Working Stiff Page 2

She took a deep breath, smiled, and stood as Mr. Fairview went to get her first real customers.

Up-sell. You can do this!


The first one wasn’t too bad; it was a middle-aged woman making arrangements for her father, and she seemed crisp and businesslike about it, or so Bryn thought, until she realized that there was a glaze of shock and misery over the woman’s apparently clear eyes. Still, she didn’t cry, didn’t argue, bargained reasonably, and walked away with a relatively modest coffin, middle-of-the-road funeral package, and a slightly better than average floral package, as well as the higher-priced memorial notice in the newspaper and online Mr. Fairview sat off to the side, saying nothing of any real substance, looking solid and helpful. After it was over, he saw the woman to the door and walked her out; Bryn watched from the window as he escorted her to her car, head bent down as if he were listening. Halfway there, in the lovely little garden grotto with its beautiful angel statue, the woman just … collapsed, as if she’d been hit in the solar plexus. Mr. Fairview didn’t seem surprised. He eased her down to a bench and sat beside her. Bryn watched, fascinated by the silent drama of it. His body language told the whole story—warm, kind, understanding. After a few moments, the woman managed to stand up and walk to her car, and Mr. Fairview came back inside.

“Wow.” Bryn sighed; she was half-admiring, half-resentful. She hadn’t read the woman as being ready to drop, but obviously Mr. Fairview had much more experience at this than she did. She had a lot to learn.

And to think she’d come in hoping to impress him.

By the time he arrived back in her office, she’d already gotten a good start on the paperwork and opened up the new folder with the deceased’s name on it. Everything was paper here, still; she thought maybe she could teach them a thing or two about going electronic with the process. Maybe if they all had tablet PCs they could do this at the initial meeting…. So much simpler to avoid all this laborious writing after the fact…. Show the pictures of the caskets and floral packages right there; zoom to show the detail….

Mr. Fairview came back inside and took the chair across from her. Bryn looked up, brows raised. She wanted to ask, but she was humiliatingly afraid of what he was going to say.

“Relax,” he said, and although she would have sworn she really wasn’t that nervous, she felt some hidden tension deep in her stomach slowly release. Wow. That felt good. “You did well enough, Bryn. Not a perfect job, of course, but solid. If you continue to sell that well, you’ll have a bright future in the business. Do you know what you missed?”

“Well, obviously, she was ready to collapse,” Bryn said, and bit her lip. “I didn’t see it. You did.”

“I’ve had considerably more experience at reading the recently bereaved. Don’t blame yourself.” He smiled at her, and the striking gray of his eyes reminded her suddenly less of silver than of dead ashes. It was just a flicker, and then it was gone. Probably her imagination running away with her. Again. Her imagination had always been a problem for her, which was partly why she’d stubbornly decided on a job in the death business…. Because imaginative people didn’t usually choose working with corpses and grief. Bodies didn’t scare her—no, indeed—but she couldn’t help but imagine the pain that had brought them to this last, painless end. Unlike most funeral directors, she’d not only seen death; she’d seen dying in many forms—quick, slow, painful, painless. It was the wrenching emotional process of that that she wanted to avoid.

The dead didn’t feel.

“Thank you for taking care of her,” Bryn said. “She seemed … kind.”

“Did she?” There was something odd in his look, as if Bryn were speaking a foreign language all of a sudden. “Well, I’m sure we’ll have time to get to know her better over the next few days and see whether your assessment is correct. She’ll be back for the detail arrangements. I assume you’re fine with handling those.”

“Oh, yes, sir.”

“That would include deciding on music, speakers, choosing the display room, liaising with her chosen minister— the family is Lutheran, I believe—as well as things like funeral dress and makeup.”

There were a dreadful lot of details about being dead, Bryn thought. She’d never had to arrange a funeral herself on the buyer’s end, but it seemed almost as complicated as buying a house, and just as prone to larceny. Right, note to self, she thought. Don’t ever care enough for anybody to have to do this for them. Oh, and don’t die. Two very silly thoughts, but they made her feel better.

Mr. Fairview seemed satisfied, because he checked his expensive Rolex watch and said, “Ah, I see it’s time for lunch. Plans, Bryn?”

“I— No, sir.” She’d brought her lunch. PB and J, just as she’d had all through high school and college. After MREs, having a simple peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich seemed like heaven in her mouth. Her tastes were pretty simple, but she didn’t really want Mr. Fairview to think that; he seemed more the filet mignon type of guy. She bet he drank Perrier water, too.

