Georgette had said it would take a week to ten days to get the cremains and death certificates back. After fourteen days, I phoned to ask why the delay.
“Georgette is with a client,” said the girl who answered. “But let me check. We just got some in.”
I wondered what she meant by some.
When she came back on the line, she said she had the ashes but couldn’t find the urn. They had received the death certificates, too. But the urn was anyone’s guess.
This raised questions. What had my father come back in, if not in the thing he’d requested? If what he came back in was not so important, what had he gone out there in? And what was holding his cremains together now?
I told her which urn he’d requested.
She said she knew which one but couldn’t find it. “I’m new here,” she added. “Georgette knows, but she’s with a client.”
I told her an attorney needed the death certificates immediately in order to file with the probates court on Thursday. The attorney hadn’t been able to file last Thursday, or the Thursday before, because he didn’t have the death certificate. I said I would come by that afternoon for the death certificate.
My father had chosen the funeral home before he died, probably based on price. He was a cheap s.o.b. who rarely based a decision on much else. And this home he’d chosen had a real air of death to it. It felt not just like a place one might transact business for the dead, but also like a place the almost-dead might wait for death to take them. Its reception area was a dark parlor full of stiff chairs and couches, fabric patterned with floral pinks and greens. It was furniture that would appeal to Very Old People, and it encouraged depression as much as the nursing home he’d recently departed. The room’s only illumination came from dim lamps on end-tables. The window shades were drawn at all hours.
When I entered, a bell chimed. The bell interrupted what sounded like carpentry work. Some sort of sawing or sanding ceased and a handyman rose from his knees in the doorway of a corridor near the corner of the room. He was pale and gaunt. He locked eyes with me. Never uncoupling from my eyes, he slowly swung the door shut.
The sawing and sanding sounds resumed, now muffled. Then the door began to ease open again, independently it seemed, revealing the carpenter at work on his knees.
Moments later, a woman stepped into view, looking quizzically at the open door. Dark skinned and bejeweled in layers, a gypsy in business casual, she pointed at the door and asked the carpenter, “Deed you open dees?” He shook his head no.
How the door got open was quite a mystery, it seemed, despite its having been open when I arrived.
Confused, the Possible Gypsy stepped out of the corridor, closing the door behind her. When she released it, it swung open again.
She nodded to me, “Hee’s expecting you.”
I didn’t know who he was, but she seemed to know who I was. She said it was a beautiful day. I nodded and scratched an elbow, just to keep my hands busy.
The Possible Gypsy crossed the parlor and opened another pair of doors leading into a chapel. It was pitch black, and she disappeared inside.
I thought it odd that the curtains were drawn in the parlor. Even if one’s business were death, one might still open the curtains on a beautiful day, I thought. Especially if one’s business were death.
The girl I had spoken to on the phone emerged from the corridor rattling a manila envelope over her head.
“Death certificates!” she smiled. She was not a Possible Gypsy, but a young, plump white girl. “Still no urn, though.”
For some reason (which I later regretted) I asked her how to go about transporting cremains to a final resting place. Mistake. She launched into a story about a man who had snuck into a cemetery to bury the ashes of his mother next to her favorite of several husbands. “You can’t do that,” she whispered. “It’s not legal!”
I assured her I had no such intention. I only wanted to transport my father’s ashes – appropriately and legally – to a cemetery that was out of state.
“I’ll have to check. I’m new.”
“Listen,” I said, grabbing her elbow. “My father chose cremation, and he stipulated ‘no embalming.’ When I called last week to ask why he hadn’t been cremated, you said Georgette was with a client. Then you put me on hold to check, and when you came back you said ‘good news, crematorium today!’ But I’d already signed the embalming form, because you said it was state law.”
The young, plump, white girl smiled and said she’d forgotten about that, but yeah.
I said, “I think you all might be a bunch of idiots.” Then I said, “I want to see Georgette, because this was supposed to take no more than ten days, and it’s been over two weeks. You lost his urn, everything happens the day I call, and — ”
It was Georgette.
“We have a surprise,” she said, stepping backwards and doing a little come hither with her forefinger as she stepped backwards. She stopped in front of her office and pointed inside.
I hesitated. She grabbed my hand and pushed me in by my shoulder.
“Ta-da!” she said.
Inside the room was the Possible Gypsy. She was burning herbs under my father’s nose. My father was sitting upright in a chair, looking as yellow as the day he died. But his eyes were open.
“Son,” he croaked. “Change of plans.”
“Pardon me,” said a voice.
It was the carpenter. I stepped aside, and the carpenter slid the plywood casket he’d just finished assembling right up to my father’s chair.