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(c. 1925)

by Charles MacArthur

Chapter IV.

Eugene indicated a young woman with her back to the window, tearfully receiving the ministrations of the undertaker.

“There’s Mibs now,” he remarked with feeling. “And bawling again.”

“I can see that I’m going to get rattled,” said Miller. “If there’s anything I hate, it’s tears.”

He started toward the door.

“Don’t get so rattled that you forget to pay the cab,” prompted Eugene.

“Papa!” sobbed Mrs. Shinkle, when she had identified her parent. Miller patted her absently and then wheeled on Mr. Cunningham.

“Listen, Jesse James!” he began. “What’s the big idea?”


“You heard me! I want to know right here and now who gave you license to bring that body here.”

The undertaker drew himself up coldly.

“Mrs. Miller was brought here at the wish of the nearest relatives,” he said. “It is quite the usual procedure.”

“Is that so! Well, I’m her nearest relative! How do you like that! And I’m responsible for all arrangements!”

Eugene was on his feet instantly:

“He admits he’s responsible! You’re a witness!”

Miller was somewhat confused at this construction of his remarks.

“I’m not saying anything one way or another on that subject,” he hedged, advancing on Mr. Cunningham. “But if you burglars think you can gyp me out of five hundred bucks, you’re nuts!”

The undertaker, about to reply, cast a nervous glance at the window and waited until a pedestrian, evidently a window shopper, had moved on.

“This is an ethical concern,” he assured Miller with dignity. “And your first expense is your last expense. The five hundred dollars includes everything: casket, rough box, embalming, use of chapel, proper clothing, cosmetics, a hearse and two limousines. That’s pretty close to rock bottom, my friend. I doubt if we make twenty dollars out of the entire transaction --”

“Don’t make me laugh!” Miller interrupted. “I know something about the undertaking game. I ought to -- I roomed with an embalmer for two years. Babe Wetmore. Know him?”

“No.” Mr. Cunningham was very cold. “But I do know what good service costs. And Cunningham service is a hall mark -- as much as sterling on silver --”

“Yeah? Well, maybe I know all about that, too. Figures don’t lie.”

Miller seized a pad of paper from the desk and itemized briskly:

“Eighteen dollars for the casket. Juice, eight dollars a gallon -- at the outside. That makes it twenty-six. One assistant, at five dollars a day --”

“Now, I beg your pardon,” interposed the undertaker. “For every female client we have two lady embalmers at ten dollars a day.”

Miller smiled incredulously.

“Doing what?” he asked. “Embroidery?” At this Mibs screamed and fainted away. Mr. Cunningham sympathetically sprang to her side.

“That’s pretty!” he remarked. “I don’t wonder she fainted.”

“I can’t help it,” said Miller, unhappily. “Nobody’s going to make a sucker out of me.”

He continued to figure and mutter to himself as Eugene and the undertaker carried Mibs to an inner parlour and bade her lie down and take it easy. When they returned his pad was covered with items and he had hit upon a round sum.

“I make it out a hundred and thirty flat.” He waved the paper at the harassed Mr. Cunningham. “Count it, yourself. That leaves you three hundred and seventy bucks pure gravy -- and I’m supposed to be the goat!”

Mr. Cunningham scanned the list with lightly disguised pity for Miller’s lack of values.

“How about it?” Miller leered, confidentially. “Do I hear you say a hundred and fifty?”

“You heard me say five hundred,” declared the undertaker, exasperated. “And I don’t mind telling you, Mr. Miller, that figure is ridiculous for the class of service we give. I couldn’t afford to shave it for the King of England. Think of all it includes: things that no other mortician in town can give you. They haven’t the facilities. Why, our Special Expression Process alone costs us seventy-five dollars!”

“Your special what?” repeated Miller, mystified.

“The expression. The smile, and so forth. At an important funeral like this you certainly don’t want the facial muscles to sag. I understand from Mr. Shinkle that the obsequies are to be public.”

“Yeah,” said Eugene. “The Knights and Ladies of the Rose are in charge. She was Past Exalted Rose.”

“You see?” Mr. Cunningham hastened to add. “Under the circumstances, we wouldn’t dare use glue.”

“And what’s the matter with glue?” Miller enquired, suspicious. The undertaker shrugged politely.

“I told you,” he said. “It isn’t always permanent -- especially in these steam heated apartments. That’s why we’ve gone to all the expense of working out this new method, which is absolutely unique. You may not realize it, Mr. Miller, but we employ an intern from the County Hospital -- he gets his diploma next year, and he’s a wonder. I don’t mind telling you. He can create any expression you wish -- peaceful, angelic, or simply happy. And those expressions are guaranteed permanent. It’s an elaborate method, but it’s worth the money. That is, if you’ve seen some of the things I have.”

“Well,” Miller deliberated. “Maybe so, but glue is O.K. with me. I guess I’m old fashioned.”

Mr. Cunningham looked aghast.

“Very well,” he agreed, with an audible catch in his throat. “We’ll make it glue -- and hope for the best.” It was plain that he considered his hope none too well founded.

“And you can make it a hundred and fifty dollars, too,” said Miller, cheerfully.

