I couldn’t have been happier to have chosen the mortuary. The random phone book game rarely failed Danielle, my best friend, or I in the past. I knew it was going to be better than the lumber yard, the toilet bowl showroom, or the plastic surgery office that specialized in tightening and improving the aesthetic appearance of supposedly sub par vaginas.
I closed my eyes, opened the phone book and jabbed my un-kept, paint chipped finger down into a random mound of pages. We hadn’t done it for a long while, but I imagined it would play out the same as it used to, selecting a place and spending the rest of the day hanging out, lying about why we were there answering questions about our supposed interest in whatever endeavor. Why were we hanging around the large mammal artificial insemination clinic? Because we wanted to make a living raping cows, horses, hippos, etc! Why were we mulling around the Buddhist temple? We wanted to become monks! Would that require a sex change? Why are monk’s always men? Why do they shave their heads? Why was Buddha fat, as a deity didn’t he know obesity causes health problems? Today held the possibility for endless fun, if I could stop thinking about the shitty news I’d just received.
I was scared, why shouldn’t I be scared? What a fucking mess! I held my breath as my therapist instructed to slow my breathing, which would apparently force my heart to slow down and relieve me of the pressing anxiety, my “little heart attacks”. Breathe in, breathe out. I was internally screaming to stop freaking out and go have fun. “Danielle!” I smiled to her, “looks like we are going here”; I tilted the book in her direction.
I held my finger in place just in case she didn’t believe that’s where it landed.
“The Mortuary for what?” she asked, with her signature look spreading across her face, head cocked, eyebrows furrowed, slight grin. It was both flirty, and devilish. It’s the way I always picture her in my head.
Shrugging, “I don’t know. We can make something up on the way”
“Okay”, she nodded, “that works”.
“Indeed. Let’s go.”
I hopped up from the coffee table I had been sitting on, and stood looming over her waiting impatiently. She stretched like a cat and took in a deep breathe before pulling herself up from the chair she’d been lounging across.
I ripped out the page with the mortuary ad, stuffing it in my back pocket and we headed for the door. Both of us stopped in front the mirror next to the front door like ferrets that had just seen something shiny for the first time. We were best friends, closer than sisters, but in the mirror we didn’t appear to have much in common. She was distinctively Asian, five solid inches shorter than me, a little brown skinned, petite beauty. Pin straight hair, and black square glasses. She always dressed conservatively in a black button down and fitted jeans. I was the opposite, tall-ish, with light olive skin, long tousled messy hair, and annoying hour-glass-ish shape that I inherited from my Persian grandmother. I started to pull my hair up, yet another thing I need to work on in my life. Danielle rolled her eyes, grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the mirror “leave it” she said, and shoved me out the door. I was going to miss her bossy demeanor, but then again with my life in total shambles I wouldn’t have time to. I slammed my car door shut and took another deep breathe before shoving my key into the ignition, racking its mechanical cervix hard enough to create a thunderous protest from the engine as it roared to life.
The drive was short so we had to figure out our plan of action quickly.
“So, what are we going to tell them?” she asked
“I don’t know? That we are college students researching the economic viability of cremation vs. burial?” I said as though I’d never rehearsed it, but the idea had been in creation since we left.
She laughed, “Nice, I like it!”
“I knew you would” I sighed.
“You okay?” she asked with genuine concern. I didn’t feel like talking about it, I felt like dying.
“Yeah, of course…I’m excited for this.” I smiled to her.
“Yeah…and I want to see them cremate a body”. She said with that face again.
I wrinkled my nose, “Who doesn’t?” I said with obvious sarcasm. We turned the corner and found the address. “Looks like we’re here” I mumbled.
We parked in front of a large white building. It was windowless, and the grass surrounding the place was dead and yellow. Danielle and I wrinkled our noses to each other. The sun that beat down on the white brick was inappropriate. This wasn’t a place for sunshine, there should have been a looming tornado, or hail raining down. I peered apprehensively out of the rolled up window, “This place looks like a fucking asylum”
Danielle was wide eyed and child-like, “Creepy! People throw dead parties here?”
“Huh? Dead parties? What the fuck is that? Is that what you call a viewing?”
“I don’t know. A f-u-n-e-r-a-l” she said in her lazy voice.
“Psh. Insensitive!” I scoffed, while smiling, “let’s go see if the inside is creepy”.
