Susan Henderson

Cold Hands

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.