Story: The Undertaker’s Apprentice
By: Brooksie C. Fontaine
“I’m gonna need you to pick up a body,” said Grim, settling the features of a young woman. Settling the features. The term made it sound so inoffensive, almost pleasant, like an appetizer to keep you sated till dinner. I hoped I had somehow misheard. “What, today?” “No, Mort, next Christmas. That’s why I’m asking you now.” Grim positioned a little plastic cup over the lifeless, milky orb of the young woman’s eyeball. It looked like the miniaturized version of an egg cup, or perhaps a thimble, endowed with tiny spikes that would dig into the tender underside of her lid and prevent the sunken eye from popping open during the viewing. For the living, eye caps would make nifty torture devices. “Well, why can’t mom do it?” I pointed out. “It’s supposed to be my day off.” Grim’s reply wasn’t quite audible over his Van Halen music. “Look, if we’re gonna talk, can you please pause that? Or turn it down, maybe?” “Sorry.” Grim fiddled with his iPod with a latex-encased hand. “Hot For Teacher” went temporarily silent. “Mom’s at Grandma’s for the weekend.” It didn’t surprise me in the slightest that she had left without telling me. Even when we were kids, she was more akin to an aloof yet agreeable roommate than any kind of parental figure. She’d slowly transitioned to our aloof yet agreeable employer. “Doing what?” “I dunno. Old white lady stuff. Making couscous facemasks and shit.” Grim was allowed to say things like that, because his father was Dominican. He’d inherited his smooth, hickory complexion and the thick, untamable cowlicks that his many romantic partners, for whatever reason, seemed to find irresistible. It helped that he had our mother’s eyes, splashes of oceanic, grayish green. I was mildly resentful. Both my parents were Irish as bagpipes, and the most noteworthy features I’d inherited were my mother’s carrotty hair and my father’s gawky height. Despite being half brothers, Grim and I looked about as related as a young panther and a baby giraffe. “She took the Good Van, right?” “Well, she sure as hell didn’t take Bessie,” Grim scoffed. Bessie, of course, being our hearse. “Grandma’s getting on in years, you know? It would be callous.” I was somewhere between relieved and annoyed. Our other van – affectionately dubbed the Sex Offender Van – was an ancient, unsightly death trap, and it was incredibly easy to imagine my mom and grandma dying in a fiery blaze on their way to get couscous facemasks. Conversely, that meant I would have to ride in the ancient, unsightly death trap myself. I took a deep breath, trying not to slip into Petulant Adolescent Mode. Working with family, it was easy to feel trapped in endless pubescence. “Her daughter is a funeral director,” I said, slowly and calmly. “You’d think she’d be comfortable with mortality.” “So? Grandpa was a funeral director, too, and she banned him from even mentioning it in front of her. Some people just don’t have the stomach for this line of work.” Grim took a step back, cocking his head and examining the young woman’s face with the discerning eye of a sculptor. “Tell me something. She look like she’s sleeping to you?”
The young woman had an unfortunate pageboy haircut that didn’t at all flatter her rotund face, somewhat emphasized by her slightly bloated skin. The pale, ashen clay of her complexion made her resemble the moon.
“She looks dead,” I stated.
Grim rolled his eyes. “Well, she won’t when I’m done with her, smartass. Just look at her eyelids, okay? If all you saw were her eyelids, you’d think she was sleeping, right?”
“Yes, Grim. If, somehow, I saw just her eyelids, I’d think she was sleeping.” I leaned back, and the aged office chair that had somehow migrated to the prep room groaned in protest. “So, about this body. Where is it?”
Grim’s upper lip curled in a slight grimace. “Valdemar Nursing Home.”
“Ugh. What the fuck is up with that name?” I remarked, for the hundredth time. We’d gotten quite a few clients from the Valdemar Nursing Home.
“I know, right? Better hope none of their residents read Poe.” Apart from the shared bizarrity of our upbringing, one of our rare unifiers was a love of literature. “Anyway, Mom left the info in the glove compartment of the Sex Offender Van. I’d get to it myself, but.” He indicated the moon-faced woman. “Gotta be a polite host, you know? It’s rude to leave company unattended.”
I groaned, a little more audibly than I intended to. Transporting the deceased was my least favorite aspect of my budding career. Apart from the obvious unpleasantry of lugging two hundred pounds of rigor mortis, I always felt I was breaking the law; I had my apprentice license, but I still looked and felt too young to be transporting the dead alone.
And then, there was the elephant in the room, the thing Grim didn’t know about and hopefully never would. The thing that made this the worst day possible to get an assignment.
“Oh, you poor baby. How you must suffer,” cooed Grim, mouth downturned in an exaggerated frown. “Please, do stick around. You’ll get to see me wire her jaw shut and stuff cotton up her –”
The outside door to the prep room closed behind me. “Fuck,” I remarked. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
The surprise pickup could not have popped up on a worse day. What the hell was I supposed to tell Evelyn? I’m sorry, raincheck on our first and only date, a literal dead man is more important than you are? I couldn’t say that. She’d probably understand, sure – she knew full well what I did – but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d be throwing away a chance to be with her.
I could call her, at the very least, ask if she’d be okay with that. No. No, a phone call would be too impersonal. I wanted to see her, even if the date didn’t pan out. I’d stop by her place.
With a corpse, in the back of my Sex Offender Van. Fuck fuck fuck, this was a bad idea.
I considered going back into the house to fix my hair one last time, but Ines the cleaning lady was in there. She looked like a witch from a vintage picture book and spoke only rapidfire Portuguese, and set of a fight or flight response every time I saw her. I decided against it.
I was both relieved and concerned that Grim hadn’t noticed the effort I’d put into coiffing my hair, into painstakingly ironing each and every wrinkle from my daily uniform of dress shirt and slacks. In the funerary business, there was never any shortage of dress shirts and slacks.
Our house, and place of business, was a hulking, angular, Victorian monstrosity. It was painted the sugary sweet color of pink lemonade, and surrounded by a fragrant mote of multicolored flowers, thrumming with bees.
The rectangular sign hanging over the front entryway was painted to look like a sunny day. In the middle of the lemon-yellow sun was, The Smiling Undertaker! Beneath it, each on its own fluffy white cloud, were the words, Funeral Planning, Embalming, Cremation, and Green Burials.
It was tempting to blame my family business for my lack of romantic success, but then, just look at Grim. Grim seemed untouched by human concern or vulnerability, and seemed to enrapture any partner – male or female – with nothing more than a flash of his perfect smile. On one occasion, I went down to the prep room to find him with some leggy forty-something, half naked on a dressing table.
Evelyn – Evie – would be the first girl in forever who I actually wanted, who might actually want me back. The opportunity wasn’t likely to pop up again any time in the near future.
There was a good reason the old van had been dubbed the Sex Offender Van. That’s exactly what it looked like. The Good Van was a breezy shade of cerulean blue, with The Smiling Undertaker! painted in cheerful, loopy cursive on each of its flanks. The Sex Offender Van was an ominous dark red and unmarked, aside from a prominent dent in the driver side door. The only thing missing was Free Candy sloppily spray painted on its side to complete the look.
I ambled into the driver seat, but didn’t close the door until the air conditioner had been blasting for a solid minute. It was almost October, but the dwindling summer seemed determined to go out with a bang.
When I switched on the radio, the song playing was “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
The universe had a twisted sense of serendipity sometimes.
“He has a boner,” said the nursing home employee. “Is he supposed to have a boner?”
“Well. I wouldn’t say he’s supposed to,” I said. “But it’s not uncommon. It’s called a terminal erection, or angel lust. It was typically seen in victims of hanging, but it can occur after any kind of termination.”
I was impressed with myself. I made it sound like I had bountiful experience with this sort of thing. In reality, I’d only heard accounts of it from Grim and Mom, and it was, quite frankly, disturbing the fuck out of me.
The gaunt, elderly gentleman lying in the hospital bed was already a shade of lifeless off-white, like wilted romaine lettuce. He looked decidedly dead, apart from the distinctive tent at the apex of his thighs. He was, apparently, well-endowed.
“Poor fucker. His kids dumped him here.” The employee was a short, beefy juggernaut of a man with ham-pink skin and a tight blond crew cut. His nametag dubbed him Nick. “They wanted his house and boat and money, I guess. He’d rant about it a lot, especially towards the end.”
“Well, he’s at peace now,” I offered. “He was ninety-one, right?”
“Yeah. He’s been here for ten years, give or take.”
I shuddered. A decade, spent in this urine-scented graveyard for the living, days bleeding together under the flickering, fluorescent glow. Autonomy, ambition, and human dignity ripped away, till the only thing left of life was waiting for death.
He’s at peace now. Peace, my ass. In all likelihood, he was a seethingly vengeful spirit.
Nick clapped his hands together, making me jump.
“Alrighty then,” he grinned. “Let’s get this puppy out of here.”
I gave him a look, even as I wiggled on my latex gloves. “I think we should wait till his…erection goes down, to avoid upsetting the residents.” Somehow, it didn’t feel professional to use the word boner. “And in the funerary business, we kind of try to avoid referring to the deceased as ‘puppies.’”
“Huh.” Nick appeared to consider this, scratching the cleft of his chin. “Unless they’re actually puppies, right?”
“Officially, we don’t usually deal with actual puppies.”
“But if you did, you’d call them puppies.”
I stared at him, searching his eyes for any hint he was joking, and noted that they were decidedly pink. “Yeah, Nick,” I conceded. “If I worked with actual puppies, I would probably call them puppies.” I added, for the sake of clarity, “But I don’t.”
Nick grinned, showing the gums of his teeth. “Duly noted, my man. Duly noted.” He punctuated the statement with finger guns.
I let my eyes flutter closed, wishing desperately that Grim could have come, or even one of the mortuary students we sometimes hired as an extra set of hands. Apart from Grim’s natural gift for dealing with both the living and the dead, I really just longed for an ally, with whom I could make silent, judgemental eye-contact. Are you seeing this?
But here I was, alone, and about to transport a dead body with a minimum wage worker who was clearly high out of his mind.
In my mother’s office, there were two large oil paintings. One was of a recently deceased Ophelia, still floating in the pool in which she’d drowned herself, plush lips slightly parted and wet clothes clinging to every lifeless curve. The other was Saint Sebastian, writhing erotically, his facial expression orgasmic, despite the countless arrows piercing his toned, barely-clothed body.
As a kid, these pictures scared me, the sort of thing you’d stare at for hours in morbid curiosity. As a teenager, I wondered why they were so damn erotic, seeing as both parties were dead or dying, and there wasn’t anything particularly sexy about that. As I entered adulthood, I found the answer.
Sex and death shared an unsung, eternal friendship, both universalities that kept the wheels of life turning. I first realized that the day a grieving, slightly intoxicated, sixty-five-year-old widow went fumbling for my belt buckle, right next to her husband’s freshly dug grave.
“I, I have to thank you,” she stammered, with the taut, quivering desperation of someone utterly lost. “Please, just. Just let me thank you.”
At the time, the only thing I could do was grab her wrists and stammer a polite, “No, thank you.” And then excuse myself as quickly and unceremoniously as possible.
I told Grim about it the next day, still traumatized and hoping for an explanation.
“Death, Morty,” he explained, cheerfully wiring shut the jaws of a beak-nosed, blue-lipped young man. “World’s best aphrodisiac right there. They’ll be on you like casket climbers, but you gotta say no. It’s like roofies, you know? It’s not consensual if the judgement’s impaired.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I can resist the temptation.” I did my best to manage a sarcastic drawl while still hugging my knees in the office chair. “You know I can’t resist a woman who’s eligible for medicare.”
And yeah, that time it was indeed easy to say no, even without the moral iffiness of sleeping with the bereaved.
But Evelyn – Evie – was different. She wasn’t insane with grief and desperate for connection with another living human. In fact, she’d hardly known the deceased at all.
“Mom cut things off with my grandmother a long time ago,” she told me, while Grim consoled her sobbing mother in the next room. “They had an awful relationship. She never talked about it much, but from what I can tell, it was very abusive. Physically and emotionally. I don’t know why Mom’s so destroyed over it.”
Evelyn was a freckled, deerlike girl with a heart-shaped face and molasses dark eyes. Her sleek, inky hair shone in the afternoon sun like oil.
I nodded sympathetically. “I’m afraid that’s a common reaction,” I assured her, in that calm voice Grim and my mortuary science degree taught me to use. “There are many reasons why children grieve their abusive parents. Often, they mourn the relationship they now know for certain they’ll never have.”
“Well. You’re helping her a lot, you know.” Evelyn smiled, a dimple forming on her left cheek. “You’ve been amazing. I don’t know what we would without you and your…” She waved her hand towards the room where Grim had escorted her mother, giggling a little. “…Coworker? I don’t really know what you call it in this business.”
“Coworker works fine,” I assured her. “Or, you know. Brother.”
Her eyebrows arched a little, which was to be expected. I had grown accustomed to such reactions when people found out Grim and I were related, ever since we were children.
“We have different dads,” I offered, by way of explanation. “I think my mom’s addicted to signing divorce papers.”
Evelyn actually laughed at that, a salty sweet crackle that made me think of fall. I’d been using that joke for a long time, to alleviate the awkwardness of explaining my relation to Grim, but I’d never been so charmed by a reaction before.
“Oh, I feel that. My dad was half Pakistani and half Japanese, so people never really knew what to make of me, either,” she said, tucking a fine lock of hair behind the delicate shell of her ear. She tilted her head in foxlike observation. “You’re an interesting person, Mort. Can I call you Mort?”
I could feel myself turning red, and I searched my mind for a witticism. The best I could come up with was, “Shu, sure.”
“Well.” Evelyn smiled, showing teeth as white as polished bone. “In that case, you’ll have to call me Evie.”
There were certain aspects of the funerary business that were rarely to never depicted in media. Or rather, that were never depicted as anything other than outlandish, slapstick comedy gold.
One of those was angel lust. Or the fact that when embalming, generous amounts of cotton are shoved up the anus, vagina, and nose of the deceased. Or the fact that morticians literally vacuumed out any remaining shit and urine that wasn’t expelled at the time of death.
On one occasion, I saw my mother splattered with it after her aspirator clogged. She looked like a walking Jackson Pollock painting.
But the reality that frightened me the most was the fact that, if you make a large portion of your living moving dead bodies, sooner or later, you will almost inevitably drop one. Grim and Mom told horror stories at the dinner table, about corpses flopping unceremoniously to the ground in front of the wailing bereaved.
At the moment, high-as-a-kite Nick was holding the gentleman’s shoulders, while I held his feet and backed carefully down the unreasonably narrow, perilously steep flight of emergency stairs. Two bored-looking nurses waited with the gurney at the distant bottom.
If it was physically possible to fight an elevator for picking this particular day to be out of order, I would have eagerly done so.
“Hey, you, uh, know what they say?” Nick was asking. “About how your hair and nails keep growing after you die?”
“What about it?” I grunted. My arms were starting to ache, but I was grateful Nick was finally talking about something other than the corpse’s erection.
“Well, is it true? Like, I’ve seen dead dudes before, obviously. But I’ve always kinda wondered.”
“No. No, it’s not. Umph!” I misplaced my heel, briefly, on the edge of a step, giving me a miniature heart attack before I regained my footing. “The bodies sort of shrivel up as they become dehydrated. It gives the false impression of longer hair and nails.”
“Sick,” Nick remarked, like a true philosopher. “You know, this dude is heavy.”
“Don’t worry. We’re almost there.” I had no way of knowing if we were almost there. I was walking backwards, and wouldn’t risk looking over my shoulder. But I hoped to God we were.
With nothing to look at except him and the corpse, I wondered how Nick would die. He seemed like a hedonist, so a heart attack or diabetes weren’t unlikely candidates. But then, he also didn’t strike me as particularly bright. Drunk driving seemed like a likely way to go.
“Huh.” Nick scowled in a manner that made him look like a giant baby who had just messed his diaper. “Just a sec, man. My nose itches.”
It seemed to happen in slow motion. I was helpless to do an anything but stammer a futile warning as Nick attempted to balance this poor man on his knee while bringing a stupid, thick finger up to scratch his stupid nose.
The corpse wobbled, and fell. His skull hit the step with a sickening crack! before he began to slide.
“FUCK!” The word left me involuntarily, like a punch in the gut.
I jumped to the side, out of the way of the tobogganing cadaver, and couldn’t bring myself to look at anything buck Nick’s dimly horrified face as it smack, smack, smacked its way to the bottom.
By the time I could finally bring myself to turn around, the deceased was lying, face down, at the foot of the stairs. The nurses, who had been waiting with the stretcher and discussing the sociological implications of The Sopranos, were staring up at me as though they’d just discovered I was doing fetish pornography with their grandmothers.
“Well, at least we don’t have to carry him anymore,” Nick remarked.
I turned to look at him, slowly, and tried to convey with my eyes alone exactly how much I wanted to send him hurtling down the stairs faster than the corpse.
“You’re sure right, Nick. We don’t.”
“I’m sorry, there’s a what in the back of your van?”
“Look, I understand completely if you want to take a raincheck. This was completely unexpected.”
Evie, leaning against one side of her opened doorway, feigned seriousness. “Oh, of course. Unlike your other clients, right? I’m sure they all planned their deaths meticulously.”
I sighed, my shoulders slumping. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Mort. It’s a joke.” She put a hand on my shoulder. Cool electricity fizzled through my veins. “God, you’re entirely too tense, you know that? And weirdly sweaty. Why are you so sweaty?”
I grimaced at the recollection. “I sort of carried him down the stairs, like, fifteen minutes ago. It took a lot out of me.” I ran a hand through my disheveled hair. So much for all this morning’s primping. “Anyway, if you don’t feel comfortable with this, I understand, completely.” I was using the word completely a lot in this conversation. “But I wanted to come tell you in person, just so you knew I wasn’t blowing you off or anything.”
To my surprise, Evie swatted me in the arm, with otter-like playfulness. “Shut up. You think I’m sending you home now? I want to hear how you lugged this body down the stairs.”
My facial expression was evidently comical, because she once again crackled with laughter, the corners of her dark eyes crinkling. “Mort. My mother is an emergency room doctor,” she reminded me. “I grew up hearing about the dead and dying. I’m not exactly squeamish.”
“But –” I felt strangely inclined to protest on her behalf, but Evie was already shouldering her pocketbook.
“Mom!” she called, into her house. “I’m heading out now, okay? I’ll be back in a couple hours.”
There was no reply. Evie shook her head. “Sleeping. Again,” she explained. “Since Grandma died, all she’s been doing with her free time is sleeping.”
I nodded. “She’s grieving. It’s a natural part of the process for some people,” I said. “With love and support, it will pass.”
Evie giggled. “You know, it’s cute when you do your undertaker voice.”
“Was I?” I hadn’t even realized I was doing it.
“Yeah. You go all calm and soothing, you know? Like you’re on a TV drama.” Evie shut the door, looping her arm through mine. I shivered at the contact, my dress shirt seeming entirely too thin. “Now, let’s get going, shall we? I want to meet our third wheel.”
My passenger in the back of the van was causing me a lot of misery, for someone who was already dead. Another frequently unreported fact about funerary work: corpses could flatulate. A lot.
I stared at the road in wordless, abject horror. The pleasant weather was incongruous with my emotional state, the clouds tufts of wool floating on pale blue water, the road ahead a seemingly endless stretch of golden brown.
In the passenger seat, Evie was struggling not to laugh. “You, um,” she managed, lips pulled tight with effort. “You can turn on the radio, if you’d like. You know. Drown it out?”
I nodded, vigorously. “Good idea. That’s a great, excellent idea.”
I switched on the radio, and the chorus of “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” filled the car. I switched it off, muttering profanities as she cackled.
“Sure, laugh it up.” I jostled her lightly. “This is going to haunt my dreams till I’m in the ground myself. Maybe after, if it’s possible.”
“Oh, shut up! You’re an undertaker, for gosh sakes,” said Evie. “Where’s your sense of humor?”
“Technically, I’m an undertaker’s apprentice. And I don’t really see the correlation.”
She rolled her eyes. “You need a sense of humor to be an undertaker, Mort. If you don’t learn to laugh along with death, its crippling inevitability will consume you.”
“Wow. You must be fun at parties.”
“I am, actually,” she grinned, wiggling her shoulders suggestively. “And turn here, please.”
“Here?” She was indicating a slightly overgrown sideroad. I wasn’t sure why she wanted me to turn this way – the cafe was about an eighth of a mile ahead – but I obeyed on instinct.
“We need to find someplace shady and isolated to park,” she explained. “You don’t want to explain yourself to snoopers, right? Or cops? And besides, the van will stink like crazy if you leave it in the sun.”
“I’m beginning to suspect you’re an extremely charming serial killer,” I informed her. Then immediately felt my neck go hot as I realized I just called her extremely charming.
“If I was, we’d make an ideal couple. I’d bring you the bodies, and you’d bury them.”
Just as I was searching my brain for some appropriately witty response to that, the van went over a sharp bump. The body gave a muffled groan, a remaining pocket of air evidently jogged from its lungs.
There was a moment of silence as Evie and I made silent eye contact. Then, almost simultaneously, we both burst into laughter.
“They,” I managed, “they do that, sometimes.”
Evie cackled, knocking her head into my shoulder like a baby goat. “Well, I should hope so. Otherwise, we’re both in a lot of trouble.”
I pulled up under the outstretched arms of a beech tree, and Evie shifted to face me.
“So,” she said, with a sly, conspiratorial expression, “let’s talk about death.”
I gave a high-pitched, surprised sound. “Jesus. Are you this forward with all your dates?”
“Only the cute ones.” Evie, I was starting realize, was not an especially coy or bashful person. “But anyway, I’m getting my Ph.D in psychology, as I may have mentioned. The emotional implications of your profession fascinate me. So does death in general, to be honest: the mechanics of it, the beliefs surrounding it, the possibility of reincarnation. Ghosts. Have you ever seen a ghost, Mort?”
Talking about death, she came alive, cheeks flushed and sunlight freckling her skin. She was the most fascinating creature I’d ever encountered.
“Well,” I began, suddenly feeling extremely boring, “my mom has a, um. Medium come in, from time to time. To, uh. Clean the house, if you know what I mean.”
“Clean the house?”
“Of ghosts.” I tried to sound as matter-of-fact about it as possible. “Spirits, energy, whatever you want to call it, of people we bury. If we go too long without a visit, weird things start happening: the cats start staring at nothing, we randomly walk through cold spots. Doors, opening and shutting on their own. Occasionally we see, um.” I shifted in my seat. “Figures.”
I’d never told anyone about that before. It was a profound source of embarrassment for me growing up, especially because everyone I knew already thought I lived in a haunted house.
The medium herself, Pam, was the polar opposite of anything you’d expect from a medium, a plump, middle-aged woman with a pleasant face and a minivan full of children. My mother had met Pam about fifteen years prior, at one of Grim’s little league games.
Evie was practically vibrating with excitement at the prospect. “You’re kidding! And you’re a believer, I take it?”
“A reluctant one. I’m a natural skeptic, honestly,” I admitted. “But when you live in a haunted house, it’s kind of hard to play Dana Scully. Even if I have the hair for it.”
“Wow. You live in a haunted house, you work with the dead, and you watch X-Files.” Evie shook her head. “Will you please just marry me already?”
