Bill Wilkinson writes fiction from his home in northwestern Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Nabu Review, Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and Havik Journal.
The Conservation of Mass
Ann wasn’t prepared when her son asked the question she always knew he’d eventually ask. She’d told him everything about his father since the day he was born, though it had been some time since he last asked for a story. There wasn’t anything to add. ‘Hey, Mom,’ he said that night after dinner. ‘Did you ever find out who got parts of Dad?’
‘Parts of Dad?’ she repeated, turning her back while putting away the dish she was drying. She was stalling.
‘Yeah. You know. Like, who’s got his liver? Or his eyes? Stuff like that.’
‘No, Jake,’ she said slowly. ‘I never did.’ Her drained face flushed scarlet.
‘Do you think we could find out?’
* * *
Ann hadn’t even known she was pregnant when they told her her husband wouldn’t wake up again. They still had him hooked-up, tubes running from his body, a gentle mechanical hiss announcing each unnatural breath. Some excitable young doctor, not the one who’d been caring for Jacob after his accident, was speaking so quickly his words collided into gibberish. He seemed so very happy when she slid her pen across the paper. It was all so inappropriate. She remained upright until he took his papers and skipped away. Then, darkness.
‘We ran some tests while you were out,’ a peppy little girl, all in white, was saying when Ann next remembered being alive. She was in a room on a bed in a gown. ‘Congratulations!’ the smiley girl said. ‘You’re pregnant!’ Ann began sobbing, disconcerting the erstwhile bearer-of-good-news who must not have known that this patient’s husband’s organs were being harvested and flown about in little red coolers aboard helicopters so others could go on with life. Or perhaps the nurse had perspective. Her giddiness subsided and she left Ann curled on her side to resign herself to this Lifetime movie existence.
‘Your Daddy saved so many people,’ Ann had whispered to her infant son in that same hospital the day she gave birth to him. She told him all about the father he’d never meet. She wanted baby Jake to know his father. It had taken her quite a while to understand the gift her husband had left with her before going. She felt guilty joy in the days leading up to Jake’s birth. Jacob had wanted a family so badly.
‘Your father was a good man,’ she whispered to the sleeping baby. ‘He thought he was such a good guitarist, but he wasn’t at all!’ Ann silently laughed, laying her cheek against the softness of the infant’s forehead. She could hear Jacob trying to play ‘Heart of Gold’ when they first began dating. He’d screw up and bang the side of the guitar before sheepishly trying again, little red marks growing on his neck. ‘But he wrote me these little stories,’ she whispered. ‘He’d leave them around the house on the backs of receipts or grocery lists or newspaper scraps, written so neatly. I had to find them all to read the whole story.’ Tears dampened her cheeks, but she wiped them so they wouldn’t wake her baby. ‘Your eyes are his.’
That day, when she learned her husband would die but that others would live and she’d raise a child alone, she didn’t want to know any of the details about what was happening. Later, Ann was glad the parts of Jacob, so useless to him, had helped others. But she never wanted anyone to find her. She didn’t want to be thanked. Her husband was gone forever; nothing could change that.
* * *
‘I don’t need to find out,’ she finally responded, perhaps too harshly.
‘Listen, honey,’ she started more softly. ‘I hope that your father helped others to live with their families and do good things. I really do. But I have no interest in learning anything about the people who benefited from his death.’
‘I have you. Your father left you for me. And he gave you life! Isn’t that enough?’
‘Don’t you think that maybe I want to know? For me?’ He slammed the dish towel to the floor and knocked over a chair storming from the kitchen. His feet clomped up the stairs. Ann heard his door slam shut, unsettling their home. She didn’t follow him, allowing him to rage. Later that night, lying awake in bed, she heard her son’s soft footsteps pad down the hallway. He stopped before her closed door. She could hear him breathing. Then she heard paper slide beneath her door, and Jake’s feet tread softly away.
