Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
One particularly gloomy Wednesday afternoon, Henry Slough, 56, decided to kill himself.
It had been a bad winter for him. He had managed to catch every virus, respiratory and intestinal, that was passing through town that season; he had never completely shaken the dry cough that had commenced with the first flu on the eve of Thanksgiving, and he was now in bed with an ear infection — his first in fifty years — that had sent him in unbelievable pain to the hospital last Saturday night. Two months of work had piled up at the office; he was bored with the job anyway and could expect no further advancement or other improvements until retirement, and in fact was probably on the list of expendables should the rumored company reorganization come to pass.
His only son had just been arrested for masturbating in public at a bus stop (at least it had been nighttime), while his bohemian daughter had left the motorcycle stormtrooper with whom she had been cohabiting only to declare her independence from men altogether and move in with a lesbian lover. He couldn’t stand to be around his nagging, interminably unhappy wife, and he had found to his disgust that he lacked the courage to follow up the unsubtle hints dropped by the 43-year-old secretary he had been flirting with at the office for the last six months. Better to throw the whole stinking mess away, he thought; admit you dropped the ball somewhere along the line and get the dull farce over with.
He had always been put off by the more painful and dramatic methods of suicide, like shooting oneself or jumping from a high place. Pain appalled him. But he had realized, as he glumly watched the bare branches blow outside his bedroom window, that he had a much safer, quieter method at hand. On top of the antibiotic he was taking for his ear infection, he had also been prescribed a powerful pain killer and an antihistamine to promote drainage. Each alone made him terrifically drowsy. Together they presently kept him dozing about fifteen hours a day. His consequent helplessness well symbolized for him the predominant fact of his life — that it was completely out of his control. But in sufficient dosage, the pain killer and the antihistamine could set him free. The pain would be gone for good, the perpetual phlegm of existence permanently drained away.
So Henry Slough swallowed a handful of each and settled back in his pillows with few regrets for a long, long winter’s nap.
When he next awoke, morning suffused the room, and he gazed at the ceiling with the smug awareness that he was dead. Among the first things he noticed was that the infection seemed to be gone: the stuffiness in his ear had cleared and the ringing throb had ceased. His throat was no longer scratchy, although terribly parched, and he breathed freely through sinuses that had been clogged all winter long. True, he was a bit stiff and drowsy — probably after-effects of the drugs. But he presumed that would pass. On the whole, he felt relieved, relaxed, and much better for having done away with himself.
Even the weather outside seemed to approve. A gusty breeze still blew bare branches against his window, and it still looked chilly, but sunlight and clear blue sky had
replaced the gloom of the previous several days. He cozied down under the covers, gazing out the window, his mind peacefully blank.
Eventually the dryness of his mouth and throat prompted him to crawl out of bed. Tugging his plaid, flannel robe over his pajamas and thrusting feet into slippers, he tottered out of the room. He trod cautiously down the stairs, noting how weak and light-headed he felt, if otherwise still pretty good. Seeing no one in the dining room, he shuffled toward the kitchen. At first the yellow light that gleamed through the curtains over the kitchen sink blinded him. His gaze slid along the tidy counters with their armory of chrome and plastic appliances, falling at last upon the breakfast nook at the far end of the room. There sat his wife — plump, pincurled, and attired in her quilted green housecoat with the white frills.
He approached hesitantly, his face stiff with a smile partly smug, partly dubious. She stared down at her morning cup of tea and an English muffin spread with strawberry jam. He took his usual seat across from her, lifting the chair slightly to avoid scuffing the linoleum. He continued with the same fixed expression to watch her downturned face as she bit her muffin and took a swallow of tea.
“Well, I hope you’re satisfied,” she said after several silent seconds.
His vacant smile tightened. He caught the distant ticking of the mantle clock in the living room as he contemplated his response.
“Of course, I don’t know how I’m going to explain this to the neighbors,” she continued, glancing up with red-rimmed eyes, “or to anyone for that matter.”
Glancing down at the flowered tablecloth, he ran his fingers along the edge of the table.
“Tell them I was tired,” he said. “Tell them I couldn’t stand it anymore.”
“Oh yes,” she replied bitterly. “And what does that say about me?”
He smoothed the edge of the tablecloth.
