Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Uncle Shorty's Self-Rising Ashes

Uncle Shorty's Self-Rising Ashes

Some honcho from Uncle Shorty's lodge in St. Petersburg got up next to speak that day at his sendoff. He was right after another guy from the Sons of Norway who was right after another guy from the power squadron, each of them performing a special, mysterious ritual around the casket before they spoke. We were all sitting in the front couple rows because we were family and liked the old boy.

"Brethren," he said, "the roll of the workmen has been called, and one, Charles 'Shorty' Watkins, has not answered to his name. He has put down the tools of the craft and he has left that mortal part for which he no longer has use."

Uncle Shorty's mortal part. It looked like a stand-up double bass except for his feet which the gout swelled up pretty bad so it looked like he had no toes. He played a double bass for years and years in Norwegian bands in Brooklyn before he came here to Florida. It's funny how people start to look like their pets, their spouses, and their musical instruments.

His mortal part liked seafood too. Crabs, lobster, any part of the fish, he'd do something with it. Take lobster, for example. He'd crack the claws with his own teeth instead of using a metal claw cracker. That always impressed me. The skinny legs on a lobster? He'd break them apart, chew on them like beef jerky, and sip the drippings out them just like his mortal part did when he started every day with a sip of Bourbon instead of orange juice. "To get the tickle out of my throat," he said.

His mortal part liked his Bourbon, but his mortal part didn't like kidney dialysis three times a week, or being hooked up to a bird's nest of tubes and monitors, blinking like Christmas lights. So his mortal part stopped eating one day, hospital drippings is more like it, and yanked out the IV's and catheters. That's when Aunt Emma found him, staring fish eyed, at the ceiling.

"Shorty's work here below taught him to divert his heart and conscience from the vices and superfluities of life, thereby sculpting his mind into a living stone for that house above, the one not made with hands. With confidence and expectation of immortality, Charles 'Shorty' Watkins has sought entry to the Celestial Lodge above," he said, looking out at all of us in the chapel.

The part about the hands. Uncle Shorty was darn good with his hands too. Besides, playing the double bass and the violin, early on, he was a boxer. A Golden Gloves boxer. Aunt Emma had a picture of him in the den in his boxer shorts. Real boxer shorts, the kind without the funny designs on them. He had his gloves on like he was getting ready to lay into someone too. He did that until he got knocked out by some Swede. Broke his nose so bad that the only thing it was good for after that was to entertain us at family reunions. That must have been when he started trying to sculpt his mind into a living stone for the Celestial Lodge above. Or, if not his mind, at least his nose.

Of course, I didn't believe the nonsense about the superfluities of life. That's really the only time I saw Uncle Shorty, during one of those so-called superfluities of life like a family reunion. Or when he dressed up like a Grand Mifta with his lodge buddies in a fez, one of those hats that looked like a dunce's cone with the top leveled off, and they drove their miniature cars in figure eights in the Gasparilla parade over in Tampa. Pirates, drunks, balloons, fezzes doing figure eights. I'm guessing the Celestial Lodge might have a code violation or two for any room Uncle Shorty helped build.

Then he looked down in the book he was reading from and got real serious.

"There is no death. What seems so is transition. All that is beautiful, good and true in human life is no more affected by the shadow of death than by the darkness that divides today from tomorrow, or the beach sand by the coming and going of the tides."

You know, they always have to throw that business in about there being no death. Why not? Uncle Shorty wasn't listening. He could care less now. It was for all us sitting there, grieving about the old boy, hoping he was another Houdini in his casket, and could contort and wiggle his way out of it. But like I said, he was built like a stand-up double bass, so I doubted he could do that. He was not even close to being like Tony Curtis in the old Houdini movie. He was down for the count, TKO, knock out, whatever you wanted to call it, Uncle Shorty was history.

The guy from the lodge said a few other things then took a branch and placed it in Uncle Shorty's hands. A simple branch. It wasn't as fancy and as colorful as all the flowers in vases and on tripods to his right and left. Nope. And mostly sent by his friends who didn't come because they didn't like stuff like this. They didn't want to be reminded that all of us had this on our itinerary. The red, white and aqua-colored flowers were all camouflage for this destination we all had in common, whether you believed this place was just another Florida tourist trap like Chief Billy Bow-legs Gator Farm where he wrestled sleepy, drugged gators, or if this place was like the Dallas International Airport with the people mover, the long conveyor belt, that moved you to a connecting flight, way on the other side of the airport.

