art by Lee Brown Coye text © Buzz Dixon
“Oh. Family friend?”
“Hurmmm, charity case?”
“I wish. More like…a curse.”
“’A curse’? We don’t get many of those here. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, we’ve never had one at all.”
“Interesting turn of phrase: ‘To the best of my knowledge.’ Let me tell you about this chap. He showed up on my doorstep two days ago clutching this -- “
client shows mortician a very old, well worn bulging document case stuffed with various official looking documents
" -- and demanding to see my grandmother.
“I had no idea who he was -- still don’t, when you really think about it -- but I treated him with courtesy. One tolerates a certain degree of bluntness and disrespect in the very, very young and the very, very old, and as you can see, he is a long, long way from being very young.”
“‘My grandmother has been dead these twenty years,’ I said.
“He looked as if I’d plunged a dagger into his heart. ‘Dead?!?!? She can’t be dead! She mustn’t be dead!’
“I assured him she was most certainly dead and gone, then inquired if he had known her.
“This time you would have thought I’d struck him in the face. ‘Knew her? We were lovers! We were going to run away to be wed!’”
“That must have been a quite shock.”
“A surprise, yes. A shock, no. I’m a man of the world, and as fond as I was of my grandmother, I have no illusions she was an elderly lady all her life. Once she was young, and I’m sure once she charmed many a young gentleman.”
“We all, as you say, are young once.”
scan mortician from head to toe reserve judgment
“Yes. In any case, my curiosity was aroused. ‘How did you know my grandmother and yet be unaware she had passed?’
“He glared at me and said, ‘Your grandfather was a cad and a scoundrel who falsely accused me and had me imprisoned so he could marry your grandmother!’”
“Perhaps. To the elderly gentleman, I said: ‘It’s an open secret in our family that grandfather was indeed a bit of a scoundrel, but by all rights he was loyal and faithful and loving to my grandmother, and she doted upon him until the day he died. I never recall her saying a cross word about him in my life.’
“’Then she did not know the truth about what he did to me!’ And here he thrust his hand into this document case and pulled out a copy of his arrest warrant. ‘He accused me of prowling around his apartment with the intent to steal! He had me thrown in jail so that he could woo you grandmother!’
“’That may or may not be true, sir,’ I said, ‘but in any case why did you not seek out my grandmother after you were released and tell her what happened? I know enough of the law to know that an offence such as yours would only have earned you a few months in jail.
“Here the old fellow grew quiet, seething with anger. ‘I tried to escape so I could tell her the truth,’ he said through clenched, toothless gums. ‘They added a year to my sentence.
“’Then I heard your grandmother and that…scoundrel were to be wed. I tried escaping again, and again I was found out and sentenced to an even longer term in prison.
“’Again and again I tried to get free so I could see her, explain to her what kind of a dastard she had married, and time and time again I was discovered and sentenced to even longer terms in prison.’
“’No offence, sir, but did you ever consider writing to my grandmother?’”
“’I tried! But the wardens were in cahoots with your grandfather; they tore up my letters and punished me further, saying I was harassing and threatening your grandmother.’
“I can’t imagine where they would have gotten that impression. Still, did it not occur to you that perhaps by not trying to escape, by at least showing some remorse for your escape attempts, you might have persuaded them to reduce your sentence?’
“’I would not give them -- or your grandfather! -- the satisfaction!’
“’Ah, and whose fault is that?’”
“Again the old fellow took great umbrage. ‘They threw me into solitary confinement in their most secure prison. For two long years I scoured my cell for any means of escape. For another year I worked patiently, carefully to unscrew a single screw in my bedframe, then for five years after that I scratched and cut and carved at the hard stone wall under my bunk, digging and digging my way to freedom!’
“’No! They caught me again! Only this time they moved me to a new prison, one even more secure than the one I’d nearly escaped from. They told me they were doing it because I was incorrigible, that they were locking the door and throwing away the key.’
“’And yet here you are.’
“’Don’t mock me! I spent the last thirty years in that cell, plotting and planning and scheming for the day when I would finally escape and track down your grandfather and have my revenge and reclaim the love I had lost!’
“I had to conceal a smile. ‘My grandfather has been dead much more than thirty years. He passed away when I was but a child. My grandmother, as I mentioned, died twenty years ago. In all the time I knew her, she never mentioned a beau who might have been you.’
“The old fellow waved his hand dismissively. ‘Enough! Let me see your mother or your father, whichever was your grandmother’s child. They will know.’
“Now I began to grow impatient with him. ‘My own father was their only child. He died two years ago. If he knew anything about this, he took it to the grave with him.’
“’It’s here!’ the old fellow said, shaking his document case before me. ‘When they imprisoned me the last time, they put all the documentation about me into this file and sent it to the new prison.
“’But the new prison had a new filing system, and old documents like these didn’t fit in.
“’It was stashed away in a store room and forgotten,and when they finally did discover it they realized they had kept me behind bars long past my date of release.’”
“That sounds a bit far fetched.”
“Far fetched, perhaps, but not impossible. I’ve seen similar cases involving businesses and tax records. When the government shifted from hand written to printed documents, a great deal of older cases were misplaced or forgotten.
“The old man’s entire case, stretching back seventy some years, is in this file. His original arrest, his first trial, prison reports of his escape attempts and recaptures. This is all there is to represent his life from age twenty to now.”
“I see. And exactly how did the deceased pass away?”
“Out of courtesy, curiosity perhaps, perhaps pity, I invited him in and had him sit in the parlor while I made a cursory examination of the documents.
“I had no idea what I would find, but I had made up my mind to give the old fellow a small sum and to send him to the vicar with a letter asking that he be given whatever charity could be afforded.
“However, I had no sooner begun reading the material when I heard a deep sigh and looked up to see the old fellow’s head loll forward on his chest.
“The physician I summoned said it was simply old age and doubtlessly the emotional stress that did the poor fellow in, but I think not. I think what kept him alive for the last seventy years was the idea of confronting my grandfather, or at least seeing my grandmother again, and when that was gone, so was his reason for living.
“Or he simply could have been howling mad, and everything he told me some phantasm of his deranged mind.”
“Didn’t you read his file?”
“No. What is the point? Even if what he said is true, he’s dead, my grandfather’s dead, my grandmother’s dead.
“And if it’s false, if all these are merely some random documents a madman threw together, then there’s even less point.”
“Very well. I take it there shall be no ceremony?”
a wry look
“A charity case, pure and simple. We shall dispose of the ashes in the potter’s field. May we close the coffin?”
hefts plain flat rough hewn pine top
“Yes. No, wait.”
tosses bulging file into coffin