‘Dear Mom,’ she read in the dim light of her bedside lamp. His handwriting, with precise compact letters slightly slanted, was so similar to his father’s. So different from her own illegible mess. ‘I love you. I know you love me, too. I know you love Dad and miss him very much. But you see, I can’t miss Dad because I never got the chance to meet him. I remember all the stories you used to tell me. I wrote some of them down. But why did you stop talking about Dad? I only know him through you and the stories.’ She set the letter down for a moment. She didn’t want a heavy teardrop to splash the paper and ruin it.
‘Mom, we were learning in science class about how everything (Matter is what the science word is) has been around since the beginning of time. No new matter is created. It can’t be gotten rid of, either. Things aren’t destroyed, they just change into something else. I’m not great at explaining things perfectly, but I think this is pretty much the gist of it. Anyhow, I guess my takeaway in class was: Everything that ever was, is. Everything that ever was, will always be. Does that make sense? I guess what I mean is: Don’t you think Dad is still out there, just different? Like maybe in these people, somehow, a part of him that isn’t just tissue and stuff is there? I didn’t mean to make you sad. Love, Jake.’
She lay in bed for a while, feeling extreme love mixed with helplessness. She rose, tip-toeing down the hall, to stand before her son’s door. It was silent inside his room, so she carefully opened the door a crack. Ann watched Jake for several minutes, hoping he might wake, before returning to her own bed when his back remained turned towards her.
Ann didn’t say anything when Jake emerged for breakfast. He kept his head down entering the kitchen. She slid his bowl of Frosted Flakes in front of him and his averted eyes, then walked behind him so she could hug him. She kissed his messy, sleep-smelly hair and held him while his cereal became soggy. ‘I love you,’ she whispered. Jake ate in silence, his eyes glued to the bowl. Before he left the kitchen, she said, ‘Why don’t we talk about Dad after school?’ He nodded, lifting his puffy eyes. A smile slowly formed.
* * *
‘Some people believe in a soul,’ she said that evening after dinner. Mother and son were seated on the couch in the living room. A picture of Jacob shared a frame with one of his son. ‘And they believe the soul leaves the body at death, bound for heaven or hell. Some people believe completely differently.’ She shrugged.
‘Is Dad in heaven?’ Jake asked.
‘If anyone deserves to go somewhere good, it would be your father,’ she said wistfully. ‘But I don’t know. Your father didn’t believe in all that.’
‘Do you believe in god?’ he asked.
‘Wow. Easy question, huh? I don’t know. I’d like to, but I guess I don’t.’ Ann doesn’t go to church anymore. Jake has never gone. He could if he wanted, but he’s never shown any interest. Perhaps she’s failed him. But who can know? ‘A lot of people believe in some form of god, but no one really knows. That’s hard for people. Not knowing.’
‘There are kids at school pretty convinced.’
‘Yeah, a lot of people think they know a lot of things. Faith isn’t a bad thing. Belief and hope are good things, generally. Religion, though, can be a different story altogether. I hope, sometimes, that there is a god. Pretending to have all of the answers seems pretty presumptive. Especially when it comes to god, don’t you think?’
He nodded. ‘There’re two girls in my class that’re real religious, but they’re always against all kinds of things. They say it’s wrong to be gay. The one, Brittney, told me Jesus would be coming back soon once Trump builds the embassy in Jerusalem. That seems a little nuts.’
Ann rolled her eyes, agreeing with a dismissive flick of the wrist. ‘I really liked your idea about Dad still being out there,’ she said softly, reaching to hold Jake’s hand, ready to have this conversation finally. ‘You may be on to something.’
Jake looked away from his mother. She felt him pulling, ever so slightly, away. ‘I guess maybe if we found someone who got one of Dad’s organs, then maybe it would be like meeting Dad. I don’t know. It’s probably stupid.’
Ann pulled her son closer, turned his chin with her other hand so his face was near hers. ‘No. No that isn’t stupid at all. I understand why you feel this way. I really do.’ She paused to steady her voice.
‘But. No. Don’t think of it as a but. Okay? Let me lay this out there for you. Let me tell you what I believe.’ She could see his eyes filling, his body beginning to quiver, his legs becoming fidgety. Gosh, why hadn’t she continued telling him stories? Why hadn’t she shared her thoughts about this earlier? He clearly had been thinking about this for a long time now. He must have seen some stories about reunions between organ recipients and the families of donors.
