By Voyo Gabrilo
Little flecks of cheeseburger clung to Tom’s mustache as he stretched out, asleep, on the couch. The rest of the cheeseburger rested on his stomach, on top of the wrapper, and it fell to the floor once the phone rang.
“Y’ello,” he said, some of the cheeseburger sticking to the phone as he pressed it close to his mouth. “This is he… Of course, I understand… Thank you. I’m on my way… You have a good night as well.”
Tom was already half-dressed. His black slacks had a sandy appearance from the salty fries he had wolfed down on his way home earlier. He never cared for his cheeseburgers to be hot, but if the fries got cold, then they were history. He brushed his slacks until they recovered their blackness.
Before he made his way upstairs to get a clean shirt, he sat back on the couch. He picked up the cheeseburger from the floor, inspected it for hair or dust, then finished it. The cheese had hardened and got stuck in his throat. He needed something to drink.
On his way to the kitchen, Tom stepped on one of his kids’ nerf footballs and it caused him to lose balance and stub his toes on the piano. The piano had been there since before Tom’s wife, Peggy, moved out. It made itself house-inventory quietly.
There was not much left in the fridge. A couple of cans of beer. Tom reached for the last carton of milk instead. He stood a moment longer to see what he would need to buy on his way home, then went upstairs to get his clean shirt. He checked in on his twin boys, Rex and Royce, on his way back downstairs.
He looked around to see if he was missing anything when his eyes found the drink that came with his cheeseburger and fries. He rubbed his eyes, then took the drink with him and left, making sure to leave the sign on the inside door handle for the boys.
“Can I help you?” the receptionist at Regional Oaks Care asked Tom as he entered the facility.
“Yes, hello, I’m Tom Jacobs with Fitzgerald-Hill Funeral Homes,” Tom said.
“Oh, yes. Thank you for getting here so quickly. Ms. Hamps is in room G-11. So that’s this wing down this way. If you’d like to pull your car around that way, it’ll be easier access to her room.”
“Yes, thank you. Should I meet you…?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll call for someone to open the door and meet you outside there.”
The receptionist mimed ‘thank you’ with her lips and sat back down. Tom paused for a moment to get his bearings. He had been to Regional Oaks Care before, during the daytime. Now, at night, half the lights were turned off and the halls were empty.
Tom backed his van just up to the east entrance. The door was locked. He went back in the van to doze off before someone came and opened the door.
“Hello, sir,” a nurse said as Tom got out of the van.
“Hello. It’ll be just a moment.” Tom started getting out the cot from the back of the van. The nurse waited just inside the east entrance doors until Tom was ready, when she unlocked the doors and opened them.
“Thank you,” Tom said as he passed her, pushing the cart inside.
“You’ll turn left up ahead,” said the nurse, letting the doors close behind her as she followed Tom.
Room G-11 was four rooms down the hallway. Tom found the family inside, huddled together around the bed. One of the cot’s wheels squeaked as he brought it to a stop. The family turned and looked at Tom. The nurse made her way inside the room.
No one spoke for a couple of minutes. Tom bowed his head. He liked to give the families as much time as they needed. After some more time passed the family began to move slowly away from the bed. They whispered goodbye and some blew soft kisses to the newly departed.
They all left the room in single file, looking back at the bed. The nurse walked back in after having stepped out to let the family out. She asked Tom if he needed any assistance and left when he said no.
Tom paused to look at Ms. Hamps. She had a nightcap on top of her head that matched her beige gown. There were too many lines on her face to count and her neck had already turned grey. Tom unfolded the blanket from on top of Ms. Hamps and gently pushed her arms to her sides.
He moved the cot to the side of the bed. He looked over his shoulder and saw the family huddled together outside the door in the hallway. They peered into the room. Tom shuffled along the floor and closed the door, bowing his head to the family.
The cot had moved away from the bed while Tom went to close the door. The wheel that squeaked wasn’t locked properly and began to rattle as Tom moved it back to beside the bed. After another couple attempts, Tom took a tissue from the nightstand and placed it underneath the squeaky wheel that wouldn’t stay put.
Tom got Ms. Hamps onto the cot in one movement. He folded the blanket back over the now-empty bed and pushed the cot out of the room. The family inquired where Tom would be taking their loved one. Tom replied that she would be well taken care of at the chapel and that he would contact them in the morning after everyone’s had a night of rest.
“There Stands The Glass” was playing on the radio as Tom turned the van out of Regional Oaks Care and onto the road. Fitzgerald-Hill was a five-mile ride directly down the road. Tom looked out his rearview mirror to see if the family would follow him. When he saw that no one had followed him out of Regional Oaks Care, he turned the song louder.
