News & Publications
A novella, "Teresa Frechette" appears in this spring's Santa Monica Review
The story collection Who Will Hear Your Secrets? and the novels Splendid Omens and The World Still Melting are all now available from Amazon.com as Kindle editions
A Story by Robley Wilson
From the time he started across the April-damp lawn to face a rebel for the first time in his life, Thomas Blessing was filled with the sense of what was at stake. In back of him the Eternal Hope Funeral Home cast its cool shade over his mission, the two-and-a-half-story structure seeming less like a place of commercial enterprise than an institution--an absolute symbol of the destiny of Man, of the peace and dignity and resignation which was the common lot of the great and the small. Eternal Hope was larger than time, larger than Blessing, certainly larger than a single addle-headed demonstrator afraid to meet his Maker. In a way the presence of one unexpected dissident with his placard threw into bold relief the immensity and solemnity of the Eternal Hope operation. Yet in another, more important, way a foolish old man was mocking the very existence of Eternal Hope. It was the latter insult Blessing intended to punish.
He stood before his adversary, and for the first time had a close look at him. Even seated in a folding chair, the man appeared to be tall, and something about the carriage of his gray head implied that the roundness of his shoulders was not to be counted for much. Possibly he cut a figure of considerable strength and self-possession--was a man easy to respect. The more fool, Blessing thought.
He introduced himself. "I am Thomas Blessing; I am the director of this funeral home, and you are interfering with my work."
The seated man inclined his head in a graceful--and most gracious--acknowledgment. "I am Laurence Garvey, emeritus professor of philosophy at the College."
You pompous scarecrow. Blessing coughed and put on his most ceremonious manner. "Professor Garvey, you are trespassing, and I am obliged to ask that you leave at once."
"But I explained to the other gentleman"--that would be Saunders, who had not been able to shoo him off--"the reasons for my fast," Garvey said; his voice was thin, like an old cricket's, but firm; he faced straight ahead and held his sign grimly. No, it said. Blessing made note that the lettering was Gothic. He felt thwarted.
"Now look here, Garvey," he said, "you can't picket Death. It comes. It always comes. No one knows that better than I do."
Garvey set his mouth. "Then I've nothing to lose," he said.
"And if you're just going to squat on my lawn and stop eating--" Blessing paused. "Is that really your plan?"
"Then you'll drop dead all the sooner. You're defeating your own purpose.
"My friends at the nursing home will take care of me," Garvey said gently.
Obviously, thought Blessing, nothing was to be gained by trying to talk sensibly, standing in the young wet grass and ruining his shoes. He shook a finger in front of Garvey's impassive face. "You mark my words, Garvey," he said. "If you don't get off this property, I'll damn well show you what you've got to lose," and walked away feeling both rage and self-righteousness.
"I don't know what's happening to people," he said to Saunders. "A respectable old man like that, with not an ounce of consideration for anyone else. He must be seventy-five if he's a day; he ought to know better."
"He's a little strange," Saunders said.
"He's a little senile; that's what." Blessing smirked. "People will think we've run out of space inside."
Saunders smiled faintly.
"Well," said Blessing, sobering, "there's still work to be done. You'd better take Darrell and go fetch Mr. Foster before we waste the whole day." Foster was a farmer who lived at the other end of the county and had passed to his reward the night before. "I'll call to make the floral arrangements. And I'll call the police, too, if it comes to that."
When he had finished talking with the florist, Blessing returned to the window to see if Garvey had given up and gone home. He had not. Now, in fact, a number of other old people, both men and women, had appeared. All of them were milling around on the side lawn, attending to Garvey. Blessing watched carefully; they were feeding the old fool--soda crackers, it looked like, and a glass of water. That's cheating, he thought; some fast.
He slid the window open--a task that required considerable effort, for the window had not been opened since the summer before--and leaned out.
"You people get off that lawn," he shouted. "You can't loiter here. Go on back to the Seniory or I'll have you arrested."
