Darrell leaned over the pedestal sink, cupping water in his palms and splashing his face, and he told his sister about it. She sat on the motel bed, maybe listening, probably shaking her leg, dangling an unlit cigarette from her fingertips. Mid-afternoon in South Central Florida, and on the carpet stood two urns: one black, one silver. That asshole father. Water skitted around the sink, collecting in puddles on the linoleum floor.
"Does Mom know you stole it?" Valerie's voice curled around the urns and into the bathroom.
"You tell me, Val. Have you talked to her?" Darrell hadn't seen their mother since their father went into the hospital. That was in January; it was April now. "How could she know?"
Val didn't say anything, and then she said, "We stopped by your apartment building last week."
"And what do I care if she knows? She won't do anything about it. Like when Dad was alive."
Darrell sat down on the bed. His slanky limbs felt awkward next to his sister's long and controlled curves. He ran his fingers through his hair and his curls were thick and unruly. Valerie patted Darrell's wrist. His shirtsleeve was damp.
"We missed you at the funeral," she said.
"You're just saying that."
She rolled her eyes and set the cigarette between her lips. From the purse at her feet she fished out a book of matches and lit the cigarette. Not again. She exhaled a thin stream of smoke, craning her neck away from her brother. Darrell winced.
"I wish you'd stop with that," he said.
"Yeah, you and Claude," she said.
"Only sensible thought he's had."
"Oh fuck off, Darrell." She twisted her body and reached for an ashtray on the nightstand. "That's why no one likes you, you know." Val tapped the ash off the end of her cigarette.
Their father used to smoke; that's where Valerie got it from. Darrell never picked it up, although the habit seemed mildly appealing — like Humphrey Bogart, a man's man — but it was a matter of principle, and Darrell couldn't stand it when his sister smoked. It was the same thing with alcohol, although Valerie never touched the stuff either. The only taste Darrell had had was sips from their father's bourbon, and that was a long time ago.
There were always bottles lying around the house when Darrell was young, and his mother had begged his father to stash them where the children couldn't reach. Darrell's father didn't seem to care. He settled down in his brown and orange smoking chair on the weekend, cupped a round glass in his palm, and held the bottle on his leg. His father refilled the glass when it was empty.
Darrell sat on the floor next to his father while his father watched college football. Darrell watched him drink the gold liquid until there was just a drop left, and when his mother was in the other room, his father leaned over and handed him the glass.
"Go ahead, junior," he said. "Take a sip."
With both hands Darrell held the glass. The smell burned up his nose and through the front of his face. He gulped it down, squeezing his eyes shut as hard as he could. He felt warm. When he opened his eyes, a player with a blue shirt and an orange helmet scored a touchdown.
His father leaned back in his smoking chair, rustled Darrell's hair, and said, "Atta boy. We'll make a man out of you yet." His hands were like ocean liners and his knuckles were hairy.
Valerie dragged long on her cigarette, the end glowing orange and orange and then fading to ash. "So what am I doing here, Darrell?" she said.
"I thought maybe you'd want to see it." He picked up the silver urn and tossed it like a football from hand to hand. Then he spun it around and traced his fingers over the engraved name, the letters barely perceptible under his fingertips. "Thought maybe you'd want a piece of the bastard."
She changed the topic. "You know, I happen to like Claude."
"Oh, don't get all bent out of shape." She always got bent out of shape; if it wasn't Claude, then it was the next guy. "I just don't think he's good enough for my little sister."
Darrell paused. "So, do you want to see it?"
"He's good to me."
"I said, do you want to see it?"
She stood up. "Darrell, you're thirty-four now. When will you just let it go?"
"Come on, Val." She had let it go a long time ago, and Darrell never understood why. But he needed their father more than she did.
"What about this other one?" She pointed at the black urn. "What're you doing with that? You have any idea who's in there?"
"That's part of the plan. I'm going to return that one," he said. "I'm bringing it back."
She grabbed the black urn and looked it over.
"Don't you think they'll figure it out then, the cops or whoever? Don't you think they'll put two and two together when this one magically reappears?"
Darrell sighed. "I'm not going to put it back where I found it. I'll hide it somewhere else and they'll find it themselves."
"I won't put it back where it was. Make them think they misplaced it."
Val said, "I don't get it."
Of course she didn't. Claude must be rubbing off on her.
"Don't worry about it," Darrell said.
