The embarrassing thing about dying is, people talk. We list heart attack, stroke, cancer as causes of death, but we know the behaviors that lead to these things. If you’ve lived long enough, people have seen you engage in many—a cigarette after dinner, some reckless driving. In death, it all becomes fodder for the mill. Which of your vices shortened your life? What steaks or cheeses or sedentary weeks, months, years? Was it all the over-the-counter drugs, the non-organic produce, the exhaust of the city (literal, figurative)? Or was it the stress of dwelling on all this, the drinking it pushed you to? Everyone has these un-generous ideas when someone dies. Who can bear the humiliation of that? You are scrutinized in greater detail in death than at any point in your waking life. I know this because as I stood at the front desk of the crematorium and received the polyurethane bag-in-a-box from the funeral director’s secretary, I was thinking about how my dad probably died because he was fat.
He’d mailed me a photo of himself a year ago, though we hadn’t spoken in nearly two decades. He must have known something was wrong, wanted to tie up loose ends. It was unclear who had taken the photo, staged in a dark corner of an empty condo, but in it, my dad bore the expression of a man who knew he would not have much more of life. He was still overweight, though the weight hung different on his bones now. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been 6’1” and 400 pounds. In the photo, he seemed to be collapsing toward a dense singularity at the center of his body, its forces pulling his shoulders forward, his heavy head toward his chest. I thought of that singularity now, holding the flimsy shoebox—it had consumed him, and somehow that density was all in this container, which was dismayingly light. His life, his mistakes, or at the very least his bones, weighed next to nothing now.
I’d flown into New Mexico late the night before, too late to rent a car, and rode an empty shuttle bus to a Best Western five minutes from the terminal. The carpet at the hotel matched the carpet in the airport, and I dragged my suitcase across the vaguely Native weave of both with some difficulty, feeling resistance as I rolled past closed gift shops, their turquoise displays prosaic in the dim light. These carpets hadn’t changed at all since my unaccompanied minor years, when divorced dads could still meet you at your gate. It occurred to me that this abundance of textiles, this layer of softness underfoot, was possible only because of the region’s parched climate, the absence of water, of mud. Things had always felt cleaner down here—newer, more optimistic.
In one of two queen beds, I’d scarfed an airport dinner of string cheese, pretzels and hummus, and something called a Peanut Butter Perfect Bar while button-mashing the remote until an old black-and-white movie channel made me stop. On the screen, a woman led Ingrid Bergman through catacombs where bones and skulls recovered from other cemeteries had been piled up in rows. The woman was explaining how the people of Naples come here to gather parts of skeletons and assemble them into a complete person, lean them up against a wall, and return to them year after year, putting flowers on them, kneeling before them, praying and talking to them. Some people do this, she said, because their loved one had died at war and been buried in a foreign country. Others came because the remains of razed cemeteries often got relocated here, forcing relatives of their inhabitants to shift the site of their grief. If there were other use cases for playing Barbie with a bunch of strangers’ bones, she didn’t mention them.
This idea had drawn me up short—should my husband perish abroad and be mailed back to me as a skeleton, I would have no idea how to tell if it was him. I didn’t know the first thing about what Joe’s bones looked like, or mine. I imagined being left with only these, the least familiar part of my life partner. How it would feel to bring them a bouquet each year.
The movie was part of a 24-hour Fellini fest, and I didn’t finish it, but I continued to think about bones—my dad’s, the Italians’—as I vibrated the peanut butter paste off my molars at one half of the his-and-hers sink, as the shuttle bus carried me back to Hertz the next day, as I obeyed the lefts and rights of my phone until I found myself at the front desk of the funeral home.
“Do you want me to validate your parking?”
I looked up from the shoebox.
“Ma’am? If you’ll just give me your ticket…”
I fumbled in my pocket, balancing the box between my hip and elbow, and passed the punch card to the gentle-voiced receptionist, who inserted it into a black plastic box. It emitted a low whirring, a green laser light flashed, she pulled it out. It now had a red stamp in the upper right corner: “Blue Pine Cremation Services.” A serene, sanitized name. Wouldn’t people get more cheer-up mileage out of something that made light of this experience? Look Alive Funeral Home? Burns Crematorium?
I was still trying to think of bereavement LLCs when the parking garage attendant took my stamped card through my rental car window and opened the entrance gates. I turned onto a pothole-ridden street, the box bouncing on the passenger seat with each divot. I had tried to buckle it in. It hadn’t seemed right to put it—these bones, a person—on the floor or in the back. He would ride up front, with me.
My dad hadn’t specified where he wanted the ashes to go, and I didn’t particularly want to keep them. Our relationship had soured in my late twenties, when I’d tried to talk to him about his manipulative behavior, and he’d spun himself into a frothy rage, then abruptly stopped returning my calls.
