As he headed down the sidewalk, Dustin passed the body that had been laid out on the curb. Sitting down the birdcage and reaching into his gym bag he fished out one of his business cards. Amid the passers by Dustin knelt fumbling beneath the sheet until he felt the man’s cold lifeless hand. There he deposited his contact info.
He had walked about two blocks before coming across another body. This one was of an old lady, still sitting in her wheelchair with a blanket hanging partially across her face. Dustin hesitated a moment before he performed the same ritual. There were less people here and the one’s that were around watched him as he placed his card in her upturned hand.
As he began to continue his journey an older man came up snatching the card and grabbing him by the arm. “That’s my wife you’re touching.” He said spinning Dustin around and causing him to drop the birds.
The cage rattled across the ground as Dustin turned a sympathetic gaze in his direction. “Why you must be devastated sir.” He said beginning the standard sales pitch that he always gave to grieving relatives. “Naturally you’re confused right now and looking for answers.”
The man looked at his card squinting at the words. He was bony thin with tufts of hair jutting from his ears and nose. Liver spots dotted his bald head which was pinched at the top with lines that indicated a mixture of confusion, sadness and anger.
Dustin cleared his throat and went on. “At times like this it’s best to have someone there who is not only sympathetic but knows what must be done so that you can move on as effortlessly as possible to the next stage in your grieving process.” Taking the man’s hand in his palm he looked him directly in the eyes. “I can’t guarantee you that I can take away your pain sir but I can assure you that I will do everything in my power too look after your best interest in this moment when you are feeling so vulnerable. You’ll need guidance as to choosing the proper arrangements and advice as to how best to remember your wife. If you so chose, I can assist you in making plans for your own funeral and guarantee you a spot next to you wife amongst the rolling hills of Redwood, California for all eternity.”
The old man looked at him a long time, tears welling up in his eyes. Then, shaking his head and putting the card into his breast pocket he said: “Go to hell!” and punched Dustin right in the face. It was a very hard and well placed punch for a man of his age.
Dustin stumbled backwards cupping the palm of his hand over his right eye. He’d experienced all sorts of reactions over time to his standard business speech. Most of them were positive however some people did seem to express their grief through anger. In the five years since he’d opened the business with Steve, Dustin had never been punched in the face. It surprised him that it had taken this long.
“I’m terribly sorry.” He said scrambling over to grab the birdcage and get away from the man. “I shouldn’t have imposed.”
The old man started to follow Dustin but then reached up towards his chest as if he were grabbing for the card that he’d just placed there. His face twisted into a perplexed look of agony. “Help.” He croaked.
Dustin hesitated then dropped the birdcage again, “You okay?” he asked rushing to his side in order to keep him from falling over.
Using the older man’s arm Dustin supported his weight until they had moved over to a spot on the curb where he could sit him down. Dustin lowed the old man gently crouching with the effort until they were both seated side by side looking out onto a half collapsed building across the street. Several people stopped to watch but none offered to help.
The old man wheezed and panted bending his head between his knees as he tried to catch his breath. After a while he looked up focusing at a spot on the building before them. “We retired here.” He said sounding surprised and dejected. “This was supposed to be our home together by the water. It was what I’d worked for all my life.”
A little nervously, Dustin used what he’d learned through selling to ease the old mans mind. Cupping one of his hands in both of his own he resumed his speech. “Sometimes, even the best laid plans go awry.” He said pausing for a moment to let it sink in.
“We’re both from back east.” The old man said bitterly. “I worked in a damned steel mill in a small ugly little place that we both hated.”
Dustin nodded in understanding. “Please, try to think of only the good times that you shared together.”
“There were no bad times together.” The old man spat angrily. “I mean, there were bad times but we both had each other to get us through them. Nothing ever seemed hopeless without her by my side.”
Gently, Dustin patted him gently on the hand. “That’s why it’s important that you make arrangements so that you can be together for eternity.” He gave the old man another long somber look. “I could help you with these things if you’d let me.”
The old man coughed in a raspy way that seemed to come from deep inside him. “Get away from me.” He said turning away.
Dustin sat there a moment trying to determine if he would be okay. His breath was still shallow and labored but he seemed to be recovering from whatever episode had seized him moments ago. With surprising quickness the old man jerked his hand from Dustin’s and began to rub at a spot on his knee.
Dustin stood up slowly and patted the old man on the back. He wanted to tell him that he was sorry but couldn’t think of any good way to phrase it. He hated the way that his chosen profession forced him to push the services that he dealt onto people at times when they were most vulnerable. Death was something that one rarely planned for and it was his job to see to it that these people were taken care of. In Dustin’s mind, the only thing he regretted about getting his card to the old man was that he had placed it in his dead wife’s hand instead of his own.
Walking back to the spot where he’d sat the bird cage Dustin once again took it by the handle and began lugging it down the street.
“Hang on.” The old man called from behind him.