First, I check the dishwasher. Widow women don't use dishwashers. They hide money in them. That's what I did when Mrs. Walters died. Pricilla Walters.
I'm the Handy Man at Running Meade Court. The Raisin Ranch, Jack Dogle calls it. To him you're the Nearly Dead. Jack's the estate buyer we use. When you're dead, he says you're the Newly Dead. He's rough. Jack's my brother-in-law. We get on. Sort of.
Lorraine in the front office is always saying old age doesn't have to be a wreck. Running Meade's here to make your Golden Years Twenty-Four Carat. Lorraine's got a big smile. She's tall and young. She's the one who phones me when you're Newly Dead. In the Green Shed. It's where I work.
When I get the call your cottage has five days to be cleaned out. That includes the day you're dead. I'm through your door 8 a.m. if 911 hauled you the night before. By then you've got four days. It's in the contract.
If The Bereaved are nearby they can clean you out. Sometimes I work with them. Sort things. Haul trash to the dumpster. Box the Deductibles for Jane Moore at Second Hand Rose. Call Jack to make a Quick Price on what's for sale. I get my hourly on Running Meade's clock and maybe a tip from the son. The daughter usually won't tip. Daughters-in-law won't tip for sure. They're all the time sticking things in their purses. Rings. Pearls. Watches. They look for the money, but they don't know the places I know.
The best deal for me is when The Bereaved are in Hong Kong or Texas or Bermuda, and they tell Lorraine to clean Aunt Alice out. They'll get there when they get there. Be careful. Be careful, I've heard them say over the speakerphone. She had Wedgwood from England. And the wine goblets have been in the family since Great Grandfather Baxter ate dinner with General Custer. You can tell they're having second thoughts. But they don't come back if it's not convenient. Convenience is big these days.
For your Arrangements, Lorraine recommends Eternal Peace. They do Cremations and Full-Body Burials. Or they'll store you in a cooler until the Whole Famm Damnly gets back. That's what Lorraine says when she's off the phone. We're to clean out the cottage but Eternal Peace is to put Betty Beulah Land on ice until the Whole Famm Damnly gets back.
However it works out, somebody's got to go to Eternal Peace and say that's you that's dead. It's the law. Usually Lorraine goes. I just went for Mrs. Walters. Mostly I don't go. There's a reason.
The Green Shed's got Bays with shelves and clothes racks so you can store what won't fit in your cottage. Everybody gets a Bay whether you use it or not. It's where I put your stuff when you're Newly Dead. Clocks and mugs of pens and pencils. Flower vases. Candle sticks. Dishes. Silverware. I wash your last dishes. Housekeeping is supposed to do that, but I call the shots when I get the call.
What won't fit on the hangers or shelves I put in boxes. You get charged for the boxes. I magic marker them: Kitchen. Bath. Bedroom. I'm organized. I have to be in case I get two calls. Piggybacked. That's what Lorraine says. We got a Piggyback, she'll say for the second one.
We don't store Consumables. We'll get a tax slip from Jane at Second Hand Rose for what she puts in her Poor Box for the migrants. We'll do that. But Jane doesn't take frozen food or booze. I take beer. Jack takes your hard stuff. I take your soups. It's my lunch most days. I heat it on a burner in the Green Shed.
Running Meade charges for me. For the dumpster, too. We're both under Sur Charge. Two boxes of Waste @ $10.00 per box sur charge. Handyman, sur charge. There's mileage on the truck to Second Hand Rose or the dump. If you put a pencil to it, your Bereaved would be better off paying another month's rent. That way I don't go through it.
Not that I think one way or the other from what I find. Letters. Pictures. Books. Sometimes I get a laugh. But I don't think one way or the other about you. Except for Mrs. Walters. I think about her.
By the time you're boxed, I've got the money. And the Consumables. I like it when they have tuna fish. Chicken of the Sea is my favorite. The frozen food I get home pronto. My freezer is sorted so the oldest stuff is to the top. But Ice Cream goes on top of that. Your Nearly Deads buy the best ice cream. They figure if they eat Lean Cuisine, they can eat real ice cream. Starbuck's Coffee Almond Fudge is my favorite.
