There should be a law in South Florida that a person can't die during the summer. The death of a loved one was hard enough without the added humiliation of sweat. I felt it rolling down my back, like a stream trapped by the belt of my dress with nowhere to go.
My name is Madison Elizabeth Westin, and I'm seated at the funeral of my favorite aunt, people watching, of all things. Most of the mourners looked ready for a pool party, some of them in shorts and bathing suit cover-ups. I was the only one dressed in black; even my brother wore khaki shorts.
The minister began, “We are gathered here today to give thanks for the life of Elizabeth Ruth Hart, who shared herself with us. It is in her memory we come together and, for all she meant to us, we are thankful.”
My mother had named me after her older sister. Elizabeth was like a second mother to my brother Brad and me. We spent summers with her in Florida, running and playing on the beach, building sandcastles, and she was a regular visitor to our home in South Carolina.
After five years of not seeing her, I had packed for a several-month stay and planned to spend the summer with her. That's when I got a phone call from her lawyer telling me she had died. I still found it difficult to believe it had happened so suddenly.
When I walked into the funeral home earlier, the heat had smothered me; this main room was suffocating. The air conditioning wasn’t working and it felt as though it was more than one hundred degrees. The director, Dickie Vanderbilt, had apologized for that, telling me that the central unit had gone out earlier in the day. He informed me he had all of the ceiling fans on high, which, in my opinion, were only circulating hot air.
Dickie Vanderbilt gave me the creeps. He had a slight build, pasty white skin, and long skinny fingers. When he reached out to touch my arm, I tried hard not to squirm.
I'm not a big fan of shaking hands. I find people only want to shake your hand when they can see you're not interested. A friend suggested I perfect the dog paw shake for those who insist. I extend my hand like a paw and let it hang loose. Often times, they jerk their hand away and give me an odd stare, which makes me want to laugh every time.
The minister rambled on. I found him to be uninteresting, his speech dry. He talked about Elizabeth as though she were a stranger to him and everyone here. Apparently, Elizabeth's jerk attorney, Tucker Davis, hadn't given the minister any information about her. I didn't understand why my aunt left all of the details of her funeral to Tucker. Why would she exclude the people who loved her and knew her best from having input? I wished I had one more day to walk along the beach to laugh, talk, and collect shells with her.
On Sunday, Tucker called to inform me that Elizabeth had died in her sleep from a heart attack. “The funeral is Wednesday, 1:00 p.m. at Tropical Slumber Funeral Home on Highway 1 in Tarpon Cove," he told me.
“I want to help plan the funeral.”
“All of the arrangements have been made.” He sounded impatient, emphasizing his words. “If you want to, you can call anyone else you think should be informed.”
“My aunt would've wanted her family to be involved in the decision-making for her funeral. After all, my mother, brother, and I are the only family she had.”
“Elizabeth appointed me executor. She left me written instructions for everything she wanted done after her death, including her funeral."
I didn't believe him. Elizabeth loved us. She never would've excluded her family in this way, knowing how important it would be to us.
"I oversaw all of the arrangements myself. I'm sure you'll be satisfied. If you have any other questions you can call my assistant, Ann.” He hung up the phone.
My aunt never once mentioned Tucker Davis to me or anyone else in the family. Here he was, a stranger, handling her estate.
The next day, I called the lawyer back to tell him that Elizabeth’s sister Madeline, her nephew Brad, and I, would attend. He refused to take my phone call, and I was frustrated.
“This is Madison Westin. May I speak with Tucker Davis?”
“I'm Ann, Mr. Davis’s assistant. He's not accepting calls at this time. Can I help you with something?”
“I wanted to ask again if there was anything I could do in preparation for Elizabeth Hart’s funeral? Surely, you can understand how her family would want to be involved in any final decisions.”
“Mrs. Hart wanted Mr. Davis to make those arrangements, and he has. She didn't indicate that she wanted anyone else involved in the planning. I can assure you he's seen to all of the details. He worked directly with Mr. Vanderbilt at the funeral home." “I'll be arriving later today. Would you tell Mr. Davis I'm available to help with anything that needs to be done? He can reach me at Elizabeth's house."
