Excerpt: Death's Sidekick
It always cracked me up when funeral directors tried to remove jewelry from the deceased, and today was no exception. The mortician, who was older than dirt itself and nothing but skin and bones, braced his foot against the casket. His long gangly fingers wrapped around the four-carat diamond on the dead lady's finger as the deceased's family looked on in horror. Call me insane, but it was hilarious. I wanted to make fun of him, but kept it in check for the deceased woman's husband and daughter, who were standing right in front of me.
"This is easy," Mr. Coffin said, yanking on the stuck ring. Yep, that was his real name. Mortimer Coffin. Nothing like fate determining someone's job. Lucky stiff…uh…guy.
Mr. Coffin groaned as he pulled and tugged. "Trust me. I'm a professional and I've done this before."
I held my hand over my mouth so I wouldn't laugh out loud. I wasn't about to tell him to try a lubricant.
I was the celebrant for this funeral, which meant I conducted the eulogy and directed the service, much like a wedding director did for a wedding. I thought of myself as Death's Sidekick, but in a fun sort of way. I was the comic relief.
"Celebrant Sadie, would you help me?" Mr. Coffin asked me. And yes, my first name was Sadie, which sounded so sad. It was very fitting for the funeral industry. But my last name was really creative, thanks to my husband. It was Toilette. Sadie Toilette. It kind of flowed off my tongue, or so I thought when we were first married. I had chosen to become a sad toilet. Pathetic.
I pointed toward my chest in horror. "Me? I don't do jewelry removal. I'm really not strong enough." Granted, I worked out, but I certainly didn't want to touch a dead lady's hand. Speaking of cold and yucky. No, not for me. It might mess up my required new pink manicure. "I don't think that's in my contract. Why not call your Bruno-guy."
"Brutus? He doesn't like dead bodies." Mr. Coffin yanked again, but the ring was stuck. He blew out a breath of what smelled like a cross between a dead body and a cigarette. "He only works here because he likes the worms when he digs the graves. What a weirdo."
…And look who was talking. The thought made me hold my breath so I wouldn't chuckle aloud or double over in hysterics. Yeah, I loved my job sometimes. Dead people and the living ones who went with them were hilarious.
The family members stared at Mr. Coffin, each of their faces registering their surprise. The older man turned toward the daughter, speaking in some language I'd never understand if I tried. I was pretty sure it was Japanese, Chinese, or some other 'ese' language.
The twenty-something daughter nodded, furrowing her recently plucked and shaped eyebrows. She looked like a top model—the airbrushed version; she was that pretty. I was so jealous.
"Dad wants to know if you've ever cut off someone's finger to get their ring," she said.
Mr. Coffin kept yanking. "Not in front of the family." He looked up at the woman. "Oh. I meant to say, never."
I bit my lips, forcing myself not to laugh. Of course he'd done it, and if he didn't get this ring, he'd tell the family to bury her with it, then before the casket closed, he'd cut off the finger to get the ring for himself.
Welcome to the funeral industry.
Mr. Coffin yanked one last time. The ring flew off the woman's finger, sailed through the air, and landed squarely on the vent on the floor—one with giant slats so mice could come and go as they pleased. He was such an animal lover.
"No!" Mr. Coffin yelled, diving for the ring. But it was too late. The four-carat diamond slid a quarter inch when Mr. Coffin landed. It fell through the slats and down into the furnace, where they cremated the bodies. Mr. Coffin told me he was being energy efficient, using the heat from the ashes to heat the building. Granted, from the incense he burned and the smell of embalming fluid, the place smelled almost sweet, but there was that underlying odor of burning flesh that seemed to invade my nostrils. Since I'd seen him pay the inspectors more than once while shifting his eyes from side-to-side, I was sure it was 'legal,' like he said it was. Right…
"We want that ring," the woman said. "Or we'll sue."
Coffin nodded, but wiped his brow. "Yes. I'll make sure you get it."
I just hoped he did get it, because cubic zirconium 'diamonds' didn't quite look the same. He'd learned that lesson the previous year. It all worked out okay, sort of, but the lawsuit was still pending. I hoped that lawsuit went in the client's favor and Coffin would lose the business. But then again, I seemed to have a problem with revenge. Even so, if he did lose, it would make a serious dent in my income if the business folded. So, it probably wasn't a good idea.
