Spotlight Excerpt from ‘Urban Guerrillas’
This novel excerpt was written by Annabelle Larsen in Lynn Steger Strong’s 12-Month Novel Generator
Decades-old trauma unravels when Rebecca Hagen is tasked with her father’s burial.
1972, in the wake of their parents’ divorce, nine-year-old Bex and her teenage sister Phoebe are haphazardly relocated to Berkeley, California, where, amidst the chaos of 1970s counterculture and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, their haunted mother abandons them to fend for themselves .
I donated Dad to the body farm the day Patty Hearst won Westminster.
Patty named her pedigree dog Rocket, which made me leery. Maybe she had whiffed rumors from long ago surrounding the wolfish Telegraph girls who edged for night shelter, and this was Patty’s way to reach back, naming her dog after the girls . . . and Phoebe.
The hospice workers asked me to come up with a burial plan, but I told them I was going a different route by donating to science, leaving out the mention of body farms and forensic students studying bloat. Plus, the farm was free, and I was broke.
The donation packet I filled out stated: “Remains of the deceased are to be held in permanent curation.”
I’ve always associated curation with works of art, so to imagine my dad’s skin draping off a tree limb, a curator standing with one finger pressed to her lips, saying, No, something’s not quite right . . . let’s move him over a tad next to the Beardsley, just for fun, really clinched the deal for me.
Curation was misrepresented. Caretakers of bones caring for, but not about. His body abandoned to the elements where decomp would do its work slap down in Little Egypt, Illinois. Far enough away from where we used to live on three acres spiked with bluestem and switchgrass, punched against forked tributaries. The forkedness, the rivulets, the separations, reminded me of Phoebe’s corduroy road tongue.
If you really thought about things, permanence wasn’t an option here. Buzzards of forensic students will hover over Dad’s body in order to better understand the nature of decay. The earth doesn’t mind itself with death; its job is to efface and renew. I didn’t bother with any post-mortem fantasy Dad might have had: Enshrine me in a marble mausoleum, stick me in one of them velvet-lined caskets, why don’tcha invite all the house painters who worked on the developments. He would want the religious ceremony, the priests, the crowd. Now insect priests would preside. His brittle body might have enough blood inside that the earth will have a good drink.
Still, to be held , to be cared for permanently seemed . . . unattainable.
Permanence was never an option for Phoebe and me.
Before they whisked Dad away, I had to wait for Tammy, the Jackson County deputy coroner, to arrive. The hospice nurse opened a few windows in his room. Snowy rain had saturated the grounds outside. A stab of cold air moved through my bones. Every new year, Ma, no matter what weather or where we lived, opened all windows and doors to let the devil out, or as she pronounced it, divil , the ghost of a brogue passed down from her mother.
“What kind of music did your dad like? Did he have a favorite song?” the nurse asked with her best sad smile. I thought at first this was a joke, but when I realized she was really waiting for me to answer, I had to stop myself from laughing. I wished Phoebe had been with me because she would have no problem coming up with a droll comment to rock her back.
“We like to give the patients in our care a good send off when they leave us,” the nurse said, filling up the silence that sat between us.
I had to bite the inside of my cheek not to answer Highway to Hell.
“My dad was a country music fan, so I always think of Patsy Cline for him,” she said, egging me on. Standing before me in her flowery scrubs and white hole-riddled Crocs, I knew this woman believed in normal fathers and couldn’t fathom the notion I didn’t have the same.
“How about, When the Saints Go Marching In ?”
“Great choice!” she said, squishing out the door.
Tammy the coroner arrived all business, informing me she would photograph my father’s body and I could wait outside if I wanted.
“Is there any bruising?” she asked.
I didn’t leave. Instead, I lifted the sheet, uncovering his bare legs. Blotches of purpled bruises peppered the shins. His yellowed toenails were thick and crusted over like shells. Never clipped. There was something prehistoric about the feet, as if he had walked the earth without any shoes. I sucked in cold air. “Look at his feet! No wonder he fell. I’d break my neck too if I had nails like that.”
Tammy stiffened and looked at me hard. I realized a beat too late that I sounded odd, and she was sizing me up before she left, handing me her card. For decades, I’ve made a practice out of not calling attention to myself. I attempt the delicate balance of hiddenness while not appearing shadowy. I take drifting jobs where I’m ignored, like housecleaning or housesitting. Jobs where people pay cash and don’t even remember me. I am rootless, drifting weightless with the day. I tell myself my invisibility is for Phoebe’s sake and truth be told, some of it is for my own as well.
But I trip up sometimes.
When she was older, Ma performed the ritual of calling the social security office every few months to find out if Dad had died. She did this because she believed if he had, she was then entitled to a percentage of his money. Cleaning out her HUD apartment in Florida, I found written in a ravaged palm-sized address book with a peacock on the cover, and on multiple paper scraps in various states of moth and rust, his social security number. She’d write his number down telling me to make sure I knew it. “ Check and see if the sonofabitch is dead yet ,” she’d say.
Once it became easy to find people via the internet, I looked him up. On Google Maps I was able to virtually see the outside of his house. He was still living in the suburbs of Illinois in a huge two-story house with a welcoming porch on what seemed a pleasant street. The surroundings were well taken care of. Studying the photograph, I felt the murderous race of my heart and closed my laptop.
Only a year after my initial investigation, my orphan cousin Mitch called to tell me that my dad was living near him but in a trailer park. I laughed, thinking he was joking because I had remembered the well-heeled house I viewed online.
“It’s not bad. Not like how you’d think of trailers, you know, on wheels, it’s in a community and it looks like a kind of normal house. They have them built on a foundation. They call them manufactured homes now,” he said.