Gladys and Charlie had been married for forty one years. It had been mostly a good marriage. Their two children had helped to keep them together during some of the troublesome patches that had cropped up during the first twenty years of their marriage.
Now, the kids were grown and gone, each with children of their own. They lived close enough to be able to come visit on occasions when family liked to all get together, but not so close that they used their parents as baby sitters very often. Gladys would have preferred more time with the kids and grandkids, but Charlie liked it just the way it was.
Charlie had waited until he was sixty five to retire from his company. That way, after thirty six years of faithful service, he received the maximum pension, seventy five percent of his average salary over the final three years of his employment. If Gladys survived Charlie, the pension dropped down to fifty per cent of what it now was. Over the years, Charlie and Gladys had been frugal, and money wasn't going to be any kind of a problem to them.
It was dark out now, and the kids and grandkids had packed their things and climbed into their SUV's and driven back home. It had been a long and full day, everyone had come together to celebrate Gladys' sixty fifth birthday. Charlie's sixty eighth birthday was less than a month away. The two of them were sitting around the kitchen dinette, drinking a cup of coffee and having small slices of the birthday cake.
"Charlie, do you ever think about what we're going to do when one of us dies?" Charlie stopped the movement of his fork away from his mouth.
"Where did that come from, Gladys? Who said anything about us dying? Are you trying to tell me something? Did the doctor say something to you about that physical I went in for in April?"
"No, I just wondered if you had a plan, that's all."
"The only plan I have is not to die. So far, it seems to be working just fine, too."
"Will you be serious? We need to do something now, while we still can. I don't want to leave things like that for the kids to have to do. They have these plans where you arrange and pay for everything in advance. We should look into it, and save the kids from having to do it for us. We can select plots, caskets, all of it, so it will be set up before we even need any of it."
"You can do it for yourself, if you really want to, but count me out. When I die, I just want to be cremated. No service, no fuss, just put me in the oven and cremate me. I don't care what they do with my ashes either. I wouldn't want anybody I knew to have them. Having some dead guys ashes on the mantle is too weird for my tastes."
Gladys slowly placed her coffee cup back down on the Formica table. She wiped at her mouth with her napkin, wanting to get any stray crumbs off of her face. The whole time she was doing this, she stared at Charlie. To her, it felt like she was staring at a stranger. What kind of a person would spring something so selfish and hurtful on his own wife, after forty one years? Didn't he know that was like a slap in the face to her. Forty one years of marriage, two children, six grandkids and now he was just as much as telling her that he didn't plan on spending that much more time with her? Could he really mean what he'd just said to her?
"This isn't something I want to joke around about, Charlie. You just be serious. What would people think if I went ahead and did what you just told me?"
"If you tell them that that's what I requested, they won't think anything about it. What business is it of anyone else's?"
"What about Pastor Gary and our whole church family? Did you even stop to think that they might take it poorly that you didn't want to give comfort to your friends and family?"
"Gladys, I don't expect to sit here and argue about this with you. You brought it up and asked me what I had planned. I prefer to be cremated. I don't want a funeral, and I don't want a lot of people gathering around lying about how much they're going to miss me. It's my death, and I should have the final say on how it is going to be celebrated. You figure out exactly how you want yours to be treated, and I'll try to accommodate you, if you don't go too far overboard with the planning."
"I don't know what to say, Charlie. I'm too shocked right now to even be able to think straight. I always thought that we'd spend all of eternity together. Did I do anything to make you want to leave me like this?"
"Want to leave you? I never said I wanted to leave you. All I said was that, after I died, I wanted to be cremated. Do you think the two of us being planted side by side in the ground meant that we'd always be together? When you're dead, the body is just an empty bag. I don't care for being food for the insects and the worms. I'd rather have a quick cremation and be done with the whole decomposing business. Plus, it's a lot cheaper than all that other rigmarole anyway."
"We'll be dead, what do you care about the money then anyway, Charlie? I'd like a nice funeral, one with all the trimmings, so that people would have a chance to say a decent goodbye. I'd like to pick a nice place for us to spend eternity. A place where the kids could come by and visit with us. I've even done all of the groundwork on this, Charlie. We can both have the funerals that I wanted for us, and it comes to less than fifty thousand dollars if we prepay now."
"You talk to that Carl Cheaney about this? It sounds like something he'd come up with. Did you know that Donna Gillespie's husband just named him as the co-respondent in his divorce petition? It seems he was carrying on with Donna while he tried to sell her one of his Advanced Needs policy's. If Jim Gillespie wins his lawsuit, Carl will probably lose his funeral parlor. Jim is supposed to have pictures of the two of them 'inflagrante dilecto'."
Gladys lost all of the color to her face and stood up weakly, taking her empty coffee cup and the cake plate over to the kitchen sink. She fiddled around at the sink for longer than rinsing out the cup and the plate deserved. When she returned, her color was back to normal. Charlie noticed a slight tremble in her hands when she moved to take his cup and the cake plate. After she'd taken his dirty dishes away to rinse them out, Charlie stared at her back.
You don't live with someone for forty one years and not get to know them. You don't miss too much either when you live in a small town like they did. Charlie waited in the kitchen, wondering whether Gladys was through talking about them dying and having any plans for their final disposition. When she finished up at the sink, Gladys took off her apron and walked right past him into the living room. He waited another few minutes before getting up himself and walking out to the garage. It was after nine o'clock, but he felt like going out for a drive. He wanted to be alone for awhile, to give himself time to get used to the idea that Carl had probably been slipping it to Gladys as well as Donna Gillespie.
When he returned, after eleven, Gladys was already in bed. She pretended that she was already asleep, and he pretended to believe it. He turned away, his back towards her, and waited for sleep to come to him. When he closed his eyes, he could see himself with a much younger Gladys. They used to have plenty of fun together, but that was before. Forty one years. That was certainly a long time, a huge investment in time and caring. Did he really need to find out for sure? After an hour, Charlie finally managed to fall into an uneasy sleep.
Gladys lay there on her side. Her back was facing Charlie's back. 'He knows! I saw it in his eyes, he knows.' She was having so much trouble trying to manage her breathing so that she wasn't gasping out loud for air. How did she ever allow herself to get talked into such a predicament? Carl Cheaney was forty one years old. He hadn't even been born on the day that she and Charlie exchanged their wedding vows. She had been so foolish. Did she really think that Charlie was going to be so easy to fool? She had never deceived Charlie before.
He'd cheated on her before, she was positive about that. More than with just one other girl too. She wished now that she'd confronted him those times, forced him to admit that he'd been unfaithful to her. He knew, and now he had a power over her. One word to Rick or Denise, their children, and she'd never be able to show her face to either of them again. It was after three in the morning before she drifted off into an exhausted and fitful sleep.
The next morning, Charlie got up before seven. After dressing and fixing himself some coffee, he went out into the garage and got his gardening tools. He had found, after retiring from work, that he really enjoyed puttering around out in his own back yard. That discovery had surprised him. He had thought about taking up golf or fishing, but he found that gardening relaxed him more than either of those other things, and he didn't have to waste any time before he got started on it. By seven fifteen he was fully engaged in his project. He was laying in a three foot wide brick pathway from the patio out to the gazebo he'd recently purchased.
.... There is more of this story ...