Roy owned the only drive-thru funeral business in Maine. Names of the departed were posted alphabetically on a selection board fit with a speaker. In memory of his drowned sister, Roy modeled his board after the one at Wendy’s, her favorite burger restaurant. The drowning occurred in Roy’s thirteenth year, the summer Lael raised his rank from nuisance to friend. On his board, poems, cards, and flowers were listed for purchase in place of singles, fries, and Frosties. Roy thought the drive-thru eulogy was an especially nice touch. Small packets of tissue were available for no extra charge.
The older, more conventional funeral practitioners in town called him “Roy the Bubble Boy” because of the glass partition he dwelt behind and because they considered him a bit too peculiar, even for Maine. They rejected the notion that grieving can be just another scribble on one’s to-do list. A true Mainer faced grief the same way he faced ice and snow: he went out there and plowed through. Roy knew what they said and supposed there was truth in it. Still, the less he saw of grieving, the happier he was. And it was clear his patrons agreed. For whatever reason, most of them chose to grieve from the privacy of their cars. It was a luxury Roy was pleased to offer them.
As there had been no lull in business since opening his doors (and his window) five months ago, Roy hired a patient, owl-eyed widower named Alfred to file papers, dispose of shriveled bouquets, and deal with face-to-face grievers. Roy found the face-to-facers so irksome he now left them all to Alfred.
One warm, blue Friday, while reclined at the drive-thru with his feet up, eating a tuna melt, Roy noticed that a stillness ripe with intention now plagued the lobby. An earlier phone call had left Alfred blurry from weeping, and Roy suspected the maudlin effects of the call still lingered. When he turned to confirm his theory, he caught Alfred perched at the door as though it were a starting gate, gazing at him over the rims of his thick-framed spectacles the way one gazes at the old-soul elephants ankle-chained at the zoo.
“Alfred? You’re doing it again. I wish to God you’d quit that.”
“Was I, sir?” Alfred said, unruffled. “I didn’t realize.”
“I’m not some pitiable specimen, for God’s sake.”
Alfred’s expression turned grave, hurt. He took a step toward Roy. “Of course not, sir. No one believes that.”
At first Roy nodded his agreement, but as he revisited Alfred’s words, he wrinkled his brow, wondering what others did believe. A short silence ensued. Then Roy asked, “Everything shipshape on the phone?”
Alfred gazed warmly again at Roy over his spectacles. “I’d say so,” he said, nodding. “I expect things will work out quite nicely.”
“But who was calling?” Roy asked. “Not that Blevins fellow again, I hope.” He chuckled. “The man is replete with gruesome details.”
“It was not Blevins.” There was a silence again as Roy waited for Alfred to fill him in. Finally, when Alfred offered no further elaboration, Roy sighed. “Well…good day, then. Plenty of time to catch up on Monday.”
Alfred stepped outside, smiled a heartfelt goodbye through the glass, and eased the door closed behind him.
Not ten minutes later, a melodious woman’s voice behind Roy’s head startled him.
“Where is he?”
Unaccustomed to hearing voices behind his head after lobby hours, Roy wheeled around in his creaky desk chair to face the owner of the voice, his heart jogging.
Opposite his flecked Formica counter stood a dark-haired woman of twenty-eight or perhaps twenty-nine years—very near Roy’s own age. Though her waist-long hair was a lustrous shade of walnut that he admired (identical to coffin 23078-W, $1,479.50 on special next week), Roy had never seen hair so…so…liquid-like, he supposed. A dark river of flowing hair, that’s what this woman had. Touching the prickly finger-width hairs behind his own ear, he imagined the weight involved in carrying a river from one’s head each day, as well as the glare reflected in one’s morning mirror, and felt the outer corner of his left eye twitch with trepidation.
Roy draped his paper napkin over his tuna melt and rose stiffly to his feet, brushing nonexistent crumbs from his trousers. He attempted to arrange his lips into a type of smile. “Lobby hours have ended,” he said to the woman, using the same calm cadence he’d used to good effect with other disoriented grievers. “However, our state-of-the-art drive-thru remains conveniently open until eight p.m. to satisfy all your after-hours grieving needs.”
