December 12, 2017
I’m the last thing people imagine when they think of a funeral director. For this late night house call, I’m wearing a purple dress and heels to match; my nails are painted lavender. I’m hardly the dowdy thing in black the family expected.
The son hesitates, but shows me in. First, I verify that their grandmother is in fact dead: breath and pulse, no, and doll’s eye test, negative. The old woman’s eyes roll right along with her head. Though the hospice doctor’s been here and gone, you can’t be too careful in this business. Last week, some guy in Mississippi woke up in a body bag on the embalming table. It was all over the news.
I sit down with a few family members, who want to talk funeral arrangements. “I’d be glad to answer all your questions,” I say. “Or I could come back tomorrow, if that’s easier.” No, they just want everything over with. I open the brochure, we discuss options, and I tell them about my special.
“For nineteen hundred and ninety-nine dollars,” I say, “you can get a one-day funeral, including a premier velvet-lined mahogany casket for the viewing, all the embalming, cosmetology, dressing, and supervision, two silk flower arrangements, and the use of my S&S superior hearse.” After that, the body is buried in cardboard. Thick, ecological cardboard. A lot of people like that. They did.
I cocoon the grandmother in the flowered bed sheet, line the gurney up with the mattress, and start to slide her heavy body. It doesn’t budge. This has never happened to me before, not with family present.
“Here,” the son says. “Let me help.”
“No, thank you,” I say in what I hope is a professional voice. The last thing I want is for him to help me. But I can’t just yank or shove. The old woman deserves respect. The breath feels stuck in my throat. Finally, slowly, I check the sheet and pull it from where it’s wedged between the bed and gurney. Of course. Now the grandmother’s shoulders slide, then her fleshy legs. When the body’s firmly on the gurney, I strap her in.
“Sometimes it takes a bit of doing,” I tell the son.
In the last fourteen hours, I’ve arranged three funerals, made two house calls, set up chairs for a wake and broken them down again, ordered flowers, and filed out more forms with the City and County of San Francisco than I want to think about.
Exhausted, I ride the elevator down to my hearse parked in the basement and drive out into the October rain. North Beach is quiet this time of night. After dropping the body off at my embalmers’, I head back to the office. There is still work to do.
When the doorbell rings, I have to pick my head up from my desk. It buzzes again. I groggily check in the mirror, wipe away the mascara raccooned under my eyes, and straighten my stockings. I live right upstairs from the funeral parlor. People call at all hours.
“Lena,” a man’s voice says.
In the window near the door, all I see is a hat, a stiff gray dome with a red-tipped feather. I don’t know anyone with a hat like that.
“Lena,” he calls again.
“Denis?” I say, opening the door. “I don’t believe it.” We dated a couple years back. Not serious but not not serious either. After my divorce, I swore I’d keep it causal with men.
Denis’s face looks broad and smooth; only a few silvery strands show in his hair. He combs it back now, which makes him look more like the financial adviser that he is—or was. We haven’t been in touch. He’s got the same strong forearms and muscular legs of an athlete that I remember loving. But his eyes, a sapphire blue, are sad in a way I’d never seen.
“Well, hi,” I say.
“You look good, Lena,” he says, taking in my silky dress and high heels. “Wow.” He pauses and moves his eyes away. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s late, I know. I—it’s my mother, Lena. She’s not well. The doctor told me tonight that she may not have much longer. Mom’s always said she wants you to handle her funeral when the time comes. I thought you should know.”
I met Denis’s mother at a viewing. I remember her as small, lively woman with a gigantic smile. His mother was the one introduced us.
He could have called, of course. But that thought doesn’t stay in my head because the rain that’s turned to mist is glistening now along Denis’s broad shoulders. When I reach out and touch his fingers on the door, he doesn’t pull away.
