Bristol Darwin was looking in his closet; he was examining, with some pride, his three suits. He had a standard black, a black with a small pinstripe, and a dark grey. Those were the three colors he was told to buy when he had signed on with House Funeral Home; the owner, Evan House, was very particular about which suit would be worn to which funeral. None of the employees knew why Mr. House favored one over another on a particular day but Mr. House was quite less than approachable, so Bristol had adopted a policy of not inquiring about the matter; this approach was also adopted by the other employees of the funeral home.
The flavor of the day for the afternoon funeral was the plain black suit; the event was slated for 3:00, so that meant that Bristol and the three other suited employees would be going over to the funeral home to pick up the body about 2:15; this gave the bereaved time to view the body one last time at the church. Of course, the venue for the majority of the viewing was on Trade Street at House Funeral Home; like many small funeral homeowners Evan House did not do any of the body preparation, like embalming and dressing the body. All of that was done by the large funeral home in Clarksburg, where they were equipped with all the accoutrements for the undertaking business. Bristol and his cohorts picked up the coffin from there and transported it to House Funeral Home and set everything up in whichever viewing room Mr. House had chosen. The timing of the viewing was coordinated by the family and Mr. House, and it usually worked out that the family would have the public viewing the evening before the funeral.
Bristol Darwin thought about some of the secrets he had learned while he had been employed by the funeral home; the one thing that he took a lot of pride in was something he had learned on his own, although it did involve a little subterfuge. He had always wondered why the bottom of the casket was always closed at viewings and funerals; he wanted to know if they put pants on the corpse and whether they put socks and shoes on them. He kinda figgered that they prob’ly did put the pants on, ‘cause the pants would have come with the suit coat. Turns out one night after a viewing he was in charge of closing up and he took advantage of the opportunity to find out. His theory proved to be true—when he opened the bottom lid of the casket he saw that the corpse had pants on, but he was a little shocked that the feet were bare. “Reckon those old feet might be too stiff for dealing with socks and shoes,” he had said out loud after he closed the bottom lid, turned out the lights and locked up.
As he dressed Bristol thought about his life before coming to the funeral home; he had been a house painter, known as meticulous but a little slow. Bristol had heard this criticism but he actually took pride in it; “people will learn that it takes time to do a good job,” he would say to himself, and enough people agreed with him that he had stayed pretty busy for those twenty years. Eventually he grew a bit tired of the painting life; things came to a head one day when he had been painting the outside of the hardware store across from the Lutheran Church. He had had a bird’s eye view of the whole proceeding of a funeral, except of course the service. First he had watched the two black men dig the grave, then the arrival of the hearse and the funeral director and the employees unloading the casket onto the cart. At that point the six pallbearers that had been chosen by the family had emerged from the church and carried the casket into the sanctuary. After the service he had seen the six pallbearers come out of the church and carry the casket over to the contraption that would lower it into the grave. The dignified air of Mr. House had been impressive, for it was being taken care of by House Funeral Home. Mr. House had moved about quietly, assuring that everything went according to plan. Bristol especially noticed when the widow and her teenage son came out of the church Mr. House walked over and made sure that the boy was holding on to his mother’s arm. But the most impressive thing to Bristol Darwin was the calm, dignified demeanor of the four funeral home attendants; they were resplendent in identical black suits with a small white pinstripe, starched white shirts, black ties, and a small white rose attached to their left lapel. Bristol remembered having thought about how they had looked so awfully professional and that their demeanor was perfect. That was a defining moment for him; that was the moment when he knew that he wanted to be one of them. Once he had made that decision the die was cast, but he knew that he was going to have to make some personal improvements to be considered for a position at House Funeral Home; he had heard that Mr. House was rather particular. A couple of things had come to his mind; one was his speech style—it was a bit ponderous and slow. He had never noticed it until he heard a customer tell his wife that the painter kind of sounded like Ernest T. Bass at the party when he said “how do you do Mrs. Wiley.” That comment had kind of hit Bristol between the eyes, but he had worked on the problem. He had even bought a small tape recorder and recorded his voice over and over, paying attention to the speed, and after a while he made noticeable progress, enough for him to feel okay about it. Then he set about to work on a shoulder twitch that he had had for decades; a local bar owner had described the action as “looking like a one-winged chicken.” Bristol took care of this malady by buying a back brace; it took a while to get used to because at first instead of holding the offending shoulder straight it caused both shoulders to shudder, but he persevered and after a few weeks it all straightened out. His last needed improvement was to correct a little habit of kind of quaking when someone would address him; it was almost like he was receiving an electric shock, his head and shoulders moving forward quickly and his eyes bugging out a bit. A couple of weeks in front of a mirror at night fixed this problem; he would station himself there and play a recording over and over. He had taken his little tape recorder and had recorded in a rather loud voice the words “hey Bristol.” He had watched himself as he played this recording and worked on controlling his movements and after a few nights of concentration the offending habits went away. Bristol remembered thinking that it must be what his guitar playing buddy had called muscle memory; of course his friend had been talking about remembering where to put your fingers on a fret but Bristol figgered it was ‘bout the same concept. At last Bristol thought he was ready; the only problem was that the four funeral attendants were firmly entrenched with no sign of anyone leaving. Bristol decided that he would pray about it and see what would happen; he sorta believed in the power of prayer. He had experienced mixed results with praying; one victory had occurred many years before when he had been going around the local bar passing out KKK cards. He had got to feeling that it might be mean spirited to do that sort of thing and had prayed over it and was able to quit. Course that had been when he was pretty conservative but he had gotten away from that outlook and had even marched in some left wing protests downtown. The other prayerful endeavor had happened after his conversion to the left when he had openly talked about praying that a certain orange-haired president might do him the favor of dying.
