Starting With a Bang …

I need help. What follows is the beginning of a mystery cozy tentatively titled; Asses to Ashes, Lust to Dust. I have been moving the paragraphs around for days. Weeks. Months. Actually, I started this more than a year ago (there is much more of it) but my inability to nail the opening killed it for me. What do you think?

ASSES TO ASHES, LUST TO DUST: Chapter 1

Edie had vowed she would never voluntarily spend another night under the same roof as her soon-to-be ex-husband, Gary, but, she wondered whether perhaps the detail that he would now never become her ex-husband, Gary, by virtue of his recent death, made it okay. She didn’t, after all, want to be a vow-breaker; that had always been Gary’s job in the relationship.

Well, not anymore.

What little was left of Edie’s never-now-to-be-ex-husband, Gary, lay charred on a slab in the basement, four floors below her in the Twyford & Covington Funeral Home where she lived with her aunt, Jessie. Gary would never again rise to the occasion of cheating, or, rise to any occasion at all for that matter.

Edie liked thinking of it that way; Gary unable to rise. She was no longer sure she believed in any sort of after-or-other life, but in the vague cosmology to which she occasionally subscribed when doing so proved convenient to her immediate emotional well-being, imagining Gary sentenced to eternity sporting broiled, grilled, and carbonized genitals which crumbled to ash whenever he tried to use them almost convinced her that karma was a good thing.
Then she remembered karma worked both ways and panicked. Surely these uncharitable thoughts would result in more disaster falling on her. That was the problem with all these belief systems; the guilt and the paybacks. A person couldn’t just enjoy a little vengeance and come-uppance without having to pay for it somehow. All this New Age nagging about taking responsibility for one’s own reality crap exhausted her.

And what had she ever done to deserve Gary?

Funny how the meaning of that sentence had changed over the years.

Edie had floated at lofty, Harlequin Romance heights during the first ecstatic pheromonal phases of Gary-land. She, the “A Womyn without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” t-shirt wearing feminist who’d sworn never to marry, never to change her name, had done both in embarrassingly short order after having met Gary when she was 31. Edie had realized only months into what she’d expected to be a life of post-nuptial bliss that the once lofty, soaring flight of love she’d so precipitously boarded was, in fact, the Hindenburg of matrimony.

Having chanted the whole “for better or worse, richer or poorer, as long as we both shall live” mantra – albeit absent the “obey” part – and unwilling to listen to the chorus line of people waiting to snark “I told you so”, Edie had hung on for …she couldn’t think about this now. She needed to shower and get to the office so Wade Thomas didn’t have one more reason to fire her, or, more importantly, any more fuel to fire the grudge he had against his brother, her best friend, Ford Thomas, who’d insisted she be hired at Thomas Janiturinal Supplies local distribution center despite her lack of any actual qualifications.

Although who, actually, had the qualifications for spending eight hours a day fielding calls about urinal screens?

Edie did. Now. Having spent limited time in men’s rooms, she’d come into the position having given little thought to the intricacies of urinals, but after ten months she could now recite in her sleep the various sizes, specs, and scents of urinal screen available for order. She knew the cost and estimated delivery date on every variety; they came in choice of color, scent blocked and filter only, paraffin and non-paraffin, water tinting and clear, triangular and round, and especially bizarre, the custom-ordered with specially designed graphics, business logos or advertising imprinted on these rubber-mats manufactured for the express purpose of men to pee on. That there was a market for bubble gum and mango and cherry and lemon and apple and mint and clear sky and spring breeze – and her favorite, no-scent scented chlorinated blocks to maintain fresh-smelling and customer-pleasing public restrooms seemed ludicrous to Edie. Even more absurd was that she now relied on this preposterous pissery-frippery of first-world obsession with aseptic pretense for paying her debts.

Debts for which Gary was mostly to blame. Gary who was now dead.

What would happen now to the debt in both their names? Debt he’d agreed to pay in the pending divorce decree? Was she now – technically – a widow? Edie was still railing at Gary for further ruining her life by inconveniently dying when the hot shower turned brutally cold, the inevitable result each time the undertakers in the basement began the process of flushing a body’s blood, replacing it with formaldehyde. Edie guessed it was Gary’s body that was being processed. She wasn’t sure how she felt about this. Edie was determinedly unfamiliar with the actual process of embalming despite Ethan Covington‘s repeated offers to demonstrate his work to her.

