Wheezy Hart lay there in his coffin, waxen hands clutching a shiny black Bible, proof of his belief in God, as if, Jonathan thought, God needed any more proof than what was bound up within the contours of a man’s heart. Jonathan imagined his friend reaching up and hooking an index finger beneath the knot of the red tie encircling his neck. Wheezy always claimed he couldn’t wear a tie too tight, claimed it aggravated the asthma that had plagued him his entire life. Jonathan shook his head at the waste. That asthma had forced the Harts to sell their farm to Jonathan’s parents and move to town, sentencing Wheezy to a life of books, a life that would better have been spent working the land.
“He’s missing his cane.” Jonathan pictured Wheezy, picking his way down
, sucking at his inhaler like a calf on a teat.
“He doesn’t need it anymore, Jonathan,” Annie said.
More faithful than any woman had ever been to Wheezy, that cane had been Wheezy’s constant companion for decades. When he wore the polish off the handle, the old cheapskate refused to buy a new one, claiming he wouldn’t divorce his wife just because she’d gotten a little ugly over the years, now would he? Wheezy might have joked about not having found a wife, but deep down, Jonathan knew, he was lonely. It wasn’t just God who could see into the heart of a man.
“He looks good,” Annie murmured.
Jonathan frowned. “He looks like hell.
She stared. Blinked. “God.” Annie was as sure of God as she was of the sunrise.
“No.” He shook his head. “It’s the judgment of others. The judgment of friends and family and neighbors and children. That’s what makes a life good or bad.”
Annie looked at him with clear, beautiful eyes. “Any life is good, Jonathan. Life, by its very nature is good.”
“Even when not one person can point to one good thing about it?”
“I believe that every person has good in them, Jonathan. But sometimes the good gets misplaced.”
“Even with Neala? What good has come from her?”
Annie put a hand on Jonathan’s. “She gave us Ellie, Jonathan. Neala gave us a whole lot of good.”
“But Neala, herself. She’s no good.”
“I think you’re wrong there, Jonathan. You’ve been too long away from the church.” Annie squeezed Jonathan’s arm before moving away to take a seat in one of the chairs placed at various angles around the room, in what Annie called conversational style. Jonathan didn’t understand it: Who could converse at a time like this? Again, he pictured Wheezy, this time in heaven, laughing at the gathering beneath him.
Old Wheezy. Getting the last word in, the last laugh as usual. For one brief moment, Jonathan allowed his heart to soften, looking at his old friend laid out before him. He recalled their times together, on adjacent farms, the two of them perpetually side by side, almost as if they were twins.
After Wheezy moved to town, their friendship continued, of course. Only years later, did Wheezy take that fatal step that lead to the destruction of their friendship, separating them as surely, as cleanly as a surgeon’s scalpel. For years, Jonathan longed to feel that closeness again, longed to fill the aching void left by Wheezy’s absence. Jonathan mourned him, the way he might mourn a missing limb or an absent twin. But still…Jonathan wiped a tear from his eye. He leaned over Wheezy’s inert body. Brought his mouth to his ear, feeling oddly ridiculous as he did so, knowing that if Wheezy were able to hear, he wouldn’t be using his ears. Jonathan cleared his throat, heard the sudden silence of the room all around him. He resisted the urge to smack the old man’s cheek, so fresh and raw was his anger at this latest injustice. “Should’ve left well enough alone, old man.”
Then he straightened and turned towards the room. All eyes were on him, pinning him to the spot. Had they heard? No, there was Lilly Jean, gigantic purse on her lap, grinning inanely at him, as was her way. Next to her, the sheriff, eyes respectfully in his lap. And Bitsy, a bit of flour dusting her brow. To her left Old Spank. He wondered idly who was managing the diner, what with the owner and the head cook at the calling hours. Then he allowed his eyes to take in the rest of the people in the room and realized that all of
Jonathan stalked from the room. As he passed, the funeral director quickly rearranged his face into a mournful expression. “Are you OK, Mr…” He put a hand on Jonathan’s arm. Jonathan didn’t bother to stop. “I’m fine.” The lobby was filled with giant vases of dusty silk flowers. There were a couple of wing chairs in the corner of the room. Jonathan could hide there.
Light footsteps. Quiet, funeral parlor footsteps. Then…
Lilly Jean Jacobs took a seat in the matching chair. “I’m sorry, Mr. Fowler. Mr. Hart was a real nice man.”
Jonathan gave a slight nod.
“I hate these things. They make me nervous.” She laughed lightly and crossed her legs, tapping her foot to some invisible sound only she could hear. She leaned forward suddenly, examined the table between them. “What does a table in a funeral parlor need a drawer for, do you think?”
He shrugged. Perhaps it was better in with Annie.
Lilly Jean looked around before grabbing the pull and sliding the drawer open. Jonathan glanced inside. “Look at these old gloves!” Lilly Jean slipped a glove onto her left hand and pulled it all the way to her elbow. “I wonder how long…” Lilly Jean spotted something else in the drawer. “Oh, my Lord, do you think this is a real pearl?” Lilly Jean held a dangling earring to her lobe.
“I’m not up to date on jewelry, Lilly Jean.” He sighed. He’d wanted this time alone.
“What’s this?” She set the earring on the table and picked up an envelope, yellowed with age, from the drawer.
“No,” Jonathan said. “Put it back, Lilly Jean.”
“Don’t you want to know what’s inside? Sealed envelopes are my especiality.”
“Some secrets are better left locked away,” Jonathan said. Wheezy Hart of all people should have understood that.
He stood and left the funeral home. Annie would be angry, he knew, that he’d be missing the church. But he also knew that she’d understand. Jonathan hadn’t stepped foot in a church in eighteen years. And a man, especially one as full of anger as Jonathan, was surely slow to change his ways.