Authors: Jodi Thomas
“I’d wish, if I were reverse wishing, that I didn’t have to leave this place.”
He was silent for so long, she thought he’d surely died on the spot. Then he said, “You can stay for breakfast, and then I’ll take you back to town. Looks like it might rain today, and I wouldn’t want you falling in a mud hole on my land and suing me.”
Reagan looked at the cloudless sky and decided the old man had floaters in his eyes. Miss Beverly had floaters. She was always swearing there were bugs in her oatmeal.
Jeremiah stood slowly, as if testing to make sure his legs still worked, then walked toward the house. “We’re having eggs.” He didn’t turn around. “Damn chickens keep laying them faster than I can eat them.”
She watched him, not believing he’d invited her to breakfast. Somewhere an ounce of Miss Beverly’s goodness must have been in him. She ran and caught up to him just as he stepped in the side door.
She wasn’t sure what she’d expected, but a spotless kitchen with long countertops and linoleum almost scrubbed off the floor hadn’t been on her list. Everything, from the walls to the appliances, was in black and white. She felt like she’d stepped into an old, old movie.
Jeremiah rolled up his sleeves. “You think you can make yourself useful by squeezing the oranges while I cook?”
“Sure,” Reagan answered as she reached for the top orange in a white mixing bowl.
“Wash your hands first, kid.”
After she did that, he had to show her how to cut the fruit and grind them over this strange bowl with a bump in it. “I didn’t know you could do this to make the juice,” she said, loving how easily the center of the bowl ground out orange juice.
“Where’d you think orange juice comes from?” he asked.
“The store,” she answered.
He turned his back to her, and she wanted to believe that he was smiling. More likely, he was thinking she was the dumbest kid ever born.
They didn’t talk as they ate eggs and toast made with homemade bread. He’d dotted it with butter, then sprinkled sugar and cinnamon over it before sliding it into the bottom of the oven. The sugary mixture had bubbled and crusted over the bread. She decided it had to be maybe a hundred times better than toast made in the toaster.
“You in school?” he finally asked.
“I was,” she answered between bites. “I dropped out. If I wait a year I can take the GED test and it’ll be just like I’m a high school graduate.”
“Smart, are you?” He didn’t sound like he believed she was.
“Smart enough.” She took a breath and dove in. “If I could stay around here, I could help you to earn my keep. I wouldn’t be any trouble, and I don’t eat much.”
He glanced at the empty plate he’d shoveled five eggs onto a few minutes ago. “I can see that.”
“I could clean and I could learn stuff that needs to be done.” She fought to keep her voice from shaking, thinking of all the times in her life she’d begged to stay when someone was telling her to go. She knew all the excuses.
There’s not enough room. You’re getting too old. It’s time to move along before you get too attached to one place.
She straightened. She’d be fine without him. She’d find somewhere in town to stay.
He frowned at her. “What’s your name?”
He scratched his beard. “Got saddled with two presidents, did you?”
She forced herself to show no reaction.
“Well,” he finally said as he stood, “I guess you could stay for a while. There’s a ton of work to do on the orchard before spring. I always have more work than I have time to do, and spring may come early this year. I can’t pay you much, but I’ll give you room and board for two hours’ work on weekdays and pay you for up to eight hours’ work on Saturday.”
“I can work more.”
“I wasn’t finished. I got one rule, other than if you mess up the kitchen, you clean it.”
“All right, what else?”
“You go to school every day. Folks who think they’ve learned everything they need to know are usually dumber than chickens.”
“But . . .”
He turned his back on her and moved to the sink. “That’s my terms. Take them or leave them. I don’t much care. If you’re going, don’t slam the door. If you’re staying, bring that plate over here and wash it.”
Reagan didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He was letting her stay, even offering to feed her, but she’d have to go to school and she hated school. “I could work all day every day.” It would be easier than being the outsider with tattered clothes. The child no one talked to. The student in the back of the room trying to be invisible all day.
“No.” He snapped out the words like a drill sergeant. “It’s not open for discussion. My house. My rules.”
She had a hint of why his sister might have left. Only Miss Beverly must have had money to move to Oklahoma and get a room at the nursing home. Reagan had four dollars in her pocket. “All right. I’ll take your offer and am grateful to have it.” To her surprise, she meant it. She’d somehow survive school if she could stay in Harmony, and this seemed the only way.
“How dumb are chickens, anyway?” she asked as she washed her plate.
“They’ll stand in the rain watching until they drown.” He almost smiled. “And believe me, kid, you don’t want to be that dumb.”
TYLER WRIGHT HATED SUNDAYS ALMOST AS MUCH AS HE hated Halloween.
Folks probably thought since Sunday was the only day he didn’t do funerals that he’d like the time off, but they’d be wrong. As the town’s only funeral director, he never had a day off. More often than not he’d have to drive somewhere and pick up a newly departed, or get ready for a service on Monday morning. On weekends when he didn’t have a corpse waiting in the morgue, there was always a mound of paperwork he never seemed to finish.
“Morning, Tyler,” someone said from behind him.
Tyler moved up the line toward the counter before he turned around and smiled. On Sundays the only place to get a good cup of coffee was at the shop in the bookstore, and Tyler loved any kind of brew he didn’t have to make himself. The problem, of course, was that he’d run into people if he went out. There was always someone who’d been a member of the family from a funeral he’d done last week or ten years ago. They’d know him, sometimes even hug him. After all, he’d done them a great service during their time of grief. He’d been there, he’d handled things, he’d been their rock in stormy seas.
Only problem was, Tyler never remembered them. He was one of those cursed people in the world who didn’t remember names or faces. They’d be bawling on his shoulder, telling him how hard it had been since the death of their loved one, and he’d be trying to place them.