After Bristol had made his career changing decision he could only wait and see if one of the attendants at House Funeral Home faltered. He just kept plugging along with his painting; however, he had made it a point to get acquainted with the attendants and to mention of his interest in the vocation. One afternoon he had been painting the exterior of a shop downtown, not too far from the funeral home, when one of the attendants pulled up and parked the hearse beside his work van. He got out and called to Bristol, who was up on a 20-foot ladder. It was Hoyt Jenkins and he had some news.
“Reckon we are gonna have an opening down at the funeral home,” he said, a tiny smile twitching at the side of his mouth.
“What’s goin’ on,” Bristol asked, so excited that he could barely stand still.
“Arnold Clonger is in the county lock-up and has lost his job,” he said, smiling at Bristol. “He had been sent down to Angier to pick up a body for Clarksburg Funeral Home, ya know the big one who does our embalming and stuff. Well he was on his way back to town and I guess he got to thinkin’ a lil too much ‘bout stuff.”
“Ya sure are beatin’ around the bush a lot Arnold. Why don’t you just say what happened,” Bristol said, getting a little irritated.
“Well, he had gotten a good look at the body when he was loading it up; turned out it was an attractive redhead in her twenties, victim of a drug overdose. Long story short the police pulled up on him on the side of the road there in Chalybeate Springs; he was on top of the corpse givin’ it hell,” said Hoyt, breaking into laughter. “So he’s in jail charged with neckerfillua, or something like that; guess I’d look that up in the dictionary if I knew how to spell it, but we know what we are talkin’ about. Betcha that wa’n’t the first time ol’ Arnold has done that, just the first time he’s got caught,” Hoyt explained, feeling pretty important about being able to break the news to Bristol.
“Mr. House just told us about it this morning; you are the only one who knows besides us and the cops. I knew you wanted the job so I hot footed it over as soon as I could,” Hoyt said, smiling as he saw the excited look on Bristol’s face.
Bristol remembered how he had immediately gotten his equipment together and gone home and called Evan House, not mentioning what he had heard but just saying he had an interest in an attendant job if one ever came open. Mr. Evan House had told him to come by the funeral home the next morning at ten o’clock for an interview. Bristol had worn his only suit, a black one, to the interview and had bought a spray can of starch so he could make his only white shirt presentable. He had topped it off with a black tie and gone to the interview.
Bristol Darwin remembered how he had knocked on Mr. House’s office door; Evan House had a small office on the second floor of the funeral home. It was large enough to fit his needs, and what with all the funeral home viewings being on the first floor the industrious Mr. House had three rooms on that second floor that he rented out. It worked out fine; the tenants had an entrance from a stairway on the back of the building and it was explicitly understood that there would be no overnight guests and no television sets playing until after ten o’clock at night, viewings being over by 9:30 at the latest.
Mr. House called for him to enter and Evan pointed to a small wing-backed chair across from his desk. Bristol sat down and tried to look as confident as he could, although his stomach was twitching and it was hard to get his breath. Mr.House had smiled at him and said “so you would like to be a funeral home attendant.” Bristol had gained his composure somewhat and began relating the story about his painting the hardware store that day and witnessing Mr. House’s attendants and how impressive they had been. Bristol had done a creditable job with his appearance and seemed like he might be a reasonable man and there were funerals to be taken care of so Evan House hired him on the spot. Bristol had tried to hide his elation as he listened to Mr. House detail the work hours, the required dress, and most importantly the very strict rules of deportment expected of a funeral home attendant. Bristol Darwin had soaked it all in and had actually made an impression when he commented when Mr. House had been speaking of the “high standard of deportment” that would be expected.
