Funeral by committee.
That is what the little contingency of Garden Club/Auxiliary regulars wanted when Vera Tuck died. After all, Vera was a Main Street resident, the same as they, and the very notion of the county handling her arrangements lacked a certain dignity. They came to me and offered me the “chairmanship” of this project.
“Her family,” one of them said to me in supplication. They were seated in my parlor, spread in a semi-circle, in their bright summer dresses. “Such a fine old venerable name. You remember the Judge, don’t you, Isolde? You are old enough? What a rock of a man. What a good man. He could have been governor of the state had things worked out differently. Is this the way the last of the line should be treated – like a pauper?”
I reminded them that Vera Tuck, at the time of her death, lacked family, not money, and that the Compton officials knew much more about this matter than I. It would therefore be best left to the “professionals.”
“But it is the idea of it,” another reminded me. “After all, Isolde, you were her neighbor. You knew her best.”
Hardly. Occasional conversations by the mailbox or over a honeysuckle-strangled steel fence dividing our properties did not constitute intimacy. I told them that. And then I reminded them that a certain indignity had already attached itself to Vera Tuck’s demise. She had, after all, been found dead not in the luxurious trappings of her old family home, in a four poster bed shielded by silk curtains, but by the lake in city park with her gingham dress hiked to her thighs and a wicker hamper of spoiling food beside her. “Meeting her boyfriend,” I added, but no one laughed. No one shook her head with bemusement the way ill-heeled, non-Main Street Comptonites did whenever Vera’s phantasmagoric paramour was evoked.
One of them sighed. “Vera. My goodness. Some families are just marked for calamity, aren’t they?” Then followed the list of Tuck losses: the Judge’s early death of massive brain hemorrhage, the older brother’s hunting accident, the sister’s marriage to a disreputable poet manqué. All of sudden the six of us were young women again, transported to that time, some fifty years before, when the Tucks thrived in our imagination and clenched a permanent place in the local headlines for their charity work and academic achievements and elections to prestigious councils and committees for the betterment of one thing or another in South Carolina.
“Roman Tuck,” one of them said presently, in the airy intonation of a love-struck girl. She meant the brother, who, one winter morning in the thickets of Beaslap in the southern section of Compton County, had been mistaken by his fellow hunters for a deer and shot dead in the woods by his near-sighted uncle. Twenty-four years old. Duke graduate. Brilliant future. All gone in a puff of February gunshot.
“Golden hair,” she went on.
“Like a girl’s,” joined in another.
“Do we dare say ‘pretty’?”
“Oh say it! Say it! Just like a girl!”
“Like his father,” one of them said with that same quality of dreaminess in her voice that suggested she might, at any time, just pick up and float right to the ceiling..
“No, no, no!” The five of them looked at me, mouths slightly agape, eyes hooded slightly, as though they expected me to rise and assault them physically. “You said you knew Judge Tuck. If you truly knew Judge Tuck, then you would remember that he had nothing of elegance about his features. He was rough-hewn.” I balled my fists, made a face, to prove the point. Mr. Tuck had gone completely bald-headed by the time he was elected Compton County probate judge. His face had sharp distinct lines, not wrinkles exactly, just demarcations of character, sternness, avidity for truth that could leave a man looking scarred. Of course they didn’t know him – other than from glances at newspaper friezes and glimpses at one function or another in town. Their kind did not deal with the probate judge other than to share mint juleps with him and stories of college boy rambunctiousness. (And even then, it was their fathers who had enjoyed such exchanges.) Only the riffraff had continuous contact with the judge and could discern him from any mythic evocation. Those people knew he was not pretty.
My guests moved on.
“When the news came that Roman was dead,” one of them began with a sob in her throat which never fully rose, “well, it was as though I had died.”
“Really?” They looked at me again.
“To be taken out that way in the very bloom of golden youth! To be mistaken for a deer!”
“And shot by one’s own uncle! They said, the witnesses, I mean, that the woods had stood so unnaturally quiet for the longest, when all of a sudden there came this thrashing in the trees like an animal tearing through them. And well, Mr. Bud, bless his heart, couldn’t see far enough to tell what it was and just…opened fire! They’d been there all day expecting something, and when it came, how else could they react?”
“When the gun smoke cleared it was Roman lying there.”
