The Elm Ridge Funeral Home is the grandest building in the county. It looks like a miniature plantation house, dazzling white with a shallow colonnade across the front, and is strategically positioned at the corner of Washington Blvd. and Main Street—dead center of the tiny eastern Indiana town where the deLaughter family has presided over the prosperous dead for three generations.
At 8:17 on an unseasonably cold day in May, Assistant Mortician Sally McGuire is standing on the porch, struggling to unlock the massive double doors. At least today she has the key. Twice, she’s locked herself out and had to call Mr. deLaughter III from the payphone across the street, interrupting his breakfast. And this is the third time in the last two weeks she’s been late to work. But she’s lucky today—she’s the first one in. Everyone’s late!
It’s pouring rain, threatening snow. When the old wooden door finally gives way, Sally is enveloped in a welcome whoosh of warm air. Now inside the spacious foyer, she takes off her wet shoes and carries them with her as she passes through the carpeted parlor rooms, past upholstered chairs arranged in pairs along the wide hall, past bouquets of silk lilies filling bronze vases on polished end tables, beyond the entrance to the chapel where the smell of extinguished candles hangs in the heavy drapes and the morning light through the non-denominational stained glass drenches the floor with color. When she reaches the basement door, she has almost made it to her workstation, her tardiness undiscovered by Mr. deLaughter III’s secretary Ms. Parker. Only then does she breathe a sigh of relief.
Sally is definitely on notice. Besides all the tardiness and the lockouts, Ms. Parker had caught Sally sharing a flask and a joint with the casket deliveryman in his truck one afternoon last month. Not to mention the incident a couple weeks ago when Sally showed up at work hung over in the morning and simply didn’t come back after lunch. It was the day she spent chasing down her no-good fiancé Richard all over the county, but that’s another story. When Sally came back to work the next morning, Ms. Parker took her aside and said, “Going AWOL yesterday was strike two. Three strikes and you’re out.”
Sally dodged a bullet. Maybe the rain caused a pileup on the bypass. Whatever. She saunters down the steps flipping on lights, and fans, and power switches on her way through the main workroom to her cubicle. This is the beating heart of Elm Ridge Funeral Home, the place where bodies are embalmed and otherwise prepared for their memorial services. In tiny curtained-off cubicles blood is exchanged for chemicals. The sweet, heady smell of acetone fills the air. When the embalming is complete, the naked corpses are placed on metal gurneys, covered with sheets and stored in refrigerated cells, to wait to be dressed, coifed, and made up for their final earthly appearance.
In one corner of the basement room, there is a card table with a couple of folding chairs, a water cooler, and a buzzing fridge where Sally stashes her lunch. She turns on the old boom box stuck on WGLD out of Indianapolis. Super Hits from the ’70s. The pale green concrete walls echo with the tinny sounds of Gloria Gaynor.
At first I was afraid. I was petrified. Sally sings along, does a little spin across the floor dancing her way over to her cubicle. She writes “7:58” in the “in” square on her time sheet—what’s the harm in a little white lie? She puts on her lab coat and work shoes, consults her work orders, and walks to the cooler for her first customer. From cell No. 6, she pulls “52-year-old female” and rolls the gurney into her work area.
When Mr. deLaughter III hired her, Sally wasn’t sure about working with dead people—it seemed creepy at first. But she was lucky to get any job at all. And it turns out she has a rare gift for making lifelike the decaying faces of corpses. There’s definitely an art to it. Mr. deLaughter III noticed and he said he would pay for Sally to attend night classes in mortuary science at Vincennes University. “As you know,” he’d said in his slow stentorian tone, “A mortician will never be without work,” then added with a smile, “Especially a young, pretty one.”
Sally has been considering the offer, but Vincennes University is 40 miles away and her car is old and if it breaks down she won’t have the money to fix it and then where would she be? And school has never been her favorite activity. She barely made it through the cosmetology academy, which turned out to be a lot harder than she expected. Besides, she’d need time to study. And let’s face it, she’s been spread pretty thin since she moved in with her Richard.
Sally is about to pull back the sheet covering her “52-year old female” when she is interrupted by a voice behind her.
“Le petit mort!” says Jesse deLaughter in a booming ceremonial voice, like a preacher says “Good morning!” to his congregation. He is the IV, the handsome and vibrant son of Mr. deLaughter III. He is heir to the family fortune. He’s holding a copy of the latest edition of Cosmopolitan magazine as he enters Sally’s cubicle. “It means the little death. That’s what they call an orgasm over in France.”
“That’s weird,” she says, trying to ignore him. She continues purposefully arranging brushes and pencils, jars and bottles of powders and pastes on the counter. “So what’s on deck for today?” she asks.
There is heat between them. “You liked French yesterday,” he says.
He’s referring to yesterday’s incident. In an alcove off the chapel called the Flower Room, they’d kissed and made out, culminating months of flirting. Mrs. Parker had walked right by without seeing them. It had been intensely exciting. But she is betrothed to Richard and that’s that!
Jesse stands very close. His beguiling smell wafts up through the collar of his freshly pressed white shirt. Her guard is falling.
