This is not a job anyone ever thinks about doing. A fireman is on the top of the list for little boys, even a garbage collector is ahead of what I do. I suppose big, loud trucks, are the common denominator for young lads, although I myself never cared much for the noise and the lights. I guess I must have been well suited for what I do from an early age, since I always preferred lonely endeavors. Looking at the ants busily gathering food, laying under the sun with the grass under my body, still slightly damp, while I tried to decipher and separate the sounds of life into individual particles. A cicada, the water sprinkler next door, the tires of bikes against the pavement racing up the street, the hissing of the pressure cooker in the kitchen mingle with the voice of the news reporter. I tried to stop the flow of things, to concentrate on the small parts. The notion that the minute could be swept away, unnoticed, bothered me terribly. Attention to detail I suppose it is called, although less optimistic views might label it eccentric tendencies from a young age. Anyhow, my parents were terribly disappointed by my choice, and permanent employment did not appease their uneasiness.
But honey, how are we supposed to explain when people ask? Is it something we did? Maybe you should have attended summer camp, like the other kids your age. I shouldn’t have listened to your father, telling me to leave you alone if that’s what suited you. Now look where we are, oh dear…
It pained me to know my mother felt this way, but there was no point in trying to explain her, so I just went along with my business, knowing myself, on this matter at least, to be right. Let me get this out of the way, so no further misunderstandings can arise, I DO like my job. Well, maybe like is not the right verb for this, enjoy maybe? No, that does not seem right either…let’s say I am proud of the service I perform and I take pleasure, no, no, not pleasure…, amazing how difficult it becomes to deal with language sometimes. So, again, I am proud of the service I perform and I take comfort in knowing I do it well, and with care. Care. That’s it, care. I think of myself as the last person providing care for those who are no longer with us, that’s right, I am a mortician. Surprised? I understand, most people are, so I don’t talk about it much. It suits me, not to talk about it, since I am a quiet and private person. I lie when strangers ask on a train what I do for living: “I sell life insurance.” or “I am a counselor.” I figure if I told the truth it might make for a weird ride, with whoever is sitting next to me imagining I’m some sort of creep, which I am not, I can assure you. The fact is, most people don’t think about their deaths, preferring to believe, on an unconscious level at least, that mortality is something that happens to others, like rape, robbery, or the misfortune of having a child that is very sick. Death is just one of those things that gets magnified on the news, the more casualties the more air time, but bluntly ignored, swept under the carpet really, for the everyday dealings. Anyhow, on this particular Thursday nothing seemed out of the ordinary, one job ahead to perform so far, the first of the week and nothing else lined up. Lined up? I keep struggling with the verbs here, they all seem disrespectful, but how is one to express routine in my business? Even business sounds crude and unfeeling, when so much sorrow engulfs what I do. Oh well, one does get a bit numb to the pain of others, not immune, of course not, but encountering it as often as I have (I have been doing this for 30 years now) helps you understand the process of grief a bit better. This much I know, a year from now, most of the people I see, stricken with this apparently unbearable void and pain, will feel better; not great maybe, but better. I keep losing track of my thoughts here, just wandering away from my tale, let me see if I can regain some control.
A Thursday in May, rainy and grey, it could have been April, but the seasons in the last few years have gone a little off and it is hard to figure out what time of the year we are in unless you listen to the radio, or check the date in the newspaper. I arrived early, as it is my habit, to the funeral parlor, since I prefer to take my time with my job, not to feel rushed and pressure to finish with my tasks. I changed into my work uniform, a clean and sanitized garment, easy to move around in, similar to a doctor’s gown. I made sure that everything I needed was ready, since once I start I don’t like having to stop. It usually takes a few hours to get a body embalmed, longer if the death is due to a trauma, or if the deceased has passed away without being noticed and decomposition has set in. It does happen, more than one would imagine, for someone to die in their apartment and a few days to go by without anybody noticing their absence. I live alone myself, not having ever married, and since I no longer have parents, and never had siblings, I ponder who will find me when the time comes. I have led a quiet, private existence, and don’t have many friends or acquaintances, so I make a point of always having the same routine. I have breakfasted at the same diner for the last twenty years, and when my work hours allow it (which, it goes without saying, can be a bit erratic), I attempt to shop, visit the library, and perform my menial tasks in an orderly fashion. I anticipate that once I die I will be missed, however briefly, by those I greeted every morning, rain or shine. Well, I would have never considered that putting my thoughts into a coherent manner would prove this difficult, but here I am again, rambling on about nothing.