“I know you don’t mean that, Mr. Miller,” smiled the undertaker graciously. “Even without the Expression, the best we could do is -- four hundred and twenty-five.”

The veins in Miller’s neck swelled, but he controlled himself somehow.

“Listen,” he said quietly. “You’re still acting like you’d caught the whole Slocum disaster. I told you what I’ll pay, and that’s all I’ll pay. And if you don’t like it, I’ll walk her right out of here. You ain’t the only undertaker in town, by a long shot.”

“It’s a little late for that, I’m afraid,” replied Mr. Cunningham in tones of ice. “They’re working on her now.”

“Well, that’s very, very interesting,” said Miller unmoved. “But I’ll walk her out just the same.”

His determination was so apparent, Mr. Cunningham was appalled.

“You wouldn’t commit a sacrilege of that kind, I hope!” he managed to say. “Why, that’s beyond the pale!”

“Ha, ha!” said Miller, turning to Eugene. “Listen to what’s talking!”

He seized the telephone and began dialing a number.

“What’s going on now?” demanded Mr. Cunningham, leaping forward.

“I can play just as dirty as you,” replied Miller with a smile. He spoke into the telephone:

“Central Undertaking? ... I want to talk to Babe Wetmore, right away ...”

“This is a crime against the dead!” shouted the undertaker, reaching for the telephone. Miller raised his arm.

“Look out I don’t get my elbow in your eye!” he warned, resuming his telephone conversation:

“Hello, Babe? Charlie Miller ... Well, not so good ... The hell you say! ... Say, Babe, want to do me a big favor ... Have you got a wagon over there that ain’t working? ... Well, bring it over to Cunningham’s on Clark Street as soon as you can.”

“My God!” cried Mr. Cunningham, appealing to Eugene. The latter opened his palms in a gesture of neutrality.

“Oh, nothing,” continued Miller into the telephone. “Just a racketeer trying to gouge my eyes out of me. Shake it up!”

He hung up and favored Eugene with a wink. He could not help smiling as he blew a magnificent smoke ring in the direction of Mr. Cunningham.

“In all of my experience I have never had such a disgraceful, shocking scene!” protested the latter.

“That’s what you get for being such a hog,” said Miller.

Mr. Cunningham turned on Eugene.

“How can you stand by and permit this terrible sacrilege?” he choked. “Dragging the precious remains of the innocent dear one you loved best from this place to some -- some morgue!”

“He’s doing it, she was nothing to me,” said Eugene, pointing at Miller.

“That’s right,” Miller genially agreed. “Blame me all you like.”

“But your daughter!” Mr. Cunningham lifted his voice in the direction of Mibs’ retreat. “What about her? Disgraced! Her whole life ruined for a few miserable dollars! Her friends will hear about it -- and shun her! After this, no respectable person will want to have anything to do with her!”

“Lay off!” Miller whispered, with an involuntary gesture toward his daughter’s retreat. But all too late. Crescendos of sobs indicated that the undertaker’s arrow had found its mark. Presently Mibs turned out, screaming.

“Now you’ve done it,” said Mr. Cunningham, with some satisfaction.

“Get back in there, Mibs,” entreated her father. “This is private, between me and Mr. Cunningham.”

As her wails increased, he pushed his daughter back into the inner room and slammed the door.

“Just hysterical,” he noted.

“Oh, no, Mr. Miller. It’s not just hysterical! It’s the shameful thought that her own father, the one man who should be nearest in this dark hour is treating her angel mother like -- like a cad! I know it’s not for me to say, Mr. Miller, but your treatment of the woman who devoted her life to you, who loved you --”

“If that’s a crack at me, you’re all wrong,” interrupted Miller with some heat. “I’m just as good a husband as the next one, but honestly, you don’t know what I went through with that woman!” He lowered his voice.

“There are some things that would get anybody’s goat, and I’m not squawking, either. But do you want to know why I walked out on her? Because there’s a limit to everything, including affection! My God! Sometimes a fellow wants to read a newspaper, if you know what I mean. Now, if you’re a human being, you’ll understand my feelings. Live and let live, why don’t you?”

Mr. Cunningham was forced to admit that the late Mrs. Miller’s peculiarities somewhat altered matters.

“Still, you must remember that she was your wife,” he persisted, “and you certainly owe her a decent burial.”

“Well, come down off your high horse, then,” cried Miller. “I came over here ready to do the fair thing. And what do I get? Abuse! Instead of some kind of reasonable offer.”

Mr. Cunningham pondered.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Mr. Miller. Rather than have the scandal of taking a body out of this establishment, I’ll go more than half way with you.”

“Like what, for instance?”

“What do you say to -- well, two hundred and fifty? On my word of honor, I lose a hundred dollars. But I’ve got a daughter just the size of yours, and I’d like to think that some day, somebody may do her a good turn, make her as happy as I’m trying to make your little girl now.”

“Say two hundred and we’ll all be happy,” urged Miller.

The undertaker wavered. “I’ll match you,” he compromised.

“I’m a sport,” said Miller. “Call your shot.”

Eugene flipped a quarter. Miller cried heads, and won.

© 2003-04 The Estate of Charles G. MacArthur. All Rights Reserved.

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