The Paid Eulogist.

A short story about strange funerals and telescopes.

Robert Cormack
The Haven

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Image by Victoria from Pixabay

“Eulogy is nice, but one does not learn anything from it.” Ellen Terry

All I knew about Bernie Hoskins was he cut his own nails and hair. That’s the extent of what Stella, his wife, had for me outside of the obvious fact that he was dead. The reason I was called was that Bernie wasn’t popular. Popular people don’t need paid eulogists, any more than unpopular ones need large buffets at their receptions.

The details read like one line of an In Memorium. He was survived by his wife of eight years, no kids, and died unexpectedly in his sleep on Saturday at approximately two a.m.

Having written In Memoriums in the past, I knew why there were short ones and long ones. Dying “unexpectedly” isn’t the same as getting t-boned on a county road at night. Nobody survives those things, and details for the person responsible are usually shorter than those of the person who wasn’t.

I charge a thousand dollars, paid in advance, something most wives of unpopular men don’t quibble about. I’m the only game in town.

Anyway, my job, as the name suggests, was to write and read the eulogy. How much money can a eulogist make? I charge a thousand dollars, paid in advance, something most wives of unpopular men don’t quibble about. I’m the only game in town.

Stella wasn’t about to quibble, anyway. Judging by the house itself, a thousand bucks wouldn’t pay for a good cleaning.

It was also obvious — just based on her perfect nails — Stella probably hadn’t touched a mop or duster in her thirty-four years.

I had to ask her age, of course, as any self-respecting eulogist would. Getting details is critical, even a carefully worded question regarding why she married Bernie in the first place.

Judging by the one picture she showed me, it didn’t look like Bernie had smiled since his christening sixty years earlier. He was balding and short, while Stella had legs as high as the wainscoting. If she’d been any taller, they’d look like a circus act.

“Middle name?” I asked, writing everything down.

“Whose?” she replied.

“Bernie’s and yours,” I said.

“Francis for him, Alice for mine.”

“And you’ve always lived in this house?”

“Oh, god, no,” she replied. “It would’ve killed him.”

“Yes,” she said. “Bernie brought me here from the wedding. He said he’d carry me up the stairs, if I wanted.”

“Did you?”

“Oh, god, no,” she replied. “It would’ve killed him.”

Through the double doors of the den, I could see the marble stairs winding up to the second floor. It would’ve killed me, for chrissake, and I’m closer to her age than he was.

I was still reading the points she’d written on a piece of paper, including the atrium where he studied his glossy bird books.

“Bernie was very proud of the atrium,” she said. “And his bird books, of course. Bernie loved birds.”

“An avid bird watcher,” I said. “Did you go with him on his bird-watching excursions, Mrs. Hoskins?”

“Oh, he never did that. Neither of us did.”

“I just thought — “

“Bernie had allergies. We have a bird feeder. I’ll show you.”

She got up, tugging at her snug skirt, taking me out through the foyer and down a long hall to the atrium. It was huge. She stood there in the middle, pointing to the couch and coffee table piled high with bird books. Off to the side was a large telescope.

“Is that for the birds or was he also into astronomy?” I asked.

“I don’t think he looked at stars,” she said.

“So I should stick to his love of birds?”

“I would think so,” she said.

I could see a bedroom, the drapes open, a naked woman sitting in a chair facing me. Adjusting the lens, I realized it was a blow-up doll.

I went over and looked through the lens. It was focused on a window of a mansion behind. I could see a bedroom, the drapes open, a naked woman sitting in a chair facing me. Adjusting the lens, I realized it was a blow-up doll.

“Do you know those people?” I asked.

“The Andersons,” Stella said. “They’ve been there for ages.”

“You’ve met them?”

“Mr. Anderson came and complained a few times.”

“About what?”

“Doing what you’re doing now. He had to put that doll there just to give him some peace of mind.”

“Why didn’t she just close the drapes?”

“She wasn’t the one with the problem,” Stella said. “Frankly, she likes being stared at. She likes staring, too. Mostly at me.”

“Mrs. Anderson has a telescope, too?”

“We look at each other naked all the time.”

“What did your husband do?”

“Looked through the telescope like you’re doing now.”

“Which upset Mr. Anderson?”

“Absolutely.”

“Did he ever complain to the police?”

“Not that I know of. He put the blow-up doll there instead.”

I scratched my forehead with the nub of my pencil.

“Mrs. Hoskins, out of curiosity, did your husband’s stroke have anything to do with you and Mrs. Anderson?”

“I didn’t realize eulogists asked so many questions, Mr. Lark,” she said. “Is that why you charge so much?”

She sat down and pressed her hands between her knees, then crossed her legs, stretching her arms across the back of the couch. “I didn’t realize eulogists asked so many questions, Mr. Lark,” she said. “Is that why you charge so much?”

She said it like I was an interloper of sorts. All I could do was shrug. At that point, shrugging seemed appropriate.

“To be honest,” I said, “I’m just trying to get a picture of your husband. So far, I know he didn’t have any friends. You wouldn’t need me otherwise. At the same time, I get the impression you two weren’t exactly living dull lives.”

“We had our moments,” she said.

“I can see that,” I replied, pointing to the telescope. “What does she do, dump the doll and sit there herself?”

“Absolutely.”

“And you’ve never met?”

“Not in the usual sense.”

“Your husband liked birds and what else?” I asked.

She stood up and led me through to a large kitchen, getting a bottle of wine out of the fridge. She poured two glasses, then we went back to the den, sitting down facing each other. She sipped and pushed her blonde hair back behind her tiny ears.

“Your husband liked birds and what else?” I asked.

“Nothing, really,” she shrugged. “He worked, came home, drank two glasses of scotch, watched the news, filled the birdfeeder if it was empty. Sometimes he’d chase the squirrels away. He bought a slingshot at one point.”