He widened his eyes, lit a cigarette, and opened his window to let the early-morning breeze hit his face. It was still dark outside that headlights were needed. The road was uneven and Tom relied on his lights frequently so that he could swerve around a pothole or slow down when a squirrel presented herself in the van’s path.
Just as he pulled into the Fitzgerald-Hill parking lot, Tom lit a second cigarette. He parked the van in its spot, around the chapel’s entrance, let it idle, and continued to smoke. The sun faintly began its rise. Tom sat up straighter to look at himself in the rearview mirror. He played with the bags under his eyes, poking at them like they were filled with fluid. The smoke that emanated from his cigarette carried up to his eyes as he peered into the mirror and they began to redden; he squinted in order to continue to peer.
Checking his watch, Tom lit a third cigarette.
“You’re the lucky one,” Tom said. He looked into the rearview mirror once more, only this time his gaze was turned to the back.
He dropped the third cigarette into his drink and listened for the fizz. Then he got out of the van and wheeled the cot into the chapel.
Eight days after Tom did Ms. Hamps’s transfer, the family sent an eloquent letter to the funeral home relaying their gratitude for “the respectfulness that exuded from Mr. Jacobs.” When Louis Fitzgerald III, the grandson of the funeral home’s co-founder, read the letter aloud to everyone in the chapel—everyone being only Tom in addition to Nancy, the only other director besides Tom who was not an owner, and the receptionist—Tom didn’t move a muscle. Fitzgerald-Hill had received innumerable letters of the kind, and Tom was a non-fussy man.
“‘Furthermore,’” Louis continued reading, “‘we wish to request the services of Mr. Jacobs should our beloved father meet the same fate as our mother. He is, like our mother, ill and his time left with us is sadly coming to a close. We sincerely hope that Mr. Jacobs will endeavor to oblige us with his graceful attendance.’”
“Looks like you’ve got yourself a fan base,” Nancy said once Louis finished.
“Put it with the collection,” Louis said, handing Tom the letter.
Tom smiled and pocketed it. It would be shredded, like the rest of them, once he got home.
“You know, I’d really like to do a transfer with you one of these nights,” Nancy said. “All of your letters come from overnight transfers. You’re a real midnight magician. What do you do, make love to the bodies so that they look like they’ve had a good lay once they’re coffined?”
“Sorry, Nancy,” Louis said, “but we don’t need two of you on overnights.”
“You’re more than welcome to take the overnights,” Tom said.
“And leave the busy daytime?” Nancy asked, spreading her arms out across the empty room.
“Tom, don’t even think like that,” Louis said, getting serious. “You’re my overnight man. That’s you, Tom.”
Tom smiled. His stomach began to rumble and he excused himself for lunch.
On his way to the diner that had the golden pancakes he liked, Tom’s phone rang. He almost capsized his car retrieving the phone from his breast pocket.
“Y’ello,” he said, managing to touch the button and put the phone on speaker just before it slipped from his hand and fell on the passenger’s seat. “This is Tom Jacobs … Who is this? … Oh, yes, yes. How are you? … She what? … I see … Yes, I will come immediately. Thank you for informing me.”
When he arrived at the hospital, he had to circle around a couple of times after forgetting he was not there on a transfer. He had to park in a spot and walk in through the entrance.
The emergency room was hardly occupied. A woman and her daughter sat in a corner, with the daughter’s arm in a makeshift sling. There was a man standing by the entrance, swaying back and forth as if in prayer. Tom sidestepped the praying man on his way to the desk.
“I’m here to see Peggy Jacobs,” he said to the man behind the desk.
“I’m her husband,” Tom said, looking over the counter.
The man looked at his computer for a minute more before turning back to Tom.
“Please have a seat, sir. Someone will call you in a moment.”
Tom decided to stand, but away from the praying man. He moved across the waiting room, closer to the woman and her daughter.
When after ten minutes his name had not been called, Tom went back to the desk.
“Do you know how much longer it will be?” he asked.
But before the man could answer, the doors to the corridor opened and a woman came out in a hurry toward Tom.
“Dolores, where is she?” asked Tom.
“It’s okay, I can take him back with me,” Dolores said to the man behind the desk, before turning to Tom. She didn’t wait for an answer; she grabbed Tom by the arm and dragged him through the doors.
Tom had to pick his feet up quicker as Dolores clutched his arm and led him down the corridor. They mostly passed vacant rooms, save for one that had a man keeled over on the floor next to his bed. Tom slowed down a bit as they passed the man’s room to get a better look, but Dolores pulled him forward.
As they approached the second-to-last room on the left, Tom’s stomach rumbled like thunder. He had skipped breakfast when he discovered his sons had eaten the last of his favorite breakfast pastries. They had been out of eggs for days, and he hadn’t found the time to restock, so he allowed Rex and Royce to each have a pastry, which had quickly turned into them finishing the rest.
