“A Hand to the Plow,” Red Rock Review, 2022

This story received the Red Rock Review’s 2022 nomination for the Pushcart Prize.

NO ONE CAME TO MY GRANDFATHER’S WAKE. Moriah wasn’t a big place—unincorporated, the county roads screamed, like some sailor’s warning—but even so, I had never been in St. Mark’s when it was empty. Only Grandpa could keep the faithful away, the way he used to set fires in the backyard to keep out mosquitoes. But there was no one at all. No greeter, no minister, no organist. Not even my grandfather’s body. Just candles melted to nubs, giving creamy winks of light.

My brother, Noah, told me over the phone there would be no eulogies. It was one of the few things grandpa wrote in his will: no eulogies, knowing full well he’d lived a life of damning post-mortems. But I intended to make one all the same. I’d even slicked up my throat with tea and honey that morning, whispering to the waitress at the highway diner, saving my voice for forgiveness. Making sure I sounded real sweet.

A janitor knocked, then wheeled in a mop bucket. “Ope,” he said. “Bible study?”

“I came here for the wake. Ezra Sanders?”

He gave me a funny look, like I’d asked a ten-dollar question.

“I’m Adrienne Sanders,” I said. “Adie.”

He eyed me, drinking in the incongruity of me in this place, my black tats, my thigh-highs. If he lived here all his life, he’d only seen someone who looked like me on TV. He reminded me of grandpa in the eyes, the way they crowned under his eyelids like eggs trying not to be laid. I expected them to go big, or maybe tighten as he recognized me. I was the Adrienne Sanders, yes, one of the few who got out of Moriah. I got my first credit card when I was still technically seventeen, and I learned the mailman’s routine so I could run to the box before Grandpa saw any of my envelopes from Mastercard. Grandpa never let me get a job, so on my eighteenth birthday, I ran to the train station and started my life seventy-four dollars in the hole, plus two for a whoopie pie from a convenience store. I ate it on the train and didn’t make a wish. There was nothing left to wish for.

But the janitor only looked at me and stretched his back. “Welp. Sorry for your loss, ma’am.”

“I ain’t.”

“Oh?”

“He wasn’t a good man,” I said.

“It might be he didn’t want no wake—”

“I hope they didn’t cremate him. I wanted a proper funeral, to forgive him with. Send him off. Isn’t that what funerals are for?” I thought of the ancient Egyptians and the trinkets they’d leave their pharaohs for the afterlife, onyx statues and mummified dogs, to keep the dead company. Or the Greeks, with coins on the eyes for the ferryman.

The janitor gave a shrug. “I don’t think the dead care too much.”

He let the mop slap the floor and got to soaping tile.

Grandpa died in the old house on Fox Den Lane. By the looks of the place, he had taken the easy way out. It was a shotgun house, and I remembered it being strong and vibrant, robin’s-egg blue. Now that blue had yellowed a shade towards jaundice and half the roof sunk in, cupping a puddle that stewed in the sun. Wasn’t much of a lawn either, except overgrown spots of ryegrass, with no flowers to speak of except ones that didn’t belong, those purple Kudzu blossoms. “Not much in there,” came a voice. “My boys already picked the meat off.”

I’d stared so long into the living room I never heard Noah pull up in his truck. He stood with his hands in his jeans, his way of warding off hugs. His goatee was half gray-blond now. It added twenty good years on him, instead of the ten it had been.

“I’m not here for any of his things,” I said.

“Wasn’t much anyway. Pots and pans. Coupla army things the boys liked.”

“He leave you enough for a funeral?”

“Funeral? He’s already cremated. Didn’t say where he wants himself scattered. Don’t think he cared.”

“Well, we gotta have a funeral, right?”

“Naw. People don’t gotta do anything.”

“I do.” My tongue thickened, turning my Is into Ahs. Every time I talked to Noah, it was the same way, slipping right back into Moriah. “I’m here.”

“And you drove that ole scrapper all this way?” Noah clicked his tongue at my Ford Pinto. “Anyhow, you being here makes one who wants it. D’you need money?”

The Pinto needed new struts, but that wasn’t worth blushing over. “No.”

“Drugs? You’re skinny.”

“No!”

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