It was a sprig of evergreen that he put in Uncle Shorty's hands. He patted his hands too. A simple pat. Not any secret handshake like in the Flintstones when Fred and Barney went to the lodge and had to touch their elbows and noses, recite a code word, before shaking hands with the sergeant of arms at the door. A simple pat on his hands that had plucked the strings on his double bass for years and had successfully boxed everyone except the Swede. Uncle Shorty was on his way to the Celestial Lodge.

"The evergreen is a symbol of our faith in the immortality of the soul and reminds us that we have an immortal part within us which shall survive the cold blast of death and, spring into newness of life in realms beyond the grave, and shall never, never be extinguished."

When he finished, that's when he gave the real high sign to Uncle Shorty like one of those guys on the tarmac who give an arcane signal to the captain right before takeoff. Then he took his seat with the other commanders and potentates of the lodge.

That was the last time I saw Uncle Shorty, his mortal part anyway. They closed up the casket, one that Aunt Emma rented for the service. It was a used one because he was being cremated, and that's how I got involved knee-deep in the whole mess because Uncle Shorty was downsized to a small box and in the small box was a plastic bag full of his ashes. I promised her that we'd spread his ashes in the Gulf of Mexico out by Egmont Key. By we, I meant my brother, Blair, and a buddy of ours, a fishing captain, Lance Howard, known locally for tarpon and grouper fishing.

No problem except that it was the year that all the hurricanes crisscrossed the state, and because Aunt Emma lived on a canal off the inter-coastal waterway, Blair and I sandbagged her house with anything and everything we could get our hands on, including a couple of kids in the neighborhood. We paid them to help us fill sand bags and one of them picked up a plastic bag Aunt Emma kept near the fireplace, thinking it ashes cleaned out of the fireplace from last year's cold snap. Well, it wasn't. It was Uncle Shorty's ashes and the kid couldn't remember which sandbag he dumped them in, not that it mattered at that point.

"What?" I couldn't believe it.

Blair looked over at me.

"You better hope, Hurricane Charley, keeps straight right over us from Cuba and washes everything away, or you're going to have some explaining to do to Aunt Emma," he said.

I'm not a meteorologist or anything, but I had never seen a hurricane go in a straight line, or a chicken for that matter, all the time I've lived in Florida. It didn't seem this time it should be any different.

"We need to do something before she gets back here with her hurricane supplies," I said.

She had left an hour before nervous about the hurricane on the way.


First thing we did was run those neighborhood kids off that caused the problem.

"Go home and play your video games," I said.

They skulked off but not until I gave them each a ten dollar bill to keep them from putting sugar in our gas tanks or something before the hurricane.

"Follow me," I said to Blair.

"Okay, Rod. But come up with something quick because here comes Aunt Emma."

He pointed down the road towards Gulf Boulevard and there was the black, Lincoln Town Car she drove, making a left turn uncomfortably close to sideswiping a pelican-themed mailbox on the right side of the road.

"Shit. Let's go."

We crossed the yard that years before Uncle Shorty had replaced with pebbles and rocks and a few cacti, here and there. At the same time he had the house coated with this sparkly stuff that reflected sunlight like sequins. Kinda like what you'd imagine the Celestial Lodge to look like.

"In here," I said, walking through the garage to the kitchen. "Find one of those plastic storage bags, the same size, that she puts her leftover meat-loaf in."

While Blair opened cupboard doors over by the double oven and scouted for plastic bags, I flipped open the ones straddling the twin sinks and searched for a substitute, an Uncle Shorty-lite ingredient somewhere on the shelves.

"Here they are," Blair said, locating the box of large storage bags. "Now what?"

"This," I said, pulling down two boxes from the cupboard just as the Lincoln Town Car swung into a pre-existing trench Aunt Emma had ground into the front yard of pebbles.

Blair turned in the direction of the crunching pebbles.

"She missed the driveway again."

"Keep that bag open or I'm going to miss too," I said.

"You're crazy," Blair said when he saw the two boxes I had.

"Uncle Shorty liked both of these," I said.

I lifted the box of buckwheat pancake mix into the air and poured the light cocoa colored granules into the plastic bag. Likewise with the box of biscuit mix, a combination of white flour and cornmeal. Self-rising flour too. That's what the box said. I poured equal amounts of both into the bag then Blair sealed it across the top.

"She's gonna figure it out," Blair said, looking at the two piles of different colored flour.

"Shake it but don't bake it," I said.

He grabbed the top of the bag on the corners and shook it until it had the same complexion as Uncle Shorty's original bag of ashes. It was hard to tell the difference.

