The Truest Thing

by Emily Nagin

Feature image: Martin Johnson Heade. York Harbor, Coast of Maine, 1877. The Art Institute of Chicago.

In January, Nancy burst out laughing during the Shapiro funeral. She started laughing during a eulogy, though the eulogy itself was not funny. It was about deer hunting. The man giving it was stocky, red-cheeked, and blond, his buzz cut so close that from a distance, he looked bald. He spoke directly into the lectern, as if it had asked him to recall his father’s life. From her spot at the back of the chapel, all Nancy could see was the top of his head.

Her coworker, Lenny Faberman, sat across the aisle from her. Out of the corner of her eye, Nancy could see him fidgeting with his cufflinks. Last week, Lenny had caught Nancy crying while she embalmed an old woman. He’d stood in the basement doorway for a full minute, then said, “Did you know her?”

Nancy sniffed and wiped her eyes on her upper arm. She shook her head.

“Okay,” said Lenny. He glanced at Nancy’s boobs, then left.

Nancy had been apprenticing at Green-Schugar Jewish Funeral Home for three months, but she’d known Lenny since she was fifteen. Back then, he was one of those vaguely creepy twenty-somethings who hung around the South Oakland parties and dated high school girls. The parties were mostly by the lake in Schenley Park, or on Bates Street, near the University of Pittsburgh. Bates sloped up, but Nancy always felt as if she were descending a few feet into the Earth when she entered one. The air was a quagmire of smoke; all the guys wore black hoodies with faux-fleece lining; she could feel the bass line in her shins. Lenny had kissed her at one of these parties. She was sixteen; he was probably twenty-five. It was three a.m. and most people had left already. Nancy’s best friend Kylie was hooking up with someone, which meant that Nancy couldn’t leave either—it wasn’t safe to wait for the bus alone. She was trying to decide whether she should stay up another half hour or go to sleep on the couch when Lenny shambled in and collapsed beside her. He rolled his head toward her and grinned. His eyes were entirely pink, deep red in the corners. Snowflakes lay in the creases of his hoodie. Nancy wondered what he’d been doing outside.

“Nancy,” he said. He raised his arm and let his hand flop onto her shoulder. His muscles seemed to be made of water. The hand slid off her shoulder, brushed her right breast, and landed on her thigh. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so she left it there.

“Nancy,” he said again. “You’re so good. You know that? Like, everyone says, Nancy’s so good. And,” he shut his eyes, swallowed, then worked his mouth as if he were trying to generate enough spit to keep talking. “And some guys have like, a thing about . . . about good girls? You know what I mean? By that? But I just want you to know that I’m safe, okay. You can trust me.”

“That’s good,” said Nancy.

“Yeah,” said Lenny. He scooted closer, leaned forward, and pressed his mouth against hers. His lips were chapped; she could feel his stubble scratching her chin. It was weird, kissing someone while your eyes were open. Lenny’s face was distorted, his nose and the ridge above his eyebrows seemed huge. She could see his pores. The month before, she’d dropped acid and everyone’s face had looked like this. Lenny parted his lips and tried to push his tongue into her mouth and Nancy jerked her face aside. She pushed against his chest and he sat up.

“What?” he asked.

“I . . . have to pee,” she said. She half rolled off the couch and sprinted up the stairs. In the bathroom, she locked the door, then sat in the tub. She woke up the next morning to someone pounding on the door. Her feet were under the spigot, which had dripped on to them all night, soaking her shoes and the hems of her jeans.

Lenny must have been thirty now, and she doubted he went to those parties anymore. Still, when she thought of him she did not see Lenny as he was now, but Lenny as he had been six years ago, a scruffy guy slouched in a La-Z-Boy, rolling a blunt, nodding his head to Biggie and heckling people at the beer pong table.

Today, Lenny looked very serious and solemn in his dark blue suit and blue-and-black-striped tie. He was probably thinking about Mr. Shapiro’s granddaughter, who was sitting in the front pew, directly in Lenny’s line of sight. She had enormous breasts. Epic titties, Lenny probably would have said.

