Exquisite Corpses

Ryan was vacuuming near the front door of the old Victorian on Main Street. Through the window he could see the high school kids rushing to get their greasy white bags of burgers and fries at the Ice-Cream Silo, a converted 20-foot-high galvanized steel grain silo. The school called it a “lunch hour,” but it was only thirty-five minutes. Every time Ryan saw them he thought of the importance of the lesson they were learning: Life was riddled with lies.

In Flora, the larger town south of Ryan’s, American Compassion Consolidated had bought the two family-owned funeral homes mere hours after a new prison was announced. The same day, Wal-Mart announced a Supercenter. Now the sight of uniformed correctional officers in their dark gray uniforms made him think of vultures.

The only new prison business he had benefited from was a suicide: Michael Jennings—third general owner of the struggling drugstore—had hung himself from the rafters above the shelves of prescription drugs. Ryan had wondered, Why hang yourself when there were enough pills around to kill the entire town? The mysteries of the faces of death were infinite.

The vacuum suddenly wound into a scream. He shut it off, the smell of burned rubber materializing like a ghost. Lifting the machine aside, he exposed a small black belt writhing on the sky-blue carpet like a decapitated snake. “Son-of-a-bitch,” he said in his standard funereal voice, waited for the thing to stop twisting and then headed out back to find Christopher finishing the bi-weekly wax on the Cadillac Coach.

The Hoover Upright had been part of the $527,000, 30-year loan. “Turnkey, steady income,” the Modern Mortician classified had read. For a century, Morgan Funeral Home had averaged 40.6 services yearly, at a current average of $4k per. The math and the rural life he had imagined had been seductive. He couldn’t have known then, when old, arthritic Mr. Morgan dropped the keys to the bright-white-with-blue-trim mansion into his hand, that he was setting up shop, not in bucolic southern Illinois, but a capitalist dystopia: 800 good paying correctional jobs had put the rural area on the radar of a Supercenter and a funeral factory. Ryan’s 2014 business ran to 25 jobs, and for many of those, he’d had to match American Compassion’s advertised price, barely breaking even.

Now, he was going to have to send his only full-time employee, Christopher, to the new Wal-Mart, that Bermuda Triangle of retail, that killer of the county’s own vacuum repair shop. With the time it might take to find the part, this replacement belt might cost Ryan upwards of $50. Low prices was a lie of those superstores: No one factored lost time into the bottom line.

The ruined belt smelled like the warming cremation oven at the mortuary science college Ryan attended in the early ’90s. “Pre-arranged/pre-pay” and Kübler-Ross’ visionary text had been in vogue. The current trend was the death of the privately-owned funeral home and the ascendance of the Funeral Factory.

Ryan brought the twisted rubber belt to the garage. Christopher was a stoic, stiff man in his mid-thirties whom Ryan teased good-naturedly about loosening up, maybe unclenching his lips that were permanently pressed into a bloodless line horizontal to his stiff narrow shoulders. The man could be as rigid as a corpse, though no complaint could be made about his work ethic. Without being told, he was on the constant lookout for things that needed doing, and he seemed to enjoy the funeral business with its quiet structure and its environment of hushed sadness. He had a thin, ghostly daughter whom he doted on, and an overbearing, disagreeable wife with sparse brown hair, who constantly complained of back issues no one believed she had.

As Ryan stepped out the back door, the phone chirped quietly like a distant flute. He waved Christopher over before lifting the receiver, handing him $20, the keys to the Suburban and the dead belt. The man on the phone, Joe Fender, was telling Ryan that his Aunt Pamela had passed after a long battle with cancer. She was in the morgue at the hospital in Flora. Christopher flashed Ryan one thumb up, indicating that he understood the vacuum belt mission, but the gesture looked to be subdued joy at Pamela Fender’s death. And if he’d seen 2014’s depressing bottom line, he might well have been excited about Aunt Pamela’s immi­nent undertaking.

The Cadillac’s front quarter panel was a swirling cloud of dried wax. That didn’t matter; he had to get going, not due to any deadline, but because he still became excited and impatient at the prospect of doing his job—not unlike, he imagined, what a poet felt when struck by inspiration.

On the way to the morgue he listened to a classic rock station but turned it off once the body was onboard, strapped in with two long, adjustable cords anchored to the hearse’s metal pull-out shelf. Turning the radio off wasn’t an official mortuary rule, it was just one of the ritualistic tics he’d instituted when dealing with the dead.

Christopher had somehow already returned, had the Hoover lying on its side in the garage. Ryan backed the hearse to a spot under the maroon awning of the service entrance. They lifted the body-bag to a gurney and then took the slow, squeaky elevator to the basement and talked about Pamela’s life. Christopher was priceless during this information-gathering stage. He had lived in the area his entire life and knew literally everyone, an important personalizing weapon against the Funeral Factory.

Pamela Fender had been Christopher’s high school English teacher. “She was head of the Drama Department and a bunch of other departments, though it wasn’t like there were actual separate offices. She was the offices, I guess,” he said, sliding a yearbook from an eighty-year collection stacked in the broom closet. He opened the 1990 edition to a picture of her on a director’s chair during a production of Our Town. She was slim and blond, smaller than the kids on stage. Ryan could see an energy about the woman: artistic, smart, fierce. Theatrical. “She was an actress in college.” Christopher left the book open on the counter under the cabinets. They lifted the black Morgan Funeral Home bag onto the stainless embalming table under warming fluorescent lights brought to life by a motion detector. “She almost weighs nothing, don’t she?”

“Cancer devours them,” Ryan said. “Very sad.”

In the yearbook’s faculty info, Ryan read that her favorite book was A Room with a View. Christopher began pulling quarts of orange Pur-Extenz embalming fluid from a white cardboard box, as if he were getting ready to change the oil on his Chevy. He said that she had never married but had left a long weepy trail of old boyfriends, and perhaps a woman or two. “Which ain’t none of my business. To each his own, I guess. I expect she taught English to nearly everyone in town who can read. She was in the local book club for at least twenty years. Never smoked that I knew of, but then got lung cancer. Which don’t make sense,” he said, flattening the empty Pur-Extenz box and then heading upstairs to finish the waxing and vacuum repair.

Ryan pulled on blue latex gloves. He unzipped the bag. With a delicate and practiced balance of lifts and pulls he freed Pamela from her vinyl cocoon. He lifted the green hospital gown over her head, dropping it like a shed skin into the trash can. Cancer treatments had wiped her body of hair, and her marble-white body looked to be nothing but skin stretched like canvas over bone.

He had heard some compare the skin of the deceased to paper, but Ryan thought “waxy” was a better term. A cadaver felt like the wax of an unlit candle.

With a C-clamp he secured the 1½ HP fluid-transfer pump to the table. Before he could arrange the four hoses—to the femoral and carotid, one exit line to the drain, one vacuum line into the 5-gallon bucket of Pur-Extenz poured from the quart bottles—a soft knock crept like a shadow into the quiet room: Christopher letting him know Fender was waiting in the showroom.

He peeled the gloves from his hands and tossed them atop Pamela’s hospital gown. He made a mental note to call Ginger, the recently-divorced, darkly-tanning owner of “Shear Attractions,” who styled the hair (or fit the wig, in this case) and applied the make-up for his female clients. Ginger was a drinker, a daily frequenter of her shop’s tanning bed, and she would either smell like the beach or gimlets.

Fender stood midway down the row of caskets gleaming like new cars, his hand resting on the Batesville Ivory Pearlescent. It was the one he wanted for Pamela. Ryan firmly gripped Fender’s shoulder. “Sorry for your loss,” he said and then led him up to the office. In a paper bag, Fender had brought a new yellow sundress for his aunt. He picked a black Summer-Glimmer headstone, because it shined like a mirror in sunlight.

“I hear she was an actress,” Ryan said, filling out the invoice. Fender wrote a check for $4,750.

“I wanted to talk to you about that—about her life, that is.”

“Sure, that’s what we’re here for—provide a memorable service that exemplifies your aunt’s life.”

Fender stood up from the soft leather chair, reaching into his front pocket. Ryan expected to see a picture of some sort, a news clipping perhaps. Instead, what the man slid across the glassy surface of the mahogany desk was six $100 bills. “She was very, uh, particular about her appearance. Hence the headstone like a mirror.” He sat down. “She was vain, Ryan. I’m serious when I say this—the fact that she was going to die of cancer didn’t faze her, but the way it made her look, well, I’m convinced that’s what killed her. She was saving money for cosmetic surgery when this disease nonsense was over. And it’s definitely over.”

Ryan stared at the cash, confused. “With every loved one we attempt to restore the look they possessed in life.” Obviously, Fender wasn’t talking about a closed casket, or there would be no need for the money.

“I’m talking about above and beyond.”

“Ginger, you know, the stylist—she’s an artist, really. Wigs, top-notch make-up—I think it’s Clinique or something.”

“I want you to flirt the boundaries of your profession’s ethics.” Fender rose from the chair. He was a tall, stocky man, a successful, influential insurance agency owner. Ryan lifted the cash from the desk in what he hoped was the confident motion of an artisan sure of the task ahead. He shook Fender’s hand and walked the man out to his car. When he strolled back in, he couldn’t help but notice that his bulging pocket added a definite swagger to his step.

Christopher was trying out the newly-belted vacuum in the front room. “Good as new,” he said, the motor winding down. Ryan pulled the cash from his pocket, peeled a hundred off the stack and handed it to Christopher, who promptly smelled it for some reason. There would be another just like it if he could find a copy of A Room with a View before Ginger arrived later that evening. Christopher’s pressed lips lifted in an uneven smile. It would be no easy task to find the book, as there wasn’t an actual bookstore in the entire county. He walked quickly toward the back, and soon after, Ryan heard his truck start up.

Ryan set the alarm on the front door that would ring in the basement if someone entered. He took the stairs down to the embalming room. The motion detector there cut off after five minutes of no detected motion, but there were times when he’d been away much longer and the lights were on and there hadn’t been a living person anywhere near the basement.

The lights above Pamela were off, and he was slightly disappointed. He slipped on a new pair of gloves, went over to the end of the table where her head rested. Her left eye was half-open, her lips slightly parted. Her small breasts drooped in opposite directions. He closed her eyelid, noticed some color there and looked to see a smudge of magenta on the blue of his glove: eye shadow. She had to have known the end was coming fast, and yet, she had put on some make-up. For whom? Ryan smiled. The dead spoke to the living all the time.
At Orchard Hill, Ryan waited near a grove of tall oaks. Stand­ing with Christopher and him were Cotton and Buckshot Miller —brothers, gravediggers, itinerate jacks-of-all-trades, and enthusiastic fistfighters, often one against the other.

The day was brilliantly bright, perfect for a funeral. Car doors were closing, signaling the beginning of the end of the proceed­ings. The Millers lit Newports.

Nancy Young, founding member of Pamela’s book club, walked toward the men, stopping two plots south, dabbing violently at her eyes with a silky blue handkerchief. “This was a disgrace! I’m going to report all of you to the funeral commission!” She blew her nose with a loud honk, turned around and walked away.

“That sounds pretty serious, man,” Cotton said. “Is that a state or federal deal, that commission?”

“There’s no funeral commission,” Ryan said.

Buckshot flicked his half-smoked cigarette menacingly to the ground. “For a hundred bucks I’ll fuck her up for you. Maybe make her cat, Fruit-Loop, disappear.”

Ryan told him violence wouldn’t be necessary. Emotions ran high at funerals though, surrounding this particular event, he’d heard a lot of hushed disgust. But as far as Ryan was concerned, the only person whose opinion mattered was wearing sunglasses, headed his way. He could see his funhouse reflection in Fender’s shades. “They say funerals are for the living, but this one wasn’t—and she would have loved it. Her book club didn’t like it. You might want to check the hearse’s brake lines before you drive back.” He smiled, looked up toward the sky and then shook the men’s hands. “Great work, guys,” he said and walked toward his car, where his family waited.

