Once a dead man gave me a black eye.
I was working at Dulaney's Funeral Home, the night shift - no one in the business said "graveyard" — when the hospital telephoned for a pickup. I had been sleeping on the office floor atop some cushions borrowed from the couch in Parlor "E." I called Wheatey and went back to sleep. An hour later, Wheatey woke me with his horn. I pressed the button to open the basement garage door and went downstairs to help.
"Christ Almighty, wait 'til you see this one," cried Wheatey. Even in the middle of the night, Wheatey was impeccably dressed in a suit and tie. People don't want just any slob picking up their deceased loved ones. As I helped Wheatey yank the gurney from the back of the hearse, I felt the incredible weight. Wheatey pulled off the white sheet to reveal the fattest man I had ever seen. Standing at the head of the gurney, I couldn't even see the man's feet, his stomach was such a mountain.
"What a ton of bricks! They always kick on my shift," said Wheatey. "Dulaney oughta give us a fuckin' bonus." The two of us wheeled the gurney out of the garage, down a damp corridor, and into the embalming room, sort of like the operating room on Marcus Welby, M.D., all white tiles and bright lights. "Never lost a patient yet," our embalmer Dr. Kippers always said in his cups. Kippers wasn't a doctor though he did look like one, with the white coat and all. "Isaac still here?" asked Wheatey.
Wheatey shook his head then returned to the matter at hand. "How'd this guy ever yank his pecker?"
Usually Wheatey and I would grab the delivery by the wrist and ankles and simply swing it from the gurney onto the embalming table, one-two-three. Then I'd prop the head atop a little rubber brick and call Dr. Kippers at home to let him know he'd have a patient waiting in the morning.
"No fuckin' way we're tossing Big Bubba on the table," said Wheatey. "Fortunately," and he gave me a mysterious smile, "we are not without resources."
From out of a storage locker, Wheatey rolled a contraption that looked like a coat rack on wheels. Three large stainless-steel rings dangled from canvas straps that wrapped around a crankshaft at the top of the rack. We pried open the rings, cranked them down to the body, then shoved the rubber-sheathed ends beneath the man's shoulders, ass, and under his knees, then locked them shut again. It was no mean feat getting beneath that big ass.
"All aboard," said Wheatey, and he chugged like a locomotive as he cranked the handle. It was a picture right out of National Geographic, the Japanese hauling a whale aboard the mother ship. As the enormous body lifted from the gurney, the head flopped back and the mouth opened, as if the guy were still hungry. The dry blue eyes stared at me upside-down.
While Moby Dick hung suspended by the three steel bands, Wheatey kicked away the gurney. Then slowly - slowly - we rolled the coat-rack toward the embalming table. One of the wheels jammed in the grate of the floor drain, so I gave the rack just the slightest shove, but that was all it took to start the massive weight swinging. Zip - zip - zip! The bands broke open.
"Christ!" screamed Wheatey. "Catch him! Catch him!"
I grabbed the falling man under his fleshy arms, but he was going down fast, and nothing could stop him. I tightened my grip but that only squeezed his arms together so that as he slid past me, his forearm whipped back and walloped my face with his fist. I bounced hard on my ass and slid into a wall.
Wheatey danced about the white-tiled room. "Oh, Christ! Christ! We broke his fuckin' skull!"
Suddenly Isaac was there helping me to my feet. He had heard Wheatey screaming all the way upstairs. His girlfriend for the night had wisely chosen to remain in the parlor.
After Isaac calmed down Wheatey, we reattached the rings and, with Isaac steadying the body, raised it off the floor and onto the embalming table where I put the little rubber brick beneath the head. Mission accomplished.
In the morning, when Dr. Kippers saw his work spread before him, he shook his head and muttered that Old Man Dulaney had better give him a bonus. I didn't mention that the skull might be broken. I drove my Tempest to my parents' small redbrick house off Virginia Avenue. My mother was already at Saturday morning mass; Pop was still sleeping off the night before. His window air conditioner was cranked full blast.
I fried some eggs and read the paper. The Marines had taken over a village and killed several hundred Viet Cong. Pop would always ask, "How many more of those little yellow men can be left?"
My older brother, Eddie, had served a year in Vietnam, but my number was high enough that I didn't have to worry about being drafted. Sometimes, though, I thought I might enlist.
Pop walked into the kitchen wearing nothing but raggedy-assed boxer shorts, his face beet red. "How'd you get that black eye?"
"A dead guy gave it to me."
Pop asked me again, his voice rising.
"I got into a fight for a woman's honor down at Seibenmann's," I answered.
