by Tracey Buchanan
He frowned as he opened the brochure like a map and laid it on the counter in front of Janet. Half of the information faced her and half of it faced him. He spun it the other direction, then back and mumbled.
“Pardon me?” Janet sniffed and drew back, but she resisted reaching for a tissue to cover her nose. The man behind the counter seemed to be covered in a malodorous film. His hair was slicked into a ponytail. Grimy arcs outlined his fingernails. He ran his tongue over his teeth fishing for a scrap of lettuce or a seed, maybe a bit of tobacco.
“Oh, nothing. Listen, I don’t usually do this but I’m like the only dude here now. You might oughta come back.”
Janet arranged her mouth into a sliver of a smile because she was a southern lady and ladies smile when they deliver their terms. She pulled out the tufted chair tucked under the counter and sat. “I’m here now.”
He nodded like a rooster pecking in slow motion. Or a bobble head. A serpent wound up one side of a scar on his thin hairless neck and—what was that? A hand?—yes, a skeleton’s hand seemed to be choking him from the other side.
She regained her focus. “I have a few questions, and I’m sure you can answer them for me.”
“Well, I’ll give ’er a go.”
Give ’er a go? Did this man know where he was? Janet was tempted to leave, but didn’t know if she’d have the courage to come back.
“First, what is your name?”
“Tike? Well, Tike, when a body is cremated, is it fully clothed?”
“I’ve seen it done both ways,” Tike said, spreading his hands flat on the counter and leaning toward Janet like he meant business. “I’ve seen ladies come through here dressed in their Sunday best, complete with hats and purses and jewelry—like, you know, pearls and diamond rings—and I’ve seen ’em stark naked. The naked ones are mostly men, and not even men who look all that good. You know, fat men. It’s like how at a nude beach you only see good looking chicks, but you see fat, hairy old men walking around with everything God gave ’em hanging out blowing in the wind. Same here. I’ve only seen one naked lady come through here and she was some kind of hippie I think because she had flowers in her hair and a tambourine with long streamers covering up her…”
“I don’t need details.”
Tike lifted his eyebrows. “But nobody can wear shoes.” He raised his chin as if a victor by scoring the last word.
“No shoes. Shoes don’t burn at the same rate, and they almost always have some chemical in them that is dangerous to burn. They can really screw things up, really f—”
Janet held up her hand. “Please. We are talking about a sacred part of life.”
“What’d I say?” Janet looked over the top of her readers at him until he said, “Sorry.”
“Can I prearrange details and prepay?”
Tike tucked a loose strand of hair behind his ear. “You planning on checkin’ out?” He chuckled.
Tike blew his cheeks full of air and slowly let his breath out before he spoke again. “Well, yeah, you can make all the plans ahead of time if you want.” He paused and seemed to calculate his next tack. “But I don’t see how you can know all the crap we gotta know unless you got some kind of arrangement with the Grim Reaper and he’s clued you in on something nobody else has ever gotten clued in on.” He grinned and hummed a tune Janet didn’t recognize.
She resisted an urge to correct Tike’s grammar and tell him to hush.
“I’d like to make a deposit and begin the paperwork for this plan.” Janet tapped her pink polished forefinger on a corner of the brochure outlined in a powder blue scroll.
“No can do.”
“No, man, I don’t know how to do all the paper work. You’re gonna have to come back and talk to Hutch.”
“I see. When will Mr. … Hutch return?”
Tike shrugged. “No clue.”
“Could you offer your best guess?” She could feel red splotches hatching on her neck. Soon she’d be covered in hives. Frustration or stress always brought them on. The biopsy site was itching, too. “Today? Tomorrow? Next week?”
“Oh, not today. He’s doing a funeral today, and I don’t know what’s on the calendar. I guess you’ll just have to stop back by. Come visit us again!” Tike’s grin broadened. Those teeth!
Janet realized she was tapping her fingernail on the counter like she was sending a Morse code message. She tried to corral her emotions. She’d like to hold this man Tike’s head under a faucet and wash that scraggly, greasy hair. She’d like to tell him to stand up straight, get his hands off the counter, address her as ma’am, get an education, wear any shirt other than a Grateful Dead t-shirt in a crematorium.
Instead she said, “Thank you,” placed the heel of her palm on the door handle, and exited to the sound of bells jingling, a merry sound, an inappropriate sound, she thought, for a crematorium.
After she was hidden in her car and had turned on the motor to cool things off—my word, it was hot; the heat index must be 110—she lifted her blouse and twisted to see the biopsy site. She couldn’t quite see where the dermatologist had made the incision, but she knew the fresh scar was an angry red and barely healed. She touched it. The skin around the two-inch wound itched, but the scar itself was smooth and numb.
Stage IV. It sounded like a theatrical term. “Janet, you’ll enter stage 4, say your lines, and exit.” Her diagnosis meant she would only have a bit part in life. She never would have the lead. She was a character actress at best. This more than anything was what angered her.
Her sons were capable adults, married and thriving in promising careers. Her husband had avoided a paunch, though his hair had thinned. He’d find another wife. Janet had done her job of being a stay-at-home mother and wife well. Better than well. Superbly. With excellence. If it had been a military career she would have advanced up the ranks to General. She took pride in that.
But now. Now she was facing the end much sooner than she had planned. The itchy scar meant she wouldn’t hold her grandchildren. She wouldn’t travel to Italy or Croatia or the Galapagos Island with Bill using their AARP discount.
A knock on the window of her car shocked Janet into a scream. Adrenaline shot through her limbs, sparking every cell to attention. Tike was staring at her, a piece of hair dripping over his face. She hit the button to roll her window down.
“What on earth? You scared me to death.”
“Man, I’m sorry, but you forgot this.” He handed her the brochure, which he had refolded into its neat blue rectangle. He stayed bent over, smiling so she could see his yellowed teeth and smell his (beer?) breath.
“You’re welcome. And, lady, I hope you don’t mind if I say this.” Tike paused. His hands were on his knees as if he was leaning down to talk to a child. Janet noticed his eyes were a soft brown, a golden brown, flecked with green. He had long eyelashes, lashes any girl, any woman, would envy. He hesitated and tucked his hair behind his ear.
“It’s just that. Well, I’m real sorry you’re dying and all. You seem like a nice lady. I always work in the back so I don’t talk to the people who come in and all. You know? But, you kinda made me stop and think. You remind me of this teacher I had once who always told me I could do better. Anyways. I just wanted to tell you that. And, I’ll bet you’re a real good person and have a nice family and all and a lot of people will be sad when you’re gone. And, anyways. You just made me think. That’s all. Well. Bye.”
Janet watched Tike walk back inside. A colorful dragon tattoo curled up from his left ankle to the bend of his knee. Why was he wearing shorts at work? Totally inappropriate.
She thought about what he had said. Why did he imagine she was a good person? All she could think of was how he needed to wash his hair and improve his vocabulary. All she could think about was how totally inappropriate he was.
She adjusted the AC and realized it had stopped blowing cold air. This heat!
Janet leaned her forehead onto the steering wheel and cried.