Delmarva Review: The Bone Bag by Michael Keenan Gutierrez

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They don’t tell you there will be bone. That it will be white. That it will have texture. You thought it would just be ash, like that of fire pits, the dead ends of cigarettes.

Why did you think this? Films, perhaps? You don’t know, but as with so much of the territory you’ve traveled, you’ve brought the wrong map.

According to the website for the National Funeral Directors Association, cremation is a “two-step” process, where first the body is “heated” for two hours at between 1400-1800 degrees, and afterwards the remains are put through a “processor” and what’s left is supposed to come out uniform, industrial, a sort of pre-fab mourning.

That’s not what you see though.

You see your father’s bones. You see them in your hand. You see them slip through your fingers and drop into the water to be taken out by the breakers.

Even though he died four months earlier, you can’t get home right away because of work, because your adult life won’t let you, because you’ve already drained your savings on a last minute flight during the summer, just a few weeks before he died, when he’d been too high on morphine to remember you’d ever visited. He didn’t remember you dressing him, turning on his oxygen. He didn’t remember you pulling away his cigarettes when he was on that oxygen. You’re glad about this.

When you finally do come home for Christmas, your mother shows you the box she’s kept in a guest closet. You’d been expecting an urn—like the movies, again—but no, it’s just a simple brown box, a carton really, something for shoes. Inside his ash and bone are sealed in a plastic bag, the kind you’d get at a carnival, but instead of water and goldfish, there’s this sort of dust.

You think of Star Wars, when at the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke burns Darth Vader’s remains on a pyre. Some part of you wishes you’d done the same. That primal part of you wants that ritual, to have the rite of passage consecrated formally, but you know it takes you two hours to build a shitty campfire and then there’d be the stench and the sight of his body burning and you know you haven’t the stomach for it.

So you settle for a bag inside a box.

The day after Christmas, you and your family all put on something nice and you walk out to the nearby beach and look out at the dark Pacific. It’s a beautiful beach. It should be, for him. It should be because you got married here the previous Christmas. He was there, sallow and struggling to stay standing. But he’d endured, long enough to see you marry.

You don’t talk.

You lead your sister to the line where high tide meets dry sand and she is holding your arm as if you’re walking her down the aisle, except she can hardly stand. Your mother opens the box and pulls out the bag and your future brother-in-law slips you a pocketknife because you hadn’t thought of that.

Now you’ve also got your mother’s arm and while your wife and future brother-in-law and aunts and uncles hang back on dry land, you and your mother and sister make for the water. You shed your shoes and wade in. In December, the Pacific here averages 59 degrees and you feel the shock run over your feet and up your calves.

You go knee deep then think about the knife, but your mother has already dug her thumb into the bag and each of you takes a handful. That’s when you see the bone. It’s not uniform. It’s not pre-fab. It’s definitely a man. It was him.

You scatter him into the water, careful not to get him on your pants, but he does anyways. A small wave surprises you, and all three of you jump and you’re soaked but laughing. Why are you laughing? Because it is ridiculous to be out here? Because it is ridiculous that you all put on something nice to wade into cold water to dump him in here? Because what else are you going to do except return to dry land, him beneath your fingernails, and you return to the empty house where died….

The Spy is pleased to republish Mr. Gutierrez’s Pushcart Prize-nominated essay from The Delmarva Review. The ninth edition of the nonprofit literary journal was published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with support from private contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For more information, visit the website: www.delmarvareview.com.

Michael Keenan Gutierrez is the author of The Trench Angel (Leapfrog Press), a finalist for the James Jones First Novel prize. In addition to The Delmarva Review, his work has been published in The Collagist, Scarab, Public Books, We’re History, The Pisgah Review, Untoward, The Boiler, and Crossborder. He lives with his wife in Chapel Hill where he teaches writing at the University of North Carolina.

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