“You never think of anyone but yourself, do you?” she added. “How your suicide would reflect on me never occurred to you, did it?”
He dared a sheepish glance at her round, angry face, then looked down again. An irritated frown crinkled his brow.
“So tell them I couldn’t stand being sick,” he said, “if that makes it any easier for you.”
“You killed yourself because of an earache?” she sneered.
“Hey, they hurt,” he answered. “Really bad, in fact.” He felt his self-assurance waning. He recalled how good he had felt in bed a few minutes ago and wished he had never left.
“So don’t tell them anything. Pretend I died of natural causes. It could happen, you know.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re dead; you don’t have to worry about it. I’m the one that has to face everybody and clean up after you. As if I don’t have enough to do.”
“What do you have to do?” he growled.
“Well, for one thing I have to spend at least two hours a day on the phone trying to straighten out the kids’ lives.”
“Oh, you mean pissing and moaning about them to those crones you call friends.”
She looked suddenly fierce and Henry, immediately regretting his rashness, peered back at the tablecloth.
“How dare you talk to me that way!” she said. “On top of everything you’ve done.” Tears leaked into her voice. “You must really hate me. I sure don’t know what I did to deserve this.”
She lifted the cloth napkin from her lap and daubed at her eyes. Despite this precaution, one drop of fluid dribbled into her half-empty teacup. He remembered his original motivation for coming downstairs; his tongue still felt like a dry sponge against his palate. He left the table and shuffled to the sink, fetched a glass from the cupboard, and filled it from the faucet. He heard her sniffling behind the sound of his gulping. Setting the empty glass on the counter, he noticed with some irritation that his mouth and throat still felt dry.
“You just don’t care,” his wife said, almost to herself. “You never gave a thought to me, only yourself.”
Henry glanced at the plump, middle-aged figure in green and frills as she blew her nose into her napkin. Smacking his lips in a vain effort to moisten the inside of his cheeks, he turned away from the sobs and wandered off.
He stood before the medicine cabinet mirror in the upstairs bathroom, surveying his pasty, parched complexion. Might as well head for the office, he thought, and get away from the unpleasantness at home. Leaning over the sink, he stroked his cheeks under the white light; it was obvious he hadn’t shaved for days. He remembered having heard that hair continued to grow long after a person died. He would have to be careful not to let his appearance slide.
Shaved, dressed in a gray suit, his sparse hair combed, Henry Slough descended the stairs as quietly as he could. Nevertheless, his wife hustled out of the kitchen as he was heading for the back door.
“Where are you going?” she asked, braced for battle.
“To the office,” he said.
“What for?” she rejoined. “You don’t expect them to let you work in your condition, do you?”
“Of course not,” he answered. “I just thought I’d see how things were going. I’ve been out sick for a week, after all. And — I guess I’d like to say good-bye to a few people.”
“And leave me here with all the problems,” She folded her arms across her bosom. “That’s just like you.”
She extended her hands to enumerate them on her fingers.
“Contacting the life insurance agent, letting the family know, calling whoever you’re supposed to call when somebody kills himself in your own home.”
“The coroner, probably.”
“All right, the coroner. You could at least do that.”
“Hey, I’m dead,” he replied in some annoyance. “I committed suicide so I wouldn’t have to deal with crap like this.”
“Anything to get out of your responsibilities.”
“Oh, go to hell,” he growled, resuming his trek to the garage.
“No, you go to hell!”
“Couldn’t be any worse than this,” he grumbled without looking back.
She followed him out to the garage to extend her complaints. With relief he finally pulled the Oldsmobile down the driveway and pressed the Genie garage door shut between them.
It was a sunny mid-morning as he sailed along the route to work, absent the usual rush hour traffic. Having arrived downtown late, however, he found it difficult to locate a spot in the parking structure and ended up, after much spiraling around, on its seventh level.
As the elevator, otherwise empty, spit him onto his floor in the office high-rise, into the corridor redolent with the odors of synthetic carpet and cleaning fluid, he felt oddly as though he had been away much longer than he had. He approached the open double doors of the office suite. Kathy, the twenty-year-old receptionist whose desk barred the entrance, looked surprised to see him.
“Mr. Slough!” she said, her blue-gray eyes widening. “We weren’t expecting you!”
