By George Alger
“Is he dead yet!?” Zelda fired her query at the Funeral Director with a thrust of pointed hostility.
In his 32 years running the Morrison Mortuary, Mr. Morrison had become quite adept at handling all manner of people—living or dead. Although consoling the bereaved requires a bit more skill than handling the deceased, he learned to address all with dignified aplomb. “My dear Mrs. Crescent, the hospital did everything they possibly could to save your husband. But this last heart attack was more than your good man could handle.”
“Heart attack, shmack attack, I’ve seen him come out of these before when everyone thought he should be dead, dead, dead!” Zelda emphasized her words with determination, “I want to make sure he’s really dead this time!”
Mr. Morrison was sure his puzzlement was not perceivable to his client. “Of course, Mrs. Crescent.” He directed her to the featured coffin display. “Now, I’d like to advise you of a fine oak model that I believe would do justice to the strong, stable and enduring character of your departed hus…”
Zelda glared at the Funeral Director, “Listen to me, young man! Before you go selling me one of your fancy-dancy body crates, I want to be sure that old geezer is dead. You hear? I want to be sure he ain’t coming back.” She repositioned her handbag and leaned closer, “Are you sure he’s dead!?”
Mr. Morrison swallowed slightly, “My dear Mrs. Crescent, I’m a Funeral Director. My business is the deceased. Your husband wouldn’t be resting in the Morrison Mortuary if he were still alive.”
“Young man! Don’t you patronize me! Just answer my question!” Zelda’s attack eased slightly. “You young people today, you just don’t show any respect! I ask you again. Are you sure he’s dead!?”
Mr. Morrison swallowed a little more, he was ready for a drink of water. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Zelda affected an air of tolerance, “How do you know?”
“Well, my dear Mrs. Crescent,” he spoke softly, watching her carefully, “a sign of life is breathing…and your husband is not.”
“Yea?” She had the Funeral Director just where she wanted him, “Well, if you’re so sure he’s dead, you wouldn’t mind if I stabbed him in the chest with a knife just to make me sure, now would ya?”
“My dear Mrs. Crescent,” he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, “that would be…unusual.”
Zelda lowered her voice, “Would it be breaking any laws?”
Mr. Morrison struggled to discern if this old woman was aggrievedly deranged or just generally crazy, “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to do that,” and then attempted to direct her to the featured display, “I think we should proceed with arrangements for the funeral. I started to tell you about this oak model…”
She didn’t budge. “Well, before you go spending all my money I want you to listen to me, young man. I want to make sure he’s dead before we bury him.” She asked again, “Is it against the law to kill a dead man?”
Rarely was he affected by headaches, but one was coming on now. “Mrs. Crescent, the Morrison Mortuary has a certain…how should I say….‘professional integrity’…to maintain…”
Zelda chopped him off, “Yea, yea, so does Barney the butcher. But he cuts me a good deal now and then, anyway.” She shifted her handbag and pointed right at him, “Listen, if we can’t stab the old geezer, whadaya say we poison him?”
“Mrs. Crescent, don’t you have some additional family members that could help us work through the details?” He hoped he didn’t sound hurried. “I’m sure this whole matter has put an awful strain on you.”
Impatiently she set him straight, “I won’t bother the kids with this until I know he’s dead!”
“Mrs. Crescent, do I understand you correctly?” He suppressed his surprise. “Have the children not been informed of Mr. Crescent’s passing away?”
“Would you want to disappoint your children, Mr. Morrison?” She seemed distracted and gazed over to the parlor. “That old geezer shoulda kicked the bucket several times already in the past ten years, and he keeps NOT dying! It just creates a family mess!”
He took a deep breath and moistened his lips. “Well then…should we talk about this oak model for your deceased husband?”
Zelda shrieked at the Funeral Director, “I want to kill him! Do you hear me? I want to kill that old guy!”
Mr. Morrison blinked several times. His wife would not believe the kind of day he was having. There was no way he could be paid enough for this funeral to make it a worthwhile arrangement. “Ummm…Mrs. Crescent…would you be amenable to a walk around the premises?”
Zelda shrieked even louder, “Hell no! I won’t go!”
He stood stunned. He had never heard an elderly woman scream, let alone so indignantly, and right here in his own showroom. It seemed many moments before he could regain enough present-time awareness to offer a plausible acknowledgment, “Could I offer you some aspirin?”
“Oh great!” Zelda whined, “The kids will just love this. I picked a funeral home that pushes drugs!”
“Well, actually, it is I that is in need of an aspirin and I just thought…”
“Oh you go right ahead Mort. You do yourself right up! And while you’re at it, you see if you got some better poisons you can give to the old geezer to make sure he’s dead. I’ll wait right here!” Zelda looked away, as if dismissing an unwelcome solicitor. “Run along.”
“…Yes ma’am. I’ll be back shortly. I’ll bring you a glass of water in case you might become thirsty.” He tried not to walk too fast leaving the showroom.
Zelda looked up and around the room of about a dozen display coffins. “Harold? Harold, you old geezer?” Her words summoned for response. “That Funeral Director is gone now. Are you dead, yet? I can’t stand these games you play! Tell me you’re really dead.” She walked over to the oak coffin in the middle of the room. “This here Funeral Director seems to think so. Heck, maybe I should just pay him. Then he’ll be obligated to bury you, even if you’re not dead.” She played her right hand over the silk interior. “I just can’t help but to think about the last times.” She spoke resignedly, “When am I going to know that you’re really, really dead and gone—for good!?
“Zelda.” A tired, deep drawl permeated the room.
She jumped. “Harold! You old son of buzzard!” Zelda was pleased to scold her husband, “I knew you weren’t dead! Why do you keep playing these tricks!?”
“Zelda.” The tired voice spoke very slowly, “I am dead.”
Instant retort, “Don’t you try to fool me old man! I know your voice.”
“Zelda.” There was patience within his words, albeit a tired patience. “You’ve got to let me go.”
“Oh you’re such a complainer!” She whined in a way that conveyed a comfort of having said the exact same words in the exact same tone of voice a thousand times.
“Zelda. This is my last visit to you.”
She became still.
“I have been waiting for things to settle down for you.” His words flowed slowly, like maple syrup out of a bottle. “But I cannot wait any longer.”
Zelda’s face tensed.
“I have to go on, myself, you know. This whole ‘Heaven & Hell’ thing ain’t actually what it’s all cut out to be. I’ve got some more work to do…”
It seemed he wanted to say more, but Zelda wanted to control things. “Harold. What’s up with you?” She spoke sincerely, “Come home with me and watch some TV. I’ll fix you some of your favorite chicken noodle soup.”
“Zelda.” He drawled more assertively, “I don’t watch TV. I don’t eat chicken noodle soup. I don’t eat. I’m dead—or at least my body is. You’ve got to get it.” He paused briefly, “Have you noticed that you don’t see me?
“Harold, you know my vision just ain’t what it used to be.” She looked around, as if realizing for the first time that he wasn’t there. “No, I can’t see ya, but I can hear ya really well.”
“Zelda, you can’t see me because I’m dead. You hear me as a spirit. A spirit without a body.” This visit he meant to impinge on her, “But I need to go on, and you won’t ever hear me again, except, perhaps…within your own heart.” He paused again, “It’s time to let me go.”
“Harold.” She was stubborn, “How do I know you’re not playing some game, just so you can get out of washing the dishes?”
He acquired patience after many years with his wife. “Zelda…you must accept the truth of the matter.” But he needed to get her to really understand this time. “I’ve been dead ten years.”
Zelda looked down. She noticed her old and worn handbag. Harold bought this for her a long time ago. She thought, “Have I really been carrying this around for all these years? What have I been doing all this time?” She felt uneasy.
Harold continued, “It is you who keeps playing games. This poor Funeral Director may have a heart attack himself when the real Mrs. Crescent comes to arrange the burial of her deceased husband.” He cautioned her, “You could get in a lot of trouble, too.”
“Harold.” Zelda spoke a little slower, as if she was coming out of some longtime, wide-awake sleep. “Who are you to talk to me about trouble?”
“Zelda, you can’t keep coming to these funeral homes every couple years when some guy that reminds you of me passes on, just because you’re lonely.” His voice was reproachful, in a non-judgmental way. “People don’t take kindly to such eccentricities. It’s a trying time for the real families involved.” He paused again. “You’re just gonna have to take my word for it, you won’t be hearing from me again. I have to get on with my business.” And as an afterthought, “One of these times one of these Funeral Directors is going to have you taken away to some loony ward. I don’t recommend that!”
“Harold?” This time, she spoke wistfully.
She looked up and around. “I miss you.”
A vacuum of silence engulfed the room for several moments. “Zelda dear. I miss you, too. But it’s time to move on. I’m tired.” There was a sadness in his words. “Here comes the Funeral Director, now.” He raised his intention to really get his message across, “Stop this nonsense, and get on with your life.” Just before Mr. Morrison returned, Harold added, “And be good to people.”
The Funeral Director walked in, carrying a glass of water for Zelda, noticeably trying to maintain his composure. “Ummm…my dear Mrs. Crescent…ummm…another Mrs. Crescent just called,” he had a difficult time looking directly at Zelda, “She said she is running late.” Then he forced his attention right on her. “Ummm…was that your daughter? Did you tell her after all?” He was hoping to find any logic at all amidst this perverse nonsense.
“Mr. Morrison.” Zelda confronted him directly, “The truth is, my last name ain’t ‘Crescent’ and my husband ain’t dead, even though we already buried him years ago. But don’t you worry, he won’t be bothering me anymore.” She didn’t expect he would understand, but she wasn’t going to yell at him anymore. For some reason she wanted to be a little easier on him. “You tell that lady that her husband’s not dead yet, either. She can stab and poison him as much as she wants, but it just won’t matter—and besides, she needs to let him go away sometime.”
The Funeral Director gulped the water he never offered Zelda.
She went on, “That body don’t have as much to do with her husband as she thinks.” She conveyed a renewed certainty. “I guess I’m finally gonna have to get on with things. And I need to get me a new handbag!” She reached out her hand to the Funeral Director to say goodbye. “And by the way, you sure don’t look like that aspirin helped you at all!” She offered her first smile since visiting. “Mr. Morrison…get over it!”