As Good as Dead
by John Mara
Other TTTV stories by John Mara
On a secluded street in a small New England town, a black hearse pulls into Walter Nelson’s driveway and, next door, Paddy O’Hegarty’s favorite night of entertainment begins. “Ach, Nelson looks pretty good over there,” O’Hegarty says to his wife Fiona, “for a dead man.” Short and portly, Paddy clambers up onto the kitchen counter. Then, red-faced from the ascent, he angles a pair of binoculars just right to steal a peak out the window of this, Walter Nelson’s tenth annual resurrection.
“What’s dead should stay dead, Paddy. So the nuns taught us back in County Cork!” Fiona crosses herself—twice. “For ten years, bajesus, Mr. Nelson’s kept St. Peter waiting at his golden gate. Why, the old man thinks he’s Lazarus!”
The O’Hegartys migrated—or beat feet is more like it—out of Ireland and to Boston ten years ago, after they were chased from a Cork monastery and convent for a few fleshy transgressions of their respective divinity codes. Since then, as penance, the pious duo has concerned themselves with the moral turpitude of others in their adopted land.
The O’Hegartys made one exception to their calling, however, when they overlooked the Nelsons’ trespass of the Lord’s inviolable boundary between life and death. “After all, who in the Lord’s flock hasn’t wandered from the Church’s narrow path?” Fiona divined. In truth, when they got wise to Mr. Nelson’s deadly homecomings, the O’Hegartys vowed to keep their mouths shut in exchange for the Nelsons’ rhubarb patch. Under the heavenly covenant, Walter Nelson maintained immortality, and Paddy O’Hegarty scored eternal rhubarb pie.
In the Nelsons’ driveway, the mortician, sailing under the banner of ‘Mortie,’ opens the rear door of the hearse with the affected grace of a valet. Walter Nelson climbs out of it, dressed in the same dark suit and blue silk tie he wore at his funeral. The red rose Mortie stuffs between Walter’s fingers is the only fresh thing about the dead man. This year, Walter’s skin is a shade paler and his hair a tone whiter. His vision has deteriorated too—but Mort may’ve grabbed the wrong glasses out of the shoe box at the funeral home.
“We’re each entitled to one ride in a hearse, Fiona,” Paddy says over the binoculars. “And here’s Nelson on ride number ten. That son-of-a-bitch bounces back like a dead cat!”
“Stop your goddamned swearing, bajesus!” Mrs. O counsels as she brandishes a tin baking sheet, “Or you’ll be getting your entitled ride aside Nelson tonight!” Fiona packs a wallop that belies her ninety pounds. She’s bedecked in hair curlers, and the yellowed housecoat she wears looks like one draped over a coat rack.
Outside, Walter Nelson, a bit stiff from the ride, lumbers up the steps and through the front door of his Victorian-style home. The door opens into a finely appointed dining room, where the Victorian furniture and wood floor are clean and polished, and the fireplace crackles. Walter spots the cremation urn—his—that adorns the mantle. There I am, he snickers at the ruse. The dining room table holds two silver place settings and a candelabrum. Nelson’s favorite meal steams on hot plates: carrots, mashed potatoes, and of course, roast beef—rare.
The dinner was arranged by Gerty, the Nelsons’ live-in housekeeper for fifteen years. Gerty moved out of the house ten years ago when Mr. Nelson died, but she returns every year to fix the Nelsons’ anniversary dinner. Next year, though, the dinners will shift to her apartment, on account of what happened to Mrs. Nelson two months ago.
Feeling his collar, Nelson prudently takes the seat further from the fireplace. Mort seals Walter’s face and hands every year with wax as a preservative, and last year’s wax melted and congealed on his white collar, the victim no doubt of Walter having chosen the warmer seat.
As Walter pours two glasses of Brunello wine, his wife Grace sashays down the curving staircase and into the dining room. Elegant in a red dress and white gloves, her jewelry sparkles when it meets the candlelight. This year, her hair is black, not gray. Dyed? Walter wonders.
“Oh, thank you darling, it’s so good to see you again!” She takes the red rose. With lips pursed for a kiss, Grace opens her arms for a warm embrace.
“No touching!” Nelson recoils. “Mort says, after ten years, one squeeze could break me to pieces, and he means it literally, Grace. He says I should have a label that reads ‘fragile.’”
Mrs. Nelson sits down instead. “Sorry darling, I lost my head.”
“I’m worried about losing mine.” Then, Nelson notices another change in his wife as the dim candlelight flickers across her face. No makeup? Her skin looks glossy. “So Grace, tell me about the past year while I’ve been . . . away.” With the carving knife, Walter slices the wriggling roast beef.