“Well, then, you must join me to celebrate your first day. Do you like French food?”

She’d no idea, so of course she nodded, smiling, and tried not to seem as out of her element as she felt. She was glad now that she’d gone with the nicer suit. Another note to self: buy way more business clothes. She hadn’t thought about it back at her apartment, but now that she was here, she could see that wearing the same two suits five days a week was bound to get old—not just for her, but for her coworkers, who’d think she was a charity case. That was something that hadn’t really occurred to her; she was used to having uniforms for work—same thing, different day, all crisply laundered and starched, but nothing individual.

Her credit card would withstand another couple of purchases…. Well, barely. That last trip to Crate & Barrel hadn’t been strictly necessary. When was payday for this job? Oh, yeah, not for at least two more weeks. Damn. She hoped the bill wouldn’t come due in the meantime. Awkward.

“Let me get my purse,” she said. She retrieved it from the desk drawer—the bag was a cheap leatherette thing, but as nice as she could afford. She hoped he wouldn’t look too closely, or judge too harshly. He seemed very well tailored, the kind of man who paid attention to designer labels and the little details. She’d never really been like that. If her shoes were cheap and made in China, well, so what, who cared … but she could already see that her attitude was going to have to change about such things. Permanently. She thought she’d left all that spit-and-polish crap behind her, but she should have known; once in the army, always in the army. This was just an army that wore business suits, and her new CO was almost certainly going to turn out to be a total pain in the ass.

They nearly always did.

Getting out of the funeral home was a shock, because Bryn still hadn’t gotten used to the beauty of being home. Well, not home home—her family lived in the not-very-scenic town of Clovis, New Mexico—but being back in the States had given her a new appreciation of how lovely it could be.

Especially southern California. It was a land of contrasts—the cool blue of the Pacific rolling into the distance, shrouded with a cloak of mist at the horizon, and the pale desert hills studded with cacti and patches of scrub trees. Stark and lovely.

Bryn couldn’t believe she was living here. Couldn’t believe it was her home now. It still seemed like some kind of dream; any second now, she’d wake up sweating in her uncomfortable bunk and start another day of IED Russian roulette.

No, it’s real, she told herself. This is real. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath of sweet, clean air—dry, warm, but not the oppressive stinging heat of Iraq.

“Bryn?” Mr. Fairview was standing at his Town Car, holding open the passenger door.

“Sorry, sir,” she said. “Just enjoying the view. It’s beautiful.“

Fairview smiled a little, and to her eyes, it looked cynical. “It’s expensive,” he said. “When my great-great-grandfather built this place, I’m sure he did it for the cheap land; today, the taxes alone are ruinous.” She shot him a startled glance. “Oh, not that we’re hurting for money, Bryn. One thing about the dead: they just never stop coming.”

That was one of the more unsettling—and yet weirdly comforting—things Bryn had ever heard.

The drive down the winding road to the restaurant in La Jolla took only ten minutes, but it seemed longer simply because of the silence in the car. Fairview, Bryn discovered, was not prone to chat. That was fine; she was used to silence—loved it, in fact. Her family life had been full of noise and chaos, and most of her college memories were of loud hall parties and stereo wars, not studying. The army, though, had introduced her to a whole new scale of what it meant to be noisy.

She’d learned to sleep through anything, when she had the chance to sleep; she’d also learned to relish the calm, cool peace of silence.

It settled between her and Fairview like the fog on the ocean.

“Here we are,” he finally said, and turned the car onto La Jolla’s main drag, lined with colorful shops, restaurants, and high-priced hotels. It was beautiful, in a way that most other shopping districts couldn’t quite pull off. Maybe it was the sea view, since the hill sloped right down to the rocks and the gently rolling waves. Fairview expertly negotiated the narrow parking space with the big car and shut the engine off.

As he reached for the handle of his door, Bryn said, “Sir, can I ask a question?”

He glanced over at her, surprised. “Of course.”

“You have relatively few employees, sir. I mean, there are only four of us that I’m aware of; is that right? The receptionist, you, me, and—”

“Freddy,” he said. “Our downstairs man. Yes.”

“That’s a very small crew for even a small mortuary. I’m a little concerned about our ability to cover—”

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