I glance at the gauge that hovers over empty. “Mel. We have to get gas.”
“Are you saying I don’t know my own car?” Mel glowers at me over rimless glasses. I’m in the passenger seat, Helen’s asleep in the back. Mel swears by his old Pontiac Bonnevilles, has three of them. They ride comfortably all right, comfortable as an ocean liner, and just as big. Only problem, no AC. I don’t even know if AC was invented back then. We’d hit a blanket of hot humid air soon as we crossed into South Carolina. I open my shirt. Sweat drips down my chest, pooling where my belly swells out.
“All right, all right,” Mel says as we catch a glimpse of a billboard for the Spirit of 76 Truck Stop nested in a stand of locust trees.
We exit off Interstate 95 somewhere after Florence. There is no truck stop, just miles of torn-up road, gravel piles, heavy road machinery. Mel’s V8 is choking and I worry all this jostling is going to wake Helen. We finally find the Citgo station.
~ ~ ~
Only weeks earlier, late on a Sunday night, Mel had called me. “How’d you like to earn a hundred thou a year and own a retirement home on the Cayman Islands, or Key West?”
I should have just hung up on him, but Helen and I have long dreamed of moving to a warmer climate. Most of Mel’s schemes are crackpot: running rolls of coins to Canada and exploiting the exchange rate, renting vending machines and porta potties for festivals and fairs, salvaging metal left at curbside. Helen calls him the Coupon King. He’s the only person we know who can shop the supermarkets, come out with jumbo boxes of everything and more money in his pocket than he brought in.
Most of his schemes, while not without their mishaps, have earned us a buck or two. I used to work at Kodak, climbed the ladder from the Hazmat Unit that cleaned chemical vats to an OSHA instructorship. Then Kodak went belly-up. I might have been flush with cash, but I didn’t see the bankruptcy coming. I missed a buy-out opportunity by a year, my stock values plummeted, and by the time the bigwigs took their share of the booty, we classified workers lost our pensions. Our accounts have been running lean ever since. I’ve been driving a school bus and teaching driver ed during the summers at Ithaca High School. We were scraping by, but then Helen developed kidney problems. Her medicine costs its weight in gold. The alternative, the doctors said was dialysis, and eventually a transplant.
“Mel wants us to go to a time-sharing promo at the Titusville Holiday Inn,” I told Helen after Mel’s call. “Everything paid for. We even get tickets to visit Cape Canaveral.”
“Hasn’t the NASA program been canceled?” Helen said.
I wondered aloud if it wouldn’t be an opportunity for us to look at some properties. Helen and I had decided that the sale of our house and our savings would allow us to get a double-wide trailer somewhere on the coast between Savannah and the Keys.
The next day, when I came home from driving lessons, Helen was on the phone with her daughter. “Roni nixed the idea, sweetie,” Helen said. “She says we can scout everything from the web without paying a penny.”
Roni says no to everything I do. She’d been opposed to my marriage to Helen in the first place. I was a plodder, unimaginative, too old for her mother (I’m Helen’s senior by eleven years). “He doesn’t know enough to open an umbrella in a rainstorm.”
Even after I assumed mortgage payments on Helen’s overly large house, footed Roni’s bill to dry out from her drug addiction, paid her lawyer when she got caught shoplifting, covered her tuition at Ithaca College, a degree she never finished, she still begrudges me. “She begrudges anyone fool enough to be taken in by her,” I’ve told Helen.
Peter, Roni’s father and Helen’s first husband, lives in SoHo. An artist manqué, he paints canvases in the manner of Jackson Pollock, gobs of paint splattered onto huge canvases. His love for his daughter knows no bounds, especially when he needs money.
“Don’t you think this is your insecurity talking, that you will never be able to supplant a daughter’s love for her real father?” Helen takes psychology classes at our community college. I suspect that she, too, misses Peter, their bohemian lifestyle, getting stoned all the time, living on the edge, heedless of their accumulating debt.
The following week, Mel and I were working the Veterans stall at our July 4th Celebration. “What’s to lose?” Mel said. An Irish group played on the bandstand. Mel and I were sloshing in our suds, my wife drinking her chai tea. “Everything’s comped. Worth about one thousand dollars per person. All you have to do is pay for the gas. You can check out the whole Atlantic coast from Titusville up to Savannah.” He gave Helen the flashy Blue Heron Properties brochures with endorsements from Entrepreneur magazine and a reprint article that had appeared in Condé Nast Traveler.
That evening, Helen relented.
~ ~ ~
At the Citgo station, I get out of the car, stretch in the hot sun. The air is thick with the smell of gasoline and diesel fuel, the metallic whirr of big tractor-trailers idling.
“You probably should wake up Helen,” Mel said.
I glance to where she is curled up on the back seat, her pink cardigan draped around her bare shoulders, a pillow under her head, her ringlet-curled white hair spread about her like lamb’s wool. She looks so peaceful and I feel a rush of love. “Naw. Let the poor girl sleep. I’m going in to get some Sno Balls.”
Mel snorts. “Where you going to get snowballs? It’s the middle of August!”
“Not snowballs,” I say. “Sno Balls. Like in Hostess Cupcakes. Helen loves ‘em.”
“I thought they went under.”
“New owners. Everyone was buying them on eBay, socking them away like they were Hummel figures. I’m surprised you didn’t scarf them up.”
“I’m no fool.” Mel inserts the fuel gun in the tank. I almost say something, but bite my tongue.
I cross the island. It shimmers with heat. The blast of cool air in the concessionary feels good. I get a cardboard tray, pour us coffee, hot water for Helen’s tea, gather up Hostess treats, peanut butter pretzels, Pringles. Mel follows me in, asks the clerk for the bathroom key. While she fetches a key chained to a radiator cap, he glances at the chain-link lettered tattoo on her neck, “Billy Joe.”
“What’re you going to do when you break up with him?” Mel says.
She sneers at him as she scans my credit card. “There’s lots of Billy Joes.”
“Sno Balls,” Mel says, turning back to me. “Crazy.”
“Not half as crazy as traveling twelve hundred miles to learn how to flip houses.” My skepticism about Blue Heron Properties is growing with every mile.
“It’s for free, ain’t it?”
While Mel rushes off to the john, I pay the clerk. I’m excited with my booty, Sno Balls, Ding Dongs, and Ring Dings. Helen loves the Hostess line. It is her one indulgence in a discipline that includes Chi Gong, aromatherapy, and organic foods.
I go back to the car, open the passenger door. “Rise and shine, sweetheart. Guess what I have?” I say it in a singsong voice.
~ ~ ~
When Mel gets back from the john, I am sitting on the edge of the passenger seat, the door open, my feet planted on the asphalt, my head in my hands.
