Lottie Penley averted her eyes from the mahogany casket and studied the expectant faces that watched her from neat rows of fold-out chairs. A tremulous smile fluttered across her lips, one that could have been ascribed to grief. The origins were actually fear — fear that she wouldn’t be able to find one nice thing to say about the dead woman on display.
For her part, Lottie couldn’t think of a better place for Gwendolyn Marks than the Overhill Graveyard. The newly deceased was a confrontational woman with a limited vocabulary that revolved around four-letter words.
“It’s hard to think what to say,” Lottie ventured. “She had a unique view of the world,” she paused, struggled with her conscience, and finally blurted out, “and she’ll leave a gap.” Lottie couldn’t possibly say that Gwen’s comments would be missed.
She had first met Gwen six months ago at a meeting of Heal America, a gathering of mild-mannered women from various political parties interested in a monthly social evening. Lottie had started the group after watching activists scream at each other from opposite sides of the street. “Most of the people I know wouldn’t dream of behaving like that,” she thought. And she was right. Membership soared.
But then she had answered the doorbell to an unpleasant woman with thick lips and sly eyes. The newest member of Heal America strolled over to the comfortable recliner next to the fireplace, dumped Lottie’s notes on the floor and settled in. Since the purpose of the group was tolerance, the members offered various welcoming statements and hoped that this odd woman would eventually fit in. They hoped in vain.
The following months saw no improvement in Gwen’s disposition. Her response to anyone who voiced an opinion was, “Screw you.” When Lottie suggested that Heal America might not be the right group for Gwen, the woman shrugged and said she hadn’t anything better to do on Sunday nights. Membership declined until all that remained were the three founding members and Gwen.
The night that Gwen died, the group had finally decided to rescind her membership.
“I’ll sue,” had been her response.
Stacy Peach, a mild mother of four, wrinkled her brow. “This is a private, not-for-profit group.”
“You’re right,” Gwen answered. “And I’ll make sure that everyone knows you’re a bunch of bit — ”
Wanda Truesdale cut Gwen off by stuffing a large slice of chocolate cake into the woman’s mouth. “I just can’t bear to listen to one more string of obscenities,” she mumbled in explanation.
While the three remaining members watched, Gwen struggled to dislodge the gooey confection.
“We really should do something,” Stacy said, wincing as Gwen clutched at her throat. “Maybe the Heimlich.”
“Give it a minute,” Wanda responded, hopeful. “It should work itself out.”
By the time Lottie had found the first aid book, Gwendolyn Marks was dead.
When her husband had requested that one of the members give Gwen’s eulogy, the women had drawn straws and Lottie had lost, which is how she found herself staring at a group of strangers and praying that her true feelings about the deceased wouldn’t show.
After the service, Lottie joined Wanda and Stacy.
“I need a drink.”
“I don’t believe it,” a soft voice said.
Lottie turned to see a frail, bent woman in a black crepe dress. “Death is always hard to take in,” she offered.
“No,” the woman responded. “I don’t believe it. Gwen hated chocolate. There is no way she would voluntarily have eaten that cake.”
Lottie shot Stacy and Wanda a warning look. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” she said, extending her hand.
“Alice Butterfield,” the old woman said. “Gwen used to stop by for coffee and a good gossip. She always refused anything chocolate. Said it made her sick.”
“Maybe Gwen was being polite,” Stacy offered, trying not to remember the circumstances of Gwen’s death.
Alice barked out a laugh. “Not Gwen.” She shook her head. “It just doesn’t make sense. I think I’ll have a word with Officer Lake.”
Lottie put an arm around Alice’s shoulder. “We were just going to have a bracer at the Yellow Bull. Why don’t you join us?”
“I really shouldn’t,” Alice demurred.
“Of course you should. This whole thing has been a shock.”
When Alice’s funeral was held five days later, none of the members of Heal America attended. It just didn’t seem right, as they had hardly known her. According to the accident report, the poor dear had become so distraught over her friend’s death that, after the memorial service, she had directly headed to a local pub and become uncharacteristically plastered. The driver of the Ford Mustang hadn’t even see her before she stumbled under his wheels.
At the following meeting of Heal America, the dessert and wine remained conspicuously untouched. Stacy took a sip of coffee and said, “I can’t help wondering…” She leaned forward, her eyes alight. “Haven’t you heard of karma? I would hate for something to happen to my kids just because I did nothing to help that awful woman. Gwen, I mean. Alice wasn’t awful. She was just… there.” She pushed her bangs back. “I’m getting so confused.”
“It was an accident,” Lottie said. “They both were accidents.”
“I still feel guilty,” Stacey said.
Lottie studied her friend in silence. “Why don’t you go home and have a nice bath and a glass of wine? Relax.”
As Stacy gathered up her purse, Wanda exchanged a troubled glance with Lottie and then casually asked, “Did you walk here? I could give you a ride home.”
“I need the fresh air,” Stacy said.
After Stacy had gone, Lottie pulled out a coin and flipped. “Heads or tails?”
“Tails,” Wanda said.
Lottie smiled at the results; Wanda only sighed and pulled out her car keys.
“I guess I’m it,” she said.
Lottie showed her to the door. “You’d better hurry.” Then she smiled brightly. “Next week, we can brainstorm some ideas for a membership drive.”
Jacqueline Vick writes in California.