By Dorothy Seehausen
“She looks so, uh, different,” his sixty-nine year old Auntie said, peering into the bronze casket framed on one side by a fragrant bouquet of roses and on the other a poster depicting colorful highlights of Maude Hornback’s life.
Spencer, a tall slender man in his fifties, cocked his head to see if looking at his wife of 30 years from another angle would make a difference. “Yeah, I think you’re right, there’s too much makeup.” He tried to feel sad at Maude’s passing. He even bit his tongue to keep his eyes moist.
“Here now, Spencer,” Auntie went on, with a sympathetic pat on his arm. “She’s in a better place.”
“That’s for sure,” his Uncle Earl said with a quick wink.
“Free at last,” his son whispered in his ear, steering his Dad toward their front row seats in Room 3 of the Peaceful Journey Funeral Home.
In the second row sat Maude’s Book Club, five nicely dressed ladies who considered Spencer with disdain.
He flashed a little salute as he sat down.
These nine were the sole collection of Maude Hornbeck’s mourners, who one by one processed to the lectern with their stories and anecdotes from Maude’s life, often embellishing her character, never revealing any of the tiny cracks Maude strove to conceal.
When Spencer’s turn came, he readied himself for his performance.
“Much like the butterfly who emerges from the cocoon has Maude Hornback gone to her heavenly home.” He pasted a look of self-pity on his face and continued. “She was my dear wife and partner in life, a woman who knew how to cook, a pillar in her community, someone who would give you the shirt off her back.”
He cleared his throat, wiping a non-existent tear from his eye, and smiled at the book ladies. ”As a legacy of her exceptional life, in her name I am making a donation to her book club…” Appropriately, the ladies smiled back. “…so as to remember Maude and her participation over the years in their charitable fundraising events and dedication to our community here in Maple Grove, Wisconsin.”
Auntie nodded her approval; Uncle Earl gave a thumbs up. “And now we say goodbye to dear Maude, may she rest in peace and take her rightful place in heaven. I don’t know how I shall live without her.”
He folded his hands and looked at his shoes. On cue, overhead speakers sprang to life with Alan Jackon’s version of Amazing Grace.
But Spencer Hornback wasn’t listening. In his mind, he was hearing Happy Days are Here Again.
It only took a couple months for Spencer’s elation to turn to dust. He found himself stiff from too much TV and irritable from loneliness. Even worse, there was no one to cook or do laundry for him. He began to hear her voice, telling him which apples were the best at the grocery store, which shirt looked good on him, which parking spot was closest.
“It’s like missing the drip, drip, drip of a leaking faucet,” he lamented to his son.
“Match.com,” the young man urged. “You got a few good years left, Dad. Find a sweet rich widow to take care of you.”
Yes, he thought, maybe he didn’t want someone exactly like Maude. Perhaps someonewas better than no one.
Barely a week and a day after posting his profile he had his first date. For the meeting, Spencer had chosen a dimly lit table in a corner at the Olive Garden, Maude’s favorite place to eat in Maple Grove.
“Spencer Hornbeck?” Her voice was sweet, her curly white hair a bit shorter than the profile picture. She was wearing a gray suit, black sweater, and green scarf. Not at all unlike an outfit Maude would wear. In fact, she looked quite a bit like Maude, except her nose was more pointed.
“Yes. And you must be Angel Paradise.”
She extended her hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
It was hard to tell if the sparkler in the ring was real. And the earrings? Diamond or Zirconia?
“You look a bit, um, older than your picture, Spencer….not that I mind.”
“It’s from a vacation about ten years ago. My son’s idea, using this particular picture.”
He rose slightly as she sat. “Just for starters I’m not looking for any deep meaningful relationship. You know, Jerry was, like, the love of my life.”
“Me too. Couldn’t replace my dear Maude if I tried. Shall we order? Anything you like. I’ll pick up the tab.”
It was not a surprise that Angel, the talker, and Spencer, the listener, hit it off.
When they had finished their desserts two hours later, he was all in.
Things went well for six weeks. He took her shopping, on Mondays, to the Library on Wednesdays, and on Fridays they went out for fish. Maude’s recurring voice began to fade, replaced by Angel’s meaningless chatter and increasing fondness for him.
One Saturday morning she invited him over for coffee and donuts.
“What do you think, Spencer?” She handed him a large notebook and gestured for him to flip through pictures she’d cut from home improvement magazines. “It’s not much, but just little upgrades Jerry was going to do before he passed. You put on your profile that you were handy around the house and I just thought…..”
Slowly he took in the elaborate pictures.
“These are just some ideas,” she added, paying with her hair.
“I couldn’t do much….” he replied, rubbing his nose.
“Home Depot can do the heavy stuff. What I’m looking for is someone to paint. You can paint, can’t you, Spencer?”
She threw her arms around him, planting a lingering kiss square on his mouth.
He thought he’d pass out from the surge of warmth and affection, feelings he’d never had with Maude. “Sure, I’ll paint for you.”
