They were still dressed for the funeral when their inheritance showed up. It was a particularly cold day, too cold to go outside, and the children ran from one side of the house to the other, screaming at the top of their little lungs.
It was Robert’s sister Diane who brought the inheritance in from where it appeared on her front porch: a large paper bag, the kind she used to ripen pears. The bag was full of fresh dogshit. The note attached read For my children and theirs.
‘For Christ’s sake,’ Robert said. ‘Bury it in the snow out back. It must be some kind of joke.’ He was trying to get the attorney on the phone to finalize the details of their father’s estate before he and the children had to fly back to Ohio. At last the office put him through, and the attorney said the whole of their estate had been absorbed and the remainder should have arrived at Diane’s address via courier.
‘You mean the bag of dogshit?’ Robert asked. They had the attorney on speaker.
The attorney said that he was just as confused as they were, that the request and execution had been handled by one of his assistants.
Robert had been pacing the room. He leaned into the speaker. ‘You’re saying Dad was the one who made the request?’
‘It was your father’s idea,’ the attorney said. ‘Please don’t send it back here.’
They put it in the living room. Diane refused to take it outside and so Robert brought in a ceramic tile from her garage to place between the bag and the table. He walked a line from one side of the room to the other. ‘Typical,’ he said, startling her.
‘Robert,’ he said. ‘I can’t believe you’re actually keeping it.’
‘At least we don’t have to fight over it,’ she said. ‘When a parent dies, even close siblings bicker about who gets this or that. You remember the mess with Mom’s ring. We’re lucky that this dogshit is all we have left of Dad.’
‘Mom’s been gone twenty years and still you trot her out.’ He stood at Diane’s big picture window. Even after her divorce she never left their hometown, a tree-lined afterthought choked with strip malls. He hated how she stuck around as if their little town was her duty; his own responsibilities kept him anchored to Cleveland but he would leave in a moment if he could. The kids were scratching runes in the street with colored chalk.
‘It’s for the best,’ she said. ‘Let’s go get pie fries at that place you like.’
‘Pie fries!’ the children screamed in unison.
They came back from dinner stamping the snow off their boots and smelling the air. ‘What is that?’ Diane asked. ‘I hope I didn’t get another squirrel.’
‘It’s Dad,’ Robert said. The bag, still on its tile in the living room, was attended by a fat buzzing fly. The children ran past them and up the stairs, hauling a pig head they had snatched from the buffet.
‘I wish we hadn’t gone to dinner,’ Diane said. She was drunk. ‘We should have sat here and had dinner come to us. The Jews do it right.’
‘People of the Jewish faith,’ he corrected.
‘I should have married a Jew,’ she said.
He pointed out that she had married a Jew, with a ceremony in synagogue and everything, but she was already shaking her head mournfully.
‘Not really,’ she said. ‘Not at all, really.’ She touched the edge of the bag of dogshit.
‘You should put it out back,’ he said. He was drunk as well, which made him tender.
She went into the kitchen and came out with a cake stand, the kind with a broad glass bell jar. She placed the bag inside, making sure the fly was trapped in there with it. ‘For company,’ she said. ‘See you in the morning.’ It wasn’t clear if she was talking to Robert or the fly.
Over breakfast, the children made a three-story sanctorum of cinnamon toast. Robert rushed around gathering chargers and spare socks. ‘I wish you would stay,’ Diane said.
‘Can’t do it,’ Robert said. ‘Life is for the living.’ Opening the front door, he was greeted with a snowbank higher than the frame and thick enough to blot out the sunlight.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ he said. The children lit a bacon effigy.
Diane went to the window, which was shrouded completely. ‘This wasn’t on the news.’
‘We haven’t been watching the news,’ he said. ‘We were busy with the funeral.’
‘I always watch the news.’
He was kicking at the snowbank, which was surprisingly solid and icy near the ground.
‘Bobby –’ Diane started.
‘Fucking Robert,’ he said. ‘Robert.’ He punctuated every kick with it. ‘Robert. Robert. Robert.’
The snow was a demoralizing factor, more than the funeral or even the bag of dogshit, which Diane had surrounded with pillar candles and incense on the coffee table. She cleared the magazines to the couch. Condensation had begun to form at the curve of the bell jar.
‘I don’t care,’ Diane said. ‘I like it.’
‘Shit is a real novelty to you,’ Robert observed. ‘Maybe if you ever had to change a diaper, you wouldn’t feel so romantic about it.’
‘I’m sure Christine would contend your involvement if she still answered your calls,’ Diane said. She had found a picture of their father in one of the few photo books that Bobby hadn’t burned when he moved away. In the picture, their father was standing on a dock, holding a giant fish.
Robert looked over her shoulder. ‘I wish he’d left us the fish,’ he said.
‘Imagine the smell. This picture was taken in the seventies.’
‘He could have gotten it preserved and mounted.’
‘Right, and then we’d have scales molting all over the floor. Not to mention deciding who would get to display it.’
‘Like he would have gone to the trouble to do anything for our benefit.’
