Mary Catherine Curley hails from Guilford, Vermont, where she was raised in the shadow of a nuclear reactor.  Her work has appeared in Juked, Punchnel’s, and Monkeybicycle, and is forthcoming in Barrelhouse and Specter.  She earned her MFA from Hollins University and currently writes and teaches preschool in Washington, DC.

 

Curley says: "“Dog is Great” was inspired by the real-life tragedies & triumphs of my father, who runs a family-direct cremation business in Vermont."

 

Back to: Table of Contents

 

Dog is Good

by Mary Catherine Curley

To burn a human body you heat the retort to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the point at which skeletons combust.  The inside of the retort looks exactly like the inside of a brick oven.  I open the silver sliding door to find a pile of ash in the shape of a person.  The first time I did this, I had to turn away and put my fist in my mouth.  Now I just start sweeping.  The job grows on you, like moss.

     Opposite the retort is a six foot long freezer, with three bunk beds inside.  In between the freezer and the retort is a gurney, to ferry a body across.

 

No formaldehyde, no brass-handle coffins, no white cement hole in the ground, no funeral homes. Here we are strictly an ashes business, and we run family-direct.  From start to finish, we do the whole job: pick up the body, provide the cardboard coffin, scrape the ashes into a box, deliver the ashes. 

     We are a one-window, four-wall hut on the side of a slanted hill.  We are three parking spots, a propane tank. A little ways off, behind a cough of trees, we share space with a huddle of baby goats from the farm next door.  They hoof up and down the hill, creek-soaked and so steep that sometimes the goats  trip and tumble all the way down to our property line. 

 

I work alongside Threadless Ted, who wears only organic fibers he buys from a store called “Save the Corporations (from Themselves!)” Punctuation and all.  Threadless Ted is closing in on forty, in the chest as wide across as a canoe.  He pumps iron now instead of drinking.  He keeps a daily reader on the table where we work beside the industrial blender, and his head is always shaved as though this means something, as though it might be a promise he has made to someone.

     Ted and I are the semi-skilled labor.  Marnie takes care of paperwork and types each person’s age and race onto the death certificate using her electric typewriter.  She inherited the business from her husband when he died on the OR table five years ago.   Now she shows up every day like an old-fashioned secretary, wearing pantyhose and perfume, her white fluffed-up hair brushed smooth.  She handles all the phone calls so Ted and I don’t have to.   Sometimes even from across the room we can hear people on the other end of the line with her, phlegmy sobs and all.   

                       

The retort itself is surprisingly simple to operate.  Green button, red button.  When Marnie hired me this summer, training didn’t take long.  It’s mostly about a powerful back and the ability to lift from the legs.  I’m a fat guy but I’m strong.  I can rest the head of the cardboard coffin on my stomach sometimes if I need a second to rearrange my hands.  Once they’re on the gurney it’s pretty easy, especially on a flat surface, to get them home. 

     I found this place after my parents broke up and moved to opposite ends of California. All they left me was their dog, who died, and when I called around, Marnie let me know it’s not legally possible for a human crematorium to burn a dog.  Not a story we tell the clients.  Clients are what we call the living customers.  Bodies are what we call the deceased. 

     That wasn’t the whole story, though.  When I drove in with the dying dog in the back seat of my car, Marnie right away invited me inside.  It was a slow day, and it was cool inside the crematorium, a bit like a church.  I mentioned that to her and she nodded, but she didn’t stop looking worried. 

     “I know about you,” she said.  “I knew your Aunt Linda. We went to school together.  You used to work over at the sandwich place on Main.”

     This was all true.  My Aunt Linda’s my only relative left around here and she smells like baby powder all the damn time.  I used to work over at the sandwich place, which paid the bills and even filled the hours when my friends went to college, those who’d managed not to die in car accidents. 

     “Now I work over at CVT,” I said.  “Loading the trucks.”

     “You must be pretty strong,” Marnie said, like a kindergarten teacher who has to congratulate you even when you haven’t done much.

     “Yes, m’am,” I said.

     She walked me to my car and I showed her Jonah, panting in the backseat.  I kept a cup of water and some paper towels on the passenger seat so I could dab his dry nose every once in a while.  Marnie watched me do this.  Jonah didn’t move other than to twitch  a paw in a little wave.  “Hello, Marnie,” I said for him, in a doggie voiceover.  I don’t know why I did that.  Marnie squatted down so she was nose to nose with Jonah.  “Bye, Jonah,” she said.  “Good bye.”

