"Don't 'yes ma'am' me, I'm serious. The funeral of an undertaker should be exemplary in every way." Billie stepped over to straighten my tie. "You give me flowers. Irises. Orchids. Lilies. Even mums. You can make entire blankets of mums." She smoothed my lapel.
"Duly noted," I said, fluffing the silk scarf under her chin. Billie gently slapped my hand away.
"And no black-eyed Susans. I have never understood why people do that."
"It's the state flower."
"I don't care. This isn't a constitutional convention, it's a funeral. The black-eyed Susan is strictly a roadside flower. It has no business at a funeral. At least not mine. Understood?"
I nodded. Billie turned to the wall mirror and began poking her silvery do. My aunt is a handsome little chippy, who would gently slaughter me if I revealed her age (she's sixty-three). A daughter of the South, she was born with a silver spoon pretty near her mouth but developed fairly quickly into a frustrating disappointment to her high-toned Confederate family. Billie was a socialite rebel. She pretty much ripped it with her aristocratic papa when she showed up at her own cotillion in a pair of riding britches and puffing on a short-stem pipe. It was an offense that she swore - albeit without much vigor - was intended to pay homage to the twin economic pursuits of her dear southern father, namely horse rearing and tobacco farming.
They have a term for this: black sheep.
Billie finished with her hair - it looked exactly the same as before-and turned from the mirror. I had removed my jacket and was rolling up my sleeve to have a look at the elbow.
"Would you like some ice for that elbow? Ice might help, if it's swelling."
"Ice is why it's swelling."
Billie's nose twitched like a rabbit's. "Well then, how about some brandy?" A half hour later, and just after I had salted the sidewalk and the front steps, the friends and relatives of the dead doctor started arriving. We had laid out newspapers beneath the metal coat-rack in the front hallway, to catch the runoff. Billie and I were expecting a somewhat smaller than usual turnout on account of the piss-poor weather. My aunt was working the front door. I took up my position near the coffin. I admit, I like to drink in the compliments.
"He looks very nice, Mr. Sewell," the doctor's widow said to me, after spending approximately five seconds gazing down at her husband. Her name was Ann. She had arrived with her husband's brother, along with her daughter and son-in-law, the three of whom immediately set themselves up at the parlor door to start greeting the arriving guests. Ann Kingman was around fifty, short and stocky, a formerly pretty woman gone hard in the eyes and tight around the mouth. She was as heavily made-up as her husband.
"I have your photograph in my office," I told her. "I can give it back to you before you leave."
She gestured vaguely. "Keep it. It's a copy. I have dozens more. We used it for a Christmas card that year."
"It's a very good photo. You have a handsome family."
The woman gave me a frank look. "I know that it is your job to be solicitous, Mr. Sewell. You're very gracious. But if it is all the same to you, I'd feel better if you would drop the effort."
She said all this without a trace of bitterness in her voice. "It's not that I don't appreciate it. I do. But to be honest with you, I'm angry with Richard . . . I know it sounds cold. But the effort of being polite to all the well-wishers tonight is going to exhaust me." She paused to see if I would react. I didn't.
"You and I have a strictly financial relationship," she went on. "And I am officially releasing you from the obligation to tell me that I have a handsome family. The truth is, I have a daughter who hates me and a son who hated his father. Don't let the photograph fool you."
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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