The Uncomfortable Millionaire

Claude Charles is an uncomfortable millionaire. He works hard to hide what he calls his “creeping suspicion—that something is not right.” Whether he means with himself, or with the world, Charles does not say. He breakfasts each dawn in a diner he owns, where he jiggles his legs under the table, full of nerves and energy and unsure whether he is using them correctly. By mid-morning, he is in the funeral parlor offices of Happy Afterlife LLC, the business he made famous with the low-budget late-night television commercials the waking world mocks during the wide light of day. He fills out paperwork, talks on the telephone to distributors, stands at the window, and chats, almost always easily, with his secretary, his 1-800 operators, his troubleshooters, and whichever of his technicians are around. Then, surprised without fail at how little actual, real work there is for the ambitionless founder and CEO of a multi-million dollar funeral technology company to do, he either returns to his diner, sketch pad in hand, or walks from his townhouse to the campus of the nearby technical high school, which has a maple grove he is fond of. He goes to bed early and rises early, drinks very little alcohol, keeps few close friends. He speaks often with his mother, who lives in a suburb half an hour away, and visits her most weekends. They often watch televised sports. Their comments demonstrate a general appreciation for the sudden, the brutal, the sublime.

Charles says he hopes to be the first person he knows “who money doesn’t change,” and that he has “always been like this.” He doesn’t explain these terms. He appears to be very much like the person he was twenty-six months ago, when he was the overnight manager at a local big box retailer, and produced and starred in an ad for the Steady Grip, his Afterlife Communication Device, which has become for the “survived by” what the Ouija board is for enthusiasts of the paranormal, what séances were at the turn of the last century: a partly daring, partly hopeful glimpse into the one realm no one has two-way access to. Since then, Charles has gone from an object of local interest to one of regional and then national curiosity; been the second guest on all five major late-night talk shows; spawned imitators in a dozen countries that he knows of; and, most significantly for him, become rich. The cliché “more money than he knows what to do with” applies neatly and accurately to Claude Charles. Yet his life is carefree, not in its wild hedonism but in the total lack of it.

He lives and works in Schiller Park, Illinois, a town on the north-central edge of the broad metropolitan area known merrily as “Chicagoland.” It is pleasant and transitional in the manner of all suburbs. Sprawling industrial parks belie the skyscrapers to come, and the most prominent feature is O’Hare International Airport, from which the town is separated only by the Interstate and a chain of gas stations and long-term parking lots. From an airplane, the thin fog that shrouds the land is cause for a collar-pulling shiver, but the weather is balmy, more reminiscent of a seaside resort long after Labor Day than the snow-encrusted Middle-West of popular imagination.

The Sunrise Diner services a cross-section of bleary-eyed commuters and sedate, cheerful residents whose daily activities have little to do with the city proper. His is the rightmost rear booth, nestled between the server stand and the swinging door to the kitchen. Shaped like a distended C, the booth could easily seat six—which is why each morning Charles arrives before the posted open hour of five a.m. “I’ll move once the morning rush starts and they really need the space—I just like to get in a couple of hours at the booth,” he says, while pouring the last of his hoddle of coffee into one of the oversized mugs the diner offers, and then checking himself in the act of getting up for more. Without being asked or signaled, his waitress brings a fresh hoddle a moment later.

“I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t appreciate these people,” he offers, while twisting a packet of sugar into the coffee, and stirring meticulously. “Or that I can just come in and do whatever I want. I don’t think I’m very good at that.” He starts to say more; then, with an expression that looks like a smile inspired by a grimace, stops himself. He appears grateful for the fresh coffee, nearly knocking over the salt with an unbuttoned cuff as he reaches for it.

Might he prefer decaffeinated coffee, or water, instead?

He shakes his head, and a dribble of liquid, so thin it would go unseen in dim light, escapes his mouth and trickles down his lower lip before disappearing into his goatee. “I don’t do very well without a lot of energy.” Rather than use the last of his Dutch baby to sop up his egg yolks, Charles waits for the yolks to dry, then scoops them with the flat side of his fork. “I tend to brood. I’m a very ‘curtains drawn’ type of guy. Coffee helps me be more the person I think I should be.” He guzzles the dregs of his cup. “When I’m here,” he says, “about half the time, I want to walk around and ask everyone how their meals are. The other half, I think, no, no, just sit here. Be cool.” Then he laughs. “And I haven’t been cool for a day in my life.”