He forced a smile, raised a hand, and faintly shook his head, unable to think of anything to say. He dove into the clerical pool, nodding vacantly at the girls as he passed, a set grimace on his face, avoiding the eyes of the boys carrying papers and manila envelopes between work stations. He found Florie seated at her desk in the back corner, fingertips skittering over her keyboard. Her hair, too red to be real, stood in a stiff halo around her head. In her effort to keep her figure into middle age, she had dieted herself to gauntness, but he admired her for trying. He was convinced that she was older than the official forty-three and thought he could read the truth between the lines around her eyes, but it didn’t matter. As yet unnoticed, he bowed beside her desk.
She started, pivoted, jerked backward.
“Sorry if I startled you.” He squeezed out a smile.
“I was concentrating so much on –” She broke off, face falling. “Oh, Henry! I was so upset when I heard.” He saw, with considerable satisfaction, her eyes begin to water. “Was it an accidental overdose?”
“No,” he said.
“Oh, why ever did you do it? Why didn’t you call me — or somebody? We could have talked you out of it.”
He shrugged. “I was desperate, I guess. The trouble with my kids and all this illness. . . I couldn’t take it anymore, Florie.”
“And I don’t suppose your wife was any help either. You should have left that woman long ago.”
“I know.” He brightened. “In a sense, I guess I have now.”
Florie frowned, puckering the pink-orange powder between her brows.
“But this was not the best way to do it.” She softened again. She reached forward to pat the hand he had rested on the corner of the desk. “Poor Henry.”
Her hand darted back. She rubbed it slowly with the other.
“You’re so cold,” she said.
“What did you expect?” said he with a shrug. “Hey, what do you say to lunch today?”
“Well . . . I don’t know.”
“Come on, Florie. We’ve been talking about it for months.”
“You never seemed very serious.”
“Well, I’m serious now. This may be the last time I ever come to the office. We won’t have an opportunity like this anymore.”
“But the gossip –”
“Oh, come on. Who gives a damn about gossip? Besides, I’m not really married anymore. Till death do us part, and all that. I’m a free man — finally.”
“But that’s just my point, Henry,” she said. “You are dead now. What would people think if it got around I was going out with a suicide? It’s hard enough for a woman my — for a mature woman to maintain a lively social life.”
She paused, looking into his face.
“Why didn’t you get serious before you killed yourself?” she continued. “It’s kind of late to start something up now, isn’t it?”
“But I didn’t think you would –” He faltered. “I mean, me being married and all . . . ”
“You could have asked. The worst I could have done is say ‘no.'” She leaned forward, giving him a shadowy glimpse down her blouse. “And I may well have said — ‘yes.'”
Momentarily stumped, he glanced along the aisle and caught sight of his boss, K. G. Pendergrass. A second later, Pendergrass spotted him, misstepped, then pasted on a
business-like scowl and strode forward.
“I’d better go, for the moment,” Henry said, patting the corner of Florie’s desk instead of her hand. “But think about it. I’ll get back to you.”
With some effort, for he was quite stiff this morning, Henry pushed himself upright and advanced to meet Pendergrass.
“Morning, K. G.,” he said.
“What are you doing here, Henry?” his boss asked, sounding not as firm as he looked.
“Just felt like dropping in,” Henry said. “I’ve been out so long.” He forced a chuckle, then cleared his throat. “And it looks like I’ll be out a lot longer now.”
“Hm,” Pendergrass grunted. “Did you want to pick up your things while you’re here? You know, your — personal effects?”
“I could do that,” he said.
Without another word, Pendergrass wheeled and headed toward the frosted glass cubicles ranged along the far wall. Henry followed. They reached Henry’s niche, his workspace of a decade, all but filled with a modest steel desk and a matching file cabinet. But for a brown cardboard box, labeled “No. 10 Envelopes,” the desktop was clear. Even the wastebasket had been recently emptied. Henry glanced in the box and spotted among other artifacts his desk calendar with a picture of some mountains and a bank logo on it, his acrylic paperweight full of dead, immobile sea life, a blank clock-radio, and a pair of ten-year-old graduation portraits of his son and daughter, back when they looked fresh and uncorrupted.
“Naturally, we’ll hold onto your appointment book and other materials pertaining to the business.”
Henry nodded. “Who are you going to tap to replace me?”