He wasn't able to hear their answers, but what they said seemed uncomplimentary. Blessing forced the window shut and waited to see if Garvey and his cohorts would leave. After a few moments he was gratified to see the whole crowd--he had by now counted eleven of them besides the professor--move from the lawn to the sidewalk, but the gratification was short-lived. The group began walking, single file, back and forth in front of Eternal Hope. Only one person, a small, stooped man with a red bandana around his neck, went off in the direction of the Seniory.
Blessing's palms were damp with sweat. They're actually picketing me! A second placard had appeared, as if out of nowhere. The Wages of Death Is Sin, it stated.
He went directly to the telephone and called the mayor, who listened without comment to Blessing's story of the events outside Eternal Hope. "It's too damned much," Blessing said with some heat. "These idiots are getting out of bounds; I don't know what they'll do next." He requested police protection.
The mayor was reluctant. "I don't like trouble," he told Blessing, "even as a gift, and I'm certainly not going to ask for it. I can't have people thrown in jail for peaceful assembly."
"Peaceful?" Blessing exclaimed. "They're blocking my sidewalk."
The mayor persisted in his refusal to dispatch police. "Wait a while," he said. "If they do any damage to the place, then I'll shoot the riot squad over." And he hung up.
Blessing paced the room angrily, cursing the mayor under his breath. Finally he went into the Sincerity Chapel, where he sat with clenched fists and glared at the tiny altar with its candles glowing red inside glass chimneys. He could not think where to turn for help.
Meanwhile the pickets paraded--orderly, careful to respect the rights of the passers-by and the curious who shared the sidewalk with them. They remained an odd lot, and from time to time Blessing went to the front door to peep out and confirm their oddness. The red bandana had apparently gone for reinforcements, for now he counted seventeen picketers--twelve men and five women--and every one of them was ancient. Decrepit. The lame, the halt, and Blessing wouldn't have been surprised if a few of the seventeen were blind, clinging to the sign-carrier ahead of them. Couldn't even read the cards they held in their shaky hands. Blessing himself could scarcely read them. No, he could see, black and ornate in the hands of Professor Garvey. We're People. Not Prospects, in the unsteady grasp of a white-haired woman with a clubfoot. And to make matters worse, a mobile unit from the local television station had happened on the scene; Blessing saw it cruise past the crowd and draw to a stop half a block away.
His stomach felt queasy. He was a peaceable, comfortable man in a peaceable, comfortable business, and the sight of these otherwise sensible people taking their absurd stand against Nature seemed to affect his digestion. At the same time he was terribly sensitive to the practical problem of how such a furor must look to potential clients of the Eternal Hope. So much depended on the frame of mind of the client; it was so important that, by the time he or Saunders had left the client alone in the Selection Room, the client be convinced of Eternal Hope's ability to provide a flawless and dignified journey "from pallet to plot"--as Blessing liked to describe it to chance acquaintances at morticians' conventions. But this mob scene! Blessing scowled toward the street. What self-respecting, middle-class, bereaved American could be expected to make a favorable judgment on a loved one's behalf after pushing his way through this riffraff of senility?
Blessing sighed and retired to the dark leathers of his office to light a cigar and brood. If the whole mess had never gone beyond that untidy professor, everything might have come out all right. Now, with every toothless crone and rest-home Romeo in town parading out front, the devil only knew what would happen.
By noon--the hour when Blessing chose next to sneak a look outside--the number of demonstrators had grown again. Thanks to those television bastards. There must have been thirty or forty of them, he guessed, and the group had gotten rowdier. One yellow little man in a wheelchair caught a glimpse of Blessing and shook a bony fist toward the front door of Eternal Hope. The gesture boded ill.
The real trouble began when the Eternal Hope hearse, returning from the country with the body of Mr. Foster, came gliding down Sycamore Street and drew to a stop before turning into the wide driveway. Blessing had seen it coming, and was already pulling on his gray gloves to assist Saunders and the driver, when he heard the shouts in the street. It sounded like a chant. He listened and could hear the words plainly:
"Here comes the vulture. Here comes the vulture. Here comes the vulture."