“The stuff of classic tragedy.”
“And almost comic if it weren’t so terrible.”
“Comic? Well, Isolde, you are the first person who has ever referred to this whole episode as comic.”
“If it weren’t so terrible. That was the rest of that particular sentence.”
Then they let out a collective gasp, not at the morbidity of my particular observation however.
“Oh my dear!”
“Isolde, we are so sorry! Even to mention this. What were we thinking?”
They remembered the story that had circulated, right before Roman left for Durham, that he and I were a romantic tandem, when nothing could have been further from the truth. We had shared one dance at the Sadie Hawkins event in high school, and some alchemist had turned that bit of leaden dross into golden gossip. The story persisted even after I was happily married. I had not the energy to deflate it, not then, not now.
“It is fine. It is the past. It is long ago now.”
“Then I guess mentioning Agnes would be…well…uncouth.”
“And why would it be?”
I knew why. An even more fanciful tale involving Vera’s sister and me had arisen after Roman’s death. According to its prime teller, and the embellishers that followed, Agnes blamed me for her brother’s demise. He was so distraught over my eventual “rejection” of him that he had, so to speak, manipulated his own death, been careless in the woods in hopes he would be mistaken for a deer and thus relieved of his melancholy (which I had produced). Soon after, Agnes, out of grief, had taken up with a poetaster from Charleston passing through Compton, a man whom we subsequently learned had charmed a string of women across the state with other poets’ verses masqueraded as his own and whose poetic inspiration ran out once the ladies’ bank accounts emptied.
“Mrs. Tuck had a fit!”
“She called the rascal a ‘second rate verse-maker.’ I thought she was being rather charitable.”
“He was rather good-looking and had a marvelous speaking voice. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ rendered so vigorously.”
“Don’t give the scamp too much credit, dear. After all he took Agnes away from her mother for good! The only person Mrs. Tuck had left.”
“Except for Vera,” I added. They all looked.
“Only returned once. To bury Mrs. Tuck. She hasn’t set foot back here since. But oh my goodness, we shouldn’t be speaking of these things in front of Isolde.”
“Speak away! Why shouldn’t you? Agnes and I were always on the most cordial of terms. Up to the time she left for Baltimore. I told her I didn’t blame her one bit for going. I encouraged her to go.” They looked again, stalled only a second, then resumed their chatter. But not word about Vera, not one, until the conversation wound down to its natural end and we sat around the parlor with the heat heavy and stiff on us like a newly-dried wool blanket.
Then, finally: “It’s a gesture of grace, Isolde. An act of Christian charity.”
“One you’ll have to perform without me.” They did not breathe. I stood. They knew what it meant. They made the first motions of exiting. “I’m too old to be a figurehead for anything. Call Agnes.”
“We have. Every Schleppe in the Baltimore directory.”
“Not a trace of her.”
“Then leave her to the county.” I made as though to walk away but didn’t. They did, however, mumbling something about “disappointment.” When they were vanished, I slumped back into my seat. Donzelle appeared from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Them ladies tire you out, Miss Izzy?” She knew. She didn’t need confirmation. She came to me. “Why can’t a busy body stay in one place and leave the rest of the world alone?” Her hand went under my left arm and lifted. “’Course, I reckon then they wouldn’t be no busy body, now would they?”
“They want their names and their pictures in the paper – again – Donzelle. They must assure their immortality somehow. The poor dears.”
“Uh-huh. Even in heaven, I reckon they’ll find something to get into.” She guided me to the first floor bedroom. “What you need, Miss Izzy, is you a good nap. And while you napping, ol’ Donzelle will get out some of that ham from yesterday. Won’t even heat it up. You can eat it cold the way you like to do. And I’ll make some biscuits to wrap it in.”
They found her dead by the lake at Veteran’s Park, supine, staring up into the new sun with the avidity of a sunflower. Apparently she had been there all night. The geese hadn’t touched her. No animals had touched her. She was intact. A hamper packed with cheese and ham and bread had begun to stink badly. She’d been seen the afternoon before making her usual trek to the park, taking the route from her Main Street home, past the High School, around Holland Boulevard, skirting Clement Elementary, singing that song she had made up, the one that had come to be known popularly as “The Song of the Lovesick Sailor”:
Once I was a free man
Free as the seven seas.
