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The Secret of the Vase
The morning of April 23rd was like any other day. I woke up, poured myself a cup of coffee and picked up the Sunday paper. I loved Sundays. But this Sunday was especially promising. My grouchy old neighbor, Mrs. Cooper, was moving out of the apartment complex tomorrow. I had been looking forward to this day for the past six years.
Suddenly my phone began to ring. It was my best friend, Marshall.
“Hey man, what’s up?” I yawned.
“Hey buddy, I was just wondering if you had heard about the yard sale that Mrs. Cooper was having today.”
“No, who cares? Why would I want to give Mrs. Cooper any of my own hard-earned money to buy her old junk?”
“Because she told your landlord that she isn’t moving out until all of her belongings are gone!”
I was sold. I hung up with Marshall, finished my hot coffee, inhaled a bowl of Cheerios and ran to my bedroom. As I brushed my teeth, I wondered what kind of trinkets Mrs. Cooper would have to sell. Probably her old cauldron…a book of spells….a broomstick…
As I walked down the black metal staircase, Marshall pulled up.
“Marshall,” I said, ”If this yard sale doesn’t go well and she ends up having to live here any longer, I think I might shoot myself.”
“Dude, it’ll be fine. I texted Barney and Robin and they said they’ll be here soon.”
Robin and Barney were our two best friends who recently got married. They had returned from their honey moon two weeks ago and were still going through their “Aren’t we just the cutest couple ever?” stage. At least they had a lot of money. Barney worked as VP of a local oil company and Robin was an upper-class interior designer.
Just then, I began to notice a ton of cars parked up and down the block.
“Marshall, is there a party or wedding nearby?”
“Um, not that I know of. You don’t think that they could be here for Cooper’s yard sale do you?”
They were. As Marshall and I turned the corner, I couldn’t believe the sea of people that covered the quarter of the complex. But that’s not what surprised me the most.
“Ted, is it just me or do all of these people look really rich?”
“I was just thinking the same thing!” Everyone here had on nice dress pants, billowing hats and even 3-inch heels on the frumpy grass.
“Come on, let’s look around.”
As we wandered up and down the long rows of tables, I wondered if I was going to be able to afford anything here. There were Chinese tea sets, cypress wood clocks, antique jewelry and even glass chandeliers. Was Mrs. Cooper a secret millionaire I never knew about or something? I kept my eye open for her, but I couldn’t see her. Suddenly, two hands covered my eyes from behind.
“Guess who!” the voice said.
“Hi Robin!” I replied.
“How did you know it was me?” she laughed. Robin was very predictable. I had known her since college so I knew every trick she had up her sleeve. Behind her, Barney was on the phone with someone.
“Everything here looks amazing!” Robin exclaimed. “See anything for your apartment yet?”
“Well I was thinking the pink chandelier over there would be perfect for my bathroom, but then I realized it wouldn’t match my golden bathtub” I joked.
“Oh please Ted, be serious. There’s a bunch of stuff here that could really add a touch a style to your place. Like this! Look at how beautiful this vase is.”
Robin pointed to a medium-sized teal vase with gold detail. The top of it had a little round handle and gloss finish. I had to admit, it was very pretty. I walked over to it and picked it up. Whoa, it was heavy.
“Robin, why is this so heavy?”
She picked it up and gave me a look of surprise. “It must be this big base on the bottom.” She had a good point, the bottom was big.
“How much is it?”
Robin looked at the orange tag. “It’s um…it’s only ten dollars! Is that a joke? It looks like it’s worth about three hundred!” and I knew Robin was probably right considering her job.
I carried it over to a table that had a “checkout” sign hanging over it. As I reached the front of the line, I became face-to-face with her…Mrs. Cooper.
“Good morning Mrs. Cooper, how are you today?”
“What do you want?” she snapped. “I haven’t got all day.”
“I’d like to purchase this vase, please” I said through a clenched smile.
Mrs. Cooper looked at the vase. “Oh Lord,” she said. “I remember this thing. Ten dollars.” she said.
