The Funeral



Jack Kean


          An eighteen-wheeler carrying a load of cattle passed Harry’s old car leaving the stench of manure in its wake.  Harry slowed down and tried holding his breath, but it was several minutes before he could breath without noticing the smell.  When it finally cleared out he gripped the steering wheel tightly and glanced at a gas gauge rapidly moving toward empty.  With no valid credit cards and less than five dollars to his name, Harry had to get money in the next town or spend another miserable night hoping for sleep in the backseat of a car that wasn’t built for sleeping.

          Harry’s idea of a good day was one that ended up in a cheap motel with cable TV and hot water.  If that day also provided him an opportunity to steal enough for a decent meal than it might be considered above average.  He wasn’t very good at anything except surviving.  Calling him a grifter would be an insult to the memory of con artists everywhere.  He was a thief, just a common two-bit thief.

          Fifteen minutes more and the two-lane highway led him to the latest in a string of one-horse towns that he had been through in the past six months: six months of back roads fast food and lousy motel rooms, six months without a legitimate job. 

          A sign flashed Grace’s Cafe and Harry turned in to a gravel parking lot.  He scooped up an armful of abandoned newspapers piled beside the cash register before taking an empty booth and ordering breakfast from a skinny waitress with big glasses.  The sports page reported a high school baseball game scheduled for the afternoon.  Nothing else caught his attention.  Harry ate every bite, knowing it might be the last meal he would eat for a while. 

          The waitress came over with a fresh pot of coffee.  “Where’s the library?” he asked as she filled his cup.  

          “Go about a mile toward Dexter and take a right by the Co-op and it’s four blocks down.  You can’t miss it.”  She smiled a waitress smile and left him putting cream in his fifth cup of coffee.

          Harry never asked about any place that might provide an easy target so he found the high school on his own and then drove to the library.  He spent a couple of hours there before the afternoon ballgame.  Libraries were a welcome sight because they were heated or air-conditioned, as the season dictated, and a great place to kill time or pick up a bit of news. 

          It was a warm early afternoon as Harry left the library for his short trip to the game.  He didn’t want to get there too early.  The third inning always seemed best for him.  Late arrivers had straggled into the stadium and early leavers would be around for a couple of more innings.  Experience had definitely taught him that the third inning was best.

          There were less than two dozen cars and trucks at the game, but that was enough.  He parked in a field along the first base line just behind the last car.  No one was around the cars as Harry began a very slow walk toward the gate behind home plate. 

          He looked in the window of each car as he walked by, but saw nothing valuable.  Finally, in the bed of an old green pick-up loaded with wood scraps he spotted what appeared to be a large toolbox.  Harry walked behind the truck and pretended to look toward the baseball field.  He waited.

          With the crack of a bat cheers went up and fans stood and clapped for the home team.  Harry picked up the toolbox quickly and hurried back to his car.  With some difficulty he managed to get the heavy box in the back seat and took off. 

          Harry drove straight to the highway and went several miles before turning on an isolated gravel road to hide the box in his trunk.  It was unlocked so he looked inside and found a very expensive set of mechanic’s tools.  Any pawnshop would give him a hundred dollars.  Maybe in the next town, then he remembered, it was Dexter.  Twenty years ago, when his parents moved there, he spent eleven months in that crummy little hole.  He hadn’t seen the town, or his folks, since.  It was unlikely that anyone in Dexter would remember Harry Simpson Jr. 

          His car was almost out of gas by the time he arrived in Dexter.  Fortunately it took him only a few minutes to find a pawnshop and unload his box of tools.  The pawnshop owner gave him $125, better than Harry had hoped.  He went directly to a gas station and filled up.

          For a moment, but only a moment, Harry thought about stopping by to see his parents.  He quickly put that idea out of his head and noted a number of people parking near the old church he’d been dragged to a couple of times in his youth.  Maybe a funeral he thought.  Harry loved funerals.  If there was anything better than ballgames for his line of work, it was funerals.  

          He drove around town for a few minutes before returning to the church and seeing even more cars.  Judging by the way people were dressed and since this was a Saturday, it had to be a funeral.  Harry parked his car a block away pointed in the direction of the highway and grabbed his trusty hammer.  He waited and watched.

          There were cars parked on both sides of two streets, which ran in front of and beside the church.  Trying to look somber, Harry got out of his car and walked slowly down the sidewalk peering in to each parked vehicle.  He covered one side then crossed the street to repeat the process.   

          Four cars down he spotted ready cash.  Right there in the back seat was a fur jacket.  It looked like the real thing.  Probably too hot to wear fur inside the church.  Even in today’s relatively depressed fur market it should be good for a couple of hundred dollars.  Harry strolled past the car. 

          He turned around and went back toward the church to make certain that no one was sitting in one of the parked cars.  Then, with his back to the church and intent only on getting that coat, he returned to the car and tried the back door.  To his absolute delight it wasn’t even locked.  Harry leaned in and picked up the coat. 

          He was only a few feet from his car and a clean getaway when he heard a shriek.  “Hey, that’s my coat.”  The woman’s voice pierced the solemn mood of the mourners who were streaming out of church.  Harry glanced back to see a middle aged couple hurrying toward him.  He took off for his car.

          Harry threw open the door, started the car and raced for the highway.  He had gotten almost there when flashing lights appeared in his rearview mirror.  “Damn,” Harry said to himself.  After quickly determining that his old car was no match for the cops, he pulled over to the side of the road.

          The police officer got Harry out of the car and in handcuffs before turning toward the road and standing at attention while a large black hearse passed followed by a limousine and fifteen or so cars.  Harry kept his head down, not so much in respect for the dearly departed, just that he didn’t want to look anyone in the eye.

          When the last car had passed, the officer took out Harry’s wallet and looked at his driver’s license.  “You related to anyone in town?”

          “No,” Harry lied without giving any thought to the implications of the question.

          “Good.  Then I guess you didn’t know the Harry Simpson Sr. who just passed in that hearse.”

          Harry looked down the road in the direction of the funeral procession.  Up to now funerals had always been good to him.



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