BY GARY BECK
This is the concluding part of a two-part story. Copyright is held by the author.
MR. WENDELL agreed to pick up the body at 9:00 am. Dr. Fairstone made sure that Sharina was all right and offered her a sedative. “I don’t need anything, thanks.”
“Then I’ll see you in the morning. Call me if you need me.”
Sharina sat there quietly for a while, then walked through the apartment, idly touching some of her grandmother’s things. She noticed the red light flashing on the answering machine and retrieved the first message.
“This is Mrs. Pardee, Corinne. I’m very disappointed that you didn’t come to work. We have so many preparations for Thanksgiving that I really can’t manage without you. Please call me.”
Sharina wanted to scream, but controlled herself and listened to the second message. “I don’t know where you are, Corinne, but it’s very irresponsible of you to leave me in the lurch like this. Call me at once.” Sharina felt a blaze of hate rush through her and she dug her nails into her palms until her hands turned white.
It took Sharina a few minutes to bring herself under control, then she played the third message. “I realize you just don’t care what happens to us. After all the years you worked for us, I expected a little more consideration.” The rage she felt was ice cold as she reached for the phone and dialed the Pardee’s number. When Mrs. Pardee answered in that detached, haughty voice that always suggested tennis whites, she said: “This is Sharina . . .”
Before she could say anything else Mrs. Pardee interrupted: “Where is that grandmother of yours? Doesn’t she know how important this holiday is?”
Sharina took a deep breath. “My grandmother is dead, Mrs. Pardee.”
“I really don’t appreciate your humour at a time like this.”
“Listen to me, you spoiled, self-centred_”
“What did you call me?”
“I told you she’s dead. She died of a heart attack. Now do you have anything to say?”
There was a brief silence, then Mrs. Pardee said: “Well that’s too bad. I guess I’ll just have to call a temporary agency.”
Sharina slammed the phone down in disgust.
She didn’t sleep at all that night. Every few hours she went into the living room and looked at the face of the only person in the world who loved her. Corinne looked older than she remembered, but more at peace, as if the stress of her responsibilities was over. Sharina whispered lovingly: “You were so good, gramma. I’m so sorry that I didn’t have the chance to do things for you.” She cried for a while, then lay down to rest. Her thoughts kept coming back to the telephone messages from Mrs. Pardee and the infuriating phone call that followed. She knew what the Pardees were like, sheltered by wealth, insulated from the economic pressures that ordered the lives of the less privileged, and unaware of the needs of others. It wasn’t that she expected them to be moved by the death of a servant, which she now understood was only a mere inconvenience to them. It outraged her that Mrs. Pardee couldn’t acknowledge that a person who worked for her for so many years had some significance. She decided that she’d give Mrs. Pardee another chance and call her in the morning, once gramma was at the funeral parlour.
Mr. Wendell came for Corinne in the morning and invited Sharina to ride with him in the hearse. She declined and instead walked the few blocks. She felt remote from the people around her who were going about their business as if the best person in the whole world hadn’t left her. She couldn’t tell if the isolation she was feeling was from loss or numbness, but she seemed to be moving invisibly through the life around her. Dr. Fairstone and Mr. Wendell were waiting for her when she got to the funeral parlour. Mr. Wendell led her into the Heavenly Rest Chapel. “You just sit here and I’ll bring your grandmother in.”
“You’ll treat her nicely, won’t you Mr. Wendell?”
“Yes, dear. She was my friend. Why don’t you think about what you want done with her remains?”
She turned to Dr. Fairstone in despair: “I don’t know what to do with gramma.”
“There. There,” he said. “We’ll put our heads together and figure out something.”
She sat there in a daze without any sense of time passing until Mr. Wendell wheeled in a gurney. On it was one of his showroom coffins that contained her tiny gramma. She walked to the gleaming mahogany casket and looked down at the face that would never smile lovingly at her again. Tears gushed from her eyes and she silently vowed: ‘I don’t know how, gramma, but I’ll find some way to make your burial special.’
Dr. Fairstone waited patiently until she stopped crying: “We have to talk about the burial now. Did Corinne have any insurance?”
“Does she have any family or friends who might help?”
“I think we’re the only ones.”
“What about her employer?”
“You mean the Pardees?”
“I didn’t know their name.”
“Mrs. Pardee told me that it was very inconsiderate for gramma to die at holiday time,” Sharina said bitterly.
“Perhaps they’ll help with the funeral expense.”
“I don’t think I can count on them for anything.”
“I’ll contribute a coffin and the hearse to the cemetery,” Mr. Wendell said, “but I can’t cover the expense for the plot and headstone.”
“Thank you for your offer, but I don’t have any money.”
“What if we cremate her? I’ll do it for free.”
“I couldn’t do that to her,” Sharina said. “I’ll call the Pardees again and ask for their help.”
She phoned Mrs. Pardee, who sounded impatient at being bothered. “My gramma didn’t have any insurance, Mrs. Pardee. I wonder if you can help me with the funeral expenses?”
There was a long silence. “I don’t think that will be possible.”
