I had really wanted the job at the funeral home. I wasn’t really sure why. I was thinking about this as the waitress poured me more coffee. Maybe it was just that people who were dead were less of a threat. Even the staff members at the Home had emitted a benign yellow-green glow that blended with the surroundings. Perhaps personally experiencing the wonders of embalmment had been a prerequisite for employment, I thought, sipping my coffee. The waitress broke me from my trance by asking me if there was anything else she could get me. I dumbly shook my head.
Just before arriving at the coffee shop, I’d sat at Weed Farley’s Funeral Home for what seemed like ages. Waiting in a padded chair for a faceless man named Mr. Scott. They always made you wait and never left you anything decent to read (two back issues of Embalmer’s Times sat on the coffee table beside me). I’d spent my waiting time watching people too old to be living walk through the funeral home’s doors. They were always greeted by the same courteous gentleman who held within him a recorded message, who could have been selling shoes at Sears the way he smiled and chirped: “Can I help you?”
“Yes, we’re here to see Mrs. Futarini. Are the remains available?”
“Oh, certainly.” He had a charming grin. (“How about something in a sturdy boot?”)
He had them sign the register. They usually came in couples. Ancient stones who’d felt their share of rains, I figured, stroking my chin, thoughtfully.
I couldn’t figure out the register. I let it pass. (Perhaps there was some special mail service that delivered to the dead and they were all signing a huge Hallmark which said something like: SORRY TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR DEATH – GET WELL SOON. Or something a little more upbeat: HAPPY AFTERLIFE – DON’T FORGET TO WRITE!)
I suppose one of reasons I’d followed up on the ad in the paper (FUNERAL ATTENDANT WANTED: START AT THE BOTTOM AND WORK YOUR WAY UP!) was that I was getting hungry, desperate, and tired of looking for work.
And, at the time, death seemed to agree with me.
I’d crawled into the parking lot making certain no one on the street had seen me. The radio, blaring rock ‘n roll, was toned down so as not to tangle with any stray celestial chords and resultingly revive any of the dearly departed. (Doing so would only result in a loss for the funeral home which would not be looked upon kindly by the staff).
The air inside was thick, heavy, stiff. There was strong, sickeningly sweet smell hanging from out of some far reaches of the Home (formaldehyde? I thought of the countless frogs we’d shamelessly mutilated in high school biology labs).
I waited. Checking out the crew. The receptionist/secretary had shocking white hair and a leathery, wrinkled face embedded with what seem like a permanent scowl. She looked to be about 110 years old.
There was another woman, younger in years than Wrinkles, who still smiled but whose face was caked with stage make-up.
There was a man with a beard and a three-piece suit who looked strikingly horror show. Vincent Price. Dignified and formal. I found myself peering at his mouth, searching for fangs each time he yawned. Beard gray in just the right spots. A short compact build. He took large, judicious steps. A man without uncertainties of any kind it seemed, I thought, observing his walk. I watched as he handed old men and women over to the Shoe Salesman. He seemed to be a master of grim smiles and concerned looks. Afterwards, he worked the adding machine with the same intensity and grim show of concern.
What was he calculating?, I wondered. Number of bodies? Profit per?
I sat erect in the comfy gray chair provided me in the waiting room, the completed application resting on my lap. The Wrinkle kept typing pitter patter pitter pat. The other woman slid from her room out the back door, checking down the hall before hitting the daylight. There were no hints as to what her job might be.
I didn’t like the place. It didn’t seem right. Business men and women in gray business dress selling, working adding machines, typewriters. Treating Death like it was a respectable business. Sure, it was one of the few things that all men and women had in common. That is, beside the general institutions of Eating, Breathing, Sleeping, Eliminating, and, of course, Copulation. Even so, these people seemed to be murdering the institution of Death. But what the hell did I care? I needed a job! I looked up at the ceiling and waited some more. I was hungry.
Perhaps I’d gone there out of curiosity. At least I’d figured it would be more interesting than waiting tables at an all-night coffee shop.
The name of the place was wrong. I kept expecting the proprietor, old Weed Farley himself, to stroll through, tall and lanky, his blond hair amuck, his jeans torn at one knee, a piece of straw dangling from his mouth.
I waited. Maybe I wasn’t quite right in the head. But if not, I was fairly sure I wasn’t alone in this respect. I’d gathered hardcore evidence from all the people who made their livings servicing me, a delinquent, unemployed poet. People cashing my checks, pouring my coffee, flipping my burgers, pumping my gas, waiting on my tables at all-night coffee shops. And the other crazies, who did nothing but watch, make up and enforce rules. Forcing their underlings to cash my checks, pour my coffee, pump my gas, etc., etc. etc.
