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Charlotte Figg Takes Over Paradise
A Novel of Bright's Pond
By Joyce Magnin
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Joyce Magnin
All rights reserved.
Redemption comes to people in many ways.
Rewriting the rules of Paradise did not come easy. But it did come, and I even managed to have a little fun along the way— fun with a few dollops of sadness, grief, and police activity tossed into the mix.
It all started one icy January morning in 1974 when my husband, Herman, shuffled into the kitchen, sat in his chair, opened the Philadelphia Inquirer with a sharp flick of his wrists, and blustered. It was a horsy kind of sound that emanated from deep within his bowels, rose through his stomach and up into his throat, and came out through his lips.
"World's coming to an end, Charlotte."
The world had been coming to an end for twenty-three of the twenty-six years we had been married. It was right after the price of porterhouse steak climbed to ninety-five cents a pound that Herman had this epiphany.
"Look here, Charlotte." Herman snapped his paper. "You know the end is coming when a man can't afford a good steak without taking out a second mortgage."
"That's nonsense," I said as I refilled his cup. "The world is not coming to an end just because of the price of steak."
But I should have known better than to say anything because Herman began announcing the imminent demise of life on Earth as we know it on a daily basis. That way I was certain no one could say Herman didn't see it coming.
But the only world that ended was his. A massive brain hemorrhage knocked Herman to the floor like a two-hundredpound sack of russets. I was busy in the powder room at the time and only heard a loud thud.
There wasn't much a fifty-one-year-old, slightly arthritic woman with only a smattering of first-aid skills could do in that situation. So I rested Herman's large and balding head in my lap and wept while I waited for the ambulance. It seemed the right thing to do.
"I didn't actually see Herman fall," I told the driver. "But I heard a loud bang—no—more like a big thud, duller than a bang. I thought at first a hollow tree limb had fallen in the backyard. But ..." I snuffed a tear, "it was Herman."
* * *
Unfortunately, it never occurred to Herman that he would ever actually die. I think Herman always figured he'd be around for the rapture and get taken up into heaven in a blink of an eye. As a result, Herman made no provision for his death that I knew about. I searched high and low for papers, anything that would give me a clue about what I was to do now. I didn't even know where to bury him, let alone how to pay for it.
So after they took his body to the Gideon Funeral Home, I sat on the sofa and sobbed like a lost child for almost two hours until I decided I had no choice but to figure out what to do next. I rooted through drawers and boxes hoping to find an answer. At about nine o'clock that night I discovered a wrinkled life insurance policy with the Fuller Brush Company tucked away in the bottom of his samples bag. Herman was a Fuller Brush salesman, so I suppose it was the most reasonable place for him to keep the document. I doubt he ever read it. This had been the first time I ever went through his beloved samples bag. I felt a little criminal. He protected it like it held nuclear secrets.
At least his funeral would be paid for and there would even be some cash left over for me to live on. I didn't have a career, not like Herman. He loved selling his wares door-to-door, and he was pretty good at it. I think it made him sad and even angry sometimes that I did not share his enthusiasm for brushes and cleaning supplies, although I did like to keep a clean house and bake pie. It was the one thing I was good at, and maybe if the Fuller Brush Company came out with a line of pie tins I might have been more enthusiastic.
The day after I found the policy I called that nice James Deeter at the Combined Insurance Company. James was a dear. He came over early the next morning and held my hand and served me coffee and walked me through the final arrangements. I thought that I would have liked it if I had a son like James.
He even drove me down to Gideon's so I could pick out a casket. Did you know that funeral homes have a casket showroom? I didn't. And I'm not too proud to admit that I felt a little woozy when I went inside and saw all the models. I counted fifteen different coffins and thought Herman might have been able to sell the Gideon's a boatload of lemon oil to keep those caskets gleaming the way they did.
After that chore was finished and James headed back to the insurance office, I set out to find a reverend or pastor, someone who could give Herman a proper burial. I did not want Frank Gideon to drop him in a hole without some sort of service.
I opened the yellow pages and found the number for Maple Tree Church of Faith—the church I attended as a child and into my teen years until I finally had my fill of people who said one thing on Sunday and lived another the rest of the week.
Pastor Herkmeier agreed to bury Herman. Of course, he wasn't the pastor when I attended Maple Tree. That was eons ago, and I was certain that Pastor Virgil had long since retired or died. I took the bus to see Reverend Herkmeier after taking one of Herman's suits to the funeral home—he had six gray suits, exactly alike. He only wore white shirts (long sleeve in winter, short in summer) and skinny striped ties. I wondered if I should bring undershorts. I did just in case, a freshly bleached pair.
The church stood right where it always had, down a country road and tucked away off the street in a clearing near some woods. But it was still only about a two-block walk from the bus stop. I didn't drive much. No need to really. We only had one car and Herman needed it for sales calls. He drove me pretty much everywhere I needed to go, and when he couldn't, SEPTA, the Southeast Public Transportation Authority, was happy to oblige. Riding the bus was always an adventure. You just never knew who you were going to meet or what you would see. One time I witnessed an actual purse-snatching as we drove past the Italian Market. The driver radioed the incident in, and everyone on the bus rushed to the driver's side for a better look. By then the perpetrator had bolted down Arch Street clutching the old woman's bag like a football.
