WOMEN IN HATS (Episode 1) | by Steve Carr

Sitting on the edge of the cobalt blue satin upholstered chaise lounge, Michelle reached out her hand and with her long slender index finger tapped her cigarette, dropping ashes onto the intricately designed Persian rug. In front of her on a Brazilian teak coffee table, the solitary gold fish in a small bowl floated belly up in the dingy water. Michelle slipped the fingers of her other hand into her faux black pearl necklace that hung to her waist and nervously twisted it.  

“I’m no good at planning a funeral,” she said. 

“Poor Connie,” Danielle said from the white leather high back chair that she was sitting in on the other side of the coffee table. She had a travel magazine in her lap and was casually flipping through the pages. She slid the tip of her tongue around her fire engine red lipstick covered lips feeling their plastic-like smoothness. “It’s so hard thinking about her being in the dirt. She was obsessive about everything being kept clean.”

“She’ll be in a coffin not in a hole in the ground,” Michelle said. “Which reminds me, ordering a coffin is one of the things I’m supposed to do. What was Connie’s favorite color?”

Danielle adjusted the lemon yellow Panama hat that had sat askew atop her blonde bobbed hair. Leaning forward and tapping the fish with the tip of her high gloss yellow painted, well manicured fingernail, she said, “It was orange, I think.” The fish rolled over then returned to being belly up.

“I can’t really be expected to ask for an orange casket, now can I?” Michelle said. She twisted her pearls tightly around her middle finger, temporarily cutting off the circulation. She took a drag from the cigarette and leaned her head back and blew a smoke ring toward the glass ceiling of the sun room. It went up about a foot, then dissipated. Returning her gaze back to Danielle, she said, “I can’t imagine why Connie had it in her will that I be the one to coordinate her funeral.”

Danielle lifted her legs high enough to separate the skin just below the hem of her yellow shorts from the hot, sticky leather of the chair. “I suppose it’s because you know how to organize great luncheons,” she said.

“Putting out sandwiches on platters is nothing like putting someone in the ground,” Michelle said. 

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Standing at the railing of the deck, Michelle spit out what was left of an ice cube into the blue water of the swimming pool. It made a very tiny splash. She poked her fingers of one hand into the tall glass of sun tea she held in the other hand and pushed the remaining ice cubes around along with the lemon wedge. Hearing her mother entering the kitchen on the other side of the open glass sliding doors she removed her fingers from the tea and turned the glass upside down and poured the contents into the pool. The splash was louder. She watched as the light brown tea spread out like an amoeba on the water’s surface.

After coming to the doorway,  her mother said, “I thought you had an appointment with the funeral home.”

“I do,” she said. “But unless there’s going to be a rush on burials, I see no reason to hurry.”

Her mother stepped out onto the deck. “They may not like to be kept waiting.”

“It’s selecting a casket and taking a look at where the service can be held we’re talking about, not doing an emergency operation for a brain tumor,” Michelle said. 

Her mother stepped up next to her and rested her hand on the sleeve of her white silk blouse. “I understand your procrastination, dear. You haven’t had any time to grieve Connie’s passing,” her mother said.

“I did it in the taxi on the way to the hospital after I got the call she had died.”  She watched the lemon wedge as it went in a circle on the pool’s surface. “Death is so anticlimactic,” she said.

A sudden strong breeze whipped the ferns potted in large green vases with Chinese designs along the pool and ruffled the wide brim of Michelle’s light blue felt hat. She rested her hand on the top of the hat’s crown to keep it held down. The fragrance of  blooming violet oleanders wafted through the air.  Feeling her blue point Siamese cat rubbing against her leg, she reached down and took it in her arms and nuzzled the fur of its neck with her nose.

“The funeral is going to be a fiasco,” she said to her mother. “I’ll be laughed at by everyone for how it will be put together.”

“I think you’re missing the point of a funeral,” her mother said.

“What is the point?” Michelle said as she set the cat down and turned to go into the house. “I don’t understand what I ever did to Connie for her to leave me in charge of hers.”

“She was such a nice young woman,” her mother said. “Thirty-one is much too young to die.”

“I’d remember her more fondly if I wasn’t the one who had to give her eulogy,” Michelle said. “We were friends but I really knew very little about her.”

“Go to her apartment before you go to the florist later,” her mother said. “You can learn a great deal about a woman by going through the drawers where she keeps her underthings.

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Sitting back from the street with a long curved driveway in front of it, the large brick funeral home was surrounded on three sides by lush well-trimmed grass and several weeping willows. Michelle stepped out of her car and stared at the multicolored stained glass windows that lined the facade of the building. They were abstract, like colorful puzzles, but looked religious. She tossed the butt of a cigarette into the grass and walked up to a large wood door and went in.

The air in the foyer was on the edge of being outright cold and Michelle shivered as goosebumps arose on her arms. The walls and plush carpeting were a deep red. Two black leather chairs were against one wall and in front of an archway was an oak podium with a large book opened on it. Michelle giggled nervously, thinking it looked like the entrance to a high priced restaurant she had once been in. Somber instrumental elevator music played softly from small speakers mounted in the corners just below the ceiling.

A woman with a pale complexion made to look more so by the contrasting pink rouge on her cheeks stepped into the archway from an adjoining room. “May I help you?” she asked.

“I’m Michelle Truex. I’ve come to make arrangements for my friend,” she said. “I apologize for being late.”

“We had almost given you up . . .,” the woman started.

Michelle thought the woman was going to say “for dead.”

“ . . . as a no-show,” the woman finished. “I’m Miss Purcell. I’ll be glad to assist you. Please follow me.”

Walking behind Miss Purcell, Michelle was led into a room with a large overstuffed floral design upholstered sofa and two matching chairs and behind the sofa a large walnut desk. Recessed lighting in the ceiling cast a soft glow over the room.  

“Please have a seat,” Miss Purcell said as she went behind the desk and picked up a note pad and a three ring binder with laminated sheets of paper sticking out of it. “I have the book here for you to look at different coffins you can choose from.”

Michelle sat in one of the chairs and looked around for an ashtray, and seeing none, stuck her finger into the end of the long string of white pearls hanging from her slender neck and anxiously twisted them. 

Miss Purcell sat in the other chair and opened the note pad, took a gold pen from the breast pocket of her two piece gray suit, and gazed sympathetically at Michelle. “This can be a very difficult time when a loved one is lost,” she said. “Before we talk about selecting a casket and use of the viewing room and the chapel for the service, would you like to tell me about the dearly departed?”

At that moment, Michelle’s nerves were so on edge, she did the only thing she could do. She began to sob.

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Watch out for episode 2

Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over ninety short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. His plays have been produced in several American states. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives in Richmond, Virginia and writes full time. He is on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012966314127 and Twitter @carrsteven960.

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