Fall 2017, Volume 23

Fiction by Donald McMann


It had been eleven days since the memorial service for Margaret Crossland, and the flowers that people had been tactfully urged not to send were now dead too. W.T. was resolved to deal with them this morning. It was garbage collection day, and he knew that if he left them another week, they’d start to smell. Even though she’d spent the last months of her life in a nursing home, W.T.’s late wife was still a force. Margaret couldn’t tolerate dead flowers. The first sign of wilting and out they’d go. So, with Margaret in her place at the kitchen table, W.T. took a green plastic garbage bag from the drawer where the green plastic garbage bags had been kept since the kitchen had been refitted twenty years earlier.

“Twenty years,” he said to Margaret. “Has it really been that long?”

He ran his hand across the Arborite countertop. There were scratches visible on its surface. In places the shine had worn away. How many times had she wiped it, scrubbed it, disinfected it? How many times had she sliced things on it when she knew she shouldn’t?

“It may just be time for some sprucing up around here. New counters, maybe. Granite. Nice, don’t you think? It’s just the thing these days, granite.”

The roses were the first to go. They were a light mauve shade called “sterling silver,” one of Margaret’s favorites. Only these were quite sad. The sterling was tarnished. The tips of the petals were turning brown. Their texture was wrinkled, and their formerly perfect shape was now deformed. They were clearly past their prime. They had become ugly. He grabbed them carefully, aware of their still-sharp thorns, and thrust them into the bag. As he did, though, a shower of light-colored petals rained on the floor. Instinctively, he shot a glance at Margaret, then looked back at the mess.

“Damn,” he said, “I’ll get them in a minute.”

Next came a florist’s arrangement—a mixture of once-white mums and carnations that had been dyed a raucous shade of turquoise. The blossoms, along with an array of greenery, had been jammed into a now-slimy block of rigid, green foam. Among them was a silver plastic holder with a card: Thinking of you in your hour of sorrow. Jill and Terry.

“Who the hell are Jill and Terry?”

And then: “Hour of sorrow?”

And then: “Golf. That’s it. You used to play golf with Jill. And tennis. And Terry is a dentist. Drives a Porsche. Should act his age.”

W.T. set the card aside. Jill and Terry would have to be thanked. Eventually. He lifted the arrangement from the murky water of its heavy ceramic vase, and dropped the decaying mess into the bag. It made a rustling sound like the wind through fall leaves. Dead leaves.

When he was done, there were five empty containers waiting to be washed, and a bag full of floral remains. He took the bag out to the curb, came back in, washed and dried the various pieces of ceramic and glass. Then he remembered the floor. Petals everywhere. Yellow ones, Light mauve. Some long spears of grass. And a stem of pink tuberoses.

He picked up the stem. Examined it carefully. Smelled it. It seemed in quite good shape, really. He wondered if he should find a bud vase, make a fresh cut, put an aspirin in the water. Do you do that with tuberoses, or is it carnations? Orchids, maybe?

“Give it an aspirin and call the florist in the morning,” he said aloud, and looked over his shoulder at where Margaret sat.

He set the stem on the counter and went to the closet for a hand broom and dustpan.

“Damned knee,” he said as he crouched down.

The beeper on the electric coffee maker sounded twice, telling him that the warmer was shutting off. He poured himself one last cup, and with the tuberoses safely installed in a champagne flute from the dining room, he sat down at the kitchen table. He put the flowers in the center. Between them. Rubbed the sore knee. Drank from the coffee mug and winced when the steaming, black liquid burned his mouth. Too hot.

“Well, that’s the flowers,” he said. “Now, what do I do with you?”

And then there was silence. There was the man, the stem of pink flowers in the champagne glass, the coffee mug with the message, “I heart, heart.” And opposite the man was the brown-paper–wrapped box with the label that said, “Suncrest Mortuary and Cremation Services, Ltd.” He reached across the table and gently, with the back of the fingers of his right hand, stroked the paper. Lightly. Very lightly. It felt dry, hard. It was cool to the touch. He sighed, “Margaret, oh, Margaret.”

This was the first time he’d touched the package in the days since he’d brought it in from the car and set it here on the table. The table was where packages were always put when they were brought in from the garage. It’s where things were put before they were put where they belonged. This was normal. It was the practice. It’s what they did. There was nothing odd or out of place about a package here on the table. Even this package. Especially on this table. Even now. No, the problem was the next step. The package needed to be put where it was supposed to be put. It’s just that he didn’t know where to put this package. That’s why it was still here. In the kitchen. It had no other place. He could put it nowhere else. He withdrew his hand, studied it, was surprised again that he had an old man’s hand. Then he looked back at the package. It was so light, he remembered. So insubstantial. So brown. So square. So out of place. So immense.


A week later, W.T. stood before the mirror in their bedroom. He was in his underwear and socks. He remembered reading once that naked men—and surely this applied to nearly-naked ones, too—should never be caught wearing nothing but socks. He understood why. Spindly white legs adorned with black hair leading to socks—black socks. Absolutely ridiculous. Comic. He followed the reflection up. The white Jockey shorts, the round belly, breasts—how could he possibly have breasts? Just when had that happened? And chest hair gone white. He was becoming an albino. Or a ghost. And the face—flushed. He suddenly realized that he was blushing. Actually blushing. By himself. In front of the mirror. It was mid-afternoon, and he found himself wondering if it was too early for a drink.