Poor Ethan. He was the latest and – if his approaches to Edie were any indication of his mating skills – likely the last in the long line of Covingtons who’d owned the Twyford & Covington funeral home. Ethan might have qualified as attractive were he not always dressed in suits of cheap, black polyester blends at least one and a half sizes too large in the trouser and a half-size too tight in the jacket. Plus, he never quite shut his mouth completely, his visage seeming to be permanently poised in a half-smile mid-utterance of one of the stock-sympathetic condolences of his trade; “They’re in a better place now.“ Or, “It’s hardest on those left behind.“ Or. “There’s nothing anyone can say to heal your loss but we’re here to ease your stress in this time of tragedy.“ Or, the all-time, everyone must hear it at least ten million times, all purpose, “I’m sorry for your loss.“ Edie wondered what Ethan would say to her now? Was there a combination condolence-come-on line?

“I’m sorry for your loss but now can you go to dinner with me?”

What was wrong with her? What was wrong with Ethan? Other than the open mouthed, cheap-suit thing, and, well, the tendency to bend his six foot three frame into a lumbering stoop which had led to Edie nickname him “Igor”.

Stop it. She had to stop it. She saw him every day and it was difficult enough not to laugh when she did, and what if she slipped and called him Igor to his face? The Covingtons were a respected family – and wealthy. Stinking rich, she thought, thanks to the stench of the bodies they processed at Twyford and Covington. Although as far as Edie knew, there hadn’t been any Twyfords for some hundred years or more and so, soon, when Ethan – who was somewhere in his fifties she guessed – finally drained and stuffed and entombed his father, also named Ethan, who was locked away in the local home for the aged and extremely rich – he would inherit all of that fortune. She could use a fortune. Even if it did come from blood-money, or, draining-blood money.

But she couldn’t. Ethan did nothing for her. And now that Gary was dead she could no longer use the “I’m not even really divorced, yet” excuse to fend off the invitations to dinner, a drink, an embalming with which Ethan had been bombarding her since shortly after she moved into the parlour – as the owners called it, though Edie preferred Crypt Penthouse – with Aunt Jessie when she and Gary had broken up.

With her hair still half lathered in the suds of the bargain brand shampoo which had replaced the pricey tea-tree oil, 100% all natural (her shallow consumerism had over-ridden her bookish nature in objecting to that advertising redundancy) earth elements organic hair purifier – at thirty dollars a bottle it didn’t call itself shampoo – she jumped out from under the reduced trickle of now freezing cold water and cursed Gary one more time.

“Even dead, you’re still causing me grief. Bastard.”

Naked, she got down on bended knee, the un-forgivingly frigid pink and gray pinwheel patterned ceramic tile of the vintage – meaning not updated since somewhere around 1940 – bathroom floor to pour cups of cold water over her head to rinse out the remaining soap-foam. Edie was surprised that her hair – unlike her ego – was no less healthy since she’d been reduced to bargain brands, in fact, it was feeling increasingly thick, luxurious even, and as yet, still vaguely blonde albeit more dishwater than ash, but smoother and shinier than it had been in ages. Maybe it wasn’t the shampoo but the reduction in stress since leaving Gary, although, with her luck it was more likely due to a last gasp of her sebaceous glands before she succumbed to menopausal, middle age aridity and –

She stopped and scolded herself. What kind of woman was she? Her soon-to-be-never-to-be ex-husband was being Frankenstein-ed four floors below and she was worried about her hair, the debts with which she might now be saddled, and getting to work on time at the pee-screen factory. She had not had one infinitesimal moment of regret or sorrow about the stinking, cheating, lying bastard’s demise since arriving home from rehearsal late – very late – last night and having been informed by Aunt Jessie. In fact, there was a virtual symphony of unkind thoughts playing in her head which she worked at editing into the pithy one-liners she would use on Ford when he returned later this week from his latest vacation, this one to Florence.

“It’s a wonder they needed to process him at all; he’s been embalming himself with pretentiously named, over-priced wines for years.”

