Intrusion

Corinne Jones’ legs ached as she trudged through the cold evening rain to the bus stop on Third Avenue. The poorly designed bus shelter only partially shielded her from the slanting downpour. She waited like a weary farm animal whose labor was done, yet the barn was still far away, for the bus that would take her uptown and across 125th street to Harlem. She held the bag of leftovers under her porous old blue cloth coat in an effort to keep them dry for her granddaughter, Sharina. The thought of that beautiful child helped her endure the life eroding fatigue that was washing over her as relentlessly as the rain.

After a twenty minute wait that seemed forever the bus finally arrived. Corinne hauled herself up the steps, swiped her fare card through the slot and looked for a seat. She started up the aisle and saw Betty Ann, an older black woman who worked as a maid for the Swintons, a wealthy white family who were friends of her employers. Shortly after she went to work for the Pardees she met Betty Ann when they shared duties at an open house party. Betty Ann hated her employers in particular and whites in general. She tried to infect Corinne with her prejudice and started to tell her how to steal from her employers. Corinne stopped her abruptly and refused to have anything to do with her after that. Over the years Betty Ann had forgotten what caused her enmity, but she loathed Corinne and insulted her whenever they met. They often took the same bus home at night and Betty Ann would greet her each time: “You old bitch. Fuck you.” And Corinne would respond: “You mean old hag.” The ritual concluded, they would ignore each other the rest of the way.

Corinne said a silent prayer of thanks that she got a seat, because she didn’t know if she had the strength to stand all the way to her stop at St. Nicholas Avenue. She took the bag of leftovers from under her coat, made sure it wasn’t wet, then stared out the window into the glistening city night without seeing anything. She remembered when she first started working for the Pardees as a maid and Mrs. Pardee would inspect the leftovers bag to insure that Corinne wasn’t taking unauthorized cuts of meat. The degrading search after the humiliation of being given leftover charity still pained her. She shook her head to clear it of the unwelcome thoughts and focused on Sharina.

Corinne had been taking care of her granddaughter since she was seven, when her father was killed in a drive-by shooting. The unfairness of her son’s death was still an ache in her heart. Leshaun had been a good boy, then a good man, raising his daughter after his wife died of cancer. He was on his way home from work, just passing the corner where the drug dealers distributed the poison that was destroying so many of her people, when a car pulled up and gangbangers began firing. According to the policeman who told Sharina about her father’s death when she was the only one he found at home, he died instantly. The police assumed that Leshaun was there for a drug buy and remained skeptical of Corinne’s claim of his innocence, no matter how much she insisted that her son didn’t use drugs. The awful memories were beginning to overwhelm her and she said a silent prayer that sent them away.

She sat there stolidly for a few minutes, as the bus rolled past the luxurious shops and restaurants that mocked the economically challenged who couldn’t afford the prices of the new economy, or the old for that matter. She had willed herself long ago not to want things that she could never have and that way she was never tempted to steal. She didn’t know if this made her a good person, but it made her an honest one. She had also learned to accept the unacceptable for the sake of her beloved granddaughter. The bus passed 96th street and the shabbier stores and buildings sagged drearily in the corrosive rain. Corinne brooded about the last minute instructions she received from her employer just as she was leaving. Mrs. Pardee told her in that false friendly tone of equality that she always used with Corinne:

“The family will be going to Westhampton tomorrow morning, so you’ll have to be here early. We’ll come back Sunday evening, and we’ll drop you at 125th street where you catch your bus.”

Corinne had assumed since it had been cold in early October that they wouldn’t be going to the house in Westhampton again until spring. The Yankee weatherman betrayed her with a treacherous forecast of temperature in the 70’s. She hated going to Westhampton. She had to sit in the front seat with the chauffer, Reggie, who listened to ‘gangsta rap’ on his headset and never talked to her. Her only day off was Sunday, so now that was lost. To make it worse she couldn’t bring Sharina, because she had a karate tournament on Saturday. The endless demands of the weekend sent a shudder of dread through her. The Pardees didn’t bring the cook on weekends, so Corinne had to help in the kitchen and clean up afterwards. Between the Pardees and their guests they soiled more dishes, cups, glasses and silverware than an army battalion just off field rations. And Reggie, who did the lawns and pool, would never dream of helping. Her only consolation was that Sharina would start college next September with a full scholarship. Once she was away at school, maybe Corinne could think about another job.

