Walter can’t speak for himself, because he died. One cold day last winter, he just sucked in a last breath, and that was it.
Walter was sixty years old when his heart finally decided to crump on him. It had beat for as long as it could, then it just stopped. It was quite a surprise to everyone.
Walter was not a planner. He liked the unexpected, and he liked spontaneity. His heart stopping definitely fell into the category of “unexpected” and “spontaneous”. Usually, Walter was the instigator of these sorts of spontaneous and unexpected ideas. This was one that his heart thought up all on its own.
Nobody really knew what to do, after Bertha found Walter dead in his easy chair. She knew he was dead because his cigar had fallen from his mouth and into his lap, and his ever-present beer can had fallen from his hand and spilled onto the floor, where the dog had finished it off. When Bertha walked into the room, she screamed. Then, she yelled at Walter. Bertha never yelled. Finally, Bertha did something she hadn’t ever conceived of herself doing: she slapped Walter across the face, but he didn’t wake up. Bertha felt terrible, because she wasn’t a violent person. When everything failed to rouse Walter, Bertha called her three daughters and son on the telephone. Someone called the paramedics, and everything spiralled into chaos from there.
Bertha considered herself a devout Christian woman. She was a Southern Baptist, and she attended church, alone, every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and went, unfailingly, to the Wednesday night prayer meeting. Walter was not a religious man, and he refused to pass through the doors of a church. Walter felt that if God really wanted him, God would come and see him, not the other way around. Walter hated gospel music, preferring a Country and Western fare, much to Bertha’s dismay. Walter loved the crack of a bat against a baseball, so he would spend hours during baseball season watching his favorite teams play on television. Bertha hated sports, and much preferred to listen to televangelists giving sermons to great crowds of people. Bertha had received an i-pod from a daughter one birthday, so while Walter listened to his Country and Western music and watched his baseball teams play, Bertha could swoon to her heart’s content over gospel music, or listen to all the sermons she wanted, and everybody was happy.
Walter and Bertha had been married for forty years. They married on the dock of the lake near the house they had bought for $4,000. It had required an $80 down payment, and Walter, who thought all debt was the one, certain way to the poor house, had paid it off in seven years. No one had been able to convince Walter that “debtors’ prisons” no longer existed. So when he died, Bertha was, indeed, debt-free. Walter retired from the postal service at the age of fifty-five, but until his death, he worked odd jobs as a mechanic and handyman. He loved to tinker, and thought himself an unsung inventor. His garage was filled with little drawers, full of little tinkering tools and odds and ends. Projects started but not finished, were stacked around the perimeter, and nobody quite knew what to make of any of them.
Walter never asked for directions. Instead, he carried a Thomas Guide with him in his car, whenever he went looking for a new place. He would study it carefully, before setting out on any journey, long or short. Getting “lost” never happened; Walter just went on what he called “sight-seeing adventures”.
No one could remember, ever, seeing Walter in a suit. Of course, he wore his mailman’s uniform during his working years, but Walter hadn’t considered that a suit. Bertha claimed that, not only had Walter never worn a suit, he’d never even owned one. When Walter’s parents and several of his nine siblings had died, he attended their funerals wearing jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. Funerals were one occasion when Walter donned stockings with what he still called tennis shoes. Walter could not understand why people felt they had to wear clothes that made them miserable, just because someone had died. So Walter went comfortably dressed.
Walter and Bertha shared a love for hot dogs, potato chips, hamburgers (preferably grilled on the backyard barbecue), and warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream piled high on top, its melting sweetness drizzling down the sides of the pie. Walter also loved anything “beef”. He considered a good, well-marbled beef steak commensurate with manhood. Walter didn’t give much credence to the doctors, who warned him about the dangers of too much beef and cholesterol and heart attacks, because most of his relatives had died of heart attacks, anyway, and he figured that was the way he would go, too. He saw no reason to leave this earth feeling deprived.
Walter was prolific at profanity. To Walter, profanity was a dialect. Bertha called it filth, and told him that if he was her child, she’d wash his mouth out with soap. She also told Walter that taking the Lord’s name in vain was a sin. But the neural pathways involved with cursing were too deeply ingrained in Walter’s brain, and his own colorful dialect never changed.
When Walter and Bertha married, Bertha wore a sun dress, and Walter wore deck shoes without stockings, Bermuda shorts and a tee-shirt that had an arrow pointing to his then-trim belly, that said “The Beer Goes Here”. He had stencilled the tee-shirt himself. In Walter’s defense, Bertha went barefoot, even though she thought sandal pumps would be much more appropriate for a wedding. Walter gave Bertha a simple gold band for a wedding ring, and Bertha gave Walter one that matched. Walter thought diamonds were excess and a waste of money, so Bertha settled for the gold band. Bertha was so in love with Walter that she would have settled for a silver ring, or even one from a box of Cracker Jacks, because she just wanted Walter. And she had him.
