THE HEARSE YOU CAME IN ON
I was going along just fine, solemnly chaperoning the dead into their graves and pretty much otherwise minding my own business when the woman calling herself Carolyn James stuck her halfway pretty face into my life and scattered all hell to the wind.
Of course thats the way life works, isnt it. They say something as simple as a well-placed sneeze by the right person at just the right moment can change the course of history. I can believe that. Life is funny that way. My ex-wife is a born again Buddhist (among several other provocative things), and she likens the course of life to one long stumbling forward. The quality of the life, she says, is a matter of how adroitly you negotiate the ten thousand obstacles that come into your path as you stumble along. At the end of life, of course...you will finally fall down. Cant avoid it. The final stumble. Now I dont happen to think that this is necessarily certified Buddhist rhetoric, but why split hairs. It gets the point across.
And my point is simply that I was stumbling along just fine in my little old life when with no warning whatsoever an obstacle in a tennis dress and a baggy sweater stepped in front of me and put my adroitness to the test. It might not have been the sneeze that changed the world, but it sure as hell pitched me forward, I can tell you that.
Im thirty-four years old and six foot three. Thats way too young to fall down. And way too far to drop.
On this particular day of my stumbling forwardit was a Wednesday, it was MayAunt Billie and I were holding a wake, in Parlor One. The funeral home that I operate with my aunt is located in a section of Baltimore known as Fells Point. Its an area where I spent most of my so-called formative years, a largely working class neighborhood that hugs a jagged corner of the Baltimore harbor just a mile or so east of the downtown. Our establishment is several blocks in from the harbor itself, down past the string of small shops and bars that line the waterfront there. As somebody is always bringing up the irony of our being just a stones throw from a bar called The Dead Endwhich is the last bar on the stretchIll bring it up now. No, were not affiliated. We were here first. My ugly Uncle Stu started the business soon after World War II, where he saw considerable action, including the Normandy invasion. Although one might conjecture that the idea of becoming a mortician was some sort of cathartic response to the horrific sight of so many bodies lying about, the truth is considerably less psychological. According to family legend, ugly Uncle Stus decision came after he was handed the bill for his fathers funeral. Whether as a hedge against having to pay through the nose for his own eventual internment or just as a nifty new way to turn a buck, family legend vacillates. Despite the fact that my aunt and uncle were childless, they named their establishment Sewell & Sons Family Funeral Home. This was Billies idea. She injected into the business the much needed warm and fuzzy that my uncle sorely lacked. In fact it is certain that without Aunt Billie on hand to mitigate ugly Uncle Stus generally crappy people skills, Sewell & Sons Family Funeral Home would have probably gone under in its very first year. Pun intended.
Were a remarkably nondescript establishment on a remarkably nondescript block of largelyyesnondescript flagstone rowhouses. You could be leaning up against the wall of Sewell & Sons smoking a cigarette and planning a bank robbery and not even realize that youre leaning against the side of a funeral home. Were a modest operation, with two parlors and two full time employees, myself and Aunt Billie. Were both certified morticians, which means were licensed to do all the things with the bodies that most people dont want to hear about. Even so, if you are looking for an especially grim experience in the viewing and burying or cremating of your loved one, you probably wouldnt make Sewell & Sons your first choice. Its not that Billie and I go about our business wearing clown noses. We are professionals, after all. But Billie is a refugee from Old South aristocracy, and she maintains that regions and that classs peculiar relationship with death, which is generally more congenial and accommodating than you find elsewhere. And as Billie raised me, a good share of her influence has seeped into me. Its this convivial relationship with death that that, I think, spawns a certain breeziness that can be a little off-putting to some people. Happily, there are plenty of other funeral homes around. You can take your pick.
Our dead guest of honor this particular day was a retired firefighter from Towson, which is just north of the city. He had died of natural causesif cancer is a natural cause - and his widow had informed Aunt Billie that he would be drawing a modest-sized crowd. Theres a hard plastic curtain on runners that divides the two parlors. On those occasions where we expect an overflow crowd, we pull the curtain open to create one large room. The wake for my parents for example. That had been a big turn-out. A standing-room-only affair. This one wasnt.
