“Don’t worry about a thing, Mr. M.! I can handle it.” Karen smiled encouragingly at Mr. Milman as she saw him out the front door of the mortuary. “And Harvey is here too, of course. Have a good time if that’s what y’all do there!” (Karen was unsure what exactly to say to someone whisking off to a convention of the American Association of Mortuary Proprietors. It didn’t sound like a ripping time, but she bet there actually was a lot of kidding around and camaraderie.) She waved vigorously to Mrs. M. who was waiting in the car to drive her husband to the airport. The rest of that Wednesday afternoon was as quiet as everyone thinks it is at a mortuary, but Karen turned on WACO-am for a while and got a lot of work done.
However, when she got there at nine on Thursday morning there was already a voice mail. Lacy Zimler (whose name Karen recognized from the huge Zimler’s Appliances where she and her husband Kurt had bought their stove and dryer) was calling about her mother who had died in the night at Golden Sun Convalescent Hospital. It was the typical semi-garbled message of the just-bereaved: What happens now?
Karen called Lacy right back and arranged a meeting with her and her dad at the office at four in the afternoon (give them time to rest, she thought) and asked her to sign right now the release papers the hospital undoubtedly had ready. She assured Lacy that Clyde would be at Golden Sun shortly to pick up her mother. Lacy’s voice was almost strong when she thanked Karen and added, “We would like the service on Saturday. I know that’s pretty quick, but it’s such a good day for a funeral and my sister Ricki really needs to get back to Florida on Sunday.”
“Certainly, we can do that. Don’t worry about a thing,” answered Karen with what she hoped was efficiency but also warmth. She’d heard Mr. Milman do this a zillion times. He had the voice of a burly angel when called upon. Karen’t wasn’t burly but she shot her best for angelic. She just hoped she could get the casket (not some high end coffin hard to obtain quickly) and the flowers (ditto!). She hoped the Zimlers’ tastes were prosaic! This was her first time to handle everything and she wanted to make Mr. M. proud.
Lacy only needed two tissues during their meeting that afternoon, while Mr. Zimler was stunned, thinking and moving in slow motion. Karen had seen this before many times too: part of the shocked brain reels backward, part presses ahead as if nothing has happened. In this interim of disbelief everyone’s a zombie, thought Karen. But Mr. Z. was still able to participate somewhat; after all he was in sales and, as in the theatre, the show must go on!
They chose a mid-priced casket (easy to get from the factory up in Arlington! thought Karen) and rather skimpy flowers, but they were expecting a lot of arrangements to appear from family, friends, and business connections. The reception would be minimal (there was a gathering later that day at the Zimlers’ large home in the best part of Waco). The burial at Shady Haven cemetery was a breeze for Karen to arrange: All the Zimlers going back four generations were buried there (Mr. Z. seemed very proud of this), and Mrs. Zimler’s plot was already waiting with a gravestone. All Karen would have to do was call the cemetery for diggers and get their engraver to etch in the death date. Everything was running like clockwork. Karen shook their hands warmly and saw them to the door.
On the threshold Mr. Zimler seemed to wake up. He stopped short and said, “I don’t want that casket we picked out. I want the very best one. I want the mahogany. I want the sterling silver plate with her name on it. That’s what Marilyn should have.” His face clouded up and Lacy nodded “Yes” to Karen and then rushed him out the door, either worried about his emotional state or fearing he would want to spend more on flowers and food. Karen had the suspicion it was the latter, but she pushed these negative thoughts out of her mind. Mr. M. had told her their business was to provide a personal service but not get personal. “It’s an odd time for a family, Karen, unpredictable and emotional and trying in so many ways. We are here to help the process along smoothly and kindly, but not get involved in the family’s story,” he had explained when she first started working there.
Karen said to the pair as they went down the porch steps, “Don’t worry about a thing! I will change the order. It’s no problem. Don’t hesitate to call with any questions or concerns.” And that’s when Karen started worrying. She had a queasy feeling about this monkey wrench near the end of the workweek. Sometimes those spiffy boxes took three days to arrive and she needed one in about 36 hours.
Sometimes we worry for nothing, don’t we? Karen thought when she got off the phone with National Casket Co. They had several mahogany in stock; they had the silver plates in stock; they could whip off the engraving that very afternoon and truck it out tomorrow. It would be at Milman’s by noon. Plus she had taken care of the flower order and the extra limo with driver for the large Zimler family.
Karen was relieved not to have had a single problem while Mr. Milman was gone. He had not even called her once, which she took as a sign of his confidence in her. Before she was preparing to leave at five, she went to the kitchen-cum-morgue at the back of the house to check on Harvey (their master embalmer) and his progress. She took in to him the pink dress Lacy had brought earlier for her mom, as well as her mom’s favorite lipstick.
“Here’s the dress, Harv, and some lipstick too. Lacy said it was her signature color for decades. Do you think this color would be good on me?” Karen was always getting tips from Harvey who really knew his cosmetics. He did the make-up for the Texas Thespians Troupe (the local less-than-world famous “Triple T”) and sold cosmetics part-time at Dillard’s. Karen joked to her husband Kurt that if she were ever in a fatal car crash she’d be pretty much ready for her own funeral unless the windshield ruined her face!
Harvey cringed. “Certainly not! Too powdery pink for your complexion. You need more blue in it and more saturation. Do not even think of this pink! And it probably was never a decent choice for Ms. Marilyn here either, and it’s absolutely no good now. I will approximate the color for hoi polloi to keep them happy, of course. People just don’t know how much skin tone changes when circulation ceases! You can’t slap on any old housepaint!” Harv was always tsk-tsk-ing over the ignorance of the world!
“Thanks for saving me from that color! I’ll see you tomorrow. And Mrs. Z has to be ready to roll by nine at the latest on Saturday morning. Okay?”
“Don’t worry, Karen. She’ll be ready for her close-up.”
It was a quiet Friday too. Karen paid some bills and ordered some more embalming supplies. She took a call for a “Preplan Your Final Rest” meeting next week for Mr. M. The Zimler casket arrived before noon and really was quite lovely. (Too bad to put it in the dirt! thought Karen.) Late in the afternoon Harvey came in to put some touches on Marilyn and Karen was glad to see him. It was kind of lonely at work without Mr. M. around. She took a break late in the day to talk to Harvey and have a Coke in the lab.
“Wow! She really looks good, Harv. You are an artist. I wish I could get my bangs to sweep that neatly to the side. It looks so casual and natural.”
“Thanks. She has great hair. You can tell it’s been great all her life. Even after cancer! I’m just about done, but I’m starved and I’m going to run to the Speedi-Mart and get some gas and a snack. I’ll be back in a few minutes. You want anything?”
“No, thanks. Take your time. I’m in no hurry. I won’t leave her.”
Karen went to do final prep for tomorrow’s Zimler reception. The Z’s really wanted to get the whole shebang, burial and all, done by noon. While she was polishing up two trays, looking for the large size doilies for them, and sizing up the number of paper coffee cups she had, Karen smelled what was undeniably smoke. She went out on the front porch and sniffed in all directions but didn’t get a whiff of anything. When she came back in, however, it’s all she could smell. “Holy Moly! It’s in here somewhere,” Karen realized with horror!
The reception room in the center of the house was fine. She ran to Mr. M’s office in the back but saw nothing. She checked the bedroom-storage room and found nothing. The bathroom and the hall were fine. Then, with a sudden awful suspicion she dashed for the lab, pushing open the heavy door and finding it filled with thin pale smoke. She couldn’t tell where it was coming from but she didn’t have time to ponder this. She ran to open the back door widely for air and then grabbed the lab’s wall phone and dialed 911. She may have ended the conversation before the emergency dispatcher wanted her to, but she yelled into the phone that she had to save someone and she just dropped the receiver.
Karen zipped over to the stainless steel table and picked up Marilyn Zimler, shimmying one arm under her shoulders and one under her knees. “C’mon, we’re gettin’ out of here!” she muttered. (Karen noticed Mrs. Z. had no shoes on, but that was normal. She wouldn’t be walking anywhere anyway!) It took a moment (too long!) to get the leverage and the hold right. (She thought for a nanosecond, don’t firemen hurl victims over one of their shoulders and stagger out with them?) Karen was too short to lift Mrs. Z. off the table cleanly, so she half dragged and half hoisted the body up, crossed the lab, and went out the door and carefully down the few steps. Cancer had taken a lot of weight off of Mrs. Zimler and at that moment Karen was glad about that. (That’s a horrible thing to think! she chided herself.)
The loud firetruck arrived seconds after Karen had put Mrs. Z. down at last on the front lawn. Two firemen ran towards her in their heavy coats and boots. “We’ll take over here. Move away!”
Karen answered, “No, no. She’s already dead.”
“Let us be the judge of that!” one fireman barked.
“No, really. She is dead. This is a mortuary. She was already dead.” Karen was pleading before they began to thump on Mrs. Z. with resuscitation efforts. They were almost done checking her for a pulse and breathing. The two firemen looked up from their position stooped over the body and said, “Yes. She is…What?”
Karen looked down at the two, pointed at the discrete Milman’s sign near the porch and said, “This is a mortuary. I carried her out here. Her funeral is tomorrow.”
The more handsome of the two men looked both quizzically and then accusingly at her. “So you ‘saved’ a corpse? That was foolish. You could have been hurt or worse.”
“She’s a client and she did not want cremation, and I am just fine,” Karen answered with some indignation.
The two firemen looked at each other and then jumped up to help their peers who were already swarming around the back of the house and had hoses unreeling and walkie talkies blaring. An ambulance arrived and Karen had to explain again that the “victim” was already dead and that she, Karen, was just fine. She hadn’t inhaled much smoke at all and it wasn’t thick.
In a few minutes Karen was told by the handsome fireman that the small, smoldering problem was in some wiring under the lab and it was very lucky they’d caught it early. Some rewiring would have to be done and inspected, and there was very minor smoke damage in the lab, but things were all under control and Karen would be able to re-enter the building, lock up the place, and call it a day in an hour or so. The electricity had been cut off and would stay off until repairs were made, but except for Mrs. Z. that was really no problem. It was obviously really small potatoes as disasters go, thank heavens! thought Karen as she thanked the firemen for their help.
Then, standing over Mrs. Zimler and wondering when Harvey would get back and if Mrs. Z. would “last” overnight in the room-temp morgue, she heard the phone ringing in her office. She made it past a fireman at the door (though he seemed most unhappy about that) and dashed in to answer it.
“Good Afternoon. Milman’s Mortuary. How may I help you?”
“Good afternoon, Karen. I hope you’ve had a good few days.” Mr. Milman’s voice was steady and calm, as always. “Just wanted to see if things are copasetic and wish you a good weekend.”
“Oh, yes, thank you, Mr. M. Everything is just ducky here. Totally under control! Nothing that can’t wait until Monday. You just enjoy the rest of your convention. Have fun! And don’t worry about a thing!”