I cleared my throat. “I’ve never met someone so enthusiastic about death before,” I remarked, feeling inclined to change the subject.
“How can you be an undertaker if you’re not enthusiastic about death?” she asked, bemused.
“The living,” I said, simply. “I wanted to help people who needed help. And who needs help more than the grieving?”
“Mortimer, you’re the sweetest creature I’ve ever encountered.”
I really wished she’d stop saying things like that. I had the complexion of an untoasted marshmallow, and I flushed red at the slightest provocation. It was really conspicuous.
“Death, though,” I went on, changing the subject. “Death, I’m ambivalent about. For my mom and Grim, it’s really just an employer. Maybe even an old friend. For me, it –” I wet my lips. “For me, it just sort of weighs on me sometimes. The inevitability of it. The fact it’ll happen to everyone I love. That we have no idea what happens after.”
I rubbed a hand over my neck, strangely embarrassed. I’d never said that to anyone before. Somehow, in a house full of death, death had become a taboo. “It just weighs on me, sometimes,” I reiterated.
Evie regarded me with narrowed, pensive eyes. “Did you ever talk to them about that?”
“Well. We don’t really talk about death in my house.” Evie stared at me, and I realized how stupid the statement sounded. “Outside of work, you know? It’s like talking shop.” I paused, thinking about whether or not I wanted to disclose this, then added, “Anyway, I don’t think they’ve ever really worried about that stuff. I might be the spitting image of my mom, but Grim got her personality. Everything just rolls off of them, you know? Even death.”
“Everyone needs companionship, Mort. Especially the ones who seem untouchable.” She reached out and smoothed my dress shirt, where it was rolled up at the elbow. “My mom was that way, when she divorced my dad. He was an abusive ass to both of us, and the divorce was hell, but she kept her chin up the whole time. I used to hate her for that.”
“Why?” I tried to ignore her fingers, which were lingering on the hem of my sleeve.
“Because she was always so damned cheerful – always smiling, while my world came apart in front of me. She didn’t seem to care.” She circled the button with her index finger. “Then, late one night, I walked by her bedroom, and I heard this, this noise, that didn’t sound human – the sort of noise a cow or a horse would make after it had just been shot. I’d never, ever heard her make a noise like that before. And I realized she was crying.”
Evie shook her head, eyes obscured beneath the delicate fans of her lashes. “It never occurred to me, in all that time, that she was suffering too. Her courage was the greatest gift she could ever give me, and I hated her for it.” Those eyes looked up at me, each glistening like an oil lamp. “Talk to your brother, Mort. Talk to anyone who cares. You of all people know we don’t have forever.”
Her cool fingertips brushed my forearm, goosebumps pebbling my flesh. I swallowed, the sound uncomfortably loud in the silent car. I couldn’t stop staring into her face, at the constellation of coffee brown freckles dappling the bridge of her nose, the spots of sunlight freckling her skin.
“People need people, Mort,” she murmured. “It’s how we know we’re alive.”
She was so close, I could taste her breath. How had she gotten so close? I was leaning towards her, I realized. Our faces were inches apart. Centimeters.
I glanced down to her lips. She had a lush, expressive mouth, now parted like a sliced strawberry. Her eyes flitted down, following my gaze, and then back to mine in silent, playful invitation.
Champagne bubbles fizzled in my chest as I let the gap close between us.
Our noses brushed, her breath tickling my upper lip. Only as our mouths touched did I remember to close my eyes, her lips warm, and inhumanly soft. It was the kind of kiss I could drown in.
I put my hand, tentatively, on the side of her neck, and could feel her pulse fluttering like the wings of a moth. Each breath she drew was the crash of a tide.
She was so alive. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d touched something so alive.
That was when the body groaned again, more loudly this time. Death’s indignant reminder of its eternal presence.
Evie giggled, smiling against the side of my face. “Um. Okay, we should probably…”
“Yeah.” I cleared my throat, reluctantly drawing away. “This is. Unprofessional.”
“You don’t say,” she cackled, tucking her hair behind her ear. “If I’d known you shacked up in front of the deceased, I’d have taken my grandma elsewhere!”
“If I were in my right mind, I would have taken offense to that,” I said, reaching for the door handle. “But, as I just proved, I’m not.”
I opened the door and stepped – rather, tumbled – from the van, with all the grace of a drunken yearling. The kiss had taken more out of me than I had realized.
Evie strolled around its front. Her sleek black dress fell to just above her mid thigh, a purple silk scarf tossed carelessly about her shoulders.
“My God, I’m lucky.”
Evie shot an inquisitive look over her shoulder. “Beg pardon?”
I cleared my throat. I hadn’t really intended to say that aloud. “It’s just a nice moment, you know?” I offered. “Sometimes…sometimes I feel like I’m so surrounded by death, I don’t appreciate life enough.”
“Huh. And here I thought being surrounded by death would help you appreciate life more,” she remarked. “Well, it’s never too late to start. A lifetime is infinitely divisible, you know. Each second is an eternity, all its own.”
“I’m really starting to believe you’re fun at parties.”
“Next to her husband’s grave?” I nodded – pardon the expression – gravely. “Jesus with a popsicle, Mort.” She stabbed her pumpkin bread like she was piercing a hay bale. “You must have been scarred for life.”
“Oh, I was. Fresh out of mortuary school, too. I was not prepared for all the crazy I was about to be hit with.” I stirred my pumpkin spice latte. Evie and I, it turned out, shared a borderline fetishistic love for pumpkin. “Like, this is going to sound like a total cliche, but the living cause more problems than the dead ever could. I mean, I get that it’s stressful – losing a loved one, planning the funeral, dealing with people you hate. I get it. But Evie, these people do the stupidest things you can possibly imagine.”
“People don’t really need an excuse for that,” she shrugged, taking a bite. “I worked retail for four years as an undergrad. I’ve seen stupid.”
“No, no. You think you’ve seen stupid. But you haven’t seen stupid till you’ve seen a friend of the deceased show up, absolutely sloshed, and start yelling about fifty dollars he owed him.”