And so it went for the next three months. A crew from Home Depot obediently followed her directions to remodel the kitchen and bathroom, replace hardwood floors in the living and dining room and install nice plush carpets in the bedrooms. The outdoor deck taxed his patience the most because he had to scrape the old paint off the slats, sand and prime the wood, and apply a finishing coat.
When he thought he was done, at Angel’s insistence, he slapped a coat of dark green epoxy on the garage floor.
“It’s very trendy,” she explained, a justification that meant nothing to his aching body.
He should have been happy. She had money all right, but not much was actually directed toward his comfort.
At Thanksgiving, he considered breaking things off. What was he getting out of this arrangement anyway? With the house done they went back to the Monday, Wednesday, Friday routine of shopping, library and fish. A warm hug and kiss now and then came his way; certainly not his dream of a rich widow to lie on the beach or bed with.
At 11:00 Thanksgiving morning, he picked up turkey, gravy, and the fixings at Festival Foods and headed for her house, rehearsing his exit speech on the way. After all, wasn’t a relationship supposed to make both people happy?
“Everything looks great, honey.” He gestured toward the beautifully set dining room table, the scent of pumpkin candles a final touch to the smells of their thanksgiving feast. Was she in a good mood? The table had been set with her best Haviland China, sterling silver and crystal wine glasses. “Does it all make you happy, Angel?”
She planted herself at the head of the table, smoothing the tablecloth as she sat. “Of course, Spencer. I knew you wouldn’t let me down. You’ve given me a beautiful house.”
“All because I adore you, my love.” She stroked his arm, looking into his eyes with the explosion of a million stars. He melted into a blob of Jello. Was he wrong? Was there a spark of affection he hadn’t seen that she was too moved to express? Maybe now was not a good time to send her packing.
With a little flip of her head she said, “I’m leaving for California tomorrow for the holidays. My sister has a condo by Disneyland, near Los Angeles. I haven’t seen her since Jerry’s funeral. She has cancer, or something icky like that. Can you keep an eye on things here? I left a list.”
All that in one breath.
“Oh, sure. But you’re going by yourself? For how long?“
“Well, at least until Easter.” She swirled a crescent roll around in the pool of gravy coagulating at the edge of her turkey, biting off half. She chewed, swallowed. “We’ll talk every day, Spencer. You’ll miss me, won’t you? You won’t look for someone else at Match.com? Honestly, Spencer, you’re the best thing to ever happen to me.”
“Of course not. I….I love you, Angel.”
What a dilemma!
She went on. “Have you thought of selling your place?” Angel had only been to his house twice. “Your wife lacked a bit of, shall we say, good decorating taste.”
So far they had not talked much about the deceased, hers or his. But this jab at Maude struck at his core.
“She spent a lot of time away at her book club. The house always looked fine to me.” He thought of his last Thanksgiving with Maude, when the turkey was fresh from the oven and not the microwave, and the sound of beaters whipping Idaho potatoes meant the feast was almost ready. And Maude’s pumpkin pie! His mouth watered at the thought
Angel leaned over, her lips pouty, not in a grown up seductive manner but like a little girl who wants a pony for Christmas. “We could travel, Europe maybe.”
“Of course, Angel, if that’s what you wish, my dear.” The farewell speech he’d practiced all morning was nowhere to be found. “But there’s still a lot of Maude’s things around.”
“Easy to just box up and send to the Goodwill,” Angel replied. “You can do that while I’m away.” She threw down the rest of her wine and poured them both another glass.
“Yes, possibly, but….” He couldn’t finish the sentence because he didn’t know what the but was going to be. Angel’s announcement was a crushing blow to his shrinking ego.
He picked up his glass and sniffed the sweet apple aroma of Chardonnay. It had been Maude’s pick for their wedding.
“Let’s have the pie, Spencer. We’ll draw up more detailed plans when I get back.” Inside he beat on the chains that bound him to the self-imposed cell that was Spencer Hornback. These two opposing thoughts of lavishly living off her money as the plan came to fruition or breaking her heart because the price was too much to pay crashed into one another like the perfect storm.
“Not too much whipped cream on the pie,” he said, his mouth feeling like cotton.
The next morning he dropped her at the airport in Milwaukee.
“I’ll be back soon, dear.” She gave him a peck on the cheek, slid across the seat and gathered her luggage from the back. “Don’t forget the toilet, Spencer.”
“The toilet? Something wrong with it?”
“No, silly. Flush it regularly. Otherwise, you know, the lime builds up. It’s on the list I left on the table. I’ll call you when I get to my sister’s.”
She slammed both doors, shouldered her belongings, and disappeared into the Delta terminal.
Overhead, the roar of planes taking off pierced his brain while the smell of jet fuel constricted his breathing.
Got it, Spencer? Maude said in his head.
She wants you to go to her house once a week and flush the toilet.
“Yes, Maude,” he said out loud.“I got it.”