I can only hope we shall see each other again
Where No Shadows Fall
by Tragic Rabbit
There’s a reason I don’t talk about where I’m from.
Small towns. Oh, people rave about American small towns: how friendly they are, how welcoming, how homey. That’s a lot of crap. Oh, sure, folks will smile and be friendly to strangers; they’ll sell café lunches and postcards to families driving through, but they don’t much want you to stop. They definitely don’t want you to stay.
Small rural towns are clannish, little incestuous enclaves of like-minded people living in close (but not too close) proximity. Secrets are picked up like pebbles, like found money, and then passed around unobtrusively, hand to hand, lips to ear: do you know? did you hear? Everyone knows everything, knows it all. There just aren’t any private lives in small towns. No such animal, vegetable or mineral. No secrecy; no privacy. What they won’t do is tell their secrets to outsiders—not for love, not for cash—and they deal with town trouble their own way, legal or not. I should know.
I left the small town I grew up in as soon as I could, caught a bus at 6 a.m. the morning after my high-school graduation, and my sister did the same thing two years later. Packed up and left, didn’t look back. The only problem with leaving is that there’s usually something you think you have to come back for: a favorite clothing item, a photograph, your daddy’s watch.
In our case, it was something else. Photos and clothes: well, what we hadn’t packed, we’d done without quite nicely. I’d only come back once myself, to get something special, but that was ten years ago, and I’d come and gone without anyone the wiser. But now here we were, my sister and I, after all this time, landing in Baton Rouge and ready to drive back out there, through the fetid Louisiana swamps and into the past. It’s not as though we had a choice, and there was sure no one else to do what had to be done.
We had to come home, after ten years, to bury Aunt Rose—and, God willing, what was left of our past.
We were the last of the family, my sister and I, or the last of the diaspora that could be found, but all that meant for us were obligations. Meaningless obligations, trite condolences, massive debts, embossed letters from impersonal lawyers and, despite all our protests, this one final trip back home. No assets, mind you, other than Aunt Rose’s old shotgun shack and the half acre of swampland it inhabited. Grandpa’s funeral home, Repose in Peace, had been sold years ago when drunken Uncle Jack couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep it going.
All the other, better fruit of Grandpa’s loins, except for poor Aunt Rose, had died long ago, including our mother, who succumbed to postpartum sepsis not long after my sister’s birth. Not that I blamed my sister for our orphaned state; these things happen, as Grandpa used to say (always said while directing a resigned glance heavenward), and we never did know who our father was, so that pretty much just left Uncle Jack, unfortunately. Fending him off had had Sis and me sharing her bed more often than not: chastely, mind you. Don’t believe everything you hear about Louisiana. Rose’s brother Jack was one of the few things we’d ever agreed on, not that we’d had much discussion on the subject. God knows where dear old Jack was today; he’d disappeared into Mexico some years back after a spate of lively, though largely unproved, accusations about an underage altar boy in the local parish church.
Besides Grandpa and Grandma, it’d only been me who loved the funeral home, loved working afternoons there as a kid every day after school. Not made-up and manicured Sis, though; she often said she wouldn’t be caught dead in that place, which I’d always considered an interesting choice of words. What little money we’d had growing up came from there, from the scent of sorrow and chrysanthemums and death, but after the old folks died (within days of each other and prepared by Uncle Jack in their own dead room and buried in our local cemetery), no one else cared enough to keep it going.
They sold Repose in Peace to some asshole from New Orleans whose head was filled with grand ideas. He was gonna bring modern mortuary methods out to the hinterland, etc. As if you could bring anything modern that far north of the city, or even afford to. Where the sale money went, I couldn’t guess. It sure didn’t go to Aunt Rose, whom both Sis and I had sent regular checks to over the years. I’d gotten my copy of the letter back then about the sale; I’d been briefly furious, then let it go. You have to let Louisiana go or it’ll eat you from the inside, like a tapeworm or a tumor, or like the insidious rot that gnaws away at every house ever built there.
My plane landed, and I collected my single small Louis Vuitton overnight bag (top of the line, embossed leather), and then checked Arrivals for my sister’s plane. I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her since my morning exodus, hadn’t written since her own high-school graduation ten years before. Then, as a graduation present, I’d sent her bus fare and a plane ticket. She’d written me a nice, impersonal thank-you note on flowered stationery (a gift from Aunt Rose), and mailed it from the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport while waiting to board. My sister has lovely handwriting.
