All Stories, General Fiction

Desert Dust by James Bates

The middle-aged, balding man sitting behind the desk at the Arapahoe County Funeral Home looked up as I walked in. He smiled a greeting. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” I said, trying to be polite since I really didn’t want to be there. “My name is Sam Jorgenson. I think I talked to you earlier this week. I came for my father’s ashes.”

“Ah, Mr. Jorgenson.” He nodded, his face taking on what I figured was his practiced look of sad commiseration. He stood up, came around his deck, and extended his hand. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “Yes, we did talk. I’m Jack Benson, the director here. May I offer my condolences.”

I shook his hand. It was dry and cold to the touch. “Thank you. Nice to meet you,” I said.

He was a stout, clean-shaven man who seemed like a nice enough guy even though the black suit he was wearing seemed a little over the top. Then I reminded myself that I was in a funeral home in the small town of Pyrite, Arizona. I needed to focus on the task at hand.

He nodded again and started walking. “Please, come this way.”

I followed him down a short hallway to a small chapel. We walked in and he flipped a light switch. There on a small table to the right of the entrance was a wooden box about the size of a shoe box. He pointed, his face becoming even more solemn if that were even possible. “Here are your father’s remains,” he said.

I took a look. The wooden was box nicely made. It was stained dark mahogany and polished to a high gloss. My first thought was that it was actually quite elegant. My second thought was that it was way more than my old man deserved.

I looked at the funeral director. “Um, do you have something simpler,” I asked, wanting to add that the old man didn’t deserve anything so nice. But I didn’t. Decorum and the respect for the dead and all of that. Especially in a funeral home. Instead I added, “Like a shoebox?”

The attentive Mr. Benson coughed once, politely, and asked, “A shoebox, sir?”

“Yeah.” I waved my hand arbitrarily around. “You know, anything like that.”

He gave me a withering look, obviously not happy with my lack of respect for the dearly departed.

“Ah, no, Mr. Jorgenson. I don’t.”

Well, that was too bad because to my way of thinking dear old dad wasn’t worth the nice box he was in. It was staying with Mr. Benson. “Fine,” I said. “I’ll just take the ashes.”

A curt nod. “As you wish, sir.”

That’s exactly what I wished. The old man was getting to be a major pain in the ass and way more trouble than he was worth.

I knew the funeral director was perplexed, but he was also very professional. He opened the box, lifted out the bag of ashes, and gave it to me. The bag was about the size of a small loaf of bread, weighed about five pounds, and was secured with a golden string twist-tie. “Are you sure, Mr. Jorgenson?”

I couldn’t nod fast enough. “I’m positive.”

“All right then.”

We left the chapel and went to a small office where I paid for the cremation and services rendered. Then took my bag and left the funeral home. One task was completed. Now I had to get rid of his ashes. Once more the thought rolled through my brain, what a pain in the ass.

I blame it all on Two weeks earlier Clayton Redding Jorgenson had died destitute and alone in a tiny dented-up Airstream at Green Valley Estates, a fancy name for a low-rent trailer park in the Sonora Desert on the outskirts of Pyrite, Arizona. I hadn’t seen him in over forty years, not since he’d left me and my three younger sisters and my mom the day after Christmas in nineteen seventy-eight when I was nine.

A week ago Mom had gotten a call from the funeral home. Seems an overachieving intern working for the county coroner’s department had tracked down Clayton Jorgenson’s family. Mr. Benson had called Mom and told her about what had happened to her long-departed husband.

“Just about gave me a heart attack,” was how she explained it to me later when she asked me to come over. “I didn’t know what to do, so I called you.”

Thanks a lot, mom. His leaving so many years ago had drawn the family closer, and me being the oldest was who Mom figured she could count on to talk about it.

We made ourselves comfortable with mugs of coffee in the kitchen of her tidy apartment in Orchard Lake, Minnesota, a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis. A warm summer breeze puffed through the window, ruffling the yellow print curtains Mom had made. She was handy that way. “What do you think we should do?” she asked.

It didn’t take but a moment for me to give her my two cents worth, “I think we should flush those damn ashes down the toilet.”

She frowned at my suggestion, being a way more forgiving person than me. “Sam! You don’t mean that.”

“What? You don’t want them sent home, do you?” I blurted out. Jesus, I thought to myself, that would be way too weird.

“No. No. Nothing like that,” Mom said, hesitating only a moment before answering, a pregnant pause that made me think maybe she really did want those pathetic ashes sent back to her. But, I was wrong, thankfully. “No. I just think we should do something nice with them.”

We? Nice? The guy had left my mother and four kids and never looked back. Not once.

“Really?” I said, hoping I sounded as caustic as I felt. “I’m not sure he deserves anything nice,” I said, finger quoting around nice.

“I know, Sam, I know you do,” she said, reaching out and taking my hand. “I just think he deserves something more than being flushed down the toilet.”

“Yeah, well, sorry about that,” I said, not feeling very sorry at all.

Mom continued like I hadn’t said anything, “Remember, I was married to him. I did love him, you know. I never remarried. I suppose I thought maybe someday he might even come back to me.”

Really? Come back? I never knew. Good lord, how sad could one story be? “Mom, look, I’ll tell you what. I’ll go out there and dispose of his ashes in a respectful manner. If I do that will you just try to forget about him and focus on living the rest of your life without pretending he might be coming back? Because, believe me, he’s not.” Mom was seventy-six and had been dealing with diabetes and a myriad of other health issues for the last ten years. Who knew how much longer she had to live? I leaned across the table and hugged her. “Please?”

