Someone to Clean

Mason left her in the shed and went back to his children. He expected them to ask about Lila, but no one did. Mason said nothing about the jewelry. His son had questions about their mother’s last days. His younger daughter was weeping, softly, dabbing a handkerchief to her eyes. Then they began speaking about good times, when they were young, things their mother did with them, costumes she had made, parties she had arranged. Soon they were laughing, and Mason relaxed.

The next morning at the funeral home, Mason and his children sat in the front close to the draped coffin, some friends scattered among the rows of padded folding chairs, a few old schoolmates of his son and daughters, everyone silent or whispering.  Mason heard the squeak of a door at the back of the room.  Lila slipped inside and took a chair in the rear.  He had never seen her in a dress, this one dark and shapeless, Virginia’s necklace glittering red and gold, the brooch pinned below it, still crooked.

He couldn’t concentrate on the service, his son’s litany of his mother’s virtues, the official eulogy, all the time staring at the shiny mahogany of the coffin, lost in the mystery of what was encased within.  My life, he kept thinking, and wondered what was left.

Then, suddenly, the service was over, and two black-suited men wheeled the coffin out through a back door.  Virginia wanted to be cremated.  So did he.  They had put that in their wills, directing that no one should be there, no family, no friends, just those whose work it was.  He would never see Virginia again.

The funeral director aligned Mason and his children at the front entrance to the room to shake hands and hear the murmured sympathy of those who had attended.   His daughters gave faint smiles to each one.  His son looked solemn.  Mason just nodded.

He realized he was waiting for Lila in the line of people, but she wasn’t there.  When the room was nearly empty, his children off in a corner talking to friends, he went out to the lawn, seeking light and fresh air.

Lila was waiting on the stone pathway at the base of the steps.  Mason felt he had to speak to her.

“Thanks for coming.”  He reached out to shake her hand as he had done with all the others.

She kept her arms at her side.  “I don’t like your children.”

“You hardly know them.”  He felt a surge of anger.

“They’re cold people.  Like their father.”

“And Virginia was their mother.”

“None of you deserved Virginia!”  Lila was crying, and he thought she might start wailing again.  Instead she shouted.  “You never knew her!  I’m mourning for you all!”

Mason realized he had not paid her for her work.  He pulled the wallet from his coat pocket and stripped off bills, not looking at them, not counting.  He gripped her wrist and pressed the money into her hand.

Mason turned his back and spoke as he walked away, “I’ll be getting someone else to clean.”

Walter Cummins has published six short story collections—Witness, Where We Live, Local Music, The End of the Circle, The Lost Ones, and Habitat: stories of bent realism. More than 100 of his stories, as well as memoirs, essays, and reviews, have appeared in magazines such as New Letters, Kansas Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, Under the Sun, Arts & Letters, Confrontation, Bellevue Literary Review, Connecticut Review, The Laurel Review, Other Voices, Georgetown Review, Contrary, Sonora Review, Abiko Quarterly, Weber Studies, Midwest Quarterly, West Branch, South Carolina Review, Crosscurrents, Crescent Review, The MacGuffin, in book collections, and on the Web. With Thomas E. Kennedy, he is co-publisher of Serving House Books, an outlet for novels, memoirs, and story, poetry, and essay collections. For more than twenty years, he was editor of The Literary Review.