She’d gone west to California; I’d gone east—both of us instinctively getting as far as we could from Louisiana without crossing an ocean or leaving the planet. My flight today had been forty minutes late, no reason given, but when you’re seated in First Class, you don’t mind those little runway delays. And I hadn’t been in that much of a hurry, at least not yet. Leaving Louisiana would be another story. My sister’s plane from LAX was arriving at Gate 7 right about now, if the Arrivals board was accurate.
I walked through the airport, bought a cup of coffee and a newspaper, and stationed myself at Gate 7, all without meeting the eyes of a single person. So good to be home. Even the airport air was unwelcoming, heavy with heat. The airport coffee was lousy. Ever since the phone call, I’d been remembering the thick coffee Aunt Rose used to fix, laced with chicory. And trying hard not to remember anything else.
Baton Rouge Parish isn’t so bad, except for the humidity, but Baton Rouge wasn’t our final destination. We had a rental car reserved and a long picturesque drive ahead of us, straight up 19 to Aunt Rose’s house. I’d left my key there years ago, along with almost everything else, but my sister still had hers.
We’d sleep in our old rooms tonight, under the peaked roof of the shotgun house that had sheltered our childhood selves. If that sounds sweet to you, please understand that I’m not one for nostalgia. Neither is my sister. The last thing we wanted was to be here, to sleep there, to breathe the salty, smothering, heat-laden atmosphere this near to the Gulf. Yet, here we were. Her plane pulled up to the debarkation tunnel, and uniformed airline personnel got busy. I squinted my eyes against the glare of the overhead lights. Surely I’d recognize my own sister, even after all this time, surely. But I really wasn’t sure.
I sipped at the watery coffee, despite the taste, knowing I’d need the caffeine. Hell, I’d need a lot more than caffeine to get through this little visit. I reached into the pocket of my pressed D&G jeans, rubbing the little plastic prescription vial as if it was a hoodoo fetish, or rosary beads, or a good-luck charm. Nervous? Not me. Valium: Roche Pharmaceuticals’ great contribution to world peace. I wondered if the one vial would be enough. We might want to pick up a bottle or two of something on the drive up. That is, if any liquor stores were open.
In the crush of people exiting the transcontinental flight—disheveled, disgruntled, disagreeable travelers—I finally saw my sister.
Her bright hair, dyed a platinum that would’ve looked cheap on someone less beautiful, caught my eye even amid the look-alike Hollywood wannabes that inevitably fill any plane out of Los Angeles. On her, the clothes, the hair, the makeup, were strikingly lovely and utterly natural. What was, for others, a mere style to copy was, for her, the native look of true glamour. It’s always amazed me that anyone like my sister could be bred out in the Louisiana swamplands, but there she was. Her eyes met mine, and she nodded without smiling. Wintry my sister is and always was, and yet I never had been able to hold that against her. Family is family, and we all have our little quirks.
Without speaking, we picked up her luggage, a matched Mark Cross set, found the car-rental place, unhappily settled for a blue Honda Civic and headed out of Baton Rouge. She drove while I chain-smoked in the front passenger seat. We weren’t either one of us much for talking, and there was precious little we needed to communicate. She knew the way, I knew the score: keep my mouth shut. It had been her single condition for returning. Old times are best forgotten was her motto, at least with family. The radio offered only static and a tacky gospel station, which we listened to in an unspoken ironic tribute to Aunt Rose all during that night drive towards Slaughter, Louisiana. With my last swallow of cold coffee, I tossed back a couple dozen more milligrams of Valium.
There sure is no damn place like home.
The house was like I remembered, only worse. Even the darkness couldn’t disguise its ugliness: peeling paint, shabby workmanship, torn screens and rickety porch sagging over ripe, fleshy weeds. An incongruously neat brick pathway led from the potholed macadam road to the front step; cypress and tupelo reached up to the heavens, their gnarled roots dug deep into the dirt around and beneath the raised shotgun house built by Aunt Rose’s father.
Had my sister and I ever really lived here? Had anyone? It seemed like a dream, or a nightmare where you walk landscapes that are too horrid to endure, yet seem all too terribly familiar. What misery that house had held for me, so many days and nights of wretchedness. Was the funk of so much adolescent unhappiness still lingering, like some foul industrial smell, in the little back room that was, or had been, mine? I didn’t plan to find out.