The bus started up the long hill to Harlem. Sometimes she wished that the hill was much higher, so they could look down on the rich folks below. Maybe then if there were race riots the hooligans could roll things down on the rich and not just destroy the poverty community. She shook her head and sent the bad thoughts away and pictured her granddaughter. Sharina was the light of her life, a wonderful girl who bubbled with joy, who was bright, talented and an honor student bound for Harvard and a better future. The bus turned on 125th Street, stopped and some noisy black youths wearing red bandanas on their heads swaggered on, shaking raindrops on the other passengers, daring them to object. Corinne looked straight ahead when they tried to meet people’s eyes and they went to the back of the bus, boom box blasting curses and anger.

Corinne knew about gang colors. Her daughter Tabitha had run with a gang. Corinne had tried to stop her, but couldn’t overcome the violent gang allure that eclipsed her dull, demanding days of school. In a desperate effort to stave off the inevitable, Corinne sent her to stay with relatives in North Carolina. Run-ins with the law and confrontations with the neighbors brought her back to Harlem, where she was beyond control. Her boyfriend turned her onto drugs and when her habit became too expensive he put her on the street as a prostitute, to pay for the white powder of obliteration. Sometime between tricking and shooting up, AIDS arrived and Tabitha slowly rotted away, decayed within and without, giving the gift of death to anyone who entered her wasted body. Then one day she didn’t come home and was never heard from again. Corinne never found out what happened to her. She said a silent prayer for her lost daughter, pushed the stop signal and went to the rear exit so she wouldn’t have to see Betty Ann.

Just before she got off the bus, Corinne risked a glance at the gang boys sprawled in the back, echoing the rap lyrics, yelling and cursing. Their red cotton bandanas reminded her of the field hands picking cotton who her mama had told her about. They were called handkerchief heads because of the cloth they wore to protect them from the sun. She couldn’t help thinking that these violent boys were just as much slaves as the darkies of the past they so despised, except their master wore a different suit of greed. One of the boys noticed her staring at them. “Watcha lookin at, ole black lady?” She turned away and scuttled off the bus, afraid that they might come after her and hurt her. As the bus drove away, the boy raised his middle finger at her, but she ignored it and quickly walked home.

The climb up five flights of stairs was more tiring than usual, but as she got to her door the image of her granddaughter raised her flagging spirits. Sharina was there, safe, sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework. Corinne’s usual fear for the girl’s well-being evaporated temporarily. “Hi, gramma. You look tired.” The kiss and loving hug rekindled her energy. “I’m all right. Mrs. Pardee told me we’re goin to Westhampton in the mornin an it just wore me down a bit.” “Why can’t that woman hire someone out there for the weekend? She couldn’t care less about your welfare.” “There are worse employers than Mrs. Pardee. At least she pays me for the extra day now.” “It’s not fair, gramma. You don’t get any benefits and if you get sick they won’t help. They’re so selfish. Why are they always intruding in our lives?” “It don’t do no good to fret about them. I brought your dinner. Why don’t you eat and forget them.” “I hate eating their leftovers.” “I know. But it’s good food. Next year you’ll be away at college and this’ll be over.” “You’ll still be working for them.” “We’ll see. Once you’re taken care of I can do somethin else.” “Oh gramma, you’ve done so much for me.” “You’re a treasure, chile. Now eat while I go lie down.”

The warm glow of Sharina’s appreciation revived her and instead of going to bed she turned on the television set. It was the one month anniversary of the World Trade Center disaster. She said a silent prayer for all the people killed that terrible day. The news was mostly about the bombing attacks on Afghanistan. After a humorous commercial that didn’t amuse her, the big story was the third case of anthrax in Florida. It had become a criminal investigation, since they discovered that the source was man made. All the talk of biological attack by terrorists was scaring her and she hoped that the government would capture or kill the terrorists before they killed more Americans. She understood that the people in those Arab countries were poor and oppressed, but they shouldn’t be allowed to murder innocent people. Her neighbor’s husband died in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th. He worked in the kitchen of that famous restaurant that was so high up and he didn’t come down. He never did anything to Osama Bin Laden.

