You Get To Work With People

Martin nosed the funeral home’s night-blue service van through narrow surface streets, up over a hill, and towards the stretch of interstate that divided the city like a major thoracic scar. He was on an errand to retrieve a loved one. His first.

It was the third Saturday night in July. Above the horizon, black clouds with gray cummerbunds gathered one by one on their way in from the coast. Traffic was heavy, even for a summer Saturday night. He kept to the outside lane as Mercedes, Volvos, and BMWs quietly zoomed by. The air in the van grew stuffy. When he lowered the power windows, the hum of tires and a heavy breeze pushed out the rattling of the collapsed gurney and the lingering smell of deodorizers.

Secretly he had hoped he wouldn’t meet his first corpse this weekend. Stories circulated around the office about gruesome on-call errands: train derailments, industrial explosions, houses set ablaze by faulty Christmas lights. “Children are the worst,” Davis Maxwell, one of the funeral directors, told him. “Children and suicides.” At first he smiled and laughed along, enjoying everyone’s efforts at pulling his leg. As the stories persisted,  the same stories repeated in the same way, he realized that they were true.

The van progressed from freeway to off-ramp, arterial to side street, while Martin recalled his training as a mantra for building confidence. He tried to convince himself he was prepared. During his first month on the job he had completed courses on body retrieval and initial family contact. They usually met after office hours in the funeral home garage. There, three new employees practiced speeches of condolence, comforting handshakes, and handling various “loved ones,” as the mannequins were called. The instructor had complimented him during the role-playing sessions for his professional, yet caring air.

In truth, he was young and a stranger to death. From his first day of work he’d found the funeral home stratified into distinct levels of access and knowledge. To protect grieving families from prying, and to guard against lawsuits, every employee knew only what was necessary about a specific account. People like himself in executive or front-office positions didn’t need access to the preparation or viewing rooms. This culture worked so well that in his first two months he had yet to touch an actual loved one.

How could this errand for an elderly female heart attack be so bad? This loved one wasn’t a child or a suicide. There would be no dazed parents to awkwardly console while sliding their bundle of joy into an oversized pouch. There would be no dismemberment, no pieces to pick up, no splattered walls to paint after a shotgun blast. The loved one wasn’t anyone he knew or cared for. In the morning he wouldn’t have to deal with any hole in his personal universe. He was to simply transfer a package, a parcel, between two places of business. This trip was no different than what thousands of UPS and Federal Express employees did every day.

At the service entrance in the rear of Metropolitan Convalescent Center, he backed up the van, switched on the emergency flashers, and removed the gurney through the polished rear doors. The locking mechanisms clacked into place when he raised the legs to full height. The body bag of blue-black vinyl unfurled against the white sheet like a bruise spreading down a thigh. A nurse greeted him and led the way through fluorescent hallways, making small talk concerning the muggy weather and asking about the traffic. The gurney’s hard rubber wheels ticked across beige linoleum tiles. Any one of these rooms could hold a dead body. The thought pressed his stomach in around the microwave chicken pasta he’d been eating for dinner when Metropolitan called.

“This is Mrs. Alcorn,” the nurse announced, opening a door. She led him into a room with a single hospital bed. She gave a small sigh of disappointment. “She was one of our newer patients, too.”

Martin pushed the gurney in ahead of him. A rolling bedside tray supporting a plastic pitcher of water sulked in the far corner. The top third of her bed inclined slightly. A single remaining sheet reached from headboard to foot rail, masking her body. He could guess at chin, ribs, knees. Her toes sticking up barely more than halfway down the length of the mattress. The rest was barren whiteness. The nurse removed the sheet and balled it next to the rolling tray.

Martin stood behind his gurney and stared. She didn’t look dead, somehow. She looked pale, hollow, deeply asleep, nothing like a mannequin, maybe just an pale, old, thin, sleeping woman with very shallow breathing. Her passive frown might hint at a slightly troubling dream. One side of Mrs. Alcorn’s white, permed hair flattened against her skull. Her green, too-wide medical gown draped over and around her as if it were deflated, revealing the contours of hips and collarbones. Translucent flesh stretched across her shins and knees. A bluish tinge around her ankles indicated the lack of circulation.

