“Mike, Honey,” Mom came into my room. I was stirring, but not quite awake. Her face was covered with concern. I looked up and met her eyes. She was sad, but not panicked. Something bad had happened, but to someone else. “Sandy just called,” she continued, “Daniel’s dad passed away.” She went on to explain that Sandy had been the one to find Charlie. She had not heard from him after Charlie didn’t appear to pick Daniel up and take him shopping. This in itself was not terribly unusual given Charlie’s drinking, but without fail, Charlie called to apologize and make new promises when he eventually sobered up. Charlie never made that call, so Sandy went to check up on him.
She beat on the door first, no answer. The garage was closed and locked. No radio was playing, and she couldn’t hear the TV through the front door. The house was silent. Sandy let herself in using a key taped under one of the ashtrays and found Charlie face down on the kitchen floor. Vomit leaked from his mouth and dried on the linoleum. Charlie was cold to the touch.
Sandy called Jason first, then the authorities. Charlie was a chain smoking, alcoholic diabetic with a long history of self-neglect. The cause of death was at once obvious and a mystery.
“Wow,” I was always unsure of what to say in such circumstances. Somewhere in my childhood I had never developed empathy. I knew that I should feel sad, not for myself, but for Daniel, but I didn’t, not really. I understood that the loss of a parent is a point of demarcation in a life. Even though, by any measure, Charlie was a bad parent, Daniel’s suffering in grief would be profound. When I was with Daniel, I knew I would feel terrible for him, but here, in front of my mom, I could do no better than pretend. “How’s Sandy and Daniel,” I stammered.
“Sandy is too busy right now. You know Charlie didn’t have any living relatives. His parents are dead and he didn’t have any brothers or sisters.”
I wasn’t following her meaning. She sighed and thought for a second, “when someone dies, all their final bills have to be paid. You have to sell all their stuff and make sure that their will is followed and carried out. You have to plan a funeral and buy a grave if they don’t already have one. Death is a lot of work for the living. There’s an order that people follow when someone dies that determines who gets that job. So even though Sandy and Charlie got divorced years ago, Sandy has to sell the house and plan the funeral and all that other stuff.” She shrugged, “unless they want everything to go to the state.”
I groped around in my mind for a response, “shit,” was all I came up with.
“Yeah, Sandy doesn’t even know where to start. Daniel,” Mom rubbed her chin, “well we didn’t really talk about Daniel all that much now that I think about it.” She paused again and then shook her head, waving away whatever idea she’d had, “Sandy called to see if you’d help empty Charlie’s house. She offered to pay you, but I don’t think that you should take it.”
The thought of extra spending money was attractive. Shop and Save had gone on a hiring spree and there weren’t many hours to go around. “How much did she say they were goin’ to pay?” I asked.
“Michael,” She frowned at me, “I can’t believe…”
“I know.” She was right. Sandy and Jason housed and fed me at least half time for the better part of a decade. They treated me like their own son, and Sandy had never so much as asked me to clean up after myself. Now they needed help, and the thought of taking money from Sandy and Jason twisted my guts.
“Tell Sandy I’ll be there.” I threw my legs over the side of the bed.
“Oh, good,” Mom clapped her hands together in the approving way that mothers do when their children illustrate superior character. “Jason is on his way to pick you up. Get dressed.” She turned to go.
“Wait. Like right now?”
“Yep,” she grinned, “hope you didn’t have any plans.”
“Why did you bother to ask me if I couldn’t say no?”
“Because I wanted to give you a chance to make a good choice. Doesn’t it feel good?”
“But I didn’t really have a choice.”
“You could’ve said no, and I’d of made you go. But this way, you decided to go. You’re a good boy Mike.”
“Whatever,” I laughed, “guess I won’t be napping all day in bed.” I stretched and groaned.
Jason honked the horn from the main road. The U-Haul he was driving couldn’t navigate the switchback turn to the driveway. I ran to meet him where he was stopped.
“What’s up, man?” Jason seemed in good spirits all things considered. He looked tired.
“So, Charlie is dead huh?”
“Yep,” he put the truck in gear. “It was just a matter of time really.”
“I suppose so.” I stared blankly out the window and watched the trees blur passed. Jason lit a cigarette. I decided to chance asking for one.
“I knew you all had been stealing packs from me.” He laughed. “I never said anything to Sandy. She’d flip her shit.” He passed me the pack and the lighter pausing a moment to hold eye contact as the truck barreled down the road. “Not a word to Sandy.”
“Got it. Anyway, if Sandy finds out she’ll tell my mom and I’ll be dead as a door nail.” I mimed my lips locked and threw away the key. “So do they know what killed him?” I took a long drag, propped a foot up on the dash, and blew the smoke out the window.
Jason chuckled, “Shit man, take your pick. He smoked more than I do. Drank. You saw the empty cans right? If that combo didn’t kill him, then the diabetes did. Apart from all that, you know he wasn’t eating lots of leafy greens and shit. Beer for breakfast makes for a short life my man.”
“I guess so.”
“Anyway, we gotta empty that house so we can sell it.”
“Didn’t they just find him, like, yesterday?”
“Yeah, shit moves fast. I took a day off work for this.” Jason said with a little open resentment.