He hoped that would be the end of it, releasing him from the presence of her liquid hair and returning him to the peace of his tuna melt and his push-button window. Since losing his sister in the rippled depths of Lake Meade (one playful jump from the bridge and she’d vanished), Roy had made it his mission to avoid thinking of liquids at all. It prevented him from thinking of Lake Meade, the alleged-to-be-bottomless swimming hole Lael swore they would visit, as soon as the time was right. The idea of swimming in a bottomless lake had delighted Roy because a love of water ran in his genes. For years he and Lael had been akin to ducks. That day he had traipsed down the weedy slope after his sister, marveling that the water was so blue. He recalled kicking off his flip-flops and heading in deeper, step-by-step until he felt the cool, wet line settle below his nose. Lael lay on her side beside a drooped branch, watching things he couldn’t see. Near his lips, a water strider’s footprints indented the lake’s surface. Roy blew a wave of gentle bubbles the bug’s way. When he peered down through the water, nose-deep, he abruptly realized it had never been blue at all, for he made out every sprout of hair on his shins, despite them being the same peachy color as his skin. He had felt sad, then, at having lost something.
The woman plopped a square purse on Roy’s counter. “Wait,” she said. “I’m Greta Ember, your 4:30. I’m here to meet my…father.” She sang more than spoke the word “father,” highlighting it with what felt to Roy like an opiate-induced smile.
“Meet?” asked Roy. “This is not…”
“Out of the blue Mom revealed his name when she read the obituary. Oh!” she exclaimed, startling Roy, then squinched her eyes and chanted to herself, “This is real, this is real.”
Roy blinked. His forefingers formed a steeple against his lips as he strained to decipher Miss Ember’s bubbling. Instead of standing at the counter the way other face-to-facers did—as though being pulled into the ground, as if grief had rid them of muscle and bone—this woman bounced on the balls of her feet. Roy felt a surge of vertigo and clutched the counter. Since opening his successful drive-thru funeral business, he had never encountered anyone…jiggly.
“You,” she said, “you must be Roy? I felt so grateful when Alfred said you’d fit me in.”
“Alfred?” Roy asked. “My Alfred?”
Miss Ember stilled her jiggling long enough to ponder Roy’s question. She took a brisk breath. “I think so,” she said, and clasped her hands beneath her chin. “He answered your phone.”
“Who, may I ask, is the grieve-ee?”
“I’m sorry—the greevy?”
“The departed. Who is he?”
“Oh!” Miss Ember exclaimed. “He’s my…father.”
“Yes, yes,” Roy said. “That fact is crystal clear. But what is his name?”
“Oh, just a second. I’ve got it right here.”
With trembling fingers, Miss Ember sprang the purse’s gold clasp. From a collection of envelopes and papers, she quickly exhumed an index card printed with purple ink and also a rumpled, dimpled, and torn photo, which she bent, flattened, and smoothed before pushing the photo at Roy and then looking to him with dire eyes for some sort of answer. “Can you see the resemblance?” Miss Ember asked, bringing her face up to Roy’s. “Between my father and me?”
Roy’s eyes dipped in their sockets, glimpsing a solemn Hispanic teenager astride a motorcycle.
Miss Ember’s hands flew like tan butterflies to her face. “Maybe the nose?” She displayed her nose elegantly for Roy with her fingertips. “The line and length of it?” When Roy only frowned, she tried smiling widely. “Or the crooked upper lip? See it? See?” She sighed and closed her eyes. Her shoulders slumped. “My skin tone has always been tea-stained, but I’ve never known why.” She gasped, covering her mouth, and stared at the photo. “And now I do…” Her eyes drifted to and fro. “Oh, how can I possibly take it in?”
“There are medications…”
Miss Ember froze—and then burst out laughing. “I’m not sick, silly. I’m grieving!”
Once Miss Ember provided him with the name, Roy recognized poor Tomás Castillo as the only grieve-ee resting in back whose condolence basket remained empty. He crossed the lobby to Alfred’s desk and consulted the handwritten appointment calendar he kept Velcroed to his credenza. He scanned the entire week’s entries in one glance and found no reference to an Ember or a Castillo. Alfred’s final appointment for the day had been with the waiflike Vale sisters, penciled in for 3:15. The one thinly relevant bit of scribbling Roy did find was upon the lime-green Post-it note he slipped from under Alfred’s potted cactus. It read “4:30,” encircled by a heart.
Taking the note, Roy walked slowly back behind the counter. “And Alfred said I would see you this afternoon…at 4:30?”
“Yes. To introduce me to my…father.”
Roy squinted quizzically at the note as he massaged the corner of his left eye. What on earth could explain this? Had Alfred gone loopy?
“Miss Ember,” Roy began. “What most likely happened here is that Alfred went home and forgot to lock the door. The door should have been locked seventeen minutes ago by Alfred. A simple mistake has been made, an innocent misunderstanding.” Roy sighed. He scratched his head above his ear. “Alfred will be in Monday morning and is much better suited to the task. He has a gift for dealing with…the living.” Roy sighed. “Please, Miss Ember.”
Moments passed while tears welled in Miss Ember’s eyes. The liquid spilled onto her cheeks almost immediately. For the remaining few minutes she stood there, Roy diverted his attention to the huge ticking moon which hung on the wall directly above the coffin-selection station. By making the clock the room’s focal point, Roy had hoped to add a vein of efficiency to what he believed deep in his soul to be the horrible, sprawling, suffocating, furnace-like task of grieving; though to all who entered Roy’s Drive-Thru Funeral Home on their feet, the clock’s hands instead ticked this fretful reminder: “Time-is-pass-ing, time-is-pass-ing.”
With Miss Ember gone, Roy locked the door and returned to his sandwich. The day had been manageable until Miss Ember arrived; now his head and chest felt constricted. He stared a long time at his napkin-draped sandwich. He observed that he could now see the bread right through the napkin where grease had created an oily window. In some basic way this loosened him. He raised the napkin and gazed through the portal at the blue afternoon sky. He could even feel the effect physically, a sort of renewed flow of air. He recalled talk from his manufacturer not too long ago of launching a line of transparent coffins. The idea of being able to “see out” soothed some people, a nationwide poll had shown. He could now comprehend why. Of course, one still wound up below ground, or burned.
Roy let the napkin go and groaned. He was tired. Propping his elbow on the counter, he let his head rest in his hand as he pictured the cloudless sky over the sun-soaked bridge that other warm blue day. He’d swum around for about an hour before Lael ushered him up there for the jump. Leaning against the rail, he had a clear view of his flip-flops where he’d dropped them at the water’s edge, usually long and skinny like Indian canoes, but now tiny enough to fit a cat.
“I want you to see something,” Lael said, unbuckling her crisscrossed sandals. Though seventeen, she picked the same ones every year, only bigger. Leaning next to him, she dangled the sandals by the ankle straps over the rail. “Watch,” she said, then let go.
Roy shut his eyes. He didn’t want to watch. “I don’t think you should do it,” he said. “It’s too high.”
The drive-thru window chimed, and Roy blinked. He felt a pair of warm, wet streaks upon his cheeks.
He dried his face and activated the speaker. A nine-seat tank wrapped in wood-grained plastic and swarming with unbuckled children idled outside his window. “Uh, yes?” he asked.
The driver, a cherry-shaped woman with blushing cheeks and tightly permed hair, turned toward Roy’s voice. “Any bouquets on special? All I’ve got is a twenty.”
“I believe mini-bouquets are listed in the bottom-right corner under Odds and Ends.”
“There, Mom,” squealed a pig-tailed youngster whose pointing finger, amid a blur of others, squirmed in the second window.
“Okay, okay, I see ’em,” the woman replied. “So, we’ll take the mini-daisies and the “It’s Never Too Late to Say I Love You” poem and eight of the free tissue packets, too.” She dropped her money into the tube. “Here it comes.” When Roy received the money, he squashed the tissue packets, along with $4.02 in change, into the tube and pressed the button.
