N. D. Coley
I should chase the boy who fled from my doorstop, bundles of cookies and baked goods falling from his arms—Boston crème donuts and lady locks going splat on the pavement, their sugary goop coating the sidewalk. He will leave a trail of delight in his wake, no doubt food for bugs. And let the bugs come and eat. They are hungry. Everyone alive is hungry.
I should pursue him, but I won’t.
Oh the poor thing. That poor boy. I know he is no more than 12 or 13, not yet a man but more than boy, and he saw what he saw, and is no doubt running to the police, trails of peanut butter and chocolate chip cookie crumbs behind him. I can’t be sure, but he must be going to the authorities. I saw the look in his eyes, and I saw where his eyes went. That’s the funny thing about eyes. You can hide where your hands go, and you can keep your neck stiff and your lips shut, but your eyes are things of their own, lifeforms of their own. You can tell a lie with any part of the body, but you cannot tell a lie with an eye.
That boy’s eyes went to one spot, and when his gaze fell there, his fat lips trembled and he muttered something about the profits his charity would make on account of my sugar intake, and I remembered who he was and why he was staring.
His escape does not bother me. I am tired, and comfy, oh so comfy, wrapped up in the warmth of my blanket, my dear blanket, my trusty blanket, my one and only faithful friend. I think I am done. I think I will press it against my skin and hold it tight. The fire in front of me is dying down, slowly, to those last embers, and I do not think that I will have to light it again.
I could run, but where would I go? No, no, no. There is no running. Running is for stories and movies where the hero gets away and fulfills his dreams, a gorgeous girl around his arm and a suitcase of cash in a trunk. My story is not the kind of story that ends that way. I will wait and clutch my blanket to my skin, like one presses against the chest of a dying loved one. I don’t think I will have to wait too long.
Now! What would you like to know! What could I possibly tell you in the moments before I am taken away, metal cuffs digging into my wrists, to the filthy back of a police car and a cold cell and God knows where else?
I will tell you this: I am a man who has lived his entire life in fear and death, and this is no exaggeration. My father was not an easy man. He never saw a spirit he did not like to pour down his gullet, and he kept his fists clenched more than he kept them open, and his belt was always loose, if only a little, so he could take it to me all the more quickly.
But he was also an upright man, and was out of bed at 6:00 AM every morning, without fail, the remains of his thinning hair slicked back, his round gut tucked into a cheap but well pressed suit. He did, for what it is worth, stay clear of booze during his shifts at the funeral home, a business that he inherited from my grandfather, a skeleton of man who was obsessed with death until it took him at the age of 96. Oh my father was drunk with death himself during the day (he used to stare at the corpses with something that resembled hunger) , and taken with booze in the night. My mother, a strong but quiet woman, kept the books and stayed clear of his anger. Though as much as my father struck me, I never saw him hit my mother, and I think that one time, when I was no more than 5, I saw her arm pushing against his raised fist, shaking but holding firm, and that was the last I saw that. Being an only child, I was the sole dumpster for his anger.
And my father did not trust me to be the face of the funeral home, Sternum Creamtory and Memorial LLC. He thought of me as a mistake in every way. He was something less than handsome, and I was less good looking than him, which made me ugly. He was tall and I was short. He had a gut, but had strong legs and broad shoulders, and I was fattened all around, a shapeless, stumbling blob. I was slow with reading and awful at math. I was an idiot as a boy. I knew it, he knew it and he hit me, and I took it. My mother held me and wept. I miss her so, and I wish she could see that I am not so bad with reading and math these days, but she is gone and nobody makes calculations from the grave.
For all I lacked, though, I was an artist with the corpses. My mother would not touch them, and my father did well enough, but as a man without passion. He processed bodies, whereas I sculpted them and painted them. At the age of 10 I could embalm a corpse faster than he could. Yes, at the age of 10. I insisted that I be part of the business. There is something intoxicating about looking a body, the breath of life now gone. Forgive my bragging, but I was good! I could dress a body properly, and the brushes that I took to the skin were perfect. Powders and make-ups were my paints, and I was an artist.
Have you ever gazed at a corpse, neatly tucked into the plush and useless bedding of a coffin, and thought how horrible it looked? Most bodies are made up in ways that are offensive to the dead and the living.
My bodies looked dead, but well, almost as if they were alive, almost as if the coroner made a mistake. They were a good dead. A happy dead. I remember the case of a young mother— her name was Sally Rosendale. She was mixing formula for her baby when an aneurysm burst in her brain. Sally Rosendale convulsed and seized and dropped to her floor, chewing her tongue to pieces in the process. When her body was brought to us, a thin, dried up glob of blood seemed to trickle from the side of her lips. Against her pale neck and skin, she had the look of a vampire.
I made her look lovely, as if she were not only years away from death, but immune to it. If it were not known that she were dead, and that her organs were swishing around in plastic bags at the bottom of a biohazard waste bin, like fish guts in a bucket, I think that her husband may very well have kissed her in the casket and expected her to wake up. She glowed. She was radiant, and when we closed her casket shut at the end of the service, I shed a tear myself. This must, I thought, be what it feels like when an artist sees their gallery go up in flames.
And as much as they thought it was appropriate, the friends and family of Sally Rosendale positively gushed over my artistry.
This brought more business, and with it, more jealousy from my father. Every look of happiness from a customer made him seethe and grind his teeth. If my work resulted in another customer, he took the credit and I got a beating.
And that is when things changed.
One November evening, when it was dark and cold, with a few scattered flurries in the air, he took me outside the funeral home and made sure that we faced it directly. Stenrum Crematory and Memorial LLC was an old building, an ugly building—it had once been the property of a rich Victorian family, but they had all died in the Spanish Flu of 1918. My grandfather, who would (as my father once said) sing the praises of “nature’s great equalizer” until his death, seized the opportunity and took the house at auction. Two years later he was a mortician.
Oh, it was and is a hideous building. The windows were not quite level, or in line with each other, and white paint was fading and chipped, and if you looked at the house from a certain distance it looked like a face with crossed eyes and crooked teeth. The funeral home appeared as if it were, by its gaze, telling you that you could walk away from the house and around the house, and even refuse to go in the house, but that one day the lights in the upstairs windows would light, and the windows below would open, and the house would boast a hungry, unavoidable smile and open up to swallow you. The grin of death. That is what it looked like.
My father put his arm around me as we faced the house, something he had never did before or never did again, and spoke.
Edward, he said. Edward you’re a good boy, aren’t you?
Yes, you are. Now, you know how much I love this place, don’t you? Look at that glorious home. It almost seems to wink at you, doesn’t it?
I paused and looked at the upstairs windows. A light bulb flickered. He was right. The home did seem to wink.
Yes sir, yes it does.
This house of death, my boy, has a life of its own, and well. It did not get that way overnight. I helped build the smile on the face of this home, and your grandfather started the work that I finished. And maybe someday you can add to that smile, too. But—
He stooped down and put his hands on my shoulders. They were dry and unwashed. He learned his face close to mine, his eyes harsh and beady, and seemed to point to nothing but hatred. His breath stank of chewing tobacco and whiskey. His teeth, yellow and cracked and jagged, lined his tongue, a discolored chunk that looked more like a tumor.
—Edward, it is not for you yet. I don’t know if ever. I have seen the way you go about your duties. You pick up on things quickly, but I don’t like the look on your face as you do it. Something isn’t right there. It is not the face of 14-year-old boy. Not at all, so listen. Edward, I won’t have you tending to the open casket funerals anymore. From now on, you will help your mother with the books, and you will clean the carpets and dust the furniture, and you will only work on bodies that no living person would ever want to see again. Is that understood? Closed caskets only. These are bodies, not art galleries. Your mother and I made a mistake in letting you get involved, but it is too late now. So, you will stop treating this funeral home like a studio.
I looked at my father blankly. I knew that I had a moment, and only a moment, to mutter a yes sir, but my lips quivered, and my fists clenched. I could feel my top teeth tighten against the bottom ones, like a vice closing on a piece of wood. I wanted nothing more, in that moment, to watch that man drop dead. In my mind’s eye I saw a red glob blow up in his brain too, just like it had in the brain of Sally Rosendale, and I saw that ugly, squishy, alcohol-soaked hunk of grey turn a deep red, and then black. The tiny little messages that were supposed to tell his heart to beat and his blood to pump screeched and died, and he just collapsed, like a scarecrow on a broken stick. I sliced the chest and stomach cavities open with a single swipe of a knife, and I just stood and waited for the crows to come.
And come they did, and their beaks attacked the body, pulling out bloody bits of stomach and liver and intestine. They cawed and cawed, and their gulps were a thick chorus of satisfaction. There were so many birds. They seemed to make a wall on and above and behind him, and when they had finished, leaving nothing but his clothes and his bones, they flew off in an instant, and behind them was a casket and an easel and a box of brushes. My easel. My studio.
I looked at my father with resignation.
Yes, father. Of course. As you like.
This arrangement went on for years. I was in my teens, and my twenties, and thirties, and I did my work inside the home as best I could, but there was something about that place that seemed to choke on my efforts and spit them out. Whenever I would dust a cabinet, I could return to the same spot, hours later, and write my name in the dust as if nobody had touched it in decades. Every time I ran the vacuum on the rugs, those gaudy Persian rugs, the machine made a burning smell, and I was forced to turn it off. The wine stains on the curtains remained, no matter how hard I scrubbed, and when I decided to put a fresh coat of white on the outside paneling, I woke up and, to little shock, saw the very same faded paint and cracks and chips that I had seen before. It was as if the house was trying to tell me that I was painting in the wrong place, brushing in the wrong place, and cleaning in the wrong place.
And I could not help but agree.
I did not develop a fear of death until I was given the worst cases. When you see a standard body, an everyday body, one that you can work with and make almost like new (minus the organs and blood flow, of course) you really don’t think about death much at all, or at least in a way that leads you to brood and be afraid of it. Before my father’s jealousy grew and pushed me to the outside of the operation, every body was, for me, and opportunity to make something alive again, to make it glow again, and so, as I cut out organs and injected body cavities with embalming fluid, and as I applied make-up to cold skin and dry skin, I thought much more on what it means to be alive. You could not do the job I did, as well as I did it, and be so occupied with death and dying.
A case that had to, by default, be closed casket, was a different matter. Open casket funerals were opportunities. Bodies that must be hid from the world were damage control, and nothing else, and it was these cases that made brood on the day of my own death.
The first of these was a man, his name I cannot remember. He was making his way down a four-lane highway when he failed to brake and slammed right into the bed of a truck full of construction supplies. The man was not wearing his seatbelt, and he went through the windshield as if it were paper. His body flew until it was stopped by a bundle of copper pipes. One of the pipes pushed through his eye and into his brain, clear out the back of his skull. His head, as one witness put it, looked like it had been kabobbed.
Some weeks later, early in the spring, a local drunkard was alternating between taking shots of vodka and directing branches into a woodchipper. His coworkers claim that there was no screaming, just a loud thud (as when the fool stumbled into the device), followed by an awful swishing and thunka thunka noise. His remains were brought to us in two body bags that each would have fit a small child. Only the feet remained. The rest of him looked like the greasy bits of gristle that stick to chicken bones. This fellow, I am told, had to be so drunk that he would have had no short-term memory of the pain before his body was cut up and mixed with saw dust.
It was only the next day that a line cook at a nearby diner was grilling a round of sirloins when the fans and grease traps above his head, heavy and weakened from loose screws in the wall, broke and came crashing down on him. Marvin was his name. The equipment was so bulky and so heavy that it pinned his face and hands and chest to the grill. He was the only cook in the kitchen at the time. Smoke mixed with beef and skin and human flesh rose out from the mess in curls, and he screamed and screamed, the heavy metal pinning him to the hot grill. I think his eyes must have melted before he died.
If Hell is a real place, I cannot imagine it is worse than that. When they brought him in, his skull was crushed and flattened. His head had no more thickness than that of a skillet. Smears of skin and hair appeared in patches, and though there was some time between his death and my dressing of the body, I tell you that his head was still warm to the touch. It was the first time I had ever felt a warm corpse.
I would lie awake at night, sullen and fearful, doing nothing but thinking of all of the ways, horrible and common, that I might die myself. All the years I had worked in the service of death, I had rarely thought about it much.
But alone and cold, under the covers, with the lights off and the silence of the night eager to allow all kinds of thoughts into my mind, I tossed in bed. I was scared. Always scared. I put off going to bed as long as possible, and at my worst I never slept more than 4 hours, and no matter what I did (be it whiskey or sleeping pills), I could never go to sleep quickly.
Fear was my bed, and my blanket, and my sheets. I would pull up my covers and clutch my chest, thinking of the ways in which my heart might stop. I would imagine that there was a pulmonary embolism, a clot shaped like a tear drop, breaking free and lodging itself in my lung, and I thought about my blood flow drying up, like a river, and my heart pumping trickles of blood or nothing at all, and then dying piece by piece, until my veins started to thicken and clog, my blood turning to paste. I thought of what it would be like to look at my skin and see it turning blue and white and then think, I am dying, and who will bury me and how will they do it? Will they make me as alive as I would have made them?
At first the fears were like this. Blood clots. Heart attacks. Nature’s way of killing you. One time I imagined that as I slept a glioblastoma, a tumor sized like a golf ball, chewed its way through my soft grey matter, eating my memories and emotions and functions. In my mind I saw it from an aerial view. I could see through my skin and skull, and there the tumor was, munching away with tiny, sharp teeth, like a termite making a tunnel through timber. In this vision I woke up just in time to feel the tumor, hungry and out of food, thumping around my skull like a tennis ball in a dryer. I gagged as the tumor burrowed downward and into my mouth, turning and eating its way down my throat and into my stomach. Its teeth twisted and pulled at my guts, and I could only make the vision stop by putting my face into my pillow and screaming.
I lost years in this paranoia, and was so preoccupied with death and dying that decades went by before, after looking into my mother’s weary eyes on the eve of my 50th birthday (and weary she was, as she was dying of her own cancer, a very real tumor with a very real hunger), I realized that I had never become my own person, or married, or made anything that resembled friendship. My life was a cloud of death, punctuated by the drudgery of mechanical, meaningless, close casket proceedings. I slept little and dreaded much. I woke up clutching my heart and fearing when it might stop beating. I performed chores around the home as if I were dead myself, though my blood was flowing well enough.
And then one day, when I was a year or two over 50 and my father was shell of a man, still working at 77 (no doubt to keep me out of the business as much as he could), I opened my mother’s door and knew that she was dead. There is the smell of rot and the smell of death. She had the former for quite a while, and day after day, the rot began to smell more like death, until one day there was no more rot, only death.
When the door creaked open, my father was at the bed, on his knees, weeping. My mother’s eyes were open and blank, as if she had died in the middle of some final question. Her thin brown hair hung loosely and seemed fake, as if death had made her a doll. Her face was covered in sores—gooping black sores. If there were any artist left in me, I do not think I could have done much.
My father sensed that I was in the room, and spoke, not facing me.
We will bury her ourselves, he said.
I opened my mouth to object. I wanted to reason with him. It was not done this way. You could bury the whole town, and the whole world, but you could not bury your own. Not your mothers, or fathers, or children, or cousins. You could not put the insides of your own blood into plastic bags and toss them in the waste bin, like cracked eggs or coffee grounds.
Ok, I said. I think we must keep her coffin closed. Her face is not well enough.
So this falls on me?
Be a good son.
And one more thing, son.
You have brooded most of your life. For God’s sake, when this is over, get a hobby. Do something. Get out of this house. Get out.
And I found myself, late in the evening, looking at the naked and diseased body of my own mother, spread on a table, waiting for processing. The knife trembled in my fingers. I closed my eyes and told myself that it was not my mother, but a body. Just a body, and that my mother was gone and that if there was such a thing as a soul, that it would certainly not hang around on a cold table in a cold room filled with cold cadavers.
