Table for Two?

The funeral was an open casket affair, just as Hemsley had wanted it to be. “I don’t care if I’ve been burned alive,” he used to say, “I want my face to be seen.” And so it was – though, thankfully, it was liver failure, not fire, which caused Hemsley’s untimely demise. By the time Claire and I arrived at the church, people were already lined up, waiting their turn to gaze down upon the lifeless body that lay in the casket like a great fleshy doll. Hemsley’s wife, Valerie, stood beside the casket, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief and thanking the guests for their condolences.

Claire had the rare gift of being able to look beautiful even while mourning. And, as she wiped a tear from her eye with one of her slender, gloved hands, I had the sudden urge to tell her so. Just tell her she looks beautiful, I thought to myself. I slowly took her hand with mine.

“You look so… so sad,” I said.

“Yes,” Claire replied, giving my hand a squeeze before letting it drop back to my side. “I would imagine I do.”

I adjusted my tie and studied the crowd that had gathered inside the church, attempting to maintain my composure. I imagine Hemsley would’ve been awfully proud of the number of women in attendance – far greater than the number of men. Though he had no shortage of male companionship in his life, it was the constant presence of a woman – Valerie or otherwise – that seemed to keep Hemsley’s clock ticking.

At the front of the line stood a woman no older than thirty– two decades Hemsley’s junior. Cautiously, she approached the casket, peering down upon the once-flush face that now lay cold and grey upon a white satin pillow. All the while, Valerie stood beside the wooden box, arms folded across her chest. The young woman walked past Valerie, avoiding her stare, muttered her condolences, and swiftly exited the church. Beside me, Claire let out a quiet sob.

It had been three years since I first met Claire and Hemsley. I was only a few months out of law school at the time. My cousin had brought me to a party for one of his artist friends, and there I found Claire standing in front of me in line waiting for a plastic cup of red wine. It took me a few moments of studying my shoelaces before I worked up the courage to say hello, but as our conversation progressed I began to realize what was and imagine what could be. Claire told me of her parents’ estate in Virginia and her semi-rebellious sister’s studio apartment on the Lower East Side. I told her of my parents’ house in the Philadelphia suburbs and my own modest living arrangement on upper Broadway.

Hemsley had been standing slightly behind me by the wine table, conversing with an older man about the recent Metro Card fare hike. Hemsley bid goodbye to his companion and turned quickly around, knocking my shoulder with his in the process. The cup of wine I had been holding – my fourth – spilled, thereby coloring my shirt red, rather than my cheeks. Hemsley immediately removed a handkerchief from his pocket and started trying to soak the wine out of my now-red button down shirt, apologizing profusely. I said that I was glad I had chosen not to wear my favorite tie, too, and Hemsley gave a deep, warm laugh that almost made me want to forgive him entirely for his sudden interruption. Stepping back and extending a firm right hand, Hemsley introduced himself – chuckling that he wished we hadn’t had to meet under such circumstances – and insisted that I keep the handkerchief and send him my dry cleaning bill. He then extended his hand to Claire, whose cheeks rouged as Hemsley lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it gently. Claire told Hemsley she didn’t know people still kissed hands these days. I said that I didn’t know that either. They laughed, but I wasn’t really joking.

Over the next few years, the three of us became quite close with one another. We often went out in the company of Valerie (and others). However Claire, Hemsley, and I often found ourselves out to a meal with only one another. I preferred to eat these meals while seated at a round or square table, for I grew to loathe the discomfort of an un-balanced seating arrangement. As I stood in the church with Claire a few steps from my side, I found myself lost thinking about the various two-person seating combinations.

Neither Claire nor I spoke when we reached the front of the line. Claire seemed to be focusing on her breathing, each inhale an effort to still her slightly quivering lip. I was simply imagining what Hemsley would look like, lying inside the metal and wood box that was his new home. Valerie – who earlier had wandered off to greet an old friend of her husband’s – stood once again beside her husband, her mother by her side. Valerie’s red-rimmed eyes stayed fixed on Claire as she and I approached the casket. Claire blinked back a tear as she looked down upon Hemsley, whose face finally reflected its age. Claire lifted her eyes to meet Valerie’s gaze before opening the small black purse that hung around her arm and producing from it a single red rose. Attached to the rose was a small, sealed envelope. Claire placed the rose down into the casket, stood, straightened her dress, turned and walked away, all the while keeping her eyes fixed on Valerie.

“My condolences,” Claire said as she walked past her.

I lingered for a moment, paralyzed by the sight of Hemsley’s now aged face, devoid of all warmth and emotion. Reaching into my pocket, I discovered that I was carrying Hemsley’s old handkerchief, still tinged pink from our first encounter. I removed it, folded it quickly, and tossed it down beside Claire’s rose. I quickly shook Valerie’s hand, bowing my head and offering my best wishes, before swiftly pursuing Claire out of the church.

Danny Cramer, Age 17, Grade 12, Collegiate School, Gold Key

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