Hurricane Charley missed us on a direct hit but some of the feeder bands stirred things up bad enough. Aunt Emma lost a couple sand bags from the rain and from the flooding that occurred. Was Uncle Shorty's ashes in one of those bags? I don't know, but the leftover sand we spread on one of the neighbor's yard that needed some topsoil. Did Uncle Shorty's real ashes make it to the Gulf of Mexico? Depending on which bag the kid dropped his ashes in, I'd say yes. Sooner or later everything gets washed into the Gulf even if gets spread on someone's yard first.

For Uncle Shorty's self-rising buckwheat, flour, and cornmeal ashes it was up to Captain Lance Howard, fishing guide and notary public, to ferry us out beyond Egmont Key in his fishing boat, No Wake Zone. It was sort of a modified skiff design with a wide beam, flat bottom, and a pilot house in the bow, big enough for Lance, who tipped the scales at about three hundred and fifty pounds and, despite his boat's name, he created a wake zone wherever he wanted.

"Permission to come aboard, Captain," I said alongside his boat docked at Gulfport marina.

"Granted," he mumbled from the pilot house.

It sounded like he had just woken up. Probably slept on the boat the night before from the looks of him. Wrinkled Hawaiian shirt, baseball hat, sunglasses, short pants, sandals, empty beer cans and fishing tackle strewn about. Soon after that we were plowing out towards the pink sand castle, the Don Cesar, at the other end of Boca Ciega Bay. Lance was in the pilot house steering Blair, Aunt Emma, myself, and the box containing Uncle Shorty's self-rising ashes to the final destination out by Egmont Key, out where the tarpon rolled close to the surface except when they were dodging sharks, until we were flagged down by a stranded sailboat near the channel leading to the Gulf. Lance cut back the engine and slid in parallel to the mired sailboat.

"Can you pull us off?" someone from the sailboat called over to us.

It was low tide, and they must not have been paying attention like a lot of people do, and had run the keel into one of shallow bars close to the channel.

"We can't wait for high tide and we don't want to pay for one of those," the man said, pointing to a towboat lurking on the other side of the channel.

The spot was a favorite fishing hole for towboat operators. One was anchored there, waiting for exactly this: an unsuspecting boat to run aground.

"You mind if I pull this guy off?" Lance asked us.

I looked at Aunt Emma who straddled the box containing Uncle Shorty's self-rising ashes.

"It'll save this guy about three or four hundred dollars," Lance added.

It was a beautiful, balmy day compared to what Hurricane Charley had thrown our way a few weeks before. Aunt Emma, solemn and thoughtful, appeared in no hurry to relinquish the concoction Blair and I had mixed up in her kitchen and zipped up in the plastic bag.

"Shorty would have done the same thing," she said, giving her permission to Lance to detour our funeral procession, pull the sailboat off the sandbar, and in the process, we added a boat to the funeral entourage.

"This one's for Shorty!" the crew on the sailboat yelled to us.

They raised their glasses of wine once they got under way again.

"Follow us," Lance said, pointing No Wake Zone towards the bridge where several other sailboats and large cruisers waited for the bridge tender to let them pass.

For some reason, it kind of reminded me of the words spoken at Uncle Shorty's funeral about him being on his way to the Celestial Lodge.

The celebration on the sailboat continued.

"Shorty! Shorty!" they shouted as we approached the bridge.

They were loud enough to attract the attention of all the other occupants in the sailboats, powerboats, and jet-skis. The procession continued. Behind us, what started as a single boat funeral turned into a large, floating, open-air party. By the time we passed Pass-A-Grille Point and dipped into the Gulf there were thirty boats in the flotilla just like they do at Christmas time in these parts. Lance turned around, pulled his sunglasses off and cleaned them as if doing so would change what he saw. When it didn't, he shrugged his shoulders and grinned.

©Tom Fillion 2008

Author: Tom Fillion

Tom is a graduate of the University of South Florida. He teaches mathematics and coach golf and tennis at a Tampa public high school. His short stories have appeared in Ramble Underground, Hamilton Stone Review, Cautionary Tale, Word Catalyst, Decomp Literary magazine, Storyglossia, Tonapah Review, Shelf Life Magazine, Word Riot, and The Scrambler.
His website is:

Uncle Shorty's Self-Rising Ashes was first published at Word Catalyst Magazine -They also published Gasparilla

A few more stories of Tom's to check out:

What She Was Here About, is at: