By: Ryan Hubble
I finish shading in the priest’s nose and take a step back. Check the face against the picture. The picture against the face. Crash victims aren’t often clean jobs, especially when they’ve been thrown through a windshield. But there isn’t much a little modeling clay and single-ply toilet paper can’t cover up. I prefer an airbrush for restoring color. It helps paint the shadows back into the skin, makes everything look more natural. As if there were anything more natural than death.
Rodney, the funeral home’s owner, examines my work.
“Might be your best yet.” He claps me on the back. “Almost as good as your old man.”
I toss my gloves in the trash and start cleaning up. Dad was an artist when it came to restoration. He could take the worst-looking bodies—old, broken, scarred, it didn’t matter—and make them look alive again, as if they were only sleeping. It made grieving easier for people, he said. To see a little life in death. To find an atom of comfort and familiarity in what was otherwise a vacuum.
“Go get some sleep,” Rodney says. “And leave that stuff. I’ll have someone else get all this.”
Any other time, I’d protest. Restoration is an art, and, like all art, requires a self-destructive level of devotion. But it’s been two weeks since I’ve heard from Madeleine, and I’m eager to get home.
I trudge upstairs, my feet almost too heavy to lift. The priest was my hardest restoration yet. And with Dad gone—I don’t know, the bodies just seem to be getting harder and harder to cover up. I’ve never struggled as much with work as I have been lately. Never slept as little either.
I microwave some leftover coffee and open Dad’s email. No word from Madeleine. Just some spam and the Illinois Morticians Association’s monthly newsletter. I refresh the page every few seconds, while I call down the list I’ve made of funeral homes and morgues in Madeleine’s area. No one has her, though.
Sam texts me and asks if I want to meet for lunch. Things haven’t been going well between us lately. I should go. Instead, I wait a few minutes and tell her I’m too busy with work. Then I lie down on the pull-out, the laptop within arm’s reach, and hit refresh until I fall asleep.
I’ve been writing to Madeleine, a woman Dad used to know, as if I were him. He was her last tether to this life. And I can’t bring myself to tell her he died two months ago.
Madeleine lives in an area of North Carolina known as the Outer Banks on Hatteras Island, a small elbow of land attached to the rest of the country by thin tendons of beach and highway. On the map, it appears as if Hatteras Island is being blown out to sea, holding on by fragile threads, which is how Madeleine says she herself feels that, at any moment, she might slip away into oblivion. She’s ninety-three now. Lives alone in a small house on the beach. Spends most of her days watching the waves and listening to Agatha Christie audiobooks, her eyes too worn and tired to read. She says even with her glasses the waves are blurry, like an impressionist painting in motion. But she’s fine with that. At her age, she knows what’s coming and prefers not to see it in perfect detail.
Dad met Madeleine while he was stationed in San Diego with the Navy. She was nineteen years older than him. A middle-aged woman who prowled the bars and preyed on young sailors for the strength to fight the currents sweeping her away from her youth—her words, not mine. Something about Dad stuck, though. Theirs was a short, passionate affair. One that ended after a year when he was transferred to another base.
They hadn’t spoken since. She tracked him down after her husband died and she became the last one left alive in her family, something she and I have in common. Her first email was a line she tossed ashore with the hope Dad would pick it up and pull her back onto more stable ground. And he did. They exchanged emails every few days for almost a year. Reliving their past life together, talking about all the ones they’d lived in between then and the present, speculating on the ones still to come.
He never told me about Madeleine. I didn’t find out who she was until a few days after his funeral when an email arrived from her. After reading their past correspondence in its entirety, I knew I couldn’t tell Madeleine Dad was gone. I might as well have destroyed the coastal highway and set Hatteras Island adrift.
Sam stands over me, her face burdened by disappointment. An ashy orange light from the street lamp drifts in through the window behind her.
“Rodney said he sent you home before noon.”
I try the laptop, but it’s dead. Sam follows me to the kitchen. I fish out the charging cord from under the table.
“You couldn’t have just told me the truth?”
“I’m sorry, Sam—really. When I texted you I didn’t think Rodney was going to let me go. And then when he did—I was just so tired. Honest.”