We stepped out and I half expected to smell death but there was nothing out of the ordinary, no rotting flesh, no formaldehyde, no indication that anyone had died around here, ever. Humpf.
I turned towards Danielle, rolling my eyes up into my head trying to appear dead, “They want you to think it’s an asylum to throw people off during the zombie wars”
“What!?” Danielle looked at me furrowing her brows, hands on hips, “what are you talking about!” she demanded.
“You look really Asian when you do that. It makes me want to hire you as a house maid or something”
“Yeah? Why would I clean your house? We both know it would be destroyed when you finally crashed a plane into it…terrorist”
I scowled at her yet again, and started forward.
We walked up a winding sidewalk to the eyesore in front of us. Fumes rising from the suddenly visible, massive piles of dog shit all over the dead grass had started tickling my gag reflex. I grabbed her arm and made her pick up the pace to get inside.
As came upon two huge glass entrance doors a giant man in a paper-bag colored thrift- store suit swung open the door closest to Danielle almost hitting her shoulder.
“Whoa Lurch!” She snapped hopping backwards out of the way. I shot her a serious glance that translated, “be nice I want to see this!” She huffed, which meant that she agreed, but was unhappy about it. “Lurch” held the door open for us as we walked in. He followed behind us closely gesturing towards a hall marked with a sign that read, “Ted” something or other.
“Who’s Ted” I asked Danielle as if she would magically know. She shrugged and rolled her eyes. Weeps and hollers were coming from Ted’s direction. Low mumbles, and nose blowing could be heard behind the soggy sobs. I imagined fat women. Loud sobbing reminded me of a fat woman with a tight perm. These big, female-like Richard Simmons’ wore purple animal print t-shirts in my mind.
“Whales?” Danielle asked clearly deciphering my troubled expression.
The whales in that room were crying hard enough to un-beach themselves, I didn’t want to be near them when the tide rolled out, and I certainly had no intentions of putting myself in the same room to join them in their mourning for their beloved Ted. I turned my attentions back to Lurch.
“We’re not here for the funeral I’m afraid” I told the man while consciously improving my posture, trying my hardest to appear like I knew what I was doing.
“Oh I’m sorry” replied the gentleman, in the moth buffet jacket, “what can I assist you with then? There are no other…events for today” Events? He said it like it was a theme party. Funerals are theme parties, and the theme is death. It was a nice euphemism, like calling a cow “beef” and pig “pork”, the words that make a corpse easier to swallow.
He waited for our reply trying to look patient while he glanced at the clock behind us. I cleared my throat, and began lying.
“We’re both economic majors up at the university” I was so good at this, “and we’re doing a research project for our internship on the cost of death. We’d like to know everything about cremation and burial. Cost, procedure, we need to know it all”
The only movement for a solid minute or so was in his fingers. He stood there expressionless, and almost motionless, rubbing the fabric of his jacket between his thumb, pointer, and middle finger. The fabric on this suit on his right side was worn almost all the way through. We stood there watching him, waiting for him to come back to life. Finally he began shaking his head enthusiastically, like a jack in the box that could not stop wavering, and then yelled
“Fantastic!” The sudden action startled us. I was thinking, this guy is really happy considering his line of work. I liked that in a man. When life hands you lemons, be creepy, and work with people incapable of judging you.
His head stopped moving and he gestured to the clock,” how long do you have?”
“How long? The rest of our lives,” I replied and he laughed. I could tell he would appreciate all of the really lame jokes I would dish out for the remainder of the time spent with him, “but really we have a few hours” I corrected myself.
Danielle stood silently her eyes darting all over the place taking everything in. I watched her, and watched Lurch.
“Ok, well follow me ladies”, and he turned walking very quickly down a casino style carpeted hallway that led away from “Ted”. I glanced at Danielle who had the biggest god damn smile pasted on her face.
“Come on” I said, and we ran to catch up with our guide.
At the end of the hallway we stopped at a locked door. Lurch fumbled with his keys with one hand, while molesting his suit jacket with the other. The lock clicked and the door slowly fell open. He gestured us inside and we apprehensively stepped into a small white room. The walls of the room were mostly empty except for one which was lined with shelves of decorative urns that had been carefully placed dressing that particular wall in ominous extravagance. In death, you can BE that expensive vase you could never afford in life. There appeared to be a large fireplace in the center of the room. Lurch stepped forward and stood in front of the fireplace thing.
