"We are so sorry for your loss."
Sara nodded. She shook the hand that was held out to her.
"Thank you." Sara smiled briefly, then turned to the next person.
"William was such a dear boy. What a waste. What a waste." The gray hair was tight with hairspray. The hug lasted too long.
"Bless your heart. I don't know how you are going to live without that boy. He was one of a kind."
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you."
Sara stood in the receiving line. The mass of people stretched out the door and, she was sure, around the building. She had already been standing here for two hours and they just kept coming. What was she thinking to agree to this? She had known that this was a mistake, but it was tradition and expected and so here she was doing her best. But now the smell of flowers, the crush of bodies and her husband, lying in that wooden box, was beginning to get the better of her. His suit was all wrong. The gray wool was far too warm for summer in Georgia. Not that it mattered to him. Not anymore.
The room began to swim. She turned to her sister with imploring eyes, but Eve was hugging some relative of William's that Sara barely remembered. Just as she began to think that she would faint right there in front of everyone at the Overman and Sons Mortuary, before a crowd that must have been the whole town of Oden, she felt a hand on her elbow guiding her out of the room, down a neutral tone hallway, towards a rear door. Stepping into a small dimly-lit sitting room, Sara felt the air conditioning wash over her.
"Here, lay down on this couch," a male voice said. "I think you'll feel better if you put your feet up."
Sara did as she was instructed and looked up to see who had rescued her.
He was tall, much taller than she was. And thin. And grave. "Grave," Sara thought. "How appropriate." And suddenly, she felt an urge to laugh that would not be denied. The laughter bubbled up from deep within her, a live thing that had to be let out or she would die. "Die," she thought. And up it came and out. She had to sit up. She was bent over from it. Loud, belly deep guffaws, that made her squint her eyes until they ran. Her rescuer rushed over to close the door to the hallway. "Thank you," Sara managed to squeak out between giggles. She lay back on the couch and let the laughter roll.
Eventually the laughter subsided and she lay, breathless and exhausted, against the back of the chintz couch in the sitting room of the mortuary. And her husband was dead. Dead.
She looked up at her rescuer who was standing guard by the door.
"I'm Sara. And you are?"
"James Overman, ma'am."
"Overman. Any kin to the mortuary Overmans?"
"Yes, ma'am. I help out when there is a particularly large funeral to deal with. And this being a particularly large funeral, here I am."
James was becoming more uncomfortable the longer he stood here. "Alone in a room with the widow,” he thought. “Uncle Martin will love that.”
He had just been getting ready to head over to the church to deal with setting up for the funeral the next day. Before leaving, he scanned the viewing room. The strangest things happened at viewings. Someone’s drunk uncle would show up or two relatives who hadn’t been in the same room together in a while would decide to have a fight. Uncle Martin liked to keep the mood somber, more church than bar, so James often would just stand out of the way, watchful.
He had never quite understood the need for everyone in town to see their friends and relatives dressed up and dead. The poor attempts to give them some life with make-up, the whispered "He looks like he's smiling" heard from little old ladies, all rung so false to him. The person was dead. This body dressed up and made up bore no resemblance to the alive being he had been. James didn't particularly like working in the mortuary, but his uncle paid him well to help out. And money was something he had a hard time turning down these days.
But then he noticed the pallor of the young widow, Mrs. Carraway. She was standing near the casket greeting the mourners. During a break in the line she looked down at the casket, her hands rubbing on her skirt, beads of sweat on her forehead. She was too pale, the navy blue dress only making her skin seem all the more white and then her lips lost what little color they had. Having seen women faint before in the small, warm rooms during these viewings, he moved through the crowd towards her and gently steered her out of the room, down the hallway, and into a sitting room reserved for family.
He didn't know Sara Carraway. Her husband, William, had grown up here in the small town of Oden, Georgia and James had often seen him around when he was in high school. William was a few years older, had played football and been very popular. That accounted for the large crowd gathered here tonight. A home town hero dying young always brought in huge numbers. James wasn't sure, but the small, slight widow didn't seem to fit in here. He wondered how she and William had ended up together.
"You can stay in here as long as you need to Mrs. Carraway. I'll just go out and find your sister. She should come in and see to you now."
"No, please. Just another minute or so and I can go back out. I just needed..." Sara let the sentence go. She didn't really know what she needed right now. It certainly wasn't to go back out into that room and stand next to William's cold body and shake the hand of every teacher he ever had, and every man-boy he ever played football with. Her rescuer still stood at the door, looking uncomfortable.
"Did you know my husband?"
James looked over at her. "I knew him, yes. Not well, though."
She didn’t reply, as if she’d forgotten she even asked the question, just sat with her head bowed, her hands on her face.
James stood, waiting.
Sara spoke again, not really to James, but he heard nonetheless. "I'm pregnant."
James took a deep breath. She was staring at her hands, her long hair hanging on either side of her face, obscuring his view.
"No one knows, no one. I hadn't even told him. I was going to make a big deal out of it. Candle light dinner. A card saying "Congratulations, Dad!". Something cheesy and ridiculous. We were not really ready for kids but I thought he'd be happy. Now what do I do? What do I do?" Sara's shoulders shook with the force of her sudden weeping. James was paralyzed. This was another reason he hated the mortuary business, crying women. But standing by the door seemed a little more than cruel at this moment. There was a box of tissues on the coffee table in front of Sara. He crossed the room, pulled one out and sat next to her on the couch, pressing the tissue into her hand. She took it and blew her nose, then reached for another and pressed it under her eyes, catching her mascara and tears.
At that moment there was a knock at the door. Glad for the distraction, James got up and opened the door a crack to see a fierce-looking woman who must be the sister. Mrs. Carraway and she looked just enough alike for the kinship to be obvious. The same straight nose, the same strange amber colored eyes, only on the widow they were softer.
"Is my sister in here?" the woman asked in an annoyed voice.
Suddenly protective, James replied, "She just needed a moment in a cool place. This sitting room is designed for that very purpose. I work for the mortuary. James Overman." James put out his right hand. The woman had no polite choice but to accept.
"Well, thank you." Though James doubted she meant it. "Sara, dear, people are beginning to wonder where you are."
The widow, no longer tearful, stood up, smoothed her skirt and hair, and walked over to the doorway where James and the sister were standing.
"Thank you again for your kindness, Mr. Overman." Her eyes searched his, begging him to keep her secret. He nodded and, with her back straight, she walked out.