“I know exactly what you are talking about, Mr. House, there is a quite sensitive air involved in making sure a funeral is done properly,” Bristol had said, setting his face with a look that he hoped reflected the serious tone of his voice. “I personally knew a young man whose father died when he was only eleven and he told me about a sad experience that had occurred as the family was being driven away from the gravesite. One of the attendants had noticed that the car door where the little boy was sitting was not shut properly; the attendant had stopped the car, opened the door, and with a smile on his face said ‘guess we don’t want to lose another one’. Of course that was not around here, my friend having moved here afterward,” Bristol had explained when he saw a look of concern on Mr. House’s face. After he had said this Bristol noticed that the funeral director had broken into a pleasant smile. It had been only a tiny little white lie; in actuality, the little boy had been him and the funeral director had been none other than Mr. House himself. Bristol had known that he was taking a little bit of a chance telling that story but he had guessed correctly that with the volume of funerals over a forty year career Mr. House couldn’t be expected to remember all of them. Besides Bristol figured that the understanding that the story relayed of just how a funeral home attendant should deport himself was well worth the miniscule risk. The icing on the cake came a few moments later when Mr. House offered Bristol a room on the second floor at a very reasonable rate; seems Arnold Clonger had been one of the tenants and would no longer need the situation, although it was not mentioned by Mr. House. Bristol had felt like a new man when he left the office; a new job and he would finally get to move out of his mother’s house.
Bristol had reflected on all these things as he finished dressing; everything was going along well. He had gained favor with Mr. House and had assumed the role of main driver of the hearse. He also had been put in charge of upkeep of the beautiful machine and made sure that it was washed and waxed every two days. Mr. House paid him extra for these responsibilities which he accomplished in his time off. Bristol took one last look in the mirror and left his room and went downstairs.
Three years had passed since Bristol Darwin had begun his career at House Funeral Home as an attendant; he was quite pleased with the situation and felt like he was in a constant state of refinement as far as his vocation went. He had perfected several of the subtleties of the position; for example, his ability to transition into the somber, hands behind the back attendant had become noteworthy. Bristol thought of it as a kind of “parade rest” look, but with a look of deep compassion instead of the steely gaze of a military man. He had expanded his attendant role a bit; when called upon to assist a mourner to the graveside he had begun using some of what he called “mini homilies” from a selection he had compiled. Some of these were “God will take care of you,” “now you be a strong young lady (or man),” “you will see (him or her) in heaven,” and “there is strength in the Lord (or Jesus).” Whichever passage he was uttering was delivered sotto voce and with a beatific look incorporated into his typical somber appearance. He found that he was well received in this endeavor, especially when he would wind up his performance with the hint of an understanding smile forming on his lips. He was buoyed by the positive reception of this new wrinkle by the bereaved and started exploring even more things he could incorporate into his demeanor to further his desire for excellence as an attendant.
One night when he was in his room at the funeral home he was musing on what kind of new wrinkle he could come up with when he thought of something that he felt could be rather innovative; the next morning he went downtown to the little print shop run by “Baldy” Clemmer, a guy Bristol had gone to high school with. “Baldy” had been awarded this moniker because he started going bald in the tenth grade. Bristol consulted with “Baldy” and they came up with a suitable business card, the idea spawned by his musing in his room. They decided on a white card with gothic black lettering that simply said “House Funeral Home” at the top and then in smaller letters at the bottom “Bristol Darwin, Attendant.”
“How ‘bout sumpin from the Bible on the back,” Baldy suggested. “Bet the bereaved would like that.”
Bristol had heard of the Beatitudes, sayings attributed to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. Baldy had a Bible nearby so he whipped it out and they went to Matthew and picked out one of the eight blessings, settling on “blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Bristol explained that that passage was perfect, what with the mention of mourning, and Baldy agreed, telling Bristol that he could have the cards in four days.
When the cards were ready Bristol was very excited and could not wait to start passing them out. It so happened that the Honorable Rockford Bulwinkle, a venerable Superior Court judge, had passed away two days previously and House Funeral Home was taking care of the arrangements. Everything went like usual the day of the funeral; Mr. House selecting the black suit with the small white pinstripe, Bristol driving the hearse, etc. Bristol decided to station himself at the gravesite and when each mourner came by him he murmured “bless you” and placed one of his cards in their hand. Bristol felt pretty good about his first day with the cards; however, he did notice a few quizzical looks thrown his way by the bereaved.
The brother of the deceased approached funeral director House with a small card in his hand. When he explained what had happened to Mr. House a look of grave concern appeared on the director’s face; “this is highly irregular and I apologize,” he told the gentleman. “I will make sure that it never happens again.”
Bristol was riding pretty high when he got word that Mr. House wanted to see him in his office. “Probly heard ‘bout my card idea and wants to congratulate me,” he mused, as he walked up the stairs and to Mr. House’s office; the smile left his face quickly when he heard the tone of the director’s voice after he knocked and was told to come in. Bristol looked a little crestfallen when he walked in and Mr. House quickly got up and closed the door and got behind his desk.
“Sit down Darwin,” the director said in a stentorian voice. Bristol noticed that he was holding a card in his hand; he could tell it was one of his by the bible verse on the back.
“Do you have any idea how the North Carolina Funeral Directors Association, where I serve as executive secretary, feels about blatant advertising during the solemn occasion of a funeral?” he shouted. Bristol tried to respond but he opened his mouth twice and nothing would come out.
“I am very fortunate that I was able to convince the gentleman who gave me this card that I would take care of the situation, as I am getting ready to do this very instant. You are done here; clean out your room and don’t come back except to pick up your last check. You can get it from the secretary tomorrow,” he said, and quickly strode from the office, leaving Bristol Darwin sitting stunned in his chair.
Two weeks had passed since Bristol’s meeting with Mr. House and he had done a lot of soul searching; he had resumed his painting career but really missed his old job. He spent a lot of time examining just what it was about his job at the funeral home that was so important to him and after a month of pondering he concluded that it was the consoling aspect, being able to comfort people in their time of need.
“Guess Mr. House just didn’t understand all that,” he said out loud when he finally had it figured out. Once he reached that conclusion he then felt he had to come up with a way to fill that void in his life; this prompted more thought—- a lot. Bristol started thinking about how to place himself in a situation where he could maximize his consoling talents; “I think I can help people out without it being at a funeral,” he thought to himself. This revelation set him on a course of just how to put himself into that kind of scenario; he thought briefly of trying to pawn himself off as a counselor but worried that people would probably want to see some paperwork if he went that route. He never doubted his good intentions; he was sure that his innate abilities were more than sufficient to help people in their time of need.
“If I could get to know people and their families just prior to their passing I think I could help them quite a bit, consoling them and all,” he said out loud one day when he was up at the top of a thirty-foot ladder. Bristol had found out that he could think a lot better when he was up in the air; he thought it had something to do with the concentration involved in being up so high.
“Graveyards are full of painters who didn’t concentrate when they were up here,” he surmised, and set about to solve his dilemma. He thought about how maybe he could scope out cancer clinics and set up surveillance to determine which patients were the worst off. Then he could befriend them and go from there. He kind of got away from that idea after reading that the survival rates of cancer patients had gone up over recent years. Eventually he hit upon what he thought was the perfect approach. He was down at one of his favorite bars, Bright Oak, one night when the manager, a hefty girl named Crystal, was talking about how she had had trouble breathing the night before and had stopped by her friend’s double-wide to hit on her oxygen.
“I huffed on it for a while and eventually got okay; but I have figgered out how to deal with it. I’m gonna switch from Winstons to Winston Lights,” she said as she excused herself while hacking up a lung.
What Bristol heard Crystal say kind of dove-tailed with a conversation he had previously with a habitue of the same bar. Bear, a very heavy smoker, had been talking about how he had been coughing so awful much and had gone to the doctor and found out that he had a problem.
“Yep, I went to this pulleymonologist, or something like that, and he said that I had c. o. p.” Bear had intimated in between coughs. These instances set Bristol to thinking and after an exhaustive search at the Village Library was satisfied that the doctor that Bear had gone to was actually a pulmonologist, essentially a lung doctor, and that the c.o.p.d. rate was favorable for his intentions.
“Guess Bear will have to puff on a while before he gets the ‘d’,” Bristol had chuckled, then chastised himself on being so unfeeling. “This is serious business and I don’t think there is a lot of room for light-heartedness,” he thought and continued thinking about what his next move would be. Eventually he came up with what he thought was a pretty good plan.