I get your Brasso. Baking Soda. Salt. Flour for the wife's baking. Onions or potatoes if you've just been to Whole Foods. Rice. Noodles. Coffee. When I've packed a load, I head for home with a stop at Jane's to drop off the cans. Evaporated milk. I don't even know what it is. Beets. I hate beets. Olives. Those tiny onions Jack says you put in martinis.
Jane checks the seals on the jars and the date for the cans. You'd be surprised how long a widow woman will keep a can of food. Ten years once for salmon. That's the record. Jane pitched it. What she keeps she puts in the Poor Box. By closing time it's empty. Evaporated milk. Martini onions. Gone. Beets.
Jane knows I take my cut. We go back. High school. We kept at it afterwards, even though we both got married. But we've stopped. Jane's husband works for Eternal Peace. He runs the backhoe that digs the graves. He's the reason I don't go to see if it's you that's dead. He's the reason Loraine goes.
The wife and me, we live out of town, so sometimes when I'm hauling your stuff I'll call her where she works at the country water department and we meet at home for lunch. We take potluck on the soup. The same for TV dinners. I like Swiss steak but your Nearly Deads don't eat much meat. They go for Chinese chicken. That's okay. But Swiss steak is better.
We have our soup. Then I unload into the basement. My wife doesn't help. She's gotten jumpy about it. Even about the ReGiftables. That's her department. The ReGiftables. She does the dishes and won't look at what I'm bringing in.
I've got shelves in the basement like in the Green Shed where everything's arranged. Food on one shelf. Products on another. Money I put in glasses and jars with your cottage number on it. Even a shelf for the cat. Pebbles. He's a cut cat. Always sniffing his bowl to see what's in it this time. Picky cut cat if you ask me.
After I get back from lunch, I move what's left of you to your Bay. Usually I can get it all in if you've peeled your onion down. That's what Jack says when he's buying off you when you first move in and you realize you've got too much stuff for the cottage. You peeling the onion down? Sometimes they don't understand.
Jack buys furniture. Plates and silver. Crystal. Tablecloths. Whatever he thinks he can sell in his store. Old Time Times it's called. I think he should call it The Peeled Onion. But Jack's all business.
I put it on the AME, he says. The American Money Escalator. If they sell the Wedgwood for less than what they paid for it, the AME goes up for me and down for them. But the AME doesn't go anywhere if you don't put something on it. That's America. Running Meade's America.
I don't fool with books except to flip through them for money. That's how I found the note from Mrs. Walters. The note to me. Not really to me. Well, maybe it's to me. For sure, it's to me. It was in a big dictionary that had its own stand. The note's the reason I went to see her at Eternal Peace. I'll get to that. And the mink coat.
I hold the books by their spines and give them a shake. The Whole Famm Damnly will look through the books for money, but they haven't got a system. I shake the books and sometimes money comes out. It's not like finding a dime on the sidewalk or how once when I was in the Whole Foods parking lot I found a trail of twenty dollars bills. Finding money in books doesn't have so much luck in it. It's the shaking them up and down until money comes out that's fun. It's like panning for gold.
Sometimes letters drop out. I don't read them. There'll be matchbook covers or reading glass tissues, and a thin silver bookmark. I find slips of paper with lists of things to do. I'll read those. Call Oliver. Clean sink. Walk. Bank. Library. I see where they've crossed out what they've done. If it didn't get crossed out, I guess you didn't do it. You can't do everything.
I find clippings about the books they've put them in. Mrs. Walters did that. She was the one who had the silver bookmark. Sometimes a book's been autographed. Mrs. Walters had lots of those. "To Pricilla Waters, for all her help." And inside there were newspaper clippings she had written about the book.
I find notes like "Make it $30,000 and it's a deal." Then there was scratching like this guy was trying to get his pen to start. It was on a paper napkin from a bar in New York. Once I found a note that said, Next time don't be in such a rush. And on the other side it said, okay. I make myself a story that the okay was a note that was supposed to be sent back.
