As death ceremonies go it was a fine entertainment, even Billy Boggs had to admit that. To begin with, the hockey was top notch, and Boggs liked to watch a good game. And it was something to see Ken Sharp, the Sharpshooter himself, in a Leafs sweater, whacking the winning puck into the Habs' net.
"I'd really love to know," Boggs said, "how much it cost to hire the Leafs and the Canadiens for a full three periods of play. But I don't suppose it's much good my asking."
"None whatsoever," Humphrey said in his usual cheerful manner. "But I can tell you it was plenty. Never mind, Ken can afford it, and it's all in a good cause."
"Good?" Boggs snorted.
"Try to see it from the old man's point of view. He never wanted Ken to become a tax accountant, plugged in to some computer for the rest of his life. He wanted a hockey star for a son. Remember how chuffed he was when Sharp made the 'Varsity team in '98? And Sharp was good, no doubt about it. And now -- " Humphrey waved a plump hand at the ice below them. "Now, at the last, the old man's dream has come true. His only son, scoring a hat trick in the deciding game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Winning the Player of the Game Award -- "
"But it's all a fake!"
"Nonsense! I think of it as theatre: and I'm the director." Humphrey shrugged. "Of course funerals, like weddings and convocations and investitures and all such ceremonies, have always been theatre. They're public rituals. You may quote all this in your column," Humphrey added grandly. "I've merely given full expression to the theatrical elements inherent in our lives. You should approve, you're the theatre buff."
"Well, I don't approve. And this isn't a play or a funeral. It's a death."
"But it will be a funeral," said Humphrey in a satisfied tone. "Very shortly. Now, watch."
Boggs' stomach battled an uneasy mixture of sympathetic pleasure and crawling anxiety as he looked on. As an old friend of the Sharpshooter, he rated a seat above the players' bench, next to the immediate family, but he had asked to be placed three or four rows back.
Humphrey Hastey, who as president of Charon Catering (which was handling every detail of the ceremony) could sit anywhere he pleased, decided that a seat beside Boggs was ideal for keeping his eye on everything.
The three of them had been at university together back in he '90s and each had followed the others' progress through the next four decades with varying degrees of admiration and derision. They had watched each other grow old, each without quite believing that he himself was aging. But Billy Boggs thought he believed it now.
He looked down at himself: a big, grey, shaggy, civilized bear. He looked at the Hump beside him, more than ever living up to his nickname, short and egg-like, missing most of his hair and too vain to let on he cared. He looked at Sharp down there on the ice, just starting to walk on his blade tips along the strip of red carpet to where he was to receive the Player of the Game Award from his father's hands.
Sharp was the stereotypical accountant, once lean, now stringy, always meticulous in dress, sweaty and grinning only for this occasion. The old man was a projection of Sharp 25 years from now, a silvery wisp barely able to totter along the carpet to meet the hero.
Then came a moment of genuine delight: the presentation. Boggs' throat tightened. The situation was bogus, the manipulation of emotions dishonest: but it worked. Theatre.
"Damn you, Hump," he said quietly.
"Perfect!" Humphrey smacked his thigh with a plop. "Not a hitch. Look at their faces, everybody's happy! Bill, you can't deny this is a far better way to go than -- "
"Oh, God, no! Not that!" Boggs straightened up and pointed at a man who had just stepped out on the ice. A man in traditional black-and-white evening dress, bearing a single wineglass on a silver tray.
This courtly figure was familiar to anyone who had attended any death ceremony catered by Charon. He stood still as a statue next to the gate leading to the locker rooms. As always Boggs looked into the face for some hint of a person, but saw only an inscrutable mask: dark of brow, heavy of eyelid. You could almost believe he was no ordinary hireling, that Humphrey had conjured him up out of Faustian myth.
Boggs seized Humphrey's arm. "You're not going to let them -- I mean, not right out there in front of all these people!"
"Good Lord! Of course not!" Hastey shook him off. "For one thing, it's illegal to suicide in public: I'd be fined and so would Ken. I couldn't even run it on the monitor. For another -- well, give me credit for some taste, Bill!"
"Then why is that man there?"
"Because the glass of champagne on the silver tray is my trademark. You know that. It stands for all that sets Charon apart from the common run of caterers. And then, the champagne contains the death agent. The servitor's appearance is the signal that the central moment has arrived."
The arena had grown quiet. The Sharps were a large and well-connected family, and the place was full. But the pair out at centre ice looked lonely and far away under the harsh white lights. Isolated, Boggs thought, by more than space.
A video crew had captured the award presentation. Now the two walked unsteadily towards the players' bench, the 60-year-old on his wobbly skates and the 85-year-old on his failing legs. And Boggs, watching intently, wondered if the old man's heart was sinking.
As they passed through the gate and down the passage, each with a last jaunty wave of the hand, the crowd burst into warm applause, which soon died down into an uneasy murmuring.
"They'll go to the locker room," Humphrey whispered, "and the other players will bring champagne. It'll be a terrific post-game victory party. The Sharpshooter will pour some over his head, to make the old guy laugh -- "
"Has he been drugged?"
"Absolutely not! Quite illegal. Unless in pain, the candidate must be free of drugs. It must be clear to all that he suicides of his own free will and in a sound mind. Bill, there are more regulations in our business than there are in the meat packing industry!"
