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I ducked into the Cup 'o Joe Diner shaking out my umbrella and overcoat with a heavy sigh. The rain was fitting. And the diner, though a usual haunt, was a natural place to stop as it was halfway between the cemetery and my dad's house.
Dad's house. I supposed I should stop thinking of it as his house. It was now "the estate."
William Jacobs, dead at 75. A captain of global media and communications. A man who started as a cub reporter with the New York Ledger and parlayed his skill as a journalist and his prowess as a businessman into a global empire.
My elder sister had delivered his eulogy solemnly, but the words had sent me out from the cover of the grave-side canopy in search of a quiet place to laugh.
I loved Dad. He was not only a successful man but also a kind one. And all the long-faced pomp and circumstance would have had him rolling his eyes had he not been stiff as a board in an imposing black casket.
I hung up my coat and umbrella by the door, taking in the other patrons of the diner.
As usual, Joe, the owner, was behind the counter in his white apron and rolled-up shirt sleeves. Winter or summer, rain or shine, he always wore a short-brimmed white Panama hat with a floral band.
A few couples and families occupied booths by the windows where they could watch the rain.
Alone at the counter, dressed like me in funeral black, a youngish-looking man with dark hair stared at his hands atop the linoleum counter.
I took a stool two down from him and signaled Joe for my usual.
The young man was odd in that he had nothing in front of him, not even a glass of water. I looked at him as he seemed lost in thought.
"Excuse me," I said. But do we know each other?"
"What?" He asked.
"Sorry, you must have been miles away," I said, pushing a wet strand of my dark hair over my ear. I indicated his black suit and tie. "Were you at the funeral?"
Joe poured me a cup, noticing the young man as if for the first time.
"Oh," he said. "Where'd you come from?"
"I, uh..." The young man's hands trilled idly on the countertop. He watched me take a sip of my coffee. "What is that you're drinking?"
I paused mid-sip and swallowed. "I think it's Columbian," I smiled.
"Juan Valdez," Joe interjected.
The young man stared quizzically at the coffee. "I'll try some, that is if Mr. Valdez is passed caring."
I laughed as Joe set a cup in front of the handsome young stranger and poured.
"Cream and sugar are on the counter," Joe said, moving away.
The young man looked at the bowl of creamer cups and the sugar dispenser, then watched as I took a second sip from my cup.
He took a sip, making a face.
I laughed again. "Statistically, they say sociopaths prefer their coffee black. I suppose that's a mark in your favor?"
I passed him the sugar. He looked at it and poured, watching me sip. "What does that mean about you?" He asked.
I winced as the sugar continued pouring. "I'm a surgeon," I said. "And as a doctor, I think that's enough diabetes for one man, don't you think?"
He put the sugar back. He took a sip and cocked his head. "I don't think I like coffee," he said.
"Well, it's still $1.50," Joe piped up from his stool by the register.
"Two slices of apple pie, Joe?" I winked at the cute guy. "Can't have coffee without apple pie, right?"
The cute guy nodded.
Joe hopped up to cut two slices of apple pie from the case and put them under the warmer.
"Are you a 'cheese-on-top' guy or an 'a la mode' guy?"
"I'll have what you're having," he said, trying a creamer cup in his coffee.
"My father used to swear by the apple pie here," I said. "In fact, that's how my parents met. It was a terrible, no-good bad day, as Dad used to say. And it was raining like this. He walked into this diner, and all he wanted was a cup of coffee and a slice of apple pie with cheese on top. And just as he sat down, this girl at the counter ordered exactly what he was about to order but 'a la mode.' And it was the last slice of apple."
Joe served me my slice and passed one to the stranger in the black suit.
"Which is better?" He asked. "Cheese on top or a la mode?"
"I never chose sides," I smirked. "I just like plain apple pie."
Something about how he accepted the fork Joe offered him and how his eyes moved from the pie to me and then back to the pie, made me smile.
His eyes were pale blue. In fact, everything about him except his suit was in some way pale. Even his hair, though dark, was washed out somehow.
"Dad always described Mom as wearing this little blue suit with a little white collar with red piping on, and this little dark blue pill-box hat. He always choked up describing her and how she shared that slice of pie with him."
"How'd your mother describe him?" He asked, taking a tentative bite of the pie.
"Like a drowned kitten in a brown suit," I smiled. I found myself wiping my own eyes.
"Go on," the young man said.
"Only if you tell me what you think of the pie," I leaned back and sipped my coffee.
"I like pie."
I nodded. "Well then, they lived happily ever after," I smiled, sipping my coffee. "As proven by my humble existence."
He nodded. "That's the best part then, isn't it? Not the pie. Not the coffee. Who takes what in what way? It's the living happily, right?"
I nodded. "Well said. So, I'm Marley. What's your name?"
He made as if to answer me just as my wristwatch alarm chimed. I swore, digging into the recesses of my purse.
"Sorry," I smiled. "I've had a heart condition since I was four. Hey Joe, can I have a glass of water?"
Of course, the details of William Jerome Jacobs's life had been truncated into various obituaries saying the same thing in every newspaper in the United States and most of the world three days before. I hadn't read them, but I knew the highlights.
I knew the highlights and lowlights of Bill Jacobs's life just as I had known the details of his wife Francis 17 years before.
I knew all the details about every human who had ever lived.
But sitting beside Bill Jacobs as he watched his own funeral service had been strange.
"This isn't happening," He'd said almost constantly from the moment I'd appeared to help him up from the bathroom floor five days previous.
"I'm afraid it is, Bill. On the bright side, you made it to 75. And you had more brushes with me than you'd care to acknowledge. Embedded in Desert Storm, a smoker from age 17 until you were 39. Drunken driving. Hanging a clock in your bathroom on a rickety ladder. A heart attack is rather mundane, but it's done."
"They checked my heart three months ago! I was fine."
I shrugged, watching his eldest daughter with her husband in the front row as the Vienna Boys' Choir sang "Fröhliche Weihnacht."
"This is a joke, right? I mean, you're not Death. You're some kid, an actress in a suit, hired by somebody from my frat days? I mean, at my 50th Reunion, we sent a casket to the class president's hotel room..."
I shook my head. "Bill..."
"There must be some mistake."
"Bill, stop trying to handle the situation and just accept it, okay?"
"I'm dreaming this. You're a dream."
"It's not a dream, Bill." I waited for the next stage; anger.
"But it can't be over! I am watching my cholesterol, speed-walking twice a day, I eat Kale, goddamnit!"
"Skip to the bartering bit?"
"NO! I'm not dead!"
(Ugh.) "We're at your funeral. Your body is pumped full of formaldehyde and stuffed in a casket. Nobody can see us or hear us, despite your bellowing at the top of your lungs. Doornails have better chances of returning to life."
"What if I gave more to charity?"
"You're done, Bill. Accept it. They flew in the Vienna Boys' Choir. Do you even speak German?"
"Ich spreche jede Sprache. Und Hitler jammerte weniger."
"What was that?"
"Me, saying that 'I speak all languages' in German, numbnuts."
When his eldest daughter Susan took the pulpit, I noticed Bill rolling his eyes.
"What's wrong, Bill?"
"I would have preferred Marley," he sulked. "Don't get me wrong, Susan is a fine girl. But she's boring as un-buttered toast. Marley wouldn't stand on ceremony. She'd tell it from the heart, you know. Not burying the lead."
"What is the lead, Bill?"
"Oh, Fuck you! Just because I'm dead doesn't mean I can't argue with someone... No! SOME THING, that doesn't care!"
"People care, Bill."
"That's a dipshit answer! No! I refuse to die! At least not without someone beside me."
"I'm here, Bill."
"You?" His eyes drank me in. "No. You're not Fran. You're something else."
"I'm who you want to see, Bill.:
"Yeah, sure. But what are you, really? You're wearing a face and playing a part. But YOU! THE REAL YOU! Have you ever 'been?' Have you scraped a knee or bumped your head? Have you cried over up-turned cheerios? Fucked up? Made love? Held a newborn baby in your arms? Have you kissed someone and felt...?"
"Go on Bill."
"I need her! Not some stone-cold businessman with ice-water in his veins and ticker-tape running from his heart wearing her like a costume!"
"Must not all things at the last be swallowed up in death?"
"Plato," he said.
"I have heard the eternal footman hold my coat, and snicker," he said.
"T.S. Eliot," I nodded.
"Are you really here to help me through this?" He asked. "Or will you just put me in a column and add me to a total like a bead on some eternal abacus?"
I watched the slender figure of his youngest daughter rise from the end of the front pew and move down the outside aisle.
"See, even she's got the right idea," Bill sneered. "For all the pomp and circumstance, she knows it's hollow. Just as I know YOU are hollow. It's not about saying goodbye at the end. It's about how somebody lived. This funeral has all the passion of an autobahn society meeting. And if you're the angel of death, you're light on the 'angel' part."