Nancy pictured Lenny approaching the granddaughter after the funeral, laying a hand gently on her shoulder and saying, “I am truly sorry for your loss, Miss Shapiro. By the way, you have epic titties.”

She could feel herself starting to laugh: her chest was seizing up; there was that weird, sneezy pressure below her nose. She bit the inside of her cheek hard, clamped her knees together, and looked at her lap. I am not going to laugh, she told herself. I am not going to laugh.

For a moment, she thought she was going to be all right. Then Mr. Shapiro’s granddaughter sobbed quietly. Lenny stood, reached into his pocket for a handkerchief, and began to scurry up the aisle in a half-crouch, apparently trying to be unobtrusive. Nancy let out a snort of laughter. Lenny’s head whipped around, and their eyes met. She could feel more laughter rising up from her chest in a wave. She pushed herself to her feet and walked as quickly as she could from the chapel, her hand pressed against her mouth so hard she could feel her teeth and jaw through her cheek.

In mortuary school, Nancy was at the top of her class. She never once laughed during a eulogy or cried during an embalming. Then, her first week at Green-Schugar, she embalmed Sandy Lehman and everything fell apart.

Sandy Lehman was fifteen. He’d been hit by a car on his way home from a friend’s house, but there wasn’t much restoration to do: his skull was cracked, but if she combed his hair right, she could hide it; there were deep abrasions on his left forearm and cheek that she’d need to conceal with makeup; his torso was one dark mass of bruises from broken ribs and organ damage, but that would be covered by his shirt.

Nancy listened to Top 40 while she worked. That morning, his sister had brought them a Giant Eagle bag of clothes. Nancy expected khakis and a polo shirt, but she was wrong: his sister had packed jeans with one ripped knee, a Jimmy Eat World T-shirt, mismatched socks (one green, one blue), and a pair of red-and-white-checked Vans, the white checks colored with green and pink highlighter. The clothes shook her a little. She’d never dressed a body in an outfit he would actually wear.

Nancy was bunching up the legs of Sandy’s jeans so she could slide them over his feet, when she heard paper rustling. She reached into his pocket, expecting to pull out an old receipt or maybe a dollar. Instead, she found a piece of folded notebook paper. Nancy opened it. The writing was cramped and slanted so far to the right it was almost horizontal, as if a strong wind were blowing the letters over. At the top of the paper was a heading: 11/12—Geometry. The Area of a Triangle. Below that was a one-line note:

Lisa, I love you like broccoli loves brown sauce.

Nancy felt something come loose in her chest. She did not want to know that Sandy Lehman had liked Jimmy Eat World and always wore mismatched socks. She did not want to wonder whether the checks on his Vans had been filled in by him or by Lisa. She did not want to imagine Lisa, but she couldn’t help it: she saw a girl in a red hoodie and Vans just like Sandy’s, whose long, dark hair was always in a ponytail and who never took her earbuds out, even when her iPod was off. Nancy saw Sandy and Lisa sitting toe to toe on a park bench, Lisa bent over Sandy’s shoes, a pink highlighter in her hand, the green one clenched between her teeth; Sandy sitting beside her in math class, casting furtive glances at the place where the wisps of hair that had escaped her pony-tail curled behind her ears; Sandy scribbling the note and then, too afraid to give it to her, folding it up and stuffing it into his back pocket.

Nancy started to cry. She threw the note on the floor but that just made it worse, so she picked it up and put it back in his pocket. She had to call Lenny and get him to finish dressing Sandy.

The morning after the Shapiro funeral, Lenny called her at six a.m. Both her roommates were still asleep—she could hear Lizzy snoring across the hall; in the living room, Carla’s cat Dewey leapt heavily from the couch. He must have heard Nancy’s phone ringing. He’d be pushing his head against her door in a minute, begging for food.

“We have a pick-up in Squirrel Hill,” Lenny said. “I’ll see you in half an hour.”