 

Now, I’m happy to be here.  There is a comforting rhythm to the work, and Marnie and Ted are kind.  When I mentioned I’d found a place to bury the dog, out in the woods past East Mountain, in a soft clearing, the next day Marnie came in with a gift-wrapped bumper sticker that read, DOG IS GREAT.  Not that I put it on my car, but it really meant a lot to me, the thought. 

     I am the youngest—they both call me “son.”  When we aren’t expecting any clients to drop by, Marnie and Ted will play music in the crematorium while we’re sweeping— The Definitive Greatest Hits of Al Green, or Tapestry, depending on which one of them gets to it first.  On the days they don’t there’s just the sound of the machine as it grumbles, or—sometimes—crackles and pops. 

 

One day Ted and I were making a delivery to Chester, which is about an hour north of here. 

     “This one needs speed,” Marnie had said.  We’d gotten backed up and the ashes should have been delivered that morning.  “Charlie Shields moved her mom’s wake up to three o’clock.  Wake at three, ash scattering at four.  If we aren’t up there by 2:45, people are going to be milling around with nothing to mill around.” 

     It was to be the last delivery of the day.  Ted drove and I rode shotgun.  Ted drives like an old lady in a parking lot.  We inched towards Chester. 

     Charlie Shields had declined getting a real urn for her mother’s ashes, and her mom hadn’t filled out a pre-need. Now that I work here I’ve really seen the benefit of making those arrangements ahead of time.  I’ve sent a copy of my own pre-need to my parents, who have not responded.  I held Mrs. Shields in a raw wood jewelry box, wrapped in a velvet bag, on my lap. 

     It wasn’t winter yet.  We could see the geese flying over the river and the leaves were still bloody orange, not crisp.  In the afternoons we’d been able to stand outside in shirtsleeves.  On our way up I-91, leaves dropped out of the sky onto the road: green, yellow, red.

     “I swear to God,” Ted said, “sometimes those leaves falling can be just like music.”

     Ted has serious and cheesy ideas like this all the time.  I used to make fun of him until Marnie told me to stop.  Ted doesn’t have a wife, and his daughter lives far out in the desert somewhere with her mother.  The daughter sent him a postcard once with all these bruised mountains on it, which he keeps pinned above his work station.  To Marnie, this is enough pain to merit a lifetime free of teasing.  That’s fine, I guess.  I don’t have a real gift for teasing to begin with, to be honest.

     “I mean it,” Ted continued.  “I’ve had days where I’m just at the end of my rope—just at the very end—and I’ll step outside and there’s these leaves falling.  Or these colors the trees get up here this time of year.  You think—there’s some pattern going on here.  There’s a pattern.”

     “A God pattern?” I asked.

     He chuckled.  “A God pattern.”  He looked over at me“Did you know that an owl is a symbol of death?”

     I shook my head. 

     “I’ve seen more owls since I started this job than altogether in my whole life.  Hand to God.”

     “No way.”  I thought about it.  “What do other birds mean?  If the owl means death?”

     Ted smiled.  “A cardinal means love, you mean.”

     “Or a pigeon means weight gain.”

     Ted laughed and granny-shifted into fifth gear.

 

We pulled up to the grange, where the funeral would be held.  Two women stood at the screen door.  We were an hour late.

     “There’s Charlie Shields,” Ted said. “She looks just like her mother.”

     “They’re pissed,” I said.

     We got out of the car. 

     “Hello!” Ted called.  The women didn’t open the door.  Charlie Shields was a tall woman—she seemed to reach the top of the doorframe.  She wore her hair in two torso-long braids, one on each side of her head.  The other woman waved, or might have.  Ted peeled off his jacket, wiping his forehead.  I smoothed the velvet, and my palms made a scratching noise against the fabric.  The screen door creaked open.  Charlie Shields stepped out, coming towards us fast.  I tensed up, but by the time she reached us, she was crying.

     I don’t like to get close enough to get hugged and cried on, but sometimes you can’t avoid it.  You are the face of death to these people.  Some of them will cry the moment you show up on the porch.  Some of them will cry when they see you in the supermarket, months later.

     Ted is all about hugs.  He makes people feel like they’re being held by a redwood that will never be cut down.  He wraps small mourners up and holds them for an unprofessional five seconds at least.  He’ll take a couple hours for some deliveries, sitting across the breakfast table from widows and widowers—or more often, the children whose parents are dead—with a mug of their coffee in his big hands, giving advice for grief.  “Nothing wrong with tears,” he says a lot.  “Tears can be holy.”

