We were visiting from L.A., my friend Chris and I. We sat on the covered wood porch, nursing our bottles of beer with his uncles Mike and Johnnie. It was a quiet afternoon in the quiet town of Beaver Springs, Pennsylvania. The porch, belonging to Uncle Mike, who had built himself the A-frame house it was attached to, overlooked a pastoral, peanut-shaped lake. I noticed the hummingbird feeders — I counted seven total — hanging from a dead, sun-bleached tree looming on the bank.
“What’s up with all the feeders?” I asked.
“Those are ashes,” Uncle Mike said. “Of family.”
I didn’t know how to respond to this, the cremated remains of their loved ones dangling above the water from a barren branch… inside bird feeders. So I just nodded.
“Is my dad in one of them?” Chris asked, as casual as if he were simply asking about the weather. His father had died only the year before, and Chris seemed to accept this custom as, well, customary.
“Yeah,” Uncle Mike replied. “And your grandma too.”
“Aunt Jane’s in one,” Johnnie added. “And another’s Edju.”
“Two of ’em are our dogs. Buster and Corby.”
“I remember Buster,” my friend said. Chris had grown up here — it’s still hard for me to believe that — living in the other house on the property that he told me had been built before the Civil War.
“Corby was Uncle Ritchie’s dog,” Mike said. “You’d already gone when he got him.”
Chris nodded and sipped his beer. We all did the same.
I broke the short lull. “That’s six.”
“Hmm?” one of the uncles hummed.
“There’re seven feeders. Who’s the other one?”
“Hmm.” Mike appeared to do a mental inventory of the feeders’ contents before declaring, “Dunno. Johnnie, who’s in the other one?”
After a beat, Johnnie shook his head. “Prob’ly shoulda labeled ’em.”
Mike and Johnnie sat in their lawn chairs concentrating, eyes squinted and brows furrowed, as if trying to psychically call the spirits of their ancestors to answer the conundrum. Apparently, nobody picked up.
Mike huffed. “Who the fuck is it?”
Johnnie took charge. “Ritchie!” he hollered over his shoulder. “Ritchie, come out here!”
Uncle Ritchie, the oldest of the three brothers and the only one of them not sporting an unruly beard, opened the squeaky storm door and joined us on the porch. He was eating a pear.
“We’re trying to figure out everybody in them feeders,” Johnnie explained. “We got Jane, Henry, Edju, Anna, Corby, and Buster. Can’t remember the other one.”
Ritchie mulled it over a moment. “Henry?”
Ritchie grabbed a beer from the cooler. “Henry. Edju. Buster and Corby. Jane and Anna.”
“There’s one more.”
“You sure?” Ritchie asked.
“There’s seven feeders. Somebody’s unaccounted for.”
“Maybe,” I posed, “it’s another of your dogs?”
All three uncles shook their heads. They knew their dogs, doggone it.
“Who the fuck is it?” Mike blurted again.
We spent some more time, silent and solemn, staring out across the lake. Then we each took a swig of our beers, a tacit toast to Edju, Anna, Jane, Henry, Buster, Corby, and whoever the fuck the other one was, gently swaying in the autumn breeze.