The nurse’s voice jarred Martin out of his staring. “I’ll lower the bed. You lift her head. I’ve got the feet.”

He stepped around the gurney and to the head of the bed, leaned over and slid his hands under Mrs. Alcorn’s shoulders with his biceps cradling her head. His position forced him to look down at her slightly sunken cheeks and closed eyelids. Through the green gown the ridges of her scapulas pressed into his forearms. Her body was as cold as the mannequin had been. A chill rippled up the back of his scalp.

The nurse cleared her throat. “Ready? On three. One, two, three.”

He lifted and held her back like a tray. She seemed light, not more than a child, and provided no resistance to Martin’s tensed muscles. His movements were too large and he nearly dumped her onto the floor between the bed and the gurney. With the nurse’s help he recovered his balance and slid her lengthwise into the waiting body bag like a folded résumé into an envelope, dragged the zipper towards her head, and fastened the gurney’s black straps.

The nurse went to gather final documents and signatures. He whistled in the hallway, hands in the pockets of his wool trousers, while Mrs. Alcorn waited on the gurney inside her room. Patients in nearby rooms lolled in bed behind doors barely ajar. Many napped through the TV sit coms and exposés preceding the Saturday night movies. He could hear canned laughter mixed with the sound of gun fire. This is easy, this is easy,  he repeated to himself. The nurse returned carrying a large manila envelope, which he slid under one of the gurney’s straps. With the paperwork complete, Martin rolled Mrs. Alcorn through the wide corridors and out the service entrance.

From the top of the freeway onramp Martin could see dark clouds above and barely crawling traffic below. The storm clouds had finally arrived for a night over the town. As he inserted the van into the plodding stream of cars, raindrops spattered the windshield. Martin switched on the wipers and raised the windows. The smell of deodorizers slowly returned. Alone in the car with a loved one, his palms started feeling clammy. He lowered the radio’s volume and switched from news to a soft rock station with Diana Muldar singing “Midnight at the Oasis.”

Before him, brake lights blossomed red in the evening. He figured some driver had panicked about the rain and stomped on the brakes, fishtailing his car and barricading the tailgater behind him. Just a small delay, he hoped, and soon he’d be back at work. Traffic shuffled along. The tropical smell of ozone and wet pavement slithered into the van. Creep, wait, creep again. He examined the body bag in the rearview mirror. Was that blue vinyl breathable? Could the humidity get to her? How quickly? Surely his training had covered these questions, but he couldn’t recall the answers. No new odors wafted through the van’s empty space. He turned on the air conditioner. The roaring fan drowned out the radio. Hot, wet air blasted from the vents while the condenser warmed up, but it didn’t seem enough, as traffic remained stopped for longer and longer periods. Increasingly cold air blew over his sweaty skin. His pulse sped up.

He spotted a white sign with black lettering at the shoulder of the road:

Left Lane

Buses and 2-person Carpools

He slapped down the turn signal lever and grinned into his side-view mirror, searching for the first opening in traffic, then edged to the left, crossed in front of a slowly-accelerating truck, and sped down the open lane. In a minute his speedometer read 60 again. In less than ten minutes both he and Mrs. Alcorn would be out of the service car. Maybe he would get her into cold storage on time. Her executor might not want to pay the extra $525 for refrigeration, but he saw no other option. He cruised past a two lane, three car pile-up. Broken radiators poured steam into the humid night. Mangled headlights shone up and away from the pavement, through the white vapor, and into the black sky. The accident looked worse than it probably was. Even if there were fatalities, it would most likely take several hours before the police and coroner finished their investigations and the morgue called him or another funeral home.

Petula Clark sang “Downtown.” He checked his rearview mirror, thought his cheeks looked chubby and a little pale for summer time, and noticed a State Patrol cruiser moving quickly up the carpool lane, lights flashing. The patroller sped past the wreckage and had plenty of room to pass him on the right, but Martin moved over a lane for safety. The lights followed. Martin again shifted to the right. The patrol car matched his moves.

“Crap,” he muttered, “just what I need.”

Stopped on the right shoulder of the highway, he set the emergency brake but left the engine running to power the air conditioner. He’d never received even a parking ticket. A moving violation would raise the company’s insurance premiums, and his. Sales could suffer from the bad publicity of the funeral home’s van pulled over by the State Patrol. He leaned over and collected any papers from the glove compartment that seemed relevant. Let this be quick and painless, he thought.

The sound of metal rapping on glass spooked him. Exhaust spilled in as he lowered the window. “Hello, Officer.” He smiled and tried to turn down the radio with his right hand while holding a wad of documents. “Is there a problem?”

The officer swept the beam of his flashlight throughout the van’s interior then focused it down on Martin’s face. “Good evening, sir. Are you part of a procession?”

“No.” Martin caught a whiff of warm rubber as the traffic jam streamed by. He calculated the negative word-of-mouth from each passing driver reading the name “Helflinger’s Memorial Park and Funeral Home” on the side of the van. “Just transporting a body, officer.”

“May I see your driver’s license and registration?”

Martin searched the papers he held, handed over the registration, then looked through his wallet. He waited as the officer studied his license, then returned the beam to his face. A few raindrops mixed with the sweat on his cheek. The light hurt his eyes. Couldn’t this guy see he was in a hurry? Mrs. Alcorn needed refrigerating. “Look, I need to get this body into storage, soon. Shouldn’t you be helping that wreck back there?”

The officer holstered his flashlight and drew out his ticket book. “I’ll have to cite you for a carpool violation, Mr. Kirkwood.”

Martin cringed—evidently he said the wrong thing. “But what about her?” he argued. “Mrs. Alcorn?”

“If we counted corpses in the carpool lane, Mr. Kirkwood, then everyone would want one.”

“I have a permit to transport,” Martin offered.

The officer held out his pen to Martin. “Sign here to acknowledge receipt.” He tore out the ticket and closed his book. “Here’s your citation. You can pay it or choose to speak with a judge about this matter. Drive safely, Mr. Kirkwood, and have a nice evening.”

Martin raised the window. “Have a nice evening,” he mimicked as he pulled back into traffic. Some day that officer would be riding in the back of a hearse—and he wouldn’t be looking out the windows, either.

U                  U                  U

The forty acres of Helflinger’s Memorial Park and Funeral Home fronted on Commercial Street, a thoroughfare of strip malls through what was once farmland. As Martin drove through the front gates a young couple drove out, their car windows still veiled with steam, to join other teenagers cruising their cars through the honking of horns and rumbling of mufflers. They had probably parked at the back of the cemetery where Valley Road dead-ended just past East Street. Lovers often came to Helflinger’s to park, hidden between the garden for scattering cremated remains and the burial ground reserved for members of the Benevolent Protection Order of the Elks, so they could touch and kiss and grope. The only peril was not leaving before the gates locked for the night.

He backed the service van into the garage, wheeled the gurney with Mrs. Alcorn into the refrigerated storage unit, and closed the door on her. His involvement in body retrieval ended here. In the men’s restroom just off the lobby, Martin washed his hands with hot, sudsy water and ran a damp paper towel over his forehead. He checked the answering service for any messages. Thankfully there were none.

This was Martin’s first weekend on-call at the funeral home. He sat at the reception desk eating the rest of his microwaved chicken-and-pasta dinner and recalled the story his grandmother swore was true, about how her dead sister Margaret telephoned three days after her own funeral to thank her for the flowers. How did she know about the flowers? If no one had been home to answer her call, would she have called back? Looking out the lobby’s picture window, he watched a few faded American flags, left over from Memorial Day six weeks ago, fluttering in an evening breeze on the other side of the parking lot. A line of black clouds hung on the horizon beyond the flat lawn under the cedar trees where the Sons of Italy lay. Shadows darkened the concert shell and reception hall at the Grove of Eternal Music, Helflinger’s venue for indoor and outdoor public events.

