By Justus E. Taylor

2,608 Words

Copyright 1995 by Justus E. Taylor

spaceMartin was wondering again why he had decided to attend the funeral. After all, just a neighbor in a big apartment house, in big New York City. Let's face it, five years of an occasional "Hi, how are you?" on the elevator wasn't what anybody could call a funeral-attending relationship! And then there's the wife, I mean widow, to deal with. What to say, here or in the elevator, tomorrow, or the next day after that in the hallway, or ... "Those wishing to view the remains may form a line in the center aisle, and return to your seats by one of the side aisles, if you please," was being intoned by the very suave funeral director while Martin found himself being gently but insistently drawn out of his seat by a tuxedoed usher.

spaceMaybe it was inadequate mental preparation. Maybe it was the measured sweetness of the rendition of "Blessed Assurance" that swelled from the organ and filled the chapel at the moment that Martin reached the casket, and then the obligatory two short steps to the left to whisper to the widow, "So sorry for your loss," but suddenly there were the moist eyes and the pain in the throat. While back in his seat composing himself, he decided that most of all it was that he himself had just turned fifty! The widow's reddened eyes, faintly visible through the veil, the leaping and subsiding crying out that flitted randomly through the gathering, and the music, the music, all weighed on his feelings. He made fists in his lap in order to hold out until it would be all over.

space A rainy day too? Martin agonized in a depression, but he finally was able to pop open his umbrella and, after a few hasty steps, to turn a corner away from the funeral to a broad and busy avenue. He walked the first block in a debate with himself as to whether to try and get a cab, knowing it could be an all-day job in weather like this, or stop and have something hearty to eat. He speculated that it was vestiges of cannibalism, or maybe a need to verify life that makes people want to gorge themselves at times of someone's death. "I know I'm not only imagining it," he mumbled, "I'm really hungry! Or am I? Oh bullshit, I'll find out when I eat!"

space "Rest-Inn," might have been the name of the coffee shop, Martin wasn't sure. He was only happy to get inside out of the rain and to be sliding into the overstuffed maroon booth. A plump, aging waitress was soon in evidence at his side, tolling off the remains of the day's luncheon specials after the regular lunch hour mob had left. Martin's ears were tuned for something emotionally reassuring, so all the selections were a blur until she got to, "Beef stew."

space"Yeah, that's it! Beef stew!" He echoed himself again, "Beef stew!"

spaceAlready beginning to feel warmer, dryer and more secure, he snuggled back into the plastic cushions and for the first time began to look over the other customers. Usual assortment, he thought, but his eyes lingered and studied more carefully anyway, searching for anything that might be a good distraction while waiting for the stew to arrive. He was enjoying the side view of a nicely formed brassiere, so he didn't notice that a person had approached from behind him and now was so close as to be in his private space.

space"May I join you? All the other seats are taken."

space"Huh? Uh?" noticing that there were in fact several other empty seats, Martin prepared to protest, but he might as well have said, "How do you do?" since the man had already seated himself across the table and was fingering the plastic-covered menu.

spaceMartin looked at the man and was struck speechless. It was the man's appearance. It wasn't that he could have been considered over-dressed for the place they were in. At least Martin didn't think that was it. No, he was sure that wasn't it. It, was that the man looked exactly like his newly deceased neighbor, whom he had looked at in the coffin less than a half-hour before! It could even be the same clothes and the same carnation. Carnation, Carnation "It's the stiff! My God, it's the stiff!" Reflexively, Martin grimaced and half-stood-up in the booth, pushing himself backward with his legs, hard against the booth's cushion, pushing with his arms, hard away from the table too, to get some space from this thing! Sweat instantly soaked the armpits of his suit and glistened on his forehead. A tremor set up in his arms that signaled either muscle strain, or terror!

space "Hi, Martin," and a broad grin brought Martin back down into his seat, since it sounded very warm, rounded and almost playful. "Chuck?" Martin ventured, as if on tiptoe.

space "Yeah, it's me."