I’d even begun cutting articles from the papers in quest of further evidence of the roaring spread of delirium in the world. On the wall of my apartment were headlines regarding the latest wars, idiotic words from politicians, CEOs, and clerics; molestations by priests and athletic coaches; the public’s obsession with professional athletes and entertainers, their astronomical salaries; the increasing poverty rate; the number of jobs shipped overseas; the number of homeless people roaming the streets; the cost of gasoline, healthcare; and designer fashions; people dying because they lacked health insurance; the latest school and public shootings….
If I was crazy I was not alone. The world had gone nuts if you asked me, so maybe working in a funeral home wouldn’t be such a crazy thing at all.
I sat, waiting some more.
I began to think they’d forgotten I was there. I was deciding whether to try to escape unnoticed or find what was taking my interviewer so long. I walked up to the secretary’s desk. She was on the phone, talking to another potential applicant, I suspected. My competition. It worried me. I remembered my hunger and sat back down quickly to take inventory of all my competitive edges.
What were my chances? I’d never been to embalming school. I’d surely lose points there. I had no licenses in the field. (I wondered for exactly what I’d need a license.) I’d never handled dead bodies (at least I’d never been warned of it beforehand). Adding it all up in my razor sharp brain—chi ching chi ching!—I knew I didn’t stand a chance in hell of getting the job. (Perhaps I should have dabbed a bit of flour on my face beforehand).
While I sat contemplating my educational deficiencies, waiting for the right moment to escape, the heavy oak door creaked open (just as it did in old horror flicks I’d turned on at three a.m. to lull myself to sleep). A gray shadow walked quickly past me and out the door (more competition). After a moment, behind the creak stood a man no older than me who was surely a living corpse. (He, I figured, must have been licensed). Moving with great effort he closed the door behind him and stood, bathed in the shadows of light. His face seemed a sheet, a dull mask of pink with pencil lined mustache. He wore glasses, black, thick, inflexible, molded tight to his face. A short crop of flaming red hair on top. He stood, a monument, erect. Three-piece suit. Just the right shade of gray. (I wondered if dead people took offense to colors). Scraggy looking, bony, slight, emaciated, sickly.
He came up to me with a too-wide smile, “Can I help you?” His voice was deep but cracked like an adolescent’s.
I rose from my chair. I stumbled for words. Said I was there about the ad in the paper. With this, Vince led me to his office and told me to have a seat in front of his desk.
He sat in his chair, and studied my application. His eyes traveled over my credentials, stopping at points. He raised his brows once—mmm hmmm. I decided I should have written more cryptically, perhaps having used my own blood to exhibit my true potential. (No sir, no experience, but I’m eager to learn!)
MMMM HMMMMM. He stopped again. A wry little smile lifted the corners of his stache. He asked a question. No, I replied, I’d never worked with the dead, but I was certain it wouldn’t bother me. I also droned on about death being far from morbid, but a natural process, a unifying factor that bound all mankind, etc., etc.
His smile vanished. His eyes seemed to gloss over. He got up from behind the desk and moved toward me, gazing down at me. I was craning my neck back around to look at him. He placed his hand on my shoulder. I felt the formaldehyde eating through my shirt. Was he pursing his lips? Was I really, finally, losing my mind?
“We’ll be interviewing for a week or so,” he said, smiling a lazy, different kind of smile.
“If we think you’re suitable for the job we’ll let you know.”
His mouth was slightly open, revealing a soggy slop of tongue. His breath was right on me. He’d had pastrami for lunch, I thought. He still had his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it now a little. Then he removed it, became all business again, cleared his throat and led me to the door.
“Nice meeting you,” I said, “and thanks for the interview.” I shook his cold damp hand. Then I walked down the hall past the Wrinkle, the Shoe Salesman, toward the door. Still a bit stunned, I moved through the door and hit the air. I swallowed big thirsty gulps of the stuff. This led to a fit of hiccups which turned into full scale laughter. Loud, unsuppressed laughter. Dangerously close to hysteria.
It stopped quickly when one of the shades in the hearse across the lot moved, and I froze, stopped breathing.
Then I ran to my car, got in, and peeled out of the lot, reeling like a drunk. Back to the coffee shop where I hung out, sipping coffee, looking over want ads.
I didn’t get the job.
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Mitchell Waldman’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Waterhouse Review, Crack the Spine, The Houston Literary Review, The Faircloth Review, Epiphany, Wilderness House Literary Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and many other magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of the novel, A Face in the Moon, and the story collection, Petty Offenses and Crimes of the Heart (Wind Publications), and have served as Fiction Editor for Blue Lake Review. (For more info, see my website at http://mitchwaldman.homestead.com).