There would be no services for Mr. Paterson. No flag-draped coffin strewn with roses, no white-robed choir singing Amazing Grace, no tear-choked homilies. For him, the road to perdition would be as quick and matter-of-fact as that of a lump of cookie dough rolling down a conveyer belt to the bake oven. Alone and unheralded, Mr. Paterson would meet his maker at dawn tomorrow when the Crematory fires reach 1100 degrees Centigrade.
On the night of his death former neighbors gathered on the patio of the house that stood behind to his. Word travels fast in a small town, and one by one they drifted onto Mike Joyner’s breezeway trying to make sense of it all. They turned their chair backs to Mr. Paterson’s darkened windows and sipped Seagram’s VO on the rocks from squat crystal glasses, conversing in low tones.
“It’s true,” Mike was saying, “he was in his mid-80’s and beginning to show his age, I could see that.” Mike always spoke in low gravely tones. He rubbed the condensation off his glass with large construction-worker fingers and paused for a moment,. “But he really seemed to be doing pretty well, I thought. I was surprised as Hell when the Coroner showed up.”
Joyce, a faded hairdresser with stringy dishwater blonde curls who lived around the corner shook her head sadly. “I think he just gave up.” She frowned, gesturing toward his house, “Last winter he told me that he cared nothing at all for his mortal coil.” Her statement met with shocked silence. “Really, he did.” She gestured at the dark windows, “It was one night last October. We were talking about Margie and how everyone missed her. I know he was trying to move on but he was struggling. He sure didn’t expect to drop dead of a heart attack, though. Nobody does.”
Mike gestured angrily. “How can you say that, Joyce? That’s disrespectful.” He and took an angry a pull on his whiskey and looked away.
Joyce stood up for herself, “Well, he did! He did say that -- I’m not making it up. I never said he didn’t care about his life, I just said that he told me he didn’t care the trappings – you know, his mortal coil, that means his body. There’s a difference you know. I don’t think he’d care that he didn’t get all trussed up and have people come and stare at his corpse.”
Adelle looked disgusted. A carefully dressed third-grade teacher from the end of the subdivision, she couldn’t keep he mouth shut. “Well I think everybody cares. He cared too, he didn’t mean that. He deserved more, you know. More respect for a life well lived. I mean, he’s just gone. It’s not right, he was our friend. I knew him and Margie for 20 years. I think he cared. He deserved more.” She swatted a mosquito away, bangle bracelets clanking together dully.
Joyce banged her glass down on the ceramic tile table, “Hell yes he deserved more, but he didn’t get it, did he? I’m just stating the facts. I’m just saying maybe he didn’t care so much as we all think he did, what with Margie gone and all.”
Adelle disagreed. “I guess I just don’t see things the same way as you.” Silence again. Mike’s solar lights flicked on one by one as twilight crept over the gathering and softened the outline of Mr. Paterson’s empty house.
Rosie, a retired piano teacher from across the street, broke break the tense silence. “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter that much. He’s dead and gone now, and his wife Margie before him.” She crossed her arms over her ample bosom. “They didn’t have kids, no family to speak of, so what does it really matter?” She adjusted the top to her pantsuit.
"It’s a matter of respect,” Mike grumbled, tapping his thumb absently on the arm of his plastic lawn chair. “A man who’s worked long and hard and done his duty deserves a little respect.”
Jack, the cable TV installer from the next block laughed, “I’ll drink to that, respect for the working man.” He raised his glass and threw back a swallow of VO. The oaky tang tasted sweet in his mouth.
Rosie nodded, “When you don’t have kids, you don’t have anything.” She repeated, almost to herself.
Joyce looked sly, “Well, I wonder who’s going to get his money then. He must have had a bundle put away, who do you suppose he left it all to?”
Jack laughed again, whiskey kicking in, “Not me, that’s for sure. Probably the Goddamned government will get most of it. They usually do.” He pounded back more VO and held his glass up.
Mike rose and picked up empties, “Who’s ready for another?” He tallied nods and started for the back door, then stopped and turned around, “Oh wait a minute. I do remember someone. That young gal who visited a him few times, what was her name? She was here for Margie’s funeral, and then came back to see him a couple of times after that.”
Rosie brightened, “Oh yes, I remember. A nice girl. Brown hair, quiet. A niece I think, I remember her now, what was her name, Jeannie? Janie? Janine?”
“Jane.” Jack jumped on it, “Yes, her name is Jane. Nice figure, I remember her because she helped me out with an insurance question I had about my boat coverage.” He looked around the group, animated. “She’s in insurance, I recall.”
“Well,” Joyce hoisted herself to tired feet, “Good for her. She’ll probably get it all then. At least that’s better than the Goddam government.” She tugged at the back of her too-short shorts. “I wonder if she’ll sell the house. He was a good neighbor I’m sorry to see him go.” She peered into the gathering darkness at Mr. Paterson’s abandoned house and shook her head. “Well, I gotta go. Got a lady coming in early tomorrow for a perm.” She yawned and stretched, reaching each arm out to form a human Y. “Thanks for the drinks, Mike. Call me if you find out anything more, Sure is a shame about him. See you all later!” Joyce turned and shuffled down the driveway, flip-flops slapping blacktop. She waved over her shoulder and melted into the night. Lightning bugs blinked here and there in the darkness and a forlorn silence settled over the