Wednesday, August 25, 2010

“Two for dinner, please,” a short story by Chuck Waldron

“I read somewhere that death was a tailor who measured people for their final suit, invisibly, and in silence.” - The Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell

The Tailor took Eva Cassidy’s measure much too soon. This is dedicated to her memory.
Excellent moments often spring from unexpected events. My own death, not foreseen by me, falls in that category. I recollect being in the middle of doing something, something hard to pin down. My memory is murky on that point, but when the haze clears, I get a glimpse, an inkling, of chopping onions for a salad.

That aside, I was most certainly dead, yet saw my surroundings in this waiting room with remarkable clarity. I saw no fluffy white clouds floating about, we can dispel with that myth. Everything looked normal, business-like, and earthly.

I had always imagined it would be ghostly, otherworldly.

Nonetheless, there I sat, looking at a digital readout hanging overhead, red numbers against a black background blinking 37. I looked down at the slip in my hands, 39. There you have the first hint of afterlife, not unlike a waiting in a room at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The man holding ticket number 37 looked up and whooped a loud shout, racing towards the doorway. It closed behind him before I could see what was on the other side.

I turned to the woman holding number 38, smiled and suggested she must be happy to be next.

Judging by her glare and sour disposition, I wondered if her recent passing left relatives and friends behind, preparing a celebration instead of mourning. Given the current circumstances, I decided it unwise to be too judgmental until I had my turn on the other side.

Her number blinked and she, surprisingly, threw up her hands, tossed her cane to the side, and skipped through the door, cackling a raucous laugh.

I had misjudged her after all.

It would be my turn next. I waited for what seemed an eternity when the significance of that word hit me square in the forehead like the smack of a ball-peen hammer. That instance between death and eternity, I discovered, can be nebulous.

My turn arrived when the digital readout finally clicked to 39. I looked at the ticket I was holding and had that briefest of moments when I wondered if I should pass on my turn, giving it to the next person in line, and remain in the waiting room. After all, what was an extra eternity or two?

I didn’t let out a whoop at my turn. Instead of skipping, I walked to the door with indecisive steps and cautiously pushed it open, unsure of what to expect.

The first thing demanding attention was a large painting behind the desk in front of me. The canvas dominated the room and distracted from the woman sitting at the desk. My eyes were drawn to the scene of a battlefield, littered with corpses, a depiction of warriors in Roman uniforms, drooling saliva and holding severed arms, legs and heads up in the air.

The woman behind the desk was small, by anyone’s measure. Her hair flashed silvery and framed skin that was translucent. She grinned and said, “Everybody has the same damned reaction to that picture. The person who had this job before me put it there and I’m too freakin’ busy to replace it.”

I liked her immediately.

“What happens now?” I stammered.

She looked at her watch. “It’s late. You’re the last one for today.”

I felt sorry for people in the waiting room, but not too sorry.

“Orientation will start tomorrow,” she said.

I waited, expecting more.

“Things are running a bit behind and I had to rearrange your schedule. Instead of waiting until after orientation, I have arranged for you to have your dinner first, then you can go to orientation on the established timetable tomorrow.”

I had no idea what she was talking about and it must have showed, judging by the look on her face.

“What dinner?” I asked.

“Oh dear, didn’t they tell you? It should be in your brochure.”

“What brochure?” I yelled.

“Don’t tell me they ran out again. So many people are dying to get here these day,” amused at what she had just said.

“No matter, I can tell you. Everyone gets a final meal for the first stage of their transition between death and eternity.” I looked at her like she was an apparition, which she may well have been.

“You get to enjoy a feast, fully catered, of course. The choice of menu is yours, as is the choice of beverage.” She opened a drawer, pulled out a menu, and handed it to me.

I was shocked at the menu, containing items that were all extinct, or near extinction. I looked at it as she continued.

“The transition team came up with an outstanding idea. To compensate you for the disappointments in your life we have arranged it for you to invite two people to share your banquet. It’s your choice, free and clear. It can be anyone you would like to invite; a chance for an evening of freewheeling conversation, or get to know someone you admire. You have an opportunity to take part, if you wish, or simply watch the evening unfold as an observer.”

I held up a hand, certain that I was in a hell, and I was going to spend it in this room, interviewed by a person whose sanity was more questionable than mine was.

To complete the surprise, she reached in a pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Who smoked anymore? They were Marlins, my favorite. I watched with envy as she struck a match, the old wooden kind, and a flame flared before settling into a steady yellow glow. She touched the fire to the end of the cigarette, drew in smoke, and exhaled. I watched the smoke as it curled above her head, like a restless cat.

“Who would you like to invite? Oh, did I tell you they also have to be dead, no living people at your banquet,” laughing.

What the hell, I thought.

She blew smoke out of the side of her mouth, “I don’t have all day. Wait, maybe I do,” laughing again.

I looked at the menu and made a quick, by eternity standards, decision.

“I will start with a salad of chilled endangered salamanders on a bed of lettuce with goat cheese dressing, made with milk from Tibetan mountain goats. For the main course I will have steaks of almost-extinct snow leopard, grilled over charcoal from the Brazilian rainforest, of course.”

I paused and then added with as much insouciance as I could muster, “please have the chef to pick the dessert. Following the meal I would like a bottle of rare Napoleon Brandy along with a box of Cuban cigars. Yes, that should be all. That’s what I would like.”

She nodded, “It will be arranged.”

I could tell she was waiting for something. “What,” I asked?

“Who are you going to invite as your guests?”

My mind raced at this point, I can tell you.

Without much further ado I made a decision. “I would like to invite Winston Churchill and Eva Cassidy,” as she made a note in her little book.

“I almost forgot,” and remembered, “this is a bonus night; you may request a third guest.”

The name Martin Luther came to me and, to this day, I can’t tell you why.

There you have it. I would be having dinner with Winston, Eva and Martin.

Eva was the first to arrive, carrying a guitar and smiling. Her smile reminded me of the mysterious gaze of the Mona Lisa.

“It broke my heart when you died,” I managed to say.

“That’s sweet of you. What is your favorite?” she asked.

Without hesitation, “Had I a Golden Thread,” and she strummed a chord on the guitar and started singing. My heart was filled with bliss at the incredible ease of her playing and singing.

As the last notes faded into nothingness, the door burst open, and a pudgy man, in his celebrated smoking jacket, shoved his way into the room.

“Who does that angelic voice belong to?” grinning widely, cigar firmly clenched between his fingers.

“It certainly doesn’t belong to me,” said a somber looking man in a long, black robe coming behind Winston.

The three had never met, even in the afterlife. What followed was an evening beyond anything I could imagine.

I realized each of them embodied one of three traits I admired most, traits I only aspired to in my living days. The first was beauty, the second determination, and, lastly, the ability to stand up for one’s beliefs.

Eva possessed beauty, the beauty of her voice; Winston bulldogged determination, combined with a marvelous, spontaneous wit; and Martin embodied what it meant to take a stand, to do what he thought was right, regardless of the cost.

Eva sang her songs throughout the night, her interpretations of jazz, blues, folk songs, and gospel. Winston harrumphed and told some wickedly funny stories. Martin completed the trifecta, we all listened to him explain nailing his historic treatise to the cathedral door one eventful day.

I was happy that I ignored a curiosity about the evil and deranged characters from history. The three companions I selected were perfect.

There was much more to our time together, but it would take an eternity to tell the rest.

Eva ended the evening with a heartbreaking song, giving me one final time to relish in the purity of a voice now silenced forever.

We bid our good-byes with the usual promises to get together again sometime, but we knew it would never be, something said in parting, without meaning it, but suggested anyway.

Each of them left through different exits and the woman from the desk returned, smoke curling around her head.

“No one lectures you here that smoking is bad for you,” and she broke into paroxysms of laughter at her intentional joke.

She placed a hand gently on my arm and guided me.

“It’s time,” she said with an exquisite simplicity.

“What’s your name,” I asked?

“No one ever asked me before,” she said. “I get treated like a clerk, invisible to those awaiting their final destiny.”

She blew smoke out of the side of her mouth again. “Selma,” she said.

I was pleased that I had asked, turned, and stepped through the door to my eternity

Chuck Waldron grew up listening to his grandfather, an Ozark Mountain story teller, spinning tales of the caves on his farm, describing hiding places once used by the Jesse & Frank James gang. It didn’t matter if the stories were true or not. Those legends set fire to Chuck’s imagination, creating images that emerged slowly over the years, finally igniting as his short stories and novels. On June 17, Chuck gave a reading of “Two for dinner, please” at CJ’s Café.

Our next reading night at CJ’s is Monday, Sept 13. Join us there (2416 Lakeshore Rd W in Oakville) at 6:30 to hear some great pieces of writing!

For information about Brian Henry’s writing workshops and creative writing courses, see here.

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