My sister took Aunt Rose’s bedroom, while I made do with the sofa in the gimcrack front room that Aunt Rose had always called her ‘parlor.’ Cheap figurines of songbirds, all recently dusted, cluttered every square inch of surface, the wooden tables smelled of lemon Pledge, and clear plastic covered the postwar plush chairs and sofa. It was a room for show, seldom used, and therefore seemed safest to me, the least filled with memories. The last thing I needed was memories of home. I shucked off my clothes, folded back the sofa’s protective plastic cover, built up a bed of blankets and spare pillows, and slept like the dead until dawn.
I dreamed of you, of course; I always dream of you, William, even when we’re apart, which I know you hate as much as I do. I hope you’re not missing me too much, alone there in our 110th Street apartment; but don’t worry, I’ll be home soon. You know how I feel about Louisiana. And it’s not that I love New York so much; it’s just that I love you, darling, and always have.
I woke just after dawn to find my sister watching me without expression, sitting on the plastic-covered chair across from me and drinking coffee from a chipped cup. The coffee, Aunt Rose’s own recipe, smelled delicious, comforting, familiar. She didn’t offer to get me any, of course; she wasn’t that kind of sister. Or maybe I just wasn’t her kind of brother. C’est la vie. I could fetch my own coffee, and that sounded like an excellent idea. Morning in Louisiana didn’t bear thinking about without caffeine, and maybe a couple of Valium.
I sat up and reached for my silk boxers. Already neatly dressed and expertly made up at this hour, she watched me with a clinical eye cover myself. Glamour came so naturally to my sister, even if cosmetics, dentists, designers and surgeons had made their contribution. It was her taste that drove it all, and she managed to look elegant even here, in this old shotgun rattrap of a house amid the swamps. Elegant but wary. Her hard eyes were on me. She had a question. I decided to plunge right in; caffeine deficit tends to diminish my good sense.
“What is it?” I asked in tones I considered polite, considering the hour and circumstance.
Her expression didn’t change. “Just watching.”
I’ve always hated that superior timbre she tended to adopt, especially when passing judgment. I leaned back and reached for my pack of cigarettes. “And how long have you been ‘just watching’ me sleep?”
I sighed. “Long enough for what?” I wondered if she was thinking of that old incident with my dog. Please God, not that, not today.
She arched one perfectly plucked eyebrow. “Why, long enough to know you spent the whole night here, brother dear.”
I lit a cigarette with my initialed sterling Tiffany lighter. “Where the hell else would I be? Out in the swamp with the ‘gators?”
She studied me for a moment, and then said, “Well, Aunt Rose is laid out already. I wanted to make sure…make sure you weren’t doing anything…funny, brother dear.”
I choked and coughed on my cigarette, nearly dropping it. “Jesus Fucking Christ! Aunt Rose? That’s disgusting, how could you even… how could you think that?” Her face was sphinx-like, maddeningly inscrutable. Nothing quite like family. I brushed the cigarette ash from my bare thigh.
The eyebrow went up again, and she shrugged, not answering. She got up and headed to the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, “Want some coffee?”, just as if it were perfectly normal, perfectly okay, to think I’d sneak out to touch Aunt Rose’s wrinkled and embalmed flesh. I shuddered.
“Yeah.” I answered her automatically. I did need the coffee. And like I said, there’s nothing quite like family and no goddam place like home. Thank God for small mercies…and my First Class return ticket.
I can’t wait to get home to you, darling, but family comes first, this one last time…
I can only hope we shall see
each other again
In that place where there is only love and no shadows fall,
You have touched my very being...I shall remember you. ~
Naturally, it was raining.
Only lightly, but the physical discomfort added another dimension to the dreary scene, this small clutch of overdressed people huddled around Aunt Rose’s waiting grave. The hole in the ground was wet, glistening like an open mouth, and filthy with what crawly things the rains brought forth. It repelled me; it drew my eye. Into it would soon slip dear old Aunt Rose, last of our past, sealed in her indescribably tacky Last Supper casket (chosen by herself, the unctuous funeral director assured us), to be quickly layered over with lush Louisiana mud and left to rot.
Supper most certainly, but only for the worms.
The black umbrellas, handed out courtesy of the current Repose in Peace management, were old, worn, and several had bare aluminum ribs where the flapping black cloth had long ago disengaged. Not many in attendance: funeral home personnel in cheap black suits, Aunt Rose’s fat, florid priest, a few faded ladies who’d no doubt joined our aunt in her many charitable works for the parish. Sis and me, of course, and a few townsfolk. You can’t have a Louisiana funeral without the uninvited.
