Karen enjoyed her job at Milman’s very much. Her office in the 1917 home-turned-mortuary was a small room off the living room. At the front corner of the house, it had large windows, a lovely old oak desk, several cushy chairs for the bereaved who came to plan and pay, and an altogether comfortable feel. Serious but bright is the way Karen described it to her husband Kurt.
Mr. Milman was a wonderful boss, Karen’s best yet: genial, more lively than she had expected, and flexible. He let Karen pick her own hours, but she was also an excellent employee who would dash down to work in a moment if Mr. Milman needed her. She had nothing to do with transporting or processing the cadavers, of course, but she was always busy beyond her office duties with greeting and serving the bereaved, and facilitating wakes, viewings, and other “celebrations of life.” Kurt called her the Zombie Hostess sometimes.
One Thursday as the clock in the living room/lobby struck four, Karen was tidying her desk and grabbing her purse from its drawer. It had been big day with two funerals and a pick up at six a.m. as always by Clyde (Milman’s driver, general dogsbody, and also his nephew), a patient man whom Karen saw infrequently.
Mr. Milman came out from the morgue/embalming lab (formerly the kitchen) as she was just leaving. “Karen, would you be able to stay a while until the man from Cato’s arrives? They can’t deliver the caskets until after five. Some funny business with the drivers, and I have to get over to St. John’s about the Crocker funeral tomorrow. Oh, and Clyde has to take his daughter to a soccer game.”
“Sure, Mr. M., there’s no problem. I’ll work on the accounts payable and see if I can’t clear up that snafu with Grace Monuments.”
Karen finished her paperwork and then busied herself sweeping the front and side porches. The sky was darkening with both the end of the day and enormous, grey clouds majestically shambling across the sky like elephants.
Around 5:30 she went inside and called Kurt, who was still at work, and told him she was waiting on a delivery. “He’s supposed to be here any time now with two caskets we need pronto. But I’m really hungry. I’m going to order a pizza. I’ll let you know when I’m on my way, Darling. Make yourself something if you want, or just wait for me.” Karen blew a kiss into the receiver and hung up.
She turned on a few more lights and then called Pete’s, the best pizza bar none she had declared to Kurt repeatedly. The guy on the phone laughed when Karen told him to deliver a medium sausage pizza with mushrooms to Milman’s. “Having a party, are you? Don’t you want a large?”
“The pulseless eat very little. Medium is big enough,” she answered. They both laughed.
Karen very rarely went into the kitchen/morgue. She wasn’t spooked by it, she just didn’t have much to do in there. She made coffee for herself and the funereal gatherings and generally “entertained” (mostly just arranging appetizers and cookies) from a teeny kitchenette in what had been a half bath behind her office. But now that she had a hot pizza she wanted a Dr. Pepper from Mr. Milman’s private stash in one of the huge morgue refrigerators. He always told her to help herself, but she generally preferred Coke, except with pizza. Since it just didn’t seem right to her to have a hot pizza on her desk in the receiving rooms, she picked up the box and went back to the morgue.
There in the middle of the room on the stainless steel table was Mr. Burl Crocker, waiting for his casket (from Cato’s) and final rest tomorrow morning at ten. There were currently three bodies in house, which was one too many for the refrigerators. Someone had to sit out overnight! A rare occurrence and unfortunate, but Mr. Crocker, embalmed and ready to go, was the first out rather early tomorrow and all would be well.
Harvey, the embalmer, never sheeted his “works.” They were beautiful, he said, and were still human if absent in a way we would not fully understand until it was our turn on the table. He seemed a very philosophical guy to Karen. Spending a lot of time around dead folks would make you either creepy or extremely well-adjusted; it could go either way she thought.
“Mr. Crocker, I hope you don’t mind some company.” Karen was quite philosophical herself about the dead. Her Aunt Zinnia had told her that when Uncle Albert died, the very moment he stopped breathing she could feel and see his departure. She had said a body is just an organized mass of cells if it doesn’t encase some human commotion. Aunt Zinnia is a no-nonsense kind of person and she would know, Karen thought!
As she popped the top of a Dr. Pepper, there a huge explosion of thunder seemingly right over the house! “Holy Moly! That was a big one and so close, wasn’t it, Mr. C.? I can call you that, right?” Karen lifted her can in a toast to her silent companion.
As she flipped idly through a catalogue of monuments available from the Grace Company, she savored her dinner. “Pete’s really is the best. I wonder if you liked pizza. My grandpa and Uncle Albert both didn’t care much for it. An age thing?”
Mr. Crocker was a very large, white-haired fellow whom death (and Harvey) had now softened into a kindly-looking grandfather, thought Karen. “I feel sorry for your wife who was here a few hours ago, Mr. C. Did you hear her or are you gone? She misses you very much. I can’t imagine going on without Kurt, and you’ve been married so long. Maybe that makes it easier in a way? I doubt it.” Karen wanted to pat the forearm laid across his chest but checked herself. It took a moment for the lump in her throat to melt so she could take another sip of Dr. Pepper.
“You know, Mr. Crocker, I miss my grandpa. You look about his age. He taught me how to play solitaire and the harmonica. He would laugh and laugh at his dog, Terrible (Isn’t that an awful name for a dog?) who would chew on plastic bottles and bark at squirrels but not chase them. ‘Lazy dog,’ he would say! I wonder how it feels to get old and die. Isn’t everyone ageless inside until they start falling down and getting cataracts and stuff. Did you know you were near the end or was it a surprise, I wonder? Is it always a surprise in a way?”
A split second later there was another house-shaking clap of thunder. The lights went out, and there was a loud metallic snapping sound at both the yard door and the door to the dining room from the morgue. Apparently the expensive electronic locks, which had been installed to protect corpses (from vandals! Mr. M. said it happened!) and to prevent theft of chemicals, equipment, and the caskets occasionally stored there, engaged themselves with the power surge. Karen had no idea how the system worked. She only knew she was in complete darkness and locked in. Force of habit caused her to reach for the light switch on the wall and she thus knocked over her Dr. Pepper which she heard hissing and running across the counter and into the sink. “Duh! The electricity is out. How stupid was that?” However, she knew where candles were in the kitchen; they were often needed for services. She felt her way to the top drawer on her left by the door, found them and the big lighter, and was in candle glow in a few moments.
As she mopped up the spilled soda she said, “Well, Mr. C., I’d call for help, but my phone is on my desk out there and there’s no phone in here. The Cato man can call Mr. M. when he gets here or something. Nothing I can do about anything. I might as well have another piece of pizza. We’ll just wait this out, huh?” Karen took another wedge and looked out the window at the rainy darkness. Boy, when it rains in Texas it doesn’t mess around she thought. There are downpours in Illinois, but there are monsoons in the Lone Star State.
When she was through eating, Karen sat down on a lab stool and started singing “Home on the Range,” which struck her as appropriate on several levels: they were in Texas (near a range if not exactly on one), Mr. C. was going “home” for good tomorrow (if he hadn’t already!), seldom-heard words (she couldn’t call anyone!), and the laughable incongruity of the song’s cloudless skies.
By 7:30 Karen was wondering what happened to the delivery and what would happen tomorrow morning with poor Mr. Crocket who needed that casket. She was also getting bored and had to pee badly! Just as she was about to try making origami cranes with pages ripped from the catalogue, she saw headlights and heard two vehicles pull in the driveway.
Mr. Milman came in the front door with a big flashlight yelling, “Karen? Are you here? Are you alright?” Meanwhile Kurt was banging on the back door hollering exactly the same words. Stereo, thought Karen! Kurt peered through the window in the door, saw Karen inside, and waved vigorously. He yelled to her to open the door and she answered, “I can’t, Darling! It’s locked big time!”
Behind her she heard clicking and unlatching. Mr. Milman (who knew, of course, how to override the system manually) walked in saying, “Karen? Were you stuck in here by the locks? Goodness! Are you okay?” Karen let Kurt in the back door saying, “I’m just fine, Mr. M. No problem! The two men looked at Karen in the candlelight and then at Mr. Crocker. Kurt put his arm around his wife.
“Thanks for staying late, Karen. I certainly did not foresee this. You and Kurt run on home now. The caskets are on their way still. I heard from the driver. He had two flats. And in this rain!”
Karen lighted some more candles for Mr. Milman’s casket vigil and then stopped to look down at Mr. Crocker one more time. “Thanks for your company, Mr. C. I wish I had known you sooner.” Again, she wanted to pat his arm but didn’t. Kurt led her to the back door. Over her shoulder Karen called out, “Help yourself to the rest of the pizza, Mr. M. There’re three pieces left. Mr. Crocker didn’t have any!”