from a novel in progress
Most who pass by this stretch of highway don’t notice there’s a town here. Their eyes glaze over the flat, yellow land of Central Montana that goes on and on. The only landmark tall enough to see from the road is the vacant grain elevator, where the local kids like to play. But just as its silver tower comes into view, the a.m. radio loses its signal. They look down to fiddle with the dial, and there goes the town of Petroleum.
I like to walk these dirt roads when it’s just me, nothing but the stamp of my hiking boots and the swish of my parka as I stroll down the middle of it. The sun has set and I’m returning from my post office box with a handful of envelopes. I push the hair from my face with a glove, but the wind swipes it right back. In a town with no street lights, the mostly one-story buildings show black against indigo, an outline of bent aluminum awnings and flags with frayed edges, everything leaning south, away from the wind. I close my eyes for the dust. You can do this in the middle of the street in a town so small.
A dog barks, and soon I hear what’s got it stirred up. Rhythmic pops and squeaks of bicycle tires. Voices now. Boys. I pick up speed, but not enough to show I expect trouble. My home is just around the corner. I can see the shadow of the chimney from here.
The voices hush but the sound of pedaling and rattle of bicycle chains comes nearer. I keep walking toward home. I’m used to the nicknames: Scary Mary, Bloody Mary, Spinster (which seems unfair since I’m only thirty).
The first boy rides past. Two more follow, rocks spitting beneath the tires. One circles around me, riding so close I feel my sleeve brushed by the handlebars. I hear his gruff breathing and then the word, Freak! in a joyous whisper.
I don’t even turn my head as he speeds off. The other two pedal after him, laughing, shouting as they go. Hurry home, one says. Got to spend your evening with Daddy.
Everyone in this town knows us. Father and daughter. Funeral director and embalmer. While Pop meets with families and helps plan their funerals, I am happy to stay in the basement with my tools. Sometimes I prefer the dead to the living.
I cross my yellow lawn. Crampton Funeral Home, like all the other buildings, leans to the south. Its steps are chipped, its gray clapboard faded, and the boards on the porch squeak so much, you can hear people at the front door before they ring the bell.
I turn the knob and am glad to be inside the foyer, barely lit with sconces. I set the mail on a table decorated with pamphlets and plastic flowers.
“Mr. Mosley’s downstairs,” Pop shouts much louder than necessary.
This time of the evening, my father sits in his recliner in front of the TV with a whisky. He likes to choose a show that’ll rile him up. He’ll get angry at some politician or policy that probably won’t affect him, at least not directly. Or he’ll watch the sad news of an airplane crash or a missing dog that’s found its way home again. All day he is polite, even-keeled, but now he can let go.
I hang up my coat, gloves in the pockets, and head down the stairs to my workroom, where I’ll spend the evening with Mr. Mosley.
When a body comes to Crampton Funeral Home, it comes draped in a white sheet. The sheets begin clean, blank, but soon, they carry the essence of the one who has died, first in the silhouette, the contour of the nose, a valley or mountain at the stomach, the feet turned slightly in or out, shoulders, breasts, chin. Before I move the sheet aside, I study this landscape. At first glance, it is like a field covered in fresh snow. Then the details become more visible. Just as a field of snow, upon closer inspection, shows signs of the life that has tromped through, so will the sheet show something beyond its clean surface. There are the smears and drips, a spot of blood from where the I.V. was removed, a stain from loose bowels not thoroughly wiped, the sticky smear of saliva, the gray shadow of one final sweat.
I pull back the sheet and welcome Mr. Mosley to the bright white silence of my workroom, every surface wiped clean, every bottle lined up in a row with sides touching, labels facing forward. I take his cold hand and hold it gently in my own. I don’t often get to know my neighbors until we meet this way, and that is the case with this man. His wrecked body lays on the stainless steel table—a faucet near his head, a drain near his feet, and there is much to do. But first this. His hand.
Here is the man, nothing to hide behind. No sheet or uniform or nametag. This is the man without his possessions, without his status, with chores left undone, with mistakes he can’t make right, with nothing more he can prove.
I’m right here, I tell him. Right here. It is what I have longed for my whole life. Perhaps everyone longs for this. Just to be and to have someone stay near. He does not complain that my hands are clammy. There is no pressure to be charming or clever or anything at all. We are simply here, together in this quiet.
Mr. Mosley comes from two towns over, a rancher, but this I can tell just by looking at his body. There are the missing tips of two fingers (probably jammed in machinery), and there are the telltale scars (old wounds from hooves, horns, ropes, and signs of amateur sewing). I trace the bruises on his face, and lower, the gash where his ribs were crushed in the accident that took his life. Many ranchers come to this kind of an end—overturned tractors, dropped hay bales, the body struck by a loader.
My mind is at work now, taking a mental inventory of the damage: broken collarbone and ribs, crushed chest, and fractured hip—planning the work ahead. There’s not enough time to do a major restoration, and his family can’t afford it anyway. I imagine the chest rebuilt and stuffed, his bruises masked with concealer. This will not be my most careful work, not when they want Mr. Mosley back tomorrow evening. It’s the only date all the essential relatives can be there, and I’ll make it happen, even if I have to work around the clock.
“Don’t make him look too fancy,” the family told me. “Don’t send him back to us in makeup and a monkey suit.”
They want to see the man they knew, one last time, in his checked flannel and a clean pair of jeans. But I won’t return Mr. Mosley with so little work done that his appearance reminds them of what were likely his last moments—the build-up of mucous in his lungs, coughing up blood, painful attempts at drawing his last breaths. I tighten the waterproof apron around my waist, secure the paper mask over my nose and mouth. I want to provide his family with a last image that won’t haunt them, a face they’ll want to kiss goodbye.