space "But then what the hell just happened at that funeral home? Was that some kind of joke or insurance fraud or something? What about your wife, and the casket and all the people and ... Wait a minute, this can't be! The undertaker. Wasn't he for real? And all the funeral notices and the obituary in the paper. Nah, nah! But could leukemia have been faked? But everything seemed so real! Real real, I mean. Why are you pulling this stunt? Don't answer. Why are you getting me involved? Answer that!"

space "It's not a stunt! I'm dead! Croaked, gon-zoed, bucket-kicked, passed on (but I don't like that one, too much like a bowel movement) mortified (beginning to laugh) zapped, wasted, just history and also dee-cee-sed. And I'm wondering, how should I start. Maybe bite your neck, snatch your body with an instant exchange, or perhaps eat your brain, make you a zombie, or best of all, take you with me!" Chuck's laughter had gradually increased in volume until now he was convulsing in his seat with tears in his eyes.

space Martin had to remind himself that he should be afraid, but he didn't feel afraid. "Must be that I don't actually believe him," he mumbled to himself. "But that's rationalizing isn't it? I simply don't feel scared," he countered. "Maybe I will go into shock later, but right now, this is actually very interesting!"

space The appearance of the waitress with his stew gave Martin a welcomed pause to collect himself. As she passed a damp cloth over the tabletop in front of Chuck she asked, "And what can I get for you, sir?"

space "A cup of hot chocolate and a slice of apple pie," was Chuck's unself-conscious reply.

space "Whipped cream in the hot chocolate?"

space "No thanks."

space "Ice cream on the pie?"

space "No thank you, just plain.

space "Comin' up," and she turned and left.

space Martin considered whether she might have thought that Chuck looked a little strange, since there were traces of powder and lipstick on his face and mascara on his eyebrows. Martin resented the waitress not being disturbed, as he had been. But he knew that waitresses don't really notice customers, only what they eat! And she hadn't just left this guy's funeral!

space "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine," came quietly across the table in a sing-song mockery, followed by Chuck's hearty laugh. Although he had no serious religious convictions, Martin felt an annoyance at this, possibly as much as a religious zealot feels toward a blasphemer. He cracked, "If you're dead why don't you lie down?" His sudden boldness shocked him back into a sense of fear. He rationalized that there was no sense in provoking this thing, or whatever. He was glad for the waitress's return with the hot chocolate and the pie.

space Seeking a conciliatory tone, Martin questioned, "Why would a dead person want human nourishment, like pie and hot chocolate?"

space "I'm still human, just dead," Chuck said matter-of-factly. "Anyway, old habits die hard," then laughing mischievously. "I thought I'd have my favorite snack, since I'm suffering a delayed passage. They sent me to you because I'm to have some important role in you activities, but for the life of me, I have no idea what that will be."

spaceMartin' s mouth flashed open, then slowly closed. He was instantly going to ask who "they" were, but he decided he might not be ready to know the answer.

space "By the way, how was the funeral, from a spectator's point of view?" Chuck asked casually. "You know, you can't see a damn thing lying in one of those metal boxes, even with the top open." This time he managed a supercilious detachment, which clearly amused him.

space"Wham!" Martin pounded the table with the side of his right fist. The plates and utensils made synchronized leaps into the air, but the incident drew only temporary glances from the other diners. "What's so goddamned funny?" he queried. "Death is no joke, especially for sensitive people like me who can feel sympathy for a person who lost his life." Then he felt compelled to add, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say goddamned."

spaceChuck let his fixed smile fade, but substituted a slight lifting of his right mascarad eyebrow at Martin's apology. "I never knew you to be a religious person," he mocked. "Let's not go from mourning to anger without ever touching the happy medium, no pun intended," he said evenly. "The joke of death is the fear that you survivors feel, which you pretend is grief for the deceased. I know you think it's grief, but that doesn't make any sense you know. I wasn't crying when I died! I had come to terms with it. Why should those who didn't die be crying?"

spaceMartin averted his eyes to gain time to think up an answer.

space Chuck continued, "Deaths are either sudden or slower. The sudden ones don't leave any time for self-pity. The slower ones run through the phases, exactly like they say, so that by the time death comes there's already resignation. What's the basis for all the funeral grief? But hey, listen up, it's not really grief for somebody else, it's fear for yourself!"