I took the knife and penetrated the skin, and as I did so I tried to imagine that I was not opening the skin at all, but a trash bag—a plastic trash bag, and that I was not preparing someone for a funeral, but fixing a mistake. I had goofed again, mixing the recycled items with the organic waste, and if I wanted to be a good citizen, I needed to get in there, with a pair of gloves if need be, and separate the banana peels and apple cores and bread crusts from the glass jars and aluminum cans. I closed my eyes and got to work, and I did so very little, but just enough. Just what my father always demanded.
The next morning, with the job done, and my mother packaged up with the ease with which a butcher might put together a pound of ground meat, there was knock on the door of the funeral home. There, in the rain, stood a man. He looked like he was in his thirties. He stood in a brown raincoat and white sneakers. His arms were limp, and he looked at me with pleading eyes.
You are Mr. Sternum? He asked.
My wife, dear God my wife. She recently passed. Two days ago. Some kind of rare bacteria. Her flesh is eat’n in spots. God. Oh God. It it looks like some wild animal got to her.
I tilted my head and nodded again. I did my best to show true sorrow.
I have heard, he continued, that this home can do the very best for people. You know what I mean. Nobody wants their husbands and wives and children to look so ugly in a casket. I have heard that your home is the best.
I looked at him curiously.
Where did you hear this? I asked. We haven’t done that kind of work in a very, very long time.
My uncle, he croaked. He had someone taken care of here once. A long time ago.
Listen. I know that you can’t bring her back, but don’t make me look at her like she’s a plastic doll. Don’t make my son do that. I won’t stare at a goddamn wooden box at the service. I want to see her face. Just one last time. The way it looked.
Wait a moment in the foyer, I said, and left.
I went upstairs and knocked on my father’s door. I walked in, the smell of whiskey escaping the room. I had never begged for something so much in my life. I thought of that poor man, standing in the rain. He must have had such visions of his wife’s face, and I knew at that moment that whoever she was, that she must have been lovely—rosy cheeks and blue eyes. Long, shiny black hair and hand with a soft touch. In an instant I knew that, in the right time and place, I might have loved her too.
My father was stubborn. He slammed his tumbler on his desk and told me no, no, no. That I had my role, and that he had his, and that I was not to take a closed casket case and try to make better of it. He gulped his drink and swallowed, and he tossed the glass my way. It smashed against the wall, inches from my face. I shut the door and left.
Moments later I approached the man in the foyer.
I am sorry, I said. We can do what everyone else does, but nobody does that work here anymore.
He sighed and whimpered.
Could I bring her here anyway, just in case? What do I have to lose?
I nodded and bid him well and sent him back into the rain.
Hours later, two men in suits, wearing official badges, hauled the body of a young woman, a young mother, I thought, into the home and down into the basement. She was here to be processed.
I unzipped the body bag and looked at the woman. She was just as I had imagined, and yes, she was in an awful state. There were gashes in her face and wounds in her arms, but it was nothing that I could not, if I wanted to, handle in the best of ways. What this woman, and her family needed, was an artist, and I was being stopped once again, at the hand of my father. I looked at her body, and then at the locker where my mother was stored, and I frowned. I clenched my teeth, and all I could see was my father, so smug and sure of himself, sitting in his office, breaking an easel to pieces. Breaking my easel.
He would not tolerate this woman to be an open casket case.
I looked at her body, and then to where my mother was stored, and I suddenly got an idea.
Alright father, I said. I think I have a hobby now.
It was quite some time after my mother’s death, and after I found new ways to pass the time, that I realized that my daydreams and nightmares of death had become quiet. Nothing went away completely. I still cringed and clutched my chest, but the vivid pictures of my heart seizing like a dry engine? Those thoughts had gone. I did as I was told. I always did as I was told. I kept the books and swept the floors. My father handled most of the traffic in the embalming room, and I sought to the cremations and the close casket funerals that required less attention. The sun came up, and the sun went down, and death went on. The woman that I mentioned had been displayed and buried in unremarkable fashion. We closed her casket and said that there was nothing to be done. The husband made no protest, but set a photograph over the wooden box and wept.
And life and death went on as usual, until one day it was not so usual. My father, who had been suffering from heart problems and poor circulation, was near the end of things. I took care of him, just like someone might pick up their neighbor’s mail or offer a stranger a ride home. At his insistence, I temporarily closed the doors to the funeral home.