     Maybe because of my large and doughy stature, clients go in for hugs pretty frequently.  They want to nestle.  I’ve discovered that it’s all about placement—I can be imposing in a doorframe.  People don’t ask me for advice, like they do with Ted, but I do have some.  My advice is this: find the place inside you that doesn’t change, no matter how bad or good things get.  The place like a very old dog, the kind that just sits on the porch, sometimes lifting its nose to smell a breeze but otherwise napping through disaster and celebration.  Doesn’t matter if the house is on fire or there’s wild horses coming across the field, the dog just minds its own business.  It just goes about its dog dreams.  This is what you need to find.

     When my parents dropped him off at my place Jonah had been so skinny that I could feel his bumpy vertebrae.  When he came looking for me in the night I could hear him clicking, as though his bones were jutting out of his paws.  “Jonah,” I’d hiss, and come looking for him, crawling on my hands and knees so I wouldn’t step on his tail.  I cooked him a meal of meatballs and rice one night.  I hadn’t made meatballs in years, had forgotten the stickiness of the meat and way it stayed on my hands.  I let Jonah lick my fingers. 

     He was dappled, with a cracked-glass eye and a leopard-print back.  He looked stunning and confusing on the floor of a plain wood coffin.  The wood was still green.  I’d gotten the scraps from Crofter Wood Mill and  built the coffin myself, dragging a chair and an afghan onto the porch in the springtime cool and hammering away.  This was before I found out the landlord wouldn’t let me bury him in the backyard.  I couldn’t afford a plot.

 

Charlie Shields could not be held off.  She hugged us both.  She squeezed my slopey shoulders as though she might give me a massage, before even reaching for her mother’s ashes.  Finally I held out the velvet-wrapped box. 

     “Thank you,” she said.  People always say this to us even though it’s not exactly right.

     “That is my good friend Reverend Leslie,” Charlie whispered, leaning towards us.  It took me a moment to realize she was talking about the straw-haired lady still standing behind the screen door, inside the dim house.  I couldn’t tell if Leslie was really a reverend, or Charlie was kidding.  I considered introducing Ted: And this is my colleague, Brother Theodore Threadless. 

     “Come in with me,” Charlie said. 

     Inside the grange was all set up for a wake—or for some sort of gathering.  There was a table with bowls of chips and Price Chopper orange soda lined up in two-liter bottles.  There were fold out chairs, about twenty or so.  Though it was 3:45 p.m., no one was there but Charlie and the Reverend.  I knew they were going to invite us to the ash-scattering before she opened her mouth.  The loneliness, the loneliness, you can smell it. 

     Of course,” said Ted. “We would be honored.”  This is not something we do.  This is not part of the services we offer.  Ted is feeling guilty about being late and he knows it.

 

We followed Charlie’s silver car to a man-made lake.  It was a long way.  Ted’s car bumped over the dirt roads.  We rumbled through two covered bridges.

     “What do you think she did?” I said.

     “Charlie?”

     “No, her mother.  To have a funeral where no one shows up.”

     Ted shrugged.  “Maybe she didn’t do anything.  Maybe all her friends are already dead.” Ted is an optimist. 

     “Abandonment,” I suggested.  “Serial cat killings.”

     “Seems like she managed to raise a nice daughter, though, doesn’t it?”

     I had nothing to say on that topic, in particular.

 

What I meant to say before, I guess, is that when the dog died my family was over.

     I have to admit, I’m a guy who loves his parents.  Five years ago I didn’t mind not getting to college, didn’t even mind like a lot of guys I knew staying in my parents’ town, this part of Vermont they loved so much.  They were right about it.  Where else would I want to go?  Nevada?  Here you could wear the same shirt year round and no one thought anything of it.  Here the lady at the soft-serve stand made me a large and charged me for a small.  Here people talked when they met at the country store, and I was spoken to like a member of an old farmer club, whether because of my size or my serious face, I don’t know. 

     My parents weren’t farmers, but they might have been.  They’d been saving up for a little extra land, not enough for horses but plenty for pigs and chickens.  They knew people in town.  Dad played the Chainsaw Killer in the Haunted Hayride every year, and Mom directed people towards parking in the fields.  I rode the Hayride three times every Halloween season, for free. 

     They waited long enough.  They gave me a childhood with two parents.  I’m a man with his own place now, out of high school a couple years and enough saved in the bank not to starve.  I get it.  They aren’t criminals.  I just wonder what California means to them.  What they saw when they heard that word. 

     The last nice thing I can recall my father doing for my mother was the afternoon he rode the Roto-Tiller along the slanted side of our front lawn, until there were eight long lines for my mother to plant in.  He lined it all with wire and plugged the wire in until it buzzed, to keep the deer away.  That afternoon Jonah ran up, eager, and fell into the wire, getting the hot metal wrapped around his neck with a sound like children banging aluminum pans.  He yelped, all confusion and grief.  He hid in the backseat of the parked car all afternoon. 

