by Michael C. Keith
You can’t stop being afraid just by pretending
everything that scares you isn’t there.
– Michael Marshall
During the summer of my 11th year, I lived with the dead. It was a period during which I came to know the real limits of my fear. In my child’s overactive imagination, there were corpses watching me from every dark corner of the funeral home where we were temporarily living. This was especially true at night, when I was left alone in the top floor bedroom I shared with my father. In my young mind, these were the hours when the most recently deposited cadaver lifted itself from the metal embalming table two floors below and came in hungry pursuit of . . . me. I had seen plenty of zombie movies, and I expected to have the flesh torn off my bones at any moment as I burrowed under the bedcovers for safety––sweating from every pore.
My father’s first cousin, Doris Roebacker, operated the stately looking mortuary in East Hartford, Connecticut, and she offered us the chance to stay in its well-appointed resident quarters. She knew my father was trying to get himself back together after a bout with the bottle, although he didn’t admit that to her––in point of fact, his alcoholism was something he wouldn’t admit to himself.
At first, I was thrilled to be occupying a building that looked so classy and respectable, but then it quickly sunk in that this ornate place was where the dead were prepped for the afterlife. Almost immediately I began to wish we were be back on the road or in some homeless shelter––even a roach infested rented room. I figured anything would be better than sharing a roof with dead people.
Yet again, I cursed my father for his irresponsible behavior. In my view, it was his excessive drinking that screwed up everything, putting us in many unpleasant situations. But I had chosen to go with him rather than remain behind in a more stable––and certainly less exciting––environment with my mother and sisters. So I tried to accept the consequences of my decision, although it sure was not easy at times. And this was surely one of those times. If I were back with Mom, I wouldn’t be about to be attacked by the undead, I brooded, my anger growing as the bed sheets became saturated with my sweat.
* * *
On the other hand, staying at the funeral home did have its lighter moments. My father’s cousin was a very cheery person, despite her dreary occupation. When Aunt Doris, as she told me to call her, was not at work on her clients, she was in her kitchen humming tunes and sharing jokes with my father. How can she be so happy when she works with dead people? I wondered, but I was glad she wasn’t like the undertakers I’d seen in horror movies. They always looked as grim and pale as the bodies they experimented with or attempted to revive.
Early on in what would be a short stay, I had found a neighborhood kid my age to play with while my father helped out at the funeral home doing small chores. He said it was his way of repaying his cousin for her hospitality. One of the things he did was assist the funeral home’s only full-time employee, Cal Jacobs, move bodies to the visitation room for showing. I asked if he actually touched the dead people, and he said sure, like it was no big deal. Well, it sure was to me. I couldn’t imagine doing it.
In our first days there, I had managed to avoid seeing any of the mortuary’s clients, but that changed before a week was over. I was walking down the back stairs to meet up with my friend and the door to what I learned was the embalming room was open a bit. As I passed it, Aunt Doris called out to me, inviting me to come in and visit her. Had I known what awaited me, I would have run outside and never looked back. When I entered the room, I was shaken to the core by what I saw––my father’s cousin gently, even lovingly, combing the long grey hair of a corpse.
“Isn’t she beautiful? So peaceful,” she commented, as I stared at her and the body she was all but caressing.
For a moment, I stood in place unable to move forward or to run out of the room, which is what I desperately wanted to do.
“Come over here and see her. This is Mrs. Normandy. Don’t be afraid, dear. She’s not going to hurt you. She’s in heaven now. Look at her lovely face . . . so serene.”
As Aunt Doris requested, I finally moved closer. A few feet away from the corpse, I gave it a closer look and had to agree that it did look harmless enough. In fact, it didn’t look like what I thought a dead body would. It simply looked like a person sleeping.
“When clients arrive, it’s my job to make them appear as they did when they were alive. It’s not hard, unless they’ve been in an accident and have been disfigured. With this sweet lady, all I had to do was give her the beauty shop treatment. You know, do her hair pretty and add some makeup to her face. Here’s a picture of her just last month at her birthday party. Doesn’t she look about the same?”
“Yes,” I said. “Exactly the same.”
“Would you like to help me put a little more blush on her cheeks? That’s all there is left to do.”
“No,” I mumbled, horrified by the offer.
The room seemed colder than the rest of the house, but my clenched hands were clammy.
“Can I go play?”
“Of course, dear,” answered Aunt Doris, smiling, and I realized she hadn’t been serious about my helping her. “The deceased are the most harmless folks in the world, but people think all kinds of horrible things about them,” she added, her expression becoming doleful. “It’s really a disservice to the departed.”
* * *
My new friend, Jeffrey, was really curious about the funeral home and asked all kinds of questions. Mostly he seemed impressed that I actually had the courage to live there.
