She was dead, all right. Leaning over the bed, James jabbed Beatrice's shoulder again with his index finger. No movement. Before straightening his thin lanky frame, he jabbed her a third time, calling out her name.
James scratched his head. Sorrow, what sorrow there would be, would come later. Right now, he didn't know what to do—call the doctor, 911 or an undertaker. Beatrice had made the decisions, but he'd have to solve this crisis himself. He called all three.
Doc Caleb arrived just as the medics were putting her body into the ambulance. The police, the ambulance and the undertaker's hearse, arriving within seconds of each other, caused a bit of a stir at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
"I don't know what to do now," James said, sitting on a hassock in the living room, his gray head bending over the coffee table. While he arranged the magazines and newspapers the way Beatrice would have done, he shrank further into his faded red flannel robe, like an old turtle not wanting to be disturbed. Beatrice would have known what to do, but it was her funeral, after all.
They were waiting for James to say something, Doc Caleb, the policeman, and a man in a black suit who came in last. He looked so pained and upset James thought he should have gone in the ambulance with Beatrice.
"Who are you?" James asked.
"Mr. Anderson, from Anderson and Sons Funeral Home. You called. But, you gave the wrong address. I've been next door. Most unfortunate. I mean, not about being next door. Although, that was rather unpleasant for your neighbor. I mean for you. Most unfortunate."
"You were the first name in the Yellow Pages. But you're too late; she's gone. The ambulance took her. I don't know what to do now."
"I'll take care of everything," Doc Caleb said, moving toward the undertaker and the policeman, shepherding them out the door. "Mr. Anderson will get Beatrice's body. You can go there later to discuss the arrangements. Shall I go with you?"
"No. I can handle it."
After Doc Caleb left, James wondered if he could handle it, the funeral and everything else in his life without Beatrice. He had a moment of stomach tightening panic. There would be hundreds of decisions to make. He fixed some coffee and toast, and, as he stared at the garden through the large picture window, he thought about those decisions.
The window had been Beatrice's choice. When the architect had shown them several window treatments, Beatrice had known immediately what she preferred. What would she prefer now? James could only guess, and that worried him.
He was a man with no strong passions or convictions, and, consequently, could not make up his mind when given a choice. As a young man, he had waffled and wavered. Nothing seemed to matter, except not making a mistake. Since he didn't know, in most cases, which would be the better or wiser decision, and, since he was equally attracted to and adverse to neither, he resorted to fate, to chance—a toss of a coin, a blind shuffle of bits of paper, a decision by elimination.
Should he play hopscotch or stickball? Eeeney, Meany, Miney, Moe. Should he ask Ellen or Nancy to the dance? Eeeney, Meany, Miney, Moe. If his choice were the wrong one, there was no one to blame, except fate. Before he had married Beatrice, his father had made the decisions.
"There's never any hassle," James had said about being an accountant in the family firm. "Dad decides everything." What his father didn't decide, the IRS did. The clients kept coming back with their tax returns and their questions, and the answers were always there.
"You can't argue with the IRS," James had told his clients. You've got no choice."
After his father had died when James was 37 years old, Beatrice, who had been his father's secretary, said, "Keep the firm, James. I'll help you run it. Everybody knows what to do. They'll just keep on doing it."
Beatrice had been four years older than James, and she knew what she wanted. Shortly after Mr. Baxter's death, it was apparent that what she wanted was James. She had taken care of everything, and they were married within six months. It was she who ran the firm, doing everything, except the accounting, until James had retired and closed the office eight years earlier.
After eating, James showered and dressed, choosing the same bright yellow golfing outfit he had worn the day before. Beatrice had bought him only bright colors, insisting that dark shades made him look too thin.
When James left for Anderson and Sons Funeral Home, the street had resumed its usual appearance. James was congratulating himself at not being accosted by the neighbors, when he heard, "Yoo hoo. Mr. Baxter."
Emma Wilson, the widow next door, was running across her lawn, holding a pot in front of her, like an offering. Typical of Emma. Always the first on the scene, with the inevitable pot of chicken soup. She must stock them in the freezer. James shook his head and continued backing down the driveway, keeping an eye on Emma. Women shouldn't run, especially old women. They look like penguins, their feet and elbows flapping. She kept on coming. He'd have to face her sooner or later, so he stopped the car.
