Thursday, September 4, 2008

On Suing The undertaker in an Election Year

Appeared in The Bohemian Alien August 2008

I look at the letter in my hands and even now, I can’t believe it. I’m being sued.

I’m an undertaker, so, go ahead and imagine all the reasons I might be getting sued. Did I dispose of a body improperly? No! Did I fail to follow one of the fifty-gazillion guidelines the state imposes? No! Did I even, at any point, act like an insensitive jerk towards any of the survivors? No way!

You want to know why I’m in trouble? You won’t believe it, but here’s what happened.

My name is Louis Michaels, I live in the tiny town of Golden Cove, Florida. We’re on the bottom edge of the everglades and so far south that any farther and we’d be in Key West. Like my father before me, I run Michaels Funeral Home and Cemetery, the only such place in town.

Dad retired two years ago, staying on just long enough to make sure I had everything under control and then he and mom moved to Arizona. I tell people it was for that cool, northern weather.

My staff consists of my assistant, Bob, and a secretary, Christie. She’s my age. I figured if she was brave enough to work here, then maybe she’d be brave enough to date me, one of these days.

Maybe I brought all of this on myself, because the day things started, I was sitting in my office going over the books. I’m not proud to admit this, but we were getting behind and well, as I sat staring out the window at the fine circular drive that leads to the front door of the Home, I kind of wished someone would die. I know, that’s terrible, and really, it’s not a usual desire of mine. But at that moment, I couldn’t help it. I mean, Michael’s has been in this town, in some way, shape, or form, since the Spanish owned Florida. The remains of many people’s great-great-grandparents, including my own, are in this graveyard. I didn’t want to see it fall into financial ruin under my watch, and well, for my business to prosper…what can I say? I’m sorry.

All I can think is that God must have been listening in on these horrible thoughts because almost instantly, the door to my office banged open and Bob and Christie bounded inside like two kids on Christmas morning.

“Louis! Louis!” Christie shrieked. “We just got a call from Sheriff Hunt! He’s bringin’ over a body!”

My jaw dropped. “That’s…” God forgive me, I almost said, ‘Great!’ “Uh…who is the poor soul?”

Bob banged my desk. “Aw, c’mon, Louis, we really needed a funeral”

“No, we need money,” I corrected him. “During these bouts of good health we can open a car wash if we have to, but I refuse to say, ‘Hooray, somebody died.’” I rose to my feet, ready to chastise them both. “If you’ve lost focus of that, you need to get it back right now!”

Bob waved me off. “Okay, okay, but let me tell you who is coming over!”

“Alright, who is it?”

“Herman Saunders.”

I sank back into my seat letting the name settle in. Herman Saunders, richest man in town, owner of half the town. He founded a wildly successful chain of Cajun eateries during the sixties called, ‘The Blackened Shrimp,’ which, not only made him millions, it also helped him marry a former Miss America and send his two kids to big name universities. One of those kids, Senator Jack Saunders, was currently on the campaign trail, running for President of the United States.

I jumped up. “Christie, are we stocked with everything?”

“Yes, sir!” she gave me a little salute.

“Good, make sure we’ll be able to pick up anything extra we need at a moments notice.”

I hurried out into the hallway with both them at my heels. “Bob, I know the workshop is in order, but go give it a once-over just in case…”

Looking a bit too gleeful, Bob rushed off.

I had no idea what to expect or how big this memorial could be. During an election year, who can tell? Senator Saunders might want to keep things small and dignified or, he might make it a political three-ring circus. I wanted to be ready.

Christie and I spent the fifteen minutes I knew it would take for the body to arrive walking through the public side of my home making sure there wasn’t a hair out of place. In a few minutes, Bob re-joined us, in another few minutes, we heard the sound of a large vehicle rumbling up the driveway.

“What the…?” I muttered and peered out the window blinds. A big, white, semi came to a halt right on my driveway. Blazed on its sides was a company logo announcing to the entire world a single, solitary word.

“‘Beer?’” Bob read. “Louis, there’s a beer truck in the driveway.”

“I can see that!”

“What do we do?”

The air brakes on the truck let out a huge, prolonged hiss.

I blustered, storming toward the front door, “I’m going to find out what the hell he’s doing here!”

Outside, in the bright, south Florida sunshine, I saw the Sheriff pull in right behind the truck and I was glad. His presence would make it easier to shoo this guy out of the way for the ambulance, I was certain, would show up carrying Herman Saunders’s body.

I was wrong.

Sheriff Hunt climbed out of his squad car a broken man. He hitched his pants up over his gut and wiped a tear from his blotchy face as he slowly set his beige cowboy hat on his head.

I straightened my black suit coat and reminded myself not to let this incident throw me. I stepped toward the man.

“It is very good to see you, Sheriff. Wish the circumstances were better.”

“Yeah, me, too,” the big man said, letting out a sob. “Durned old Herman. He didn’t have a wicked bone in his body, but didn’t he like to play? Knew it would get him one of these days.” The sheriff whipped out a handkerchief and blew his nose. “Just wish it weren’t today. We were goin’ fishin’ t’night.”

The Sheriff hadn’t so much as blinked at the beer truck and it was beginning to bother me. “Maybe while we’re waiting for the ambulance, you can tell me what happened? And please excuse this truck, it just pulled in, I don’t know why.”

The Sheriff’s big head wagged back and forth. “Naw, there aint’ no ambulance. Doc Woods was with me earlier and he confirmed Herman’s death an’ everything. I got the certificate in my car.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What was the cause?’

Sheriff Hunt gave a great sniff as he walked forward and laid a hand on the side of the beer truck. “Cause of death: hypothermia.”

My jaw dropped as the situation dawned on me.

“No way!”

“Yep, hate to say it, but it’s true. Danged ol’ Herman. Best I can piece it together is this: Herman had all the stinkin’ money in the world, right? But he liked to fool around. He’d hate to pay up front for beers; he’d rather steal ‘em off the truck, y’know? Course, he’d always end up sending the company money for ‘em, but the quirky ol’ fool did it just for the adventure, I guess. Since his missus passed away he’s been a little off. I’ve gotten after him a few times myself, but he didn’t never listen.”

From around the corner of the truck, the driver appeared looking wide-eyed and pale.

The Sheriff continued. “This weekend starts the last fishing tournament of year and all the stores wanted to make sure they got their share of brew on the shelves. I figure Herman climbed in the semi while this young fellow was haulin’ in a palette of suds, but he got back before Herman could get out of the truck…”

Wringing his hands, the driver cut in. “Yeah, if I’d a known anyone was in there…I-I-I-I n-never would have left anyone inside! Not ever! He must have been hiding! I was supposed to head to Miami this morning with the rest of this load, but it was real late so I just slept. Then this morning the cooler inside sounded like it was runnin’ crazy high…s-s-so I looked in and…”

The guy looked like his legs were going to give out. I took him by the arm and had him take a seat on the curb. “Don’t worry, man. It’s going to be alright.”

“Yeah, you didn’t do nothin’ wrong, boy,” the Sheriff said. “It aint your fault.”

My brows wrinkled as I nodded at the back of the truck. “He’s in there?”

“Yep. The driver called me. I called the Doc, and then I called the Senator. He’s up in Naples campaigning. Gonna be here soon. He said to just take him over t’y'all.”

I glanced over at Bob, whose carefully set expression warned me he might excuse himself, run back into the home, and laugh himself silly.

“Let’s have a look,” I told him.

We opened up the back and climbed in. The chilly air inside the truck immediately mixed with the warm humidity we let inside and transformed into clouds of mist.

“He’s at the front,” Sheriff Hunt called from the door. “I think he tried to get the drivers attention while they were on the road and he must have kicked the cooler into high gear. Some of the bottled beers even froze over.”

Sure enough, through the swirling mist, first I saw the legs, then body and face of one Mr. Herman Saunders, deceased. His hand remained wrapped around an open can, his aging face froze in a position of smiling, pleased revelry, and a band of empties scattered about his remains.

I shook my head. “Yeah, that’s a dead guy in a beer truck alright.”

“You know what they say, Louis,” Bob said. “This bod’s for you.”

“Shut up.”
Senator Saunders didn’t go the quiet dignified route.

The last time I actually saw Jack Saunders, I was in the second grade and he had just graduated from Princeton. We were in Golden Coves only Dairy Queen, I was having a burger with my dad and Jack flounced in with a girl I recognized from McHenry’s Trailer Park. Her eyes were larger than the halter top she wore; her jeans were the kind my mother would have said came spray painted on.

