Can't Wait to Get to Heaven (10 page)

BOOK: Can't Wait to Get to Heaven
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A Sad Business


own at the funeral parlor, after the call from Tot, Neva stood up and walked into the back office and pulled out the “Decedent, Elner Shimfissle” file and then walked around the corner to where her husband, Arvis, was applying the finishing touches on the hairpiece for Ernest Koonitz, a recent arrival. She stuck her head in. “Hon, Tot just called. Elner Shimfissle is probably coming in late tonight or first thing in the morning, stung to death by wasps.”

He looked up. “Huh. Two decedents within twenty-four hours. Not bad for April.”

It was true, considering April was always their slow month, but Neva hated it when Arvis said things like that. Granted they were in the funeral business, but she had a heart. Lately it seemed all he cared about was numbers. If a plague hit town and took out a hundred people, he would probably dance a jig. She was aware that every passing meant money in their pocket; still, she hated to see the last of the old-timers leaving, but the Warrens were her regulars, and it was a job that needed to be done. They had handled all their decedents in the past, both Norma’s and Macky’s parents, various aunts and uncles, and an occasional cousin here and there. Neva knew she should not play favorites, but she couldn’t help but have a soft spot for them. The entire family had been loyal to them throughout the years, and Neva always took special care with their decedents, treated them as she would one of her own.

Besides just plain liking them, she appreciated their business. Times had changed. Their business was no longer the only game in town; Costco out on the interstate was now selling coffins at a cut rate, and they had lost an awful lot of their customers when they moved into the building where the catfish restaurant used to be. A lot of people said that they did not feel comfortable viewing the body of their loved ones where they used to eat catfish and fries, and had switched over to the new mortuary in town. The new people did a nice job and they were fine, she supposed, for fast and impersonal services. She was not one to badmouth the competition, but theirs was a longtime local family-run full-service business and offered the follow-through that was so important. She and Arvis were there to serve their customers from the first pickup, on through internment. They prepared the body, arranged the viewing, ordered the flowers, provided free sign-in books, had a minister, a soprano, and an organist on twenty-four-hour call. They offered a His and Her two-for-one burial package and had a large selection of caskets and cremation urns at reasonable prices. They supplied a 10 percent discount on extra rooms at the local Days Inn for out-of-town relatives and friends, including a free continental breakfast on the day of the funeral and complimentary wine and cheese in the lobby that afternoon. They even arranged transportation to and from the cemetery and helped order and measure and place the headstones when they arrived. “What more could you want in a funeral package?” she wondered. Other than not having your loved one die in the first place, of course. Short of that, they did everything that was possible to have done. In fact, their ad in the telephone book, which she had spent weeks creating, reflected her sentiments exactly.



Come to us in your time of need.

And be rest assured of receiving

The very best in funeral care

Because we care about you.


The phone in the mortuary office rang again. This time it was Merle’s wife, Verbena Wheeler, calling from the cleaners two blocks away.

“Neva, did you hear?”

“Yes, Tot just called. I just pulled her file.”

“Isn’t it horrible?”


“She was the sweetest thing.”

“She was.”

“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“Ruby said she probably never knew what hit her.”

“That’s what Tot told me. At least she didn’t suffer.”

“That’s right.”

“We can be thankful for that at least.”

“Yes we can.”

“Anyhow, I thought I’d go ahead and get my flower order in early and beat the rush.”

“That’s probably a good idea.” Neva reached over for her floral order pad. “What do you want to send?”

“The usual, I guess.”

Neva wrote down “One medium azalea plant in ceramic pot.”

Verbena always sent a plant rather than flowers. She felt it could work at the viewing and again at the funeral, or be planted at the grave later on. She liked to give people options, like starch or no starch, or hangers or boxed.

“Same message?” asked Neva. “‘With our deepest sympathy, Merle and Verbena’?”

“Yes, might as well, I can never think of anything else to say other than that, can you?”

“No, that says it all.”

“I know Norma is sure going to miss her.”

“You know she will.”

“No matter how old they are when they go, or what shape they’re in, you always miss them. I remember how it was for me when we lost Momma Ditty, and then poor old Daddy Ditty in the same year.”


“And then Aunt Dottie Ditty went the year after that, do you remember?”

“I do,” Neva said.

“We lost all three Dittys in less than two years, and I don’t think there is a day that goes by that I don’t miss them.”

“I’m sure.”

“When is the viewing?”

