The Last Laugh

For once, the locals agreed: the way the four old-timers behaved at Dickie Wainwright’s funeral was appalling. What could have fired up four guys who could hardly rouse themselves to check if they’d won the lottery, to take such action?

No one who had seen the foursome crunched together in the second pew “like miscast extras from an old western,” had imagined what they’d get up to. They had appeared a docile line-up. The dude stuffed near the wall was decked out in a shiny black suit ten years out of style, the next one sported a plaid shirt that had been ironed ‘til the creases cut, the third wore an ill fitting beige jacket attempting by the strength of one faltering button to cover his expansive belly and finally the dresser, as he was known by his drinking buddies, was slicked out in a blazer and white pants anticipating that June would perk up for the funeral.

Regret might have been expected on the faces of four men who had known the deceased since high school and there might have been a trace of that but not so much on behalf of their drinking buddy’s demise as for themselves. If a bar mate who like themselves had only gone 65, had bit the dust, would they be next?

But even stronger than their discomfort at the grim reaper’s slash was their guilt. From the moment that Freddie, the bartender at the Pickled Oats, had announced to the Thursday night regulars that Dickie had died, regrets and excuses had flowed over the foursome as chilling as spring creek water.

“We should have done something sooner.”

“How were we to know he wasn’t conning us again?”

“Yeah, after bragging for years about his health, who’d believe he was sick?”

Then one of the four piped up that they had done a lot for Dickie and another reminded them how much they’d lost at poker. Their heads bobbed as they fell over one another to list their many kindnesses and losses when, two months earlier, they had finally conceded that Dickie was a very sick guy.

“I lent him $200 towards that high end snowmobile I couldn’t afford myself, which,” the dresser hissed under his breath, “…I will now not see.”

“Last February in that storm where 17 cars went off the highway, I drove him to town to pick it up,” said plaid shirt.

“We never let him buy a round.”

“As if he ever tried.”

“And we played poker with him, the supposed learner, even though he kept cleaning us out.”

“Yeah, but as he said, with his health he had to be lucky at something.”

The night before the funeral, slouched at their customary pub table, the foursome had rehashed the scenario so many times they’d gotten tangled in the narrative.

Since they’d married, every Thursday they met at the Pickled Oats from 7 to 10 p.m. After a drink or two, they’d talk about how the world was going to hell in a hand basket; and how they suffered on the home front: the wives were making them lose weight, stop smoking, exercise, drink less beer, not watch TV sports and a hundred other injustices. And uninvited, but as punctual as tax time, came a number five—Dickie Wainwright .

Beer in hand, he’d regale them with his present, past and future exploits. And by the end of the evening somehow, one or more of the four had agreed to lend him his lawnmower or twenty bucks or bought into some new fangled get-rich scheme. They figured that over the years they’d lost about $6,000—a lot to this pack—in beer, food and loans; and free services from one mechanic, one roofer, one gardener and a delivery guy.

Dickie always had the last word. Whenever the guys mentioned a high point in their week: a chance to snooze at work, a good buy at the flea market, an escape from a mother-in-law, or a sale on beer, Dickie outdid them with tales of his prowess. He’d conned them so many times over the years: get-rich schemes they couldn’t lose money on, but did; money for his son’s trumpet, which the kid never played; a trip to Florida to see his dying mom, who turned out to have died ten years earlier. “But for memories boys, for memories,” he explained when they confronted him.

Finally the dresser’s wife told them to smarten up and printed off suggestions from a website about how to say ‘no.’ After a few false starts with someone missing a signal: “What’s wrong with your eyebrows?” “What are you wiggling your mouth about?” They had set up a sort of code to warn the others when Dickie was conning them.

Then four months ago, after years bragging about his health, Dickie had moved from healthiest to sickest. He one-upped every mention of a sore hip or stomach ailment with a description of his more exotic illnesses. Knowing Dickie, they were skeptical. For two months as Dickie described how Dr. Conway and the many specialists he had consulted were flummoxed by his rare ailments they refused to believe a word.

“Might be the last favour I’ll ever ask you,” Dickie would sigh asking for help with a backed-up toilet, or “Who knows if I’ll make it to next week,” he’d say noting that he wanted the roof tiles replaced before he died so widow Cindy wouldn’t be flooded out. The most pressing demand was that they play poker with him, so as he put it, he “could take his mind off his imminent demise.”

Then one Wednesday, on a visit to the dentist, plaid shirt saw Dickie leaving Dr. Conway’s building and a week later, his wife saw Dickie slip into the medical building and the foursome concluded Dickie wasn’t pulling their leg after all.

*          *           *

When they arrived for the funeral and spied Dr. Conway they decided to show their appreciation for his efforts.

The dresser sidled up to him and whispered, “Thanks from us all for all you did. He counted on you.”

The doctor looked over and winked, “Well, he did learn a few tricks.”

“Not your fault he succumbed to his disease.”

“He died in bed… a heart attack.”

“But through his last months when he needed a doc on hand?”

He yanked his arm free of the dresser, “I got to get inside. I’m going to set the record straight. Who knows what BS that silver tongued preacher will say? ”

A shiver of dread passed over the four. Once seated, they agonized whether the “something to set the record straight” would be about them—friends who didn’t believe when a buddy was sick. How in his hour of need, Dickie’s buddies doubted him.

“The heart attack got him in the end,” said creases. “But the paper should have said ‘after struggling with a long illness.’”

All through the service, the four agonized over what the doctor would say. They hardly heard the sluggish hymns or Dickie’s son’s remark about his Dad never getting to the mountain he wanted to climb. And finally, the old Doc struggled up to the podium, fumbled with his glasses and gave a wink. “Well,” he said, “You probably wonder why I’m here. Until his death, Dickie never had a sick day in his life.”

There was an uneasy wave of chuckles from the congregation and the four friends pulled up to straight.

“For the last year,” the doctor continued, “Dickie and I played poker at my office and even though he always had an Ace up his sleeve, I showed him a trick or two, which, he said, paid off with the boys. ” At this the doctor swept his hand to the second pew and caught the astounded faces of the four bar flies.

Plaid shirt shot up. “Are you saying Dickie wasn’t sick these last months?”

“He was not,” said the Doc, chuckling. “More like him and I’d be out of business.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” said the dresser, “the old bugger.” He leaped up and rushed towards the coffin. Swatting aside the pile of bouquets, he grabbed for his own offering, bought on sale and wilting fast. As quick as black flies to the neck, the other three musketeers rushed up to do the same.

The congregation gasped, unsure if this was part of the ceremony, as out the door the four went, swinging their bouquets like sabers, and spattering the astonished onlookers with confetti petals… Quick as lightening, down the street they marched, straight to the Pickled Oats.

~ Melodie Corrigall

Originally published at: http://www.thewriteplaceatthewritetime.org/fiction.html