Next door, Paddy O’Hegarty shifts the binos from the Nelsons’ dining room window to some faster action in the adjacent kitchen. There, another roast beef is wriggling, this one a rump roast—raw—in the form of Gerty’s rosy bottom. Gert sits atop the kitchen counter where she was plunked by the ever helpful mortician.
“Has Gerty started cookin’ over there, Paddy?” Fiona says.
“I’d say so, love. She’ll be needin’ the oven vent before long.”
“That Gert’s always been on the cheeky side.”
“Looks like that’s the side she’s on now.” Paddy catches the reflection from the mirror in the Nelsons’ kitchen. “Yup, there it is.”
The Gerty-Mortie annual kitchen tryst began ten years ago with flirtatious eating, with sexual innuendo, of raw fruits and vegetables. Over time, the two vegetarians became carnivorous. Ten years on, it’s an all-out food fight.
Fiona takes a rhubarb pie out of the oven. “I’ll bet they’re having the roast beef again, Paddy,” Fiona says.
“Roast beef in the dining room and kitchen both.” Paddy wipes sweat from the lenses of the binoculars. “Except in the kitchen, it’s that mortician fella workin’ awful hard at the slicin’.”
When Mrs. O brings her husband a piece of rhubarb pie, she finds him contorted on the counter. “Whatya all twisted up for, Paddy?”
“The Virgin Mary is blockin’ me line of sight!”
“It’s a divine intervention, no doubt.”
“Damn, that Gerty’s showin’ off some fine cupcakes there, too.”
“Cupcakes? I thought she makes the soufflé,” Fiona says. “I wish she’d bring a warm piece of it over here sometime.”
“Oh, so don’t I, love. So don’t I.” Kneading the crick in his neck, Paddy hands Fiona the binoculars. “Here, hold these.” Like a chubby gymnast dismounting a pommel horse, he leaps from the counter and rushes outside.
Fiona looks through the binoculars. “Awww, how sweet, the two of ‘em,” she says while panning the dining room scene.
Outside, Paddy drags the life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary, careful not to rake his hands across the Virgin’s stony breasts. Mary smiles sublimely as her heels furrow the ground, pulled by Paddy with strength neither she nor Mrs. O knew he had.
Fiona moves the binoculars into the void Mother Mary leaves behind. “Oh, good Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Fiona hyperventilates and crosses herself—three times.
“I’ll be rinsin’ me eyes out with the holy water come Sunday, Mr. O’Hegarty!” she says as Paddy hustles back into the kitchen. “And you nearly wearing a priest’s collar!”
“Do you think that mortician fella would put me to work as a driver?” Paddy grabs the binoculars. ”What’d I miss?”
Fiona whacks Paddy with the baking sheet. But, with the meat eaters next door in a full gallop, Paddy is oblivious to the sting. “Now why can’t we get some of that over here, I ask you, Fiona?” Every year, he lobbies for an amendment to the terms of their matrimonial covenant, usually when the shenanigans in the Nelsons’ kitchen reach a crescendo.
“Is it the soufflé you’re after, Paddy? It’s the rhubarb we serve up here. Isn’t that good enough for ye?”
“The rhubarb would be just fine, love, if we could make it tart, not sweet. The fellas at the club say it’s good tart, every now and then.”
But Fiona doesn’t hear the suggestion to spice up the marital menu. She’s rummaging the kitchen closet in an all-out search for the second pair of binoculars.
Back in the dining room next door, the scene is more tranquil. Delaying permanent death, Walter cherishes the one hour of renewed life Mortie grants him every year. He spends the precious time on dinner with his wife Grace. After their marriage, Grace taught kindergarten for forty years until she retired five years ago. A church deacon, volunteer librarian, and president of the garden club, Grace was satisfied with a simple, private life. She doted over their only child and let Walter stand in the spotlight.
With time short, Walter knows to skim only the high points of the life he left behind. “Tell me all about Walt Jr., Grace.”
“He got word that he passed the bar exam. On his wedding day! Oh, I wish you could’ve been there. Walt and his bride were as handsome as you and I on the day we were married.”
Walter moves the candelabrum to hide his misty eyes.
“There’s bound to be a new baby to tell you about this time next year, Walter. I wish you could see them.”
“I can’t see anyone but you, Grace. Mort says emotional strain shortens the hours I have left. Besides, if the FDA finds out I’m injecting an unapproved serum, it’s game over.”