“Come on, old goat. Get your act together and pick some clothes,” he said to the reflection.

But what to wear for something like this? You can’t dress up for walking across a couple of fairways and then into the rough. Not exactly dark-blue-suit territory. He settled on corduroys —navy ones—and an argyle sweater—navy with some red and white. He chose a button-down shirt for under. Pale blue. W.T. noticed that it had a small spot on the front, near the middle. He put the shirt on anyway. The sweater would conceal the stain. He put on his leather walking shoes.

Three o’clock. Too early. But not too early to gas up the car and run it through that automated carwash. One needed a clean car for a job like this. He’d leave in a minute. First, he’d change his shirt.

As he drove to the gas station, he thought about music. W.T. had a new cell phone, and his son Will had told his father about how you could store hundreds (or was it thousands?) of songs on it, but W.T. had never tried it. That’s what the radio was for. Music. Now, though, it might be an idea. Except it was probably too late to figure it out. Definitely too late to figure it out. And anyway, it wasn’t as though Margaret could hear it. Still, some Mozart would have been nice.

He drove to the gas station, filled the car’s tank, and presented his credit card. “And the luxury wash,” he told the operator. The transaction was completed while W.T. wondered what the word “luxury” had to do with washing dirt off a car.

He sat in the front seat of the big Buick as the array of car-washing machines came to life, a cacophony of electric motors and gushing fluids and powerful exhaust fans. After a few moments he realized that he was still gripping the steering wheel. He let go. Put his hands in his lap. The mechanical washing system sprayed various things: multicolored soap of some kind, rinse agents, liquid wax. He turned to follow the equipment as it repeatedly circled the car, stocking it, spraying every surface. Violent washing. What if there were an accident? What if some giant wand became disconnected, damaged the car? Damaged its driver? It was all very noisy. Could be in the middle of Niagara Falls, he thought. Niagara Falls, “Honeymoon Capital of Canada.” Honeymoon. Poetry? Maybe he should take a poem to read. But what? Margaret didn’t even like poetry. Shakespeare? One of the sonnets? Something sentimental like Burns? No. A quiet few minutes of solitary reflection. Besides, you could hear the river from there. And birds. There would be birds. That felt right.

The light was beginning to fade as he arrived back home. It was time to go. He collected her, put her in the seat next to him. Her last ride beside him in the Buick. Kleenex. He checked his pocket for tissues. Just in case.


It was dark as W.T. drove back to town from the golf course. He’d chosen a Monday at dusk, so the place would be deserted. He’d been advised to ask permission of the landowner before spreading ashes—in this case, the executive of the club. They were mostly cooperative; it had been done before—Clive Elliot had chosen number three, the site of his one and only hole in one, “the happiest day of my life.” That declaration in his will had won him no accolades from his widow, who observed that if he wasn’t dead she’d divorce him. W.T. did have to endure the recently-elected idiot secretary of the board who had demanded assurances that the remains did not represent a biohazard.

How to respond to that? Let’s see. Maybe this: You stupid, ignorant prick, no.

“No, Mr. Hansen,” he’d said, “I’m assured there is no risk of contamination.”

Of course it would have been simpler for W.T. to do as his friend Fred had suggested: Forget permission, just do it. But that wasn’t W.T.

W.T. had chosen the rough just behind the eighth green, between the green and the river. Seemed the right place. He’d called both sons to consult. Ryan agreed—thought the idea was brilliant. Will thought it was OK, though he’d seemed less interested in the details and more interested in having his father get this final event finished. Another item checked off. Neither son could free up time to fly home to participate. W.T. was okay with it.

“It’s not like she’ll miss them,” he’d said to Fred.

To W.T. this patch of wild terrain seemed like the place to choose for Margaret. The two of them had spent time there, heaven knows, mostly looking for W.T.’s errant golf balls. But in a perverse way, Margaret always felt a little consolation on those rare times when her drive landed there.

“If you have to lose a ball,” she’d say, “it’s best to lose it by hitting a soaring, long shot and overdriving the green. There’s always some satisfaction in that. It’s like being a little too good.”

And besides, it was a beautiful spot. The rough ended on the brink of a drop down to the North Saskatchewan. In the setting sun, a sky of pink and gold would be reflected in the glinting surface of the river as it pressed on to Lake Winnipeg and eventually the Hudson Bay. And on the other side was an embankment blanketed in cool, green aspens.


W.T. was home in less than an hour. Pulled into the garage, pushed the button to lower the door, turned off the engine. He sat there for a moment. The car was silent. And warm. The light in the garage was dim. Then, he reached over to the passenger seat and picked up the box. The brown paper wrapping crinkled a little as he handled it. He got out of the car, walked into the kitchen, and gently set the box down on the table.

“Not quite ready, I guess,” he said to Margaret. “Golf course isn’t going anywhere. Is it? Guess we’ll have to take another shot. Sometime. Soon, probably. Soon.”




BIO: Since 2001, Donald McMann has worked as a professor in the English department of McEwan University. He has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Wales: Trinity St. David, as well as an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. His short story, "Strip Malls Can Change Your Life," appeared in the inaugural issue of the Lampeter Review in 2010. Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Delmarva Review, Evening Street Review, OxMag, and The Penmen Review.