A Simple Plan
by Scott Smith
Copyright (c) 1993 by Scott B. Smith, Inc.
FOR MY PARENTS,
WITH SPECIAL THANKS TO ALICE QUINN,
GAIL HOCHMAN, VICTORIA WILSON,
AND ELIZABETH HILL
No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only
mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.
-- MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT
MY PARENTS died in an automobile accident the year after I was married. They tried to enter I-75 through an exit ramp one Saturday night and crashed head-on into a semi hauling cattle. My father was killed instantly in the wreck, decapitated by the hood of his car, but my mother, miraculously, survived. She lived for a day and a half more, hooked up to machines in the Delphia Municipal Hospital, her neck and back broken, her heart leaking blood into her chest.
The semi driver came through it all with only a few minor bruises. His truck had caught fire, though, barbecuing the cattle, and after my mother died he sued my parents' estate for damages. He won the suit but got no material satisfaction from it: my father had mortgaged his farm to the hilt and was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy when he died.
My wife Sarah's pet theory was that he'd committed suicide, driven to it by the embarrassing proliferation of his debts. I argued with her at the time, though not very wholeheartedly. In hindsight, you see, it seems that he may've made certain preparations. A week before the accident, he came by my house in his pickup, its truck bed packed with furniture. Sarah and I had no use for any of it, but he was insistent, threatening to head straight for the dump if we didn't accept the entire load, so I helped him carry it, piece by piece, down to the basement. After he left us, he drove over to my brother Jacob's apartment and gave him the pickup.
There was also his will, the first clause of which was an injunction upon Jacob and me that we swear orally, in each other's presence, to visit his grave every year, without fail, on his birthday. It continued from there, a bizarrely elaborate document, pages and pages, going through the old farmhouse room by room, bequeathing each object to us by name, no matter how trivial or inconsequential -- a shaving kit, a broom, and an old Bible for Jacob; a broken blender, a pair of work boots, and a black stone paperweight in the shape of a crow for me. It was pointless, of course, wasted effort. We had to sell everything of any value to pay the debts he'd left behind, and the things of no value we had no use for. We had to sell the farm, too, our boyhood home. A neighbor bought it, grafting it to his own land, absorbing it like a giant amoeba. He knocked down the house, filled in the basement, and planted a soybean field on the lot.
My brother and I had never been close, not even as children, and the gap between us only grew wider as we got older. By the time of the accident, we had very little except our parents left in common, and their sudden deaths eased whatever weight this might've normally held.
Jacob, older than I by three years, had dropped out of high school and lived alone in a small apartment above the hardware store in Ashenville, the town in which we were raised, a tiny crossroads marked with a flashing yellow light, as rural as rural gets in northern Ohio. He worked on a construction crew in the summer and survived off unemployment benefits through the winter.
I'd gone to college, the first in my family to do so, graduating from the University of Toledo with a bachelor's degree in business administration. I'd married Sarah, a classmate of mine, and moved to Delphia, thirty miles east of Ashenville, just outside of Toledo. There we bought a three-bedroom, unabashedly suburban house -- dark green aluminum siding and black shutters, a two-car garage, cable TV, a microwave, the Toledo
There was no animosity between Jacob and me, no bad blood, we simply weren't comfortable around each other, had difficulty finding things to say, and made little attempt to hide it. More than once, coming out onto the street after work, I saw him dodge into a doorway to avoid meeting me, and each time I felt more relief than pain.
The one tie we did have, after our parents' accident, was the keeping of our promise to our father. Year after year on his birthday we'd repair to the cemetery and stand in stiff, awkward silence beside the grave site, each waiting for the other to suggest that a proper amount of time had passed, so that we could part and slip back into our separate lives. It was a depressing way to spend an afternoon, and we probably would've given it up after the very first time had we both not felt that we'd be punished somehow if we did, cursed from beyond the grave for our failure to stand by our word.
Our father's birthday was December 31, the last day of the year, and the visit gradually took on a ritualized aspect, like any other event during the holiday season, a final hurdle to cross before reaching the new year. It became, essentially, our chief time to interact. We'd catch up on each other's lives, talk about our parents or our childhood, make vague promises to see each other more often, and leave the cemetery with the clean feeling of having rather painlessly fulfilled an unpleasant duty.
This went on for seven years.
ON THE eighth year, December 31, 1987, Jacob picked me up at my house. He came around three-thirty, a half hour late, with his dog and his friend Lou in his truck. They'd been ice fishing together, their chief activity in the winter, and we had to drop Lou off on the other side of Ashenville before proceeding to the cemetery.
I never liked Lou, and I don't think he ever liked me. He used to call me Mr. Accountant, saying it in a way which seemed to imply that I ought to be embarrassed by my occupation, ashamed of its conventionality and