Therese smuggled two pink Daisy razors into the funeral home so she could do the job herself. Even though she and Ben had known Steve Fitzgerald since high school, Steve was appalled and not about to honor her request. So it was up to her to shave off Ben’s mustache. Steve told her they’d have the body all ready the day before the funeral, so she stopped by a little after noon and asked for some time to be alone with her husband.
She had never liked that mustache and Ben knew it. As the years went by, she pointed out it made him look older, but he thought it was a significant contributor to his overall good looks. He was a big good-looking guy, she had to admit. A little beefier as he aged, but that, too, seemed to contribute to his presence—he was a successful attorney and looked the part.
“Oh, Ben. Ben.” Therese contemplated her husband’s solemn countenance, betrayed by laugh lines a-plenty. He still had a full head of sandy hair and matching eyebrows, although his mustache had begun to turn grey. Beards and mustaches are always the first to go—but Ben had carefully touched it up with that stuff they advertised on TV. Now she was going to get rid of it once and for all.
It wasn’t easy. She didn’t have access to soap and water or shaving gel, so she had to dry scrape it off—it was a good thing she thought to bring two razors. She also brought a couple of paper towels so the little hairs wouldn’t get all over his shirt after Steve’s staff did such a fine job of laying him out.
“There. You look good, you handsome devil.” Therese wondered how many people would notice the mustache missing as they went through the visitation line. He had stipulated, a few years back when they made their plans, he wanted an open casket, “Unless I’ve been in an accident and my face gets all mutilated or something.” Nope. A heart attack at age sixty-four had done him in, as handsome as ever. Well, almost.
Her mission accomplished, Therese headed home to resume greeting the never-ending trail of visitors coming to the door with pasta salads and brownies.
Elizabeth Newton was in the kitchen when Therese came in the back door. She wasn’t a close friend—Therese didn’t really have any, what you would call, close friends—but Elizabeth was one of those good souls who showed up when you could use some help and quietly went about the business of doing what needed to be done, “How did it go?” she asked, as she arranged cookies on one of the good dishes from the dining room hutch.
“Fitzgerald’s always does such a beautiful job.”
“Yes. Yes, they do,” agreed Therese; “I see you’re using the good dishes.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Someone had made lemon squares so now Elizabeth alternated them with brownies in circular rows inside the border of strawberries painted on her fine china.
“Right.” Might as well. She had no idea when she would use those dishes again. She tried to imagine her life as a widow and couldn’t wrap her head around it.
The front doorbell rang, “Do you want me to get it?” asked Elizabeth.
“No. I’m here; I might as well see who it is.” She hung her purse on a hook in the laundry room just off the kitchen as the bell rang a second time. “Thanks for offering, though.”
Marilyn Keating, bearing a lime Jello mold, turned out to be the first of many visitors. Therese greeted neighbors and co-workers and friends and members of her bridge club. At some point, she let others answer the door and took a seat in her favorite chair, the rose-colored wingback she had asked Ben to buy her for Mother’s Day a few years ago. Elizabeth took care of any food offerings, taking them into the kitchen, cutting them into serving size pieces and putting them out on the dining room table so people could help themselves. Therese feared this made the visitors stay longer—chatting amongst themselves and sharing food and drink. It was like a party. Ben would have liked to be there. He always liked parties.
She felt like she was going to throw up. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back but that seemed to make her dizzy, so she opened them again and struggled to her feet, then up the stairs to the bathroom. As soon as she closed the door she knew she wasn’t going to be sick. She sat down on the closed toilet seat. It would always be closed now Ben wasn’t here to leave it up. Guess that’s one thing about being a widow. She kind of giggled. What was she doing—giggling? She was the newly bereaved widow of Benjamin Maynard, pillar of the community. She stilled herself for a minute, stood at the sink and slapped a little water on her face, then went back downstairs.
Elizabeth was ushering Carol Stein out the door, “Where did everybody go?” asked Therese.
“You didn’t look so good. I told them you probably needed some rest,” Elizabeth said. “I’m going to clean up a few things in the kitchen and then I’ll be heading out myself.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you,” she murmured.
“I’m glad I can be of help. Are you okay?”
“Yes. I guess I am a little tired.”
“Of course you are. But you’ll be okay by yourself?”
“Yes. My daughter is due in after dinner, so I won’t really be alone.”
After Elizabeth had gone, Therese sat at the kitchen table with the pretty plate of food Elizabeth had so thoughtfully fixed for her. She looked at it without really seeing what was there, then got up and poured herself a glass of wine. Maybe she’d turn into one of those widows who sat at home and drank from noon on. She picked up the fork and began to put food in her mouth, trying to digest the events of the last forty-eight hours. She glanced at the clock. Sara was due home in a little over an hour; how much would she tell her daughter?
When the police officer came to her door the other night, he was careful about describing the circumstances in which Ben had been found. A 9-1-1 call had been placed from the Timbers Motel and when paramedics arrived, they found Ben, alone and dead of an apparent heart attack. The officer wanted her, or preferably some other family member, to identify Ben’s body at the morgue. She would have to go—Sara was the only other immediate family and she lived and worked 1800 miles away in Tucson.
The morgue attendant lifted the sheet from his face. Therese flinched. It was Ben alright. She managed a brief nod, the officer put a hand under her elbow and steered her out of the room, sat her down in a conference room and brought her a cup of coffee, “Can I call somebody? Do you have a minister or a priest who should be notified?”
Therese shook her head. The coroner came in, obviously summoned from her home to deal with this delicate situation. Therese knew her, liked her. Carol Altamore had been the county coroner for a dozen years or more, “Therese, I’m so sorry.”
