Final Arrangements

by Bruce Patterson, January 5, 2012

My dad was born with what you’d call the gift of gab, I suppose. No doubt he loved telling stories and was what used to be called a natural-born teacher. After we moved from Chicago to the City of Angels in 1953, my dad got a job busting tires for Firestone and, since he was a hard worker and an ace salesman, he started up the company ladder: to service manager, credit manager, store manager. He did so well as a store manager that the company switched him over to wholesale since it takes some real talent to sell to salesman. His customers were independent service station operators back when service stations came with hoists, pits and mechanics on duty, the owner of the place was the best mechanic of all, and an independent anybody was still a possibility.

My dad did so well landing, servicing and growing accounts — the gas station owners being virtually all WW2 or Korean war vets using the GI Bill to get a leg up gave my dad another edge — that after a few years the brass offered to bring him into the home office back in Akron, Ohio, and make him manager of wholesale sales for the 11 western states. Thanks to the invention of coal-fired, wall-to-wall, round-the-clock, individually modulated Climate Control (nowadays, if you can believe it, they’ve even got air-conditioned motorcycle helmets), America’s vast forbidding Western Wastelands were about to get overrun by a population explosion of credit-card-totting greenhorns, tinhorns, pilgrims, Ponzi-schemers, pipe-dreamers and pioneers, these without their forebear’s sweat stains, cracked, blackened fingers, hitched up shoulders and horseshoe facials, and each of them coming equipped with at least five pneumatic rubber tires about to wear out or even flat-out blow-out while throwing their automobiles into high-speed spins. Ever wonder how many perfectly good tires are absolutely ruined in just one day’s worth of just El Lay’s tree-barkings, concrete abutment-tacklings and car-to-car fender-benders? And so together Firestone and my dad could grow and grow and grow happily ever after.

But my dad had no desire to move to Ohio, much less to live out of a suitcase. He didn’t want to have to work 60 hours a week, either, 50 or more weeks per year. He wasn’t enthralled with the idea of accumulating show-off money, or particularly impressed by rich people as sources of entertainment. So, instead of reaching for the merry-go-round’s brass ring, my dad became El Lay’s manager of wholesale sales and he stayed put until, maybe fifteen years later, the Japanese bought out the company and, wanting to bring in their own people, they offered my dad a retirement deal he couldn’t refuse.

Anyway, surviving Chicago’s wicked streets, WW2 plus three years of postwar military officer life — he’d re-enlisted once — had allowed my dad to so perfect the slum jungle hustle that he felt morally obliged to share the secrets of his sweet success with his kids. And, for that matter, with anybody else who’d listen so long as he respected them. My dad’s was the greatest hustle of them all since it wasn’t one and, even if by some slim chance it was, you’d never prove it. Unlike me, he also had an impressive way with numbers, a knack with a deck of cards, a passion for playing life’s odds and percentages (never bet with the crowd, boys) and — here he wasn’t as peculiar as he might seem — a religious belief in keeping just one set of clean and meticulous books (You can’t cheat an honest soul).

Maybe a decade after I’d returned from the war my same-aged stepbrother — his name was Tim — after years spent going in and out of gold-plated rehab programs, totally lost his mind to booze, drugs and schizophrenia. He’d disappeared into the herd of the homeless and was presumed John Doe dead. My dad was the last to have seen him, and that was back when Tim had gotten banished from the Monrovia recycling center for salting his aluminum cans with sand he’d taken from his campsite in the Big Santa Anita Wash. Feeling desperate, Tim had come by the house to beg for food money and my dad had given him some although, as always, it wasn’t enough and, as always, Tim got real nasty before the left.

Back then my stepmom Shirley was still alive and finally they resolved to have absolutely no more to do with Tim and to cut him out of the will. A big wad of cash would only get him overdosed anyway. As for my sisters and me, now that Shirley was dead and my dad had sold the house and had gotten rid of all but a carload of their possessions, his remaining assets were liquid and we’d split them equally three ways.

Regarding what to do with my dad’s corpse, by the time we heard he’d croaked already it’d be incinerated. Not wanting to give us the opportunity to quibble over what to do with his ashes, they’d be taken care of, too, by contract disappeared before my big sister as executor of the estate got the word. He’d found a non-profit crematorium and had hired them to make him vanish as quickly, cheaply and quietly as possible.

Like when he was finalizing the deal and the salesman asked him what sort of urn he wanted for his ashes and my dad found out what the price range was, he suggested they scoop his ashes into a shopping bag. For ethical reasons, the scandalized salesman huffed, that was something they absolutely couldn’t do. Although, the salesman added, using a cardboard box was legally permissible. After my dad cheerfully volunteered to bring them a box at no charge, the salesman objected: all human ashes must be interred in a specifically designed, state-certified box. When my dad asked how much money a state-certified box would cost him, he wasn’t surprised when it turned out to be just a shade cheaper than the cheapest urn.

When the salesman asked him how he wished his ashes to be disposed of, my dad asked which way was cheapest. To have them tossed out of an airplane flying over the Pacific Ocean just beyond Santa Monica Beach, he was told. When informed how much that cost, my dad suggested that instead they flush his ashes down the toilet since the pipes led to the same place. Beyond saving time, money and lessening their killer carbon footprint, my dad had pointed out, they could re-sell his box to somebody else. But that, too, was strictly verboten. So my dad was forced to spring for a box and a plane ride to boot. Or, more properly speaking, us kids were.

From Hauling Horses, a work in progress.

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