His fork twitched as he raised it to his mouth while humming an old Beatles’ song, the only tune he could easily recall. No one else was in the building, but the sensation of being watched crept through him. He had last seen anyone on the grounds nearly four hours ago, when Franklin’s bearded face rode past the lobby window on his gold Honda motorcycle after closing up a noon graveside service. From under the desk he pulled out the Teddy bear kept for distraught children and placed it next to the phone to keep him company. The noise of passing cars, air conditioning, even the hum of the refrigerator in the employee lounge failed to fill all the silent spaces in the offices, conference rooms, viewing rooms, and preparation rooms. Upstairs, an antique four-poster bed waited for him in what used to be the master bedroom of the converted farmhouse. He wished he’d soon be tired enough to retire and sleep soundly through the night.

Working at Helflinger’s was Martin’s internship after earning his MBA degree from City University. His grandfather had suggested he investigate the funeral industry as a source of steady, respectable, and necessary employment, and though as an intern he received barely more than the minimum hourly wage, he counted the experience gained in marketing a small business as part of his compensation. The dead per se did not make purchase decisions, so Martin worked at communicating Helflinger’s message to wealthy, aged, and infirm consumers. He dealt with public relations firms and media buyers, jingle composers and graphic artists. His main responsibility involved revamping the nursing home sales presentation. Freelance writers drafted the new brochures and script, and a moonlighting photojournalist updated shots of the memorial park. The old black-and-white photos of trimmed lawn paled before the new, color close-ups of pink granite grave markers etched with poodles, poker hands, and other favorite items of the departed.

The day’s main goal, as listed in his dayplanner, was brainstorming new marketing ideas. Applying to Helflinger’s the standard approaches he’d learned at City University—brand recognition, word-of-mouth, sales promotions, product tie-ins—led him to distasteful conclusions. Discounts would not entice customers to die now and save. Generating word-of-mouth recommendations, the strongest form of marketing, seemed hopeless when most people fought to ignore their own mortality. True, the fear of death could be used subliminally to sell cosmetics and cars, but acknowledging death outright simply stunned consumers into denial. And to what products could he tie funeral services—guns? motorcycles? cigarettes?

Still, he needed some solid marketing ideas to show Howard Helflinger, Jr., his boss and the cemetery’s owner. Less than half of his summer internship remained and he had barely learned the basics of the funeral business. If he didn’t complete a marketing plan soon, his internship could end with no offer of employment. The traffic ticket wouldn’t help. During Martin’s initial interview, Howard preached about more exposure, more customers, more presence for the modern funeral industry in today’s marketplace. At the time, the thought of marketing a cemetery challenged him. It wouldn’t be like marketing dog food or credit cards or the other common products he’d studied. Once he was on the job, though, no amount of mental exertion seemed to change the fact of burial as an unpleasant necessity and the cemetery as a sacred place of final rest.

For another two hours he tried to generate marketing ideas. The whish of passing tires on wet pavement faded from Commercial Street as night darkened. Mrs. Alcorn’s face worked its way into every idea he had for campaigns. Instead of praises for efficient and courtesy service, the only word-of-mouth he could imagine someone repeating was the fact that Helflinger’s chilled dead bodies like bratwurst. His list for product tie-ins stopped after wall-mounted televisions and gowns that closed in the back.

At 10:15, with all the doors and gates locked for the night, he trudged up the former farmhouse stairs to the four-poster bed and sleep.

U                  U                  U

Blobs of rain thumped on the dark glass of the gable window that faced south towards Veteran’s Gardens and the mausoleum beyond. The bedside clock glowed 1:07 a.m. Martin couldn’t find a cool spot in the unfamiliar sheets. He’d left the late-night news channel on, but even its shuffling images didn’t lull him to sleep. He tossed and thrashed while his imagination projected Mrs. Alcorn into all the horror movies he’d ever seen. In his mind her frail-looking body acquired super-human strength and unnatural appetites. She broke down locked doors and fed on small game that she killed barehanded. Appearing as a maiden, she lured young men to her den. She was a dragon that even St. George couldn’t slay. Bullets didn’t stop her; sacrifice didn’t appease her. Her image preyed on his mind like a succubus. If only he could cool down, clear his head, he could sleep.