Sharina finished her homework and came in and sat with her. “What are you watching, gramma?” “One of those blond haired ladies on CNN is tellin us that we don’t have to worry about anthrax. Now she’s really got me worried.” “There’s nothing much we can do tonight. Tomorrow I’ll ask Dr. Fairstone about it and he’ll tell me what we should do. Now let’s talk about something else.” Corinne nodded agreement. “I was just thinkin about how I used to take you with me to Westhampton when you were a little girl.” “I always hated going there,” Sharina said. “Those Pardee kids were so stuck up that when their friends were visiting they’d just ignore me, or order me around like a servant. But when they didn’t have anyone else to play with, they’d behave as if those other humiliating things never happened. Sometimes I wished they drowned.”

She looked at Corinne as if expecting her to be shocked, but she just smiled sadly: “I know they didn’t treat you right, but I couldn’t leave you alone back here in Harlem. You were just too young. I didn’t like it any more than you did. Those Pardee kids are as selfish and inconsiderate as their parents. But I had no choice.” “I understood that even then, gramma. And it wasn’t always awful. Sometimes Wesley behaved all right when no one else was around. It was that Amelia who really got me mad. One day she decided to play ‘Gone With the Wind’ and she wanted me to be Mammy. When I refused she complained to her momma who told me I was being uncooperative. I told her that it was racially degrading for me to play Mammy, but I’d play Scarlet O’Hara if Amelia insisted on playing.” Corinne laughed. “I remember that. It was one of the few times when Mrs. Pardee was at a loss for words. How old were you then?” “I was eleven.” “I was so proud of you when you said that.”

Sharina smiled. “Thanks, gramma. Things got worse when I was thirteen and my body started developing. Reggie was always watching me. Even Mister Pardee looked at me. And Wesley was always trying to touch me when we went swimming.” “I saw that. I was so happy when Doctor Fairstone got you that assistant counselor’s job at the girls camp the next summer.” “Me, too. I wasn’t going to let any of them near me and I know it would have cost you your job if there was an incident.” “We would have managed, chile.” “I know, gramma, but it would have been a problem and I’m glad it worked out. When Dr. Fairstone hired me next year as a part-time assistant after school, I started learning so much about medicine that I decided to be a doctor. I’m so grateful to him.”

Sharina didn’t want her grandmother to feel neglected because she praised the doctor and said lovingly: “You’re the best gramma in the whole world. Someday when I’m a successful doctor, I’m going to take care of you. I’ll buy you a beautiful house, and nice furniture, and nice clothes….” “I don’t need those things, chile. I have you and the lord.” “But you’ve helped me with everything. You got me the job with Dr. Fairstone and the job at Wendell’s Funeral Parlor.” “I’m still sorry I did that. I don’t know how you can work at that nasty place. The thought of you handlin all those dead bodies makes my skin crawl.” “It’s safe, gramma, and what I learn there will help me in medical school. Now let’s talk about something else. I want to do something wonderful for you.” “Well there is one thing.” “What?” “When I die, I want to be buried someplace special.” “Oh, gramma, you’re going to live a long time yet.” “That may be, but that’s what I want.” “Then that’s what you’ll get.” “You’re an angel. Now give me a kiss and let’s go to bed. It’s gettin late.”

Sharina didn’t think of their conversation again and her senior year of high school sped by in a welter of activities. Between school, her two part-time jobs, karate practice and her new boyfriend, Sharina was too busy to spend much time with her grandmother. Soon graduation day arrived and former president Bill Clinton, in a gesture to his Harlem neighbors, was the guest of honor and handed out diplomas. Corinne almost burst with pride when Sharina delivered the valedictory and President Clinton shook her hand. Then Sharina was off to Harvard for the early access pre-med studies program that would put superior students on a fast track. Sharina’s scholarship covered dorm, board, books, fees and tuition, so Corinne didn’t have to worry about how she’d manage away from home. For the first time since the death of her son, the burden of responsibility for her precious granddaughter was gone. She could even start to think about what to do with her life.

Sharina wrote often for the first month or two, but when the first semester started her workload was enormous and she added to it with a part-time job in the anatomy lab maintaining the cadavers. She thrived on the challenges and loved the sheltered enclave of the university. She wrote Corinne that she had enough money to come home for Thanksgiving. She took the train from Boston on November 21st, avoiding flying like many Americans. She got home about 9:00 PM, unlocked the door and found her beloved gramma lying on the floor. She screamed: “Gramma,” and rushed to her, but she was dead. Corinne’s body was cold and stiff, so Sharina knew she had been dead for a while. She gently placed the lifeless head in her lap and cried silent tears that burned her cheeks.

As soon as she was able to stop crying, she phoned Dr. Fairstone and told him the sad news. He said he’d be there right away and the sound of his kindly voice set her crying again. He got there in five minutes and quickly examined Corinne. “She’s been dead for about ten to twelve hours.” “My poor gramma. If only I was here for her. I might have gotten her to the hospital in time.” Dr. Fairstone shook his head. “It wouldn’t have helped. She had a massive coronary that killed her instantly.” “Did she suffer?” “No, dear. She didn’t feel a thing.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.” He covered Corinne with a blanket and turned to Sharina: “What kind of arrangements do you want to make?” “I don’t know. I don’t have any money.” He patted her arm reassuringly. “I’ll have Mr. Wendell take her to his funeral parlor and we’ll work the details out later.”

Mr. Wendell agreed to pick up the body at 9:00 A.M. Dr. Fairstone made sure that Sharina was all right and offered her a sedative. “I don’t need anything, thanks.” “Then I’ll see you in the morning. Call me if you need me.” Sharina sat there quietly for a while, then walked through the apartment, idly touching some of her grandmother’s things. She noticed the red light flashing on the answering machine and retrieved the first message. “This is Mrs. Pardee, Corinne. I’m very disappointed that you didn’t come to work. We have so many preparations for Thanksgiving that I really can’t manage without you. Please call me.” Sharina wanted to scream, but controlled herself and listened to the second message. “I don’t know where you are, Corinne, but it’s very irresponsible of you to leave me in the lurch like this. Call me at once.” Sharina felt a blaze of hate rush through her and she dug her nails into her palms until her hands turned white.

It took Sharina a few minutes to bring herself under control, then she played the third message. “I realize you just don’t care what happens to us. After all the years you worked for us, I expected a little more consideration.” The rage she felt was ice cold as she reached for the phone and dialed the Pardee’s number. When Mrs. Pardee answered in that detached, haughty voice that always suggested tennis whites, she said: “This is Sharina….” Before she could say anything else Mrs. Pardee interrupted: “Where is that grandmother of yours. Doesn’t she know how important this holiday is?” Sharina took a deep breath. “My grandmother is dead, Mrs. Pardee.” “I really don’t appreciate your humor at a time like this.” “Listen to me, you spoiled, self-centered….” “What did you call me?” “I told you she’s dead. She died of a heart attack. Now do you have anything to say?” There was a brief silence, then Mrs. Pardee said: “Well that’s too bad. I guess I’ll just have to call a temporary agency.” Sharina slammed the phone down in disgust.

She didn’t sleep at all that night. Every few hours she went into the living room and looked at the face of the only person in the world who loved her. Corinne looked older than she remembered, but more at peace, as if the stress of her responsibilities was over. Sharina whispered lovingly: “You were so good, gramma. I’m so sorry that I didn’t have the chance to do things for you.” She cried for a while, then lay down to rest. Her thoughts kept coming back to the telephone messages from Mrs. Pardee and the infuriating phone call that followed. She knew what the Pardees were like, sheltered by wealth, insulated from the economic pressures that ordered the lives of the less privileged, and unaware of the needs of others. It wasn’t that she expected them to be moved by the death of a black servant, which she now understood was only a mere inconvenience to them. It outraged her that Mrs. Pardee couldn’t acknowledge that a person who worked for her for so many years had some significance. She decided that she’d give Mrs. Pardee another chance and call her in the morning, once gramma was at the funeral parlor.