Aunt Billie was handling the firemans funeral. We trade off. I was sitting in my office just off the front lobby, feet up on my desk, reading the obituaries (kidding). Actually, I was reading a copy of the Thornton Wilder play Our Town, for reasons that Ill explain later. I was in a cranky mood. And a restless one. I had probably picked the play up and set the play down and sighed and then picked it back up again (down again, sigh again) about a dozen times already before I finally just tossed the thing aside and decided to check out the action in Parlor One.
The joint was jumping. Seniors and semi-seniors (what Billie and I call Aarpies) were milling about the room, clustering here and there, speaking in low voices, cupping each others hands and very studiously avoiding the guest of honorMr. Weatherbywho was off at the far end of the room laid out in his coffin (the Embassy model; very popular), as dead as dead could be. My cranky countenance wouldnt do here. I set my face and moved solicitously about the room. I think Ive mentioned already that Im a handsome fellow. If not, Im mentioning it now. Black hair. Blue eyes. Pretty good skin. Dynamite chin. Ive been told that I look like one of those TV doctors who are constantly mixing it up with his attractive patients. Its a fantastic face for this profession. Puts people at ease. If I had a nickel for every you dont look like an undertaker Ive heard Id tell Donald Trump he can stop shining my shoes now and get back to whatever he was up to before I hired him. Seriously. Im not meaning to sound smug about any of this. Im simply saying that people are always surprised when they hear what I do for a living. You do what? The fact remains, my sympathetic looking mug comes in handy when Im working the room.
Mr. Weatherbys was a quiet
crowd. I squeezed a few hands and was assured each time that the retired
firefighter had been a good man. Thats pretty standard. Its only the
occasional live wire who sidles up to tell you that the recently deceased
was a no good son-of-a-bitch.
The woman was about five-nine or five-ten or five-nine and a half. She was dressed in an over-sized navy blue sweater and a short-short-short white pleated skirt from which a very nice pair of matching legs extended several miles down into a plain white pair of tennis shoes. Womens size eight, Id say. White anklets with rabbit tails completed the portrait. De riguer garb for a wake, no question about it. Her haircoal black with a touch of cranberryfell in unbrushed waves to her shoulders and at the moment was obscuring her face. One hand was resting lightly on the foot of the coffin. The other hand was rising up toward the hidden face as a shudder went suddenly through her shoulders...and she sneezed.
Allergies, she would tell me later. To flowers and to death.
I stumbled forward.
She looked up as I approached. No. Thats not quite right. What she did was she flicked her head, like someone who has just heard a gun go off, and nailed me with a pair of hot hazel eyes. I nearly tripped on a piece of air. The look that she was giving me was somewhere between the deer-in-the-crosshairs and the one holding the rifle. She had a halfway pretty facemore than halfwaysomewhat heart-shaped, with a pointed chin, a smallish red mouth and a terrifically sexy Roman nose. The eyes were deeply set, large and currently mistrusting. Because Im tall and she was tall I took a nanosecond to imagine the two of us happily married and raising a batch of tall mistrusting children together. Then I held out my hand and introduced myself.
Hello, Im Hitchcock Sewell.
She inspected my face for a second and then gave me her hand. The one from the coffin, not the one she had just sneezed into. Color flashed across her cheeks like lightning just below the surface and she wavered slightly, holding on to my hand a fraction too long, to steady herself. I watched as that peculiar defiance/shame combination criss-crossed her expression and I knew that the mother of my future tall mistrusting children had been drinking. She let go of my hand and returned hers to the coffin.
Thats a funny name, she said.
Which of course Ive heard a thousand times before. She looked down at Mr. Weatherby.
Did you know him well, I asked.
She shook her head slightly, letting out a soft sigh, then looked back up at me. I was trying to read her face, but it was a difficult translation. Grim comes to mind.
Ive never seen him before in my life, she announced.
There was a touch of defiance in her tone, as well as in the way she squared off in front of me. Her eyes flittered around the room.
Is that his wife?
Aunt Billie was still jawing with Mrs. Weatherby over by the plastic curtain. They had been joined by an animated ostrich with Coke bottle glasses who was apparently taking her tongue out for a walk.
Yes. Thats her.
