Why the Long Face?
“It’s state-of-the-art pine.” He sat in an office, talking to a phone on his shoulder. He motioned for me to sit down. “It’ll hold together through the ages. Now some of these cheap boxes might as well be made of balsa wood, they’re so thin. Worms dig though and make a hotel out of your body. Nope, not Model 515. You’re doing the right thing. I know Robert would’ve wanted the best.”
He had thick black hair and even thicker black glasses. Mom once told me that his vision was fine—he just liked how the glasses looked. He got off the phone and greeted me, offering water or coffee. I declined.
“So how much did your mom tell you?”
“Not much,” I said.
“It will mostly be secretarial.” He looked straight at me as he spoke. He didn’t blink once. “Answer phones, take messages, make appointments. All stuff I’m sure you can handle.”
“But sometimes I’ll ask you to run errands for me, which will mean you have to go into the studio. Will that be a problem? Seeing dead people? Or as I like to call them, the ‘living-impaired.’”
I smiled, saying of course not. Nope, not a problem. “Thank-you so much for the job,” I said.
He replied, “Anything for a niece.”
On the walls were framed pictures of flower bouquets on caskets. Always pink and white, or maybe lavender. Never black. At my funeral, I’d have black flowers.
“Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum is the second-largest non-military cemetery in the world. Did you know that? I find that amazing. There’s one in San Diego that beats us. Guess people are dying faster over there. Blame it on the West coast air. Another tornado might put us over the top. You’re allowed to laugh, you know. But on second thought, you’re right. Death is serious. Dead serious.”
The funeral parlor looked like a hotel lobby. It was bordered by tables covered with white cloths and pink vases with white carnations. There were several leather-bound guest-books stacked on top of the table closest to the door. Uncle Joe went on about the top-of-the-line service his customers received. “People wish they had been treated this well while living,” he said.
When we walked into the studio, a man wearing a lab coat was washing his hands. Charles. He pulled up his glasses and welcomed us to his “theater.” There were drawers, some with labels, some without. Boxes with file folders lined the walls. On the right side of the room was a curtained area. And on the left was a large countertop with a sink, mirrors, and a full palette of powdered makeup.
“Come here,” Charles said to me. “Check out my portfolio.”
He opened a large binder of head-shots. Before on the left, after on the right. Pale and pasty on the left, ready to star on a TV commercial on the right. I told him I was impressed.
“Ready to see one?” My uncle put his hand around me and slowly guided me toward the curtained area. He pulled back the curtains to reveal a blue sheet covering a corpse. “Don’t mind the smell,” he said. “That’s just the formaldehyde.”
The thin cloth fell loose enough that all of the body’s features showed. It seemed the height of an adult male, though it was rather thin. Charles took the end of the tarp in his hand and slowly pulled it off, revealing the head and then the chest.
It was fleshy, not pasty like I imagined. Not too old. Light brown hair, even a pinkish hue in the cheeks. Uncle Joe said to touch it: “You’ll see that there’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of.”
I turned to my uncle and then back to the body. I reached for the hand, pulling all my fingers back to my palm except for my index. My finger was two inches from the body’s hand.
“C’mon, touch it,” Charles said.
It was warm. And soft. I had lifted my finger when the body’s other arm swung around, trapping mine. I pulled my hand away and knocked over a tray of instruments. The body sat up.
“Shhhh,” it said, “you’ll wake the others.”
“I’m sorry,” my uncle said. The two men and the corpse were laughing. I got onto my knees and began picking up the metal tools. I stood and set them back on the tray.
My uncle put his arm back around me. “We like to do that to new people. Sort of break them in. This is Pete, our makeup artist.”
Pete climbed off of the table and extended his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
I shook it then closed my eyes, still taking in quick, short breaths.
“You okay there?”
I nodded. My uncle walked me back to his office. He showed me the mechanics of the six-line phone, and how to write appointments in the book. He said that I’d get used to their brand of humor. “Sometimes it’s better just to laugh,” he said.
It was dark when I walked home. Our house had two bedrooms, one bathroom, and at least five cockroaches at any given moment. Mom had the front bedroom overlooking the cemetery, and my brothers and I shared the bigger one in back, facing the neighbors. Dad, when he came over, was on the couch downstairs. But that was only after nine years of sharing a room with Mom and whichever child happened to have a bad dream.
“I thought you were going to call,” Mom said. She pulled me into a tight embrace as I walked in the front door. “I don’t like you walking in the dark.”
