Dearly Departed: A Short Story
SARAH GRACE VILLARREAL

8:45 A.M. — Charlie’s Office

Sad Grandma

“I’m just so distraught, and my children aren’t helping me at all,” Mrs. Hernandez blew her nose with so much ferocity that Charlie broke character for a second. It seemed like Mrs. Hernandez could hardly hold her own head up, let alone make such a loud noise with such powerful breath. Luckily Mrs. Hernandez was too busy folding her tissue to notice.

Charlie composed herself. “Not to worry Mrs. Hernandez, I, as well as the staff of Summerville Funeral Home, are here for you. I have many lovely options for programs. Let me grab those, I’ll be right back.” As Charlie stood, she paused so that her head would be framed by the glow of the light as if she wore a halo. Looking down at Mrs. Hernandez, she said, “You’re in good, hands, ma’am. We’ll make this the most beautiful ceremony any cat has ever had.”

Mrs. Hernandez looked up into Charlie’s angelic face and said, “Bless you,” with the sweetest elderly woman smile she could muster.

Charlie felt her face flush from the sympathy she suddenly felt. She turned gracefully and left the room. Her shoulders drooped as she turned the corner entering the back room filled with sample binders. The shelves were a dingy green that made her think they were somehow “army issue” from the 1960’s. The burgundy, gray, and tan binders still looked new even though they lived on those shelves for more than thirty years. They gave the room a softer feel despite the cold green metal and harsh fluorescent lighting. Charlie liked this room. She liked the old paper smell and the way the faux leather of the binder spines felt when she’d select the right one.

Charlie grabbed the gray binder — labeled “Pet Funeral Programs” — from the shelf. She paused for a moment to breathe in the warm old paper smell one last time, and walked back to her office where Mrs. Hernandez sat patiently waiting.

Charlie never meant to stay at the funeral home. It was only supposed to be a summer job. It scared her a little bit when she first started. Not because of the bodies, which truthfully peaked her curiosity, a fact she never brought up at parties, nor because she constantly had to face the reality of mortality several times a day. No, neither of those bothered her. Charlie hated all the sniffling and crying. It scared her. She could feel their pain, and she couldn’t turn it off. She lived in constant fear of her eyes welling up with tears whenever a distraught family member came near. Charlie couldn’t handle the sadness, the sense of loss.

9:30 A.M. — Conference Room

Death and Coffee
Janene, the intern from the community college, rushed into the conference room with two travel carriers of coffee. Quietly, she apologized to each funeral service manager as she handed them their special coffee orders. Charlie wanted to like Janene, wanted to see herself in her, but that cliché never came to be in any of the interns Charlie hired.

Charlie continued to talk over the light commotion that Janene seemed to bring with her everywhere. “Susan, did you confirm the string quartet for the Johnson service at 2 P.M.?”

“Yes, they’ll be here promptly at 1:15. I made sure I reserved one of the lounges for them so they could warm up.”

Charlie nodded in agreement, then looked to Walter, a burly man with a graying beard. He was a sweetheart, and Charlie usually assigned him to the particularly emotional families. “Did the projector in the Magnolia chapel get fixed? I know the Smiths prepared a slide show.”

Walter gave a thumbs-up.

Charlie smiled at Walter and then stood up, tugged on the hem of her blazer to straighten it, and folded her hands behind her back. “I know it’s the busy season right now, but Leo called me this morning to let me know that his wife was going into labor a little earlier than expected.”

A light murmur of excitement flooded the room. Janene, now sitting at the conference table, smiled brightly. “Oh, I love babies! You think he’ll bring her by? I wanna see her!” Janene threw the comment out to the room, not really directed at anyone in particular, just hoping it would land on anyone’s ears.

Charlie looked at Janene and nodded slightly as she spoke, “Probably, but the larger issue is — guys, listen — the larger issue is that we need everyone to pick up the slack. Especially you, Janene, you might need to help out with some of the services. You up to it?”