Diane placed the photograph on the altar, leaning against the jar. ‘He did a great deal for our benefit,’ she said. She could think of five to ten things off the top of her head. He kept them fed, for one, and sometimes walked them to school. Even when things were bad, they could have been worse.
Robert shook his head at her in that pitying way she hated. Without another word, he picked a butter knife off the sideboard and started gouging a hole in the living room wall, near the floor.
Diane watched him with supreme pity. ‘You’re just going to get more snow there,’ she said. He ignored her, and eventually she turned and went into the kitchen.
Though they figured the fly under the bell jar would eventually perish, the reality was quite the opposite.
‘There’s three in there now,’ Robert said. ‘The one you trapped must have been carrying maggots.’
He was crouched at the wall, having gotten through the plaster and drywall with the butter knife. He switched to a fireplace poker to get through the brick. He hit the wall over and over with the poker, each strike making a satisfying crunching sound and throwing the occasional spark.
‘Flies don’t come from maggots,’ Diane said. ‘Flies become maggots.’
‘Then I suppose it was a miraculous generation.’ The children were stacked like cordwood in the dining room.
‘Maybe they were inside the bag all along.’ The flies landed on the jar’s glass walls, making tiny trails through the wet haze. It was fascinating to see. ‘Maybe he knew that would happen.’
‘Here’s a list of things Dad knew would happen,’ he said, leaning back on his heels. The floor was powdered with red dust. ‘‘Upon execution of the Last Will and Testament, Junior Attorney is ordered to place fresh dogshit in a paper bag. Junior Attorney will hire Courier to deliver fresh dogshit to residential address. Last Will and Testament is so executed.’’
‘You have it memorized.’
He went back to work. ‘I mean, that’s what he knew for sure. From there, plenty he could have speculated.’
‘Like that we would get trapped in a snowstorm.’
‘That the world would conspire to destroy us, precisely. Kids, stop that.’
The children had begun to chant.
Robert focused his attention at the wall. Once he got past the first layer of brick, there was a slab of concrete, and then more brick. When he grew tired, he encouraged himself by imagining the feeling of his body squeezing through the tight space he carved, blinking in the new light on the other side.
Diane was looking at the bag of dogshit. She realized that the flies – there were too many to count now – and the bag itself obscured the dogshit, which was the true inheritance and her birthright. She brought it off the altar and set it gently on the carpet. Most of the flies escaped when she lifted the heavy jar, though she noticed some of them lay curled on the wooden base. Anything could be too much of a good thing, she supposed.
The paper bag had softened over the past few days and when she made to lift it, the top half came off entirely, leaving just the scrap weighed down by the dogshit itself. It had lost its pungent odor but had held its shape. Actually it was one of the better looking piles of dogshit she had ever seen, a platonic ideal of dogshit. The dog must have been very healthy. She wanted to think that her father, who hadn’t had much time for his children after all the decisions he made for himself, actually had some say in this. Perhaps he had been the one to bring it in, despite what the legal record claimed.
From across the room, Robert made a triumphant cry. A thin line of light streamed in to illuminate a stamp-sized square on the floor. ‘I’m out of here!’ he said, dropping the fireplace poker and using his hands. He got the hole open wide enough to fit his head in, but found that he didn’t have the strength to push his shoulders through.
Diane chewed her lip, watching the scene. The snow had surely melted by now and he could have easily used the door, but it was no use making it an issue. When Bobby set his mind to something, there was no quitting. She went to the kitchen to prepare some lunch.
He was so stubborn. She thought about it fondly as she mashed up an avocado. Lately she liked to mix it with lemon juice and raw garlic and serve it on a thin crisp. Something light for her day. The children incanted something from the second floor. Robert was right; she didn’t know enough about parenting to have much of a say. Anyway, they seemed to be having fun while their father was distracted.
The dogshit sat on a plate on the counter. She felt better when she kept it close. It had gone beyond the memory of her father and what he had meant to her while he was alive. The dogshit was so benign in its expression, an unchanging sign. A feeling of calm washed over her whenever she looked at it, but this calm was attended by a growing sense of fear. Surely Robert and the children would understand its value and conspire to take it from her. It was the rarest gift she had ever received. She had to do something to keep it with her for good.
With the avocado knife, she shaved off a corner of it like a precious truffle and sprinkled it on top of her lunch. She sampled it, delicately at first, but with growing pleasure. It had an earthy flavor, a pleasurable musk. She ate every bit and licked the plate.
Outside, Robert blinked in the sudden light. The early morning chill meant the ground was still very cold, and he lay his cheek against the frozen earth, determined to think of a way to free himself. If only he could find some purchase against the floor behind him, he could possibly fit one shoulder and then the other through the passage he had made.
Inside, the children gathered around his body. One of them sniffed his leg, which shot out, scattering them. His move afeared them, but they were legion and would not suffer it.
They dropped their totems and hit the door as one. The cold shocked their bare feet where they stood, they felt it in their bones and blood. Their father howled curses from where he was truncated by the house. He reached for them and got one by the ankle, but they kicked themselves free.
Ducking their heads, they ran for the road, beyond their father’s pathetic sound. They ran for their lives, braying to greet the day.
Photograph © Charles Rodstrom