Generally, the passengers on board were cordial. If there wasn't a seat, I could always count on a nice young gentleman to offer me his. It made me feel special.
Maple Tree Church was a pretty little chapel with bright red doors and a tall white steeple with a lightning rod that stood just a little taller than the trees. Seemed strange to me that God would need a lightning rod. Imagine that, zapping your own house. Of course, the building showed its age. Ivy or lichen or some such parasite greened-up the otherwise gray and silvery stone walls.
After my two-block walk from the bus stop, I took a deep breath and went inside where a young woman in a tight, blue sweater greeted me. "Can I help you?"
"My name is Charlotte Figg. I'm here to see Pastor Herkmeier."
She looked at me over the top of her pointy glasses. "Go right in. He's expecting you." The woman sat about two feet from her desk, I supposed, in order to accommodate her extra large breasts that otherwise would have continually knocked her coffee cup over.
I hesitated at the office door until Reverend Herkmeier, who stood behind a large oak desk strewn with books and papers, invited me inside.
"Mrs. Figg. Come in, come in." His voice sounded like crushed velvet. "I am indeed sorry for your loss."
He indicated a leather chair—the kind with brass buttons all around. I sat and locked my ankles around the feet of the chair just in case the temptation to run struck me. The pastor, a tall, Lincolnesque man with a ski-slope nose and a high forehead that reached clear back to his ears, twiddled his thumbs on top of the desk. I made a mental note. Twiddlers, in my opinion, were the nervous sort and not to be trusted.
I imagined him in a Roman toga and wearing an ivy wreath around his bald spot. The vision relaxed me enough to speak. That was a trick I learned from my mother. She always imagined people in "alternate capacities" as she called it. She said, "Charlotte, some folks just can't be taken for who they say they are. You have to imagine their true selves and go with that." Which is why she said she always imagined my father in a tweed jacket with elbow patches. Daddy owned his own plumbing and heating company, but he wanted to write stories and live like Ernest Hemingway.
"Thank you for doing this, Pastor," I said.
"Of course, of course, Mrs. Figg." He twiddled with a tad more gusto. "I suppose the standard funeral service would be sufficient. Or did you have something special in mind?"
Special. The word stung like a mosquito. I think I might have even swatted it away with the back of my hand. There was nothing special about Herman's life, so why make his funeral into something extraordinary? Humdrum summed his life up best. Perhaps that was why Herman blustered every morning.
"No, no thank you, nothing special."
"That's fine. I can meet you at the funeral home—Gideon's, correct?—at ten o'clock on Thursday. Is that time enough to make arrangements and gather family and friends?"
I chewed my left index fingernail, still ruminating on what was special about Herman. "Unless you think it would be all right to bury him with his samples bag," I said. "I mean, Herman loved that bag. The feel of it, the smell. Kept it right near the bedside every single night. It was like his best friend."I scratched an itch above my right eye. "I think he liked that bag more than me," I whispered.
"Excuse me, Mrs. Figg. Did you say something?"
"Oh, no, no—but about that samples bag."
"Just be sure to bring it to the funeral home," Pastor Herkmeier said. "I'm certain they'll accommodate you. Frank Gideon is a good man. I once buried a woman with her cocker spaniel. They died on the same day. Can you believe that? I mean, what are the odds of—"
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Figg. Now, how about music? My wife, Lucinda, will be pleased to play the piano during the viewing time. She plays a lovely rendition of 'In the Garden.' She can sing it also, if you like."
I nodded. The viewing. Odd the things you don't think about when planning a funeral until you have to. Imagine that, people filing past Herman's dead body. When everything was planned, I thanked the pastor, waited for the bus, and rode home. I did all this without shedding a single tear.
But I will admit that walking into my house that afternoon was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I stood on the stoop in the freezing air for half a minute or so before opening the front door. Maybe it was just a dream. But no.
Herman was gone, yet the house still smelled like him—a mixture of Old Spice, lemon oil, and cedar spray. I could feel his presence everywhere, especially when I stubbed my toe for the gazillionth time on his oversized La-Z-Boy recliner in the living room. It was pointed right straight toward the Magnavox TV. I had never sat in the chair—not once.
I flopped on the sofa, and the first tear of the day rolled down my cheek and splashed on my knee. "Now, why are you crying, Charlotte Figg? Tears are not going to bring Herman back." But reprimanding myself didn't make the tears stop or help me make sense of this. So there I sat in my hat and heavy coat—the one with the fuzzy collar—and cried like a baby."Herman, you idiot. Now what am I going to do?"
The phone rang and startled the bejeebers out of me.
"Hello," I said with my palm on my thumping chest.
"Charlotte? What's the matter with you?"
"Mother," I said.