Walter didn’t go anywhere beyond the mailbox, without his cooler of beer. He didn’t drink to excess, he just sipped and sipped and sipped, and he didn’t really care if the beer was cold. So a six-pack could last him all day long. He just liked the taste. He enjoyed puffing on a cigar every day, and as far as Walter was concerned, everybody he knew could just buy him a box of cigars and a six-pack of beer, and put them under the Christmas tree, and he would be happy. He didn’t want much besides Bertha, his cigars and his beer. And his Country and Western music.
Because Walter wasn’t a planner, he hadn’t planned for his death. His daughters had asked once, but he had refused to talk about what he wanted done when he died, because, he explained, it was vital to sail under the radar when it came to matters of the Grim Reaper, otherwise, he was likely to come calling even sooner. Bertha had gone ahead and bought two plots at the local cemetery, side by side, where she had arranged to be buried next to Walter–when the time came. But that’s as far as it had gone. That was the only secret Bertha had ever kept from Walter, and now the time had come. And nobody knew quite what to do.
After the paramedics pronounced Walter officially dead, Bertha called Ralph, the funeral director at Prairie View Funeral Home. Bertha was never quite sure of why a cemetery needed to have a view; after all, she thought, nobody there was likely to be looking. So she had purchased what was considered a “non-view” plot, which was much less expensive. And she figured it was something that she and Walter could easily do without–when the time came.
So now that the time had come, the planning had to be done. Everyone had their own ideas about the funeral, and how it should happen. Since Walter hadn’t been vocal on this subject, the discussion became a free-for-all. Ralph, the funeral director, sat quietly in Walter’s living room, while the family battled on about what to say about Walter at his funeral, what Walter should wear, should the casket be opened or closed, what music should be played, should the Southern Baptist preacher preach, and so on and so on and so on.
Bertha had chosen the most basic casket available, because she was certain that was what Walter would have wanted. The children agreed. Bertha wanted an organist from her church, to play “Amazing Grace” and “In the Garden”, which were two of Bertha’s favorites. The children disagreed, pointing out that Walter hated gospel music. To side-step an all-out war on the subject, everyone agreed to table the discussion about music; it could be decided later. Everyone except Walter’s cousin wanted an opened casket; Walter’s cousin was squeamish about seeing dead people, and thought it was disrespectful of the dead and a violation of privacy. No one could agree on Walter’s final attire, so after listening to the family wage war for fifteen minutes on the subject, Ralph, the funeral director, suggested that the usual attire was a nice suit and tie; shoes, he said, didn’t matter, because nobody would see his feet. Bertha said, fine, Walter would wear his flip-flops, and no stockings. Bertha insisted on the Southern Baptist preacher saying a few words, but compromised with the son and daughters, who wanted an open session, where everyone in attendance who had known Walter could stand and say a few words.
The day before the funeral, the family met at the funeral home to inspect Walter and his casket. The casket was basic, and all members of Walter’s immediate family agreed that it was in keeping with Walter’s character. But, Ralph, the funeral director, had dressed Walter in a black suit, with a starched white shirt and tie. Bertha said he didn’t look like Walter, especially with the make-up that disguised his red, bulbous nose and the lipstick, which according to Ralph, was intended to put “just a touch of color” on his lips. The son said he looked like a drag queen. Ralph gasped, as Bertha pulled a kerchief out of her pocket, spat on it, and gently wiped away the color. The son and daughters said the tie made Walter look like he was strangling, and that, too, must go.
When the day of the funeral arrived, Bertha and her children filed into the front-row pews, followed by other surviving family members and people Walter had known over the years. Music played quietly in the background, a Country and Western singer crooning “Amazing Grace” and ”Back in the Saddle Again”. Walter lay reposed in a basic coffin, which had been draped with an American flag. He wore jeans and a tee-shirt with an arrow pointing toward Walter’s stomach, where “The Beer Goes Here” had been freshly stencilled. The Southern Baptist preacher shared a few, short words, mostly penned by Bertha and the family, then invited the group to join in a little prayer. Many people stood to share their personal memories of Walter.
At the end, the family was asked to lead a procession by the casket, for one, last viewing of the man they knew as Walter. Bertha went first. She touched his hands, which were folded across his chest, kissed his cheek lightly, then placed a rose from her garden across his chest. Daughter number one carefully nestled a six-pack of beer next to his left elbow. Daughter number two gently worked a cigar between his right forefinger and middle finger. A small, framed photo of Babe Ruth at bat, along with a new baseball and bat, were tightly wedged between Walter’s right side and the casket, by daughter number three. And, lastly, Walter’s only son laid the newest edition of the Thomas Guide at his side. “That’s so you don’t lose your way, Dad,” his son said quietly to Walter.
With that, Walter was laid to rest. Walter had, after all, spoken for himself.
©Janet Mitchell, May 2012. All rights reserved. Any resemblence to any person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction.