by Michael Cocchiarale

I was there for Dad, to collect a vacuum that wasn’t picking up. In front of me, a coarse stone of a man waved a newspaper in the funeral director’s face. There was some dispute—words, less and less polite.

The man’s daughter, a cloying wave of blue, swept me toward a closed casket. ‘You know how to play?’ she asked, charming as could be.

The father made it clear he was not going to pay for a death notice that left out the name of the dearly departed’s wife. ‘My aunt was married to this stupid ass for fifty-one years,’ he spat. ‘Least she deserves is some damn credit.’

As she flit fingers across the smooth brown wood, the girl crooned about love tonight. Couldn’t I just feel it?

‘That’s no piano.’

She sneezed. She tugged at the hips of her fancy blue dress. ‘You’re no fun.’

Last night—a shovelful of hours ago—Ash called to announce the need for space. ‘Two weeks,’ she said, like Mom, when she’d been around to ground me.

‘And then?’ I’d asked, my voice crumbling.

Silence—a black hole. Like fingers, my words crawled up the long darkness of the phone line toward a surface I knew would never come.

The girl plunked a key, sang waveringly of sadness and love, of hope and despair—“The Circle of Life,” in case I didn’t know. I studied her plump face, the way fat arms shot from the elegant sleeves of that stupid blue dress. It made me glad to think her adolescence would not be kind.

At last, the father got his way. ‘Fifty-one years,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘You tell me that’s not a fate worse than death.’

The director nodded. ‘The corrected notice will appear in tomorrow’s paper.’

Grumbling, the father strode toward the door, and the girl followed, tickling ivories in the air.

The director turned to me. ‘May I help you?’

‘Um, Kozak Cleaners.’

His eyes became specks.

‘I’m here for the vacuum?’

He brushed the air like a suit with his hand. At the back of the room stood the Hoover, a plump and silent judge.

‘What’s wrong with it?’

‘Well, let’s see, it ran and ran and then there was this spectacular poof of dust.’

‘Did you check the bag? Sometimes there’s too much—’

‘Aren’t you just the errand boy?’

I winced, head filling with my last look at Ash—crossed arms, elsewhere eyes, those snug catalog clothes. A so-long song brooded through the food court speakers at the mall. I bit my tongue and handed the director his claim check. ‘We will call you with an estimate.’

He smiled. ‘Cheaper to buy new, I bet.’

‘We’re family owned.’ For the first time that day, Ash gave way to Dad alone, mask over mouth, carcass of a cleaner on the bench, the ping of bearings as they hit the concrete floor. ‘If you,’ I said. ‘With all that’s. . .we’re just trying to make ends meet!’

‘Sorry, son.’ The director forced a thumb between tie knot and neck. ‘It’s been a long day.’

I wiped my face, imagining everything that pressed against the zipper of the vacuum’s bag. Somewhere above, a clock chimed, and my thoughts poured into the long, colorless space between door and car. Between car and shop. Shop and home. Fork and lips. Pillow and sleep. Love and self-pity. As I carried the cleaner to the car, my days and nights filled with so many holes that I hardly saw how I’d have room for them all.

Michael Cocchiarale is the author of two short story collections, Still Time (Fomite, 2012) and Here Is Ware (Fomite, 2018), as well as the novel None of the Above (Unsolicited Press, 2019). For more information about his work, check out his website: