Bill Nowak’s widow Joanne stood to the left of the casket, dressed in a neat navy suit and appearing competent though slightly stunned. She had reason to look stunned since her husband of thirty-five years had died suddenly in his sleep three days before.
True, he’d had stents put in and been diabetic the last four years, but there’d been no warning, no indications of further decline. There were other signs, however, of a more ethereal nature, the sort of thing she’d briefly mentioned to her sister-in-law, Charlene, but to no one else. Most people turned away at such revelations.
The viewing was four to seven, but the way things were going, Joanne doubted it would be over by then. It took, and she’d timed it since she saw one of her old school friends come in the door, a good fifty minutes for the line to move through the velvet rope lane to the casket. And they were still packing in the door. Her husband had been well known in the community.
She was exhausted. The thought of enduring this, then the funeral the next day seemed beyond her. This whole thing was barbaric, even sadistic. Why did they put widows through this? After losing the person closest to them in the world, why were they expected to endure dispiriting and exhausting proceedings while being made to stand and serve as a social host? Beyond absurd.
“Are you holding up?” whispered Charlene, leaning close. Her breath smelled like cinnamon. On Charlene’s other side were Joanne’s two nieces and a nephew and his wife, then Bill’s other sister Cissy, filling out the receiving line. Bill’s parents were both dead and Joanne’s mother too feeble to stand. A neighbor had taken her home after she viewed the body before the funeral home opened to the public.
“I feel like dying myself,” said Joanne.
“Did you take anything?”
“Half a Valium,” said Joanne.
Bill had been acting fire chief for the city, the official chief currently in the hospital recovering from a bypass. He had served in this capacity once before, only not as long as this last time.
The police chief stood in front of Joanne, his face drooping, holding her hand between his own. “It’ll be a sorry world without him,” he said, jowls shaking. “This city’ll see the difference right away.”
Joanne had never liked the police chief and neither had Bill. They, and probably hundreds of other people, knew he was occasionally crooked. For that matter, pretty much anyone they knew in any sort of high position was a bit tinged. It hit her - had Bill had his fingers into dirty pots himself? She would never know.
“I know,” she told the chief, “Thank you.” Appearing relieved to move on, he blustered into Charlene’s face and on down the line. Mechanically, Joanne received hugs, forlorn looks, arm pats, and hand squeezes. She wondered if this was how the Queen of England felt when made to greet endless crowds while maintaining her demeanor of chilly grace. Not that Joanne was expected to exhibit chilliness, but dignified sorrow; hours and hours of holding one’s face just so, murmuring what people expected to hear, never breaking down when what she really felt like doing was alternately screaming, sobbing, and sleeping. Possibly with some drinking thrown in, vodka or scotch. It would be later when all the damn hoopla died down that she’d be permitted to feel and oh, she dreaded that too. Those nights stretching before her after all the friends had returned to their own lives.
“Did you tell your mother about the autopsy?” Charlene whispered during a brief lull while a couple Bill had known from his bowling league took their time kneeling by the casket.
“Yes,” said Joanne, her voice wobbly.
“She objected?” ventured Charlene.
“Objected? She went ballistic. Well, as ballistic as a sick old woman can get. I don’t like to get her worked up, but frankly, it’s none of her business.”
Charlene looked exhausted herself. She was a full time operating room nurse while taking care of her own husband who was currently enduring chemo treatments. She had rings under her eyes and looked like she hadn’t slept in days.
“What did she object to?” she asked.
“Fred, her current boyfriend at the complex, was there and said, ‘Are you nuts? If they find Bill’s death wasn’t natural, then it’s either suicide or murder! Did you think about that? And if they suspect murder, who do you imagine will be the main suspect?’”
“That never crossed my mind,” said Charlene.
“Yeah, well, I guess Fred’s right. And he also said, ‘If they label it suicide, you won’t get your life insurance.’” She paused. “Maybe it was a dumb thing to want the autopsy, but I have to know if he did it himself. He was such a firm Catholic, I can’t imagine him doing that, but...I have to know, Char.”