She hugged me back. “I will, Sam. I’ll try. I really will.”

So that’s what brought me to Pyrite, Arizona, and the funeral home a week later. After paying for the ashes, I took my leave of the accommodating Mr. Benson and went outside into the one hundred- and fifteen-degree July sun, gasping for breath in the heat. My car was like an oven so I ran it for at least ten minutes with the air conditioning on to get it to cool down. It didn’t help much.

Before I left the parking lot, I consulted my map. The trailer park where the old man had once lived was outside of town about five miles away. I turned the A/C up as high as it’d go and drove off. It took about ten minutes to get there. I slowed down as I drove past but didn’t bother stopping. There wasn’t much to see; a ramshackle excuse for a place to live if I’d even seen one. Junked out rusted cars and beat-up trailers were the order of the day. Not a tree or a bush or a living thing growing on the property. Depressing was putting it mildly. I shook my head to clear it of the image of my father living there, suddenly feeling a twinge of pity for him. I shook my head to clear that away too.

I drove a few miles past the trailer park and turned onto a washboard county road. Lost in my thoughts I kept driving for about fifteen miles until I was out in the middle of nowhere. I tried to picture what it must have been like to live in the desert like my old man had in an aluminum-covered trailer the size of a child’s bedroom, baking in this kind of heat. What must his life have been like? All I could find out from Mr. Benson when I’d first talked to him on the phone was that he lived by himself and worked as a cook in a diner at a truck stop off Interstate 40, fifteen miles away. He apparently didn’t have many friends, at least none Mr. Benson or the coroner or even the local sheriff could find.

I was mad that I had to do this but also surprised to find that I was a little sad that his life had turned out to be so…well, so sad. I didn’t kid myself; I could have done more research. I could have looked deeper into his life and found out more about him. I could have done something to get to know the man who planted the seeds in my mother that spawned me and my three sisters. I could have, but I didn’t. I’d moved on years ago. Did I resent him? Sure. Did he ruin my life? No. I wouldn’t let him. I had a wonderful wife, a good job, and two great sons. I wouldn’t have changed a thing about how my life had played out. I didn’t need to know anything about him, nor did I want to.

I stepped out of the car into the blast furnace heat. He’d chosen to live in the desert and that’s where he’d spend eternity. Carrying the bag of ashes, I walked about one hundred feet off the road to a lone spinney cactus. I looked around. I was completely by myself. A more desolate place in a land of desolate places I could not imagine. I took the plastic bag that contained his ashes and held it in my left hand. With my right I undid the twist tie and with both hands held the bag high, turning it to spill the contents out. As I was doing so, a fickle wind blew up and caught the ashes sending a cloud of them over me, covering me with his final remains. I coughed a few times. Then couldn’t help it, I laughed out loud at the irony. My dad. It was the closest I’d ever been to him.

With his ashes finally scattered, I let a minute go by, feeling the wind on my face and listening to the silence of the desert. Then I stuffed the bag in my hip pocket, dusted myself off, and headed back to my car. My father was gone. Finally. But his impact remained. I needed to get home and spend some time with Mom and see what could be done about helping her to get on with the rest of her life; helping her to see that now after all these years, out here in the wide-open desert with the hot wind blowing, there was nothing left of him. He really and truly was gone for good, his ashes scattered forever in the desert dust.

Jim Bates

Image by Monika from Pixabay 

13 thoughts on “Desert Dust by James Bates”

  1. Jim

    Thank you for all the extra work you put into this moving and unique piece of work. Death falling evenly on all somehow fails to add up to the effects and non-effects lives have on other lives. Well done.


  2. Hi Jim,
    I echo what Leila has said and even though this isn’t a comeuppance story (Which are always interesting!), maybe it is an emphasis on what was thought and that is just as strong.
    I reckon if your ‘closest’ can’t respect you in death, you didn’t deserve a life in the first place.
    Brilliantly done!
    All the very best my fine friend.


    1. Hi Hugh! Thank you so much for your kind comments and for supporting my writing. You always seem to find more in my stories than I intended when I wrote them and for that I’m forever grateful. Again, thank you so much 🙂


  3. Jim,
    First, “Fool’s Gold, Arizona”, nicely coded. My compliments.
    Having disposed of troublesome relatives ashes myself, I commiserate with Sam.
    I like your straightforward writing style, it took me right along.
    Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim Bates – You made me feel the Arizona heat and think of spreading my parent’s ashes. My father was partialed out into places he gardened and fished, my mother’s ashes blew back at us at Cannon Beach Oregon on the coast. All happy families the same, all unhappy different. Keep on rocking, riting, and reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Doug! It’s great to see you. I’m so happy my story resonated with you. Sounds like you’ve had quite the interesting experiences when it comes to scattering ashes!! Take care, my friend, Thank you so much for all your support 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Superb writing which makes the reader feel a great sense of reality and truth. I really admire how you handled this sad story with equal measure of honesty and grace. An excellent insight into relationships and how death is handled.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Jim, you have drawn an incredibly sad picture of the end of a life. It makes me wonder how many people come to a similar end. Alone. Destitute. No one to celebrate their accomplishments or even care if they had accomplishments. I think there’s a country song in there somewhere.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Kayuk. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my story and to comment. I agree with you. It is sad how many people this can happen to. Unfortunately, I knew of just such a person. His loss made me realize how important it was to live every day to it’s fullest potential. At least to try to, anyway. Again, thank for reading my story. It means a lot to me that you did.


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