“Before we go in there,” Dolores said—she positioned herself in between Tom and the doorway—“I need you to be calm. She has been heavily sedated and is just coming back to, so arguments or the like won’t help her at all.”
Dolores stepped to the side and let Tom go in first. He brushed past the curtain that was covering the doorway, followed by Dolores.
The room was cold and bare. There was a harsh white light that illuminated only half of the room. The bed was in the corner off from the door, and the machines next to it were all working rhythmically.
Tom walked to the bed. Peggy’s eyes were closed. Her stomach rose and fell with her breath, and Tom stared there for several minutes. Dolores stood by the door and watched.
“How did you get notified?” Tom asked Dolores, without looking away from Peggy’s stomach.
“The police picked her up. Luckily she hadn’t taken her wristband off yet and they were able to identify her and call us right away.”
“She still smells like alcohol,” Tom said, turning around and walking to the door.
“I heard that.”
Tom turned back round. Peggy had opened her eyes and was staring up at the ceiling.
“It’s fine. You can go,” Peggy said to the ceiling.
“I’m going to find the doctor,” Dolores said in a hushed voice to Tom.
After she disappeared behind the doorway curtain, Tom walked to the side of the bed. The machines were louder than before. Tom looked down at Peggy. The space around her eyes were a dull grey, and her short hair looked uneven to Tom.
“What happened to your hair?” he asked, still looking at it.
“Do you like it?” Peggy laughed which quickly turned into a cough. “I did it the other day. Was getting sick of my goldielocks.”
Tom looked at Peggy’s arm. The veins were all protruding and several of them were stuck with I.V.s.
“Okay, Tom. You can tell I’m fine. I didn’t die, yet. So will you just leave now. I’m pretty wiped out from all this.”
Peggy turned on her side away from Tom.
“Can’t you just tell me what happened?” he asked.
“What difference does it make?” Peggy responded, back still to Tom. “It’s the same song and dance anyway, Tom. Don’t worry, I’m going back to the center. It’s safest there anyway.”
“Safest there? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’ll be safe from myself, you know.”
Tom almost walked around the bed to see if Peggy had rolled her eyes.
“Peggy,” Tom began, but Peggy had turned around and stopped him with a glare.
“Don’t you ‘Peggy’ me, Tom,” Peggy said with as much energy as one could muster after having been on a bender and having her stomach pumped clean. “I’m a grown woman. I can handle my mistakes on my own. I don’t need you condescending to help.”
“I’m not condescending. I care about you, Peggy. You’re Rex and Royce’s mother—”
“—Stop it! Don’t say their names. Don’t even bring them in here now.”
Peggy turned back around away from Tom. The mass of tubes that stemmed from her forearm turned with her, and Tom watched the machines slide across the floor.
“I just want you to get help,” Tom said and turned for the door. He waited a moment for Peggy to reply, but when she began to breathe heavily, he walked out.
Rex and Royce were playing shoot-em up games in the living room when Tom got the call. It was for a transfer up near the county border, about eighty miles. He told the boys he would be gone for several hours, and that they had better be asleep when he got home.
The transfer was for a Mr. Staed who had died while resting in his home. Tom had gone to school with a Jack Staed and wondered if that could be his father. But it was only a glancing thought.
Tom found out it was Jack Staed’s father. Jack came out to the van as Tom pulled into the driveway. They exchanged nods and Tom unloaded the cot. Jack went back inside and Tom followed.
The deceased’s wife was waiting for them inside. She was kneeling on the floor praying near Mr. Staed’s body, which was lying on the bed near the home’s central piece, the piano. Tom looked around momentarily. It seemed Mr. Staed had been dying for some time. Tom pushed the cot beside the bed.
Jack moved to help Tom, but Tom gestured that it was all under control. Tom saw that Jack’s eyes were bloodshot. Jack stepped back, almost bowing. Mrs. Staed got up from her knees gingerly. She leaned on the piano bench, rolled her torso with her straightening leg, then heaved to a stand. She disappeared into another room.
Tom hesitated another moment. He glanced from Mr. Staed to Jack. There was a resemblance but it wasn’t loud. Tom folded his arms in front of him. Jack bowed his head and left the room, following his mother. Tom unfolded the blanket from on top of Mr. Staed and gently pushed his arms to his sides.
Tom got Mr. Staed onto the cot in one movement. He folded the blanket back over the now-empty bed and pushed the cot out of the room, out of the house, and into the back of the van. Jack came outside. They shook hands.
On the way to the chapel, it crossed Tom’s mind whether Jack knew who he was or not. In the end, it mattered little. Tom’s stomach growled. He turned off the expressway when the sign showed a food stop. He had planned to buy the twins a treat since he knew they wouldn’t be asleep, but it was still too far away from home. But he could eat twice. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast, which was only a granola bar.