I turn on the faucet for his final bath. A moment to wash and say goodbye to this skin that has held his soul. This skin he has probably loved and hated and mistaken for who he was. I notice the scabbed elbows, hands nicked and callused. A man made of the same nature as this land: rugged, persevering, wind-carved. I rinse the dust and dried blood from his hair, run a soapy sponge from head to foot, honoring what of this man will and will not last. All the while, as I move the sponge along his body, I bend and flex his limbs to keep them from stiffening.
I work without music, preferring the clang of tools, the whir of machines, and the sharp silences in between. Occasionally, the sound of the TV, two flights up, and my father’s short outbursts drift through the house. I know he drinks too much, but I’m glad he gives himself time to let off a little steam.
I wring out my sponge. Wipe Mr. Mosley’s behind. Insert three cotton balls into the rectum. Fill abrasions with lime, then wax. Plug up every hole I can find so he doesn’t leak when he’s on display for his loved ones. I open the mouth. Suction foam that’s come up from the lungs. Spray disinfectant over the tongue, over the palate, over the clouded eyes and huge pupils. When people ask me what I do at my job, I’ve learned they don’t really want to know.
All this time, Mr. Mosley’s face has been without expression, but not for long. The family has supplied a picture of him standing in a field of cattle beside his tractor, perhaps the same one that crushed him. He has a handsome, sun-toughened face. He looks older but also more fit than the average middle-aged man. He does not seem to be someone who smiles but rather tucks in his lips. His eyes reveal more—a playful squint as if he hopes to get into mischief. I wonder who was on the other side of the camera and what happened after the photo was taken. I place an oval-shaped plastic cap over each eyeball so they won’t appear sunken as the body dehydrates. I sew the lids shut.
The windows rattle as I continue to study the photo. The special touch I try to bring to my work is to capture the essence of the person in my care, adding something that gives a surprise burst of life. Privately, I think of myself as an artist. Not a great one like I might have imagined back when I was taking art for every elective in high school. I don’t know what happened to that girl who dreamed such impractical things.
As I tie the mouth shut with wax string, running it through the lower and upper gums, then the nostrils, I imagine Mr. Mosley earlier in the week, sharing a cup of coffee and an off-color joke with a friend, fighting a billing company he believed overcharged him, putting off a chore in favor of some secret passion. I pad the mouth with cotton to get the expression right—a man who holds his breath, who finishes his work even if his hands are cut and his joints are sore. I pull the string a little tighter, and there he is, the man in the photo. Satisfied, I seal my work with Superglue.
The windows shake again, but this time something more insistent about the noise causes me to freeze. What if the boys have returned and dropped their bikes aside so they can press their faces to the glass? They do this. They laugh at the naked bodies. Laugh at me. Sometimes they ring the doorbell.
It has been this way for years. At first, they were my peers, and now they are the children of my peers. I approach the window or open the door, and off they go, whooping, clapping each other’s hands. Pop has suggested covering the windows but I need to see the sky.
When the knocking becomes more forceful, I run toward the noise, climb the counter, and lower my mask. “Leave us alone!” I shout. But there is nobody there. No boys. No teasing, at least not tonight.
Trash cans tumble through the dark, dusty streets. The sky is filled with roof tiles and tarps set free to billow through town like phantoms. The only sign of life is at the diner, its open sign glowing red against the steamed window. The Pipeline—the social hub of Petroleum and the only place to eat in town—is where many spend their evenings. At 8pm, they turn off the overhead lights and turn on the string of blinking colored ones, converting the diner to a bar. You can still order their famous hotcakes—after hours you can have them with whisky.
Pop has encouraged me to join the crowd at The Pipeline. Join anything. Get out of the basement. Make friends. He brings it up casually, as if it’s not something that nags at him. But I’ve overheard his phone calls, where he asks the person on the other end, Did I cause this? Will she always be alone?
The door to The Pipeline opens, and there is the sound of storytelling and laughter, but I would rather spend the evening in this white space. Clean, orderly, a perpetual 65 degrees. I pick up a scalpel and draw it down Mr. Mosley’s neck. My hand disappears, sliding through dark and slippery passages. My fingers know the way, feeling the dense muscle, soft knots of fat, until they locate the thick, white carotid artery. I tie it off with string and attach a tube to the free end. I do the same for the jugular vein, then, using my elbow, flip a switch.
Embalming fluid the color of pink lemonade pumps through Mr. Mosley’s arteries via one tube while blood leaves his body out of another. Red streams and jelly-like clumps gurgle down the drain. Right away, his skin becomes firmer, his face shows a healthier color. As the machine hums and clicks, I massage his arms and legs to break up clots and help distribute the fluid. Already he looks like the man he must have been earlier in the week. I wonder how his life measured up against his dreams. For a moment, some daring side of me, long ignored, thumps feebly behind my rib cage.
Susan Henderson is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award. Her debut novel, Up from the Blue, was published by HarperCollins in 2010 and has been selected as a Great Group Reads pick (by the Women’s National Book Association), an outstanding softcover release (by NPR), a Prime Reads pick (by HarperCollins New Zealand), a Top 10 of 2010 (by Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness), a 2012 Book Club Choice (by the American Library Association), and a favorite reads feature on the Rosie O’Donnell show. Susan blogs at LitPark.com and is finishing her second novel.