Living with the Dead

By Patrick Hicks

She was naked on the embalming table and I just couldn’t stop staring at her nipples. This happened two years ago when Ginny Pazinger ran a red light while she was text-messaging a friend. One of those big SUVs ran into her car and she spun around the intersection like a top. Shattered glass and chunks  of vehicle burst into the air, explosion-like. My family has been in the funeral business since 1882 so we expected Ginny’s body to be banged up pretty badly, we thought it would be a closed casket for sure, but her remains were in good shape thanks to the side airbag.

I liked Ginny. She laughed easily and she had long cinnamon hair. I shouldn’t have gone down to the embalming room to see her naked that night but I couldn’t help myself. It looked like she was sleeping on the enamel table, like she was in some kind of fairy tale where I just had to kiss her awake. Her nipples were pink peas. Just two days earlier she was walking down the school hallway in a fluffy sweater and I wondered what she looked like naked—heck, all the guys did—but when I saw her on the table it made me want to cry. She was nice and cute. She glowed. You could tell good things were going to happen to her.

I caressed her right breast and felt the bud of her nipple between my fingers. When I cupped her chest with both hands I couldn’t help but wonder if I was the only guy who ever got to do this. She had a pimple at the top of her ribcage and her bellybutton was pierced with a dangling ruby pendant. I ran my hand over her forehead and touched her cheek. She was cold rubber. I really liked her and I hated myself for not saying something about it when I could have. Maybe things would have turned out differently? Maybe she wouldn’t have been driving that day?

All of this happened two years ago but it still guts me to think of Ginny Pazinger dead on that table. I guess that’s when I decided I couldn’t enter the family business. I may be Brian Joseph Simonet III but there’s no way I’m going to become a funeral director like the other Simonets before me. No way. I just can’t get Ginny’s face out of my head. She’s always there, staring up at me.

My family lives in a Queen Anne style house on Philips Street. The top two floors are living space, the first floor is the actual funeral home, and the basement is where we do all the embalming. I grew up playing hide-and-seek in the casket room and I practiced piano in the funeral parlor, which often meant having the body of Mrs. So-and-so across the room from me. Whenever I finished playing Strauss or Mozart I’d imagine her sitting up from her bronze casket and offering a round of applause. “Well done, my boy! Well done!”

Growing up in a funeral home is a bit like growing up on a farm because it’s a family business, everyone has to pitch in and help out with embalming or lifting a body into a casket or driving the hearse around town. It means being silent in your bedroom during a wake and it means eating dinner with cadavers only two floors below. Some of my friends in high school act like they’re indestructible and they do these stupid things in their cars, but I don’t assume an invisible shield of protection is around me just because I’m young. Bad things happen to good people all the time. (Just think of Ginny Pazinger.) Growing up in a funeral home means you worship life and that you’re unafraid of death. Being afraid of death seems so pointless to me. It’s like being afraid of the sun going down.

And yet, most people are afraid of death. My lab partner is like this. Ashley gets nervous around anything dead—flies, goldfish, crusty worms on the sidewalk—it all gives her the willies, which is bad news for her because we had to dissect a bullfrog in class. He was splayed out in a tray and smelled of formaldehyde.

I poked him. “See, he’s dead. The little dude can’t hurt you.” Her neck muscles twitched and she made a sour face. “Tell you what. I’ll do the cutting if you take notes. Deal?” I moved the aluminum tray toward us, gathered my hair into a ponytail, and picked up a scalpel like it was a pencil. The smell of swamp floated up as I sliced into his speckled skin. Juice bubbled out.

Our assignment was to locate the gall bladder, pancreas, and stomach, then we had to remove a kidney and look for threadlike spinal nerves. After that, we had to hook electrodes onto his legs and get them to kick like he was some kind of crazy dancer. We laughed when we heard about this because Ashley is in Honors English with me and we’re both reading Frankenstein.

How strange to think we’d be experimenting with bioelectrogenesis like Victor Frankenstein. I like that story. I like how the monster is stitched together out of dead bodies—he’s basically just a big quilted cadaver—but everyone in the village misunderstands him. He only wants to be accepted but everyone is too freaked out by his background. I raised my hand in English last week and reminded everyone we’re all just electricity and tissue, that we’re all a bit like that monster, but no one seemed to agree with me.

