Another tale outside my readerly comfort zone, courtesy of The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories
"California Burning" • (2009) • novelette by Michael Blumlein
A strange story in the Aickmanesque sense: questions are posed, evidence detailed, answers demanded, denied, refused, ultimately deemed irrelevant.
The narrator is arranging his father's cremation. The unexpected announces itself:
....My father, it seemed, did not want to burn. His skin and nails and organs, yes. They were gone. But his bones, no. Somehow they had resisted twenty-four hours of thirteen hundred degree heat and flame. Greg had never seen anything like it.
His boss, however, had. He’d been in the business almost thirty years and had seen, in his words, ‘a little bit of everything.’ We met in his office, which adjoined the crematorium. There was an old-fashioned oak desk piled with papers, a chair behind it and one in front of it, a dirty window, a concrete floor. By the look of things he wasn’t used to visitors....
....‘What’s the problem with my father’s bones?’
He was leaning against the front edge of his desk, his shirt collar open, his thick, calloused hands on his thighs. He looked like he could have been a fighter at one time. His face was carefully composed.
‘They don’t want to burn,’ he said.
‘And why is that?’
‘I wish I had an answer. We gave it all we got.’
‘Greg mentioned something about the oven. Thought maybe it was acting up.’
‘Nothing wrong with the oven. We just had it serviced. It’s working fine.’
‘But this is what you do, right? You cremate bodies.’
‘Twenty-nine years,’ he said.
‘But not mine.’ I meant my father’s, of course....
....My father actually had suggested that when the time came, he be buried, but my mother was opposed. Her mind was set on cremation. She wanted to scatter his ashes and be done. She didn’t want a grave to have to visit. Her mother and father, whom she adored, were buried in graves, and she didn’t enjoy the feelings that visiting them stirred up in her. She didn’t like being tied to her loved ones in that particular way. Ever the gentleman, my father had agreed.
Two odd-acting men who claim they are with the governme t show up at the son's house. They seem to be confused and menacing at the same time; they never demand the bones the son has brought home from the crematorium.
....What did your dad die of?’
The strange thing was, no one knew. He went into the hospital complaining of shortness of breath and twelve days later he was dead. Having lost his mind completely – also for unknown reasons – in the process.
‘Not his heart. His heart was fine. What did you do? The other time?’
‘I called around. Talked to some guys in the business. Everyone had had a case or two. Or if they didn’t, they knew of one.’
‘So this is not unheard of.’
‘No. It’s not.’
‘It happens a lot?’
He shrugged. ‘It happens.’
The son takes the file box of his father's bones to Adolph, his dad's old friend. Piecemeal anecdotes and allusions proliferate.
....An old man peered out. Day old whiskers, hawk-shaped nose, boxy black-rimmed glasses that magnified his eyes two or three-fold, a flurry of white hair.
I gave him my name.
A moment passed, and then he offered his hand. ‘I’m Krantz. Call me Adolph. I was sorry to hear about your dad. Come in.’
He led me inside, moving slowly but steadily, down a hall and into a small, paneled room full of books and odds and ends. There were two leather armchairs facing each other across a chess board. Only a few pieces remained in play.
He took one of the chairs. ‘Do you play?’
‘I know how the pieces move. That’s about it.’
He studied the board for a moment, then leaned forward and advanced one of the pawns. ‘Your father never liked the game. Though he’d play if I asked him to, back in the day. He hated this part. Endgame. Too slow for him. Not enough action.’
He pointed to a pawn on my side of the table and asked me to move it. He studied the board a minute or two more, and satisfied, sat back and studied me.
‘You look like your father. You have his eyes. People used to say I looked like him too. To me that was a great compliment. I admired him enormously. There’re not a lot of us left.’
‘That’s right. Hardly any.’
‘What do you mean “us”?’
‘The gang. The tribe.’ He paused. ‘What did we call ourselves?’ He couldn’t remember.
‘FOOD?’ I ventured.
‘What about it?’
‘Was that the name?’
He gave me a look. ‘Food?’
‘What kind of name is that?’
I told him what it stood for, at which point, I believe, he ceased to take me seriously.
‘You’re needling me.’
‘Your dad used to needle.’
‘I’m only telling you what they said.’
‘Such a needler. The King of Needling. The Needlemeister. What an education, watching him work. A thing of beauty, your father. He had the softest touch.’ He fell silent, and I could see him remembering. The years seemed to melt away. A smile lit his old, craggy face.
‘We did pretty well for ourselves, didn’t we, Mickey? Considering what we had to work with. Where we came from. What we had to do. Pretty damned well.’
