Death’s Plus-One

Early that fall, Amy’s cousin JJ was leaving Bertie’s Hair Salon in Fox Point and decided to try the restroom at Schuyler’s Funeral Home next door. Bertie’s facility was cramped, there was a cat box under the sink, and the loo paper was rough pink squares of construction paper. Well, it felt like construction paper, and it lent a depressingly cheap air to the place. Schuyler’s restrooms were spacious and cheerful, there were clean serviettes on a low ceramic table, and despite the scent of candles and the hushed voices outside, it felt more like a country house than a chapel.

Out in the foyer, there was a pot of fresh coffee and a tray of small, star-shaped cookies. Men in dark suits and women in summer dresses looked at the floor and nodded to themselves. JJ signed the guest book and wrote, “My thoughts are with you,” then drew a small heart next to her name and address. The coffee wasn’t bad, though the cookies were too chewy and left a gummy taste in her mouth that lasted all the way to lunch downtown.

She was unprepared for the check that came in the mail a few days later. The deceased was a Portuguese merchant with three ex-wives and an alarming number of children, none of whom had lived up to his expectations. More to the point, none had been very attentive during his long decline and illness. And so, he had amended his will so that anyone who showed up at his funeral would get a check for ten thousand dollars. And anyone who didn’t could go to hell. 

JJ’s husband was an accountant and fretted about the tax implications, but JJ was over the moon. She bought an almost new Volvo and gave Amy and John her old Volkswagen Beetle. It was mottled gray and looked the color of unwashed clouds, but the brakes worked, the tires were brand new, and it went up and down hills without complaint.

I was sitting in the back of the VW. John and Amy were going to the Stop and Shop, and John was driving, his hand on the clutch. He kept the car in first gear the whole way.

A song by Cat Stevens came on the radio. Amy hummed along.

“This,” she said, pointing to the radio. “Morning Has Broken” hung in the air like a bad smell. “This is what I’d want to have played at my funeral.”

“Really?” John didn’t seem surprised or interested. He fumbled with the clutch as if he might shift into second, but he didn’t. “Since when?”

“Since now,” Amy pouted. She tucked her hair behind her ears, which made them look smaller than they were, like miniatures.

Amy and John both had shoulder length blond hair and wore clear-framed glasses. From a distance, they looked like bath toys, and up close they looked to be fourteen. They were twenty. John was in grad school, something to do with science, and Amy was a senior with a double major in medieval history and accounting.

“I think I’d want something by Bach,” John mused.

“But he’s German!” Amy’s father had been in the war and, out of a sense of pique, her mother refused to ride in German cars, making JJ’s VW a serious issue until it was pointed out that it had been assembled somewhere in Illinois.

“He’s not that kind of German. Anyway, if that’s a problem, she doesn’t have to come.”

“What, do you already have a guest list?”

“I do.”

John and Amy were famous for their lists. Not just shopping lists, which littered the floor of the car, but names for their possible children, lists of books they had to read, films they had to see, cities they were going to live in.

A truck rumbled past, spewing smoke, and John rolled up his window. There was a near-faded decal on it of a dementedly cheerful Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny. Elmer Fudd brandished a sawed-off shotgun, while Bugs was waving a carrot in the air. The carrot looked far more menacing.

“That whole thing about carrots and night vision,” John snorted. “Do you have any idea how many carrots you’d have to eat?

I didn’t. I waited for the answer, but it never came.

I once had supper at their house, and they served spaghetti with puréed carrots. John’s younger sister, Ginny, had moved up from Baltimore, moved in with them, and was seated by me. She kicked me under the table. “Do you want to go get some dinner?” she whispered. She had a red bicycle and a bottle of Wild Turkey.

“You know,” John looked at me in the rearview mirror, “we’ve been together six years.”

“Since we were fifteen,” Amy confirmed.

“Six years,” John repeated. “Think about it … ”

Shit, I thought. They know. She doesn’t want them to know. And they know.

I’d been having a sweet and very quiet affair with Ginny, more or less since she’d come to live with them. Nights, she’d work at the library. Afternoons, she’d come over, we’d lie in bed and listen to the soundtrack to Black Orpheus.

“Manhã de Carnaval,” I thought. That’s what I’d want at my funeral. “Manhã de Carnaval.”

“Six years is a long time,” Amy said. “To be together. Six years.”

A song by Steve Miller came on the radio.

I’m a joker
I’m a smoker
I’m a midnight toker

“Last night I made a list. Of the guys I’d like to sleep with if I was going to sleep with someone else. I made a list.”

“You were on the list,” John said. He shifted into second.

“You were on the list,” Amy confirmed.

“And that’s all right with me,” John nodded. He looked at me in the rearview mirror.

I play my music in the sun …

I hated Steve Miller and his band. All of them. It was a sudden but deep and abiding hatred. I wanted this song played at the Steve Miller Band’s collective funeral. These would be gruesome and unexpected deaths involving payola, motorcycle crashes, and underage drug dealers. It would be in all the papers.

Really love your peaches
Want to shake your tree …

In the front seat, they were still talking.

“John didn’t approve everyone … ”

“Some of the guys from the lab,” John frowned.

“The guys from the lab … that was a no.”

Amy turned around and looked at me over the back of her seat. Her glasses were smudged, so I couldn’t tell if she winked.

“But you’re on the list.”

“And that’s all right,” John nodded. “Really.”

“We’re friends,” he added.

Soon after I got home, Ginny came by.

After I slept with her, I felt better.

Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.

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