"Alright, Bill. If you want to bail out now...?"
"Just tell me she's going to be okay?"
I considered. "I can't promise anything, Bill."
"No! You can promise me that. I want Marley to be more. To feel more. I want her to find love the way I did and find excitement with life the way I did. Well, not exactly the way I did, but... I want her to be happy. You know? Happy?! Or are you capable of feeling things like happiness? Sadness? Fool-hardiness? Pain? Rapture? To see someone and feel, not just a zing of attraction, but...."
"Oh, look what I'm talking to. A cog in some infernal machine counting minutes, hours, years, eons but not feeling anything. I once felt delirious with joy, Buck-o. I set all care to the wind and danced like a leaf on the breeze with rapture!"
"Okay." At that moment, I looked over at the old man. "Bill?"
He sighed. "I guess you'd have to be human to understand."
"Will she be there? Will my wife be waiting for me, wherever it is I'm going?"
"I can't say, Bill. I don't know where people go."
"Well, at least promise me Marley's going to be alright. I'll shuffle off this mortal coil without any more fuss if you can at least tell me she'll be happy."
"If it will give you peace...."
"NO! PROMISE IT AND MEAN IT!"
"FINE! IF IT WILL SHUT YOU UP!"
I don't know where Bill Jacobs went after that. It's not my department to know.
But suddenly, there I was, in a diner, watching Marley Jacobs, 33, doctor of medicine, with her almond-brown hair and eyes the color of the Orion nebula, take two pills with a glass of tap water, knowing I'd made a mistake.
"You don't have to pay for me," I said. "I have money. How much is Juan Valdez and coffee usually?"
The large man in the strange hat piped up. "Coffee is $1.50. Pie is $3.50."
I dug in my pocket and put some coins on the counter. "How much is that in Obols?"
The large man put down his paper. "In what?"
I presented the silver coins, and he came and puzzled over them. The girl, Marley, leaned forward over the coins as well, moving to the seat right beside mine.
"What the heck are those?"
"Obols," I said. "Half-scruples?"
She picked them up and examined one. "Who is this supposed to be?"
"Demitrius of Bactria," I said. "Crowned with the head of an elephant."
She turned it over. "And this?"
"Hercules wearing the pelt of the Nemean Lion."
"Coin of the realm, Bud," The large proprietor said. "You know? Washington? Lincoln? Hamilton?"
She reached in her purse and brought out a green slip of paper. "On me, Joe," she said. "So, I'm Marley Jacobs. And you are...?"
I have so many names. So many names on so many planes of existence. For some reason, with her calm green eyes leveled at me, I struggled to pick one.
"Joe," I said, catching the surly man's name tag out of the corner of my eye.
She brightened, swallowing a mouthful of Mr. Valdez. "Small worlds collide! Joe? Meet Joe."
Old Joe extended his hand to the handsome guy, and for a moment, it was like watching a child presented with a math problem.
The young guy brought his hand up from the counter, and when Old Joe grabbed it and squeezed it, the young guy returned the squeeze.
Then Old Joe winced. "Easy, partner. It's a handshake, not a deathmatch."
The young guy let go and then looked at me, extending his hand.
"Joe... What? Have you got a last name?" I asked.
His smirk faded.
"You know? Like 'Smith' or 'Jones' or 'Humperdinck?'"
"Black," he said. "Joe Black."
I nodded, extending my hand. "Marley Jacobs."
When his hand gripped mine, it was as of he was making an effort to control his strength. There was a strange feeling. It was just a hand. Not hot or cold. Not firm or soft. But his palm against mine felt vaguely... natural.
"Doctor Marley Jacobs," I found myself saying.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi," I said back, picking up my own fork to cut a bite from the warm apple pie.
He cut a massive bite of his own and forked it into his mouth.
"Yes?" Both Old Joe and the new Joe said in stereo.
"I meant, New Joe. No offense, Joe?"
"None taken," Old Joe said.
New Joe was delving deeply into his pie.
His pie was disappearing rapidly, fork-full by fork-full.
He looked up from the plate, confused. "Me?"
"Yes. You! Joe Black. Hi."
"Um, there's a reception after the funeral. It's family only. I, uh, I'm expected to attend...."
"Can we bring more pie?" He asked, swallowing.
"Um, I think they might have some there?"
"I don't know. Maybe?"
He considered. "Why are you inviting me?"
It was both an odd question and yet... "Because, I guess, I don't want to go alone?"
