For the son of a life long mortician, a funeral without a body was rare but not uncommon. Richard was in the kitchen with his mother and going through the police reports for the second time. They had found the car on a bank along the Sacramento River delta. A small fishing boat spotted the Buick early in the morning. The car was upside down, pinned against a tree trunk that had extended over the water. Richard’s father’s body was elsewhere. Perhaps it had gone down river and out to the Pacific.
The kitchen was filled with the smell of fried eggs, sausages, pancakes. Richard’s mom was standing in front of the stove. Business as usual.
The funeral home had closed half a decade ago, bought out by a land developer who planned to turn the area into a shopping plaza. Richard’s father sold the location and a month later it was bulldozed. With the money, he paid off the mortgage on their home and used what was left on Richard’s college loans. Now, the settlement on his life insurance was pending. They were going to be in for a windfall.
Richard felt guilty thinking about the how this. After all, his father had just died. Apparently a suicide. From his father’s business, he learned to navigate between issues of money and emotional sensitivity. Now that the roles were turned. He felt awkward. Sorting through the papers and statements , he felt disrespectful somehow. What did it matter, Richard thought, he had been away when it happened and ever since he left Sacramento and California, he had always been away.
Richard was in Seattle when heard the news. He was in the middle of furnishing the new apartment he leased. It was his mother who called. He was neither surprised or upset. He thought about it rationally, his father was getting old. Death was nothing new. He had seen it countless times—the faces of the newly widowed, the sons and daughters, the ceremony and celebrations. He got on a flight the next morning.
The home was as Richard left it. The cream colored sofa was in its position in front of the television, the sandalwood coffee table with its coffee stains and discolorations had not shifted. From the sofa to the walls, everything in the home was cream colored or pale. Slightly off-white as if to compensate for the somberness of the funeral home interior. The only difference was that the grandfather clock, in the corner of the room, had stopped. Richard only noticed it when the house was silent as the hour hand switched over on his watch. Things age, things fall apart. Richard stood in front of it imagining the movements of its minute hands.
Richard’s father did not leave any kind of note. His mother had told the police that he had said he was going out for a drive. “I’ll be back before ten dear,” he said. She had gone to bed expecting that he would be home. In the life time that they had been together, he had never missed the times he sat. He always came and left at exactly the time he said he would.
It was his basic nature; he was a serious and meticulous man who lived in constant observance of details. Besides a mortician and funeral home director, Richard could not imagine his father in any other kind of profession. He approached his life in the same manner that he had embalmed and restored the bodies under his care with. For him to kill himself in such arbitrary way confused Richard. He looked at the diagram indicating the trajectory of the car and the site of the accident. The skid marks were found a mile upstream from where the Buick had went over the levee, through the mud, and into the water. It must struck a tree on the way down; the front of the car and the windshield were smashed. Richard wondered if his father had been thrown out of the car but the image didn’t fit Richard’s memories. He always had his seat belt on. In the Hearst, which Richard had learned to drive with, everything was fastened down. He was a man of details.
Richard’s mother turned off the stove and kitchen fan. She came to the table and placed a plate next to the stack of manila folders and underneath the report in front of Richard’s face.
“Sorry,” he said. He put the stapled copies back into the top folder and took everything into the living room.
“Do you want a cup of coffee?”
His mom shook his head.
Richard took a cup from the cupboard and poured himself a coffee. It had been a week already. The search was called off two days ago. Thursday. They had nothing from the police since then.
“Do you know how dad would have liked to have things arranged?” Richard said.
“Your father had friends in the business, they’ll take care of it,” his mother said.
It was true. Richard’s father was a loyal man. He had taken care of many people in his lifetime.
This morning his mother had woken up early. Awake in his bedroom, he had heard her shuffle down the wall. The house was old and the walls were thin. Richard remembered this well. Back then, he could hear the chime from the clock, like a bell toll, at every hour through the night. A few minutes later, he heard tinking of kitchen pans being set out. Richard checked the time on his phone, it was eight, and got out of bed. Underneath her beige kitchen apron, his mother was in her mourning dress. Black dresses and trouser suits were the only color that Richard could remember his mother in.
“You’re up early today,” he said.
His mother did not respond. She was humming a song to herself.
Ever since he had come home, she had an air of composed nonchalance. She had always been a quiet woman, unaffected by the tides that time brought in but this morning was different. The air of respectful attentiveness he always remembered her with had become untethered. It made her seem ethereal like looking into the center of a black agate stone. Maybe there was something she knew about her father or had come to realize. A shared silent answer. Whatever it was, it was beyond Richard’s understanding. He turned on the counter top lamp when he entered the kitchen.
“Why don’t you sit down with me Junior,” his mother said.
“Sure. I’m going shave first,” Richard said.
Richard brought the paperwork in with him. There was a lot to do. As the only son, he felt it was his duty to see things through. Now, he was setting them down on the living room table. Maybe this afternoon, he thought.
He looked at the grandfather clock again. It was a shade of antique cherry and in good condition as expected of things that belonged to his father. Richard tried to remember the tone of its chimes as they rang out at the beginning of ever hour but couldn’t. He looked at the weights that held the open pendulum in place; a layer of dust was visible along its brass. Richard went back into the kitchen.
“When was the last time dad wound the clock in the living room?” Richard said.
“I don’t quite remember. It stopped a long time ago,” she said.
Richard sipped his coffee and watched his mother’s face. In the ambient light from the lamp and window, it glowed.