The colleagues he formerly managed say much the same thing:

“He wasn’t always approachable, but I never felt like I couldn’t go talk to him. About work.”

“He’s not a bad guy. Not by any means. But I tell you what, I’m glad I don’t have to spend Thanksgivings with him.”

“He’s got a thousand-yard stare like my father.”

“Sometimes we’d all go have breakfast after work. We didn’t usually ask him. He’d just kind of slink away before we got the chance.”

Indeed, by any colloquial use of the word “cool,” Charles’ statement is accurate. After graduating two-hundred-and-seventy-third from James R. Edgar High School’s 2003 class of three-ninety-two, he attended DeVry University for a full semester, withdrawing when his car refused to start each morning during finals week. (“It had run really well, up to that point,” Charles says. “So I took it as a sign.”) He secured a job as a stock clerk, joined the overnight crew for the higher hourly pay, became assistant overnight manager when the man who had the job retired following a seven-figure settlement in the now-famous workplace safety case Davidson v. Caterpillar Equipment. He saved a third of every paycheck, refused to turn on his heat before November or his air conditioning at all, frequented block parties and Episcopalian mixers, and was without concrete long-term goals, other than one day owning the 1978 Corvette Stingray he’d coveted since first seeing a picture of one on a poster in a boyhood friend’s bedroom.

“It was orange,” Charles adds.

And then there is a silence so intense that one can’t help but wonder if he is making all this up, buying time while he concocts another detail. But no: his eyes are cast down, intense, mirrors of a mind lost in all the thought that “orange,” for him, represents. Burnt leaves, perhaps, or the peculiar sense of rust and melancholy that accompanies the late autumn sun struggling past the jeweler, the psychic, the tire sales store across the street, the spindly branches of the naked trees behind these establishments. He will do this—not often, but at unexpected moments: the coffee loses some of its potency, or is washed away by the tide of introspection rising within Charles, and what had been a persistent stream of words ceases completely, while he navigates the flow.

Why did he buy the Sunrise Diner? Was it another long-standing dream? Some romantic notion of camaraderie and free breakfasts?

“There was a For Sale sign out front one morning. I used to come here to eat after work all the time, so I checked it out. The story I got was the owner had a heart attack and his son wanted to buy part of a golf course in Arizona. He was going to strip it out—auction off all the kitchen equipment, the tables. Everything. I thought I could buy it and just keep it open.”

He looks into his mug. Around him, his waitresses bustle, his cooks holler: it is the morning rush; Charles will vacate his booth soon.

Was the continued employment of so many people—some of whom no doubt knew him well from his days as an overnight manager—important to him? Did he feel a sense of community leadership, of local pride, when he, out of a protective instinct, reached for his checkbook and ballpoint pen?

“They didn’t know me.” He holds the mug in both hands. “I guess I bought it because…it serves its purpose. I didn’t see any reason for that to go away. And I pay for my meals,” he adds. “I always do that.”

He presents something of a conundrum for the staff, not all of whom know for sure that the kind, flighty man who sits in the same booth every morning, and every morning throws off the coffee rotation with his prodigious consumption, is their boss. One waitress, with whom he shared the secret on his first day of ownership, has been sworn to secrecy. Meaning she had to construct an entire identity for him—one that she soon found out was in conflict with other lies that other waitresses, who had themselves been sworn to secrecy by the overeager owner, were telling to new employees, or those not observant enough to have pieced together the truth on their own.

What they think about him:

“Nice enough guy. He’s kind of weird. But he’s harmless.”

“He’s nice, but he’s real particular. Like, he says not to refill his cup any more often than anyone else’s cup, even though he drinks enough coffee for a whole table. And he always spills something, but he’ll use all the napkins to clean it up, and then he tries to hide the napkins when he sees me coming with a rag. Basically he can just be a real pain in the ass to wait on.”

“Sometimes he stares off, and I think he’s staring at me. But then I’ll move aside, and I can see he’s just staring into the wall, or out the window.”

“I don’t mind when he leaves after breakfast. When he stays all day, then I get nervous about him. I don’t know why.”

What he does, when he stays all day:

“Sits, mostly.”

“Sits and thinks. It looks like he just thinks. He must think a lot.”

“He’ll talk to us about stuff. He asks me about my art.”

“He’s got a little notebook that he sketches in.”

What he sketches:

“I’ve never seen. He puts his hand over it if you get close.”

