by Curtis Wade Bentley
The mortuary seemed to keep the town alive. Always stately and freshly painted. It looked like one of those plantation houses from Gone with the Wind. Like a place where lots of well-off men come on a Saturday afternoon to hold tall, cold glasses and toast tall, cold women in white. It even had a gazebo-type thing out in the middle of a lot of grass where a band ought to play something lively. Of course it wasn’t that kind of place. The mortuary was a kind of mirage that way. But then, I didn’t know anyone who would have looked quite right sitting in one of the high-backed wicker chairs on the porch, because the rest of the town was old and declining. When the chalk factory shut down, so did everything else. Far West Office Tower downtown had stoppped three stories short of a tower and stood there squatly while the steel girders rusted out. But the mortuary business hadn’t slacked. People still liked to die right.
You could only see through the mortuary’s dark, mirrored windows from the inside. They were tinted so the long lawns in front looked cool and inviting. I had worked at Maxwell’s Mortuary for two years-ever since I got out of high school-and even on the hottest afternoons I imagined I could run out and roll on all that grass, pick one blade down to the white roots, then chew it and spit it down the breeze.
People came there all the time whether they knew anyone who had died or not. Mather Wilson was an old fuzzy-headed guy who came down about every week like he was checking out the place where he was going to die pretty soon. Two things he always asked me. “Chucky, you say it,” he’d always say, ” them oak ones really better like I tell you , or that fiberglass over there?” Then I’d take him around the showing room where the coffins had their lids popped open and the price tags propped up on pillows. He’d knock on the fiberglass ones and shake all over like his bones were having a reaction, then smooth his hand along the dark sides of the oak ones till I knew some day he was going to die right there just so he wouldn’t have to leave. That usually contented him except to ask me if I was still working the graveyard shift. Then he’d poke me hard in the ribs and laugh his fuzzy head off all the way down the long walk out to the street.
I worked really whenever Mr. Maxwell said, “Chuck, why don’t you come on over; there’s two today and another one set for tomorrow.” Sometimes we’d go a week with no bodies, so no funerals, and then we’d hit a busy stretch where there must have been something in the air to cause everyone to die at once. So while Mr. Maxwell and his two sons drove hearses and directed various solemn ”and yet, somehow joyous occasions,” I hung No-Pest strips in the bathrooms and made sure the bodies set to go in for viewings kept their mouths closed.
Sometimes the family wouldn’t have enough pallbearers, so I’d dress up in one of the Maxwell son ‘s old suits and sit through the funerals until it was time to carry the casket out. The funerals were all pretty much the same . Mostly there were two kinds. You could tell it was going to be one of the grievous type if the old maid second-cousin started into hysterics at the family viewing. Then you could count on sad songs and dry sobs, lots of flowers and quiet speeches. On the other hand, there was a “Well, I’m sure old Pete wouldn’t want us crying over him-he’d have a beer in his hand and tell a few jokes” jolly type, while the widow sat there with empty eyes and things moved quickly to the after-funeral dinner. When it was time to carry the casket out to the grave site, I did
my best to copy Mr. Maxwell’s graveside manner and wondered all the while if the rugged-looking brother of the deceased knew that the old maid second-cousin was making eyes at him over the top of her handkerchief.
The first couple of months I wasn’t so callous about all of the dying. I remember sitting on the matted grass of the new grave site long after all the people and cars had gone , and I’d finished the clean-up details around the grave . It’s hard to say what it’s like out there, the only living body in a park full of monuments marking dead ones. Bodies that meant something once. Bodies that never meant a damn thing to me. The feeling is not like Memorial Day when the place is alive with plastic flowers and people, grandpas trimming around grandmas’ graves, and little dogs urinating down the sides of marble crosses. Things are not really dead then . But when it’s just me and a little wind that rubs past the granite, and the pink plastic poppies turned white in the sun, and dried rose petals rattling around in the vases, then they all are dead and I don’t know enough to bring them back to life . They could lie there for centuries and I could never summon up even one summer vacation when maybe Grandma got sick at Disneyland and threw up all over the little boy with Mickey Mouse ears, or maybe one summer evening counting crickets. They lay there needing something, and I could only feel God turning to dirt in hard clods and the grass growing over.
Once I knew God was buried there too , I stopped waiting around after and just tramped down the sod and left.