“Does Mr. Davis know you plan to stay in Mrs. Hart’s house?"
“I don't need Mr. Davis’ permission. I've never stayed anywhere but the Cove Road house, and this trip won't be any different. If Mr. Davis has a problem with my staying there, he can call me," I said.
“Any more messages?” Ann sniffed and, without waiting for a response, hung up on me.
* * *
Tarpon Cove is an unsophisticated beach town situated at the top of the Keys off the Overseas Highway, which begins just north of Key Largo and ends in Key West. Tropical Slumber Funeral Home is located on the main street that runs through town. In a previous life, the building had obviously been a drive-thru fast food restaurant, the kind where you drove through the center of the building to place your order for a hot dog and fries. The new owners hadn't even bothered to take down the concrete picnic tables that were on the side of the building. But they had replaced the old metal umbrellas with tropical thatched-style ones. A red carpet ran from the parking lot to the front door and continued to the door of the hearse parked behind the building.
We'd taken our seats on the rock-hard old church pews. I turned to look at my mother. “People are going to hear you laughing,” I whispered. “What’s wrong with you?”
My mother, Madeline Westin, had aged well; she looked younger than her sixty years, her short blonde hair framing her face. She wore a colorful sundress that showed off her long tanned legs.
She put her head on my shoulder. “I think Elizabeth is staring at me,” she whispered back.
Mother was right about one thing: it did appear as though Elizabeth was staring at everyone. They'd propped her up in the casket, and positioned her to sit straight up. She was dressed in a tent-style dress that was bright yellow and flowery, with a wilted corsage pinned to the front; a dress she never would've chosen for herself. Yellow was her least favorite color, and here she was surrounded by all white and yellow daisies and carnations, when she loved bold color and exotic blooms.
I tried to speak to Dickie about the arrangements when I first arrived in town. He told me firmly that he only took instructions from Tucker Davis and he wasn't allowed to discuss any of the final details. I wondered why the secrecy, but he was so nervous I didn't ask any more questions. He told me not to worry; he had worked hard to make everything memorable.
I appealed to him, "Don't family members usually participate in the planning?"
But he was very clear; Tucker Davis' approval was the most important thing to him.
I took a deep breath. Later, our family would create a lasting tribute to Elizabeth showing how much we had loved and respected her, and how we would deeply miss her. But for now, this would have to do, I guess.
I glanced up and saw a man who looked to be in his 60’s walking to the podium. He was well-worn, beer-gutted with dirty looking grey hair, and dressed in jean shorts and a tropical shirt that looked as though he'd worn them for several days.
“Hey, everyone,” he said into the microphone. “My name is...” he paused, “well, all my friends call me Quattro.” He held up both of his hands in a two-handed friendly wave.
He was missing his middle finger on his right hand and his thumb on his left hand. Brad and I glanced at one another and laughed. I mouthed "Quattro" at him and waved four fingers. He turned away, biting his lip.
“I told Dickie I'd speak first because he worried no one would come up and say anything and it wouldn't look right. I told him don't worry so much." Quattro slowly scanned the crowd. "I reassured him there were a few people here who could think of something nice to say." He ran his fingers through his hair and scratched his scalp.
“Elizabeth was a great old broad. Too damn bad, she died so young. She seemed young to me. Hell, I'm only a few years younger. You know she checked out in her sleep, and in her own bed. How much better does it get than that?"
I looked around. A few people were nodding their heads in agreement.
“Now that she's kicked the bucket..." He paused. "Well, everyone knows there's no bucket involved.” He laughed at his own humor. “Have you ever wondered what the reward is?” He waited as though he expected an answer. “Hmm, I've no idea either. Damn, it's hot in here. You'd think a funeral place would turn on the air conditioning."
"Yeah, I've got sweat in my shorts," I heard someone say. A few others voiced their agreement. "Keeps the smell down and all," Quattro continued. "I know when it was a drive-thru the air worked good and sometimes the place was downright freezing.”
I saw a few people sniffing at the air. Were they sad? Or were they disappointed they couldn't smell hotdogs and fries?
