Author’s note: Nathan Ashcraft and Sarah Lawrence are two of the book’s three narrators. Sarah was the town’s high school biology teacher and a political activist whose zeal often overshadowed her judgment and had a devastating impact on Nathan’s life 30 years earlier, when he was one of her students. In the novel’s present day, Nathan serves as the town’s funeral home director, and he’s been summoned to the hospital morgue to retrieve a body. He’s shocked to discover it’s Sarah Lawrence. When he returns to the funeral home, he’s surprised to find Sarah’s husband waiting for him with a mysterious manuscript.
“I didn’t realize the process could go so fast,” Mrs. Lawrence’s husband said as I led him into my office. I didn’t look down at the large envelope he’d given me, but my fingers kept squeezing it. There seemed to be about an inch of paper inside. “Sarah would like that. She never had much patience. Even when it came to our marriage, she just wanted to go to the courthouse. No ceremony, no waiting.”
I gestured to a chair. “Oh, thank you very much,” he continued, sitting down. The man spoke in a casual but very fast tone which told me his thoughts were chaotic and lost, as they had every right to be.
“If you’ll give me just a minute, I’d like to find your wife’s—file.” I’d started to say paperwork.
“Yes, of course.” He crossed one leg over his knee and held it there. His dangling foot wagged back and forth like a puppy dog’s tail.
I went to the cabinet and pulled out the drawer with L. Robbie had been old-fashioned when it came to filing clients, cataloging couples together under the husband’s name.
“What is your first name again, please? I’m sorry I’ve forgotten it.”
“No worries at all,” he said. “Frank.”
“Thank you. Here it is.”
I retrieved the hanging file and brought it to the desk. The paperwork inside showed the arrangements, the burial plots, the tombstones. “Everything seems to be paid for except the coffins.”
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“I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s the wrong file.”
“It has both of your names listed here.”
“I realize that. You’ll have to excuse me, it’s been such a terrible day.”
“No,” he said. “Please don’t say you understand. Maybe you will later. Maybe I will too. There should be a second file with just her name on it. If you’ll please look, I would appreciate it.”
Swallowing, I went back to the cabinet and sure enough he was right. The second folder looked to be far newer than the original, which might have been thirty years old. I held it up and pivoted back to him. He held out his hand and I gave him the folder. He opened it, read, and nodded.
“Exactly as she said.”
“I’m not following.”
“Trust me, I’m barely keeping up with her myself. Some of the answers are in there,” he said, pointing to the stack of papers he’d given me.
I sat down at my desk, considered the manuscript envelope, and pushed it aside. Mr. Lawrence reached forward and pushed it back, front and center on my desk. I blinked at him.
“What is this?” I asked.
“My wife’s confession, though she’d certainly never use that term. She printed it off this morning. Two copies. One for you, one for me. I’m not sure when she began working on it. It seems she deleted the file.”
I shook my head. “But she was in the hospital. How did—”
“It seems she planned it all out. She phoned me to come home, saying it was urgent. By the time I got there, it was too late. Much too late.”
He rubbed at his quivering lower lip. I sat back with the feeling of two hands pushing hard into my chest.
“She killed herself?”
“I thought you knew that already.”
“No. I’m sorry, I haven’t even looked at your wife’s body or reviewed the hospital’s notes.”
Not knowing what else to do, and wanting to avoid eye contact with him, I turned to my computer and began typing. It was a pathetic attempt to make it seem like I had a course of action. Mrs. Lawrence committing suicide? There were several times when I’d wished she’d done just that, but the idea of it happening was like imagining the Great Wall of China crumbling.
“Do you have certain software?”
Mr. Lawrence’s question startled me. My screen was, in fact, dark, and for a horrified second I thought he’d seen it. But he couldn’t possibly from his angle.
“I’m always curious about industry-specific software. I know the question must sound very strange. I apologize. I just need something to ground me. Pathetic as it may seem, software and spreadsheets do that.”
“No, don’t apologize. There is a software platform for funeral directors. Several, actually. I like one called Osiris.”
“What do you like about it?”
“It helps manage every detail.”
He accepted my generic answer with a grunt and looked down at his lap.
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“Nathan,” he said, “I don’t see any reason to avoid the subject. I know how much my wife hurt you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I blurted.
“She was very passionate about ideas. I think she loved concepts more than people. In fact, I’m sure she did. But she did have a genuine desire to help you and many other students. She just went too far. Much too far, as you’ll see.”
I placed Mrs. Lawrence’s file atop the manuscript envelope, opened it and surveyed her order. “Looks like she wants cremation.”
Mr. Lawrence mumbled something. He was almost hugging himself. I glanced at the older file, still open to the details of the mutual burial plans of a husband and wife.