“What’s the matter with you? You look like you just lost your best friend.”
“She’s dead,” I mumble.
“Who’s dead?” he says.
“Dead, how?” he says.
“Dead,” I say.
“Naw,” Mel says. “She’s just sleeping.”
“She was sleeping, now she’s dead.”
“Didn’t I tell you to wake her?”
“What are you saying?”
Mel opens the back door where Helen lies perfectly reposed. He feels for a pulse. I look on hopefully. “Come on, Helen,” he says in a loud voice. “This is no time for a joke.” He studies her for a long moment, then backs out of the car.
It feels like forever we stay there, Mel leaning against the car, I slumped over in the passenger seat, both of us in a numb reverie. Diesel engines whine, cars pull in, gas up, and pull out. Finally, Mel goes to the trunk, pulls out an old blanket. He carefully covers Helen with it. We silently get in the car and Mel drives. I stare out the window into dense roadside shrubbery, the occasional patch of dogwood trees, already silhouetted by a hazy orange sun.
After a while, I am aware of the car slowing, Mel’s eyes on me.
“I think we should go on,” he says.
“Go on, where?”
“You know.” He says it weakly.
“Are you crazy?”
“She would have wanted it that way. I think we should find a place for her and go to Titusville.”
“What place for her?”
“We can’t just drive back to Ithaca with her in the car. Too hot. We have to stop for the night. By the time we get home . . .” He left the thought dangling.
“You know,” he says.
I’m in a daze and it is a long while before I realize we are nowhere near I95. The road we travel borders pastureland, fenced-in fields of wheat and corn, cattle grazing stubbled hillocks. The pungent aroma of manure fills the air. We enter a small town, an intersection with a gas station and a country store on one corner, on the other a restaurant, wood siding painted a sun-bleached green. A red neon Pabst sign blinks insistently under a faded blue and white awning.
“Let’s go in,” Mel says.
“Come on. We’ll have a drink.”
“I don’t want to leave Helen.”
I sulk in the car a good while before I get out. The air is thick with humidity, the cicadae thrumming in the rolling field across from us.
The bar is dark and cool. By the time I sit down, Mel has already thrown back a shot. He peels at the label of a frosty beer bottle with his thumbs.
“Come on, have a drink, guy,” Mel says. “Person I told you about,” he says to the bartender. “Lost his wife.”
The bartender is young, muscular, flaming red hair cropped short. “Hey, I’m sorry, man.” He fills a shot glass, gives me a Labatt. He has a blue chain and anchor tattoo on his forearm. “On the house.”
I am reluctant at first to dull the keen pain, a pain that makes Helen present to me. Mel has already thrown back a second shot. We’ve no sooner finished a drink than another one is set before us. I’m hurling them back with Mel. I’m afraid we might start bellowing out a version of “Waltzing Matilda.” The sharp edge of Helen’s absence escapes me for the moment. I might easily imagine this all a dream, that when I got home, tonight, tomorrow, I’d be telling Helen my latest misadventure with Mel, crazy Mel, Mel the Coupon King. I’ve almost forgotten that my wife lies lifeless in the car under a horse blanket.
Then Mel’s telling me, “We’re five, six hours out of Titusville. I say we find a mortuary, temporarily, pick her up on the way back. What’s the difference? It’s just an extra day.”
Mel says, “Wasn’t she the one who wanted a winter home in warmer climes?”
I’m not so much drunk anymore as queasy. I weave my way back to the men’s room. By now, the bar buzzes with locals. On the other side of a waist-high partition, couples chatter, chow down, the room ripe with the aroma of beer and deep-fried chicken.
I heave into the toilet. At the sink, I wash out my mouth, splash water on my face, dry with paper toweling. My face in the mirror is unrecognizable to me, my eyes ringed with quiet terror. When I get back, Mel and the bartender hunch over a cocktail napkin where the bartender draws a map.
It is dark when we leave. I get in the back seat with Helen and hold her hand, which feels strangely warm. For the first time, I start bawling, great heaving sobs that leave me unable to catch my breath. Exhausted, my head falls back. My eyes open and close. I’m aware of Mel, his face macabre under the map light, his glasses perched at the bottom of his nose as he studies the bartender’s directions.
Next thing I know, Mel is shouting for me to wake up. We pull into a steep, narrow driveway. At the top a sign, “Franton Mortuary” nested in shaggy yew bushes. We follow the driveway out back where the sod cuts away from a floodlit two-car garage and an iron gated door. We get out of the car, stretch.
“Knock again,” a hand-painted sign says.
“How’re ya supposed to knock again when you haven’t knocked the first time?” Mel winks at me, raps loudly on the door.
After a few moments, a small man, sixtyish, in a sleeveless T-shirt pokes back the curtains. He lets us in. Mel does the talking, explaining that my wife, died suddenly while we were on the way to Titusville.
“Where you from?” Well-built, rippled like a weightlifter, his sun-cracked face seems to belong to an early generation.
“Ithaca, New York,” Mel says.
“Quite a trip,” he says.
“We’re on our way to Titusville,” Mel says.
“Vacation?” he says.
“Business trip,” Mel says.
“Titusville’s hot this time of year,” he warns.
“That’s what we’re thinking,” Mel says.
He walks us into his workshop. If I had expected a refrigerated drawer or two, shiny stainless-steel gurneys with apparatuses hanging overhead, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Baby spots light a long wooden bench crowded were Xacto cutting tools, a Dremel drill kit, rubber glue, small cans of stain and finish, a Bunsen burner. But what really takes me aback, a lifelike largemouth bass poised as if it has just breached water, lies on its side, next to it a freshly stained placard. Off to the side of the workbench, stands a chest-high buck on a pedestal, eyeless.
“Don’t mind the mess,” he says.
“Maybe we have the wrong place,” I say. “Let’s leave the man to his business.”
“No, no,” he says. “I’m a fully accredited mortician. I’m also a taxidermist.” He follows my gaze, my eyes fixed on two eyeballs, some sort of ceramic material, one of them painted, all shiny and enamel-like.
“There’s a real art to the eyes,” he says to me. “Some people think you just pop in a couple of marbles. Eyes are not glass. They’re like hard-boiled eggs, pigmented, opaque, soft. If you get the eyes right, you get that lifelike presence. My wife paints ‘em. She’s the artist of the family.” He pulls from a shelf above his workbench a large three-ring notebook with pictures of coffins. “Where’s the body, I might ask?” he says, turning to Mel.
“In the car.”
“I also cremate,” he adds. “We have some beautiful urns, for burial or display. The wife throws pottery. Does a beautiful job of firing them, a lovely patina of colors, iridescent, or more earthy if you prefer. Our kiln is more than adequate for cremation. I would recommend that. Shipping’s inexpensive. Or if you want to pick her up by the time you get back from Florida.”