I washed my hands carefully and gazed through the window, to the forlorn parking lot, almost empty, until tomorrow, when the funeral was scheduled. I pulled the body out of the refrigerator into the middle of the room, under the bright fluorescent lights, and carefully removed the sheet. I know the dead cannot be awakened, but even after all these years I remove that sheet gently, as if they were only sleeping. My heart stopped for a fraction of a second, my throat tightened, and I could barely breathe. I had to rest my hands on the gurney to steady myself. I felt dizzy and a bit nauseated. I reached towards the tag in the wrist, and there it was, clearly printed: Clara Wells. 1947. Stroke. A death to be wished for all of us, brief, barely painless, and discreet, like Clara had been. Her auburn hair was now grey, shortly cropped, and her lovely skin marked by the ridges of age. Here she laid, right under my gaze, for the last time, the love of my life. I mentioned I never married, and that I have indeed led a lonely life, but I loved once, furiously, with a passion I did not know I could harbor, the woman under this sheet.
I was in my last year of school, residing in a small college town in upstate New York. I had already conducted some work within my field and was getting ready to seek permanent employment. I wanted to relocate from where I had grown up, in part to avoid some shame to my parents, who could not comprehend my choice of career, in part to see something else. I have not had many impulses in my life to pursue the unknown, to wander into uncertainty, but choosing a new town to live in was one of them, Clara was the other. Clara arrived at our library in my last semester, having recently relocated in our town, due to her husband’s job. She was small and shy. It seemed fitting she should work among books and silence, undisturbed as she went about filing things, walking through the aisles pushing her cart while she restocked the shelves, the lightest scent trailing behind her, a mixture of soap and a soft cologne. Her hair reached down her back, full and luscious, secure in a pony tail. I used to run my fingers through it, when we lay together in bed, resting after having made love. I could stroke it for hours, the softness and weight of it always surprised me. She let me do it, and would sometimes fall asleep, briefly, since we never had much time, in one of the cheap motel rooms we rented. It has been so many years now, my youth gone, our youth gone, and yet, as I think of those hours, I can still feel the texture of the coarse sheets under me, the slow, circling fan above us, and the exact shape of her breasts under my hands.
I rearranged her head, setting a block under it, which would allow me later to apply the make-up more easily. I uncovered her fully, and I could not help but to look at her aged body. I have wished many times, in my lonely life, that I had been granted the opportunity to spend my days with Clara. To see her wake up in the morning, to anticipate her wishes and observe her when her mind fluttered away from mine. I still don’t know why she chose me, why among the many boys wandering around her library she picked me to be her lover. She was shy, and yet, it seemed that a hunger she could not fill rested quietly, but unrelenting, under her skin. I must have been a clumsy lover, in retrospect, her being the first woman I had ever been with, but it did not seem to bother her. As I flexed and massaged her arms, trying to ease their stiffness before I dressed her, I noticed that among the jewelry I had removed there wasn’t a wedding ring. I wondered if her husband had found out about us, or if there were others that replaced me, had I been a unique act of infidelity in her existence, or one among many that followed her into dismal motel rooms with soiled carpets and dripping faucets?
I thought, candidly, that she would leave the town with me once I graduated, or join me later, when I had secured a job for both of us. I did not mind the prospect of not having children; in fact, I preferred the idea of having a life, of having her, only to myself. I rarely thought about her husband, or the life she led with him, away from our motel room. She would touch my forehead, and then follow the profile of my face, slowly with her fingers and whisper: Don’t worry about him. It’s just us here and now. No one else. And I believed her. I guess she had been married a few years, but she did not like to talk about it. She did tell me right away not to worry about contraceptives, since she could not have children, and for the slightest moment her gaze wondered towards the window and did not meet mine. I held her and told her it was ok, that I would not mind a thing like that, but she pulled away and turned her back to me.
Let me shower quickly, she said, the ride here was hot and I need to refresh myself.
The last time I saw her it was inside her car, the day after I had graduated. My parents had offered to come and pick me up, but I told them I would rather take the train on my own. We sat quietly, her smoking, inside her sedan, and I wanted so badly to cry I had to focus on the separate leaves of the trees near me to stop the mounting pressure I thought would choke me inside of my chest. She had not been feeling well the last couple of days, a bit dizzy and tired.
It must be the heat, I am used to cold weather.
