Kitchen bag has three items of interest: coconut water box, artisanal yogurt container, receipt from Rite Aid. Receipts are big-ticket. This one is for chapstick and caffeine chews.
The more unique an item, the more of a story it tells, the more of interest it is. A used napkin is worthless, unless it has celebrity lipstick smeared on it; a receipt is worth a lot, but a handwritten note is worth more. What our customers spend their money on is a connection to the celebrity, as a person living their human life. The stronger the connection, the higher the worth.
These bags, lying alongside each other on a stainless-steel handcart beside my workstation, are from the home of the popstar Ashlee Studebaker, aka Waverly. One big bag from the kitchen, one small bag from each bathroom. I spread the items out across the white-papered table and handle them with care, put each into its respective bin to the best of my judgment.
Bathroom bags are goldmines. Items that are ‘used’ are ideal—toothbrushes, hairbrushes, candle cups—but items that are ‘used up’ are unusable—Q-tips, wipes, sanitary products—unless they carry a recognizable signifier of the celebrity in question, such as a smudge of makeup or lipstick, which can make a swab or a wipe fairly big-ticket.
Waverly’s main bathroom bag is typical, in celebrity terms. The gems stand out immediately. An eyeshadow pallet not quite used up: definitely worthwhile, a 3 or maybe a 4. A small glass jar with green and purple swirls and ‘dental lace’ printed on it: a 2 for the fanciness of the product. Scrunched-up tissues and strands of used floss go in Bin Zero, which stands on one side of the table. Then I find something else of particular interest.
A business card. Thick gold stripe through the center flanked by two black stripes on the top and bottom. Bob Neilson, Director of Cremation Services, Dunham Funeral and Cremation Services, Sun Valley, Idaho. This one is for sure a 5. It has intrigue, it leaves questions. Who died? Is Waverly grieving for a lost love? A family member? Her mansion is in Beverly Hills, and, according to the internet, she grew up in Plano, Texas. What is her connection to Sun Valley, Idaho? Is she okay?
I turn my head and glance down the long row of identical gray workstations before slipping the card into my pocket, an offense that could get me fired.
At home I do some googling on our laptop, first for ‘waverly.’ The top results: Grammy Predictions; Waverly Walking Her Adorable Boston Terrier; The Unbelievably True Story Behind the Infamous ‘Tremors’ Video. I click the News tab, nothing of note. Next I google ‘dunham funeral’ and click around their website. I find the staff page and Bob Neilson, Director of Cremation Services, gray and mustached. I hold up the card again—Bob Neilson, Director of Cremation Services—and then look some more at his pale smile, ashen hair onscreen. I wonder how much time he has left, and whether his line of work might have any impact on that.
Phoebe is out driving and will be home soon. In the kitchen, I start a pot of water. I set a box of penne next to the stove and look in the cabinet. Two jars await my decision: Spicy Marinara, Creamy Alfredo. The word ‘Creamy’ on the Creamy Alfredo becomes ‘crematory’ in my mind, so I pick the Marinara. I preheat the oven to 425.
Phoebe comes in when dinner is almost ready, sets her keys on the table, lets out a huffy sigh as she throws her purse on the couch.
‘You know what happened tonight?’ she says.
‘Customer straight-up told me my dad’s heart problem isn’t worth worrying about. He said it’s just part of getting older, no sense losing sleep over it. It’s my fucking dad!’
‘You were talking about your dad with the customer?’
‘Yes, Jeremy. Sometimes I talk to the customers. It was a long drive across town. He was going to see his mom, who apparently has some health issues of her own, which he apparently doesn’t worry about because it’s just part of life.’
I don’t know how to respond, so I just say, ‘That sounds awful.’
‘I think maybe he’s some kind of psychopath. Or a libertarian. Either that or he’s never lost anyone.’
Phoebe sits down at the laptop, probably to check job postings, while I strain the pasta and dump it into a big bowl, along with the marinara.
‘Jeremy, were you looking at funeral homes?’
‘Oh. I Just got sucked into a Wikipedia hole and got curious about the business. You can close out of it.’
‘Jesus. What’s for dinner?’
‘Pasta,’ I say, setting the big bowl on the table. ‘And it’s just about ready!’
I open the oven to pull out the breadsticks as she approaches the table. Then she says: ‘You used the red sauce? Jeremy, you’re starving me to death, I swear.’
Next morning, I’m working on Rico Luiz, action hero. Looks like he threw a party recently: there’s a giant bag full of empty Champagne and liquor bottles. Usually these are worthless, but I find a Prosecco bottle with a stopper in it, about a quarter full. Some poor sucker will spend 80 bucks to drink the dregs of Rico Luiz’s pool party. The thought makes me a little sick.
For lunch I have leftover penne and marinara. Then I take the business card of Bob Neilson, Director of Cremation Services, out of my pocket and look at it covertly for just a moment, holding it under the table.
‘I thought you wanted the white sauce.’
‘Pasta two nights in a row?’ she says, coming up behind me.
‘I’m just teasing,’ she says, placing a hand on my belly, a kiss on my cheek.
I strain the pasta, check the breadsticks. They need a couple more minutes. Phoebe goes to the other room to call her dad, who’s been getting older lately. When she comes back, she looks a little distressed, but luckily dinner is on the table.
‘How’s your dad?’ I say.
‘He’s doing okay, I think.’ She takes a breadstick and sets it on her plate. ‘Should have his lab results in a couple days.’
I struggle to find the right thing to say. I genuinely hope Phoebe’s dad lives forever, because I don’t believe I’m equal to the challenge of his death, and I can’t imagine how it would change the simple act of sitting together at the dinner table.
‘I hope the results are good,’ I say.
