Blackhumouristpress's Blog

September 8, 2009

Death a la Carte

Filed under: Short Story — blackhumouristpress @ 4:31 am
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The people who live off the interstate 94 north of Chicago between Dempster Street and Church street could not mistake the Mercury Marquis that hit a tree on the east side of the highway at 4 am on a Saturday morning.  It shook the windows and sound as if a bomb exploded.

Terrance Caldwell was thirty nine years old and was born and raised on the south side of Chicago in an area that had been primarily black since World War I.  Terrance showed so much promise as a young man.  He attended Malcolm X College to study business and wound up a heroin addict.  Terrance went from flopping in abandon homes to robbing people and stealing things until he wound up in jail for a few years and then later again for a few more.

When they found the heavy built eight cylinder automobile that was built with pride in Windsor, Ontario for Ford, it was cleaved in half right up the middle.  The police and curious neighbors, found belongings and body parts in the parkway adjacent to the expressway.  Terrance was a wreck when they found him one hundred or more feet from the burning vehicle.  Terrance had been drinking hard alcohol and took some pills before deciding to drive north to get his daughter from his ex-common law wife’s apartment north of Chicago.  Luckily for the little girl, Terrance never made it.

Terrance’s parents were both bust outs if you will.  The job of rearing Terrance became that of his aunt Matilda who was a small bowl legged black woman that never missed a day of church in over thirty years.  Her white wooden house was a show case of days long since gone.  Porcellin figurines, doilies and pictures of her soldier husband from World War II filled the immaculate living room.  Terrance was actually the grand son of Matilda’s sister who had died fifteen years earlier.  Terrance was dropped off by his mother at Matilda’s door when he was four years old and never returned.

Matilda did all she could and tried to instill good Christian values in the young man but he ultimately fell victim to the allure of quick money from other young men without strong male figures to guide them in their neighborhood.  When Matilda got the news from the state police that Terrance had died, she was of course grief stricken but relieved that a troubled life was finally at peace.

Matilda’s husband had believed in hard work and saving money.  He remembered stories from old people when he was young, people who remembered slavery and being a slave.  Those were people who had nothing and owned nothing and it was important to own things rather than being owned and so Jacob, Matilda’s husband purchased a final resting place for his extended family.  There just happened to be space for Terrance at the plot purchased by Jacob in 1958.

It had just been two months since a neighboring cemetery was under investigation for a scam where by cemetery workers were digging up the long since dead, discarding their remains and reselling the plot.  As Matilda drove up in the cab along 127th Street, she could see the Illinois State Police camped out in front of the neighboring Burr Oak Cemetary.  Across the stree, Matilda came into the office of the Lincoln Cemetery which was named after a man who had been a president of the United States, lived in Illinois and pissed off a lot of white southerners by declaring all blacks in the confederacy free.  The blacks in the union were already free and the declaration never really freed one black man at the time but it sounded pretty good or as the saying goes; looked good on paper.

A well dressed young black man ushered Matilda into an office and offered his condolences before hitting her with the fees.  It had been over twenty five years since Matilda had to bury a relative in the family plot.  A lot had changed since 1984.

“Now ma’am…  We will work all this out with the funeral home.  This is a one stop shop operation if you will.  The funeral home will do all the preparation of your loved one.  The charge for the services of the funeral director and staff is for their response to initial service, conference with yourself… The responsible party to determine all services required at this time, cooridination plans involved in the final disposition of the deceased, recording vital statistics, securing permits, authorizations, filling out and obtaining the death certification and any other forms necessary at this time.  The charge for this also includes services of the funeral director and the staff for the coordination and direction of the wake and visitation service, funeral service, handling of the flowers and any and all other memorial tributes, the supervision of the burial and any other requested and or necessary services…  I’ll need your signature here and down here and initial that you understand all that I have just explained to you,” said the facilitator.

There were several words that sound as if they could be strung together to make a sentence that would have been familiar to Matilda’s ears but for the most part much of what the young man explained, did not resemble the English language.

“Now then Ma’am…  Embalming…  Embalming is not required by law but it may be necessary if you opt for a viewing…” said the facilitator.

“Well…  I ain’t so sure I want people to be seeing Terrance.  He got into a terrible accident and well the po-lice were able to git most his parts together but he in terrible shape,” said Matilda.

“I understand ma’am.  Your other choice is cremation and then we can discuss burying the remains in your plot,” said the facilitator.

“Cremation!  I don’t know bout that, now.  Naw, I don’t think I want cremation for the boy.  You go ahead and do the embalming.”

“Now then…  Let’s go over the other fees.  The cost for visitation and viewing is $190.00.  For the use of the chapel which would accommodate a small group will be $325.00.  This includes transportation of the remains and set up fee for the church services.  The cost to transfer the remains is a flat fee of $325.00 within twenty five miles.  Anything beyond twenty five miles is a .75 cent per mile charge above that,” said the facilitator.

“You all running a cab service?  Y’all nickel and diming me til I’m in the dang gone ground…  I’m jus glad mah Jacob done took care of my costs foh me befoh he die.  Ida hafta git a job now jus to pay foh ma own funeral…  Go head then young man, let me have it,” said Matilda.

“Yes…  The acknowledgement cards are $20.00 per 100 cards,” said the facilitator.

“Ima have mah self an three other old ladies an that’s that.  I ain’t got no use foh no 100 cards,” said Matilda.

“I understand ma’am but $20.00 is the minimum,”

“Fine.  Go head befoh you burying me.”

“The registry book is $20.00, pallbearer’s gloves are $20.00, limousine is $375.00 from the funeral home to the cemetery… Let’s see what else we have then…  The minister cost is $95.00, the organist is $95.00 as well as the soloist except on Saturdays then they each charge $125.00.  A men’s suit cost is $150.00 and come in either blue or black but we now have white available…  I believe that is so, let me just make a quick call…  Mary, do we have white male suits available now?  That’s what I thought, thanks…  Yes, we do have white and the cost for that is $200.00 and that includes the white leather shoes…” said the facilitator with a smile.

“You ain’t told me yet bout the caskets,” said Matilda.

“Yes, yes…  We have this very nice ornate casket that goes for $2500.00 and can go up with accessories up to $9,298.00 for everything which would include a music box of your love one’s favorite song, mirrors and gold handles with his initials engraved upon them,” said the facilitator.

“Imma take the one you got here foh $350.00.  He dead and he won’t mind.  Tally all this up, young man.  Let’s git this finished today,” said Matilda as she removed and envelope stocked with one hundred dollar bills.

The visitation and funeral was attended by Matilda and three of her friends from the Baptist Church.  Matilda opted to use the funeral home minister, organist and singer for the ten minute service at the funeral home since it was cheaper than what her own minister would have charged and then Matilda would have had to feed everyone in attendance from the whole church.

At the grave site, five chairs were set up for the old ladies to sit and hear the canned words from a stranger as the remains of Terrance were lowered into the ground.  Matilda cried as the fat black man sang, How Great Thou Art, in a deep baritone.  Three Mexican men shovelled dirt onto the casket as the four old ladies waddled off in their nice dresses and hats.  Matilda ordered the limousine driver to take them to Chinatown.  It was a surprise snap decision by Matilda.  The old ladies questioned the choice.  Matilda had a simple response.

“Back when that boy had his whole life ahead of him and I could still reach him, he would aks me to take him to Chinatown to eat if he was good…  I want him to know where ever it is he wind up that he was always good to me.  He done broke mah heart but was always respectful…  An I don’t want no complaints bout nothing from any y’all.  I’m paying.  Food always find a way to taste good when it free…  Amen.”

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