Ashley clipped an electrode to my sweater. “Arise, Brian, I command thee! Arise!”

I was about to put my arms out and walk around the lab as a corpse but I heard my father’s voice. Decorum at all times, son. Decorum at all times. This usually means I can’t listen to music while driving the hearse because it wouldn’t look good. Oh, people might say, there goes the Simonet kid in the hearse. Why is he listening to Pink Floyd? Word might get out we don’t respect the dead, so as much as I wanted to walk around the room like a stiff-kneed zombie, it really wouldn’t be a good idea.

Then Ashley zapped me with another electrode and before I knew it I was walking around the lab like a monster. “Brian hungry. Feed Brian.” I schlepped past the Periodic Table of Elements dragging my foot and saying, “Feed Brian now.” Mr. Jensen shot me a withering stare. It was a stare that told me to sit down, mister. You’re a Simonet, he added without saying it.

I sat down and reattached the electrodes to the bullfrog as Ashley tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. She stared at the snipped gutted body and shook her head. “This poor thing was alive one minute doing his froggy thing and then . . . then he’s in a tray with his stomach ripped open.” Her bottom eyelashes beaded with tears and her voice choked. “It’s not fair. People shouldn’t have to die. They shouldn’t.”

For some reason I nudged her elbow. “But the end of life makes us appreciate the journey more. If we lived forever we’d take everything for granted, don’t you think? The world looks beautiful because we know someday we won’t be in it anymore. End of life makes us love life. Don’t you think?”

She looked at me for a long moment and smiled. “Would you like to see  a movie with me?”

I nodded. I’d never been asked out by a girl before.

Dead leaves skittered down the street as we drove to the Riverside Café. It’s a place that has “local color” according to a restaurant review posted near the door. The place smells of hamburgers and frying onions, the booths are bright red and they make a scrunchy noise as you slide into them. Ashley wore a summer dress and had a shawl around her shoulders—it was fluffy white and it had been knitted by her mother. We looked at the plastic menus even though we both knew what we wanted. I got a blue cheese veggie burger and Ashley got a salad with raspberry dressing. The conversation spluttered along and  we played with our silverware as we talked about Frankenstein. That led to talk about dissecting bullfrogs and then we were talking about her mother’s breasts.

“She’s got stage three cancer and they’ve taken her to Mayo.”

I played with my goatee—it was scraggily and unfilled—and I didn’t know what to say about that.

“They gave her a double mastectomy a few years ago. I thought that was the end of it but . . .” Ashley closed her eyes and massaged her temples. The tips of her fingers turned white. “But it’s come back and it’s eating her up like some kind of wild animal.”

Our food arrived and neither of us spoke for a long time. Ashley pushed walnuts around on her plate and stared at the worn tabletop. I moved the ketchup bottle aside and touched her hand. “They do good work at Mayo.”

“Yes. You’re right.” She picked up a leaf of spinach and twirled it by the stem. “Ever since she went there I’ve been obsessed with my health, you know? Breast cancer’s genetic and I worry that . . . well, I worry.”

I found myself staring at Ashley’s breasts and wondering what she looked like beneath her shawl and beneath the bright fabric of her sundress. What on earth was going on beneath her skin and deep inside the hidden universe of her body? She cupped her breasts with both hands like she momentarily forgot where she was, and then she picked up a knife and fork. She looked around to see if anyone had noticed what she had done.

“I worry about Mom and it’s scary to think it could happen to me someday.” She ate a forkful of spinach and took a long sip of tomato juice.

One thing I’ve learned from the funeral home business is that sometimes being quiet is the best thing you can do, so I sat there as Ashley kept talking, tightening her mother’s shawl around her chest. Words like “mastectomy” and “immunotherapy” and “metastasize” fell onto the table like heavy coins. And then, in mid-sentence, she opened her purse and rummaged for something—a cell phone. She flipped it open.

“Oh for crap’s sake. I’ve been nattering so long we’ve missed the first ten minutes of the movie. I’m really sorry, Brian.”

“We could still make it.”

She looked at the waitresses carrying armloads of burgers, then she glanced at the wall of postcards behind the cash register, then she looked out the window. The watery moon was rising through tree branches.