 

The service was at the top of a dam.  We could hear the lake water pounding from inside the car.  Outside, it was raining so lightly you couldn’t feel it on your cheeks; I only knew because of the gleaming water pooling on the padded shoulders of Charlie’s dark coat. 

     “It was her favorite place!” Charlie yells to us, over her shoulder.  She and Leslie hop down the muddy slope to the edge of the dam.  Ted glances over at me.  I know what he’s thinking.  Tomorrow’s headline: Fat Man Dies in Fall. 

     “I’m fine,” I said.  I tip toe down like a lady.

     The dam was a high stone wall, at least three men high, with a waterfall pouring over it.  A little stone stairway ran alongside it, so you could walk down to the pool at the bottom of the fall.  Slick wood ran like a platform across the top of the dam, where the water poured over.  If the water was low enough, you could stand right at the top of the falls.  This is what Charlie and the Reverend were doing.  They stood in their rain boots on the cement at the lip of the dam, where the water tumbled over, over their ankles. 

     “I think I’ll stick here,” I called.  “Watch from the shore.”

     “It’s perfectly safe!” Charlie yelled.  “You stick your feet here, behind the wood, and you’re very secure!”

     Ted was wearing his usual earth-clogs, but he put one foot in front of the other and was soon standing on the lip of the dam beside them. 

     The Reverend pulled a small paperback from her raincoat pocket and began to read out loud from it.  I couldn’t hear a thing over the water.  From up here you could look over the edge of the waterfall and see what it became at the bottom: a churning circle, water looking thick as toothpaste.  The Reverend had great posture.  Her mouth moved as though she’d been trained in theatre.  Charlie and Ted looked down at the water, their knees bent to brace themselves. 

     Somewhere in the woods, a shotgun boomed.  We all started a little, like cows twitching off flies. 

     At that, Charlie slipped the wooden box out of the velvet bag, and dropped the bag off the edge.  It got sucked into the waterfall.   The green velvet soaked and turned black in a second.  She fumbled a little with the latch, and the box swung open.  The ashes fell in clumps.  They are heavier than they seem—even the sick people, the people with radiated bones.  You’d be surprised how tough a skeleton can be.

     Charlie said something to Ted and Leslie that I couldn’t hear, then called out to me, across the water: “It’s Leslie’s birthday.  And I want you all to sing to her!” 

     Ted nodded, swung right into Happy Birthday to You.  Charlie jumped in with a high, surprisingly clear harmony.  By the second line, I was mumbling the bass line with my eyes closed, listening to the other two warble their way towards the last note, holding it until it faded.

     Ted, Reverend and Charlie took some time inching back to shore.  I looked around.  There was a rough stone staircase down the side of the dam, so you could walk down to the bottom of the waterfall where it pooled.  The water fell in a smooth sheet, like a made bed.  Taking the stairs, you could get so close to the waterfall the sound filled your head like a cup.  I put my face right up to the sheet of water, full of noise.  It had begun to rain and I was all wet now.  I would have been frightened if it hadn’t been so loud—I was surrounded.  I felt like a mug packed for a transcontinental move, stuffed and wrapped in so much paper I stayed exactly put. 

     This was a good place to be buried, I thought.  It was loud enough.  The clearing I had chosen for Jonah was quiet.  I’d wanted to be alone with him—no wandering hikers stopping in on me blubbering with a shovel in my hands, trying to measure a grave.  As I patted the dirt down I tried to say a few words, to send his spirit over.

     Good dog, I said.  Good dog.

                        

Ted and I crawled back into his car, rearranging all our empty Big Gulps and health bar wrappers.  We waved at Charlie and Leslie across the parking lot.  They were sitting in their car with all its doors wide open, sticking their clogs out on the gravel.  Charlie had her head tilted all the way back against the driver’s seat, both eyes closed.  Leslie waved goodbye like we were pulling away on a cruise line.

     “Those are some nice ladies,” Ted said.  “Don’t you think?”

     I nodded, but I wasn’t really listening.  The sun was going down, and I was looking forward to the ride home—to that particular stretch of Route 5, before you hit 91 going south, that always reminds me that even the paved roads are just paths through the middle of the woods.  As though this black cow tongue of asphalt is just temporary, flattened for the illusion of civilization, while the brush crowds the gravely shoulder. 

     I drove and Ted snored in the passenger seat.  It was late.  The moon swung up and around, yellow as a tooth on a piece of floss.  There’s such a sweetness to these roads at night.

 

Copyright 2012 ~ A River & Sound Review ~ Serious Literature with an Unpretentious Soul ~ Poetry ~ Fiction ~ Nonfiction ~ Humor ~ Podcast ~ Music ~ More