- The Shovel
He wanted Ben to have his Purple Heart and the German Luger he kept wrapped in blue velvet and locked in the bottom desk drawer that he would unlock and unwrap and shoot into the sky every New Year’s Eve and sometimes Fourth of July, if he was in the mood or had had too much beer, or both. He gave Ben all six boxes of National Geographic.
Ben, elbows on knees, looking down at his hands, nods.
Sara is next: Great Grandpa John’s Civil War pocket watch and two socks full of silver dollars. Mama holds her hand, now patting her arm, while Sara does her best to smile.
As for his clothes, he didn’t want them laying around the house, boxed up in the garage, cornered in the attic—all those Christmas sweaters and polo shirts that he had never worn. Mr. Samuelson says that he says to give it all away to Goodwill, the Salvation Army, “It doesn’t really matter.”
Of course, Mama gets the rest and the best: the stocks and bonds, the insurance money, his secret savings account. Mr. Samuelson reads straight from the legal paper he has in front of him, on the desk, “secret savings account.” When Mama hears this part she stops sniffling long enough to look up and be surprised, blinking watery red eyes. I look over at Ben, and he shrugs.
And just when I think Dad is all done, Mr. Samuelson, turning to the last page and clearing his throat big and lawyer-like, announces, “There’s one last item.”
Feeling warm and sleepy in Mr. Samuelson’s deep leather chair, I turn to his window. Snow swarms. Four floors up and there’s nothing down about it, just a tumble of snow on the other side of the glass. The necktie is beginning to feel like teeth along the back of my neck. She said it was the thing to wear, only proper: necktie with the blue suit that has never once stopped being big and baggy. “It’s only proper,” stopping to sniffle between each word.
Mr. Samuelson has something like a Hitler mustache. You’d think he’d [End Page 147] know better, but ever since I can remember that’s the way he’s been: that year he umpired Little League and wouldn’t let Jamie Quick in the batter’s box until he tucked in his jersey, and later when he went on to do some Scout mastering, and later still when he ran for county treasurer but lost. Plus, he’s got some of the whitest, most stiffly starched cuffs I’ve ever seen on a shirt. Staring out the window with snow and warm leather and remembering, while Mr. Samuelson’s talk makes me thick, heavy, and sleepy. When Mr. Samuelson finishes, I reach up and run my finger between collar and skin, letting in a little air, and I ask him if he wouldn’t mind reading that last part one more time. “Sorry, what was that last part?”
He sighs, takes off his glasses, and puts them down on the desktop. When he is all done rubbing his eyes, he looks at me, and without even bothering to reread, says, “He says he wants you to dig his grave. In the old country it’s tradition, a kind of custom: the oldest son digs the father’s grave, alone, using only a shovel. In the old country, tradition.” Drumming his fingers alongside his glasses. “He says it’s a sign of respect. His last wishes. It’s a tradition he would like for you to uphold. Elizabeth, he said you’d know the particulars. About the spade and such. Elizabeth?”
There is a small space of quiet, and I can hear the heat moving through the pipes. While Ben sandpapers his shoes back and forth across the carpet, Mr. Samuelson slips his glasses back on.
I turn to Ben, “What do you make of this? Did he ever tell you about this? Anything at all?”
“No, not a word.”
Mama begins making that sound in her throat again, a kind of...