March 19, 2013 Fiction










Mary J. Breen


The parking lot was filling up around me, their headlights bouncing off my rear-view mirror. I sat gobbling my maple-dip donut and watching one old person after another make their way towards the lighted pathway. Just ahead of me, a tiny couple launched themselves out of an ancient white Cadillac, linked arms, and rocked away in unison, picking their way around the frozen puddles. The clock on the dashboard said 7:37; I couldn’t delay it any longer. All I had to do was get through the wake tonight and the funeral tomorrow and I could be gone by lunch. Short and sweet. Hello Gerald. Good-bye Roberta. And no time to talk about Paul.

I drained the last of my coffee, and thought of Lowell who drinks only revolting medicinal teas, and is forever warning us of the perils of caffeine and saturated fats. The younger ones at the bank love showing him the rich, gooey sandwiches and desserts they bring back from the deli, making him—every single time—purse his lips and say, “Think of your arteries, girls!” Lowell said I must call him the very moment I arrived as he’d be desperately worried, and if he hadn’t gone on to explain why I should call him, I’d probably have been touched by his concern, but then he went on to reveal that his concern was actually for the “negative health effects” of stress on him! The logic of a mortgage officer. Well, it was now 7:42; no time to call now. Speaking of stress, I knew Gerald would be in there glancing down the hall every time the door opened, checking his watch, tapping it to make sure it was still running.

McNabb’s Funeral Parlour had certainly come up in the world. Now you could mistake it for a classy restaurant with its shrub-lined walkway, glassed-in porch, and tasteful sign, not the kind of place where you’d expect to find the dead. But then marriage is no longer the kind of place you can always expect to find a husband either. As I pushed open the heavy inner door, the smell of fake flowers rushed at me along with a faint charred smell I didn’t want to think about. A busy organ was playing in the background. I hung up my coat, and turned to a long hallway lined with beige walls, beige carpets, and beige drapes. The chairs and side tables seemed to float in space; maybe the effect was intentional.

I headed for the Ladies where I discovered my suit was even more wrinkled than I feared. My lapel had a little grease spot, and my hair looked limper than ever. If death hadn’t stopped her, this would have given Roberta a perfect opportunity to point out that I looked like a tired mouse. “No pizzazz, Maureen! None at all.” Well, this time she was right. I wondered what she’d have thought of Cindy. Cindy probably has tons of pizzazz.

Just in time, I remembered my wedding band. Sliding it onto my finger gave my heart more of a lurch than I’d expected. I swear my hand relaxed as it rebalanced itself against that familiar little weight. Of course it also reminded me of Paul, and that gave me another pang of guilt for not calling him about Roberta.

I took one more look in the mirror, and headed out. An elderly black-suited man was waiting in the hall, hands clasped. He bowed a greeting. “And whom are we visiting on this sad, sad day?” I pointed to the room at the end of the hall where I could see my uncle talking to an old woman. Gerald looked up, patted the woman’s hands, and rushed towards me, arms outstretched.

“Maureen, honey, you look tired,” he said.

“Well, yes,” I said. “A bit. Freezing rain down near the lake. But never mind. I made it. How are you, Gerald?”

He made a so-so sign with his hands. “No sign of Paul?”

I shook my head.

“Well, that’s a shame,” he said. “He and Robbie always got along. Don’t forget—you’re still married in the eyes of God.” I said nothing. It seemed to me God hadn’t been looking much lately.

Gerald put his arm through mine, and we walked over to Roberta’s casket. I hesitated for a second before joining him on the prie-dieu. Beside me stood two baskets of lilies and carnations, and a little pile of Mass Cards.

Since I wasn’t praying, I made myself look at Roberta sunken in among the pink satin, her face a disconcerting shade of blue thanks to a fluorescent electric cross tucked inside the lid. She looked no bigger than a ten-year-old, the age I’d been when she and Gerald had moved back to live with us in my grandmother’s house. I remember the big posters lining their bedroom walls: “Live at The Royal York. The Velvet Tones!” Roberta in her Grace Kelly dresses and high heels holding on to a huge mike, and Gerald at the piano with his narrow tie and dark suit, hands poised above the keys. Big smiles all around. But then came television, and soon most of Roberta and Gerald’s fans had deserted them. The Velvet Tones gave up The Big Time and moved home, Gerald to work as a self-taught landscape gardener, and Roberta to being wife to a man whose nails were never clean again.