I have to say something.
Its not necessary.
Of course its necessary,
she snapped. I cant just wander in and wander out like I own the place.
Actually, its a wake.
You know what I mean. She looked over in the direction of the door. Can you get me out of here?
She took a steadying step forward. At least that was the idea. Her shoulder grazed the horseshoe bouquet and we both snatched at it to keep it from toppling. I reached for her elbow. Instinctively, she drew back.
Im not a little old lady.
But you are a little unsteady. She tried to glare at me, but apparently her fire was going out.
I havent had a good day, She sounded defeated.
If it means anything, I said diplomatically, I havent either. What say we scram. I held out my arm again. Im a sucker for cheap theatrics sometimes, I admit it. She hesitated. Its an arm, I said. Arms dont bite.
She flashed me a peeved look and slid her arm though mine. We stepped away from the coffin, long tall me in my dark suit, long tall she in her short, short skirt. You really never know where life is going to lead you, moment to moment. Several centuries of heads turned in our direction as we crossed the room. As Mrs. Weatherby looked up, the woman on my arm hissed at me. What do I say?
Tell her he was a good man. That seems to be the consensus.
He was a fireman. Tell her that he rescued your cat from a tree a long time ago and that youve never forgotten him.
Could we maybe find something a little cornier?
I dont think so. Not on such short notice.
As we approached, the ostrich was going on about some sort of carpeting trauma she had recently experienced. I could see that Billie was grateful for my arrival. I silenced the ostrich with the sheer force of my interruption.
Mrs. Weatherby, Im Hitchcock
Sewell, Billies nephew. Im terribly sorry for your loss. Mrs. Weatherby
muttered something in response. I missed it altogether. I swung my mystery
guest into place.
Carolyn James. Her expression softened beautifully as she took hold of the womans hand. Im so sorry. Your husband was...you dont know me. He...I...I had a cat.
I came to the rescue.
Your husband rescued Miss Jamess cat some years ago. I explained. He saved her from a...burning house. The cat was pregnant. Miss James was so grateful to your husband that she named one of the kittens Weatherby. In his honor. She happened to see the notice in the paper this afternoon right after a set of tennis and she just had to rush over here and pay her respects.
The widow muttered something in response. I missed it altogether. She had not let go of Carolyn James hand.
Aunt Billie piped up, That was very thoughtful of you, Miss James. She added her hand atop the others. I resisted the urge to pile on.
Carolyn James stammered, He was...a good man. Im very...Im sorry. Billie flashed a get-her-the-hell-out-of-here look and I drew Carolyn James back from the gals. As we headed for the door, she muttered, What the hell was that about the pregnant cat?
I was nodding solemnly at a ghostly couple who were just coming into the room. I spoke under my breath. Its a good story. Itll give her something to tell around the bridge table.
Out in the lobby I asked Carolyn James if she wanted to sign the guest book. We keep one on a gold-plated stand in case people want to comment on what a rousing good time they had. She declined.
I think Ill just disappear quietly, she said, turning away from me and stepping over to the door. I trailed her. We reached for the doorknob simultaneously. I got there first, and held onto it. She looked angry.
Id like to leave. Could you let go of the door.
Of course. But let me ask you something, I said. Do you think, just possibly, that maybe you owe me an explanation? I mean, before you disappear quietly maybe youd like to tell me why you wandered in here in the first place? We dont get many drop-ins.
Id rather not, she said. But when I refused to release the doorknob she relented. She looked up at me; I could see faint yellow starbursts pulsing in her eyes.
I apologize for crashing your party, Mr. Sewell.
It wont happen again.
I gave a little shrug. Youre always welcome.
Her eyes narrowed then and she checked me out closely, one eye at a time.
It was impulsive, my coming in here. I stopped in to see...to see about arranging a funeral.
Thats it? Well of course. Why all the fuss? Im sorry. Look, my office is right here. Why dont we- "
I changed my mind.
She gave her head a little flip and glared hotly at me.
Can I go now?
Absolutely. As I pulled the door open for her, I asked, May I inquire as to who it was you were wanting to bury, Miss James?
The lava shifted in her eyes.
Yes, she said. Me. I want you to bury me.