Mortal Remains ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
On a rainy evening in mid-October 1940, a large crowd had gathered at the Biederhoff funeral parlor on Mission Street near the bridge. By six o’clock—the time when most people were having dinner or settling down for the evening—the chapel was already filled to capacity and the street outside clotted with cars. Every few seconds the door opened to admit new arrivals into the foyer, their voices hushed as they closed their umbrellas and shook the rain off their coats and hats. As they entered the Greek chapel to view the remains of the deceased, their smiles of greeting faded and they assumed expressions of solemnity appropriate to the occasion.
When an old person dies, it’s just a matter of course. A young person dying, though, gets everybody’s attention, especially when the death is sudden and violent and has raised questions for which no answers have been given. Galen Fahrenwald’s death was just such a death. In truth, many of the people who showed up at the funeral parlor to pay their respects didn’t know or care about him—or anybody in his family—but were there because they had heard the news reports of the death and wanted to see for themselves a young man (he was only thirty-seven) laid out in his coffin, a young man with a beautiful young wife and a lot of money who may or may not have died under mysterious circumstances.
Galen Fahrenwald, banked by elaborate floral offerings of every color and variety, was resplendent in his white tie and tails, nestled cozily in his golden chariot casket with its elaborate scrollwork, handles that looked to be made of pure gold, and apricot-colored lining. With his pursed lips that made him appear to be about to break into laughter, perfectly coiffed hair and red cheeks, he looked the picture of health. Nobody would ever know by looking at him that a bullet had struck him in the back, lodged in his heart, and killed him in the space of three seconds.
The police who investigated the murder and examined the evidence were about evenly split, with one-half believing that Galen Fahrenwald was murdered and the other half that the bullet that found his heart was a stray bullet fired from the weapon of a hunter. After all, it was the middle of hunting season and Galen Fahrenwald was not far from a spot known to be frequented by hunters, where game was said to be plentiful. He had taken his lunch with him and was leaning on the fender of his car, eating a chicken sandwich and admiring the view when he was killed. What he was doing there was no mystery; he was known to visit the spot on occasion when he wanted to think and be alone.
A hush came over the crowd when Galen Fahrenwald’s mother and father came in. The old lady was small and frail-looking, dressed entirely in black, her face behind a veil. She held onto her husband’s arm as if she would not have been able to stand on her own. He was tall and dignified, his face expressionless. Those who were hoping for a display of emotion were disappointed as the two quietly viewed the body of their son and moved on, as dispassionate as if they had been looking at a side of beef.
Just as the frisson over the arrival of the parents was waning, Doreen Fahrenwald came in, the wife of the deceased. She was the star attraction of the evening, the one person in everybody’s thoughts. How broken up was she over the death of her husband? Was she as baffled as everybody else over what happened? Just what was she planning to do with all the money that would come to her (at least half a million in life insurance, in addition to the house and everything else)? Would she stay put or go away to a place where nobody knew her? Was she sorry now she never had any children?
Dressed in her exquisitely sleek, Parisian dress the color of wine, with a simple strand of pearls at her neck, Doreen Fahrenwald was the picture of poise and grace. She would put to shame any fabled Hollywood beauty. Her auburn hair was drawn away from her face and arranged simply at the back of her neck. She wore little or no makeup because her beauty was the kind that doesn’t need adornment or fakery. Neither did she wear a hat or a veil or any other mourning frippery. As she approached her husband’s casket, all eyes were turned toward her. People wanted to hear what she was going to say and how she was going to bear up under her tremendous loss. There was a collective intake of breath.
She stood for several minutes and looked at her dead husband, her face a mask. What she was thinking or feeling no one was able to discern. She was a cool customer, people would say. She didn’t believe in public displays of grief, but, oh, to be a fly on the wall when she was alone: that’s when she would let it all out. She moved on as though coming out of a trance and accepted the condolences of those standing nearby.
When Galen married Doreen, he had only known her for only a few weeks and knew almost nothing about her. She was a new teacher at the school and he a member of the school board. She told him she had no family to speak of and had lived with a great-aunt while growing up. The aunt died and left Doreen a little money, so she decided to move on and start a new life for herself in a different part of the world. He was satisfied with the account she gave of her life and saw no reason to look further.
Galen’s mother and father looked unfavorably upon Doreen from the beginning. They believed they saw right through her to her rotten core, in spite of her polished exterior. She was interested in Galen only for his money and the comfort and security it would provide. Galen, they believed, had too much sense to be taken in by such a person. It wasn’t in his nature to want to marry someone he just met and knew nothing about.
They hired the best and most expensive private detective agency to uncover the truth that they knew was lurking there, somewhere just beneath the surface. They hoped to disillusion Galen with the information that was sure to be uncovered.
The investigation revealed that Doreen had, in fact, lived for years with her only known relative, an elderly woman who was a sister of her grandmother. The aunt was nearly bedridden with a host of maladies; Doreen helped care for her. The aunt died unexpectedly of a drug overdose a month after Doreen turned twenty-one. The police investigated, but the death was in the end ruled an accident. The old lady wasn’t in her right mind and just didn’t know how much of her medicine she was taking.
