The wax buildup was sealed, painted and ready for presentation. Francie Walters looked better in death than she had when George had seen her last Tuesday in life, meticulously weeding her peonies in front of the small house she owned directly across the street from George Whitman’s funeral home.
“Well, you certainly didn’t have far to go,” George chuckled as he carefully curled a silver lock of her hair around his finger and patted it back in place. He was rather proud of himself, as he’d nailed this one right on the nose. The date of death that is, that is.
Six months ago, George heard about Francie’s mild stroke and scribbled a date into the small notepad he kept securely in the front pocket of whatever button up dress shirt he was wearing that day. Today was Thursday, so he was sporting his lemon yellow cotton short sleeve. Fridays, he always wore the powder blue shirt. Funerals he always went for starched white collars and long sleeves over his dress slacks and a dark suit jacket. He also wore his sympathetic face firmly fastened over his inner cynicism. He’d offer handshakes, tissues, words of kindness, and compassionate truths which earned him respect amongst the community.
Living in a small town his whole life, George knew each geriatric face and could write tomes about each one. He’d seen Hank Smith ambling by the library on his walks at precisely six a.m. every morning. Like clockwork, Hank had always carried the morning paper and sometimes stopped at the library bench to read. Hank would extend a friendly wave, George would smile both to himself and Hank as he returned the gesture. Another seemingly random day would find Hank cold and lifeless in George’s office. George sighed and frowned. He’d had the date on that one all wrong. He’d guessed December 14th five years previous.
The game had been going on for well over two decades. Just the old ones at first. Once he’d picked a date, he never deviated from it. Cheating would ruin the fun. The first five years were a flop. He only fell within forty seven days of an accurate prediction once. The next three years were far more fruitful. He began scanning the paper with a sharp eye turned towards news of recent accidents or neighborhood gossip. The ‘News of Thy Neighbor’ section by Rev. Higgins was full off all sorts of tipoffs. Nancy Reid’s husband was just diagnosed with thyroid cancer, would we all say a prayer for him?
That was George’s first dead-on accurate prediction. Mr. Reid, who was also his former high school shop teacher showed up as a chilly slab at Whitman’s Funeral Home precisely on February 26th, the exact date penned in George’s notepad three months prior. Still, getting one right on the date was an exceptional rarity. George regarded those as fortuitous days, like a child picking up a lucky penny. Only an event of this kind was far more special.
As his skills sharpened, George expanded the game to incorporate his ever-growing predictive talents. He now scanned the police reports and complaints and kept a close ear out for local gossip at the downtown café. He had dates not just on the decrepit, aging crones in his little town, but he had a list of dates with trouble makers and delinquent youth as well. Investigative research was fattening his notepad up more quickly as the years rolled by. When one was full, he’d simply lock it in his safe and start a new one.
The questions most often asked of his profession were “How do you do it? Doesn’t it bother you?” to which George would smile, shrug and make a vague comment about how you ‘get used to it’. Of course none of these people knew about the game. It was quite simple. Life on the street one day showed up at his shop as death. He was cut straight out of the middle dealings. They were almost separate. Besides, the game was fun.
After finishing up Francie’s coiffure, George decided to treat himself to lunch at the café. He locked up shop and strolled downtown in the sunshine, hardly aware of anything until he heard the squealing brakes and impact. Looking up, George was just in time to see a small child flying across the hood of the braking car. A small twisted body stopped just short of the sidewalk, heaved heavily and remained motionless. Shrieking mother, broken body, a vacant staring driver, a collection of passerby, somewhere in the distance the sounds of sirens, and the flowing tears of a fractured mortician darkened the day.