Quarantaintment—Pandemic Diversions for the Homebound

FICTION

Nothing to Declare

By Colin Brezicki

 

You’re breaking wind back there, Griffith. Do you want us to stop at this service center?” Karen turned around to check on her father-in-law and immediately sensed that something was wrong. His eyes were closed, and his face looked like it had been injected with cement.

Gerry glanced at the rearview. “Dad? You awake? Something sure stinks in here.” He lowered the back windows to clear the air and rouse his father. But the old man didn’t stir.

“Gerry, can you pull in anyway? He doesn’t look well. What do you think?”

“I can’t freaking look while I’m driving, can I? I hope he hasn’t, you know….”

“What?”

“Shat himself in his sleep. He’s done that before.”

He turned onto the off-ramp and drove up to the service center. After parking some way from the entrance he switched off the engine. “He’s sure gone quiet.”

“I think he might be dead, Gerry. His face is all grey. You have a look.”

“He was fine at breakfast.”

He got out and slid open the side door. He stared at his father for a moment then took his wrist. “Jesus. He’s stone cold and I can’t feel a pulse.” He looked at her. “He must have died miles ago.”

“A heart attack, do you think? Or a stroke?”

“Whatever, it was quick. We never heard a thing. Anyway, he obviously pooped himself on his way out, so we’ve got to get him cleaned up.”

“I don’t think we should disturb the body. I’m calling for an ambulance.” She reached for her cell. “It’s 9-1-1 in the States too, isn’t it?”

“Hang on a minute, Karen. Can we talk about this?”

“What’s to talk about. Your father’s dead, Gerry. We have to report it.”

Gerry glanced at the people walking past them heading into the food court.

“Lower your voice, dammit. Let’s have a coffee and discuss it. I mean if he’s already dead there’s no hurry, is there?”

He slid the side door shut and reached in the front to remove his keys.

Karen sprayed perfume around the minivan before getting out. Gerry was agitated, and when he was agitated he became intractable. But this time she would stand her ground whatever he had in mind. And having lived with him for thirty years she could pretty well guess what that was.

Following him inside the building she felt like she was disappearing. It’s what she always felt whenever she was with her husband and he seemed unaware of her.

They found a table in a corner and sat with their coffees. He reminded her that Griffith had refused to take out travel insurance. The old man insisted he was in good health and wouldn’t pay the exorbitant fee. “‘Over my dead body,’ he said. You remember that?”

That Gerry seemed unaware of the irony wasn’t surprising.

“Think of the costs. This is America. We aren’t insured for this. An ambulance takes him to a hospital so doctors can pronounce him dead, which we already know. A coroner draws up the death certificate, and we pay someone else to tell us when we can arrange to have him shipped home and God knows how long that will take. Weeks maybe. I’m back in the office on Monday.”

“You’re not thinking we drive home with him?”

“I’m done with thinking—we’re doing it.”

“It’s illegal. They’ll nail us at the border.”

“Worst case, we plead ignorance. How many times in your life do you get stuck with a corpse when you’re on holiday? I mean who does the homework for this?”

How many times in your life do you get stuck with a corpse when you’re on holiday? I mean who does the homework for this?

She took out her cell. “I’m doing it now.” She swiped her screen and began tapping.

He snatched the phone out of her hand. “Listen. He’s my dad—was my dad— so I decide here. We clean him up and change him and then take him home. Are you going to help me or not?”

She sighed. “Do I have a choice?”

“You can stay here if you like.” He glared at her for a moment then returned her phone. “I’ll dig out something for him to change into. You go find maintenance and get some detergent, disinfectant, a pail of hot water and paper towels. Tell them someone’s been car sick.”

She looked at him. “You’re really going to do this.”

“Do I have a choice?” He smiled his one-sided smirk, like a fishhook tugged the side of his mouth. Then he stood and made his way through the food court to the exit.

For a moment she considered calling 911 anyway. But he would make her life miserable if she did.

For him, his father’s death was merely an inconvenience. She felt nothing for the old man either, but that was different. Griffith Cole had treated her like a minion from the day he moved in with them. His death was a blessing. An untimely one, but still. It unsettled her suddenly to think that living with Gerry all these years might one day make her as selfish as her husband.

She carried the empty mugs to the counter and asked to see someone in maintenance.