The laptop boots. I open the browser, hit the email shortcut, and turn to Sam. Half of her mouth is turned up in a smile. The other half remains ambivalent. I’m not worried, though. Whenever treading that precarious line between forgiveness and indignation, Sam always tips to the side of benevolence. Always.
“It’s all right.” She smiles in full.
“It was just that one body. And I’m done with it.”
She kisses me and wraps her arms around my neck. I pull her close, turning us around as I do so, I can see the laptop over her shoulder. One new email—from Madeleine. I close the lid.
“Dinner?” Sam asks. “Then a movie? I brought some clothes.”
“Dinner and a movie sound great,” I say. “But I’m on call tonight.”
Sam doesn’t stay over if I’m on call. She doesn’t like being left alone in the funeral home. Something about the dead frightens her, which, I guess, is normal.
I’m not on call tonight. But Madeleine’s deteriorating eyesight prohibits her from spending long periods of time on the computer, which means she writes whenever she can marshal the requisite energy. Even though I doubt there’s anything too important in her latest letter, I’m eager to read it. I can’t do so if Sam spends the night. She doesn’t know about Madeleine. And even though we’ve been together only a few months, I’ve got no problem imagining us married in a year or two. Kids in three or four. I’m not about to jeopardize that kind of future.
Dinner and a movie take a few hours, but it feels like days. I try not to seem impatient. When the movie ends, Sam and I make-out, but I don’t try to push it any further. Sam gathers her things. I walk her down to her car. We kiss some more. For a moment, I understand I’m pushing her away for no good reason. I’m lucky to be loved by someone like her. A sweetheart. So honest and kind she borders on naive. I want to ask her to stay the night, to tell her the truth. But I don’t.
As soon as she leaves, I run back upstairs like a kid rushing to the tree on Christmas morning.
The vague disappointment and regret I felt while kissing Sam coalesce into something heavy and tangible when I open Madeleine’s email and see how short it is. Two small paragraphs. A hard, terse prose in place of her usual flowery and poetic style. A choppy, stammering syntax evincing her increasing exhaustion.
Madeleine’s had a stroke. She has no feeling in or control over the left side of her body. Given her age, the doctors say it’s unlikely she’ll recover full use of it again. She didn’t call because she didn’t want me to worry. She’s in an assisted-living home until she can find a live-in caretaker.
“Don’t worry,” she writes. “Everything is going to be all right.”
I reread the email several times, trying to put myself in the same optimistic mindset. But I can’t ignore the fact that half of her is gone. That she is now straddling the boundary between life and death.
My response is short and full of empty hope. Nothing but encouraging clichés. As soon as I send it, I know I came off as trite and desperate. This is why I don’t meet with people to make funeral arrangements. Growing up in a funeral home isn’t the best place to learn about things like grief and death. They’re as ubiquitous as oxygen in the air. And you can’t let them stop you. Otherwise, you’ll never get any work done.
Sam says I seem indifferent to everything. We’ve fought about it a few times. How she feels as if she runs up against a wall whenever she tries to get closer to me. Like I’m hiding something from her. Rodney jokes that I’m a sociopath. Says I spend too much with the dead and not enough with the living.
After going over my response to Madeleine, it’s difficult to say they’re wrong. Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to other people.
Madeleine’s emails start arriving with even less reliability than before. Knowing what she’s going through, how close she is to slipping over the edge—it’s unnerving. I have these dreams where I’m being pulled into the ocean by a giant wave that has just crashed down on me. One hand digs into the sand while the other reaches into the fog covering the beach. The water cocoons me like the mouth of some giant sea serpent and drags me out to sea. I can’t breathe and wake up gasping. Sam has bruises on her arms from me latching on to her so hard in the night. She asks about my nightmares, wants to know what’s really going on in my head.
I’d like to be honest with her, but I know I couldn’t convince her Madeleine’s life depends on me not coming clean about Dad. Besides, I like having someone else out there who knew Dad as well as I did. Everyone on both sides of the family was dead by the time I was born, except for Mom and Dad. And Mom went as soon as I came out, her final breath in exchange for my first.
