Ash Wednesday

I stuck my tongue in the stream of cold water pouring out of the gooseneck faucet in my kitchen and left it there as long as I could. It was a Wednesday morning, about 3:45 am.

It was more trouble than I thought to open the black plastic box that held my husband Dennis’ ashes for 8 years. There was an official letter taped to the front and I had to use a box cutter, but I finally got inside and pulled out a heavy plastic bag. I knew the next step might include spilling and clouding and inhaling, so I spread the kitchen counter with the sports page to please him.

The idea was to transfer his ashes into two or three Ziploc bags. Then, depending on the weight, put the bags into the bottom of a Bloomingdale’s shopping bag, hide them with pashminas, a thermos, a jacket, or whatever it took in case someone questioned. It is illegal to spread human ashes in a public place.

This turned out to be easier than I’d thought. About a tablespoonful spilled onto the newspaper and all I had to do was slide it into one of the bags.

Looking down at the little lump of ashes in the crease of the sports page, I wet my finger in my mouth, touched it to the ashes and put it on my tongue. As soon as my taste buds registered to my brain, I was sorry. The taste was salty and somehow viscous. It had nothing to do with the tempting scent of his breath or his seductive musky armpits. It jolted me into remembering that most of his cells, as they met the fire, were cancer or chemo or other awful things not to be put on your tongue. So, there I was, with my tongue under the tap.

I don’t even remember the drive in the dark to Lois’ loft. We head together to the morning workouts that happen every day while the track is in season, from 5 am to 10 am. You have to get there in the dark so you can see the steam coming from the horse’s nostrils and stand right by the rail to see that many of the exercise riders are women. Then the big orange sun comes up at the far right of the track making horses and riders into black silhouettes and turning the mountain backdrop from purple to pink.

It took years of quandary to realize that there is no place Dennis would rather have his ashes. My plan was to snip the corner of each Ziploc and make a hole in the shopping bag so that I could trail the ashes wherever I walked. But once I arrived, I realized hardly anyone was there, and since I’d been to the races last, they had planted a boxwood hedge at the very perimeter of the track. I opened the bags and blended the ashes deep into the hedge, where no one could see, and where they would mulch into the earth and the roots, as close as could be to every race, every day. Lois was my lookout.

Then we sat on a cold concrete garden bench by a big planter, watched the horses gallop and walk, some with their necks arched like seahorses.

We took some of the ashes up into the stands where Dennis’ father’s box had been for forty years and left some ashes there. I transferred the last of them to my empty Styrofoam coffee cup, a touch Dennis would have liked; no one would notice if a woman seemed to be emptying her cold coffee over the rail and into the hedge at the edge of the horseshoe-pocked dirt.

Later that afternoon, driving around and getting sleepy, I turned on the radio and found out it was Ash Wednesday, a day I had no attachment to as a Jewish woman who grew up in the Bible Belt surrounded by Protestants. In that moment, I remembered all the ashes Dennis tipped into his favorite ashtray while he continued his family’s ritual of studying the Racing Form the night before the races, with his box of Dunhill Red cigarettes next to the vodka glass. He liked being a man who smoked and drank and knew generations of equine details.

I wonder if he knew that only the head, heart, and hooves of winning horses are buried, and the rest is cremated.

Janet Albaugh lives in Los Angeles, CA, with her husband and dog. She has been a magazine staff writer, food editor, beauty editor, cookbook author and co-author, and writer of memoir. She can tap dance, loves asparagus, and despite calling LA home, hates to work out. Janet was formerly a writer for the LA Times, Los Angeles Magazine, and many more. She has been a co-author for great chefs in LA as well as writing a book about food with Chronicle Books. She has been most recently published in Folks, Woven Tale Press, and HuffPost Personal.