The dead waitress had beautiful eyes. Large, chocolate and lovely. Of course, this was something I couldn't possibly know until some time later, once I had the chance to see them in a photograph. As usual with me, I get them when the spark has gone out and they're already losing their looks. Aunt Billie has a term for this. She calls it "occupational disappointment."
The waitress couldn't have arrived at a more inopportune moment. Baltimore was right in the middle of an unscheduled pre-Christmas blizzard and Aunt Billie and I were right in the middle of a wake. A heart surgeon from nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital had gone out in a blaze of irony two days previous, struck down by a heart attack, no less, while in the middle of performing a triple bypass. His name was Richard Kingman. Dr. Kingman had been in his late fifties, played tennis several times a week, hadn't touched a cigarette for decades, ate sensibly, drank politely and all the rest, and yet there it was. The needle suddenly skidded across his heart, and he collapsed in the operating room. He had been a robust fellow, judging by the photograph provided to me by the man's widow. Ruddy. Expansive smile. Big healthy mop of rust red hair as wavy as a small ocean. The photograph had been snapped during a skiing vacation the family had taken out west some fifteen years previous. It featured the now-dead patriarch in the center, flanked by his then-teenage son on one side and his daughter and wife on the other. Everybody looked nurtured and well fed. The son bore only a thin resemblance to his father, his face a little longer and his smile considerably less natural. Unlike his sister's smile, which - like Father's - was wide and exuberant. As for Mom, her bland expression revealed nothing. Or, for that matter, in its nothingness, everything.
"Everybody loved Richard," the widow said flatly when she handed me the photograph. She made it sound like a bad thing.
This weather of ours, it wasn't simply bad. It was a wet, ugly, bitter, nasty and thoroughly crappy, stinking god-awful slop of a miserable night. A cold front from hell (if you can withstand the oxymoron) had skidded into town without warning. Poor Bonnie, over at Television Hill, was probably in tears. Again. During the six o'clock news - pinwheeling her arms all around the map of Baltimore and the vicinity - she had promised that the real shit (my term, not hers) would be passing well to the north. But no sooner had the anemic December sun packed it in for the night than the bottom fell out of the thermometer and huge amoebas of sleet began dropping out of the sky, accompanied by crisscross gusts of wind that were flinging the mess in all directions at once. Now Bonnie would have to come back on at eleven and hold on to an iron smile as her on-air colleagues jovially ganged up on her.
On my way up the street for the doctor's wake, I slipped on the fresh ice and landed knees-first in a slush puddle. Then my elbow took a hard hit on the iced sidewalk as I slipped trying to get up. The pain ran up and down my arm like a frantic hamster.
"What in the world happened to you?" Billie asked as I came through the door. From the knees down I was a joke.
"Uncontrollable urge to pray," I muttered, reaching down to flick the stray bits of ice from my pant legs.
"Are you going to change them before the people start arriving?"
"I'm not going back out in that slop to change my clothes," I said. "Maybe you'd like to lend me one of your dresses."
My aunt clucked at that. "Oh, I'm too zaftig, dear."
"Big fanny. You're way too svelte for my wardrobe." Billie sighed. "You could always hide behind a floral arrangement," she suggested.
"No flowers please, remember? Send condolences in the form of a contribution to the Heart Association?" Billie sniffed. "What's wrong with flowers and a contribution? Hitchcock, when I go I want that room in there glutted with flowers, do you understand me? I want a jungle."
Reprinted from Hearse of A Different Color by Tim Cockey by permission of Hyperion Books. Copyright © 2001 by Tim Cockey. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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