Dickie Vanderbilt stood off to the side, staring at his shoes, and picking at his rather large tie tack in the shape of a flamingo.
“But back to Elizabeth. I called her Betty once and, boy, she got mad.”
Mother sobbed loudly, which I knew was actually laughter. People turned to stare. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. “Mother, please. This funeral is bad enough.”
Her body shook with laughter. I gripped her tightly. “Oww,” she whispered.
“Behave yourself, or I'll keep squeezing.” I shifted again on the bench, having a hard time sitting still when my legs kept sticking to the wood.
“Elizabeth was good to a lot of people," Quattro continued. "Too bad she won’t be around to do any of us any more favors." He looked around and rubbed the end of his nose.
I stared wide-eyed at him wondering if he was about to pick his nose.
"The truth is, I've run out of stuff to say. I know she wouldn't have wanted to die so soon, but the problem is we all think we're going to live forever, and we don't. So, ’God Bless’.” He waved and walked away from the podium.
Brad and I looked at one another. "Finally," he mouthed, even though he was enjoying the circus more than I was.
I didn't have to wait long to see what would happen next. An elderly woman who seemed very familiar approached the podium. Mr. Vanderbilt walked over and helped her up the stairs. Now what?
Brad motioned to me, “Miss January,” he whispered.
“No,” I said, shocked at how drastically her appearance had changed.
Miss January was a frail-looking woman, who appeared to be in her eighties, of average height and no more than ninety pounds. In truth, she was only in her forties. Twenty years ago, her husband had been shot to death in front of her and, after that, she'd dedicated her life to a daily bottle of vodka and chain-smoking. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer for which she refused treatment. Her doctor told her she would die any day, but she just laughed at him. Elizabeth cared about Miss January because she wasn't capable of caring about herself.
"I liked Elizabeth,” she started. She fiddled with the microphone; she blew into it, thoroughly entertaining herself. “You know, I’m drunk!" she yelled. "I drank more than usual this morning, toasting Elizabeth over and over. What the hell! I drink every morning."
I covered my face with my hands.
“Elizabeth wasn’t much of a drinker,” Miss January continued. “I like vodka," she giggled. "She was always," she paused, "I mean Elizabeth, would pull me out of the bushes and help me home. At least I think it was her. Some of the time, anyway. That young hottie who lives next door to me at The Cottages, sometimes he picks me up and carries me home. I like that a lot.”
Someone let out a loud burp. Another person clapped. I sat motionless, afraid to look around.
"You need a chair up here!” she yelled. “When the guy from before said it's hot in this place, he was right. Besides, who wants to stand, anyway?” She swayed from side to side, then tried to grab onto the standing flower arrangement next to her. She missed and fell slowly to the floor, pulling a few long-stemmed gladiolas from the vase in a last-ditch effort to recover.
Mr. Vanderbilt, Quattro, and another man raced up the stairs, to the podium and Quattro picked her up. “Don’t worry folks!” Quattro called. “She'll be all right. She’s just drunk.” He carried her out.
Mr. Vanderbilt moved to the microphone. What was he doing?
“I'm the owner of this funeral home,” he said. "My name is Dickie Vanderbilt, but I prefer Richard. I can honestly say I've never had such a tremendous turn out. I want to thank all of you for coming. I'm sorry about the air conditioning, and whichever one of you dies next I promise the unit will be repaired by that time. Think of Tropical Slumber Funeral Home for all your burial needs.”
“Enough of this,” I whispered to my mother and brother. I flew out of my seat, raced to the podium before another person could walk up, and I gave Mr. Vanderbilt a shove at the small of his back, pushing him from the microphone.
“Hello. My name is Madison Westin. I want to thank all of you for showing your love and support by coming out on such a hot day to say good-bye to my aunt, Elizabeth Hart. She loved life, loved her family, and was a generous friend. This concludes the service today. The graveside service will be family only.”
The main entry door flew open. “We’re here!” shouted a young boy who ran in with a blonde woman behind him who appeared to be his mother.
Everyone turned around, and I smiled. The young boy was laughing and jumping up and down. He was wearing a shark tee shirt, and was holding a cage with a lizard in it. So far, he looked to be the best part of the day, even though I had no idea who he was.