Gerry had already bundled the soiled clothes into a plastic garbage bag by the time she arrived with the cleaning materials. She sprayed more perfume into the van, then stepped inside to help him clean the body. She gagged twice and nearly threw up. With her perfume deodorizer, the minivan smelt like fresh manure at blossom time. Their struggle to squeeze the dead man into a hoodie and sweatpants reminded her of an episode of Fawlty Towers. Thank God for tinted windows, she thought.

Together they propped up the body in the back seat and attached the seatbelt. Gerry reclined the seat so Griffith’s head settled back against the rest. Anyone looking inside would see an old man asleep, he assured her, then left to find a dumpster.

Thinking the old man looked way more dead than asleep, she locked the minivan and went to return the pail and disinfectant.

He pulled up at a pump on their way out. While he was filling the tank she took out her phone and looked up a government website, Death Abroad: Importation of Human Remains. She was scanning through the details when he returned.

“What are you doing?”

He started the engine and pulled away.

“I’m looking up what we should be doing.”

“Forget it. We’ve made our decision.”

“You’ve made our decision. I’m finding out what it means.”

She continued scrolling. “Okay, so legally we’re required to call an ambulance. They take him to hospital where a coroner confirms the death and prepares the certificate. Police are involved until death is declared to be by natural causes. Then we find a funeral home and they arrange for the body to be released and shipped home. That can take a while.”

“No shit, Sherlock. Which is why we’re doing it ourselves.” He turned up the A/C and depressed the accelerator.

“And if Customs has other ideas?”

“They won’t know. We show our passports at the border, tell them we’ve nothing to declare, and we’re good to go.”

“You hope. And what’s your plan if you get him home?”

“We put him to bed and call 9-1-1.” His voice had an edge now. “Can you hand me my digestion tablets?”

“Your heartburn again?”

“Reflux. Just hand me a couple, will you.”

She took the container from her purse, shook out the last two chewable tables and handed them to him. “The coroner will know he died long before we notified anyone.”

“We were away for the weekend—at Gary’s—and when Dad didn’t answer our calls we came home early. We called 9-1-1 as soon as we found him.”

We were away for the weekend—at Gary’s—and when Dad didn’t answer our calls we came home early.

“You’re bringing Gary into this?”

“He’ll be cool with it, don’t worry. I know our son.” He checked his mirror. “Shit.”

When she turned to look at the body she saw the cruiser’s flashing lights.

“He’s pulling us over.”

“Us? You’re the one doing ninety.”

“Don’t start, Karen. We need to stay calm here. Let me do the talking.”

She said nothing. Let him do the talking. And the thinking, if you could call it that, and the deciding. Like his dead father, bull-headed and controlling. And now a state trooper to deal with. All yours, Gerry.

He pulled onto the shoulder and slowed to a stop. After taking out his license he reached for the insurance and registration.

They waited in silence, Gerry staring into the rearview. When he saw the officer step out of his cruiser he lowered his window.

The trooper sounded pleasant enough when he asked to see the documents. He examined them while asking the routine questions. Where did they live? Where had they been? How long in Florida? Who’s in the back seat?

“That’s my dad. He’s narcoleptic. It’s an age thing. We’re letting him sleep.”

“Narcoleptic?”

“Yeah, he sleeps all the time. It’s part of his depression. He’s especially prone in a moving vehicle. I mean prone as in liable—to sleep, I mean.”

Karen stared out her window.

“So, if we can settle this, officer, we’d like to be on our way. Dad gets agitated if he’s woken up. How much is the ticket?”

“Can I see all the passports please?”

“Sure thing, officer.” He took the documents from Karen and handed them to the trooper.

He examined the photos, then looked in at Karen before returning two of the passports. “Can you roll down the back window please, sir?”

“No problem.” He lowered his father’s window.

“Are you sure this man’s all right? He looks a little grey.”

“That’s the narcolepsy—and his medication. It affects the circulation, especially when he’s asleep.”

“Please wait here, sir.” He walked back to his cruiser and sat inside for some minutes, before emerging again. He handed Gerry the ticket. “You can pay online or refer it to court within twenty-eight days. Go easy on that gas pedal, okay?” He turned and walked back to his cruiser.

“How much?” she asked.

“Two hundred.”

“And points?”

“Not if I pay within twenty-eight days.”

She looked in her wing mirror. “He’s waiting for you to go.”

“I was waiting for him.”

“They like to follow for a while.”

The cruiser stayed with them for a few miles before turning off at the next exit. She could see Gerry was feeling a little easier now. He shifted his hands to the top of the steering wheel and held it like he was driving NASCAR.

“Tell me again what we do if we get him home.” She resumed scrolling on her phone.

