The winter Chet turned 83, his family threw him a death shower and invited all his friends. The ladies made a coffin out of yellow cake. The men measured the inseam for his last suit with the ribbons from the gifts he had opened on his lap: a pair of wingtips, a travel-size Aqua Velva, a scrap-fabric hanky sewn into a pocket, and a gold watch with a missing hour hand from Death himself, who had arrived late and, in those days, wore the flip flops and seedy pencil mustache of a cruise director.
“Let’s take guesses on how it will happen,” Chet’s daughter said, passing a yellow legal pad around the room. “Closest wins a booby prize.”
“How droll,” Death said to Chet, rolling his eyes.
But the daughter collected the strips of paper anyway and put them in the hanky pocket, stirring her fingers in the papers before pulling them out to read. “Exposure. For fear of crossing a bean field. Wasps. Impaled by steering wheel.” Each seemed more reasonable than the last, they all agreed, and even Chet cracked a smile.
Toward the end of the evening, Death spun records and wah-toosied time to a freeze, though Chet checked his watch to measure the lapse.
“Don’t be such a stiff,” Chet’s daughter said. She pulled him onto the kitchen floor and he broke in his new shoes dancing the collegiate shag as the music roared. But then Death, always the klutz, spilled the last ladle of punch on Chet’s white cabana shirt.
“I’ll get the club soda,” Chet offered, but Death put up his finger.
“Think nothing of it,” he said. He took off his own shirt and put it over Chet’s shoulders, buttoning it neatly over his bony chest. The spill flared out beyond the line of holes in a gash of color, like the wing of some bird of paradise Chet no longer knew the name of.
“Never put clothes in drawer,” Nana scolded me. She had come to visit for my thirteenth birthday. “If they’re in drawer, how can get out?”
She smacked the top of my hand, then made me lift my arms and stuck her nose in my pit. She sniffed. “Good,” she said, thumping my head. “Almost ready.”
“Hey,” I said. “I’m no melon.”
“Quiet,” she said.
She took out a red plaid wool shirt that smelled sharp like my first pee in the morning.
“Unbutton top buttons for shirt on hangars. Shirts need air so they can fly and find you strange women.”
“Be man,” she said. “Listen.”
She explained my grandfather was a boarder in her mother’s house. He was from the farms. Lice jumped off him in such multitudes that he looked fuzzy. Her father made him sleep in the barn. Each night, before my grandfather went to bed, he left his tan corduroy jacket in her house, saying it was his only good garment.
“It festered and stank,” Nana said. “I don’t think he had touched bar of soap ever. Food rotted between his teeth. Wax crusted in his ear. My mother want to dip this jacket in lye and him with it, but I hide it in my closet. Every night, the jacket came to me and I sat up in bed like Bride of Frankenstein monster and holding arms out to receive its sleeves. It slid on top of me, so my breasts pressed against soft satin of back lining. And then it buttoned its top button. Only top button though. Jackets were gentlemanly in these days. Not like today. At first this smell gagged me, but this lining was so comforting and cool. Soon I grew to know this smell, to search for it among my village, beyond smoke and soot and shit.”
She said “shit” like it would cover a bed.
“When he left, I followed smell over ocean until I find it again here and marry your reeking grandfather.”
I hung the plaid shirt in the closet and smiled.
“You laugh from other side of face, bub. It’s truth.”
“So where’s the jacket now?” I asked.
“Here,” she said. She rolled up a floral sleeve. The skin hung off her arm like wet paper. She pointed to the sunspots on her bare arm. I could see it was not skin but blackened holes where the corduroy had worn away.
Downstairs, my mother called me to light the cake. After I blew out the candles, Nana handed me a rectangular coat box. “Open later,” she said and then told my father to take her home. My father agreed.
Before she went to bed, my mother reached out for my arm and pulled me toward her.
She was never one for hugs, but she held me there.
“Happy Birthday,” she said and squeezed.
My fingers felt the soft cleft of her back and there along her spine, the hard nub of a button.
Patrick Crerand currently lives and writes in Florida where he teaches at Saint Leo University. Recent work of his has appeared in Conjunctions, New Orleans Review, Sentence, and other magazines. He is currently at work on a novel about Bingo (the game) and Jesus (the Christ).