I find pictures. Kids at beaches. On horses during a vacation. Pets. People standing around Old Faithful with it going off behind them. Men in uniform next to airplanes. One picture of this man's wife when she was young and not wearing her bathing suit top and on the other side it said, Southwest Coast of France, 1954. I put it back in the book. I put everything I find in your books back. Except the money.
One man had money from all over the world. Jane said I should have kept it in case my wife and I ever went overseas, but I gave it to Lorraine. I give Lorraine half the money I find in the purses and billfolds. Here Lorraine. Mrs. Jackson's wallet. I found it on the kitchen table. Thank you Randy. Did you find her purse? That too. In the bedroom. Here it is. Thank you Randy. We'll put them in the safe.
Your Bereaved get fifty cents on the dollar from the purses and billfolds. I get a dollar on the dollar from what's in the dishwashers. Or under the tray in the microwave oven. Jars they've put way up high behind the cans of soup. In between place mats is good. Under ironing board covers. You look for flat spots. Finders keepers. I'm the Finder. A dollar on the dollar for what I find. Plus ReGiftables and Consumables.
Toilet paper. Clorox. Dishwashing powder. Vitamins. All kinds of pills. I toss those. Kleenex. You'd be surprised how much Kleenex the Nearly Dead women have. They're always tucking it up their sleeves. You see it sticking out of them by their wrists, or high on their arms if it's summer. I have a theory that the more Kleenex you put in your sleeves the closer you are to me getting the call. When it's sticking out all over you like big white flaky warts, I know you'll be 911 by spring.
My wife says it's stealing what I do. I say maybe taking the money is stealing. But not the Scrub-So-Soft and Lubriderm. Not what we give our daughters for coming to see us. Or what's in the ReGift Drawer. Like dish towels if they're in a set with fancy potholders and a kitchen apron. Maybe the money's stealing.
But if the money's stealing, maybe it's all stealing. Not just the potholders or the Lubriderm or the Starbuck's ice cream. It's all stealing, right? That's what I'm asking here.
At Second Hand Rose Jane sells your scarves and purses you never took out of the boxes. But not to the poor. There'd be too high a price on them for the poor. But I'm poor if you pencil me against the Raisin Ranchers. My wife works a job and I cut grass weekends in the summer. I plow snow in winter. We got medical bills. I put one daughter through state college and the other one halfway through before she got knocked up. The house is mortgaged to the bank, and again to Jack. Not that the bank knows about Jack. I'm not poor like the Migrants. I know that. It's just I'm getting first pick. Is that stealing? If somebody else gets second pick, is that stealing? What about Jack's AME? Think about it. For sure I can't tell my wife a thing about what's stealing and what's not. We stopped talking about it. Until I brought home the mink coat from Mrs. Walters' attic.
I knew her because she'd call me at the Green Shed to say Nike was on the loose. I'll find Nike, Mrs. Walters. I'll find Nike. He never went far. He was a Pug. A low-to-the-ground dog. Always running away.
After Mrs. Walters died, I took him to the pound. You get charged for that too. The Puff of Smoke Pound, Lorraine calls it. Mainly the Raisin Ranchers have cats. I'm to take those to the pound but I don't. I put them out by the county lake. Only once I kept Pebbles.
By the time I find Nike, Mrs. Walters is walking over. I have these two aluminum folding chairs left over from one of the Bays and she takes a seat. She pats Nike and rests herself. We don't talk much except about the headline news or the weather. Every once in awhile she looks at the Bays filled with stuff Jack hasn't put on the AME and says, Getting and Spending, Getting and Spending, like it was something she'd read in a book or the newspaper.
Mrs. Walters died during the night right after the last time she came over to get Nike. The light was blinking on the phone when I opened the Green Shed. I knew what it meant. I just didn't know who.
Right after 911 hauled her, Lorraine called me and said Sales had a Waiting List who wanted to move in Pronto. Get her out so Housekeeping and Painting can get in. Don't store it. There's no Whole Famm Damnly. Call Jack and get a Quick Cash Price right out of the cottage. Take the rest to Second Hand Rose or toss it. Keep track of the dumpster loads for the Surcharges.
Mrs. Walters had no Bereaved and no will, which means the county gets it all. When that happens, Running Meade's lawyers figure how to bill the B-Jesus out of your estate for all kinds of things. Like me taking Nike to the pound.
I opened her cottage and looked for the money. There was twenty dollars in her purse, and maybe it was because of how we used to sit together that I gave it all to Lorraine even though it was two tens. Thank you, Randy. No other money in the usual places.
I called Jack. I took Nike to the pound and came back. When Jack showed up, he made a Quick Cash Price for what he wanted and went to the office to pay Lorraine. I spent the morning hauling for Jack on Running Meade's clock. Then I hauled two loads to the dumpster. Nothing to Jane.
I took my cut of Consumables. It wasn't much. Toilet paper. Janitor-in-a Drum that still had a sticker on it from when Mrs. Walters moved into Running Meade. Glass Plus. Brillo. A packet of fancy soaps from France I figured my wife could Re-Gift. Band Aids and Rolaids and rubbing alcohol from her medicine cabinet. But not her prescriptions. Those were on the kitchen table in a row by her Days-of-the-Week pill-box. I tossed those.
Then I remembered I hadn't checked the attic. Usually we don't bother with attics unless they're finished. You have to go up this ladder in the utility room, and be careful to walk across the trusses or you'll go through the ceiling.
I climb up the ladder and slip through the lift panel and pull the chain on the light. Nothing. I walk across the trusses to have a look-see under the eaves. Nothing. I'm about to go back down when I think what's that over by the gas vent? And it's a mink coat. Only I don't know it's a mink coat because it's in a box, so I don't know what it is until I get it down the ladder into the utility room. Then it's a mink coat.
I take it to Green Shed and call the wife and say we'll have lunch. Then I sit on one of my folding chairs and drap the coat on the other. I am trying to make a story that goes with the coat being in the attic. But nothing comes into my head. I think it's not Mrs. Walters' coat because all the time I knew her she was too old to be going up and down the utility ladder.
What's this? my wife says. A Mink Coat I say. It's from ... Don't tell me, she says. I don't want to know. Try it on, I say. No, she says. Take it back or Lorraine will be out here and find all the stuff you've got in the basement. The money and everything. Put it back! Put it back! We'll go to jail unless you put it back. My wife won't even let me eat lunch she so hot about it. Put it back!
I leave with the coat to put it back where I found it. Or give it to Lorraine. But I don't. What good's a mink coat in an attic where nobody knows it's there? And Lorraine would just take it for herself. Jack would put a Quick Cash Price on it and wait for winter and up it ten times. Everybody gets a cut but me unless my wife will have it. And she won't.
On the way to town I use the road to the county lake. I'm stalling. I stop where I let out the cats. Nobody's around. Just me and picnic tables. Ducks on the lake.
I sit in the truck thinking what to do. Then I get out and put on the coat. I'm not big, so I can get into it. I don't know why I'm doing this, only once I saw an advertisement with Joe Namath wearing a mink coat. I like Joe Namath. Anyway, I put the coat on. That's when I find the note. In the pocket. It's the second note I've found from Mrs. Walters today. This one says: This is not my coat. I do not know how to give it back. It was signed Pricilla Walters, just like the note from her I found in the dictionary in the morning. I'll get to that. Same handwriting.
Now I got a mink coat my wife doesn't want, and I got a note out of the pocket from Pricilla Walters. Plus the note from the dictionary I shook for money before I found the mink coat.
Jack drives up. Maybe he's been to a farmhouse to buy collectibles. Or maybe he's got some Strange out this way. I think he does. Then I remember there's an auction in Wells on Wednesdays, and he's taking the back road to town. He stops. I'm standing there in Mrs. Walters' mink.
"What's up?" he points at the coat.
"I found it," I say.
"At Running Meade?" he says.
"The cottage we just emptied?" he says.
"You taking it?" he says. "For Laura?" Just then somebody we both don't know goes by in a pickup. Migrant man.
"Laura doesn't want it," I say.
"You need a price?" he says. He gives the sleeve a feel. I start to take it off but he says, "Keep it on. It looks nice on you." He winks. I should tell him to get fucked, but he's not all bad.
"You think so?" I wink back. I wiggle my ass and he laughs.
"A quarter," he says. "No one has to know."
He pulls out his wad and peels off two fifty. I look at the money. Something is happening to me. Just looking at the money, something is happening.
"I don't think so," I say.
"Three?" he says.
"It's not the money," I say.
"What's not the money?" Jack says. "Laura doesn't want it. Lorraine doesn't know about it. It's a clean deal."
"Maybe it's not right to sell it."
"What are you saying?"
"It's not mine," I say.
"Everything out of Running Meade's not yours," Jack says.
"It's stealing," I say. Jack looks at me like I'm not who I am. I'm standing there in Mrs. Walters' mink coat thinking about the first note from her, the one that fell out of the dictionary: I know what you do when we die. It was signed Pricilla Walters. Underneath her name she had written: ISTMP. I get out my wallet and Jack figures I'm going to take his money, but I'm not. It's where I'd put the note.
"What's this?" he says.
"It's to us," I say. "I found it in her cottage."
He gives it a glance. Then hands it back.
"So what if she knows," he says. "She's bye-bye."
"Maybe not," I say.
"You think she's not bye-bye," says Jack, and I can see he's backing away like me wearing a mink coat from a dead woman in the middle of nowhere was something he shouldn't have joked about. "She's dead, right? 911 dead. On the slab in the cooler at Eternal Peace."
"She's dead," I say. "But what she says isn't."
"She's talking to you," Jack says. "I got a license for what I do. I pay taxes. I took a course in being an estate broker. I got my certificate on the wall. You're the one she's talking to here. It's your cut she's talking about. You want to sell the coat or not?"
I don't say anything. Then I say okay. It seems like what I should say with Jack standing there holding out three-hundred dollars and me wearing Mrs. Walters' mink. At least I get my cut.
I take the coat off and give it to Jack and take the money. Then I hand the other note to him. The one about the coat not being Mrs. Walters'.
"What's this?" he says.
He reads it, then tears it to pieces and pitches it on the ground.
"Maybe the coat was stolen," I say.
"You're getting ..." and I can't hear what he says because another truck goes by.
"Maybe," I say, but I don't know what I've agreed to.
"I got to get going," Jack says.
We drive to town. I'm behind. Jack's pulls into Second Hand Rose and I know he's going to put the coat on consignment instead of waiting for winter. I'll buy it back, I say out loud in my truck. I'm behind him in the parking lot. I honk. He sees it's me.
"I'll buy it back." I yell as I get out. He's walking toward Jane's with the coat over his shoulder.
"Five hundred quick cash price," he says without stopping. "Here's your three hundred," I say catching up with him. "Follow me to the house and I'll get the rest." He stops.
He's looking at me like I'm fucking nuts. He's looking at me like he'll never think I'm anything but fucking nuts no matter how long we both live. Like maybe I was going to pull down my pants and beat by meat out there by the county lake with Mrs. Walters' coat on when he drove up.
"Jesus," he says.
We drive to the house. He stays in the kitchen while I go into the basement and get the money out of the water glasses. I take a ten from one glass, a twenty from another and so on, until I get the two hundred. When I come up I hand him the money and he hands me the coat.
"I think you're losing it," he says.
I know that's not what he said when the truck went by at the lake, and I wonder if he'll tell Laura.
"I'm quitting Running Meade," I say.
"You owe me for the mortgage," he says and walks out the door. The phone is ringing but I don't answer it.
I go into my basement with the coat. I put it on the bench where I sort stuff. I put Mrs. Walters' note about what she knows back in her pocket. Then I hear the door open upstairs. My wife calls, Randy. I say I'm in the basement. She comes down. Part way. She sits on the stairs. She says Lorraine has called her to see what's up.
"You sick? I talked to Jack and he said ..."
"I'm not going back to work," I say.
