Had Emily Taylor known she was going to die that morning, perhaps she would have told her husband the news she had been too stunned to tell before then. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to tell Earl, it’s just that she could hardly believe it herself. She had decided to wait awhile and let it all sink in, the notion that a novel she had written was going to be published. The letter from the publisher was so unexpected it didn’t seem quite real. She sent the manuscript in on a lark, after all.
If she had known she was going to die that morning it’s possible she would not have spent any time weeding the flower beds, but there she was: she loved gardening. It felt purposeful, pulling out weeds by the roots, checking under leaves for bugs, spying the latest garter snake on the perimeter of the lawn.
There had been a gentle, nourishing rain early that morning. She watched it from her bed while Earl slept. It was a soft, brief rain, as if the heavens were giving the earth a drink of water. She remained entwined with him, listening to his heartbeat, looking out the window, and was a little surprised when the first rays of morning finally peaked through. But she was glad it was morning. She couldn’t go back to sleep. There was something stirring inside her, something that said, “Get up, get out, get going” that was too urgent to be ignored. She skipped making coffee, not wanting the aroma to awaken Earl, and after pulling on a tattered blue cotton sweater over her old Ship-and-Shore blouse and slipping into her barely usable Levi’s she had on hand just for gardening, she went downstairs through the kitchen and out the back door, straight to the shed, already warming up to mid-June temperatures. She had a sense she had to be outside, and the early morning warmth was so inviting.
With work gloves on and with a claw tool and hand spade in hand, she spent an hour working up a sweat by thoroughly weeding each of the six flower beds. Emily felt good, being damp and breathless at that hour. Admiring her work as the sun rose above the fence line and the poplars; her industriousness was rewarded with a rare morning breeze.
The day before, Earl mowed the grass, edged the sidewalks and used hand clippers to chase down stray wisps of grass along the fence posts. It was so neat and tidy now, Emily couldn’t suppress a smile of satisfaction. She loved the little yard, especially with the hyacinth, daffodils, violets and the irises bloom.
And she felt satisfied that getting that chore out of the way would please Earl, who would be up soon if not already, with errands to run before they drove to the lake house. He’d want to be leaving not much past mid-morning, whenever he returned from the store. Having a few home chores out of the way made resting at the lake house that much more satisfying for him, she knew. She also knew she had plenty of time to pack what they needed.
Earl had a renewed sense of vigor, of that she was certain. And he liked to show his vigor. Like last night, a passion so wanton but controlled, eager but so directed, so powerful but exactly timed with her arousals, her needs. Maybe it was the benefit of a long marriage, of so thoroughly knowing a lover after so many years; it was nearly impossible to get any signal wrong, and when it was more than right, when it was the right combination of energy and passion and experience, it was ecstasy.
Sitting in the grass, Emily hugged her knees to her chest, warmly recalling her unexpected and surprisingly exquisite evening making love with Earl, then lying awake in the night, listening to the soft rain.
She was pleased the semester was finally over, that Earl had graded all his student’s essays, and that she endured the graduation exercises typical of small liberal arts college. Being married to a popular history professor had its benefits, but its drawbacks, too. With the end of the term, all she wanted was her escape to the lake house and begin a summer where she had her husband all to herself. And that morning had finally, finally arrived.
Pleased with herself and everything in her life, Emily decided she would tell Earl her big news that morning, as soon as he was awake. They could celebrate somehow, even if they were only heading to the lake house. Earl would be pleased with her, and he would think of something. He was good at that.
She looked up at the bedroom window, searching for a glimpse of her husband, but saw nothing. She didn’t see Earl in the kitchen window, either. She wanted to wave to him and beckon him to join her in the yard, to share the quiet moment and tell him her news. But she couldn’t see him.
Emily contemplated making coffee or simply having orange juice, but that meant getting up. Her chest was throbbing some now, but she had medicine for that, and knew it was time for her pills. Her legs ached some from kneeling down in the grass and tugging out the weeds by the roots. She tried to stand up, in order to fetch the pills, but she was beginning to find she could not command her legs. Sighing, and still thinking she should be feeling better after such a beautiful night, she tried to rise but found herself stumbling forward, unable to keep her balance.
It was then her heart stopped working altogether.
Like a long rope slithering down to the ground, her legs collapsed beneath her as her heart slammed shut and her torso arched forward. Her eyes saw the grass racing toward her face as her mind struggled between darkness and light. The words “no” and “Earl” raced across her brain as she tried to will her left arm to reach out and break her fall as she clutched her chest with her right hand, grasping the smooth white cotton of her blouse, all the while trying to discern the strange inner sound of her heart not beating.
Earl was already up, and as he readied for his day, he didn’t think anything of not seeing Emily right away. His shower and shave and dressing was done in the calm silence of the upstairs just like any other day. If a radio was on at all it would be the kitchen radio. The bedside radio would be off, as he knew Emily always turned it off once she was out of bed. He already knew she was up. It never crossed his mind to look for her, even after dressing and walking out the front door to fetch the morning paper. Wherever Emily was, he was sure she was fine. He sat on the front porch step and took a look at the front page, then the baseball scores. He had a t-shirt on under his unbuttoned white short-sleeve shirt, and even at that early hour he could feel himself sweat through the t-shirt. He thought he felt a breeze a few minutes before, but now it was just still air getting hotter and thicker by the minute.
Next door in the funeral home, Ross Taylor, Earl’s uncle, was wondering how many days he had left on this earth, he being over 90 and recently diagnosed with cancer. Splashing water on his face in preparation for shaving, he looked at himself in the mirror as he did every morning, and again muttered: “Another day on earth, old boy. Today is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.” Ross wasn’t particularly religious, but he was an undertaker who knew all there was to know about life and death. He preferred life.
Ross was only a couple of years older than Earl’s father, George, and he’d been to medical school when he decided that being an undertaker was easier and took a lot less time. Ross was a practical man to the core: he didn’t have any great notion of saving lives, he simply ran out of money for medical studies. He took a job with old man Heilman in that very house, working as an apprentice undertaker, and he was surprised to find in himself the desire to give the poor souls who died a dignified exit. It was an easy decision to leave the little missionary medical school in town when old man Heilman offered to take him on full time and make room for Ross’ brother, George, in the deal. Herman Heilman started the funeral home business in Connor as the only undertaker and embalmer in the county, dating back to just after the Civil War. Once Ross and George were established, when George came back from the Great War, it didn’t take long for them to make the ancient German gentleman an offer. They bought the business, the house the funeral home was in and the house next door and all the paraphernalia outright. When the deal was made, Ross moved into one of the upstairs apartments in the huge building home that housed the funeral home on the main floor and living quarters on the second. George needed the house next door for his family.
That morning in May, though, as his mortality set in and his mind rolled it over, the truth was his thoughts were turning to nothing in particular as he shined his shoes. Quietly completing that task, and slipping his feet into the thick-soled brogues and tying sturdy knots, he stood erect, straightened his tie, and for no reason at all, glanced out the window, and saw Emily lying flat in the back yard.
The funeral home’s two new men, Joe Sloneker and Sam Mullins, who recently bought Ross’s share of the business, were in the other second-floor apartments. Neither were prepared to hear the strange shriek of the old man, the “Oh, Heavens!” before the summons “Joe! Sam! Come quick!” Neither had even been in Ross’s quarters. Neither was prepared to see the old man, ashen and shaking, when they ran into the hall and heard him call from his door, looking so feeble with a voice so taut: “Quickly, Mrs. Taylor is lying on the ground in the back yard. She looks like she’s hurt!”
Joe and Sam looked at each for the briefest of moments, then they took off to the stairway, with Sam calling back “call an ambulance!” Ross began dialing immediately. The Army medic in Sam and Joe kicked in, and as they made it out to the yard, Sam turned to Joe and cried “FIND EARL!” Joe dashed into the house.
But Earl wasn’t there. With the pang of caffeine dependency too great to ignore, and not bothering to walk through the house or out the back to see just where Emily was, Earl walked the two blocks down and one block over to the coffee shop. As he walked he debated whether or not to order breakfast. He didn’t like to eat any meal without Emily. But he figured she was probably in the basement doing something before getting ready to go to the lake house. If he had breakfast at the coffee shop she’d want to skip breakfast, and he didn’t like to see her do that. She was five-three and all of 102 pounds. He was proud and impressed by the fact her figure was basically the same for the past 40 years, but her reluctance to have even an occasional bowl of corn flakes disturbed his inner peace. He knew her heart was weak, her blood pressure unsteady and cholesterol extremely high. He knew that’s why she avoided fried food and coffee, but a few berries in some corn flakes couldn’t hurt.
He turned the corner onto Main Street and headed for the coffee shop in the still morning air just as Joe ran out to the front of the house and looked down the street, calling Earl’s name. Earl heard nothing.