Sticks and stones, Blessing thought, but who would have believed all those old farts had so much noise in them? He went about his business, which led him heavily down the back stairs and into the garage. The wide doors were still closed; the hearse was not yet far enough up the drive to trip the electronic door-opener. Blessing temporized, rubbing a stray fingerprint off the chrome window-trim of the second Eternal Hope hearse. It was the older of the two Cadillacs, a haughty, high-silhouetted machine Blessing much preferred to the sleeker model he was now waiting to unload. Why do we sacrifice dignity for progress? He rubbed his gloved fingertips together and sighed--his second show of emotion that day--for the slipping away of old virtues.
Minutes, too, were slipping away; the garage remained shut, the enclosed air damp and stale. He retraced his path up the short flight of stairs to the side hall and opened the door to see what was happening; the freshness of a spring wind washed over him as he stepped into the sunlight. The drive was empty. The black limousine had not moved in the street, and the crowd of demonstrators scuffled around it, their voices raised in an untoward clamor, their signboards dancing. Blessing felt rage and fear sweep over him, the back of his neck growing warm, as he trotted clumsily down the driveway.
"Here now," he heard himself saying. "Stop that! Get away from that machine!"
He came to the edge of the mob, his gloved hands raised over his head as if to make some imperious threat. The black hearse, glittering in the sunshine, seemed to be rocking, bouncing on its heavy springs; Blessing felt dizzy from its motion and from the exertion of running. Working his way through the pickets, he could see that groups of old men and women on each side of the limousine were pushing against it, wheezing and laughing: "Heave; heave."
"Stop it, you crazy fools." He had a horrible image of Mr. Foster, inside the van, rattling against the walls, cracking like porcelain if the Cadillac should tip over. Silly. Impossible. Then he saw why the car had stopped in the first place: Professor Garvey was lying prostrate on the pavement in front of its massive bumper. "Is nothing sacred?" Blessing screamed.
A face suddenly appeared not six inches from his own--flaccid, twisted with lines the years had made, its eyes milky and gray-lidded. A perfect Lazarus. "You fat ghoul," the face said, and spat on him.
Appalled, Blessing ducked and forced his way to the front of the hearse. Through the windshield--was that an egg smashed on the glass, that orange smear dribbling over the wipers?--he could see Saunders, erect and stiff-lipped, and the driver slouched over the wheel with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth; Saunders put up his hand and waved queerly. Breathing hard, feeling his legs aching from his labors, Blessing stooped and seized old Garvey's ankles and hauled him--light as feathers--out of the path of the hearse.
"Go on!" he shouted at Saunders. The assistant opened the window a crack to hear him. "Go on!" Blessing gestured wildly with both arms to illustrate his order. "Get out of here; wait at Memorial Gardens!" he shrieked.
Finally Saunders nodded comprehension. The hearse started to move sluggishly through the protesters, who yelled and cursed and pounded on the roof and sides of the machine with closed fists and the sticks their signs were nailed to.
Blessing stood surprisingly alone and watched the surrounded Cadillac gradually gather speed. A few at a time, the protesters fell behind it; by the time it turned the corner and drove out of sight, the crowd had begun to straggle back to the Eternal Hope.
"It's amazing," said a voice behind him. "It's really exhilarating to see how they've put their hearts into this."
Blessing whirled. It was Garvey, sitting happily on the curbstone, brushing the dust from his trousers.
"You screwy old fossil," Blessing snarled, and hurried across the street to his front door. He could feel his heart pounding, hollow from work and anger, the blood thumping behind his ears, the sweat cooling on his face. He fumbled nervously with the key as he let himself into the front hall, half afraid the crowd would catch him before he could slip inside. The snap of the latch as he shouldered the door closed filled him with relief. And now, surely, he had every right to ask for the intervention of the police. Property had been threatened; the peace had been disturbed. He went to the phone and took in a deep gulp of air to steady his breathing. Then he dialed the mayor.
