Blush, I think, is the most important component when making up a corpse. I could not effectively do my job without it, I think as I apply the tiniest amount to the face of an eighty-year-old man who died of a heart attack. He must have been a drinker. I’ve been given a picture of him from when he was alive and he had ruddy cheeks. They were unattractive, really, so I’m trying to give him the upgraded version of what he had in life. A little on the nose, but most of it on the cheeks to make him look more like a tender lively grandfather than an old man who likely swore at his adult children and drank a half-pint by breakfast. I don’t know any of this for sure because I never meet the funeral house clients. The owner, Mr. Johnson, sometimes comes down and tries to gossip to me about them, but patient confidentiality is very important to me. I don’t know who I work on, they don’t know me.
The guys are a bit of a challenge in this job. If I make them look too perfect, their loved ones will know something is wrong. Make them look too imperfect, they’ll go talk to Johnson and ask what the hell I get paid to do here. You gotta get the right balance. The brightness of the room helps. The last lady worked in the basement on a Frankensteinish slab of metal. I didn’t like it. The lights made it feel like a morgue. We are not a morgue. So I moved into the back sun room to set up. I have a large table that is a warm color of wood that I work on and an actual makeup vanity for my gear rather than something that looks like it belongs in a medieval apothecary.
After I have applied the blush, I think that his lips look a little pale in comparison, and I hold up two lip sticks to his face, trying to see which shade of the palest pink would look more natural. I think that the darker one would look better, since his lips are rather pouty (likely from being wrapped around the bottle too long), so I dab it on. Lips lose their elasticity after death, which makes applying it both easier and harder. The lips move around less, so I don’t have to struggle to stay inside the lines, but if I push too hard, it’s like they crumple. They don’t regain their form after the pressure. That’s why softer brands work best, particularly Urban Decay.
He looks done to me, and I stand over him for a moment. He took me about an hour to clean, an hour to get dressed, and an hour to make up. It takes a while to wipe a dead person down, try to get the skin to look flat and fresh, especially with the ones who have bed sores. Most of them also don’t fit well in their clothes. People seem to forget that the dress their mother loved is too large on her after the bout with cancer, or that dad’s suit doesn’t fit the same after he spent two months bedridden. I spend a lot of time pinning and cinching, trying to make it look like the outfits are brand new. This guy is wearing a suit that actually does fit him well. He seems to have been a large man for most of his life, and old age had not changed that. It was a wonder to me that he lived so long with that sort of lifestyle.
“Almost set?” asked Darla the funeral planner. “The family wants to take a look before we roll him out.”
“He’s all done. Let me head downstairs before you call them in.”
Darla must get tired of wearing black, I thought to myself as I saw her swish out in yet another conservative dress. I looked down at my green dress and chevron tights. I would hate to be her. Worst job in the whole place.
I washed my hands and then headed out of my office and down to the file room to do the paperwork. The dungeon had low ceilings and tall shelves. There was one computer with a desk in the middle, and a small room behind a door on the right where I used to be housed. The desk is full of files because it is midwinter and lots of old people are dying. They hold out till January to get through the holidays, and then just drop off. It’s our busy season and we have at least two per day, sometimes three if Mr. Johnson is running late on his child support. Today we had two. I opened up the file that was labeled 12 pm service and began checking off particular actions I performed while getting the corpse dressed so that the family could be charged appropriately. Theirs was rather inexpensive, and I finished in a few moments.
I had time before I could go back up, maybe ten minutes, so I opened the file for the 4 pm service. I flipped past the demographics page and the charging sheet to the accommodations. I ignored the florals and scanned down to my section. Old woman, sixty. Died of breast cancer, wants to be dressed in her pearls, ivory and green church outfit. Better than her wedding gown. I hate when old people wanted to have the service in their wedding attire. Those families were always the hardest to please. But what do you expect? I want to ask them. Your mother had you lot and got fat. Of course she doesn’t look good.
I looked at the papers for the next day. The first service was at noon and it was for a young woman. Twenty five. I looked at her picture and saw that she had been pretty. Not beautiful, but cute. She had short brown hair and a milky complexion. Her eyes were a little too small, but that could be solved with some mascara and sparkly eyeshadow. Perhaps the Naked 3 palette. What had she died from so young?
I looked at her picture for a long time.
“You can come up now. They’re gone. Satisfied as can be. They all say the same things, though, don’t they?” Darla said, standing at the top of the stairs. She smiled down at me and I slipped the girl’s picture back in the file.