For the first two decades of my life, my mother had shielded me from the abuses she’d suffered at the hands of my father. She’d left him before I had memory and given me the freedom of a childhood in which to form my own opinions—the freedom to love him, the freedom to forgive him. Aside from an annual December fly-out, we didn’t speak of the man.
But the traits she left him over—his trigger temper, inexorable narcissism, inability to hang onto a dollar even if it was glued to his hand—were not exclusive to his life with her. I was shown what he had to offer the adults in his life when I became one.
The last time I saw my father in person, I’d flown Joe out to meet him. I was needled for not visiting enough, for not calling more, guilt trips I’d learned to expect over the years. What I was not prepared for were the marks on my stepmom—pools of purple at her grabbable areas, a ruddiness in the whites of her eyes. Ordinarily a warm, welcoming hostess, a baker, a lover of romance novels, she’d spent our visit sleeping at odd hours of the day and working a second job she’d recently taken cleaning houses. I thought she’d be thrilled to meet Joe; instead, she was gray, sallow, withdrawn.
On our last night, I sat down next to her on the couch, where she was staring blankly at some reality TV.
“You look like you need a vacation,” I said. “You guys should come visit us in New York.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she’d said without looking at me. “I’m sure your father would love to, but I don’t know about that.” We watched the set in silence for a while. At nine o’clock, she changed it to the local evening news. After some time had passed, she shifted her weight toward me. “You know,” she said, “you should be a little nicer to your father.” Her tone felt overly formal, almost rehearsed. “I know it doesn’t always seem like it,” she started up again, using her hands for emphasis. “But he is trying his very best.”
The next morning, his very best was taking us to breakfast at a casino near the airport and playing Keno while we pushed soggy pancakes around greasy plates. I sent him an email a few weeks later, trying, delicately yet firmly, to request that he not use my stepmom as a go-between. He didn’t respond, and in this silence, five years slipped away.
The break came as no relief—for all his faults, it had been important to me to keep this man in my life. He was, after all, the only father I had. Learning to love him had taught me to meet people where they were, taught me how good forgiveness could feel, taught me that grudges help no one. Only he was the one with the grudge now. I couldn’t grant him a forgiveness he wouldn’t ask for.
Around the time I turned thirty, he resurfaced. His mother, my grandma, had recently passed, and Joe and I had just put our wedding photos on Facebook—I’m not sure which upset him more. He sent a few essay-length text messages laden with predictable excuses, guilt, and sympathy bait. Under the advisement of (and out of a sense of duty to) my therapist, Joe, and every friend who’d gotten me through the past few years, I ignored these missives. The truth was, I had forgiven him. But this absolution had been for me. Joe once said that he didn’t think the man deserved this release of responsibility, and maybe he didn’t—but I felt that I did.
The lawyer on the phone said I was my dad’s next of kin. The rest of my paternal relatives were gone, which was news to me—I could still hear their voices going out of their way to tell me how great a guy he was, their little brother, their golden boy. “Such a charmer.” “You’re so lucky to have him as your dad.” His mother would pull me aside once a visit, instructing me in the privacy of a quiet bedroom not to believe anything “that woman” (my mother) told me. They wanted to capitalize on any teenage angst I harbored for her, my primary caregiver, so they filled these short trips with abundant permissibility, with laser tag and mini golf and so much food. There were kings who didn’t eat as well as we did. At home, I was subjected to responsible bowls of sugar-free millet cereal in watery rice milk. In New Mexico, I was received with large cookouts thrown in my honor, taken to the nicest restaurants in town. They wanted me to see my dad as a knight in shining armor, and I did, for a while. It didn’t occur to me for some time that the armor shined from lack of use.
Nevertheless, the man had always seemed invincible. He had the worst diet of anyone I knew and engaged in behaviors that would make an insurance underwriter go cross-eyed—his favorite food was chicken-fried steak, and he would often order two plates of it. He brought jumbo cups of homemade margaritas in the car when he drove me to the airport. He filled his entire hubcap-sized plate at every meal. (I’d told him, during one of his diet phases, that he should buy smaller plates, to which he’d replied that it was hard enough to balance dinner rolls on the outer lip of his large ones.) That he’d outlived his entire family was, if anything, a testament to how much this lifestyle had been passed down to him—heirlooms, these habits, modeled for him so persistently they left him no choice but to become who he became. I never lost sight of this inheritance creeping along behind me; dabbled in starving myself more than once to keep it at bay.
The clearest example of his indomitability occurred when I was in fifth grade. I was still trying to love him then—before I found out he’d been a mean drunk, or that he’d spent my mom’s college savings at the reservation casinos—but I must have been growing leery. I can think of no other reason why I felt absolutely nothing when my mom picked up our kitchen phone one day, went pale, then told me that my father had been struck by lightning.