Doreen inherited about a hundred thousand dollars. She rented a luxurious apartment and lived the high life for a couple of years with her fashionable friends until she discovered, to her surprise, that she had spent her entire inheritance. She was forced to leave her apartment and move into a boarding house. All her friends dropped her as if she had died.
She worked for a while as a nightclub hostess. Some of the men she encountered during that time were well-heeled older gentlemen who gave her presents of jewelry and cash. She sold the jewelry and saved the cash. She hated the way she was living and longed for a different kind of life. Through taking some night courses, she was able to earn her teaching certificate. She applied for a teaching job in another state and was hired without too much effort. That’s when she met Galen.
When Galen’s mother and father presented the report from the detective agency to him, he read it silently and threw it into the fire. He said none of the information in the report made any difference and he was going through with the marriage in spite of their objections. He told them calmly that he never wanted to see them again. He would never forgive them for meddling in his private affairs. He was a grown man and past caring what they thought of him. It was the first time in his life he had ever rebelled against parental authority.
From the beginning the marriage was not a conventional one. Galen and Doreen lived as separately as they could for two people who occupied the same house. Doreen was rumored to have her discreet love affairs, but she always made sure she didn’t give Galen a reason to hand her a divorce. For his part, he wanted a wife in name only. All he required was that Doreen run the household, accompany him to certain social functions, and to act in the role of wife or business confidante when needed. Nobody knew for sure, of course, but the general belief among friends and acquaintances was that the marriage had never been consummated.
The marriage was amicable enough for a while until Doreen became bored with her fat, comfortable life. She began to drink heavily and spend enormous sums of money at the roulette table and the race track. She wasn’t nearly as lucky at gambling as she thought she should be. Her debts accumulated to the point where she was unable to repay them. Her creditors threatened to try to get the money from her husband.
Galen had, from his strict upbringing, a moralistic view of the world. He believed in the principles of right and wrong; he believed that to waste one’s precious resources on such trivial pursuits as gambling was stupid and irresponsible. When he learned of his wife’s enormous debt, he refused to bankroll her activities. For the first time in their marriage, they engaged in vicious fighting over money. He slapped her across the face, knocking her down and loosening two of her teeth; she threw a bookend at him and cut a gash in his forehead. A few days before Galen was killed, Doreen told friends she was going to file for divorce on the grounds of incompatibility and physical cruelty.
While Doreen Pitkin Fahrenwald was viewing the mortal remains of her husband, a different kind of scene was playing out across town at the police station. After hours of questioning, an auto mechanic by the name of Curtis Faulkner, who held medals for marksmanship from the army, had just confessed to the murder of Galen Fahrenwald. Frightened out of his wits when told he could go to the electric chair, Curtis Faulkner told the police everything.
He had known Doreen Fahrenwald for a year or so, and, no, he wasn’t her lover—she was too much of a lady for that. He met her when she brought her Ford into the shop where he worked. They started talking and discovered they were both just wild about horse racing.
Talk of horses led to more serious conversation. Doreen told Curtis Faulkner about her unhappy marriage and how cold and strange her husband was; how he was controlled by a domineering mother who hated her and wished her dead. To escape her unhappy marriage, she had been drawn into the unsavory world of gambling and café society. She had taken on more debt than she could ever repay. She was being threatened to repay the money she owed and she didn’t know what she was going to do. She was contemplating suicide.
When Doreen learned that Curtis Faulkner was an expert marksman, she was tremendously interested and asked to see his medals. Playing on his ego, she coaxed him into telling her about his exploits in the army. Soon after, she came up with the idea of paying Curtis to kill her husband. Since Curtis didn’t know her husband and had never met him, nobody would suspect him. With her husband dead, she would have control of all his money, could pay off her gambling debts, and live comfortably for the rest of her days. Curtis would have more money than he ever dreamed possible and could escape the job he despised. Everybody would be happy.
The police chief wanted to pick Doreen up quickly before somebody tipped her off and she had a chance to flee. If he could get a confession from her before the voters went to the polls in about three weeks’ time, he would be assured of being re-elected. He dispatched four armed men to pick her up at Biederhoff’s funeral parlor, telling them not to handcuff her unless she resisted.
The four police officers walked single-file into Biederhoff’s, trying to be unobtrusive but getting the attention of everybody there by the mere fact of their presence. The lead man, with the others behind him, went over to Doreen Fahrenwald—at that moment engaged in quiet conversation with a friend near her husband’s casket—and told her she was under arrest for suspicion of murdering her husband, Galen Fahrenwald. When she smiled at him as though he had paid her a compliment, he put the handcuffs on her to show that he meant business. Murder was nothing to smile about.
Doreen Pitkin Fahrenwald showed no emotion, no surprise, as she was led from Beiderhoff’s funeral chapel by a retinue of police officers on that rainy October evening. She stopped in front of Galen’s mother and the four officers stopped, too, willing to give her a chance to say what needed to be said. She seemed about to speak to the veil—seeing nothing of the face underneath—but no words came. She just smiled and shook her head and moved on. There would be much speculation later over what the headshake meant, but, or course, nobody would ever know for sure. She was, to the end, a mystery to all who knew her.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp