Sam Burns heard there would be snow, but that was the last thing on his mind this December of 1967. The radio was whispering quietly in the background, forecasting a storm for Chicago, but being states away ignored the radio cast. Sam was currently busy, enraptured by the cardboard box that lay half open on his dining room table, a Newport dangling haphazardly from the fingers of his left hand to hear much of anything. A part of him knew if he moved an inch it would jump off on its own regard and start telling him the latest. It seemed an outright absurdity. How can an entire life fit with emotions and character, end up in a box, their world complete as a set of dust and cinders?
A voice in the back of his head told him, no, ashes can’t come alive in the dark of night. But what did he know? He retired a year ago from the military at 37. He was no forensic specialist. As he mulled over the abrupt intrusion of this cardboard spectacle, he ran his hands across the stubble that was now becoming a permanent fixture on his face. He wanted to close the box and abruptly forget its existence but knew that wasn’t an option. Instead, Sam watched as one of the cardboard flaps slowly fluttered from the heater vent placed directly above the kitchen table. The small movement created a scrapping noise that was starting to make his skin crawl.
The sudden ringing of the telephone shocked him out of his revere. Dropping his cigarette on the dented linoleum, he cursed the situation and slowly made his way to the phone, hesitant to first speak less the ashes decided that a getaway was now in fact possible.
“This is Sam.” His voice gruff from days of disuse.
No one answered, but there was enough background to suspect a presence.
“Hello? Anyone there?” A beat. As he moved to place the receiver back on the wall, a small voice finally answered.
“Sam, it’s Linda.” He knew this call would be coming, but it didn’t make it any easier. His eyes shifted to the box then back to the rotary. “I heard they made you executor.”
“Looks like it.”
“Did you get the ashes?”
Sam sighed. “There here, alright.”
“Tracy and I are wanting to spread them on the Wednesday two weeks from now up in Cheyanne, where dad went to school. He was happy there.” Linda was always one to make quick work of a conversation, but in this case it was painful. Her voice always brought a visceral response to his senses, goosebumps, another grey hair to fall out in the shower at night.
He asked, “how do you want to get the ashes?”
An uncomfortable silence followed. The clock on the wall ruthlessly tick tick ticked, somehow masking the sick scraping from the box holding his father’s ashes.
Linda finally replied, “what do you mean? Get your ass to Cheyanne. Can’t mail our father for Christ Sakes and I’m sure as hell not driving to Tucson from Mississippi to get them, I’ll tell you that right now.” Her quiet voice was suddenly anything but.
“I’ve got plans.”
“Don’t pull this now. There’s reason he made you executor of his will. Lord if I know why, but he wanted you involved. So, buck up. We’ll meet you at Lakeview cemetery off O’Neil on the 13th.” The final click that echoed through the receiver left no room for argument, and with what seemed the final nail in his coffin, Sam ran his hands through his disheveled brown hair that was now much longer than intended and turned towards the kitchen table.
He suddenly felt claustrophobic. The room was hot and suddenly too dark for his taste, the peeling wallpaper seeming to mimic his circumstance as a section finally made its move and crumbled to the ground, filling holes in the tainted flooring in a twisted irony. Sam watched in partial wonderment and utter exhaustion as his life was literally disintegrating before his eyes.
He glanced back at the table. The box was a stern reminder of his life’s failures, somehow packaged conveniently in a neat little 3×3 box. It was in that moment he knew that he couldn’t sit in the house and wait for the 13th, he had to leave now. Grabbing only a couple shirts and his spray deodorant, he tucked the box in his trunk and headed east.
Sam wondered what would happen if he drove his car off a cliff and jumped out at the last possible moment. Would he still need to see Linda? Christ, would he even recognize her after eight years? His mind began racing down pathways he’d long lost buried, his shovel highly insufficient for the task at hand.
Slamming on his break, he realized he almost blew past a stop sign, his tires just inches past the intersection. Shaking his head, Sam pulled over and laid his head on the steering wheel. What was he doing? He drove tanks in the military and suddenly he couldn’t get through a small neighborhood road in Tucson. To top it off, his father’s ashes seemed to throb from the trunk, his personalized Tell-Tale Heart bringing him deeper into a state of utter disbelief.
Finally gathering his wits and flicking his old cigarette out the window, Sam turned back to highway 10 towards Las Cruces and lit another, his used butts leaving a crumb trail leading to the anxiety in Cheyenne.
After briefly glancing at his map at the gas station, Sam decided with the extra few days he would exit interstate 25 at Santa Fe and head up north through Pojoaque. He needed to get out of this city and find seclusion before meeting with the witch of the west, or south, in his case. He hoped he could find a bed and breakfast in the middle of nowhere, hole up for days with the blinds shut hard.