Margaret, Rodney’s wife and the funeral home’s receptionist, told me Dad considered giving me up for adoption. He claimed he didn’t have the energy or the will to raise a newborn, especially after losing Mom. For the first few weeks of my life, he vacillated between love and indifference while I teetered on the thin line between family and the anonymity of social services.
He came around, though. Moved us into one of the apartments the funeral home kept for apprentices, so Margaret could watch me while he worked. The place was small, only three rooms: bed, bath, and kitchen/living room. Just Dad and me for twenty-seven years. Even after mortuary school, I stayed there with him while I finished my apprenticeship. Slept on the pull-out couch like I’d done as a kid, too busy trying to be an artist like him to look for my own place.
Sam isn’t like Madeleine and me. She still has all four of her grandparents. She can’t know what it’s like to be the last one left. She wouldn’t see how important it is for me to reread Dad and Madeleine’s emails often, so that his voice stays clear in my head, so Madeleine doesn’t get suspicious. It would be impossible for her to grasp just how vital the line of communication is—the one that connects Madeleine and me—and what stands to be lost if it isn’t kept clear and reliable.
An eighty-seven-year-old man from a nursing home’s palliative care ward. Death has endured a ten-year assault of chemotherapy, multiple surgeries, and the vast arsenal of modern cancer drugs while waiting for its chance to strike. The man’s wife is inconsolable and fights to be near the body, which looks like a battlefield. A landscape withered down to nothing but ridges of bone and deserts of discolored skin. It’ll be hell to make the body look decent.
I get the body in the prep room a little after midnight. The effort makes me feel tired for the first time in weeks. I hurry upstairs and lie down. It’s twelve thirty-three. My phone rings again at twelve forty-seven. It feels as if I’ve been asleep for hours.
This time, it’s the man’s wife. It’s not an uncommon thing, especially among older couples, for one to go right after the other. She died of heartbreak. But what killed her was the head-first dive she took off the roof of the building. From the top of her forehead to her eyebrows is caved in, her skull broken like an eggshell. I’m not sure I can fix that.
There’s no next of kin or memorial services planned. Just a simple pre-arranged burial for both. The only person in attendance would’ve been whoever was still alive. And they don’t want to be embalmed.
I do it anyway. Nothing superficial. Just preserving the bodies. And I can’t say why. Only that it’s what I’ve been trained to do: preserve people for their loved ones. Perhaps I’m hopeful a lost family member will turn up.
Rodney questions me about it the next morning. I’m too tired to explain. He sends me home to get some sleep.
I lie down and try to focus on the moment I brought the man back. But it, and the rest of the night for that matter, feel distant, as if it all happened years ago.
My first memory is of a dead body. An old woman on a steel table. Her skin a bilious gray. Mouth slack. Hair a matted tangle of white ringlets. A sheet up to her waist, covering most of her thin, frail body and the wizened skin appearing to melt off it. Dad side-steps into the picture. Rubber gloves and a glossy black apron. A syringe in his hand. He sets the needle down, takes off the gloves. He walks over and carries me back upstairs. Nothing about the memory is haunting. Not the body, the blood-filled tubes draining it, or the strange sterile smell. Perhaps it was Dad’s smile. His outstretched arms. His warmth against the chill of the room. No overreaction on his part to indicate I should be horrified, so I wasn’t.
He started letting me watch him work, a short time after that. I’d sit on the counter in the prep room, amazed by how he could make people look alive again. Of course, it was all fake. I knew that, and so did he. We seemed to be the only two aware he wasn’t bringing people back to life. He was only constructing a facade, as if he were restoring the outside of an abandoned home to make it look like someone lived there.
When he was done, I examined his work, marveling at the absence of life. Fascinated by how a body could still look like a person without breathing or talking or seeing, without being alive. How it could just be, empty and peaceful, like the dark spaces between stars.
Dad and I weren’t religious. He’d been confirmed Catholic as a boy but hadn’t been to mass in years. He said he didn’t want to burden me with all that unnecessary guilt. That I could decide for myself what to believe when I was old enough to make my own decisions. I concluded people died and that was it. They hadn’t gone somewhere else. They were just gone. And some day, just like everyone else, I’d be gone too. There was nothing anyone could do to stop it. You were born, so you had to die. I couldn’t understand why all the lamenting families and friends of the dead who filed through the doors downstairs struggled to accept that. They’d known it was coming since the beginning. To me, there was nothing despairing about things working the way they should and always had.
