The Intimate Funeral of Carlos J. Padrero
© 2000 by Lori R. Snyder
“Put this one in room A,” said the woman at the front desk, flipping her thick black hair over her shoulder and looking to make sure the boy noticed. “It’s a company-paid funeral. That means no money and a low turnout.” She consulted the paperwork. “Says here he drove a bus for sixty years.”
“Sixty years?” said the boy. He was new to the business and eager to learn. “He never retired?”
The woman shrugged and flipped her hair over the other shoulder, then frowned at a chip in her ice pink nail polish.
That first time, he was sixteen. Senior in high school. Barely passing. Nothing he was good at, and not much he cared about. He needed one more shop class in his schedule, and he chose Metals. Just one more stupid pen holder or jewelry box or ashtray, he thought as he sat at the heavy workbenches and listened half-assed to the crazy old man teacher who loved the sparks and the blinding light more than he loved anything else. Probably sleeps with that torch at night, he joked with his friends behind the donut shop when they should have been in sixth period. Just one more semester, he told himself every morning. One more. Then you’re free.
But when it came time for projects, the crazy old man teacher didn’t assign pen holders or jewelry boxes or ashtrays. Instead, he stood in front of the class with one hand on his welding torch and said, only, “Make something of your own.”
Most of the other kids laughed at this and went on to make pen holders and jewelry boxes and ashtrays. But Carlos sat for two weeks staring at the cooling pools of metals, at the sparks flying, at the emerging pen holders and jewelry boxes and ashtrays. Then he spent one frenzied week working. He even came in after school every day, staying as long as the old man let him. And when he finished, he had something warped and twisted and achingly beautiful. When he looked at it he saw hope.
“There,” said the woman, tossing her hair and smiling at her handiwork. “Doesn’t he look nice? Peaceful. That’s the look you want to go for.”
The boy leaned over and looked admiringly into the casket. “Wow,” he said. “It’s too bad there won’t be more people here to see.”
His mother was a thin, pinched woman who wore her disappointment in life with a kind of fierce pride, as though any admission of happiness or even contentment signaled defeat. His father, short and solid, was the rock, the burly arm from which Carlos would swing until he was eleven and too tall. His father was quiet and safe, and because of this it wasn’t until he was much older that Carlos recognized the steady clasp of God in his father’s life-long embrace.
At seventeen his mother left, sweeping out of their lives with a curious shrug of her shoulders, as though she were determined to play out the hand she had known was inevitable. She left behind a coffee-colored stain in the kitchen sink that no amount of scrubbing would remove.
The crazy old man teacher began to take a special interest in Carlos, sitting with him for hours and showing him the finer points of metals: how they blistered and melted, how to tame them, how to create just the right blend. Carlos paid closer attention than he had ever paid to anything in his life. When he graduated, Metals was his only A+.
He took a job with the bus company right out of high school, apprentice driver until he was twenty-two. He spent his first paycheck on a welding gun. The crazy old man teacher let him come in after school and weekends to work in fiery camaraderie, a hell temporarily transformed into his own private church. Hot metals glowed in the back of his mind all the time.
“That’ll do,” said the woman. She was anxious to get home, although it was her responsibility to stay. But she had a date with a new man, a banker. The boy would be fine without her.
“Call if you need me,” she said as she left. The boy nodded and adjusted the sign. “Mr. Carlos Jesus Padrero. Viewing, 7 p.m.”
By the time he began driving his own route he had moved away from home, although just down the street so he could eat nightly with his father. He turned his one-bedroom apartment into a studio with a folding cot leaning against the corner. He still went to see the old man teacher, but more often he just worked at home. He visited his father regularly, watched as the rock took ill and shriveled into a less-recognizable form of himself but one that still, somehow, glimmered with life. Carlos sculpted his father as a doubly-spiraled structure reaching to the sky. When his father died it was with one hand in his son’s and the other resting lightly on the spiral, as if it would lead him where he needed to go.
Carlos drove the downtown route. Businessmen in suits and ties next to the almost-homeless, who swayed uncertainly as they carefully counted out precious coins. He got to know his regulars, their habits and foibles, the rhythm of their lives. One day, when he was twenty-five, one of his regulars—a pressed-and-starched businessman named Frank— stumbled onto the bus in a wrinkled suit and day-old beard. Carlos watched him carefully as he drove, and when they got to the stop before Frank’s Carlos asked what was wrong.