"This time they've gone too far," he said. He explained the assault on the hearse, the necessity of sending the Eternal Hope Cadillac to a rival mortuary, his unusual labors, the growing unruliness of the crowd outside. "Enough racket to wake the dead," he concluded dramatically.
The voice of the mayor was rich with hesitancy and alternative. Actually the disturbance was minor, the people involved were aged and harmless, probably they would leave by dark; if there was no real damage, perhaps the police should not be involved. Blessing was stunned. "Real damage; real damage!" His voice choked and he slammed the phone into the cradle with disgust. What is reality? The reputation of Eternal Hope; that was reality. He wondered what the world was coming to, when a city could not be bothered to protect its businessmen.
Yet shortly it appeared that the mayor had had a change of heart, for twenty minutes after Blessing's call the police were at the side door. He had not heard them approaching--there had been no scream of sirens, and no black squad car hurtling across the curb into the midst of the doddering humanity out front. In fact, there were only two men--a lieutenant and a sergeant--and Blessing, who would have wished for a simple but flamboyant display of force to disperse the demonstrators, was disappointed. He had notions, derived from watching riots on television and in the movies, of what repression looked like; it struck him that the mayor was still implying the Eternal Hope was worth precious little expenditure of law and order. He remained annoyed. When he let the two men in, he was too upset to introduce himself or to ask the policemen's names.
"So he finally sent you," was all Blessing said.
The sergeant, who was the younger man, seemed perplexed, but it was the lieutenant who responded. "We volunteered," the officer said.
Now Blessing didn't know what to think of the mayor. "It doesn't matter," he decided. "I'm glad somebody in this town has a little bit of conscience left."
"That's quite a fan club you got out there," the sergeant said, standing at the window to look at the picketers.
"They're no fans of mine," Blessing mumbled unpleasantly. That mass of unwashed senility.
The lieutenant already had a notebook opened. "Any damage so far?"
"I can't be sure," Blessing said. "I sent Saunders on to Memorial Gardens--that's a funeral parlor on the other side of town. Competitors. Old-fashioned types." Blessing could not resist sneering. Memorial Gardens hadn't remodeled in thirty years; the place looked like a wedding cake.
"But the car wasn't damaged?" The lieutenant waited to write in his book.
"The limousine," Blessing said. "I can't be certain, the way they were jumping around. They probably dented it. It's a miracle they didn't get at Mr. Foster."
"What did you think they might do to Mr. Foster?"
Blessing pondered. Kidnap him? Bring him back to life? "God knows," he said.
"How did they dent your limousine?"
"With their fists. They were all pounding on the outside of it. They even tried to tip it over." He recalled the terrible vision of poor Mr. Foster rattling around inside the hearse.
The sergeant chortled. "Those old sparrow-bones!" he said. "They couldn't dent Kleenex."
The lieutenant frowned. "What about the building?" he asked Blessing.
"Nothing's smashed yet; but you can imagine what the lawns will look like in the morning."
The lieutenant closed his book and tucked it into his shirt pocket. "We'll see what happens," he said.
"Aren't you going to do anything?"
The lieutenant winked--isn't he serious about this?--at Blessing. "We don't want to be hasty. It's getting on to suppertime; they may get hungry and go on home."
His sergeant, still hovering at the window, seemed to think otherwise. "I don't know," he murmured. "They're the kind that lives on crackers and warm milk. Who'd mind missing a meal like that?"
"Some of them are fasting anyway," Blessing said hopelessly.
"We'll see," the lieutenant said quietly.
The sergeant shrugged. "Why don't you show us around this place?" he said to Blessing.
The request startled him. Yet, though he was reluctant, he was afraid not to cooperate with the police, and so during the next hour Blessing obliged them with a tour such as he usually reserved for visiting high school students and their nervous teachers. The sergeant was especially interested; he asked innocent questions, admired the choice of caskets in the Selection Room, made a nuisance of himself picking up jars and instruments in the laboratory off the garage. He was fascinated by the details of Blessing's lecture--when it was necessary to break the bones of the dead, where the wires were hidden, how the corpses were dressed for eternity. The lieutenant, on the other hand, heard everything in silence and nodded wisely.