In the back yard, Sam wasn’t prepared to see Emily face down in the yard in that awful helpless state, limbs akimbo, but his army training was in control of his emotions as he gently turned her head and shoulders to the sky and brushed away some still-damp blades of grass, performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and held her pulse far longer than necessary.
Kneeling next to her body, he took off his shirt and covered her face, to shade it from the sun. He made her legs as straight as he could, crossed her arms over her chest, and then sat on the grass next to her, waiting for the ambulance.
He spent a few moments gazing at Emily’s body, and realized he didn’t feel anything. It bothered him. The woman gave him a job when he couldn’t find one, and was more of a mother to him than his own mother had been. Still, he couldn’t shake the stoicism needed when fatal circumstances arise. It bothered him some that he was so self-possessed. But the feeling passed as quickly as it came, and as he sat, staring at the grass, then at the house Earl and Emily lived in, he realized he’d have to answer the ambulance crew’s questions, and then he realized he moved a dead body before the police arrived. He didn’t care. It was only then he felt his eyes burning, tears rising from the depths.
After calling the ambulance, Ross immediately phoned Dr. Burger, the Taylor family doctor. He called the private number. Ralph Burger answered on the second ring.
“Ralph, Ross Taylor.”
“Hello Ross. What can I do for you?”
“I just phoned an ambulance for Emily. It looks like she’s … “
And Ross’ voice began to waiver a little. But he cleared his throat and said, “I just saw Emily face down in her back yard. The two young men who work here are outside looking after her. Then I thought I better phone you.”
“Do you know what happened?” Ralph Burger knew all about Emily’s bad heart, just as he had known all about her parents’ and sisters’ bad hearts.
“Let me look out the window.”
After a moment, Dr. Burger could hear the catching and sorrow in Ross’ “Sam covered Emily’s face, and is sitting beside her. She’s lying perfectly still.”
“I’ll meet the ambulance,” was all Ross heard before the line went dead.
As Ross Taylor replaced the receiver, he gently collapsed into an ancient Queen Anne chair next to the phone table in his Spartan, immaculate apartment and sobbed quietly for several minutes, not once reaching for his handkerchief.
The blare of the ambulance siren rushing up Main Street caught Earl’s attention. Sitting and chatting with Bob Unger, chewing on toast and sipping coffee, Earl was getting an earful from Bob, who once again claimed to know where the best bass fishing was at Two Mile Lake. Earl’s lake house was on Milan Lake, but he drove over to Two Mile on occasion, for variety’s sake. Bob knew this and wanted to give Earl the latest on what the fish and game fellows had been up to.
The wail of the ambulance broke into Bob’s discourse. Both men turned to look out the picture window onto the sidewalk. An ambulance on a weekday morning usually meant an elderly person needed assistance, and if things went badly, the funeral home would be notified. Earl got up and walked over to the pay phone, dropped a dime in the slot, and dialed Ross’ number.
The ring caught Ross off guard, but he assumed his professional manner quickly and answered the phone in an even, professional tone.
“Ross,” Earl said. “I just saw an ambulance …”
For the first time in Earl’s life he listened to Ross lose his composure: “Oh, Earl, come quick. Emily is …” but before he could finish, Earl was racing through the coffee shop, out the door, and back home in a dead run.
Breathless and wobbly as he reached the front of his house, for a moment he wasn’t quite comprehending the ambulance in his driveway and not the funeral home’s. He refused to think of Emily in any danger -- just maybe a slip and fall, perhaps, or maybe she was unconscious. Running past the ambulance he finally slowed down when seeing the gurney in the yard, and Emily on the gurney, and a police officer in the yard along with the ambulance crew. The officer was Tom Weisbrodt, a sergeant, and Earl recognized the ambulance crew but couldn’t exactly place them just then. Neither man said a word as they pulled the sheet over Emily and rolled her past him and slide the gurney carrying Emily into the old converted Chevy wagon.
“I’m sorry,” Weisbrodt began, but Earl just turned and said, “I’m going with them” and ran toward the ambulance. He remembered their names the driver and the attendant, cousins named Al and Bob Tincher, and they knew Earl and didn’t say anything when he leaped into the back of the wagon. They let him in, and once the ambulance was secure, it sped off to the Baptist hospital.
There was only one ambulance corps in town, and the attendants knew which hospital to go to depending on which church that customer’s family attended. If Emily had been Catholic the ambulance would have gone over to St. Joe’s, a smaller and more prestigious hospital.
The Taylors were Episcopalian and that meant Protestant so that meant the Baptist hospital, which had begun life as the small missionary medical school before the great influenza epidemic forced the deacons to decide that the medical students might be better off in Indiana than Africa. These days it was a full-fledged hospital and the only four-story building in Connor, and it had seen more than its share of the regular traffic of sickness and disease and misery and death.
As the ambulance made its way to the hospital, Earl looked down at the shrouded body and undid the corners and pulled back the sheet in order to look at Emily. Her hair was a mess. He smoothed if off her face, and then ran his index finger down the bridge of her nose. It was small, intimate gesture whose beginnings predated his living memory. The first time he made the gesture he was little more than two years old, and he wanted to touch her face, but didn’t want to hurt her. So he imitated what his brother Georgie did whenever Georgie wanted to make Earl smile. And sure enough, when Earl tried it on Emily, he got a smile, too.
Emily was his light, and he knew deep in his soul the day he dreaded was upon him. In the back of that ambulance, speeding toward the Baptist hospital, Earl gazed down at Emily’s face, her countenance peaceful, he knew her light was now out.
Dr. Burger startled him when the ambulance doors swung open, a brilliant morning sun shining right into the rear of the ambulance.
“Earl, let’s go…” he said.
“Do you think …” Earl began to ask.
“Let’s get her inside out of the sun, Earl,” was all Dr. Burger would say as Al and Bob wheeled her into the hospital. Earl didn’t notice right away that the two men didn’t turn toward the emergency room, but were wheeling her to the morgue, at the end of the hallway.
Realizing this, Earl’s shock and grief exploded. A low animal moan came forth from deep inside him; his knees buckled, and Dr. Burger placed his arm around him and sat him in a chair to keep him from falling onto the dull waxy linoleum hallway.
“Earl, look at me” he commanded.
“Emily, oh Emily," Earl began to sob.
“Earl, look at me. You know Emily is dead. She was D.O.A. I don’t want to do anything invasive like an autopsy. You understand? Do you want me to do one?”
“Oh, god, no ….”
“I’m sure it was her heart. Now, you know I have to fill out a death certificate. Look at me, Earl.”
Earl looked up at Dr. Burger, but all he could really make out was the doctor’s bushy white eyebrows and his clear gray eyes.
“Earl, in a few minutes I’ll come and get you and you can spend all the time you want with her, until your two boys come over and Ross can take care of things from then on.”
Earl sobbed, silent spasms wracking his body.
“Earl, look at me. Normally I’d give someone a sedative for what you’ve just gone through. Do you want one?” Earl stared at him with a wounded, pained expression but shook his head no.
“Listen then. Sit here and don’t move. I’ll be about
fifteen or twenty minutes. I’ll call Ross and the boys, and then I’ll come get you. I’m not going to do an autopsy unless you want me to. Do you?”
Earl looked at the man’s face as if he was talking to a stranger. He didn’t recognize his own voice when he answered “no.”
Dr. Burger sighed.
“All right then. Stay here. It’ll be awhile but I’ll call Ross and the boys and you can wait and then they’ll be here. All right?”
“Yeah …” but Earl’s voice trailed away. Dr. Burger stood erect again, turned on his heels, and headed toward the morgue. He had no intention of tearing organs out of Emily Taylor. He was as positive as a doctor could be without taking a dead woman’s blood pressure that Emily had a fatal cardiac episode. It was simple.
Two of the on-duty nurses glanced down the hallway and saw Earl slumped in the metal and plastic chair. Both were local women, both had mourned their mothers, fathers and husbands at Earl’s funeral home. They had seen Earl in his black suit, looking competent and concerned, caring and cool. Now he was the grieving family member with a vacant, shocked look on his face, red from tears, his arms wrapped around his torso.
Suddenly, without warning, Earl jumped up out of the chair, picked it up by its legs and began slamming the chair on the floor, repeatedly, with the most painful, hurtful moan escaping from somewhere deep within him as the chair was crashed onto the linoleum time after time.
As suddenly as it began, it stopped. Bent over the chair, spent, weeping, moaning in grief, Earl collapsed into the chair, which withstood its beating.
The two looked at each other and shook their heads. Both knew Emily and Earl and their families from days gone by. They both believed men took to becoming widowers harder than women. And poor Emily. No children. Just Earl and that funeral home? Was that all anyone was going to remember her for?
The two women, starched and professional, brushed small tears from the corners of their eyes, and returned to their stations. Dr. Burger, who had witnessed the episode from the small side office about twenty feet away, resumed his note taking, a small smile on his face.