Many months passed. Charlie went to his job every weekday morning, came home every weekday evening, pretended to care about Penn State football, fell asleep in front of some crime drama, raked leaves, raked his neighbor's leaves, cleaned out his closets, ordered pizzas and, one afternoon, bought himself a new pair of oxfords for work. He tumbled comfortably back into the mundane routine he had known before the inheritance, and after a while forgot entirely about the unknown dead man, the phone call, and even his fortune.
The only thing he didn't forget was Aunt Vera. She had been an old curmudgeon, but she had been the only family he had left, and he mourned the loss of her muttering, frowning little mouth and watery coffee.
He returned one day from work to the message light on his answering machine, flashing on and off in a oddly celebratory manner.
Mr. Wentzl, this is the coroner's office? Please call us back at your earliest convenience at 484 646 9903. Thank you!
Charlie's eyes flew wide. He grabbed a pen, replayed the message, and jotted down the number. As it was after 5 pm, it was too late to call that day, but he resolved to call first thing the next morning.
And he did.
"Hello, this is Charlie Wentzl. Your office called me yesterday?"
"Oh, yes. You had contacted us some time back about the John Doe from Miller Furnace?"
"Yes, I did."
"Well, nobody's claimed him. Do you still want to take him?"
"Absolutely." Charlie grabbed his pen and notepad again. "What do I need to do?"
"Just pick him up."
"Pick him up?" Charlie quailed. "Like, come put him in the trunk of the car or something?"
"Sure," replied the coroner, "although you need to arrange for a legal method of disposal. You can't take him home and bury him in your backyard or anything like that. You need to get a licensed mortician lined up. I have some names and numbers of funeral homes that can help you."
"No, that's okay. I have one. I'll arrange for them to come get him." He made a mental note to call the Hoffmans; they had done a good job for Vera.
"Who will you be sending?"
"Hoffman Brothers in Weisstown."
"Oh yeah, I know Tim. Just have him call me with his pick-up time."
It felt eerily like he was arranging for the purchase and delivery of a piece of furniture. "Will do."
He hung up the phone, jogged his memory for the Hoffmans' phone number, and failing to recall it completely, caved and looked it up in the phone book.
"Hoffman Brothers Funeral Home," said the gentle yet assertive voice. "How may I help you?"
"Yes, this is Charlie Wentzl. You handled the arrangements for my aunt, Vera Wentzl?"
"Oh, yes, Charlie. How are you doing?"
"Fine. Look"-- and suddenly, he realized just how bizarre he was going to sound, and he stumbled. "Um...um."
"Is everything all right?" Tim prompted.
"Um...yes. I'm sorry. I need--I need to have a body picked up from the county morgue?"
"Of course." Tim's businesslike demeanor betrayed no alarm, but then again, he did this for a living. "What name?"
"Um...well, I don't know. John Doe."
"John Doe?" Now Tim sounded a bit surprised.
"Yes. I--I don't know his real name."
"Well, Charlie," Tim said gently, "I'm not sure that I can claim somebody without a name--"
"No," Charlie interrupted. "They'll know who you're looking for. They don't know who he is, either. Do you remember the bit in the paper some time back about a dead man in Miller Furnace Park?"
"Well, that's this guy."
"Is he a relative of yours? Friend?"
"Can I ask, then, why you want me to pick him up?"
"I'm going to have him buried," explained Charlie. "Otherwise they'll donate him to science, so-- they're letting me take him and handle his arrangements."
"Charlie, that's so kind of you," exclaimed Tim.
"It's nothing," dismissed Charlie.
"No, it is," insisted Tim, "but-- well, even a basic funeral isn't cheap. You know that."
"No, I know. It's okay."
"You'd do that?" Tim sounded awed. "You'd do that for this man you don't know?"
"Like I said, it's nothing."
"It's very kind." Charlie could hear Tim ruffling through some papers. "I'll call them and arrange a pick up time, and then I'll call you back to schedule a time for us to meet and make the arrangements." He paused. "I can't make any concrete promises right now, but I'll talk to Tom and see if there's something we can't donate to the cause. I can't do the whole thing for free, but I'm sure we can give a few things."
"You don't have to do that."
"It would be our pleasure. What a wonderful thing you're doing here, Charlie."
It felt weird to be seated, once again, in the exquisitely-upholstered leather chair opposite Tim Hoffman's mahogany desk, answering the same questions he had just answered months earlier, with the added oddity of making such sensitive decisions for a total stranger.
"Now," said Tim, his manner much more matter-of-fact this time around (he wasn't dealing with the dead man's relatives, after all), "do you want a burial or cremation?"
Charlie hadn't even considered cremation. "Um...I'm not sure. What do you recommend?"
"Well, considering how long this man has been...deceased, I would suggest cremation. Plus, it's a much more economical choice." Tim peered up over his frameless glasses. "If that is a consideration, of course."
"Obviously, I don't want to spend a fortune on this," Charlie pondered aloud. "But I don't want to be cheap, either."
"Cremation is a very respectful choice, Charlie. A lot of families are electing it these days."
"But..." Charlie sighed. "I'm worried about doing something this man wouldn't've wanted."
"There's no way to know one way or the other," Tim reassured him.
"Plus then we can forego consideration of an outfit, purchase of a burial plot..." Tim scanned his worksheet. "The only issue would be scattering of the ashes. Or you could inter them in our memorial garden here."
"How much would cremation be?"
Tim methodically punched some figures into his computer and clicked the mouse with a bit of flourish. "$3,155. That includes our basic service fee, cremation in the fiberboard container that we used for transit, and the fee for pickup and transit from the morgue."
Charlie didn't say anything.
Tim glanced up at him. "Is that satisfactory?"
"I spent almost three times that for Vera's service," mused Charlie.
"Yes, it's a very good package. The price is quite reasonable for what you get."
"The price is good," agreed Charlie. "But...I don't know."
"I'm-- I'm not comfortable with it," confessed Charlie. "I bought Vera a deluxe casket, printed memorial cards, and everything. This poor man, whom nobody apparently cares about, is going to be incinerated, naked, in a cardboard box. It's not much better than what the county was going to do with him. I want to do better than this."
"Charlie," urged Tim, "while normally I would be encouraging you to add on as many bells and whistles as you want to this, I don't think you want to go all out here."
"So you're comfortable overcharging me for my aunt, but not for this man?"
Tim winced. "It's not quite like that. Your aunt was family. You do the bells and whistles for her because she was your aunt. This man, on the other hand? He's a stranger. You're so kind to make sure that he gets a proper send-off, but--"
"As far as that man is concerned," interjected Charlie, "I'm the only family he has."
"Charlie, this is going to cost you a lot of money."
"Tim, do me a favor. Pretend this man was my father." Charlie gestured at Tim's mortuary guidebooks and catalogues on the desk. "And proceed accordingly."
Tim regarded Charlie for a moment, then smiled.
"Very well, then. Let's start"-- and Tim opened the thick binder to display several models of caskets-- "by choosing this."