“I shouldn’t let you in here,” the undertaker said as they walked through the reception area, “but what are they gonna do to me? Make me spend all night with a bunch of dead bodies?” Huff huff huff. From the outside, the funeral home looked like a cinderblock storefront, but inside it resembled the parlor in a BBC adaptation. Dark wood molding framed fan-patterned wallpaper of burgundy on beige. In the darkened room, Aaron saw the rounded shapes of furniture that should have belonged to a well-to-do grandmother. The undertaker led him past all that to a nondescript door prominently marked Employees Only.
Still drunk, Aaron was momentarily blinded by the sudden flood of fluorescent light. He thought of Dorothy stepping out of her house in Oz, of Peter stepping through the wardrobe. But when his eyes adjusted, it was just a room of ceramic and metal. Strange machines on carts were pushed off to the sides of the room, octopal tubes hanging from their chrome chasses and the doors of a large cabinet full of various bottles and boxes hung open. On a large silver table in the center of the room was Jaime.
For a moment, Aaron felt like he’d been invited into a room where an elaborate meal had been laid out for him; an effect of the mental overlap between the funeral parlor’s quaint décor and the stark shock of Jaime’s body, half-covered with a sheet. When Aaron’s mind caught up with itself, he was repulsed less by the sight of Jaime’s body than his initial response to it. Recovering, he wondered if this was the first time he’d seen Jaime without a shirt. The implied intimacy of being roommates for three years had been undone by Aaron’s instinctual prudishness about bodies in general and a broader generational aversion of boys in their late teens and early twenties to any contact with the bare flesh of other boys. Here was Jaime’s blanched and bare torso, drained not just of blood and color but of a coiled, taut physicality Aaron had attributed to Jaime. Hadn’t Jaime maintained and regularly utilized a gym membership back then? Aaron seemed to remember this as a thing about Jaime. Attempting to remember Jaime as something whole, integral, resulted only in remembering things about Jaime, an odd assortment of facta, many of which were more about Aaron than about Jaime. Jaime wore short-sleeve shirts for as long as the weather allowed. Jaime was an inveterate giggler when he got high. Jaime had a younger sister who was attractive in a tomboy kind of way. Jaime had opinions about the importance of good posture. Jaime had an incongruous competitive streak that kept him from enjoying darts or pool. Jaime was dead on a table in a funeral home in Pilsen.
“He’ll look better by tomorrow,” the undertaker said, stepping around the table to stand behind Jaime’s body. This brought back to Aaron the idea Jaime’s body was being displayed for him to consume in some way. “I’m not finished yet, but he’ll be ready.” He screwed the cap onto a stout jar that sat near Jaime’s head and looked up at Aaron expectantly. “You ever hear the one about the undertaker in a hurry?”
“No,” Aaron said. The undertaker’s shoulders wriggled and he stood up a little straighter, ready to deliver the joke, but then he seemed to reconsider.
“Ah, it’s more of an industry joke,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. His other hand rested on the table inches from Jaime’s shoulder. Aaron watched the hand, nervous at the idea anyone would come in contact with Jaime’s body. Part of this came from an almost sexual jealousy but part was born of his own unwillingness to touch the body. “Here’s one!” the undertaker said, excitedly. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, mentally rehearsing the joke. After a second, he opened his eyes and fixed them on Aaron. “So, there’s this Jewish couple. Elderly. They save up their whole lives for a trip to the Holy Land. And they go there and she, the wife, she dies. And the undertaker says to the husband, ‘Well, you can have her shipped back home to Boca for five grand. Or we can bury her right here in the Holy Land for a hundred fifty bucks. And the husband says, right off, ‘Let’s ship her home’.
“So they make the preparations, they ice her up for shipment and all. And the undertaker says, ‘I gotta ask. Why is it you wanted to spend all this money to send her home when you could have had her buried in the Holy Land?’ And the husband says, ‘Two thousand years ago, they buried a guy here, and three days later, he came back from the dead. I couldn’t take that chance.’”
Despite himself, Aaron let out a little laugh. He kept watching the undertaker’s hand.
“It’s not bad, right?” said the undertaker, encouraged by the response. “I feel like I need to shave three more beats off it. Originally the punch line was ‘I felt like I couldn’t take that kind of chance’, but I cut it down. Not quite there yet.” He began organizing instruments on a tray that looked as if it belonged in a dentist’s office.
“How did he die?” Aaron asked. Usually when Mavet issued a notification, Aaron followed up before beginning to execute the contract. But the only information he’d gotten about Jaime’s death so far was the location of the funeral home.
