The parishioners were lined up ready to take their shots at us. From the edge of the casket they let loose their opinions about the discoloration on the hands, the arrangement of the flowers, the seating of the family. I was waiting for Roy, the other funeral apprentice, to arrive with the makeup kit. When he finally did, he assisted me in turning the casket around so we could dab cosmetic on the hands in private. As we turned the casket back, we knocked over a flower stand. The parishioners, now doubly armed with the deceased’s family by their side, weren’t satisfied with that arrangement either. In the end, I went back outside where it was colder and let the funeral director I was assisting take over. Roy left me holding a bouquet of funeral flags and headed back.
“Good luck out here,” he said, his lips pushing together into a smirk.
It was hellishly cold, the most miserable mid-morning weather I had experienced yet in the grey city of Milwaukee. I had forgotten my gloves. My unprotected fingers had chapped raw before I even slammed the first funeral flag onto the steel hood of the lead car, the Cadillac of my misfortune. For the rest of the morning when I wasn’t directing cars into a single-file line along the curb, I spent my time staring through a gap between two houses, down a long corridor of frozen, matted grass and garbage.
I sat in the back of the church during the service, one arm outstretched across the top of the pew while my feet rested on the prie dieu in front of me. I listened as the priest blessed the dead body into eternal life and felt the thaw creep through my limbs, replacing numbness with burning. When the funeral was over, I tore down the set inside the church while the funeral director led a procession to the cemetery 10 miles away. I also took the long way driving back to the funeral home, down Vliet Street and up through Washington Heights, where the road curves out of nowhere around mansions that keep the last bit of regalness intact in a dying neighborhood. These less-travelled streets were like hidden hallways that my job allowed me access to. I could walk through the door of any of these houses as long as there was a body behind it.
I saw Roy smoking with other apprentices on the back steps of the funeral home when I finally pulled in. Though he was normally one for a borrowed smoke, Roy had his own pack that day. Kools. I stopped for one before I went in the door.
“Wambold,” He said, like he was missing a piece of his puzzle and I was it. “What happened today?” He asked.
“What do you mean?” I answered, playing it cool. I assumed it had to do with the family complaining about our earlier mishap.
“You had a crazy family?”
“Not really.” I shrugged. Except for their early disappointment, they seemed fine when they pulled away from the church for the burial.
“That’s not what we heard,” he said glancing at the others.
Roy had an immaculately bald head. It stayed clean the entire time that I knew him, which made me think about my appearance often. I felt ragged, tired and pale. Even after an 8 hour shift, I would make an attempt at looking put-together if I had to be on call with him that evening. It had nothing to do with sexual attraction; it was a transformation of character. This was my professional self and I wanted Roy to see I was trying. From Roy I learned to pay attention only to what was important or he would get mad, like he was that afternoon, telling me a story I should have already known.
“They got in a fight,” Roy informed me about the family. It happened in the narthex. It was the brother against his two sisters. I remembered the brother driving up that morning in an electric blue Geo. I had him park behind the van that carried his sisters. Inside his car, it smelled of cigarettes and McDonalds. His wore wire-rimmed spectacles and declared “I’m Family.” immediately after he rolled down his window. I never spoke to the sisters.
It’s a good thing to have a confidant in funeral service, a person who has got your back when you can’t have it yourself. In this way we are like the dead, left with our associated living to explain, retell and define us. In most cases it falls curiously short. The bodies that don’t speak lay flat to the claims.
“Once he got in the church, he lit up a joint,” Roy continued, “started to smoke it while he viewed his mother.” He shook his head, “You didn’t see any of this?”
I shook my head no. Once I got outside, I had never even turned back around to look at the church.
Roy proceeded with the details of the family fight: one of the sisters lunged at her brother’s throat, prompting an all-out brawl which the funeral director struggled to break up. It was settled by the supervising parishioners, who separated the family: boys on one side, girls on the other. The funeral director had excitedly recounted this story to Roy and the rest of the staff before I made it back to the funeral home. Roy wanted to know what I saw. My story was boring; a sad tale of being left out in the cold performing a thankless job.
“You shoulda been paying attention, Wambold,” Roy said leaning his arms on his knees, looking up at me with missed opportunity in his voice. “What do you think this job’s about?”