She zipped her purse shut. “How about a movie at my place?”

Like everyone else in Juniper Falls her home was close to the river and there was a stone path leading down to a dock. The smell of wet dirt was in the air and a breeze flattened my jeans against my legs. We climbed up the back-door steps and took off our shoes in the kitchen. Boots and sandals were lined in neat rows on a welcome mat.

“Mom’s a neat freak,” she explained. She padded barefoot across the cold tile and I watched condensed footprints evaporate behind her. The fringe of her shawl swayed as she reached into the fridge for some iced tea. She held out a glass and the ice cubes tinked against each other when I took it.

“Dad’s at Mayo but he’s coming home sometime tonight.” She leaned against the counter. “Want a tour of the joint?”

The rooms were full of bright colors and mismatched antique furniture. The place smelled of wood and chocolate and there were oriental rugs on the floor. A long table beside the television was crammed with shirts, mugs, pens, napkins, and cookie cutters. I went over and picked up an umbrella.

Ashley shook her head. “Mom calls this her Pink Menagerie. They’ll put a pink ribbon for Breast Cancer Awareness on anything nowadays and try to sell it. This is all the junk people have bought for her over the years . . . it’s a running joke to find the dumbest thing with a pink ribbon on it. My favorite is this cigarette lighter. I mean, honestly.”

We laughed at dog leashes, and ribbon-shaped breath mints, and foot soap, and that’s when I spotted a photo of Ashley on the wall. She was at a beach holding a plastic shovel and her mother was in the background like a blurry dead ghost. I let my eyes refocus on the glass and saw my own reflection. The chandelier behind my head looked like a murky pool of stars. Outside, the wind picked up.

“Want to see my room?”

We climbed a narrow staircase and I wanted to reach out and touch Ashley’s suntanned legs, but of course I did no such thing because my father’s voice rumbled in my head. Decorum at all times. At the landing, Ashley waved me into her bedroom. She draped her shawl over a rocking chair and spun in a circle, the hem of her sundress lifted in a rising bloom of motion.

“I’m really sorry we missed the movie,” she said crossing her arms. “But thanks for listening . . . God, you must think I’m nuts.”

“Not at all.”

“It’s really scary.”

“Of course it is.”

“And when I’m alone I worry that—” She looked at the carpet for a   long time, unblinking, and shook her head as if disagreeing with some inner thought. “The whole business with Mom has been . . . it’s been real tough and Dad just assumes she’ll get better. He acts like Mr. Positive but I’ve got this horror swimming around my heart that he’s dead wrong.” She chuckled and shook her head. “Dead wrong. I didn’t mean it that way. I’m just worried, you know?”

I sat on the bed, which was very springy, and Ashley sat down next to me. She leaned back on her elbows and wiggled her painted toenails. We joked about how I acted like a monster in front of Mr. Jensen’s class and then, slowly, like honey, she stood up and walked toward the window. The light made it possible for me to see through her dress.

“I’ve never been with a guy before.” I smoothed my goatee.

“Have you seen a girl naked?”

The face of Ginny Pazinger flitted in front of me, but I shook my head. Ashley paced around the room and stopped by the light switch. She bent her eyebrows in thought. “I think I’d like to show you something, is that okay?”

But before I could answer, the room snapped into darkness. Four panes of moonlight illuminated the carpet and her shadow stood by the door. There was a dropping rustle of fabric. A pause. She cleared her throat.

“Don’t touch me, understand? I only want you to look . . . God, I don’t even know why I’m doing this.”

When the light clicked on she was in her panties. The sundress was a pool of yellow around her feet and she had goosepimples on one arm. She looked different from Ginny, smaller maybe, and I just couldn’t stop staring at her nipples. They also looked like stiff pink peas. Here is Ashley Norris naked, I thought. Her stomach fluttered and she cupped her breasts in her hands.

“Do I look beautiful?”

“Very much so.”

“My grandmother died of breast cancer in 1981. Did I tell you that?”

“You’re really scared about this.”

“I am, yes.”

