Ashes

ASHES

 

_______

 

A Play in One Scene

 


 

Cast of Characters

 

Edward: A bachelor in late middle age, older brother of Charles. Balding, wire-rim glasses, starched white shirt and perfectly knotted tie.

 

Charles: Younger brother of Edward. Also a bachelor. Balding, horn-rim glasses, rumpled clothing. Distracted air.

 

Scene

 

Living room of the Victorian home that until recently, Edward and Charles shared with their mother.

 

Time

 

Tuesday, October 23, 1962, the morning after President Kennedy addressed the nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

 


 

Act I

 

Scene 1

 

SETTING: The living room is straight out of 1910: busy wallpaper, patterned rug, fireplace mantle crowded with objects d’art, upholstered armchairs, dark wood tables, grandfather clock, heavy drapes on the windows, walls hung with sepia photographs and landscape paintings. We can see through to a large entry hall and the front door of the house.

 

AT RISE: Edward sits in his favorite armchair near the fireplace. He’s holding the pages of a newspaper in front of his face. We see one slender leg, in creased gray wool, elegantly crossed over the other. Charles comes through the front door and slams it shut behind him. He’s muttering to himself as he hangs his overcoat on a rack in the foyer. Edward lowers his newspaper as Charles enters and stands looking at his brother from the other side of the room. A silence ensues, a long one, long enough to make the audience uneasy.

 

EDWARD

 

Charles.

 

CHARLES

 

Edward.

 

EDWARD

 

Charles, where are Mother’s ashes?*

 

CHARLES

 

Now, Edward. I … I …

 

EDWARD

 

Where are Mother’s ashes, Charles. Where are they? Tell me now, please. (waits in vain for a response) Charles, I want you to listen to me carefully. I have been patient with you since Mother died. Very patient. You refused to help with the funeral arrangements. I tried and tried. You would not listen to reason. And so I had a decision to make — on my own. Was I supposed to go into her room and pick a dress and underclothes for her? Jewelry? Tell McGrath how to do her makeup and fix her hair? Of course not. It’s unthinkable. Cousin Anne and Cousin Emily could not come from Spartanburg until that Friday. And so I told McGrath we wanted her cremated.

 

CHARLES

 

She wouldn’t have wanted that.

 

EDWARD

 

That’s absurd. She had no idea what she wanted or didn’t want. She was the most indecisive person I have ever met in my entire life.

 

CHARLES

 

I hate it when you talk about her this way. It sounds like you’re talking about a stranger.

 

EDWARD

 

I have never pretended to be a sentimental person, as you know perfectly well. Father was sentimental — tell me, did that help him or hurt him? (after a pause) I’m talking to you, Charles. And sit down, for goodness sake. You’re standing there like you’re ushering at a church service.

 

CHARLES

 

(sitting down in an armchair on the opposite side of the fireplace) All right, I’m sitting.

 

EDWARD

 

Tell me what you did with Mother’s ashes.

 

CHARLES

 

I will. But you have to promise me something first.

 

EDWARD

 

It depends on what it is. But in principle, yes, all right.

 

CHARLES

 

I want you to promise me that if I die before you do, I won’t be cremated.

 

EDWARD

 

What on Earth? Have you been drinking?

 

CHARLES

 

I’m serious. I want you to promise me that I will have a proper burial. A nice coffin from McGrath’s. Two viewings here at the house, afternoon and evening. I want pallbearers and honorary pallbearers. I want the whole town standing in their Sunday clothes around a tent in the cemetery, listening to Reverend Taylor. I want a granite headstone and flowers. Promise me.

 

EDWARD

 

(staring at his brother before speaking) Why do you care? You’ll be dead, Charles. I could leave your body on the curb for the garbage truck, and you wouldn’t know.

 

CHARLES

 

Edward, please. That’s a horrible thing to say. Don’t do this. You’re upsetting me.

 

EDWARD

 

Do what? What’re you implying? You’re a silly man, Charles. Next you’ll be telling me what to say in your obituary. “Charles Jones, of Adairsville, Mississippi, favorite son of the late Muriel and Alfred Jones, died on Monday, largely to spite his heartless, callous brother Edward, who never really appreciated his darling younger brother until after he died.”

 

CHARLES

 

I wasn’t their favorite son.

