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Syndic Literary Journal

Fiction: “Burying the Bones” by Charles Rammelkamp

“Burying the Bones”

by Charles Rammelkamp

It was the first time Will Devine had been to New Mexico, though he’d been meaning to make the trip for the past fifteen years, ever since his sister Kate moved out west with her husband, Carl. But it had taken the death of his brother-in-law to get him out of Baltimore. Carl Winslow’s death had been sudden and unexpected, an aneurysm at a college basketball game on Friday night.

“We weren’t all that close,” Devine explained to his seatmate on the flight to Albuquerque. He felt he could be honest to this stranger he’d never see again. “I always had the feeling he didn’t actually like me, to tell you the truth.”

Winslow had been “in management” for a manufacturing outfit called Navastazi Industries. Devine never did know what they manufactured or how his brother-in-law fit into the operation, but Winslow had made a good living at it. He and Kate took several trips a year to Acapulco or Aruba, or Caribbean cruises. Once they’d gone to Alaska. Kate had sent photographs of their beautiful home, and she was forever mentioning the expensive cars they drove, BMWs and Mercedes Benzes. They had no children, though Carl had a grown daughter by a previous marriage. They’d met at a business convention in Orlando when Carl was coming off a messy divorce and Kate, in her late thirties, was in danger of becoming a permanent spinster.

Carl had been a conservative Republican. Devine avoided talking politics with him when they visited Maryland, while Will and Kate’s parents still lived. Nor did he talk politics with Kate, who’d become more conservative as well and kept a framed photograph of Ronald Reagan in the family room. To Devine it felt like a betrayal. On more than one occasion Carl had sneered about Birkenstock-wearing liberal college professors, looking pointedly at Devine’s sandal-clad feet. Devine was a “communications consultant” for a variety of local companies – an ill-defined title he still couldn’t come to terms with beyond the particular editorial services he provided – and he was on the English Department faculty at Wyman Park Community College.

“I know what you mean,” Devine’s seatmate nodded, though he didn’t really. “My sister and I never got along, and when she died, about three years ago, that was what my grief amounted to, regret that we’d never been that close and now never will be.”

“I’m not sure I really wanted to know him any better,” Devine tried to clarify. “I mean, just because he was my sister’s husband, I didn’t really consider him ‘family,’ if you know what  I mean.”

“Ah, yes,” the seatmate agreed. “It’s hard to let people into the ‘inner circle’ of your atomic family.”

But that wasn’t it, really. In some ways Winslow had been too far into that inner circle, like a cabinet secretary who presumes to call the president’s shots. Winslow’s opinions were the official opinions. At least Alicia didn’t display that overconfidence about what others in the family should think and assume. Devine’s wife had stayed behind in Baltimore to tend to their school age children while her husband went to the funeral. But now Devine felt he’d talked too much without making himself clear and there was no point in pursuing it. He changed the subject. “You’re from around here?”

“Grew up in Albuquerque but I’ve lived in Taos for the past ten years.”

“My first time here. I’ve always wanted to see the west. Always meant to come out to Albuquerque.”

Devine’s seatmate warmed to his topic. “Named after some Spanish Duke in the eighteenth century. Coronado came through in the 1540’s looking for the Seven Cities of Cibola. Spent the winter at a pueblo on the Rio Grande.”

“Is there much native culture?”

“You should visit some of the pueblos if you want native culture. Hopi, Navajo.” He gestured to indicate others. “There’s Native American tourist junk in Old Town, but what I’d really recommend is the New Mexican cuisine. Try Casa de Ruiz in Old Town. And you’ve got to take the tram up to the top of the mountain and have a drink.”

“I really don’t think I’m going to have much time to do anything,” Devine demurred. “I’m only staying until Thursday. The funeral’s tomorrow.”

“You should have been here for the balloon festival,” the seatmate went on, talking at cross-purposes.

“I actually kind of hated him.”