“It looked kind of weird. But I was looking at it upside-down.”

“Nothing in particular. I think he just likes to doodle.”

“Shapes, mostly. They’re kind of abstract. Swirls. Sometimes it looks like he’s drawing flowers. But—weird flowers.”

Despite his thriving business and minor celebrity outside the diner, inside it, none of his employees appears to recognize him. They are all asleep when his commercials air, and work in a high-stress, hands-full environment, where the lure of a video clip on a portable telephone screen is minimal. To them he is only “a quiet guy,” “okay,” “not much trouble,” “sort of troubled looking.” It is to the outside world—when that world thinks of him at all—that he is snake oil salesman, crypt-keeper, millionaire.

He tips well.

 

Despite glee and fervent wishing to the contrary, it is an urban legend that all of the corpses in his commercials are real. Nor is it true, if truth be told, that his commercials are particularly entertaining. As unintentional acts of kitsch they make a strange sort of sense, but it’s otherwise hard to understand how they’ve become objects of such widespread attention. They do exactly what they were created to do, which is explain and promote what has become popularly known as “a walkie-talkie for the dead.” The latest advertisement began running this past September, and is almost naïvely similar to its antecedents in tone, execution, and approach. Somber, wide-angle shots of families in various stages of grief as they sit in an assortment of funeral parlors (most of which, true to life, don’t appear to have been redecorated since the early nineteen-eighties) are followed by equally somber, proportionally close-angled shots of mourners filing out, coffin lids closing. Before each lid shuts, a slow-motion montage reveals a familiar item lying on each coffin’s pillow, next to the deceased’s ear. Later, the same mourners stand graveside, stone-faced, as a priest intones and the coffin is lowered into the ground. And in each group is someone holding the same familiar item, which, in a second montage, each person switches to “On.”

Then comes the meat of the commercial, little more than a single, bizarrely juicy morsel: the Steady Grip is a hand-held, two-way radio, which you keep one unit of in your loved one’s coffin after burial, for whenever you have something you want to say, and a trip out to the cemetery is inconvenient, or too public. The voice-over actor serving the meat sounds as trustworthy now as the President of the United States did in the long ago, and gives the impression of someone you feel like you’d very much welcome a warm embrace from at a funeral even if you and he have never met. Hand model shots demonstrating the device’s simple operation are followed by seven brief testimonials from seven different regions of the country, though five of the testifiers are either female or what it is reasonable to estimate is over sixty-five years of age. Interspersed throughout their stories are clips of Charles: walking through a graveyard, sitting riverside, and waist-up at his office desk, offering his own evenly paced words of comfort. He wears black jeans and a black button-up dress shirt with a black undershirt, and the harsh lights make his skin look paler and his hair thinner than they are.

Commercials for the Steady Grip appear on television in all fifty states, plus Canada; print ads are only ever half- or full-page, and can be found in three hundred different magazines continent-wide; Internet marketing is copious. Happy Afterlife shipped just under three million units of the Steady Grip last year, at $38.95 each. Aspen Marketing Services, the thirteenth-largest ad agency in the world, is based in West Chicago and handles Happy Afterlife since a takeover of its previous agency, and does not include Charles’ company among the major clients in its own promotional materials.

Most of the places where Claude Charles lives his life are drab. And not interestingly drab, covered in cracked, lead-based paint; illuminated barely, by low-hanging forty-watt bulbs with a pull-cord, with high corners criss-crossed by spiderwebs full of decaying matter. But typically drab. The smell of his diner is the grease, fatigue, and syrup smell of all diners, so heavy on the air that you carry it in your pores when you go. Charles’ offices, with their fluorescent bulbs, acoustic tile ceiling, and vomit spray-patterned carpet, are the stuff of corporate nightmares. Northern Illinois itself looks, in early December, like late Cold War footage of Eastern Europe with the Soviet housing projects removed. And there is an ill-defined but nonetheless strongly embarrassed presence to Charles—as though he can sense the oppressive drabness, but isn’t sure how to apologize for it, or what else he might say.

His home is a single-floor townhouse, smack in the middle of a row, covered in fading wooden shingles reminiscent of the Contemporary style. The front door is heavily scuffed, though sturdy. Inside are modest furnishings—two floor lamps, an entertainment center the height of a man. The walls are the gray and beige of eternity. The sofa and two easy chairs are upholstered in matching plaid, and the cloth has faded evenly.

Does Charles entertain often?

