The desert wind blows through my tiny home. The wind speaks to me of the many souls it’s transporting, reminding me my time will come soon when I join the windy cavalcade.
My granddaughter, Anna, retreats to where her grandmother is buried, laying on her back and staring at the stars. I was told by my native American neighbors, the stars show Anna her destiny, and the wind will lift her away from the unhappiness she has endured in her short life. Anna will be reunited with a boy who couldn’t return the love she had for him. The hearse delivering Stoney for cremation will arrive in the morning.
Anna idolized Stoney from the day they met briefly as children when the hearse delivered Stoney’s beloved grandfather, a Vietnam veteran, for cremation. Anna followed Stoney’s athletic career from Pop Warner football to high school quarterback, keeping scrapbooks filled with press clippings of Stoney’s gridiron heroics. Stoney led his high school to a state championship. He received football scholarships from every top college but chose West Point.
We live on an Arizona ranch bordering a native American reservation. Once a prospering cattle ranch, it’s become a desert, including a tiny wood frame home, and a metal warehouse with three smokestacks. Our ranch has been in the Montez family for generations.
I own and operate a crematorium incinerating medical waste delivered from Arizona, California, Utah, and New Mexico. When the unrefrigerated trucks arrive, I quickly unload the orange bags marked “Biohazard,” placing them into my refrigerated crypt inside the crematorium. The smell is horrific, and when the wind whips up, the putrid odor is carried for miles making the Montez family unpopular with our neighbors. The three cremation chambers run from morning until late night, seven days a week. The uncinated remains, often hip replacements made of stainless steel with titanium alloys, are given to my native American neighbors, who sell the metal for scrap. In exchange, they ceremoniously remove the incinerated ashes, providing a dignified, native American ceremony and scattering into the wind.
I keep Anna away from the crematorium. I don’t want her around the sights and smells of death. She was born to my daughter, a heroin addict, succumbing to a lethal fix. My departed wife, and myself, relished the opportunity to raise Anna. My daughters’ drug and alcohol abuse created birth defects. Anna was born with a club foot, and partial paralysis on one side of her face creating slurred speech. She also has learning difficulties. Anna is sweet, kind, and staring into her big brown eyes, reveals only love, creativity, and eagerness to explore life. I’ve reconciled myself to the reality her birth defects will deprive her of finding romance.
Anna learned to cook and clean from her grandmother and keeps the house spotless. She has a “green thumb,” makes roses bloom in the desert, and maintains a garden growing fresh vegetables. Anna loves her native American neighbors. They named her, “Soaring Heart.”
I taught Anna to handle the office duties. A funeral home conglomerate has been after me to sell to them for years. When I die, Anna might sell. I’m confidant she’d make a fine bookkeeper for somebody.
Anna was deprived of a loving female mentor to guide her into womanhood. She has no interests in buying clothes, makeup, or fragrances. She lives in a secret world she crafted for herself including scrapbooks. Her secret world doesn’t protect her from the cruel taunts and humiliation from her classmates.
One day, I sat with the school bus driver, Pam, at the town coffee shop. She is a no nonsense, retired, prison matron, who revealed the cruelties Anna never mentioned to me.
“Mr. Montez, I couldn’t prevent the cruelty your granddaughter endured. Little Anna was the last to board the bus and struggled to make it up the stairs into the bus with her club foot. Anna always resisted my offer to assist her, knowing it would slow down our departure, and create more taunting. She sat in the front seat, reserved for handicapped students which felt like a ‘Scarlet A.’ The children were cruel, shouting out, ‘Scuzz Montez, what’s in your lunch box? Human organ sandwiches? We can smell you coming a mile away.’ Anna always held her head high, Mr. Montez.”
My ranch is many miles from school, and I regret I couldn’t drive Anna to and from school. I remember receiving an emergency call to pick up Anna early from school. On the last day of Junior High, Anna’s classmates celebrated by running amok. Anna became their target. They dragged her into the bathroom, placed her head into a toilet, doused her hair with powdered hand soap, and repeatedly flushed the toilet, chanting, “This ‘shampoo’ is called a ‘whirling’ and will get the smell of death out of your stinky hair!”
On another occasion, I received a call from a young man introducing himself as “Stoney”, “Sir, I’m with Anna. She needs to get home right away. Can you pick her up? We’ll be waiting for you at the flag pole out front of campus.”
When I arrived to pick up Anna, her head was dripping wet, wrapped with a football jersey emblazoned with “State Champions.” Stoney approached me, “In observance of Veterans Day, the high school played the movie, ‘The Green Berets.’ The school punks began pulling pranks when the lights dimmed and the movie began. A glass soda bottle was rolled down the concrete floor, and the clanging noise caused laughter. One of the punks brought in a fast-food chicken lunch box, and chicken bones were thrown in the direction of Anna. One of the punks loaded a spoon with mashed potatoes and gravy, creating a catapult of warm, disgusting, creamy goo, which landed in Anna’s hair. Anna screamed. The auditorium lights were raised, and the students laughed as Anna left the auditorium crying. Nobody went to Anna’s aid, so I chased after her, and found Anna crying outside. I took her to the water fountain, and wiped the potatoes and gravy from her hair. I used my football jersey to clean and dry her hair the best I could, sir. Anna calmed down, and I told her, ‘Don’t mind those jerks. They disrespected you, The Green Berets, and John Wayne. You’re in good company’. Anna managed a smile.”