Janene, clasped her hands tightly to her chest, “I’d be honored! Oh, I’ve been praying for a chance like this.”

Charlie smiled and thought about how nice it would be if Janene woke up one morning and decided she was more suited to work in a wedding boutique or as a high school cheer coach, or literally anything that would make her quit this internship before the semester was over. It was only February, but Charlie counted the days until May.

“That being said, I will be taking care of Mr. Peters’ funeral. His family has used Summerville funeral homes for generations. The Peters are one of our most valued patrons. His children are coming by, and I need everyone on their best behavior.” Charlie shot a quick look at Janene.

11:15 A.M. — Funeral Home Lobby

At the Service
“Hello Mr. Peters, Mrs. Lopez, I’m very sorry about your loss, please right this way.” Charlie led the two redheaded middle-aged siblings to her office in the back. She aligned a tissue box at the corner of her desk and then motioned for the redheads to have a seat.

Harold Peters’ swollen eyes wrinkled at the sides when he tried to speak. Instead, he only managed to clear his throat twice. His sister Patricia touched his shoulder as she took the lead of the conversation.

“Our father and mother picked their plots years ago, they even planned their services down to the last detail. However, father was very young when he planned this and—”

Harold suddenly burst out laughing. Patricia shot him a look. Harold softly apologized and looked at the floor.

“And,” Patricia continued, “I don’t think it would be such a good idea to follow all of his instructions.”

“He wants to be buried naked and have an open casket — a fully open casket!” Harold started laughing again. A slightly menacing laugh.

Charlie kept her composure. “I see, well I’m sure there is a way we can respect his wishes while still…”

Patricia interrupted, “We are not having a wake with our father completely naked, Harold. We’ve already decided.”

“This is what Dad wanted. He had it in his will, he told me,” Harold said.

“We can’t have his entire dead body on display for everyone to see,” Patricia said.

“It’s in his will!”

Harold and Patricia continued to argue for the remainder of their meeting. Charlie wondered if she would have leftover soup she brought or a sandwich from down the street.

1 P.M. — Charlie’s Office

Clock

With papers strewn across her desk, Charlie took a sip of water and cleared her throat. She picked up the handset and began dialing.

“Hello, Father Joe, it’s Charlie. How are you?”

Suddenly, Charlie’s door flung open and Janene rushed in. Her eyes looked like they would pop out of her skull. Charlie tried to ignore her.

“I’m sorry Father, could you repeat what you just said?”

Janene rushed to Charlie, dropping her hands loudly on the desk. “Charlie, I need to talk to you,” she said breathlessly.

Charlie pointed to the phone and continued talking to Father Joe, “Yes, the Mass is at 10 A.M. Tuesday, and the procession will arrive at the church at 9:50, but the musicians should be there by 9:00.”

“We have the wrong body for Mrs. Johnson’s funeral!” Janene yelled.

“Father, I apologize but I’m going to have to call you back.”

1:15 P.M. — The Lily Chapel

Casket in a Hearse
The body in the casket was definitely not Mrs. Johnson. Her daughter yelled at poor Susan while a few family members sat and cried. Charlie didn’t want to look in the casket; she knew she had sent Mr. Landry to the crematory this morning. Her heart pounded; she could see each beat. ”Please don’t let it be Mr. Landry in that coffin,” she repeated in her head. Her vision started to blur. Sounds grew muffled. Charlie contemplated making the sign of the cross but realized she had to keep up her composure. She took a deep breath and pointed her eyes to the corpse. It wasn’t Mr. Landry. She sighed quietly with relief. The worst of the catastrophe had been averted, but it most certainly wasn’t Mrs. Johnson, either.

Charlie stood straight, tugged on her blazer to straighten it, turned to Janene, and said, “Go to the mortuary and see what’s going on.” Then, turning gracefully to the family as though she had the situation fully under control, she said, “I’m so sorry, that was a terrible mistake on our part, your mother’s viewing shouldn’t have started until two. Please make yourself comfortable in our family lounge, your mother’s viewing will begin shortly.”