“Okay, that’s pretty bad,” Evie conceded. “But you haven’t had a mother of three come in, upset that we didn’t explicitly mark the bath balms as inedible.”
I leaned forward. “He tried to take off the corpse’s shoes for compensation, Evelyn. His shoes. Grim and, like, five guests had to drag him off.”
“Still doesn’t beat Hot Dog Guy.” She did not, apparently, feel inclined to elaborate on who that was. “Does that sort of thing happen a lot?”
“Oh, yeah. Grief makes people crazy.” I thought for a moment. “Or maybe it just brings the crazy to the surface. I don’t know. What I do know is, I’ll never forget the time a brother of the deceased thought it would be a hilarious idea to bring a mariachi band to the funeral. To, quote unquote, ‘liven things up.’”
“Doesn’t sound like a bad idea.” Evie sipped her own hot cocoa. “A mariachi band can improve any situation.”
“A noteworthy exception being –” I held up my spoon for emphasis – “when neither the other mourners, nor the funeral directors, have been informed that said mariachi band is arriving. It also came as quite a surprise to the other funeral taking place in the next room.”
Her laugh crackled in the air, which was finally beginning to feel appropriately crisp and fall-like. The late afternoon sun saturated her complexion, making her look gilded. “You know, he probably loved his brother more than anyone else there,” she remarked. “You have to love someone a lot to do something that crazy for them.”
Something like leaving a dead body in your van to go on a coffee date.
The thought surprised me. I didn’t love Evie yet. I couldn’t. That wouldn’t be reasonable.
But this felt like the beginning of something. I wasn’t sure what, but I felt it in my bones.
“Yeah,” I said. “You really do.”
“Anyway,” Evie was saying, “my personal theory is reincarnation.”
“Pretty sure Siddhartha beat you to that one.”
“Shush. I have a whole logic to it,” she scolded, swatting me in the shoulder. “As far as we know, the universe is boundless, right? So that means, everything we can imagine, provided it obeys the laws of physics, probably exists somewhere. Similarly, eternity, as far as we know, is also boundless. So the circumstances required to support your consciousness have probably occurred before, and will occur again.”
“Evelyn, you are a walking existential crisis.”
“Oh, you men folk and your flattery,” she cooed, batting her eyelashes. “Mom and I made sort of a game of it growing up. We’re both ghost enthusiasts, and very spiritual. We called ourselves the neighborhood thanatologists – people who study death, that is.”
I stared at her, fascinated. Never had I met someone with such a comfortable camaraderie with death. It was simultaneously inspiring and, frankly, a little terrifying.
The back of her hand brushed my own, as cool as the late September air. After a moment, to my surprise, she laced her fingers through my own.
“I just realized you weren’t going to take the hint,” she explained.
“Ah.” I considered it. “Yeah, no, I definitely wouldn’t.”
Walking hand in hand with Evelyn, the moment was closer to perfect than anything I had ever experienced. The trees, drying leaves fringed with wine red and auburn, looked submerged in amber light. Sun seeped through their branches like liquid, freckling the ground.
In that moment, it felt as though God was speaking to me.
“Mort, look.” Evie jostled my arm. Only when I followed her gaze did I notice the vultures, a few yards ahead, in the shade of a beech tree. “What are they eating?”
They were so grotesque, they were almost beautiful, the marbled, raw pink flesh of their heads like internal organs, pebbled with tiny black feathers. Their bodies were like ragged feather dusters.
My first impulse, of all things, was to snap a picture for my mother. She’d always shared an affinity for carrion birds.
“Mortimer,” Evie repeated, with more urgency this time, “what are they eating?”
What they were eating appeared to be a canvas bag. The exact same kind of canvas they used to store bodies for transportation.
It was ripped in places, to reveal something that looked like red meat.
Something that looked like human flesh.
Freezing water surged through my veins. “Oh. Oh, God,” I breathed. “Oh, God. This is exactly where we left the van.”
Evie swallowed, audibly. “Well, shit,” she remarked.
One of the vultures beat its wings, attempting to pull away a stubborn strip of flesh. The nauseating sound of tearing brought me back to reality.
With an inhuman squawk of horror, I charged the birds, forcing them to flap away in noisy, indignant retreat.
I peered cautiously down at what remained of my abused client.
A fly alighted on a still-glinting, exposed eye socket.
I ran for the nearest shrubbery, my mind a wall of white noise, just in time for my stomach to empty into the tall grass.
I stood, panting, with my hands braced on his knees, mouth biting with the tang of bile. In my periphery, Evelyn approached.
“Oh, Morty,” she murmured, placing a cool hand between my shoulders. “Morty, I’m so sorry. Are you alright?”
I couldn’t meet her eyes. She was sorry?
“I’ll call you a cab,” I croaked.
Grim pulled up an hour later, the hearse a drop of ink against the darkening, flaxen landscape.
He got out still wearing his embalming scrubs, now splattered with a few rogue droplets of blood. They made him look like a mad scientist, or a handsome yet sociopathic young doctor from one of those soap operas he loved so much.
I waited, perched upon a rock and feeling like the world’s most depressed guardian angel, making sure no more scavengers returned for an evening snack.
Grim strolled over to me, arms folded behind his back. He regarded me coldly, his eyebrows drawn together and lips pursed.
“Nice job losing the van, you fucking dumbass,” he growled. “I oughta make you pay for that.”
“You’re not going to cheer me up, Grim.” I looked off towards the horizon, hoping it would come loping back any minute now, like the collie from Lassie Come Home. “It was just so unexpected, you know? No preamble, no explanation. One minute it was here, just like it always was. Then it was just.” I gestured vaguely, like I was wiping clean an invisible window. “Gone.”
Grim put a gentle hand on my shoulder. “This must be a very difficult time for you,” he murmured.
“Oh, fuck off.” I swatted his hand away. “Don’t use your undertaker voice with me, Grim. I’m not grieving the van.”
