Bill was on his way to a funeral. Given the gleam on his freshly polished Oxfords he was quite sure it couldn't be his own. The shoes hadn't looked this good in a while. Certainly not before January 3rd, the date prescribed to William J. Tavish's last breath according to the obituary in Friday's paper.
“That's really morbid.” Sandy's reaction had been much like his own but cocooned in a deeper, more visceral sentiment. “Why do you even read the obit page. It's just a constant reminder that you may be next up to bat.”
She'd looked only because he'd called her over from the kitchen. Her hands dripped soap suds onto the page as she studied the text, mottling the skin tone of Lucille DeGraw in the obituary next door. Lucille now resembled Bill's cousin Murray, a distinctive series of birth marks blotting her complexion.
Bill lifted the paper, folded into a quarter section, and examined William's image at different angles, different light sources, willing the 2D ink into 3D clarity. The low resolution of the childhood photo, pixelated and over-exposed, testified to a pre-digital era.
“Could have been me, though, if you look at it. Age 9, 10 maybe.” Bill squinted through the magnifying half-moon of his glasses at the face that shared his name.
“Oh please. You're over-analyzing.” Sandy spun on a heel and headed back to her sink of dishes. “Why do you suppose they chose a childhood picture? Couldn't they have found something more recent?” She scratched a fingernail at a crusted egg yolk smear, only hours old but too stubborn to dissolve in its Palmolive bath. “Maybe he had no family to speak of.”
Bill marvelled at Sandy's ability to hold a conversation single-handed; a solitary actress in a multi-character play.
“It says here he had cancer. People usually stop taking pictures when you're sick. Out of respect, I suppose, or fear of resurrecting someone's worst moments posthumously.”
Sandy returned to his side, drying her hands vigorously with a tea towel. “He doesn't look anything like you.” She drew in for a first-row-seat inspection. “How old was he, anyway?”
She severed her gaze from the newspaper, staring Bill square in the eyes.
“October 1951. Same month and year too.”
“Oh that's just too much.” Sandy stomped back to the kitchen, briskly shoving the damp tea towel into the stove handle. “Put that away before you go all Hitchcock on me.”
Bill did put it away but not before he'd clipped the obituary from the checker board of In Loving Memories and tacked it to the fridge with Sandy's Keep Calm and Drink Gin magnet. She had since plastered a pink Post-It on top – If you're reading this you're not dead!
His Google search in the wee hours (while Sandy lay curled up in a dream) revealed little about the dead Tavish. A baby boomer with no cyber-world footprint apart from an online postmortem tribute. An extended search of the name purchased a half hour of peculiar entertainment: an 18th century transgender poet, the founder of an elusive polygamist organization and a drug-impaired hippie with ties to the Grateful Dead.
Bill checked the calendar again making sure today's numbered block coalesced with the date on the obituary.
“You sure you don't want to accompany me?” He turned, directing his voice toward the thrum of laundry in motion.
“I'm sure.” Sandy hollered back, giving the dryer door a thorough slam.
He didn't blame her, really. Suppose it's an open casket affair. Suppose the man was Bill's plasticized, formaldehyde-augmented doppelganger, his organs poached to prevent him from opening his eyes and stating, “just kidding.” Would Bill's old colleagues or insurance agent show up? Perhaps Aunt Greta in her orange moo moo and lipstick extending way outside the lines, hanging deep into the casket bawling over the nephew whom she'd never paid a moments notice. How would he explain all of this to William's missus? Uh, sorry, they're here for me.
Well, he'd decided to go. He'd polished his shoes. He'd slip in quietly and sit in the back. Maybe he'd reconsider the black eyeliner Groucho Marx moustache – One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How it got into my pyjamas I'll never know. Yuk, yuk, yuk.
Bill checked his watch. Still two hours to show time. He trudged to the refrigerator, coaxing the door open for an inventory of its contents. He wasn't hungry, but he was. Reflexively, he felt for a pulse at the carotid to the left of his Adam's apple. A reassuring thump with the cadence of Newton's cradle. Do you get hungry in the afterlife? Would you know if you were?