Darrell held his father's urn in front of his face. The urn was ordinary, plain pewter, stern and austere. A pair of thin black bands circled the torso. Its silvery finish was dull but waxy, glistening in a way that begged to be cleaned. Even in death, Dad, you don't clean up. The name was arranged as if by typewriter, the imprinted letters rigid and official like a military dog tag: DARRELL WEEKES.
Darrell Jr. hated his name and had tried to change it legally when he was nineteen. His mother found the forms and cried and threw them in the kitchen trash. When she told his father, Darrell Jr. packed a bag and stayed with a friend for a few days until his father left for Jacksonville on business. When Darrell Sr. returned home a week later, no one mentioned anything about the name-changing.
With the urn between his knees, Darrell used both hands to unscrew the top. The lid was stubborn, not meant to be opened. Underneath, it was dark and difficult to see where the walls of the urn stopped and the ashes began. Darrell swirled the urn like a glass of bourbon.
"What're you doing now?" said Valerie.
Darrell licked the tip of his finger and poked into the opening, dabbing the ashes; he had to reach farther than he anticipated. When he pulled his hand out, his fingertip was coated with a gray residue. Darrell blew the ashes into the air and wiped his finger clean. Then he picked up the urn. He held it close to his mouth and spit inside.
Whenever Darrell tagged along with his father in the station wagon, to the barbershop or the hardware store or the bar for the big rivalry games, Darrell's father had always let him ride up front, even though his mother insisted he was too young for that. They'd pull out of the driveway with Darrell in the back, his nose pressed against the window, waving goodbye to his mother, and then when they'd get down the block, his father would say, "Come on up, Junior," and Darrell climbed over the bench into the front seat.
"Can I open the window, Dad?"
"Sure, go ahead," his father said, and Darrell wound the handle in a circle with both hands. He leaned out and his hair flopped back in the wind.
The faster his dad drove, the more Darrell had to squint his eyes. Every time they went a little bit faster, Darrell turned and smiled at his dad and his dad smiled back and then went faster more. Bits and pieces flew into Darrell's face, bugs and other things. When he couldn't take it any longer, Darrell turned his head to face the rear of the car. He worked over some saliva in his mouth and spit it out, seeing how far he could reach, but dribbling a bit on his chin. Then he put his whole body into it, leaning back into the car and whishing the spit around and he nearly lunged out the window on his release.
"Junior, you get back in here," his Dad roared over the wind.
"You get in here now, kid, or else I'll make you. You get any spit on this car, we're not going anywhere until you're done wiping it all off."
Darrell slinked back into his seat. His father then slammed on the brakes and Darrell was catapulted into the dash.
"See?" his father said. "Your head would've been knocked right out that window. Now sit up and put on your damn seatbelt."
Darrell and Valerie waited until dark and shuffled into Valerie's sedan in the motel parking lot. It was a mild night and the air was dense. Darrell sat in the passenger seat with their father at his feet and the black urn on his lap. They drove west towards Sarasota.
"What are you going to do with the ashes?" Valerie said.
"I told you. I'm hiding the urn somewhere in the crematorium. No one will know the difference." They passed palm trees on the highway.
"No, I mean with Dad."
He looked down at his feet. "Haven't figured that out yet." He'll get his, though, one way or another.
It was almost eleven when they reached the crematorium on 17th. Darrell told his sister to pull into the lot across the street, and she parked in the shadow of a four-story office building. A handful of streetlamps lit patches of the pavement. Valerie's car was the only one in the lot.
"I'll be in and out," Darrell said. "Leave the car running, but keep your lights off."
He crossed 17th, carrying the black urn in a duffel bag. The entire block was quiet, offices and businesses closed until morning. In the distance he heard the gulf. Only a few people strolled down the street. He clutched the bag at his side, feeling for the urn, keeping it upright.
When Darrell was twenty-eight, his mother had taken him aside and sat him down at the kitchen table. It was a few days before Christmas and his mother seemed worn out, as she always seemed to be around Christmastime.
"Darrell, honey" she said, "I've got to tell you something." Darrell played with his car keys and wanted to go back to his apartment.
His mother took a deep breath. "Years ago, shortly after your father and I got married," she said, "I was pregnant. With my first child."
Darrell slid a key off the ring and tapped it against the table.
"Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to have children, but when your father and I were dating, he said he didn't want any. I guess I changed his tune, though. It wasn't too long after the wedding, then. A year or two before you, and four or five before Val came along."
Darrell stopped tapping. The child she was talking about was not him.