“I do a lot of sitting,” he says, not humorously.

The best way to describe the space—the living room, two bedrooms, more kitchenette than kitchen—is “lived-in.” Like a person lives and functions there. Though it is comfortable enough, and Charles, any secret collections notwithstanding, does not need more space. One’s first thought is of Scofield’s essay “Contemporary Exceptionalism and Consumer Logic,” currently undergoing its third popular resurgence and total reinterpretation. “What to do with our money,” the thinker reminds us, “will be the quintessential problem of the twenty-first century—which, more than any other in our history, will further be remembered as our century.” And the more money he has on hand, the truer Scofield’s maxim becomes—which means that Claude Charles is a man with a very exclusive problem indeed. The state of his home is on his mind: “I haven’t thought much about moving,” he says, shuffling around the room to gather loose sketches, stacks of unidentifiable forms. “I don’t really have the time to do anything but what I do.”

On the walls: framed art. Mostly sketches of birds, a handful of movie posters.

“I think of myself as a worker foremost, anyway.”

The floor dotted with unremarkable stains of ownership, the odd sock.

“And I don’t have too much, you know. Too many things.”

Across the room, on the counter next to the refrigerator, a coffee maker of indeterminate model—a nice one, light blue, with many buttons.

“So if I were to move, it would probably be to some place even smaller. For my own sanity. But I feel pretty good, here, already.”

A single dish in the sink; the dish drainer full; the dishwasher empty, dry. On the kitchen table, the hardback reissue of D. B. Harriman’s foundational A History of Burial Practices in Britain and the United States. Behind it, the open pantry bereft of food save a single shelf, packed with energy bars and boxes of pasta. A sliding glass door to a narrow porch. Most of the man presents an outward self: he is not made of surfaces, but exists on them, among them. He is not guarded, but nonetheless protects something. The story of his success is well-known, the well-known image of him readily accepted. The toilet flushes. On the countertop, his consolidated materials list casually, like a tower in the wind.

It’s easy to understand why most of the outcry about Happy Afterlife’s supposedly predatory product has been directed at Charles, who is simply the sole visible member of his company. By contrast, in the two years that the Steady Grip has been available for purchase, only seven people have filed complaints against Happy Afterlife with the Better Business Bureau. Of these, six dealt with faulty wiring and reached the Bureau only because of early kinks in Charles’ customer service system. The seventh, he claims, was desperation, from an old high school acquaintance fallen on hard times, whose name Charles claims he can’t remember.

He hasn’t been on live television since the summer, and, in the wake of his last appearance, public venom appears to have turned away from Charles and toward the people who buy his product, for whom the anonymous critics in the digital world have particularly savage words:

“If you think this thing actually does what it’s supposed to, you don’t deserve your money or to live. So go ahead and throw your money and your life away on it.”

“People who buy these stupid things are stupid themselves, also. Why don’t they just kill themselves and see if the stupid radio really works.”

“I wish I had one of those things, so I could beat the idiots who buys [sic] them to death with it.”

“Never underestimate the imbecility of the American consumer.”

Nonetheless, there is nothing illegal about the item Charles sells. Just as rumors about the actually dead “stars” of the Steady Grip commercials have made their way into popular lore, so has the belief that the Grip is meant to help its user communicate with the dead. Such a promise has never appeared on the Steady Grip’s cardboard packaging, nor in any of its advertisements…but the idea is simple enough to invite the implication. It is in this way that judgments are made.

And there is the product’s inventor to account for. His serious girlfriend Linda, whose picture sits in a gilded frame on Charles’ desk in a room beneath the funeral parlor, suggests that his reputation is inaccurate. “It’s an easy story, the morbid salesman. He’s just an introspective guy who got lucky. If he wasn’t rich, people would think nothing of it that he wears black all the time. You put a few commercials on the air, and all of a sudden everyone has something they can laugh at for a few minutes. Claude knows that. He just doesn’t much care. And why should he? Most people aren’t amazing. You know, you read about someone in a magazine and you think you know that person intimately. You don’t know that person at all. It would be like saying you know all about love because you saw a photograph of people having sex.”