After most of the mourners had left, they lowered Pamela into the ground. Ginger had been hanging back, smoking, talking on her cell phone. She had been one of at least a hundred former students who had come to pay their respects. She walked over to the grave. “That was amazing,” she said, looking down into the hole, a reflex common to everyone. “We do good work together. I’d almost do these for free. Almost. At least the dead don’t bitch about how their hair turns out.”

Ginger had showed up at the funeral home at about nine two nights ago. There was a faint odor of alcohol, which he’d expected, but her skin seemed to be an odd color. She was always tan, even in the dead of winter, but now she looked to be glowing with the color of a jaundiced blood moon—anyway, some variation of peach he’d never seen before. She must have sensed the questions this raised and told Ryan about the new spray-tan contraption she’d bought. Tanning beds were the past, she told him. Spray tans were the future!

Before Ginger arrived, Ryan had slid a scalpel into Pamela’s mouth just above her gums, creating pockets of space, then filling her cheeks and orbital areas with Body-Fill, a glass fiber and formaldehyde wax substance that adhered, and filled out, a body’s sunken cavities.

He had Super-Glued her eyelids eternally open, removed both eyes with a melon baller, put them in a sandwich bag and into a pocket of the casket. Into the empty eye sockets, he fit two bright green glass versions, matching perfectly the yellow Chanel sundress. He had sliced under her breasts, packing them with two pounds of Body-Fill each. They now rose like the morning sun from the top of her dress.

He stood over her, admiring his creation, when Ginger arrived. In her mid-fifties, she wore wigs of the bobbed Andy Warhol variety in an array of colors with names like “Atomic Shadow” and “Apocalypse Apple.” She smoked Virginia Slims with a gold-plated holder coated at the end with a thick layer of that day’s lipstick. To Ryan, she seemed like a movie star who had never left home, or actually auditioned for anything, but was positive she would have been huge, if only . . .

Ginger opened an old Samsonite full of wigs. It lay on the counter like a box of dead ferrets. They decided on something blond and wavy. From an overnight bag she picked out the implements of her cosmetological art as deftly as a surgeon, went to work beautifying the face. Lastly, Ginger traced thick eyeliner around the new eyes. The overall effect was that of a sultry, local newswoman, just a few years past her prime.

Christopher, staying late to help, wheeled in the casket, but before they could put her in, Ginger said, “Nope. Hold it.” She stood back from the embalming table, leaning in and then walking back, like a director imagining a shot. She left without another word.

While she was gone, Christopher walked over to his old teacher. His lips rose in the second smile of that day. He looked into her eyes and then touched her hair and her full cheeks, and with the back of a trembling hand, he grazed the flesh of one of the new breasts, as if checking the forehead of an infant for a fever. His eyes were focused and beady, a look that caused Ryan’s mouth to turn instantly dry. The man looked to be freakishly in love.

Ginger returned with a loud “Ta-dah,” her new spray-tan compressor and nozzle under her arm. Christopher looked at Ryan, realizing that Pamela would need to be undressed. “Oh, Christopher, go get that book. We almost forgot.” After he left, disappointed, Ryan locked the door, and Ginger had Pamela painted a deep, tropical brown in minutes. She now looked as if she’d spent the last week on Waikiki, not the I.C.U. “Oh my gosh,” Ginger said, “this is going to be great advertising!”

When the body was dressed again, Christopher and Ryan laid her in the casket on her right side. They maneuvered her arm to prop up her head, reading her favorite book, which was secured by wire onto the casket’s edge.

After Pamela’s burial, Ryan pulled the hearse into the funeral home parking lot, followed by two cars. Before he could get out, Bernice Harrison was knocking on the window. A widow nearing seventy, barely five feet tall and shaped like an apple, Mrs. Harrison had raised a dozen kids. Finally, she backed up enough to let him exit. Behind her was Rick Winters, the short, bald, Agri-Gro Seed salesman. Bernice suddenly hugged Ryan and then patted his cheek, as if he were a toddler.

She wanted a makeover impossible in life. After attending Pamela’s wake, she’d made a list: new eyes, lipo, hair, two feet of increased height. In Ryan’s office she slid a faded picture to the spot where Fender had set the $100’s. The picture was of a beautiful young woman, circa 1960, standing atop a long flat wagon, detasseling corn. “Wow, aren’t you the looker—like a Latin Ingrid Bergman.”

“That’s not me, you idiot. I ain’t Mexican.” It was her cousin Marie from El Paso, whom she’d always wanted to look like.

Rick Winters’ request was similar, except that he and his wife, Mallory, wanted to resemble teenage versions of themselves. “We’re looking forward to it,” Rick said, writing the thousand dollar deposit check.

He had not seen townspeople so excited since the Sunoco station began selling lottery tickets. However, what he offered wasn’t an impossible pipedream. In his empty daily planner, he began a list of “Undertaking Upgrades” with corresponding prices. Ryan felt optimistic, alive, a leader in the avant-garde of funerals—a twenty-first-century version of his hero, E.K-R. Perhaps he, too, would write a seminal work: The Modern Face of Death.

Bernice Harrison died the next Tuesday. Could it be a coinci­dence, he wondered while on the phone with her daughter? She said the C.O.D. was a heart attack, but he knew that the cause of that could have been a hundred things, half of those self-inflicted.

Ryan embalmed and washed her and shaved her head so the silky black wig he and Ginger had chosen could fit her perfectly. He spent several hours cutting the cellulite from her midsection, subcutaneous fat from her face, and Christopher cut out two, two-foot sections from an aluminum ladder and Ryan severed Bernice’s legs at the knees, attaching the ladder sections with sheet-metal screws. In black slacks her long legs gave her the svelte profile of her cousin Marie. He pulled all of her remaining teeth, glued bright dentures in place and fixed her lips open with wires from behind her ears. He inserted hypnotic azure eyes and rejuvenated the breasts that had nursed twelve kids with five pounds of Body-Fill. He stood her up, leaning her left elbow on a plain gray casket (Ryan knew that caskets were a rip-off—like using a Ferrari as a golf cart. He would take the money normally spent on useless luxury and give the client a more valuable service.) In her right hand, she held a daiquiri with a tiny umbrella, as if she were finally on vacation.

The wake was an Event. The Ice-Cream Silo set up their catering grill outside and did a brisk business.

Rick and Mallory Winters were found the next day in their attached garage on Pine Street. They had been holding hands, drinking martinis, listening to the local country station, their ’68 GTO filling the garage with the exhaust that would fuel their most anticipated journey together.
“There is more to life than living,” the half-page ad said. It began running in May, in the weekly newspaper, opposite the pictures of a dozen high school seniors vying to be crowned Summer Wheat Queen.

Ryan ran the Hoover by the front window and watched the kids swarm the Silo on their lunch “hour.” He was kicking around the idea of expansion, the idea that there were thousands of dying towns just like this one that needed to hear the new gospel of death and dying: There was more to life than living.

A buzz was in the air—the upcoming summer vacation, the Wheat Festival, and a “More to Life Event” at the funeral home tonight. Ryan had hired Cotton and Buckshot Miller as full-time scene builders. Tonight was their debut scene: An elaborate replica of the Kennedy Space Center. The deceased wanted to be someone else, namely Neil Armstrong. Ginger had even begun carrying a wide selection of male wigs and “masculine enhance­ment” make-up. She hoped eventually to stop styling the living. The dead were more fun.

Outside, a bright yellow sweater caught Ryan’s eye. The girl wearing it was across Main Street, clutching her bag of food and a large drink the size of a fire extinguisher. She looked both ways and crossed the street. He recognized her then—one of the twelve hopeful queens opposite his half-page ad. When she reached the sidewalk, she paused, took a sip from her drink and walked up the funeral home steps, and he opened the door to welcome her home.