That wasn’t quite cynical enough.

“How he had any blood left after all the tequila he drank-”

No. Still not very Dorothy Parker-esque.

“He donated his body to science so he’s been pre-preserving it for years with highballs and imported French wine and -”

She’d never been much good at writing her own material. She was only funny when delivering scripted lines. It had always been her misfortune to possess timing but lack wit. She dried herself off, carefully avoiding the mirror. At forty-one there was evidence of a regrettable downward drifting and slackening of flesh. So unfair. Gary hadn’t seemed to age a day and despite no exercise other than chasing bimbos and climbing in and out of various hotel and tanning beds, still had muscle tone and a flat stomach. Well, had had. And, apparently, in a final, delicious irony, it was the tanning bed that had killed him, or so Aunt Jessie had said having been given that juicy detail by Ethan after he’d gone to pick up the body.

Edie checked her cell for the time as she ran into the living room where Jessie was, surprisingly, perched in her recliner, the latest Louise Penny Inspector Gamache mystery novel in hand, and a stack of “to be reads” on the table beside her along with the ever present cold cup of coffee. Jessie usually went to bed as the sun rose and the staff reported for work at Twyford & Covington, at which point she transferred the phones back to them. She’d sleep until noon, then start her day, taking charge of the phones when the staff left for the day after which she fielded the calls from bereaved family members of the very recently deceased, those requesting information about visitations and services, the police, the hospitals, the hospices and the obituary writers for the Pilgrim News-Post, most all of whom – save the bereaved and planning to visit mourners – knew Jessie on a first name basis. She radiated the calming energy of one whose only ambition in life is to accept it.

“You’re up early. Or late. Helluva day already. I was in the shower and it went arctic again and I’m sure it’s because Igor was draining that asshole, Gary. Excuse my language. He should bottle his blood and sell it for a cabernet. He was probably too drunk to know he was on fire. What’s that thing they make movies about? You know – dammit – my mind – oh, spontaneous human combustion. Although, well, with Gary, at least two of those words don’t apply. He was the least spontaneous person I ever met. Everything was calculated. And calling him human is a stretch too. Still, all that alcohol in his blood, it’s a wonder he didn’t go up in a tanning bed years ago.”

Now that, Edie thought, had been almost witty. She’d have to remember it to throw into the post-mortem conversation with Ford when he got back from Italy. If he got back.

Ford had been texting about all the men named Paolo and Fabrizio he’d met at the orinale in Florence. She’d had to ask what orinale meant and he’d graphically explained the history of public urinals on the continent. When she’d sent her patented “Ugh. TMI” response, he’d claimed it was a way to write off the trip as research for the family business. She’d replied with what she thought a rather pithy line about the fit Wade would pitch when he saw gigolos claimed as line items on Ford’s expense account but he had, typical of him, ignored her. He insisted he was the funny one in this friendship. In any event, his tales about those with whom he’d been “sharing meatballs” were, she suspected, mostly fabrications for her benefit as Paolo was the name of the gigolo played by Warren Beatty in Tennessee Williams The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Fabrizio the name of the lothario in the musical The Light In The Piazza, facts Ford would have assumed she didn’t know as he fantasized himself the ultimate theatre – “that’s with an “-re” not “-er”, thank you very much” – trivia expert. He also fantasized – frequently and to his great personal detriment – that he was Vivien Leigh in all of her Tennessee Williams roles. Well, Edie thought, Mrs. Stone was a nice break from his usual Blanche DuBois.

Lost in her Ford reverie, it took Edie a moment to notice that Aunt Jessie hadn’t even cracked a smile at her dead soon-to-be-never-to-be-ex-husband stand-up material.

“Aunt Jessie, what?”

“Dear, perhaps you might want to keep such sentiments quiet.”

