In the tub, bubbles on her shoulders and drooping onto the floor, someone on the radio singing about flowers opening slowly, she soaks the scent of her dead husband from her body. Her eyes are wide open but not really seeing anything. She has a fist between her breasts. She remembers when she used to measure her life in days—a weekend together, three days until the trip—but now it’s in hours. 32 hours since she waved at him from the balcony and told him to drive safely. 27 hours since the police called. 6 hours of riding around in cars, signing papers, identifying, confirming, being taken by someone from some office to her sister’s home, clean, orderly, sedate.
She visits the undertaker, and insists on the following. A simple, elegant pine box without metal attachments. A black satin lining. She wants him dressed in the black tuxedo he was married in, but no shoes or socks, and she wants the button undone behind the bowtie so that he can breathe. She tells the undertaker the story of their wedding reception, late into the night, into the morning, and her husband has shaken too many hands, laughed at too many bad puns, heard too much music, and she sees him go for some peace in the little room at the back of the hall, where she follows him, walks in while he is stretched back in a small high-armed sofa, button undone, no shoes or socks, his beloved gin and tonic in one hand, the other in his black hair, crowning his face.
And the rings, she wants their silver and onyx rings to be in there with him. His on the finger, hers in the inside jacket pocket.
I have just been talking to my wife Marjorie on my cell phone—she was prating about some Impressionist exhibition she says we must see at a gallery in New York City—when this woman walks into my funeral parlor. She is genuinely sad, I can tell, and the truth is that not everyone who comes in here is sad. Some are a bit too practical about all the arrangements that are necessary in order to bury a relative properly, and some are just glad that the old bastard is dead, but this woman misses the dead person—probably her husband—and is only barely maintaining a facade of control. The clothes are fine, especially the copper sling-backs, but it’s in her face where I can see that she’s on the verge of coming apart: a bit too much make-up, a kind of cloudiness in the eyes.
“May I be of assistance?” I ask.
“Ah, yes, thanks … I wanted to make arrangements for, well, I wanted to see what you have … Well, my husband was, well, he’s dead now and I wanted … “
“Certainly, we can make all the necessary arrangements, Mrs. …?”
“Oh, Williams. Joan Williams.”
I suggest the possibility of cremation, and she says no, she could never do that. She could never destroy him like that, burn up everything quickly and forcefully.
“Why would you recommend such a thing?” she asks, not accusatory, just surprised.
“Well, Mrs. Williams, I am not recommending it, just trying to detail for you what your options are. Many people prefer the simplicity and directness of cremation. If I may inject a personal opinion, for example, my wife and I have decided on cremations.”
I leave the thought with her for a moment, and while she mulls I am seeing flames licking up the length and breadth of dear Marjorie’s soft body.
“I think I would prefer just the standard burial. You know, the coffin and the funeral and all that.”
“Yes, certainly, Mrs. Williams. Whatever you wish. We can make some selections now, if you would have the time,” I say.
She agrees, and as we look through the catalogues in my office, I imagine Marjorie lying there amid those satiny folds, hands planted with cold firmness on her chest. I will take advantage of the lid covering her lower torso by putting fishing rubbers on her, or perhaps shoes that are a size too small and on the wrong feet, so that she is crimped and goofy-looking for eternity. I will kiss her on the lips and experience indifference as a refreshing, exhilarating alternative to “What are you trying to do?”. I will run my finger along the line of her jaw without complaint.
After Mrs. Williams leaves, Marjorie calls again, and I try to explain to her, again, that I have already been to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, when I was in high school.
“James, if you are in New York City, you have to go to the Empire State,” she says.
She insists on calling it that, as if the word Building is too crude for someone of her cosmopolitan sensibilities. I say that, yes, indeed, a person can go to New York without visiting the Empire State Building. I make a few suggestions.
“Don’t be ridiculous, James. That area is crawling with muggers and rapists. Definitely not.”
I summon patience from a reserve that I had thought was already exhausted, and suggest calmly that perhaps we could narrow our chances of attack by not walking around naked at 2 in the morning with thousand-dollar bills sticking out of our asses.
“Well, James, if you do not want to discuss this like an adult …”
She says we will resolve this later, and I click her off.
She cries on the plane on the way to New York City for the dispersal of the ashes. She acknowledges to herself the influence of the obvious—her husband, dead, burned, his remains (as they called it) flying compactly in her carry-on bag beneath the seat in front of her. She dissipates the simple fact with extraneous details about the sappy movie, that third glass of wine.
In the end she couldn’t bear to have her husband interred (as they called it). She didn’t like the sprawling lack of control of a buried coffin, the lack of completion, the cold suffocating earth eventually caving in on him after he had finally been laid to rest (as they called it).
She stands on the observation deck. There is a warm, steady wind, the kind that has always made her close her eyes. There is a small happy family toddling around near one of the telescopes, oblivious to everything except what they see and point to. There is a couple touching.
She has him in her largest handbag. She is wearing under his trenchcoat only her black silk minidress. She hugs herself. She remembers how it felt with both the top pulled down and the bottom pulled up around her waist, him kneeling there on the kitchen floor and her backed up against the counter, his tongue on and in her and his arms raised, hands on her breasts for support, the heel of one of her hands in a bit of water on the counter and the other one sometimes running through his black curly hair, sometimes grabbing at it, and she was thinking, God, don’t take us one at a time, take us both now, send whatever you have into this kitchen, down on our poor heads, and take us while we are connecting like this.
The lid is stiff. She finally unscrews it, and in the same motion dumps the urn’s contents out into the air. Something like a cloud is formed, and then disappears suddenly. She looks down at the urn, runs a finger around the rim, and tastes him for the last time.
Later, at home, there will be flowers in the urn, bright ones in all colors.