Living Wake

By Nate Chang

“Redwood,” his family had taken to calling him, but he really didn’t care that everyone around him jibed at his age, despite the fact that he was on record as one of the ten verifiably oldest people on the planet at 114 years. But Eugene Cravitz had reached a point in his life where he didn’t give a fuck. His parents were gone, everyone he knew growing up was gone, his children were gone, and the only people left in his life were reporters looking for a puff piece, and the odd grandchild or great grandchild looking for a handout. Everyone thought it necessary to shout around him, even though his hearing was perfectly satisfactory. His eyesight was fine if he had his glasses on, his mobility was exceptional – no wheelchair, no walker, no cane. The only thing that had dulled with his age was his taste, which he had killed with 60+ years of non-stop hot food that bordered on unsafe levels of heat, and was typically loaded with peppers, curry powder, or various other methods of awakening his aging taste buds. He had also subsisted on at least three rations of bacon a day since the day he joined the U.S. army in 1917, much to the chagrin of his doctor, who had, for the past thirty five years, attempted in vain to ascertain how someone could consume so much bacon and a) not be obese, and b) not be dead. But in his recent decades, Eugene Cravitz had made a virtual career of not giving a fuck, starting when he realized, on his 95th birthday, that he had been collecting Social Security checks for 30 years, and had probably made at least one person at the bureau quite upset that they’d had to keep writing checks to the same man, in all probability, for their entire working life at the bureau, and would retire from the bureau, still having to write him checks. But he didn’t give a fuck about anyone – not his family, who seemed only interested in his possessions and the three million dollars he had made investing fortuitously in major defense contractors – not anyone at the Social Security bureau, not his doctor, not the nurse his doctor sent round once a week to see if Old Redwood had croaked, the nurse had been given secret instructions by the doctor to pilfer anything of value should she find Redwood deceased, though throughout her twenty five-year tenure with Eugene and his doctor, had yet to enact the plan, had even developed a grudging respect for the man and, in her advancing years, had often wondered what it would be like to fuck a man as old as Eugene.

The nurse had left two hours earlier, much to Eugene’s delight. For his part, he’d often wondered what it would be like to fuck someone who hadn’t yet begun collecting Social Security, though if he were to be perfectly honest, he would’ve admitted that he found relationships distasteful, and much preferred his Sterilco-brand artificial vagina – it asked so little (or more appropriately, it asked for nothing,) and yet gave so much. Regardless, Eugene was in the mood to remove his Sterilco-brand artificial vagina from its home in his closet when another knock sounded at his front door. Two knocks on his door in one day – an incident without precedent for many, many years. Upon answering, Eugene was nearly swept to the floor in a flood of his relatives, all wearing black and ignoring him completely, fanning out into his house, and taking stock of his possessions with clipboards adorned with spreadsheets. Columns with names abutted rows with Item, Value, and Going To.

“What’s going on?” Eugene asked. No one answered – his descendants (and a few people he didn’t recognize) just went on about the business of divvying up everything, even going so far as to claim dibs on his Sterilco-brand artificial vagina, though why anyone would have wanted it was quite beyond the limits of his understanding. “What the fuck is going on?” he shouted. Still no one answered.

“They’re taking your stuff,” a little voice said beside him. He looked down to find one of his relations, identifiable by her fire engine-red hair, round face, and the wide hips that had been a mark of his family’s women for generations. He couldn’t recall the young girl’s name though, and he had to admit to himself that he’d become rather a poor judge of age for anyone who didn’t have grey hair. Once they went grey however, he could tell their age to the day. But pre-grey, they all looked the same, though his family’s hair was distinctive enough to warrant a little space reserved in his memory for “Family you Should Recognize But Don’t.”

“Who the hell are you?” Eugene asked.

“I’m your great granddaughter, Hayley.”

“Right, goddammit,” Eugene said. “Of course you are.”

“You didn’t remember.”

“Young people all look the same to me.”

“That’s okay,” Hayley said. “Old people all look the same to me.” Eugene nodded, a smirk forcing its way onto his face.

“Are you old enough to tell me why the shit they’re taking my fucking stuff?”

“Yes,” Hayley said, looking up at Eugene. She had blue eyes, not blue like the sky or the ocean or anything of an equivalent poetical standard, but blue like a PC desktop background – a nice blue that one gets used to seeing, maybe even takes comfort in. She was a little chubby, and her demeanor was older and more serious that Eugene thought it should have been, older in the way the young and precocious try to seem more mature by drinking coffee or sneaking over to sit at the grown-up’s table at family gatherings. “But I don’t know why. They put me in a car and drove me here, wouldn’t say why. I don’t know why they’re all wearing black.”

“Who the fuck knows with these people,” Eugene said, turning back to the chaos. “Who the fuck cares.”

“One of my uncles brought a U-haul,” Hayley said. “I think they want to take your couch.”

Eugene scowled, his eyebrows coming together and almost touching as his smirk inverted, his lips nearly touching his nose. “Goddamn crooks,” Eugene said.

“I thought we wore black and took stuff from people’s homes after they were dead,” Hayley asked without asking.

