Urns by Nicole Oquendo

There’s not much about my father that I actually know. What I think I know now is that he’s getting skinnier by the year and old enough to stop doing things as he used to. Until the last few years or so, my father, in his sixties, passed for forty to strangers. He’s been shaving his head for years to erase any grey, which is only now starting to come through into his goatee. You used to be able to see the muscles in his arms through his shirts. He used to lift weights in our garage.

My mother’s apartment is small, with a few prints covering the otherwise bare walls and a couple of couches to sit on. She refuses to use the air conditioner in 80-degree Florida heat because it raises the electric bill; while I wipe at my face, I tell her I worry about him being so old and living in such a big house. But you know he’s not that old, my mother says. And you know him, pretending to be younger or older than he is so he can get shit. She’s right, too. He changes ages in conversation depending on which is convenient.


It heard on the news that at least 4,900 to 6,600 bodies in graves among the 333,000 buried at Arlington National Cemetery are not where people think they are. The Senate projected this error rate after a sample of three sections of the cemetery showed 211 mishandled graves.


He looked very good in his uniform, your father, she says.

I heard they met after she watched him playing baseball near her office building. I also heard they met when he was making deliveries to her office building. While they’ve been separated for ten years, I know she still loves him.

When I was young I would pretend to be cold so he would let me wear his Marine Corps jacket.

I haven’t been returning his calls, I tell her. But it is not so simple. I haven’t seen him in a year, and can’t remember the last time he and I spoke to each other. When we did talk, he would tell stories while I listened.


In 2005, the ashes of two urns at Arlington were emptied into a landfill. The necessary people weren’t notified of this plan.

Maybe it’s possible for trauma to crack so hard against the body that the self splits into many selves, as a comet would do when it hits the earth—sending mud and magma and metals and dirt and everything up in the air, without a parachute, then every pebble, every rock falling back down and sending up a spray from the ocean, and steam and fury.


I can’t do it, I tell her. I’m so fucking scared of him. Still.

She lights a Newport, breathes in, and exhales long in the opposite direction before turning back to me. You and your brother have to be ready. You have to make preparations. She holds the cigarette in her hand and flicks the ashes neatly. The lipstick stain on the cigarette is the same as the one on the pipe. He’s not that old, really, but he’s getting old, she says.

She pushes the second half of her cigarette hard into the ashtray and looks at all of me. I know she’s met my father over drinks and slept with him since they separated, but she doesn’t know that I know.


For about fifty dollars, you can have someone’s ashes inserted into a necklace.

Maybe it’s possible for trauma to burn so hard and so bright that when it spreads it swallows the whole Earth, burning everything until we’re nothing more than a handful of dust scattered in every direction. Trauma is contagious.


I’m convinced he’s so many people by now that he can’t keep track of it himself, I tell her.

When it’s my time, I want you and your brother to cremate me, she replies.

What I know is that for every cell in his body there is a story, and that these cells are killing each other in disagreement. I think it’s the war that’s split him this way, but, of this, I can’t be sure. I know that every time I’ve seen him over the last few years, he’s looked smaller and less put-together.

Before he met my mother, my father had been married twice. He has many children that I know of—a half-brother and a half-sister I’ve never met, and a half-sister I have met. It would be impossible to pick the ones I haven’t met out of a crowd, even if they, like me, have my father’s round nose and dark hair. I’ve only ever seen one of their pictures, and she was a baby. My father was holding her, and I thought it was me when I found the photo in a box.

And when you cremate me, my mother says, I don’t want my ashes split up. I want you and your brother to keep me in one urn and share me, like joint custody. I want all of myself to be in there in one place.

What my mother doesn’t know is that, during cremation, most of the body burns up into gas that flows out of vents in the crematory, and that this gas will disperse so fast and so far that in a way she’ll be everywhere and nowhere. The ashes we are so familiar with are the leftover bones that are later pulverized in a crematory. Four to six pounds of her will be left in one place for us to share.

Good, because I can’t afford to bury either of you.

When my father burns up, after the gasses of his organs and skin and everything else float up through the ventilation system and out into the atmosphere with his heat, I will be left with his bone chips.

I have to go home and write, I tell her. I bend over to tie my shoes.


Officials at Arlington blame the misidentified graves on poor recordkeeping.