"I found out around this time of year. Your father and I had been trying, so it came as a relief when it happened, at least for me. But he was away on business. I wanted to call and tell him, but I didn't know where he was staying, I didn't have a phone number to call. He was in Jacksonville somewhere, I knew that, but he never stayed at the same hotel. He liked to switch it up since he was there so often.
"So, I waited until he got back, a week later. I wanted it to be special. Our first child. I made a fancy dinner and put on my good dress. When he walked in the house, he went straight for his smoking chair; he didn't even take off his trench coat. I asked him how his trip was. He didn't want to talk about it. He never wanted to talk about work, but that job took everything out of him. I told him I made a special dinner, but he said he ate in the car. He said he had told me not to wait up for him when he left the week before, that's what he said, and he smoked his cigarette with the ashtray in his lap. When he finished, he looked up and told me how pretty I looked. And I should have told him right then and there; I don't know why I didn't. Because later that night, well, later that night your father and I got into an argument. God knows about what. Probably about work. But he ended up hitting me. We were at the top of the stairs and he hit me, right across the cheek, just once, with the back of his hand. And I know he didn't mean for it, but I fell. Down the stairs. Of course he rushed down after me. He helped me up. He said he was sorry. A black-and-blue mark had already started to come up, right above my hip. He rubbed it with his hand and got the icepack from the freezer and put me in bed. He said he was sorry. When I woke in the morning, the bruise had swollen to the size of an orange. Then a week or two later, I had the miscarriage." She paused and raised a hand to her mouth. "I never told your father about any of it."
When she was done, she made Darrell promise not to say anything. Darrell slid his key back onto the ring. He wondered if the baby had been a boy.
Behind the crematorium, Darrell descended the cellar steps. He was nervous now; maybe this time there'd be someone waiting for him; maybe the crematorium hired a night watchman after what had happened the other night. The door at the bottom of the staircase was a simple wooden door with four glass panes, although a sheet of cardboard now covered one of them. Darrell lifted the cardboard, reached inside, and unlocked the door.
In the cellar were two massive furnaces with open mouths and long sliding tables like tongues. The room reeked of fresh ash and burnt flesh, of incinerated bone. Darrell pictured the crematorium staff heaving his father's body headfirst into the furnace. He didn't even have to close his eyes it was so dark.
Darrell found the basement stairs. He felt his way to the top, and when he reached ground level, he crouched below the window ledges. He crept past bookcases and desks. When his eyes adjusted, Darrell could make out the shape of the ceiling-high storage unit that held the urns. Dozens of them stood in neatly arranged rows, each one with a nametag.
Taking the urn from his bag, Darrell strained to read the inscription: MANUEL VELÁZQUEZ. Dad, if only you had a grave to roll in. He always complained about those Cubans taking over Florida. There were a few empty spaces in the armoire, and Darrell found one on the bottom shelf and put the urn there, towards the back, on top of an empty tag. He made sure not to disturb the other urns. Everything according to plan.
Satisfied, Darrell wandered around the office. Out of sight from any windows, he sat down in a plush desk chair and rolled back and forth along the wood-paneled floor. The floor creaked. As far as Darrell could tell, the desk was organized except for a few loose papers, pens, and rubber bands. Two framed photographs were the only personal items. Darrell held one close to his face. It was a picture of a man on a dock, whom Darrell presumed to be the owner of the desk; the man was holding a very large fish.
In one of the desk drawers, Darrell found a small bottle of bourbon. It wasn't his father's brand. Once, when Darrell was a kid, his father had come home from work already reeking of the stuff. Darrell ran up for a hug and he smelled it, that same smell that burned his nose and the front of his face. Darrell then snuck around the house and hid the bottles. Later in the night, he and his sister listened from their bedroom to slamming doors and stomping feet. They stared at the walls until the noises stopped. Valerie thought she heard their mother crying, but Darrell insisted she was laughing because that's what moms and dads do, they laugh.
Darrell sat in the dark. He didn't move; he barely blinked. How did Dad find those bottles, every time? Darrell's fingers wrapped around the bottle's neck. He thought maybe his mind was playing tricks; he heard footsteps. But the sounds grew louder, up the stairs. He thought of his sister, but the steps were heavy. Panicked, he slid under the desk, pulling the chair close. He clutched the bottle and was conscious of his breathing, in through his mouth and out through his nose.
Between the desk and the floor, Darrell saw shadows moving but there were no definite forms, just shapes. He saw the vague outline of his duffel bag at the foot of the armoire. Darrell held his breath, held it as hard as he could. The steps trounced around the room, a few feet in one direction, then another. They circled around Darrell. The bottle hit the floor; the sound was deafening, and the chair was pulled from the desk.
