Excerpt

Wake

Boston
January 1966

“Good God Almighty. We’ve lost the damned body.” Avis stood on the North Station train platform, her small leather suitcase pressed between her knees as though it, too, might be whisked away. “Dalton, we’ve lost Dad. What the hell are we going to do?”
     “Call Stan, I guess. He’ll know.”
     Avis kept going through the motions of stamping snow from her feet, though it had all melted down into her boots an hour ago. They’d gotten off the train from Connecticut late last night, thinking Dad, in his cof­fin, had been rolling along behind them in the baggage car. The train up to Canada didn’t leave till this morning, so they’d gone and gotten them­selves an excuse for a room in that excuse for a hotel Dalton knew about, to try to get some sleep. But when they’d come staggering back into the station this morning, thinking to crawl up to Bathurst with Dad in tow for his own funeral, and they’d gone to make sure that the body was on board with the other baggage, there was no body to be had anywhere for love nor money.
     Dalton strode helplessly back and forth in front of Avis, as though trying to determine which of the trains on either side of the platform might offer escape. His legs were so long and wiry that he could not pace without seeming to lope. He needed a wide-open field before him, not the crowded confines of this train platform filled with heavy-coated strangers who all knew exactly what they were about and how they were going to get there. None of them was missing a body all laid out in its casket.
     “What exactly did the baggage man say?” Avis asked.
     “There’s no casket anywhere in this station. Hasn’t been one since a week ago Saturday, and that one went to Toledo, and he believes it was a woman. He’s going to call the Connecticut station, but it’ll be a while ’cause of the snow, and schedules are off, and if we don’t get on this train to Canada, we won’t be going to Canada anytime soon, ’cause this is the only train connecting to New Brunswick today, and he has his doubts about tomorrow, ’cause he’s heard the storm’s supposed to get worse before it gets better. He says they’ll be calling this the ‘Blizzard of ’66,’ like as not. One for the books, he says. He says it’s an odd thing to lose a casket like that, as they don’t get that many coming through and they usually take note of it, and did we have a receipt or a claim check?” Dalton stopped pacing and stood in front of Avis. “I thought maybe you had one.”
     “Christ, he was ready to chat. Hadn’t anyone asked him a question in the last ten years?” Avis searched through her purse for some sort of ticket or receipt or piece of paper with a number on it. “Nothing.”
     “Check inside your gloves. Maybe it’s in a finger.”
     “Check inside your own damn gloves.”
     “I don’t have any.”
     “I have no memory of anyone handing me anything.” Avis turned her wet gloves inside out. “I never had it. It was you that talked to the man in the uniform before we got on in Cohasset, isn’t it? Didn’t you talk with some official? I know I never did.”
     “Well, if I did, I don’t recall. I was awful tired.”
     “You were shitfaced, is what you were.” Avis stuck her hands down into her coat pockets. Nothing but cigarettes in one pocket and a hole in the lining of the other. She stuck her finger down through it and opened her coat to show Dalton. “There. Maybe that’s what happened to it.”
     “Hell, I got one of them, too.” Dalton stuck his whole fist through his pocket lining and waggled his fingers at Avis. “We may have solved the problem.”
     “We haven’t solved anything. There was no receipt. I think we got the casket with us to the station and neither one of us made sure it was on the train. That damned hearse unloaded and drove off. What did he care?”
     “Do you have to buy a ticket for a dead man?”
     “You’ve got to do something. You can’t drag bodies around like it was regular luggage.”
     Dalton stopped pacing and flicked his fingers under his chin. “Christ, I forgot to shave.”
     “I guess Dwight thought we would take care of it, seeing as it’s our father, not his.” Avis sighed.
     “He should’ve known better.” Dalton shook his head. “Course, he married you. That shows lack of judgment.”
     “Shut your damn mouth.”
     “He should have gotten us all three onto the train.” Dalton resumed his pacing.
     “He was glad to get us out of the car. Poor old Dwight. He’d had his fill of Hillocks.”
     Dalton turned just short of an open train door. “I know one thing for damned sure.”
     “What might that be?” Avis reached into her coat pocket and pinched a cigarette from her pack. There were only about three more in there, by the feel of things.
     “I need a drink.” Dalton reached over and took the cigarette.
     “You had a drink.”
     “It wasn’t tall enough, nor wide. Not by a couple of long shots.”
     She slipped her fingers back into her pocket for another cigarette. Two left. “Smoke your own damned cigarettes.”
     “I did already.”
     “And quit your roaming! It’s like talking to a fly in a manure pile. Stand still. We have to figure out what to do.”
     Dalton stopped and looked down at her. “I’m not getting on any train going up to Dad’s funeral if we don’t have Dad’s body with us.”