I used to stay around the mortuary nights sometimes though, when Spiro the janitor cleaned up and closed things down. Spiro was a shapeless black man with buckteeth so widely spaced his talk was more of a whistle. And he talked all the time. I think he talked even when I wasn’t there, to keep back the ghosts and make himself feel alive. I always heard his whistle first when he came around the corner, like a little black teakettle, shaking and whistling. When we’d polished all the benches in the chapel and mopped the long hallways, Spiro always took me to the back room where the bodies were and told jokes to start things off. “Oh Mary,” he’d say, with his hands on his hips, “he looks so goood! They’ve done really wonderful things with him . . . considering. ” And he really was good, so we laughed at that for a while.
But then he’d get serious and say, “You want to know about this one here?” I always nodded. “This one here ” -and he ‘d thump it right in the chest-“was a philosopher-type. He liked to think a lot about every sort of thing. Nukular war, for instance . He used to say, ‘Folks, nukular war will re-duce this planet to an ash heap. And the ashes will swirl’ (here his hands got dramatic) ‘and twist around the earth, and they will be my ashes and your ashes trying like anything to jigsaw themselves back together for a resurrection ; and just when you think you ‘ve got your ankle bone connected to your foot bone, the devil will sit back and blow your thoughts away to the four corners.’ And then all the grandchildren would stare and the great-grandchildren would chase the cat around the couch and and he’d call for his pipe and start to think some more.
Then it was as if the body would settle back and die again , and Spiro would turn to someone else: a tomato jelly blue-ribbon winner in a state fair or an animal hater who sets cats on fire.
It was after college some years later and I was eating breakfast in a Chinese-American cafe in San Francisco. Sometime before then I started to go schizophrenic. It starts like a buzz behind your right ear, and the buzz opens up your skull for a time and leaves you with a little burr hole , and the buzz goes on knocking the footing out from under the partitions in the brain and eats away at categories until you see everything in fragments-not connected to you or to each other by a single, blessed thing. And everything is slowed down or hurried up so that the process of entropy , which is always really there but not so important, becomes the only thing.
And I concentrated on fragments-any fragment-to try and hold my mind together. Like the hair on the lip of that lady in the next booth: black and limp, glistening and wet. Get it out of your mouth, stupid, get out. And then it was O .K. I was out, following the strand of sidewalk back to where maybe I could find some safe things like old books and toilet paper.
They tried some therapy to make me sure it wasn’t better to be schizophrenic. Yes, they said, every schizophrenic thinks his perversion is reality and everyone else is crazy . To make me sure they showed me family albums. People I was connected to . My great-aunt’s teeth going black. A wrinkle in the photo up through Grandpa Barlett’s crotch . And that Cheshire boy there , hanging from the barn-he looks just like you! They were all yellow and brown except for their wide , white eyes staring brightly through the years. And that damn black and white dog, looking for all the world like any dog today . Those kinds of connections I didn’t need . I could feel myself turning yellow, too . The pictures were never finished . They were waiting for me to pose.
It was further therapy to go back to the old hometown for a while. Even to the same house where I grew up and where Mom still lived and was almost too senile to recognize me but let me sleep in my old room for a few days. I lay one night on the top bunk where I used to watch the distant freeway and let the streaking cars speed me to sleep . This time I stared at the choo-choo trains on the ceiling, fading and showing pink lilacs underneath . And just outside my door Mother watched television, yelling for Kojak to kill the dirty swine. When the moonlight came through my window I could see down the street and over the tops of trees to where the light glinted whitely on the pillars of the mortuary . The mortuary where I’ cl left God those years ago. For lack of whom, they said, I had opted to lose my mind. I got out of bed and into clothes and a sweater. Mom was busy eating Twinkies so I yelled something to her and let the screen door swing shut as I ran out.
I was out for a walk. A walk with the wind in the trees and bright stars over the mortuary. But I knew the way without them. Knew the way by heart. And when I jumped the iron fence I waltzed once through the gazebo and then watched myself in the window, sitting idly in the chair. And I was just right for it.
I knew the back way in the building for those times without a key, and didn’t need Spiro’s whistling to lead me back to where the bodies lay dressed and waiting for the day. The Maxwell sons came running from their houses when they saw the mortuary lights come on. Found me holding an old man’s dead hand, with tears dripping off my chin, and often told later how I’d said right out, “You want to know about this one here? ” and thumped it right in the chest.