The thing was, with such a small parish, not one of them was a stranger, and quite a few eyes darted poison glances at us, the bereaved niece and nephew. Well, mainly at me, I suppose, and I could tell by my sister’s rigid body English that she wasn’t unaware. Damn inbred local: brains like peas but memories like elephants.
Fourteen years before, another graveside but this one bright with summer sunshine. Many, many black-clad mourners: hundreds, nearly the whole town and dozens more from outside it, a lot of them just kids, like me, all crying real and heartfelt tears in lieu of rain from heaven.
I was crying, too. And why not? The most beautiful boy in town had died in a boating accident two days before. And he could swim like a fish, too, which made his death all the more absurd and unbelievable. Captain of the never-victorious football team and of the occasionally valorous boys’ basketball team, class president, top student, kind and virgin heart, that year’s unanimous choice for Prom King (at 16, no less), rescuer of lost puppies and treed cats, only child yet never spoiled, editor of the quarterly Slaughter High School newspaper, and love object of every teenage girl in the parish and a few boys, besides.
Of course we cried; our collective hearts were broken. He was dead and that was that, the best this lousy place had had to offer was returning to the dust whence we all arise. I cried, too, and no one stared at me or thought it strange. At least, not then.
Back in those days, when Grandpa and Grandma were still alive and living over the Repose in Peace funeral parlor, I worked for them every day after school and often through the nights and weekends. Like I said, my sister wasn’t interested She preferred mixing malteds for horny boys at the Dairy Queen, but back then Repose in Peace was the family business. Aunt Rose took the calls and met the clients, just as our dear departed mother had (with considerably more charm, I’d been told), while Grandma kept the books, made the coffee and stocked the shelves. Only Grandpa could do collections because only Grandpa had an actual mortician’s license. Officials sure could be picky that way, but the serious work, down in the dead room, was done by both of us, Grandpa and me. Oh, sure, there was an old Creole guy who used to come in when we were busy, but otherwise it was just the two of us. Unless you count the dead themselves.
I learned it all from Grandpa; I think he was glad to have someone to teach his trade. God knows Uncle Jack was useless, and, like I said, the others had all died or run off some time before. He never said, but I always had the feeling Grandpa resented his family and the myriad, multiple disappointments we’d brought him and Grandma, intended or not. He never spoke much to me, but he taught me everything he knew as soon as he noticed me hanging around and realized I was curious. It’s not as though he had anyone else to teach.
I must have been all of ten when I began learning all the ways to embalm a corpse: the difference between arterial and cavity embalming, where to stick the trochars, how to do it neatly so a couple of stitches would hide the wound, the way to wire shut a jaw and where to use the cotton and glue, how to patch up and putty gunshot wounds and sew together dismembered limbs well enough that the bereaved wouldn’t be sickened; the proper way to tilt the table just so, with the body feet-downwards, while the blood drains out and the formaldehyde seeps in. About an hour and a half for most people, more for fat slobs, less for babies, and not including any reconstruction that might be needed. Hey, it’s an art; it’s just not one that’s much admired outside mortuary conventions. Grandpa was an artist; he gave good value, and his clients never had cause for complaint.
I got used to the strong, strange smells fast, if they ever really did bother me. And some of the smells, well, what can I say? I liked them. Oh, not bodies bloated by months in the river, burn victims or chewed-up drunken hunters found long after deer season. God, no. But the clean sweet smell of the freshly dead, their blood and juicy fluids—those pungent, gamy smells—will stay with me forever. Those were the smells of love, of home, or of the only place that ever felt like home and love to me: Slaughter’s own Repose In Peace Funeral Home. The only happy childhood times I can remember are those afternoons and weekend nights spent down with the dead in the dead room, alone or with Grandpa, busy, neither of us speaking, each lost in our own private ruminations.
The dead, of course, are also quiet company.
Well, when Billy died, the town went crazy with grief: black bunting along the main street, black armbands on every bicep and daily black-bordered tributes in the little local paper; insipid poems by love struck teen girls, photos of Billy as a baby, in his football uniform, wearing his Prom King crown—anything and everything about Billy was considered worthy of talk, of print, of tears. I clipped every photo, every mention, and made a scrapbook…and I wasn’t the only one. What made it worse, I think, was the untapped potential, the realization of what might have been, had Billy lived. He’d have been famous, we all knew that, but he’d also have fallen in love, been happy, successful, a shooting star across the heavens. Billy was special and everyone knew it.
