By Susan Henderson
I was four when I saw my first dead body. Pop had always kept a do not disturb sign to the embalming room. And beneath it, because I needed reminders for what the words meant, he’d drawn a frowning girl. It was a sign that told me, No, Mary. Not now, Mary. I’m working, Mary. Go on, Mary.
And so I sat, as I often did, on the steps, staring at the large swinging doors where Pop disappeared for hours. This was only the beginning of a lifetime of feeling as if I were waiting to be invited, included. Me on one side, something more on the other.
Most times, as I sat in this spot, I’d listen to the sounds of whirring machines, rolling wheels, drawers opening and closing. But this time, as I sat in my nightgown and slippers, the room on the other side of the sign was quiet.
I don’t remember tiptoeing to the bottom step, only recall my feet itching to move. I had not made a conscious decision to disobey the sign. I was simply outside of the swinging doors and then I was inside of them. The room was cold, the shiny floor tiles continuing up the walls.
In the center of the room was a gleaming metal table, its surface lumpy and draped in a sheet. My gaze landed on something curious at the edge of it. I stepped my foot inside the perfect square of one tile, and let the other land beside it. It was the strange and powerful scent that drew me deeper into the room, a scent I’d known all my life from my father’s hands.
At any time I could run back through the swinging doors and up the stairs to the part of the house I knew. That is what I thought as I began to skate, zig-zagging around the edge of the room, my slippers making a shushing sound across the floor.
Oh, but the feeling of skating through the shiny room where I wasn’t allowed, the feeling of my impulses triumphing over the sign, it all thumped through me like a song turned up loud in Pop’s hearse. I skated with my arms out to the sides. I skated round and round the table, close to the great lump, then away toward the white cabinets, then close to the shiny tray covered in shiny tools, then close to the wall.
When I finally stopped, I saw up-close what I had been trying to convince myself I could not possibly have seen: a foot. A bare foot—waxy, the color of an unpeeled potato with dark hairs on the big toe. And I thought of questions I was in no hurry to answer: Why was there a foot lying on the table? Who did it belong to? And what else was under that sheet?
I let the white cloth brush against my arm, but that was all. Water gurgled through a pipe along the ceiling, and the swinging doors suddenly seemed very far away. When the room quieted again, I heard my name, just a whisper. Mary. I looked to the toe as if it had spoken to me. The voice grew louder—Mary—and when I turned to run it was right into my father.
What relief to fall into his arms, my cheek against his plastic apron. I felt the warm weight of his thumb on the tip of my nose, his indication that I was in trouble but not very much. I was now safe to lower my shoulders, to breathe out. Because this was why I had come downstairs: to find him. To ask if it was time for breakfast and if I could have the pink cereal.
He lowered himself, apron crinkling, until we were at eye level. He cupped my chin and asked, “Would you like to touch the foot?”
I looked into his face, dented and nicked from a rough boyhood, his front tooth twisted, some hairs from his eyebrows curling up while others curled down toward his eye. With a smile both unsure and protective, he waited for my answer.
When I nodded, he took my hand, just the way he might if we were headed to the store or the swimming pool. We stepped closer to the table.
“It’s all right,” he said. “This fellow won’t wake up.”
Slowly I reached forward. When I hesitated, he nodded his approval. And I touched the foot. It felt like a trout we’d caught and kept in the cooler. I broke out into giggles, hysterical non-stop giggles.
When I could breathe again, my question felt squeezed tight. “Is there only a foot under there?”
“No, Mary. There’s more,” he said, his voice deep and steady as when he read me a bedtime story. He pulled the sheet upward to expose a yellow, bruised slab I only recognized as a leg when I saw the coiled hairs. This time, laughter exploded through my closed mouth, the sound strange and wet. I poked my finger into the doughy flesh, slowly allowing my mind to connect this leg, this foot to my father’s work. Maybe this is someone my father will help bury.
“Is there a hand?” I asked.
I kept my poking finger extended, as if to keep it far from the rest of me. Pop was already reaching beneath the sheet. When he lifted the wrist, the dull yellow fingers curled forward. Though he held it still for me, I would not touch it.
