Excerpt from The End of Me by John Gould

“Dreams of Love” is the first story in John Gould’s new collection of sudden stories, The End of Me.

“Dreams of Love”

As soon as the funeral director, Lawrence-call-me-Larry, stepped out of his office, the phone began to ring. Renée, who sat with her brother’s cremated remains on her lap, glanced over at her sister Chris, who glanced back. They were both having the same thought, which was that Zack, if he still existed, would have picked up the phone. What would he have said?

“Remember?” said Renée.

Chris nodded. She was thinking of the time, back when they were kids, Zack called a random number and convinced the woman who answered that Jesus had returned and needed someplace to crash. The woman offered up her guest room, which Zack declined because it was in the basement and, as the woman confessed, “not airy,” a phrase which became code amongst the three of them for anything that disappointed. Renée, on the other hand, was thinking of the time Zack took a call from a telemarketer and set about converting him to Eckankar, a religion he’d just read about in line at the grocery store, actually getting the guy to close his eyes and guide his soul back towards its source. If either of the sisters had known they were recalling different (though thematically related) incidents, it would have made them even bluer than they already were.

The phone stopped ringing. Renée hefted the box in her lap. The box was actually a birdhouse Zack had built during his carpentry phase, the little round door sealed off now to prevent his ashes spilling out. Some weeks ago the women had lined up babysitters and spent an afternoon searching for the perfect container, lugging with them a bag of orzo to stand in for Zack’s remains. Research had helped them estimate him at twelve cups — he was alive and on a modest upswing at the time — though this proved generous. They chipped in on three different vessels that day, none of them quite right. Back at Chris’s place they shared a bottle of Malbec and gazed out on her tiny backyard, where the birdhouse hung unoccupied, between families. Between families — that was Zack’s condition too, since he’d left their family, his first one, and never settled into a second.

Lawrence-call-me-Larry popped his head back into the office. “Sorry, bit of trouble with the printer.” He required the women to sign a waiver confirming that it wasn’t the funeral home’s responsibility if Zack’s ashes escaped the nonstandard receptacle into which he’d just placed them. It was in search of this paperwork that he’d set out. At his reappearance, Renée and Chris shared a glance which said, Weird how robust this guy is, how animated, when what he deals with all day is dead people. Or maybe not so weird.

“No worries,” said Renée.

Lawrence-call-me-Larry disappeared again. Almost instantly the phone resumed ringing. The sisters exchanged another glance.

“You,” said Chris.

“You,” said Renée.

“Acme Morgue here,” said Chris. “You stab ’em, we slab ’em.”

“You kill ’em, we chill ’em.”

“You ghost ’em, we roast ’em.”

With this, the women ran out of lines recollected from the days they’d all three still lived at home, and Zack had amused himself goading his little sisters into mischief. Chris went back to wondering how to work the phrase “not airy” into her part of the eulogy in such a way as to convey its special meaning without having to recite the whole story. Renée went back to wondering why the eulogy and indeed all these arrangements had been left to the two of them, their parents having gone useless in the aftermath of Zack’s death. How was one to judge or even comprehend another’s grief?

The phone continued to ring. Its ringtone was a horribly synthesized version of the famous somber bit from Franz Liszt’s Liebesträum, a title either of them could have produced but which only Zack, if he were present, could have translated from the German as Dreams of Love.

Both women reached a decision at the same moment. Chris was closer to the phone, so she was the one who snatched it up. “Hello?” she said. Anticlimactic, but a start, she figured. The thing was to take action, just as Zack would have done, trusting inspiration to arise from the moment.

Dial tone — the caller had hung up. “Yes, that’s right,” Chris said into the phone. “How can we help you in your time of
need?” She made a what-have-I-got-myself-into face at Renée.

Renée made a you-go-girl face back.

“Yes, of course,” said Chris into the phone, “we’ll come right away and collect . . . Albert, is it? We would like you to consider, though, that Albert may already be elsewhere. Or nowhere. That is to say, what we collect may not be Albert.”

Renée raised her eyebrows, wow. She also raised the birdhouse, briefly, and set it back down again.

Chris shrugged. “But Jesus,” she said, “and the Buddha and so on, aren’t they all saying the same thing, way down deep?” She paused and listened intently. “No, deeper than that.” She paused again. “Deeper.” Another pause. “Well, that nothing is the nothing of the nothing.”

She grimaced at Renée, who gave her a thumbs up.

“Uh-huh,” said Chris into the phone. “Uh-huh . . . Well, that’s a great question. And there are a lot of other great questions too. Such as . . .” She flashed Renée a panicky look.

Renée whispered, “Who’s a good dog?”

“Who’s a good dog?” said Chris into the phone.

“Are we there yet?”

“Are we there yet?”

“Do you know the muffin man?”

“Do you know the muffin man?”

No question, Zack was there in the room with them, present in what passed between his sisters. He was also absent, of course, and in this way too he was present. This was precisely his style, after all, to get himself strung out between two true things that couldn’t both be.

Renée whispered, “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?”

“What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” said Chris into the phone.

Renée reached out her hand.

Chris took it.

“Who knew?”

“Who knew?”

“Dreams of Love” from The End of Me by John Gould, ©2020, published by Freehand Books.

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