CORA BERTRAM walked into the morgue with an oversized garment bag, took one look at her husband lying cold on a table of polished steel, and told Lloyd, “I’ll be taking him home now.”
Lloyd knew he was in for it the second he saw her face coming through the door. She had the same look on her that she’d had that time she’d aimed a shotgun at her insurance adjuster, after her roof had caught fire. Lloyd sighed, pushed the glasses up higher on his nose, and got out from behind his desk, feeling his hips and back pop as he did so.
“Cora, why don’t you have the funeral director come down here and take Carl. That’s usually the best way to do these things.”
“You think I got the money for a funeral director?”
Cora heaved the garment bag off her shoulder onto the floor and glared at Lloyd. She was a woman who shrunk with old age, whose skin had puckered and suctioned to her bones. Lloyd estimated her to be about one third the size of her husband, and one half the size of the garment bag she was carrying.
Lloyd gave her a weary look. It had been a long week. The drunk driver out on fourteen had been a doozy. Two teen boys and their mother dead, slashed to pieces by windshield glass. And then Carl, who had been his constant companion at Connolly’s every Friday night for forty years, had to go and have a stroke, had to leave him with no one to complain to. It didn’t feel right at his age to try and make new friends. In fact, it felt desolate and impossible. And now, the last straw, he was stuck with Carl’s mule of a widow.
“You’re required by Iowa state law to work with a funeral director for at least a portion of the burial. And you need to have him buried in a cemetery.”
“Horse shit. I got the hole dug already. Deb came and helped me this morning.”
Lloyd pictured Deb Fielder, the only woman possibly smaller than Cora, hoisting a shovel. It must have taken them half the day.
“Look Cora, I got no say, there’s public health concerns—”
“Don’t give me that horse shit public health—you saying Carl’s contaminated? He didn’t die of influenza—” Cora started smacking her hand on the table as she spoke, causing Carl’s body to jolt a little bit with every annunciated word.
Don’t give her a no, thought Lloyd, just give her a different kind of yes. That’s what they’d said in marriage counselling. Of course there hadn’t been enough yesses and nos in the world to fix that mess, but Lloyd still allowed that it was good advice for other situations.
“Cora,” he said, keeping his voice even. She was a widow after all. “If you want to have him buried at home, you file a permit with the county. They’ll come and inspect the land, make sure it’s not too close to a water source or nothing—”
“Suppose there’s money for that too—”
“I believe there is a fee, yes, and you’d still have to consult a funeral director—”
“Well, then there’s always cremation…”
Cora gave Lloyd a look like he’d just kicked dust in her eye.
“I’m not burning his body. That sends the wrong kind of message altogether.”
She bent down and unzipped the garment bag.
“I’ll be taking him home now,” she said.
Lloyd felt sheepish. He wanted Cora to go away. He wanted to put Carl back in the fridge, shut the door and forget he was in there. He wanted to get back to his sandwich and sudoku. He wanted to be done with this job.
“I’m sorry, I can’t release the body to you,” he told her. He tried to sound conciliatory.
Cora’s shoulders slumped a little, and if it was possible, she got even smaller. Lloyd felt lousy, and started filing through other suggestions in his head. There weren’t any kids she could go to for money. There was that snob sister in Cedar Falls, but no, they didn’t talk. Deb didn’t have two nickels to rub together. And at this point in the conversation, Lloyd knew Cora would sooner get in a grave herself than accept money from him.
“It’s not fair,” she said finally, her voice as small as her body. “I’d have done just as good a job as Brown’s or Lacey’s. I made him a real nice cross out of wood… Weren’t no money set aside, dumb cluck didn’t think he’d go… I was supposed go first—”
Her voice hitched and her breathe came fast. Her eyes darted around for a moment, swollen with tears, looking back and forth between Carl’s body and Lloyd’s face. Lloyd tried to offer her a handkerchief, but she batted his hand away with desperate violence. She stared down at the floor and took a few moments to breathe, willing her body to calm down. Lloyd didn’t interrupt, let the room stay silent. Finally, she resumed.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d let me take his body now,” she said. “You don’t have to help me with it—I’m stronger than I look.”
Lloyd looked down at Carl’s grey clay-like face and felt hollow. He thought of the empty bar stool that would greet him after work tonight, and of the empty house that would greet him after that.
“Cora, I’m very tired,” he said. He paused, finding that there was familiar lump forming in his throat as well. And for once in her stubborn existence, Cora shut up and waited for him to continue. He was grateful. It wouldn’t have been dignified for his voice to break.
“I can’t release this body to you,” he continued. “I would be breaking the law. But—” he added, as he saw her mouth fly open, ready for an attack—“but, as I said, I’m very tired. Sometimes, when I get tired, I get forgetful. Sometimes I even forget to lock up the building at night. They really ought to just let me retire.”
Cora nodded slightly, and her mouth twisted in a broken, painful smile. “Alright, then. I understand.” She reached out to touch his arm, but pulled it back when she was an inch or two away.
“Carl liked you,” she said. “And he didn’t like most people. We were in agreement on that.”
She bent over again with effort and hoisted the garment bag back up on her shoulder, like an ant carrying a seed twice its size. Then she walked back out the door. Lloyd heard the gravel crunch under her tires as her pickup retreated from the parking lot.