He closed his eyes and conjured up a brunette with long legs wrapped in smoky nylons and slender arms left uncovered by a cocktail dress. He imagined chauffeuring her in one of Helflinger’s limousines to Golden Lotus Meadows, the memorial park’s new Chinese section currently under construction. There they sat on the edge of the footbridge, sipping pink champagne and letting carp in the man-made stream nibble their dangling toes. Under the gaze of the concrete Buddha, his brunette reclined on the marbled-plastic bench and beckoned him to her perfumed breast. He’d be proud to marry such a woman, one he could show off to the world. Through his pajamas Martin slowly stroked his soft erection, but he couldn’t focus enough on the brunette to banish Mrs. Alcorn’s image. In the corner of his mind he could see her peeking around a tree trunk, peering over a landscaped berm, closing in.

At 1:30, hot and sticky, he went downstairs, past the two preparation rooms, to the refrigerated storage unit. The smooth concrete floor cooled his bare feet. Riveted seams on the refrigerator door made the polished surface act like a fun-house mirror. His wavy hair receded while his already-doughy lips seemed to inflate. With his cheek placed against the slick, chill metal, his chin, even magnified this closely, showed few whiskers.

He pulled down the latch handle and cracked open the door. Crisp air gave him goose flesh. A climate-controlled scent filled his sinuses. He let go of the handle. Hinges creaked while the door swung back and a cold, dry breeze spilled out. When it mixed with the humid air of the garage, a small fog crept along the gray floor, covered his ankles, and continued on towards the service car. His temperature lowered from the outside in. A few more minutes of cooling off and he could fall asleep. He stepped into the unit. It resembled a walk-in meat locker, with shelves seven feet long running across the walls instead of hooks hanging from the ceiling. Mrs. Alcorn still lay on the gurney, parked in the open space between the shelves. He unzipped and opened the top third of the vinyl bag like a priest making the sign of the cross. Her jaw hung slack, eyes lightly closed. Refrigeration maintained the pallor of her skin. The tips of her nose and ears now had a blue tinge that matched her toes.

She was strapped down and dead.

He laughed and his laughter echoed inside the cold metal cube. By Monday afternoon she’d be embalmed and laid out in a casket. She would never get up again, let alone lumber through a flesh-eating zombie spree. Cool relief spread down his limbs as he zipped up the bag.

Upstairs in bed he stared at the sloping ceiling, the mahogany paneling and velour valances, while the TV pulsed in the corner. His mind no longer panicked. No more horror movies ran through his imagination. Still, he couldn’t drift off to sleep quite yet. Another, subtler fear occupied him. If Mrs. Alcorn wasn’t marauding with the undead, where was she? Her body lay strapped to the gurney but that which defined her, whatever that was, was gone. He didn’t know what she had believed. Probably he’d seen it on her paperwork but forgotten. Was she off to hell or heaven? She could have been Catholic and traveled to purgatory. Maybe she entered another cycle of Buddhist reincarnation. Olympus, Hades, Valhalla, The Happy Hunting Grounds—he didn’t know the right answer, or even what he believed. None of those places and stories seemed believable compared to the concreteness of a corpse. For all he knew, her body merely waited to start a long stretch of staring at the lid of her coffin.

Eventually he fell asleep looking up at the ceiling with just a sheet crenulated over him.

U                  U                  U

By nine o’clock Sunday morning Martin had showered and dressed, breakfasted on instant apple-and-cinnamon oatmeal and instant coffee, and returned to work at the receptionist’s desk in Helflinger’s lobby. The main fixtures of the desk remained arrayed as they were the previous day: the twelve-line business phone, the Teddy bear, and Martin’s dayplanner, which now lay open to Sunday.

On Sunday’s calendar page Martin wrote in “Mrs. Alcorn” above the entry “generate marketing ideas.” According to Helflinger’s on-call procedure manual, he was to notify the funeral director assigned to her. He phoned the number listed in the employee directory. “Hello—This is Martin Kirkwood from Helflinger’s Memorial Park and Funeral Home. Is Davis Maxwell in?”

