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Authors: Elinor Lipman

The Dearly Departed

ACCLAIM FOR ELINOR LIPMAN'S

THE DEARLY DEPARTED

“Elinor Lipman knows how to keep a reader not just turning pages but smiling.… 
The Dearly Departed
is filled with sharp thumbnail characterizations and even snappier repartee.”

—
San Francisco Chronicle

“Lipman is a master.… [
The Dearly Departed
] offers emotional depth and keen social insights that sneak up like a sucker punch.”

—
The Denver Post


The Dearly Departed
contains a core of dark and mordant wit that distinguishes it, in delightful ways, from the norm.”

—
The Washington Post Book World

“What makes this plot bubble merrily along is Elinor Lipman's uncanny ear for comic dialogue, her zippy characterizations, and a narrative style so witty that you feel affronted when that last page is turned.”

—
The Seattle Times

“Elinor Lipman once again transports the reader to picturesque small-town New England, where gossip at the town's only diner is just about as juicy as the blue plate special.”

—St.
Louis Post–Dispatch

The Dearly Departed

Elinor Lipman

A NOVEL

RANDOM HOUSE

NEW YORK

Contents

 
 

ALSO BY ELINOR LIPMAN

The Ladies' Man

The Inn at Lake Devine

Isabel's Bed

The Way Men Act

Then She Found Me

Into Love and Out Again

THE DEARLY DEPARTED

CHAPTER  1
Come Back to King George

S
unny met Fletcher for the first time at their parents' funeral, a huge graveside affair where bagpipes wailed and strangers wept. It was a humid, mosquito-plagued June day, and the grass was spongy from a midnight thunderstorm. They had stayed on the fringes of the crowd until both were rounded up and bossed into the prime mourners' seats by the funeral director. Sunny wore white—picture hat, dress, wet shoes—and an expression that layered anger over grief:
Who is he? How dare he? Are any of these gawkers friends?

  Unspoken but universally noticed was the physical attribute she and Fletcher shared—a halo of prematurely gray hair of a beautiful shade and an identical satiny, flyaway texture. No DNA test result, no hints in wills, could be more eloquent than this: the silver corona of signature hair above their thirty-one-year-old, identically furrowed brows.

The King George
Bulletin
had reported every possible angle, almost gleefully.
MARGARET BATTEN, LOCAL ACTRESS, AND FRIEND FOUND UNCONSCIOUS
, said the first banner headline.
BULLETIN
PAPER CARRIER CALLS 911,
boasted the kicker. An arty photo—sunrise in King George—of scrawny, helmeted Tyler Lopez on his bike, a folded newspaper frozen in flight, appeared on page 1. “I knew something was wrong when I saw them laying on the floor—the woman and a man,” he told the reporter. “The door was open. I thought they might still be alive, so I used the phone.” Inescapable in the coverage was the suggestion of a double suicide or foul play. Yellow police tape surrounded the small house. Even after tests revealed carbon monoxide in their blood and a crack in the furnace's heat exchanger,
Bulletin
reporters carried on, invigorated by a double, coed death on their beat.

A reader named Vickileigh Vaughn wrote a letter to the editor. She wanted to clarify something on the record so all of King George would know:
Friend
in the headline was inaccurate and possibly libelous. Miles Finn and Margaret Batten were engaged to be married. Friends, yes, but so much more than that. An outdoor wedding had been discussed. If the odorless and invisible killer hadn't overcome them, Miles would have left, as was his custom, before midnight, after the Channel 9 news.

Sunny was notified by a message on her answering machine. “Sunny? It's Fletcher Finn, Miles's son. Could you pick up if you're there?” Labored breathing filled the pause. “I guess not. Okay. Listen, I don't know when I can get to a phone again, so I'll have to give you the news, which is somewhat disturbing.” Another pause, too long for the machine, which clicked off. He called back. “Hi, it's Fletcher Finn again. Here's what I was going to say. I'll make it quick: I got a call from the police in Saint George, New Hampshire—no, sorry,
King
George. They found our parents unconscious. Nobody knows anything. I've got the name of the hospital and the other stuff the cop said. What's your fax number? Call me. I'll be up late.”

Sunny phoned the King George police. The crime scene, she was told by a solicitous male voice, was roped off until the lab work came back. Sunny pictured the peeling gray bungalow secured with yellow tape, its sagging porch and overgrown lilacs cinched in the package.

“Are they going to die?” she asked.

“Sunny?” said the officer. “It's Joe Loach. From Mattatuck Avenue? We were in study hall together junior and senior—”

“I got a message from a Fletcher Finn, who said his father and my mother were found unconscious, but that's all I know. He didn't even say what hospital.”

Loach coughed. “Sunny? They weren't taken to a hospital. It was too late for that.”

He heard a cry and the sound of her palm slipping over the mouthpiece.

“It was the damn carbon monoxide. It builds up over time, and then it's too late. I'm so sorry. I hate to do this over the phone . . .”