     Avis lit her cigarette and took a long drag, blowing the smoke up past Dalton’s ear. “It must not have made the switch. It must still be waiting on some platform in Connecticut.”
     “The man said to check back with him in fifteen minutes.” Dalton lit his cigarette off of hers.
     “How long has it been?”
     Dalton looked up at the big round station clock. “Twenty. What if someone took it?”
     “Who’s going to walk off with a coffin, you damned fool?”
     “Who’d walk off and leave one?” Their eyes met as they exhaled smoke into each other’s faces.
     “Go on,” Avis said, brushing him away like a gnat. “Go find the bag­gage man.”
     Avis watched Dalton stride off through the crowds. Even slouching like he was now, with that hangdog look of his, he was a head taller than everyone else.
     “Last call, last call for the Canadian to Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaving from Track Nine. Making stops at Portland, Lewiston, Augusta, Bangor, Houlton, and St. John’s. Final destination, Halifax. Last call.”
     Avis stood smoking. That was the train they were supposed to be on. She watched as the conductor strode up and down the platform, helping people into the cars. She looked in the windows and saw passengers clog­ging the aisles, stowing bags onto the overhead racks. Already some were taking off gloves and scarves and settling their coats around them, slip­ping into their seats, and snuggling in for the long ride north. Soon they would be leafing through magazines and spreading newspapers across their laps. Some would head to the club car as soon as the train was mov­ing, for hot coffee. Cigarettes would flicker to life, their owners leaning back into the seats, looking out at the storm.
     Avis longed to be on the train with them. She wanted to be in a win­dow seat with her toes tucked under her. Her feet were cold, her leather boots soaked through. She was beyond tired. She needed to curl up into herself and blot out everything while the world swirled around her.
     It had been snowing all night—a full-out nor’easter. She and Dalton hadn’t slept much. Christ, every time either one moved on that rickety bed, the springs sang the “Hallelujah Chorus.” And the wind poured under the window as if it had been wide open, it was so damn cold. Then with Dal­ton turning on the light to go relieve himself and banging into the bed on the way back—and taking up all the space with his long Hillock legs once he got there—it was one ungodly night. They both finally said, “The hell with it,” and got up and smoked most all the cigarettes till they were out of matches and drank all they had left of Dwight’s whiskey.
     Dad’d get a laugh out of this now, seeing his two “damned fools” wondering where they’d put his dead body. Avis didn’t find it so funny. Her head pounded like someone was going at it with a sledgehammer. She couldn’t absorb the shock of Dad’s being gone, never to drive into town unexpected, mad or drunk or both. She’d heard his voice com­menting, making jokes at someone else’s expense, throughout the whole day of people coming in to view him. His voice in her was so strong it kept on going without him.
     Dad’s real voice had been altered for over three years, since he’d had that first stroke that left him all flaccid on the one side. He’d get so frus­trated at not being able to move one whole half of himself, or talk right, or drink without dribbling all over his shirt front, that he’d kick at any­thing within range of his good leg. He’d kicked Avis a few times as hard as he’d kicked the furniture.
     His second shock, three months ago, left him completely mute. She’d moved in with him then. Poor old Dwight just watched her pack and drove her over. She’d been living with Dad, nursing him, those last three months. He could talk with his eyes. Avis could make out his needs. She’d had him to take care of like a baby. She’d read to him by the hour the way she’d always heard Mother had read to him. Wife, mother, daughter. She’d been all three for him at the end.
     “Well, sister, he’s lying on the platform in Connecticut. They’ll send him on here to Boston. Should be here a little before noon, no guarantee ’cause of the weather.” Dalton shook a pack of Lucky Strikes at her. He’d restocked. “They can’t have his funeral without him, so we’re not going to miss it.” He ground the stub of his current cigarette flat out on the platform with a twist of his foot. “Just like that ornery bastard, to miss his own burying.”
     “We’d best call Stan up in Maine,” Avis said. “He’ll know what to do.”
     “Yep. We’d best let the cat out of the bag.”
     “They’ll blame us.” Avis buttoned her coat as though preparing for battle. “Everyone will lay the blame right on us. You’re prepared to start hearing about it?”
     “Yep.”
     “We’ll never hear the end of it.”
     “Nope.”
     “I’ll call Stan.” Avis marched down the platform and up the stairs.
     She had been relying on her cousin Stanley Hillock to get her out of trouble since she was five years old. They’d emptied the well when they made him. Here she was now, fifty-five years old and married, even, to poor, meek Dwight, but Stan was the man to call.
     “I hope he’ll accept the charges,” Dalton called after her.