In his imagination, Boggs saw the black-clad man approach, holding out the salver with its sparkling glassful of death. Would the old man put out his hand, then hesitate? Would he be suddenly afraid? Boggs grimaced.
"What's in the champagne?"
"I can't tell you. Not illegal, just a company secret. But it's tasteless, odorless, painless -- of course -- and very quick."
"Well, no." Hump spread his hands. "Think about it. Would you want to take a drink and then suddenly fall down in a heap? Not dignified! No: this takes a few seconds, enough to hand back the glass, arrange yourself in the chair, perhaps say a final goodbye to the nearest and dearest. I can't think of a more comfortable way to go, can you? To my mind it's a lot better than lingering on in pain, or vegetating under drugs, or doddering -- but, shh! Here's the announcement."
The carnival tones of the arena's organ danced through the great open space, grotesquely playing the signature tune of Charon Catering. It was "Crossing O'er Jordan," a choice which Boggs had often sneered at for placing Charon on the wrong river, but which Hastey defended as rich eclecticism. After the music a deeply solemn male voice (Boggs thought of the dark servitor) asked all to rise.
"Let us bow our heads and observe a few moments of silence in honor of the departed. Let us all remember John David Sharp as he was in life... "
The organ again, softly and reverently, took up the tune of "Crossing O'er Jordan." Boggs thought of the fragile old man who was now a man no longer, but only a piece of perishable meat to be disposed of. As usual,he couldn't fathom the change.
The music ended and was followed by Ken Sharp's halting voice, reading a memorial. Boggs gritted his teeth over this. He glanced sideways and caught Humphrey wiping a wetness from the corner of one eye.
"You're battening on this, you fraud!" he hissed savagely. Hump pretended not to have heard.
There was no mention of God or the afterlife -- old Sharp had not been a believer -- but Ken made several touching allusions to hockey. He invited everyone who had brought their skates, as noted on the invitation, to enjoy themselves on the ice for the next hour, in memory of his father. The snack bar would serve appropriate refreshments. He thanked them all for coming.
It was over. Boggs stretched, suddenly light-hearted with relief. God! how he hated these death ceremonies. The organ began to play the rollicking tunes popular with hockey fans and the arena became a normal place again, after having been a mausoleum for half an hour.
"But I don't think I'll ever feel comfortable here again," he grumbled as he followed Humphrey down the stairs.
"Not my idea, you know. It's was Ken's."
"Are you really going to serve arena food? Think I'll pass."
Humphrey hurried ahead, muttering something. Boggs knew what to expect and he wasn't disappointed. A closed hatchway suddenly opened next to the besieged snack bar, revealing black-garbed waiters hurrying to set up glittering ranks of champagne bottles and glasses. Boggs was one of the first to be handed a drink.
"Great stuff, as usual," he said when Hastey reappeared, smiling, glass in hand. They stood together at the edge of the crowd, watching the consumption of dried-out french fries, withered hot dogs, greasy popcorn, watery hot chocolate and ersatz coffee. And excellent champagne. Boggs wondered which of the guests knew the difference.
"No matter what else happens, there must be good champagne," Hastey said primly, as if pronouncing a moral principle. "Otherwise I accommodate my clients' taste as far as possible, within legal limits. Each ceremony is a recap and a topping off of a person's life, don't you think?"
Boggs was interested in spite of himself. The seed of a column was taking root in his mind. "I expect you've seen some oddities."
"Haven't I! I've seen ceremonies no different from an old-fashioned church funeral: casket, wreaths and all, except the corpse climbed into the casket on his own. I've supervised ceremonies where the candidate terminated in mid-air, clasping hands with his skydiving buddies. I've seen crass and undignified deaths at formal banquets and -- " the Hump waved his glass gently, careful not to spill -- "and truly lovely ends at shuffleboard tournaments and breweries, in balloons and swimming pools, on escalators and ski slopes -- one even during a laser hunt. And it's striking, how many people want to die and be cremated in their cars."
"Cars," Boggs muttered, wishing he'd brought his recorder.
"I've served as witness in thousands of single-person ceremonies and I've orchestrated deathday parties where entire towns were invited -- you'll remember the extravaganza put on by the deputy mayor, when he took himself off -- "
"Speaking of which, is the departed really departed, now?"
"Oh, yes, he was taken away at once for cremation."
"And so much for him!" Boggs drained his glass.
"Don't you think the ceremony was memorable?" Humphrey was miffed.
"As such things go, yes. I enjoyed the game. Well, I must be off. I mean -- " He laughed grimly. "Have you noticed, just in the last few years, what's been happening to the language?"
"No, what?" But the Hump was watching the crowd and the waiters, not really interested.
"It used to be, all the double-entendres had to do with sex. Now, just in the last ten years, since assisted suicide was legalized, we've been stumbling over death-words. Sex is honest now, death has become the dirty joke. I can't say 'I'm off,' without feeling embarrassed. 'Departed' means only one thing. Scores of words have become soiled, no, shadowed: words like -- "
"Yes, yes, very interesting! I'll look for it all in your column. Only don't, please, mention Charon Catering by name." Then Humphrey grinned. "No, I take that back. Feel free to mention Charon, Billy. I've noticed that the things you condemn in your columns usually become wonderfully popular!"
-end of part one-