Mr. Wendell came for Corinne in the morning and invited Sharina to ride with him in the hearse. She declined and instead walked the few blocks. She felt remote from the people around her who were going about their business as if the best person in the whole world hadn’t left her. She couldn’t tell if the isolation she was feeling was from loss or numbness, but she seemed to be moving invisibly through the life around her. Dr. Fairstone and Mr. Wendell were waiting for her when she got to the funeral parlor. Mr. Wendell led her into the Heavenly Rest Chapel. “You just sit here and I’ll bring your grandmother in.” “You’ll treat her nicely, won’t you Mr. Wendell?” “Yes, dear. She was my friend. Why don’t you think about what you want done with her remains.” She turned to Dr. Fairstone in despair: “I don’t know what to do with gramma.” “There. There,” he said. “We’ll put our heads together and figure out something.”

She sat there in a daze without any sense of time passing until Mr. Wendell wheeled in a gurney. On it was one of his showroom coffins that contained her tiny gramma. She walked to the gleaming mahogany casket and looked down at the face that would never smile lovingly at her again. Tears gushed from her eyes and she silently vowed: ‘I don’t know how, gramma, but I’ll find some way to make your burial special.’ Dr. Fairstone waited patiently until she stopped crying: “We have to talk about the burial now. Did Corinne have any insurance?” “No, sir.” “Does she have any family or friends who might help?” “I think we’re the only ones.” “What about her employer?” “You mean the Pardees?” “I didn’t know their name.” “Mrs. Pardee told me that it was very inconsiderate for gramma to die at holiday time,” Sharina said bitterly. “Perhaps they’ll help with the funeral expense.” “I don’t think I can count on them for anything.” “I’ll contribute a coffin and the hearse to the cemetery,” Mr. Wendell said, “but I can’t cover the expense for the plot and headstone.” “Thank you for your offer, but I don’t have any money.” “What if we cremate her? I’ll do it for free.” “I couldn’t do that to her,” Sharina said. “I’ll call the Pardees again and ask for their help.

She phoned Mrs. Pardee, who sounded impatient at being bothered. “My gramma didn’t have any insurance, Mrs. Pardee. I wonder if you can help me with the funeral expenses?” There was a long silence. “I don’t think that will be possible.” Sharina tried to contain her indignation. “She worked for you for a long time. Don’t you feel any sense of obligation?” “We’ll be happy to send flowers,” Mrs. Pardee said coldly, “once you tell us where the service will be held. That’s all we can do.” “But I don’t have the money to bury her properly,” Sharina confided. “I’m sure you’ll manage. There must be some place you can get help like the welfare bureau, or the NAACP.” Sharina felt like strangling the ignorant, condescending woman. “You’re some piece of work, Mrs. Pardee. My gramma slaved for you for years and that’s all you can say? You can keep your stinking flowers.” She hung up the phone without waiting for a reply and pounded the wall in frustration, while tears of rage poured from her eyes.

Dr. Fairstone and Mr. Wendell found her in the office sitting on the floor, slumped against the wall, crying. “I guess they wouldn’t help you,” Dr. Fairstone said gently. “We’ll think of something, my dear. Why don’t you wash your face and meet us in the chapel.” Sharina went to the bathroom, rinsed with cold water and pulled herself together. When she rejoined her friends they were discussing the funeral options. “Mr. Wendell has outlined the most practical arrangements,” Dr. Fairstone said. “Cremation or burial at Potter’s Field.” “What’s that?” “It’s where indigents are buried in a cemetery on Staten Island,” Mr. Wendell answered. Sharina was horrified. “I can’t do that to my gramma.” Dr. Fairstone tried to reason with her. “I understand that this isn’t desirable, but there don’t seem to be other choices.” “I won’t do that to her. I promised her something special. Let me think about it.” “I have to get back to my patients. I’ll come back when office hours are over.” “Thanks, Dr. Fairstone. I really appreciate your help.” “I wish I could stay with you, but my patients are worried about anthrax or other biological attacks. I’ll see you later.” “I’ll walk you to the door,” Mr. Wendell said.