“Morning, Mr. Wright,” a pretty teenager said as she took his coffee order.
“Morning,” he answered with a smile while he tried to remember where he’d seen her before. The great-granddaughter of someone he’d laid to rest about six months ago, he decided, or maybe she sang in the Baptist choir. They were always pulling the whole choir in for a Baptist funeral.
“You want two blueberry muffins with that, like usual?” she asked.
She remembers my order and I couldn’t swear in court that I’d ever seen her before.
With a lucky glance, he noticed her name tag. “Yes, thanks, Gracie.”
She handed him the muffins and Tyler tried to find a chair that faced the wall. Otherwise, he’d be talking to every third person who walked by. There weren’t more than a dozen people in town that he could relax enough around to enjoy talking to, and it looked like none of them came in for Sunday-morning coffee.
Why don’t these folks go to church,
he wondered, then the coffee shop would be empty and he could enjoy his breakfast and
New York Times
without having to talk to anyone. Tyler rarely went to church. He’d usually filled his quota of visits by Friday every week.
He slipped out the side door planning to eat in his car, as he did almost every Sunday.
“Something is wrong with me,” he said aloud as he wiggled beneath the steering wheel. Whoever heard of a funeral director afraid of people? He didn’t like idle talk with folks dead or alive.
Tyler almost spilled his coffee laughing as his employee Calvin came to mind. That man usually talked to the customer all the way from the embalming to the dressing as if he were a shoe salesman trying to get the fit right.
Taking a bite of one of the muffins, Tyler decided his problem was he didn’t know how to have a real conversation with most people. All he ever talked about was death.
I’d kill myself, but then I’d feel bad about someone else having to drive to Harmony to take care of my body.
Tyler smiled and thought, with his luck, Calvin would do the job and talk to him until they closed the lid.
A lady with two little boys walked in front of his car and waved at him.
Tyler smiled and waved back. There were even too many people in the parking lot these days. Starting his car, he headed for the Wright Funeral Home, an impressive white stucco building on West Street.
He was the son of a son of an undertaker. He’d known how to act and what to say to people crying over a body since he crawled out of the crib. His ancestors had moved to Harmony after Harmon Ely died, slicing the town up and giving it to the residents since Ely had no kin. His great-grandfather had been penniless after the Civil War and missed old Ely’s funeral by a matter of weeks. In so doing, he also missed out on any split of land.
Tyler thought about how his family hadn’t missed a funeral since. Great-Grandfather came to Texas looking for a fresh start. They would have starved if he hadn’t hung a sign in front of their shack that read: WILL UNDERTAKE ANY WORK OFFERED.
The offers were made for several kinds of labor, but the job no one else wanted to do was to dig graves and prepare bodies for burial. Tyler’s ancestor took on the responsibility. Within a year he’d learned to build a coffin overnight and embalm a body in the kitchen before the women started preparing the funeral meal.
As the town grew, so did the Wright family. In thirty years, two sons worked with their father. They not only made caskets for the dead of Harmony, but shipped them all over the state. They’d built a funeral home as grand as any business in town. Tyler’s father, the only male heir, took over the reins of the funeral home while his three sisters married and moved away. He’d planned to have a big family, but he’d waited until almost fifty to marry. Tyler was his only child. So for Tyler there was no one else to take over. Four generations had built up a business, a trust, a life in Harmony.
Tyler had no doubt that all before him would haunt him if he sold out and left, but still, he imagined living in a beach house down on the gulf. He dreamed of talking to a woman who forgot to ask what he did for a living, but at forty years old and fifty pounds overweight, he doubted the dream would ever come true. He longed to have a conversation that wasn’t related to dying.
He pulled his Cadillac into his space outside the three-story building. The first floor consisted of offices, a chapel, and staterooms for viewing. The basement housed the embalming room and storage. The second and third floors were the only home he’d ever known: a five-bedroom rambling apartment, where he lived alone.
Tyler unlocked the door to his office and sighed as he stepped inside. He might as well get some of the paperwork done; then he wouldn’t feel so bad about spending the afternoon and evening with his hobby. If he went upstairs before dinnertime, his seventy-year-old housekeeper would glare at him as if she were sorry he hadn’t died of a heart attack while out.
Alone in the huge oak-paneled room his grandfather had built, Tyler sat in his desk chair, turned on the computer, and did what he did every morning. He checked his e-mail.
He began deleting. Thank-you notes from families. Advertisements. He’d moved through twenty before one caught his attention.
The subject line read:
Hi from Quartz Mountain.
He knew no one from Quartz Mountain. He’d stopped at a lodge there almost a year ago. He’d been on his way to pick up a body in Elk City and decided to take some time and wander the back roads. Both his employees had offered to go, but he looked forward to the drive, only the ice on the back roads had forced him to pull over and a lodge tucked away in the hills around the lake had been his only choice.
The stay at the lodge had been uneventful, except for the dinner he’d shared in a darkened bar with a woman also traveling. They’d been about the same age, early forties and all business in a room full of fishermen and vacationers. They’d sat in a shadowy corner near the view of the water and talked of the Native American artwork lining the walls of the lodge and of their childhood vacations spent on lakes. Tyler remembered shaking her hand and introducing himself, but he didn’t remember her name. Her e-mail address was simply a jumble of numbers and letters offering no clue.
Her eyes though, he’d never forget . . . warm hazel like a cloudy day in late summer.
He clicked on the e-mail.
Stayed at the lodge again and thought of you. Since I remembered your last name, the clerk gave me your e-mail. Just wanted to say hello.