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The Undertaker's Wife
By Dee Branch Oliver, JODIE BERNDT
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2015 Dee Branch Oliver and Jodie Berndt
All rights reserved.
Dating the Grim Reaper
I watched, mesmerized, as the heat waves danced lazily on the blacktop of the hospital parking lot. If I squinted, I could almost pretend they were a mist rising up from the ocean, or some sort of desert mirage. It was hot as all get-out. I felt the sweat trickling down my chest, and I wondered, with a sort of morbid curiosity, what would happen if I just had a heat stroke and fell over.
Probably nothing. My family was too engrossed in their discussion to notice my discomfort. But weren't they hot too? Why didn't someone suggest we finish our conversation inside, where the cool, dark hush of the hospital lobby sanitized all feeling?
"She would definitely not want 'Amazing Grace,'" my aunt insisted. "I am not even sure she would want any singing."
"And we can't have the reception at home, even if it is just family. Too confusing. Jacquie, can you call the Club?"
Snippets of conversation darted about like swallows in the air—flowers, an obituary, the proper suit to wear. My grandmother had just died. I felt the grief welling up inside me. I wanted to cry—but not about losing Momma Claire. I wanted to cry because I was so stinking hot, hot as Hades, and it didn't seem like anyone had any intention of leaving the sweltering parking lot. There was a funeral to plan, and no matter that it was to be just family and a few close friends, my mother—Jacquie Branch, the queen of everything—was gearing up for an event. Dress shopping had to be done, hair appointments booked, ham biscuits ordered. At the ripe old age of twenty-one, I could not have cared less. I loved my grandmother, but I didn't want to think about her funeral. I just wanted to go to the beach.
Finally, just as I thought I really might pass out, some sort of an accord was reached and I was, thankfully, released.
Perhaps I should have paid better attention—at least to the wardrobe discussion. Momma Claire was to be laid to rest at Forest Lawn, and as I slid out of the car at the cemetery, keeping my knees together as my mother had told me all good girls do, I felt my cousin's stare.
"Seriously?" she hissed. "You wore blue? Don't you know you are supposed to wear black to a funeral?"
I didn't—but I wasn't about to let on. "Why on earth would anyone wear black?" I replied. "It is hot as all get-out, probably a hundred degrees, and everyone knows black absorbs sun. I will be much more comfortable in this dress—and for your information, it isn't blue; it is teal. And it matches my eyes."
Standing at Momma Claire's graveside, I sensed my aunt at my elbow. "Dee, darling," she whispered, "that blue is quite ... becoming ... but I do think you might have worn something a little less ... garden party."
"It's teal," I muttered.
"What?" My aunt leaned in, keeping her voice low so as not to distract the minister, who was saying something about ashes and dust.
"Teal. The dress is teal. But can we please focus on Momma Claire?"
Rebuffed, at least for the moment, my aunt stepped back, and we turned our attention to the service. It was a smallish gathering, and I was struck by how many employees from the funeral home seemed to be lurking about. Dressed in dark suits and red-and-navy-striped ties, they looked more like secret service men than undertakers. A couple of the guys looked familiar, which wasn't surprising. The H.D. Oliver Funeral Home had been in business for nearly two hundred years, and the Oliver family, like my own, had called Tidewater, Virginia, home since ... well, since forever, I guess.
We bid farewell to Momma Claire—who, mercifully, was perhaps the only family member who did not weigh in on the color of my dress—and I didn't give another thought to the Olivers.
A week or so later, the phone rang. It was my cousin Vicki, wanting to know whether I might be willing to "meet someone."
I'd just ended a rather unremarkable relationship, and not having anything better to do, I figured what the heck. "Sure," I said. "Set me up."
(Note to the single gal: Before agreeing to any blind date, get some background intel. The guy could turn out to be a serial killer. Worse still, he could work with people who are already dead. But I am getting ahead of myself.)
We set a date, and I drove the twenty-five minutes from my home in Virginia Beach to a neighborhood bar in Norfolk. Spying a spot right in front of the place (this date showed promise already!), I eased my jacked-up four-wheel-drive Chevy Blazer with the killer sound system into the parking space and cut the engine.
Vicki met me at the door, taking my elbow protectively as my eyes struggled to adjust to the dim lighting. "Okay," she said, "Mr. Wonderful is here."
"Whoa," I replied, halting in my tracks. "Let's get some info first. Like, what's his name?"
"John Oliver. He is thirty-five years old and—"
"Stop. You did not just say thirty-five. That is old. Way old. Like, older-than-dirt old."
"Oh, Dee," Vicki said with a laugh. "It's not that bad. And John is cute. He just got divorced and—"
"Vicki!" I pulled my arm out of her grasp. "No! Look at me, Vicki. Look me in the eye. N. O. No."
"Oh, come on, Dee. You know his family. It will be okay."
"Yes! He's one of the H.D. Olivers. You know—the funeral people."
This had to be some kind of sinister joke. I mean, who goes out with a funeral person? And do those people—I couldn't bring myself to even think the word mortician—even date?
I spun on my heel and was headed back toward the door when Vicki's sister came strolling up, her arm linked through the arm of one of the handsomest men I had ever seen.
"Hey, Dee Dee," she cooed, her smile breaking into a grin. "This is Johnnie. Vicki and I thought you might like to meet him."
Johnnie extended his hand, his blond hair falling loosely over one of his gorgeous brown eyes. I found my resistance softening—until I caught sight of his black pinstriped suit. It fairly shouted, "Death."
I wanted to bolt back to the Beach—and to the bevy of surfer boys I typically hung out with—but if Jacquie Branch had taught me nothing else, she taught me how to be a lady, and that included a fluency in small talk. I made a few polite remarks and then excused myself to visit the restroom. But even the most well-bred Southern charm has its limits, and I couldn't help myself. I had just met the Grim Reaper. Yes, he had nice eyes. But I don't even watch horror films. Why, I asked myself, would I ever want to date one? I passed the bathroom and headed straight for the exit.
Plus, I thought as I put the Blazer in gear, that guy's on the verge of collecting Social Security. Punching the radio button, I let the sound of Aretha Franklin belting out her need for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T soar through my open windows as I sped home through the night.
Four months later, Vicki invited me to attend an art exhibit. Afterward, we headed to the same bar where I'd met Johnnie. "They have a great steak-and-fries dinner," she explained, knowing the way to my heart.
We had just polished off the last of the beef when who should come strolling through the door but Mr. Pinstriped Suit himself. I prayed that Johnnie wouldn't see me, but sure enough, he spotted our table and sauntered over, a gleam in his even-more-gorgeous-than-before brown eyes.
"Mind if I join you?" he asked, taking a chair.
Almost on cue, Vicki stood up, smiled, and said she was leaving. And to my horror she did—taking my exit strategy with her. Stranded in a less-than-upscale Norfolk neighborhood, I was savvy enough to know I wouldn't get very far without a car.
Undeterred by her departure, Johnnie ordered two beers—one for me—and began talking.
"I saw you at your grandmother's funeral," he said.
"At the cemetery?" I asked. "You noticed me in a graveyard?"
"Well," Johnnie said, laughing, "you were hard to miss. I loved the color of your dress. It matched your eyes."
Maybe it was the beer, but ten minutes later I found myself looking past the pinstriped suit. Twenty minutes later, our age difference didn't seem quite so stark.
"Okay, I'll be really honest," Johnnie said, leaning across the table. "When I spotted you that day, I asked one of my guys who you were. I figured they'd know—I mean, there are not that many girls in town who have legs like yours. In fact"—he smiled, a little sheepishly—"I think my exact words that day were, 'Who's the girl with the legs?'"
Mortified (and, okay, kind of flattered), I remembered that the blue dress—the teal dress—was not, actually, all that long. And it's not like I am boasting when I admit that God has, in fact, blessed me with a pretty decent set of gams. I found myself secretly happy that Johnnie had noticed.
We kept talking.
An hour later, I had made it past the fact that he was divorced. I was still not comfortable with the whole funeral director thing, but the fact that Johnnie was cute, smart, witty, and incredibly charming kept the visions of ghosts at bay. I agreed to go out with him again, this time on an "official" date.
My mother was ecstatic. She bought me three new outfits in anticipation of the evening; she knew Johnnie's family and, evidently, considered him quite a catch. When the doorbell rang, I opened the door and felt my knees go weak. Standing on the front porch in his blue blazer and khaki pants, with his shirt open at the collar, Johnnie was a transformed man. Without the death suit, he looked like a J.Crew model. (An older model, to be sure, but still ...)
Johnnie had made reservations at the Steak and Ale. We climbed into his 280z black sports car, five on the floor, and I thought to myself, This guy is getting cuter by the minute.
But then he broke the spell. "I'm on call tonight," he said. "I tried to get someone to cover for me, but no one could do it. But I am sure it won't be a problem. I hope you don't mind."
Mind? Why would I mind? I was on a date with a J. Crew model—and I didn't even know what being "on call" meant.
Two miles later, I found out. Johnnie's pager went off, and we pulled into the nearest 7-Eleven so he could use the pay phone.
"Ah, I have to make a quick house call," he explained, sliding back in behind the wheel. "It won't take but a minute. Do you mind?"
For the second time in as many minutes, I found myself saying I didn't mind, particularly since, like with "on call," I had no idea what a "house call" entailed. Plus, I was hungry, and I wasn't sure what else I would do for dinner if this date went south.
Before I knew what was happening, we'd pulled into the parking lot of the funeral home—which turned out to be Johnnie's actual home too—and he jumped out of the car, saying he just needed to "run in and change clothes." I was still processing the fact that my date lived among the dead (clearly we would not be coming back later for a nightcap), when Johnnie was back, decked out in that all-too-familiar pinstripe. Much to my surprise, he didn't get into the car; instead, he came around and opened my door.
"We need to switch cars," he explained, motioning toward a black station wagon.
I wasn't quite sure what to make of the swap, but I have always prided myself on being a good sport, and if nothing else, my curiosity was piqued. Trying to look unconcerned, I adopted my best "it's cool" face, and we headed out into the night.
Ten minutes later, we pulled into a driveway. Through the windshield I could see two other men—pinstriped bookends in matching ties—standing on the lawn, apparently waiting for Johnnie to arrive. They surrounded the car and opened Johnnie's door, like maybe they expected to find the president driving. Johnnie turned to me, and I felt my heart flutter as a lock of his hair fell over his eye. "Don't go anywhere," he said. "I'll be right back."
Where would I go?
With nothing to do but wait, I lit up a Virginia Slims.
Sitting in the darkened car, my smoke wafting out the open window, I pondered my plight. My date was old, divorced, and employed in a decidedly creepy job. Still, he was cute. And unpredictable. That, I thought, was probably a plus.
I stamped out my cigarette and heard a noise that sounded like someone had opened the station wagon's rear door. Before I could turn my head, I felt a jolt that knocked me forward in my seat. Had something smacked into the back of the car? I turned to look, and—lo and behold—I was no longer alone. There, a mere six inches from my elbow, was ... a sheet. On some sort of a board. Or maybe it was a cot. Whatever it was, there was definitely something—or someone—underneath the white cloth.
"Okay," Johnnie said, sliding into the driver's seat, "we're done here. This is Mrs. Smith. I'm hungry and I bet you are too, so let's go get dinner."
For the first time I could ever remember, I was speechless. There I was, in a brand-new dress, sitting in a car in a strange neighborhood with a man who was not like anyone I'd ever met before. And a dead person.
Finally I found my voice. "Will Mrs. Smith be joining us for dinner?" I asked.
Johnnie laughed—a big, hearty, warm, and wonderful laugh—and right then, crammed into the front seat with a man I barely knew and a woman I never would, I knew the truth: I was going to marry John Oliver.CHAPTER 2
The Ring Toss
Johnnie and I had been dating for about six months, and to avoid the twenty-mile commute between Norfolk (where he lived and worked) and Virginia Beach (where I still lived in my parents' oceanfront home), I had taken to spending the night at Vicki's house more often than not. It was, I figured, better than spending the night in the funeral home—and not just because I wasn't the kind of girl who shacked up with her man. I also wasn't the kind of girl who fancied sleeping among the dead.
My college graduation was approaching, and I was looking forward to celebrating. My mother, having just had the first of several face-lifts, had missed my high school ceremony, but she was still looking pretty good four years later, and I figured she'd be up for some sort of party this time.
I figured wrong.
"Good news, Dee!" she announced one day out of the blue. "Your father's ship will be in Spain or Italy next month, and I've booked a trip for us."
"Next month?" I asked. "Mom, that's my graduation. I was kind of thinking I would attend that."
"Oh, don't be silly, dear. They can mail those diploma things. Let's go to Europe!"
I thought that one over. My father was a navy captain, and he seemed to always be somewhere in Europe. Mom was forever jetting off to meet him in one port or another; a trip to Italy or Spain did not seem, to me, to be grounds for skipping one of life's major milestones.
"I think I'd rather not," I said. "I don't really want to go to Europe."
"Well, all right then," Mom said brightly. "I know what we'll do. Your father and I will send you to Bermuda! On a cruise! It will be a graduation present! You can leave right out of Norfolk, and you can take Vicki with you.
"Call the school," she continued, warming to her new plan. "Get them to send you your diploma. And when we all get back, we shall have a wonderful celebration!" And just like that, it was settled.
I had no real desire to go to Bermuda—or anywhere else, for that matter—but my darling mother was bound for Europe and I was going wherever and whenever she sent me, even if it meant missing my own graduation ceremony. Thus it was that, three weeks later, I found myself kissing Johnnie good-bye (he'd been kind enough to drive Vicki and me to the dock) and promising I'd be back in ten short days.
As it turned out, they were ten long days. Maybe it was because the Bermuda plan was formulated so late in the game, or maybe it was because she'd spent most of her money on luxury hotels in Spain and Italy, but my mother had booked us into the very worst room on the entire ship. It was windowless, with a bathroom so small that the entire room got wet when you took a shower, including the towels. At night, when the lights were out, the darkness seemed to press in on every side. I lay there on the top bunk (yes, Vicki and I had bunk beds) and found myself thinking about Johnnie a lot and wondering if this was how it felt to be in one of his caskets.
Excerpted from The Undertaker's Wife by Dee Branch Oliver, JODIE BERNDT. Copyright © 2015 Dee Branch Oliver and Jodie Berndt. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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