The Service

by Chay Lemoine

Two weeks ago while getting ready to leave the condo for work Aunt Liz called to say that Uncle Tony had passed away.  Services would be held in a couple of days, and she had hoped I could come. She gave me the address of the funeral home in New Orleans, and I told her that if she needed anything I could drive down tomorrow.  She assured me that she had much support but she hoped I could be there for the services.  

 Aunt Liz was not my ‘real’ aunt but my mother’s best friend for over fifty years.  When mom died three years ago Aunt Liz never left my side, telling me stories that mom would probably rather take with her to the grave.  But it helped me to understand both the close relationship between Aunt Liz and my mother, and it also gave me insight into a side of my mother that I never knew existed.  Aunt Liz repeated the stories of how they had met their husbands.   For over a year both girls had an interest in Uncle Tony.   When it was certain that Aunt Liz and Tony were falling in love my mother began dating my father.  Although no one ever said it out loud, it was whispered that Aunt Liz got the better man as Mr. Tony was always a sweet loving man and my father was often moody and ill tempered.

I vaguely knew the location of the funeral home as I was familiar with the garden district of New Orleans.   The services were held in a beautiful antebellum style home, furnished with expensive furniture with luscious flowers in every room.   Mr. Tony looked so handsome in his new suit and his coffin was just as ornate as the surroundings of the home.  I knew that Mr. Tony had retired well, but I had no idea they could afford something this extravagant.

The services were beautiful.  There was a trio hired to sing a few of Uncle Tony’s favorite songs.  His minister’s eulogy was kind and beautiful.  Aunt Liz and I cried quietly as the music filled the room providing a background for the grief.  After the service there were sandwiches, pastries and coffee.  It was truly an exceptional celebration.  

After Aunt Liz had greeted everyone and took care of business with the funeral director we walked to a small restaurant and ordered a glass of wine and an appetizer.  Before we sat down, I once again expressed my sorrow for her loss and gave her a long, warm hug.

“Aunt Liz, he was such a perfect husband.  I wish I could find someone half as loving and attentive.”

“Thank you Ellen.  He was a good man.  And I will miss him.   It’s hard to believe that he won’t be home tonight when I get there.” 

I could see the tears welling again in her eyes.  “Aunt Liz if it’s not too much trouble I could stay the night with you, and we could go to breakfast in the morning.  I took the day off.”

“That would be nice Ellen.  I really would like that.”  So we drank our wine and ordered another and then decided what the hell; and ordered a bottle. 

The words flowed and the tears quickly dried as we talked.    There was sadness, but we pushed aside the uncontrolled emotion for heartfelt conversation.

“I will be honest Aunt Liz.  I often wished that Mom would have had a husband like Uncle Tony.   As you know my father did not treat Mother well.”

Aunt Liz took a long drink of her wine.  “Your father was a good man.  He was of a different temperament, that’s all.  Your Mother loved your father, and there was love in return.”

I shook my head.  “If it was there they hid it well.  At least Mr. Tony waited until today to give you grief; my father gave my mother grief every day of their marriage.” 
Aunt Liz watched me for a moment then took another long drink.  “Tony was a good husband, but he was no saint Ellen.  I can promise you that.”

I put my hands over hers.  “Of course we all have our faults, but he was nothing like my father.” 

She shook her head, “No he was not like your father but we did split up once, and I was determined to divorce him.”

“Divorce him” I said, “but why?”  Aunt Liz poured another class of wine.  She filled her glass this time.

 “Ellen” she whispered, “Tony and I were married for around five years, and I found out that he went to a whore house on a Friday night when I was at a church function.”

The information was surprising but what was more surprising was hearing Aunt Liz said the word “whore”.   She sneered when she said it and gave an exhale of breath as if she felt disgust. 

“Mr. Tony was going to a brothel?  Well that was such a long time ago.” I was trying to dismiss it and hope we could talk about something else.

“It was your Mother who told me, bless her heart.  She cried so hard as she was telling me I felt more for her that I felt for myself.  How did Tony think he could hide something like that in St. Rose, which is such a small town?   I don’t know but he did.  I called a couple of his friends and asked them if it was true, and I could tell the way they said ‘no no no’ that it was ‘yes yes yes’.  So I packed all my clothes and left him a detailed note on the bed.”

“I wasn’t out of the door yet when Tony came home from work.  He asked me where I was going, and I calmly told him I knew about his Friday night whore and I was leaving.  Well Ellen, the man almost passed out.  He literally had to hold on to the wall.   He tried to talk but nothing came out of his mouth.  I pushed him aside and walked out of the door.”

“Why would he do something like that?” I just couldn’t understand it.

“He never explained that.”  Aunt Liz turned her head.  I thought she was going to cry, but she was calling the waiter over for another bottle of wine.

“No, he never explained that.  He came over to the St. Rose Hotel the next day and got down on his hands and knees and cried like a baby.  He begged me and pleaded with me to forgive him.  He said he did it just one time and it was a habit he picked up in the war and he would do anything to keep me.  He said he would go to counseling, talk to a priest, anything.  He cried so long and hard it really broke my heart. I would have stopped him earlier, but I kept thinking that it was so odd that someone could love me that much. So by the time I did stop him he had cried himself sick.”

“So you went back with him,” I asked. 

Aunt Liz was not sipping anymore but taking swallows of wine.  “Yes but first I asked him how much did she cost.  I didn’t know much about whores.  I mean do you pay ten dollars or fifteen cents?  Well he told me that she cost fifty dollars.  Fifty dollars?  (Aunt Liz practically yelled it).  That was a lot of money in those days.  I mean-a- lot -of -money.  Tony always made good money, but I was livid.  He gave some woman fifty dollars to get what he was getting at home for free.  It was like he stopped off at a restaurant before he came home for dinner.  So that’s when I told him.”

“What’d you tell him.”  I leaned in a little because she was starting to slur a bit.  I didn’t know Aunt Liz was so fond of red wine.

“I told him that he needed to give me fifty dollars a month.  He was not to question me about the money.  It had nothing to do with household money.  I wanted fifty dollars a month in an envelope.  I wasn’t planning on spending the money for anything.  I just wanted it and when I decided to completely forgive him he could stop paying, and I would return all the money I collected.  Until then he had to pay his dues, or I would walk out of the house and he would never see me again.”
Aunt Liz was getting fiery, and I could tell she was very satisfied with herself.  “Did he pay?” I asked.

“Oh yes.   Sometimes he would put in a note saying how much he loved me.  Sometimes he put the money in a card.  He sometimes gave me the money with a red rose, but he always paid and he always kissed me every morning of his married life.”
I shook my head.  “He was a good man, Aunt Liz. You are a very lucky lady.   How long did it take before you forgave him and returned the money?”

Aunt Liz took another sip of wine.  “He paid me for almost fifty-five years.  And I returned the money just two hours ago when I paid cash for the coffin, singers, funeral home and burial.”

Chay Lemoine is an Icelandic scholar primarily writing about Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness.   He has published more than thirty articles and short stories on a variety of topics.  Chay is originally from St. Rose, LA but is currently a college professor living in Edwardsville, IL.


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