Sharina sat in the chapel, brooding about her lack of choices and looking at the coffin that held her beloved gramma. She couldn’t come up with any solutions to the problem. Every time she tried to concentrate, hateful images of the Pardees kept intruding. Mrs. Pardee’s callous indifference was ripping through her with stabs of rage. A cold fury channeled her thoughts and helped focus her mind. She remembered a Pardee family funeral that she went to when she was a child. Her gramma was compelled to give up her Sunday and attend, and she took her along because there was no one to leave her with. She vaguely recollected a long ride to a Long Island cemetery that seemed like an enchanted forest, with clumps of large old oak and maple trees that lined the walks. She had asked wonderingly: “Who lives in those big stone houses, gramma?” She understood now that her gramma had carefully considered her answer: “Some people are put there by their families when they die.” “Will we go there when we die?” “No, chile. Only the rich people go there.” “Where will we go, gramma?” “We don’t have to worry about that for a long time.”

The picture of her gramma’s sweet, loving face when she said that brought more tears to Sharina’s eyes, but her mind was crystal clear. Suddenly a wild idea flashed through her; ‘I’ll put gramma in the Pardee family mausoleum.’ At first it sounded crazy, but the more she considered the idea, the more comforting it became. She basked in the wave of pleasure that rolled over her as she imagined gramma resting in the splendid family tomb of the rich Pardees. After a few moments, more practical thoughts seeped in. How would she get gramma to the cemetery? How would she get her into the mausoleum? Did she need a coffin? She had never been in a mausoleum, so it was a place of mystery. Did the bodies lie around in piles? On tables? In boxes? Frustration raced through her for her ignorance. She tried to control her swirling emotions and decided to ask Mr. Wendell about mausoleums, but not tell him about her far-fetched idea right away.

Mr. Wendell was on the phone when she walked into his office and he gestured to her to sit down. She fidgeted tensely as he wheedled someone at the medical examiner’s office about the interpretation of his contract to inter John and Jane Doe bodies for the city. When business was slow he was eager for the extra income from indigent funerals. If business was good he didn’t want to waste time on the low-fee jobs. His special efforts to befriend the clerks who assigned the jobs included cash, gifts and other incentives. He began to trust Sharina after she had worked for him for a while and he kept few secrets of his day to day operations from her. He made exaggerated funny faces for her benefit as he talked and she managed a weak smile of appreciation for his efforts to ease her sorrow. He finally hung up the phone, and shook his head. “My mama would turn over in her grave if she heard me arguing all the time about dead bodies. Hee. Hee.”

She looked at him intently, considering how to present her wild idea, but he made it easy. “Have you decided what to do about your grandmother yet?” he asked in his professional voice of comfort. “I’ve thought about it and I’ve come up with a plan that I want to tell you about, but please don’t interrupt me ‘til I’m done. Okay?” “Sure. Go ahead.” “I considered the choices and couldn’t accept them because I promised gramma a special burial and at first I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t have any money and I got madder and madder at the Pardees for not caring about her and I remembered they had a big family mausoleum and I decided I want to put gramma into their mausoleum without their knowing, and…” “What?” “You said you wouldn’t interrupt.” “Where’d you get this crazy notion?” “Can I finish?” “Yeah.” “Well I need your help to do it.” “Girl, you’re outta your mind.” “That’s the only way I can think of to do something special for her.”

He stared at her strangely, then burst into laughter. “In all my years in mortuary science that’s the craziest thing I ever heard.” “Why? Once she’s in there no one will know. It’s just a matter of putting her in there. You should know how to do that.” “You want me to do it?” he asked in amazement. “Who else? You’re her friend. I’ll help you. Nobody else has to know.” “Do you have any idea what you’re asking?” “Yes. If I had another choice I’d do it.” “What about Dr. Fairstone?” “I won’t tell him. He’s a wonderful man, but he’s set in his ways and I don’t think he’d approve.” “Are you telling me I’m not ethical?” “No, Mr. Wendell. He’s old and wouldn’t understand. You’re a smart businessman. You know how complicated everything is.” “You’re a cunning devil. You think some flattery will get me to do it?” “I’m asking you as her friend.” He got up and paced behind his desk. “Let me think about it.” A wave of gratitude raced through her. She rushed to him and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Mr. Wendell. I knew you’d help.” “I didn’t agree yet. Now be quiet and let me think.”

