All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players-Shakespeare
We are not all equal in death.
Communications technology has expanded dramatically so that we can talk to people from around the globe instantaneously. But a lot of us don’t know our neighbors, or if so just in passing. And we might vaguely recognize the people we interact with in our day to day transactions if we were to see them out of costume, off the set, doing some shopping, grabbing a bite to eat. We might think to ourselves: ‘That woman looks so familiar, where have I seen her before? Doesn’t she play a dental assistant in the stage and screen production of my life? What’s she doing here, dressed like that?’ They live forever behind a receptionist’s desk or cash register in a checkout line, or in our children’s schools, or behind the wheel of a bus. You may indulge the bit players with a little banter, or listen to a sudden personal revelation they thrust upon you, but they are of no consequence to you. They are there to fill the stadium, provide the catering or simply to make you, the star, look better. They are the ones you either forgot or are too numerous to mention, but you-know-who-you- are people. The thanks-to-the-members-of-the-academy and all the faceless fans for making-this-dream-come-true people. They are nice enough for the most part, but should they become overly forward, the guards come up to say, “Don’t touch the star, people.” And in their play, the roles are reversed and you might be a stage hand. There are those that refuse to play the leads in their own productions, nor do they much care to be a one man or woman show before a live audience and these are the Clyde Meadows people, who by their own design are stage props.
Clyde Meadows owned and operated a pizza and sandwich shop on the town square. The place was decorated with antique metal toys and various curiosities of bygone days that lined the shelves along the walls. Patrons would at times try to engage Clyde in small talk about them, but he barely responded. His lack of passion and enthusiasm for his collection puzzled them; most collectors were always quick to tell the stories behind their finds. Their friendly interest turned to a sense of embarrassment. They would turn away from Clyde, busy behind the counter, and wait awkwardly for their order.
One morning, Clyde was up at the usual hour. He showered, dressed and went downstairs to open shop. He bent down to pick up the newspaper off the sidewalk and felt his chest tighten. He raised back up, became lightheaded and staggered slightly. He leaned against the wall to support himself, broke out in a clammy sweat and fought the panic that pushed its way into his mind. His thought was to immediately get inside and sit down until he could get his bearings straight. He pushed himself off the wall and stepped to the door. His hand was shaking and he had difficulty getting the key into the lock. A hot, searing pain ripped through his chest; he tottered backwards, then fell forward into the door, slid down and died.
Meadows had come from New York City to this small town community to open his own business in 1974. It was the only fact firmly established in the aftermath of his death. There was no fine obituary about Clyde’s contribution to life in the small town where he had lived and worked for over thirty years. His death, however, was reported on the front page of the town’s newspaper, because he had left no will. How could a business man overlook such a personal and essential legal document? He had obvious and valuable assets. Clyde had owned the building that housed his shop and the apartment above it, where he had lived. Maybe it was because Clyde, as it was discovered, had no family, no friends, barely any acquaintances or even a beloved pet to whom he could leave his worldly possessions. It became the talk of the town. Why hadn’t Clyde willed everything to a charity? Why would you let the state take it? Why didn’t he pick a name out of the phone book? Hell, why didn’t he leave it to me, I could sure use it. Did you know him? No. Did you? No. Well, I went in there to get some lunch a couple of times about ten years back or so, but I wouldn’t have known the man if I fell over him. How can you live so long in one place and not have a single friend? And no family, either. That sure is something. Yes, it is. If I’d known that, I would have certainly befriended him, no one should be that alone. You bet I would, maybe he’d have left everything to me. He sounds to me like one of those killers in the news who the neighbors say was always quiet, always kept to himself; a loner. Then they find bodies stashed in the basement or the backyard. You never know, do you? You never know.
It was absurd-and mysterious, even mystical- to think that someone could live among others and conduct business: go to the post office, the grocery store, the doctor-all the things folks do- and not establish even the most superficial ties. Not even the operators of the two adjacent stores knew anything of him. They would nod to Clyde in passing when they could catch his eye, which was rare. He scurried past them like a mouse, darting his eyes around, with his head lowered. They learned, as had the occasional customer who tried to strike up a conversation, that Clyde was not interested.
When the police failed to locate family or friends, the town council met to discuss what they should do. They agreed the only thing they could do was to bury Clyde, but first retained a lawyer. However this whole thing shook out in the end, the town must be reimbursed. This was all laid out in detail in the article on the front page of the local newspaper. The town council members braced themselves against dissent, but no one seemed to mind paying upfront to bury a stranger among them. It never crossed their minds that loaning money to a dead man is pretty risky business.
Ernestine Pope, head of the Ladies’ Bereavement Society, known around town as the dead brigade, read the article on Clyde and grew excited. She called the other members who were also excited by the details of Clyde’s solitary life and consequently, his desolate death. The women were official mourners in the tradition of Greek wailers, but unlike those distant, ancient sisters, they received no pay. Their reward came from the town’s expression of gratitude when one of the dead brigade’s own, Margaret Lemon, passed away. The town packed the house and it was standing room only at her funeral service.
The dead brigade made their public show of quiet support for the dead, regardless of race, creed or standing in the community. They attended all funerals, regardless of how big or how small; those of both the reviled and the esteemed on the off chance that there was no one to stand for the deceased. The women rightly assessed that Clyde Meadows was the quintessential candidate for their services. There could be no decent funeral for him without their participation.
