Nebraska Center for Writers

DATING DEAD MEN
by Harley Jane Kozak

It was a cigarette burn.

I could scarcely have been more shocked if I'd discovered it on my own flesh, appearing out of nowhere, like stigmata. But it wasn't on me. It was on my grass green carpet, Aisle 3, Condolences/Get Well Soon, where I knelt, rooted in horror.

"Dear God," I said. "Dear God. Dear God."

"Girl, get a grip," Fredreeq called out, barging through the front door of my shop, Wollie's Welcome! Greetings. "I can hear those 'Dear Gods' all the way out to the parking lot. Did someone die? Is it Mr Bundt? Please tell me Mr Bundt died and I can take the day off and go to the beach."

"He's not dead. He's due here any minute. I was doing the final Dustbusting, and look, look — " I waved at the carpet. "At the last inspection, Mr Bundt questioned the decor. I told him it was French Provincial. I can't pass this off as French Provincial."

"No." Fredreeq loomed over me. "Cigarette burns are strictly Trailer Park. White Trash, no offense." She leaned down, sending a wave of Shalimar my way. "That's one hell of a burn. That is the mother of all cigarette burns. That's a cigar burn."

I looked up at my friend and employee, took in her attire, and said it again. "Dear God."

Earrings the size of teacups dangled from delicate earlobes. Zebra- print stockings stretched from the hem of a very short, very tight skirt to a pair of velvet stiletto heels.

"Yeah, I know, I'm pushing the envelope here." Fredreeq straightened up and moved to the cash register counter. "Is it the stockings? You think bare legs are better?"

It was a tough call. I wasn't wearing panty hose myself, but I had on a long calico skirt and socks and red high-tops. Also a red sweater with a dalmatian applique. It had seemed like a good outfit an hour earlier, but now I wasn't so sure. I'm over five foot eleven. Next to Fredreeq, I could look like a piece of playground equipment.

"Maybe," I said, and turned to scratch at the cigarette burn with my fingernail. "You're black, which I always think makes the high heels-no stockings look — "

"Less slutlike?"

"No," I said, "just more — "

At that moment, Mr Bundt walked through the door of Wollie's Welcome! Greetings, setting the Welcome! greeting bell to ringing. I jumped to my feet, planting a red high-top right on the cigarette burn. "Good morning, Mr Bundt," I said. "Welcome."

A pink carnation graced the lapel of his beige Big and Tall suit. There was something incandescent about Mr Bundt, his skull as shiny as his wing tips, the few strands of hair combed neatly, slightly damply over the top of his head, like one long eyebrow. He saw me and smiled, and for a minute I thought it was going to be all right, but then he saw Fredreeq. Well, he could hardly miss her. She was sitting on the counter, a bunched-up chunk of stocking hanging from one foot as she struggled to get a stiletto heel off the other.

Mr Bundt stared for a moment and then — and here's what I admired about him — he turned and began inspecting the Welcome! Greetings racks, beginning with Birthdays, Juvenile. If there was a Welcome! way to handle every situation in life, this man, either from instinct or training, knew exactly what it was. Mr Bundt was the field representative for the Welcome! Greetings Corporation, devoting his life to inspecting all Welcome! shops seeking an upgrade to Willkommen! status. Willkommen! status allowed Welcome! shop managers to buy their shops. This was what I longed for. This was the stuff my dreams were made of. This man held a piece of my life in his hands.

Mr Bundt dropped out of sight behind the Condolences/Get Well Soon rack, checking stock in the bottom drawer. I motioned to Fredreeq to hurry up with her changing routine.

"Wollie," his disembodied voice said, "is this Frank Sinatra?"

For a minute I thought he meant in the drawer. Then I realized he meant on the stereo.

"Yes," I said. " 'That's Life.' The song, as well as the album."

Mr Bundt rose, his skull appearing slowly from behind the card rack. "Wouldn't we be safer with easy listening? Here in Los Angeles, KXEZ." Mr Bundt was based in Cincinnati, yet knew every major easy listening station in his territory, North America. It was a gift.

"Frank Sinatra isn't — safe?" I asked.

"No one is safe, Miss Shelley." His sudden use of my surname chilled me. "No album, no CD. Not for a manager who seeks to change her shop from a Welcome! to a Willkommen!"

Willkommen! The word acted upon me like a bell to Pavlov's dog. I stared at him, poised to respond appropriately.

"KXEZ radio can be trusted," he explained. "They have done their market research. Even their advertisements provide reassurance. Favorite albums, on the other hand, are expressions of personal taste that run the risk of &151; "

"Mr Bundt, blame me," Fredreeq called out. "I keep changing the music on her. Easy listening is very difficult for my people."

Mr Bundt pretended to just now notice Fredreeq. She'd moved behind the counter, where, from the waist up, she looked almost normal. "Yes, well," he said. "The music is not for you, Ms. Munson, but for the customer. Let's remember that key phrase in our company's Promise to the Public: 'We are here to soothe, not to offend.' "

"Is headquarters aware that there are people offended by banality?" Fredreeq asked.

He did not respond. I thought maybe he wasn't sure what "banality" meant but didn't want to ask. I was a little fuzzy on it myself. I gestured to Fredreeq, who hit the stop button on the music system, cutting off Frank mid-note. For a moment there was silence, except for the sound of a distant car alarm on Sunset Boulevard.

And so we were all able to hear, very clearly, when the phone machine clicked on — the ringer having been turned off — and a voice choked out the words, "Wollie? It's me. Murder, Wollie. Murder. Cold blood. He's talking, he doesn't know I'm here, I'm going to have to — no. No. NO — "

Within seconds I was across the selling floor, reaching over the counter for the phone that Fredreeq was handing me as though we'd choreographed it.

"Hello?" I said. "PB?"

My brother hung up.

I hung up too and clung to the counter for a second, telling myself everything was fine, we'd been through this dozens of times, PB and I, whatever it was, and it would turn out okay. Then I turned and smiled at Mr Bundt. "Heh," I said. It was the best I could come up with.

Reprinted with permission
from Dating Dead Men
Copyright © 2004
by Harley Jane Kozak
Doubleday


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