“Ja-aaack,” she said in whiny, little kid voice. “I thought when you said we were goin’ out it would be to some place nice, you know, like that Hilton hotel in town where they have the ice sculptors…”

He playfully grabbed a fistful of her hair. “Ah, c’mon sweetie, this is our play day. Neither of us are dressed to go in there. Why, if I went near that place without a tie, I’d be shot on sight. Besides, you always take such good care of me, I gotta do something nice for you.”

The girl beamed.

When they were out of earshot, my dad looked at me and said, “When you grow up don’t act like that. When you deal with ladies, act like a man.”

At the time, I wondered what else I would possibly act like. I just told him, “Yes, sir.”

The Senator sat across from me, his hair perfectly styled and his blue-eyes somber. I noticed his suit carried a designer label.

“Senator, let me say up front that I am very sorry for your loss.”

Behind him stood a guy decked out in a black jacket, sunglasses and with a walkie-talkie sticking out of his pocket. Jack dismissed him with a wave and told the man to shut the door behind him.

“Mr. Michael’s, can I be straight with you? Man to man? And will you promise me none of this leaves this room? Because if I were to suddenly hear some of what I’m about to say reflected in a news story or two, I might make sure your business goes under and you never practice your trade again. Are we clear?”

That’s the point where I should have told him to leave. But, like I said, we were getting strapped. I kept going.

“You don’t have to threaten me to keep a secret,” I told him. “I keep more secrets than the CIA and I will take all them to my very own grave. I’m not your house boy, Senator. You want to bury your father, then let’s talk. Otherwise, stick your daddy back in the beer truck and hit the road.”

His eyes grew. “Well, well, well, this graveyard shift has a live wire. I like that. Alright then, I just wanted to make myself clear and…and…”

I gave him my iciest undertaker stare.

“…and I guess I did that. Okay, what I want you to know is…” his shoulders rose and fell. “I hated my dad. He was so old school he couldn’t even see straight. One of those old fashioned guys who felt people ought to spend their lives busting their rears instead of enjoying their time on earth. All that did was to keep him away from his family and running after the almighty dollar. You see where it got him: a ride to the undertakers in a beer truck. My god, how humiliating! When I get in office, the taxes I place on corporate spending are going to make life easier for everyone, but enough of that. Let’s talk specifics. I want to have a viewing, and the funeral itself, but most important some type of memorial service where I can speak and make it clear to people what my father believed and that he did his best to pass those traditions on to his children. It will make it easier for voters who still think like him to pull the lever for me in November.” He paid me his best campaign smile and darn it, I think his eyes even twinkled. “My dad had to be good for something in my life, know what I mean?”

From that, I gathered that his big secret was to make sure no one knew he was a first class jerk.

When we were finished, I had the funds for the most ostentatious funeral Golden Cove had ever seen. There was a ‘guest list’ that included celebrities and politicians of all stripes. I’ve got to admit, I was more than a little nervous.

The media began to camp on my front lawn. That annoyed me. I asked them to go please go away that this was a funeral home, not a party house. They just fired questions at me about how it felt to handle such a huge funeral.

Fortunately, I saw Christie glance out the window. I caught her eye, nodded and in seconds the sprinklers came on.

After they scattered, I disappeared inside.

“Louis, I called the rental company and we’ll be able to have all the chairs here tomorrow and a crew to set them up,” Christy said, chasing me with a paper and pen. “So the funeral is Wednesday, and that still looks good because the weather man is predicting no rain, we’ll get it tonight and tomorrow, but Wednesday looks good. And to stay on schedule, you’ll be embalming Mr. Saunders tonight, right?”


“Alright. The local hotels have been notified and…is there anything else you need me to do?”

“Christie, you’re doing such a good job, I almost hate give you anything else…”

“Oh, it’s okay,” she said, smiling sweetly. “Looking after you is my job.”

I admit, I liked the sound of that. I smiled back. “Well, uh, could you take my suit to the cleaners?”

“Which one?”

“Let me see… maybe, the black one? Or how about light gray?”

Her eyebrows peaked. “‘Light gray?’ You’re living wild now, Louis! Much as I applaud your fashion sense, I think you ought to stay with the traditional black for this. I’ll pick up extra deodorant and baby powder.”

“Are you going to dress me, too?”

“Sure, I’ll powder you down. With this job you need to have someone make sure you don’t have white dust all over your black clothes.”

“Y’know, I’m not hatin’ this.”

She looked into my eyes and rolled hers. “I’ll see you later, you.”


Later, I met Bob in the work room. It was time to prep Herman Saunders for his big day. Rigor mortis left him in the same up right position in which we found him. It made storing his corpse a little awkward, but we figured it out.

We slipped into our black, rubber aprons and gloves. Bob turned on the small TV on the upper shelf. The talking heads at CNN were busy praising Senator Saunders for being such a devoted son.

“Jeesh, get me an air sick bag,” Bob said as we hauled Herman out of the cooler and set him on my table. “I’m telling you Louis, that guy’s phony as a three dollar bill.”

I sighed and grumbled, “Yeah, I know. Makes me feel sorry for the old guy. I remember when we were kids, he used to pass out baseball cards and gave really cool candy at Halloween. I kinda liked him.”

Bob grinned. “Yeah, me too.”

“Well, let’s cut his clothes off and straighten him out.” A picture flashed through my head and I laughed. “Hey, what if we left him sitting up like this, stuck a fresh beer in his hand and just sort of set him in the vault?”

“Bet he’d like that.”

The TV changed views to an in-depth interview with the Senator.

“Senator Saunders, you’re having a really heart felt memorial for your father in his home town. Golden Cove isn’t a very big place, how are the locals dealing with all the extra visitors?”

“Oh, you have to remember,” Saunders said, smile in place, “these are the salt of the earth, decent people my father lived and worked with everyday. I realize it’s a lot and yes, I’m over-taxing the poor Funeral Director…”

I paused from snipping off a pant leg, shot the TV a glance and growled, “Yeah? I won’t be over-taxed until you get in office, Loser!”

“No kidding.”

“You know what?” I said as we worked. “We are going to do a perfect funeral.”

I didn’t want to say anything, but another plan rattled across my brain. I could take some of what we earned from this massive affair and donate it to a certain lady who lived in the trailer park, no explanation, no nothing. But maybe someone in the press would notice her two kids looked a lot like the Senator.

But I could hear my dad warning me about not seeking revenge and decided to send her the money whether anyone noticed or not. From what I heard, she could use it.

We had just stripped his clothes away when a giant rumble of thunder shook the room. A bolt of lightning flashed outside the window.

“Aw, dang it,” Bob groaned. “I didn’t get the lightning rod put back up.”

I shot him a glance. “What?”

Bob lifted his hands. “I’m sorry. After that last storm…I just forgot man.”

I sighed. “We better get out. If lightning strikes anywhere near the roof…” I started packing up Herman as I spoke. “The joists are all metal. It will travel in here and…” I wordlessly gestured at the room. Everything in my shop is metal. This was as safe as standing in a pool of water holding a live wire. “We’ll give it half an hour.”

“Okay. Sorry man.”

“Forget it. Let’s just get out…”


Overhead, thunder pounded the atmosphere. A sharp, blinding, light flashed over and over for several seconds. Bob shrieked and grabbed me like a girl. Above, the work lights exploded. We dove for the floor.

I saw it. The terrifying blue charge of a lightning strike whipped down the west side of the wall. Instantly, I knew it was following a set of wires.

I hauled Bob out of the way, yelling, “MOVE! MOVE!” The light zinged past us and collided with the pump at the back of my work table.

Sparks flew and for a second the entire surface glowed a horrible blue.

Bob screamed again and I didn’t blame him. Silhouetted in the dimness, Herman’s body had collapsed backwards, completely limp.

When the charge grounded out, Bob and I were on our knees in the dark. My heart pounded, I could hear Bob panting. There was a scent of ozone in the air and, much to my dread, the smell of burnt hair.

“Oh, no,” I whispered. “I think it fried Herman.”

“Oh crap. We better find a light. I stuck a flashlight in the drawer behind us. I’ll get it.”

I slowly rose. Whatever damage Herman incurred, I knew we could fix, but, well, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it.

Bob fumbled around behind me feeling his way to the flashlight and while he did, I noticed something strange. I thought it was the air conditioner running oddly at first or maybe wind from the storm. Then out of the darkness, came a sound so unexpected, it sent Bob flailing to find me in the dark.

A man cleared his throat.

