I wrote this story several years ago and have been sitting on it. I will admit that it is not the best story, nor is it fine literature. But it is all true and means something to me. And it is long overdue that I share this rather than keeping it locked in a file on my computer. Without further ado, I present to you Promise Me a Quarter.
Several years ago, my mother and her best friend made a promise to each other over lunch. It was at the local Ponderosa over salads that Virginia said, "Let's make a promise that whichever of us dies first, the other will put a quarter in their coffin for a phone call. When we get to the other side, we'll find a pay phone and call the other to let them know what to expect." You see, Virginia was an odd character. She was the complete opposite of my mother -- never afraid to state her opinion with a venomous wit and defend it wholeheartedly even when she was wrong. "Get over it," she would say if you took offense and made the mistake of letting it show. She used colorful language as punctuation, never holding back to tell you precisely what she thought of any variety of topics. You had to love that about her.
It was an odd request for any normal person, but mom didn't bat an eye. "Sure," was her simple response. She didn’t know that it would be two weeks to the day that we would receive a telephone call telling us that Virginia had died of sudden heart failure. She immediately dropped dead as she unlocked her car door. No struggle. No pain. No last words. Only a simple slap of the dew soaked pavement as her body fell to the ground.
Bill, Virginia's husband, was quite a different character altogether. Neither made any secret that theirs was an unloving marriage of convenience. They shared nothing including the deed to the house, which incidentally was hers. She received the benefit of his military retirement benefits, he an extra income to help cover the mortgage. They were seldom seen together.
By the time of the funeral, Virginia's family swarmed into town. We never knew she had so many relatives. Rumors circulated immediately. He boasted about going through her bra looking for her hidden stash of cash before he even called 9-1-1. He had the house cleared out and down to the flea market before she even made it to the morgue. He wouldn't let family into the house to collect her things. Bill made no effort to hide any of the truth from anyone. He was proud of his accomplishments.
We were all still in denial over Virginia’s death. We thought she was as healthy as a horse -- too vibrant to have died so suddenly.
I was sure that Virginia had faked her own death to find out who would turn up at her funeral. Who would cry? Who would laugh? Who would be relieved?
Above all we were mad at her for not doing anything about her health ahead of time. Her doctors had warned her of the risks she was taking, yet she refused treatment. Mom was certain Virginia had known the whole situation before lunch when they made their pact. I was certain she would sit up in her coffin and call people out for their flaws.
But a promise had been made and payment was due. Mom had selected the perfect Hallmark card, slightly larger than the quarter that she placed inside. She wrote a brief note along with her phone number and carefully placed it into the small yellow envelope before sealing it.
"Where can I put the card that Bill won't take it? I wouldn't put it past him to ransack the coffin if he knew it was there."
"Give it to me and I will take care of it," I replied hastily.
"But it's got to be somewhere he doesn't see it. There are dozens of people here. We'll get caught!"
"Just give me the damned envelope and all of you stand close to the coffin and block view."
"What are you going to do?"
I gathered my parents and siblings into a huddle and stood them shoulder to shoulder so that no one would see what I was about to do. "Just stand there and don't worry about a thing."
I heard my mother gasp as I reached into the coffin and began to lift Virginia's body. An "Oh, God!" passed mom's lips as I slid my hand under the small of Virginia's back and deposited the envelope and its contents securely at the base of her spine. When I withdrew my hand and turned back around, mom was as pale anything I have ever seen. My sister let out a snicker. Dad grinned. Mom clasped both hands over her mouth to stifle the laughter.
"What? Aw, come on! You know she would get a kick out of me copping a feel. She probably enjoyed it."
We kept an eye on the coffin for the longest time from afar. The quarter was safe. Bill didn't go near the body. He didn't even stay for the graveside service choosing instead to go fishing. Virginia was dead. Why should he put his life on hold? He didn't even pay for a simple grave marker. Hers was a cost cutter funeral. If she hadn't already paid for it, he wasn't about to part with his cash.
It wasn't long after the funeral and everyone had gone home the cost of a phone call from a pay phone doubled.
"Damn! I knew I should have put two quarters in there!" was mom's only response.
For weeks, mom sat by the phone waiting for a call that would never come. Of course if it could be done, Virginia was the one to do it. But the odds diminished with each passing week. Virginia would have to call collect.
So, to this day -– in an unmarked grave at Washington Park Cemetery in Indianapolis -– lies the body of Virginia DeNease. A quarter planted firmly beneath her seat, waiting for another so she can finally make her call. Mom expects it any day.
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