Denis and I dated maybe five or six months. He was surprised by my profession but not in the least put off. Me, I wanted a fling. I talked him into heading across the bridge to Berkeley for a little Zydeco dancing, and he took me to that restaurant in Chinatown where the waiters are so rude all you can do is laugh. I liked to show up sometimes at his door wearing sequins, a white stole, and tiara. He didn’t dress up, but he sure liked how I looked. We took selfies: I’d glam it up and he’d keep his face drawn and serious, or he’d be the big black-suited man with me just in his shadow.
One Friday night, Denis suggested we go for a drink at the Tonga Room in the Fairmount hotel.
“You’ve put in a long week,” he said. “Let’s relax.” Except he was nervous, fussing with his collar stays and dropping nickels and dimes all over the floor. I leaned back and ordered a Mai Tai, trying not to notice. We watched the Tonga’s thunderstorm show, lightning flashing when you least expect it. Afterward, Denis cleared his throat.
“Lena,” he began. “Why—What would you say to our moving in together? Plenty of room at my house. You’re always saying how much you love the view of the Golden Gate.”
My head jerked back, I was that surprised. My divorce had hit hard. I had bought the funeral parlor with my ex and assumed it was for life. My mind went to other men—all the husbands, brothers, fathers—whose bodies I’d bent over, there one day and suddenly no more. My heart began to pound.
“Denis,” I managed. “You know I can’t just move my business across town.”
He nodded and took a sip of water. We talked of other things. But hell if I know what because all I can remember now is Denis’s hollow-eyed look of pain.
We never saw each other again. No big blow up, no bitter words. Denis would phone from time to time, and I’d call back. Until about a year ago. I don’t know why. I kept meaning to.
“Of course,” I say now. “I’d be honored to take care of the arrangements.” Ignoring how late it is, I add, “Why don’t you come in?”
After things ended with Denis, I threw myself into work. I found comfort in its routine, the perfect positioning of flowers, the right combination of songs to honor a life. Putting on a funeral is a huge production, more complicated than a wedding. I’m creating final memories that people will never forget. And I have just one shot to get it right.
Of course, I’ve had a few, what? one-night stands—the guy from the espresso place, the salesman who kept me in guest registries, a married neighbor. But none of these men made me feel the way Denis did—as if I were the only woman in the world.
I usher him into the softly lit foyer. I’ve made the place look like a home, with thick oriental rugs and a long couch that a body—two bodies?—could sink into without a second thought. He glances around uncomfortably. I walk him to the office. It’s filled now with fresh flowers: pumpkin-colored mums, pale lilies, and immense ferns, moist and sweet-smelling.
Denis takes the chair next to mine. He nervously taps a finger on the glass desktop.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Where are my manners? Beer? Wine? I have both.” I pull out two tall glasses from the stocked refrigerator behind the desk and set them in front of us.
He quickly shakes his head. His mother, he says, wants a simple service, the music lively—you know how she loves a good party, Lena—and the food plentiful. Antipasti, ravioli, and cannoli—chocolate and vanilla—from Stella Pastry. He talks faster and faster, looking at me less and less. The desire I’d just felt—I’m sure he felt it, too—begins to evaporate.
The grandmother I’d collected in North Beach comes back to me the next day. They’ve sutured her mouth shut from the inside and plumped her eyelids with caps so they’ll maintain a natural shape. Her skin is firm, and her body, if anything, heavier from the embalming fluids. Getting on the maroon pantsuit that the family wants to see her in should be about as easy as putting a party dress on a pine tree. I lift one thick leg, and tug the pants up, trying not to rip the fabric. The other leg goes even slower. Finally I ease the pants over her hips. Threading the fabric belt around her waist is easy.
A deep quiet envelopes us as I turn to her makeup. I color her lips rose and the eyelids sable brown. I use regular makeup, not the heavy mortuary kind, because it’s natural. I want her to look sleeping, not dead. I blue her hair—just a bit—to brighten its gray under the lights, and tilt her chin down for a peaceful look. The work absorbs me, makes me forget about Denis.
A week later, I’m downstairs getting ready for the party. Fifteen years ago—right after I bought the business from my ex—I threw my first Halloween bash. Now, it’s an annual thing. Put a bunch of San Franciscans in costumes and something interesting always happens.
