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
“He’s missing his
cane.” Jonathan pictured Wheezy, picking
his way down Main Street,
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.
laughed. “You’re right.” She patted
Wheezy’s hand. “William was a good
man.” Jonathan looked at her. “Who decides if a life—when it reaches its
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.”
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
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
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
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
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 Medford must’ve been in that room. There was Andee Miller, the manager at the
IGA. Ellie, of course, sitting next to
Annie, looking miserable. Well of course
she would: She’d loved Wheezy. Even
Neala, a new sleazebag beside her, had come, most likely for the free food to
be served at the diner after the funeral.
And there, far off in the corner of the room, all alone and looking
miserable in a baggy suit that must’ve come from the Goodwill, Howard. Jonathan glared at the crowd staring at him
expectantly. Everyone in Medford knew his
business, knew everyone’s business. That
was the trouble with small towns. But
perhaps, Jonathan thought, as he walked away from Wheezy without a proper
goodbye, that was their beauty as well.
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
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
Jonathan gave a
“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
“What’s this?” She set the earring on the table and picked
up an envelope, yellowed with age, from the drawer.
said. “Put it back, Lilly Jean.”
“Don’t you want to
know what’s inside? Sealed envelopes are
“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.