“She didn’t want to rest beside me,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about these other plans until I sat down and read what she’d left behind. Have you ever seen a wife make separate funeral plans from her husband in secret?”
“No,” I said after a moment of reflection.
“It’s like she killed herself and then divorced me. But I’ll honor her wishes. She just makes it sound like I bullied her into a traditional funeral.”
“It’s in your copy of the manuscript.”
“Maybe one day I’ll read it.”
“You must,” he said, leaning forward. “Please.”
I scanned her file again. “She didn’t want a memorial service.”
“You and I might be the only people to come,” he said. “Maybe we’re having that memorial service right now.”
“It’s the funeral director’s job to attend the service. That doesn’t make me a mourner.”
My own words shocked me. Never mind the affront to professionalism, I had never said something so vicious to another person under any circumstance, much less a fresh widower.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to bear a grudge. I’m trying hard not to hold one against her right now, but I think I would if I were in your shoes.”
We held each other’s stare. I didn’t remember every time I stopped by Mrs. Lawrence’s classroom to talk, but a few instances remained vivid. Had she ever mentioned a husband? Had she ever mentioned anything like a private life? Did it even cross my mind to ask, repayment for all the times she listened to my problems and took my loneliness seriously? It was impossible to recapture whatever assumptions I had about her back then, though it embarrasses me now to think I could have been so self-absorbed.
“I don’t know what I feel anymore. It all happened a long time ago. I moved on.”
“Sarah would be glad about that. I wish this meeting between us could have taken place about thirty years earlier.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“I would have helped you,” he said. “I would have kept Sarah from going to your parents. I ask you to believe that I didn’t even know this happened. She was already on thin ice with the school board. Your parents could have gotten her fired easily.”
“My mom didn’t want anyone to know. The shame Mom felt for me kept Mrs. Lawrence safe.”
“I know Sarah felt awful—”
“If she felt awful, she could have quit.”
“Quitting wasn’t in her nature.”
“Then she could have apologized at least.”
“I think she did.”
“Not to me.”
He gestured to the big envelope. “I think it’s in there. Maybe you can accept it, or maybe you can’t. But there’s no harm in looking.”
Mr. Lawrence rose and extended his hand. I shook it by reflex.
“I’ll arrange for the cremation. I don’t have facilities to do it here. She—” I looked down at the paperwork again. “She didn’t select any sort of urn or mausoleum. Not even a memorial plaque. What do you want done with the ashes?”
“I don’t want them.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “But you understand they have to be disposed of according to state law. There’s a designated spot in the town cemetery for scattering ashes, if you’d prefer that.”
“Honestly, I . . .”
“A decision doesn’t have to be made today, Mr. Lawrence. Would you like some time to consider?”
He bit down a little on his bottom lip and nodded. Then I showed him to the door. There didn’t seem to be anything left to say, but he surprised me on the porch with one cryptic, out-of-the-blue remark. “I really didn’t want to be a father.” The words and the hoarseness of his voice, like he was coughing smoke from his lungs, caught me so off guard that all I could do was nod. We shook hands a final time and he went to his car.
The whole encounter lasted about 40 minutes, but it felt like hours. I pulled at my hair a moment, my shoulder blades pressed against the door like someone trying to brace it against a mob. The only onslaught was in my head. I pictured the manuscript envelope. I saw myself opening it and becoming engrossed. Alternatively, I imagined throwing the whole thing into the trash can unread. I felt like I owed the first option to my future self, the second option to my past.
But Mr. Henshaw’s case was the present. That’s what mattered. That’s what had to take priority. I hurried to the prep room and resumed his case, working on him more with muscle memory than plan and purpose. I got his hair just right. I swept the blush brush across his face in short, delicate strokes that brought life to his cheeks. As much as I wanted my mind to be blank, however, Mrs. Lawrence’s face began asserting itself there. I thought of her in the hearse, a suicide. Was it an act of despair? Determination? One of a hundred other possibilities? Maybe the answer was in the manuscript as well.
It was more than thirty years ago, I thought. What does any of it matter? I was over it a long time ago. I should make sure the manuscript, whatever it has to say, goes into the oven with her.
The brush slipped, making a streak on Mr. Henshaw’s skin. I cursed and started wiping away the excess cosmetic. Then I put all my tools down, turned from his body and walked out to the garage. I opened the hearse and stared at her enclosed body.
My memory needed something far hotter than crematorium flames to burn her away.
Sean Eads grew up in Kentucky, but has called Colorado home since 1999. He has a masters degree in English literature from the University of Kentucky and a masters degree in library science from the University of Illinois. He’s been a reference librarian with the Jefferson County Public Library since 2002. His first novel, “The Survivors,” was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. His third novel, “Lord Byron’s Prophecy,” was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Colorado Book Award. “Confessions” is his fifth novel and was also a finalist for the Colorado Book Award.