Denis phoned yesterday to tell me his mother was doing better, still in the hospital but hanging on, at least for now. I invited him to the party.
“Come. You can get out for a couple hours and have fun. Your mother would tell you the same thing.”
Denis said he’d try to swing by. Last Halloween I surprised everyone by popping out of a coffin in a leopard miniskirt at midnight. This year I planned to top that.
I lay a tuxedo-clad Dracula in a coffin and convert a child’s casket into the beer cooler. For a couch, I pull out the longest coffin I have, fit milk crates inside, and stack sofa pillows on top. Tiny ghoul lights with feathery eyes get sprinkled around. The band, Mechanical Heart, arrives and starts to set up.
At nine, the party is coming alive. Marie, my neighbor and part-time bookkeeper, shows up as Marilyn, with more voluptuous cleavage than the star ever had in real life. Her caveman husband wears a cowhide slung over his shoulder and a bone stuck through his ponytail. This leads to predictable jokes about boners. It’s true, I tell them, the dead do get them. Everybody laughs and shots of tequila go around.
The band is deep into their second set—Derek and the Dominos, The Dead, U2—playing so hard that people can’t help but dance. I replenish the cocktail hot dogs and refill the Skittles bowl, and finally get out there myself. I dance with a handsome skeleton, adding a little shimmy here and there, but my usual verve’s missing. Where is Denis?
At eleven forty-five, I signal the band, and Marie and I sneak upstairs. It was her idea—the low-cut black leather vest and micro skirt, the studded boots—she discovered the whole outfit in Fantasy on Folsom. All I did was add the whip. I can’t wait to see Denis’s face.
Marie laces me in and zips me up. We tiptoe down the backstairs and I tuck myself into the casket we’d propped up on wheels. She rolls me toward the band, who’ve begun a loud countdown. At exactly midnight, I jump out.
“Can’t get no satisfaction—” I sing. The last syllable comes out like a low growl and everybody cheers. “’Cause I try and I try and I try—”
Under the lights, I suddenly feel everyone’s eyes on me, and, as if someone threw a switch, my confidence disappears. Here I am surrounded by friends, but now I feel as if none of them knows me: the exhausted me, the lonely me. I scan the crowd for Denis. He’s not here. I go to sing the next word, but nothing comes out. Now people are staring.
A guy tosses a handful of candy corn up in the air. Someone else throws M&M’s. Everything starts zinging—bits of orange, blue, yellow flying past. A gangly orangutan catches Kit Kats in his hairy palms. A French maid holds out her gauze skirt for Starbursts. People laugh.
They think it’s part of the act. The switch flips back on and I snap my whip high over everyone’s heads. They scream and applaud. I grab a fistful of candy from the stage and pitch it back out at the crowd.
That’s when I see Denis, standing uncomfortably alone in the back. He’s wearing a retro bowling shirt with ANTONY stitched over the pocket, patched Madras shorts, and sloppy brown sandals, something that doesn’t look like a costume, but is. Denis is an impeccable dresser, tailored suits, polished wingtips, vests. I’ve always liked that about him. But you know, tonight the shorts look good on him. I flash him a smile.
LAURIE ANN DOYLE‘s new collection of stories, World Gone Missing (Regal House Publishing), has been named a top book pick by the East Bay Express and praised by New York Times bestselling author Edan Lepucki for delivering “astute portrayals of people who desire connection, hope, and renewal.” Winner of the Alligator Juniper National Fiction Award and a Pushcart Prize nominee, Doyle’s stories and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Jabberwock Review, and Under the Sun, among many other journals. Her work has been anthologized in The Livingston Press Fiction Anthology (University of W. Alabama), Road Story (KY Press), and Speak and Speak Again (Pact Press). Doyle teaches creative writing at the San Francisco Writers Grotto and UC Berkeley. You can find her online at www.laurieanndoyle.com.
Adapted from World Gone Missing , by Laurie Ann Doyle, Copyright © 2017 by Laurie Ann Doyle. With the permission of the publisher, Regal House Publishing.