He sighed. “We take him through the garage into the kitchen, then onto the stair-lift up to his room. We lay him on his bed just as he is and call 9-1-1.”

“And tell them he died while we were visiting our son in Buffalo.”

“Who’s gonna know otherwise?”

“They’re gonna know at the border. They have a record of us crossing into the US over a week ago and they’ll have another of us trying to come back into Canada tonight. Not exactly an overnight in Buffalo.”

“Gary’ll confirm our story. Home death. What are you looking up now?”

“According to this source, he’ll already be stiffening up by the time we get him home.” She pointed at the sign ahead of them. “I need a washroom. Can we stop here please?”

“Can you hang on? I want to get him home before he starts to smell.”

“With the A/C set at frigid he should be good for a few more hours. But I have to pee. Please, Gerry.”

“Okay, you’ve got five minutes. I need more of those pills anyway.”

“You sure you’re feeling okay?”

“I’m stressed, you know? Stressed? Like I’m making all the decisions here. So would you stop asking?”

He pulled into a parking spot and killed the engine. “See you back here in five.”

Making her way to the washroom, she thought about Gerry wanting to involve their son in the lie. He was right about Gary. He had his father’s genes, and his father’s before him. Devious, irascible and miserly, the three of them.

She missed Danielle. Up in North Bay now. A teacher, and a good one, but like her mother, she lacked ambition. “I’m happy in the classroom, Mom, it’s that simple.” She would be appalled by what Karen was doing, but having herself been bruised by her father’s intransigence she might understand.

He was pacing at the bottom of the stairs when she came out of the washroom. He looked more than usually agitated, she thought. Panic-stricken, in fact.

He waved when he saw her and called out. “The van’s gone.” People turned to look at him.

She hurried up to him. “You’re joking, right?”

“Someone’s taken it. I went to where we parked and it’s gone.” He glared at her like it was her fault.

Someone’s taken it. I went to where we parked and it’s gone.

She suppressed a smile when she thought of the thief finding that he’d made off with a dead body inside the vehicle. “You didn’t leave the keys inside, did you?”

He waved them in her face. She could see the perspiration on his brow, and he seemed almost to be hyperventilating, his mouth opening and closing like a landed carp.

“We have to report it.”

“We can’t. Police find the car they find the body.” He took a couple of deep breaths. “Okay, wait. We’ll say when the guy drove off Dad must have woken up and had a heart attack.”

He glanced around the atrium as if a better solution might be had at one of the fast-food outlets. Then he started up the stairs.

“Where are you going?”

“The parking lot.”

“What?” She followed him up the stairs and along the pedestrian bridge that crossed the thruway. What the hell he was thinking? This was becoming more bizarre by the minute. Descending the stairs on the other side she realized what was happening.

When she came out the door he was standing in an empty parking space not far from the entrance.

He pointed at his feet. “Okay, this is where we parked.”

She shook her head.

“Of course it is. Goddammit.” A couple glanced at him as they walked past.

“Gerry, can I ask you something?”

“What?”

“If this is where we parked, then why are we heading back to Erie?” She pointed down the exit ramp that led to the thruway.

“What are you talking about?” He turned to look.

“The sign out of here says I-90 to Erie and Pittsburgh. This side is for cars going west. We’re going east, so we parked in the lot on the other side of the thruway. Identical parking lots, matching ramps. You got disoriented, that’s all.”

He stared into the darkness for a moment, then grunted and went back inside. They found the minivan where he had parked it. Griffith sat undisturbed in the back seat.

The lineup at the border wasn’t bad for a Saturday evening. They took their place in a lane.

She watched the drivers on either side inching forward and gazing into their phones or idly checking out the cars beside them. Gerry took a couple of deep breaths and felt in his pocket for the analgesics. He chewed two tablets and took a gulp from his water bottle. She didn’t ask him how he felt.

He spoke without looking in her direction.

“Remember. We tell them the truth—where we’ve been, how long away, all that. You have the passports. Nothing to declare. If they want to talk to Dad, I’ll handle it.”

“Can you turn off the A/C for a few minutes? It’s freezing in here.”

“No way. We have to keep him cold. Okay, hand me the passports, will you.”

At least the A/C would keep her husband from overheating as well. She sprayed more perfume over her shoulder, then gave him the passports.

When his turn came he drew up to the booth and opened his window. “Evening, ma’am.” He passed the documents across to the customs officer.

She was young. A strong face and steady eyes. Dark hair. She looked a little intimidating, but then she thought that about anyone in uniform. Not to be messed with.

