Crossed swords! mutters the undertaker as he brushes an invisible crumb from the front of his suit. For crying out loud! And why would anyone want to view their Departed with a monocle?
Or two monocles, actually: one for them, one for the corpse. Like peering into a telescope at a collapsed star and waiting for it to wink. A childhood memory of the circus: the tightrope bicyclist pausing to eat a ham sandwich, his legs crossed on the seat, smiling down at the thousand open mouths. They must’ve looked – well, hungry. Fall, you bastard! But the bastard was thinking, Mais non! Get your own sandwiches!
Crossed swords above the mantle, just waiting for a pirate’s skull to come and levitate between them. The half-finished heraldry of those for whom violence is its own excuse for being. Curs, all of them. Too old for re-training. He licks his thin lips, briefly imaging the heiress in a humiliating position. The taste of these people! Why had they even wanted an undertaker? Every one of his suggestions had been ignored.
The bouquets were all the same: white calla lilies. He heard – this couldn’t be true! – that they had actually registered with the florist’s. The Departed had grown up in Rhodesia, they said, where calla lilies grew wild – whole fields of them. He remembers the movie “Stage Door”: Katharine Hepburn as a spoiled heiress with the flimsiest grip on reality exclaiming, “The calla lilies are in bloom again!” One could laugh at the rich then, even in the Depression – they were so useless, really, and their willful ignorance of the world they had unmade appeared almost innocent. How can people hate us so much, when we only ever wished the best for everybody? And they used to talk about good breeding, regarding each other in the same light as collies, or thoroughbred horses.
Now, after the Paris Hilton video, no one would ever think about the rich that way again. Breeding, indeed! A shameless hussy, his mother would’ve called her. And now he hears she has a book out, purported to tell the lumpen proletariats “how to discover your inner heiress”!
“Such a strange flower,” mused Hepburn. “Suitable for any occasion!” A potent symbol of – what? – flowerness, perhaps. Foreign enough not to carry any more specific connotations than that. Hadn’t Georgia O’Keefe painted calla lilies? Soft folds of white against a pink background? He feels a trickle of sweat start down between his shoulder blades.
And what are they thinking about all this? Nothing, he mutters to himself. They’ve all lost their heads! But perhaps that, too, was part of the appeal. They’re as perfect as store-window mannequins: willow-waisted, outrageously caped, and the long, yellow, Hepburnesque necks ending in nothing.
A older couple enters the viewing area, she clutching her stout husband’s arm, wearing an antique hat complete with mourner’s veil. “Oh Henry,” she whispers. “How horrible! A deliberate insult!” The undertaker, standing at attention, tries to hide any reaction behind his professional mask. (That’s what they pay me for, he thinks.) But perhaps his left eyelash had fluttered just a little. The matron turns to him, says hoarsely, “Those calla lilies. He always hated them, you know!”