“Okay.” Nancy pressed her face into the pillow. It was still dark outside. The wind rattled her bedroom window. When she held her breath she could hear tiny snowflakes clicking against the glass. Since Mr. Schugar blew out his back, she’d been helping Lenny with the pick-ups. Except to ask her to check the directions to a house, he never spoke to her. Nancy made herself roll out of bed, feed Dewey, and brew a pot of coffee. When it was ready, she went downstairs to wait by the front door.

At exactly six-thirty, he pulled up in front of the house. Nancy was out the door before he could honk. The wind was cold and hard as concrete. It smacked against her face as she jogged to the van.

When she climbed in, Lenny muttered, “Good morning.” She was so surprised he’d spoken that she didn’t process what he said next.

“What was that?” she asked.

“I said, do you want some coffee?” said Lenny, jerking his chin at two styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cups. A wax paper bag, the bottom growing transparent with grease and sugar, was squeezed between them. He’d never brought coffee or doughnuts before.

“Oh, thanks, but I already have some.” Nancy raised her cup. She felt regretful and weirdly guilty, as if by making her own she’d intentionally slighted him. “I’ll take a doughnut, though, if you’re sharing.”

Lenny gave her one of his blank looks. You are an idiot, it seemed to say. “Yeah,” he said. “Sure.”

Nancy took one. She thought Lenny might try to talk to her more, but he seemed to have used up his words for the morning. They sat in their old silence, eating and listening to the Steve Miller Band on the radio. Nancy finished her doughnut and her coffee, then started drinking the cup Lenny had bought. She knew that halfway through the pick-up, her heart would be pounding and she’d have to pee so badly she’d want to vomit, but she was still sleepy and the coffee was very good. Lenny had put in half-and-half but no sugar, exactly how she liked it.

The pick-up was at a big brick house on Northumberland, set back from the road behind a screen of azaleas and Japanese pine trees. By the front door, a frozen fishpond sat beside an ice-covered rain-chain shaped like a string of lotus blossoms. Nancy tapped it and watched it creak and sway while they waited for someone to let them in.

A middle-aged woman answered the door. Her blonde hair was pulled into a messy ponytail, and her eyes were red and puffy. Nancy guessed that she must be the daughter of whoever had died.

The woman tried to smile at them. “You’re from the funeral home?” she asked.

“Yes, Miss,” said Nancy.

The woman nodded and stepped back so that they could come inside. Nancy went first, then Lenny, walking backwards and pulling the stretcher. When the woman saw it, something seemed to crack open inside her. She collapsed onto her couch, sobbing into the crook of her elbow. “I’m sorry,” she choked. “I’m so sorry. I’ll stop in a minute, I just . . .” She swiped at her eyes and gasped, but did not stop crying.

Nancy felt a calm descend. She could sense Lenny looking at her, wondering if she was going to start crying or giggling. He could fuck himself. Maybe she laughed during eulogies and couldn’t hold it together long enough to embalm someone’s pinky toe, but this she knew how to do. She sat down beside the woman and wrapped her arm around her shoulders. Some people hated being touched when they were crying, but some people needed it. Nancy had always been good at judging whether or not she could hug someone. The moment Nancy’s arm went around her, the woman collapsed against her, burying her face in Nancy’s shoulder. Nancy rocked back and forth slightly. She patted the woman’s back and stayed quiet. Behind her, she could hear Lenny dragging the stretcher up the stairs by himself.

While she waited for the woman to stop crying, Nancy looked around the room. The entire back wall was made of windows. Nancy watched a cat emerge from the trees and pick its way delicately across the yard. Halfway, it stopped and looked into the house, directly at her.

The woman sniffed and pulled away. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “Your shirt’s all wet.”

“It’s nothing,” said Nancy. “Really, don’t apologize.”

The woman sniffed again, she looked down at her lap and shook her head. “You just don’t expect your son to die before you.”

Nancy’s heart shivered. They had not had a kid since Sandy Lehman. She took a breath, tucked her hands under her thighs, and gripped the sofa cushion. “How old was he?” she asked.

“His name’s Nathan,” said the woman. “He’s seventeen.” She wiped her eyes again, then said, “He likes to read. He finished One Hundred Years of Solitude two days ago.” She looked up at Nancy, smiling hesitantly. “Have you ever heard of a seventeen-year-old reading that book for fun?”

