North to Alaska, Part 1: Fiction Friday

It is difficult to fasten an urn with a seatbelt.

The shoulder strap sits too high above the urn, not touching it at all, and the lap belt goes across the urn too close to its base. Held in only at its very bottom, the urn has a propensity to fall forward, over the lap belt, when the car makes a stop – even if it’s not a very sudden one. The trick, John had learned, is to pull the shoulder strap until it has a fair amount of slack, then loop the center of it around the top of the urn, allowing it to tighten on itself. Secure at both the bottom and the top, the urn is far less likely to spill.

Of course, this system is not perfect. A pothole in the highway near Yellow Station caused such sudden vertical jerk in the car as to nearly throw the urn aloft, an event which was only barely prevented by John, his arm outstretched, pushing down on the urn with his right hand, stopping its upward momentum. Then there was the incident outside of Banff. For nearly thirty miles, John had been driving the car with the urn in the passenger seat unbuckled. Cruising along, listening to “Cherry, Cherry” by Neil Diamond, he had turned his road-bound eyes to the right for a moment, then turned them back ahead. It took John a few moments to realize that something was wrong with what he had just seen, and it took him a few moments more to realize that what was wrong was that he’d forgotten to buckle the urn. He exclaimed “Shit!” and his surprise nearly caused him to slam on the breaks, which would of course have been the worst thing that he could have done. The urn would have been launched forward, and Uncle Murph would have spilled forth in a dusty cloud, coating the passenger seat and the glove box. Thankfully, though, John kept his composure after the initial shock; slowing down at a reasonable pace, right hand pressing the urn backwards into the seat, he pulled off onto the shoulder, popped his hazard lights on, and buckled the urn back in.

Perhaps some context is needed.


John Densford was a lawyer of thirty-three. He was a corporate lawyer, and worked for the venerable firm of Grayson, Grayson, Walters and Mudd. Grayson, Grayson, Walters and Mudd (or GGWM for short) assisted in the organization of hundreds of leveraged buyouts, splits, mergers, and capital restructurings over the past several decades; it was one of the go-to firms for many executives on Wall Street. Its employees were very good at their jobs, and were paid well. John, a cum laude graduate of Columbia Law School, was making half a million after only a few years at the firm. The atmosphere at GGWM was a sober one – people were diligent and precise in their tasks. Of course, this is not to say employees of GGWM had no fun; every Thursday night, for instance, John and his work friends would head to a local bar called The Porterhouse. They would drink beer and vodka and martinis, tell off-color jokes, and talk shit about other law firms. John, being a good-looking, sharp-eyed, brown-haired bachelor, had taken quite a few women home from The Porterhouse. He had also kicked quite a few women out of his Manhattan apartment at 7:00 in the morning so he could get ready for work undisturbed. Yes, John knew how to have a good time; but work was for work, and he appreciated that.

John liked working in a place where people took their jobs very seriously. He liked working in a place where people wore nice, expensive suits and got haircuts every two weeks. He liked working in a place where people always gave firm handshakes, and looked you in the eye, and had degrees from Ivy League universities, and knew which spoon was for dessert and which was for soup, and wore black shoes shiny enough to see your handsome reflection in them.

Many lawyers at GGWM flew across the country on a nearly weekly basis, shuffling from corporate headquarters to corporate headquarters in order to meet with clients. John, however, had secured a position as Coordinator of Legal Affairs for New York City. This position required no travel. John very much appreciated this aspect of his job; he liked Manhattan and enjoyed staying put. Often, the farthest trip he’d take in any given year was to his parents’ home in Connecticut for Christmas. Exhausted by the three hour drive, John would usually conk out on his parents’ leather couch in the living room. Traveling long distances also tended to give John headaches. He’d rarely leave the tri-state area when he could help it, which was most of the time.


John was standing out on his balcony one damp July night not very long ago. Though he had lived in New York for over a decade now, he was still surprised by the bustle its streets could produce at three in the morning. From the eighteenth floor, the city’s cars and taxis looked like little robotic insectasoids. They inched and scooted here and there, flashing their headlights and beeping in vain at nothing in particular. John’s phone rang obnoxiously from the kitchen, interrupting the other obnoxious noises coming from below. Baffled at the hour of the call, John picked up the phone, and was greeted by the sound of somebody blowing her nose. It was not a dry blow of the nose either, but a very, very wet one. “What the hell – ”, John began, but was cut off by his Mother’s sobbing voice, “Johnny? Are you there?” Only John’s mother called him Johnny.

“Ma? Yes Ma, I’m here. Jesus, calm down. What’s the matter?”

John’s mother composed herself a bit, but could still be heard giving sobs between words, “It’s your uncle Murph, Johnny. Your uncle Murph had a – had a heart attack last night, a big one. Marsha tried to get him to the hospital as fast as she could, but – but, by the time she got there… it was too late for the doctors to do anything. They tried to zap him with those paddles, but it didn’t work. Murph is dead Johnny.”

“Oh my God, Ma, that’s terrible. Jesus, a heart attack! I’m so sorry to hear that.”

John wasn’t actually devastated by this news. Of course, he wasn’t happy to hear that Murph died, but John and Murph were never particularly close.

Uncle Murph was John’s mother’s older brother. He was a very smart man, and well-educated. Murph, in John’s opinion, though, had done little to fulfill his potential. After traveling the country for a few years after college, Murph had started an apple orchard in northern Vermont. There, he met his wife, Marsha, who was a first grade teacher at the local elementary school. Both Marsha and Murph were free spirited, liberal minded individuals who loved nature and small town life. When John was younger, his parents would occasionally take him up to Aunt Marsha and Uncle Murph’s apple orchard. Uncle Murph would smile as he welcomed them in, and would tussle John’s hair with a massive, dirt-covered hand. Aunt Marsha would have John taste an exotic tea or some strange-sounding fruit. Murph would try to get John to make a dream-catcher with him, or would tell John a story where all the characters were animals. John did not really like visiting with Aunt Marsha and Uncle Murph.

Although his mother was very close to Murph, John had had little contact with him since childhood. John rarely had the urge to hear someone talk about sparrows’ songs or chakras or why marijuana should be legalized. As such, he rarely talked to Murph. Plus, whenever John did talk to Murph, Murph had mentioned wanting to go on a long road-trip with him. John very much did not want this to happen, so he avoided the subject by avoiding Murph altogether. This phone call about his death, in fact, was the first time John had thought about uncle Murph in quite some time.

“That’s so terrible Ma, I was just thinking about Murph this morning. God, gone without any warning. How are you holding up Ma? Do you want me to drive out to New Haven?”

“No, no” his mother sniffed, “You don’t have to do that. But – but the funeral will probably be this Friday, in Derby.”

Had this been the only tragic event to happen to his mother recently, John might not have been as consoling as he was. However, only three years ago, John’s father, after thirty-five years of marriage to his mother, had suddenly passed. John remembered crying after he had heard the news – something he hadn’t done for years at the time. His mother, of course, was shattered. And now this. John talked with his mother for nearly thirty minutes (which was a long time for him – he rarely had lengthy phone calls, unless of course the person on the receiving end was being billed $400 an hour). He tried his best to console her and tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to say nice things about Uncle Murph. John was relieved when he finally hung up the phone, but then the inconvenient reality of the situation moved to the forefront of his mind. John thought, with dread, about the drive up to Derby. Derby was a small town in northern Vermont. It was right between Nowheresville and Bumfuck. Even speeding, it would take John at least seven hours to get there. John whispered to himself, “Goddammit, Murph.”

To be continued next week…

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