 

EDWARD

 

Don’t be ridiculous. Of course you were their favorite. Even though you never could hold down a job. Even though in the end, Father had to support you. Even though I was the one who gave up my career and moved home to take care of you and Mother.

 

CHARLES

 

(shifting in his chair) Edward?

 

EDWARD

 

Yes, what is it?

 

CHARLES

 

Do you think there’s going to be a nuclear war? Over Cuba?

 

EDWARD

 

No, Charles. Khrushchev will back down. Kennedy may be a sap, but he has good advisers, and the Soviets certainly aren’t going to commit suicide. What does this have to do with Mother’s ashes?

 

CHARLES

 

Nothing. Everything. I don’t know. (after a pause) I like this president. “He’s not up to the job,” you say. “He shouldn’t have made his brother attorney general.” “It’s a waste of money to send a man to the moon.” It’s strange, though. He reminds me of you when you were his age. You had that same style and flair. (looking into the fireplace) You have no idea how much we looked forward to your visits, Edward. With the holidays coming up, you know. I’d be at the grocery store for Mother, and everyone would ask, “Is Edward coming home for Christmas this year?” “Yes!” I’d say. “Unless something comes up at his office.” Mother would be beside herself. She and Daisy would scrub and dust every square inch of this house. She’d try again to convince Father to let her buy new curtains for your bedroom. Of course, I had to get the ladder and polish the chandelier in the dining room, even if it didn’t have a speck of tarnish on it.

 

EDWARD

 

She should have asked Willie to do it. You had no business climbing a ladder.

 

CHARLES

 

It took most of the day. Father would sit where he could see me and pretend to work his crossword puzzle. Mother would bustle in and out. “I sent Daisy to Wilcher’s to get more brown sugar for Edward’s rum cake.” “Sadie Jordan is coming to spend Christmas with her mother. I hope she won’t rush over here to bat her eyes at Edward.” “Willie says he can get two fat hens from Arnie Jackson for our Christmas Eve dinner. Edward always says that Jackson’s chickens are the best he’s ever eaten.”

 

EDWARD

 

Well, they are.

 

CHARLES

 

(after a long pause) Do you remember seeing those photographs in Life and Time after the war? The pictures of Japan, after we dropped the atom bombs?

 

EDWARD

 

Yes, of course I do.

 

CHARLES

 

There was hardly anything left standing, Edward. Ash and rubble as far as the eye could see. I remember a photograph of one crooked, blackened tree in a cloud of white smoke. Another one had a girl in a scarf; she was coming up from a bomb shelter with a smile on her face — Edward, she was smiling — and behind her all you could see was complete and total devastation. But the one that really stayed with me, the one that I was thinking about last night, after President Kennedy spoke, is this picture of a mother and her son. She’s wearing a heavy, dark kimono, and the wind is blowing her black hair into her face. She’s holding her little boy up for the photographer. They’re both looking straight into the camera, and above them is this terrible sky, and behind them is wreckage, and beside them is another one of those charred trees.

 

EDWARD

 

Charles, I promise not to cremate you and to give you the biggest funeral that Lamar County has ever seen. Now, where are Mother’s ashes?

 

CHARLES

 

All over town, Edward. I buried some in front of her own grave marker in the cemetery, and some at the graves of her mother and father. I sprinkled some of the ashes in that flower bed that she and her Garden Club friends kept up at the courthouse. Some at the church, of course, in that little picnic area she loved. Then I drove out in the country to that millpond where she and Father used to fish, back in the old days, and I left some of her there.

 

EDWARD

 

Is that all?

 

CHARLES

 

No. I put some of her here, too. Here in the house. The house she loved almost as much as she loved Father, you, and me.

 

EDWARD

 

Where, exactly?

 

CHARLES

 

Right there. (pointing) In the fireplace.

 

EDWARD

 

Brother, you are a sentimental fool.

 

CHARLES

 

I know. And I know something else, too.

 

EDWARD

 

What’s that?

 

CHARLES

 

That I was never Mother and Father’s favorite. You were, Edward. You were.

 

 

* My mother came up with this opening line for a short story decades ago, but no story ever presented itself to her. I asked her to let me see what I could do with it. 

 

 

Hiroshima, Dec 1945. Alfred Eisenstaedt. (Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

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