Nancy shook her head. The woman rubbed the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. After a moment, she said, “It’s . . . ridiculous, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Nancy. “It is.”

Nancy had noticed that people look younger after they die; if she hadn’t known Nathan was seventeen, she would have guessed fourteen. His nose was slightly turned up, and his cheeks had only just begun to thin out. There were faint freckles on the bridge of his nose and chin, a beauty mark in the exact center of his neck. Little pimples were scattered across his forehead, another in the crease on the right side of his nose. His hair was dark brown and so curly it puffed out around his head like an afro. When they zipped him into the body bag, his green eyes were open.

Nathan looked like someone who would have come to parties on Bates Street. He was wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt under a black hoodie. There was a book of rolling papers and a bag of loose tobacco on his desk next to a Physician’s Desk Reference. Nancy guessed that if they were to check under his bed or on the floor of his closet, they’d find a loose floorboard, under which would be a pillowcase containing pills, a handle of vodka or whiskey, and some pot. According to the paramedics, he’d probably died of an aneurism or a stroke.

On the way back to the funeral home, the snow changed to freezing rain, the drops heavy and viscous. They hit the roof and windshield with loud smacks. Within ten minutes, the road was coated in a thin layer of ice. Lenny cranked up the heat. He kept taking his left hand off the steering wheel and touching the inside pocket of his jacket. Nancy wondered if he was expecting a call. She wished he’d concentrate harder on the road.

When they arrived at Green-Schugar, they had to run across the parking lot to keep from being soaked. The stretcher was old, even in good conditions the wheels tended to swivel to the right then stick there. On a layer of slush and ice, they simply stopped spinning. Lenny made it worse by holding his end with only one hand. He kept the other pressed over his pocket.

When they finally reached the door to the basement, they folded the stretcher’s legs up and carried Nathan down. Once they’d laid him on a table and taken him out of the body bag, Lenny said, “So, uh, I’m going home. I don’t really feel good . . .”

Anger rose in Nancy’s chest. She gripped the edge of the table until her knuckles turned white. This was absolutely the last thing she could take. She wanted to smash every bottle of formaldehyde in the basement.

“You aren’t sick,” she said. “And you aren’t leaving either. How am I sup- posed to get home if you take the van?”

For a moment, Lenny seemed unable to speak. Then he said, “Take the bus. I’m leaving.”

“No,” said Nancy. It was so cold in the basement she could see her breath. Outside, the parking lot was beginning to look like a skating rink, the branches of the trees around it encased in shells of ice. She gestured to the window. “Even if you wanted to, you can’t drive in this.”

Lenny looked out the window. His jaw tightened. He stood still for a long moment.

“Fine,” he said. “I need you to help me with something.”

Nancy opened her mouth to say that she’d help him clean Nathan up and that was it. Before she could, Lenny reached into his coat pocket and produced a snake.

Nancy jumped back and banged into the embalming table.

“He belonged to Nathan,” said Lenny.

What?

Lenny lifted the hand not holding the snake, then let it drop helplessly to his side. “They don’t take reptiles at animal shelters, did you know that? That’s where dead people’s pets go, animal shelters. What’s gonna happen to him if they won’t take him?”

Nancy looked at the snake. He wasn’t very big, probably he was just a baby. His scales were leaf brown, overlaid with bands of black like the shadows of light on water. He lay listless in Lenny’s hand. She squeezed her eyes shut.

“Lenny . . . Nathan’s a kid. His mom’s going to want that snake. You have to give him back.”

“But—”

Nancy opened her eyes. Lenny was holding the snake cupped in both hands, now, staring down at him as if he were a sickly kitten. She felt a waver of pity. “You know I’m right,” she said. “You have to give him back.”

Lenny looked up at her, sad and scared. His face seemed ten years younger. “If I say I took him, I’ll get fired.”

Nancy had the urge to touch his shoulder but restrained herself. “I’ll go with you,” she said. “We’ll say it was a mistake.”

