Won fourth place for this story out of 7,000 entries for a Writer’s Digest contest. High fived myself pretty hard in the face that day. This story is also the basis for my novel, Unkept, that my agent is currently shopping to publishers. Your thoughts will be majorly appreciated. And drowned in glitter.
Photo credit: Martin Gommel
People think of hands. They say words like “fingers,” “palms,” phrases like “time etched in skin.” They never say “phalanges” though. Just once I’d like to hear “phalanges” in a eulogy. But I never give my opinion. I’m purely the keeper of the gates, a crypt keeper of sorts, whose main task is to curtail the pressure that pumps out the floor vents and from every pore of the inconsolable. It often mirrors the swollen ball of gas throbbing in my stomach even as Great Aunt Lydia tickles my arm with rubber fingers, as Uncle Marty pats my back with a restrained hand. Fingers. Hands. They act as the sticks to which all of this is measured.
Many times I’m found in the break room beneath the politely terse sign that reads “Please Keep All Drinks In This Area.” Rosa calls it the mourning room because this is the real place people acknowledge their grievances. They talk, real talk, not whispered and often the subject recklessly travels from the sadness at hand to others that plague real time. For example, Benny’s soccer game: a real letdown, heartbreaking for all the kids, a travesty to sit in the sun all afternoon for nothing. It’s inappropriate talk, inappropriate outside of the confines of the break room where skin forms at the top of the coffee pot and mends the shredded tissue of unguarded hearts.
Skin. I guess I think of skin in general more often than fingers or hands. It’s because Rosa is incessantly harping on the proper way to care for dead skin. Of course she uses terms like “deceased,” “passed on,” and “not long for this world” (although I often have to point out that this phrase is in reference to those who are about to die, not those who have already taken the final plunge so to speak). Rosa hates reality even more than I hate avoiding it. So I let her win and offer a constant ear to her musings on her morbidly wrought beauty routines.
“Preparation is key. You must always clean the face first. I mean after you turn them over to dress them sometimes they well, they leak out of their mouths and noses,” Rosa whispers through pursed lips. She’s not saying it for shock value because for Rosa the dead aren’t shocking. But she whispers it because Rosa is nothing if she isn’t respectful.
We’re sitting in the break room, the mourning room during a perfectly quiet Wednesday afternoon. There are no takers (under or otherwise) willing to sully my few minutes of peace and quiet so I have this portion of the day to myself. Rosa’s decided to join me so the only nuisance in this relatively nuisance free afternoon is the subtle scent of formaldehyde that resiliently clings to Rosa’s skin no matter how hard she scrubs.
“It’s the things that you wouldn’t think matter that really make the difference. A little tissue builder in the chin and cheeks goes a long way and sometimes I even look for stray hairs. Nobody wants to view a porcupine,” Rosa says, murmuring the “porcupine” part and stealing glances at the empty room. I’ve heard this little schpiel for years now whether she begins with the porcupine comment or abruptly ends with it. Sometimes I think the fumes have finally taken their toll on my poor friend whose skin remains youthfully preserved while her brain seems to sizzle and drain out of her ears.
I look at the clock above Rosa’s raven hair and count the hours until the curtains draw back and our little show is open for business. I know my father is currently in the basement, working mad scientist style on his pretty little row of corpses leaving me to contend with the breathing clients. I don’t fault him for this because as much as my father acts like a mad scientist he looks like one, too, with hair bursting in surges around his head and his hands pickled from working with too many chemicals.
I excuse myself from coffee hour even though I have plenty of time to get ready and utter my lines of condolences into the mirror. But I long for my routine of plucking and pulling, cleansing and tucking, dressing my warm body much in the same way Rosa dresses the cold ones.
My room sits high above the funeral home. It’s the room I’ve had for ages and it’s the only part of Golden Oaks Funeral Services that seems to thrive. It pulses like a pink, pliant orb because I’ve decorated in shades of rose and everything in it can be moved around at a moment’s notice. I don’t like when things get dusty and stale, when the carpet’s fibers permanently bow to the weight of monotony.
I shower and I shave so I am smooth in all the right places for a spicy date, all the wrong places for an impending viewing. I don’t like the rules so I wear make-up that makes me look pretty and I wear colors that sizzle hot in fluorescent lighting. It’s not a lack of respect or disregard for the sorrowful. It’s the thought that I, like anyone else, could very easily become my job and I’m not being the least bit sardonic when I say I’m deathly afraid of the notion.
When time does its duty I go downstairs to make sure the candles are lit, the memorial programs are set out. I receive the family, the closest of kin and make them feel welcome. They are the Pattersons, Ron and Linda, and they stand side by side with their three-year-old daughter, Montgomery, trailing at their knees. In any other circumstance I’d snicker at a name so blatantly contrived that it probably spent as much time in the oven as the flaxen haired girl herself. But I’m the “welcomer,” the pair of arms open to the weeping little lambs. I don’t make fun because the Pattersons are here to celebrate the life, the death of their five-year-old son, Parker.
At five-thirty the home is abuzz, alive with hushed words and open mouth wailing and at a certain point I escape to the coffee room for another shot of caffeine I don’t necessarily need. It’s in this room that things are real because this is what I experience:
“The lighting, I think it’s the lighting but that poor boy looks like a puppet. I’d never say a word to Linda…”
“They had so much hope for that boy. Such a smart little thing, even at five. Montgomery seems decent enough, but I don’t know if she’ll ever be that sharp…”
“No, no in Pemberton. I get my nails done in Pemberton. Her name’s Janine, here let me see if I still have her card…”
In this room reality washes me clean and I feel wounds heal, wounds that I wasn’t even aware were sunk solid in my flesh. I walk out of the break room after chucking my Styrofoam cup and losing what little resolve bonded my feet firmly to the floor. I’m met with the “funeral smell,” the over indulgence of expensive cologne as if every person in this place is olfactorily compensating for the loss of life. I meet, I greet. I explain that I am nothing to this place or to these people other than a brightly clad Angel of Darkness.
It’s not what I do before or during the service that even matters. I mean, yes, it matters because who else would do the mundane things? Who else would vacuum tissue fibers out of the carpet or scour the dirt brown ring in the toilet bowl? All of these things matter, I know this wholeheartedly. But what happens afterward is the secret thing that matters most.
Before Rosa can sneak upstairs to admire her work once again or before my father can make sure everything is on the up and up, I go and find Parker and give what little respect I can offer him. This is what it amounts to:
“Parker, my name is Vienna Oaks and I am thirty-two years old. I work for my father who owns this place and no matter what I do I can’t stop smelling preservation. It’s chemically sweet and it hurts when I breathe, and I, and I’m sorry but Jesus Christ I’m jealous, Parker. I am so jealous you’re gone and I’m still fucking here.” I say it but I’m not saying it because I’m gasping, pawing the smooth wood of his casket and breathing in the heavy scent of misspent youth. I feel unhinged and unloved. I feel everything “un” and would do anything to trade places with this little boy, but it has nothing to do with him personally. I’d trade places with any of them.
I’m touching Parker’s cool wooden coffin, soaking in the smooth, unadulterated feel of death. I feel the stillness in this room. I feel the stillness of his hands.