Take This Man - an exerpt from the novel
Three women meet at a funeral - their husband's
“Karla. Can’t you say anything pleasant about your ex-husband?”
“Yes. He’s dead.”
That was a week ago.
Three women sipped from their coffee cups, cast in the Limoges pattern selected by this law firm for the sole purpose of impressing their current and any potential clients. These attorneys did not leave such details to chance. They were very good at making sure, in any set of circumstances where there was money to be made, they were the ones to make it – for their clients of course. Sometimes they represented corporations, sometimes whole countries, and sometimes individuals.
Washington, D.C. was a place where any one of those entities could offer such a challenge to a group of legal eagles who were always on watch for the next lucrative prey. Like these women, for example. Today the firm was representing a man who had recently gone on to his reward, leaving behind an estate to be divided among his heirs. Those heirs were primarily these three women.
The beverages being sipped were telling indicators of the differences between the ladies. One ordered coffee – black no sugar. One replied to the offer with a hesitant – decaf, please, with extra cream and three sugars. And the third at first said, “Nothing for me thanks,” but with urging accepted a green tea with lemon, thank you very much.
Attorneys at Braxton, Braddock, Bedford and Associates, were accustomed to pandering to the rich or soon to be. It was their stock in trade. But of all the myriad glimpses into the human condition these lawyers had experienced in their century-plus of will reading, from the ridiculous to the sublime, this reading was an odds-on favorite to be the stuff of telling and re-telling over fingers of Johnny Walker Blue Label for years to come. And with three women involved and only one deceased husband, the smart money was on the ridiculous – not the sublime.
The women sipped, seated on three sides of the conference table that mirrored their imagines in its high gloss finish. The imagines were also accompanied by reflections of the china settings, a centerpiece of fresh yellow roses and blue iris in a Waterford crystal bowl, and issues of The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, Monday, May 23, 1994, editions. An attorney who held their collective fate between the crisp pages of the last will and testament would take his place at the head of the table when the precise time for the reading arrived. That was only moments away. For now, the women sipped – each lost in thought, wandering through her own memories of the events a mere six days past.
Other places are quiet.
Arlington is still.
The cherry trees, the stark white crosses, the Stars of David, the winding avenues ascending to the Custis-Lee Mansion; all that is Arlington.
It is funeral teams in Dress Blues. Statuesque. Eyes front. Shoulders back. Not a wrinkle on their uniforms. Not a shadow on their brass. The sun glinting off the luminescent steel of fixed bayonets. Every deep blue jacket embroidered with decorations in flawless alignment as per troop-adopted regulations not yet written. Every pair of bright blue trousers showing a bold golden stripe down the full length, straight as an arrow on men standing at attention out of respect for their fallen comrades. Some of those comrades fell on battlefields that are still hot today with M-16 fire. Some died in their beds with uniforms hanging in their closets that had only seen service in feeding the mole population for decades.
Today it was an officer drop. The First Battalion of the Third Infantry, better known as The Old Guard, did hundreds of them every year. Their assigned station was the place they knew as “The Garden.” Honoring America’s soldiers who have gone on to their reward was the duty they pulled. These men performed proudly, professionally, and sometimes consciously. They could do it in their sleep. The march, the turns, the gestures were not any different this time from all the times, all the times before.
It was rare, though, to do a drop for nobody but the corpse and the Arlington Lady. Arlington Ladies were blue-haired volunteers, mostly wives of retired officers living in or fertilizing the D.C. area. One Arlington Lady came to every funeral as a courtesy and insurance that all protocol was properly observed. The conviction among these black-draped, grief groupies was that even if this Full Colonel being buried today didn’t rate a single mourner, by Army regulation he rated as dignified a ceremony as a Patton or an Eisenhower. If they are all going to push up fescue together, they all deserved a proper burial - the famous all the way down to the known but to God.
The soldiers stood there. Gazing past the flag-draped casket. Hardly blinking. Allowing movement in their chest cavities barely sufficient to sustain much more life than the corpse. The rookies might wonder how this bastard bought it. The vets knew better than to give a damn.
As the team went through their paces, a white limousine slowed to a stop at the curb. It would have gone totally unnoticed except for one fairly green troop who had it directly in his eye line with white marble grave markers framing the polished Lincoln. As it became his focal point, he remembered a late model limo roaming the area earlier. It was not a particularly familiar sight in The Garden, most non-military vehicles being confined to tourist parking.
Without moving his eyes from the required straight-ahead position, he saw the chauffeur emerge, open the rear door and, without a doubt, a woman’s leg appear. This was where the years of self-denial and dedication paid off. Only a strack, gung-ho type troop could master this skill. With perfect appearance of attention in posture and eye position, the soldier’s acutely developed peripheral vision allowed him not to miss the emergence of a first class pair of legs. A lesser soldier would have missed the show.