A man’s cheerful voice answered in smooth Texas vowels. “Kirkwood! You must be on-call. Have any company in that big old bed?”

Martin sheepishly recalled his fantasy brunette. “The manual says employees only after hours.”

“Come on, Marty—don’t you have a girlfriend?”

“No, not right now.”

“Jim Nielson used to hire himself a girlfriend every now and then. Claimed women loved four-poster beds.”

Martin changed the subject. “I called to tell you that Mrs. Alcorn passed on last night.”

“Great. I’ll be right there.”

Martin coughed in surprise. “I, uh, think you could probably wait until tomorrow. She’s already been charged for refrigeration.”

Davis lowered his voice. “Nothing doing. Rain ruined my golf game and now the wife wants me to take her to the mall. Truth be told, I’d rather spend the day with a woman who won’t talk back.” Before hanging up he added, “See you in half an hour, and I’ll even let you help.”

Martin phoned the answering service, just to make sure there’d been no calls in the night. There were none, not even from the wreck on the interstate. He hung up, took deep breaths, and tried to force at least one marketing idea out of his head and into his dayplanner. He didn’t want to help Davis, didn’t want to know what happened in the preparation rooms at the back of the building, but there was nowhere to go. He couldn’t leave the office unattended except to retrieve another body, and even if someone else died in the next half hour, then that would mean two corpses on the premises. Rather than dwell on Mrs. Alcorn, he stuck to his priorities and speculated about discounts or coupons.

Before thirty minutes elapsed, Davis arrived and parked outside Helflinger’s front doors. As the funeral director entered the lobby he called loudly, “Let’s go, Marty, there’s work to be done.”

Without looking up Martin muttered, “I’m busy.”

It didn’t matter. The white-haired Texan laughed as he dragged him towards the door marked Employees Only. “Come on, son, and give me a hand.”

Martin tried to protest. “I’m just an intern.”

“All the more reason to learn.”

“I’m not licensed.”

“It’s perfectly legal for you to help, don’t you worry.”

“Wouldn’t it be, uh, disrespectful?”

“Can’t see how. You’ve already handled her.”

Martin surrendered and followed Davis as he wheeled Mrs. Alcorn from storage into the closest prep room. If he survived this, maybe it would counterbalance his traffic ticket. He hadn’t been allowed in here before—not that he wanted in. It looked surprisingly like a doctor’s examination room, with a slab of white marble supported by a thick metal pedestal in place of an examination table. High, opaque windows and fluorescent lights illuminated a counter covered with containers of various creams, liquids, and small metal tools. Posters advertising Nature-Glo embalming cosmetics and the complete Dinair Airbush Makeup System decorated the tangerine walls.

Davis yanked on tight latex gloves and handed a pair to Martin. He pulled the zipper down the full length of the body bag. With surgical scissors he cut away Mrs. Alcorn’s green gown. Standing at the foot of the slab, he told Martin, “You get that end and we’ll move her over.”

Martin slid his arms under Mrs. Alcorn, like he had done the previous evening, only now her bare skin touched his and her scapulas felt sharper. He lifted her shoulders, which seemed heavier than at the nursing home, and the two men transferred her from the gurney to the slab. She lay face up and nude. Next to the white marble, her chilled skin resembled yellowed ivory.

As Davis sprayed the body head-to-toe with disinfectant Martin tried to calm his queasy stomach by reciting the reasons for embalming. He’d learned these while preparing for his job interview. One—embalming maintained the body in a hygienic state to prevent the spread of disease. Two—embalming maintained the body in a presentable state long enough for the mourning process to start. This was a service to the living, he reminded himself, to let them take leave at their own pace.

Davis told him to tip her onto her side, so he could spray her back. Martin moved down to Mrs. Alcorn’s side, grabbed her far hip with both hands, and lifted. He continued his mantra while Davis sprayed. Embalming started in earnest during the Civil War. Boys died far away but their families wanted them buried at home. Railroads made shipment possible, but they didn’t travel fast enough to beat decay. Refrigeration technology was still decades away.

