by Salvatore Difalco
My wife Karen and I caught a redeye from Toronto to San Francisco for her brother Graham’s memorial service. He’d died the week before after a two-year battle with colon cancer, and had been cremated. Shortly before he passed, he made it known that he wanted his ashes scattered near the Golden Gate Bridge, on a strip of beach where, before getting ill, he liked sitting zazen.
That morning we were joined on the beach, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, by my mother-in-law Marilyn, Graham’s ex-wives Lily and Brenda, his daughters Chloe and Izzy, and his son Willy. Sunny but windy, the Golden Gate Bridge looked sinister against the sharp blue skies. Nearby Alcatraz loomed in high definition, ever ominous, surrounded by white-spiked waters. Maybe lack of sleep explained it, but the entire morning felt off.
Teary-eyed and morose, we huddled near the water. My mother-in-law, holding a brass urn, said a few words but I could hear nothing on account of the wind. When she finished speaking she uncapped the urn, turned it upside down and shook it violently. Amid the swirling ashes, I watched a shard of bone drop out of the urn, not far from my mother-in-law’s feet. Caught up in their grief and the maelstrom of ashes, no one else noticed. As everyone turned and hurried off to the vehicles, I snatched up the shard—about two inches long—and pocketed it.
I said nothing to Karen about it. I knew better. It would have either weirded her out or sparked a battle. That night, at the hotel, I examined the shard in the bathroom. Dark-edged and dry as chalk, I had no idea which part of Graham it represented. Could have been a piece of leg bone, the femur perhaps, or part of a rib. Seemed too thick to be skull. I sniffed it, then stashed it in my toiletry kit. The smell—of char and vaguely fecal—stayed with me when I finally went to bed.
“You okay?” my wife asked.
“I’m okay,” she said. “Gammy’s at peace now.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Goodnight, Karen.”
We touched lips and she turned her back to me. She hated sleeping face to face; not that my breath reeked, but the heat of it annoyed her.
A lot of things about me had started annoying her around the time Graham got sick. The way I dressed. How I ate. The way I walked. The way I sat. I couldn’t do anything right and everything I said caused offense. And rather than softening her antipathy toward me, grief for her brother had sharpened her teeth and claws.
Unable to hush my brain, I lay there awake for a time, a million random thoughts bashing around like bumper cars. Karen had fallen asleep, her thin body motionless. She never moved a muscle when she slept, strangest thing. After an hour of accelerating cogitation, I got up in a sweat and went to the bathroom. I hit the light and started. I looked completely fucked up. I splashed cold water on my face, took a drink from the tap and toweled off. Then I unzipped my toiletry kit.
I had liked and respected Graham. He was a decent brother-in-law, and we’d shared a love of film noire and NFL football among other things. Before he moved to San Francisco he’d lived in Brooklyn for a time and I had enjoyed several stays with him, his second wife Lily and my nephew Willy in their brownstone apartment. But family conflicts arose that kept him aloof for a few years until he fell ill, and even then it took considerable coaxing from Karen for him to make peace with his parents.
I looked at the bone shard again. It struck me as something almost comical: holding a piece of my brother-in-law’s bone in a hotel bathroom. A practising Buddhist, I wondered if he would have found some humour in all this. I wrapped the shard with tissue paper and put it back in the kit, intending to dispose of it before we left. I returned to bed and finally managed to fall asleep.
We spent two more days in San Francisco with the family. Tensions were high. The kids quarreled over things Graham had left for them. Izzy wanted his I-phone. Chloe would have none of it. Graham’s ex-wives bickered over a book, Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry—a surprising contest. Marilyn broke everyone’s balls. Karen and I barely talked on the last day, a drizzly affair that chilled the bones and tanked the spirits. I never thought San Francisco could be so cold.
The flight back to Toronto was delayed, apparently for a terrorist threat that twelve hours later was deemed a miscommunication. Finally Karen and I boarded our plane. We spent the flight in stony silence, her occasional glances barbed with contempt.
“Just say whatever the fuck is on your mind,” I told her as quietly as I could.
“I hate you,” she said, before storming off to the lavatory.
The words stung. I had no idea what prompted them. Maybe I was approaching our rift all wrong. A soft touch was needed. She said nothing when she returned.
After disembarking we headed to Canada Customs. When the officer asked if I had anything to declare I said I did not. I hadn’t so much as purchased a keychain in San Francisco. Karen also had nothing to declare. The only memento of Graham she’d secured was a clay Buddha statuette. Nevertheless, when we went through the scanners, a latex-gloved officer asked me to open my leather carry-on.
The officer immediately plucked out my toiletry kit and unzipped it. He found the clump of tissue paper, unrolled it and held Graham’s bone shard up to the fluorescent light.
“Sir,” the officer said, holding the shard at arm’s length, “what is this?”
I blinked hard. I didn’t know what to say. Or rather, how could I be truthful?
Karen looked at me, not with anger, or any visible emotion except maybe pity, and at that moment I knew why she had grown to hate me.
Salvatore Difalco is the author of 4 books. His short fiction has appeared in many print and online formats. He splits his time between Toronto and Palermo, Sicily.website: http://saldifalco.weebly.com