Before he retired, Walter Nelson headed research at a Boston biotech firm, where he was working on a serum to bring the dead back to life, if only briefly. But the CEO shuttered the clandestine project ‘on ethical grounds’ after a resurrected cat escaped the lab, streaked a company picnic, and jumped into the lap of his mortified granddaughter. The serum was destroyed, but Walter, on the sly, stored two vials on ice.
When he turned seventy, Walter was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he called Mortie, a childhood friend. Walter thawed the serum and trained Mort on every aspect of bringing him back to life—briefly—once a year. Mortie learned how to suspend Walter’s body in a liquid nitrogen tank and how to mix and inject the life-giving serum. As cover, Mortie faked Walter’s cremation. The urn on the mantle supposedly holds Nelson’s remains, but a faint cigar aroma wafts from the urn at close range.
Gerty was enlisted in the death-defying scheme too. Before Walter semi-died, he settled Gert with an annuity to cover payments to Mortie of $50,000 per year and to herself of $25,000 per year. The annuity was structured to pay out for twenty years, equal to the twenty doses of available serum. No wonder Mortie was doing his level best in the kitchen to ingratiate himself with the keeper of the purse.
Nelson refills the wine glasses. Checking his watch, he turns the conversation from Walt Jr. to Grace. “How are things at the garden club, dear?”
“The same.” Grace looks away, suddenly subdued.
“And your golf handicap?”
“No change there either.”
Nelson squints and leans toward Grace. “What are you doing to your hair? There’s not a single gray.”
Grace fidgets and adjusts her wig. Nearly a year ago, radiation treatments robbed Grace of her hair. Two months ago, cancer robbed Grace of her life. But not fully. She decided to hide her death from Walter and to split his ten years of remaining serum doses 50-50. That’ll give Walter and me five more hours and five more dinners together. Walter would want it that way, she reasoned. She arranged for Mortie to simply replicate for her what he had done for Walter and to drop her off at the house for dinner ten minutes early. A second cremation urn, this one tucked away on a side table, lends proof to Mortie’s execution of his double duties.
But the new arrangement would cost Grace. Both Mortie and Gerty insisted on a doubling of their annual fee. “You can’t take it with you,” they reminded Grace. Grace had little negotiating power; the situation for her was literally ‘do or die.’ In the end, Grace deemed the double payments a worthy investment.
Back in the O’Hegartys’ kitchen, Paddy again has himself in a twist on the counter.
“Can you see all right there, Paddy? What’s goin’ on now?” Mrs. O says as she takes a rhubarb pie out of the oven.
“Ach, that mortician fella is a pig!”
“Didn’t I tell ya, Paddy, about the morals in this Godforsaken country?” Fiona says. “We’d be headin’ back to Cork, I’ll tell ya, if Saint Brigid’s Parish hadn’t banned the both of us.”
“He’s got the poor woman buckled over the butcher block now. He’s angling for another slice of that rump steak, by the looks of it.”
“Let me see those,” Fiona says as she grabs the binoculars. “Ohhh, dear Jesus! Can it be? I’ve never seen the likes of it.”
“Neither have I, but I’d sure like to,” Paddy says. “That lass must be double-jointed.”
As the O’Hegartys wrestle for control of the binoculars, Mort and Gert finish off their second helping. Then, they put themselves—and the kitchen—back in order.
“I’ve been thinking, Mortie. Here I am sitting on an annual annuity of $50,000. You’re sitting on an annual annuity of $100,000,” Gert says, lighting a cigarette. “We ought to merge.”
“Isn’t that what we’ve been doing, dear?” Mortie says. He gives Gert a squeeze and then peaks into the dining room.
“No, no. I’m talking about a business consolidation. Our annuities flow whether you inject Walter and Grace or not. Whether I serve dinner in there or not.”
“But I’m tied to the two stiffs. They’re floating in a liquid nitrogen tank in my basement!”
“Cremate the two of ‘em for real. Then sell the tank. Sign over the funeral home to your son. Retire, Mortie! With $150,000 combined, we can be in Boca Raton by next week and stay there for good.”
“You’re right, Gert! They’re outta gas anyway.”
“Right. What’s five hours more or five hours less? They’re as good as dead.”
“Yeah, it’s our turn to live large!”
In the dining room, Walter and the serum are indeed wearing down. “Goodbye dearest, until next year.” He pockets the front tooth that falls into his lap and, forlorn, blows Grace a kiss through the gap it left behind.
Mortie helps Walter down the steps and back into the hearse. When Mort drives away, the curtain closes on Paddy’s perennial amusement. A moment later, probing inside the refrigerator, Paddy doesn’t see Grace decamp the Victorian and join Gerty in her Honda Civic. This year, the Honda trails five minutes behind the hearse so the semi-dead Grace can follow her husband into the liquid nitrogen.