I could tell I was supposed to react a certain way to this news, could tell I was not evincing the appropriate emotions. My mom asked if I wanted to talk about it; I, my father’s daughter, leveraged the experience into a trip for ice cream.
He’d been camping with his brother, who had saved his life by grabbing hold of my dad with one arm and touching something grounding with the other. (The science of this makes about as much sense to me now as it did then.) They were interviewed on the local news. He kept the fishing vest he’d been wearing in a frame on his wall, a black stripe of ash seared like a merit badge across the chest. How his chicken-fried-steak-fed heart survived that jolt, I will never know.
As I made my way onto 25-S with the box on the seat next to me, I saw a sign for Las Cruces 220 miles down the road. My dad had taken me there once to see White Sands, and I briefly contemplated missing my exit for the airport, driving through the night, scattering him on the dunes. This was perhaps an uncreative idea. I didn’t even know if he liked the place—he’d probably only taken me there because he didn’t know what to do with a city kid in the desert.
I stayed with the GPS—its gentle voice leading me to the ABQ Sunport, the sight of our many awkward goodbyes and reunions—and boarded the plane with his remains.
Joe picked me up from LaGuardia, where Christmas wreaths had been strung up in Arrivals.
“So, where are they?” he asked after we’d pulled out of the terminal.
“In a box, in my suitcase.”
A silence, then: “Aren’t you afraid they’ll get on your clothes?”
“They’re in the sealed compartment,” I told him. “Besides, they’re in a plastic bag.”
We drove in silence for a while, then exited onto the street. I looked out the window and noticed a set of big bright yellow hands waiting to cross at the light; on further inspection, it was a petite woman in a black parka carrying two plastic hand-shaped chairs, the wrists of which were squeezed in her armpits. The cupped palm of each chair was turned toward her, and they kept slipping, groping her chest.
“Are you hungry?” Joe asked.
“I could eat.”
He took me to a Mexican restaurant for tacos and margaritas, a genre of food that seemed well-suited to this time of neither celebration nor mourning.
“Can you open the trunk,” I asked when we had parked. “I need to get something out of my suitcase.”
“What do you need?”
“You’re going to bring him into the restaurant?”
“You want me to leave him in the car?”
The hostess seated us at the bar, at which point Joe excused himself to go to the restroom.
“What’s in the box?” the bartender asked as he placed two water glasses in front of me and began to fill them with his soda gun.
“My dad,” I said after a pause.
“Wow,” he blinked slowly, nodding his head back. “Heavy.”
“Nah, it’s cool.” He lodged the gun back into its holster. “My dad died a few years ago. It is what it is.”
“God takes from us so we can’t turn back.” He said this as he wiped his hands on his apron.
“Heard it in a movie the other day.” He shrugged. “Can I get you started with any drinks?”
I ordered the margs on the rocks with salt and scanned the man’s tattoos, noticing various religious iconography. I considered if this would be easier or harder if I believed in an afterlife.
“Jesus,” Joe said when he returned. “Maybe don’t put it right on the bar?”
When we’d finished eating, I went to the bathroom while Joe went to get the car. I could feel the tequila warming my veins, my skin tingling at the surface. I was seated on the toilet when I noticed an open window in front of me, leading out onto an air shaft at the center of the building. I stared at it, startled by this intrusion of the outside world into the privacy of the bathroom, then walked over to inspect the space and saw pigeons gathered on the ground below, huddled together for warmth. I smacked my lips at them, and a few flew up into a vortex of feathers toward the small patch of sky above. I set the shoebox on the window ledge and, for a second, thought about laying the dirt of my father to rest among these trash birds, in this forgotten corner of this wet, filthy city. I don’t know how much time I spent like that. Eventually, someone knocked, and I carried my box out with me.
We drove through a wintry mix mostly in silence, remarking only on a girl we saw on a Citibike with a three-foot-tall Christmas tree balanced on her front cargo rack.
At home, Joe started getting ready for bed and I paced around the apartment with the box, trying to decide where to put it. I settled on the eye-level shelf of a metal speed rack along the kitchen wall. Food had been our common ground, after all. I thought of a recent phone call in which I told my mother that I’d been diagnosed with elevated cholesterol. “I wouldn’t know anything about that,” she’d said. “You must get that from your dad.”
I pushed a ceramic crock out of the way, settling him between it and a pie pan, then flicked the light switch down and went to bed.
A few weeks passed without us so much as touching the box. I occasionally looked at it while I was cooking, and I could sense Joe’s awareness of it, his efforts to be supportive by not mentioning it. Sometimes I would get up in the middle of the night and go into the kitchen for a snack, a habit I’d learned at my dad’s (he sometimes made himself three A.M. sundaes) but hadn’t engaged in since I started reading women’s magazines, learned to count calories. A few days before Christmas, I was standing in the kitchen at midnight with my spoon mid-dip into a jar of vanilla almond butter when I felt a presence behind me.