I pulled two fives out of my leather wallet, handed them to her, picked up my vase and walked away.
That night after I had returned home from dinner with friends, I tossed my keys on the wood table and fell on the sofa. After watching Seinfeld for a few minutes, I noticed the vase perched on the bookcase. I walked over to it and tried to take the top off. It wouldn’t budge. So I pulled and I tugged through grunts and sighs until finally, I gave up. I dug through the kitchen drawers until I finally found this metal stick Robin had given me for Christmas four years ago. (Apparently you used it for roasting a ham or something…) I walked over to the vase anxiously and began to wedge the top off with the stick. I knew there had to be something in it. It must have weighed at least five pounds!
What could it be? I had shaken it a few times and there was something definitely in it. It didn’t sound like more than one thing though, and it definitely didn’t sound like it was made of a hard material. It almost sounded like…sand? I had to find out.
Suddenly, a side of the top popped off. My heart began to race. I lifted the top off and looked down into the vase. It was dark, too dark. I couldn’t see a thing.
I grabbed my flashlight from my nightstand drawer and came back into the room. I turned it on, leaned over the table and looked down.
That’s when I saw it. I couldn’t believe it.
I dropped the flashlight and began freaking out. I couldn’t remove my hand from covering my mouth so all I could think of was to call Marshall.
“What? Ted! It’s two o’clock in the morning, what do you want?”
“Marshall, you’re not gonna believe this but…there….there’s someone in my vase!”
“What are you talking about Ted?”
“Marshall,” I began. “There are someone’s ashes in the vase.”
That night I had weird dreams. I dreamt about my dad a lot, which was weird because I rarely see him. He lives in a retirement home twenty minutes away, but I never visit him. We grew apart after my mom died and he began to shut me and my brothers out. I hadn’t seen him in at least six months.
As I dragged my tired feet across my cream carpet the next morning I stopped dead in my tracks. There, on the kitchen table, was the vase. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to touch it, so I ate my cereal standing up. That’s when my phone rang.
“Ted? It’s Robin. Marshall just called me and told me what happened last night, are you okay?”
“Yeah I’m okay, I just want it out of my apartment. I’m going to go to Mrs. Cooper’s apartment as soon as I get dressed.”
“Okay, call me as SOON as you’re done!”
The walk around the complex to Mrs. Cooper’s apartment was the longest walk I had ever taken. It felt like I had been walking for hours until I finally found myself at her doorstep. I knocked and waited. No answer. So I knocked again and again until suddenly, her neighbor popped her head out her window next door.
“Can I help you?” she said.
“Uh, yeah, I’m looking for Mrs. Cooper. Have you seen her today?”
“Honey,” she began, “Mrs. Cooper moved out yesterday after her garage sale.”
My stomach hit the ground. “Are you sure maim?”
“Yes, I’m sorry. Have a nice day though.” And she closed her window.
I couldn’t believe this. I closed my front door and picked up my phone. I needed my friends here. Twenty minutes later I had Barney, Marshall and Robin seated around the vase in my living room.
“Can we take it to the police?” said Marshall.
“No, they would just tell us that it’s not their problem. They wouldn’t take it.” Barney replied. “What if we just threw the ashes away?”
“Are you stupid? That’s someone’s body in there, Barney!” Marshall yelled.
“I know but what else can we do?? The funeral home won’t take it either because there are no records with the vase.”
“What if we spread the ashes?” Robin suggested.
The room was quiet for a second.
“Robin, we don’t know who this person is. I’m not going to touch his ashes.” said Marshall.
“Guys think about it. If your ashes were forgotten about, wouldn’t you want someone to spread them? Or would you rather them be flushed down the toilet?”
No one said anything.
“Don’t you have any compassion for this situation? Being forgotten? These ashes could belong to anybody. For all we know Anna Nicole Smith could be in that vase!”
“Robin, come on…” I began.
“My point is, (she cut me off) we shouldn’t treat these ashes like garbage. Let’s put this poor person to rest and scatter the ashes. What do you guys say?”