“Even if you might be giving up five hundred thousand dollars of insurance?”
Charlene paused. “Even if they were to check out the other angle?”
“I’m willing to take the chance,” Joanne said, but her heart flipped over. “It’s too late now anyway, the deed is done.”
She had an active imagination and suddenly pictured herself in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Saw herself in an interrogation room, two or three cops hammering at her. And of course those cops would be, some of them, Bill’s old friends because the firemen and cops hung out together. But she put all that out of her mind as the kneeling couple had risen and were coming her way.
“So, so sorry,” they murmured, “can’t believe it, just can’t believe it. Just last week, we talked to him at Denny’s and he seemed fine.” They shook their heads.
“I feel like I’m in a dream,” said Charlene.
When they had gone on and the next group was saying their goodbyes to Bill, Joanne whispered to Charlene, “That weird stuff that happened. That’s why I wanted the autopsy.”
“Tell me again.”
“Saturday night when he passed, he went up to bed earlier than me, like usual. But he stopped on the stairs and looked at me for what seemed a long time. It was odd when it happened, one of those things you don’t remark on till you think about it later. Then I swear he said, ‘Good-bye’ instead of ‘Good night.’ But like I said, I only remembered this later.”
“Do you think your mind just - ”
“Made it up? No, I don’t. Then a couple weeks ago, we were having an argument and he said, ‘Don’t say anything you’ll regret.’ He never said anything like that before.”
“That is pretty weird,” said Charlene.
“And yesterday a teller at our bank told me that just this week, he cashed in some CDs. I don’t know where he put the money yet. Didn’t think to ask for a reading of what’s in the checking or other accounts, my mind was so screwed up.”
Charlene didn’t comment on this one.
Joanne went on. “And he was really nice to me lately, the past few weeks, other than that one silly argument. For instance, I bought a new dress and purse and usually he’d get all sarcastic about my spending, but this time he just said, ‘That’s gonna look really good on you, Sweets.’ He never talked to me like that.”
“How did he talk to you?” asked Charlene.
“Not too nice a lot of the time.” She lowered her eyes. “Pretty much indifferently.”
“So, you’re thinking there was something ...”
“I’m thinking he knew he was going to die. That either he knew this because he was having premonitions or because he ended it himself.”
Charlene’s face, for a split second, twisted in pain, but she took Joanne’s hand and gave it a squeeze.
Joanne felt like leaning on her sister-in-law, the woman seemed so strong. Of course she knew some of Charlene’s vulnerabilities; knew that she and her brother had not been close. Bill had not talked about it, only to say once that Charlene had had it too easy compared to himself and he felt resentful.
It was the typical male idea of females getting off easy, Joanne surmised, since in Bill’s experience, they weren’t expected to do as much physical labor or bear as much responsibility as he had been expected to carry. It was a choice some males made, to turn a blind eye to the particular sufferings women endured, but Joanne had never openly disagreed with Bill. He’d been headstrong, but she’d not minded that. It made him, in her eyes, masculine, strong.
“I can’t believe Cissy is insisting we all go out after,” said Charlene between mourners in the line. “If you don’t have the energy, Joanne, don’t go.”
“I don’t know,” Joanne said. “I’m not ready yet to go home alone, just not ready.”
“Is someone going to be there?”
“My girlfriend, Renée. She lives next door.”
“I’d offer to stay but I don’t want to leave Frank alone all night,” said Charlene.
Eventually, the viewing was over. Joanne´s feet were numb. She looked at her husband in his coffin. They had slathered on the make-up too thick; his skin had a gray cast when normally he was florid. He didn’t look as heavy somehow as he actually was, having gained fifty more pounds over the last two years.
Charlene came up behind her. “Do you want to be alone?”