“Well — uh — actually,” Pendergrass began, surveying the pool area, “we’ve sort of broken up your duties and spread them among the clerical staff. You know we’ve been planning a reorganization. That’ll save us the cost of one middle-management position that had become superfluous anyway.” He stopped rocking on his heels and looked suddenly at Henry. “Uh, I hope you understand.”
Henry unpursed his lips. “If the position was so superfluous, why didn’t you move me to a better one?”
“You’d been there so long,” Pendergrass replied. “You weren’t doing a bad job. And you seemed so content.”
“I wasn’t,” Henry said. “I wasn’t content.”
“You never complained.”
“Nobody told me I was supposed to complain. I thought I was supposed to do my job and pretend I enjoyed it.”
“But if you wanted to move, you should have at least said something, showed some initiative.”
“I took my own life, didn’t I? That shows initiative, doesn’t it?”
“Uh — not quite what we’re looking for.” He touched Henry’s shoulder, hesitantly drew the hand back. “I’d say it’s a bit too late now, Henry, wouldn’t you?”
Frowning, Henry started away.
“Don’t you want your things?”
“Send them to my wife,” Henry said, barely pausing. “I don’t need them anymore.”
He sought out Florie’s desk again and confronted her across it.
“Well?” he said.
“Not today, Henry,” she said, looking up with a worried wrinkling of her finely drawn eyebrows. “For another thing, I just remembered I’m supposed to have lunch with the girls today, and it’s my turn to pay. Maybe some other time.”
“When?” He scowled. “When is there going to be another time?”
She looked helpless.
“I wish you’d thought of that before,” she said. “I really do. It might have been fun.”
“I didn’t know,” he complained through his teeth.
“I’m sorry, Henry.” She held her solicitous gaze on him until he dropped his head and, shaking it, turned away.
He left the office building and ended up in small downtown bar. He guzzled down two gin and tonics. He was still terrifically thirsty, though not the least bit hungry, and left the minted cherries at the bottom of the glass. Ordering a third drink, he lingered over it pensively. So he could have had a better job, just for the asking. And he could have had Florie — again, just for the asking. He wished he’d known these things a few months ago, or even a couple of days ago. It would have been nice to know he had alternatives. Did you have to kill yourself, he wondered, to find that out? What a depressing thought.
He finished his third drink and ordered another. He wasn’t getting drunk. Drinking was like taking analgesics for his earache: the pain didn’t go away but at least it got no worse.
Unable to fill the void with alcohol, he eventually gave up and headed homeward, still empty but very well-preserved. It was dark, and the dinner hour traffic was thinning out. He wondered idly how late it was. Too late, no doubt.
Home again, he ignored his wife’s shrill admonitions about the hour and climbed the stairs to his room. Without undressing further than to loosen his tie and kick off his shoes, he lay on the unmade bed. He gazed past the bare branches that scratched the windowpane into the blackness of the winter night, reflecting on missed opportunities.
He was awakened the next morning by a determined knocking on his door and his wife’s voice. Lying silent on the bed, he mulled over his parched palate and the matitudinal taste of decay.
“Leave me alone!” he finally shouted.
“We have an appointment at the mortician’s in an hour,” she yelled back. “I refuse to take care of all the arrangements by myself.”
“Just let me rest in peace,” he answered.
“Not till this is done,” she shot back. “Don’t think you can simply shirk all your responsibilities, Henry Slough.”
Grumbling, he rose and shuffled to the door.
“You look awful,” his wife said when he opened it.
She was already dressed, painted, and ready to go, while he stood there with a wrinkled gray suit, rumpled hair, unshod feet, and a loosened tie draped back over his right shoulder.
“Thanks,” he growled. “Same to you.”
“You can’t go to the mortuary like that,” she said. “You look like a zombie.”
“Fine,” he rejoined. “I’ll stay here.”
She stopped the closing door with a plump arm.
“Henry! For God’s sake, can’t you be cooperative for one second?”
“Why should I cooperate?” he growled.
“It’s your funeral.”
He thought about it a moment longer; then, after muttering something he didn’t want her to hear, he offered a compromise.
“All right, I’ll go,” he said. “But I refuse to spruce up. Making me look good is the mortician’s job now.”
She reluctantly accepted.