"Oh, James. I'm so sorry about Beatrice," Emma Wilson said, thrusting the pot through the open car window, her lips quivering, eyelids fluttering. She looked at James with a pained expression, similar to the one on the face of the man from Anderson's.
"It was her heart, I guess," James said. Odors of chicken soup wafted through the car. "Well... Thank you for the ... Well... Just leave it on the porch." He put the car into reverse again, and Emma withdrew her offering.
"I'll come by later," she called after him. "Anything you need, just ask."
She was still calling out offers of help and expressions of sympathy as he pulled away from the house.
Ten minutes later, James reached the funeral home, a two-story white building with four tall columns in front, reminiscent of Greek temples. The deep green carpet in the entrance hall felt soft and bouncy under his feet. Paintings on the walls, illuminated by small softly glowing lamps, depicted outdoor scenes, a pond in autumn, a farm in summer and a meadow in spring. James looked to the end of the hallway where it turned and wondered if winter were around the corner. A different Mr. Anderson, a much older one, ushered him into an office and into a green leather chair.
"Please accept my sincere condolences, Mr. Baxter. May I get you some coffee? Or perhaps a brandy?"
Mr. Anderson had a furrowed brow and a firmness to his mouth as if his teeth were clenched in pain. James couldn't understand why everyone offering sympathy looked worse than the corpse.
"I'll have the coffee," he answered. "No, I mean I'll take a brandy."
Mr. Anderson served him both, then spread several brochures across his mahogany desk.
"Did Mrs. Baxter express any preferences?"
"She liked strong coffee with amaretto," James said. "Oh...you mean, a preference for... "
"...for a casket or for funeral arrangements?” Mr. Anderson asked. “What type of service would she have preferred?"
James leaned forward but saw only a blur of print and colors. "I don't know. Beatrice's family were Presbyterians, but we never discussed religion or funerals."
James had discussed everything else with Beatrice in the hospital, but never her dying. She hadn't been sick long, a minor heart attack and was, in fact, improving. She had returned home after a week but had passed away suddenly in her sleep on the third night home. The unasked questions remained unasked, and it was up to James to ask them and to provide the answers.
"Perhaps your children can help you decide," Mr. Anderson suggested.
"We had no children."
Up until now, James had been glad that he and Beatrice were childless. When other people had talked about their families, he would imagine how life would be with two or three little Baxters underfoot, and he invariably imagined Beatrice tending to their needs and leaving him to fend for himself. He could not have survived without Beatrice's full attention. She was always there, ready with the plans, ready with the answers even before the questions were asked, except for this one question, and it was too late now. James had expected Beatrice to decide everything. What he hadn't expected was for her to die first.
As he sipped the coffee and brandy, Mr. Anderson guided him through the brochures, with James nodding at every suggestion. After 40 minutes, Mr. Anderson, having concluded that some nods were more definitive than others, handed James a sales contract itemizing what he was getting—the casket, flowers, limousine.
"It's a good choice, Mr. Baxter," he said. "Something slightly above our middle price casket. Tasteful and solid. The cost includes the minister's honorarium for the service here and at the cemetery."
James had been gazing out the frosted glass window looking at the shapes and shadows as they passed. "Cemetery? What cemetery?"
"The cemetery in which Mrs. Baxter will be buried."
James didn't know where to put Beatrice. When he was younger, it had worried him that he was indecisive, and he would set himself a time limit, an hour, a day, a week. He always extended it, and then, when he couldn't put off the decision any more, resorted to chance again. It was too painful to decide. He had envied Beatrice's ability to take positive action and to shrug off any mistakes and accept the consequences.
James had felt powerless and weightless and at great risk for catastrophe after his father had died until Beatrice took over his life. She had stabilized him and removed him from the vagaries of this world, but now his life was unsettled again. The stress and fear of making a wrong decision, which he had so often felt as a young man, had returned.
Mr. Anderson arranged an appointment with Mr. Fenton at Woodhaven, the nearest cemetery to the funeral parlor. Later that afternoon, James drove there, going beyond the entrance before he realized that the grassy lawns he passed were in the cemetery. He turned the car around and slowly entered the driveway. There were no tombstones, only level markers with potted flowers. It looked more like a park than a cemetery.