spaceAt this point Martin was staring straight at Chuck, having temporarily surrendered the antagonist's hostility for the role of a clever interrogator. "Not that I believe that it's fear, mind you, but assuming that it is, what's the difference, since it still feels so awful when it grabs you?"

space Well, it simply might be that if you figure out what the bad feeling is about, and what it's not about, the feeling might not feel bad! That happens all the time you know, like when a shrink gets you to realize that you're being bugged by something from your childhood. Suddenly you feel a whole lot better by understanding where the bad feeling is coming from."

space"You may have a point," Martin conceded, "but it depends on whether you can explain the basis of the fear you claim all us survivors experience. By the way, you can finish that mouthful before you answer, as I'm sure you'll need the extra time to think."

space A large swallow, then with a spreading ashyness and seeming fatigue, Chuck elaborated while still managing a smile: "When somebody dies you people imagine yourselves also dying. You feel totally vulnerable, even if you have just had a thorough medical checkup. But you should stop to realize that you are imagining dying when there isn't any reason for you to die! Having a reason to die completely changes the way you feel about it. I don't mean a reason like, 'keeping the world safe for democracy' or any such nonsense, but a reason such as knowing there's something wrong with you that is going to cause your death. Until there's such a reason you're unprepared and there's no way that you can overcome fear when you're unprepared. You think of all the qood things you may miss by dying, instead of thinking of all the aggravation you'll avoid. Consider a daydream in which you find yourself in military combat, but without any rifle or basic training. Terrifying! Believe me, by the time my end was near (broadening with a real smile again) I was honestly glad that I was dying, before anything really bad happened to me. You can understand what I mean, something that I might not have been able to handle. Something, maybe like cowardice, that would have left me embarrassed. Now that's scary!"

space The logic of these remarks impressed Martin; however, he was still swirling in a mixture of fear, anger and confusion. As soon as he was ready to answer with a noncommittal, filler type of remark, his companion abruptly arose from the table with, "Sorry but I have to rush off now." He glanced around the room, grinned cunningly and directly exited through the front door.

space Martin had been taken by surprise again. He stared at the exit while trying to view the whole episode as perhaps some extended practical joke. He looked around the room again but didn't recognize any of the faces as those of friends. He studied the walls and the decorations, suspecting and hoping that some tv show was being filmed, with him as the stooge. No luck. While in this frame of mind, he began to eat his stew, inattentively, it now being cold with little patches of gray and yellow grease forming on its top. He told himself that dead is dead and alive is alive and ... he was alarmed by a piece of beef in his throat that he couldn't swallow and couldn't bring up!

space At first Martin wouldn't accept the truth of what was happening. But then the gathering desperation for air, the ten tons of weight on his chest, the involuntary clutching at his own throat and his staggering rise from the booth, all made him realize that his life was in danger. As tearing eyes blurred his vision, he saw the other patrons staring at him, some partly rising from their seats. Crazily, they were all hesitating, as though they didn't believe what they saw. "Maybe he's only a drunk," he felt them thinking, as his consciousness wavered and shrank. Flickering, sixteen millimeter images of his wife, his children, his parents, his boss, grew darker and darker until his mind told him, "This is it!" He went limp, ceased to struggle and the others saw his body drop to the floor.

space As his eyes opened, Martin experienced a sharp soreness in the center of his chest, immediately below his solar plexus. He found himself seated with the dislodged piece of beef on the table in front of him. Holding his chest with his right hand, and looking backwards over his right shoulder, he found himself gazing into the face of Chuck, who had only a few moments before been holding him in a "Heimlich" embrace.

space "Thanks for saving me," Martin managed to mumble, between gulps for air.

space"You're welcome," Chuck answered. "That wasn't so bad was it? Even though I know it wasn't exactly a walk in the park either." Chuck smiled again. "I had to come back, I forgot to pay my check. I'm glad I was able to give you back the life you seemed to still want. But actually, I owed it to you. The living are only caretakers of a world designed, created and then left behind by the dead. I was happy to leave behind my lifetime's accumulated possessions, which were only junk! I never would have been able to figure out how to dispose of them. Let me have your lunch check too. It's my treat! So long. Have a good day!"


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