“Anyone seen my pants?” the man asked in a deep, southern drawl.

Bob shrieked and grabbed me again. I pulled the flashlight from his hands.

“Somebody there? Man, if you’re pissed about the beer, I’ll pay you back. I just need my pants.”

For a moment, after hearing him speak so clearly and sanely, I froze. You’ve got to understand, this was like a reversal of gravity, like watching pigs fly or making snowballs in hell. It was practically a law of physics that when someone landed on my table they never, ever asked about their pants. Or anything else. I was, frankly, awestruck.

“It’s a miracle…” I said in a hushed voice.

“‘Miracle?’ It’ll be a miracle if I don’t freeze to death!”

“Uh, too late, Mr. Saunders,” Bob said.

“What are ya’ talkin’ about? You take my clothes, ya dang homo?”

I got a grip and realized the best route was to quickly find something for the man to wear and calmly explain things as we drove him to the hospital.

But Bob dove right in. “Man, you’ve been dead almost a full 24 hours! Dude, we were about to embalm you!”

“Bob! Shut up!” I found the switch to the flashlight and turned it on and aimed it at my face.

“Mr. Saunders, I’m Louis Michaels…”

When he heard my name he gave one of those breaths that sounds like someone is trying to suck all the air out of a room.

“Holy crap!” he gasped. “You’re the undertaker! Am I in the funeral home?”

“Uh, yes, sir. Yes, you are.”

In the dimness, I could still make out the slack jawed look of pure shock that stretched across his entire face. “God Almighty,” he slowly whispered. “You think you guys would have an extra pair of pants around here….”


Weird, huh? We did get some pants for Herman to wear and a T-shirt and some coffee to warm him up.

Watching him sip his drink, I realized anything is possible.

“So, old Hunt thought I climbed in the truck, did he?” he asked after we filled him in on the details of his death. “Guess I can’t blame him. I do have that, let’s see, how did my boy put it? Oh, yeah, he called it my ‘signature eccentricity.’ Bet he learned that at Princeton.”

“So, if that’s not what happened, how did you get in the truck?” I asked.
“You just gotta do some quick math on this one. Here’s what I know: I’m in Naples one minute having dinner with my son in his hotel room. I fell asleep…and then I woke up here.”

For the first time, I saw tears form in the old man’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Saunders.”

He gave his eyes a swipe and sucked in a deep breath. “We had our differences, but I didn’t think he hated me this much. I worked a hell of a lot to give him the things I never had, guess I would have done better to put him to work with me. Would have kept him out of trouble.” He grabbed a paper napkin, blew his nose, then stuck out his jaw. “I wanna go kick his ass so bad it aint funny. I don’t care how many hours I worked, there aint no excuse for this, you hear me?” He squeezed one hand into a fist and slammed it on the table. “No, excuse!”

I took a seat and folded my hands a minute. “You wanna get your kid?”

Herman nodded his grizzled head. “Yeah.”

“The TV said he’s doing a 9 PM press conference from the town hall. Let’s go.”


It didn’t take much. We had the element of surprise on our side, after all. Herman walked into the town hall, bellowing, “WHY, SON, WHY?”

Senator Saunders took one look, shrieked, and melted into a blithering, heap whimpering, “I’m sorry, daddy! I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have put you in that truck!”

That pretty well shot his bid for the presidency.

I thought we were done. Thank God the check the Senator wrote me cleared. No way I’m giving it back. I did make that donation to the trailer park lady. I asked Herman about it and he sighed. “Yeah, that’s the grandsons I’m supposed to pretend I don’t know. Heck, I wonder if they like fishin’? I’m gonna find out.”

So we were back on track. Except the reporters were replaced with medical experts who wanted to know exactly how Herman rose from the dead. What can I say? If it aint your time, you aint goin.’ God’s got it figured out, not me.

Herman has grandkids to look after, Bob still has an excess of personality, and Christie…well, we went on a date. And it was good. That’s all I’m saying.

But then, then, I got this letter in the mail. Kid number two, the daughter. Daddy didn’t die, so she isn’t getting her inheritance, so she’s suing me…for malpractice. Malpractice!

What is she saying? Her father lived so I screwed up?

I know I can get this tossed out, but after I do, I’m having a serious talk with Herman about his kids.
Man, do they have issues.

No comments: