by DS Levy
IN AN ELEGANT room in the Rest In Peace Mortuary, we help ourselves to the cut crystal bowl of peppermints in the center of the table. Mom always kept a glass jar filled with red and white candies by the front door, her favorites those soft puffy peppermints, but these hard, round Starlights will have to do.
When the funeral director enters, he opens a leather folder and tells us how lucky we are that Mom pre-arranged her funeral. He tells us to help ourselves to the peppermints while passing around samples of the memorial cards she’d selected, brochures of the solid mahogany wood casket, the marble headstone, the list of hymns for the service, and a photo of the red roses she wanted for her casket spray. My youngest sister thumbs through the catalogue of memorial items and says, ‘Hey guys, what about a poster-sized photo of Mom that looks like a painting?’ When we don’t respond, she suggests laminated bookmarks that include Psalm 23 and a photo of Mom.
‘Pre-planning is a gift of love,’ the director says, and in the same soft tone tells us the alarming five-figure cost of that love.
Though my wife, Sheila, is the outsider of the bunch, she helped me take care of my dad’s estate and has the inside track on my parents’ spending habits. Dad alone had seven credit cards floating around, unpaid, not to mention unopened boxes of Seen-on-TV crap he’d bought the last few months of his life. And Mom lavished us kids and her grandkids with gifts from garage sales and trips to Dollar General. Over the years, she’d also amassed a huge collection of miniature elephants that set her back some cash. Sheila looks around the room and then, in her calm demeanor, asks if Mom’s pre-planning has been pre-paid as well.
‘She left that to be settled later,’ says the director.
We all collectively shift in the plush leather seats the way we did in church when the priest spoke of hell and damnation. The director reads the room and gently closes his book. ‘I’ll give you all a little time to discuss,’ he says, easing himself out the door.
After he leaves, we grab fistfuls of peppermints from the bowl and pound them like amphetamines. When the director returns, the conference table’s littered with clear cellophane wrappers. We tell him we’ll get back to him after we check out ‘our financial situation.’
Outside in the parking lot, my brother Dave says, ‘When the bank finds out Mom died, they’ll close her account.’ So he, Sheila and I immediately drive to True Source Bank.
Inside, Dave whispers to me, ‘Let me handle this. I know these guys.’
A young banker greets us like old friends. Dave tells him our mom sent us to withdraw all the money from her account, ‘for an emergency.’ The banker pulls up Mom’s account, says, ‘Yes, yes,’ and taps some keys. Smooth sailing. But then the manager sidles up to our buddy and mumbles something Dave and I can’t make out. The two men look at us over the computer screen, like priests through confessional windows.
‘That’s weird,’ the banker says. ‘My manager here just said someone went through the drive-thru earlier today and said your mom had died.’
‘Somebody who knows your family,’ the manager offers.
My brother owns a garage door business. We both know it had to be Gladys, his secretary. Every morning she goes to the bank to deposit the previous day’s checks, and she had been in the office when Dave had gotten the call about Mom.
‘I don’t know who told you that,’ Dave says, looking down at his splayed fingers on the silver counter. ‘But it’s true Mom’s been really sick.’
‘Oh, well that’s good,’ the banker says. ‘I mean, I’m sorry to hear that, but it’s better than the other. How’s she doing by the way?’
Dave stiffens beside me.
‘Not so well,’ I speak up, shaking my head. ‘Not well at all.’
The two men hesitate before offering their well wishes. Then they step behind a wall, and Dave and I nervously help ourselves to Dum-Dum suckers before the banker comes back out and hands over a printed check for all of Mom’s money.
Outside, the sun’s hot.
My Jeep’s car alarm is blaring.
I rush over, see Sheila in the back seat stretching across trying to reach the dash. ‘Jesus, Sheila,’ I say, turning off the alarm. She tells us she opened the back door to get some fresh air and accidentally tripped it off.
Dave and I jump in, and the three of us streak away as if we’d just pulled off a heist.
Turns out, after all our devious efforts, the printed check’s far less than the Rest In Peace Mortuary bill. We end up having the showing and funeral at Sloan and Sons, an old mortuary on Wells Street that’s been burying the neighborhood for years. Of course, even there we have to scale back—no rosary card, no poster-sized photo of Mom, no laminate bookmarks. Instead of a mahogany casket, we settle for poplar; and instead of a marble headstone, a flat granite marker. We have just enough cash to get basic memorial cards and a casket spray of pink carnations. And because it’s only fitting, Sheila and I buy a couple bags of peppermints, while the funeral home provides a crystal bowl. Though we can’t give Mom the funeral of her dreams, we place a few mints beneath her satin pillow.
DS Levy lives in the Midwest. Her fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart, Best Microfiction, and was included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 2021 and Longlist 2022.