My father is a son of a bitch.

Was.

Was a son of a bitch.

It’s weird. It should come naturally. He’s always been a was, for practically as long as I can remember, but now that he’s actually dead I keep thinking of him as an is. Funny how our brains do that.

The house stinks. I opened all the windows and doors when I arrived to try and air it out, but it doesn’t seem to be helping. The stench is deep in the paneled walls, the worn out furniture, the disgusting shag carpet that probably used to be avocado green but now just reminds me of that mildew that grows on sloths.

Imagine that. Imagine being so immobile that tiny little plants and shit actually starts growing on you.

I wonder when the others will get here. Gwen will be late. She always is. Was. Always was. Maybe she’s grown out of it. Jesus, how long has it been since I’ve seen her, anyway? Eight years? Ten? I didn’t even have her phone number. When she texted me last week I had no idea it was her.

Dad’s dead.

I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong number.

It’s your sister, fucknugget.

If it weren’t for the profanity I would have had to ask which one, because I didn’t have Val’s number either. But she never swears. At least in my mind she never swears. In my mind she’s still bubbly and shiny and eleven, even though sporadic emails and Christmas cards have proven otherwise. What’s her husband’s name again? Some little boy’s name, like Jimmy or Timmy or something. I wonder if he’s coming. Probably not. Probably staying home with the kids. Their names I remember. Andrew, Jeremy, Lilly. One of the boys does Little League and the other goes to art class, though I couldn’t tell you which is which. The girl plays soccer. I’ve never met any of them, but their tiny little lives fill every one of those emails and cards. Val never talks about herself.

Then there’s Jamie. She added me on Facebook a while back, so I occasionally catch a glimpse of her life one scrolling status update at a time. She either has a steady boyfriend or a very specific type. I’ve never looked closely enough at the pictures to be certain if they’re all the same guy.

Ben joked that I should make us all nametags and hand them the wrong ones when I see them. I told him they wouldn’t appreciate the humor. He said I should do it anyway, for my own amusement, but of course I didn’t.

Even with all the windows and doors open and the curtains drawn back the house is still dim. It’s those damn overgrown trees in the yard. I doubt they’ve ever been pruned.

I go back out to the rental to get the boxes. Now that I’ve seen the inside I realize I should have just got garbage bags. Maybe one of the others would have thought of that.

I’m tossing the flatpacks of corrugated cardboard into the yard when a dented Hyundai with Oklahoma plates pulls up. Not a rental. She must have driven. Had to be at least twelve hours. I can see her through the windshield and wave, but she doesn’t wave back. She’s wearing some of those cheap oversized sunglasses, so maybe she wasn’t looking at me, or maybe she just didn’t feel like waving.

She gets out of the car and arches her back. God, she got fat. No wonder she never put pictures of herself in those emails and Christmas cards.

“Hey, Val.”

“Hey.”

Am I supposed to hug her? Shake her hand? I have no fucking idea. So I just stand here. “How’s the family?”

“Fine. Billy’s got his mind set on doing a remodel of the downstairs bath.”

Billy. That was his name. I’ve never been to her house – I’m not even sure what city it’s in, but I think it’s near Tulsa – so I have no opinion on the downstairs bathroom. “Sounds like quite an undertaking.”

She nods toward the house. “How bad is it in there?”

“Fucking disaster.”

I half expect her to gasp in surprise and admonish me for using a bad-feeling-word, the way she used to when she was little, but she just sighs. “Figured as much. You the only one here?”

“Yeah. I haven’t heard from them.”

“I’m sure Gwen will be late.” She pulls a pack of Newports out of her jacket pocket and lights one without offering me any. Just as well, I gave it up when I met Ben. She doesn’t know that, though. “What’s with the boxes?” she asks. “You planning to keep any of this shit?”

“No, just thought some of it might go to Goodwill or something.” In fact I hadn’t even thought about it that much. I just got boxes because that’s what you need to pack up a house. Boxes. Not trash bags, not dumpsters. Boxes.

“I’m surprised you came, to be honest,” Val said between drags.

“I’m surprised any of us did.”

She shrugs. “We could have hired someone. People do that. But I don’t know. I’d just rather get it done myself.”

“Same here.”

“How’s Ben?” I must look surprised, because she smiles a bit.

“He’s good.”

“You two married?”

“Next spring, maybe. Just something small. We haven’t really talked about it much.”

My phone buzzes in my pocket.

What time did we say?

10 minutes ago.

Shitturds. Leaving now.

“Gwen’s on her way.”

Val drops what’s left of her cigarette on the curb and smashes it with the toe of her sneaker. Like a flash of lightning I see her in pigtails, stepping on an earthworm, studying the pinkish brown streak left on the sidewalk with a look of smug satisfaction as she scrapes it off her shoe. Strangely vivid for such a meaningless memory.

I open the Swiss army knife on my keychain and slice the plastic ties off one of the stacks of boxes. Val watches me fold up two of them before taking one for herself. Neither of us say anything…

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