On a cloudless morning in the Spring of his 60th year, famed architect, D.B. Welk, awoke, stepped onto his ocean front porch on the west end of Oak Island, North Carolina, stared at the lightly lapping waves and decided he wanted to design and purchase his headstone.
Welk was not unwell, in fact, he was happier and healthier than he’d been in years. He had not considered a return to architecture since the fiasco in Myrtle Beach, deciding it was his favorite work, no matter how ridiculous some believed it to be.
He was proven right when his pandemic inspired “Welk Aquarium Tower”—an ostentatious hotel in which every other room was an aquarium—became not only the most visited building in South Carolina, but the most visited building in The United States.
When this figure became official, Welk received a phone call from his nemesis, Myrtle Beach Mayor, Hammond Riley.
“Hammond,” Welk said, drinking a Mojito with fresh mint he’d muddled. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Welk,” Hammond said. “I’ll make this short because I don’t care for you, and I’m well aware the feeling is mutual.”
“Whatever do you mean, Hammond?” Welk said. “I think you’re a lovely man.”
There was a lengthy pause on the line.
“It can’t be overstated how much the tower has meant to Myrtle Beach,” Hammond Riley finally said. “I thank you, the city thanks you, and most importantly, Welk, I was wrong.”
“Thank you, Hammond,” Welk said, and promptly hung up.
Welk then called his father, Hank Welk, who ran the largest architectural firm in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
A secretary answered, “Hank Welk’s office.”
“It’s his son,” Welk replied.
After a lengthy wait, Hank Welk came onto the line, “Now what have you done?”
“Good afternoon, father,” Welk said. “How are you?”
“I’m 92,” Hank responded. “How in the hell do you think I am?”
“I thought you might like to know that the Welk Aquarium Tower was recently confirmed as the most visited building in America by Architectural Digest.”
“The building I designed in Myrtle Beach.”
“Ah, the monstrosity,” Hank chuckled. “Does this distinction come with any monetary reward?”
“Well, no,” Welk stuttered, “But I was paid 2 million dollars for the project.”
“My firm profited 47 million dollars last year alone.”
“It’s not my intention to get into a pissing contest with you, father.”
“Well, that’s a relief because at my age it’s a miracle when I can piss at all,” Hank said. “Is there anything else?”
“No, dad,” Welk said. “That was the reason for my call.”
When Welk sat at his computer and searched how to design and purchase a headstone, he realized how much he’d failed to consider. Most notably, he’d given little thought to where he wanted to be buried. He had only drinking buddies on Oak Island and didn’t attend church. He had no connection to his mother’s family. There was the family plot in downtown Chattanooga, perched upon a hill overlooking the Tennessee River, where seven generations of Welks were buried, but he couldn’t fathom spending eternity in such proximity to his father.
By the time he finished reading about cemetery specific bylaws and the intricacies of concrete foundation requirements, he’d had enough. His headstone dream was shattered like so much dropped and cracked granite. He poured a Lagavulin neat, though it was not yet midday, and placed a call to his ex-wife, Alice.
“Lagavulin, D.B.? At this hour?” Alice said.
“Hello, Alice,” Welk said. “It’s wonderful to hear your voice.”
“What could you possibly want?”
“I woke up this morning and felt compelled to design and purchase my headstone,” D.B. continued.
“Why?” Alice said. “Has some horrible disease come for you? You’re far too pompous to kill yourself, so this can’t be that…”
“How long has it been since we last spoke?”
“Not long enough.”
“Goodbye, Alice,” Welk said, and hung up.
Welk poured a second Lagavulin and returned to the calm seclusion of his oceanfront porch. His legs were slightly wobbly, his belly burnt pleasant from the drink and his thoughts floated thin in shrouded whimsy.
He sat in his rocking chair and watched the pelicans glide feet above the waves and considered calling his son, Carl, a satirical cartoonist whose work he did not understand, but knew Carl would be at his studio, engrossed in his work, and wouldn’t answer.
The sun offered a comforting warmth, but it was not hot. Pods of dolphins appeared offshore, surfacing, and reentering seamlessly. In the salt hazy distance, Welk could just make out the Ocean Crest Pier jutting into the sea. Beyond that, the Oak Island Lighthouse spired into cloudless sky.
Welk wandered down to the beach. He had nothing to do and no one to see so he decided he’d walk to the pier and then perhaps the lighthouse. There were plenty of spots along the way to refill his glass.
He passed a child digging through the shell bank at the water’s edge with a sifter. He’d done the same as a boy with his father. He coveted shark’s teeth then and found hundreds, but what he remembered most was how much life teemed where the water met the shore. Sand fleas, crabs, starfish, jellyfish carcasses, minnows trapped in small pools. He’d even caught a seahorse once, which he trapped in a jar and kept by his bed overnight. In the morning he let the seahorse go and even though he was a child felt some decency in releasing it.
What it all amounted to, under the not hot sun, cheeks rubbed soft by the ocean breeze, was the realization that the island was where Welk would ultimately rest and like so many endless clichés he too would become ash. And someone, who, he wasn’t sure—he’d lost everyone he’d ever loved—would be tasked with spreading what was once him amongst the sand and waves.
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