The Ballad of Two Sisters
In the basement of the Bells & Stone Funeral Home where the dead were staged, the mortician pushed play on his portable CD player and stared at the picture he had been given of Helen and Stella. He paused for a second, listening to the music. No, it wasn’t right. Billie Holiday wasn’t right—not the husk of her voice, nor the heartache imbued in every phrase. It was Ella they needed—the brightness, perfectly pitched. He went back to the player and changed the CD. Then, fingertips at the very edges, he examined the photo first directly under the florescent light of the preparation room and next in the glow that radiated around it. He held it so close to his face that he thought he could see the individual strands of the women’s perfectly coiffed hair and then far enough away from his face so that Helen and Stella looked like women he had gazed upon only from across crowded rooms or crowded streets. In the photo, the women were standing in front of a glass-doored china cabinet full of plates, bric-a-brac, decorative spoons. Their arms were intertwined, their neutral colored slacks and flowered blouses neatly pressed. A point of light shone between them, the nearly invisible shadow of their photographer behind it. As the music played on, the mortician held the photo against his chest for a moment, trying to forget what he had seen and then looking at it again searching for something yet unseen. This time, when he looked again, it was the way Helen’s head leaned just slightly toward Stella he saw. You dear women, he thought, you wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
The sisters, ages 90 and 92 respectively, had died on the same day.
By the time he thoroughly examined the picture, the CD was half over, so he restarted it and began his work, regarding each of the women as he would have his own sisters. It was how he treated all his clients. He started the process of setting their features, placing a modesty cloth over the gray hair of their sexes and avoiding eye contact with their breasts as much as he could without affecting the quality of his work. He hummed while massaging and flexing their arms and legs to eliminate rigor mortis. Occasionally, like any doctor or dentist would during a procedure, he paused to ask each woman how she was doing. Are you comfortable? Can I do anything to make this better? He asked, pausing for a response he knew wouldn’t come. But still, it made him feel better to ask.
After remembering how Helen’s head had leaned toward her older sister, he was careful to handle her gently, for he could sense she was the more fragile of the two women. Several times as her blood was being replaced by embalming fluid, he rubbed the top of her head as if to say It’s almost over, sweetheart. As for Stella, he imagined she would have suffered through the process sighing occasionally but perhaps cracking a one-liner here and there at his expense. He chuckled a few times imagining the mortician jokes she probably knew, the picture of her face flush in his mind. Hours later when he found her tattoo while grooming her—a blur of lines and colors on her wrinkled torso—he rubbed a thick lotion on it, which made it grow bright and defined. It is a great tattoo, Stella. He thought.
Finally, it was time to bring the sisters’ faces to life. This, perhaps, was his favorite part of preparing the decedents: whereas they had been lifeless canvases, when the work with his palette was done, they were vivified, the dimensions of life restored to them. He was a masterful painter, a constant critic of color. Never did he use shades of lipstick or blush straight out of the package; rather, each was blended so that no two people ever wore the exact same shade. It was the least he could do for them, this final act. For Helen, he used subdued light pinks—she was paler than Stella, and the picture showed that in life her cheeks were rosy, a quality that belied her age. For Stella, he used deeper tones, tones tinged with orange, which complimented her olive skin. Based on their skin tones, it was hard to believe they were sisters, but after he had vivified them, he could see it: the ineffable quality they shared. As the final notes of Ella played, he rolled his chair back to the edge of the room and propped his elbows against the green Formica counter top. Did I do well, ladies? He asked.
That evening, as the mortician and funeral director looked on, the small number of the sisters’ family members who were still alive said the usual things, slanting the women’s lives into unadulterated sunlight. It all seemed so orchestrated to the mortician that somehow he felt he had gotten to know Helen and Stella more in the hours since they had slipped out of their family’s life and into his than the family ever had.
“They were good aunts, good friends, good…well, good people,” an old man said, while staring at note cards. He cleared his throat and shuffled them, clearly having lost his place. “And,” he stammered, “And…we were all a damn sight lucky to know them,” he continued, fumbling through the rest of his speech, his tone strained. After, he shook his head and took his seat next to a gray-haired woman who, in a consolatory gesture, ran her manicured nails across the back of his neck.