“I know I should know this,” he said to Davis, “but how long can a body just sit before it, you know…”

“Around here? At least two days, maybe three or four if it’s kept cool.” Davis handed him a wad of gauze. “Here, stuff this into her throat.”

Martin stared numbly at his hand. The latex glove prevented him from feeling the texture of the gauze. It could have been a clump of snow, a wad of paper, or a lock of Mrs. Alcorn’s hair.

“It’s easier to get if you tilt the head back,” Davis said.

Martin clamped Mrs. Alcorn’s curls between his palms and slowly rotated her forehead toward him. His hand shook as he opened her jaw. He expected warm breath on his gloved hand, or maybe the dew of saliva, but his fingers sensed the coldness of a cave. Her tongue lay in the way and he pushed it to one side. He felt like he was stuffing a Thanksgiving turkey. With the gauze in place, he yanked his hand free. He looked up, tilted back his head to take a deep breath, and saw Davis at the side of the slab, bent over Mrs. Alcorn’s spread legs.

Martin’s stomach cramped around the apple-and-cinnamon oatmeal. “God, Davis, are you a, a…”

“The word, son, is necrophiliac and the answer is no. This is standard procedure before draining the body.”

Martin leaned on the marble edge for support. Cold leaked through his gloves and spread up his arms. “Before what?”

“Look here.”

Martin watched, trying to be detached, as Davis slid a needle and tube into Mrs. Alcorn’s carotid artery then cut a slit just above her pubic hair. He braced himself for bleeding as the blade pulled through pale flesh. Instead, just a red tint colored the incision. The detached, logical part of his brain told him that that made sense. No blood pressure. He swallowed to force back the cinnamon bile creeping up his throat.

Into the slit Davis inserted a clear hose leading to a plastic container on the floor. The needle and tube connected to a small pump sitting on the counter. When the funeral director flicked a switch a whirring sound slowly filled the room. Translucent amber fluid flowed towards the needle and into Mrs. Alcorn’s neck. Davis moved to the end of the slab and started massaging her calves and feet. The blue tinge faded from her toes. After a moment, the fluid’s hydraulic pressure forced red-black blood to flow out the hose in the slit and down to the plastic container.

“I find a combination of arterial and cavity embalming works best,” Davis explained.

Martin felt the movement of the blood mirrored in the rise of something thick and hot in his trachea. Another moment and it would be unstoppable. Without excusing himself he bolted for the door. He crossed the hallway and burst into one of the darkened viewing rooms where he barked his shin on a table leg, fell, and sank into blackness.

When he opened his eyes, the lights in the room softly glowed. He lay on the floor next to a velvet daybed of dark blue surrounded by sky-colored tapestries and small glass figurines. His cheek rested on the short pile carpeting. From across the hall he could hear the whir of the embalming pump.

Davis stood over him, smiling down and drinking a can of Diet Pepsi. “Not too keen on blood, are you?”

Martin sat up, leaned against the daybed, and peeled off his gloves. Even the thought of Davis’s soda made his stomach lurch. “I never expected to embalm someone.”

“Shoot, she’s easy—no reconstruction. Think I’ll lay her out for viewing right here. She’d look good on that dark blue.” He took a sip and then pointed with the can. “How’d you pick this line of work, anyway?”

Martin shrugged. “Rising demand, low competition, good money. It seemed like a sure thing.” He shook his head and tittered weakly. “And you get to work with people.”

“That’s all true, but not everybody’s cut out for it.” Davis winked at his pun and drained off his soda. “I’ve still got about an hour with her. Will you make it?”

Martin nodded. “Yes, yes, go ahead.”

After Davis left the viewing room, Martin sat on the edge of the daybed rubbing his bruised shin. When he stood, he expected pain to course through his leg. Only a prick of sensation and a sense of loss reached his brain. He bent over and poked his bruise. Nothing, really, except maybe some shortness of breath he couldn’t account for. He limped down the hall to the receptionist’s desk and penciled his name into the earliest open slot on his boss’s appointment calendar.

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