Therese nodded. And thus began the litany of sympathies that would crawl through her days while questions crawled through her nights. What was Ben doing at the Timbers? Who was he with? Who made the 9-1-1 call? Apparently it had been made from the front desk in response to a call from the room. A woman’s voice. A woman who had vanished as soon as she made the call. Had Ben hired a prostitute for a one-time fling? Or had he been conducting a long-time affair with someone he worked with? Someone Therese knew?
Therese lied to Steve Fitzgerald, to Elizabeth Newton, to Sara. “They found him sitting in his car in the parking lot at the CVS,” she said. The CVS was next door to the Timbers Motel. “He must have felt ill and was going to get some aspirin or something.”
Carol Altamore would know the truth, but the compassionate coroner did not mention it as she drove Therese home, nor would she mention it in the days to follow, Therese was pretty sure. Ethical confidentiality or something. There had been no crime committed; there was no need for further police involvement. Unless Therese wanted to pursue the matter. And she didn’t. That much she knew.
For someone so smart, Ben had been pretty stupid. Therese was mad at him about that. The first night, she was numb. But in the hours to follow, and through the next night, she realized she wasn’t angry about Ben’s having an affair or whatever. She was mad at him for dying. She did love him—and the life they had together. Sure, the romance had gone out of their marriage, they hadn’t had sex since she had a knee replacement last year—but that was fine with her. They never talked about it; they merely went on with their day-to-day lives and their sex-free nights. So Therese didn’t really know how Ben felt about the lack of sex—maybe he didn’t care either. And, she decided if he was having sex elsewhere, it was alright with her as long as she didn’t know about it.
But it wasn’t alright if it was going to take Ben from her, permanently. Stupid bastard. She drained her glass and got up to pour a little more wine just as Sara arrived. She burst through the front door as if she had run all the way from Arizona “Oh, Mom! Oh! Oh!” She hugged Therese tightly and then let loose a torrent of sobs. “How could this happen?” Sara released her hold on Therese and took a step back. “He was healthy, wasn’t he? When was the last time he went to the doctor?”
This was a conversation they’d already had by phone, so Therese pulled Sara back into a hug and let her cry. Maybe this was the first she had cried. It wouldn’t be the last time over these next few days; Sara adored her father. She would never know Ben had been so sure their first and, as it turned out, only child, would be a boy he went out and bought a bat and ball before the child was even born. So naturally Sara turned out to be a tomboy who played catch with her dad as a toddler and pitched for the girls’ softball team in high school. Over the years, he took her to several Cubs games at Wrigley Field, even though it was a long car trip. Therese stayed home, recognizing those days as set aside for father-daughter bonding. Not that they needed any special days.
Therese knew she would not reveal any further information to Sara about her father’s death. She was angry, but not that angry. Somehow she would get through these next few days—the visitation and service tomorrow and Sara’s stay into the weekend—without ruining the image Sara had of her father.
She wanted to put his Cub cap in the coffin with him. Therese agreed it would be something Ben would like, so they took it with them to the funeral home the next morning. Steve Fitzgerald greeted them and ushered them into the parlor where Ben’s body lay in its open casket. As he led them to the casket, Steve hesitated and looked carefully at the corpse. His gaze shifted to Therese and she met his look briefly, then turned to Sara. Steve realized she had taken matters into her own hands regarding the mustache; would Sara notice? “He looks so different,” she said.
“Yes,” Therese agreed. “Where shall we put the cap?”
Sara had the cap in her hand, “Maybe below his hands?” She put the cap there and then quickly moved it; “No, that looks…weird. I think here, at the side.”
“That’s good,” Therese said.
“I’ll leave you two for a bit,” Steve said; “People will begin to arrive in fifteen minutes or so, there are always some early birds. Do you want coffee?”
They shook their heads ‘no’ in unison and he left. Mother and daughter stood with finality closing in on them. Sara began to shed quiet tears, “Let’s sit down.” Therese led Sara to the chairs in front, where boxes of tissues were strategically placed.
Elizabeth Newton was the first to arrive; she would not be staying for the service because she would be back at the house, getting ready for those people who would stop by after going to the cemetery. Therese had briefly considered having a luncheon at the club afterward, but decided against it, preferring to greet friends and relatives in the comfort of her own home. She would depend on Elizabeth to shoo them away after a suitable length of time.
The people who had come to the house yesterday had been mostly her friends and acquaintances. Now, more of Ben’s friends and business associates were arriving to pay their respects. Attorneys, courthouse personnel, a couple of judges, and many clients. People from the office, of course. The visitation had ended and she was seated for the service, with the string trio playing “Amazing Grace,” when she realized Ben’s secretary, Glendia Nolte, hadn’t come through the line. She had been his secretary for ten years—surely she would want to say goodbye to her boss. Therese recalled how helpful Ben was to Glendia when she was divorced a few years back; he hadn’t handled the case himself because his area of expertise was tax law, but he had recommended a colleague and pretty much guided her through the ordeal.
Therese turned in her chair, leaning to Sara to say, “You okay?” and at the same time looking over her shoulder to survey the rows of people in back of her. And there she was—Glendia Nolte—seated alone in one of the back rows, not with the rest of the office staff. She looked very, very pale, and Therese had the feeling she had been watching her but looked away when she glanced around.
Quiet, mousy Glendia Nolte? Therese faced forward as the chaplain began to read from scriptures. Words blurred and thoughts smeared. She couldn’t be sure, of course. Therese wasn’t about to confront Glendia, or anyone else. That would mean admitting her husband had died in disturbing circumstances.
Therese had robbed Ben of his mustache, but he had given her questions she would ask for the rest of her life.