It took a special kind of person to be a mortician, according to Dad. People who could do the work without falling victim to death’s accompanying sense of tragedy. So, I went to mortuary school and apprenticed under him. I felt lucky to have found purpose, to have discovered that thing people spend their entire lives searching for.
Time dilates and contracts. The hours of lost sleep stack up. Even when it’s only a few days between Madeleine’s emails, I run through oscillating bouts of despair and helplessness.
Sam says she’s worried about me. She starts to spend every night at my place, even when I’m on call. I tell her I’m fine, but she won’t stop asking. It’s as if she’s afraid something will happen to me and it’ll be her fault. I can empathize.
With Sam in my apartment every night, it becomes difficult to respond to Madeleine when she does write. Her unanswered emails are like a bad toothache, hidden but disruptive. My interactions with Sam become tense, predicated on the pain and worry I can’t reveal to her.
“We haven’t had sex in weeks,” she says one Sunday after a particularly tense weekend of us doing nothing but sitting on my couch watching old movies and not talking. She’s stirring something on the stove, her back to me. We’ve been arguing for days. About what, I can’t remember.
“Don’t be dramatic,” I say. I’m at the table, staring at the blank laptop screen, a million miles away. “Not tonight, Sam.”
“You know why you’re not sleeping, right?”
“Why’s that, Sam?”
“Don’t be an asshole.”
“I’m genuinely curious.”
She flips off the burner and slips into her shoes.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you lately,” she says. “And I’m starting not to care. You obviously don’t want my help.”
“Where are you going?”
“Please don’t. I’m sorry, Sam. Really.”
She stops, one arm in her jacket. She walks over from the door and takes my hands in hers.
“I’m worried about you. Ever since—” She squeezes my hand and sighs. “It’s okay to grieve. You know that, right?”
I squeeze her hand back, hard. “Go to hell.”
She doesn’t flinch or get angry. She finishes putting on her jacket and leaves.
Sam doesn’t call or come over, the next day. I’m on call. But instead of trying to get a hold of Sam, maybe stopping by the dentist’s office where she’s a hygienist and surprising her with lunch and an apology, I get an email from Madeleine and focus on it.
Madeleine was able to move home last week. She’s dictating this email to her live-in caretaker, Nina, and hopes I don’t mind. She still has no control over the left side of her body and typing with one hand is too tiring.
I do mind. The words are shadowed by Nina’s presence. This is no longer a private conversation. And the writing is off, slightly skewed. Nina isn’t writing exactly what Madeleine tells her to write, but is instead correcting for grammar and punctuation, Madeleine’s tone and style smothered by formality. One more part of her drifting away from me.
Knowing Nina will read my response, that she’s a permanent fixture now, is aggravating. The line between Madeleine and me is no longer direct. So, I don’t respond right away. The distance is already there. A little more won’t hurt.
By this time, it’s too late to take Sam lunch. I lie down on the couch, telling myself I need the sleep just in case I get a call tonight, that I’ll wake up in time to surprise Sam after work with dinner and an apology.
A call from the hospital wakes me up. My phone says it’s almost midnight, also that I missed a call from Sam. I lie back on the couch, my eyelids heavy as iron, and know I’m making a mistake. With all the willpower I can muster, I force myself up and into the bathroom. A cold splash of water and a hasty, half-assed attempt to look decent later, I head to the hospital.
It’s an old woman about Madeleine’s age. I’ve never seen Madeleine. Dad didn’t have any pictures. But when I get this old woman under the lights of the prep room, I realize the image I had of Madeleine was not one of a ninety-six-year-old woman. What I saw, I struggle to recall, but I know it wasn’t what’s in front of me.
I run upstairs. It’s taken me a while to get the words going, like waiting for water at the end of a long hose. My mind is lethargic, still half-asleep. I try to be as genuine as possible with Madeleine. Let her know I’m thinking about her, that I hope she is all right. I want to fly out to see her, an impossibility I strain against as I write, my heart aching for this woman I’ve never seen. I think I love her. It’s crazy, and I know that in my head. I’m just sleep-deprived. But my emotions are running fast and wild, like boulders down a valley, and I let them tumble out onto the screen. I don’t want Madeleine to die. I can’t lose her.