“Well done, sis," Brad said. "They've started to leave.”
“This is the most undignified funeral I've ever been to. What would Elizabeth have thought?" I wrapped my arms around my brother for a reassuring hug.
“Who's the man headed our way?” Mother asked.
“I came over to introduce myself,” the man began. “I'm Tucker Davis, Elizabeth’s attorney. I was one of her closest personal friends.” He smiled, extending his hand. He looked to be in his fifties and then some, tall and greying, with a slick air of self-satisfaction.
My mother and brother shook hands with him.
“I don’t shake hands,” I said to him. My mother looked shocked, and Brad laughed. I ignored them. “Funny how you and Elizabeth were such close personal friends and she never once mentioned your name.”
“Madison,” mother scolded. “Today has been a long day for all of us, Mr. Davis, and this wasn't quite the ceremony we expected."
“Really?" Tucker said. "I thought everything went smoothly."
It was clear to me he didn't give a damn what Elizabeth's family thought. I felt awful for my mother who had just buried her only sibling. This wasn't the kind of funeral that brings closure.
“I need to set an appointment for the three of you to come to my office for the reading of the will," Tucker continued, "possibly in two to three weeks. My assistant, Ann, will give you a call.”
“The three of us are here now,” Brad told him. “You can do the reading as soon as we're done here."
“Today isn't good for me,” Tucker said.
“My mother's returning to South Carolina,” Brad told him, "and I run a fishing business. It's the middle of the season and I have to get back to work. If you can’t make time today, then give us the will and we'll read the damn thing ourselves.”
“I agree with Brad,” I said. "Based on experience, you've been hard to get hold of. We're here now, so let’s get this over with.”
Anger flashed across Tucker’s face and disappeared just as quickly. “Fine. Be at my office in two hours. And don't be late since I'm being so accommodating.” He turned and walked away.
“He's definitely a man used to telling people what to do," I said. "Dealing with him won't be easy.”
“What a tool,” Brad said. “Madison, you're going to have to keep an eye on him. When you're around him I'd keep one eye over your shoulder, if I were you.”
“Calm down you two,” mother said. “Everything will be fine. Elizabeth wouldn't leave her affairs in a mess. She was very organized. She would've left her paperwork in order, and clearly spelled out.”
“I certainly hope so,” I said. "He acts like he has a personal stake in the estate and doesn't want to share. And I hate the evasive way he answers my questions. Having to work with both him and his unfriendly assistant will drive me crazy for sure.”
“He'll loosen up when the two of you start working together on settling the estate," mother said.
“I still can’t believe that Elizabeth is dead,” I sighed. "First her death, then this ridiculous funeral, and now the reading of the will, which will make it seem even more final."
Brad tugged on one of my red curls. ”I'll find Dickie Vanderbilt and make sure everything has been taken care of. I wonder if anyone just calls him Dick.”
The three of us laughed.
“He prefers Richard,” I mimicked.
My mother smiled. “Wasn't he an odd little man? He stood at the podium and tried to solicit business!"
“I'm going to walk around, say good bye to the lingerers and push them out the door,” I said.
“Find out about the blonde who showed up at the end of the service,” Brad said.
“You're not going to try to pickup someone up at a funeral, are you?” I asked, staring at him. Brad stood six feet tall, with sun-bleached hair, and the look of the boy next-door.
“Elizabeth would get a good laugh if I hooked up with a good-looking blonde at her funeral,” he said.
“What about Madison? Maybe, we could find someone to introduce her to," mother suggested.
“Oh no, you don’t. You first. How about Brad and I fix you up with the man who had the naked hula girl on his shirt?”
“And did you notice that the shirt gave the illusion you could see inside the grass skirt?” Brad said. “I’ll go deal with Richard. Madison, you get rid of the rest of the people and go find the blonde girl.”
“What about me? What am I going to do?” Mother asked.
“Behave yourself, and we'll be right back. I know. Go outside and smoke.” Brad winked at her.
“Nice, Brad, encouraging Mother to smoke. No ‘Son of the Year’ award for you.”