The mortician — or “counselor,” as he was officially called — was a dapper balding man in a suit of soothing charcoal gray. He met them in his palm-bedecked anteroom.
“Welcome, Mrs. Slough,” he said in a soft, dignified voice, bowing slightly as he formally squeezed her hand. He nodded toward Henry. “And — ah — the deceased, I presume?”
Henry nodded back and let his hand be taken in turn. After closing the door, the “counselor” posed like a maitre d’ beside his desk and stiffly indicated the two plush chairs in front of it. When all had taken their places, the counselor leaned in the direction of Henry’s wife.
“First of all,” he intoned, “I wish to offer you my sincerest sympathy in this time of your loss.”
Her lower lip began to tremble. She snapped open her bag and rummaged through it. The counselor nudged a box of tissues toward her. She snatched two.
“I assure you,” he continued, “that I consider it my special, personal duty — and a sacred charge — to make these arrangements as simple and painless as possible. You may feel confident — and, I hope, comforted — knowing that I will be looking out for the best interests of you and your recently departed loved one.”
“Well, that’ll be a pleasant change,” she choked into the crumpled tissues. She gestured at Henry. “He hasn’t been the least bit comforting.”
The counselor glanced briefly at Henry.
“Well, Mrs. Slough,” he said, “I don’t imagine this period has been easy for him either.”
“Damn right,” Henry muttered.
The counselor lifted a cautionary hand just off his desktop, congenially pursing his lips at Henry to urge restraint. Following a few more formalities, the counselor opened a somber-looking portfolio lying before him on the desktop and began to address the business at hand. He studied the document on top for a moment then looked up at Henry.
Frowning, Henry averted his eyes. His wife sobbed and dabbed at her face.
“Hmm,” continued the counselor. “Seeing a suicide off to his final rest seems to prove awkward for some, although it need not be. Most survivors of the unfortunate prefer small ceremonies and modest furnishings, as if embarrassed by the cause of departure. Speaking both professionally and personally, however, I would recommend treating Mr. Slough’s passing as a natural one and giving his remains the same consideration you would have otherwise. In my experience, everyone has felt better afterwards.”
Henry’s wife choked back a few sniffles, wiping her face with the tissue. “What’s the cheapest thing you have?”
“Uh –” The counselor briefly looked in need of a Heimlich. “Let’s not be so hasty, Mrs. Slough. We have much to discuss before we get to — questions of cost.”
“I just want a bottom line,” she said, her voice suddenly clear. “Then we can go from there.”
His hand flat on his stack of papers, the counselor eyed Henry’s wife with a pucker.
“Are you talking standard furnishings, standard interment, and so forth?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, rapidly blinking her red eyes. “I was thinking maybe cremation –”
“Cremation!” Henry yelled.
“An urn in a mausoleum maybe — or throw the ashes away somewhere. ”
“No!” Henry exclaimed. “No way! No cremation!” He turned to the counselor. “I can’t stand fire.”
“I — um — I have to agree with the deceased, Mrs. Slough,” the counselor said. “I mean, we do offer that service, but — most people find traditional interment far more satisfying emotionally, not to mention it being more in line with Judeo-Christian practices. Please — do let me show you what we can offer in the way of arrangements, before you make a decision you may regret later.”
Something in the counselor’s last words blew through Henry like a chill wind. Henry went so far as to survey the room quickly for a source of draft as he rubbed his stockinged feet against one another.
At his wife’s insistence, the counselor opened his portfolio upon the desk and turned several plastic-covered pages.
“Now as you can see,” he said, shoving the book toward her, “we have several handsome and dignified styles to choose from in which to send your loved one to his final resting place.”
Henry leaned over to glance at the glossy page so indicated. Coffins. The counselor stood.
“If you’d like to step this way,” he said, “I can show you some samples of the available materials.”
He led Henry’s wife, with Henry padding along behind, to a velvet drape covering one wall. He yanked it aside to reveal a panel of smoothly sculpted and polished wood samples, each with a shiny handle, as though they had each been cut directly from the side of a coffin.
“This is a popular style here,” the counselor said, pointing out a piece of black wood with inlaid strips of gold-colored metal. “And my own personal favorite, I might add. Imported ebony.”
“I like that there too,” Henry said, pointing at a dark brown piece lower on the wall.