“I don’t know. Norma hasn’t called us yet, I don’t know when the body will be released. It could be as early as tonight or it could be tomorrow.”

Verbena sighed. “Well, I’ll see you over there…I just hate to have to get out that old funeral dress again, but that’s life, isn’t it?”

Neva hung up. She certainly remembered Verbena Wheeler’s aunt Dottie Ditty. How could she not? Dottie Ditty had been their most difficult decedent, and she and Arvis were still living with the consequences to this day. Aunt Dottie Ditty had weighed in at 328 pounds at the time of death, and had presented a challenge right from the get-go. Aside from having to special order a casket large enough, during pickup Arvis had suffered a ruptured hernia, plus a slipped disk in his lower back that was still giving him trouble. Although the general public might not be aware of it, the funeral business has its share of injuries, just like any other line of work that requires heavy lifting.

Neva walked over and opened the Elner Shimfissle file and read that at one time the “Lily of the Valley” style casket had been ordered, but had been canceled in 1987 when Elner had changed her mind about burial and had suddenly switched to cremation. Neva cringed. Not because they’d lost a casket sale, but she hated having to deal with the uproar cremation caused, particularly among the older Baptists and Methodists. They became extremely upset, almost unruly, when they were told that there was no body to view. A few had even demanded that the money for the flowers they had sent be returned. She remembered now that at the time, Elner had said she hadn’t switched to cremation to save money, she just loved the idea of disappearing in a flash of hot white light. She had said it seemed like a lot more fun than being embalmed.

Neva read on just to refresh her memory about the other details.

Service: Methodist
Rev. William Jenkins presiding
Hymn to be sung: “Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven”
Interlude: “Just Over the Stars”

Since she was the soprano and also the organist on twenty-four-hour call, Neva figured she’d better go into the chapel and brush up on the numbers. They didn’t get much call for the old gospel tunes anymore. People’s taste in funeral music had changed drastically over the years. Just last month, there had been a request for “Fly Me to the Moon.” Neva got up and walked across the hall through the slumber room to the chapel and sat down at the small organ. She flipped through her stack of sheet music until she found her copy of “Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven,” a hymn that had been written and made famous by Minnie Oatman and the Oatman Family Gospel Singers, whose picture appeared on the cover of the sheet music. Neva removed all her rings, wiggled her fingers, turned the organ on, hit the first three chords, and started singing softly in a thin little reedy voice.

Can’t wait to get to Heaven
Oh I’ll be so happy there
When I walk down that ivory hall
And run up those crystal stairs.
Oh I’ll know Him when I see Him
I’d know Him anywhere.
Then all my struggles will be lifted
When I reach that kingdom in the air.
Can’t wait to shout hallelujah!
No more earthly burdens will I bear
’Cause when I see the Heavenly throne,
I know…Yes I know
He’ll be waiting for me there!

When she finished, Neva thought, “Nice lyrics, and very fitting.” She guessed if anybody had a shot at getting to heaven, it would have to be Elner Shimfissle. The woman had been such a source of inspiration for the whole town, always had a smile on her face. Neva felt her eyes misting up, and reached for a Kleenex. You’d think that with all the years of experience in the funeral business, she would have become immune to feeling bereft, but she hadn’t. Some passings were easier than others, of course, but as their ad stated, she cared deeply about all her customers, the living and the deceased.

Macky Goes to See Elner


hen they went through the double doors, the doctor turned Macky over to a young nurse to take him the rest of the way. As Macky walked through the hospital hall down to the room where they had Aunt Elner, he felt as if someone had kicked him in the stomach. Although he had tried to keep it together for Norma, when he had first heard the news from the doctor, he had been devastated. For the past forty years, rain or shine, he had gone over and had coffee with her before he went to work. And even when they had moved to Florida, she had come with them. The truth was, she was his best friend and had helped him through many a crisis, some things that Norma knew nothing about and, hopefully, would never know about.

One thing in particular had only been between the two of them. He had not meant for it to happen. Lois Tatum, a nice-looking girl with brown hair that she wore in a ponytail, had been a waitress at the Tip-Top café downtown, across the street from the hardware store. At the time, Linda had just gotten married, and Norma had been suffering terribly from empty nest syndrome. She had volunteered for a hundred different projects just to keep herself from, as she put it, “going stark raving mad.” Norma had thrown herself into community service and had kept herself so busy with one committee meeting after another that he hardly ever saw her. So when Lois had always seemed happy to see him come in at lunchtime, and had always laughed at his jokes, Macky had been secretly flattered.

She was about fifteen years younger than he was, divorced with a little girl, and when she needed something fixed in the small duplex she rented, he had been happy to do it. He had helped out a lot of people in town; as far as he had been concerned they were just good friends. Then one afternoon she had come over to the hardware store and tearfully confessed, “Macky, I’m so in love with you, I don’t know what to do.” He had been caught completely off guard. In all the years he had been married he had never looked at another woman, never even entertained the idea. Maybe it had been the timing. After Linda had left home, although he had not talked about it, he too had felt lost, and with Norma being so busy, maybe he had been vulnerable. He didn’t know the reason, but after Lois left, and he thought about it, he realized that he was attracted to her as well. Not that he ever did anything other than think about it. But he did think about it night and day until it had become an obsession, and the more he thought about it, the fantasy of being young again, running away somewhere with Lois, starting all over, began to appeal to him, until he could not get the idea out of his mind.

He didn’t know if he was really in love with Lois, or just flattered, or whether he should take a chance or not. Elner had noticed that something was wrong and had asked. Elner had always been a good sounding board, and had talked him through a lot of problems before, but this was different. Norma was her niece, and he felt very conflicted about discussing something like this with her, but Aunt Elner knew him like a book, and there was no way he could hide it from her, and so finally he broke down and told her what was bothering him, admitted that he had been seriously considering asking Norma for a divorce. After he finished telling her everything, she had thought for a moment and then said, “Macky, this is very hard for me, you know I love both you and Norma like my own children and it would break my heart, but I want you both to be happy. I can’t tell you what to do, honey, all I can do is hope before you make any decisions, that you will really take the time to think on down the line, because once you leave, if for some reason it shouldn’t work out with this girl, you can never go back to what you had before. I’m not saying Norma wouldn’t take you back, she might, but once you’ve done something like this, you chip away a good part of the trust, and when that’s gone, you can never get it back.”

She had not said
to go, or asked him to stay, but Macky went home that night, and had thought about it some more. Something she had said made him realize that as much as he was tempted, as much as he wondered what it would be like to start over, he was not willing to throw away all the years he and Norma had had together, upset Linda, and maybe risk ruining all of their lives. Lois’s as well. When he told Elner of his decision, she had smiled and said, “I’m awful glad, Macky, I don’t know what I would do without my buddy coming to see me every day,” and they had never spoken of it again.

Norma had not known it at the time, but that was the reason he had sold the hardware store and had moved them all to Florida, to get away from Lois, not that he had stopped thinking about her, he hadn’t. Even after she married someone else and had moved to another state, he still wondered about her, had a sad deep pain when he remembered her face, or a woman passed by wearing the same perfume, but as the song says, “Time Heals Everything.” And time and distance had faded her memory to a point that when he did think of her, the old longings were not as painful and he hardly ever thought of her anymore.

Aunt Elner had not only saved his marriage, strangely enough, she had also been the one responsible for him and Norma getting married in the first place. They had only been eighteen and terribly in love, but Norma’s mother, Ida, a holy terror, had declared that if Norma married Macky, it would have to be over her dead body. She had much higher aspirations for her only daughter than to marry a mere hardware store owner’s son. Norma had been a week away from being sent off to college, when after a phone call from her older sister Elner, Ida had suddenly relented and consented to their marriage. They never did find out what Elner had said to Ida to get her to change her mind, but whatever it was, he couldn’t begin to imagine what his life would have been without Norma or Linda and now his granddaughter, Apple. He also knew how hard life was going to be without Aunt Elner. He already missed her and knew his world was never going to be quite the same without her.

The young nurse the doctor had turned him over to led him down to the room at the end of the hall and quietly opened the door. When she turned on the light, he looked over and saw Aunt Elner lying there, still wearing the old brown robe Norma hated so. He walked over, sat in the chair beside her, and reached over and took her hand. Someone had smoothed her white hair back off her face, and she looked so peaceful, as if she had just fallen asleep.

The nurse said softly, “Stay as long as you like, Mr. Warren, I’ll be right down the hall if you need me.”

After she left, and he heard the door close, he put his head down on the side of the bed, still holding her hand, and sobbed like a baby. He looked over at her and wondered where she had gone. Where had that sweet woman gone?

BOOK: Can't Wait to Get to Heaven
10.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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