“Think we can get it all done today?”
“Not a clue. I think we should be able to. Only packing up the stuff we want to keep or sell. Hired some company to take everything we don’t put in this truck to the dump. By the end of the day tomorrow, everything should be cleaned out.”
“Think we will fit everything we are taking in this truck.”
“Aside from the Corvette, I don’t imagine Charlie had too much worth anything. It’s not exactly a seller’s market for Dale Earnhardt merchandise.”
Sandy’s car was already parked in front of the house when we emerged from the wooded tunnel of the road and crested the hill. The house already looked changed, though there was no apparent difference.
“Daniel’s not coming to help,” Jason said simply.
“I imagine he’s pretty upset about everything.”
“I’m not so sure,” Jason considered his next words carefully. “Either that or laziness. Daniel’s never been one for hard work.”
I nodded. “His dad did just die though.”
“Honestly Mike, I was there when Sandy told him. He didn’t seem too torn up about it.”
“What did he say? When he found out, I mean.”
“He just asked if he could go for a drive. Got in the car and left. Don’t know where to.” The truck brakes screeched and the gravel crunched under the tires.
“He likes to drive when he’s upset. I don’t mind helping out.” I popped the truck door and ran to hug Sandy. Her eyes were red and leaky. She had been crying. I wondered if she was trying to hide her sadness from Jason. I whispered my condolences in her ear.
“Where you want us to start babe?” Jason pecked Sandy on the cheek.
“Just start in the basement and work your way up. I unlocked the door for you.”
“Anything in particular we’re looking for? Are we trying to sell some shit or is it just the stuff we want to keep.”
“We gotta pay for the funeral Jason. Anything that’s valuable.” Sandy shielded her eyes from the high sun, “Aside from that, photos, heirlooms. I’ll come behind you and check.”
“Whatever is left the cleanup guys are taking to dump right?”
“Alright, man. Let’s get to it.” Jason threw the truck keys at my head. I ducked and put my hand up. The keys hit the ground behind me. Jason laughed, “shit man, I thought you were paying attention. Back it down around by the basement double doors.”
The basement was full to bursting. Dust heavy cardboard boxes were stacked chest high on each side of a narrow aisle from the basement doors to the stairs. Jason and I both stood scratching our heads, “holy shit.” Jason said, landing hard at the end of each syllable. “I’ve never been down here.”
I glanced from one pile of boxes to another, trying to understand what I was seeing, “Me neither. What do you think it is?”
“Hard to tell.” Jason stepped forward and grabbed the first box. “One way to find out.”
The boxes went quick, because almost none had anything of value. We made our way quickly, tossing the boxes of junk in the far corner near the door and widening our path to the opposite end of the basement. Jason and I shouted the contents of each box to the other. Jason determined if the contents of any box should be kept for Sandy, and I did the same for Daniel. We automatically tossed old magazines, and clothes, and we automatically saved any NASCAR merchandise (for Daniel) or photo albums (for Sandy).
“Dale Earnhardt collectible plate.”
“Quilt, slightly moth eaten, looks hand made.”
We continued on this way, shouting back and forth, until we had cleared all of the boxes, but moving the boxes along the back wall of the basement revealed a white slatted door, held closed by an undersized brass bolt.
“Is it a root cellar?” I asked.
“It’s dug in the side of the house that faces the road. Might be.” Jason reached forward and slid the bolt out of the door frame. The door opened into darkness. Jason pulled a chain that hung just to the left of the opening, and dim, yellow light dripped over the room. There were rows of mason jars stacked on crude wooden shelves. The packed dirt floor and the air were damp.
“Oh, no,” Jason pointed.
I followed his finger to a rust speckled, white refrigerator, “what do you think is in there?”
“Its plugged in” a brittle looking brown cable plugged into an extension cord trailed behind the ancient freezer.
Without thinking, I walked across the room and grabbed the door handle.
Jason said “I don’t hear it running,” at the exact moment I broke door’s seal.
Black water dribbled out onto the ground and its putrid smell filled the air before I could throw the door closed.
Jason and I gagged and fled the root cellar. Jason struggled to lock the bolt through the tears in his eyes.
“Whoa. Whew.” Jason laughed, “Wonder how long that’s been there.”
“Think we’ll let the cleaning guys take that.”
“I don’t know, Sandy might want it.” Jason laughed and pointed me toward the door. We sat on the truck bumper and Jason lit a cigarette before handing me the pack.
I took a deep drag and let out a sigh. “This has been a day.” The sun was sinking behind the trees. “Think Daniel will be alright?”
“I’m not sure, but if he’s not, it ain’t because his Dad died.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Look at you. You got a job already. Working and studying You’re pinching your pennies and saving up. You’re going to go to college. You know how to work. Really work.” The implication was that Daniel had none of those qualities. “I mean, I get it. Sandy wants to give him time to grieve. I was a wreck when my dad died, and he was a mean son of a bitch. I didn’t like him at all. But when your dad dies, it’s hard, no matter who he was or what he did. But you suck it up and you get over it. He’s sitting at home playing video games in the dark and eating junk food. You can’t tell me moving these boxes around is worse for him than that.”