“My son,” said Frank. “He’s run off. He’s just sixteen. My wife said I shouldn’t go to work until we’ve found him, but what can I do that the police can’t do?” He spread his hands in defeat, tried to smooth his wrinkled knees. “My son hates me.”
That night, in his apartment, Carlos carefully wrapped up the very first sculpture he had ever made, the one from the shop class, and set it by the door. He wasn’t sure he remembered being sixteen well enough to help Frank, but he knew the sculpture did.
The next morning, when Frank went to get off the bus at the stop in front of the gas department, Carlos passed him the sculpture.
For the next six days there was no Frank. Carlos counted nervously, turning over in his head all the things that might have happened. But on the seventh day Frank was there, once again pressed and starched but with a thin black tie replacing his usually wider, more stately ones. He sat in the very front seat, up near Carlos.
“My boy’s back,” he said, sounding tired yet glad. “I took a few days off. And I’m going to take him fishing next month, just he and I.”
“I like your tie,” said Carlos.
Frank ran his hands over the tie. “It’s my son’s,” he said, and in his voice was both the weary pride of a father and a faint remembrance of sixteen. “He let me wear it.”
When Carlos was thirty-two they switched him to the valley route. All his downtown regulars protested, but the bus company was in shaky finances and too busy restructuring to pay attention. His last day downtown, everyone boarded the bus with brightly wrapped gifts and platefuls of homemade food and they had a party right there and then. Frank brought his son, Mark, who was now twenty-three and a college graduate. Mark and Frank sat together in the front and laughed louder than anyone. Carlos laughed, too, but watching Frank and Mark he thought of family and of his small apartment, empty save for pile upon pile of twisted metal.
“I’m gone,” said the woman. “You’re all right? It’ll be an early night. Just be sure everything’s locked when you leave.”
The boy watched her thick black hair swinging behind her as she walked away, and wished for a moment that he was the banker. Then he sighed and stared out the window at the darkening sky. This was his first full-time job and he was nervous. It seemed he always screwed everything up. At least that was what his father had said the last time the boy had visited him. The boy didn’t visit much anymore. It wasn’t worth all the fighting.
The valley route was different. The people weren’t as consistently the same, and they were less willing to talk. But Carlos didn’t mind the silence, and in the long quiet days he designed metals in his head.
For the first time, he tried his hand at furniture. It took him a while to get the hang of making things so they wouldn’t tip, but after a while he had more chairs and tables and bed frames than he could use in his entire life.
He began giving things away. He would bring a piece here and there, stashing it in the space behind the driver’s seat. Sometimes the right person would be one of the first on the bus; sometimes he would drive for a few days or a week before he found the new owner. Many of the people he gave things to became close friends. Others just mumbled a polite thank you and hid behind their embarrassment of being singled out. More than once people left their gift on the bus, and then Carlos knew he had picked the wrong person and started over.
One day a young couple that he had seen a few times before got on the bus, talking excitedly and laughing. Their faces were flushed.
“We’re going to have a baby,” the man said proudly to everyone on board. “A baby.” Congratulations went up all around, and for the first time regulars started talking and introducing themselves to each other. By the time the couple got off, Carlos knew the names of almost everyone on board, including the couple, Arturo and JoAnna. He thought of the baby and the warm arms it would be born into, and then of the metal that awaited him at home.
That evening he felt cold even with the warmth of his torch, too cold to sleep, too cold to do anything but weld. He let the fire lead him into its heat. It wasn’t until the pale flush of sunlight flowed into his room the next morning that he realized he had made a crib, wings at its head and feet. He fell into bed and slept through his day off.
Seven months later Arturo lost his job. He sat on the bus on the way home staring down at the battered corduroy cap he held in his hands. “What am I going to do?” he asked. “The baby’s coming next month. We don’t even got a crib.”
Later that week, Carlos borrowed a co-worker’s pick-up and drove it to the block where Arturo and JoAnna lived. He didn’t know exactly which apartment was theirs, but he knew it was one of those areas where people knew their neighbors. He knocked on doors until someone gave him the right number.