‘Jake, I believe that Dad really could be anywhere. Not just where his organs are. Let’s call this “Mom’s Unified Grand Guess About Life,” okay?’ She earned an eye-roll and a slight chortle. Perhaps a scoff. ‘Now, this isn’t truth. Okay? It isn’t meant to be right or anything like that. Because I don’t know if it’s truth. No one does. Can I tell you?’
‘So when Dad died, I learned I was pregnant with you. Within hours of signing the paperwork and learning the love of my life would never walk through that door ever again. That’s a whole heck of a lot to take. Those days before, when he was plugged into all those machines, alive but not, I was really angry. I was angry with the world. Angry and pissed. I actually chose to believe in god just so I could curse him.’
‘But wasn’t it just an accident? Didn’t Dad just fall off a ladder?’ Jake asked.
She’d come home from work that day, parked in the garage, and began making dinner. The news blared from the television. She wasn’t wondering where her husband was. Jacob must be jogging because his car was in the garage when she returned. Funny, though. Typically he leaves a note if he’s going to be long. Jacob liked to run around the small lake nearby after a busy day. He taught English at the high school. It took her over an hour to begin worrying. A bit longer to start looking.
It wouldn’t have mattered, the doctor reassured her. These things happen. The way he hit, even had she been there, the result may have turned out the same. Ann guessed he was lying because how could it help to tell her she could have saved him? He’d probably already been laying beneath the tree for over an hour when she got home. Though no one can tell.
Ann noticed the new bird feeder hanging from the tree in the back, and that’s what led her to Jacob. He’d been telling her about this great big woodpecker he’d seen in the woods. ‘You should check out its red Mohawk,’ he’d exclaimed. ‘I looked it up. Pileated woodpecker.’ He made a special suet feeder hoping to attract the bird to their yard. He wanted her to see it for herself.
And so he’d climbed the ladder and succeeded in hanging the feeder before the ladder must have shifted and slipped from under him. Ann can picture it vividly. The doctor thought it was just his time. That’s what the man of science said. ‘Sometimes it’s just a person’s time.’ It was meant to be comforting, but the sentiment is intellectually lazy. There was a gnarled root where Jacob fell. It just happened to crack his head just so. Maybe a centimeter this way or that; an outstretched hand; or if his butt had landed first, he probably would have gotten up to joke with her about his fall. But instead.
‘Exactly,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t anyone’s fault. But that. That’s what made it so maddening. That’s what made it so unfair. If we’re to believe in some sort of cosmic justice, or the existence of a higher power worthy of our belief and worship, how can such meaningless shit happen? And he was dead, but here I was left alone. And then I was told you would be coming along, and I didn’t know how I’d deal. It was so unfair. I envied him.’
‘Fair is a place they judge pigs. That’s what you say to me,’ Jake said, trying to bring some levity to the conversation. Ann had worked herself up, her wounds suddenly raw.
‘Indeed,’ she laughed, calmer now. She squeezed Jake’s hand. ‘You’re getting to the age where you’ll learn how rotten the world can be, despite all of it’s amazing, unlikely glory. Once you learn about places like Srebrenica and Treblinka and Wounded Knee, you’ll question all sorts of things about humanity. Bad things happen, irrespective of the existence of god, to people both good and bad. But I learned, those months with you growing inside me, that there’s good in the world, even during really crappy times. It’s worth it to love.’
She got up and walked to the bookshelf. All of the books had been her husband’s, literature he’d saved from school and collected during their life together. He was always reading. Reading and writing. He’d hoped to pass along everything he’d ever read or learned to some future child, so Ann had saved everything for Jake. She couldn’t bring herself to read any of the books, but she hoped Jake would. There was one book, though, that she had selected by chance a few weeks before Jake was born. She couldn’t sleep those nights, so big and worried about raising a child alone. She’d been depressed and anxious, but then joyfully manic. She felt pain all over, especially at night. So she picked a paperback, something light to read, hoping time would hurry.
‘Never judge a book by its cover,’ she said, pulling out a well-paged book called, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. She flipped through the pages, absorbing the story in seconds, before handing it to Jake. ‘I suppose I was prejudging the author, really. Vonnegut, I thought, should be a nice easy read. Sci-fi or humor. It was a quick read, but it was heavy all the same. You should read this. It’s funny, and though it has dated references, it’s message is timeless. It’s about kindness. It’s about treating people well just because they are people. Imagine what the world could be like if everyone could agree on something so simple? Be nice even if you won’t be rewarded when you die. Don’t be cruel even if you won’t be punished for it when you die.’
Jake flipped through the book, allowing his Mom’s words to sink in. He wasn’t satisfied. His Mom was so energized, but none of this had anything to do with tracking down the people who got his Dad’s organs when he died. Nothing about any of this meant he could reach out and touch somewhere his Dad’s atoms might live. He wanted to fling the book aside, run away and find the answers on his own. She got to know Dad. He didn’t.
‘I guess I don’t get it,’ Jake mumbled. ‘I don’t get it.’
‘What don’t you get, sweetie?’ she asked softly. ‘Tell me.’
‘I mean, that all sounds great. Be kind. Got it. But what’s that got to do with Dad? With what I want?’
She looked at the photos on the mantle. Her wedding portrait. Baby pictures. Jacob, head down, strumming his acoustic. ‘You’re right. But have you considered what some of these people might be like? What kind of lives they might be living?’
Jake shook his head. ‘I don’t know.’
‘It’s nice to think they received their gift from Dad and then were really thankful and loved their families and did only good things, right?’
‘But that’s not always how people work. What if they turned out to be jerks?’
He shrugged. ‘They wouldn’t all be jerks, probably.’
‘Probably. But they could be. They could have deep, dark secrets. Or they could be honest and kind and loving people. Right? So then, here’s how I see it. Every person I meet, since I don’t know who got what of Dad’s, might be one of these people. Anyone at all. So since anyone could have a piece of Dad, I wouldn’t want to treat anyone poorly, would I?’ Jake shook his head, his brow furrowing slightly. She was reaching him. ‘And because I wouldn’t want to risk treating Dad bad, I guess I just have to treat everyone as I would him. I have to be kind to everyone.’
Ann allowed Jake to ruminate. ‘I guess,’ he said quietly, ‘we can apply my theory, too.’
‘Go ahead,’ she said, wrapping her arm around his shoulders, knowing what he had discovered for himself. ‘Tell me.’
‘Since everything that ever was, still is, then Dad could be all around us all the time. Right? Not just in people he helped but everywhere.’
‘That sounds pretty damn good.’
‘And so, we don’t have to find anybody, we can just believe that Dad is everywhere.’
‘Isn’t that wonderful?’
‘And if we take your thing, being kind to people in case they have Dad in them, then we’ll probably score some decent points if there is a heaven.’
‘I certainly hope so,’ Ann said. ‘Hey. I want to show you this bird feeder Dad made. Maybe you can help me find a spot for it.’
A Garden Full of Dead Cats
‘You can pick up Holly’s cremains on Tuesday,’ Tammy said from behind the desk in the vet’s office. She reached out to hold Cliff’s meaty hand. The curmudgeonly old man’s cheeks glistened with tears, as they always do when he brings a cat in to die.
‘Thanks,’ he mumbled, forcing a grin. ‘I fear I may be calling you again in a day or two. Sprinkles seems to be winding down.’
‘Oh, goodness,’ she said, shaking her head slowly. This is the worst part of working here, seeing people so sad like this. ‘How old is she?’
‘She’s eighteen, which is pretty good. Been with me a few years, though. Always tough when they’re with you for a while. Anyhow,’ he said tipping his hat on the way out.