Naturally, Billy’s parents had his body sent to us after the hospital released it, after officially certifying the obvious, that their boy was dead: no drugs, no drink, no drama, just bad luck that his head had hit the underside of his Daddy’s boat. There were only two funeral homes in Slaughter, and while no one would have been refused services at either mortuary, somehow the colored folk always took their dead to old Mr. Jones and the white people all came to Grandpa. The South is funny that way; don’t ask me to explain.
Billy was a white boy, so he ended up in our dead room late that Sunday night. Grandpa was gone on an out-of-state collection, but the Gulf-War-vet ambulance driver (EMT and vehicle doubling that night, in Grandpa’s absence, as corpse chauffeur and hearse) was so grief-stricken, eyes red with crying, that he took my signature and left, unable or unwilling to notice technicalities like an underage mortician sans license. He just wanted away from what was left of Billy, wanted no part of whatever came next. Not that I blame the guy; I’m just not built that way myself. So the driver cleared out fast, slamming doors and peeling tires in his hurry to escape. Now, Grandma always went to sleep at 10:00 p.m., precise as clocks, and Aunt Rose had gone home hours ago to the shotgun house she shared with my sister and me. The parlors, offices and viewing rooms upstairs were closed up, lights out, and doors locked.
So there I was, at nearly midnight, a virgin in every sense, all of sixteen years old and alone in our dead room with Billy Martin, gallant town idol and fallen high-school champion.
I was stunned; I hadn’t heard until the driver brought in the cot, hadn’t been outdoors to hear the talk about Billy’s sudden death. I stood there beside the door for uncounted minutes, clipboard in hand, unable to actually look over at the embalming table. I hadn’t helped with the delivery, either, other than to sign on the line. Shock, I guess; I don’t know; something powerful had hold of my chest and was squeezing. My eyes stung, and my heart pounded as I hung the clipboard on the hook by the door and turned towards the prep table. The driver had left a hospital sheet draped over the body. All I could see was a human shape in white-cotton relief, the suggestion of a boy in slumber.
Had I known Billy in life? Not well, no, but everyone knew Billy, loved Billy. He was always nice to me; he was always nice to everyone, which was, of course, part of his charm, his unintended lure. That hearts were broken all over town was no discredit to him. He’d never taken advantage of a single lovelorn female, neither made nor broken promises or offered anyone encouragement beyond friendship. His heart was his own, pure and good, and he’d died before giving it into anyone’s keeping. The same, in a sense, could be said of me, my sixteen-year-old self. My heart was my own, or had been.
That was about to change, of course.
I approached the stainless-steel prep table, inexplicably nervous, hesitant. The house and room were silent; I was mute, the dead boy inarticulate. And yet I paused, my hand reaching for the sheet. Billy had died early that morning, according to the hospital paperwork, and had been pulled out of the water later on by night fishermen who’d found his father’s empty boat. He hadn’t drowned; he’d hit his head while leaping in for a swim, and, God willing, it had happened fast, too fast for suffering, for fear. The quiet of the Repose in Peace dead room felt, for the first time, unnerving. I swallowed hard, reached out and pulled the white sheet back from Billy’s face.
Motionless, sheet in my hand, I stared.
He was beautiful, so beautiful: as perfect and as handsome as he’d been in life. Dead, yes, naked white skin, nibbled in places by fearless fish, but beautiful just the same. His eyes were open, deep green, a gorgeous forest color of boyhood summers spent climbing trees and running through fields. They were slightly milky in cast, not so clear as they had been, as if his thoughts were now elsewhere. Yet they were still his eyes, those same luminescent leaf-green eyes that had captured so many high-school hearts. No fear showed in his face, only surprise and a mild astonishment, almost a lost look…or maybe it was just the slack-jawed look of the dead—not really flattering. But I could fix that: just close his jaw. It wasn’t important, not really.
I touched my hand to his cold cheek, then his chin, lifting it up to close that mouth, bring those pale, perfect lips together. The feel of his skin sent a shiver down me; I didn’t break contact. The fingers of my right hand splayed across his jaw as my thumb stroked across his soft lips. His eyes looked up, as if at me, into me. I could smell death on him, feel it in the coolness under my fingertips, breathe in the scent of something briny along with the not altogether unpleasant aroma of decay. I breathed in deeply, my eyelids half-closing with pleasure.
I shuddered, moaned softly, and then leaned down to kiss Billy Martin for the first time.
Was it his first kiss? It was certainly mine, and one I’ll never forget in a lifetime of kisses. My warm lips on his chill skin made me groan aloud and slide my tongue inside his mouth, eager for more, needy. I kissed deeper, longer, leaning in closer, chest-to-chest, my right hand on his face, my left lifting of its own volition to stroke his soft, soft blond hair. I felt my cock stiffen in my pants until it became painful, hurtful, throbbing with that torturous, terrible demand that only an untried teenage dick can truly deliver. Oh, God, I had never known, never imagined, such wanting, such love, such desire as I felt that night alone with Billy.
I climbed atop the prep table and laid myself across him, wanting more contact, complete contact. I rubbed against him, pressing down, my arms around his shoulders, the back of his head, anywhere, everywhere. Touch, I needed touch; I needed Billy as I’d never thought to need anyone. My weight across his chest brought blood to his lips, purging dark fluid from inside him, flowing into my mouth and down my shirt. Oh, God, how can I describe it? How to tell you how delicious, how intoxicating, it all was? My groin pulsed with blood, taut and hard and full, near to bursting. I needed more, flesh on flesh.
I stood and stripped off my clothes in seconds, popping shirt buttons that skittered down the drains, loud in the silence of the dead room. I threw the sheet off of Billy’s naked lower body and lay back down across him: chest on chest, hot mouth on cold, hard on soft. I felt him, knew him, me loving him, him loving me, loving me loving him, Billy mine now and always, never anyone before, for either of us; we lost our hearts and our virginities together there, at midnight, on that stainless steel table in the dead room. Moaning, groaning into that wet mouth, sucking on that cold tongue, I found ecstasy again and again, emptying against his soft belly.
I held him close to me as I caught my breath, kissing his face, his chest, and his soft yellow hair, between gasps and groaning aftershocks. “I love you,” I whispered, laying my head against his shoulder, exhausted and exhilarated, happy beyond words, beyond any other words than those: love, love words. I was in love. We were in love. I slept that night in Billy’s arms, our fluids drying between us, happier than I had ever dreamed of being, of deserving.
I was up before dawn, of course, since Grandpa was due back that day, and, after all, Billy needed my care. Before I started, though, I kissed him good morning, then licked and sucked while I stroked myself to completion beside the prep table. That done, I started in with the trochars, kissing his neck first in apology at the insult to his sweet flesh. One in the right, to drain, and one in the left with a rubber tube to the electric pump. I flicked the pump on, clickety-click, a mechanical heart to beat (since Billy’s couldn’t), bringing the blood out and sending the formaldehyde and other preservatives throughout his arterial system.
I told him not to worry, that I was going to do an especially good job for him, for my love. He was perfect now, but if I was careful, he’d be perfect for, well, not forever, but I’d do my best. Visions of Snow White in her glass casket filled my mind as I went through the routine of embalming, periodically hosing out the slop sink and wiping down his hardening flesh. Grandma, who hated to climb down these particular stairs, called down to see if I wanted any breakfast or coffee, but I told her no, no, not now, not yet. Busy, busy. I glued his nostrils and gently closed his eyes, but wired his jaw only loosely, so that I could kiss him again later, again and again and again. Instead of gluing his anus, I slid in a plug, easily removed if, later, he wanted me to. It was enough for the viewing and almost enough for me. I couldn’t get enough of him; I kissed him as I worked, finding new parts to kiss, to touch, then surprising him with my lips on his when I seemed most busy, when he least expected it. I laughed aloud with happiness once or twice, I feel sure.
I was delirious; I was sixteen; I was in love.
When Grandpa got back with the out-of-state pickup, he stored it in the cold vault and checked on my day’s work. By that time, I had Billy done beautifully: washed, lightly made-up, hair styled, dressed—his parents had brought his football captain’s uniform, of all things, but asked that we leave off the helmet—and preserved for the angels (or at least for this afternoon’s viewing), so Grandpa gave a grudging nod of approval and helped me to casket Billy. We set him out upstairs in the best room, the Rose Room, where dozens of wreaths and bouquets from his family and friends had already arrived. We opened the casket, arranged the flowers, and put out the huge white candles to light before guests arrived. As requested by his parents, we placed his football helmet and Prom King crown atop the closed bottom half of the tasteful white casket, alongside the football that his teary-eyed teammates had brought by earlier, its brown pigskin autographed by the coaches and every single player on the team.