Before Pop could smack me, Mom came back from St. Anthony's, breathing heavily because of her weight and the heat. After every meal she always said, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing — but I did!"
"It was nice," Mom said. "A very nice affair. Louise and Agnes came, too." Her eyes were still puffy from crying. Then I remembered: the mass had been offered for Eddie. He died three years ago this very day just as I was starting my junior year in high school.
And so, in honor of Eddie, I went down to my bedroom in the cellar and fired up a joint, wafting the smoke towards Eddie's picture on my desk like incense. By the time I woke, it was nearly dark. Mom was watching All in the Family and eating cheese curls. Pop had already left for Seibenmann's. I called up Annette. She said some guys on her dorm floor were throwing a Mexican fiesta.
By the time I got there, kids were already stretched out on both sides of the hallway, talking and getting smashed. A stereo blasted out the Allman Brothers. In one of the dorm rooms, a kid ladled tequila sunrises from a washtub into paper cups — that was the Mexican fiesta part.
Annette was sitting on her bed with two other guys discussing an editorial they were writing against the war. Annette was the assistant editor of the college paper. She jumped up and hugged me. I had met her five months before at an anti-war rally on campus. She went back to Cape Cod for the summer but returned in August for her sophomore year. I had hoped to start college this semester, but I needed another year at Dulaney's to make the tuition.
We had a couple of tequilas and danced in the hall. Then a group of us went into somebody's dorm room to smoke a joint. Annette said, "Wow, what happened to your eye?" She hadn't noticed.
"It's nothing," I said. "You should see the other guy." That struck me as so funny, I couldn't stop laughing. Everyone else cracked up too, they were so stoned. We shared another joint, and before long I drifted into the loading zone myself.
I don't remember how Annette and I got into her bed. I do remember that John Lennon's new album, Imagine, was playing. We were making out — which is how we ended every party — when Annette suddenly stood and unbuttoned her bell-bottoms.
This had never happened before. If I had even rolled on top of Annette, maybe by accident, she'd tell me to get off. She called it "dry humping". She said she was a virgin. She climbed back onto the bed, naked, humming another Beatles tune, and I furiously pulled off my clothes.
That night, Pop beat me home. I could hear him snoring as I tiptoed into my room. I was still spinning in my bed when Mom got up to attend mass. It was almost dawn. She banged pots around the kitchen for my and Pop's benefit.
A Sunday afternoon of watching football on TV was always a good tonic for the night before. Pop drank a six pack; I ate two bags of roasted peanuts. It was the only time we spent together anymore. The entire time, Pop said just one thing: "Staubach can sure fire them missiles, can't he?" I really don't know a damn thing about football.
Mom didn't return until the second half. She had stopped by Resurrection Cemetery. She cooked us a big fried-chicken dinner which was her way of doing some kind of penance. Except for marrying Pop, don't ask me what she ever did wrong.
I tried to help Mom with the dishes, something, I realized, I had never tried to do before, but she said she didn't need my help. Then I made the excuse that Dulaney's needed me to come in early. I didn't really know where I was going, but I ended up at Resurrection standing over my brother's grave. It was hard to imagine he was really down there, even though if anyone should know, it should be me, being in the business.
The thing was, Eddie had made it through Vietnam. It was after he had come home that he shot himself with his service revolver in our cellar — not in my room but by the old coal bin. You'd think an ex-Marine should be able to shoot his head off without much problem, but Eddie lingered — that was the word everyone used — Eddie lingered in a coma for two weeks.
Sometimes I thought that it was possible, somewhere between the moment he pulled the trigger and the moment the bullet burrowed through his brain, that Eddie had changed his mind. Of course it would have been too late to save his life, but he would not have died a suicide, which is a mortal sin. That's why no one can judge suicides too harshly: In the last one/millionth of a second, they might have changed their minds.
Of course, this can work the opposite way, too. Some saints were declassified after their bodies were dug up. Priest would find scratches on the lids of their caskets, fingernails embedded in the wood, or gnaw marks on their bones. That meant they had been buried alive; they were not so professional in those days. And so even though they might have lived their entire lives as saints, there was a chance these poor souls might have forsaken God during this one last test of faith that He — in his infinite mercy and wisdom — happened to drop their way.
No matter if Eddie had intended to kill himself or not, my mother made sure he was buried in a Catholic cemetery. 1948 - 1969, his gravestone said. Beloved son and brother.
After the cemetery, I stopped by Annette's dorm, but her roommate said she had gone to see Five Easy Pieces at the student union with some guys from the paper so I went on to Dulaney's.
The fat guy was being laid out that night, John Kemp. His obituary said he had been president of Kemp Aerospace Fasteners and was a well-known civic booster. He was survived by his wife of thirty-seven years and their five children. Dr. Kippers didn't say anything about a broken skull — thank God for small favors.
Two other parlors were open, and I was kept busy all evening, cleaning ashtrays, unloading flowers, answering phones, and directing people to the bathrooms. Mr. Kemp had apparently been well-liked. At nine-thirty, when we were supposed to close, his parlor was still packed with people. At ten o'clock, Kippers and Old Man Dulaney went home. I returned to the office to take a load off my feet and sneak some television. Just as I settled into my chair and loosened my tie, an older woman with long red hair came to the doorway.
"Did you walk into a doorknob?" she asked. She gestured at my eye.
"Oh," I said, "it was more like the doorknob walked into me."
"What are you watching?"
"Oh, The Bold Ones, I guess."
"Are you studying — what do they call it — mortuary science or something?"
"No, ma'am. I just work here."
"You weren't the one who had to stuff him into that casket, were you? That must have taken some doing."
I shrugged. "We're professionals."
She gave me a smile that said she recognized bullshit when she heard it. "You don't have anything to drink, do you?" I mentioned the drinking fountain in the foyer behind the statue of Jesus. It was life-sized and rather impressive, the statue that is.
"No. I meant something to drink — like scotch. I've been at this damn wake since noon, and they still won't leave. But that fat guy's my Uncle John, so . . . . " She curled a strand of that red hair against her black blouse.
"We don't have anything," I said. Then I remembered Kipper's stash and decided what the hell. "Just some gin."
Her green eyes lit up. "Just some gin?" She hurried into the office. "My God, you're a saint."
I pulled the bottle and a glass from the rear of a file drawer. She asked for ice, and so I cracked open a tray from the small refrigerator inside the closet. I poured about an inch of gin into the glass. She frowned so I poured another inch, then another, until the glass was full.
"You're not going to let me drink alone, are you?"
"I wish I could, but — "
She gave me another one of her smiles, so, what the hell, I poured a second glass and plunked in some cubes. We raised our glasses in a toast.
"To your sex life," she said. I felt my face turn as red as her hair. When she laughed, my face blazed even brighter. "You a student at the university?"
I was going to say yes, but after blushing like the virgin I was, it seemed futile trying to impress her. "Maybe next year. I'm saving up."
"Uncle John paid for my college. He . . . " Tears welled up in her eyes, and she choked on her words. She took another swig, and her tears were magically gone. "A good looking boy like you will do well in college."
And with those words, she pierced my heart. Just like that. Maybe it was because of all that had happened the night before, but those words pierced my heart: each word stuck in my chest like an arrow. I sipped my gin too quickly and started coughing. She patted me on the back, and when I was finally able to look up at her, she smiled again, a different smile. I could tell she liked me. I could tell she was having a good time with me — at least I afforded a better time than sitting at a wake.
She worked at a public relations firm as an account executive and loved her job. She asked what I was going to study in college (when I finally went). I didn't know yet.
"Don't worry about it. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life, either," she said. "That's why I screwed up the first part. Married the wrong guy, took the wrong job." She took another sip from her frosty glass. She lit up again, her eyes wet and bright, looking right at me. "But now everything's fine. Life begins at thirty-five."
She was probably in her forties now — it's hard to tell with anyone over thirty — and her body was more square than curvy. When she crossed her legs, I glimpsed a heavy thigh sliding through the slit of her black midi-dress. She was wearing black sheer pantyhose.
"Sometimes this world seems really fucked-up, especially now, but Uncle John would always tell me, 'In the middle of a storm, batten the hatches and let out the sails!'"
She smiled again because I think she caught me looking at her legs. I hadn't been paying much attention to what she was saying.
"Uncle John was always telling me shit like that," she said. "It would drive me nuts."
"Come on, dear. They're closing." A small skinny woman was leading a group of mourners past the office.
The red-headed woman sighed. "I guess I've got to leave." She killed her gin in one swallow and set the glass upon my desk. "Thanks for the drink. And don't take any shit from those doorknobs." Then she bent forward and kissed me on the lips.
Her lips on mine were soft, full, smooth, sparkling wet and deliciously cool from the gin and ice. I really didn't kiss her back; I just let her lips smother me into semi consciousness. Then she slapped me lightly on the cheek, as if I were being naughty, and walked out of the office, her wide hips rotating ever so smoothly inside that black dress. When everyone finally left, I locked the doors. The clock read eleven-fifteen. Isaac was already mowing the rugs with the vacuum cleaner. "There's signs on every door: 'We close at nine-thirty pea-em,'" he said. "Don't nobody read?"
I peeked in at Uncle John. Kippers had used a triple-wide casket. "Big in life," Isaac had said, "and big in death."
Isaac finished cleaning in record time so I figured he had a date. About midnight, a white woman wearing cut-offs rang the front doorbell. I unlocked the doors for her. She walked in as if she were in a museum, her head turning every which way, awed by the grand staircase and the crystal chandelier. "You got to be pretty rich to be laid out here, huh?" she said.
She shied away from the life-size Jesus. She seemed a bit nervous until Isaac came around the corner. They called each other "baby." I went back to the office and looked out the window. I could see the lights of Annette's dorm from there, just down the alley, three blocks away. Most of the windows were dark.
From the "E" parlor, the woman cried out "baby" over and over again, then they both laughed at something. After a while, Isaac let the woman out the front doors. He walked into the office with a big smile. "Whoa! Did you see that full moon tonight?"
"What full moon?"
"The one bouncing over the couch in Parlor 'E'." He returned the gin bottle to the file drawer. "Kipper's gin seems to have shrunk a bit since last night . . . . " He stared at me, then burst out laughing.
"You taught me everything I know, Isaac," I said.
"You something. You something. Well, hey, let's finish this off and let Dr. Kippers think his memory's shot. That's what drinking will do to you anyway."
I drank out of her glass, lipstick still on the rim. I thought I could still smell her perfume lingering in the office. It reminded me of the perfume that Eddie's girlfriend had worn, and I was brought back to a summer evening when she and Eddie and I were just hanging out on our front stoop eating Popsicles a few days before Eddie shipped off for boot camp. Nothing more exciting than that, but that's the kind of crap I remember about Eddie.
Isaac didn't stay long. If he didn't get home soon, his wife would start calling. He needed to catch a few hours sleep before he got up for his city job. I took the cushions from "D" — I wasn't going to touch those in "E" for a long time — and laid them on the office floor, but I couldn't sleep.
I went out into the foyer. The chandelier above the grand staircase cast a long shadow of Jesus across the marble floor. Big in life, bigger in death. I climbed the stairs to the second floor. Above each parlor entrance, green letters of the alphabet glowed in the darkness. I entered "H" where a dozen caskets were kept on display. They sat on biers, facing different angles, like new cars in a showroom.
I ran my fingers over my favorite, a sleek mahogany model gleaming in the streetlight that poured through the window. My fingers found the latch. I opened the bridge. The hinges were silent, not creaking like you would expect in a movie. The interior was tucked and pleated white silk. I folded the drop over the side and pulled the overlay over the lid panel. The pillow was stored beneath the panel. I fluffed it up and set it at the head.
I took off my shoes. Then, standing on a chair, I leaned into the casket, pressing my hands into the soft, silky bed, and climbed in. I had thought about doing this before but could never work up the nerve. Tonight it was easy. My stocking feet slid smoothly beneath the lid panel; my head rested comfortably upon the oversized pillow. The world was so quiet I could hear the tick-tock of the grandfather clock downstairs. I took a deep breath, held it, and slowly let it out.
I undid my pants. I thought of Annette lying on her bed, her skin luminous in the dark, pulling me between her legs, and then I thought of Isaac with the woman bent over the couch, and then I thought of Annette again, and I wanted to keep thinking of her, I wanted to imagine making love to her so that the next time I would not fail, so that if there were a next time, I would have an overpowering confidence in myself.
My legs tightened beneath the panel, my toes pointed into the corners of the casket, but a sense of failure haunted me. I kept picturing Annette on her bed, how much I wanted to make love to her, how I would make love to her. I had told her it was the dope. I caressed her breasts, ran my hand over her thighs, felt her lips against mine, cool and wet. I tasted the gin upon her lips, their wintry coolness, and then suddenly I was kissing the red-headed woman, holding her close, biting her neck, and then I was slipping her midi-dress down her legs, pushing up her bra, kissing her breasts, squeezing her as I entered her, so soft, so silky.
As my body shuddered in the first fits of vindication, the casket lid began to descend, but I could not — would not — lift my hands to stop its fall, certainly not now, not now. The lid slammed shut with a finality seldom heard by the living. All at once there were no green parlor lights, no rumblings of cars on the boulevard, no lingering traces of perfume, no cool gin on your lips, nothing at all, and lying there in the warm dark comfort, I wondered where Eddie was now.