When Arturo opened the door Carlos smiled apologetically. “I’ve brought you a crib,” he said, waving towards the truck. “If you still need it.”
They unloaded the iron crib from the back of the truck and carried it into the almost-empty house. Then they shared a beer and laughed into the night. Before he left, Carlos showed Arturo the rest of the furniture in the truck: a dining set, a bed frame, a few side tables and plant stands. Arturo tried to pay Carlos, but Carlos said no, the beer was enough.
Six weeks later Carlos went to the baby-naming ceremony where he met JoAnna’s sister Elena, who seared the edges of his skin from the inside out, hotter and more fluid than any metal he had ever known.
They were married in the next year and Arturo was his best man. Carlos made the table centerpieces from copper and iron, metal flowers that reflected the light of the afternoon sun and shone with a burnished warmth.
The boy wiped the counter at the funeral home’s front desk, straightened the viewing sign, wiped the counter again. The banker was probably holding open his car door right now, some new model sleek car that the boy would never be able to afford. He wondered where bankers took their dates. Probably not to the drive-in followed by pizza from the box.
Carlos switched routes again when he was sixty-one. He could’ve retired, and if Elena had still been alive, or if they had been blessed with children, he probably would have. But he liked working, liked the steady predictability of the day-to-day routine, liked the people. Once again there was a party, gifts, food, this time led by his brother-in-law whose little girl was now twenty-seven and who kept the iron crib in her parent’s garage for when she had a child. Carlos had told her he would make her a new one, but she wanted the winged one. Carlos could understand that; he’d sculpted a winged bed for himself and Elena. Freedom and flight balanced by the solid predictability of iron.
He gave away sculptures almost daily now. He was getting older and he saw no need to keep his work once the passion of creation had worn away. His work had changed with age, becoming more certain but still somehow unexpected, like ocean waves in the darkness.
The bus company had switched hands twice by this time, and they weren’t quite sure what to do with a driver who didn’t want to leave. So they set him up on a relatively short route which was frequented mostly by people going to the Galleria at the end of the line. One regular, a thin high-schooler with green eyes and short brown hair, worked at the cinema there. Sometimes she worked until midnight or one in the morning after the late show let out. Carlos always dropped her off last those nights so he could drive her the extra way past his last stop straight to her door. He didn’t like the idea of her walking the five blocks down deserted streets. When she went off to college he made her a special sculpture, one that reminded him of a wild cat ready to leap.
It was well past seven when the first people came. The boy was reading a comic book when two woman, one carrying a small child wrapped tightly in a blanket like a blue tamale and one ancient and tiny, asked to be shown to the room. The baby’s mother held a faded picture in her free hand. It showed a crib with wings.
The bus company, now solvent, kept offering Carlos retirement packages. But his driving record and eyesight were perfect, so when he refused to go the company shrugged its collective shoulders and kept him on the short and easy route to the mall.
Most evenings Carlos had one or two visitors for dinner or coffee, almost all passengers who owned sculptures or furniture. After they left he would work for a few hours until his eyes got too tired to look at the metals.
It was well after ten o’clock, two hours past closing time, before everyone left. The boy had to plead possible loss of his job to usher the last people out, and he was exhausted.
He was about to lock the door to Room A when a soft metallic glint caught his eye. He walked into the room and picked up the sculpture sitting at the foot of the casket. Someone must have left it there, although he couldn’t remember seeing anyone carry it in. Something in the way the metal twisted over itself, defiant yet questioning, brought a strange rush of relief, as when a friend understood his crazy feelings. He tucked the sculpture under his arm and, feeling only slightly guilty, locked up and left for the night.
Outside a warm wind whispered, hanging in the air like a hymn. The boy tightened his grip on the sculpture, stood uncertainly for a moment, and then—on a sudden impulse—turned to go visit his father, whom he hadn’t seen in months. The wind wove through the warped spokes of the sculpture as he walked, vibrating the metal and causing people in nearby houses to shush their families and their TVs and listen intently, one hand on their hearts and their mouths slightly open, as though hearing for the first time the sound of the extraordinary night.