A chill runs over me. I imagine myself showing up on Roni’s doorstep. “Where’s Helen?” she asks. “Here.” I hand her a beautifully wrought vase glinting in the splotchy sunlight from the big maples that tower above their home. My stomach throbs with dread, that I’ve not called her yet.
The mortician’s wife comes into the room. A stout rosy-cheeked woman in a house dress with thick ankles and squarish feet that fill her Birkenstocks, she greets us warmly.
The mortician mentions to her that my wife just died.
She looks at me, her face gentle with sympathy, “You poor dear.”
She offers us coffee. She insists, takes us into the kitchen that adjoins the workshop. We sit at a ‘50s deco table.
“They’re going to Titusville,” the mortician says.
“Hot this time of year,” she says.
“That’s what I told them,” he says.
“Lovely little place. Fin and I were down there during one of the last launches, in the city park right across the way. Practically knocked my socks off.”
“When what, Fin?”
“When did you ever wear socks?”
“Why it’s just an expression, Fin.”
Dottie and her husband prattle on like this, marital banalities that bond a couple for a lifetime. Her good-humored sympathy assuages my depression, all the while her kitchen fills with the aroma of wheat cakes, fresh coffee. She serves them up with freshly picked peaches, genuine maple syrup still coated with bark residue. “Eat,” she tells me, patting me on the shoulder. “It’s comfort food.”
We have more coffee while Mel and Fin go off to fetch Helen.
When I walk back to the workshop with Dottie, Mel and Fin are in a walk-in freezer. In the weak incandescent glow, I can make out a brown bear that appears to be slumbering on a wood pallet. I’m inattentive to Dottie’s chatter, eavesdrop on Fin who tells Mel how they remove air from the body bag. “Prevents freezer burns.”
Then Mel, that gruff laugh of his. “Anyone ever ask to have their wife mounted? You know, poised over the kitchen stove, or maybe pole dancing?”
And a more somber Fin: “No, I don’t recollect anyone ever did.”
Just like that it’s decided. I have no hand in it. Helen will remain with the mortician at a rate of eighty-five dollars a night which Mel reminds me is only a fraction of what we would have to pay for our room at the Titusville Holiday Inn, were not Blue Heron paying our way. Our plan is to pick her up on our way back upon which time she will either be ice packed for our trip north. Or we can cremate her, my stepdaughter allowing.
Mel gets directions back to the interstate. I slip into the back seat, relieved that Helen is taken care of. In little more than a day, we will return to Ithaca where I will be able to mourn Helen properly.
Exhausted, I nod off. I have a strange dream, Helen and me on a Tilt-a-Whirl, thrown back by gravity, unable to lift arms, legs, our faces contorted, the platform tipping up until it is perpendicular to the ground. Stars and earth revolve around us. I wish it to stop, dread that if it did, we’d fall a great distance.
“Billy! Billy, wake up,” Mel is above me, the rear door open.
I start up, my limbs heavy, my tongue thick.
“I can’t hold my eyes open anymore,” Mel says. “You need to drive.”
We’re parked at a rest stop, the halogen lights above us fluttering with night creatures. I drag myself into the courtesy store, use the restroom, get two coffees to go. Mel, by the time I get back, snores asthmatically in the back seat. I gulp down half of one of the coffees, bitter and tongue-burning hot. I put it in the coaster and accelerate down the feeder. I am glad for the first time since Helen’s passing to be alone with my thoughts.
I95 is mostly empty and I push the pedal until we’re cruising close to ninety. Moths, large as sparrows splatter on the windshield. A nimbus of light glimmers on the horizon, maybe heat lightning, or a distant city. I grip the wheel, put my face out the window to catch the wind, do upper body tai chi exercises, struggling to stay awake.
My stomach churns and I crave something sweet. Then I remember the bag of Sno Balls.
~ ~ ~
We make good time and I pull the Bonneville into the Holiday Inn parking lot a little after nine am. We get our room, shower, change and hustle downstairs to the banquet hall. The room is crowded with about forty people, two at a table, two parallel rows, facing the front. A PowerPoint presentation flickers on a large screen up front: cottages and vacation homes banked by azalea bushes, and bougainvillea vines, as as you’re likely to see in Better Homes and Gardens.
“Blue Heron Fly-Away Properties let you enjoy the good life,” the prerecorded voice says, “all the while you earn your own lovely home. Wouldn’t you like the chance to relax and enjoy your vacations again?”
Mel and I use the cloak of darkness to make our way to two unoccupied seats. Unfortunately, we don’t have folders. A stack of three-ring notebooks crowds a table that has the added enticement of coffee urns and platters of donuts.
“…experience the pleasures that great travel can offer by considering one of our vacation homes. Work at your leisure as a sales agent using our ample customer database…”
As if on cue, Mel and I, hunched over like Grouch and Chico, steal over to the table.
“…bask in the Florida sun, enjoy the pristine beaches of the Caribbean, marvel over the majestic beauty of the Canadian Rockies, the art colonies of Santa Fe…”
We are making our way back to our seats when the lights come up.
The presenter, a large black gentleman in a carefully tailored gray suit, shines his laser beam on us to the amusement of the crowd. “Feel free to grab a donut or two,” he says in a mocking voice.
Mel and I retreat to our seats, folders under our arms, coffee and donuts in hand, pencils behind our ears. The presenter continues: “Blue Heron Fly-Away agents have found the earning potential, stability, and flexibility gained through purchasing our franchise to be excellent. As new properties come available, the inventory is updated. We afford you leads in the area of your choice and we furnish you with our time-tested presentation.”
Mel once boasted he could fall asleep at attention with his eyes open. We are only an hour into the presentation when I catch a glimpse of Mel, his back planted firmly into the arch of the chair, his neck craned forward like a vulture, his unblinking eyes fixed straight ahead. I riffle through the color-tabbed notebook looking for the bottom line in a book that is as flashy in its laminated multicolored pages as it is short on information.
I do happen upon one property on Hilton Head’s South Beach. A cozy two-bedroom cottage on a sandlot nested in a stand of white birch and dogwood trees, surrounded by a white picket fence, this is the house Helen and I only dared dream about. Helen would have loved the garden opulent with myrtle, poppies, wild roses, the bay window facing out towards the ocean only a hundred yards away. My throat clutches and I fear I might cry again.
Meanwhile, the presenter rambles on with his carefully crafted script. Fluorescent lights behind faux gold valances hum insistently. My watch seems to slow then stop. I’m beginning to feel like I’m back in Sister Alarita’s sixth-grade class, the sands of time lodging in the neck of the hourglass. I hear a loud thud next to me. Mel, still in a trance, his eyes, I imagine, wide open, has collapsed onto the table. The presenter takes this as his cue, says, “I’ve given you a lot of material to absorb. Perhaps we should break for lunch.”