“Well, you sure as hell seem to be.”
I sucked in my cheeks. “He’s behind the bush,” I informed him, gesturing with my thumb. “I dragged him over there, so I wouldn’t get arrested.”
Grim huffed a laugh, which he masked with a cough when I shot him a wounded glare. “Ahem. Right.” He briskly clapped his gloved hands together. “So. Let’s go assess the damage, shall we?”
“I would rather jump into an active volcano,” I informed him, but hefted myself to my feet all the same.
Grim gave me a supportive, almost motherly pat on the shoulder as we ambled through the ditch and over to the shrub that was providing the corpse with some minimal amount of modesty.
I tasted bile for the second time that day.
The vultures had pecked at the man’s midriff, intestines protruding like rising bread dough, but the most upsetting portion was his face. His left eyelid, and the skin of his left cheek, had been stripped away like tree bark, showing pink muscle and the wet glint of bone. Where the eye had once been was now a dark, empty crater.
The van was supposed to be safe. It was supposed to be a sanitary vessel, in which the dignity and the memory of the deceased could be preserved.
But then, none of us were safe, were we? Not in death, and not in life. Without rhyme or reason, anyone I loved could end up just like him: rotting, and mutilated beyond repair.
“Nothing we can’t fix!” Grim declared.
He tossed me an extra pair of latex gloves, which flopped flaccidly to the ground at my feet. I blinked dumbly.
Grim grinned, sea-colored eyes crinkling merrily. “Let’s get this puppy in the hearse.”
I stared down at my cell phone with the self-pity of a Byronic hero. On the screen, like a rectangular lantern of neon light, was my last text to Evie.
Sorry for a terrible first date. I was having a great time until I accidentally showed you a vulture-ravaged body and then puked.
Why did I write that? I’d been coming out of my adrenaline-addled haze of mortification, and I wanted to apologize for the situation in a humorous, self-deprecating manner. But it summed up the situation with a little too much accuracy.
I wished I’d written the quintessential, Thanks for a great time this afternoon! 🙂 Maybe if I had, she would somehow forget that I had, in fact, shown her a vulture-ravaged body and then puked.
“Hey. Why the long face?” Grim jostled me with his elbow. I’d given him a sanitized version of my date with Evie, but he seemed to sense I didn’t want to talk about it. “The Sex Offender Van was living on borrowed time for years now. And like I said, we can fix the vulture damage. He’s got nothing on Cat Dude.”
I shuddered. “Okay, yeah, Cat Dude was bad –”
“Preaching to the choir, honeybuns. I’m the one who had to re-construct his entire face.”
“– But Cat Dude wasn’t my fault, Grim. I didn’t cause his pulmonary embolism, and leave him in his apartment for a week with his goddamn domestic shorthair. This is my fault. I fucked up, worse than I ever have.”
“Yeah, and you’re gonna fuck up way worse than that,” Grim assured me. “Mom’s had the wrong person cremated before, on more than one occasion. She gave people the wrong ashes. And do you remember that time the casket exploded?”
“It took several people to fuck those things up. This was just me.”
“And this was back when you were in mortuary school, but I once lost an eyeball.” My facial expression must have conveyed my disbelief, because he nodded emphatically. “Yeah. Dude died in a car crash, eye popped out. They had to give it to me in a ziplock baggie.”
“And you just…lost it?”
“I prefer to think of it as temporarily misplaced, minus the temporary. I think one of the cats might have got it.” Grim shuddered. “Fucking cats, man.”
I groaned, sinking down into my seat and rubbing my hands over my temples. “See, this. This is why.” At Grim’s questioning look, I explained, “This is why I was so embarrassed by what we did, Grim. Back when we were in school. The family that touches dead people. That seemed like the most fucked up thing in the world to me.”
“At some point, all kids think their family’s the most fucked up family in the world. It’s normal.”
“You didn’t,” I pointed out, trying not to sound resentful of that. “You sure as hell didn’t seem to, anyway. You were so good at…leaning into it. Cracking jokes about it, letting other people laugh with you. You made it seem like just another cool, unique thing about you.”
Grim was silent a long time, long enough to prompt me to look up. He was eyeing me peripherally, as much as he could without turning away from the road.
“What? Do I have something on my face?” I scoffed. “A bit of dead guy maybe?”
“Mort, did it ever occur to you that I might’ve had a reason for that? I was ashamed of what Mom did. I was so fucking ashamed. Maybe even more than you were,” said Grim, with a kind of blunt, ungarnished honesty I wasn’t accustomed to. “And the kids didn’t help, with all their jokes and rumors. Calling me Gomez and shit. It’s stupid, but it used to hurt.”
“…Seriously?” was the only response I could think of. It didn’t seem possible that my godly older brother could have grappled with something so human.
“I know, right? Gomez is awesome,” Grim remarked, sagely. “Anyway, I eventually figured my best bet was claiming it, you know? Joke’s not at your expense if you’re the one making it.”
“Grim, I. I never knew that.”
He huffed out a chuckle. “Well, that’s good. Means the mask worked.”
The engine thrummed, headlights illuminating patches of tawny road.
I was glad Grim collected me when he did, just before the melancholy twilight gave way to dark. If the hearse was a drop of ink, the world was now an inkwell, saturating the formerly vibrant landscape.
Evie’s words rang out in my head: Talk to your brother. You won’t regret it.
I took a deep, steadying breath, and jumped.
“Grim. I haven’t met anyone – no one, for as long as I can remember – without thinking about how they might die.”
I waited for him to answer, but the only sound in the hearse was the soft thrum of the engine.
I took a breath. “The kid at the nursing home. Who, uh, helped me carry the body. I saw him getting rammed by a truck, drunk driving,” I continued. “And I went to the corner market the other night, to get some Cherry Garcia. There was a big guy behind the counter, reading a magazine. I saw him having a heart attack. The lady in front of me, choking to death on her toblerone. And all of them, gray and stiff on the dressing table.”
