"Was she really religious? I didn't think she was all that religious."
Cameron twisted her black leather gloves in her winter-dry hands.
"I don't know," said her husband, eyes focused on the road ahead. It was starting to snow again. He loosened his tie with one hand, other hand on the wheel. His wedding ring gleamed in the afternoon light. "Put this in your purse, will you?"
She reached over behind the seats and grabbed her purse. It was heavy with her pocket-change laden wallet, reading glasses, lipstick that she never wore, gum, bills, pay stubs and a handful of peppermints that had escaped from their container two months ago and were now accumulating lint coats. Lifting the heavy purse and heaving it over the seats was always a bit of a chore. It made her feel like her arm was being wrenched out of its socket. She always said to Tom, before she put the purse in the back seat at the beginning of any car travel, "Is there anything in my purse you might need?" And he always replied, "Why would I need anything in your purse?" Ten minutes later, without fail, he would ask for a stick of gum, or an aspirin, or he wanted to put something in the purse. Like his tie.
She grunted a bit more than was necessary but she wrestled the purse into her lap without complaint. She took the tie, rolled it up into a perfectly round, perfectly garish red, white and blue ball, and slipped it into her purse. His mother had given him that tie last Christmas. It was horrid. She thought about accidentally tossing it out the window.
"Anything else you need from the purse?" she asked. "Gum? Asprin? Antacid? Cigars? Cigarettes? Coffee, tea or me?"
"No thanks," said Tom.
She started to put her purse in the back seat.
"Oh wait," he said. "Maybe I will have a Tums. That salmon sandwich I had at the lunch might have been a bit off."
She handed him a couple of antacids, then closed her purse. "I had the egg salad. It was good. Nothing beats those little triangle-shaped sandwiches they serve at funerals. Did you try any of the squares? Those oatmeal-rice crisp things were phenomenal. I wish I had of asked for the recipe. I was going to, but didn't have enough nerve. It was good, though. Those ladies at Christ Church always put on a nice lunch."
She left the purse in her lap, just in case Tom changed his mind.
"Why don't you put your purse in the back seat? It'll be more comfortable for you than having that big thing sitting in your lap."
Cameron made a wry face. "It's fine. Besides, you might need it."
"I won't need it. Why would I need it?"
She sighed, then lifted her purse over her head and into the back seat, wrenching her arm again in the process.
Her lap was now free of everything but her hands and her gloves.
"Now isn't that better?" he asked, throwing a smile her way.
"Oh yes. Much." She rubbed her shoulder in the spot where it throbbed the most.
They drove in quiet for a few moments. When Cameron stopped thinking about her shoulder and her purse, she returned to thoughts of Aunt Opal and how religious her funeral was. She never remembered Opal talking about religion, or going to church. There were no portraits of Jesus hanging in her room at the Whispering Pines Retirement Villa. There were no crucifixes on the wall. And yet there were three ministers at the funeral – three. And all of them took a turn at the podium saying what a good Christian woman Opal was, and how she was ready to meet her maker and cry tears of joy in the arms of her Lord.
"The way those ministers carried on you'd think Aunt Opal was excited about dying," Cameron said. "That's not the impression I got from talking to cousin Karen. She was right there with Aunt Opal when she died and I asked her if she went peacefully and Karen said yes, at the very end. But the last week was hard because she was scared."
Tom said, "Well that's understandable. I'd be scared if I was dying."
"Me too. But we're heathens. We're not believers, the way those ministers said Aunt Opal was a believer. If I truly believed that I was going to heaven when I died, real heaven with pearly gates and a choir of angels and no pain, just love and happiness in a never-ending palm-treed paradise, I wouldn't be scared. I'd be excited. Hell, I'd be positively thrilled.
"Poor Aunt Opal," she said. "Even at 97 years old, she was scared of dying. I would have thought that maybe, when you get to that age, you're more accepting of the inevitable."
Tom kept his eyes on the road, but he reached over with his right hand and rubbed his wife's sore shoulder. "This the spot that hurts?" he asked.
She smiled. "Yes."
Tom rubbed her shoulder. "I don't think," he said, "we ever stop wanting to live. I don't think we ever stop being scared, either. No matter how old we are. The best we can hope for is finding something to believe in, like Aunt Opal did, or tried to do. That and getting funeral sandwiches that won't give your guests food poisoning. Speaking of which, do you think I could bug you for another Tums?"
Cameron turned to look at her husband's face. She could see he was trying not to smile but not completely succeeding. "They're in my purse," she said.
"Your purse? Not the purse in the back seat, surely?"
"That," she said, "would be it. And I'm not reaching for it. I don't care how much that salmon you ate is swimming upstream."
He laughed. "You don't have to get your purse. I was kidding."
"I know," said Cameron. "But I'll get them if you really want."
"Nah," said Tom. "I don't. Just promise me, though, that there won't be any tainted salmon sandwiches at my funeral. And I only want one minister – and not a highly religious minister, either. One of those heathen-style ministers. And one more thing."
"What?" asked Cameron.
"Promise me you'll be there with me, holding my hand and loving me just exactly the way you do now. Because if you're there it doesn't matter if there's pearly gates, or a whole herd of ministers – if you're there, I don't have to be scared. You promise?"
"I promise," she said, although she could barely speak.
She kissed his aftershave-scented cheek, then leaned against his shoulder. The highway led on into the deepening twilight, snowflakes drawn to their headlights, with each mile a bit further from the funeral, a bit closer to their own mortality.