Sharina tried to contain her indignation. “She worked for you for a long time. Don’t you feel any sense of obligation?”
“We’ll be happy to send flowers,” Mrs. Pardee said coldly, “once you tell us where the service will be held. That’s all we can do.”
“But I don’t have the money to bury her properly,” Sharina confided.
“I’m sure you’ll manage. There must be some place you can get help like the welfare bureau, or the NAACP.”
Sharina felt like strangling the ignorant, condescending woman. “You’re some piece of work, Mrs. Pardee. My gramma slaved for you for years and that’s all you can say? You can keep your stinking flowers.” She hung up the phone without waiting for a reply and pounded the wall in frustration, while tears of rage poured from her eyes.
Dr. Fairstone and Mr. Wendell found her in the office sitting on the floor, slumped against the wall, crying. “I guess they wouldn’t help you,” Dr. Fairstone said gently. “We’ll think of something, my dear. Why don’t you wash your face and meet us in the chapel.”
Sharina went to the bathroom, rinsed with cold water and pulled herself together. When she rejoined her friends they were discussing the funeral options. “Mr. Wendell has outlined the most practical arrangements,” Dr. Fairstone said. “Cremation or burial at Potter’s Field.”
“It’s where indigents are buried in a cemetery on Staten Island,” Mr. Wendell answered.
Sharina was horrified. “I can’t do that to my gramma.”
Dr. Fairstone tried to reason with her. “I understand that this isn’t desirable, but there don’t seem to be other choices.”
“I won’t do that to her. I promised her something special. Let me think about it.”
“I have to get back to my patients. I’ll come back when office hours are over.”
“Thanks, Dr. Fairstone. I really appreciate your help.”
“I wish I could stay with you, but my patients are worried about anthrax or other biological attacks. I’ll see you later.”
“I’ll walk you to the door,” Mr. Wendell said.
Sharina sat in the chapel, brooding about her lack of choices and looking at the coffin that held her beloved gramma. She couldn’t come up with any solutions to the problem. Every time she tried to concentrate, hateful images of the Pardees kept intruding. Mrs. Pardee’s callous indifference ripped through her and her rage stabbed at her. A cold fury channelled her thoughts and helped focus her mind. She remembered a Pardee family funeral that she went to when she was a child. Her gramma was compelled to give up her Sunday and attend, and she took her along because there was no one to leave her with. She vaguely recollected a long ride to a Long Island cemetery that seemed like an enchanted forest, with clumps of large old oak and maple trees that lined the walks. She had asked wonderingly: “Who lives in those big stone houses, gramma?”
She understood now that her gramma had carefully considered her answer: “Some people are put there by their families when they die.”
“Will we go there when we die?”
“No, chile. Only the rich people go there.”
“Where will we go, gramma?”
“We don’t have to worry about that for a long time.”
The picture of her gramma’s sweet, loving face when she said that brought more tears to Sharina’s eyes, but her mind was crystal clear. Suddenly a wild idea flashed through her; I’ll put gramma in the Pardee family mausoleum. At first it sounded crazy, but the more she considered the idea, the more comforting it became. She basked in the wave of pleasure that rolled over her as she imagined gramma resting in the splendid family tomb of the rich Pardees. After a few moments, more practical thoughts seeped in. How would she get gramma to the cemetery? How would she get her into the mausoleum? Did she need a coffin? She had never been in a mausoleum, so it was a place of mystery. Did the bodies lie around in piles? On tables? In boxes? Frustration raced through her for her ignorance. She tried to control her swirling emotions and decided to ask Mr. Wendell about mausoleums, but not tell him about her far-fetched idea right away.
Mr. Wendell was on the phone when she walked into his office and he gestured to her to sit down. She fidgeted tensely as he wheedled someone at the medical examiner’s office about the interpretation of his contract to inter John and Jane Doe bodies for the city. When business was slow he was eager for the extra income from indigent funerals. If business was good he didn’t want to waste time on the low-fee jobs. His special efforts to befriend the clerks who assigned the jobs included cash, gifts and other incentives. He began to trust Sharina after she had worked for him for a while and he kept few secrets of his day-to-day operations from her. He made exaggerated funny faces for her benefit as he talked and she managed a weak smile of appreciation for his efforts to ease her sorrow. He finally hung up the phone, and shook his head. “My mama would turn over in her grave if she heard me arguing all the time about dead bodies. Hee. Hee.”
She looked at him intently, considering how to present her wild idea, but he made it easy. “Have you decided what to do about your grandmother yet?” he asked in his professional voice of comfort.
“I’ve thought about it and I’ve come up with a plan that I want to tell you about, but please don’t interrupt me ’til I”m done. Okay?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“I considered the choices and couldn’t accept them because I promised gramma a special burial and at first I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t have any money and I got madder and madder at the Pardees for not caring about her and I remembered they had a big family mausoleum and I’ve decided I want to put gramma into their mausoleum without their knowing, and—”
“You said you wouldn’t interrupt.”
“Where’d you get this crazy notion?”
“Can I finish?”
“Well I need your help to do it.”
“Girl, you’re outta your mind.”