As the mortician watched, he began to pace. He did not know why he even bothered to watch the funerals anymore. Every one of them was a worse incarnation of the last. They were full of disingenuousness, devoid of actual emotion. There was no howl. There was no desperation. And he done all this work only to give families, friends, and lovers the opportunity to howl loud and long, to crawl on their knees and beg god and the devil to stop the endless game and give them back their dead, for all people who faced death believed in the dichotomy of good and evil and that somehow Jehovah or Beelzebub was watching over them, silently judging their worthiness to be given back what they had lost.
“It’s not right,” he mumbled.
“What?” The funeral director said, appearing behind him.
“I said it’s not right,” he said louder.
“It isn’t. I feel like I know those women better than they do. These people aren’t even saying anything worthwhile.”
“What did I tell you? If you keep getting this—this agitated, you can’t come up here anymore. Understand?”
“You don’t understand, do you?”
“What don’t I understand?” The funeral director led him by the arm around the corner and out of the guests’ line of sight.
“It’s just a show. Practiced to the point that it’s tone deaf.”
“It’s supposed to be a show.”
“But no one up there is being honest. No one is telling the truth.”
The funeral director positioned himself so that he stood between the mortician and the funeral. “How many times are we going to go through this before you have to get another job?”
“As many times as it takes for you to understand my point.”
“Listen—you know what I know about you. Do we have to have the conversation?”
The mortician ran a hand through his hair and looked down at his feet. It was the same conversation he had in Florida, in Texas, in Georgia, in Mississippi. The reason he had moved north was to escape those conversations, which were a steel wreckage consuming so much space in his mind that it had taken all the self-control he could summon just to present himself as a new mortician in Illinois.
“I do excellent work,” he had said in his interview at Bells & Stone. “I treat them like my own family.”
“That’s what your references said about you,” the funeral director replied. “But they also seemed to have some concerns about your level of involvement with the families. I share those concerns as well.”
The mortician’s jaw tensed. “Concerns?” But he knew the concerns well. He could still picture that last funeral in Florida: a wife coffined in her wedding dress, a Rembrandt of vivification. Her husband, dry-eyed, wore a white t-shirt with yellowed arm pits and liquor on his breath. Their children were weeping raw, completely true in grief. The young girl had wrapped her arms around herself and was rocking back and forth with each new wave of sob. The boy stared at the floor, continually running his hands down the length of his khaki-covered thighs. Quit crying, the husband had said. Just quit your crying. It won’t do you any good. Ain’t going to bring her back. She’s gone. The husband thought just the three of them were in the room, but he had failed to realize that the mortician, anger rising, was behind him. Watching the man stealing his children’s right to grieve, to partake in a necessary ritual infuriated the mortician. The theft endangered the children, for how would they move on if they did not first purge themselves of all that darkness? It won’t do you any good. The husband growled. You hear me? After he said it, raising his voice to an intolerable volume, the mortician was upon him. To this day, the mortician did not clearly remember what had happened, just that he and the man were suddenly outside the room alone, and the man was on the ground, and…
“Did you hear what I just said?” The funeral director snapped.
“Yes. I heard you.”
“Do you like your job, son?”
The funeral director was always calling him son, although the mortician, age 35, wasn’t sure the funeral director was actually old enough to be his father.
“Listen, I know you like your job, son. You do too good of a job not to like it. You want to keep it? Then you need to let go. You deal with the dead. I deal with the living. That was our agreement when I hired you.”
“Right,” the mortician muttered, sequestering every last thread of his anger. “Right,” he repeated. Then he turned and walked away from the funeral director, from Stella and Helen and the funeral, but he walked slowly, listening to the final speech get quieter and quieter until he was downstairs in the preparation room again. He took a deep breath, the sound of his own breathing the only noise, the room, devoid of the two sisters, as quiet and insulated as a tomb.