The Embalmer (A Short Story)
* * *
The tall ashen figure lay limp on the table. A prickling sensation of deja vu crawled up Paul’s spine. He removed the toe tag and held it to the dim light above him.
Name: Nathaniel James Hennesy
Paul drew in a sharp breath. “No way…” He looked at the tag again to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating, but there it was, clear as day.
Name: Nathaniel James Hennesy
Date of Death: 8/9/2003
Cause of Death: Lung Cancer
The remaining letters and numbers started to blur together. Nathaniel James Hennesy. Paul’s classmate from 27 years ago. Those same jutting cheekbones, the hint of a smile hidden in the corners of his mouth. There was no mistaking it now — this was Nate.
Paul’s arms hung limply at his sides, and a mix of grief and confusion filled his eyes. This never happened to him, not once in his 18 years as an embalmer. He prepared so many bodies over the years — old, young, tall, short, those who passed away in their sleep, those who died a violent death. He saw death take away the ones closest to him, one after another like toys in an assembly line. He had seen tragedy and pain like no other, and it had never fazed him. So why now?
He forced himself to take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand. Gripping the surgical scissors in his gloved hands, he made a swift motion down the middle of Nate’s shirt. The shirt clung to his chest like wet film. As Paul gently peeled the damp cotton off his skin, a faint image appeared. It was a tattoo of a sun and moon. Paul peered closely at the moon. The Man of the Moon slept peacefully, cradling the Sun in a tender embrace. It glowed faintly with a strange radiance. The last time he had ever seen such a moon was in 6th grade camp, during their forest night hike. A group of boys in the front was clumsily tripping over themselves, complaining about how dark it was. But Paul liked it. He liked how the darkness enveloped him in a peaceful stillness. As the rest of the group trudged on, Paul stayed in the back, staring up in awe of the vast expanse of darkness. The crescent moon shone softly, and Paul never saw anything more beautiful.
“Nice moon tonight, huh?” The sudden voice made him jump. “Hey, I’m Nate. What’s your name?”
His peaceful stillness was broken. “Paul.”
“Hey Paul.” He walked for a few moments in silence alongside Paul, then sighed grandly and spread his arms out wide. “Isn’t this great?” he exclaimed, spinning around. “This is so beautiful. Too bad the others aren’t able to appreciate it as much as us.”
Paul stared at the ground, an imperceptible sound barely escaping his mouth. “Yeah.”
Nate walked beside Paul, a slight bounce in his step in eager anticipation of a conversation. Paul noticed but couldn’t bring himself to start a conversation just yet.
They spent a few more moments of walking in silence. Finally, Nate spoke up. “So…um, I’m gonna go and catch up with the others. It was good to meet you.”
Paul looked up to say something, but Nate was already running off towards the group of boys in the front. He tilted his head back to stare up at the moon again. Its soft white glow had faded into something darker, as if to foretell the loss of something precious.
* * *
CLANG. The scissors fell onto the heavy metal table, and Paul was jolted back to the present. “Focus, focus,” he muttered to himself. He cut the thick denim off of Nate’s legs and put it in a bag along with the shirt. Then, he reached over gingerly to remove the undergarments. He quickly snipped off Nate’s briefs and covered the genitals with a white cloth. Paul reached for the razor on the counter, but then remembered the family’s request to keep his facial hair. Paul smiled; Nate’s light stubble somehow made him seem more lively, more cheerful, more like himself.
Paul began to break the rigor mortis. He moved from the ankles up, kneading the muscles to relieve the tension and loosen the joints. The body had to look as relaxed as possible for the funeral. The last rays of the setting sun poured in through the window blinds, filling the room with a pink brilliance. The light danced across the blank walls and livened an otherwise depressing room. Paul felt his spirits rise a little. The job of an embalmer didn’t always have to be so somber. As the sun slowly sank into the horizon, the light traveled to the center of the room, following Paul’s working fingers as he moved up Nate’s torso and arms. The last ray of light fleetingly shone on Nate’s face before fading away into the shadows.
Paul put on his procedure mask and tucked his hair away into his cap. He peered closely at Nate’s closed eyes. The eyelids were starting to sag back into the sockets, creating unsightly pits. Using the forceps, he picked up two plastic eye caps off the counter. He gently pried Nate’s eyelids open to insert the eye caps, but he was transfixed. His green eyes twinkled with a knowing radiance that unsettled him. Surely it must be the light playing tricks on him. Paul turned around, only to find that the sun had already set and an inky blackness was starting to pour in through the blinds. He shook himself out of his daze. He placed the eye caps onto each of Nate’s eyeballs, and the twinkling ceased, never to return again.
Now it was time to embalm the arteries. This was Paul’s favorite part, watching the blood as it left the body. There was something spiritual about it, as though the life and spirit of one was being passed on to the next. Paul gripped the scalpel in his fingers and made a small incision under Nate’s collarbone. He inserted one tube into the carotid artery and the other into the jugular vein, and making sure that there were no leaks, he turned on the machine. A steady whirring noise echoed in the room, bouncing off of every surface and filling the room with a rhythmic pulse. Nate’s face and chest started to grow pale as the blood flowed through the tubes and entered the large tank in the corner of the room. Now Paul just had to sit back and wait.