“You scared me,” I said to Joe.
“You scared me.” He had me there. I put the spoon into my mouth, wrapped my lips around it tightly, pulled it clean.
“You know…” he began, his eyes shifting up to the kitchen shelves.
“It’s just… well, we’re having people over for Christmas.”
“What’s your point?”
“You’re going to have to do something with it… with him, eventually.”
I took in a deep breath, filling my lungs with air. “Unfortunately, you’re right.”
“That’d be a good memoir title for you.”
Joe took the spoon from my hand and placed it in the sink. I put the almond butter away and followed him back to bed.
The next day, Joe went out for a run and I began my two-day schedule of Christmas dinner tasks. We were making cranberries, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and gravy; some friends were bringing a salad and rolls; Joe’s brother was bringing a ham and his new girlfriend.
The stuffing had always been my dad’s favorite—we had that in common. It was not unusual for him to compulsively eat three enormous helpings of it. One year, he’d chopped up the turkey liver and blended it into the stuffing, telling me only after I asked why it tasted like a penny. Another year, I’d made him my favorite recipe with green apples, dried cranberries, a mess of fresh herbs, and cornbread. He’d said he loved it, “except for all those vegetables.”
The first step in my meal prep was stock, which would moisten the stuffing. I had a gallon Ziploc of old veggie scraps and a chicken carcass in the freezer, which I dumped into our largest pot over a burner. It was as I watched the cold bird bones tumbling out of the bag that I got the idea.
Joe entered the kitchen freshly showered a few hours later and asked how he could help. I told him to cube the bread and spread it out to get stale in the oven. He noticed when he reached for the baking sheets.
“Where’s the box?”
“I broke it down, it’s in the recycling.” I was standing at the stovetop, stirring the cranberries.
“Oh.” Joe stood still for a moment. “That’s great. Where, uh… what did you do with the ashes?”
“I sprinkled some on the houseplants,” I said. This was true.
“Wow, ok.” He nodded to himself, digesting this. “That’s it? Was there any left?”
“The rest I put in the compost.”
Joe raised his eyebrows. He walked over and put his arm on my back, moved it around in small, self-conscious circles. “And…you feel good about it?”
I looked up at him, smiled a toothless smile, then leaned my head into his chest. “Mm-hm.” I took a deep breath, stirred the bubbling fruit. “I do.”
We served dinner at around 4:30 P.M. on Christmas Day, just as the sun was starting to set. This had given the group enough time to polish off two bottles of wine and talk to their relatives in other cities—I called my mom, Joe and his brother put their parents on speaker. I tasked the new girlfriend with setting the table, and she folded our holly-printed napkins into a fan-like shape on each plate. “You can take the girl out of the service industry,” Joe’s brother said, by way of explanation.
As we sat down to eat, I placed serving utensils beside the dishes they were intended for: a wooden soup spoon for the mashed potatoes, a knife to cut and spear the ham slices, tongs for salad, and an ornate ladle and casserole spoon from my maternal grandmother’s sterling silver dinnerware set for the gravy and stuffing.
Everyone helped themselves in a flurry of plates passed around the table until the pitch quieted down to the familiar mumble of first bites. I spooned the gravy onto my plate and took slow bites of each item, noting how they felt as they moved through my body, toward my digestive tract. After a few moments, Joe placed his hand on my wrist.
“I’m sure I say this every year,” he said, still chewing, “but you’ve really outdone yourself.”
After everyone had left, Joe and I got into bed with our books. He fell asleep within minutes, he always did, and I quietly let myself out of the sheets, out of the room, into the kitchen. I opened the fridge and took out a small ceramic ramekin I’d set aside earlier, before dinner, in a corner on the bottom shelf where no one would find it. I peeled the plastic off, sniffed it, put it in the toaster oven.
In the ten minutes it took the stuffing to heat up, I had every opportunity to change my mind. When it came out, it looked exactly the same as the tray I’d served earlier—brown peaks on gritty golden mountains, caramelized shards of celery and onion poking out, juicy cranberry gemstones giving color, yellowed apple skin peeling. It tasted the same, too—not at all like a penny.
Linni Kral is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor whose work has been published in The Atlantic, Slate, Atlas Obscura, BBC Travel, the Village Voice, and more. She served as Editor-at-Large for GRLSQUASH and Put A Egg On It and has completed workshops with Sackett Street Writers and Brooklyn Writers' Collective. She now leads workshops at Sackett Street Writers and is at work on a novel about food, sex, and belonging.