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Holly DeJong. That's the name on the check. Not the signature, but on the payable-to line, which is good since that's my name, and there are a lot of zeroes in the box after it.
A lot of zeroes but still not the most I've seen. I got a bigger check six months ago...when I buried my husband.
"Do you have any questions?" the bank manager asks. I shake my head. My hand is shaking, too, as I pick up the pen I just used to sign all the documents; I endorse the back of the check and hand it to him. "Here, you take it."
"Do your magic with it, Keith," I tell him. I'd given him the other check, too, and already the account he put it in has added zeroes to the original total.
Rob would like that, that the value of his life has kept increasing even after his death. That's what that first check represented — his life. The second, for the sale of his business, represents his life's work.
I know he would make some joke about all the zeroes; he was always making jokes. Sometimes I think he's not really dead, just pulling one of his pranks that usually amused only him, and taking it too far.
"Holly, are you sure?" Keith asks. I glance up from the check and focus on him, staring at his dark suit and the matching circles beneath his eyes. His hair, once dark, too, has gone mostly gray. He hasn't looked this old in all the years I've known him.
And I've known him a long time, ever since he started dating my oldest sister, Pam. He's been married to her for twenty-five years.
But if she has her way, they won't make twenty-six. She's left him. I'm not sure which has made him look old so suddenly, twenty-five years of marriage to her finally catching up with him, or her leaving.
The latter is why he's hesitating to take the check, why he hesitated to participate in the closing to begin with. But the twenty-five year relationship is why I would trust no one else.
For the past six months he's held my hand and guided me through the maze of paperwork involved with settling an estate and transferring ownership of a business.
"Keith, you're always going to be my brother."
I have none, just two sisters. Emma, the second oldest one, has been married twice, but I never felt as close to either of her husbands as I have to Keith. I can't understand why Pam is leaving him.
She blames Rob.
She blamed him for a lot of things when he was alive; I shouldn't have expected his death to change that. Pam never understood his sense of humor, so the only thing she "got" about the practical jokes he played on her was angry. After he let the air out of her tires once, she blamed him every time she got a flat, and whenever something sticky was on her door handle, she thought Rob was fooling around with the peanut butter again.
Despite their mutual antagonism, she claims that his death somehow brought her clarity. She can't put off doing what she really wants because she sees now that life is too short.
They hadn't agreed on much when he was alive, but Rob wouldn't be able to argue that one with her. He'd been forty-one when he died.
Death by cupcake is what I call it. He lied and cheated on me with those things, breaking every promise he made to cut them out of his life and stick to the diet I put him on. I should have known he was lying. A man's waistband doesn't keep expanding like that. He'd called it a beer belly, but he'd never been able to swallow a sip of beer; he'd hated the taste of it. He actually hadn't liked anything that wasn't sweet.
Well, at least Pam got something out of his death. I got nothing but zeroes. Lots of them, thanks to all the life insurance Rob had bought from one of his clients, an insurance agent. When he'd made the purchases, I'd thought it sweet of him to support the man's business. I hadn't realized it would one day be supporting us.
Before Keith can overcome the emotion I see in his watery eyes, and say anything about my loyalty to him, the buyers come back into his office. They just rushed out a little while ago, buoyant with the pride and excitement of ownership.
These are the kids who worked for Rob, who helped him build his computer business. I'm glad they bought it. They're Rob's second choice to take over, but I can't hang on to the store until our son grows up. Robbie's only fifteen, and I can't presume that his father's dream will be his, even though my son says it is. I want him and his eleven-year-old sister, Claire, to first get through this nightmare of losing their father, then come up with and realize their own dreams.
Just as Brad, Jake and Steven realized theirs, of owning their own business. The three of them are in their early twenties and they look more like surfers, with their long, shaggy hair and baggy clothes, than computer geeks. But they have enough computer savvy and experience for Keith to give them a business loan.
Jake and Steven walk toward me, holding a big cardboard box. The money is enough; I hope they haven't brought me anything else.
"You missed this stuff when you cleaned out Rob's office," Brad says. He'll be the manager, as he's the one who usually talks for the three of them. He's the one who asked if I'd sell to them. Although they would never admit it, their decision to buy was probably as much to get me out of the office as to own the business themselves. I worked there before Rob died, for him, with them; it was different after.
Everything is. "So what's in the box?" Not that I can't guess. More cupcakes. I found them stashed everywhere after his death — in the desk in his den, his sock drawer, car console and tackle box. I really should have had a clue, other than his growing belly, of what Rob had been doing. The man had never gone fishing a day in his life.
Predictably Brad lifts out a box of the decadent cupcakes. The guys are laughing. Rob had probably thought it was freaking funny, too.
A big joke on me.
Who's having the last laugh now? I'd like to know. I haven't laughed much since he died. I force a smile and knot my hands in my lap to still their trembling. It's not nerves.
Nothing that simple.
I'm boomeranging back to stage two again. Anger.
I can feel it building, but I fight it. I'm past it. I've done all the five stages of grief. I've even managed stage five, acceptance, or I wouldn't have sold the business.
I'm doing great. Just like my mom did when my dad died six years ago. She's my little five-foot, hundred-pound how-to guide on being a widow. She handled it. So can I.
Brad pulls something else out of the box, slowly so that at first all I see is the grass-covered shade, then the rest of the lamp follows. Silken black hair spills over his fingers and coconut-covered breasts peek out from between them. The grass skirt rustles against the box as he lifts the object free and settles it on Keith's desk.
The shade swings around as the hula girl base wobbles back and forth. Dangerous. That's what it is. A fire hazard. I'd told Rob that he needed to get rid of it, and he'd promised he had — apparently another lie.
The guys are laughing, and even Keith has a smile on his face, something I haven't seen since Pam moved out of their house. "That's so Rob," he sputters, and there's more emotion in his eyes than humor. The two men were close.
"It's tacky," I manage to say around the emotion clogging my throat.
Through the windows of Keith's office, I spy other customers stopping to stare at the hideous thing. I should be embarrassed. Stanville, Michigan, is a small town; probably most of those people know me. But after being married to Rob for seventeen years, I'm beyond embarrassment.
He once dressed up like a hula girl for Halloween, using the same excuse for his costume as he had for his purchase of the lamp — it reminded him of our Hawaiian honeymoon.
Now, staring at the lamp, I'm reminded of Rob in that coconut bra with his stomach spilling over the top of his grass skirt, his black wig flowing around his broad shoulders as he swayed back and forth like the bobbing lamp.
Now I'm laughing with Keith and the guys.
Staring at the wine bottles in Smiley's store, I consider giving Pam the lamp as a housewarming gift instead. I've already been to all the other sections of Smiley's General Store, and general covers a lot: groceries, clothing, housewares, hardware and party supplies. Yet I haven't found a single appropriate thing for tonight.
I might as well go with inappropriate.
The truth is that I don't really feel like giving her a gift at all, but she's throwing herself a party.
Maybe bringing alcohol is a good idea. Even though she'll use it to toast her new life, I get to drink it, too. I suspect I'm going to need it.
So now I switch from trying to figure out what she'd like. Keith hadn't managed that in twenty-five years, so I'm not going to figure it out in twenty minutes. I concentrate on finding my favorite labels.
Whenever he worked late, Rob would bring home a bottle of Lambrusco to mellow me. I should have realized, it's probably the sweetest wine available. Despite claiming it was for me, he'd drink most of it.
I'd always ask him, "Is this for me?"
He'd grin and reply, "Yes, I'm going to get you drunk so I can have my way with you."
I'd laugh and point out that he'd never had to get me drunk for that.
My hand's shaking as I reach for a bottle of Lambrusco. All this shaking today. Maybe it has nothing to do with the closing or stages, maybe I just had too much caffeine this morning. But then I remember that I drink decaf. Unlike Rob, I don't cheat on my health.
My fingers miss the bottle; I'm not tall enough, and that irritates me. Claire is already taller than I am. I take after my petite mother in more than widowhood.
Off balance from the reach, I stumble back a few steps. My hip brushes against the display behind me, tumbling some cardboard boxes onto Smiley's freshly waxed vinyl floor. I spin around to catch more before I cause an avalanche.
Startled, I see what's in my hands — familiar boxes that I've found stashed all over the house and Rob's office. The bright yellow packaging has a cellophane window in the middle displaying the heavily frosted, buttercream-filled cupcakes in their individual packages. Above the window, a little black kitten sits in the corner of the box, licking frosting from its whiskers. These are Kitty Cupcakes.