Devine drove his rental car from the airport hotel out Interstate 25 to a Catholic church on the north side of the city, where Carl and Kate lived, not far from the base of the Sandia Mountain. In a room near the chapel he found the family — Kate, Winslow’s daughter Elizabeth, and Justin, Carl’s younger brother from Minnesota, where Winslow originally came from. A guest book with two pages of signatures and an easel decorated with photographs depicting aspects of Winslow’s life were placed in corners of the room, and against one wall Winslow’s flag-draped casket dominated the room the way the mountain dominated the view outside. All the guests had already left.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get here earlier,” Devine apologized, hugging Kate. She buried her face in his shoulder. He looked at the casket and couldn’t help remembering his brother-in-law sneering at him over the phone for his concerns about the United Nations not supporting the Iraq invasion.

“Fuck France and Germany,” Winslow had barked. “You don’t just sit back and take it when somebody flies an airplane into your buildings.”

“But it wasn’t Iraq that did it,” Devine muttered, withering in the face of his brother-in-law’s self-righteous indignation.

The family drove back to Kate’s after the visitation. Nobody seemed to be in a very talkative mood. It had been several years since Devine had seen his sister – at his father’s funeral, the last time she’d been in Baltimore. He’d only met Elizabeth and Justin once, at Kate and Carl’s wedding. Both bore some resemblance to Carl. Elizabeth was tall and thin with a vulpine face, and Carl’s younger brother was a bald man, heavy in the gut, with Mephistophelian eyebrows that looked like they were about to fly away, and a kind of mischievous glint in his brown eyes, both of them big, like Winslow.

“What a shock,” Justin commented, shaking Devine’s hand. Devine had a vague impression that Justin had borne some sort of grudge against his brother for the way he’d treated his former sister-in-law, Elizabeth’s mother, but he couldn’t remember the story exactly. The former Mrs. Winslow had initiated the divorce. Devine gathered that Winslow hadn’t exactly been faithful. But Elizabeth seemed devoted to her dad, and Devine chalked Justin’s pique up to a younger brother’s sense of injustice. Elizabeth was in her mid-twenties. She lived in L.A. and worked in the television industry – public relations, Devine thought he remembered Kate telling him.

“Had he been sick?”

“Carl? He was healthy as a horse. Worked out every day, didn’t drink. Worried like hell about dying, but he didn’t have any reason to be.” Justin realized the irony of what he’d said, looked around to make sure Elizabeth and Kate hadn’t heard him – they were out in the kitchen preparing some snacks – and then lowered his voice. “Well, I mean, besides the aneurysm. But who’d have anticipated something like that?”

“Will?” Kate called. “Could you come in here and fix the drinks?”

Devine was one of the pallbearers, though really all that meant was that he stood beside the casket, smothered like a giant birthday cake under the red-and-white striped flag, while it was wheeled out of the church, and then lifted it into the hearse waiting outside.

This was Devine’s first experience of a Catholic Mass. He wondered if the priest stressed life-after-death for the comfort of Kate and Elizabeth or if it were routinely emphasized in the Mass. Carl reunited with his dead parents for eternity. An enormous writhing Jesus on a cross looked down on them from the wall behind Father Flynn. Winslow had been rather devout, according to Kate, going to Mass most Sundays and having other-worldly discussions with Flynn (whom they called “Father Dan”). Apparently he hadn’t had any trouble squaring his divorce with his faith, however. Just as she’d become more politically conservative, so Kate had adopted her husband’s religion, though she hadn’t converted.

During the Mass, several people delivered eulogies, including Winslow’s daughter, a college classmate at the University of Minnesota, and a business colleague. Devine was puzzled that the brother had not been asked to deliver a eulogy — or had declined the invitation. Choking back tears, Elizabeth described a loving father who’d always taken an interest in her life, and the other two dwelt on Winslow as a fun-loving comrade and a stand-up citizen. The business partner, Anthony Leach, stressed Winslow’s military service, the sacrifices he’d made for his country during the Vietnam era, putting his life in jeopardy for the national interest, his career on hold for the greater good. The flag-draped casket was up front for all to see.