“Jeez, I would be too afraid. All those dead people inside with you. Aren’t you scared?”
“No,” I answered, feigning bravery and repeating the words of Aunt Doris. “Dead people are harmless.”
“I don’t know. They can come back and get you. Sometimes tear your guts out.”
“No, they don’t. Want to see a dead person?” I said, instantly regretting my impulsive words.
“Really? I’ve never seen a dead person. I don’t know . . . maybe. Well, okay. When?”
“Tomorrow night there’s a wake for an old lady. I just saw her. We can go into the visiting room when everybody’s left.”
We made plans to meet the next day to set up the details of our daring venture. I didn’t tell my father about it, because I knew he’d disapprove, thinking it might upset his cousin and possibly endanger our continuing stay. I didn’t mind if that happened, because I dreaded being alone in our room at night before my father came to bed. My trepidation about being on my own after sunset further deepened when I asked why his cousin didn’t have a husband.
“She did, but he committed suicide down in the basement where the coffins are stored. He was a nice guy but was depressed a lot. Loved to go hunting. Shot himself with one of his rifles, in fact.”
“You mean he killed himself right here?”
“About five years ago. Doris was in bad shape after that, but she decided to go it alone, except for Cal. He’s worked here for years.”
Even at my age, the irony of an undertaker taking his own life in his very own funeral home was not lost on me. The information added to my already towering anxiety, and I resolved never to go near the basement––certain that it housed the late Mr. Roebacker’s ghost. Indeed, I was convinced that he was among all the other dead people haunting the place, especially the building’s third floor where we slept.
* * *
The next morning, I managed to slip out without being spotted by Aunt Doris and invited back into the embalming room. Jeffrey was at the nearby playground when I arrived, and he rushed to greet me.
“So, we’ll actually see a dead person tonight?” asked Jeffrey, excitedly.
“Maybe,” I answered tentatively, having reconsidered the plan. “I don’t think . . .”
“C’mon, you promised. You can’t take it back. If you do, I won’t be your friend,” pouted Jeffrey.
“I was just kidding. Sure, we’ll check out the body after the wake. Meet me outside the funeral home at 8 o’clock, okay? It’ll still be light outside. You can come then, right?” I asked, hoping he couldn’t. “It’s the only time we can see the body.”
“You bet. This is going to be so scary, but I want to see a real dead person.”
For the remainder of the day, Jeffrey couldn’t stop talking about the monster movies he’d seen, particularly the ones where corpses rise out of their coffins and terrorize the living. So by the time we were scheduled to meet for the viewing, I had even more misgivings about the whole idea.
“We better not do this. We could get in trouble if we get caught. Besides, what if the dead person comes back to life,” I said, trying to convince Jeffrey that the whole thing was a bad scheme.
“You’re just chickening out. If we don’t do it, I’m never playing with you again,” blurted Jeffrey. “C’mon . . . you said we were going to do it”
With great reluctance, I led him into the main floor of the funeral home. Everything was dimly lit, which only compounded the feeling of entering a forbidden place. At the end of the hallway was the room where bodies were displayed. My heart jumped as I caught sight of part of the coffin. Jeffrey walked behind me, clutching my shoulder.
“You sure you want to see this?” I asked, hoping he had changed his mind.
“Yes,” he whispered, his grip on me tightening.
By the time we reached the visitation room, Jeffrey was practically on top of me, and I could tell he was trembling.
“There’s the coffin,” I said. “Can you see the head?”
At that exact moment, the room was flooded with bright light, and we both let out a loud scream, which added to our distress.
“What are you kids doing in here?” asked Aunt Doris, a sharp edge to her voice.
Neither of us could readily answer as the wind had been sucked from our lungs.
“You’re violating this sacred space and being disrespectful to the departed. That is an awful thing to do. Both of you leave right now.”
It didn’t take any convincing for us to comply with Aunt Doris’s command. As soon as Jeffrey ran from the house, I went up to my room and waited to be yelled at by my father for what I’d done. But that didn’t happen, and I figured his cousin hadn’t told him about what had happened. I was thankful for that, but upset when I found that Aunt Doris wouldn’t speak to me the next day.
Apparently, what I’d done had soured her on my father as well, and he grew perplexed and then perturbed by her remoteness. It struck me as a good time to press him on our original strategy to hitch a ride west. We had planned to go to California from the start but were waylaid when he went on his latest drunk. It was when he’d finally sobered up that we ended up with his cousin.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” said my father, winking. “It’s gotten really dead around here anyway.”
By the end of the next day, we were at the Ohio border; a location I felt was probably far enough away to keep the clients of Roebacker’s Funeral Home from getting me.
Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes stories. This particular one comes close to an actual experience of his. www.michaelckeith.com
Category: Fiction, Memoir, Short Story