As Charlie walked quickly to her office, Susan caught her, “I’m so sorry, about that, I should have never let that happen.”

Charlie turned to Susan, “You’re right, we have some random deceased individual in there. Why weren’t you there when they delivered Mrs. Johnson? This has never happened before, and it never can again.”

Susan started to cry, “It was Janene, she’s received bodies before I thought she could do this.”

“Deceased individuals. We don’t call them bodies. How many times do I have to remind you?”  Charlie’s voice got loud and shrill. She tugged angrily on her blazer hem and walked to her office.

Walter walked up to Susan, “The musicians are here.”

Close-up of Cello

1:20 P.M. — Charlie’s Office

Charlie fixed her ponytail in a mirror she kept behind her door. She couldn’t let this one mishap, one major mishap, take her focus off her other families and other services.

Charlie thought about how she still needed to talk to Father Joe about Mr. Ramirez’s Mass on Tuesday. She thought about Patricia and Harold, arguing over how their father’s body would be displayed. About how ridiculous it was that Patricia was so mortified at the thought of people thinking less of her family. She thought about Mrs. Hernandez’s cat and the funeral she was planning for the feline.

Charlie stared at her reflection for a second. When she woke up this morning, she was sure Mrs. Hernandez was going to give her the most trouble. How did they lose a body? Why had she hired Janene?

Janene suddenly ran into Charlie’s office.

“I found Mrs. Johnson’s body! It was sent to Perales Funeral home, they realized it when the mortuary started on her this morning.”

“Are you sure it’s her?”

“Positive.”

Janene showed Charlie her picture.

“I asked them to send me a picture. And this one looks a lot more like Mrs. Johnson’s picture. Anyway, they’re sending her over now.”

Charlie stood there for a moment, steadying herself to the thought that they had the wrong body, and then said, “That’s just great. How much work do they have left?”

“Uh,” Janene said with a nervous smile.

Charlie could feel the rage boiling up inside of her. “’Uh’ is not what I want to hear right now.”

“Well, she looked pretty much okay, but her lip color is weird and I would have never used that eyeshadow color on her.”

“Janene, focus.” Charlie paused for a moment, then, more gently, “Actually no, you’re right to be picky with the color.”

Susan walked in. “I put the musicians in the staff lounge and sent Walter into the family lounge with some doughnuts.”

“Good, that’s good.” Charlie paced up and down her office. She thought about the cat again. That dumb cat. That dumb naked guy. That dumb Janene.

Susan and Janene stood by her desk watching her. Charlie noticed Susan hunched a little and looked quite pale. This was not the Susan that Charlie needed right now. She glanced at Janene. How the hell had Janene mixed up the bodies, or at least how did she miss the mixup?

Janene, cleared her throat and said, “Should I go wait for Mrs. Johnson?”

Charlie stopped, turned gracefully to face them. She said, in a slightly calmer voice than a moment ago, “Ladies, I need you to work together to fix this. Janene, wait for the hearse. As soon as it comes, get Susan, but please try to be subtle about it.”

Janene nodded and rushed out the door.

“Susan,” Charlie continued, “I need you to be the hero to this family. They need to know we’re here for them. Go in there, let them vent, but show them your strength. I know you can do it.”

Susan began to straighten up a little. “I’m not being fired?” she asked.

Charlie looked her straight in the eye and said, “I can’t afford to lose you. But we’re going to have to clean up this mess, and I need you to help me make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Something like this could get us shut down.”

Susan’s hopeful posture slipped slightly.

Charlie caught the shift. “We’re in this together,” she said with a smile. Susan smiled too.

Charlie closed the door behind Susan as she left. She looked at herself in the mirror. Losing a body could get this place shut down. Where had she gone wrong? What had she missed? She felt it coming. She grabbed one tissue from the box on the edge of her desk. As she caught the tear that had welled up in her left eye, the tissue box fell to the floor with a muffled thud. Followed by the tear she ignored in her right.

Contemplation on a Hill

 





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