Mel and I cross to the Copper Brazier. The restaurant at least has windows and we can see Cape Canaveral in the distance.
“What are you getting?” Mel studies the menu with great concentration.
“I’m not really hungry.”
“It’s for free.”
“Maybe a Caesar salad.”
“For Christ’s sake,” Mel says. “They’re paying for it.”
“Suit yourself. I’m getting the Bluebeard Treasure Trove. Shrimp, clams, scallops, lobster, in a bed of fettuccine with golden butter sauce.” Mel licks his lips voraciously. His face is still creased and red from where he hit the Blue Heron folder, his glass frames bent.
We argue throughout lunch. Mel forks in food like a bear preparing for a long winter. I pick at my greens, for nutrition’s sake, all the while arguing with Mel that we ought to go. The folly of our trip is coming home to me.
“Sure, they give you the leads. But you only get a fraction of the commission. Maybe if you’re lucky, after your hundredth sale, you get a property and a good hefty mortgage.”
“I didn’t hear him say that,” Mel says.
“You were asleep.”
“No I wasn’t.”
“It says in the book --” I page ahead to the “Redemption Values” section, which unlike the sales part of the folder, is not laminated and in color, but in punishingly small print that needs jeweler’s glasses and a lawyer. I turn the book towards Mel’s plate, by now piled high with carnage.
He ignores me. “I say we hear the man out. If nothing else, we’re getting free meals, hotel rooms, tickets to Canaveral.”
“What’s to see?” I point to Canaveral in the distance, a vacant flat with a towering gantry glinting in a hazy sun.
“How do you expect ever to make something of yourself? You’re too uptight. Life’s about taking risks. You have to learn to play it by ear.”
“Are you daft?” I say overly loud. Heads turn our way. “Have you completely forgotten?”
A perplexed Mel looks at me, “What? What have I forgotten?”
As we leave, Mel takes several Ketchup and Sweet and Low packets, stuffing them into his sports coat.
We return to the banquet hall, the gaudy yellow walls, the tiring ghastly light, the scent of a thousand luncheons, the murmurous drone of the presenter.
Mel, now alert, does accounting exercises with the rest of the class. An aura of excitement descends upon us, as if we can hear already the clink of gold coins. The moderator, Mr. Pinker, knows he has us by our noses, the perfectly designed presentation, time-tested, run through focus groups. He sashays around our desks, hands interlocked behind his back, rising on his toes, urging us on, congratulating us. He’s our friend now, a welcoming committee of one. We’re already CEOs, the future Donald Trumps of America.
I feel like jumping up, announcing the truth: All a Ponzi scheme, flipping properties previous owners defaulted on, that we’re lining the coffers of the next person up the pyramid. I say nothing; I’m reminded of Roni’s insistence to Helen that I am a wuss and a wimp. My mind wanders. I start doodling grotesque caricatures. Any psychologist would see these as self-portraits, an expression of how I loathe myself. To assuage my growing anxiety, I make lists of what I must do: pick up Helen’s body, notify Roni and Vince of her passing, funeral arrangements, settle legal matters. I prepare for my confrontation with Roni by writing down what I plan to say. Why, I wonder, do I fear her so?
When we get out of the afternoon session, Mel bubbles over with enthusiasm.
“Don’t you see it?” he says. “We don’t have to sign any contract. We can repackage Blue Heron into our own company, after maybe a year in the business, start our own franchise. Put ourselves at the top of the pyramid.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Mel.”
“What do you mean, don’t get ahead of myself?” Mel puts his hand on his stomach which rumbles. “You’ve no imagination, Billy. Your daughter’s right.”
“No vision. No dream. You lack any . . .”
Mel leaves the thought unfinished, rushes to the restroom. I wait in the gift shop. I think of sending Roni a postcard. Chastise myself. Why not a bouquet of lilies? Why not a singing telegram?
While I wait, I buy some Orbit gum.
~ ~ ~
We sit on our sun porch, Mel whining about his tricky stomach which burbles and churns. He runs to the john. When I look in through the screen door again, he’s curled up on the bed. I fold my arms over the balustrade. Pelicans float effortlessly above choppy waves, dip and dive, then flutter away on large wings. The ocean smells briny, rich with life.
Mel calls out to me. I find him in the john, on his knees. His face is rubescent. He heaves and retches, great gagging spasms that leave him breathless.
“I think you need to go to Emergency.”
He looks at me with helpless disgust, his complexion ghastly. “I think I need to go to Emergency.”
I get directions from the night clerk and drive him to Titusville Hospital.
~ ~ ~
At any time of day or night, anywhere in Florida, the aged, the fragile, the critically ill, are racing to Emergency. Death is the prize and eventually everyone wins.
Titusville is no exception. By the time we arrive at Titusville’s Emergency Department, it is thronged with people. We wait in line to see the triage nurse. “Probably just shellfish poisoning,” she says when we finally get our turn. “We get a lot of that down here.”
Mel is hydrated with an IV drip and given a puke pan. They place his gurney in a holding pattern that stretches along the emergency corridor; it reminds me of a crowded animal shelter, caged animals whining helplessly.
“If I don’t make it, Billy,” Mel says, holding my hand. “I want a military burial, honor guards, the works,” Mel says this between dry heaves and fitful naps. Mel minded the uniform depot at Fort Dix during the Vietnam War.
After a few hours, they wheel Mel into a curtained area. Mel sleeps fitfully. I pace outside his cubicle. Doctors, nurses, orderlies, on crepe shoes, sterile bonnets, blue and green scrubs rush by. Gurneys rattle in and out, back and forth. Pages buzz through invisible speakers. Troubled families huddle together, speaking in hushed voices. I keep reaching for the phone, as if to call Helen, to remind her that I love her, to reassure her that I’ll be home shortly. She is back at the hotel room, or in Ithaca. I keep forgetting that Helen is gone, like all this is just an irksome dream from which I will soon wake.
Finally, a woman in blue scrubs, blond hair, bluish circles under her eyes, pushes back the curtain. “What seems to be the problem?” she says.
“We’re waiting for the doctor,” I say, assuming her a nurse. “I think he has shellfish poisoning.”
“I am the doctor.” She points to her stethoscope. “But I see I’m not necessary since you’ve already diagnosed the patient.”
I apologize for my sexist presumption.
“What seems to be the problem, Mr. Baum?” She takes Mel’s vitals.
“Food poisoning. Shellfish,” Mel says.
“Everyone’s a doctor,” she mutters under her breath. “And then to Mel, “We’ll do some tests.”
For the next two hours, Mel’s gurney rattles from station to station. He is x-rayed, cardiographed. Blood samples and body fluids are taken. He’s probed from either end. I go back to Receiving. Exhausted, all shame gone, I curl up across a couple of the molded plastic café chairs. It seems I have only closed my eyes that I am being shaken awake by an orderly. I squint against the brilliant sunlight flooding through the windows.
“Your friend’s ready to go home,” the attendant says.
I wheel a glum Mel to the discharge window. He looks humbled, older by ten years. A receptionist with a shadowy mustache, bulging out of a summer dress, hands me an itemized bill, a multi-page printout.
“He signs the last page,” she says.
I leaf to the last page. My jaw drops. “Fourteen hundred and eighty-five dollars?”
Mel fishes in his pocket for his Medicare card. I hand it to the receptionist.
“We can’t honor this,” she says. She wrinkles her nose at me. Mel and I look at her, both of us dumbfounded. “You have to be referred to Emergency by your primary physician.” She says this in an overly loud voice, lest any other patient within earshot dare try such a ruse.
“My physician is up in New York,” Mel explains.
“Did he refer you to us?”
“He was deathly ill,” I explain. “It was the middle of the night. I thought he was dying.”
“I cannot authorize it,” she says. She crosses her arms.
I pore over the bill: EKG, blood chemistry, urinalysis, abdominal X-ray, chest X-ray, endoscopy, colonoscopy … “But we didn’t ask for any of these tests.”
“Did you sign a release?”
“Did you sign a release, Mel?”
“I had to. Or they wouldn’t give me my clothes.”
“They wouldn’t give him his clothes,” I explain.
“The release gives us permission to perform the tests,” she says.
“But the release came after the tests.”
“We had to test him first,” she says with great indignation. “How else would we know what was wrong with him.”
“He had shellfish poisoning.”
“I still have shellfish poisoning,” Mel says.
She explains in a tired voice that anyone over 55 goes into a test modality. “It’s required by law. Otherwise, we are liable. What if he’s leaving the hospital and he has a heart attack?”
“Give her your credit card,” an exasperated Mel says as he signs the bill.
It is sweltering when we leave the hospital, the steering wheel so hot I can barely touch it. Even with all the windows down, we are sopping with sweat by the time we find a drugstore. I hand the pharmacist the prescription, an elderly gentleman in an immaculately white smock, white hair and bushy white brows. “Shellfish poisoning, huh?” he says.
When Mel and I arrive back at the Holiday Inn, we drag ourselves to our room. I put the air conditioner on high, close the thick curtains. I make sure Mel takes his tabs, what the pharmacist told us was just extra strength Prilosec that we could have easily bought off the shelf. I make sure Mel is in his bed before I collapse onto mine. I don’t even take off my shoes. I wake several times throughout the day but am unable to shake off my lethargy and sink back into unconsciousness.
When I finally rouse myself, I am chilled to the bone. I stumble over to the air conditioner where weak light leaks through the curtains. I grope for the off switch, open the curtains. Except for the inn’s patio lights, it is dark outside. In the distance, a passenger plane, landing beams haloed in ocean mist, floats inland. The Canaveral gantry, lit up by foot-lights, seems spectral, unreal, a set for a science fiction movie. I call the desk clerk and ask the time, then I shake Mel awake.
He says he feels better but thirsty. He drinks great draughts of water.
“We have to go,” I tell him.
“What time is it?”
“In the morning?”
“What day?” he asks.
“Sunday. No, Monday.” We pack hurriedly, make our way to the desk.
The clerk tallies up our bill, hands us a printout. He has a book on his desk I recognize, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.
“We’re being comped by Blue Heron,” Mel says.
“Blue Heron Fly-Away Realty.”
He flips up their record on his monitor. “They checked out yesterday morning.”
“We were part of the seminar,” Mel says.
“But you didn’t attend the Sunday morning signing.”
“How could we attend?” Mel says. “I was in Emergency.”
“Mel was sick,” I interject. “He got food poisoning from the shellfish he ate in your Copper Brazier.” I search in my bag for the itemized printout from Titusville Hospital, lay it on the counter.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the clerk says. “Would you like to fill out one of our ‘How are we doing’ cards?”
“Pay the man,” Mel says.
I reach for my credit card like a gunslinger drawing a pistol that might well be out of bullets.
Mel screeches out of the Holiday Inn parking lot, leaving Titusville in a cloud of dust. The bill all total, including room rental, lunch, the cost of the Saturday session, comes to eighteen hundred and seventy dollars. The trip has so far cost us well over three thousand dollars, not counting our gas and meals. All we have to show for it is two Blue Heron Holiday Get-Away folders billed to us at a hundred and thirty-five dollars apiece. Mel and I are not talking to each other. I cannot find it in my heart to forgive him and his eyes are fixed steadfastly on the road. Somehow, I find consolation in that I will soon be reunited with Helen.
~ ~ ~
When we pass the “Welcome to South Carolina” sign, I break the silence.
“You do remember how to get there, don’t you, Mel?”
“Do you have the map?”
“Why would I have the map?”
I know instantly our odyssey is not over, and Ithaca might well be receding from our grasp. I search through the glove compartment, turn up gas and toll both receipts, Mel’s Allstate Insurance. I turn in the seat and rummage through the litter in the back: fast-food containers, cardboard trays, coffee cups.
“It was on the cocktail napkin,” Mel says.
“I know that!”
“I bet you blew your nose in it,” Mel says.
“Why would I?”
“Why wouldn’t you? You were having your little crying jag.”
“What about the directions back to I95 from the mortician?” I ask.
“They were on the back of his invoice.”
We pull off I95 onto the Myrtle Beach Highway, pull into an Exxon station. We search cab and trunk, like customs agents on the scent of contraband. We find the release papers from the hospital, restaurant receipts, Helen’s Janet Evanovich paperback, banana peels, apple cores, orange rinds. We can’t find a scintilla of evidence there ever was such a mortician.
“All I remember is Fin and Dorothy,” Mel says.
“I remember Dorothy.”
“What difference does it make, Mel? We can’t go around asking where Fin and Dorothy’s place is.”
We are beside ourselves. We gas up and purchase a South Carolina map. We repeat the names of towns, Mars, and Meeks, and Coles Crossing, like wine tasters sampling their bouquet. We get back on I95 and take the feeder into Florence. Mel thinks the mortuary was off Highway 301. I think 51.
“You’re thinking of Area 51. Where they have that extraterrestrial.”
“Why would I think that?”
“How am I supposed to know,” Mel says.
I Google “morticians” in South Carolina on my phone, then “taxidermists,” pull up training programs, salary expectations, actuarial data including cause and frequency of death by county, city, and town. There are a surprising number of morticians becoming taxidermists, and taxidermists becoming morticians. There is even a site about a kid displayed on his bike at his funeral.
We finally find the gravel road that led to the Citgo where we first discovered Helen dead. It only remains for us to travel an additional few miles before we arrive at the restaurant, the squat wood building with fading green paint and the flickering red neon Pabst sign in the window under the awning.
“The Crossbow!” We say it together.
~ ~ ~
It is dark and cool inside. A bartender polishes glasses, whistles tunelessly.
“We’re looking for the other bartender who works here, the young guy,” Mel says. “He’s got red hair?”
The bartender puts his arms wide on the bar, studies us. We must appear strange, the two of us rumpled, eyes glazed and shadowy with fatigue, Mel in wrinkled cargo shorts, a loud Hawaiian shirt, bent rimless glasses; me, hair uncombed, with a grizzly two days growth.
“You mean, Gil?”
“That’s it,” Mel says.
“Don’t come in till six.”
It’s around three forty-five. We order Heinekens, the beef on kummel weck lunch plates. Mel wolves his down. He hasn’t eaten since his food poisoning, orders another. I eat the okra and baked beans, the innards of the sandwich, leaving the bread. We order another round of Heinekens. And another. By the time Gil comes in, the tables section is starting to fill up with families, dressed casually but neat--we’re in country where folks iron clothes. A Randy Travis song plays on the jukebox. Mel’s explaining how I can beat the zoning prohibition against converting my house into apartments. “Not only do you have a new income stream, you claim the conversion on your income tax.”
Gil’s unbagging money for the register when Mel buttonholes him. “Gil. You remember me, don’t you?”
He looks at us circumspectly. “Don’t believe I do.”
“We’re the ones asked you directions to the nearest mortuary. The mortician-taxidermist?”
“I don’t know any mortician-taxidermist.” He smiles at Mel, that placating grin reserved for the drunk and hopelessly daft. “Knew someone who ran a funeral parlor bait shop once. Health department closed him down.”
“Look. I’d recognize you anywhere,” Mel says. “It was Friday night, about nine, ten.”
“Nope. Wasn’t working Friday night.”
“I’m sure it was you.”
“Did he have red hair, look just like me?”
“That’ll be Gus, my identical twin. Our spit’s so alike, I can’t tell us apart.”
“That’s it,” Mel says. “How can we get in touch with Gus?”
“He’s in Afghanistan by now. Shipped out Saturday morning.”
We slump down in our corner of the bar. Mel’s thumbs peels at the label of his Heineken. I knead my neck, shoulders, try to think. Mel turns to me. “Don’t you think you should call your daughter?”
“She’s not my daughter.”
“Maybe she’s heard.”
“How would she?”
Though I’ve been putting this off, several brews have buoyed up my courage. I dial her number, turn my stool away from Mel, cup the phone to muffle the noise.
“Roni. How are you?” I feign confidence.
“Where are you? Why hasn’t mom called?” She’s edgy, anxious. Not a good sign. “She was supposed to call when you arrived.”
“That’s why I’m calling, sweetheart.”
“Is she all right?”
I think of that steely blue-eyed detective in those Law and Order episodes, his chin set firmly against the mawkish display of emotion. “Your mother, I’m sorry to say, is dead.”
“Dead?!” Roni says. “Did you say my mother is dead? What have you done with my mother?”
The little self-confidence I’ve been able to muster succumbs to Roni’s rising hysteria. “I don’t know, Roni, hon—"
“You don’t know! What do you mean you don’t know?”
“She died in her sleep . . . while we were on the way to Florida.”
“Oh, my God.” I hear Roni calling out to her husband in a shrill voice. “Vince. Pick up the phone.” And then, “Ma’s dead.”
“Your ma or my ma?” Vince says.
“My ma,” Roni says it emphatically, as if Vince’s mother’s death would be of no consequence.
“When?” Vince says picking up the other phone.
“Vince? This is Bill. She died on the way down to Florida. In the back seat—”
“I thought you said she died in her sleep?” Roni shouts.
“She was sleeping in the back seat.”
“Why was she sleeping in the back seat?” Roni shouts.
“When?” Vince says. “When did she die?”
“Friday,” I blurt out. Another mistake.
“Friday?” Roni says.
“But this is Monday,” Vince says.
“We didn’t know. We thought she was sleeping.”
“Oh my God. They made her sleep in the car,” Roni hisses to her husband.
“No. We didn’t know she was dead immediately.”
“How could you not know for three days?” Vince says. “Who sleeps in the back seat for three days?”
I can hear Roni mewing and sobbing, her words thick, unintelligible.
“Mel thought it best we continue our trip,” I offer. “Thought Helen would have wanted it that way.”
“But why would she have wanted it that way?” Vince’s impugning voice.
Then Roni’s. “They kept Mom in the car for three days.”
“Of course not! We left her with a mortician. We’re on the way to pick up her remains now.”
“What do you mean ‘remains’? You didn’t cremate her, did you?” Roni says. “How could you! Mom’s a Catholic. She believes in the resurrection of the body.”
I remind her that the Catholic Church has lifted its prohibition against cremation, admittedly, a minuscule point.
“What do you know about Catholic,” she screams. “You, an atheist!” She unleashes a round of invective. I try to interject that I’m not really an atheist but an agnostic.
“Now, sweetheart”—Vince’s soothing voice. And to me,” When are you going to arrive in Ithaca. We’ll begin to make arrangements.”
“There’s a small problem, Vince.”
“What problem?” Vince says.
“What problem?” Roni says.
“We’re having trouble finding her.”
“But you said the mortician has her,” Vince says.
“We can’t find the mortician.”
By now, Roni’s throwing a tantrum. I hear her smashing things, Vince trying to calm her. Doubtful anyone is listening anymore, I break the connection.
“That went well,” Mel says, raising a brow.
~ ~ ~
Mel and I argue. He wants us to go back home. I want us to get a motel room, start out fresh in the morning. “She can’t be more than a few miles from here. Roni will kill me if I come home empty-handed.”
“What’s the hurry,” Mel says. “She’ll keep. Dead is dead. You can have her shipped. Or make arrangements for her to be cremated here and sent FedEx.”
In the end, Mel prevails.
We drive straight through, Mel and I taking turns driving, make the trip in ten hours flat. On the feeder into Ithaca, Roni calls. I tell her nothing beyond our expected time of arrival.
~ ~ ~
When we pull into my driveway, Roni and Vince are waiting for us. Roni leaps from the Subaru like a pit bull, arms flailing, shouting obscenities at me.
I’m a “small person,” she says, “infantile, selfish, with no feelings for others, subject to every crackpot scheme, a schemer and a schlemiel.”
