October 21, 2007

I Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust


When my cat Guy died five or six years back, I had him cremated. His ashes now sit on my mantle, and I’m glad to have them. So when my other cat died recently, there was no question that I’d show her the same respect.

      The vet offered two choices—I could pay for mass cremation, in which case the ashes would be mixed with those of a dozen or more other animals, then cast to the four winds. Or, for an extra hundred fifty dollars or so, I could pay for individual cremation, after which her ashes would be returned to me in a small metal tin.

      Now, that choice has always confused me. Why in the hell would I pay for a mass cremation, only to have the ashes thrown away afterward, when that’s exactly what would happen if I didn’t pay anything?

      It was an academic question. I wanted her ashes back, so I paid what they asked with no question or hesitation. When they took her body away, they told me the ashes would be back in about two weeks.

      When it came to picking up the ashes, however, the troubles began. There’s always something when it comes to picking up ashes. When Guy died, as Morgan and I were leaving the vet’s office after picking up his ashes, we ran into someone I used to work with. We hadn’t seen him in awhile. The timing couldn’t have been worse.

      He’d always been a little hyperactive, a little self-absorbed, maybe even a borderline sociopath. When he asked us what was up, I explained “Well, uhh, see, we just picked up my cat’s ashes . . . ” I held up the plastic bag in which Guy’s earthly remains rested. “He died recently, so, you know, things are kind of rough at this particular moment.”

      “Oh,” he said, his eyes darting to the bag for just an instant. “So anyway, what’s going on at the paper?”

      We began walking down the sidewalk and he tagged along, talking a mile a minute about office politics. I wasn’t exactly in the mood—though later Morgan and I came to recognize what an absurd and funny scene it was.

      Things in their own way were worse this time.

      Two weeks came and went, and I heard nothing from the vet. That was no big deal. They’d said “about” two weeks, so I waited another week or so. When I still hadn’t heard anything by then, I picked up the phone.

      “Hi, uhh . . . “ I said, “I was just wondering if my cat’s ashes have come back yet.”

      The receptionist took my information, pulled up my file, then put me on hold while she went to look for the ashes. In between the soothing encouragements to “stay on the line” because my business “was very important to them,” they were playing Mozart. Then they switched over to John Tesh. Time slowed considerably.

      Twenty minutes later, another woman picked up the phone, and told me that it would just be a few more minutes. The first woman, she explained, was presently on the phone with the crematorium.

      On the phone with the crematorium? That’s never something you want to hear when you’re trying to retrieve some ashes. Before I could say anything, she put me on hold again.

      At this point, I was beginning to get an inkling that something was not as it should be. It was just an inkling, though. I was confident that everything would be fine by the time I hung up the phone.

      I continued to wait. The hold music didn’t get any better. Fifteen minutes later, the second woman picked up the phone again.

      “Yeah, sorry for the wait,” she said. “It’s looking like this might take awhile. It’d probably be better if you hung up the phone. She’ll call you back as soon as she can.”

      That sounded even worse.

      The moment I put the phone down, I knew what had happened. In fact, I knew half a dozen things that had happened, and they were all terrible.

      Someone had lost the ashes. Someone had lost my cat. She’d been sent to a landfill instead of a crematorium. She’d been put on the “mass burning” pile by accident.

      In any case, that she had been lost in one way or another was obvious.

      I shouldn’t have been surprised; this vet had gotten too big, too careless, too sloppy. I’d had some serious problems there a few months ago when the doctor who was examining my cat let her run off the side of the examination table. She hit a metal chair on her way to the floor, which cost her a few teeth. When that happened I’d written a letter and met with the chief vet there.

      After that I suddenly had trouble filling my cat’s prescriptions. There were other, similar problems, too. Perhaps losing her ashes was their final revenge for the fact that I’d made a few waves.

      Not being the litigious type, I began plotting my revenge.

      Then I thought of something. Would they actually tell me that they had fucked up, and that she was gone? That would be really stupid on their part. They’re dealing with a crematorium that obviously disposes of lots of unwanted pets—it would be awfully simple to pull the old switcheroo, and slip me some other ashes, telling me they were hers. To a certain degree, ashes of the departed are just a symbol, anyway, like the Eucharist. It wouldn’t really matter if they were hers or not, so long as I accepted that they were. I could imagine the receptionist on the phone with the guy at the crematorium, realizing what had happened and arranging the cover up.

      Things got trickier at that point. If they did tell me that she had been lost or misplaced instead of passing me phony ashes, was that admirable honesty, or was that intentional cruelty? And if I wasn’t sure, what was the proper response?

      The receptionist called later that afternoon, and explained that the crematorium had been extremely busy of late, and that my cat’s ashes should be arriving within the next two days.

      She sounded sincere, and I had no real choice but to accept her explanation. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I would’ve reacted if she’d told me the ashes were gone.

      Two days passed. I heard nothing. Even though the receptionist had been very specific this time, I still waited another two days before calling.

      Again a receptionist took my information, pulled up my file, and put me on hold. This time I didn’t notice the music. I waited for ten minutes, smoking furiously, before she came back on the line.

      “No, I’m sorry,” she said. “I looked through all the ashes we have here, and she’s not there. I guess she hasn’t showed up yet. Sometime today, I’ll give a call over to the crematorium . . . ”

      I heard nothing for the next week, so I called again. This time I was told that they had finally come in. I still don’t know—and I’ll never know for sure—if they’re actually her ashes or not, but you know, I’m going to accept them as such. What choice do I have?


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