As regards public perception, Linda has a point. But, if she is right, then it also deserves to be pointed out that during each of his television appearances and photographed interviews, Charles cultivates an air of detached, almost eerie calm—as if he’s simultaneously talking to you, as an individual, and communicating with another plane of existence. His personality on camera is different enough from his “normal,” coffee-jazzed self, that the man is either a talented actor or possessed of phenomenal self-control. Even the main page of Happy Afterlife’s web site, which features a welcome video shot in a park near Charles’ house, reinforces this persona. It’s a cloudy day, and he’s once again clad from head to toe in sober black. His only smile comes with the mention of the “eternal tranquility” his device might bring to your dearly departed, and will certainly bring to you. The footage is faded, and scrubbed out—it has the look of a horror film produced as the final project for an undergraduate film class.

Linda is as protective of Claude as most people who know him are polite. There is a quiet energy to her, which she gathers and focuses into statements: “I’m not distrustful. But I don’t think that most people can understand what drives him. He’s an unusual type of person, and their interaction with him is too limited, or they’re all too conventionally-minded, for people to look at him and see him.” She has the mousey features that make her thick-rimmed glasses natural, rather than a hip nod to grandmotherhood. She insists she can’t explain him: “All I can do is tell you that he is not put on.” Though she never drinks more than a sip at a time, she goes through her own mug of coffee before the waitress can take her food order—then switches to water, and places a hand over her mug when the waitress tries to refill it. Her words are a mix of simple plea and gentle warning. “It’s maybe a weird thing to do for a living,” she offers, and the wince that crosses her face as she uses the W-word suggests that she has in fact been holding it in. “But it gives some people hope. Anyone who would knowingly overlook that is not a good person.”

She takes the bus to work, stumbling on the high first step before rising with poise, and forgoing windows for the aisle.

How much does it matter, the story behind his millions?

He insists that his inspiration is less important than its result. But it is nonetheless his inspiration, his story, one more ridiculed than heard.

“I used to go out to the cemetery once a week, when I was younger, with my grandmother and mom. And we’d get ice cream along the way and then go up through the gates and in. We spent a while just…just talking to him, telling him the news. Keeping him updated. It wasn’t a, like a grim thing, even when I got older and figured out the real reason we were there. We never cried or asked for advice or anything like that. We were just saying hello. And then eventually I started to notice…this isn’t totally related, but it’s kind of important. But it was a little bit on account of all the girls, to be honest. I started noticing how many other people came to the graveyard after church. A young woman in her Sunday best was a real treat, for me. So there were all these different sorts of levels of noticing, that I went through, that influenced the idea. Ice cream, and then aging a little bit, and then girls, and then their families, and all of a sudden you start to think, ‘Hang on. There are a bunch of people here to pay their respects.’ Only it isn’t just respect. There was a whole lot of chatter, it seemed like. It was like almost everyone there was always talking out loud.”

The smile he grants himself is small and warm.

“And so that all just struck me, one by one. Just as things I noticed. Then I did what you do. Finished high school, tried college, that whole thing. I worked a few jobs, same as anybody. I stayed around home—not because I was afraid to leave; I like it here. So the Sunday visits, they more or less continued. And one day on the walk back to the car, it just sort of popped in there.”

Unmentioned are a multiplicity of technical details, internal deliberations—the sorts of things talk show hosts overlook in their search for the expected awkwardness, the sure laugh. What did Charles’ original business model look like? How many steps were in it? How many drafts of his idea did he have to go through before working out all the device’s kinks? How did he muster the courage to ask someone—even a relative—for startup funds? Did he ever feel like his was a stupid thought—one better left unexpressed? Did he ever sense that people felt like he was trying to dupe them? Has he ever felt like he is duping them?

“One thing I learned at some point was about all these elaborate contraptions people used to have in their coffins to let people above ground know if they had come back to life. If you were poor you’d stick a tube down in the ground to yell into. But people of means used to invest their whole fortunes in all kinds of pulleys and bells and tripwires, stuff like that, so if they made the slightest move inside the coffin, you could dig the live body back up. Your family might hire a commoner to sit at your grave day and night, waiting for a sign. Just in case. It kind of seemed like that all kind of related to a general fear of death, but also of going unheard. And now, with all the advances in medical technology that we have, you know, you’re probably going to be dead when they bury you. But everyone visiting cemeteries, they have a real fear. They want to make sure their loved ones still know about them. Still care. But how can you be sure that your words are getting through? They could be floating away on the breeze, for all you know. What I thought, was, I could make sure that you’re being heard. I knew there were people who would be interested in that. I did not think there would be as many as there have been. I have a hard time thinking like that. On a really big scale.”