I thanked Stoney for his kindness. It was ironic the only kid to show Anna kindness was the most popular kid in high school.
When the shiny black hearse entered the dusty road leading into my ranch, it was occupied by an Army Major, in full dress uniform, and the funeral home director. I worried Anna would be traumatized. To my surprise, Anna had rustled up a pretty dress, her hair was neatly combed, and she wore a beautiful yellow ribbon. She held my arm as the Major handed me the cremation orders, revealing the remains were those of, “LT. STONEY ADAMS. KIA. AFGHANISTAN.”
I retrieved a gurney and joined the Major and funeral director in removing the cardboard box from the hearse, placing it onto the gurney, and pushing it towards the crematorium. Anna followed, but when we reached the crematorium, I motioned for her not to follow, and she complied.
We entered the refrigerated crypt. The Major took a knee alongside the gurney, silently said a prayer, and stood facing me,
“The United States Army has entrusted you with the remains of Lieutenant Stoney Adams. His body was dismembered by an ‘IED.’ The Army has confidence you’ll treat his remains, and service to his nation, with reverence and honor. Goodbye, and thank you, Mr. Montez.”
Stoney’s cremation was set for morning. Fearing Ana might enter, I closed and locked the door to the crematorium before opening Stoney’s cardboard casket, and inspected the remains. I cut the three metal bands securing the cardboard lid to the box. Plastic lined the interior containing a rubber body bag surrounded with dry ice. I unzipped the body bag revealing vacuum sealed, plastic orange bags, marked, “Partial Face,” “Forearm,” “Leg,” “Partial Upper Torso” and arranged as if still attached to a fully intact human body. The bags were covered by Stoney’s full-dress uniform, polished dress shoes, hat, and a folded, triangular, American flag was placed at the head of the box along with Stoney’s West Point ring buttoned to the ring finger of the white glove he’d wear on his right hand. A card was enclosed reading, “Goodbye fallen brother, with love.”
It was written by the Dover morticians preparing his body for shipment home. I zipped up the body bag, and replaced the cardboard lid, securing it with gold braided ceremonial rope I keep for special occasions.
I was concerned about Anna’s emotions. It would be a sleepless night for both of us. The wind picked up in the evening, and the sand pelting our home made it difficult to fall asleep, but I managed to nod off.
I awoke early the following morning, calling for Anna who didn’t answer. I went to her room and found Anna’s scrapbooks containing clippings about Stoney piled upon her bed which hadn’t been slept in. She must have sat late into the night remembering Stoney. One scrapbook was open, revealing a photo of Stoney, the “Prom King” with his “Prom Queen.” I feared the worse. I entered the crematorium and found a note hung to the handle of the cremation chamber door, “When wind blow through hous, me and GranMa are visitin. I luv u gran pa. Gud by”.
I opened the door to the chamber, still warm from the cremation.
Gruff, old, Sheriff Jack, and mild-mannered, Doc Kippers, our county coroner, completed their suicide reports. They were visibly shaken, concluding from the skeletal remains, and stains, Anna placed the plastic bags inside the chamber as they were placed in the cardboard coffin. She set the cremation timer to commence in five minutes as recorded by my computer. Anna crawled inside, and closed the chamber door with the ceremonial gold braided rope, still hanging from the chamber door. Judging from the bone fragments, Anna laid close to Stoney. The singed remains of the American flag covered them like a blanket. Doc Kippers concluded, “The 1800-degree flames quickly consumed the oxygen inside the small chamber, and Anna fell unconscious, never experiencing any pain.”
Pam arrived after the sheriff and coroner left. She handed me a box of hand made birthday, Christmas, and Valentine’s day cards Anna created for Pam. I broke into tears. Pam held me tight, whispering, “Anna was a gift to all of us who loved her, Mr. Montez. Losing Anna is a knife in my heart. Goodbye.”
My grief was lessened knowing Anna was reunited forever with a love she sorely deserved. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I gently swept their combined remains from the chamber, carefully placed the bone fragments into the “cremulator,” grinding down the bones to sand which I sealed into a plastic bag, and placed into a gold, satin purse, belonging to Anna’s grandmother.
My neighbor and tribal Chief arrived, wearing ceremonial headdress and clothing, followed by his procession. I handed the Chief the purse as he sat atop his horse. He silently prayed in his native language, held the purse to the sky, then to his heart, and motioned for the procession to proceed back to the reservation. I knew Anna and Stoney would be released into the wind, carried across the desert, and into the afterlife.
When the wind blows through my curtains, I know Ana and Stoney have returned to say, “Hello.”
One thought on “Sand and Ash”
Wow! A kick in the guts, but a powerful, beautiful story. Thank you.