I sat down on the couch opposite my brother. He was watching television. Mom followed me into the living room. “How was it?” she asked. “Joe wasn’t too morbid, was he? I told him not to scare you.”
I said that he didn’t scare me, that everyone was really nice, and that it would be a good learning experience. I told her I couldn’t wait to go back.
She started combing her hair with her fingers then looked up at me. “Maybe I’ll invite Joe over for supper one of these nights. Of course, that means Carol would have to come.”
“She seemed pretty nice to me,” I said.
“You think everyone’s nice.” Mom pulled me down for a hug, saying goodnight and I love you.
I went upstairs to the back bedroom. We’d draped a sheet from the ceiling in order to divide the room from my brothers. It didn’t give much privacy, but I guess it was better than nothing. I climbed into bed with a book, reading until both my brothers arrived. The lights went off and I pulled the covers over my head.
Someone was being buried. I walked past it on the way to my second week of work. A dark casket rested upon some ropes, suspending it above an open grave. The coffin, and a dozen crying people, waited for the man to lower the ropes.
Twenty feet to my right was one of the cemetery’s many ponds; a dozen or so geese had gathered around it, pecking through the grass. They all seemed an identical blend of brown and black and white. As I walked down the roadway, a goose followed me. I quickened my pace, but the goose remained about four feet behind, stretching out its long neck. I took a piece of bread out of my lunch bag, tore off a bit, and then dropped it on the road.
The goose snatched it up. From the left I could hear a man begin to recite “Our Father.” I’d only been to a funeral once. That was when Dad’s father died a few years back. During the wake, Mom and Dad kept telling me to go see the open casket. “He looks peaceful,” they said. “It will bring closure,” they said. But I didn’t look. “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” the man continued.
I kept walking, but the geese had identified me as a source of food. Three of them lined up behind me and I hid the bag under my shirt. One jumped in front of me. I yelled at it to get away, but all of the geese began to honk. I took the bag out and threw it twelve feet to my left, but they didn’t seem to care.
A car horn sounded. The geese turned toward the car. Now they were motionless. The car crept forward and the geese flew away, gathering around the big pond. Pete the makeup artist pulled up to my left. He drove me the rest of the quarter mile to the funeral home. “Ready for a big day?”
“Ready for a big day, I said. You did hear about the police officer getting shot in Evanston.”
I shook my head.
“Yeah, the poor guy, Carl something. Carl Robertson, he was shot in the face trying to pick up a deadbeat with a dozen out-standing arrest warrants. Carl’d kicked in the door when bam! Anyways, tomorrow’s his funeral. We have to finish with his body, not to mention coordinate some kind of service suitable to people of all faiths. You’re gonna be taking calls from people all day asking when and where this thing is. Basically just what you’ve been doing, to the nth degree.”
“Now, he was a tough job, Carl. Shot right in the cheek.” He looked over at me, then opened his door. I stepped out and started to walk away from the car. But Pete ran to catch up. “Yeah, back before the nineteen-twenties, if something like this happened, they dripped wax onto the face and painted over it.”
I stopped walking. “Really?”
“Nah,” he said. “But wouldn’t it be funny if they did? Let’s get inside.”
It struck me to ask if there were special lines of makeup that dead people wore: “Eternity from Mascara.” Instead I walked to my corner of an office room.
The phone rang about six times per hour, three times as many as the day before. Most wanted information about the officer’s funeral. Noon tomorrow near the Gray Road entrance, I said, dozens of times. Yes, just turn to your right. There will be a large blue canopy. Hard to miss. Others called wanting to buy plots. A Mr. Fitz called because he and his wife had put a down-payment on adjacent plots but, as they were about to get a divorce, wanted out of the deal. He couldn’t stomach the idea that they might eternally rest next to one another.
When I had graduated from high school three weeks earlier, seven guests came to watch. I looked out from the stage at Music Hall, squinting because I didn’t have my glasses. Dad’s mom sat next to the aisle, with Dad then my brothers to her left. Then Mom, then Uncle Joe, and then Carol. Rob told me it took them about ten minutes to figure out who would sit where. It was ridiculous, he said. He was going to be cremated—no funeral service—when he died. I promised to sprinkle his ashes into the Ohio River.
I made Mr. Fitz an appointment for next Tuesday. My uncle said that this guy had better be careful until then: It would be a shame if he died before fixing the plots. He winked, adjusted his glasses, then left for the laboratory.