The blue skies that followed were stark, the brightness a rough juxtaposition to his mood. Although he refused to admit it, the cool air on his face refreshed his spirit and brought a new color to his cheeks. Perhaps he could survive the next two weeks after all. He even found a station that had the Doors and the Turtles on heavy rotation which was alright by him.
By the time Sam reached Hatch, New Mexico, he was humming along to Light My Fire and trying to decide who could take the other, Aretha Franklin or Arthur Conley. Lost in the trance of the music, Sam almost missed a vehicle carelessly pulled to the side of the road, red hazards blinking frantically. Feeling suddenly more social than that of late, he decided to pull over and offer his service.
As Sam pulled to the side, he noticed a younger woman attempting to lift the heavy hood of what appeared to be a 64’ Studebaker. She seemed mid-twenties, dark hair braided on the side in what looked to be a mad rush.
“Howdy ma’am.” Sam tilted his head towards the woman. She seemed alarmed as her eyes darted to the rear seat of the car. “I’m sorry if I startled you, just looks like you may need some assistance.” He kept his distance, she seemed extremely wary. He suspected he would be too if placed in similar circumstance, being a solo woman in the middle of nowhere New Mexico.
“That’s very kind of you.” She approached Sam cautiously, “my names Carla. Something started smoking a few miles back, but I don’t know anything about cars.” She crossed her arms in somewhat of a defensive manner.
“Name’s Sam. Can I take a look?”
“Be my guest, please. Not a lot of cars coming through here, I was starting to get nervous.” Carla replied, seemingly relieved yet markedly tense.
As Sam made his way to the hood he said, “smells like it might be the coolant, had any issues with that in the past?”
“I honestly don’t know, it’s my husband’s car. I don’t even know what year we got it. I know, not every helpful.” Carla smiled.
He smiled, “no problem at all.” He began analyzing the cars inner parts, pulling a rag from his back pocket and making himself at home. Sam always felt more at ease with cars than with people. Cars followed rules, people were full of subjectivity and disappointment.
“Light my fire?”
“What’s that?” Sam poked his head around the hood, one eyebrow raised.
“The song you’re humming.”
“Oh right, guess so. Didn’t even notice.” He smiled. Before he could ask about her personal music taste, a small voice echoed from inside the car, making him jump.
“Mom? Where are we?”
Carla suddenly appeared panicked. “Baby I’m sorry, I’m just seeing about the car, everything’s ok. Can you go back to sleep?”
Sam failed to notice the child in the back seat, but now understood Carla’s prior hesitation. He continued looking at the engine as they whispered an exchange he couldn’t decipher and didn’t care to.
After some time, he said, “looks like you may have a blown head gasket.”
“Is it drivable?”
She looked antsy to get back on the road and seemed to have a habit of looking back at the road they originated from. He hoped it wasn’t his presence making her nervous, he was a larger man, but he didn’t feel particularly ominous at the moment. “It can cause a lot of issues, especially long term. I may have something to seal it. Are you going far?”
She hesitated to answer.
After some time, Sam replied, “you don’t have to answer that. Let me see what I can do.”
Walking back to his car, he grabbed a tool kit out of the trunk. “I’ll add some sealant that will get you to a mechanic in the next town, but don’t drive too far, I’m not 100% that’s what is causing everything.” He was glad he decided to bring his supplies, he figured if he didn’t know where he was ending up, he better be prepared one way or the other.
“Thank you again.” She looked hesitant. “I’m sorry I don’t have much to repay you for the work.”
“Even if you did, I wouldn’t take it. It’s my pleasure. Have a good rest of your drive, and if it starts up again you better pull over and get a tow.”
Whistling back to his car he realized he hadn’t felt of use to anyone in a long while, perhaps he’d start working as a mechanic again. What he realized he needed was purpose. As the thought became a seed in the back of his mind ready to be watered for growth, he glanced at the trunk of his car and his mood turned sour.
At fifteen, he dropped out of high school to work at his uncle’s automotive shop. That began the torrential domino effect of emotions thrown at him by his father, each blow worse than the last. He worked as a lawyer when Sam was a child, meaning that no son of his would degrade himself to the lowly caliber of mechanic. Why would he waste his life? Sam didn’t understand the full weight of his choice or the actions of his father until he was older and cut from family finances, his mother a meek force caught in the middle of the family downpour of events. What resulted was escape at 18, his saving grace the military where he was able to hon his mechanic skills and start a chain-smoking habit that was somehow worse than his fathers.
Given that history with his father, why was he named executor of his will? It was something that kept him up at night, replaying the last time they spoke like a self-inflicted water torture, the dripping of his father’s last words meant to overflow any waking thought. His deep voice and hearty cough still so fresh and at the foremost of his memory Sam would wake thinking he was there, next to his father’s hospital bed at home offering him water and receiving nothing but a stern look and a flip of the bird in response.
Starting up the car, he wasn’t sure if he felt lightness or despair, helpfulness or distress. The ashes weighed him down as he continued North, solitude and whiskey the only sights set.