Mr. Coffin continued, putting his hand on the arm of the deceased woman's husband. "Now, it's time for us to bury your wife. Do you want to say anything at graveside?"
"No, he doesn't," I said. "I've already handled this and he doesn't understand English."
Coffin faced me. "I know that. I'm giving him my best soothing tone."
The daughter shifted her overly made-up eyes toward me, and then turned to Mr. Coffin. "I understand English."
Mr. Coffin's expression turned flustered, and I could almost see his brain working overtime. Anyone in the room would know the woman spoke English, because she'd spoken to him a few hundred times while he was getting the body ready for burial. She's the one who gave him the dress for her mom and told Mr. Coffin how to apply her mother's makeup. Mr. Coffin was an idiot and it showed on his face.
It wasn't my problem, so I studied my new pink manicure, and then ran my hands down my dark blue dress. I loved my figure, and I wasn't just saying that. I'd been lucky to have a great body at my ripe old age of 37. It wasn't easy to upkeep, either, but I had no choice, according to my husband, Marcus. He was an evil man at times and wanted me to look like a blonde-haired, blue-eyed trophy wife who loved the color pink and kept a smile on her face with a positive attitude in her heart. I hated how he treated me, so funerals were my outlet. Someday, it would be Marcus I'd be burying. I couldn't wait to get out from under his tyrannical thumb.
"Uh…would you like to say something at graveside?" Mr. Coffin asked the woman.
The woman rolled her eyes. "No. I already cleared it with Sadie."
"Good." He rubbed his hands together, looking as if he was ready for something exciting. "Ready to bury the stiff?" He chuckled, but none of us laughed. Mr. Coffin leaned closer to the woman. "It's a joke. No one seems to get my jokes."
"At a funeral? A joke?" The woman crossed her arms. "Are you nuts?"
"Yep. That's why I love my job." He ushered us all out of the room just as I smelled the incinerator start up. "Uh…I'll be right back." Mr. Coffin ran out of the hallway, moving faster than I thought a man of his age should be able to move. Must've been the incentive of that giant ring in the incinerator or he'd eaten prunes. It was hard to tell.
I walked with the older man and young woman toward the hallway, trying not to laugh at the thought of prunes. It wasn't a laughing matter, but Mr. Coffin did have one thing right—you had to laugh in this business or you'd cry. Funeral didn't start with 'fun' for nothing. Who needed valium and laughing gas? I had funerals.
"So, are you ready to make this final?" I asked.
The woman set her jaw. "That sounds so sad, when you think about it."
"Not really. Your mom's been ready to go for a while. My sister mentally puts the deceased on vacation. Think of it that way. Your mom's on vacation and having a ball. She's probably at the beach and doesn't even need sunscreen."
"That sounds like fun," the man said. "I'm tempted to join her."
I couldn't believe it. I'd spent hours talking to the family members and this man never spoke. "You speak English?"
"Yeah," he said. "But I don't tell anyone I don't like. I like you. You're normal and down-to-earth."
He knew nothing about my weird life, but I shot him a grin anyway. "I understand." I ushered them out of the hallway and outside to where the hearse was parked. "I'll meet you at graveside."
"Thank you for everything," the woman said. She took her father's arm and walked away to their Bentley. Yes, they were uber-wealthy, and made sure everyone knew about it.
The memorial service had gone really well, with hundreds of well wishers in attendance. I wanted to think they all liked the family, but knew it wasn't the case. They all looked so happy as they each received a hundred bucks and a candy bar, just for attending. It was irritating, because I only got my measly four hundred dollars for giving the eulogy, which covered the time preparing for the funeral, along with gas and hours upon hours to meet with the family more than once. I also made ribbons for cancer to pass out before the funeral and created a free memorial photo album of the service for the family. I was probably the worst business person in the world, which is why I had to keep Marcus happy. He's the one who kind of put food on the table, when he decided I needed some cash thrown my way. However, he wasn't home a lot, because his job included gallivanting around the world with his 'restaurant planting' business. He was so successful and seemed satisfied with his life…when I saw him. I wish I could say the same for how I felt about him and our marriage—satisfied. Frustrated was more like it.