After dinner we all gathered in the living room: me, Mom, my brothers, Uncle Joe and Carol. Uncle Joe and Carol sat on the couch, holding hands, while I shared the piano bench with my mom. The boys were on the floor.
“That was a wonderful meal, Jane,” Carol said. “Thanks for having us over.”
Mom smiled a thin smile. “Any time,” she said.
“We’ll have to have you over some time,” Carol said, then turned to Uncle Joe.
“Definitely,” he said.
Mom was looking at her hands on her lap. Joe and Carol were looking at each other. The boys were looking at the television, which was turned off. I couldn’t find anything to look at.
“A man walked into a bar.” My uncle smiled, pausing before the punch line. “It hurt.”
We all groaned.
“Okay, okay,” he said, “how about this? A horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, ‘Why the long face?’”
I laughed, though I was the only one who did.
Mom stood to fix some tea. Before going she asked, “When are you going to get some new jokes?”
“Who needs new ones when you have classics like mine?”
“There’s no use trying to change him,” Carol said, laughing nervously. “Lord knows I’ve tried.”
I followed Mom into the kitchen.
“How does your uncle seem to you?” She emptied the kettle and began refilling it with cold water.
“Fine,” I said. In the cupboard we had about two dozen kinds of tea. Caffeinated, non-caffeinated, herbal, fruit-flavored, green, orange, red, and so on. I picked out some bags of chamomile while Mom put the kettle on the stovetop.
There were no chairs in the kitchen. There was a refrigerator, an oven, and some counter-space, but no chairs. Mom leaned against the counter while I stood in the middle of the room, about half a foot taller as she slouched.
“I thought he looked tired,” she said.
I told her it had been a long week. He’d just finished with that police officer and today there was the train wreck. “People are dying left and right, and he’s got to find places to put them in,” I said, smiling.
“Now, don’t you start sounding like him. Don’t you stop taking life seriously.” Mom stood straight, only three inches shorter than me, and began running her fingers through her hair.
“What are you talking about? Death is serious. Dead serious.”
Mom was frowning. “Get the sugar,” she said.
My brothers had escaped while we were fixing tea, so it was just the four of us. Uncle Joe asked if we were comfortable on that piano bench. We could trade seats, he said. “It’s fine,” Mom said. I explained that when I die, I wanted to be a bench, overlooking the big pond near the Spring Grove Avenue entrance. It would have my date of birth and death, and my name, but that was all. People could sit on me and watch the geese.
“I think we can have that arranged,” my uncle said. “Have you taken out a life insurance policy?”
“She’s seventeen! I’m not going to have you arranging my daughter’s death.”
Carol took Joe’s hand. “The cemetery really is lovely this time of year,” she said. “The gardeners do a wonderful job.”
“I’m partial to September, when the leaves change and the buckeyes fall,” my uncle said. “Don’t worry, Jane. No one is arranging your daughter’s death. But it doesn’t hurt anyone to be prepared.”
Later, after Joe and Carol had left, Mom told me that working there wasn’t a good idea. There were plenty of other summer jobs for high school graduates. Jobs that involved living people. I told her I didn’t want those jobs.
By August, I had many more responsibilities at the funeral home. Pete came to me to ask when Mrs. Brugelmann’s funeral was. “She’s an open-casket, right?” he’d ask. “Uh huh, and you got the blue dress-suit her son left?” I’d reply.
He asked me to take a box of printer paper from the supply closet in Uncle Joe’s office, down to the studio. I stood on a footstool, trying to reach the box on the highest shelf.
The closet door slammed shut. The office windows had been open; there must have been a breeze. I set the box down and gripped the door handle. It wouldn’t turn. I tried again, using both hands, but it still didn’t turn.
I knocked at the door, the same polite way I had knocked when I arrived at my uncle’s office the first time. But I couldn’t hear anyone nearby. Pete and Charles worked downstairs in the laboratory; everyone else was gone or dead.
With the door closed, the closet was dark. Not even a shiver of light snuck in under the door. When I was younger, I used to play Hide and Seek with my brothers in our basement. Only, we added a variation: all the lights were turned off. The seeker had to close his eyes while counting so that they couldn’t become accustomed to the dark. Then he would wander around the basement, listening for breathing and feeling around the walls. For a while, I had never gotten scared. I looked for the darkest and most secluded hiding place, even if I had to climb or dig through boxes to get there. Then, one day, I was scared. I thought that instead of being discovered by a brother, a robber would discover me hiding on top of the washing machine. Or, I would put my hand on a dead rat instead of a brother’s arm. And I stopped playing the game. I was safer in the closet, though, locked away from any intruders.