To my plans for the future she only nodded and gave me a remote smile, but I was too eager to notice the aloofness of it. I told her I would send her a letter once I was settled at my new address and then she could join me there. I did. I never got a reply, and when I found the courage to phone the library I was told Miss Clara Wells had left the job shortly after my departure. Her husband had once again been transferred, the new, chatty librarian informed me. May I ask whose calling though?
I looked at her, so different from then, and wondered how the years that we had spent apart had been filled. Here she laid, a complete stranger, and yet so dear to my heart. Of all the things I have ever imagined, it never once crossed my mind that I would be, indeed, the last person to hold her, to carefully seal her lips and apply the lightest color to them. I might have misspoken when I said she was the love of my life, since after all we only spent four months together, and in reality just a handful of hours in those various motels, and twice, outdoors, in a secluded area in the public park a couple of miles from the school. My love, passion, or whatever you want to call it might not have been more than the sexual awakening of an inexperienced boy with a woman a few years his senior, and yet, it has been hard to think of those times without the softest ache when I have recollected them, on undisturbed evenings in my one bedroom flat. I suppose part of it is how contained both in time and space our relationship was. It was not polluted by everyday affairs, no dirty dishes to clean in the sink, no small resentments about petty stuff, neither did boredom had a chance to dilute our passion, my passion, the time being so precious. So here I was, a few hours gone by, ready to switch again into my suit and perform the rest of the ceremony. I was curious to see who would come to her funeral, what kind of friends she kept, who would mourn her and miss her presence in the days to come.
The room had been set up with a single garland of flowers, simple, not too ostentatious, from one of our regular suppliers. My business partner usually handled that end of things, being better suited for conversation and helping people make the right decision under the circumstances. Bereavement leaves families adrift, unprepared to take care of the material things one must attend to, in spite of the pain. Oh, and there are so many things to consider, to establish and make choices about, when most of us would want to crawl into bed and hide under the sheets. It is good though, to have this ritual, and it has given meaning to my life to know that what I do is so crucial, and yet often so invisible, to so many over the years. I have often wondered about how we celebrate births, the doctors always receiving Christmas cards from the families they meet in delivering babies, and no one ever even considers writing the undertaker, the mortician, me, a single brief note acknowledging our contact. I am not resentful , don’t get me wrong, who wants to remember me? After all I am the last person to touch their loved ones, a stranger intruding in one of the most difficult times in their lives. The intimacy of my job is both unavoidable and disturbing to many, so is not surprising, just curious you know, how the idea of touching, of being touched, even when we are no longer ourselves, is filled with so much anxiety and shame. Over the years I have felt myself slowly disappear, becoming barely a presence, and I think that’s what has made me successful, the ability to cease to exist for those few hours when people mourn.
About twenty people or so turned up, a quiet affair, some coworkers (apparently she remained a librarian), a handful of friends, how or when she met them I could not gather, and her son, a tall, unremarkable man, that had inherited her auburn hair. He disclosed how his father had died a few years earlier, in a car accident.
Probably for the best, since it would have been so devastating for him to be the last to go. She managed, even though she missed him, but women are stronger and can find their way back to life more easily.
By four the affair was finished, and after briefly arranging the time for the burial the day after, everyone departed. I slowly made sure everything was in order before leaving, but somehow I could not manage to return home. The thought of Clara there, alone, on her last night on this earth unsettled me, who would have thought I could be bothered by this? So I sat for a few more hours in the room where the light was fading, in a golden hue, the clouds having been dispersed and the rain now gone. I suppose we all struggle with the meaning of our existence at one time or another, wondering if we have done enough in our brief time here, if the bonds we created were significant or merely loose threads without a pattern. I guess at times one also reconsiders how the role we played, who we thought we were to ourselves, and to somebody else comes unhinged. All my life I have focused on the details, the minute is my place of solace, where I find comfort and belonging. I am not interested in the completed puzzle, but in how each piece has a precise match, a unique suitable place within its community, unalterable, and fixed. So as I closed the casket, ready now to finally leave Clara to herself, I did it without resentment, but also without unbearable grief. I had come to understand why I had been chosen among the many, and the knowledge was both disappointing and liberating. As I walked to the bus, enjoying the freshness in the air, the mingled noises of the city, and the events of my day, I looked forward to returning home, to my quiet, undisturbed life. I might not have been the love her life, but, and of this I have no doubt, she remembered me, everyday, in all the hours and years we spent apart. This unexpected gift, so randomly accorded, filled me with something close to happiness, and I was able to lose Clara, a second time, now permanently, without regret or sorrow.