Who could have seen this years ago? The scary shop teacher, Mr. Clifford Dowling, subject of many high school myths, now such a soft-hearted man. He’s got twelve cats around his house now. All of them are old. He’s had as many as twenty-five living there before. At Dr. Petty’s, they give him a discount now for euthanasia and cremation services. Seems like he’s got one cat or another in there for something just about every week. Tammy thinks he’s maybe got something special in his soul. Something holy, even. She tells everyone who will listen about what he does for those aging cats.
Not long after his wife died suddenly at the beginning of their retirement, an old, scraggly cat started showing itself around Cliff’s property. The thing was orange and white, skinny and grizzled, but friendly. First Cliff fed the pathetic old thing. Then he brought it inside.
‘Named it Santiago,’ Cliff said to Dr. Petty on that first visit a decade ago.
‘Seems healthy. Maybe twelve years old or so,’ the young veterinarian declared.
‘Guessing someone dumped it out there in the woods or something,’ Cliff said. ‘Only way I figure it got out there. Ain’t right to ditch it just because it’s old.’
‘You’d be shocked at the number of people who want to put pets down just because they’re old,’ the doctor said with a frown.
Cliff played the guitar in high school. He had dreams and was saving up for music school by working in a restaurant. His father didn’t understand any of that, told him to get on with it and get a job in the factory already. The government found work for him instead after graduation. They gave him a rifle and dropped him out the back of a helicopter to help hold some damn hill out in the jungle. His feet were always wet. He never could tell if his bullets ever hit anyone.
‘You need something to read,’ said his buddy Leonard one night back on base. ‘Ain’t you got nothing? Here. It’s my favorite, alright?’
Cliff had the well-paged copy of The Old Man and the Sea in his pocket when Leonard’s blood suddenly splattered all over him on some other numbered hill a few days later. Shards of bone and slivers of metal peppered Cliff’s body. He couldn’t hear too well after that, and two fingers on his left hand were thereafter nubs. He later told students the nubs were the consequence of carelessness in the shop. He taught many kids over the years to make things with their hands; to take pride in themselves; to pay attention to detail. Cliff thought he did some good.
Santiago lived for a few years with Cliff, but then he became ill and quit eating. Cliff knelt beside the cold metal table as Dr. Petty administered the fatal shot. He watched the life escape from the cat’s eyes. ‘He’s gone. Very peaceful. I’ll give you a moment,’ Dr. Petty said while Cliff sobbed. He kissed the cat once more before leaving. Tammy told him it would be a few days until the ashes would be ready. He never expected to repeat this scene so often.
When he got home that day after Santiago died, he sincerely considered shooting himself. He didn’t because he wanted to bury Santiago in the garden, beneath the wispy yellow flowers the cat liked to nap among on hot days. He also needed to make a little headstone.
Instead of dying, he gathered up the cat bed; the toys; the catnip snuggle-buddies; the remaining food; he visited the local shelter. ‘You know,’ the peppy volunteer said to him, ‘we have plenty of seniors who come here to cuddle the cats. They really like that.’
‘Who? The old farts, or the cats?’
‘Both!’ she exclaimed. He shook her off, but she led him through the room with the cats anyhow. There were kittens and a young adult who looked just like Santiago. There were about ten cats, but the one he fixed on was a twelve-year-old named Moxie. ‘What’s her deal?’ he asked.
‘Oh, the owner gave her up. She takes a thyroid pill twice a day. Some folks just aren’t cut out to handle aging pets.’
And so Cliff came home that day with Moxie. He took an ad out in the paper. ‘Cliff’s Senior Cat Home.’ Michael, his thirteen-year-old grandson, helped set up a Facebook page. ‘You don’t just throw things out when things get complicated,’ he explained to the boy. ‘We can all be generous with our kindness.’ Cliff would provide dignity for these old creatures if no one else would.
On Tuesday, he picked up the tin containing Holly’s ashes and brought them home. He dug a deep hole in the garden. He always cries when burying these tins. Atop the dirt, he placed the stone he’d engraved for Holly. On his knees in the dirt, he gazed at all the small stones resting in his garden. He couldn’t help thinking of his wife. Or Leonard. Or Santiago and all the other cats he’d seen to the finish.