“Say guh-bye to Gramma Myrtle, everybody,” the woman crooned.
“Guh-bye, Gramma Myrtle,” they all chorused.
The station wagon roared away. Roy wandered to the order-filling station to remove poem 54L and bouquet 17MD from the shelf. Then he swung open the door to the 50-degree “lounge” where his seven current grieve-ees rested.
Roy shivered. Gazing over the rectangular lounge, he located Gramma Myrtle’s condolence basket and patented bouquet vessel instantly due to their jam-packed state. To his surprise, piling mementos at the foot of the caskets seemed a bit inadequate now. Nevertheless, he slid the poem into the mix and glanced around for what he might do with the flowers.
Empty receptacles belonging to the grieve-ee next door caught his eye. “Ah, yes,” he said aloud, as was his habit in the lounge. “Poor Tomás Castillo.” He opted to place the daisies right there, in Mr. Castillo’s cavernous holder.
But then Roy froze, and the daisies fell from his hand. Before him, under Plexiglas, were Castillo’s orders. When Miss Ember came in earlier, he now realized, he hadn’t checked the orders. If he had, he would have seen that Tomás Castillo, father to Greta Ember, had an eight o’clock appointment the next morning in the crematory.
In the alley between the coffins, Roy began to pace. How could he have behaved so inhumanely? The more he considered the situation, the uglier it seemed. Space, schedules, and Maine’s health code dictated he couldn’t alter the order. In the morning, Castillo’s body would be burned. In three days, Greta Ember would return to meet her father, per Roy’s direction, and find him incinerated. His only traces would be gray ash and the dreadful images Miss Ember’s desperate mind would most likely construct. Because of him, Greta Ember would lose her one chance to say hello to her father—and goodbye.
Roy knew what to do: phone her. He jogged hopefully to Alfred’s desk but then sank into the chair and covered his face when he realized he had no number. He scanned the local phone directories with no success. All was lost.
As Roy sat miserably, the drive-thru window chimed. He would have ignored it had he not wisely concluded that additional workplace ineptitude could only make matters worse.
He got to his feet and trudged to the window and saw Miss Ember upon a bicycle looking back at him, her long hair tousled, her previously bright eyes dim. The sight of her surprised him so completely his mouth fell open. Then Miss Ember sped away.
Roy flew out the back door. Miss Ember’s hair fluttered behind her like a dark cape. “Miss Ember,” he called, scalp tingling in the fresh evening wind. He leapt over a bed of stinging junipers. “Miss Ember, come back.” Cooper, the gas station fellow next door, banged his head on the hood of the truck he’d been tuning when he spotted Roy sprinting by.
Waving his arms from the curb, Roy watched Miss Ember stop her bicycle at the street. After an unbearably long pause, she turned around and pedaled toward him.
When she coasted next to the curb where he could speak to her, Roy saw that Miss Ember’s nose and cheeks glowed pink. For a moment he wondered if she hated him, but the tiny typhoon in his chest told him otherwise. “I’ve made a dreadful mistake,” he said, and watched Miss Ember’s face rise into a smile and her dark eyes pool with relief, as she prepared to fulfill the purpose of her visit—and her destiny.
Observing Miss Ember, Roy could clearly remember seeing these manifestations in his sister. The scene came into sharp focus now. The two of them standing out there on the bridge, he and Lael. The sun so big and low. Faint radio noise murmuring farther down the beach. Lael wore a white V-neck T-shirt and blue cutoffs with a red bandana belt. For the first time, he saw her last moments plainly. Ten seconds before she leapt into Lake Meade, his sister had turned to him and smiled, with relief. He’d supposed the smudges below her eyes that day were a part of her style. When he’d looked into her eyes, eyes the color of ferns had bid him farewell. The image rushed at him now. From those eyes had flowed delicate streams.
fay harris lives in Seattle with her husband, dachshund, and Catahoula Leopard Dog. Her first story, “Stardom,” appeared in The First Line.