Lionel, for Worse

David Greendonner

2017 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Winner

Lionel finally decided he’d like to be cremated at the end of things, so I said we’d better practice scattering his ashes, because God forbid I fuck that up too.

“Do I get to choose where I spread you?” I said.

“Any old storm drain is fine.” He scratched with a butter knife at the toast I’d burnt, flicking sooty bits everywhere. “Maybe over on Nickerson, where those girls are always running in the tight pants.”

“I’m sure I could find a toilet bowl for you in a women’s bathroom.”

“Now you’re talking,” he said, holding his head.

Lionel’s not dying or anything, he just went to his buddy Stan’s funeral last month and didn’t at all take to actually seeing Stan there, horizontal. I don’t know what he expected. “I’m certainly not making room on the mantel,” I said.

He got up, undid the loaf, and slid new bread into the toaster oven. “You don’t want to look after me?” he said, wiping black crumbs off his shirt, onto the floor.

I told him it might be a sore subject with my next husband, “me dusting your urn all the time.”

Lionel leaned on the counter. “I’ve never seen you dust anything.”

“And what happens when I go,” I said, “you get passed to one of the kids? No no no—I’m cutting you off. How about the lake?”

The toaster snapped. Lionel opened the little door gingerly, like something might jump out and get him. “What about it?” He ate right out of the oven, the coils still orange.

“For your mortal remains,” I said. “I could walk you out to the pier, throw you there.”

“The guys there wouldn’t like that. You’d probably spook the fish.”

“The fish don’t care,” I said.

“Do too,” said Lionel.

“So now you’re a pain in the ass and a fisherman?”

“While my many facets might fool you,” he said, “I am just one man.”

 

It probably would have ended there, but it was a Saturday and we don’t have hobbies. I was out in the wind for five minutes while Lionel sat in the car deciding hat or no hat. He’s been getting caught on things like that lately.

He went without it.

“Your head’s going to get cold,” I said.

The beach really empties out in the fall—we stop seeing out-of-state plates around town for eight or nine months. Lake Michigan rides up on the shore, and it’s choppy, like someone should be getting dashed into the rocks, but there are no rocks.

I made my way from the dirt parking lot up the sand footpath between the trees. There are no good shoes for climbing sand. The dune tops off after about two dozen steps, and from there you can see the water.

“You might’ve used a sandwich bag, or a quart bag,” Lionel said, coming up slow behind me.

“This was easier,” I said. Someone once told me that the hardest part about working at McDonald’s is filling those little white paper sleeves they use for small fries.

“You shouldn’t waste the freezer bags,” Lionel said. If he had his way, we’d only use freezer bags to preserve bloodstained evidence of Christ himself.

“Sorry,” I said.

I’d bagged a dustpan full of ashes from the bottom of the fireplace. I added all the crumbs off the kitchen table, and, for good measure, all the crap collected in the tray in the bottom of the toaster. That seemed appropriate.

When we got down to the water, Lionel burrowed his hands in his coat pockets while I kicked at the wet sand with my heel to loosen some up. I grabbed a handful from what I’d turned over and threw it in a wide arc in front of us. The chunks plopped in the waves.

“How’s that?” I said.

“You don’t have to make an ass of yourself,” he said. “Like this.” He bent down, pinched some sand, and sprinkled it over the lapping water like he was garnishing a plate on TV. His hand was like a little bird.

“Horseshit. I’m not doing that,” I said.

“It’s classy,” he said.

I heard the pop of a car door over the hill, and voices coming toward us a moment later. “Let’s split the difference,” I said, and opened the ziplock bag. “Try it with your future self.”

Lionel scooped his hand into the ash, then I did. Two scrawny girls—high-schoolers, maybe—were coming down the path in jogging clothes. They stopped on the beach to mess with their headbands and strap things to themselves.

“Nice and easy,” I said, and gave my handful a sort of underhand push toward the lake. It came alive in the crosswind.

Lionel did the same and watched until what gray had made it to the water was churned away by the break. “Yeah,” he said, and put his hand back in his pocket.

We each did it one more time, checking each other for the motion. I zipped the bag, and we walked back toward the car.

“Try not to die in the summer,” I said. “So I can avoid the crowds.”

“You don’t have to do it right away,” he said, dusting his hand on his pants.

“I like the idea of you being oven-fresh.”

The girls were in low stretches, two hands to a knee, as we passed. One of them pulled a small headphone out of her ear. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she said.

“Thank you,” said Lionel.

 

He got drunk that night, like he’d been doing most nights since Stan. In the house was better than out somewhere, I guess. I didn’t notice for the first week or so until once he got up to go to bed and fell flat on the floor. Now I watched him and counted.

“Time for bed,” I said, when I thought he was getting close.

“I’m fine,” he said. He’d been catching on. He wasn’t belligerent or anything, just drank and stared at the TV, whatever was on: the local news, the Food Network, even if he’d seen the episode.

“I don’t like Bobby Flay,” he said. “He talks funny.”

“I know,” I said.

“He’s on every show and he always makes the same thing. Something with chipol-te in it. How do you say that word? Chipol-te. Chip-olay.”

“Chipotle,” I said.

“I can’t say that word.”

“I know,” I said. “Let’s go.” I lifted him up and made sure I got a shoulder under his arm.

“Don’t burn me,” he said.

“All right,” I said.

“A stone. A stone with my name and some other words.”

“I’ll think of something,” I said.

“I know how many I’ve drank. Drunk? Drank? Drunken?”

“Had,” I said. “And no.”

And we hobbled together around the coffee table, avoiding the leg he says sticks out, raised each other up the stairs, to bed.

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