Nobody does. And yet, the moment she'd taken that pill--
Since she was 6-years-old, Marley Jacobs has taken 10 milligrams of digitalis for her heart every day, twice a day.
Today she took her regular morning pill, plus a fatal evening dose of 35 milligrams. Her brother-in-law made the substitution, incidentally just 8 days after doing the same for William Jacobs, exchanging one pill for another.
Death is death. And if someone is murdered, it's easier if they don't know about it during their transition... Bill Jacobs didn't know he'd been murdered. And he didn't suspect anything. Not did he know his daughter was next.
I hadn't cared. I wouldn't have cared. Cosmically speaking, I shouldn't have even noticed.
But William J. Jacobs had annoyed me. That whole "SOME THING," not "someone," schtick bothered me.
Before millennia ever multiplied into eons and dragged through the abyss of time, I existed. Before most things had formed and before those things could feel, before light had been light, and dark was truly dark, I existed. But to be called an "unfeeling thing...." Well, it irked me to be summarily judged so rudely.
I'm someone. I can be open, Bill. I can sing with rapture and dance like a leaf. It's not that I can't feel. I just choose not to. I was around before sound, before matter, before the heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I looked at Marley Jacob's eyes darting away as she suddenly became self-conscious.
"Maybe it's a bad idea. You'd probably feel awkward at a funeral reception with a bunch of strangers."
"Would it help you not feel alone?" I heard myself ask. "If I went with you, I mean?"
She set down her coffee cup. "I don't know. Something tells me that Dad's already gone. And he's the one person I'd like to be with right now. Just him and me. We used to have good talks, and he'd reprove my miserable taste in men and sing the praises of living a life open to chaos."
"You know, lightning striking?"
"Wouldn't that hurt?"
She laughed. "Not literally striking. But, you know? Like meeting a cute guy in a diner with kind eyes who acts like he's never had pie before." She smirked, looking at my empty plate, then passed her barely touched slice of pie across the counter at me. "With my compliments, Sir."
He licked the back of his fork and looked at my pie slice. Pushing it back toward me, he said. "I'd rather watch you. Pie is good."
I smiled, taking up my fork and having a bite. It was pie I'd had a hundred times before, but as he watched me, I felt myself savoring each bite. Once I'd finished, he took my plate and stood, offering me his hand. "I'll come with you to your father's house if you promise me one thing," he said.
"That afterward we go and do something just as good as pie and coffee has been."
He helped me on with my raincoat and then took the umbrella off the coat rack.
"By Marley, nice meeting you, new Joe."
"Nice meeting you too, old Joe," the young man opened the umbrella over me as we stepped out into the rain.
"We'll take my car," I said, unlocking it with my remote key fob.
He held the umbrella over both of us until we reached the driver's side door, and he opened it for me, and I slid in. He then went around the front of the car and climbed into the passenger seat, shaking out the umbrella as he closed it.
"You don't have a raincoat in this weather?"
He shook his head. "I don't mind the rain. What sort of car is this?"
"It's a Jaguar F-Type," I said. "My one indulgence. I love fast cars."
He nodded as I pressed the ignition button. "Nearly 40,000 people are killed in motor vehicle accidents annually in the United States," he said. "And nearly 50 percent of those accidents occur during inclimate weather while the vehicle's operator is speeding."
I shifted into reverse, checking my mirrors. "You really know how to soak a girl's panties, don't you, Joe?"
I punched the gas, and we flew backward quickly until I braked, spinning the wheel and clutching as I went from reverse into first gear, pressing again on the accelerator, rocketing us forward.
"Is your father's house going anywhere?"
"If that's your way of asking if I will slow down, the answer is 'no.'"
He nodded. "Okay then. Just a thought."
As I took the on-ramp for the 25A, I settled down a bit,
Seeing his knuckles were white on the passenger-side strap as I cruised just a touch over the speed limit, I reached over and patted his knee. "Calm down, Old Top. I'll get us there in one piece."
"It's not me I'm worried about. It's the other people on the road."
I kept my hand on his knee a moment, and then, as I cut around a large tractor-trailer, his hand moved to grip mine. "I guess I'm just a nervous passenger," he said.
I brought his hand over to my knee, and I pulled my skirt up, slightly revealing more of my stocking-clad legs. "Perhaps you need a distraction?"
His hand was cool as I rested it just inside my right inner thigh. His eyes dipped down and then back up to look at me.
"I know," I said. "I don't know what's got into me. Maybe talking about sex after a funeral?"