Mickey was my father’s nickname, from the old days. Only a handful of people used it. Evidently, Adolph was talking to him.
‘We’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. You a high school dropout. Me a college bum.’
He glanced at me.
‘Mickey’s not here.’
He looked lost, but only for a moment. ‘Why would he be? But you. Listen. Be proud of your father. He was a good man. A wonderful person. You know how we met? The story. You know the story?’
Some of it I did, but only bits and pieces, mostly from my mom. Dad didn’t talk much about the past.
‘I came over when I was just a kid. Your father was a year or two older and already here. My family took a room in a house in the neighborhood. Five of us in a single room. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know my way from a hole in the ground. Scared? You bet I was scared. Excited too. Scared and excited at the same time. Everything was so different, so strange and unusual, and one day I walked out the door, and there was your father. He was sitting on a fire hydrant, playing with a piece of string. He smiled when he saw me. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said.’
‘He spoke your language? He spoke German?’
‘Your father? German? Never. Not a word.’
‘So how’d you understand him?’
‘How do you think I understood him? He made himself understood. He took me under his wing. Became a big brother to me. That’s how they worked it. The buddy system. Everything in pairs.’
‘Who worked it?’
‘The ones who sent us. The program. For me, mandatory. Your dad, if I’m not mistaken, was a volunteer.’
‘For what? A volunteer for what?’
He thought for a moment, and a smile spread across his face. ‘The rest of his life. And then some. That’s for what. Don’t ask me how long, because I can’t tell you. As you see, I’m still here.’
Apparently, he found this amusing. To me it was annoyingly obtuse.
‘You said you were sent. By whom?’
‘Who are the senders?’
‘I was five. What does a kid know when he’s five?’ He gave me a look. ‘Your father never talked to you about this?’
I shook my head.
‘Then I assume he didn’t want you to know.’
‘Some do, some don’t. Tell people. It’s an individual decision. It’s not up to me to decide otherwise. Out of respect for your father, may he rest in peace. Out of respect for your mother. And for you.’
This wasn’t good enough, not by a long shot. I asked him again what it was I didn’t know, but he refused to say another word. I wasn’t about to get down on my knees. Not literally. I did, however, let a certain plaintive, importuning tone enter my voice. But he wouldn’t budge.
So I tried a different tactic. ‘The men who visited me. Are they part of this thing? Do they know?’
He didn’t recognize either of their names, but my description of Michaels seemed to ring a bell.
‘They came to pay their respects?’
‘They wanted a look at him. At his bones. Who are they, Adolph?’
‘I’d imagine another unit. Another pair. Did you let them see?’
‘No. I didn’t trust them.’
‘They were secretive?’
‘And you found that annoying. Distasteful. Unpleasant.’
He nodded, then fell silent. Nearly a minute passed before he spoke. ‘I understand. I do. But imagine for a moment if they weren’t.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Imagine if they were completely open and honest. Imagine if everyone was. Now take that one step further and imagine if everyone shared everything. If there were no secrets, no hidden thoughts, no privacy. If everyone knew everything about everybody. No separation between people. No boundaries. No mystery. Imagine a world like that. Every channel open all the time. Everything revealed. How does that sound to you?’
He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘We’ve tried it. It fried our little brains. Almost fried our future too. Better a little privacy. A little ignorance. Trust me, it’s no crime to know a little less.’
Then I’m in good shape, I thought. I had no idea what he was talking about.
‘Why won’t his bones burn, Adolph?’
‘Ah, yes. That question. Do you have them?’
As a matter of fact, I did. ‘They’re in the car.’
He nodded, as if he’d expected no less. ‘The answer to your question is I don’t know why. I only know what you know, that they won’t.’
He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He did resemble my father, and the look he gave me – searching and warm – resembled him too.
‘Have you thought of burying him?’ he asked.
‘My mother won’t allow it.’
‘It’s a common custom, you know.’
‘I do know. But it’s not up to me.’
‘Throughout the world. Among a great many groups, as different and diverse as they can be. To hazard a guess, I’d say the custom is quite universal. And I use that term in the broadest possible way.’
He replaced his glasses and leveled his eyes at me. ‘Did it ever occur to you that the men were there for that?’
‘What? To bury my father."
‘Yes. To bury him. Simply that.’
‘They didn’t mention it. And it didn’t occur to me. Not once.’
‘A failure of communication perhaps. But it doesn’t matter, does it? Your mother won’t permit it.’
‘She has that right.’
‘Certainly she does. The right of the survivor. We should do our best to honor her wishes. Perhaps it’s time you brought him in.’
29 July 2017