James walked to the edge of the tarmac and gazed across the flat grassy expanse before entering The Hall of Memories, a low gray stone building in the shape of a fat H. The entrance was at the cross bar through heavy glass doors. James stepped into a spacious room with a circular fountain in the center and several chairs and couches done in shades of gray and mauve along the sides. He walked across the marble floor, making a tour around the fountain.
"Mr. Baxter?" A short dark-haired man with doleful eyes behind horned-rimmed glasses approached. "I'm Mr. Fenton."
As James listened to more sincere condolences, Mr. Fenton led him to his office where he explained the facilities available at Woodhaven—below ground burial, above ground crypts or cremation.
When James said nothing, Mr. Fenton continued. Would he like a single burial plot or a double or a crypt? He had his choice of locations outside—west side which was more shaded, or east side which was at a slight elevation and sunnier. “Perhaps cremation for your loved one,” Mr. Fenton said. “We have bronze and pewter urns available and small crypts, should you not want to take Mrs. Baxter’s remains home.”
“Take Beatrice home? I can’t keep her body at home!” George looked alarmed
“Her ashes, I mean. Not… Well…. Shall we move on? Perhaps a look around our facility will help you decide," Mr. Fenton suggested.
In each of the many corridors of The Hall of Memories the crypts were stacked seven levels high with those closer to eye level (that is, levels two and three) being more expensive.
James walked along the corridors, aware of the noise his shoes were making on the marble floors. Mr. Fenton, stepping soundlessly in rubber soled shoes, dropped his voice to a whisper as he pointed out the many outstanding features of the crypt—the skylights, the stained glass windows and lounge areas at the ends of each corridor, and the floral arrangement facilities. There seemed to be no end to the number of corridors or choices. When they finally returned to the office James still hadn't spoken.
"What about your wife's family?" Mr. Fenton asked.
"They're all in Vermont."
"Perhaps they could help you decide."
"No, I mean, they're all buried in Vermont."
"Perhaps Mrs. Baxter would have liked the same type of arrangements as her family."
"She never discussed it," James said after a long pause.
Mr. Fenton's eyes narrowed and the lines in his face increased and become deeper as he waited for James to respond. He looked distressed and ill. James didn't want to contribute to his discomfort any longer, but he still didn't know what to choose.
"Tombstones. Maybe she'd have liked a tombstone with an angel or a cherub." James made an outline with his hands of a headstone. "This is all so flat. I don't know if she'd have liked this." Again James used his hands, cutting the air horizontally in front of him.
Mr. Fenton suggested Knollwood, a more traditional cemetery with vertical headstones and monuments. James shook his head. It was a thirty mile drive to get there, and the rain, which had been threatening all day, was a threat no more, but a fact. It beat against the skylight and the windows, like multiple metronomes, counting out the seconds while James tried to reach a decision.
Mr. Fenton moved to the front of his desk, resting his hand rather heavily on James' shoulder. "May I suggest a temporary crypt for Mrs. Baxter until you decide?"
"Is that possible?"
"Yes. We have a temporary crypt, really just a storage area. There'll be a monthly fee, of course."
With a little more encouragement, James agreed. Beatrice would have a simple service at the funeral parlor and then be brought to the temporary crypt, with no additional burial service being said. "It would be better to wait until Mrs. Baxter is in her final resting place," Mr. Fenton said.
James went to visit The Hall of Memories every Sunday. Beatrice was in some hidden away storage area, inaccessible to the public, and James sat in the small lounge area at the end of the first corridor. Usually, he simply stared out the tall, narrow windows, watching the other visitors. He didn't think about their life together, but more about his life alone and his plans for the week. Thanks to Emma Wilson, who got him organized, James had begun to manage fairly well on his own. His routine varied little from week to week. The daily choices facing him were simple and didn't require any soul searching.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he played golf with the same group of friends as before. On Tuesdays, when the market wasn't crowded, he shopped for groceries, usually with Emma following along, guiding him. The numerous items on the shelves, especially the advertised specials, sometimes made him pause to consider their pros and cons, delaying his progress down the aisles, but most of the time he stuck to the items and brands Beatrice had purchased. On Thursdays he still did Doc Caleb's accounts and stayed for dinner. On the weekends he gardened and walked to the library to get reading material for the next week.