Two hours later, Paddy O’Hegarty changes into pajamas and plops onto the couch in the den. With eyes closed, he recounts an exciting day like a ten-year-old on Christmas night. Visions of cherry-topped cupcakes dance in his head, and he wonders if a hot soufflé will ever find its way into the O’Hegarty household.
Just then, the Honda Civic careens up the street and screeches into the Nelsons’ driveway. Fiona tiptoes to the kitchen window with the binoculars. She sees Mortie jump out of the Honda, wearing a tropical shirt, khakis, white shoes and a belt to match. Gert follows, wearing a tennis skirt, sneakers, and a sports top. She holds onto a panama sunhat that misbehaves in the breeze.
Nice hat, Fiona thinks. She traces Mort and Gert as they race inside the Victorian, each carrying a cremation urn. Mortie exchanges his urn with the one on the mantel, and Gert exchanges hers with the one on a side table. Then, they race outside with the two urns.
Fiona gasps in disbelief at the blasphemy that unfolds next. In the back yard, Mort and Gert each arc a stream of ashes out of their urns as though they’re emptying two cigarette ash trays. “Ohhh, ‘tis a sacrilege!” Fiona shields her eyes and crosses herself—four times. “First the counter. Then the butcher block. And now this? What are they doing, the godless heathens?!”
When Fiona dares look up, the idolatry is somehow getting worse. A cloud of discarded ashes are drifting earthward, alighting on the hallowed rhubarb patch! Fiona shuffles outside to intercept the two reprobates on their way back to the Honda. “Who in God’s creation do ye have fertilizin’ me rhubarb patch?”
“Oh, Mrs. Hegarty, it was nothing but cigar ashes in them urns,” Mortie says, looking up and down at the pie-stained housecoat.
“Cigars? What do you take me for, Mister? And what might you be leerin’ at?” Fiona tightens the wrap of her housecoat.
“That’s right, Fiona. Cuban cigars, too,” Gerty adds. “Nothing but the best for the Nelsons!”
To placate Fiona for the garden infringement, Mortie decorates each of the two empty urns with a red rose and places them on either side of the Virgin Mary. Then, he hangs the Nelsons’ house keys on the two fingers the Virgin has raised in a blessing.
Slack-jawed, Fiona endures the pagan ritual in stunned silence.
“Bye now, Mrs. O’Hegarty,” Gert says. “We have a flight to catch in an hour!” Rethinking her unruly headwear, Gert sails the panama sunhat onto Mother Mary’s head like a ring toss yard game. “Bingo!”
With eyes agog, Fiona watches the two miscreants speed away in the Honda, her mind forever altered.
“What’s the rumpus about out there?” Paddy says from his headquarters on the couch, when Fiona returns.
“I’ve been speaking to them two kitchen contortionists.”
“What’d they say, love?”
“Ohhh, they had plenty to say, Mr. O’Hegarty. And I’ll tell ye this. They’ve made a different woman out of me. There’ll be no more rhubarb pie in this household.”
“And why not, Fiona?”
“Because from this day forward, Paddy, we’re switching to soufflé.”
“Soufflé?” His domestic outlook apparently improving, Paddy leaps from the couch. In the kitchen, he slides his thick arms around Fiona’s waist. “Hot soufflé?” he says, with one eye on the counter and the other on the butcher block. “You’re not double-jointed now, are ye, lass?”
Fiona reaches around Paddy too, but to grab the baking sheet on the counter. “Keep ye hands off me soufflé!” she says, and the bite of the baking sheet punctuates her request. Freed of Paddy’s meat hooks, Fiona escapes for a warm soak in the tub, there to reflect on all she’s seen and heard on this momentous day.
Paddy, with feathers stiffened from the day’s culinary exhibition, follows five minutes behind. He finds Fiona’s housecoat hanging on the bathroom doorknob. Ever the optimist, he knocks, and is greeted with the promising words, “Ohhh Paddy, I knew ye’d be comin’ along!” As he turns the knob, though, the siren within adds, “That’s why the door’s locked!”
Paddy tramps back to the kitchen and looks out the window. Outside, the Virgin Mary, modeling headwear, dangles a set of keys like a curbside valet. Nice hat, he thinks. Otherwise, things are dead at the Victorian next door. He sits at the kitchen table and wonders if the taste of a rump roast or hot soufflé will ever cross his lips. For now, Paddy settles for a slice of the tamer fare the good Lord ordained for him: he finishes the last piece of cold rhubarb pie—sweet.