Old Friends ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Mrs. Pesco and Mrs. Vandenberg arrived together and waited outside until Mrs. Tashman arrived. When they saw Mrs. Tashman’s white Cadillac pull onto the parking lot, Mrs. Pesco ground her cigarette underneath the heel of her shoe while Mrs. Vandenberg took off her gloves with a huff of impatience and put them in her purse.
“She’s always late,” Mrs. Vandenberg said. “She’ll be late for her own funeral.”
“Yoo-hoo!” Mrs. Tashman called cheerily to them as she got out of her car. “I thought you would have gone in without me.”
“We said we’d wait,” Mrs. Vandenberg said grimly.
“Don’t you have a clock at your house?” Mrs. Pesco asked.
“Don’t ask!” Mrs. Tashman said as she came toward them, wobbling on her high heels. “I had to wait for the plumber to arrive to let him in and just as I was leaving I got a telephone call.”
“You need to tell everybody to go to hell when you know you have people waiting for you,” Mrs. Pesco said.
“I know you would tell them to go to hell, dear,” Mrs. Tashman said, “but I don’t treat people that way.”
“Well, we’re here now so let’s get this over with,” Mrs. Vandenberg said.
They entered the foyer and walked together, shoulder to shoulder, down the aisle between the rows of pews just like in a church to the casket nestled snuggly in its bower of flowers at the end of the long, narrow room.
“Such a lot of flowers!” Mrs. Pesco said. “I wonder who could have sent them?”
“She had family,” Mrs. Vandenberg said, “but she never spoke of them.”
“Why the hell not?”
“I believe there was some riff there. She carried on a feud with two of her sisters from the time they were in nursery school.”
“Well, you know what sisters are like.”
“I can hardly believe poor Lillian is really dead,” Mrs. Tashman said, sniffling into a handkerchief.
“Why not, dear?” Mrs. Pesco said. “She had five fatal diseases and it only takes one.”
“It seemed like it took her such a long time to die,” Mrs. Vandenberg said.
“Yes, that’s a lot of bunk about people dying quickly,” Mrs. Pesco said. “I never knew of anybody to die quickly. Everybody in my family takes their good old sweet time. It took my mother twenty years to die.”
Mrs. Vandenberg put on her glasses to better see the deceased. “She looks funny, doesn’t she?” she said.
“Well, she is dead,” Mrs. Pesco said.
“That dress looks terrible on her! I wonder what Goodwill box they dug that out of? It’s got sequins on it. It makes her look like a cocktail waitress in a haunted house.”
“It doesn’t seem to quite suit her, does it?”
“And her hair! It was never that color before.”
“It’s a wig,” Mrs. Tashman said. “I visited her in the hospital about a week before she died and she was complaining about how her hair had thinned. You know how vain she was. Even in her hospital bed, near death, she had to have a covering on her head so her hair wouldn’t show.”
“The makeup is all wrong, too,” Mrs. Vandenberg said. “It’s too peachy. The lipstick is too red and there’s too much of it. They have her looking like Jane Russell in a 1950s Technicolor movie.”
“I’d rather look like Jane Russell than a lot of others I can think of,” Mrs. Tashman said.
“Yes, but it’s not the Lillian Sherwood we knew and loved.”
“What does it matter?” Mrs. Pesco said.
“Well, I think they should try to make the dead look as much like the living as possible.”
“So you can at least recognize them.”
“Why don’t you give it a rest for a while?”
The funeral director, realizing that the first of the mourners had arrived, came out of his office and entered the chapel. He was impeccably dressed in a dark blue pinstripe suit with a red carnation in his lapel. His bald head gleamed dully in the dim light like old family silver.
“Good evening,” he said, smiling sympathetically. “May I offer my condolences?” He shook hands, limply, as if he didn’t really mean it, with Mrs. Vandenberg and then Mrs. Pesco and then Mrs. Tashman.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Tashman said pitifully.