I try to interject that Mel is more properly the schemer, whereas I am the schlemiel.
“Where’s my mother?” Roni screams. “What have you done with her?”
Vince leans against the Subaru, arms folded, chewing on a toothpick. Mel, sensibly, removes my and Helen’s luggage by the side door, places my Blue Heron folder on top and, cowering before Roni’s wrath, screeches off.
I move the luggage inside, putting the storm door between Roni and me. She’s looking around and I’m afraid she might start hurling the ceramic toads and trolls Helen has decorated our garden with.
Vince intervenes. “That’s enough, Roni.” He pulls her back as I skulk inside.
“What are you going to do to make things right?” she screams at me as I lock and latch the door.
I unpack Helen’s and my luggage, folding everything, putting away our clothes in their proper drawers. Then I go through the mail, carefully placing bills in one stack, fliers and magazines in the next. I’m moving like a slug in winter, while my mind races from one thought to the next. I find not a shred of evidence that Fin and Dottie exist.
I go online, discover that I’ve exceeded my credit limit and there is a hefty fine on my charge card. I have outstanding bills, bills with penalties, payments on Helen’s hospital balance. I move all our savings to my checking account. I recalculate on the computer, then a handheld calculator, and then with pen and paper. My figures don’t add up. I seem incapable of the simplest arithmetic.
I call Mel. “I have a cash flow problem. Can you give me a little help here?”
“Gee, Billy. I hate to say this, but I’m strapped myself. If you can wait till the end of the month--”
“I can’t wait until the end of the month. My July bills are past due. My charge card is frozen. You owe me fourteen hundred and eighty-five dollars for your hospital bill. Plus your half of the trip. Gas, food, our stay at the Inn, that Blue Heron thing--”
“Naw,” he says. It can’t be that much.”
“I checked it and rechecked it.”
“What about Helen’s share?”
“What Helen’s share? There’s no Helen’s share.” My voice is strident, echoes through the empty kitchen as if to accent her absence.
“Doesn’t Helen have money? What about life insurance? Weren’t you and Helen working on the reverse mortgage?”
I slam down the phone. I sleep fitfully that night, crying into Helen’s pillow, I still catch the scent of her perfume.
~ ~ ~
Next morning, I call Ms. Galsworthy at our bank, make an appointment. Helen and I were completing the application process for a reverse mortgage. I drive through midmorning traffic, my mind elsewhere, trying to remember if Helen signed the contract, and if not, what I can say to finesse the closing of the deal.
Galsworthy welcomes me warmly, offers to get me a cup of coffee.
I shake my head no.
“Not well at all.” Why I say this I don’t know. Perhaps I had thought to broach the topic gingerly when we had exhausted the pointless amenities. I fold my hands on my lap, assume what I believe to be an appropriately somber tone (strange, that I should be forced into acting out what I genuinely feel), and say, “She’s dead.”
“Dead?” The suddenness of this causes Galsworthy to lose her composure. “When?”
“Friday.” We are silent and I feel crumbly inside. I compose myself; this is, after all, a business transaction.
“You poor dear,” Galsworthy says. She reaches across the desk, pats my hand. This gesture, the first expression of sympathy anyone has shown me since Helen’s passing, touches me. I shudder, start crying again. She hands me a packet of tissues, assures me that she’ll walk me through the process. “All we really need is her death certificate.”
“I didn’t realize that I needed a death certificate.”
She says, “The deed is in both of your names.”
“That might be a problem.” I take a deep breath, launch into my harrowing ordeal of the last few days. I had intended to be terse, objective, right to the point. Instead, I find myself carrying on like I’m enacting some tawdry soap opera. I keep looking up at Galsworthy, for reassurance, to see what effect my tale is having on her.
Galsworthy looks at me incredulously. I feel like the naive child denying he was anywhere near the candy dish while having a mouth smeared with chocolate. She excuses herself. The next thing I know, a bank guard is telling me I must leave.
As I am escorted to the door, I see Galsworthy cowering behind a bank teller window. I turn my head, shout over my shoulder, “Then is it possible I could get a temporary loan? Use the house for collateral?” I sit in the car for a long while, seething with rage, that it should be so difficult to sell our house to a bank that is giving us so little of what we put into it.
When I start the car, I am surprised to find myself driving toward Clifton Landing, where our life insurance agent, Don Meadow, has his office. Why I do so is a mystery to me, after the humiliation I faced at Galsworthy’s hands. But then Don Meadow knows Helen and I since back from before we were married. He handles all our insurance accounts and is practically a member of our family. He’ll understand.
We’re no sooner seated in his office with all his wrestling trophies and family pictures than I launch into my story. I’m not quite the tragedian this time, my voice not quite as grave. I feel I am striking the perfect note, though I find myself pausing irritably as Don rocks back and forth in his huge chair. Don is a formidable man; his chair complains irritably as he shifts his ponderous weight.
When I finish my story, Don seems to brush crumbs from his tie. He looks at me, his eyes unreadable. “Bill Essley,” he says, “that’s the most preposterous story I’ve ever heard.” He rises, waddles over to me while looking at his watch. I’d love to hear more,” he says, “but I’m already late for my next appointment. He propels me towards the door, his hand firmly at my back.
I am driving home when I get the call from Roni. “You’ve killed her, haven’t you,” she screams. “You and Mel. Killed her and buried her somewhere between here and Timbuktu.” My denials are drowned out by her hysteria. Meanwhile, her husband Vince, in a cold and authoritative voice says, “On Mr. Meadow’s advice, we’ve called the police. Don’t think you can get away.”
When I pull in the driveway, two patrol cars are waiting, red and white bubbles flashing. Our neighbors on their front porches look on. I submit to the cuffs. They push me into the back of a squad car, read me my Miranda rights.
~ ~ ~
Mel and I are separated. I’m grilled by detectives nowhere near as charming or clever as the ones you see on TV.
“Where’s the body?” A detective with a shaved head and the sharp ferret nose says.
“I don’t know.”
“But you admit Helen is dead.” This from the other detective. He wears a brown-grey fedora with a sweat-stained band, red suspenders.
“Of natural causes.”
“Then why are you hiding her from us?” the Ferret says. He paces around the gray metal desk I am manacled to.
“I’m not hiding her. Why would I hide her?”
“Then where is she,” the Fedora says.
“I don’t know where she is.”
The Ferret gets in my face, as if to catch me in a lie. “How could you not know if you’re not hiding her?”
“We couldn’t find her.”
“Where did you lose her?” the Fedora says.
“In South Carolina.”
“Good,” the Ferret says. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Where in South Carolina?”
“You hid her in a mortuary?” the Fedora says, disbelievingly, leaning over me. His shirt is discolored under his arms. He sweats profusely, as if he were being interrogated.