Jalone ‘The Razor’ Fitzroy’s bags greet me in the morning. A wrestler at the top of his career, famous for his infamous ‘Razor Takedown.’ His kitchen bag has a shiny silver protein powder bag, a Kleenex box, unopened promotional mail from an insurance company. Unopened mail is strictly unusable and must be deposited in Bin Zero. Wrappers and packaging are usable, if in good condition, but decidedly small-ticket—more husks than actual things.
On my lunch break, I have leftover penne Alfredo with Bob Neilson’s business card sitting on my lap under the table. I know I should not have it out, but it’s difficult not to think about. I try to imagine life in this man’s skin. I wonder if, at funerals of people in the funeral biz, certain jokes are made. I wonder if this man jokes about the bodies he cremates. I wonder how often he laughs. I imagine Bob Neilson with his mustache, screwing in a lightbulb at the funeral home while a number of his colleagues embalm the dead bulb. I picture him walking into a bar with a priest and a midwife.
On my phone, I google ‘waverly sun valley.’ Maybe she owns a second house in Sun Valley, Idaho. I imagine a person, hidden from the public eye, Waverly’s secret companion living in a little mountain town, unknown to the world in life and in death.
After work, I stop at Lucky for some cheddar slices, some muenster slices, some white bread, some tomato soup. I think there’s mayo in the fridge, but I’m not sure, so I pace the aisle deciding whether to buy a new jar.
At home I’ll make grilled cheese, Phoebe’s favorite. But first I sit at our laptop and google ‘waverly house,’ then ‘waverly house sun valley,’ both of which give her house in Beverly Hills, which was featured on Cribs last year. Then I open another tab and google ‘sun valley obituaries.’
Flora O’Rourke, 71. Frank Halverson, 65, long battle with cancer. No one has Waverly’s surname, Studebaker. I picture Waverly’s deceased as young, too young to die. Here’s one: Teal Wiess, 26. No cause given, no photo. Friend? Lover?
Brian Stetler, 21, died in a car wreck off Forest Route 137 three weeks ago. Shane Brodsky, 31, succumbed to leukemia two months ago. Marisa Klein had her life cut short at 17. The bodies pile up.
Phoebe gets home early and I’m still sifting through corpses on the internet. ‘Hey,’ she says in a surprised lilt. I x out of the obituary tab. ‘What are you doing?’ she says, coming up behind me, putting her hands on my shoulders. Waverly is onscreen now, showing off all the fancy juice products in her fancy fridge, platinum hair bunched on her shoulders.
‘Just fell into another Wikipedia hole,’ I say. ‘Ended up looking up Waverly. Her house is really something.’
‘I heard to her song in the car today. Much Too Fire. Had it in my head for a while. It’s catchy, passenger-friendly.’
‘I can get dinner started.’
‘How about we get delivery,’ she says. ‘I made a lot of money today.’
‘Yeah,’ she says, leaning down and rubbing my chest. ‘I could use some Jeremy tonight.’
‘Oh yeah?’ I say leaning my head back against her. ‘I’m all yours.’
I fall asleep next to her that night, immersed in the grassy smell of her lotion. I dream of a man with a gray mustache standing over a casket. I recognize the man as the man from the funeral home, and I don’t know who is inside the casket, but I know that nothing will ever be the same. A force like gravity pulls me toward the casket, and I so desperately don’t want to see the face of who’s inside.
I lie awake in the dark, unable to move for a terrifying moment.
In the morning I’m greeted by two small trash bags from the home of the actress Olivia Doyle. I remember her face but have to google her to remember what she’s been in. She’s 58, and the last movie she appeared in came out almost fifteen years ago.
There’s a cigarette pack (Camel Menthols, empty), a wire scrubby, a razor. I process them. I spend most of the morning thinking about the different kinds of death. The death of our youth, the death of our loved ones, the death of our love. The death of the person we were last year, last week, last night. There’s Olivia Doyle, smoking her Camel Menthols in the world now, collecting her diminishing royalties; and there’s the Olivia Doyle she left behind in all those B movies. I wonder if she’s satisfied with that Olivia, or if she ever wants to go back and make tweaks, take different roads, maybe prolong that Olivia’s life another few years. I wonder what I’ll feel like in another year even, how Phoebe will feel, how our lives will be different. I wonder if our lives are the existential equivalent of a B movie, or if I’m just being emo. I see in myself a deep capacity for loneliness.
As I twist up the big Bin Zero trash bag, my phone vibrates. A text from Phoebe: ‘Hey babe, just got the phone with my dad. Has to go in for surgery. Gonna be fine but I have to drive him and drive home so won’t starting work til later. Probably home late.’
It occurs to me that I love the way she starts her texts with ‘Hey babe.’ I text back: ‘OK. Send your dad my best wishes.’
She sends a heart-kiss emoji. I feel weak.
For lunch I stare at leftover Pad Thai. I pull Bob Neilson’s business card out of my pocket and look at it under the table, imagine what it must be like to hand someone a card like this. It must require a certain temperament, a certain capacity for sympathy, or maybe just a certain numbness. I flip the card over and look at the blank white back. Maybe it’s nothing, I think. Waverly knew her trash bags were coming to our processing plant, so maybe she put the card in on purpose just to stir up some intrigue. Sometimes a business card is just a business card.
Back in the sorting room, the bins from the morning have not been changed out yet, so I take the business card out of my pocket and put it in the bin marked ‘Olivia Doyle 4.’ Part of me wants to take the afternoon off and go for a long walk, but I shouldn’t, since I need the hours. After work I’ll go home, change into my weekend pants, eat leftover pizza, and wait for Phoebe. And when she’s home I’ll make grilled cheese with tomato soup while she tells me about her long day. It’ll be a real treat if she’s hungry.
Justin Eells (he/him) writes and teaches in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Molotov Cocktail, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He tweets @rhymeswithbells.