“Elizabeth, that was really brave of you to get up and speak,” Devine commented afterward at the catered luncheon. He was seated at a round folding table in a social hall of the church, with the immediate family.

“I thought Chris got Dad perfectly when he described that camping trip they took to Lake Superior, his sense of adventure and his love of the outdoors,” Elizabeth murmured, blushing because she’d had such difficulty getting her words out through her grief.

“Chris was always a good guy,” Justin observed. “I remember him coming home from the university with Carl during the winter break of their freshman year. They got rip-roaring drunk and called on Carl’s high school French teacher. Carl swore up and down Miss Scheer was always trying to seduce him. I never found out what they did that night, but the next day Miss Scheer came over with some French books. Carl was mortified. He ran upstairs when he saw her car pull up outside and hid while my mother answered the door. Chris glossed it all over with some story about an impending exam. Chris made me think of Eddie Haskell, Wally’s friend on Leave it to Beaver, the way he was so polite to Mom but was always scheming pranks with Carl.”

“What’s he do now?”

“Chris? Works at 3-M, I think.”

“They kept in touch all these years?”

“They worked together at some big computer corporation in Minneapolis after they graduated, I forget which.”

“Dad still worked there when he went to the computer show in Florida where he met Kate,” Elizabeth added. “Hewlett-Packard, I think. Or Honeywell. I think it began with an H.”

Devine began to put two and two together. Winslow must have felt the need to make a clean break from his life when he met Kate. That would explain the move to New Mexico. The first wife surely still lived in Minnesota. They probably shared many of the same friends. Maybe he was taking heat from the church, too. Devine didn’t want to bring up any awkward memories, so he changed the subject.

“I never realized Carl’d been in the military, let alone a kind of a war hero, from what it sounds like.”

“War hero!” Justin snorted. “What was with that flag-draped coffin, anyway? That blew me away when I saw it. Carl was just as scared as the rest of us about going to Vietnam, looking for a way out. He dropped out of school the last semester of his senior year and joined the National Guard to avoid it.”

“Sounded from what his partner Leach was saying he was a real patriot.”

“He was,” Kate insisted fiercely, glaring at Justin.

“Carl was in the first draft lottery and got a number like 341 or something, but he believed all the rumors that it didn’t matter what your draft lottery number was,” Justin declared. “You’d be going to Nam no matter what.” He shook his head at the memory. “Our father tried to caution him not to do anything too rash, but Carl wouldn’t listen. He was going to lose his student deferment when he graduated, like being stripped naked, vulnerable. He was sort of hysterical. He got more and more riled the more Dad tried to calm him. He insisted there were only two slots available in the Guard unit he wanted to join, and he had to act fast.

“As it turned out, of course, he wouldn’t have had to join the military after all, but the thought of being in some jungle somewhere with a gun just scared the shit out of him. He panicked and joined the Guard. He spent the summer after his basic training making up incompletes for graduation and then the next six years being a weekend warrior. Some war hero.”

“Carl loved his country,” Kate spat at her brother-in-law. “That’s more than I can say for you.”

The look of pure disgust Justin shot at Kate made Devine flinch, but she didn’t bat an eye. Apparently this was just another version of an argument they’d been carrying on for years.

“I don’t care what my father’s military service was or his politics,” Elizabeth suddenly interjected. “I could talk to him. The last few years I could tell him things I couldn’t tell my mother. And now he’s gone, and I’ll never have that again.” She choked back a sob.

Devine had a sudden picture of his brother-in-law as a real human being and felt a rush of warmth for him as just another person groping his way through a life. No more a hypocrite than the next guy; even if in middle age he talked a hawk-like talk, Winslow had been just another bundle of contradictions trying to hang on to what he had.

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