“No,” said Joanne. “I was thinking that he looks slimmer lying there than he was.”
“I noticed that too,” said Charlene.
“You know, he was eating like there was no tomorrow. I kept remarking on it but he told me to stop nagging.”
“I noticed it too,” said Charlene. “He was cramming it in at the last two family gatherings. Jay’s wedding, remember that?”
“Yes. He kept going back for more helpings. It was like an alcoholic going at it or something.”
“He was so stressed out,” said Charlene.
Joanne looked at her sharply. Had that been an accusation?
“I mean,” continued Charlene, “what with the acting fire chief thing and all his other commitments. He pushed himself to the limit.”
Joanne nodded. The old hurt welled up in her. She knew what everyone thought, or at least those “in the know.” That Bill had kept a mistress for years and had a child by the woman. Joanne knew without a doubt that people had been whispering behind her back for most of her married life.
Through all her exhaustion, she had kept one eye on the crowd for May. Kathleen May Roster, Bill’s girlfriend before herself, and as people romantically liked to believe, his one true love. When she and Bill had walked down the aisle thirty five years before, she had actually heard someone whisper, “I wonder why it’s not Kathleen.”
The world had called the girl Kathleen, but Bill had preferred May. As far as Joanne knew, no one else had ever called her that.
Rumors abounded ever since; people imagined that Joanne wasn’t aware of them, but she knew more than anyone. She was also aware that fireman and cops were notorious for cheating and covered for each other. It was a private club with wives the outsiders. But throughout her marriage, she had never had reason to suspect Bill of being unfaithful with anyone other than May. As if that were reason to relax, but there were extenuating circumstances.
“And then there’s tomorrow,” Charlene said. She too looked exhausted and had a half hour drive home after Cissy’s obligatory get together at DeTorio’s.
“Why don’t you and I just go get a drink?” said Joanne. “That little bar down the street from my (she almost said ‘our’) house. Who cares if Cissy gets pissed? I don’t, do you?”
Charlene, torn as usual trying to please everyone, hesitated then succumbed to the more pleasing suggestion. She nodded and the two women slipped out a side door to the parking lot.
They slid into a booth at Rory’s Tavern. The neighborhood bar was populated by the usual skinny or potbellied alcoholics, pounding their chests as they hacked, explaining, “It’s just the damn cigarettes!”
Joanne ordered a draft beer and Charlene a gin & tonic. “This is all I get,” she said, referring to her drive home after.
“You’re my favorite sister-in-law,” said Joanne, “and there’s something I want you to know.”
Charlene, with her nurse’s reserve did not immediately respond.
“I see your mind working, Char, and I know what you’re thinking.”
“How could you know what I’m thinking?”
The tired looking waitress set down their orders and withdrew.
Joanne took a deep breath. “I want to talk about May,” she said.
Charlene actually choked on her drink.
“I know, I’m supposed to be either ignorant about her or in denial.”
“Well...” muttered Charlene. Her face flushed.
“Bill loved her, you remember that.” When Charlene made no reply, Joanne went on. “I guess they were soul mates, if there is such a thing. She was totally not like me. You know how I am - in control, everything in its place, only I could never keep Bill in his. May was, is, sort of in the moment, up for fun, though in a soft sort of way. She was fine with Bill being the boss. She was his adoring butterfly, if that makes any sense.”
Charlene sipped her drink, eyes wide.
“I didn’t stand a chance back then. But oh how I wanted him. Since tenth grade in high school, I’d wanted him, but he never gave me a look. Didn’t know I existed until he was twenty-three, when he came to my school to speak to the students. I was in charge of the assembly and scheduled a few sessions with him beforehand to discuss what topics I wanted the fire company to cover. He hardly remembered me from high school. But I made him look at me and invited him to my apartment to discuss final arrangements - totally unnecessary, of course. I, still a virgin then, seduced him. He was young and full of wild oats, even if he was in love with May.”
Charlene was silent.