A plot was purchased in the only cemetery within city limits. The singular way to do that was to appeal to families who owned plots for generations and would on occasion agree to sale them at a premium. It was some of the highest square footage the town had to offer. No one knew Clyde’s religious persuasion, if any, but the local Presbyterian minister was enlisted. The town leaders reasoned that since the Presbyterians were the smallest denomination in town, the minister would not only be free to officiate, but they could save a bit of money in their offering for his service. In one respect, Clyde was not alone in death for a number of Baptists and Methodists had died the same week. Eventually, the courts would make all right as rain and the town coffers would be reimbursed from the settled estate, but until then, they owed it to the town to economize. While the Presbyterian minister agreed to preside at the graveside, he ruefully noted that the town administrators had obtained him on the cheap, given the circumstances. Did they expect miracles? What was to be said with no friends or family members to contribute those small details about the deceased?
At the funeral home, members of the dead brigade, dressed in their somber best adorned with the Ladies’ Bereavement Society emblem: a spray of white Lily of the Valley, also known as Ladder to Heaven, sat with Clyde’s remains during the hours of public viewing. Freshly picked flowers grown and donated by the Gardening Club, were arranged by the funeral home staff, placed temporarily in urns that flanked both sides of Clyde’s coffin. One of the oldest members of the dead brigade, Celia, who because of her age was forgiven any momentary lapse in social graces, looked at Clyde, in his dark, blue suit and said wistfully, “I always think of how tragic it is that the deadies are all dressed up and got no place to go.” ‘Deadies’ was the term the dead brigade used within their own circle as they perused obituaries, but certainly not to be used in public. One of the ladies responded that they all go to their final resting place. “Of course, I know that-still it seems a might tragic to me that we no longer hold a wake to raise the dead’s spirits.”
The funeral procession made up of the dead brigade and a town council member dispatched to oversee the town’s investment was escorted through town by the sheriff. Pedestrians stopped and assumed a posture of respect . Cars in the opposite lane stopped and put on their headlights as the funeral train passed. The route to the cemetery would take Clyde past his former shop and home. His shop neighbors had closed for business at the appointed hour and spoke quietly until they saw the procession make the turn onto their street. They too assumed a quiet, respectful pose: heads bowed slightly, arms hanging down, hands clasped, fingers interlaced, palms turned upward like a cradle. After the last car passed and without a word they turned around to reopen for business. A few deputies, the sheriff and two assistants from the funeral home carried the casket to the grave site. In a corner of the cemetery, a respectful distance apart, there was some earth moving equipment sticking out from under a plastic tarp and a couple of guys sitting on the ground cross-legged, chewing grass. Once the casket was in place beneath the canvas tent and the donated flowers arranged, everyone marched to the grave site. The minister led the way, then stood behind a dais and waited for everyone to be seated before he began. He had decided, or perhaps led by the spirit, to speak about love and took from the text in l Corinthians on the subject: Love is kind, love is patient, love is-was- absent in Clyde Meadow’s life and that overt, but unmentioned fact, made the minister’s words give the hollow ring of sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. But, he tied it up nicely saying that only God knew how many souls Clyde had touched throughout his life and that the only love that truly mattered in the end was God’s love for his dissolute children: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, God knitted man from dirt and back to dirt he must go. Celia blurted out, “Ha!” The lady to her left side patted Celia’s shoulder and whispered, “Sh-h-h-h, Miss Cornelia.” As the preacher called for everyone to bow their heads to pray, Celia put her hand partially over her mouth and said, “I guess women turn back into ribs.” This tickled Celia and her body shook as she lowered her head and closed her eyes. As the minister prayed aloud, the two mortuary assistants released the casket and it slowly sank into the pit. They silently smoothed the velvet drape of the brass frame and positioned themselves in front of the grave as guards. There was a screech of tires and a few blasts from a car horn, a gust of wind caused the edges of the tent to flap.
Act 6: The Final Act
When the prayer concluded, the preacher shook hands with those closest to him. And conversation began to flow as the party made its way to the parking lot followed lastly by the two funeral home assistants, who carried the loaned, now empty, urns The Ladies’ Bereavement Society invited everyone for refreshments. Everyone quickly made their excuse with much appreciation for the offer, although the funeral home assistants carefully weighed the option and sadly calculated there was not enough time until the next scheduled funeral. The others began to regret their own hasty decision when the ladies talked back and forth about all the goodies they had prepared and what they couldn’t wait to taste. They started toward their cars, nodding, smiling, waving good-bye, getting on with living.
After the last car pulled away, the workers removed the lowering mechanism and the backhoe filled in the grave; one of the men raked out the dirt on top then threw the flowers left in a pile, on top of the grave. They worked silently while their trained muscles performed efficiently, schooled by repetition. Once the machines and men pulled away, the sounds of nature played: birds trilled and darted between the trees that encircled the cemetery; wind lightly whistled over bent blades of grass. Sounds from the town filtered in, but no signs of human life could be contained there and quickly dissipated. And no one could hear Clyde’s thin cry rise up from the depths of a solitary sorrow: I am so alone.