“I can kind of stake out a pulmonologist’s office a couple of days a week and catalogue the people I see coming and going,” Bristol thought to himself. Of course he knew that such actions would cause him to work weekends to free up two days during the week but he figgered that the sacrifice would be worth it. He implemented his plan right away; he worked all weekend and then took off Monday and Tuesday and stationed himself in the parking lot at the Charlotte Pulmonary Center, the largest practice of its kind in the area. He came dressed in his black suit and waited in his truck until he saw a patient coming from the building; he watched for a couple of hours, deciding to put his attention only on ones using a walker. He took polaroid pictures of these patients and after three weeks got all the pictures out and looked at them. He discovered that there was one old man who had shown up every Monday; he was very thin and tended to gasp for his breath. He was accompanied by a middle-aged woman; “reckon that is his daughter, or caretaker,” Bristol thought. The Monday following his photographic discovery he was staked out in the parking lot when he saw the old man and the daughter or caretaker come out of the building. The two of them were having a bit of a tough time negotiating the slight incline entering the parking lot, and for the first time Bristol noticed that the lady was pulling an oxygen tank, the tube being attached to the old man’s nose. Bristol sprang into action, approaching the two of them and saying “please let me assist you, ma’am.” The lady smiled as Bristol took the handle of the tank and walked along with them.
“It is mighty kind of you to do this,” she said, stopping at the rear of a van.
“I am very glad to be of service; I come here every Monday and see if I can help anybody out. I look upon it as a kind of community service,” he said. The old man managed a weak smile between wheezes.
Bristol Darwin assisted the old man into the van, putting the tank in the back seat. He then walked around to where the lady had gotten behind the steering wheel and shut the door for her.
“Thank you so much sir,” the lady said; “my name is Charlene.”
Bristol replied “Darwin, Bristol Darwin.” The lady looked at him a little quizzically before realizing that he was not saying “darling” and then broke into a smile.
“Prob’ly see you next week,” he said, after she had told him that they had a standing appointment with the pulmonologist every Monday.
After two more weeks of Bristol’s assistance Charlene invited Bristol to supper, saying how she needed to show him how much they appreciated his help. He quickly agreed and she gave him the address. Before they left she told him to be there at six.
Bristol was a little surprised that evening when he pulled up to an assisted living center; Charlene was waiting for him at the reception desk. They walked the short distance to her father’s apartment; the three of them chatted for a while, Bristol learning that the old man’s name was Denver. Charlene had fixed a nice supper, explaining that she came over and cooked for her father every evening. She had just retired from a pretty good state job and had plenty of time, being a widow with no children. After supper they sat out in the common area and visited with the other people in the center. Bristol noted that quite a few of them were on oxygen, some pulling the lightweight ones, and a couple having the devices that could be worn over the shoulder like a purse. Bristol noted that all the people on oxygen tended to hang out together; “I think I can do some good work here,” he thought to himself.
The Monday night suppers became a ritual, Bristol circulating with the others after the meal, finding out their names and talking with them. He determined that the whole group was in pretty bad shape and figured that it would not be too long before his consoling powers would be displayed.
In preparation he glued his cards together front to front so that only the scripture would be shown and waited. Two months passed and then one Monday night after supper while he was mingling with the group three new people showed up and started talking to a gentleman. Charlene told him that the man, a Mr. Thomas, had deteriorated noticeably over the last week and that the trio was from an organization that came in when it was surmised that the time was near. She told Bristol the name of the group but he was so disturbed that the name just did not sink in; “hospitality, or sumpin like that,” he muttered and watched them with a baleful eye.
“I had everything under control and here comes this bunch horning in,” he thought to himself. He asked how long those new people would be around and Charlene told him that typically it was for “the duration.” He managed to control his anger, at least outwardly, and continued to stare at the interlopers. He left shortly and went back to his mother’s house; he had a lot of thinking to do.
The following Monday evening Bristol showed up at Denver’s apartment, like usual, at six o’clock; Charlene had a nice meal prepared and afterwards they retired to the common area to mingle with the others. Bristol’s eyes scanned the room and sure enough those three people were there again. He had thought things out over the past week and knew what he was going to do. The three were hovering around Mr. Thomas when he walked up, pulled the 380 semi-automatic pistol, and pumped two bullets into each of them, then reached into his pocket for his cards. Although at the sound of the gunfire many of the group had fled some were apparently so panic-stricken that they were transfixed; these were the lucky ones who received the cards and a beatific smile from Bristol Darwin.