Thinking Outside the Box

By Linda Berry

"They're up to a hundred and seventy-three now, and the number's bigger every time you hear it. They're finding bodies in the lake and the woods and stacked up in a shed." Even though Estelle Wilkes kept her voice steady and her eyes on the strawberry jam she was spreading on her serving of Huddle House French toast, her lifelong friend, Venita Perkins had no trouble picking up the undertone of excitement, with just a hint of moral righteousness and "I told you so."

"Why are you telling me this?" Venita asked, keeping her own eyes and hands occupied in cutting her sausage into bite-sized pieces.

"I think this is God's way of giving you another chance."

Venita, who never had been above pretending to misunderstand her friend in order to poke fun at her, was truly perplexed this time. "You're going to have to explain that."

Estelle was enough aware that she was being outrageous to look a little discomfited, but she persisted. "I read that they haven't actually cremated anybody there for years, just kept taking people's money and pretending to do it, so I was thinking maybe Logan wasn't cremated after all and you can still give him a good Christian burial."

"I thought we covered this ground a long time ago."

"Yes, but now you have another chance."

"If you think I'm going to go up there and hunt through dead bodies — a hundred and seventy-three and counting — you've got another think coming."

"Well, no, I didn't mean that. Somebody else would have to identify the body."

"Somebody with a strong stomach," Venita said, chewing a bit of sausage.

Clatter from a nearby table drew their attention to the startled, horrified eyes of a nervous-looking white-haired man who had dropped his fork to the floor.

Venita stifled a giggle. Estelle thoughtfully lowered her voice. "But, see, this proves God doesn't like cremation. It's like a sign, if you ask me."

"I don't remember asking you."

"I'm your friend. You don't have to ask. The point is, Venita, no matter how well you were doing, this is bound to bring up all the pain again."

"If you were worried about my pain, you'd give the subject a rest. What you mean is you think I ought to be worried over whether the box they gave me really has Logan's ashes in it."

"The news says they were giving people wood ash and little pieces of cement. Don't you even care?"

"No. Logan Perkins has gone on to his reward, passed away, shuffled off this mortal coil, whatever you want to call it. I know he's dead, and I'm doing very well without him, thank you. That's all I need to know." She turned to the man, who was still staring at them, and smiled sweetly. "Let me get you another fork." She took her time getting the fork and waited as the man reluctantly took it from her, as though her conversation might have contaminated her fingers, but her stalling didn't take enough time for Estelle to lose track of the conversation. Her mouth came open as Venita turned back to their table.

"But you have to have closure," Estelle said.

"Please, Estelle, spare me the pop psychology."

Estelle gave up pretending that her breakfast was very interesting. "It's a perfectly good word and a perfectly well-recognized human need. You need closure so you can say goodbye, so you can know it's over and get on with your life. It's why you have to make yourself look at the body, why you have funerals. When you see people lying there in a casket, you have to face that they're really, you know, passed away."

"You mean dead."

"Well, yes." Estelle returned her gaze to the French toast, but she wasn't ready to abandon the topic. "That's why I didn't think you should have had him cremated."

"Leave it alone, Estelle. I've told you, I'm dealing with this my own way." Venita picked up the check and headed for the cashier, bringing that particular conversation to an end.

She knew there had been whispered censure in her conservative community when she chose cremation, but it was worth any amount of whispering to make sure her husband's dead body would be subjected to no more poking, testing, and examining. There'd have been more whispering if it had been general knowledge that she didn't even buy an urn, but merely accepted the ashes in the box the crematory delivered it in, and used the box to prop shut the door to Logan's workshop, which had a closure problem of its own.

Irritating though Estelle could be, it had been an earlier conversation with her, soon after Logan's death from a sudden, vicious, mysterious gastric attack that suggested to Venita a way of dealing with the problem of Logan. Estelle had naturally assumed that Venita would follow the community's general way of doing things, and they'd had their first of many arguments on the subject when Venita said she wasn't going to have a traditional service and burial. "It would be hypocritical," Venita said. "Everybody knows he was no saint."

"But —"

"Not to mention the expense."

"But you won't have a grave site to tend to and visit," Estelle protested, brushing aside the subject of expense for the irrelevancy it was. Logan Perkins might have been a selfish, dishonest clod with a mean streak, but he did know how to make money. Not that Venita hadn't had to put up with a lot in order to be well taken care of.

"You think I should be able to go out to a pretty cemetery and talk to him like you do your mother? You're forgetting we never did have much to talk about. Anyway, if something comes up I think I need to tell him, I'll have him right there at home and won't have to go anywhere. It'll be a lot more convenient."

"But cremation! Think about when Resurrection Day comes and he doesn't have a body."

"Are you telling me God can't resurrect a cremated body? Doesn't sound to me like it would be any harder than resurrecting a rotten, maggoty, worm-eaten one, and a heckuva lot less sickening." Venita had pretended to consider, then offered, "Maybe I should have had him frozen like they did that man out in Colorado."