What he saw could be cataloged as three-inch burgundy heels tapered to show a delicate instep, slender ankles, artisan calves nicely tanned, and a straight, dark gray skirt starting just above sculptured knees then stretching slightly over what had to be satin smooth thighs. Then a subtly plaid gray and burgundy jacket cropped at a hand-spread of a waist, flaring to reveal an open collar white blouse that was obviously silk; moving with breasts the way nothing but silk can. If only, the soldier thought, they gave a medal for this.
Dark auburn hair was close-trimmed around a delicate face in what would have been a severe style except for a burst of soft curls at the top of her head falling into bangs just above her large green eyes. She didn’t appear to be wearing much make-up, and she didn’t appear to need much. This woman looked to be in her early forties or late thirties: alluring but commanding. The kind of woman who could hurt you, the soldier thought. But if given the chance, he’d play with pain - gladly.
She approached the casket deliberately, ignoring even the Arlington Lady. She exhibited no evidence of crying, and she shed no tears over the coffin. She positioned herself beside the gaping grave, opposite the casket team and its burden. At this point, the young soldier lost the stunner from his line of sight and turned his attention back to the task at hand.
The Army Chaplain officiating the ceremony nodded towards the woman and began an enthusiastic reading of the twenty-third Psalm. Now that he had a genuine audience, he allowed his bellicose words to be carried on a northerly breeze. Before he could conclude his Shakespearean recitation, a yellow cab pulled up behind the limo, distracting the Mac Beth out of him.
The front door of the cab opened, and a woman could be seen leaning away from it, apparently paying the driver. With some difficulty she had climbed out of the low car parked too close to the inclining curb. “Heavy-set” would describe her graciously. “Petite” would also be kind. “Oriental” would boarder accuracy. She was most likely Korean from the wide face and narrow slit eyes. She wore a multicolored floral dress that would define the word “frumpy.”
One of those frizzy permed hairstyles was cut too short to fall nicely around her face but was left too long to stay neat in the breeze. She had to be 45 or more, and she seemed more concerned with getting her change into her worn wallet while pulling her black, cardigan sweater closed around her barrel chest than with the notion anyone might be watching her. She almost staggered to the grave site, collecting her shoulder bag along the way.
Stopping at the foot of the casket, the woman took several moments to arrange herself. She became aware of the Chaplain still working his way through the Psalm, made the sign of the cross, and bowed her head to stare at the pile of mud at her feet.
The Chaplain came to the last chorus, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.”
The frumpy woman repeated the Amen and crossed herself again. As the rifle team moved into place, a late model, white Grand Am pulled up behind the D.C. cab, the driver’s door opening abruptly. A rental decal was displayed on the trunk, which is as far as the young woman got before realizing she’d left on the lights. She did a combination skip-run back to the driver’s door, flung it open, and extinguished the lights. It was a sunny morning and, not being part of a funeral procession, the headlights were not required. Perhaps this young woman thought being in a cemetery, probably for her first time, was reason enough to observe this protocol.
She was definitely a natural blonde because no woman would dye her hair that dirty-yellow color intentionally. She had cow brown eyes and eyelashes exceptionally dark for the rest of her coloring. She was young looking, but not particularly pretty. Five feet, two inches would be a good guess at her height. Fully-pleated gray pants and an oversized, black blazer hung on her too-small frame. She appeared to be solemn from her appropriate facial expressions and too young to be present at a funeral unaccompanied. She lined herself up with the burial team as if becoming a part of it. Her eyes stared straight ahead, becoming expressionless, while awaiting the team’s next command with obvious knowledge of the progression of the ceremony.
Three authentic mourners: an ageless babe, a frumpy broad, and some kid girl, made up the entire assembly to see this Full-Bird planted. The volleys of the twenty-one-gun salute rang through the stillness. Three volleys with seven rounds each for Colonel Michael Jefferson Madison, III. Kid Girl stiffened, squared her shoulders, and stood at attention but was involuntarily jolted by each explosion. Ageless Babe stood unmoved by the gunshots, as if she didn’t hear them. Frumpy Broad made it obvious that she had no idea what the hell was going on, jumping with every blast.
“Jesus Christ,” she blurted out holding her hands over her ears and twisting and turning to locate whoever was making the racket. Kid Girl flashed a disapproving glance in her direction. Ageless Babe just stared off into the distance, composed but braced for the next portion of the ceremony: the always-unnerving strains of “Taps.”
“Day is done . . .” As the bugle tribute was played all three women were frozen by the simple notes clearly sounded over the funeral party. Only Ageless Babe moved in any noticeable way. She closed her eyes, took in a deep breath, and held it until the last strains were carried away by the breeze.