The officer scanned their passports and asked the usual questions, angling her head slightly as she looked at Gerry. He was making an obvious effort to control his voice, breathing audibly between answers. He wiped his forehead at one point, pretending to run his hand through his hair.

“What was the purpose of your visit?”

“We took my dad for a holiday. He’d never been to Florida, so we took him. He’s asleep now. Been a long drive back.”

“Can you lower the back window, please, sir?”

He looked straight ahead and pressed the button.

The officer leaned out of the booth as she spoke. “So how was Florida, Mr. Cole?” Her voice had an edge.

“He’s asleep, I’m afraid. He has this condition—”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I need your father to respond.” She shone her flashlight into the old man’s face. “How long has he been asleep?”

“Maybe an hour. He drops off all the time because of his narcolepsy.”

“He’s narcoleptic?”

“He hardly sleeps at night and makes up for it during the day. It’s why we took him on holiday. Give him a change of scene.”

She stepped out of the booth and stood by the open window. Karen peered over her shoulder and watched the woman place the back of her hand against the dead man’s face. Then she held two fingers at his throat. She returned to her booth, scribbled something on a card and held it out to Gerry. “Please drive your vehicle to that building on your right, sir, and park in front.” She pointed. “Give this to the officer inside.”

He took the card. “Is something wrong?”

“Your father’s dead, sir. He’s cold as ice and he has no pulse.”

“No, he’s—”

“He’s been dead for some time. Please report to the office.”

Karen turned to the front and stared through the windshield. She hoped Gerry wasn’t thinking to make a dash for it. Two cruisers were parked outside the customs office.

He drove up to the building and switched off the engine. An RCMP officer stood at the top of the steps.

“Okay, Karen, we need to discuss this before we go in.”

“Too late.” She nodded towards the officer now coming down the steps.

Gerry swore, then lowered his window. “Hi.” His voice sounded small.

“Can you follow me inside please? Bring your passports. We have to impound your vehicle so we can conduct a search.” He held out his hand for the keys.

Gerry gave them to him, then followed him up the steps.

Walking behind her husband she felt herself disappearing again.

The officer showed them into a room where a customs official and another constable were waiting. The officer who had escorted them closed the door and stood to one side.

The customs official spoke.

“Mr. and Mrs. Cole, a doctor will be examining the body in the back seat of your vehicle. You say this was the father of one of you?”

“Mine. We had no idea…”

“Mr. Cole, I have to inform you it’s a criminal offense to attempt to bring a deceased person into the country without the required documentation.”

“Yes, I realize that now. You see, my wife and I discussed this….”

Karen interrupted, looking directly at her husband as she spoke. “We wanted to get Mr. Cole home without the delay and expense of reporting his death. It was wrong and we made a bad decision. That’s all.”

The firmness of her voice surprised her.

“So, you knew he was dead.” The officer was responding to her but looking at Gerry.

“Yes.”

Gerry stared at her, his face gone suddenly loose. He was trembling.

“Mr. Cole?”

He moved towards Karen, eyes wide, his face deflating like his skull had shrunk. Then he clutched his right arm. It was like a bad charade of what she knew was actually happening to him.

She grabbed him and lowered him into a chair. His face was white and his hand felt clammy. “It’s a heart attack. Can you call an ambulance?”

◆◆◆

The two paramedics attended to him in the back of the ambulance. He was attached to a respirator and they kept checking the monitor for his vital signs. A New York State trooper sat in front with the driver.

She had called Danielle and Gary to let them know. Their grandfather had died on their way back from Florida and now their father was critical. Gary lived close to Buffalo General and said he would drive to the hospital right away. Danielle would keep the phone by her. “Are you okay, Mom?”

Yes, she was okay. She felt ready for this. It seemed to her to have been inevitable, though she wasn’t sure when she first felt that. Maybe when she discovered that Griffith was dead in the back seat. Had she imagined then that Gerry, so like his father in so many ways, would be bound to follow? Or, God forbid, had she wished it? In any case, she felt okay.

She returned from her reverie to realize that the paramedics had been urgently working, then stopped. One of them said something to the driver. He switched off the siren.

The other paramedic looked at her and slowly shook his head.

She had two to take across the river now, and it amused her to think that both men had already gone over to the other side. Crossed the bar, as it were, the Peace Bridge over the River Styx.

Gary would meet her at the hospital, but she would be the one to sign the papers and decide on the arrangements.

After all that, she would be free again.

Liberated at last.