And one night I approached him in his study. He was hunched over in a rocking chair, and shivering. It was a cold December evening, but not too cold. The furnace was roaring, and his space heater was on the highest setting. He wore flannel pajamas, with a light sheet draped over his lap. His teeth clanked and sounded like plastic. Much like a mechanical toy.
Oh father! I said. Still so cold?
He eyed me with caution and grunted.
Can you I get you anything?
You drank the last of it.
Huff! Get me more.
It’s after hours, father.
I am cold.
You look cold.
Warm me up, boy.
I chuckled. I was nearing 60 and certainly not a boy. My youth had left me some time ago. So long ago that I did not remember what it was like to be a boy. I looked at my father, and when I locked on his eyes, I felt old. Just like him.
Let me get you a blanket, I said.
I went to my bedroom and came back a few minutes later, a plush blanket, with thick, carpet like fibers, tucked underneath my arm. The base of the blanket was tan, and the surface was white. It was soft, oh so soft. I unrolled it and draped it around his shoulders. After a moment, my father stopped shivering. I walked behind him and tucked the blanket under his arms. I took my hands and massaged his shoulders.
Do you like it? I asked.
It’s fine enough, he said.
Would you like another? You still look so cold.
He grunted. Alright, son. If you can.
Well, I can. I surely can, but it will take some time.
For a blanket? We have dozens in this house—
Oh yes, but none like this. You see, I said, rubbing the fabric against his shoulders—this blanket is one of a kind.
I don’t understand.
Here, I said, pressing it deep into the side of his neck. Do you feel that, father? I would think you would know. This is the skin of mother. Your wife.
He gasped for air. Whaaaat—
Oh yes. You would not allow me to bury her properly, or anyone else, for that matter. I had to find some way to, how do you say, make her live forever?
My father’s face went white, and he started to writhe in his chair and shake his arms. He stamped his feet, and threw his body forward as if to stand, but collapsed back into the chair.
I held him. I took my hands, which were old and bony as his, and dug them into his shoulders. Bone on bone. He winced, and I used my fingers to pull the blanket up, inch by inch, until it covered his face and was around his neck. He made soft, sad noises, and my hands worked still, oh they worked very well, for he was nearly a corpse, and I was an artist of corpses.
I looked up and into the mirror that faced us. My father’s neck was fastened, all the way around by the blanket, which was now as good as a noose. His eyes bulged and his hair, what was left of it, stood on end, wiry and pathetic. He spit and curled his lips and seemed to plead.
I craned my neck and whispered in his ear.
There was a time, Father, Daddy, Daddy dearest, when I really feared death. Did you know that? I stayed up all night and thought about nothing but how I would die. Now it’s different. Now I think that, when I die, I just want to be made nice. Alive again. Immortal, maybe by hands like mine. What I fear now, is that my body will be made up by someone like you.
He started to cry.
How does mother feel around your neck? Is it nice? Like when she must have kissed it, so long ago?
I tightened the noose, and his eyes pulsed in their sockets. I titled his head up so that he had to face himself in the mirror, and I continued.
Mother is in this blanket. And not only her, but the skin of a lovely young woman. A woman whom I begged to make up nice.
His eyes widened more.
I made them nice. It’s ok. I don’t need your permission anymore, and I won’t ask for it again. I will make lots of things nice.
And with that I pulled the end of the blanket to the left and jerked. There was an oompf, and a snap, and Father’s head dropped to the side and was still.
I went to the basement and fired up the oven in the crematorium.
N.D. Coley (MA, English, University of Pittsburgh) is currently an English composition instructor. His work has appeared in Coffin Bell Journal, Deadman Humour: Fears of a Clown, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The Classic Tale and an Anthology of Twists, Retellings, and Sequels, Shotgun Honey, Close 2 the Bone, Indiana Voice Journal, Corner Bar Magazine, Grotesque Quarterly, Jakob’s Horror Box, Massacre Magazine, and Crack the Spine. In his spare time, he laments the human condition, reads depressing literature, plays with his son and daughter, and irritates his wife. You can irritate him at firstname.lastname@example.org.