“First things first” he began, directing our attention to what looked like a fireplace that took up more than half of the room. The walls of the fireplace were made of glass on all sides, so you could look right in to watch what was going on inside.
“This is our cremation facility” he began, “cremation is usually about five-thousand dollars cheaper than burial, so while some people don’t like the idea of burning their loved ones, they choose this option anyways because of the price”
“hmm” I muttered, watching the glass incinerator.
“Why is it cheaper?” Danielle asked fully enamored by the machine. She was tiny in comparison, staring up at it with her mouth agape.
“well,” he began, “essentially when you buy a burial plot and do it the traditional way you are paying for embalming, a viewing, and a plot, which is pretty much like purchasing a piece of land for life. When you cremate you cut all of that out; the body comes here from the coroner office and we put it in through here”, and he gestured to a metal slab with wheels that was clearly used for loading a person’s body into the thing. I couldn’t stop thinking that people piss and shit themselves when they die, and that slab had touched like a million dead people covered in filth. I wanted to ask if they washed the bodies or the thing ever, but decided against it worried he would think I was being rude. Lurch crossed in front of us to point to a sliding door on the fireplace.
He continued our lesson, “The body is put in a cheap wooden casket and then put in here. It fires up to about 5,000 degrees and then this button” he motioned over a green button behind him on the wall, “loads the body in and activates the machine. It’s very animated.”
“And it just burns everything leaving ash?” I asked.
“Well, usually there is some bone left, but we break it up to fit it into the urn”
“Argh”, I made a face to Danielle who had hers all scrunched up too.
“Who pays for it?” I asked
“Well the family does”
And suddenly I felt a little weird. Families would have to deal with all of that when they’d just lost someone? Hardly seems fair, and what do poor people do?
“That’s sad” was all I could say. The thought stayed in the head the rest of the day.
He proceeded to show us around the grounds, the vaults, the burial plots. All which were really cool, some that were creepier than others, and all the while I kept thinking about how fucking ridiculous our system is. We die, and we have to pay some jackass to light our bodies on fire? My troubles, while a big deal to me were starting to seem dim in comparison. I mean, I had just been laid off. I was going to be broke, and it was going to affect my resume, my school schedule and essentially every area of my life. I’d worked incredibly hard to get into the company, I didn’t have anything else going for me right now and I felt as though I was completely failing at life. What is life about if not success and money? Sigh. I looked at Danielle and watched Lurch talk. She was leaving soon back to Seattle, and while it had been two years since she moved I could never really stomach it. I looked at my watch and felt the tiny heart attacks return.
It was late. We were standing in a cluster of child graves when I realized the sun was setting and we’d been at the mortuary for almost three hours. Danielle had to catch her flight in less than two hours, and I didn’t want to be standing there with Lurch in the dark listening to the rustling of his fingers all over his jacket. I mouthed “let’s go” to Danielle who eagerly nodded. I turned back towards Lurch who had stopped speaking and was staring down at a headstone doing that weird silent, motionless thing again, except of course for the nervous fingers. I walked over to him to tell him goodbye.
“Thank you so much!” I beamed, snapping him awake. I reached out and shook his cold, rough hand enthusiastically. I was internalizing the grimace for the moment, which I would release in the car with an ounce of hand sanitizer. I liked Lurch, but the guy freaked me out. He seemed sad to see us go, and I attributed it to the fact that he probably doesn’t converse with people capable of conversing back very often. When we reached the car I was surprised that I didn’t remember the walk back. I’d been lost in thought the entire time.
Danielle and I smiled to each over the hood of the car before hopping in.
“I can’t believe it costs that much to die!” She said as she fumbled with her seat belt. She’d clearly been as uneasy about everything as I was, “blah never mind” she shook her head as she decided against the seat belt tossing it to the side.
“Yeah I know it’s expensive, really sad…I’m hungry. Are you hungry?”
“Yep” she nodded.
“Okay, well grab something before the airport”
She nodded yes and checked behind us.
“Are we clear?” I asked. She nodded again and I pushed on the gas.