“Does your husband — Bernie — have any other family?”

“There’s a sister somewhere.”

“They’re estranged?”

“Oh, completely.”

“So I can’t say he’ll be missed by her?”

“Not with a straight face.”

“Anyone else? People from work? What did he do for a living?”

“Bernie owned five Busty Burgers, Home of the Double D’s.”

“Was he liked at these Busty Burgers?”

“I doubt it,” she said, crossing her legs. “He never mentioned any of his staff — fondly, anyway.”

“So if I ask if anyone wants to get up and say anything — “

“I wouldn’t count on it,” she said. “Maybe the Andersons.”

“They’ll attend?”

“I should think so. We did have a relationship of sorts.”

“Staring in each other’s window?”

“Quite seriously at one point. Bernie even threatened him with the slingshot. Vern said he had a hunting rifle that could pot Bernie at two hundred yards.”

“Bernie and Vern had a few interactions.”

“They actually talked?”

“Quite seriously at one point. Bernie even threatened him with the slingshot. Vern said he had a hunting rifle that could pot Bernie at two hundred yards.”

“Nothing came of it, though?”

“No.”

“But you still figure the Andersons will show up?”

“I hope so,” Stella said. “I’d actually like to see her clothed.”

“Do you think Mr. Anderson — Vern — will want to say a few words if I ask? Any chance he’ll be civil if he does?”

“Vern’s an odd old bird,” she said. “He might have a lot to say. Whether it’s civil or not is anyone’s guess.

“Again, just out of curiosity,” I asked, “I take it she’s substantially younger than her husband, too?”

“We’re about the same age.”

“Yet you’ve never had a conversation?”

“Of course we have,” she said. “We use cards.”

“Saying what?”

“Nothing that’s going in a eulogy,” she laughed.

I closed my little notebook and stood up.

“Well, I guess that’s it,” I said. “Here’s my card in case you think of anything. I’ll send you a copy of the eulogy beforehand.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said. “Considering what I’m paying.”

“Would you mind if I took one of the bird books?” I asked. “Maybe I can draw this thing out with some examples.”

“Be my guest,” she said, leading me back to the atrium.

As she leaned over to pick up one of the bird books, she stopped and looked up. Then she went to the telescope.

I followed, watching her walk, the heels still going clickety click on the marble-tiled floor. As she leaned over to pick up one of the bird books, she stopped and looked up. Then she went to the telescope. “There’s Trish now,” she said. “That’s her name, by the way. We introduced ourselves with cards. Want a peek?”

“No, I’m fine,” I said. “I’ll leave you it.”

Over the next few days, prior to the funeral, I worked away on the eulogy, saying things like, “Bernie’s love of birds was only matched by his love of his beautiful atrium. That’s where he’d sit, pondering the possibility of seeing a rare Great Kiskadee.”

I sent off a final draft to Stella. Nothing came back. Probably she was too busy scribbling cards to Trish Anderson.

The day of the funeral, there was an odd gathering of people, most acting like they were just passing through. I spoke to a manager from one of the Busty Burgers. He told me Bernie was a “pisser” and the Double D burger had more filler than meat.

“Doesn’t matter now, does it?” he said, “His wife will run it into the ground. And no, I don’t want to get up and speak.”

Vern was obviously drunk and Trish wore a veiled hat.

Everyone said the same thing until Vern and Trish Anderson came through the door, dressed like they were going to the Kentucky Derby. Vern was obviously drunk and Trish wore a veiled hat. She sat holding hands with Stella while Vern talked to me.

“Would you care to say a few words today? I asked him.

“You bet I would,” he said, leaning in close with the smell of brandy on his breath. “I had to put a blow-up doll in her chair finally just to keep that pervert satisfied.”

“Maybe you could talk about something else,” I said.

Everyone was sitting down so I went up on the stage.

“We’re here today,” I said, “to bid farewell to Bernie Francis Hoskins, loving husband of Stella Alice Hoskins.” At that point, Vern piped up. “And an eye for the ladies — my wife in particular.”

I tried getting back to the eulogy with the part about Bernie waiting for the Great Kiskadee. Nobody was listening. They were drying their eyes.

The room went silent, then everybody laughed. Even Stella laughed. She stopped long enough to take a tissue out of her purse. Then she laughed again. I tried getting back to the eulogy with the part about Bernie waiting for the Great Kiskadee. Nobody was listening. They were drying their eyes.

“Okay, well,” I said, “I guess I’ll conclude by saying that Bernie was his own person, loved by some, not so much by others. Everyone’s asked to join us next door for drinks and sandwiches.”

On the way over, I caught Trish and Stella slipping out the side door. I found Vern inside talked to one of Bernie’s managers, giving him the occasional jab with his finger.

After a few more drinks, he went outside and drove off. He died minutes later in a head-on collision.

Two days later, I got a call from his wife.

“I need a eulogist,” she said.

“It’s a thousand dollars,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “Stella told me. When can I see you?”

“Tomorrow, if that works for you.”

“Come in the morning. I have a hair appointment at noon.”

I thought I heard someone laughing upstairs. Probably Stella, no doubt naked.

I went over the next day. Trish came to the door in a kimono, taking me through to Vern’s study. There were half a dozen liquor bottles on the desk, all open. It didn’t take long to realize I’d be earning my thousand dollars. Outside of shooting things, Vern was dull as dishwater. I told Trish I’d send something over before the funeral. “I’m sure it’ll be brilliant,” she said. I thought I heard someone laughing upstairs. Probably Stella, no doubt naked.

As a paid eulogist, you learn to expect these things. You also learn to ask for more money. Like I said, I’m the only game in town.

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Robert Cormack
The Haven

I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.