Pulling a bowl of red grapes from the top shelf he withdrew to the kitchen table and popped a cold, round orb into his mouth. He curled his tongue around it then rolled it on his pallet, impressed at how quickly he could alter its temperature. He knew little about dead bodies or ghosts but from what he could surmise (based loosely on documentaries and Patrick Swayze's personification of Demi Moore's other-worldly boyfriend) he was sure they didn't produce any measurable heat.
“You're still here?” Sandy wandered in with a basket of really white whites, dropping it to the table for a session of linen origami, lining up corners and edges. For her it was a science experiment that required rigorous exactness.
“Killing some time.” Bill looked up in time to catch her “pulease” expression. “Dying to see me leave?” He tried for a second round but she sighed and walked away, readying the kettle for some alone time.
He returned to the refrigerator plucking the obituary from its magnet, running his thumb across its cheap pulpy surface. Sandy drew up from behind, circling him with benevolent arms.
“William John Tavish, stop acting as if one foot is already in the grave. That's some other wife's loss, not mine. I simply refuse to spend our best years worrying that the grim reaper is around the next corner or that this is some sort of sick, divinely-inspired joke.”
He shuffled around, returning the embrace. She took his hand and nudged him towards a kitchen chair, motioning him to sit.
“Read it to me again.”
Bill snatched the reading glasses from his head, dropping them to his nose, and focused on the fine print of the newspaper clipping.
“William (Bill) Tavish left this world the way he came in, quickly and without complaint...” Bill exchanged a wry smile with Sandy.
“You see, he's not like you at all.” She brushed fingers along his temple. “You're going to go down fighting, aren't you?”
Bill winked and turned back to the obituary. “...without complaint after a brief battle with colon cancer. He will be sadly missed by his wife Millie, two daughters, one son and three grandchildren. Bill spent the last thirty-seven years doing what he loved as an employee at a local lumber mill before retiring in 2014. He dreamed of turning his skillful craft into a homespun hobby, creating fine wood crafts for his family and friends. His life ended too soon but he will long be remembered...”
Sandy placed her fingers lightly atop Bill's lips, bringing to a close the heart-warming eulogy. “I'll let you know when you're dead, I swear.”
He grasped her hand and kissed the tips of her fingers then stood and checked his wrist for the time.
“Don't think me a fool, please. I just need to go and see for myself. It's kind of like closure, really. Like letting go of a twin. And then I'll walk away, I promise. I'll step back into the land of the living and finish what the other Bill Tavish didn't have time to.”
Sandy stood too and gave him a gentle push toward the door. “Be back by dinner or I'll knock you into the next life.”
“Is that a threat, Mrs. Tavish?” He threw the door open and took a step over the sill. “Cause I'll go down fighting and I'll take you with me.” Throwing her a simulated sucker punch he planted one polished shoe in front of the other and rounded the house, out of sight.
Sandy closed the door and leaned heavily against its solid-wood frame, eager for an end to the existential crisis.
Bill returned at 4:20, the whistled rendition of Wind Beneath My Wings warbling from his lips.
“How was it?” Sandy wrestled a piece of twine around the thighs of a free run hen, its headless carcass testimony to its inability to run fast enough.
Bill huddled in close, pinching the twine while she secured a knot. “It was a nice funeral. Millie's a lovely lady. Pretty, like you.” He planted a light kiss on her cheek.
“You spoke to his wife? I thought you were planning to remain anonymous.”
“I was, but I couldn't help myself. She looked so radiant in spite of her loss. I thought she might like to know that there was someone out there who had so much in common with her late husband. Like an organ donor in a way, you know? Except we don't share organs, we share passport credentials.”
Sandy grinned, settling the skewered chicken into the counter-top rotisserie.
“Oh yeah, I picked something up on the way home.” Bill produced an envelope from his pressed suit pocket and waved it in front of her nose.
“What is it?” She turned to face him, her salmonella-hands in the air as if under arrest.
“Two tickets to paradise. Me and you, kiddo. Living the dream on the white sands of Honolulu.”
“But nothing. We only live once and I know how long you've wanted to do this.”
Sandy laughed, elation radiating from every curve of her face. “When?”
“February. Right after my scheduled colonoscopy.”
“You're incorrigible, William J. Tavish. Thoroughly,
unquestionably, hopelessly incorrigible.”