Grandpa sent me home to eat, wash and change before the viewing. School was closed today, and tomorrow, too, in Billy’s honor so that all the teachers and students could attend the services. This afternoon, the viewing; tomorrow morning, the funeral and interment. When I got home, Sis was there, of course, but, as always, we ignored one another. Aunt Rose was already at Repose in Peace, so I napped before cleaning up and going back. I dreamed of Billy, of his pungent kisses and his special sighs, and woke to briefs wet with spent desire.
I dressed carefully but needn’t have bothered; the viewing went by without thought—all those people, weeping and wailing and not one of them loving Billy as I did. I kept quiet, kept busy, passing out memorial booklets and Kleenex, and ignoring the clock. Soon enough, it was over, and only his parents were left beside the white casket, now covered in roses, his father’s arms around his mother where she sat, head bowed. Aunt Rose motioned to me to leave, so we left them alone with their son, their only child, for the last time, sliding the Rose Room doors closed behind us as silently as the grave.
Many hours later, his parents left, both silent but their eyes swollen from weeping. By then, Grandma had gone to bed, and Aunt Rose, with my help, cleaned up quickly and locked the doors. Grandpa nodded goodnight to us from the staircase, already headed for his own bed. We’d all have to be up early to prepare for the funeral and burial, of course, school or no school, so I followed my aunt home, lost in my own thoughts and plans.
I waited till well after 3 a.m. to sneak out and back to the Rose Room. I wanted no embarrassing family incidents; I only wanted time alone with Billy. The funeral home was locked, of course, but I knew where Grandma kept the spare keys, so getting in the front door was no trick, and being quiet was no trouble for a shy boy like me. I slipped into the Rose Room like a ghost and slid the doors shut behind me. It was dark, naturally; the lamps and candles had been put out hours before, but a little moonlight came in through the windows. It was enough, more than enough.
I approached the gleaming white casket, now shut, and paused before it. I laid my hand atop the lid, leaned close and whispered through the metal and wood to Billy, “Don’t be scared, you’re not alone. I’m back, Billy, I’ve come back.” I lifted up the casket lid, and kissed my Billy, my sleeping beauty.
I have no excuse for what I did that night, if love itself is not excuse enough for you. After that kiss, I stripped naked in the dim light of the moon—slowly so that he could enjoy watching—then opened Billy’s uniform and climbed in so that we could lie skin-to-skin. I wanted us to touch as much as possible in the cramped space of the casket, and love one another as we had the night before. We did, dear God, we did, and it was beautiful. I loved him more than ever when he let me do that thing, that private thing I hadn’t been sure of, hadn’t counted on, but oh, God, it was wonderful.
The smell of funeral flowers, the feel of him against me, around me, thick and pliable with the embalming, the sweet scents of decay and death on him and in him—it was even better than before: more intense, more full of wonder. The pleasure was so overwhelming, yet so sweet, so intimate, that I cried when I came; holding him close against me and loving his dead flesh. That I then fell asleep was a mistake, I know it, but all I can say in my defense is that I was happy, sated, that I felt loved as I had never in my life felt loved before, even in my dreams, and so felt safe enough to sleep there, atop him, the two of us sleeping together, wound tight in love, throughout that moonlit summer night.
When they found us in the early morning—the grieving parents, Grandpa and Grandma, the parish priest—we were still wrapped together in love, undressed, atop one another in that lovely white casket and surrounded by a garden of florist flowers. And frankly, I’d rather not remember what happened next, if you don’t mind. It wasn’t pretty. The priest and Grandpa tried to hush things up, console the outraged parents, and so I was allowed to attend the burial itself, out in the summer sunshine with all the other mourning students, but the word was out by the next day at school.
I’ll never know who told, whether it was the parents or, as seems more likely, that officious self-righteous priest, but I do know it wasn’t Grandpa. Nothing’s worse for the funeral business than a little necrophilia in the family. He let me go, naturally, told me my services were no longer required. Aunt Rose made him write a letter to the board, to make sure I was never allowed to test for a license myself. I never really forgave Aunt Rose for that, because I loved the mortuary business; but I did my duty and sent her weekly checks until the day she died.
Sis never said a word, just communicated her contempt with dark looks and pretended deafness. Of course, it was my sister, the ice-hearted bitch, who reminded everyone about the dog incident when I was six. Yes, I’d missed my dog, and yes, Aunt Rose found her at the foot of my bed four nights after that car hit her, but I didn’t do anything ‘funny’ with my dog, as my dear sister claimed. I loved her, that’s all, and she loved me, and, if you want the truth, my life to that date hadn’t been so overfull of love that I could afford to waste any. So, sure, I dug her up and put her where she belonged, at the foot of my bed, where she’d slept for years. So sue me; I can love, I can grieve, and I have a heart… unlike some people I could name.
Anyhow, rumors of the dog incident just added to my torments as I finished out my school years at Slaughter High. But I did finish, by God, and, like I said before, left at dawn the morning after graduating. I even sent my sister, the Frost Queen, a ticket out when her turn came, too. I did, yes, understand that my little peccadilloes made her own high-school years a trifle hellish, too; I’m not blind. So, I figured I owed her the tickets out and startup money for California. She’s done well, I must say, as have I. The difference is she’s lonely and alone out there in the City of Angels, whereas I’m happy in our penthouse apartment overlooking the Park. It’s not the pricey address and Italian furniture that makes my life so full, though, it’s you; it’s knowing that you’re there, waiting for me, always ready, always missing me, just as I miss you, my darling.
Well, they’ve said their pious words, slipped poor old Aunt Rose and her tacky casket into its final bed and what few mourners there are have started to drift towards their cars. The rain slowed and finally stopped, but dark clouds still threatened.
So it’s with Sak’s umbrella in hand that my sister accosts me on the other side of the cemetery. Her nasty expression does nothing to flatter her looks; what if, as Aunt Rose might have said, her face froze that way? I smile, not at my sister but down at the headstone I’m standing beside. Tears cloud my vision, but I can still read the worn inscription: William Michael Martin, 1976-1992, I can only hope we shall see each other again in that place where there is only love and no shadows fall…
“What do you think you’re doing?” she hisses.
I swallow and look away from the headstone. “Nothing.”
“Nothing, my ass. You get away from his grave. Do you want trouble? It’s over, finally over; we can leave and never come back, and here you are, asking for trouble.”
“Nobody cares anymore, dear sister,” I tell her calmly.
“The hell they don’t.” She nearly spat, “Look over there; they’re watching you, watching you standing on his grave. If you’re not careful, they’ll--”
I look. It is true, a few balding men who might once have been football players are huddled together several yards away, muttering and eyeing us darkly. I sigh. My sister pulls at my sleeve.
“Come on!” she demands, sounding suddenly very much like Aunt Rose.
“All right,” I tell her, resigned. I obediently follow her to the rented Honda. It’s not as if it really matters anyway. It’s not as if you’re in that grave, my darling, or under that headstone. In fact, you are exactly where those sentimental words say you are; you’re in that place where there is only love and where no shadows fall…you are in my heart.
And, of course, since I came back and took you away, you’re also in our apartment, William, awaiting my return. Just thinking of you there, missing me, longing for me, lying naked and fragrant on our bed, makes me hard. Do you miss me as much as I miss you, Billy?
Don’t fret, darling, be patient; my flight back to Manhattan leaves at dawn.
Death is the golden key
that opens the
Where No Shadows Fall is a TR Halloween Tale; all characters, imagery and ideas contained belong to him alone, outside permissions for Awesome Dude online exhibition. If you enjoyed this or other TR tales and stories, please email him at email@example.com and visit http://tragicrabbit.org/
“Necrophilia is more prevalent than most people imagine.” ~Karen Greenlee
AUTHOR NOTE: TR thanks the following sources as background for Where No Shadows Fall: Karen Greenlee for detailed information acquired from interviews, 1940 news stories and photos about Carl Tanzler and Maria, the American Association of Necrophilic Research and Enlightenment, archived information on other real and fictional necrophiles, and the invaluable personal reminiscences of a dear friend who worked in a mortuary as a young man, not unlike the narrator. The author apologizes if the subject matter is offensive to some readers but the fact remains that necrophilia, as Greenlee tells us, is not uncommon and is, after all, essentially victimless, if indeed a serious crime at all (local statutes vary). In a sense, reading about the personal thoughts of a necrophile allows us to experience that perspective and perhaps, in so doing, enlarge our understanding and acceptance of our fellow humans and the meaning of love. Comments can be emailed to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
He hath awakened from the dream of life. ~Shelley