him and pull.
“Mr. Duncan,” Dixie said, “please don’t do this. I won’t have anywhere to go.”
He scrunched his face into a soggy frown. “No need to be lying, dear Dixie. You and me both know you got family down in Phoenix. Didn’t you stay with your sister after Dexter run off with that new twist of his?” Bonnie would never have her; she’d said as much in no uncertain terms when Dixie had returned to Big Bug. Not that Dixie minded. She would live in trees or in graveled wash beds before she would return to her sister and the suffocating shame she provided. “That’s what I thought. Just remember to pay your new rate or get out of my motel. I don’t much care which.”
“Mr. Duncan?” Dixie said to stop him turning away from her. “When the time comes, I promise to remember your face even if no one comes to claim you.”
# # #
Her feet howled at every step; they had grown accustomed to an entire night’s rest before making the walk back to Wendell’s. She ignored the pain and the stickiness at her heel that could only be a bleeding blister unable to coagulate. Dixie needed to make a phone call, and only Wendell’s would provide the privacy she needed. She locked the front door behind her and navigated through the dark to the bedroom Mr. Wendell had repurposed into his office. She switched on the small lamp and dialed Dexter’s number collect.
“Good evening.” The operator’s voice came through the receiver like blood through a sock. “May I please have the name of the person making this collect call.”
“Please wait.” The ringing line chirruped once, then twice, then again before Dexter answered.
“Good evening. You have a collect call from Dixie. Will you accept the charges?”
His sigh was heavy enough to carry air through the line itself. “Fine,” Dexter said.
“Thank you for using Bell Communications. You may begin your conversation now.”
“Hello, Dexter,” Dixie said as the operator disconnected with a click.
“It’s late, Dixie.”
“I know. I’m sorry about that.”
“I don’t need your apology. I need to know why you’re calling me.”
“To get right at it,” Dixie said, “I’m calling to collect from you.”
“Are we going to go through this again?”
“You owe me, Dexter Wiseman. Don’t you pretend that you don’t. After you humiliated me, embarrassed me with your galivanting with that woman whose name I won’t even speak. After you said the words ‘until death do us part’ and here you are. Still alive. I’m here to collect.”
“I know you’re still raw, Dixie, and I suppose you’ve earned that. I could have handled things differently. But you and me? We weren’t happy, and we hadn’t been in a very long time. I wasn’t out galivanting. I was looking for happiness. I found it too. You may not believe this, but when I left, I did the last thing I could for you so you could find your own happiness.”
It had been a favor then. His affair with a much younger woman that everyone in town knew about before she did wasn’t because he was following the tug of his own searching zipper; it was because he wanted her, his wife of twenty-four years, to be happy. That meant she was all wrong again because, to hear him tell it, Dixie was indebted.
“I expect payment in two forms,” she said. “Pay up and I promise to leave you to your happiness.”
“That’s something I’d like to see with my own eyes,” Dexter said. “Name your terms.”
“First, I need money to stay at Duncan’s.”
“Jesus, Dixie. You’re still living in that roach motel?”
She carried on, ignoring his question. “You’ll pay my room rate until I can save up enough to get a place of my own. Second, you will talk to our daughter about this name-change nonsense. She still listens to you for reasons I can’t explain, so you will set her straight. Her name is Deborah. That’s the name her mother gave her, and that’s the name she should keep until she’s dead and buried. You make her remember and we’re square.”
No more air came across the line. No words floated on breath. So Dixie waited. He’d made this mess then left her to live in it alone. The time had come for him to clean it up.
“Alex,” he said, and his slow enunciation punctuated the name with a needling ignominy that watered Dixie’s eyes, “has moved on with her life. I have moved on with my life. You need to move on with yours.”
With that, Dexter hung up from somewhere in Phoenix in a house he shared with a woman who was not the one he had sworn himself to. Dixie was that woman, and, sitting alone in an office that wasn’t hers, she put the inert receiver back in its cradle gently enough that the little bell somewhere under the rotary dial didn’t so much as chime. She turned off the lamp and went still. No one was coming to claim her.
The front door of Wendell’s Funeral Home opened and a series of houselights switched on. Despite being well out of sight, Dixie ducked down behind the tidy desk. The squeak of an axle needing oil wheeled away from her and the front door. She snuck forward, biting her lip to keep from wincing each time her left foot took its turn. Dixie followed the lights that led her all the way to the room with the unclaimed urns.
The gardener’s wheelbarrow had been parked just at the open door, and several urns had been placed inside. She didn’t bother with sneaking any longer. Instead, Dixie limped to the urns and reached out to touch one the color of coal.
“Dixie,” Mr. Wendell said. Her name came out of his mouth as a yelp. “My word but you gave me a fright. What are you doing here at this time of night?”
“I had a phone call to make,” she said. “It went poorly.” Mr. Wendell hugged four more urns to his chest. “What are you doing with all these people, Mr. Wendell?”
“Dixie, please understand. They aren’t people anymore. These are just containers filled with ash.”
“You’re throwing them out.”
“I’ve been thinking about what you said. It was a good idea you had. Don’t you think it would be better to have a place to talk to living people instead of keeping a closed-off closet filled with dead ones?”
“But you told me it’s illegal for you to throw them out.”
He smiled again with his eyes, but it was the first time Dixie thought maybe he didn’t smile at all. Maybe his skin had aged into this particular wrinkled form that only looked like a smile. After all, he never showed his teeth. “No one will miss them, Dixie. No one will even know they’re gone.”
She reached into the wheelbarrow and gathered as many urns as she could before hurrying out the room toward the front door. Where she was going she did not know, but she knew she wasn’t leaving these people to be tossed out by Mr. Wendell. The front door was closed, and she didn’t have a hand free to open it, but the bigger problem was her left foot struggling to keep pace. Then it could no longer, and Dixie staggered to the floor, catching herself on hands and knees as the urns scattered their contents into a carbon-grey slick where scooping up an Alexander from an Alexandria, or just plain Alex, would have been as impossible as reassembling the ashes themselves into the person they used to be.
“Dixie? Are you all right? Let me help you up.”
She ignored the hand he held out to her as she sat back onto her heels away from the mess she had made. “I’ll do it,” she said. “You head home. You shouldn’t be here for this.”
“I’m good at cleaning, remember? When you get here tomorrow, it’ll be done. No one will ever know.”
“I can’t ask you to do that for me,” Mr. Wendell said.
“This isn’t a favor,” Dixie said. “I’ll clear out that room, but you’re going to let me stay there until I can save enough for a place of my own. Agreed?”
“Okay, Dixie.” His words caught like the rumpled cloth of an ill-fitting suit.
“Then we’re square,” Dixie said. “Head home, Mr. Wendell, so I can get to work.” He left the funeral home without another word, and Dixie listened for the sound of his car to disappear into the thinning night.
Dixie unfolded her legs from out beneath her and took off her left shoe. The sock pulled away with the sting and squelch of a new scab removed too soon, and she cupped a handful of the ashes against the oozing wound until her flesh was packed closed by their own.
“I’m sorry,” she said to them, “but I have nowhere else to go.”
The broom and dustpan were in the pantry, and Dixie was fairly sure Mr. Wendell kept the vacuum cleaner in a closet upstairs. That’s where she would start, but not for a minute or two yet. This would be a long night, and her hurting feet needed a bit of rest.