“Like they’re reading from a script.”
“Kind of disappointing. You know, my dad used to talk to that guy. He was a terrible drunk. Used to beat his kids, but here they are talking about how he looks just like good old pops again. What kind of bull shit is that?”
I laughed. “Crazy, huh?” I wished I had something more interesting to say, but I didn’t like to speak ill of the dead. I wanted to tell her though, that this guy had shit ton of nose hair. Instead I just told her that I was going to take an early lunch before the next one was in my office. Darla looked a little put off. Too abrupt, I thought. Darla and I could have been friends at some point.
I grabbed my purse from behind my vanity and walked to the cafe down the street. I ordered a chicken noodle bread bowl and tea. I was nearly finished when my phone rang.
“Yeah, Mom, what’s wrong?” I could hear anger in her voice.
“Is everything okay?”
“You just haven’t called me in a few days.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“Busy or depressed?”
“Busy, Mom, what is this all about? I am at work and we have like four services today.”
“That’s too much. You know, I don’t think that place is good for you. You should take some time off, meet me and Dad at the vacation house. We’re thinking about going early next month. What do you think?”
“I’ll think about it, but I’ve gotta go. Lots of stuff to do.”
“Are you coming to Maureen’s house this weekend? She and Charles are having a late Christmas dinner.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means maybe, like I’ll try.”
Outside there was a little snow falling and it looked like it was starting to stick.
Back in my office, I started on the old woman. She was standard, gray hair and wrinkled cheeks with bony hands in gaudy rings. I put a little tinge of earthy green eyeshadow on her to match her outfit, which required a hefty amount of pinning to make it look less blankety. I wondered how the girl would look tomorrow. I wondered how this woman looked when she was young. She would have been plain too, I thought. But I could have made her beautiful. I would make the girl tomorrow look beautiful. What had happened to her?
I finished early and decided that a cup of coffee would do me good. I had paperwork to finish and the warm afternoon sun was making me sleepy. At the old Bunn, I filled my mug with creamer and sugar and then watched the powder swirl and morph with the coffee into a cohesive beige. I breathed in the cheap Folgers and pretended I was in my apartment with my cat, curled up and looking out the window at the snow. There would be Baileys instead of Coffee Mate.
“Ariel, it’s nice to see you,” a man said from behind me. I splashed some of my coffee onto my tights and felt my skin burn.
“Oh hey,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“Running an errand. Just disclosing some mandatory safety information for a patient you guys are fixing up,” he said.
“What? What does that mean?”
“Oh, we had a patient take her own life in the facility, so we are required by law to disclose the possible risks to the funeral home. Unstable family and such. Your boss said he would send a memo.”
I wondered if he was talking about the girl. “ Well, nice to see you.”
He laughed. “Don’t say things you don’t mean. Nobody is ever happy to see their nurse out of the facility.”
“No, I really am.”
“Oh, okay. How have you been?”
“Good, I think.”
“Doc says you haven’t been going to counselling.”
“Been busy. Mom’s been having me do stuff for her and I’ve been babysitting for my sister. Plus this is the height of our season.”
Michael did not look like he believed me. I knew I sounded lame. “Well that’s good, I guess. But you should still come by sometime.”
“I’ll try. Hey, I’m sorry about the girl. The patient that died.” I looked down and tried to rub out my new coffee stain.
“Can’t save them all. It made me sad, though. She reminded me of you a bit. Anyway, I gotta get back. Keep in touch, though, won’t you Ariel?”
“You know it.”
Michael left and I watched. I stood by the coffee pot for a long time just looking.
I was just about to leave for the day when I noticed the girl’s file again as I was filing some last minute crap. I opened it and took another look at her. I wondered how I hadn’t seen it before, that she would troubled. I could have known her. Should have. She seemed dead, at least in her eyes. I bet her lips had trembled before she smiled. I wondered what it would be like to paint them tomorrow. They would be still. Her eyes would be glued shut. I opened her demographic page and looked at her next of kin. Did she have a child that would miss her? No, but she had a husband. He would be grieving. Did he understand? I didn’t think he could.
Vanderbilt Street, that was right on the way home. I would drive by, I thought. Maybe take a look. I wanted to see where she lived. Not in a cookie cutter house, but maybe something nice. A cool brick tenement? What would her husband be like?
She gave up, I went on. Seemed strange, like I had a doppelganger who made a wrong turn. My heart was beating too hard when I thought of it, and my fingers tingled.