Driving away I was fully impressed with our innovative way to spend a weekend afternoon. Times like this made me realize how much I really did miss her, how happy she made me. Reflecting on the experience I wondered if maybe I should give up on my corporate aspirations to work at the mortuary. I could develop a cool tick like Lurch; maybe incessantly lick my lips or something. It can’t be all that bad, and it’s a guaranteed business, I mean, people always die. They have to; it’s the only certainty in life. Then, out of nowhere we hit a blockade of cars. I slammed on my breaks throwing Danielle forward into the dashboard. My seat belt restrained me, but she wasn’t wearing one. I unclipped mine and grabbed her.
“WHAT THE FUCK!? ARE YOU OKAY?” She was slumped onto the dashboard, unmoving, clearly unconscious. Oh no. OH NO!
“Danielle!” I shook her. I remembered that you are not supposed to do that in case there are spinal injuries, but I figured I’d already shaken her so the damage was done. She wasn’t responding. Nothing. My heart stopped beating.
“DANIELLE!” I yelled again. This time she moaned and slowly sat up, groaning, wavering and holding her forehead.
“wwwhat the fuuuuck?!” she mumbled.
“I don’t know. Jesus, are you okay? You need to go to the hospital”
“No I’m fine, just my head hurts a little. It’s not the first time, I’ll live.”
My heart started beating normally again.
“What happened? Did we hit someone?” She asked rubbing her forehead.
“No. Put your fucking seatbelt on! I don’t know what happened…roll down your window for some air”
The cars around me didn’t seem to notice what had just happened. There was room in front of me and I let my car roll forward.
As we moved a little I looked around. There was no accident in sight, nothing to cause that kind of congestion. Then came a piercing scream from the passenger side of my car
“OH MY GOD HE’S GONNA DIE”.
I whirled towards Danielle to see her fumbling for her seat belt looking out towards the road. In the middle of the street there was a man, with a white cane. A blind man was wandering aimlessly in front of cars completely oblivious to his predicament. The cars inched behind him, but nobody honked, yelled, or made any attempt to help him. The drivers had mild concern on their faces, but Danielle seemed to be the only person genuinely freaked out.
The blind man had heard her scream and whirled around quickly towards the sound of her voice stopping terrified in his tracks.
“Me?!” he yelled.
“Oh my god, oh my god, STAY THERE!” she yelled at him.
He began backing up until he hit a curb with his foot and stepped up on it.
“I’m ok now I think” he yelled back.
“Jesus Christ! I yelled to Danielle who looked worried and was frustrated should couldn’t get out of her seat fast enough. She was knocked out minutes prior and her fingers weren’t cooperating as she wanted. I reached over and unclipped her and she bolted out of the car towards the man. I saw their mouths moving, and watched her turn him to the right direction. She was wildly gesturing towards traffic, and the cars surrounding me were all watching her intensely, smiling to her. It was as if they were proud that she had the courage to approach a stranger when they didn’t. She grabbed his hand and shook it and walked back to the car.
She hopped into the seat laughing and shaking her head,
“That poor blind guy almost got ran over, and what’s the fucking deal with all of these assholes that just watched him?”
“I don’t know.” I sighed, “We have to go to the airport or you’ll miss the plane”
She nodded without saying anything.
We were silent for the entire drive. When we arrived at the passenger drop off she got out of the car without a word, focusing on the task at hand, ignoring the fact that both of us were about to be without our “other half” once again. The trunk slammed, and I winced knowing this was it. Sigh. I opened the car door, hesitating before hopping out. She was standing on the curb smiling ear to ear as she often did when she knew something was going to be awkward. I drug my feet up to her, picked her up and hugged her.
I dropped her, “Awkward, I can feel your boobs”. She scoffed and rolled her eyes. I leaned down and kissed her cheek.
“I love you” she said.
“I love you too, call when you get home?” She nodded.
“Your luggage is bigger than you”.
She shrugged, turned, stalled, and walked towards the entrance. I crawled back into my car defeated. I hated this; I hated it more than anything. Our friendship was one of the few things that made me happy anymore. With my career and possible academic career in a state of shit, my friends, family, and experiences were all I had, and why was that so bad? As I pull off of the curb I took a deep breathe.
I drove away waiting for the tears to fall as they always did when I left her. In a world of the blind, the dead, the over-worked, the pretentious, the unhappy, we were truly alive though sometimes it didn’t feel that way. We saw the humor in the misery of existence, and we laughed and wept at the absurdity of it all. Life felt, for once, as it truly was instead of how it was “supposed to be”. Things, are never as they are supposed to be and it’s that disappointment that takes the life out of living.