Lenny let out a short, weak spurt of laughter. “What the fuck kind of mistake is that?”

“Doesn’t matter. We’ll just . . . figure it out.”

Lenny shook his head, but she could see that she’d won. She stepped toward him and said, “What do you want me to do? To help, I mean.”

“One of us just has to keep holding him or he’ll get too cold. We can take turns.”

“Okay,” said Nancy. “You keep him warm, I’ll start on Nathan.”

“Thank you,” said Lenny quietly. He walked over to the far corner, where there was a space heater, and switched it on. Before he sat down, he jerked his chin at Nathan and said, “Doesn’t he remind you of someone from Bates?”

“Yes,” Nancy said.

Lenny nodded. He cupped his hands around the snake and blew into them.

Nancy reached out and touched Nathan’s cheek with the tip of her finger. When people asked why she’d become a mortician (usually it took them a while to get around to asking, they seemed afraid of the answer), Nancy said it was because she wanted to help people. This was true, but not entirely. It was a Bates Street party that made her want to be a mortician. She was sixteen, it was July, seven months after Lenny kissed her. She’d made her way to the kitchen for another beer, and found the door blocked by a crowd of people. She could hear girls yelping, a boy’s voice yelling, “Shit, I’m not touching it!”

“What’s going on?” she asked the guy in front of her.

He shrugged. “There’s something gnarly on the floor.”

Nancy had always been intrigued by things other people found gnarly. She wormed her way to the front of the crowd. They were standing in a wide circle around something small and gray-brown in the middle of the kitchen floor. A dead bat, its wings curled around it, tiny feet tucked against its stomach. She knew it probably had fleas, but it seemed so sweet and sad. A body, all alone.

Two girls with bleached hair and a white guy with dreadlocks stood clos- est. One of the girls pushed the boy’s shoulder, trying to get him to pick the bat up. He shook his head resolutely. “Naw, man. I’m not touching it.”

“I’ll get it,” said Nancy. She stepped forward and scooped the bat into her hand. It was light and cool, the fur on its body very soft. Its wings had the same velvety feel as earlobes. She touched its turned-up nose. It felt like thin, expensive leather.

Nancy noticed that the room had gone quiet. She looked up. Everyone was staring at her. Some looked shocked or disgusted, but most looked awed, as if she’d performed a small miracle. She was tempted to say, For my next trick, I will make the bat disappear!

Instead, she walked to the back door. A boy opened it for her, as if she were royalty. A few people followed her outside and across the tiny back yard. Once she got to the chain link fence, she stopped, unsure of what to do. Should she bury the bat? Was that weird? She looked over her shoulder at the people who’d followed her. They were all watching her as if she knew exactly what to do. Nancy knelt down and set the bat on the grass, then dug her hands into the loose dirt around a row of pansies. She scooped out a hole, lowered the bat in, and patted the earth down. On her way back to the house, she passed Lenny sitting on the back steps, smoking a bowl. He touched one hand lightly to his sternum, extended the other so his palm faced the sky, and bowed to her.

It seemed too simple to say that the bat was the reason she’d become a mortician, but it also seemed like the truest thing. She wanted to ask Lenny if he remembered that night, but was afraid to conjure any Bates Street party. If she did, the kiss might flash into the room and hang between them.

Nathan’s mother wanted a traditional Jewish funeral, which meant that while Nancy could not embalm Nathan, she needed to wash and dress him. She went to the big sink under the window and filled an enamel bowl with warm, soapy water. She carried it back to the table and gave Nathan a sponge bath. She combed his hair and cleaned under his nails. She covered him in a plain white shroud. Every now and then, she glanced up at Lenny. He sat on the basement floor in the pool of light cast by a lamp, tapping his left foot in time to a song in his head. Nancy could almost hear it.


Emily Nagin received her MFA from the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program in 2015. She is a contributing editor at Fiction Writer’s Review, and her writing has appeared in Lit Hub, the Uncommon Core Fiction Anthology, and Michigan Quarterly Review Online, among other publications. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

@EmilyNagin.

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