James occasionally experienced a nagging, unsettling, indefinable feeling, similar to the uneasiness he would have when accounts didn't balance, when he was sure he had forgotten something important in his calculations. Often, he kept the television turned on, and the sound of voices filtering through the house kept his mind from probing the reason for his unease.
James didn't think about Beatrice's final resting place, however, until he received the bill for the rent on the temporary crypt. He paid the rent and promised himself to think about the problem and to reach a decision before the next bill arrived. He paid the next month's rent and for several months after that. With each payment, he made the same promise. When the reminder came from Woodhaven that it had been six months since he rented the temporary crypt, James was alarmed at the tone of the letter. It appeared that temporary crypt space was limited and Beatrice was overstaying her welcome.
"You should have said something sooner," Doc Caleb said when James asked him for advice. "I'll go with you to Knollwood. Maybe you'll like it better."
Knollwood was older and smaller than Woodhaven, with taller trees and thicker shrubs. The varied monuments and tombstones were more interesting than the level vistas at Woodhaven, but it was much further away, and it would cost to move Beatrice.
"Have you thought about cremation?" Doc Caleb asked.
James was sitting in Doc Caleb's living room looking at the brochures he had collected. He studied the pictures of the crypt at Woodhaven and the flat horizon. He drew sketches of tombstones and calculated the cost of moving Beatrice to Knollwood. James rubbed his eyes with his fists. A pain above his left temple shot across to the right with every move of his head. His shoulders ached, and his stomach felt heavy, although he hadn't eaten. He had forgotten what it was like, weighing one choice against the other.
"Go home," said Doc Caleb. "We've been talking for hours. You can't sit on the fence much longer. You should decide and soon."
At home, James continued to churn things in his mind, shuffling the brochures around the kitchen table as he ate dinner. It was a severe shortcoming, this inability to make decisions, although Beatrice had never belittled him for his lack of decisiveness. "Don't worry," she had said. "Not all men are decision makers."
He could resort to fate again. "Eeeny, Meany, Miney, Moe." But that was cheating; that was going back to his old ways, something a child would do. What he needed was someone like Beatrice to take over, the way she had taken over after his father died. To say that he never made any decisions was not true. He had made one important decision in his life: to let Beatrice make the decisions. Once that had been established, he had been able to live anxiety free, until now.
Pushing aside the papers, James looked through his window at Emma Wilson's house. He realized that he had never properly thanked Emma for her help since Beatrice died, for all the pots of chicken soup. Watching Emma's shadowy figure move behind the curtained window of her kitchen, James had a sudden moment of clarity. He felt he was on the verge of making a second important decision. Moving quickly, James gathered up the stack of papers and shoved them in his pockets. It was still early, only 7:00. Maybe now was a good time to say his thanks to the Widow Wilson.
Emma met him at the door with a flutter of twitchy movements and stammered greetings. "This is a surprise. So... so unexpected. But welcome. Yes. Yes. Come in. Come in." She led James to the living room. "Sit here, James. Next to me on the couch."
James spread out the different cemetery brochures on the coffee table explaining his problem, his difficulty in deciding where to put Beatrice for her final resting place. "If only I knew what Beatrice would want. You were her friend. I should have asked you sooner. Perhaps you know."
"I wouldn't know, James. We never talked about dying." Emma looked shaken and confused. She fluffed her hair, then began to shuffle the papers around as James had been doing. Then she fluffed her hair again. Suddenly she stopped all her movements. "Well. There's no need for anyone to get upset about this. Do what I always do when I can't decide."
Emma slowly extended her right hand over the table, pointed a waging finger downward and began to chant, "Eeney, Meeney, Miney, Moe."
BIO: Adelaide B. Shaw lives in a small rural community in New York State. Her stories have been published in several literary journals, including The Toronto Star and The Writer's Journal, both contest winners, American Literary Review, Green's Magazine, Sunscripts, The Villager, Reader’s Break, Dogwood Tales, Housewife Writers’ Forum, New England Writers' Network, Emrys Journal, The MacGuffin, Griffin, The Country and Abroad and in Loch Raven Review In addition to writing fiction, Adelaide writes haiku and other Japanese poetic forms, such as tanka and haibun. Her collection of haiku, An Unknown Road is available at www.modernenglishtankapress.com