The casket team began the mechanics of folding the flag, denuding the coffin. Movements honed in repetitions, faithful to traditions never questioned. The same gesture of respect regardless of race, religion, regardless even of that most sacred to the military: rank. Protocol dictated Old Glory in a triangle be presented to the deceased’s wife; if none, parent; if none, child; if none, nearest relative along with the delivery of the same remarks: “-with the thanks of a grateful nation.”
The Officer in Charge made no excuses for the fact that, at this one-for-the-saloon-stories-drop, you couldn’t tell the players without a program. The service began with only those present who were under orders to be there plus the always-faithful Arlington Lady. It was ending with the arrival of three unannounced women. Who they were and what their reasons were for being in attendance was anyone’s guess.
The OIC, a Colonel, required to render honors to his fallen comrade of the same rank, made a rapier about-face at the head of the coffin and, using the full dignity of his command voice, broke the silence. “The flag will be presented to the nearest family member of the deceased. Is Colonel Madison’s wife present?”
Ageless Babe, Frumpy Broad and Kid Girl all stared directly at the officer and made this drop even more bizarre with their response. All three answered in one voice: “I’m his wife.”
You have to admire a man who can face a potentially life-threatening situation with the amount of reserve the OIC displayed. The rest of those present corporately swallowed hard and braced for an all-out assault. The Arlington Lady took a step and a half backwards as if getting herself out of range. The three professed wives stared back and forth at each other in obvious disbelief, except for Kid Girl who only seemed surprised to realize anyone besides herself was present in the capacity of a mourner. She had been lost in her own thoughts up to that point, pulling in her grief around her as if it would protect her from the steady breeze on the hillside.
Reflecting great credit upon himself, his unit and his country, the Colonel never flinched. You couldn’t say he was exuding calm because he could quote the reg from a manual of arms for this mission objective. Neither could you make the argument that he’d ever dealt with circumstances like this before. But he did not falter nor shrink from the hazard presenting itself for a simple reason that goes to the very heart of military training and discipline. He stood tall and gave every appearance of being more than ready and able to take charge of the situation at hand for the most basic of all military reasons: he had no idea what the hell to do next. So he faked it.
Several awkward milliseconds passed that seemed at least an hour long a piece. Isn’t it funny how quickly bills arrive in the mail and how fast days off pass? And then there are those sub-parts of seconds that just will - not – go - by.
Finally, Kid Girl spoke up in a surprisingly strong voice.
“I’m sorry Colonel, but unless I’m very much mistaken, I believe I am the current wife present.”
“Yes Ma’am.” He presented this child-bride with the flag and for all the control in the sound of her voice, her hands shook as she took it from him and clutched it to her formless breasts. She didn’t cry, though she looked as though she could. She just closed her eyes and bowed her head as if in prayer.
The casket was lowered. The team retreated. The Arlington Lady shook her head as she pulled off her head covering and walked away no doubt asking herself what on God’s good earth had become of officers’ wives?
Just as the soldiers began filing onto a bus parked a discrete distance from the burial site, Ageless Babe turned on her heels and marched away from the grave. Then, like a person who realized she forgot her car keys or pocketbook, she brought herself to a sudden halt, retraced her steps and stopped in the exact place she’d stood before. Reaching down, she clutched a handful of loose mud turned up in the process of digging the new grave. As she stood examining the earth in her jeweled and manicured hand, she squeezed it tightly. With her other hand she shaped it into a smooth ball all the while staring at the Army-issued coffin. She looked like a person mentally running down a long grocery list making sure she wasn’t forgetting a single item. When she seemed certain she hadn’t left anything out, she hurled the ball of dirt, splattering it against the top of the casket.
Both of the other women stood motionless as the reality of what just happened sank in. After a few seconds, Frumpy Broad let go a full-throated laugh, and in appreciation of the gesture, reached for a fistful of mud and made the same point-blank pitch to the casket. She grinned at her fellow assailant and turned to grin at Kid Girl just in time to see that the joke was wasted on the one non-participating party of the three.
Kid Girl stared at each of the women in pointed disapproval finally asking in a low but disciplined tone, “Is that really necessary?”
Frumpy Broad, embarrassed by the reprimand of the younger woman, stared at the ground and fidgeted with the edge of her sweater. But Ageless Babe just stepped back from the grave, straightened her jacket at the waist, and announced in an aristocratic southern dialect, “You bet your sweet ass it is, Sugar.”
Kid Girl was physically taken back by the remark, clutching the flag even tighter and swallowing as though it took some effort to do so. Noticing that Frumpy Broad had stopped looking embarrassed, she composed herself and said, “Well, he always spoke well of you, Karla.”
“And he always swore to me, Honey, that there would never be a YOU.”
From TAKE THIS MAN, by Kathleen Cochran, on Amazon.