At least they looked like riot police; Blessing took some small consolation from the white plastic helmets, the glossy leather jackets--black with enormous silver rivets--and the high, polished boots. Both men carried service revolvers on the left hip, and a small leather case with handcuffs on the right. Both had clubs, thick and wooden, about thirty inches long; the sergeant let his hang from his belt, while the lieutenant held his before him in both hands, as if he were pushing the handle of a wheelbarrow. A special consciousness of authority showed itself in the lieutenant's bearing, as if his rank meant something, as if he truly deserved to be the sergeant's superior. He was older, too--Blessing guessed by ten years--and a quality of restraint and measure was reflected in his movements, his way of talking, the careful concentration of his gaze upon objects in the Eternal Hope rooms. The sergeant was everything his elder was not: brash, a bit loud, with something puppyish in the way he followed the lieutenant about. Blessing felt no hint of discipline in the younger man, and the sergeant's behavior made him edgy. Irresponsible--that was the word Blessing settled on. Or perhaps capricious. Was that how police departments did things? Put the young with the old, the foolish with the wise? Most likely. And all the pair had in common was the uniform and the weaponry--that in itself the only reassurance to Blessing in his present difficulty with the lively world outside.
"I'd appreciate knowing what it is you plan to do," he said, once they had come back to the reception room and the sergeant had resumed his bemused surveillance from the front window. "It's obvious they won't go away."
He got no answer. The phone rang, and it was Saunders, calling from Memorial Gardens to receive instructions.
"What shall I tell him?" Blessing asked the lieutenant.
"Tell him you'll call him back later."
"And tell Mr. Foster to sit tight," the sergeant put in, delighted with his own wit. "Tell him to wait in the car. And keep his motor running."
The day darkened rapidly. The street lamps on Sycamore glowed and brightened; more and more of the autos of the curious crawled past with headlights turned on. The television truck had taken up a permanent position across the street, and a cameraman crouched precariously on its roof. Blessing paced uneasily from the reception room to the front hall and back again. The two policemen, still helmeted, had dug out of a lower drawer of Blessing's desk a battered Parcheesi board--Amusing the children is a part of our total service--and were throwing the dice, manipulating the pieces abstractedly across the lines and boxes. The grandfather's clock in the hall struck a somber seven o'clock. Outside, the sound of ancient voices rose and fell like a ritual chorus against the walls of Eternal Hope.
"You know," the brash sergeant said to Blessing, "I bet your buddies over at that Memorial Gardens place are fit to be tied. Jealous. You standing here with all those overripe bodies stampeding your front porch."
"That's not the way I see it," Blessing said coldly. What he did see was the absurdity of the position he was in. Since he couldn't declare a moratorium on death, what could he do? These two casual officers of the law were his only hope. He watched them, throwing the white dice in turn, moving counters as if nothing depended on the moves; what did they care for the problems of Thomas Blessing? Their disinterest galled him.
"The damned fools won't leave," he said. He intended to sound impatient.
The lieutenant brought his leg down from the arm of the chair he sat in; the sergeant began to put the game away.
"And they're getting louder," Blessing said.
The lieutenant rose ponderously to his feet. "Do you have any sort of outside lighting?" he asked.
Blessing nodded. "Baby floods. We have a half-dozen across the front of the building." A Beacon for the Bereaved; it was a motto he had thought of--had even wanted to include in the Eternal Hope letterhead.
"Turn them on," the lieutenant said.
The switch was beside the front door, and Blessing pushed it downward through its silent mercurial arc. Light blossomed on the other side of the door and flowed through the side curtains into the hall. He peered through the curtains. Tonight he could see clearly the signs the pickets carried: Give Us Back Old Friends; Heaven, No, We Won't Go; No--Garvey, Laurence Garvey, the professorial bag of bones that had started everything, standing in the forefront of this decrepit rabble.
