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a novel by Tom Benford
This is another excerpt from THE LAST OF THE UNICORNS
“He worked here for a while, you know,” the older of the two men said as they slid the six-sided wooden coffin into the back of the hearse. “Who? You mean the dead guy?” queried the younger. “Jimmy, my boy, the first thing you better get straight is that you never call a client “the dead guy” or “stiff” or any other such disrespectful term. The proper terms to use are ‘the decedent’ or ‘the deceased’. Make sure you don’t forget that – Mr. Harpe is a real stickler about using the proper terms. It’s very important to con- duct yourself properly at all times and that means using the right terms. It’s a reflection on the funeral home and our professionalism. Do you understand me, lad?” The admonisher was William Donnelly, the assist- ant manager and long-time employee of The Harpe Memorial Home for Funerals. He had a full head of silver- gray hair and a mustache to match, gray eyes and a fair com-plexion. Standing just a shade under six feet tall, he was trim and what could be rightly called ‘ruggedly good looking.’ The younger man was James Dwyer, and this was his first day working at Harpe’s. Dwyer was nineteen years old and had graduated high school the previous June. He, too,  was also almost six feet tall with sandy brown hair. He was athletic and muscular, with soft brown eyes, gleaming white teeth and a winning smile. His mother, Margaret “Maggy” Dwyer, owned and ran the Cute Cuts Beauty Salon and was often called in to style the hair and do the makeup of women clients for the funeral home. It was through this association with Harpe’s that Jimmy was hired when Gus needed to augment his staff. “I’m sorry, Bill. I’ll remember what you said, I promise,” responded Jim sincerely. “I hope you will, son. This is really a good place to work and you seem bright, so you should catch on fast.” It was a typical December Saturday morning with a seasonal chill in the air as the two men, both wearing black overcoats, got into the hearse with Donnelly riding shotgun. In addition to the coffin, the hearse also had a collapsible cart called a ‘church truck’ in the back along with two large galvanized tubs, a pair of floor-stand
candles and a kneeling rail. Young Dwyer put the vehicle in gear and proceeded down the driveway as Donnelly looked at the clipboard he brought with him. Turning onto the street, Donnelly said, “Take the Boulevard down to Fourth Street then make a right,” Bill instructed him. “So you were saying that he – the decedent, I mean – worked here? What did he do?” inquired Dwyer. “Oh, his duties were pretty much the same as yours – doing removals, driving the hearse, limos or flower cars, assisting in various capacities around the funeral home, helping with the prep, pall-bearing and so forth. He was a few years older than you are, though – he was in his early twenties then, as I recall. Gus – Mr. Harpe, that is – had just taken over the business from his father, who was up in years, and Prohibition was still in effect then. Bat – the deceased – had just come over from Ireland a few years earlier and he was looking to change his line of work. In fact, I was the one who intro- duced him to Gus in the first place. And since Gus knew the family that his sister, Mary, had married into, he gave Bat a job here. But Bat, rest his soul – well it’s not nice to speak badly of the dead – so let’s just say he wasn’t suited to this line of work and leave it at that, then. Here, make a right at this corner – the house is right next to the bridge; pull into the driveway.” Jim did as he was instructed, parking the hearse in the driveway and shutting off the motor. He said, “Bat – that’s an odd name – what’s it short for?” Just as he was about to open his door, Bill responded, “It’s short for Bartholomew. Now wait here a minute, lad. I want to make sure they’re ready for us to bring everything inside.” He got out and ascended the stairs to the front porch. A man who had been hanging black crepe cloth on the windows came down from the ladder and shook hands with him. They ex-changed some words, and Bill returned to the hearse. Opening the rear door, he said, “Alright, Jim, give me a hand here bringing this kit into the house. Take the tubs in first and I’ll manage the candles. Then bring in the church truck, and we’ll bring in the coffin last after things are in position.” “Bill,” queried Jimmy, “what are these tubs for?”
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