"What's with the coat?" she says. "I told you ... "
"I bought it."
"You bought it?"
"It's yours," I say.
"I don't want it," she says. But she's looking at it.
"I didn't steal it," I say. "I bought it."
"What do you mean you're not going back?" she says. Lorraine's looking for you. She wants you to go to Eternal Peace and tell them it's the woman who died last night that's there. She says you knew her."
"I'm not going back."
"You sick?" she says. "Jane says you stopped there with Jack then drove off. Then Jack said ..."
She comes the rest of the way down the stairs. It's the first time she's been all the way down for a year. Maybe more. She takes the coat off my bench and holds it out, then puts it on. She looks good in it. Very good.
"It's never been worn," she says. "What's this?" She's found Mrs. Walters' note. "What's it mean, she knows what you do?" My wife's taking off the coat. "I don't want it," she says. "Not even if you paid for it." But she's holding it.
Then she looks around the basement at my shelves and how neatly I've got it all organized. Maybe she's going to say we should take the money to Lorraine so we can keep the rest and not call it stealing. Maybe she's waiting for me to say it.
"I'm not going back. Never," I say. "I'll take the money to Lorraine, if that's what you're thinking."
"What about the rest of it?" she says. She's got the coat over her arm and looking around.
"I don't know," I say.
"I had some of the Regifts planned for Christmas," she says.
She puts the coat back on and looks at the note from the pocket and reads it again.
"What do you think it means below where she signed," I say. "ISTMP"
"'I Stopped Taking My Pills,'" my wife says as she moves herself so the coat settles over her. She looks at herself over her shoulder down the back.
"How'd you figure that so quickly?" I say.
"It just came to me," she says.
I walk up the stairs and out the door. I drive to Eternal Peace to tell them it's Mrs. Pricilla Walters they've got. She was on a cart behind a curtain. I found her on my own. I wanted to talk to her, but I was afraid somebody would come along and it would be like me wearing her mink when Jack drove up.
I didn't know everything I'd say, but I knew once I got started I'd say that I knew her note in the dictionary was for me. And how I gave all twenty dollars from her purse to Lorraine. That I was going to get Nike out of the pound before they puffed him. That Nike and Pebbles would just have to get along. Was it true about ISTMP? How I missed her sitting with me in the Green Shed and how I was going to ask her about the mink coat this morning as if she were wearing it next to me. Whose coat is it anyway? How did she get it into the attic. How does she know what I do when you're dead? Didn't she ever take a cut? Why were some books signed to her? What should I do with what I've stolen? The money. The Consumables. The ReGiftables my wife has planned for Christmas. The mink coat that's not hers.
But I don't say anything. Pretty soon along comes this woman who wants to know if I am Randy and can I identify The Deceased? I tell her The Deceased is Mrs. Pricilla Walters of Running Meade Court. She writes it down on a clipboard and I have to sign where she's put an X. Then because I don't leave, she asks if there is anything else. I can't talk to Mrs. Walters like I want to, so I say no.
I've quit Running Meade. I mow lawns. Plow snow in the winter. I'm spending down the money out of the glasses. Gas. Groceries. We pay Jack on the second mortgage. It won't last the year. But we got our Consumables. ReGifts. Nike is with us. He and Pebbles don't get along. My wife still works at the country water department. She won't talk to me about anything. Some days in my basement I think I should give it all back, but everybody's dead. And like Mrs. Walters said about the mink, I don't know how. Only I can't think she stole it. I've made stories about whose coat it is and how she got it in the attic, and why she couldn't give it back, and nowhere in my stories does Mrs. Walters steal it.
Not like me. When the girls open a present of fancy scarves or napkins and tablecloths from the Bays, I know it's stolen what we've made a gift of. When the wife and me have TV Swiss Steak for dinner, I know we're eating stolen food. And the dish soap she uses to wash up. The mink coat she won't wear but takes out now and then. Beer, when I have one with a ball game on the TV from the Bays I've got in my basement. A house full of stealing. That's where I live. Not that it gets it off my mind to confess it to myself.
Title graphic: "Theft" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2013.