Somebody else’s death was our family business. After a person died, there was no emergency anymore; the only work left to do was clean up the mess. File the paperwork. Sign on the dotted line. Somebody else’s death couldn’t congeal underneath your fingernails overnight. It couldn’t burst into tears at your kitchen table. Mortal coils will always be shuffled off, said my father, and there will always be a need for someone to order the flowers. Fluff the pillows. Close the wide-open disused mouths of the dead with invisible strings and pins and wires clinging to the gums.
I liked ghost stories, as a kid. Did you like ghost stories when you were a kid? At night, I would strain my ears against the quiet, trying to hear one little moan. Just one measly little rattle of chains in the attic. My friend Roger saw a ghost, once. In his grandparents’ upstate hallway, somewhere outside the rumbling grasp of the train map. A big woman in black robes and a veil. Acres of nighttime hanging from her massive body. She was sitting on his chest, one finger toying with his blond curls.
We went to a haunted place on a school trip, one year. Ghosts swung from the trees. I remember a house that was painted a shade of black that drank in the light and never got its fill of it. I liked the creaking hallways, the overzealous flowers creeping over the bedroom walls. The secret staircase made Susie cry, I think. The painted eyes hanging from the walls followed us around all day. I liked the chills they gave me. All the rooms felt crowded.
Roger wondered aloud if carrots knew they were being eaten. If potatoes knew they were about to die as they were pulled from the earth, their skins made into thin, slippery strips. If the snap of chopped celery wasn’t really just small screams. I read about sky burials in a book, and I kept dreaming of bellies in the air, full of pieces of me. We’re all consumed eventually, I guess. All on loan from one another, waiting our turns.
We can’t have him leering at everyone, my father said.
I helped often. Our parents took us to work with them once a year. And every year, when Roger played at bank teller, and Susie unfolded a doll-sized universe over her father’s desk, I stood next to a gleaming box. Another boy lay tucked inside, silver St. Christopher strung around his neck. Because I was agile, and because I would one day take the work from my father’s hands, I had to learn.
Fix him up. His parents are waiting.
The small tube of glue quivered in my hands, the eye milky and sunken, like the bacon fat cooling in the edges of Mother’s cast-iron skillet. The softest parts, with the longest memory, are the first to go. I pulled the lids back together with my fingers, the plastic teeth of the eye cap rippling under the skin. Waited for the line of white to harden clear. One, two, three, four, five.
When our neighbor died, they did not keep him at home. He did not lay in state in the parlor, and his loved ones’ hands did not wash him. Instead, my father tucked the body in a gleaming wooden box. The box lay, filled, in a room on a street crazed with traffic. Calla lilies crowded the room, petal-mouths open in silent sobs.
Mother made us both wear neckties, silk fists curled at the base of our throats. She didn’t know how to carry grief and death — but she knew how to stick a glass dish under her arm. Funeral potatoes. I stood in the kitchen while she worked. The pan was too hot. The onion shrieked in the bubbling oil. Cornflakes splintered in her hands. A great white mass bubbling in the electric oven. I stuck my finger into the mixture, just to try it. Once, a great-aunt’s death flooded Mother’s childhood home with wailing women, and my grandmother, now fading in so many sun-shocked frames, made white, warm potatoes. This was the sort of food to hide your sorrow under, to weigh your sadness down so heavily that it could not crawl back up your throat in the middle of the night. It’s not supposed to taste like anything, she told her little boy, his nose wrinkled. It’s just there to fill you up again.
The wife of the dead neighbor, with long fingers to make the sagging piano in their apartment sing all night, brought my father things to make her husband look real again. Tarnished wedding band. Yellowing dentures. A rosary so frail it looked as if it would turn to dust in his father’s looming hands. The wife of the neighbor, draped in acres and acres of nighttime-colored silk, placed her long-fingered hands over her husband’s, squeezed gently.
Inside the dead man’s mouth, a pin slides out of the still, pink flesh above his thin teeth.
Later, after the room had cleared, my father would complain about needle injectors, about young men wanting the quicker solution. Young men afraid of touching an empty body. Mother would stroke his shoulder, tell him he was absolutely right, dear.
The dead man’s mouth flew open, in some final, silent song, and my father’s solid hands swept a soft white towel under the chin. The wife’s still-living face drowned itself in red.
If your heart isn’t in it, then don’t do it.
My wife didn’t come from a mortuary family. She was a nurse, crisp white aprons, tight bun at the base of her neck. My father joked that people like her would put him out of business, saving all those lives. He would tell this joke whenever they could and every time, it was like their laughter hung from the kitchen ceiling, stiff and cold, like wax houseplants.
The suture method, said the professor, holding a curving needle between shaking fingers, is the best way to ensure everything stays where it’s supposed to.
I tried to pay attention - behind the lower teeth, through the chin, behind the lips, through the septum, tie a nice strong knot - but every mouth sprang open in my hands, invisible threads loose and forgiving in the needle’s holes. Nothing stayed put anymore. I left the mortuary college classroom quietly, wandering the streets of the city. A peeling For Sale sign in a dusty window beckoned with one crooked, sun-bleached corner. Inside, shining counters, tables decked with crumbs of the ceiling. My father’s mouth was a stern line.
Every Friday, in the deli on the quiet street corner, I sharpened my knives. Cut pearlescent fat from the chilled bodies of broad-shouldered cows. I imagined the counter was a little like my father’s prep room tables, steely and sterile. Tucking suckling pigs into deep-mouthed roasting pans, halved onions and heads of garlic sprinkled around the body like flower petals.
Next to the heart, the tongue is the greatest love organ in the body. Not even the stomach could compare, a mere container for spent, broken-up affections. Love is crushing whole cloves in a stone bowl, turning buds and berries to powder. Love is hands learning to hone steel blades, cut bodies into stews, dirt-smeared roots into radish-spiced roses. Love is a knife so sharp the muscle can’t resist the blade.
The last time I made giardiniera, the vinegar made the cuts on my fingers burn. Bandages could cover the wounds, but did not stop the seep of acid. I liked giardiniera, liked to snap it between my teeth, let the burn of pepper seeds bloom in my gums.
The funeral parlor closes. The building becomes a flower shop, a candy store, a bodega, a hollow place. Teenagers neck in the embalming room. The boys tell their girlfriends stories to make them curl closer into their shoulders: this was a funeral home, you know. I hear they used to cremate people alive. People hunting for ghosts huddle in the state rooms on Saturday nights. Their eyes grow wide, hot animal smells rising from their collars. In this new world, the rituals of old grief diminish property values, give new children heebie-jeebies - children from families without ritual, families without vivid, leering ancestry under the floorboards and in the attic and feeding the rose bushes in the garden.