But then I chanced upon dry land
And love dropped its chains around me
They said that school children picked up the song eventually, and some followed her down the road – it was a good two miles or more from her house to the park – singing it. There was no viciousness done to her, however, nothing physical anyway. She was too entertaining an oddity to stop with pranks or violence. And too it has always been my conviction that smaller places like Compton exhibit a far greater tolerance and sympathy for “eccentricity” than bigger ones. It has something to do largely with the Christian strictures which engird such a place. She told everyone who asked that she was going to the park to meet her boyfriend – a fine lad just out of the service with “hair like wheat and eyes like glass” who read German poetry and had a voice that “rang with the authority of a Beethoven sonata.” He picked up such interests in Deutschland itself, fighting against Hitler. He came everyday to read and to sing to her, and then they had a meal from the food she brought before he went away. “She’s deluded,” the amateur psychologists on Main Street opined. “She confused this fantasy with Roman. She misses her brother. It is an expression of grief.”
It was the gentlest expression of such. Others were not so mild. I was witness to many of them. There were the loud crying bouts at night, the piercing wails from the Tuck house that went on for hours at a time before suddenly expiring into low but still audible moans. Why no one, including myself, called the authorities to check on her is a mystery. It was as though the sheer suffering in her voice arrested all attempts at rescue – it was a pain that must be got out this way and no other. There were the stories told by Vera’s girl to my girl (not Donzelle but an earlier girl, now late, very late, and serving her Lord in Heaven) of coming upon Vera fully undressed in her dining room, denuded among one of the finest collections of Haviland Limoge and Waterford in the country. Other stories followed: of Vera’s seeing a sorrel mare parked in her mother’s bedroom, standing with a regular chewing motion of its blond jaw and refusing to move even when she pushed it, and of the hairy Beelzebub that appeared from the attic and took liberties with Vera’s womanhood before disappearing. Vera herself had told these last two with the undisturbed matter of factness she might have used to relate a tale of going to market.
So I would have nothing to do with her – other than a stiff hello now and then, as I have already mentioned. I did not want the taint of distasteful speculation on me that might come merely from being her next door neighbor. After all I had once been the subject of such talk myself years ago – talk and derision and ill-founded pity. If you are from Compton and are of a certain age, you remember it. You remember the ridicule my mother suffered when she, possessed by a Wagnerian fever shortly before my birth, decided to name me for the distaff lead in Tristan and Isolde. The name did not come trippingly to most of the tongues of my contemporaries, unless they had some knowledge of opera. You would not believe the unfortunate variations of Isolde I was called (and still am). For years people believed I had arrived in South Carolina from Austria or Lithuania or some other foreign port and were stunned to hear me speak in the same language as their own. Then came the accounts, almost all of them fabricated, of my adventures in the flesh crowned by my marriage to a Yankee Jew with atheistic tendencies (oh he was the finest man I’ve ever known, with the manners and bearing of a saint) – an elopement that, according to the wags, nearly killed my music-loving mother. (Mr. Zorinsky and I were married in a Methodist church in Compton County. My parents were there. My mother afterwards said, “I now have the son I have always dreamed of having.”) Mr. Zorinsky died young of a brain aneurism. We had no children but loved each other very deeply. Such a fact would surprise many people.
Donzelle came upon me in meditation.
“Miss Izzy, you crying?”
I looked up at her, the tears spilling into my mouth as I spoke. “I didn’t hate Vera. I felt as sorry for her as anybody else. It is just…I was tired of the talk, Donzelle. Tired of not being able to leave this home without fear some new fantasy was being concocted. I just wanted some peace at last.” This last I sobbed out with Garbo-like desperation. Donzelle’s large, warm hand went to my forehead and stroked it. “If she had needed me, really needed me, I would have been there. I swear it. But if they had seen us together, well, you know what would have happened. You know what they would have said.”
“Poor Miss Izzy. You ain’t done a thing in the world to deserve this except live your life.”
“I thought one time even of moving. When Vera’s mother died and she lost her mind.”
“You don’t owe nobody nothing. No ma’am. You lived your life and minded your business, like anybody is supposed to do.”
I looked up at her. “The county can take care of her funeral. Don’t you think?”
“Yes ma’am. Let the vultures have her now. Ain’t none of your business.”