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Exiting the Belt Parkway at Fourth Avenue & 92nd Street, my friend, Sheila, and I were en route to pay last our respects to Mrs. May Montecatello of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, who enjoyed a two-month sabbatical at her Southampton Shores bungalow every summer.

Every July, packed like stuffing at Thanksgiving, Sheila and I, along with May’s only child, Mary Frances, would bolt into Mrs. M’s turquoise Chevy Bonneville, circa1957, drive east on Sunrise Highway from Brooklyn, and stop for sustenance at the Peter Pan Diner. After what seemed like days, we’d finally enter the main gate on Noyac Road, and reach number 4 Kings Point Road.

We slept in enormous feather beds in the cavernous loft, ate May’s drizzled grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch and dined on her famous tomato soup avec meatloaf. She was never stingy with the blintzes. We swam, played tennis, and watched real stars and lightning bugs do their glitter dance. No celebs then. Just the Pollacks and deKoonings.

May never got angry if we dragged sand into the house or dripped ice cream on the chintz. She reveled in our school’s-out-for-summer freedom too. She loved to take us to peek in the windows of landmarks like the Maidstone and Grey Gardens. They seemed to define her life’s free-spirited journey. When May was close to 90, most of those original Shore cottages had been expanded or replaced, and the year before she died, she reluctantly agreed to sell to a woman ‘who thought who she was.’

There was valet parking at the Woodbury Funeral Home, where May was resting comfortably. I drove up to the booth and handed my keys to the attendant, a withered grey-hooded man, leaning on a cane. As we walked to the mortuary door, I noticed a bald guy in a dark suit peering out the window. Not a lot going on in his head. Just looking for customers. A slick, icy surface and a clutch of cars whose brakes might fail to engage was a sure recipe for impending doom. With luck, discounted cremation rates were in effect: $500, no urn or graveside ceremony. (Basically you’re on your own.) Deluxe package includes service with an internet-certified minister, a nice hearse to the cemetery, and burial fees. (Prices subject to change without notice. Check the brochure.)

Mary Frances greeted us at the entrance to the Sunset Chapel, May’s temporary domicile. I could tell she was glad we came. Actually, I think they both were. May always liked a full house. Mary led us solemnly through the crowd to her mother’s coffin.

Doesn’t she look great?” Sheila rhapsodized. “Such a beautiful pink liner…Costco? ” Mary shot her down with an “Over my dead body,” and asked if we’d like to say a prayer.

I knelt at the casket first, and bowed my head. I touched May lightly, and whispered a thank you for letting me smoke and pretend I was in a French movie with Jean-Paul Belmondo…without telling my mother. Sheila had her own issues to discuss with May. I hoped she congratulated her on the nice turnout, and that she apologized for driving the Chevy through Georgica Pond and careening into a tree.

Since it was 9 o’clock, and I was anticipating a snowy ride back to Long Island, Sheila and I hugged Mary goodbye, and headed for the door where a tall-case clock reminded us that we, too, were running out of time. The frail valet parker was gone, but I found my car keys easily. We got in, and pulled away.

I asked Sheila if she knew any nearby drugstores or restaurants that might be open.

“What? What for? At this hour?”

We have to leave death somewhere. We can’t take it home with us. It’s bad luck.”

Are you crazy?”

I’m going to stop wherever I can. I can’t take the chance. You can sit here and deal with the Grim Reaper on your own.”

“Oh for God’s sake, all right. You’re scaring me. I’m not waiting in the car. I’m going with you.”

“Hey, look, there’s plenty of room in front of that Chinese restaurant across the street.

98 Noodle was a sparsely furnished, dimly lit take-out joint with about six tables and a menu pinned to the wall over the cash register. I didn’t care if I was in the reptile house at the Bronx Zoo. This was as good a place as any to shake off the molecules of death that were coiled around my neck.

Sheila and I sat down, and a tiny – make that Lilliputian --Asian woman arrived to take our order. Shrimp fried rice, egg rolls, wonton soup. Extra fortune cookies, please. I watched her totter away. She was old. Really old. I felt guilty, thinking that I might be hastening her demise. But I told myself she was probably close to her termination date anyway. We all have deadlines, and I reassured myself that hers must be approaching. Surely she’d welcome the end of her life’s sentence in this dreary place. Sheila was oblivious, gleefully stuffing her face with noodles and tea.

I noticed the hooded valet parker having dinner at a corner table. He kind of gave me the shivers. My guilt at the prospect of transferring death to our little waitress turned to mild discomfort. Was he the fatal end I was trying to avoid? If this guy wasn’t from Central Casting, Sheila and I were in trouble.

We’ve all seen images, sketches, cartoons even – of the Grim Reaper. Death on paper. You know. The stooped, dark figure, scythe in hand, ringing your doorbell or lurking around the pages of The New Yorker.

The room was getting cold. I pushed my plate of unfinished rice away, and told Sheila we needed to leave. Now. As I motioned to the waitress for the check, I heard the sound of a cane scraping the floor.

I felt a tap on my shoulder. The man in the hooded coat was standing in front of us. He stared at Sheila, then at me. I could feel his firm hand gripping my arm.

“Futile to try to escape,” he laughed. “ You saved me a trip. I was planning to meet up with you on the Belt Parkway.”

(Because I would not stop for death, he grabbed his cane -- and stopped for me.)

By Barbara Shields


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