“Are you family members of Mrs. Sherwood’s?” he asked.
“No, we’re old friends,” Mrs. Vandenberg said.
“Very dear friends,” Mrs. Tashman said.
“It’s such a comfort to see them one last time, isn’t it?” he said. “To bid them one final farewell.”
“You did a wonderful job with her,” Mrs. Vandenberg said. “We were just remarking how she looks just the way she always looked in life. She looks as if she’s going to open her eyes and raise up and speak to us.”
“Wouldn’t that be a story!” Mrs. Pesco said.
He flushed with pleasure. “So glad you think so,” he said. “We work with photos of the deceased as they were in life to achieve as life-like an illusion as possible.”
“She looks lovely,” Mrs. Tashman said, and meant it.
“Well, if I can be of service, in any way,” he said, “any way at all, you be sure and let me know.” He shook hands with them again and was off to supervise the placement of more floral offerings.
“I think he’s kind of cute,” Mrs. Pesco said. “That overbite of his is quite fetching.”
“He’s hoping to get our business,” Mrs. Vandenberg said. “When he looks at me, I know he’s thinking about having me naked on a table while he pumps the blood out of my body.”
“I’m going to be cremated,” Mrs. Tashman said.
“Make sure you’re dead first,” Mrs. Pesco said.
“I just don’t like the idea of being embalmed and buried under the ground.” She managed a little shudder for emphasis.
“But you think that being burned to a little pile of ash is pleasant?” Mrs. Vandenberg asked.
“No. I try not to think about it at all. Maybe there’s a better way.”
“Well, if you hear of a better way, dear, you be sure and let me know, won’t you?”
“Hey, I think I just saw Lillian move her hand,” Mrs. Pesco said. “I think she’s trying to communicate with us.”
“Your eyes are playing tricks on you again,” Mrs. Vandenberg said.
“No, really! She’s trying to tell us that she has just met Satan and has found him very much to her liking.”
Mrs. Vandenberg laughed in spite of herself. “That’s a remark that my mother would have said is ‘in questionable taste’.”
“Don’t encourage her!” Mrs. Tashman said. “This is not the time or place for crude jokes.”
“Oh, why don’t you lighten up a little?” Mrs. Pesco said. “What good is life if you can’t laugh a little?”
“Don’t you two get into a fist fight, now,” Mrs. Vandenberg said. “The funeral is tomorrow and you don’t want any black eyes. I suppose the two of you are going?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Tashman said.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Mrs. Pesco said.
“It should be quite a show,” Mrs. Vandenberg said. “I want to see how many of Lillian’s ex-husbands are there.”
“I think most of them are dead.”
“How many times was she married?” Mrs. Tashman asked.
“Four that I know of and probably more.”
“Yes, she always had a way of attracting the men.”
“She could get them but couldn’t keep them.”
“Well, she was always a lousy cook and you know the old saying: ‘It’s the face powder that catches ‘em and the baking powder that keeps ‘em at home’.”
“Truer words were never spoken.”
“When she was young she was quite beautiful, but then her looks faded, as they always do.”
“She needed a blind husband like the one Bette Davis had in Mr. Skeffington.”
“He would have had to be deaf, too, to be able to stand the sound of her voice.”
“What time is it?” Mrs. Pesco asked. “My watch has stopped.”
“It’s just after six-thirty.”
“Well, I’m hungry. We’ve paid our respects. Let’s sign the guestbook and leave.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Vandenberg said. “We’ll reconvene this little gathering tomorrow.”
“You two go on,” Mrs. Tashman said. “I think I’ll stay for a while longer.”
After Mrs. Vandenberg and Mrs. Pesco left, Mrs. Tashman took a seat on the front pew and, in the absence of family, stayed until closing time. She had never known Lillian Sherwood all that well, but she didn’t mind giving up her evening to demonstrate to a cynical, uncaring world that sometimes there is a person who genuinely cares and isn’t afraid to go out of her way to show it.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp