This isn’t the life Gracie had pictured. The newspaper scrunched between her hands crinkled and grumbled, but not for long. She heaved the wad across the room and glared at the ink stains on her hands. Greasy fish and chips in newsprint or wrapped potato peels never bothered her, but the stink of ink on her hands made her queasy.
No matter her disguise, someone always found her out. Time to move again. She hated starting over and hated to think how many times she’d been uprooted in the past three years. Her phone vibrated in her jeans pocket. The number seemed familiar but not the name. She picked up. Damn, a breather.
“Wait, don’t hang up.” A male voice, whiny, wheezing.
“I don’t need whatever you’re selling.”
“Gracie, it’s me.”
“I’m going to hang up now. Bye.” Hate strangers calling me by name. She flicked her thumb to hang up.
“Wait, it’s me, Bob. Long time.” He forced a smile into his voice. “Saw your picture in the paper today.”
“Bob? You’re the last person I want to talk to. How’d you get this number?” She strode from the kitchen into the living-room, kicking the clump of print out of her way.
“Hear me out, will you.” He puffed and rasped into her ear.
“Answer me. Who gave you this number?” Gracie wound her pony tail round a hand, a nervous habit from her teens. “Bob? Tell me!”
“Don’t want to get anyone into trouble—“
“Oh, you two are tight now, are you? No way. What lies did you tell her?” She yanked the handful of hair till tears sprang in her eyes and bit her lip, to not cry out. She released the hair. “What’s wrong with your breathing?” She prowled the living-room like a cat. “Not that I need to know, but you do sound peculiar.”
“I need a quadruple bypass but I don’t have the money.” A horn honked in the background and an eee-uuu eee-uuu of a firetruck screamed past, then silence.
Forehead pinched, she pulled the cell away and gaped at the screen, then brought it back. “Bob?”
“Yeah. I’m here. I needed a deep breath. So what do you say, can we make a deal?”
“How long’s it been? Five years? You tried fleecing me before the divorce and now you’re looking for a handout? This sound fair to you? She stomped into the kitchen and plugged in the kettle.
“Please, Gracie. You’ve won millions in the lottery and shared not a dime.”
“We were already divorced, remember? She slammed down a mug and ripped open a packaged teabag, her favorite, Lemon Thriller. The kettle whistled. She flicked the off switch. “How much?”
“I can be there in ten minutes.”
She frowned, nose wrinkled in distaste. “You know where I live? Oh yes— Mother.” Her hand sliced the air. “No. I’ll call my bank and have it couriered. Will two-hundred and fifty grand do?”
“You’re a lifesaver. I’ll pay you back. Promise.”
“No you won’t. Keep it. It’s yours.” Arrangements made, they hung up. Gracie rubbed her temples and removed the elastic from her hair. No point adding to the tension headache blooming at the back of her head. She glanced at the clock as a key turned in the lock. Right on time. Time enough to call her bank manager first. Punching in the number from her phone directory, she listened to her sister slam the powder room door and smiled. Girls will be girls.
“Bye, Don and thanks.”
Heloise rushed in. “Which Don? Your bank manager, Don? Have I news. You won’t guess who’s been hounding Mom—”
“She called? That’s a surprise.”
“Nope. Bob did. I can’t believe she gave him my information. Phone, maybe, but my address?”
“She’s almost 90, Sis. Getting soft.”
“Which reminds me. How would you like to live in Spain for a while? Everywhere I go, a horde of vultures awaits. Three years I’ve played cat and mouse with photographers and needy humanity. Someone always wants something. And now Bob. Time to leave town and move house while I’m gone. You call the travel agency and pick something you like and I’ll call my realtor. The sooner we leave, the better.
“So what’s Bob’s story? Mom said he sounded older than her, gasping for air and all. She couldn’t wait to be rid of him. Afraid he’d die on her.”
“So, that’s why she caved. Huh.”
“Saw you on the front page again. You’re quite the philanthropist—the childrens’ wing this time. ”
“I can’t do anything without a big deal. Why can’t organizations keep quiet like I ask? Even beg.”
* * *
A couple weeks later, Gracie toweled off after a refreshing swim in the pool one evening. The villa was magnificent. Maybe I’ll never go home again. Heloise stumbled down the steps towards her holding a cell as far away as her arm stretched.
“What’s wrong? Is it Mom?”
Heloise nodded like a dashboard bobble head. “Mom fell and broke an arm and hip. She’s not good.”
“How fast can we get a flight out?”
* * *
The funeral took place ten days after the sisters arrived home. They attended with their mother, who had been ensconced in a state-of-the-art wheelchair. She’d insisted on making the service though pain showed in her eyes.
Bob died of a massive heart attack. A life-long spend-thrift and drinker, he’d partied hard with his new found wind-fall and so-called friends. Everyone marvelled he’d lived to 67.
Before leaving for the day’s tour, I exchanged $100.00 Canadian to 547 Yuan and paid no commission. A Bank of China specific area was set up at the reception desk. The man was pleased with my brand new polymer bills unlike the machine at the previous hotel.
Our first stop of the day was at the old Xian city wall, which is 12 metres high (13.1234 yards). A lot of stairs had to be climbed to get to the top surface (15 metres or 16.4042 yards wide). We saw pedestrians and bikers, but it wasn’t crowded at all. Due to the short time allocated to look around, we didn’t walk far. There wasn’t much to see on top where we’d entered anyway.
On one side we looked down on modern buildings and the other a market in progress. Buyers and sellers moved in and out at a brisk pace. The location made me think of a wide alley. Old buildings had been removed and continued to be knocked down.
Steve, our tour guide, felt ill and stopped at a pharmacy for something to settle his stomach. Instead of leaving us for the day, as I’m sure he might have preferred, he soldiered on, lime-white faced.
Our third stop in was the factory where the Terracotta Warriors were made. Reproductions of the originals (we will visit next week) are made by way of molds. No two faces are alike. The dedication to fine detail is incredible.
“Might you slow down, I’m nervous rushing in this weather.” Jane hiccupped and hugged herself. “We’ve already had one dreadful start to the summer.”
Billie gunned the accelerator. The Dodge van lurched over the line. Whoosh the wipers dashed stubborn rain aside. Bloated, slate-gray clouds gushed water like a busted dam.
“What’s the matter, don’t you trust my driving?” Billie lifted an over-plucked eyebrow as she glanced at her friend. “Should have been there twenty minutes ago. We’re late.”
Jane tucked whispy hair behind her ear and didn’t respond at first. “At least the traffic’s light. I’d rather be late than dead.”
“Why the hell did her husband buy her that motorcycle?” Jane stared through the sluicing windshield and bit her lip.
Thank you Microsoft Clipart
“Yeah, only one ride and gone at fifty-three. My God! Two young adults, motherless. Life’s unfair. I can’t imagine how her husband feels.” Billie’s tears slid down her creased cheeks.
Silence sank like a sodden blanket between the two sixty-something women. The driver gripped the steering wheel. Silver-streaked, once black hair stuck to her forehead. Eyes intent behind thick glasses, she frowned at the deluge. Although the wipers were in high gear, the windows fogged up. Billie cranked on the defogger and let up on the accelerator. The slosh of tires on the wet asphalt changed rhythm and slackened to a softer splatter.
“I hate funerals, especially this one, not that I’ve been to many.” Billie cleared her throat. “Sue was always there for me, you know. I ran away from home—before I met you? Sue’s family took me in and Mom was madder than a dragon spewing fire. We didn’t know them well then.”
Jane closed her eyes and nodded. Sitting straighter, she breathed deep and hard. “How did this happen? The road was dry and the day clear.” Chin to chest, she sighed. “Sue was such a live-wire. Into everything—how long did you live with them again?” She massaged white knuckles, first one hand and then the other.
“Almost six months. We were both twelve.” Billie hesitated. “We became tight as Siamese twins. Soon after I agreed to move back home, her father changed jobs. They packed up and moved to Vancouver. Even Mom was sad to see them leave.”
The rain slowed to a fine mist and the humidity dropped inside the van. Both women concentrated on the road. Jane pointed to the exit, “Turn right on Wellington here and then left on Riddell. “Geez, this lot is packed.” She leaned into the backseat to grab an umbrella.
Billie swallowed and blinked away threatening tears. “Can’t wait to get this over.” They snaked up and down three aisles before they spied a parking spot. “By the looks of it, the chapel will be standing room only. Lord give me strength.”
I decided I’m worth it and it’s more for my family’s benefit than for mine. I spent more than originally planned because I hadn’t taken into account certain aspects of my send-off. These are the Services and Supplies Section in Canadian dollars:
Additional Services requested and/or Required:
Only my family will see me prior to cremation. A memorial service will be held instead. Whatever happens I figure I won’t look that great so why take the chance at a bad review? You must always keep them guessing especially if you haven’t seen your friends in a while. I have set aside money for a reception and a balance remain, it will be returned to my family.
As well, should you be a traveler, consider a Worldwide Travel Assistance Plan. I purchased mine for a one-time fee of $525.00 no matter how many trips I take. It can be expensive if a loved one is stuck with this additional cost. In my case, this covers the details of handling all the necessary documents, including consular services if outside Canada. One toll-free call can be made by family or funeral director to begin the process of bringing you home in the event of death. That’s all of it now.
Hope this is helpful when you consider your own prearrangement.
I’ve thought of nothing else for the past two days and expect to conclude my business at The Funeral Home today. Rick has called after our last meeting and left a message about all the numbers he’d worked out. I’m sure he’s made some horrible mistake and plan to go over the itemized list with care.
I arrive a couple of moments early. This time the parking lot is empty except for two other cars, unlike my last visit when the lot was half-full and an attendant opened the door when I arrived. My guess is no-one is in residence or there are no services this morning. Why am I thinking about these details? Don’t think. Finish your business and get the hell out of here.
I am about to drop into a comfy chair when Rick comes around the corner. “Come in. Come in,” he says as if this is a social visit and we are old friends.
No sooner do I take a seat at the table in the same meeting room as last time when a lady arrives and hands me a steaming cup of coffee. “Thank you.” I’m startled and a little floored by today’s efficiency. I can’t help wonder if today is a busy day and they want to push me through or, and I can’t help myself—that’s the way my brain works—they want to hustle me through before I change my mind. Well, business is business, right? A cartoon cloud hovers overhead of a skillful and seasoned used-car salesman: keep talking and don’t let them think till the dotted line is signed.
We begin with small talk which soon irritates me because we’ve already been there last time. I don’t want to be friends; I have something important on my mind. I’ll never see you again, I hope, and not even then.
morgueFile free photos
“I’d like to see a breakdown of the numbers you quoted over the phone.”
“I haven’t printed up the invoice yet in case you have some adjustments to make.”
I shake my head. “I want the cremation, but don’t understand why the cost is so high for a pine box, a shroud and a small service. I’ve decided I don’t want the DVD, which should cut out another $500.00.”
“That’s been removed. I’ll print out the breakdown. Excuse me a minute. How’s your coffee?”
“Great and I’m fine, thank you.” How I’ve mellowed. This is a business transaction after all. Think numbers and negotiate, accept or reject.
I sit and wait. And wait. What’s taking Rick so long? What’s happened to the ‘Slam- bang-thank-you-ma’am’ service when I arrived?
Good thing I’d brought a book to pass the time. Rick returns. I’m anxious to close this chapter and go home. If I close my eyes I know I’ll slide off the chair and into an exhausted sleep. He’s all business. Is it because my impatience is evident or is it because I look the wreck I feel?
We go over the numbers. I’m flabbergasted. Everything I’d agreed to is in black and white. Each service and every single person has his or hand out for a piece of the pie. I think of vultures.
Next week I’ll go through the breakdown of expenses. I’m told years ago an invoice showed one figure: the total. The breakdown may shake you up somewhat as it did me. As well, funeral expenses have doubled every ten years over the past 30 years. Some points I want to leave with you to ponder:
Should you buy life insurance to cover funeral expenses? Will the payout cover the costs in 20, 30 or more years?
Should you pre-pay your funeral? This is money someone else is benefiting from and earning interest on, not you.
In Canada, pre-payments do not go to the funeral home but to a trust company. This protects clients in the event the funeral home goes bust. Why / how do they go bust? Hanky-panky / mismanagement just as in any other business.
Did you know, depending on your age, you can make payments over many years? Keep in mind, interest is tied to making payments and is over and above your initial contract cost.
Cremation is fast becoming the service of choice. A friend of mine paid for her mother’s funeral a few years ago, nothing fancy, and the cost was $30,000.00
Have you heard of No Frills cremation? I didn’t until after I’d made all my arrangements, but I I’m going ahead with the contract I signed.
This is a blow-by-blow of my journey into pre-arrangement for the time when ah…my departure from the tiny footprint I have imprinted on this planet arrives. I will post in several segments each Friday. This is to give those who haven’t thought about it an idea of what might transpire: expect the unexpected.
Monday, December 9
I want to throw up. I can’t put this off any longer. The days on the calendar flip on and off and race forward. I must be ready when the time comes. I’ve decided not to dwell on my strangled thoughts, but will leap in with open arms as I imagine a bungee jumper does her first time.
I feel in a trance, suspended somewhere I don’t recognize. Who am I? I called The Funeral Home earlier this morning but had to leave a message. A man by the name of Rick returned my call at 1:45 pm, and after several tries, we settled on an appointment for 10:00 a.m. the following Friday. What? That’s the 13th—Friday the 13th.
I’m not paranoid—all right, I suppose I am—a little. My stomach lurches and my head weaves.
Friday, December 13
The 13th arrives but I must cancel my appointment. The day before, my granddaughter fell in the school yard and cracked the top of her head. She’s home in bed now and I can’t leave her. After the school bus left earlier with the younger one, I rushed to reschedule my appointment a minute after nine. Now that I’ve made the first move, I can procrastinate no more. This undertaking (no pun intended) isn’t going to get any easier with time. I want to cross this off my list while I am able.
The internet is down, the cable is dark and the phone is a blankness of silence. What is the universe up to today? Conspiracy or salvation? Every few minutes I try the phone but reach a vacuum, yawning emptiness.
Five minutes before my scheduled time slot, the line cleared and I rang through to arrange another meeting for the following Tuesday. There, I feel better already. No Friday, the 13th. Lucky me—I think.
morgueFile free photos
Tuesday, December 17
It’s time again. My eyes won’t focus, my stomach jitter-bugs and I feel light-headed and forty degrees of nauseated. I do hope I stay in control and not lose it.
Rick is pleasant and somehow I notice, good looking. I’m still here aren’t I? If I hadn’t poked fate or borrowed trouble, I’d never have noticed, would I? We wouldn’t be meeting, would we? Of course, a black suit, shoes shellacked to a blinding shine and mischievous blue eyes will do that for a man. “Can I get you a coffee?” he asks.
I shake my head because my tongue is in knots, but I want to scream to the likes of, “HELL NO! You have coffee in a place like this? Isn’t it disrespectful guzzling black gold among those who can no longer enjoy a cup with us?” Then, my mind settles a bit and is dry as cotton gauge and full of holes. I’m afraid I’ll become lost in there soon.
“Are you all right?” His voice is soft and too close.
”I’m fine. Let’s get to it.”
“You sure I can’t get you a coffee?”
I cave in and nod. At least a mug of coffee will give me something to do with my hands. The mug warms them and the drink is outstanding. I like mine black these days which means I taste the deepest flavour good or bad and damn, this is good. Why wouldn’t it be? Good people pay a lot of money to a place like this. The least they can do is serve the best coffee my money can buy.
Each time a new subject comes up, Rick leaves the meeting room and I am alone too many times. Not well organized, I think. If I can nitpick, I must be doing okay. I pat myself on the back, but I won’t lie, I am ticked the process isn’t more methodical and less a waste of my time.
The meeting reaches its end. I remember little. Rick gives me a dollar figure. The cost is four times more than I expected or planned for. “I need to process all this.”
He nods. “Take your time.”
I’m woozy and floating again. Does helium come in through the air vents to calm grieving families?
* * *
This is copied from my journal. Tune in again next Friday if you’re wish to read another segment.
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