"Oh, there you are." Darrell recognized the voice, exhaled.
"Jesus, Claude, why don't you fucking call out or something," Darrell said, scrambling to his feet. "You scared me half to death."
Claude stood a few feet in front of Darrell, but Darrell could barely see him.
"Val called me," Claude boomed.
He lowered his voice. "She told me what was going on. Said you were in here too long. She wanted me to get you."
"You should've called out," Darrell said. "I was hiding under the desk, for chrissake."
"I didn't know."
Darrell picked up the bourbon and put it back in the desk drawer. His eyes adjusted and Claude's features came to light: his broad flat nose, that rounded chin, and those bulky hands. In the dark, those hands were as big as Dad's.
"What you have against your old man, anyway?"
"I don't want to get into it, Claude."
"Well, what are you going to do with the ashes?"
Enough with the questions. "C'mon, Claude, let's get out of here," Darrell said. "Val's waiting."
Darrell woke to the ringing of the motel phone. He rolled in bed and glanced at the alarm clock.
"Darrell, it's me."
"Val? It's early."
"I'm coming to the motel."
Darrell put down the phone and sat up. He rubbed his eyes and checked the clock again, and then his wristwatch. On top of the television was the silver urn. He pulled the sheets over his head.
It wasn't long before Darrell woke a second time, this time to a knock at the door. He had no idea who it could be, but then vaguely remembered a conversation with his sister.
Darrell opened the door and Valerie walked in. She was quiet.
"So?" Darrell said.
"Mom knows," Val said.
"What do you mean Mom knows?"
"I mean she knows, Darrell. She knows you broke in, she knows you stole Dad's urn, and she knows you've got it now."
Darrell coaxed his legs into a pair of jeans. "How does she know all this? You didn't tell her, did you?"
"She kind of tricked Claude."
He shook his head.
"Look," Val said, "the point is she knows. So why don't you just come on home and give it back to her?"
Darrell set his hand on top of the urn. He yawned. His sister took out a cigarette and a book of matches. She tossed the dead match on the floor.
"Val, I'm not bringing the ashes back. At least not yet."
She sighed and blew smoke.
"Mom doesn't know where I'm staying," he said, "does she?"
"She has no idea. But she knows I've been in touch with you, and if she asks me, I may just tell her."
"Oh, come on."
"I won't lie to her."
There was a pause. "What are you doing with it, anyway?" Valerie said. She looked around the room for the ashtray.
Darrell rubbed his temples.
"I can't just let this go," he said.
"It's not your fight, Dar."
Darrell didn't say anything.
"I'm leaving," she said. "I told you, I'm not going to lie to her, not five days after the funeral." She buried her cigarette in the ashtray.
Darrell sat on the toilet with the lid down, his elbows propped on his knees, his chin resting in his palms. The silver urn was at his feet, its lid unscrewed. He stayed like this for an hour, not moving. He tried to spit inside the urn, letting the spit drip from his lower lip, but mostly missed his target. Gobs of saliva clung to the urn, sliding down to the floor. When he hit his target straight on, the spit disappeared into the black hole, a soft thud. Sometimes, if the spit was big enough, a tiny gray cloud poofed from the urn.
He wondered what his mother would do and imagined her bursting into the bathroom, finding him hocking loogies into his father's ashes. He'd invite her to join him, and they'd spend the rest of the day filling the urn with spit.
When Darrell stood up, it was almost four and his mouth was dry. He replaced the urn's cap and wiped the sides with a tissue. Darrell left the motel room with the ashes.
He found his car and put the urn on the passenger side floor. Then he drove west. He looked at the road and at the urn and back at the road again. Stopped at a red light, Darrell scooped up the urn and placed it on the seat next to him. He fastened the seatbelt around the urn.
"You know, I can't stand bourbon," he said.
Darrell opened the window and the wind beat against his face.
Then he noticed a matchbook pinned underneath the windshield wiper. Darrell pulled to the side of the road. It was dark and still. Power lines hummed between palm trees. Darrell grabbed the matchbook. He flipped it open; there were still a few matches attached. On the inside cover was a note in black pen. "Mom doesn't really know about the urn. But we'd like you to come home anyway. —Val"
Darrell laid the matchbook on the dashboard. He removed the keys from the ignition and sat in the car with his father's urn held fast in the seat.
"Dad," he said.
"Dad, I need to—" He stopped.