Dwyer is tall and lean, with a mop of white hair, blue eyes, brown skin from a life outside, and hollow cheeks. He follows a vegan diet. He is near seventy, a retired carpenter who reads the Bible every day, the King James Version.
Met by chance on the street, we stand and talk as the sun clears the treetops. The day is ideal, a morning in June. Dwyer wears sandals, shorts, a tattered shirt that hangs loose, and a glove. He picks up trash as he goes and stuffs it in a plastic bag.
“You’d be amazed at what people throw,” he says.
People pass on foot, at a run, with dogs on leashes, on bicycles, in closed cars, in small trucks with the windows rolled down, on their way to work, on their way to an appointment. Dwyer greets them all by name. After they pass, he gives a thumbnail sketch that includes occupation, age, and address. In many cases, he worked on their houses.
Once Dwyer helped me carry home a small table left at the curb in a pile of household junk. The top was stained, but the legs were okay. From the same pile of junk, he scored a broom. We set the table down in my kitchen. I wiped off the dust, as he swept cut grass from the back stoop. I offered him a drink. He accepted water, no ice, drank the whole glass, and set it in the sink.
On another occasion, as we climbed on my roof to find a leak, I nearly slipped and fell to the ground. He offered to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I squirmed and made it down by ladder.
This morning, we get on the subject of cemeteries, burial rites, and planning ahead. Dwyer is prepaid. Years ago, he phoned Murphy Funeral Service. Robert Murphy filled out the form on his end of the phone, and Doris Murphy corrected her husband’s arithmetic. Dwyer chose the Basic Plan, with no embalming, flowers, or music. It does not even include a casket, but we’ll get to that. At the end, Mr. Murphy asked:
“Why did you pick us?”
“Our children went to the same Christian school. Your van was always ahead of my truck in the pickup and dropoff line.”
“It’s just that we don’t get many white folks here.”
Murphy Funeral Service is in the black part of town.
The grave plot will be in the National Cemetery at Culpeper or Quantico, Virginia, whichever is receiving at the time. Dwyer is a veteran, entitled to free burial. He was in the navy, but what he did and where he served he never says. Men his age went to Vietnam.
Dwyer made his own casket. To see it, he takes me to his house, a short walk. The house is a cottage, lovingly restored. He bought it after his wife of thirty-five years said that was enough. The cottage has polished wood floors, the original doors and windows, copper pipes, flawless plaster, fresh paint, and no air conditioning. Dwyer practices natural ventilation. He goes to bed at sunset and gets up at dawn, so he has been up for hours.
The casket is in the basement workshop, raised on bricks on the concrete floor. A simple box of white pine boards left raw, it smells of pine. No fabric lining, no padding. It stores scraps of wood, sheet metal, pipe, and ceramic tile—odds and ends that may come in handy. He opens the lid to show me. Things are neatly stowed. Maybe Dwyer was a sailor, and this is his sea chest.
“The casket was a project for a day,” he says. “After my morning walk, I went to the lumber yard and bought what I needed. Then I went to Tractor Supply for the four handles, two to a side. Maybe they’re meant for a barn door or a feed trough. I like the massive roundness. I beveled the outer edges of the boards, and I put the knots where they wouldn’t show. Some light sanding where the mill plane left a rough patch. I thought about the corners. Finger joints or dovetails would have been overkill. I went with a miter backed by a vertical gusset, glued and screwed.”
He points inside to a corner joint.
“The project was going great until I saw the handle screws were too long. The tips poked through an eighth of an inch, enough to snag. Should I clinch them, grind them, go back and buy a smaller size? It was late in the day. I had an inspiration. See those little discs? Wine corks. I sliced them like carrots and popped them on the screw tips. Problem solved.”
Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, and he worked as an architect in New York and Charlottesville, where he lives. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.