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  • Instructions to the Living from the Condition of the Dead
  • Jason Brown (bio)

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Photo by Corporal Charles Overstreet, Charles Overstreet Collection, Flora Public Library

[End Page 70]

The door hinges creaked, and the thudding footfalls [End Page 71] of his family shook the beams. What were they doing here today, the day before Thanksgiving? Voices, the crackling of grocery bags, firewood clunking in front of the hearth (because they thought he was too old now to carry it from the barn himself). They swarmed into every corner of the parlor and the kitchen with no thought to the most important question, the same this year as every year: Who had brought the goddamned cheddar? Indeed. Two years ago he'd put his foot down and said he would no longer provide! So this year would be the same as last year: crackers and hummus from California.

"Dad? Where are you?" called Melissa, his mealymouthed, psalm-singing sycophant of a granddaughter-in-law, a lawyer from California who always talked about the importance in old age of regular bowel movements. A sharp slap on the staircase, then another and another. Nowhere to retreat to except into his bedroom. Not safe! The first place Melissa would look. The bathroom, and once there, into the cast-iron tub? Forced to evacuate because these people had shown up on Isabel's birthday. His family didn't even know about Isabel and wouldn't approve if they did. Their beloved Grandma Sarah departed, and here he was sneaking over to Isabel's house. Tut, tut, the old Heathcliff. No cheddar for him!

The slapping grew louder as he decided to stand his ground in the bathroom (they had just once, he and Isabel, lain side by side in her great bed, with their clothes on, and he had leaned over to kiss her). "Your wife was very pretty," Isabel said. "She is," he replied, and this would've been a good chance to explain (though he decided it was not wise) the overwhelming feeling that his wife was not dead but everywhere around him at all times.

He heard no sound for almost a minute, so he opened the door to the bathroom. Five small fingers rested on the top step. The scruffy blond hair. The blue eyes and tanned face of his great-grandson, William Pal-fry Howland (Will), resident of Ojai, California, a place, he gathered, where people lolled around in the sun like overfed housecats. Having summited the top step, his great-grandson sighed.

"Daddy wants to talk to you," he said and cocked his head.

"The grand one or the regular one?" John asked.

He heard his wife, Sarah, clucking in the air around him. She didn't need to tell him to leave the boy be.

His great-grandson frowned and pursed his lips. The smallness of his mouth reminded John of Melissa, the boy's mother, who measured her [End Page 72] words like a butcher adding slices of roast beef on the scale. The more she spoke, the more he would have to pay. She'd actually been born in Maine, not California, but she was a Yankee in name only. Her branch of the John Gorham Palfrys suffered from dry rot, but none of that was the boy's fault.

"Ah, I don't know what dayyy wants," Will said and shrugged. Cocking his hip and raising his hand in the air, Will flashed that sly smile, head tilted. Were all the children from California born to sell insurance?

"Do you want to play a game?" John asked.

"No—." Will shook his head.

"Well, you're in luck because I have a secret stash of cookies. . . ."


"Why? So no one else will eat them."

This seemed to cause horrible confusion. Will put his palm up to the side of his head.

"I don't like cookies," Will said.

"Everyone likes cookies," John countered.

"Do they have sugar in them?"

"Do they have sugar? Of course. They're cookies."

Will shook his head sadly. As always, John had lost the battle before it even started.

"What the heck do you...


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pp. 70-85
Launched on MUSE
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