Beads of water filled her eyelashes and I stood up. I pulled her into me and smelled her hair, her back was naked against my hands and she looked up to kiss me. We crawled into bed and kept on kissing beneath the quilt until she pulled away. It seemed like she was crying and I didn’t know what to do. After awhile she nuzzled into my shoulder and we just lay there, our limbs twisted together.

“Do you . . . do you ever wonder what it’s like to be dead?” I shook my head. “Not really.”

“Well I have. What’s it like to see a dead person? You see them all the time.”

“It’s like seeing an empty jar.”

She looked up from beneath the quilt. When she spoke, her breath was warm against my skin. “Isn’t it strange though? You’re a loved one, you’re full of life and memory and then one day a cadaver takes your place. I just can’t imagine my mother not being here anymore. I just can’t imagine her dead.” She got out of bed naked and slithered into an oversized sweatshirt. Her stomach gurgled and she spoke to cover up the noise. “I’d like to see what death looks like. Can you show me a dead person?”

For some reason I recalled this conversation I had with my father. He  said America celebrates youth too much and denies the existence of death.  He thinks we hide the dying in hospitals and nursing homes because we don’t want to be reminded about the end of life, but in the olden days death was everywhere. People died at home. They dropped dead in the street. “Maybe,” my father said, “maybe it’s not healthy to keep death from a nation? It makes us forget how precious each day is and it makes us go to war too easily. Not seeing death changes a nation and it—”

“Brian? Did you hear me? I’d like to see what you see.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll sneak you into the embalming room.”

The fluorescent lights flickered in the basement. A wake was going on upstairs so I put a finger to my lips. “Dad wouldn’t like you down here because this isn’t supposed to be a tourist attraction.”

We were beneath the chapel and the floorboards above us creaked as people walked toward the body of Mrs. Olmundsen. Ashley looked around the embalming room and, as her eyes moved from this to that, it made me feel like I was seeing the place for the first time. She walked to a table and examined  a pair of pliers. The muscles in her neck twitched like she was touching a dissected bullfrog, but she took a deep breath and moved further down the prep area. There was a vacuum pump, two surgical gowns, some needle and thread, a tray of scalpels, a single toothbrush. She crossed her arms near a glass cabinet and leaned in to see shelves of lipstick and hairspray.

She turned around with her arms still folded. “It’s like an operating room and a beauty salon in here. That’s what it looks like.”

The sheeted body of Mr. Stensgaard lay between us. He was once a talkative man, powerful and lively, but he passed away one sunny morning on his farm. Like any other day in his life he went to check on the hogs, but on this day he grabbed his chest, stumbled around for a moment, and then dropped like a sack of feed. His wife saw it happen and she screamed into the phone for help. And now the body of Albert Stensgaard was under a thick plastic sheet. I lifted up the sheet and folded it back onto his stomach like I was making a bed. There was a rising smell of disinfectant. His eyes were open and it seemed like he was playing a game with us, like he was lying very still and would sit up to say hello when the mood caught him.

Ashley backed into a filing cabinet, which rattled a tray of scalpels, and she kept her arms crossed. “Doesn’t that creep you out?”

“When I was little Dad told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said I shouldn’t be afraid of the dead . . . it’s  the living I have to watch out for.”    I smoothed the old man’s hair and motioned for her to come closer. “It’s okay.”

Slowly, like a scared dog, she moved toward the vacant stare. Her shawl drooped onto the table and some fringe touched the old man’s forearm. She put her whole hand onto his hairy chest and her fingers splayed open as if she were testing for a heartbeat.

Footsteps moved above us in creaking shuffles and someone laughed. A few other voices snorted along too, but Ashley didn’t hear any of this. She kept one hand on Mr. Stensgaard’s chest and bent into his unblinking eyes. An organ started upstairs and then singing began in a kind of muted monkish chant. I knew that if Dad were to slip away from the wake, now would be the perfect time.

“I’ll be right back.” I turned to go but stopped on the stairs. “You okay down here?”

She wrapped the shawl around her shoulders and nodded. One of her hands was around her throat and she kept looking at the body. She touched the dead man’s nose. “Take your time.”

I took the carpeted stairs two by two and went into the office. It was dark outside and snow fell in fat, dreamy flakes. Trees shook off the last of their leaves, which spun down with the snow. Down, down, down it all came. The world was so beautiful, so mesmerizing, so temporary.

Dad was talking to someone near the door and he held up a finger to catch my attention. The stairs to the embalming room were right behind me and he came into the office with a mug of coffee. “What’re you doing down there?”

“Studying. It’s quiet and I don’t mind Mr. Stensgaard’s company.”

He smiled and took a sip of coffee. Steam fogged up his glasses. “You know, the older I get the more I appreciate how you’re taking over the family business. Oh I know people wonder how we Simonets can do this job, but no one teaches you how to enjoy life better than the dead.” He backed toward the door as the organ finished playing. “Once this is over I need your help get- ting Mr. Stensgaard into his suit. He’s a big man and I can’t lift him by myself. Don’t go anywhere tonight. Promise?”

“I promise.”

He straightened his tie in a mirror before returning to the dim lighting of the chapel. I heard the beginnings of the Rosary and it made me turn away. I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth . . . I opened the fridge for some leftover food and grabbed a bottle of ginger ale. When I got downstairs Ashley was holding an eyecap between her finger and thumb. I could tell she was trying to figure out what it was used for.

“We put those in the decedent’s eyes to keep them closed. It’s basically just a big contact lens. See those plastic spurs in the middle of it . . . yes,  those things there . . . they attach to the inside of the eyelid.” I pointed to Mr. Stensgaard. “He’ll need one in each eyeball.”

She held it up like a monocle. “I don’t think I want to be embalmed.”

“You can always be composted or incinerated. There’s no law saying you have to be embalmed. Heck, there’s a dude in Germany who’ll pump you full of plastic and make you into modern art.” I held out a plate of cheese. “Hungry?”

The Rosary continued upstairs—Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee—and I opened the ginger ale. I poured the fuzzing liquid into two cups while we sat at a desk eating apples and cubes of cheese. Ashley talked about how she really wanted to visit her mother at Mayo and how she felt like she wasn’t getting the whole story. The prognosis was always sunny.

“It’s like they’re trying to hide it from me or let me believe cancer doesn’t exist.” She bit into an apple slice. “They don’t want to upset me but I want to be upset. I want to see this happening because she’s my mom.” She looked around and ate another slice of apple as the furnace clicked on. “I suppose living with the dead makes you see things differently.”

“It makes me appreciate how fast the end can come, that’s for sure. Just think of Ginny Pazinger.”

Her eyes widened. “Was she in here?”

“On that table there.”

Ashley walked toward it, touched it with a finger, then hopped up. Her smooth legs dangled from the embalming table and she let her sandals drop to the floor—thump, thump. She lay back with her hands laced over her stomach.

The weight of living feet and the murmur of living voices flowed above us, ghostly, otherworldly, but Ashley didn’t move. It made me think of Ginny, naked and cold on the table, the pimple on the top of her ribcage, her bellybutton pierced with a dangling ruby pendant, and those nipples. And now Ashley was in her place fully clothed and breathing. Alive. Her cells hummed with mysterious energy and I wanted to gather her into my arms. I thought of her standing topless before a mammogram machine and it made me shudder.

Her chest moved up and down . . . up and down . . . up and down. I walked across the linoleum floor and kissed her. I ran my fingers through her hair, I felt the warmth of her body and her lips became wet against mine. I really liked her and knew I’d hate myself if I didn’t do something about it, so I lifted Ashley Norris off the table. Her shawl dropped to the floor and it occurred to me the Mayo Clinic was only two hours away.

I wrapped the shawl around her shoulders and said, “Come with me.” Her face became a question mark.

“Trust me . . . I really like you.”

She looked around at the surgical gowns and rubber gloves as the wake above us continued on in muted prayer.

“Do you trust me?”

She turned her back on the body of Mr. Stensgaard. “Yes.”

We climbed the stairs to the back door and stepped outside. She threaded her bare arm into mine. The snow was coming, down, down, down, and the prairie rolled out before us, deep into the night.

Patrick Hicks is the author of five poetry collections, including This London (2010) and Finding the Gossamer (2008), both published by Salmon Poetry. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and for Best American Short Stories 2009, and he recently won the Glimmer Train New Writer’s Fiction Award. He teaches at Augustana College.

Originally appeared in NOR 8.

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