* * *
911 what is your emergency?
A faint voice spoke into the phone, barely distinguishable from the sound of static.
He-hello? There was, there was an ac-accident. A huge truck came out of nowhere and h-hit us. Our car flipped over. *sniffling* I was able to crawl out the window.
Where are you right now?
We’re just n-north of the intersection on Church St. and Memorial Blvd.
Is anyone hurt?
Yeah, I’m- I’m okay but I busted my arm r-real bad. A crash sounds in the background. Someone screams. Wait. Oh my god. Oh my god. My mom. My mom. She’s not moving. She’s covered in blood. It’s all over the place. Oh my god! She’s not moving. Help! Please help! I don’t know what’s going on. She’s not moving. She’s not moving. The static starts to interfere with the line. His rapid breathing is only faintly audible.
Okay. Help is on the way. Your mother will be okay. Stay right there. Is there any fire?
N-no, I don’t think so…my mom isn’t moving. She’s not breathing. Oh my god. She’s not ok. She needs help. Someone has to help! Dear god, please help!
Okay. Help is on the way. Stay right there.
Okay, okay, oh go–
* * *
The rhythmic pulse came to an abrupt end and the machine let out an irritating wail. Paul awoke from his thoughts. He looked at the body — a rosy color had returned to the flesh. The blood sat in the tank in the corner of the room, and the pink embalming fluid now sat inside Nate’s arteries. Some of the fluid started to leak out of Nate’s jugular, creating a small pool of pink fluid in the notch below his collarbone. Paul flipped a switch on the machine, and the leftover liquid was sucked back into the machine. Paul turned off the machine, removed the cannula from Nate’s body, and tied off the artery and vein. He threaded a needle and dug it into Nate’s skin, suturing the incision closed. The body looked radiant.
Paul grabbed the trocar from the counter and examined the tip. Still shiny, still sharp. He thrust it into the chest cavity, inches above his belly button. Hisssss… The gases of his gut escaped into the room, filling it with a stench that creeped along the floor and up the walls.
* * *
He wrinkled his nose in disgust. One of the high school boys let a big one rip, and the bench stank with the smell of it. He stood up and decided to wait on the curb instead. It was a week since his mom’s funeral, and his first time at the bus stop. His uncle worked late hours at the factory, so now he had to take the bus home each evening after school. Paul stared down at his feet, trying to breathe in as little of the fart-contaminated air as possible.
Paul whirled around, surprised that someone addressed him.
“Do you remember me? I’m Nate. We’re in history together.”
“Hey, I heard about your mom. I’m sorry for what happened…”
Paul stared at the cigarette butt in front of his feet in silence. Nate understood and stared ahead at the street, watching the cars whiz by. The two stood together on the curb in silence. A minute later, the bus screeched to a halt in front of Paul and Nate. Nate looked up to say something, but Paul was already getting onto the bus, not once looking back.
The hissing stopped. Paul removed the trocar from Nate’s stomach and inserted it into the lower abdomen to aspirate the intestines and bladder. A murky brown liquid emerged and flowed steadily into the trocar. The white cloth covering his genitals started to turn wet, the brown spot slowly expanding as a trickle of fluid oozed out of the rectum.
SPLASH. His shirt was dripping with muck. The bus drove straight into a puddle and spared no one standing on the curb. Nate wasn’t spared either; his jeans were soaked. It was Paul’s second day at the bus stop.
“Hi Nate.” Paul stared down. The fraying laces of his shoes looked incredibly fascinating. Nate stood in silence, and Paul made no motion to continue the conversation. The bus arrived minutes later, and Paul got on, his eyes not moving from the intriguing shoelaces on his feet.
For a couple of days, this same sort of routine continued. Nate would say hi, and Paul would say hi back. They would both stand in silence, Nate fascinated by the puffy clouds in the sky and Paul fascinated by the cigarette butts and the ancient looking chewing gum on the sidewalk. The bus would arrive minutes later, and Paul would get on, never looking back to notice that Nate’s shining eyes were focused on him.
* * *
The white cloth was completely brown now. The trocar made a gurgling sound; all of the abdominal fluids now sat in the tank, and only bubbles were continuing to travel up the tube. Paul withdrew the trocar from Nate’s abdomen and put it on the counter. He disposed of the dripping, now-brown rag, wiped the area with disinfectant spray, and covered it with a clean new cloth. Nate’s body was deflated — his skin was sagging down into the hollow cavities of his abdomen. Paul reinserted the needle into the puncture site and started to pump the formalin solution into the organs. Nate’s body rose steadily like bread dough.
* * *
Some weeks later, Nate stopped saying hi to Paul. He found new friends to hang out with at the bus stop. They were those obnoxious high schoolers that catcalled girls and called Paul a “wussy” and passed gas shamelessly. Paul chose to ignore them, and to ignore Nate.