“Which mortuary?” the Ferret says.
“The mortuary is also a taxidermy.”
“Where?” the Fedora says.
“In South Carolina.”
They glower at me, then storm out, I presume to interrogate Mel. While they are gone, I amuse myself by counting the holes in the acoustic tiles that line walls and ceiling. Then I count the tiles and multiply by the number of holes in each tile.
The Ferret and Fedora come back, coffee cups in hand. They slurp at it while considering me.
“Your friend Mike’s about to plead out to a lesser offense,” the Ferret says.
“Who’s Mel?” the Fedora says.
“Is that the mortician?” the Ferret says.
“No. That’s Fin. Fin and Dottie.”
“Fin and Dottie’s Mortuary,” the Fedora says. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“Fin’s the mortician. Dottie throws pots.”
“Why did she throw pots?” the Fedora says.
“Who did she throw pots at?” the Ferret says.
“Pottery pots. She paints eyes, too.”
“You think you’re clever, don’t you,” the Fedora says.
“Look. All you have to do is look for a mortician in South Carolina who is also a taxidermist.”
“You think we didn’t think of that? You think we’re stupid?” the Ferret says.
They look at each other, then leave. I resume my calculations.
When they return, the Ferret announces that Mike is about to give me up.
“Mike who?” I ask.
“Don’t play dumb with me,” he shouts, hovering over me, spraying me with an aerosol of spit. “We’ve just about had it with you.”
“Did you cross-reference morticians who are also taxidermists?”
“Why would I do that?” the Fedora says.
“He was licensed in both.”
“You can run a whorehouse in South Carolina without a license,” the Ferret says.
“Wouldn’t you like to go home?” the Fedora says. “All you have to do is tell us where the body is. There’s a long docket. Who knows? You could be home for two, three, years before your case comes up. Wouldn’t you like that? To go home?”
“Did you know there are over sixty-five thousand holes in this room?” I don’t know why I say this. I am fearless, my life no longer important to me.
They take turns, the Ferret and then the Fedora, interrogating me into the evening. They offer me nothing but water and vending machine crackers. Finally, I think to ask for a lawyer.
~ ~ ~
It is late when the court-appointed defender arrives, a young man with post-adolescent pustules and oleaginous black hair. I am marched down to the first floor for my arraignment, plead not guilty.
“The defendant is willing to put his house up for bond, Your Honor,” my lawyer says.
The prosecutor objects. “He tried to bilk the bank into buying back his house, Your Honor. He tried to cash in his wife’s life insurance policy. He’s a flight risk.”
They give me a restroom break, then march me upstairs to a holding cage, chain-linked on three sides with a cot against a brick wall with a window grimy with soot. I ask my attorney about Mel, whether he’s being held.
“They let him go, Billy. He was driving the detectives crazy with his money-making schemes. Tried to sell them a vacation home. Baron something.
“That’s it. They released him on his own recognizance.”
“Could you contact him and have him visit me?”
~ ~ ~
A week passes. Mel never shows. I am served takeout food, given bathroom breaks. The Fedora and the Ferret seem to have lost interest in me. My lawyer tells me they’ve torn Mel’s Bonneville apart, gone through toll-, rest stop-, hospital-, and motel receipts, looking for clues. Their crack-shot forensic team has determined that sometime within the recent past, Helen was most likely, maybe, with some degree of certainty, in the back seat of the car.
My release, finally, comes from unexpected quarters. As much as I can piece it together, an alert court reporter finding my story grist for the gossip mill, wrote a piece titled, “Caregiver Husband Carefree at Last.” My story threaded from police blotter to the Ithaca Times to the tabloids. It took on a life on its own, growing to diabolic proportions. My nefarious scheme included dumping Helen’s body in some ocean sink north of Cape Canaveral; or in some alligator-infested Florida swamp; or, as one rather scurrilous rag had it, having her mounted and installed at the Madame Tussauds’ House of Wax as Marie Antoinette. Somewhere along the chatter chain, Fin Franton--such was his name--read about this mysterious mortician-taxidermist in one of the tabloids. He contacted the authorities. The media, FBI, state troopers, converged on his home. Press conferences were held. At first report, it was revealed that I was under arrest in New York and it was expected, following the autopsy, I would be extradited to South Carolina to stand trial. After an exhaustive examination, authorities could only conclude that Helen died of acute kidney failure.
At my release, the Fedora and the Ferret offer not so much as a beg pardon or we’re sorry.
Roni and Vince pick me up. They still believe me guilty and an occasional forensic expert will appear on Cable TV reconstructing how I most likely poisoned my wife to avoid detection.
When they drop me off at my home, Roni hands me my mail. There, on the top, is a letter from Franton Mortuary, unopened, postmarked the day I was arrested. I am beside myself.
“You could have cleared me, Roni!”
“How was I to know?” she says.
“It’s a federal offense to read first-class mail,” Vince adds.
~ ~ ~
Roni and Vince continue to treat me coldly, right up to the day Helen’s will is read. In what takes me by surprise, I am the sole beneficiary of our life insurance policy. The house is deeded to my name alone. All Helen’s assets, material and monetary, are directed to me. She does leave to her daughter and son-in-law a generous annuity for which I am the sole trustee.
Suddenly, Roni and Vince lavish me with kindness, inviting me to dinner at their home, or day trips on their pontoon boat. “It’s not good to spend so much time alone, Dad,” Roni says. I am embarrassed for her, her use of that familiarity feels unpracticed, like someone learning a foreign tongue. I invite Roni and Vince to carry away any of Helen’s belongings they wish. After that, I see little of them.
I feel like I have taken up habitation in an abandoned museum. Day after day, I make lists of all the things I might do with my newfound freedom. I can find nothing to fill this immense emptiness.
I have by now instructed Fin Franton to see to Helen’s cremation. One morning in late September, the air crisp with the chill of coming winter, I retrieve the Blue Heron folder. I page through it to that lovely cottage nestled in the stand of birch and dogwood trees not more than a hundred yards from the ocean. On an impulse, I call Mr. Pinker. “Is that home on Hilton Head still available, the one on Seacoast Cove?”
He assures me it is.
Mel phones me again and for the first time in weeks, I take the call.
“Billy Boy,” he says. “Where’ve you been? Hey, I finally thought of a name for our business. ‘Great Lakes Vacation Homes.’ Listen to this, ‘Enjoy your own lovely villa or condo …’” I set the phone on the counter, continue packing while he rattles on.
My plan is a simple one. Pick up that iridescent green and gold urn from the Franton’s. Then drive directly to Hilton Head. I have a special place for Helen, facing out of the huge bay window looking onto South Beach. For the rest, I’m going to play it by ear.