The hand, somehow, made me understand that the body had once been a living thing, a hand like Pop’s, something that held a mug of coffee in the morning, that petted my hair when I was close by and being a nuisance. I shook my head fiercely and stepped back from the table, losing a slipper, the shock of cold tile rocketing through my foot.
It was after midnight when Pop and I sat at the kitchen table eating pink cereal.
“Just because you’re hungry,” he told me, “doesn’t mean it’s morning.”
The room felt unfamiliar with its black windows, the heat set low for the night. I prodded at my cereal, watching the pink slip away into the milk. I had never noticed it doing that in the daytime, maybe had never eaten it slowly enough to discover that the thin pink coating was all a trick, as if everything in my world was not what I’d thought. I let my spoon sink into the bowl.
“I suppose it’s time to call it a day,” Pop said.
He took my hand and helped me rise from the table. He guided me through the darkened first floor, past the teal-colored velvet that partitioned off the parlor. Past a clouded mirror and plastic flowers. I watched my wool slippers climb each step to my room. I had not spoken for some time and remained silent as Pop kissed my forehead goodnight and closed my door.
I was glad to be under the covers again, my father’s footsteps creaking down the hallway to his room. But as I lay there with the nightlight casting my walls in orange, it seemed my thoughts would never again be as simple as the ones that had woken me up that night. I felt alert to every shadow in the room, every noise, and through the bedroom wall, a woman’s voice, sharp with disapproval.
“You’re just coming to bed?” she asked.
There were many of these women over the years who tried to sneak in and out of my father’s bedroom without my noticing.
Pop’s answer was soft-spoken, contrite. If he’d ever had an excuse for working into the night, forgetting time, forgetting his latest girlfriend, he’d already used it up.
“And what was Mary doing awake at this hour?” the woman asked.
The door had closed, but I could still hear the staccato of her words. “Cereal? Your workroom? A foot? Touched a foot!” And when Pop, finally raising his voice, argued that I’d soon get used to it, the high-pitched voice asked, “Do you understand what a strange child she’ll be if this ever becomes normal to her?”
After that night, I couldn’t forget the bodies in our basement, two stories below my bed, one story below the kitchen table. I began to notice the rhythm of the work that went on in our household. The phone call. The arrival of the body beneath the sheet. Pop’s late nights in the basement. The house filling with old men in suits, hunched like crows, and old women trembling in pretty hats. The sound of someone weeping in my father’s arms and his soothing, matter-of-fact voice.
It must have been a relief for him to finally show me his workspace, to end the exhausting dance and trickery he must have engaged in to keep it hidden from me. To my father, this was honorable, tender work, nothing I must be shielded from, though, clearly, the woman I’d overheard that night would have liked him to keep it from me a good while longer.
Their relationship was serious enough that she occasionally tidied up our house and kept an eye on me as he worked. She cleaned in knee-length dresses and my father’s mucking boots, which she liked to wear because they were several sizes bigger than her feet and she could step into them even if her hands were full, moving from room to room with rags and sprays and handfuls of our dirty clothes and dishes.
She dusted around us while I sat beside Pop on the sofa, choosing casket fabric from the fat three-ring binder. I loved to touch the swatches of taffeta (though customers always chose polyester). My favorite colors were named after flowers: buttercup, orchid, peony, magnolia. I loved to open the tackle box, where he kept makeup. He let me paint thick, putty-colored grease on the back of my hand.
The woman—I don’t remember ever giving her a name—helped wash it off. She scrubbed too hard. Later, she scrubbed the house with bleach and sprayed with Lysol to cover up what she called the smell of death. After, she laid down in a dark room, complaining of headaches she believed were from the formaldehyde and my father believed were from the cleaning products.
She came into my room one day, maybe her last, wearing my father’s boots and carrying a stack of folded clothes. She sat on the bed, holding the laundry and watched me at play. I folded sheets of tin foil into shiny metal beds and placed my plastic dolls on them. I whispered words like Glory and Our Little Angel, then draped them in Kleenex. I played wearing latex gloves, powdery inside, loose on my hands. And this woman who would not last much longer in our home, mouth open as if to speak, held the stack of clothes close to her chest. She said nothing and I could feel the shame of the strange child I’d become.