I kept my eyes open, trying to get used to the dark. Eventually shapes appeared. There was the tall slant of an upright vacuum, the angled silhouettes of the books and papers and the flat surface of the shelf on which they rested; and then there was the tight knob my fist made as it pounded on the door. My uncle didn’t have an appointment at the office until the afternoon. Maybe Pete or Charles would check on me, since they were expecting the printer paper.
I stopped knocking. I would hear footsteps if anyone were near.
I was playing Hide and Seek and I was winning. I didn’t need to be scared or worried that no one would find me. I could wait. I pushed the footstool against the wall of the closet and lay down on the thinly carpeted floor. I would just pretend it was night time, and I was trying to fall asleep in our hot stuffy bedroom.
“It’s all booked up until Friday afternoon. That’s pretty typical.” I heard my uncle’s voice getting louder as he entered the office. “I mean, typical for the funeral to be five days after the death. Three to five days is the norm. It gives the other relatives time to make flying arrangements and such.”
I sat up, raising my fist to knock again, but I stopped when I heard Carol’s voice.
“Fine,” she said. “Friday afternoon is fine.”
“Here,” he said.
I raised my fist to knock again, but then I heard someone blow their nose and gentle crying. I pulled the stool back from the wall, and sat down.
There was silence for the next half a minute or so.
“Have you made a decision about the casket?” My uncle was speaking in a soft voice. I had to press my ear against the door in order to hear him.
There was more crying.
“I know this is difficult,” he said, “but these are important details that need to be worked out. We have a large selection of pines, as well as oaks and maples. Pines are our best, but also the most expensive. We have some real quality oaks at reasonable prices.”
“Okay,” Carol said.
“Okay for the oak?”
There was silence except for the occasional sniffling.
“I’ll put your brother down for Model 300. Nothing too fancy, but good solid wood.”
I sat there, my head resting on the door, listening to him tell about the different flowers they could use, about the option of an awning over the plot in case it rained, and about whether or not Jason would have wanted his priest to preside over the service. And who would give the eulogy? I wondered how they were sitting in the room. Was he behind his desk, swiveling in his chair, as Carol sat in the wooden desk chair?
“Joseph,” she said, though it sounded more like a squeak. “Do we have to do this now?”
“I understand this is a difficult time. I deal with this every day. I know exactly what you’re going through. It’s important to keep—”
“My god, I’m not one of your customers. Joseph—”
“—to keep moving, to keep going on with your life. And that includes figuring out these sorts of details. I know what you’re going through. But the best thing you can do is keep on moving.”
“That doesn’t work for everyone.” She was using a louder, more annoyed voice. “We can’t all be sick and pretend it’s nothing.”
It was getting hot. I raised my hand to knock, but instead grabbed the doorknob and let my arm dangle. My leg bumped against the wall and for a second I feared that they might have heard. But there wasn’t much room in the closet. And I wanted out.
There was a brief pause, then, “Model 300? Okay.”
They were speaking even more quietly, now. Maybe he was putting his arm around her, the same way he put his arm around my mom after my grandpa, their father, died last fall. Carol was still crying. I don’t know what I would do if one of my brothers died. I think I would cry, but I didn’t for Grandpa. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be like my uncle. I didn’t want to not be affected.
I didn’t hear anything anymore. Had they left? I began to knock on the door, very politely. I continued to knock and, when no one opened, I pounded. “Help,” I called, very conscious of the sound of my tinny voice.
As my uncle opened the door, I squinted, not used to the light. Carol wasn’t in the room.
“I got stuck,” I said. He returned to his seat. “Uncle Joe?”
He was sitting at his desk, folders open, pen in hand, and head turned toward the window: Carol was running to her car.
He wouldn’t look at me. He wouldn’t look away from Carol getting into her car and then driving away.
“I’m going home,” I said, not sure if he heard me or cared.
The geese followed me again. They did most days, as I always had bread for them. They seemed to like rye bread best, honking and scrambling for every last crumb. One bird, though, with a long black neck that had two white spots, preferred the honey-wheat. That was my favorite, too.
Why the Long Face?