“Another excellent choice,” the counselor nodded. “Our mahogany. ”
Henry’s wife looked over the samples then picked out one with the hand that still held the wet tissue.
“What’s that?” she inquired, indicating a pale yellow piece low on the wall.
“Ah.” The counselor sniffed. “Pine.”
“That’s not too expensive, is it?”
“Damn right it’s not,” Henry said before the counselor could reply. “In fact, it’s cheap. It’s full of knots and it will warp apart after the first good rain. And look at that handle! It looks like a bathroom fixture. I wouldn’t be caught dead in that.”
“Who asked you?” his wife snapped back. “It’s none of your business.”
“None of my business! Hey, it’s my funeral, remember? At least that’s the reason you gave for dragging me here.”
“But I have to pay for it. And have enough left over to live on for the rest of my life.”
“Yeah, with nothing but our savings and my life insurance and my pension and the equity of the house. The least you can do is let me go out in style. This is my last chance to make an impression on anyone.”
“Please, please,” the counselor finally interrupted. “I realize this is a trying time for both of you, but you must stay calm.” He faced Henry’s wife. “Now, Mrs. Slough, we do like to keep the preferences of the deceased in mind while we are making our arrangements.”
He then turned to Henry. “We do acknowledge, however, that the final decisions must be made by the individual or individuals who will bravely confront the future afterward, and of course foot the bill.”
They ended up compromising on a nut-brown oak.
Henry grew increasingly sullen during the ensuing debate over hardware (handles and other fixtures) and software (coffin lining, pillow). He hated having to whine and beg over the funeral, his last public act on earth. By the time they got to the matter of the memorial service, he could do little more than grunt morose monosyllables. He did not even summon a response to his wife’s snide observation that she wanted a real church service because it would be her only chance to get Henry into a church. When they returned to the outer office to arrange finances, Henry opted out and sat in the corner behind a palm, perusing a month-old copy of Time. As they drove home through a misty winter rain, he discovered to his surprise that he was still clutching the magazine.
The rain persisted throughout the next day. Henry passed the time in his room, sitting or lying on his bed, frequently staring out the window and musing on the mess he’d made of things. He left his room only for the occasional drink of water, though he had given up on being able to slake his thirst. The next morning — the day before the funeral — he picked out his best clothes and let his wife drive him back to the mortuary for final preparations.
The day of the event broke partly cloudy, with fleeting sunlight and a gusty, bracing breeze. Henry rode from the funeral home to the church in the back of the hearse with his casket, dressed in his navy blue suit and his favorite red and gray tie. He took a seat in the hindmost pew to watch them place the coffin before the altar and station flowers around it. He had to wait about an hour before invitees began to dribble in. Knowing his wife’s appetite for sympathy, he was sure she had sent invitations to all their acquaintances and neighbors, alongside their families and the people at his office. He looked forward to a good crowd. He was especially eager to see Florie. Perhaps in the emotion of the moment, she would overcome her objections to getting together with him.
But he was disappointed. By the time the quiet organ music started up fifteen minutes before the service, the only people there from the office were two secretaries and one fellow assistant supervisor, the former attending merely, he was certain, to get away from work and the latter, Macmillan, a known alcoholic. The rest of the gathered was unsatisfactorily skimpy as well; he counted a mere two dozen, most of them members of his wife’s circle and their reluctant spouses.
The family finally streamed in to the black-veiled booth near the front. He dimly recognized, through the crepe, his older sister, prematurely senile with Alzheimer’s, and her husband; also his wife’s brother — a Chevrolet dealer — and of course his wife’s brother’s wife. He had never felt really close to any of them. Neither of his children were there — to his relief, actually. His wife and daughter weren’t speaking to one another, and his son couldn’t leave his state of residence pending his trial. Henry shuddered at the thought of what the little jerk-off might have done given an onstage seat and a captive audience.
Suddenly the organ swelled and the priest emerged. Henry tried to remember if applause were in order at this point, but it evidently was not. The priest approached the casket and, as the organ died down, began to speak in High Anglican from the Book of Common Prayer. Henry glanced around and saw most heads reverently bent. He listened.
“‘He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,'” said the priest in a high, nasal voice, “‘and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.'”
Some comfort that is, Henry thought. He had never been much for organized religion; his week was replete enough with duties without writing off his Sunday mornings as well. On the other hand, he didn’t exactly disbelieve. He lacked the certainty of the atheist. In the matter of faith, as in other things, Henry remained in limbo, neither hot nor cold. He returned his attention to the priest to hear:
“‘We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.'”
That’s for sure, Henry thought, nodding sardonically to himself.
The service continued with lots of prayers and references to sin and redemption and the vanity of the flesh and eternal life. After about twenty or thirty minutes of this — he couldn’t be sure, since his wife had insisted on keeping his watch — the formalities ended and the priest stepped to the pulpit for a few personal words.
“I did not know Henry Slough well,” he commenced, and subsequently proved his thesis. It was all very nice, Henry acknowledged, but generic: what a hard worker he had been, and what a loving husband and father. There was nothing about how he had labored all his life for a mediocre income and less status; nothing about his failed search for uncritical love, for relationships among family, friends, and colleagues that really made him feel whole and indispensible. Nothing about what he was leaving to posterity: a house, a few transitory possessions, an unhappy wife, two alien children, a job that didn’t exist anymore, and several missed opportunities. Nothing about the physical and spiritual malaise that had laid him low his last weeks of life and driven him to end it. The priest’s words could have applied to almost anyone. Henry wanted to jump up and set the record straight, to tell everyone the truth and for once be fully understood. But he soon decided the interruption would be out of place and let the opportunity slide.
The church service ended with a dreary hymn, after which everyone in the pews began to file out while the organ played somberly on. Henry sat as close to the aisle as he could, gazing with glum satisfaction into the sober faces of those who passed him on their way to the exit. Most kept their faces averted as they shuffled by; a very few nodded acquaintance. One woman, a familiar of his wife’s, even paused.
“You look so natural,” she said to Henry.
“Actually –” Henry shrugged one shoulder. “– I think they went a little heavy on the rouge.”
Her husband lumbered along behind, one hand in pants pocket, rattling keys and change.
“We’re going to miss you, Harry,” he said, and as an afterthought stuck out his free hand.
“Henry,” Henry corrected, briefly taking it.
Among the last to file out were the few from the office. Henry stood up to catch the attention of the secretaries. They eyed him warily, as though guilty at having come with so little reason.
“Where is Florie?” he asked them.
They looked to one another. Finally the elder of them spoke.
“She said she didn’t want to come. She wanted to remember you as you were, she said. But she sends her regards.”
Henry dismissed them with a dour grunt and glanced to Macmillan, who tottered forward at the end of the line. He paused at Henry’s pew.
“Why did you do it, Henry?” he asked in a voice volatile with spirits.
“I thought it would change things,” Henry replied.
“A little,” Henry said. “For the worse, if anything.”
“Well, it’s quicker than old age, eh?” Macmillan forced a hoarse chuckle, whacked Henry on the shoulder, and exited in a fit of phlegmy coughing.
Henry waited in the church until the casket was borne out. Outside, he spotted his wife in the center of a handful family and friends. He waved, but apparently no one saw him. He waited respectfully as his coffin was loaded into the hearse, then clambered in after it. On the way to the cemetery, Henry listened to the driver and his black-suited companion discuss hockey, while a not unpleasant shower sprinkled the windshield. He could see the short line of following cars, headlights lit, through the back window.
The family, the priest, an altar boy, and two or three others waited at graveside. There was another prayer as the coffin was lowered into the earth. His wife’s brother handed the priest an honorarium in a No. 10 business envelope, then led Henry’s crying wife away. Henry’s sister, who had been playing with her beads in an Alzheimer’s fog, called loudly, “Is it lunchtime?” Directing some inaudible words to her, her husband took her elbow and guided her toward the parking lot.
It was almost mid-afternoon before the last shovelful of dirt was tamped down on the grave and Henry found himself completely alone. He settled down in the damp earth leaning back against the imitation marble marker, letting the intermittent sun warm his face as it dodged clouds. The wind came up, and Henry wrapped his arms around his knees, though he felt numb to the cold.
It was peaceful enough. At least now he could rest. There were no more decisions to make. Still, given the chance to do it all over again — he reflected — he’d do a lot of things differently. With a sigh he turned his face skyward, eyes closing. He had plenty of time to think about it.