Too anxious to sleep, I start embalming the old woman downstairs. Rodney comes in what feels like minutes but is almost six hours later. He loses it. Starts screaming and cussing so loud I think the old woman might actually wake up. Then I see her face. Dunes of makeup drifting across bloated features. She looks like something a child lumped together out of clay.
“The fuck is wrong with you?” Rodney asks, pushing me away from the body.
I don’t say anything.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “You better pray she’s supposed to be cremated and that the family doesn’t want to see her first. Were they at the hospital when you picked her up? Did they say goodbye there?”
“I can’t remember.” I can’t remember picking her up.
“How do you—how—” He stops himself and takes a deep breath. “If the family sees her like this, we’re fucked. I need you to go upstairs, get some sleep, and get your shit together. Then you’re going to come back down here and fix this. You think you can do that?”
“Good.” He sighs again. “Good. I’ll stall the family—if they want to see her. Jesus, this is a fucking mess. What the hell is wrong with you?”
On my way up to my apartment, I consider different answers to his question. I can’t come up with a good one. But what bothers me more, what gnaws at something deep in me with a cold rancor, is that Dad never would have had to answer such a question.
Sam is in my apartment, which makes me feel hopeful. But she’s only there to get her things. She leaves—for good, according to her. It feels as if all of time and space go with her.
The old woman is cremated. Rodney threatens to fire me, if I do something like that again. I tell him I won’t. But the promise feels empty, as if I’m admitting to myself I’ve got no control over what happens next.
I write to Madeleine. It’s been a week, and I just want to make sure she’s all right. She doesn’t respond within a few minutes, so I call, the first time I’ve ever done so. A younger woman answers. My heart stops.
“Who is this?” I demand.
“Nina. Who is this?”
I hang up. My heart restarts, a few tremulous beats and then back to normal. I forgot about Nina. If she is there, it means Madeleine is all right. Everything is fine.
I head straight to the prep room and get to work. I’ve got a middle-aged man on the table. Heart attack victim—just like Dad. When he went down, he smacked his forehead on the corner of a countertop. Cut a good three-inch gash across the right side of his forehead. The family wants an open casket, so the gash has to be filled in and covered up. Any other day, I could knock this out, no problem. Just some modeling clay and airbrushing and it’d be gone. But nothing works for me. The clay won’t hold together. It keeps breaking and crumbling out of the wound. And when I do get it set, the makeup cracks and falls off in thick flakes. I spend hours trying to make the gash disappear. I’ve just about got it set when my hands, which are shaking because it’s three in the afternoon and I’ve had nothing to eat or drink all day, slip and I smudge my best attempt. I hurl the airbrush at the wall and overturn the metal tray of tools.
Rodney clears his throat behind me. He wants to know what’s going on. He doesn’t know about Madeleine. I’ve got no reason, in his eyes, to be making mistakes. So, when I do, he sees them as being indicative of something bigger. Like bolts falling out of a running engine.
Thinking it will get him off my back, I tell him about Sam leaving. But he says that only proves his point. Sam was a good girl. He wants to know what I did to screw it up. I tell him Sam isn’t gone for good, that she always comes around. He tells me I’ve got a bad habit of taking people for granted. I tell him to go fuck himself and walk out.
Sam isn’t at her office. The receptionist said she called in sick today. She’s not at her apartment either. Giving up on surprising her, I call her cell phone. She doesn’t pick up. I text her and say I want to talk, to apologize. She texts back and says she’s too busy with work. I tell her it’s important. She doesn’t respond. I sit on the steps of her apartment, checking my phone every few minutes and watching the flowers I stole from the funeral home wilt in my hands.
I’m out there a long time, until the night rises high and wild over the edge of the earth like a wave about to crash down. Sam never comes home. I call Madeleine. Nina answers. I tell her who I am, that I need to talk to Madeleine.
“I guess your dad didn’t tell you,” she said. “Madeleine passed away two days ago. I’m just here cleaning up some of her things …”
Her voice fades, but the line stays open. I hear my own breathing in the static. Waves crashing against an empty shore.