"You can try to gross me out all you like, Venita. It doesn't work because I'm used to you after all this time, but I know what I know. And I know burial was good enough for Jesus."

"Actually, entombment, the way I remember the story."

"Same thing."

"Estelle, what do you think the words about ashes to ashes mean in the burial service?"

Estelle didn't have an answer for that, so, as was her habit, she switched arguments. "I know it wasn't always a perfect marriage, but you know how people are. They'll say you're trying to give him a head start on burning in hell."

Venita smiled. "That hadn't occurred to me. If you want to take up for me, you can tell them I want to give him a head start on purification. In the Bible, fire has that kind of meaning, too, doesn't it? Like when God spoke to Moses in a burning bush."

"Well, yes, but —"

"And Old Testament people made burnt sacrifices, and that must have been holy, don't you think?"

"Don't confuse me, Venita."

"Wouldn't even try," Venita said absentmindedly. She had been rather taken with the notion of burnt offering, burnt sacrifice.

"When are you going to scatter the ashes?" Estelle asked, "And where?"

"I don't know. I'm not going to be in a big hurry about it," Venita told her. "I've been thinking it would be nice to keep him around till after Christmas."

"So you do have some attachment to him after all, in spite of how you bad-mouth him all the time. I'm surprised. Maybe there's hope for you yet."

"I hate to disillusion you," Venita said. "But it isn't that. If I keep him till after Christmas it will be the first time in I don't know when that he was here but didn't spoil it."

Scandalized, but convinced that Venita was determined on her course, Estelle changed tack. "Maybe you could wait a year and scatter them and have a ceremony then. The Jews have this thing where they have a ceremony a year after the funeral, when you've been through all the holidays and everything without the . . . the . . . them," Estelle had said. "That first year can be tough."

"I know you're trying to help me, Estelle, and I appreciate it. Actually, that year-after thing sounds like a good idea. Stop preaching to me about the evils of cremation, and let me grieve in my own way. Talk to me a year from now, and I'll tell you if I've had closure."

Venita had gone ahead with the cremation and come up with a schedule that she figured would empty the box a year from Logan's death, well aware that she was twisting the idea of burnt sacrifice and a year-after ceremony into something more like exorcism than grieving, but that didn't bother her. The first celebratory occasion was their wedding anniversary, hers and Logan's. Predictably, supportively, Estelle had called.

"I know it must be hard for you, the first one without him. How many years would it have been?"

"Eighteen," Venita said. She didn't feel like explaining that this had been the most enjoyable celebration of the anniversary of the date of her marriage that she'd had in at least ten years. She'd worked her way through a bottle of wine to get her courage up and then taken a handful of the contents of the box and scattered it in a dumpster, laughing at the literal enactment of where the marriage had been for so long.

The milestones after that were heavily symbolic and even easier.

On Valentine's day, she sprinkled some of the ashes into the gravel in the parking lot at Willard's Seafood Buffet restaurant, where they'd been eating the night Logan proposed. It gave her deep satisfaction to think of cars and pickup trucks grinding Logan deeper and deeper into the dirt.

In early spring she incorporated a double handful of the ashes into the soil in the azalea bed around the base of the pine tree in the back yard. "Do some good, for once," she muttered as she spaded, smiling at the difference between this burial and the one Estelle had urged.

On St. Patrick's Day, she drank a green beer at the Shamrock Bar, where Logan had enjoyed way too many beers over the years, and under cover of the general bedlam had scattered a little bit of Logan into the sawdust-covered floor.

On the Fourth of July, she decided to go all out for the occasion and invite the group she and Logan had often celebrated with. She knew Estelle would be glad to see she felt able to entertain. She especially enjoyed the private knowledge that she had put a handful of Logan ash under the charcoal in the barbecue grill before turning the grilling chores over to Estelle's husband, but everybody else had a good time, too. For once, without Logan's obstinate confidence that he knew what he was doing, which always resulted in the coals not being ready when it was time to start grilling, the party proceeded at a pace agreeable to Venita, and the steaks were done to everyone's liking, instead of Logan's whim.

In the fall, prompted by memories of some of the good times they'd had early in their marriage, she went out into the woods during deer season and threw a handful of Logan into the wind.

On the year's anniversary of Logan's death, to the day, Estelle called. "You've been through the year," she reminded Venita, as if she needed reminding. "Have you got closure?"

"Yes, indeedy," Venita said, Just that morning, she'd flushed a symbolic amount of ash down into the septic tank and put the last of it into the cat's litter box. Now, that was closure.

Linda Berry's published credits include poetry, plays, a newspaper entertainment column, short stories for children and adults, and six cozy mystery novels in her Trudy Roundtree series. She's a member of Colorado Dramatists, the Denver Woman's Press Club, and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

Copyright Linda Berry. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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