I got into my nondescript blue minivan and waited, pulling out of the funeral home parking lot behind the hearse. As I drove down the streets of Baltimore, I followed the noontime traffic at a snail's pace while refreshing my makeup. I wasn't worried about being late to the graveside service, because I was leading the funeral procession, right behind the hearse. My lights were on, and drivers were supposed to yield to every funeral procession. However, a few drivers cut me off, zipping between the hearse and my car. I just guessed they were in more of a hurry than a procession of funeral attendees. It was their loss to miss the funeral. I loved funerals, and from the way these people drove, their memorial would be in my care before long while their loved ones would tell me how the deceased wanted to be remembered.
As I pulled up to an intersection, I stopped right beside a garbage truck—the kind with the automatic lift for the cans. I ignored the thing, singing along with some cool 70s song playing on the radio. I was more interested in the words and my lipstick shade than what was going on around me.
Garbage suddenly rained down over my car, pulling me from my seventies zone. Candy wrappers oozing in some green slime slid down my windshield, as well as what looked like hamburger and sauerkraut.
"What's going on?" I honked my horn. As I looked up through the garbage-strewn windshield, I realized it came from the truck beside my car. "Stop it!"
The man in the driver's seat of the garbage truck, who was on his cell phone, glanced toward me while I honked my horn.
"What, lady?" he yelled.
I pointed, and he stared as I continued to look upward to see where it had come from. He moved his cell phone away from his ear, opened the door, and slammed it onto my passenger's car door. He got out, assessing the situation with his hands on his hips.
It was time to pull out some attitude. "Hey! Watch the door and my car, jerk."
"It sucks to be you." With a laugh, he got back into his truck and merged into traffic.
I sat still, the horns honking behind me. Once I stared through the smeared hamburger garbage on my windshield, I realized the light had turned green. Since no cars were to my right, I pulled into the parking lane, happy no one was parked there.
Just as I slammed the gearshift into park, someone yelled from beside my car. "You can't park there!"
I got out of my car and stared at all the wrappers, goo, and whatever else covered the top of my car and windshield. This couldn't be happening.
A little old man with no teeth ran up to me. He looked like a tiny troll, making me grimace. He really needed a facial. "You can't park there," he said.
I put my hands to my hips. "Why not?"
He nodded to a tiny sign beside the car. "That's reserved. Can't ya read?"
"Look at my car." I pointed so he'd get it. "Trash fell from the garbage truck and went all over my car. Is it your junk?" I really wanted to pin this on someone else.
The cars stopped at the red light beside me and I heard laughter, but ignored it.
Troll-man shook his head. "Oh, I hope it's not mine. This here's a taxidermy shop. Them's innards, if it's my garbage."
I closed my eyes and covered my forehead with my hand. This wasn't happening to me. Throwing out animal guts had to be against the law. I hated dilemmas like this.
I had to do something. Squaring my shoulders, I faced the small troll of a man. "Don't tell me things like that. Can you help me clean this off? I'm late for a graveside funeral service and I'm in charge of it."
He stared at my car, grimacing. "Sorry. That's above my pay grade, but you have to move your car. We have a very important person coming and they need to park right there."
"An important person at a taxidermy shop?"
"He'll be here any minute. He's rich and wants to buy a bunch of dead cats. One of them is his, and he wants it to have friends or something, I think."
What an odd thing to request. Even though I had to be at graveside, I had to see this dead-cat-fetish guy. I loved to see weird characters.
After crawling back into my car, I pulled up a few spaces, which were fortunately empty, and went into a diner near the taxidermist's store. I needed to get some paper towels to keep busy so I could see the dead-cat guy.
Once I stepped into the diner, I lifted my heel from where it stuck on the floor and studied the bottom of my shoe. This place wasn't very cleanly. But I needed help, so I looked up to see the hostess' face. "Do you have any paper towels, or a broom, or a shovel I could use?" I turned and pointed toward my car. "The garbage truck just dumped a load on my car."
"So? Can't help you." She chomped on her gum, turned, and practically ran away from me.
I was stunned. If I were her, I'd be helping scrap the junk off the person's car while laughing at their misfortune. But, thinking about it, these people weren't into clean floors, so they probably didn't have anything to help. Regardless, she could've been nicer about it.
I turned on my heel and headed back toward my car, nasty thoughts crossing my mind. Revenge would be sweet, just to throw the garbage all over her windows. I should turn on my wipers full blast, just to nail her dirty windows. See how she'd like it.
Once I reached my car, I heard tires squeal and a thud. Thuds are never good, especially thuds that make someone fly through the air and land on the sidewalk. It was going to be one of those lucky days, with a potential funeral landing right at my feet…literally.