I spent hundreds of hours with Roy. I was partnered with him during our on-call schedule on nights and weekends. We had forged a friendship made of dark humor and deep trust that was a welcomed departure from our personal lives: his, a tumultuous romantic relationship; mine, a crushingly lonely period of self-discovery. We made that fact of our misery fun with fiction. My first day on the job, I rode with him to a cemetery to meet a family for a graveside service and burial. He took advantage of the hearse’s sound system. The bass was so loud the casket handles were vibrating like a gnarly snare backbeat as we processed to the cemetery. He gave me instructions on how to behave.
"When we get to the cemetery,” he had said, “you get out and start lining up them cars behind us. But make sure and leave enough room to pull the casket out." I nodded and looked out the window as we passed a sign that said, "Women's Fly Fashions". The suit I was wearing was my apprentice uniform, fashioned for service and not style. The music shared Roy’s attitude, or maybe provoked it,
"I'm telling you, just act like you know it all and they'll do what you say."
The beat got heavier. More instructions followed, "When the pastor gets done doing his thing, you get up and start passing out flowers from the casket spray." I asked how I would know when it was over. "You pay attention," Roy said, his eyes shifting between my face and my body. "I'm serious. We don't be fucking up at funerals. That's why we're the best.” The music changed into a sexier groove with a female's voice begging for second chance. "And we gotta stick around until after the family leaves to make sure they get this guy in the ground."
We rolled through his old neighborhood and Roy began pointing at the people on the street. He had a story for everyone. They all stared back at us in confusion. He punched the buttons on the stereo for more bass. The hum on the outside of the hearse reverberated the arrogance coming from inside the rappers' mouth. There was death and grooving all around us. The body in the back did not disagree when I said,
"This is like a motherfuckin' club cruiser now".
Roy smiled. I smiled, too. The sun was shining and I was going to the cemetery for my job. I was not yet bored from hearing the same story from families or my co-workers. Right then, I was absorbing everything like it had never happened before.
"They think they in Beverly Hills," Roy said as he watched two women with high heeled boots and trendy handbags cross the street in front of us. "They bought that shit at the Rainbow on 35th and North."
I watched the women turn around to look at us, to see where the music was coming from. Their eyes got wide as Roy moved the hearse through the light. “You know they ain’t expecting to see that!” he shouted, cracking us both up.
Back on the steps, my lack of enthusiasm caught me off guard. The once exciting roles of the job were fading into colorless chores that I was tired of doing. I had suspected for a while that I was missing out on something, only to realize that I was becoming a part of people’s lives that they desperately wanted to forget. I was allowing myself to be forgotten and quietly ignoring other people as well.
If I hadn’t seen Roy that morning before the fight at the funeral I might have remembered the day differently. I might have waited inside the church where it was warm and mingled with the funeral guests. But I stayed outside to talk to Roy. Before he left he had seen an old friend of his drive past the church. His friend saw him, stopped and the two exchanged handshakes and jokes that made Roy laugh in a way I hadn’t ever heard before. A crack of delight and pain that made me want to hear more of what was being said. Instead, Roy waved us both off and left me standing alone on the corner, flagging mourners. I had almost forgotten this part of the morning until I saw Roy again later that afternoon, smoking Kools behind the funeral home. I’d wanted to ask him what I’d missed that his friend had said but I knew he wouldn’t say. Sometimes a beating heart stops the moment you pay attention to it.
We went on a call later to a home in a suburb in the south part of the city. The house was full of animal prints and people; young people my age who were all watching Yanni: Live at the Acropolis on a big screen TV in the living room while we wheeled their mother out of the master bedroom. We passed a nail technician station complete with a display of acrylic nails covered in designs of palm trees and sunsets. I looked up long enough to take in the scene. It reminded me of every Midwestern mall I’d ever been in, with its offerings of beauty and sentimentality. It was one instance where the dead body was speaking louder than the living and I could hear it all the way back to the funeral home.
“Hey,” Roy said to me, “What are you smiling about?”
My head was turned toward the passenger side window, watching the darkness falling over the city. I had no idea I had been smiling. “I don’t know,” I answered.
Roy shook his head and smiled himself, “You got a smile. I’d give anything to know what made you smile like that,” he said.
I turned back to the window. I was in the hearse with Roy, driving through the city at night with a body in the back like we had always done, since the moment we first met. There was music and a lifetime hanging in the air between us. There was no answer I could give that could have crossed that space, it’d get caught in perspectives I couldn’t imagine, didn’t know were there. If I was smiling, Roy knew why even without my saying it.
The rest of the ride is gone from my memory, but perhaps it’s still in his.