"I've been trying to reach you for hours. Where in the heck were you? I know something is wrong, Charlotte. Did that Herman finally haul off and hit you? I knew this day was coming. I knew—"
"Mother," I said with as much force as I could muster. "I have to tell you something."
I could hear her nervous breathing. "I knew it. I just knew it," she said. "And you know about my feelings, Charlotte."
I did. My mother had a feeling that JFK would be assassinated, and to this day she feels guilty for not informing the Secret Service? Right then, she made a solemn vow she would never let another feeling go by without informing the proper governmental agency or individual.
"Mother. Herman is dead."
"What? When? Oh, dear me, Charlotte did you finally lose your mind and—"
"Mother. Don't be ridiculous."
"It's a valid question, Charlotte. Now tell me what happened."
I told her the story and waited for the reply I knew would come. My mother, Lillian DeSalle, now seventy-two and living at the Cocoa Reef Retirement Village in Tampa Bay, Florida, never liked Herman.
"Well, Charlotte. I am sorry, now. I truly am. But—"
"Mother. Please don't. Not today."
"When's the funeral? Did you use Gideon? They took good care of your father, God rest his soul."
In my mind, I could see her look to the heavens, pick up his framed image, now enshrined on the telephone table next to a perpetual electric candle and a bouquet of plastic roses, and kiss his nose.
"Yes, Mother. I went to Gideon, and Pastor Herkmeier from our old church is going to do the service."
"Herkmeier? Who is Herkmeier? What happened to Pastor Virgil?"
"I'll be on the next plane, Charlotte. Don't bother coming to the airport; I know you can't drive—"
"I can too drive. I just—"
"Never mind that. I'll taxi out to your house."
I hung up the phone, oddly comforted that the one and only Lillian DeSalle was coming to visit.CHAPTER 2
Later that same day, my neighbor Midge from down the street came over with a chicken pot pie. "I thought it might help take the chill off," she said. It was in a pretty white casserole dish decorated with delicate rosebuds and smelled like celery and comfort. Midge was only a couple of years older than me but already a grandmother to three boys. She liked to wear polka dots and stripes and her blondish hair short like Doris Day's.
"Please stay," I said. "I think I still have Jell-O in the fridge for dessert."
I twisted my mouth. "Sorry, Midge, I didn't have the gumption to add fruit this time. It's just red."
"I understand. Do you have Reddi-wip?"
I shook my head no.
Midge and I ate chicken pot pie and talked about Herman and insurance policies until nearly nine o'clock. I walked her to the foyer, turned on the porch light, pulled open the door, and in tumbled my mother.
"Charlotte," she said after she regained her balance. "I had my hand on the knocker. Didn't you hear me at the door?"
"Mother, I'm sorry. I didn't know you were there. I was just seeing Midge home."
Midge peeked out from behind me and wiggled her fingers. "Hi."
"Hello," Mother said.
I raised my eyebrows at Midge. "I'll see you later. Thanks for the pot pie."
"Thanks for the Jell-O."
My mother stood there looking at me like I had deliberately tried to make her stumble.
"I wasn't expecting you until the morning," I said.
"Took an earlier flight." She stepped into the living room while I retrieved her gray Samsonite from the front porch.
* * *
My mother and I sat in the kitchen for an hour or so, nervously avoiding conversation while engaging in small talk.
"Do you need anything, Charlotte? Did that bum leave you insurance?"
There, she said it. Lillian DeSalle had come to the point.
"Don't call him a bum. And yes, I think I'll have plenty of money to live on. Maybe I'll get a job."
"You? What can you do? I told you you'd regret not finishing secretarial school. I told you a career should come first but no, no, you were in love." She made a dismissive, wavy motion with her hand.
She looked into my eyes and then reached out with her thumb and wiped a tear from my cheek. "I just wanted more for you."
My mother had been a buyer for John Wanamaker Department Store in Center City, Philadelphia. She had loved her work and thought every woman should have a career. She had worked hard and collected nearly a dozen awards for a job well done.
"Husbands are a dime a dozen, but a good career for a woman is hard to find," she had said.
"I know you always wanted my best, Mother. But did I really do that terrible?"
"Terribly," she said.
And that was pretty much how things went until the day of the funeral, which turned out mostly nice. Pastor Herkmeier did a fine job. I smiled and greeted the mourners as best I could, while my mother stood by with her long fingers intertwined in front and a practiced funeral face.
It was good to have Midge with me. She wore a navy dress with a white collar, white shoes with dark blue buckles, and a little sailor hat tipped to the left on her head. I never asked why she had felt the need to wear a sailor hat and only told her how glad I was that she came. I dressed in black except for secret pink undergarments with white lace edging that helped me feel a little less dismal. My mother made certain that I carried a small flask of cooking sherry tucked inside my purse in case I felt faint. As I remember, I might have taken three or four sips.
Excerpted from Charlotte Figg Takes Over Paradise by Joyce Magnin. Copyright © 2010 Joyce Magnin. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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