Part I is here
Funeral homes are notorious for being cesspools of gossip. Our three offices are no different; by lunchtime, every single person in the building has stopped to interrupt my crossword with various statements of incredulity. The funeral director with the longest tenure just stopped in the door, shook his head slowly and continued on. At least with him I didn’t have to put down my pencil just to be polite. The interruptions finally force me to abandon the puzzle, and I’m sucking down the last dregs of Coke at my desk when the boss stomps in and falls heavily into a chair.
“Against my better judgment, I’m willing to let you try this. OT is authorized. He shows in two days in the main chapel, and if the family wants the casket closed, you better not try to talk them out of it.”
I nod. “Okay then. Thank you.” Might as well just put it all on the line. “I need a P-card.”
He doesn’t even argue as he reaches for his money clip, sliding out the company charge card and standing. “Keep it under $50, whatever you’re doing. Bring back copies of the receipts. I don’t want to have to explain more than I have to.”
The metal gurney grates against the floor in the back of the van on the way to Home Depot, slamming into the small of my back when I slow at stoplights. We already have a dremel in the prep room, but I need a different attachment for what I’m planning. I also need a handsaw, some thin wire, and insulation. I accost a middle-aged man with a receding hairline in an orange apron next to the screwdrivers.
“I’ve got a weird question for you,” I start, hands already full. Dremel bits were easy to find, as was the handsaw.
“I’ve been here awhile, I bet it’s not that strange. Hit me.”
“Okay, first: I need something similar to floral wire. Thin, strong, malleable.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a list. That’s easy enough. What’s next?”
Deep breath. “I work at a funeral home and I’m an embalmer. I’m rebuilding someone’s face and I need some sort of expanding insulation that’s extremely water-proof, but quick-drying.”
Giving credit where it’s due, his facial expression hardly changes. “Are you at the one down the street?” He motions for me to follow him, starting down the aisle.
“That’s the one,” I reply, juggling my items and wondering why I never grab a damn basket.
“Oh, I was just there for my Uncle. Maybe six months ago? You guys did a great job with him! Here’s where we want to be.” He stops so abruptly that I almost walk into him.
“Thanks, I think, though I’m sorry you had to be there.”
“Eh, all a part of life, right?” He taps his chin, eyeing the shelves. “I think this one is your best bet. Make sure once you open it, you move fast though. That straw clogs pretty easily.” He pulls a can with a yellow top down, adding it to the pile in my arms. “Wire’s down that way three aisles. Good luck to you!”
I slink in through the back door, hoping to avoid any direct confrontations about my controversial plan. The plastic bags sound like an avalanche in the echo of the garage as I trudge upstairs to prep. My case is still on the gurney, so I slip into my gown and the thick gloves, wheeling him next to the right-hand table. The suction on this side is better for aspiration, so I prefer it.
My supervising embalmer peers through the door, eyebrow raised skeptically. “You know this is all you, right? I’m not sticking around.”
“Yeah, I figured.” I pump my foot on the table lift, raising it until it’s just below where the body bag rests. “It’s all good.” At 5’2”, I’m a strong proponent of letting gravity help when it comes to heavy lifting. Wrapping my hands around the black handles, I brace my hips against the frame of the table and pull, hefting his weight with a grunt.
“You’re crazy,” I hear him announce as he pivots to leave. Subtlety is not part of the old-school’s bag of tricks.
“As a fox!” I holler at his back.
As with any posted case, there’s a certain order to the process. Before I get my gloves dirty, I set up my mise in place: all the instruments I know I’ll be using for the embalming go onto a table on the counter. My aspirator goes beside the instruments; when I embalm his body, I’ll be using a fluid that’s got a high index of formaldehyde and I’m trying to avoid dying of esophageal cancer.
Next, I lay plastic sheets on the ground around the table and pull out the viscera bucket, lining it with a bright red biohazard bag. Most importantly, the iPhone gets plugged into the auxiliary cable and the volume gets turned way up. Today’s a Justin Timberlake kind of day. He smashes the disco ball on the front cover; I put together someone’s face in the prep room. Hell yes.
I dig through the pile of instruments, searching for my favorite aneurysm hook. It’s not too sharp but not quite dull. Someone’s scratched the initials “RL” into the base of the hook. I grasp it lightly in my left hand, spinning the scissors around the pointer finger of my right hand like a gunslinger with a .45. Roland Deschain would not approve. Down at his pelvis, I clip the knot of the baseball suture that runs the length of his torso before bisecting into a Y, catching the loops of the stitching with the aneurysm hook.
“Alright, mister,” I say to my case. “What say you? Let’s get goin’.” No reply. There never is, even though I talk to most of my cases.
Near his bellybutton, I hit my stride, deftly flicking my wrist as Justin begins to croon from the speakers. Mere focus slides into total concentration, and everything fades away but the beat and the table in front of me.