“That’s the only way I can think of to do something special for her.”
He stared at her strangely, then burst into laughter. “In all my years in mortuary science that’s the craziest thing I ever heard.”
“Why? Once she’s in there no one will know. It’s just a matter of putting her in there. You should know how to do that.”
“You want me to do it?” he asked in amazement.
“Who else? You’re her friend. I’ll help you. Nobody else has to know.”
“Do you have any idea what you’re asking?”
“Yes. I can’t think of a better choice.”
“What about Dr. Fairstone?”
“I won’t tell him. He’s a wonderful man, but he’s set in his ways and I don’t think he’d approve.”
“Are you telling me I’m not ethical?”
“No, Mr. Wendell. He’s old and wouldn’t understand. You’re a smart businessman. You know how complicated everything is.”
“You’re a cunning devil. You think some flattery will get me to do it?”
“I’m asking you as her friend.”
He got up and paced behind his desk. “Let me think about it.”
A wave of gratitude raced through her. She rushed to him and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Mr. Wendell. I knew you’d help.”
“I didn’t agree yet. Now be quiet and let me think.”
He sat down at his desk and leaned his head on his hands. She waited quietly until he asked: “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“Then this is what I want.”
“Let me tell you what’s involved. We gotta get the death certificate from Dr. Fairstone and tell him you decided to cremate her. The next day we go to . . . what’s the name of their cemetery?”
“I don’t know, but it’s the Pardee family mausoleum.”
“That’s all right. I can get the information on the internet. Then we drive there in a private car, hope one of my batch of keys will open the mausoleum door, find a good shelf, put her in, then get out without anyone noticing us.”
“That doesn’t sound too hard.”
He snorted. “Right. And what if we get caught?”
“I’ll take all the blame.”
He shook his head. “You’re as hard headed as your grandma.” Then he laughed loudly. “But I like the idea of double dipping. I’ll do it.”
Now that she had help and a plan, a feeling of euphoria took over and everything seemed dreamlike and remote, as if it were happening to someone else. When Dr. Fairstone came back that evening she told him that she had decided on cremation. He sat with her for a while and his presence was comforting. She hugged him when he said good night and thanked him for being a good friend. Mr. Wendell suggested that she go home and sleep for a while, but she said she was too revved to leave. She looked over his shoulder while he searched the net until he located the cemetery. He explained to her that they couldn’t put Corinne in a coffin because they wouldn’t be able to manage it by themselves and they might be noticed if he brought extra help. He wanted to put Corinne in a plastic body bag and Sharina said she could do everything else, but she couldn’t put her gramma in the bag. Mr. Wendell left her in the office while he made the final preparations and she dozed off.
She woke up in the morning with that odd sense of detachment that sometimes occurs when waking up in a strange place. Mr. Wendell brought fresh coffee and a donut for her that she devoured voraciously. They left the funeral parlour for gramma’s last ride at 10:00 am. The traffic was light and within a few minutes they were crossing the Tri-Borough Bridge. The day was warm and clear and the sun glistened on the dirty face of the East River, concealing the detritus and pollution bequeathed to the waterways of America. She looked without seeing as they rolled along the Long Island Expressway and barely noticed when they turned into the cemetery. It took a few moments until it registered that they had arrived. She looked around curiously and found that the fabulous burial ground of memory was just another cemetery.
Mr. Wendell consulted a map of the cemetery that he had downloaded from the net and drove straight to the Pardee mausoleum. No one paid any attention to them. He got out of the car, walked to the massive metal door with his large ring of keys, tried some and in a few moments he swung the door open. He looked around carefully and made sure no one was watching them. He went to the car, motioned her to come help him, then opened the trunk and removed the body bag. They carried it into the mausoleum and put it down on the stone floor. Mr. Wendell checked the shelves and found one that contained Beatrice Pardee, 1882-1957. He opened the decorative marble panel, then the wooden door. They picked up the body bag and slid it behind Beatrice’s coffin, where it couldn’t be seen. “If you want to say anything, do it quickly,” Mr. Wendell said urgently. “We need to get out of here without being discovered.”
She stood there silently and finally whispered: “Goodbye, gramma. I love you.”
Mr. Wendell closed the shelf door and quickly replaced the marble panel. He rushed her out the door, locked it, hurried them to the car, then drove out of the cemetery. Once they were on the highway, he yelled triumphantly: “Nobody saw us. Whatta ya think of that, kid?”
“I can’t believe how easy it was.”
“It’s like anything else in the world. If you know what you’re doing and go about it naturally, as if you belong, nobody notices.”
“I’ll never forget this, Mr. Wendell. If there’s every any way to repay you I will.”
“That’s all right, girl. It was a rush doing that. You don’t owe me anything.”
For the rest of the ride he babbled on, keyed up by his adventure and didn’t notice her silence. She sat there quietly, locked in memories of her beloved gramma. Just as they got to the glittering bridge that led back to Harlem, she thought: “I did it, gramma. I made your burial special. Now you’ll rest in that grand stone mansion for the dead with the Pardees and not have to clean up after them. I hope you won’t mind being there. It’s the best I could do.”