He ordered a couple value meals. He finished the first one just as he arrived at the chapel. There were shreds of lettuce and some tomato seeds that fell from his pants as he got out of the van. He stopped in his tracks. There was a light on in the chapel.
Tom left Mr. Staed in the van and went in the chapel alone. Louis and Nancy were walking around the chapel. Louis was counting the chairs that were laid out for the next day’s service. Nancy was taking note of everything on a legal pad. Tom coughed audibly and Louis and Nancy froze.
“Oh. Tom,” Louis said.
Tom looked to Nancy. She looked back at him. Tom was immediately startled. Nancy’s eyes were bloodshot in the same way Jack’s had been earlier. Tom looked back to Louis. His eyes were white.
“I put a pot of coffee on. I think I hear it,” Nancy said.
Tom didn’t hear anything. He watched Nancy leave the chapel for the back office.
“I’ve got a transfer in the van,” Tom said.
“Bring it in. Bring it in. I’ll help you with it.” Louis shook his head vehemently.
Tom walked out of the chapel, turning his head a couple of times back at Louis. He unloaded the cot from the van and wheeled it in. Louis was waiting at the door. He held it open for Tom and nodded as Tom walked by into the chapel.
As soon as they were both inside, Tom stopped pushing the cot.
“Alright, what’s going on?” he asked Louis.
Louis closed his eyes for a long moment. Tom’s stomach growled, but Louis didn’t flinch. Tom wondered how he could still be hungry. He was about to go back to the van for his second value meal when Nancy came back into the chapel with the coffee on a tray.
“Great! The coffee!” Louis said. “Let’s have a seat and some coffee and talk.”
Nancy poured the three of them coffee.
“Look, Tom,” Louis said. He mixed some milk into his coffee and licked the stirrer before putting it down. “We just got a call for another transfer, but I’ve decided to call Nancy in to do this one.”
“Okay…” Tom looked to Mr. Staed. He should have put him away and not left him in the middle of the chapel.
Louis drank his coffee.
“I should get going on the…on the transfer,” Nancy said, standing.
“No!” Louis nearly spilled his coffee. “I mean, um, you can’t leave just yet. Let’s finish the coffee you just made. The transfer is just across town.”
“If it’s local, why did you call Nancy in? I would’ve finished in time to get a second one done,” Tom asked.
Nancy sat back down. She looked at Louis as if she was waiting for him to speak. Louis was only interested in his coffee. Tom decided to put Mr. Staed away. Whatever was so secretive could wait just a little more to be told.
“Tom,” Louis put his coffee down and looked Tom in the eyes, “the reason Nancy is going to do this transfer is because I got a call earlier that something terrible happened to Peggy.”
Tom, who had been standing, nearly fell as his knees gave way. Nancy helped him back into his seat. She shook her head at Louis as Tom was staring at the velvet-covered bier at the front of the chapel.
“I understand,” Tom said. He stood, went to the cot, and pushed Mr. Staed out of the room.
“Where’d he go?” Louis asked, then got up to follow Tom, but Nancy grabbed him.
“Let him be for a minute, will you.” She shook her head again. “It can’t be easy for him to find out like this.”
“You think this is easy for me?” Louis asked.
“This isn’t about you, buddy,” Nancy said. She was about to say more, but Tom walked back into the room, pushing the cot.
“I’d like to do the transfer,” he said. Tom looked again at Nancy. Her eyes had cleared some, but not completely. Then, looking at Louis, who again had interested himself in his coffee, Tom said again, “I’d like to do the transfer.”
Louis looked up at Tom from his coffee and nodded slowly. Tom nodded back, then moved his nod across the room. The chapel felt dead for the first time.
Tom sat in the first row of the chapel for the first time at the service. Rex sat next to him, and next to Rex was Royce. Peggy’s parents sat behind them, and when it came time for anyone who had a remembrance of Peggy to speak, the parents of the deceased would mutter to themselves the question Tom had heard muttered during all the services he worked: why.
The cemetery was on the town’s west-end. They drove through town, and Tom looked at the back of the hearse. He tried to spot some scratches he knew to be on the bumper, but it was too far and moving.
The procession of cars didn’t take very long to all get into the cemetery. Peggy’s plot was on the second piece of land over from the entrance. Tom recalled Louis saying his family had plots on the same piece of land.
Tom stayed silent graveside, like everyone else. All was said that could be at the chapel. The opened earth, where Peggy would descend, was enough talking.
Voyo Gabrilo is a writer at the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and novellas.
We love this book for so many reasons! The writing is incredible, the story is important, and seeing what life looks like when you survive the unthinkable is transformative. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Sanctuary, by Emily Rapp Black. Purchase at Bookshop.org or Amazon.