It wasn’t like Aunt Jessie to tut-tut or disapprove of Edie. She’d been Aunt Jessie’s favorite since she was a child. Unlike the rest of the family, Edie hadn’t questioned Jessie’s retreat from the world nor saddled her with the diagnosis of agoraphobia when five years earlier it had become clear she intended to never again leave Twyford & Covington until she was carried out in a coffin, or, rather, a cardboard box on her way to the University of Maryland to become a research project. Jessie had witnessed enough at the parlour to realize what a waste of money the entire funeral process was and she determined not to burden her family with it. The family objected to this along with Jessie’s hermit-dom, but Edie had defended her, insisting groceries could be delivered, books (and almost anything else) could be ordered on-line and virtual reclusion guaranteed one would be less often subjected to the idiots and dolts who seemed to be taking over the world. The longer Edie lived, the more Jessie’s choice of selective seclusion seemed prescient.

Jessie hadn’t hesitated to invite Edie in when her marriage collapsed and had taken every opportunity to intone phrases she’d long been chanting at Edie like, “Honey, don’t be so hard on yourself.” And “I’m so sorry you’re going through this, you deserve better.” And Edie’s favorites, “You don’t die until your time comes,” and “One thing I’ve learned from living in the house of the dead, no matter what happens along the way in the story, the finale is always the same, we end up in a box.” So Edie was left feeling both ashamed and hurt by Jessie‘s admonishment.

“I guess that was mean-spirited.”

“No, not considering the subject – not that I’m an advocate of speaking ill of the dead, since they provide me such a lovely aerie, but, in view of the conversation I just had with Ethan, it might be best if you didn’t – just now – make jokes about Gary’s death.”

“What did Igor say?”

“I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about but it seems Sheriff Rohrer has told them to hold off on the embalming.”

“Why?”

“Apparently, on further consideration, it’s been determined that being crisped in a tanning bed reeks of possible foul play. And, too, the next of kin -”

“I’m the next of kin. Technically.”

“And separated. Not without some rancor, which is why, maybe, the barbs are best – well – left unsaid. At least, as long as the family is requesting an investigation into the circumstances of Gary’s toasting.”

Edie’s day wasn’t getting any better. A cold shower. Possible new debt to dodge. Another late arrival at the office. And now, it sounded as if her aunt was accusing her of murder.

“Are you saying Gary’s family thinks I killed him? I’m a suspect? Did Ethan say that?”

“Not in so many words, no.”

“Well what did he say?”

Aunt Jessie continued to glance longingly down at the pages of Louise Penny’s novel between responses, as if she’d much rather lose herself there in whatever murder the intrepid Gamache was solving than this messy flare-up – so to speak – in her own life.

“He said, well, he didn’t say, but, rather, he said Sheriff Rohrer told him that in the case of a suspicious death where there is a -” Jessie stopped. She looked at Edie, who was now shaking either from fear, rage, or perhaps her still wet hair which she’d decided she couldn’t dry and be on-time for work, a possibility becoming more remote with every passing second.

“Aunt Jessie, just say it. I’m going to be – correction – I am late for work.”

“Yes, dear, well, he said something about a vitriolic divorce and -”

“I’ve known Mason Rohrer since we were in school together. He definitely did not say vitriolic.”

“No, I suppose he didn’t. Although, honestly, I don’t really know – one way or another – what was said or even implied because this is all coming second-hand through Ethan who was – well – reticent – although also strangely eager. In any event, he – Ethan I mean, suggested that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if I spoke with Aurelia -”

Edie was becoming increasingly impatient and confused and wracked by chills she suspected were not from her now freezing hair. In addition to all Ethan’s other flaws – to which list Edie now added gossiping – he was cheap and the heat barely ever came on in the Crypt Penthouse. Aurelia was a member of Jessie’s reading group, a collection of women of a certain age who met once a month in Jessie’s funeral home apartment, allegedly to discuss their latest book, but mostly for companionship and cocktails they called highballs, all with names no one had used since the days of Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table, a group of drunks they all admired. Jessie may have been the only one of them who never left her house, but they all lived circumscribed lives in a world in which they no longer felt much at home, a world that had passed them by, or, perhaps, they had left behind.

“What in the world does Aurelia have to do with any of this?”

“Her granddaughter, dear, Hillary.”

“What?”

“She’s a criminal defense lawyer. Ethan seemed to think – after speaking to Sheriff Rohrer, well, that you might require her services.”

“Holy shit.”

“Well, I’m not so sure about the holy, but I will cede you the shit.”

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