It turned out that the house looked more like a miniature cottage and couldn’t be more spacious than my one bedroom apartment. It was cheery, a place that seemed to fit a plain little couple that was just starting off. I pulled up and watched it for a little while, letting the snow drift through the open window and melt on my face. It felt good. The yard had paw prints in it and I could imagine the girl playing outside with a dog. I wanted to tell the dog that she would miss it, but she really just couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted to tell her husband that he could never have been enough.
Speak of the devil and he shall come.
He pulled into the drive and climbed out of a small beaten up Toyota, looked around and we accidentally made eye contact. He began walking towards my car looking angry and tired and I started the ignition. He was blonde and very short and was wearing a terribly knitted hat. I began to pull away from the curb when he came running towards me. He yelled for me to wait, but I was beginning to feel ashamed that I went to spy. He reached down, made a powdery snowball, and tried to throw it at my car. It missed, so he started storming back to the house. He kicked the door and I felt like I was being unfair to him. My stomach squirmed. I stopped the car again and decided to go apologize. I walked through the snow to his front door where he stood waiting for me.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“For what? What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you and your house. I was just being nosy. I have to go now.”
“What do you mean?” He caught my arm. “How do you know Patty?”
“I don’t, not yet anyway. I’m the umm, funeral parlor beautician and I just try to learn as much about my customers as I can before the big day.”
He watched me for a long time. “Come in then. I’ll show you what she was really like. You wouldn’t know her from all that.”
Inside, everything was warm and squishy. Big arm chairs and cat and dog memorabilia everywhere. There were books in stacks.
“She liked animals?”
“Yeah, she was a vet tech. That’s how we got our dog. He was sick and his owners wanted to put him down. She cared for him day after day in the office on her own dime until he was strong enough to come home. She loves that dumb dog.”
I looked around and the husband just stood still. I touched her coffee table, which was clean and clear of dust. I looked into her kitchen which was a little dirty but bright yellow. I wanted to see her bedroom, but I was too afraid to ask. “Thank you,” I said after a while. “I think I know what I need now.”
“She would want you to meet the dog, but he’s at her sister’s now. I can’t look at him.”
“Why did she do it? Kill herself?” I said it without thinking and began biting my cheek so hard after that I drew blood.
“How the fuck should I know? She had been fine for the longest, and then her mother died and she just lost it. After a year I tried to get her into counselling, but she wouldn’t go. Started drinking too much. I told her that her mother would be ashamed of her and she cut me with a knife. She was drunk and didn’t mean it, but I had her committed. I just didn’t know what to do!” He breathed for a moment and I was quiet.
“What would you have done?” he asked.
“I would have just killed her.”
“I’m sorry, I have to go.”
“No. What did you just say?”
“I went there. I didn’t like it either.”
He hadn’t moved. I reached out and stroked his face and he pressed my hand to his cheek. Then he kissed my palm and we looked at each other. His eyes were muddy. I shivered. We began kissing and he laid me on the couch and pulled down my pants. He rubbed me and I moaned for him. I made love to him, but he just had sex with me. He didn’t look into my eyes. I knew he really just wanted her, and that was fine. I could pretend. She had this life for a while and I thought that maybe I could get used to it. After he came, he pushed me away. I pulled my pants back on and grabbed my purse.
“Can you do her lipstick red?” He asked as I opened the door. “She loved her lipstick red.”
When I got into my car, I sat and cried for a long time. Then I opened my phone and looked for the hospital’s number. When the operator picked up, I asked to speak to Michael in mental health.
“This is Michael, how can I help you today?”
“Michael, it’s Ariel.”
“Oh, hey, is everything okay?”
“No. But I don’t want to talk to the doctor. I don’t like him and I don’t like how he asks me questions. I just want to talk to you. Can you come over for dinner Friday?”
“I don’t know, Ariel. I think that might be a bad idea.”
“Just could be. What about coffee Friday evening?”
“Hey, just do me a favor. If we go out for coffee, promise me that you’ll be okay tonight, even if you don’t want to come in and see the Doc.”
“Until Friday, then.”
When I got home, I took a bath and threw my only red lipstick into the trash.
Hannah Kludy is a graduate of Northwest Missouri State University where she earned a BA in Creative Writing and Publishing. She has had work published in the Northwest Missourian, Medium Weight Forks and the upcoming issue of The Sucarnochee Review, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Broad Magazine, and The Red Mud Review. She has also won the 2016 fiction contest for Cardinal Sins Journal.