And now her little hands didn’t look very good either, bruised and blotchy, her knobbly fingers threaded through with an old chipped rosary. I looked at her tight, down-turned mouth, and wished I could tell Paul that she seemed to be finding the next life just as disappointing as the last. He’d have laughed in that way he had, throwing his head back as if every single one of my jokes was the best he’d ever heard. If only Paul hadn’t decided he needed a new van last summer. If only he hadn’t gone to that new dealership out along the Danforth. If only he hadn’t gone to that new dealership where they had “a lady salesman!” “Saleswoman,” I’d said. “Whatever,” he’d said. “Imagine! A woman who knows exactly what I want!” Then, just before Christmas, Paul had driven off in his nice new van to live with Cindy, his nice new car salesman-woman. And that was that.

Seeing Roberta lying dead stirred up no sadness for me. In fact, it occurred to me that the only truly sad part of Roberta’s death was that it wasn’t sad. Her departure wouldn’t leave a hole in anyone’s life, including Gerald’s—not with how she treated him. Before I let myself think about how small a hole my death would leave in anyone’s life, I made myself look at her again. I wondered how it was that anyone ever mistook the living for the dead. A history teacher once told us that in medieval England someone would tie a string around the wrist of the buried person, lead it up through the coffin lid to ground level, and tie a bell on the other end. Some unfortunate had the job of sitting the ‘graveyard shift’ and listening for the tinkling of a bell. I wonder how many people were actually ‘saved by the bell.’ Maybe people died less convincingly then because there was no doubt that Roberta was dead. She would never have agreed to be here without her blonde poofy wig, and wearing a shiny red, yellow, and purple flowered dress. No pearls, no rhinestone earrings, and no giant cameo rings. This was not Roberta’s idea of an appropriate outfit for her final curtain call.

Gerald blessed himself, and leaned towards me. “That’s the wrong dress, I know,” he whispered. “I heard that old bat, Viola Taylor, say, ‘Why did he go and put that perfectly awful thing on her?’ but Lena Barrett sewed it for her, and Lena was so good to us all those years—even when Robbie was so testy—that when Lena dropped in with a casserole for me the other night and reminded me how much Robbie’d loved that dress—God knows why—that’s the one I chose. Oh well, it doesn’t matter.” He sighed. “None of this matters.”

Before I could tell him I thought absolutely he’d done the right thing, a voice boomed across the room. “My soul, Maureen Feeney!” Gerald and I got to our feet as the two round Hennessy sisters approached, each with a rosary wound through an outstretched hand. The Loud and The Quiet everyone called them.

“Hello Gerald!” The Loud roared as she pressed the sharp crystal beads into my fingers. “Poor Roberta. Gone at last. She had quite a go of it! Cold tonight! Cold for April. How are you, Maureen? Still in Toronto? Long drive. Freezing rain overnight. Where’s Paul?” She looked around as if Paul had the habit of lying about on funeral home floors. The Quiet smiled and nodded enthusiastically.

Before The Loud could go on, Gerald stepped aside so there was nothing they could do but head for Roberta’s casket. Soon they were struggling to find kneeling room side by side, galoshes and ribbed stockings poking out from under their old muskrat coats. I turned away, and immediately a grey-haired woman introduced herself as my mother’s bank teller in her last years. I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

People kept arriving, and over the next hour, I was kept busy talking with people who knew Gerald and Roberta, or my mother, or even me a hundred years ago in high school. For one awful moment I thought I saw Paul, but it was just someone with the exact same ski jacket I’d bought him last winter. Every single person asked me how Paul was, where he was, how his business was doing. The only thing they wanted to know about me was when I was moving back home to look after Gerald. Ah well, I thought, by noon tomorrow I’ll be on my way, far from any more reminders of what should have been.