“That’s the way it’s supposed to goddamn work,” Eugene said.

“So why are we here taking your stuff?” Hayley asked.

“I wish to shit I knew,” Eugene said. “Greedy sons of bitches. Should just light a match, then they wouldn’t have any of my shit to fight about.”

“Why don’t you?” Hayley asked.

“Why don’t I what?”

“Light a match. Burn it all down. Look at them,” Hayley nodded. Eugene turned to see four of his relatives shouting at each other, each occupying a corner of his coffee table. There was a terrible cacophony of voices, and Eugene couldn’t figure out what they were arguing over until they started gesticulating rather quickly and forcibly, with taut muscles, at the coffee table.

“What the fuck,” Eugene said. “It’s just an Ikea table, what’s the goddamn deal? And I’m not even fuckin’ dead.” Eugene put his hands on both sides of his mouth, and shouted. “I’m not dead, you crooked fuckers.” Nobody noticed him. “What the sam hell?”

“They think you’re rich,” Hayley said.

“I am,” Eugene said. “But it’s nobody’s goddamn business, and it’s nobody’s goddamn money but my own.”

“They seem to have other ideas.”

“Piss on them,” Eugene said. He turned to Hayley, who stood quietly, watching the fray of people. They’d begun stacking various things near the front door, where Eugene and Hayley were standing, though they still failed to pay any attention to either of them. “You wanna have some fun?” Eugene asked Hayley.

“Sure,” Hayley said.

Eugene extended a hand to her, which she took. He led her around the front of his house, into the garage. He procured a can of old gasoline he’d kept near his lawnmower, both of which were coated in a thick layer of dust. “Which car is yours?” Eugene asked, looking out at a small caravan’s worth of automobiles stacking in his driveway and on the curb in front of his house.

“The last one,” Hayley said, pointing to a green sedan.

“Fan-fucking-tastic. Go back inside and get the keys from whoever has them, then meet me back here.”

Hayley departed without acknowledgment, and returned a moment later with a set of car keys.

“Great,” Eugene said. “Now grab that book of matches on the shelf there,” he nodded with his head. Hayley procured the book, and followed Eugene back to the front. Everyone was upstairs, though the piles of his things now included his clothing, and had grown quite large, some stacking halfway to the ceiling. He doused each pile with a little gasoline, making sure to soak at least some of the clothes on each pile. When the gas can was nearly empty, he tossed it across the room, spraying petrol around the carpet and furniture.

“Hand me the book,” Eugene said. “And get ready to run to your car.”

He struck a match, watched it burn for a few seconds, until it had almost reached his fingers. The heat from it was hot, almost unbearable as it reached toward his skin, but at the last second, he tossed it onto the nearest pile. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to light the gasoline, and set the piles ablaze. He backed up, taking Hayley with him, making sure that each pile had caught. When he was confident that everything was burning, he hustled Hayley toward the green sedan. On his way, he heard his relatives on the second floor, still arguing about who would get what, oblivious of the fire downstairs.

“What the fuck,” Eugene said. “They’re still arguing?”

“They’ve been at it for days,” Hayley said, watching the fire spread across the living room and begin to lick up the walls. “My stepmom and her brother Rick have been fighting for almost a month about who would get your coffee table.” The coffee table began to burn, its glass top crackling until it exploded, hot glass shrapnel bouncing off the thicker furniture.

“It wasn’t even a nice table,” Eugene said. “I don’t get it. I don’t fucking get it.”

“They’re greedy,” Hayley said.

“Yeah,” Eugene said, opening the passenger door. “And the last fucking thing the world needs is more greedy people.”

He closed the door behind Hayley, went around to the driver’s side, and got in. The fire was climbing the walls, and his relations had still made no moves to save themselves. “Fuck it,” Eugene said. “Is your dad in there too?”

“No,” Hayley said. “My dad’s been gone for a long time.”

“No dad, huh. What about your mom?”

Hayley shrugged. “She went out for a drink the night the cops found dad’s body, and she never came home.”

“Tough break,” Eugene said. “Sorry.”

“Life is tough.”

“Yeah,” Eugene said, starting the car and pulling away. “But every once in a while, it cuts you a break. Today, for instance. Today is an auspicious day.”

“What is today?”

“Today is my 115th birthday.”

“Happy birthday,” Hayley said.

“Thank you,” Eugene said.

“Would you like a present?”

“No,” Eugene said. “No thank you, Hayley. I don’t need anything. But I think I might have something for you.”

“My birthday isn’t until November.”

“That’s okay,” Eugene said, pulling into a parking lot. “Consider it a back-present for all the birthdays I missed, something to help you on your way in life. How old are you?

“12.”

“12. That’s a good age, good time to start getting your head and your ass wired together. Just make me a promise? Don’t turn out like the rest of the family.”

“I promise.”

He got out, and removed his wallet from his pants. “I’ll just be a minute.”

He closed the door, and walked into the bank.

Nate Chang is a writer/artist who lives in Portland, OR with his wife and a cabinet full of model robots. His work has appeared in Paper Tape, Soul’s Road: a Fiction Collection, and The Pitkin Review.

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