When she couldn't answer, he said, “I saw your mother in
Driving Miss Daisy
at the VFW, and she was really something.”

Sunny pictured her mother's grande-dame bow and the magisterial sweep of the arm that invited her leading man to join her in the spotlight. It had taken practice, with Sunny coaching, because Margaret's inclination was to blush and look amazed.

“You're where now? Connecticut?”

She said she was.

“Okay. One step at a time. Nothing says you can't make arrangements by telephone. Maybe your mother put her preferences in writing—people do that, something like, ‘Instructions. To be opened in the event of my death.' I could walk anything over to the funeral parlor for you. In fact, remember Dickie Saint-Onge from our class? He took over the business. He's used to handling things long-distance.”

“I'm coming up,” said Sunny.

“She and her fiancé didn't suffer,” said Joey Loach. “That much I can promise you.”

“Fiancé?” she repeated. “How do you know that?”

“That seems to be everyone's understanding. Her cleaning lady wrote a letter to the editor to set the record straight. Plus, there was a ring on the appropriate finger.”

Sunny cried softly, her hand over the receiver.

“Can I do anything?” he asked. “Can I call anyone?”

“I'd better get off,” she said. “There must be some phone calls I should make. I'm sure that's what I'm supposed to do next.”

“Just so you know, the house is okay now. They found the leak and fixed it, the town did, first thing. You don't have to be afraid of sleeping there. I'll make sure that everything is shipshape.”

“I think my friend Regina used to baby-sit for your sister,” she said. “Marilyn?”

“Marilee,” said Joey. “She's still here. We're all still here. So's Regina. You okay?”

“I meant to say thank you,” said Sunny, “but that's what came out instead.”

“You're welcome,” said Joey Loach.

Fletcher sounded more annoyed than mournful when he reached Sunny the next morning. “Under the circumstances,” he said, “I would have thought you'd have returned my call.”

“You didn't leave your number,” said Sunny.

“I'm sure you can appreciate that I wasn't thinking about secretarial niceties last night,” he snapped.

“Such as ‘I'm so sorry about your mother'?”

“I didn't know her,” he said. “And at the time of my call I believed she was still alive.”

Sunny quietly slipped the receiver into its cradle. It rang seconds later.

“My father's dead because he was watching television with someone who had a defective furnace,” blared the same voice from her earpiece. “He was as healthy as a horse. How do you think I feel? And on top of that, some backwater police chief delegates to me the task of calling the date's daughter.”

Forcing herself to sound composed and rational, Sunny said, “Are you the only child, or is there a humane sibling I can do this with?”

He paused. “Unfortunately, I'm it.”

“You don't have to torture yourself with the idea that this was some blind date that went awry—that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time—because he was there every night. She was his fiancée.”

Fletcher said, “Unlikely. I never met her.”

“She had his ring, and the date was set.”

After a silence, he asked, “Were you invited to a wedding?”

“Of course I was,” Sunny said.

Reached by phone, the funeral director said he preferred not to stage a wake in a theater, even if it had once been a house of Congregational worship. Sunny heard his flimsy argument, which was grounded in what she felt was personal convenience, and answered in a shaky voice, “I think it's what my mother would have wanted. I don't think I'm being unreasonable, and if it requires a little creativity and flexibility on our part, so be it.”

No one in King George had ever asked Dickie Saint-Onge for creativity or flexibility, so he rose to the occasion, promising to accommodate the loved one's undocumented dying wishes: a coffin in a hardwood that was stained to resemble ebony, white satin interior, no variation on her hairdo, which should be styled by her regular hairdresser and not by some mortician. Sunny herself would get permission from the King George Community Players to have her mother buried in her
Mourning Becomes Electra
costume or the black dress she wore in
Six Characters in Search of an Author.
He would tell the town's only florist this: no daisies, no carnations, no mums. Say that the daughter wants flowers cut from the vines creeping up her mother's porch, in combination with the Russian sage by the mailbox. And if they aren't in full bloom, find wisteria on someone else's trellis around town. Everyone knew Margaret. Everyone loved her.

Fletcher announced that he'd be flying to King George on the morning of the funeral with an associate. Unfortunately, he couldn't get away one moment before that, due to the campaign. Was there an airport nearby?

“Forgive me for not owning a copy of your résumé, but what campaign are we talking about?”

“Right now, a congressional campaign.”

“And you're too busy to get away?”

“That's not what I said. I'm coming up for the funeral.”

“On the morning of. In other words, your father died and your boss won't give you a few days off?”

“Just the opposite: She very much wants to attend the funeral, but we can't get away until Saturday morning, because there's a state fair—”

“What state?” Sunny asked.

“New Jersey. Sixth Congressional District.”

“What's her name?”

“Emily Ann Grandjean. She wants to be there,” said Fletcher. “For both of us.”

“How kind,” said Sunny. “Too bad she can't spare you for a couple of days.”

“Every second's scheduled. It's brutal. Our election's in September.”

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