When he shares it, he is suspended between the hopefulness of childhood and the uncertainty of the present. The suspension transforms him; the unconsidered questions vanish. He is neither a tinkerer, nor a marketer, nor a moneymaker. He is a caretaker: almost at peace. There is no one else around.

Saturday evening, before the gallery opening, Claude visits Ms. Charles. His mother is a slump-shouldered, high-spirited woman who greets him at the door with hugs. As soon as Claude heads for the restroom, she retreats, shutting the door against the humidity, acknowledging, “This isn’t where Claude grew up, but it’s got a lot of him hanging around.”

The hallway between the kitchen and bathroom contains several hundred square feet of wall space. It provides a rough chronology of the Charles family, beginning with abundantly brown photos from Fran and David’s courtship, continuing on to their marriage, and accelerating with Claude’s midwinter birth and the major events of his life. Among the prominent eight-by-ten photographs are Halloweens and family reunions. The most recent shot is near the floor, at the very edge of the half-hallway that affords the user of the bathroom a nudge of privacy, and is of Claude and Fran, bundled tightly against a wind visible only on their chapped cheeks, in the Soldier Field parking lot. There are no photos of Mr. Charles from the last two decades. “Pulmonary embolism,” Fran says, as her son flushes and the sink begins to run. The anniversary is June fifteenth. “He was a good man. But very silent, in life. Almost like a ghost. So he’s not exactly conspicuous by his absence.” And she beams.

Mother and son settle into the living room, to watch college football. Charles takes the couch, a bowl of chips on the middle cushion; Fran rests in her easy chair, directly in front of the television set, an afghan across her lap and the clicker upon it. Neither she nor her son are interested in specific teams. They exchange information pleasantly, about their lives and about the game, and find a new one at every commercial break. There is a Christmas tree laden with forty years’ worth of ornaments on the opposite side of the couch and a tray of bread for croutons on the dining room table and no walkie-talkies on display. The atmosphere is perfect for a nap. In this room, with this tired afternoon light filing past the branches of the tree outside, the time-honored and time-beaten furniture supporting calm buttocks, the delectable vice of artificially flavored tortilla chips only half an arm’s length away, exact reasons are irrelevant.

On the screen, a player breaks away from the scrum at midfield and sprints for the end zone, chased by hulking defenders, and is shoved out of bounds at the three-yard line. His team’s fans roar.

“Ho, boy,” says Ms. Charles. “That was a nice run.”

“That was a good one,” says Claude. He fidgets, though his posture is relaxed. After the team scores on its next possession, mother and son clap, then look for the next game.

At the gallery, Claude buys an up-and-coming Russian artist’s gigantic oil painting of the solar system for thirty-six thousand dollars. He does this only after finding out that the first painting he is interested in, a two-by-one-foot watercolor of sportsmen at a picnic and their horses dancing behind their backs, does not come in a larger size. There’s nothing stilted about the transaction. The woman who makes the sale answers Claude’s questions about insurance and installation without once looking down at his wrinkled slacks or the faint discoloration on his collar. He writes her a check. Back in the Stingray, with the delivery scheduled and the heater strangely silent, he thinks aloud: “I wanted something nice, for the office. I saw a commercial a few weeks ago for an art show at the Holiday Inn. The prices they showed on TV were more reasonable than the ones here.”

After merging onto the interstate: “None of it looked really good, though. The art. It was a lot of pastels. And more animals. Mostly animals. Or trees. A tree, next to a pond. Nature. That kind of stuff. It didn’t look right.”

Then: “I saw an ad for this show in the newspaper. It was part of a story on openings, opening nights. I thought, I bet on opening night you could get a pretty good deal. Especially if one guy’s selling real well, but the guy next to him isn’t.”

He did manage to negotiate the purchase price of his solar system down from a less reasonable figure. The saleswoman spoke of the certainty of the Russian’s future success. Charles acknowledged its likelihood, which she, in her vehemence, seemed to want more than her commission.

He drives in silence. Only after several more minutes does he say: “I probably would have gone to the Holiday Inn, years ago.

“If I’d of had a business, then.

“But it wasn’t as successful.”

He debates telling his employees where the painting came from. “I know it was a good price,” he says, to himself. “No one would ask me the price. Someone might ask about the gallery. And I couldn’t not say, and then they could look it up.”

His grip on the steering wheel is loose; it is his face that carries tension. “It would just be hard to explain.”