He sat down at his desk and leaned his head on his hands. She waited quietly until he asked: “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” “Do you have a better idea?” “No.” “Then this is what I want.” “Let me tell you what’s involved. We gotta get the death certificate from Dr. Fairstone and tell him you decided to cremate her. The next day we go to… what’s the name of their cemetery?” “I don’t know, but it’s the Pardee family mausoleum.” “That’s all right. I can get the information on the internet. Then we drive there in a private car, hope one of my batch of keys will open the mausoleum door, find a good shelf, put her in, then get out without anyone noticing us.” “That doesn’t sound too hard.” He snorted. “Right. And what if we get caught?” “I’ll take all the blame.” He shook his head. “You’re as hard headed as your grandma.” Then he laughed loudly. “But I like the idea of double dipping. I’ll do it.”

Now that she had help and a plan, a feeling of euphoria took over and everything seemed dreamlike and remote, as if it were happening to someone else. When Dr. Fairstone came back that evening she told him that she had decided on cremation. He sat with her for a while and his presence was comforting. She hugged him when he said good night and thanked him for being a good friend. Mr. Wendell suggested that she go home and sleep for a while, but she said she was too revved to leave. She looked over his shoulder while he searched the net until he located the cemetery. He explained to her that they couldn’t put Corinne in a coffin because they wouldn’t be able to manage it by themselves and they might be noticed if he brought extra help. He went to put Corinne in a plastic body bag and Sharina said she could do everything else, but she couldn’t put her gramma in the bag. Mr. Wendell left her in the office while he made the final preparations and she dozed off.

She woke up in the morning with that odd sense of detachment that sometimes occurs when waking up in a strange place. Mr. Wendell brought fresh coffee and a donut for her that she devoured voraciously. They left the funeral parlor for gramma’s last ride at 10:00 A.M. The traffic was light and within a few minutes they were crossing the Tri-Borough Bridge. The day was warm and clear and the sun glistened on the dirty face of the East River, concealing the detritus and pollution bequeathed to the waterways of America. She looked without seeing as they rolled along the Long Island Expressway and barely noticed when they turned into the cemetery. It took a few moments until it registered that they had arrived. She looked around curiously and found that the fabulous burial ground of memory was just another cemetery.

Mr. Wendell consulted a map of the cemetery that he had downloaded from the net and drove straight to the Pardee mausoleum. No one paid any attention to them. He got out of the car, walked to the massive metal door with his large ring of keys, tried some and in a few moments he swung the door open. He looked around carefully and made sure no one was watching them. He went to the car, motioned her to come help him, then opened the trunk and removed the body bag. They carried it into the mausoleum and put it down on the stone floor. Mr. Wendell checked the shelves and found one that contained Beatrice Pardee, 1882-1957. He opened the decorative marble panel, then the wooden door. They picked up the body bag and slid it behind Beatrice’s coffin, where it couldn’t be seen. “If you want to say anything, do it quickly,” Mr. Wendell said urgently. “We need to get out of here without being discovered.” She stood there silently and finally whispered: “Goodbye, gramma. I love you.”

Mr. Wendell closed the shelf door and quickly replaced the marble panel. He rushed her out the door, locked it, hurried them to the car, then drove out of the cemetery. Once they were on the highway, he yelled triumphantly: “Nobody saw us. Whatta ya think of that, kid?” “I don’t believe how easy it was.” “It’s like anything else in the world. If you know what you’re doing and go about it naturally, as if you belong, nobody notices.” “I’ll never forget this, Mr. Wendell. If there’s every any way to repay you I will.” “That’s all right, girl. It was a rush doing that. You don’t owe me anything.” For the rest of the ride he babbled on, keyed up by his adventure and didn’t notice her silence. She sat there quietly, locked in memories of her beloved gramma. Just as they got to the glittering bridge that led back to Harlem, she thought: “I did it, gramma. I made your burial special. Now you’ll rest in that grand stone mansion for the dead with the Pardees and not have to clean up after them. I hope you won’t mind being there. It’s the best I could do.”
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