“Small caliber,” the undertaker said. “Which is risky. Sometimes the bullet lodges. Bounces around, only takes out the non-essential parts of the brain. Leaves a drooler. But your friend was a lucky shot.” He made his hand, the one that had been creeping nearer and nearer to Jaime’s shoulder, into a gun, two fingers for the barrel. He placed his index finger against his lower lip. “Through the soft palate, into the medulla oblongata. Med-oooooo-la,” he sang, “ob-long-aaaahhh-ta.” To the tune of “Steppin’ Out”. He looked at Aaron nervously. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ve always thought that had a musical sound to it. Most of the brain areas do.”
Aaron took a tentative step closer to Jaime. “But how did it happen?” he asked.
“It didn’t happen,” said the undertaker, becoming slightly irate. “He did it. The gun didn’t jump into his mouth, did it? Guns don’t kill people and all that.” He looked down at Jaime’s face, almost tenderly. “You want the truth? He wouldn’t be getting a Christian burial if his family wasn’t rich. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say that. The family, they’re very Catholic. Although I suppose no one’s a little Catholic. Sort of an all in proposition. They’ve had it put down as an accident. It’s the biggest choice a person can ever make, and they’ve taken it from him.”
“Where was he found?” Aaron asked.
“In his apartment, on Schopenhauer,” the undertaker said. “Neighbors found him right away. Heard the shot go off. Not a lot of gunfire in that part of town. Down here a gunshot is not exactly out of the norm.”
Ten minutes away the whole time, Aaron thought. A jump on the El. A long afternoon’s walk in the summer heat and they could have been having a beer. He tried to picture Jaime alone in his apartment contemplating suicide, but he found he couldn’t imagine Jaime alone. In Aaron’s memory, Jaime was always entering into a full room, or already chatting with Eric or Alice when Aaron arrived.
“You ask me,” said the undertaker, “not that you’re asking me, if you did, there’s nothing wrong with suicide except for the mess it leaves behind. Not this.” He indicated the body. “This actually, compared to some of the stuff I see? This is nothing.” He looked at the body the way a mother might look at a child while he slept. When Aaron looked at the body his mind tried to convince itself this thing had anything to do with, was in any way related to his friend.
“Give me your hand,” the undertaker said. As if under a spell, Aaron raised his arm, put his hand out. It hovered over Jaime’s body like it was about to deliver a blessing. The undertaker seized it and placed Aaron’s hand on the top of Jaime’s head. He pressed Aaron’s hand against it. There was a strange give to it that wasn’t skull. It felt more like a baby’s fontinelle; Aaron’s fingers pressed into the softness under Jaime’s thick dark hair.
“Embalmer putty,” said the undertaker. “We used to have to use mastic putty, but this is much better, except that it never really sets. The bullet left an exit wound almost four inches across. Scalp popped up like the trunk of a hatchback. I just stitched it back on.” Aaron pulled his hand back. “But that’s nothing,” the undertaker continued, smoothing down Jaime’s hair. “The mess I’m talking about you’ll see tomorrow. You’re part of that mess. It’s everyone who says If only he’d asked us for help. But he’s asking now. He’s saying, I couldn’t carry my life anymore. I need you to carry it for me.”
Aaron drew a breath that was rank with chemical and empty of oxygen. His head spun and his vision darkened. Reflexively, he gripped Jaime’s arm for support, then flinched back from the feeling of the bicep, cold and too solid. He looked at the undertaker, who at first had seemed like the same kind of nothing man Aaron dealt with every day, but now seemed malicious. The fluorescent lights glared his pate, the tools on the table next to him gleamed like torture instruments.
“Why did you let me in here?” Aaron asked, panicked and backing away. “I’m not supposed to be in here.”
“I’m showing you his death,” the undertaker said, coming around the table towards him. Aaron’s arms drew up towards his chest and the undertaker took Aaron’s left wrist, yanked it away from his chest. “No one else will see it. After you leave, I’ll finish covering it up. None of them will have to face it.” He pulled Aaron towards the body and Aaron remembered his grandfather’s funeral when he was five, how his mother had dragged him up to the coffin “to say goodbye” and how he’d sobbed in protest. “I will take his death and I will keep it and I will hide it. It’s mine now. The undertaker laid Aaron’s hand on Jaime’s chest. It was cold and perfectly still. “This is his death right here.”
He lifted Aaron’s hand off Jaime’s chest, pressed it against Aaron’s own. Aaron felt his heart beat against his own fingers. He felt his breath slowing, falling back into its regular rhythm.
“I want you to carry his life,” the undertaker said.