Miranda took the call from bed. The deceased had lived a long and happy life, so there wasn’t the usual sadness. I heard her making arrangements from the next room.
“Well, I could sing Requiem Æternam at the entry. And then, later, the Celtic Alleluia. That’s always nice.” She sang samples into the iPhone.
The deceased’s sister was on the other end. She accepted every suggestion. Just ticking the boxes. She had five more calls to make: funeral home, cemetery. The wake would be the night before; they’d drive to the cemetery after the service.
Miranda got off the phone. “Oh, good. Somebody died. Now we can eat next week.” It’s what she does: weddings and funerals. She sings people together, then she sings them out of our world. I hear all the stories.
Like the couple who’d just bought a new rug. They had a party in their apartment to celebrate. Their friends were standing around, laughing, and everybody drank too much. The husband especially. When he felt it all coming back up, he ran for the balcony, with his wife right behind him. Couldn’t bear to stain the new rug. He leaned over the rail, but leaned too far. His wife tried to catch him. Seriously, she had her hand on his collar. But he was a big guy, and she just didn’t have the strength. It was a long way to the terrace below.
Stories like that. Most days there’s a new one. This one seemed simple, an old man, peacefully passing. Not much family. The worst she’d have to worry about was a rambling eulogy from one of the children. Then the priest would get impatient, and she’d have to sing the last songs too quickly. Or the organist would demand extra bench fees. They’re all like that.
I’m always amazed how fast things go south. The deceased had told his sister “any priest will do, except that damned Father Lyons.” “No problem,” the funeral home said. “We’ll get Father Molony.” So Molony accepts, but he’s a little dizzy, and forgets he’s already committed for Thursday. He remembers Wednesday morning. By then, there’s only one guy available: Lyons. There’s a flurry of phone calls. The sister even calls Miranda. What can she do? Besides, the deceased will never know.
That took care of the afternoon. The viewing was at seven. The sister was there, the children, all of them at middle age by now. The girlfriend of the deceased. Why bother getting married again, at eighty? They had wine and some of those little fullmoon crackers in the next room. No-one was sad, they talked about business, the marriages of their children, the football season. The deceased was a Ravens’ fan. Things were looking good for the season.
Until there was a commotion at the door. “You can’t keep me out! I’m his wife!” The sister hadn’t mentioned a wife. The children hadn’t said a word. The grandchildren looked at each other, worried. The director tried to maintain his dignity. “Madam, there must be some mistake. Please walk this way, and we can clear up any confusion.”
“There’s no mistake!” The wife was shouting now. She looked over his shoulder, and saw the girlfriend. “There’s that whore who stole him from me!” The director, off balance, went down as she pushed by. One of the sons couldn’t bring himself to tackle his own mother, so she actually made it to the girlfriend. You wouldn’t think an old lady could move so fast.
Down they went, both screaming. Miranda had to step back, out of the way. Lyons just stood there, shocked. One of the women lost her pearls, and they were rolling around on the rug like marbles. A couple grandchildren were trying to pull them apart. That’s when the insults started.
Miranda couldn’t bring herself to repeat such things. They got them into separate rooms. Things like that can’t be settled, but at least no-one was shouting anymore. After a while, everyone left. The deceased slept through the whole thing.
The next morning, there were four police cars outside the church when Miranda arrived. The judge had refused to issue a restraining order, but he made the cops show up. Everything started fine. Just like a wedding: girlfriends and family on one side, wife and her friends on the other. Some of the grandchildren scurried back and forth, and one of the daughters switched sides before the invocation. Then came the eulogies. Two of them: one by girlfriend, one by wife. Miranda started to worry about the bench fees.
It was like they were celebrating two different lives. The wife went first. Everything was bread and wine and flowers, and then it wasn’t. The girlfriend’s was an exact mirror. Dark days, and then wondrous light. The children squirmed. The grandchildren started playing catch in the back pews. No-one told them to stop. As Miranda sang the closing hymn, they were flinging paper airplanes made from church bulletins.
The casket was loaded without incident. Everyone, including the cops, drove to the cemetery. They stood around the open grave as he was lowered in. Miranda sang a last song. Then it was time for the ceremonial shovelfuls of earth. Picture the scene: two old women, both in pearls, each standing by a mound of fresh red earth, holding a sharpened shovel. A policeman standing next to each one. Nobody could hear what they whispered to each other, but it seemed to be about who would fling the first dirt. The wife won.
And that was it. Everyone held a shovel in turn, lifted up some dirt, flung it into the hole. Grandchildren competed to cover up the box. People started drifting away. Miranda quietly slipped behind some trees, and made it to her car. As she drove away, she noticed eight police officers, standing around the grave, talking.
She met me, later, for coffee. She put her phone on the table top, took a sip, and told me the whole story. I asked her the deceased’s name. She couldn’t remember.
Her iPhone rang from the table.
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