The four-drawer filing cabinet in Charles’ office has been in the same spot for nearly sixty years. Cornelius McRae, the second McRae to run his family’s funeral parlor, put it there after inheriting his father’s company and turning it into an empire—he drove two competitors out of business, establishing the McRae name in the upper echelon of the Chicago funeral industry. Hank, Cornelius’ son, kept it there, and the cabinet full. He sold the parlor to Charles, on the condition that he keep the name, when his youngest grandson entered veterinary school.

Charles keeps a cardboard box in the top drawer. The drawer is unlocked; he pulls it open without getting up from his desk, then has to stand to lift out the box. Inside are several rows of microcassettes, neatly filed.

“There are a lot of showings that almost no one comes to,” he says, picking out one cassette and twiddling with it. “Or someone dies, no one claims the body, and there’s no identification. The fingerprints might be bad, or the teeth have decayed—there are a lot of ways to go unnoticed. I try to give those people a service and a burial. Just a simple thing. It’s better than going in a big unmarked grave. Plus it takes some of the burden off the county.

“The worse ones are when the family pays for the showing and everything, and they put an obituary in the paper, but no one comes. If it’s an especially old person, a lot of times what happens is their friends all died before them. They’re the last of their group. Or the old friends can’t get around so well. Or they all moved away. Into homes. Then you’ve got the whole family sitting there, with no one to talk to. A couple times the family couldn’t even make it. We had some people last winter get snowed out. Couldn’t land. Their plane diverted to Urbana and they rented a car, but it was a morning service, the whole building was booked through the weekend and I couldn’t reschedule it. So they missed the viewing.

“When these things happen, I leave a little cassette recorder in with the body. The night before. And the day of. I like to have a record of the day’s events. So they can know. If someone were ever to come by and ask about the person, I could say, ‘I’m sorry you couldn’t be here. It was peaceful; it was all very peaceful.’ I could tell them, ‘This is what happened, on this day.’ It’s mostly silence, you know. But they have a record. And I leave a Steady Grip in the coffin, too. No charge.”

The cassettes are labeled: Last name, First name, Parlor Number, Date. They are ordered chronologically. There are perhaps four dozen of them in the box. “I’ll listen to them, sometimes,” Charles says, putting the loose tape back in its slot. “I don’t do it regularly. Just, if there’s time, at the end of the day. If there’s nothing else going on. The way some people listen to waves crashing when they want to fall asleep. They make me feel that sense of understanding. Or you know the way pet owners will say they wish they had a farm, so they could adopt a hundred dogs and cats. It’s my farm.” He spreads his arms. “This is where anybody can come and be put to rest. Not only the dearly beloved. People without a lot of family, a lot of friends. That’s what I do. I operate at a loss, because that’s what happens when you have as many charity cases as I do. But I can afford it. And—I’m happy to do it. I’m watching out for these people. I can do that much. They don’t know it, but I do.”

For a minor cultural phenomenon, Claude Charles travels in few vectors, most of them quite short. There is a mortuarist’s conference in Prague this March that he is excited about, and the occasional large tradeshow that he feels obliged to attend. (“Miami is all about hobnobbing, seeing and being seen,” he says, referring to the AAMFPD Conference held at the Fontainebleau Hotel every summer. “Vegas, the technology expo—that’s where people exchange ideas.”) He sometimes attends athletic events; when he offered to buy his mother a car, Fran declined, and thanked him for not simply surprising her with one. She agreed to a set of new tires. Nor are he and Linda avid vacationers. They have, peripherally, discussed children. “On the one hand,” she says, hers placed firmly in his, “We each own our own houses. But, on the other, neither one is very big. Maybe before long we could move together. The schools are good here.” She looks at Charles as he looks away.

It isn’t a smile he’s wearing. More like the beginnings of a tremor of a smile. He is not given to wild displays of the heart: a smile means just that. By all outward appearances and inward glimpses he is that rarest of successes, the person thrust into a spotlight he never sought and would turn off if he knew how. Until the bulb burns out, he will walk patiently away from its tracking glare. There is something under his discomfort, hard to sense, impossible to see. He has, without knowing it, and not in spite but because of his millions of dollars, ordered his life just as it needs to be. His routines are no different from those of many people. The difference comes past the evening and into the night, when he might otherwise be at the mercy of a hundred minor entertainments, and instead sits with his feet up in his office, or lies in his bed, listening through padded headphones to the silence of waves breaking on a distant shore.

 

 

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