I didn’t tell him about Evie. About how she was the first person I’d met in years whose life hadn’t been eclipsed by their prospective death.
And then, there was the corpse, lying on the roadside. A friendly reminder that the vultures were waiting for all of us, and we had no say in when or how they would feed.
I didn’t tell him that. I wasn’t ready.
“And the worst part, Grim,” I went on, “is that the same goes for you. And Mom, and Grandma, and pretty much everyone I love. Everytime you go out to dinner with Lenore, or Edgar, or whoever it is you’re dating now, I think about you dying of some horrible allergic reaction with your airway swollen shut. Every time Mom takes one of the vans, I think about her going out in a flaming wreck.” My eyes stung, and I blinked away moisture. I kept talking, hoping he wouldn’t notice. “It’s second nature to me now, Grim. I feel like we’re already dead.”
Well, that didn’t work out. My voice cracked on the last word. I fell silent, to spare myself the indignity of any further emotional expression.
Why had I said all that? I felt like I’d cracked open my own chest like an oyster shell, exposing the fluttering, tender flesh. I’d never felt so vulnerable in my entire life.
Grim was silent for a minute, his face a smooth outline in the dim light, expression unreadable.
“Mort,” he said, eyes still fixed on the road ahead. “Do you remember, back when you were at college? Your freshman year? It was a few weeks before your semester ended, and I, um. Gave you a phone call, sort of out of the blue. I kind of just rambled on for a while, about everything I wanted to do with you and Mom and Grandma over winter break.”
He was changing the subject, I figured, trying to lessen the awkwardness and the blow to my pride. “Yeah,” I sighed, relieved. “Yeah, I do.”
“Well. I never told you exactly why.” He adjusted his grip on the steering wheel, lightly. I got the feeling he was psyching himself up for something. “See, as you know, we sometimes get kids. Babies, even. And, as you also know, it sucks, even more than you’d expect death to suck. I used to have dreams about their little blue hands, their, um. Little white faces.” He swallowed. “Still do, sometimes.”
He’d never told me that. “So do I,” I admitted.
“But, you know, it’s work. And I’d remind myself, it’s not a kid anymore, it’s just a body, and I need to fix it up so their family can honor it and say goodbye. And I could always do it, you know, I could put my feelings aside and do my job. But, this one day. This one day.” He drew in a breath. “There was this, this kid, little kid, who drowned in a swimming pool. Five, maybe six. White all over, with freckles, like old blood on snow. Thick, red hair.”
He inhaled again, a little wetly. His lips were a tight line. I realized, with bafflement, that he was trying not to cry. “And I looked down at that little boy, Morty,” he said, “and I saw you.”
I stared at him, trying to make sense of the situation. Never in all my life had I seen Grim cry, and I never expected him to. “Like. Me in my childhood?”
“No. Like, you in general. I have this, this mental image of you, that never really got older. Even now, I still picture you as a kid.”
Under normal circumstances, I would have been offended by that. That could wait.
“And I – you know, I’d never met a corpse I couldn’t work with. I’m not the sort of person who gets scared or weepy about death,” he went on. “But this time, I just. I broke down, sobbing. And for the life of me, I couldn’t stop.”
He paused for a minute, like he was collecting himself. I realized he was having a hard time admitting this. That he was cracking open the oyster shell of his chest, too, and it was every bit as painful.
I felt like I should say something, let him know I wasn’t judging him. “How long?” was all I could think of.
“I don’t know. Long enough for Mom to find me like that. She was concerned, obviously, in her, her aloof, sphinxlike way. But she understood, somehow.” He shrugged. “Said, ‘go on upstairs, don’t think about it anymore. I’ll take care of it.’ And she did. And that’s when I called you. I just needed to hear your voice, to know you were still there.”
I thought about it, going back to that phone call. Finals had been coming up, and I’d felt like I was clinging tenuously to a life raft on an ocean of stress, away from home for the first time in my life. I was relieved to hear from him, relieved he hadn’t forgotten about me, that he was still waiting for me back home. But I never would have suspected he’d just gotten through crying over the body of a child.
“We talked, about stupid shit, like winter break, and finals, and Christmas dinner. Everything we were gonna do,” Grim continued. “And the whole time, I was so, so relieved, so grateful, that you’re here. That we’re still living and breathing, still on this rock together. And I realized, Mort: we don’t know how this journey began. We don’t know when or how it’ll end. We don’t even know if it has a beginning or end. But, we’re on this journey together,” he concluded. “And that’s a goddamn miracle.”
I stared at him in silence.
All this time, I had thought I was solitary, the lone prisoner of my fears and doubts and insecurities. But this whole time, he was here with me. The only thing isolating us was our mutual silence.
“Thank you,” was all I could think to offer. More than anything, I felt grateful that he’d chosen to break the silence with me.
He understood. “Don’t mention it.”
I felt like I should say something else, that I wanted us to keep being this honest with each other, that for the first time in years, he felt like my brother again. But just then, I heard the ding! of a text notification.
It was a text, from Evie. It read:
I can’t wait to see what our next date will be like.
Just after, I received another:
Hope our third wheel is doing alright. Even though he was a massive cockblock.
Grim’s elbow jostled me. “Told ya,” he grinned.
I realized I was grinning, too. I must have looked like an idiot. “You didn’t tell me anything!”
“Not verbally, no. But I knew you’d hear from her,” he said, sagely. “Don’t doubt my wisdom, young Skywalker.”
“You suck, Yoda.”
Grim’s mind was already elsewhere. “We should watch Star Wars tonight,” he said, apparently thinking aloud. “It’s been too long since we’ve watched Star Wars.”
I texted back, Can’t wait either.
I thought for a moment, then added, Our third wheel won’t be invited next time. Two’s company, but two plus a corpse and some carrion birds is a crowd.
Then I tucked my phone away, breathing a deep sigh.
“Thank you.” I’m not sure who I was addressing.
All I can see are the twin orbs of the headlights, but for the first time, I’m not afraid of the road ahead. I’m not alone in the dark anymore.