She leans over and kisses my cheek. You know you have to talk to him eventually if you’re set on writing about him, she says. Her lipstick leaves a print on my face, and it takes a lot of rubbing to wipe it off.


Trauma has split my father into talking bone chips. His selves all tell stories at the same time—this is why his selves and stories don’t match up. When the split happened—the infection, the trauma, Vietnam, whatever it was—he became many people. So where one of his souls is a fighter pilot, another is recon., another a retired Lieutenant Colonel, another a ladies’ man, another married, another divorced, another a father, another a killer.


Not everything left in what we call ashes is bone. There can be traces of casket or jewelry. There cannot be a pacemaker, though. If left inside the body, it will explode and leak mercury from the vents. That body will then disperse and poison other bodies through the air they breathe.


When I was young, I could tell my father was doing cocaine when he painted his face black. I’m not sure what came first in the series—him doing the cocaine, him putting on his military uniform, or the face painting—but, at some point, he would leave his bedroom and sit in the dark, armed.

If I threw this knife from right here, he’d say, crouching low to the living room carpet, I could hit the mailbox outside. And he could.

My father had a metal box full of electrical wires in his back for years to help with pain. When it was cold, it would freeze him from the inside, so until he couldn’t take it anymore and had it removed, he wrapped himself in every blanket he could find and huddled into a chair without moving.


I imagine what the family of the misplaced ashes would say about the Arlington story, but then I remember the chance that they probably wouldn’t know the ashes belonged to someone they knew anyway. Perhaps the ashes were misplaced before they even got to Arlington. There’s no way to be sure.


My father told me once on the phone, while he was very drunk and speeding on the highway, that he had a plot waiting for him at Arlington National Cemetery. That he would have a military funeral and everyone he knew from the war would be there to fire a shot into the air and honor his body and his spirit and his service.

After we moved to our first house, the friends he told me were from the war would come over for barbecues and fire guns into the air in the backyard. Later, when he took my brother and disappeared for a year, dispersing across the country in a ball of ashes and gas and fire, no one seemed to know where he was, or where his friends were.

My hand is on the doorknob. When I do see him, I tell my mother, I’m going to ask him to open his safe so I can look at everything again.

There’s no way in hell he’s going to do that, she says, stopped.


For some Eastern religions, where the body carries the soul, cremation takes place outside in the open air in front of witnesses that watch the body on fire, burning into a black mass of itself.


My father watched bodies burn in Vietnam.

I’m going to be buried in my uniform and it will be pressed and my shoes will be shined and everyone will fire around me, he said, and I will go straight to the gates of heaven where I belong, to guard it, because I can’t get inside heaven because I’m too fucked up—but hell isn’t for me either.


It’s impossible to completely clean a crematory. Bits of every body ever put through it mix together inside the machine.


I have seen my father throw a knife and hit a target in the dark.

Just be careful, my mother says. She is already wiping the table where the drink I never touched was and straightening the pillows I didn’t lie on.


John Metzler, Jr., former superintendent at Arlington, claims the cemetery has begun placing headstones on graves that were unmarked.


I left my mother’s house and closed the door behind me and did not call my father or my mother or my brother or the funeral home or the church or the cemetery or the Senate or the crematorium.

However God takes me, my father said on the phone, however I die, after everything in this fucking world God has put me through, because you know I have been through accidents and explosions and gunfights and that whole shit, when he finally does it how he wants to do it, I want you to see me there with that flag wrapped around my casket and my friends all around me, all expenses paid. I want you to be there. All expenses paid.

OK, I told him.

nicole-oquendoNicole Oquendo makes art because she doesn’t know anything else. She is currently finishing the last few essays of her currently untitled master’s thesis, as well as teaching undergraduate philosophy and composition. In what little spare time she has, she is working on a second book, a collection of mixed media translations of De Rerum Natura by Lucretius. Her life is full of reading, writing, painting, translating, and roller derby.

  4 comments for “Urns by Nicole Oquendo

  1. I’m really surprised there aren’t more comments on this piece. I really really liked it. This structure could seem a bit tricksy and postmodern in less able hands, but the way it’s all layered and builds to a conclusion is really very skilful indeed. The relationships are so touching, and so sad. This makes me want to read more of your work.

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