Thursday, July 1, 2010

"A smile before you go..."

"A smile before you go..."


“Lucille, you must see how it is. It can’t be a surprise to you that somebody finally got upset.” Corporal Jeffery Mackinnon of the RCMP shifted uncomfortably, the plastic covering on the hard chair crackled along with his movements.

Lucille Nystrom collected colorful little figurines. They covered every flat surface of the neat sitting room. Mackinnon, a big broad shouldered man going just slightly to pot, felt huge and clumsy. He feared that the smallest movement would slaughter porcelain multitudes.

Perhaps Lucille could sense his nervousness. She casually picked up and moved aside a tiny Shetland pony from next to his elbow as she refilled his cup.

“I honestly don’t understand all the fuss. Peter Carr was a remarkably jovial man, always a smile on his face, and that belly laugh! You could hear it across the room.” Lucille sat down lightly, knees together, back straight and fixed Mackinnon with a piercing stare. “Sending him to his reward with a scowl on his face would have been a shame and a sin.”

“Come on Lucille, you didn’t have to put a scowl on his face, but a big toothy grin wasn’t the way to go either.” Mackinnon sipped his tea, controlling a wince. He was a coffee man and to his palate the tea tasted bitter and metallic.

Lucille leaned forward and moved a tiny Collie with a red ball between its paws back from Mackinnon’s end of the coffee table. He felt more self-conscious than ever. Was his awkwardness over the chore that had brought him here so obvious as to make Lucille fear a figurine massacre?

“Corporal, I took over the Nystrom funeral home, this funeral home, when Gary passed away last April. Susan Carr has been the only one to complain about my work since then.” Lucille’s lips were primly pursed but still held the faint half smile that never entirely left them. The trim pretty fifty-eight year old widow was popular in the township. Undertakers were usually shunned, at least a little. Nothing overt but there just the same. Gary Nystrom now, had been a somber, even dour figure. He’d probably have been avoided no matter what his occupation.

But nobody could shun Lucille; that fiercely friendly personality was simply too forceful to resist.

Mackinnon sighed and slurped up more bitter tea. Like everyone else, (Well, maybe excepting Susan Car and a few other offended bereaved these days.) Mackinnon liked Lucille enormously, and he bitterly resented the position he was being forced into.

“Nobody questions how hard you’ve worked since Gary died, but it’s been a hard year and all those smiles… well Susan Carr isn’t the only one who’s been bothered by them, she’s just the first to complain officially.”

It had been a bad year. One of those statistical spikes that looks so innocuous on paper, but in real life means accidents and heart attacks and plain old deaths from old age have chosen to cluster together perversely.

Latham was a small northern town made up of farmers, oilmen and a few townies who ran the stores and worked for the schools and the hospital. The tiny population had done more than its share of mourning. Mackinnon had headed up the three man Mountie detachment for ten years. Every death was like losing family.

Lucille turned that 100-watt smile on him and Mackinnon blinked. “Corporal, death isn’t something to be feared any more than life is. ‘Going to your reward’ isn’t just an expression. It’s the simple joyous truth.” Lucille reached over with the teapot and topped up Mackinnon’s cup. He eyed it mournfully and took a dutiful sip.

Lucille bustled off to the kitchen with the kettle, but not before picking up a tiny china shepherdess from the mantle piece next to Mackinnon’s head and moving it to a bookshelf across the room. Mackinnon felt a drop of sweat slide out from under his hairline and quickly wiped it away.

Thirteen deaths. Thirteen people ‘sent to their rewards’ in the past year, and starting with Gary Nystrom, thirteen people lovingly laid to rest by Lucille Nystrom with wide happy smiles on frozen white faces.

And the nasty, unspoken fact of this little visit was that Mackinnon was going to have to do something about it. If Lucille couldn’t be convinced to stop molding stiff dead flesh into beaming grins then… well she was going to have to stop, that was all there was to it.

Mackinnon had already made a note of the phone number of the Provincial Mortuary Regulatory Board. He really didn’t want to have to call that number.

But he would if he had to. It might be time for Lucille to retire, whether she agreed or not.

Mackinnon could feel the beginnings of a nasty case of heartburn developing behind his sternum. The tea and his own nervousness was making acid bubble and rise.

“Lucille, if you could just make them look peaceful it would make my job a lot easier.”

Lucille came back in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea cloth. “This world doesn’t have enough smiles Jeffery. I’m just trying to bring people a little happiness.”

Mackinnon opened his mouth and a sudden wave of agony rippled through his chest and down his left arm. He gasped and hunched forward around the pain. A sickening spike of nausea uncoiled from his stomach and after three tries Mackinnon managed to swallow down bitter bile through the sudden vice grip that was constricting his chest.

“I am sorry that it hurts Jeffery.” Lucille’s voice was distant and tinny over the throbbing, frantic rush of blood in Mackinnon’s ears. “The Digitalis is the best method I’ve found so far, but there is some pain.”

Mackinnon tried to stand but his legs were made of rubber. “Digi…Digitalis?”

“Just a little something I found on the Internet dear. I grow the Foxglove in my greenhouse for my little projects. Such a pretty cone of little tube flowers! Did you know that when it’s refined it looks exactly like a heart attack and it won’t show up in an autopsy unless the coroner is looking for it? It’s a wonder anyone ever dies of natural causes at all.”

Lucille gently pushed Mackinnon back in the easy chair and briskly lifted each of his eyelids with her thumb. The pupil of the left was noticeably larger than the right. “It won’t be long now, dear.”

Mackinnon was completely numb. Lucille’s smiling face was little more than a pale oval at the end of a dark tunnel. “Wh…wh…why?

Lucille softly stroked Mackinnon’s cheek, smiling that same constant, gentle smile. “I already told you Jeffery. Twenty years with that sullen, miserable man I married taught me one very important lesson.”

“Lucille’s fingers gently traced Mackinnon’s cold, numb lips. Lightly lifting them at the corners.

“There just aren’t enough smiles in the world.”


copyright (c) Cliff Almas

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