Finally the clock in the hall chimed nine. The lights dimmed, and the organist stopped mid-bar. The last few people said their good-byes to Gerald, and a young man in a dark suit glided in, coughed discreetly, and took up his post by the door. Gerald said, “Let’s say goodbye to Robbie before we go.” I could feel his arm trembling against me as we stood in front of the coffin. “What—” his voice faltered, “what will I do with myself now that I don’t, now that I don’t have—?”

“Well, Gerald,” I said, “I’m no expert on coping on your own, but everyone tells me time is the great healer. One day at a time. Just be sure you ignore all those idiots who babble on about ‘closure’.”

Gerald looked puzzled.

“Oh, people are always saying how we need to ‘achieve closure’—people who don’t have a clue, people who seem to think there’s something wrong with you if you haven’t moved on within five minutes of some devastating event. It’s ludicrous!” I realized my voice had risen, and Gerald was looking a little alarmed. “Sorry, Gerald, sorry. It’s just my thing. Never mind.” I was whispering now, trying to make up for my outburst. “Maybe you could get a pet for company. You always used to talk about getting a little terrier. And you could play bridge morning, noon, and night.” I tried to smile. “You’re only, what, sixty-eight, sixty-nine? You’ve got years ahead.” Happy years, peaceful, free-at-last-without-Roberta years, I wanted to say.

“Seventy-three, Maureen. In February,” he smiled sadly and sniffed. “But—but—what’ll I do without her? I know she was a handful, but she was my wife. We were married for fifty-five years!”

I was getting confused. I’d been expecting signs of relief, but here was Gerald acting like I’d felt ever since Paul had left—abandoned at sea. Gerald patted his pockets for his cigarettes, and then let his arm fall when he remembered he’d have to wait.

The lights dimmed a little further. “Gerald,” I said, “we really should go. We’ll go back to the apartment, and I’ll make us some sandwiches and a stiff drink. How about it?” And I should call Lowell too, I thought. But I knew I wouldn’t. I realized I didn’t care if he worried all night long while he kept kidding himself that these were the trappings of love.

“I’ve had a lot of time to sit and think,” Gerald said. “These last few days, she didn’t even know I was there. I just sat beside her, and held her hand.”

A cruel rush of loneliness hit me as I remembered the time a few years ago when I’d had pneumonia, and Paul had sat by our bed for hours holding my hand. I could still remember the feel of his thick, strong fingers, the curly dark hair across his knuckles, the gold ring that I’d worried had been getting too tight.

“You know something, Maureen . . . I’ll tell you something . . . something I’ve never told anyone.” He took a deep breath. “Robbie wasn’t much for affection, you know, marital affection, but I remember one time years ago we’d been for a drive, north of here. It’s so pretty up there in the summer. Anyway, she reached over along the back of the seat, and touched my shoulder, and she left her hand right there most of the way home. Just on her own, without me asking or anything. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

I stood there wondering what I could possibly say, sharply aware once again of the awful tangle of hope and disappointment that marriages seem to be. The overhead lights switched off and on again, and an older man walked right up to us and said, “I’m sorry, Gerald, but—” Gerald nodded and said he was sorry too. I put my arm through his, and together we headed for the empty doorway.

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  1. Laurie Kolp March 20, at 22:57

    Susan, This is so vivid and unique... love the hummingbird. I actually felt his excitement for winning the game, which in the end surprised me with its unexpected twist.

  2. Susan March 19, at 18:21

    I enjoy the details of this story. I fully expected the girl to steal the groceries left on the table or the narrator to be accused of some kind of abusive approach to women, so I loved that the suspense led to a satisfied trip home and a counting of blessings!

    • Susan March 19, at 18:28

      I wrote this comment on "Corner Market" by Audrey Allen--not on my own work! I don't know why it appeared here. I am glad to be in the company of all the writers of March 2013 fiction and poetry. Thank you, Val and Tuck Magazine.


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