“You all probably wondered what in heaven’s name made him give up May and marry me. Well, I used two tricks to get him. One, I spread a rumor that May was cheating on him with some guy from Morrisville, someone May actually knew. I knew exactly where to plant those seeds to get that story going and right back to him. And two, I got pregnant. I really was, for two months, though I had him think it was four. Long enough with the other thing to turn his head to me.”
“I-I never knew you were pregnant,” said Charlene.
“No. You know Bill, not one to share his business with people. For a while there, he was furious with May, though I heard she denied everything. As well she might since she didn’t really do anything wrong. And, he being young and easily influenced by sex, I used a lot of that to turn his head. You did notice how quick that wedding came about, didn’t you? Didn’t you wonder?”
Charlene looked bewildered. “I guess I was a typical teenager - wrapped up in myself. At the time, I was still in high school and having my own problems. Bill never told me anything anyway. He wasn’t always nice to me.”
“He was pretty uptight and set in his ways. I felt bad that he didn’t appreciate you more, but I do think he loved you underneath it all. “
“I’d like to think so,” said Charlene, “but I wouldn’t bet my 401K on it.”
“I think you’re wrong. As for his treatment of me, I don’t begrudge him his frequent annoyance with me. After all, I lost that baby, the one you never knew was in the making, and never again got pregnant. We went to doctors, but in those days, they didn’t do all the stuff they do today. And never imagine that I forgot that I’d taken Bill from the women he loved.”
“You mean still loved?” asked Charlene carefully.
“You’re afraid to tread here,” said Joanne. “You’ve heard the stories for years. Remember when you tried to tell me in your roundabout way?”
“I do know this,” said Joanne. “He loved me in his way. Probably a very different way than how he’d felt towards May, but it was there nonetheless. He told me so. That’s how I know for certain. He told me.”
There was a long pause before her sister-in-law spoke. “The truth is, Joanne, I didn’t know my brother at all. There’s nothing I can say because he chose to be a stranger to me.”
Joanne nodded and the two women finished their drinks in exhausted, but companionable silence.
Twelve days after Bill was buried, his old friend Sergeant Wilker delivered to Joanne the results of the autopsy. Bill had died of a myocardial infarction. Nothing mysterious, no taking of his own life. She heaved a sigh of relief for several reasons, religious, legal, and financial. And now, feeling free of worry, though hardly of grief, she dressed in her most becoming outfit, appraised herself dispassionately in the mirror and climbed into her car.
The house was easy to get to; she’d kept her eye on it for years, all those times Bill’s truck was parked discreetly down the block or in the alley behind. She took a deep breath, then got out of her car. By the time she reached the door, her hands were shaking.
May opened it, her face registering confusion and some fear, then stood aside to let Joanne enter.
“I brought you something,” said Joanne.
“Would you like some tea?” asked May.
“I wouldn’t mind,” said Joanne.
She sat down to wait and studied the other woman as she walked to her kitchen. A small woman, unlike herself, plump though still oddly youthful looking. When May returned with a tray holding the mugs, Joanne asked about the boy. Though now, of course he was twenty-eight, a man.
“Will’s doing fine. He’s working for that aircraft company over in Reston. Has a real good job, good future there. Got married last year to a girl from Doylestown. She’s very nice.”
Joanne hesitated, then opened her purse and took out a long, thick envelope. “This is for you.”
May took the envelope and silently opened it. She looked at Joanne, her eyes astonished and filling with tears. “I can’t take this. What are you thinking?”
“Take it. It’s half of the life insurance. It’s in cash so you don’t have to pay taxes on it. Deposit it in small amounts. I have plenty. He would have liked you to have it. I don’t imagine you have much for your old age.”
The woman did not deny it.
“Well, you can relax now,” said Joanne. She took a perfunctory last sip of her tea, then stood up.
“Good luck,” she said.
As she walked to her car, some of her burden was lifted.