Some months later, Nate stopped coming to the bus stop. Paul didn’t know why, but he didn’t bother asking. He still saw Nate in class everyday.
Some years later, Nate switched schools. Paul asked someone where Nate was. It had been almost three weeks since he last came to class. “Dude, didn’t you hear? Nate transferred to Easton High.”
Nate’s body stopped rising.
* * *
His mother looked beautiful. She was in her wedding dress, and a bouquet of white flowers lay on her chest, her arms crossed over them. Paul was scarred from the car crash. The blood dripping down his mother’s face, her ribs poking out of her chest like angry quills — he worried that he would never be able to wipe away the traumatizing image of his mother that was seared into his mind, that he would forever have to live with that memory. But he needn’t have worried. His mother lay in her casket with such peace and serenity. The embalmer went to great lengths to set her eyes and mouth, to dress her in her elegant gown, to apply the slightest touch of makeup that brought out a kind of warmth in her face. He made her look perfect. After the funeral, Paul went up to the embalmer and took his hand, gripping it tightly as if to never let go. The tears slowly trickled down his cheek. No words could express his gratitude. The embalmer smiled sadly with understanding. “This was my calling, kid.”
* * *
Paul wrung the wet sponge and the suds dripped onto Nate’s body. He rolled his sleeves up and started to scrub, moving the sponge in wide circles to remove the grime and chemicals from his skin. Paul lived with the past behind him. He forgot about his loved ones that passed away and left him alone. He distanced himself from anyone who tried to get close to him out of the fear that he wouldn’t be able to leave them behind. He had forgotten about Nate. He went through the rest of high school and college, convinced that no remnants of his past lingered in his memory. This was why he chose to become an embalmer. He was the bridge between the past and the future. It was his job to help the family move on past the death of their loved ones, to help them appreciate their life more as a result, to encourage them to live life to its fullest potential. Life wasn’t meant to be held back by the deadweights of the past; it was supposed to be a chance for each person to find and achieve their purpose.
The water shot out of the hose with such force that it sprayed Paul in the face. He held the hose over the body, rinsing off the suds. The soapy water drained into a small pipe in the corner of the table. Rays of dim moonlight poured into the room, and the droplets of water on Nate’s body glistened with faint splendor. Paul grabbed a towel to dry him off, and the splendor disappeared.
* * *
Paul lived contently in the present. He loved his job, he adored his wife, and he had nothing but the bright future to look forward to. The past was in the past. He was at Nico’s Costume Shop, trying to figure out which mustache matched most closely with the photo in his hand. He had accidentally shaved off one guy’s mustache during an embalming, and the family threatened to sue if it wasn’t fixed before the funeral. There was the occasional mistake every now and then, but they were gone and past. He had the entire future to make amends. He decided to go with the red handlebar and walked toward the checkout counter, credit card in hand.
“Daddy, come on!” Paul turned around, and there was Nate on the other side of the store, grinning widely as he was pulled toward a Spiderman Costume by a little boy. There was no doubt that this was Nate. The kid was the spitting image of his father — the high cheekbones, dirty blonde hair, twinkling green eyes. Paul looked away. He wasn’t about to walk up to Nate and say hi. He dropped the mustache on the counter and walked out of the store before Nate could see him, head down and hands in his hoodie pockets as he hurried away.
* * *
Paul removed the dripping white cloth from his genitals and dressed Nate with the black briefs that the family had provided. He pushed the trousers up his legs, making sure to even out the crease. Paul deliberately distanced himself from memories of the past. The past was filled with horrible things — his father’s disappearance, his mother’s death, his wife’s miscarriage — and he was set on forgetting about them. He lifted Nate’s torso off the table, just high enough to slip the dress shirt and jacket under his body. He pushed Nate’s arms through the sleeves and buttoned the front. This was why he distanced himself from Nate. He too would sooner or later be a part of the past, and Paul couldn’t bear to lose anyone else. The shoes were too small for Nate’s fluid-filled feet, so Paul cut along the sides and fit them on. The idea of having friends had always confused Paul. Why make friends if you were going to end up losing them anyway? He wet the comb in the sink and combed Nate’s hair to the side. But now, it was too late. Nate was gone, and the possibility of a new friendship and new memories was gone too. He placed a rose in Nate’s jacket pocket.
Paul stepped back to look at his work. Nate looked so elegant, so serene, so perfect. Paul smiled sadly. This was the image that people would remember years later. They would remember the hint of a smile hidden in the corners of his mouth, the soft crinkle of his closed eyes, the image of ultimate peace. Paul opened the lid of the wooden casket on the floor, running his fingers along the satin lining. Was this what it was about? All this time, he had pushed the past away out of fear. But doing so, he didn’t just leave behind the horrible things. He left behind the opportunities to create a happier past; he left behind the beautiful memories that could have made but never did. Paul lifted Nate off the table and slowly placed him into the casket. The moonlight poured in through the windows in brilliant rays, growing brighter and brighter with every passing second. Being an embalmer was never about moving on, it was never about putting away the past. He looked at Nate’s sublime face and realized. It was about creating beautiful memories of the past that would last forever.
* * *