“I loved Ray Welk from the time I was eight years old,” Iris Welk tells me. ” When the love bug bit, I felt the sting to the tip of my toes. He didn’t feel it because he was busy playing war ball with the boys from the Upper School.”
When Iris says “upper school,” she’s referring to the second story of the Red Brick School, built in the center of town in 1902. It was a staunch Federal- styled building, two floors and a low attic. Its windows were kept gleaming by teachers and students, and tea roses grew by the the door. The lower grades had classes downstairs while the older students went to the rooms above. At sixty, its capacity was full.
Now, it’s a staunch skeleton.The windows are busted and a recent, heavy snowstorm collapsed the middle of the roof. The young elm trees are now huge, and the shade has killed most of the grass and, of course, the rosebushes. Soon it will be restored and used as an office for the Senior Townhomes to be built around it.
Iris isn’t the type of person you interrupt. For years and years, she was the wife of the town’s only mortician, and she’s picked up the characteristics of her trade. She’s popped in, treating me like her main source of income –unannounced and self-assured.
“I told my best friend that I loved Ray Welk, and Teresa laughed.” She tries to lift an eyebrow but it’s a futile effort. Iris lost her eyebrows long ago. The ones she now has are penciled on and arch nearly to her hair line. Facial contortions don’t affect them. “So, I told my teacher. I knew Mrs. Nutter would believe me.”
“Did she?” I ask.
“Yes, though at first she didn’t know who I meant. That’s because I pointed. Ray was jumping left and right to dodge the ball. His friends were jumping with him like a pack of frogs.” I pointed again and said, “That boy right there, Ray Welk.”
“Mrs. Nutter always covered her mouth when she laughed because she was missing an eye tooth, but that day she threw back her head, and showed the gap. ‘”Oh, you’re a deep one, Iris,” she said. “You’re as deep as you can be.”
She bent over, placing her hands on her knees, and looked me in the eye. Sure of myself, I beamed.
“We married and for thirty years we were never apart but for the time he went to Cincinnati School of Mortuary Science. I was pregnant with Charlie and stayed in Harshbarger Mills. I didn’t want to give birth away from home. He rode the bus from Cincinnati to Clovington twice a month and Fred Valentine, who had a car, was waiting for him at the bus stop. After that, I’d never hear a bad word about Fred.”
“After we got the funeral home established, Ray took two showers a day. One before work and one after.
“‘We’ll never go out of business,’ he used to tell me, but his shower habits worried my mother to death.
She was smart enough, but Mom kept saying, “‘He’s going to wash his strength away.’
“‘That’s an old wive’s tale!'” I protested.
“‘Heard it all my life,’ she snapped. “‘Must be something to it.'”
“Ray and I had a good life with no more than our share of trouble until one year right after Christmas. He was taking down a string of lights when he fell over like he’d been shoved. I didn’t scream but called Tom Bailey, who drove our ambulance. Tom must have flown because the next thing I knew he was standing in my living room, while Ray was being carried out on a stretcher. Tom had left the siren on, thinking to go to the hospital, but I’d already turned Ray over. The light was gone from his eyes.
“‘Turn the siren off, Tom.’ I should have told him forthwith, but I had trouble talking. ‘Ray’s gone.'”
Iris Welk and I look at each other in silence.
” Ray was only fifty one years old!” She glares. “I’ve been a widow longer than I’ve been married!”
I have to be careful with Iris. She’s a fictional character, but the story I’ve placed her in is true. For all I know, she has power. I might be reading my own obituary soon.
Then I hear a child’s voice asking, “Do you think Mom was right?” Iris pats her forehead with a folded hankie and loses the better part of an eyebrow. “Do you think Ray washed his strength away?”
I don’t know. I’ve heard too many funeral home stories to have an opinion. Like the boy who got beheaded by a haymower, the woman from West Guyan who died delivering a baby that looked like a frog, and the bodies of a man and his wife hacked to death in a cornfield. Their assailant was a nephew who later shot himself. Three Smiths in the morgue at the same time.
“You tell me.” I toss the ball back in her court. “You know death better than I do.”
Excerpt from “That’s Not Love!” copyright Joan Spilman, 2021