"I'll talk to them," the lieutenant said. He pulled open the door and stepped outside. A chorus of hissing and booing greeted him; he held up his hands, the slender wooden club still connecting his two fists. The aged crowd quieted and he confronted them while the glare of the lights sparkled from his jacket rivets and his helmet. More floodlighting--from the television unit on the other side of the protesters--bathed the lieutenant. Imagine the size of his shadow.
"I'm not here to make a speech," the lieutenant said. A murmur rose and fell away before him. "I only want to say a few words to you. I want to say that this funeral home is a place of business, legally incorporated under the law. It conducts its business according to the same law. You--all of you--are interfering with the proper business of this funeral home. You stand in violation of the law, and you are all liable to punishment for breaking it."
Blessing, behind the half-opened door, watched the mob on his ruined lawn, the mob wedged through his precious barberry hedge, the mob supported upon canes and crutches and glittering wheelchairs. He studied the lined faces, the bald skulls, the gaping, toothless mouths of men and women who were both his curse and his livelihood. They frightened him; he felt the desire to embrace them; he imagined their cadaverous flesh laid out to be beautified in the cellars of Eternal Hope. He heard their voices mocking the lieutenant, and saw their yellowed fists lifted against him.
The lieutenant went on: "We don't want to hurt you. I ask you--I plead with you --Go home; stop this pointless demonstration. The death you think you're defying cannot be defied. You have nothing to gain by your actions."
Blessing found himself nodding his head. The sergeant, beside him, subdued as Blessing had not seen him subdued, said softly: "He's good, isn't he? He's not just any goddamned cop."
The lieutenant was finishing. "I ask you--please--to go away. You have five minutes. After five minutes, you will be forced to disperse. Talk it over among yourselves. Be reasonable. Think of the consequences."
When the lieutenant came inside his expression was solemn, and he shook his head regretfully. "I wish they were younger," he told Blessing. "The old ones, they think they have nothing to lose. I don't like it."
The sergeant seized his arm. "You were terrific," he said.
"Let's wait a while," said the lieutenant.
For his own part, Blessing was keyed up, as if for the first time his prayers were being answered, and in the excitement of the moment of ultimatum he forgot his earlier bitterness toward the mayor and the police. Now he saw that the end of his problems was imminent--that for better or worse the crowd would clear his lawns and unblock his door. He was half beside himself with the waiting. He ran from window to window, watching and talking to himself, trying to guess which old man or woman would be first to drift away from the crowd. He was even on the verge of putting in a phone call to Saunders, commanding him back to Eternal Hope with Mr. Foster, when he heard the smashing of glass from the direction of the side lawn. Under a window of the reception room he picked up the missile--an empty Geritol bottle. Clearly, the demonstrators would not disperse; instead, they had turned violent.
The five minutes expired. In the hall of Eternal Hope the two policemen conferred briefly. The sergeant had taken the club from his belt; he listened with respect to his superior.
"You needn't hit hard," Blessing heard the lieutenant say. "You needn't hit more than once. These are old men and old women, and they aren't strong, and they aren't going to fight back. Now use your common sense; don't try to beat up on all of them. One in five, one in ten--that's enough. The rest will run."
The sergeant nodded; he nudged Blessing's arm. "You watch this," he said, and followed the lieutenant outside.
Relief, horror, satisfaction, remorse, rage, mercy--all of these mingled in the breast of Thomas Blessing as he watched the two policemen enter the crowd. In their black uniforms and dazzling headpieces they looked larger than life. They moved slowly and methodically among the old men and women, their pale, polished clubs held high in their right fists, their left arms straight before them to fend off the angry pickets. The clubs fell downward in wide, swift arcs--first upon Laurence Garvey, whose terse signboard fluttered into the air above his head; upon the little yellow woman in the wheelchair; upon the white-haired woman with the crippled foot; upon one after another of these loose-skinned, desperate adversaries of death. Upon each victim the officers exercised a single graceful stroke, and when each was struck he toppled--silent, slow, like an object in a dream; and where each fell, he lay without moving.
Copyright 1975 Robley Wilson, Jr.