Once again, silence. What were we supposed to do? Go to my roof and sprinkle them over the neighborhood kids?
“Robin, we don’t have the right to do that. We don’t even know who this is. These ashes aren’t ours to…”
“Yes they are. The ashes became yours when you handed Mrs. Cooper your ten dollars.”
Sigh. She was…kind of right, I hated to admit it, but Robin was had a point. These ashes were my responsibility.
After we all agreed to meet on the hiking trail overlooking the ocean at 4:30, my friends left me and the ashes alone in my apartment. I set the ashes on the coffee table and clicked on the TV. I couldn’t help but be distracted by the ashes while I tried to watch the screen. I realized that if I was going to be scattering ashes, I might as well make it personal and name the ashes. First of all, were these ashes going to be a boy or a girl? I looked at the TV. There was a man jogging in a Nike ad. Ok, male it was. Now for a name: Jason? Michael? Usher? I couldn’t put my finger on a good name. I glanced at the TV and saw a commercial for Elton John’s new CD. Elton. That sounded good enough for me. I placed Elton on the couch next to me and together, watched “The Price is Right”.
Around 4:00 I decided it was time to go. I picked up Elton and walked to my car. I was about to put him on the floor, but then I stopped. I opened the passenger door, placed him in the seat, buckled him in, and closed the door.
As we drove to the hiking trail, I passed the “Golden Oaks” retirement home my father lived in. Elton sitting next to me reminded me of when we spread my mom’s ashes. We did it on our old family boat in the middle of the Florida Keys (her favorite place). I began to think about how my dad just stood there while my siblings and I sprinkled her ashes over the side. It was a day I could never forget, no matter how hard I tried.
I looked at Elton.
“Don’t give me that look. You have no idea what my dad was like.”
Elton didn’t say anything.
“He was so cold all the time. I’m not even sure if he ever loved me. He always told me how disappointed in me he was, not ever how proud he was. I was just never good enough.”
Just then, “Tiny Dancer” came on the radio. I threw Elton a look.
“Elton…how did you know I loved this song?”
As we pulled into the parking lot, I saw Marshall, Robin and Barney.
“You ready?” Marshall asked as I unbuckled Elton.
“Did you strap the vase into the seat, Ted?” Robin asked.
“Yeah well…I didn’t want it to fall.” I said.
They each gave me a look of confusion. I just ignore it and began walking. After huffing and puffing to the top of the trail we finally reached the cliff overlooking the blue sea. It was a beautiful windy day, perfect for sprinkling a stranger’s ashes over a cliff. We each stood there in silence for a minute, not exactly knowing what to do.
“Are you ready Ted?” Robin finally said.
The cool breeze felt good against my skin. It reminded me of the day we spread mom’s ashes. Memories flooded in. But I knew what I had to do.
“Yeah. I think so.” I pulled the top off the vase and set it down. Barney led us in a short prayer, and then we each stood there.
I was the first to reach in. I pulled back up a hand full of grey ashes. Robin went second, then Barney and finally, Marshall. We gathered on the edge of the cliff and looked out into the horizon. Robin then tossed her handful into the wind and watched it drift away. Marshall followed, then Barney. I couldn’t take my eyes off the pink horizon.
After Barney tossed the last hand of ashes, there was complete silence.
I was lost in translation. I couldn’t stop thinking of my mom. I felt so close to her in this moment. I heard her voice whispering to me, but I couldn’t tell what she was saying. I took a deep breath. I opened my fingers and let the wind carry the ashes from my fingertips.
“Are you okay Ted?” Robin asked,
I sighed. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Marshall threw his arm around me. “Come on buddy, let’s go home.”
I decided to take the long way home that day. I even buckled the empty vase into the passenger seat next to me. I was exhausted from two days of buying a stranger’s remains, spreading their ashes and now, thinking about my dad. I felt incomplete. I couldn’t figure out what God wanted me to do.
I took a turn and headed for the south side of town. After parking in the “Golden Oaks” parking lot, I put the car in park. I knew what I had to do.
I closed the door,
walked to the front door
and went inside.