Winter, 2002
24-Hour Short Story Contest
2nd Place Winner!

It all went back to that one stupid mistake he made in high school. One stupid mistake! 'I would give anything to live that day again!' he vowed.

There was a shimmer in the air and a subtle movement, as if the world just shifted to a lower gear. It seemed to get dark and, when light returned, he found himself sitting in a desk, his sophomore biology teacher asking him a question.

The Estimate
By Janice Repka, York Springs, PA

There's only one funeral home in Wampack, North Dakota. Most everyone checks in sometime. Even the ones that thought they had gotten away. The ones who had gone on to college and had gotten themselves jobs. Jobs good enough to call careers in places big enough to call cities. In the end, their parents and spouses and children bring them back to Wampack to be buried. In family plots, in the same barren town they had spent their youths planning their escapes from.

There's a wrinkled man sitting across from my desk at the funeral home. He looks vaguely familiar. His wife's bloated body was shipped up from Sarasota yesterday. Nice box. Mahogany. Shame to bury it.

The guy's got thick black glasses like Dr. Kildare. I try to place him but it's no use. He's got that look like a thousand other guys who've wandered in and out of here. Empty. Blank. Fungible. I wonder if the whole world is getting that way or if maybe it's me or this place.

I've given him the estimate. State law says I have to. It's in a plain white envelope. Sealed. About half of them won't open it. Too upset to care. Six months later some lawyer will try to talk the price down. Meager estate. Barely enough for the survivors.

The guy fumbles with the envelope. He slips a shaking fingernail under a loose corner and tears a jagged edge. The facts are laid out plain under headings: Viewing; Burial. About half of them begin sobbing before they even get to the figures. This guy doesn't disappoint.

"I'm sorry," he blubbers, "I thought I could... ."

I hand him a tissue. A few years back, for a joke, a friend bought me stock in the Kimberly Clark Corporation. Now I buy only Kleenex brand facial tissue, by the case.

"It's okay," I tell him like some corny psycho guru from the Oprah Winfrey Show, "It's okay to grieve."

I inherited the Lutera Funeral Home, from my Uncle Bennie, who raised me. My psychology lessons came from years of watching him calm down hysterical widows and break up petty family squabbles. It didn't mean anything to me at the time, because, as a kid, I swore I'd never be in the death business. I was going to be a doctor.

The guy with the thick glasses is still trying to pull himself together. I recite lines from a well-rehearsed play.

"Take your time," I tell him.

"She was only 54," he says, as if that entitles him to cry longer, or harder, or something. Finally he seems to get it under control. The guy clears his throat a couple of times like he's getting over a bad cold.

"Are You married?" he asks.

"I have a girlfriend," I explain. About half of them will leave it at that, which is how I like it. The other half will ask me why we don't get married. I usually dig up some excuse. But it's all a bunch of crap. There is no girlfriend. They can't stand the smell.

"PeggyRose and I were married for 32 years," he says.

The name hits me upside the head. I look down at the file I'm holding. Margaret R. Bishop. PeggyRose. There's a shimmer in the air and a subtle movement, as if the world has just shifted to a lower gear. It all comes rushing back to me. Professor of Biology at North Dakota University. Professor and Mrs. PeggyRose Bishop. I was a sophomore with high hopes and lousy grades. She was supposed to be tutoring me that summer. We focused on human anatomy. I passed into manhood, but flunked out of biology. That was the end of that.

I'm still staring at the guy slack jawed and eyes wide open. But all I can see in my mind is PeggyRose as I grope for her bra strap. It seemed to get dark and, when light returns, I find myself sitting at my desk, my sophomore biology teacher asking me the question.

"Have we met somewhere before? You look like a student I had."

I shake my head, and change the subject.

"We'll bring a selection of flowers out to the grave. If you'd like any particular arrangements, please let me know."

"You decide," he says. "PeggyRose used take care of those kinds of things for me. I don't know what I would have done without her."

Then he gives me the penitent parishioner treatment, "Can I tell you something?" he asks.

I give him the priestly please-continue-my-son look.

"I cheated on her once. Only once. We were still in High School. It was a mistake." His voice starts trembling and I reach for the Kleenex just as the dam bursts. "I would give anything to live that day again," he wails.

Me too, I think. Maybe if he hadn't cheated on her, she wouldn't have cheated on him. Maybe I would have pulled that grade up, stayed in school, gotten the hell out of Wampack. Forever.

No, I realize. Not forever. I'd have been back. Sometime. Like most everybody else. In a wooden box. They would have buried me in the cemetery where I used to hide when the smell of embalming fluid from Uncle Bennie's newest client got too much for me.

"She's at peace now," I say to him.

And I think, maybe I am too. After all, in the end, it wouldn't have made any difference where I could have gone or what I could have done. There's only one funeral home in Wampack, North Dakota. I would have been back.

What Janice won:

$250 Cash Prize
Publication of winning story on the WritersWeekly.com website
1 - Freelance Income Kit Includes:
-- 1-year subscription to the Write Markets Report
-- How to Write, Publish and $ell Ebooks
-- How to Publish a Profitable Emag
-- How to Be a Syndicated Newspaper Columnist Special (includes the book; database of 6000+ newspapers; and database of 100+ syndicates)

Contest guidelines are HERE.


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