“I always take my time choosing the evening meal,” Grace explained to Mrs. Finch, the wife of the head mortician at the Finch and Roberts Funeral Home. “You know how Gunther loves his roast beef. It has to have just the right amount of marbling or it might as well be shoe leather.” She gestured obviously and blinked as if there shouldn’t be any question in the butcher’s mind when it came to picking the perfect cut of beef for her husband. “Mr. Grimes knows the time I will arrive at his counter. I call him and give him plenty of notice, so there should be no excuse — the proper cut should be ready for me.” Grace leaned over, smoothed her gray cotton skirt with flattened hands, and whispered to Mrs. Finch. “Melons are up from Florida. They are the best at this time of year. You know Gunther will only eat his melon if it’s two steps from ripeness.” She chuckled. “That’s how he describes it. Too ripe and into the garbage it goes.” Stricken suddenly with the realization there would be no more pieces of perfectly edible melon discarded into the garbage, she blinked, then nodded solemnly as Mrs. Finch took the break in the narrative to take her hand and lead her into the cavernous showroom of casket samples.
“You do have mahogany in stock don’t you. Gunther has made that clear over the years,” Grace stated as she surveyed the rows of coffins that filled the temperature-controlled display area. “I’m really surprised he hadn’t purchased one already. I mean, I hate to think of meeting up with him in the afterlife to find he is perturbed by my choice. It would not be a good start to my afterlife, I can tell you. One thing I hate is to anger Gunther.”
“Would you be interested in the Kensington? It goes for $2895 and we have it in stock.” Mrs. Finch pointed toward the far corner.
Grace reached into her purse and pulled out a crisp envelope. “Do you happen to have a letter opener?”
Mrs. Finch nodded and turned around on the shiny linoleum floor. “Be right back.”
Grace wandered over to the Kensington. The shine off the polished mahogany impressed her enough, but what was most extraordinary was the soft interior, stark white, and the pillow where Gunther would lay his head was amazing, though she had never looked inside an empty coffin before. She smiled as she recalled him saying that a good coffin was important because “I need a place to lay these bones for eternity while my spirit flies with the angels in the clouds.”
Mrs. Finch’s footsteps clapped the floor. “Here you go, dear.”
She took the opener and slid it into the end and sliced open the top. Reaching in, she pulled out a stack of crisp new bills. She knew there were 25 hundred-dollar bills, but counted them slowly and out loud, piling them on the foot of the coffin. When she said “Twenty-five,” she turned to Mrs. Finch and asked, “Don’t you think a fellow shop owner discount is in order?”
Gunther was the town pharmacist and distributed prescriptions to the whole town.
Mrs. Finch knew the cost of the Kensington was $1250 and recalled many a time Gunther followed up on her insurance claims to make sure the company paid them. It seemed only fair, especially when she knew the funeral itself was going to net the business another $2000. She stalled, making it look like she was conjuring the costs. Finally, with a loud sigh, she said, “For you, Grace, we will do this.”
“Mr. Grimes, for the reception you know we have to have roast beef sandwiches with the thickness, sliverish as he liked to call it, just so.” She held her thumb and forefinger barely apart. “Then ham for those who are not roast beef fans,” Grace dictated as she leaned on the tall glass case, staring down at the wide variety of meat selections. “Can you suggest another cut of meat? You know we shouldn’t have only two. Everything in threes as they say.”
“I suppose turkey would be a good choice,” he shrugged as he wiped his hands on his blood-stained apron.
“Excellent choice. I suppose I never think of turkey because Gunther didn’t like it, so we never had it.”
Grimes nodded. He knew exactly what Gunther ate. And Grace only ate what Gunther ate.
“Can you have it ready for me tomorrow afternoon?”
“Morning if you’d like.”
A smile spread her thin lips. “That would be great. Thank you. Ten a.m.?”
“See you then.”
She squinted into the bright sunshine as she walked down Main Street toward The Pharmacy. It was time to check on Gladys, who was Gunther’s right-hand person. The bell rang as she shoved open the heavy door. Two ladies stood at the checkout register.
“Oh, Grace,” Mabel Dormeister cried when she saw her.
Grace shrugged and shook her head. “Thank you, Mabel. Gunther always said you were one of his most loyal customers.”
Mabel nodded. “I suppose I was. Such a shame though. Such a young man.”
“Well, if you recall, his mother passed with a heart attack too. Both had such a hard time controlling their cholesterol.”
“Lescol has done wonders for me.”
“He couldn’t take that. Lipitor was best for him. Though he was thinking of changing to Zocor.” She stopped and took a step back. “Guess he should have.”
The town came to pay their respects to their only pharmacist, and the conversation pre-ceremony at the church between many was consumed with concern for Gunther’s replacement.
“He always kept the cost of my prescription down,” Tom Gullaney whispered as he stood in line before the doors to St. Matthew’s opened. “Gotta find a replacement who will do the same.”
“What are we waiting for?” Dick Creevily asked, glancing around the line which wound around the corner onto Elm Street. Only the farming community had to drive into town. The rest lived within walking distance.
“My wife is helping Grace with the decorations at the Elk’s,” Gary Forth said. “I do hope they open soon, cause that damn sun is starting to burn my bald scalp. I didn’t think a ball cap was appropriate.”
“Just as important is finding a fourth. And one I can beat like I did Gunther,” Tom snickered. “You all going to the cemetery?”
“Pallbearers,” Gary stated. “I walked by on my way over and they have plenty of chairs set up, if you are worrying about standing too long, knowing your back problems.”
“Is that a new suit?” Dick asked Gary.
Gary nodded. “Mell insisted. Said my old one was wearing thin in the seat and I’d be mooning the congregation before too long. Got it off the rack at Huneagers. Hal did a rush job on the tailoring. What do you think?” He twirled with a sarcastic grin.
“I like the blue — not too dark, if you know what I mean.”
“Hal said it was a shade I can wear in all seasons.”
“How about Finchy for a fourth,” Tom suggested.
“But he’s pretty good, Tom,” Dick observed.
“And we’ll have to tear him away from his other foursome with the Wood brothers and Bert Long.” Gary paused. “Suppose he already rolled Gunther in?”
“Maybe that’s what’s holding this up. I mean ol’ Gunther was a big man. Not an easy embalming job.”
“Hell with the embalming. How about lifting him?” Tom snickered, rubbing his back.
“Guess that’s why the Wood brothers, Bert, and Finchy are joining Dick and me to carry him.”
“Back. My back,” Tom complained.
Grace sat alone in the front pew, much of her attention on the beauty of the Kensington coffin, taking mental notes about how it appeared in front of the 112 people who showed up for the service.
After Reverend Fine waxed eloquently (a phrase Gunther espoused during dinner as he read the daily newspaper) about the town’s pharmacist, he said, “Since we are in dire need for a new pharmacist, please give all your candidates to Grace.” She turned to the crowd who were all nodding their heads while staring her way.
And the pallbearers sweated profusely and grunted in unison as they lifted then carried Gunther’s mahogany coffin down the sidewalk and slid it into the hearse.
At the gravesite, Grace sat on a folding chair at the foot of the grave. As Reverend Fine spoke, she stared blankly ahead. Because Gunther believed traditions should be upheld, she wore a black dress and a veil. Her attention seemed drawn by an unearthly force, sitting erect with no movement to one side or the other — not even a shuffling of her feet.
She was concerned with the single long-stem rose that lay under her seat. She’d been told by Mrs. Finch that some people throw a rose on the coffin. But Gunther wasn’t a fan of flowers.
Tom Gullaney was the first in line to express condolences. “I’ll miss him as a golf partner and as a fine, fair pharmacist. The sooner he is replaced the better.” He paused and furrowed his brow as he relistened to his words in his head. “For the sake of my back, Grace, for my back pain.”
Those close behind Tom just took her hand and gave it a soft tug. After listening to his selfish demand, they figured silence was best. The remainder took their leads from the silent mourners, so by the time the cemetery had cleared just a crow in a maple above his grave made any sound.
The crew cranked up the machine to lower the coffin into the grave. Screeching pulleys serenaded the process. Then, as though shocked by a cattle prod, Grace shrieked like an alarm, ear-piercing, skin-tingling. Eyes glazed, she trembled visibly as the coffin disappeared into the hole. Tears flowed for the first time.
Reverend Fine approached her cautiously and stayed back as gyrations consumed her body as though she was evicting a demon. When she had calmed, he wrapped his arms around her. “It can only get better Grace.”
Drenched in glistening sweat, she looked at him quizzically. Her face was purple, as though she’d been holding her breath, the veins in her neck like tight ropes.
“Your friends are gathering at The Lodge to pay their respects,” he reminded her in hopes of setting her focus on the next task rather than her loss.
The reminder was a shot of Valium and settled her down. She reached into her purse for tissues (another suggestion of Mrs. Finch) and wiped her eyes dry. Had she been wearing any makeup, it would have been a challenge to clean up, but since Gunther found makeup hussyifying (his word) she had never tried it, even though The Pharmacy sold a lot of it. She readjusted her veil over her face.
Reverend Fine and Mr. Finch held each of her arms as they led her to the hearse. The long-stem rose remained under her chair. Shovelfuls of dirt smacking the Kensington resounded across the cemetery until she slammed the hearse door.
Mr. Finch said nothing.
Ellen was silent as she glanced carefully at the surroundings through rolled-down windows as they rode slowly across the empty town. They drove by the funeral home and she recalled her conversation with Mrs. Finch. She smiled as she remembered negotiating with her on the Kensington. Grimes’ Butcher Shop had a closed sign in the window. He had delivered a fine display of cold cuts earlier in the morning. She didn’t even have to pick them up. The storefront of The Pharmacy held a large sign which read Closed Today for funeral, but Open tomorrow at 8 AM. And she would be there to open it.
As they rolled up to Elks Lodge #8, Mr. Finch said, “You may want to remove your veil, Grace.”
She reached up and gently pulled it up off her face like a sheet of gauze. The lifting of the veil boosted her spirits. The murmur of the crowd inside was so noisy she could hear it from the hearse. She reached into her purse and pulled out a tube of red lipstick. Flipping down the visor, she gazed into the mirror a moment before applying it to her pursed lips just as Gladys had taught her the day before. Wearing a wide smile as she climbed out of the hearse, she paused and took a deep breath while she lifted her shoulders. The crowd, even larger than the funeral service, all turned at once as she entered the room. A tingle raced through Grace as she thought of gathering the names of applicants to replace Gunther.
Featured image: (Simone O / Shutterstock)
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