Sally should be thinking about Ms. Parker, who is pulling into her parking space at this very moment. Instead, she spins to face him and they kiss deeply. He’s such a good kisser. He cups her breasts and strokes her nipples with his thumbs. She is one hair from surrender when he grabs her hand and makes her feel his erection, wrecking the mood.
“Are you crazy? Not here! Not now!”
She pulls away from him suddenly, and in the process nearly tips over the gurney where the body of the recently deceased Mrs. Rachel Larson is lying. One corner of the privacy sheet falls away, revealing the dead woman’s face, naked breast, and shoulder. Sally gasps—she knew this woman!—but then quickly pulls up the sheet to restore the corpse’s modesty. Only then does she step back and put her hand to her face.
“Geez, Sally, you didn’t need to bring a stiff into it,” he puns, smoothing his clothing. He takes a look and asks, “That’s the old bag from the bank, right?”
He’s halfway up the steps to the main floor before Sally replies, mostly to herself, “Yes, she used to work at the bank,” and feels tears welling up. “But she’s not an old bag.”
Mrs. Larson is, of course, no more. Her corpse couldn’t care less about its hairstyle, makeup, or burial clothes. But Sally cares.
The two women first met last year when Sally applied for a car loan, but more recently—more importantly—they ran into each other the day last month when she got her second strike from Ms. Parker.
She and Richard had argued all night, drinking heavily, each word a sucker punch. Their raised voices rattled the windows of the rundown cabin they rented on the edge of town. That morning, she woke up hung over and he was gone. Had she thrown him out or had he left her? She couldn’t remember.
Sally dragged herself to work anyway, her sweat smelling of alcohol, the mean things they’d said echoing in her head. Where was he? By noon she was so obsessed with finding him, getting him back, she took off without reporting to Ms. Parker.
She drove up and down Route 9 and along the tangle of slushy unnamed country roads surrounding the town, looking for Richard in every bar, bait shop, and gas station from here to Muncie. Around 3:00, she stopped to check the dive by the lake everyone called The Spot. But instead of finding Richard, she found Mrs. Larson.
At first, she did not recognize the older woman. This time Mrs. Larson was not sitting straight-backed behind a mahogany desk in the back of the bank, coolly turning Sally down for a loan. Nor was she driving her shiny black Lexus through town, out to her big house by the golf course. On that snowy afternoon, the senior vice president of the First Merchants Bank was perched on a barstool with a half-finished scotch and a half-filled ashtray in front of her. She was dressed in an expensive suit with diamonds on her hands, but her lipstick was worn off and her mascara was smeared.
When Sally approached the bar to ask the bartender if he’d seen Richard, Mrs. Larson turned to Sally and said, “I know you. Let me buy you a drink,” and patted the barstool next to her. Sally said sure, a drink would be nice.
Then Mrs. Larson took a long drag from her cigarette and slurred, “I’m living the wrong life.”
“Me too,” said Sally, who thought she knew just what the older woman meant.
Mrs. Larson liked for the bartender to mix her new drink in the same glass as her old drink so she could savor the scotchy ice cubes. Sally gulped down her first and nursed a second screwdriver. At first, they barely spoke, instead watched the last half of Oprah on the television over the bar.
Sally was thinking about Richard. She was tired of chasing him, was thinking maybe it was good she didn’t find him. She was thinking maybe it was better if he left her. The whole urgency of the search drained away.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for my boyfriend,” she said. “We had a fight. He’s such an asshole, but I hate being alone.”
“You know what’s worse than being by yourself? It’s being with someone who treats you like you’re not even there,” said Mrs. Larson. “And just when you think you can handle that, just when you think at least it’s even, at least we’re both lonely and unhappy, he...”
She stopped, looked up at the ceiling for a moment and chuckled to herself. “Whatever. I guess I knew it all along.”
“Knew what?” said Sally.
Mrs. Larson stubbed out her cigarette, turned to Sally and said, “Knew the coward was fucking my best friend for the last seven years.”
The word “fucking” had so much force coming from the dignified Mrs. Larson it felt like Sally had been poked in the chest with an index finger.
After a moment, apparently changing the subject, Mrs. Larson asked, “Who are you supposed to be? What are you supposed to be doing?”
Sally replied in the quiet direct way we address the feeble-minded, “Mrs. Larson, don’t you remember? I’m Sally. Sally McGuire. And I’m supposed to be at work right now.”
“Oh sweetie, of course you are,” said Mrs. Larson, laughing so long Sally joined in without knowing why. “I’m talking about the big you. I’m talking about your dreams.”
“I don’t have any dreams,” Sally said, though of course she did. She dreamed of a shiny new Lexus, diamonds on her fingers, a big comfortable home by the golf course. Respect. A fat bank account. She was tired of relying on the sheer dumb luck that somehow got the rent paid. For as long as she could remember, there had been nothing and no one to count on. Her life lived her.
“But I was thinking I might go to mortuary school at Vincennes in the fall,” she heard herself say.
“Well, that’s a dream,” said Mrs. Larson. “You should do that. Make that happen, Sally,” she said patting Sally’s hand.
“I will,” said Sally and believed it. “I think I will.”
Then she turned to Mrs. Larson. “Your turn. Who are you supposed to be? What are you supposed to be doing?”
“Promise you won’t laugh?” said Mrs. Larson. “I’m supposed to be a dancer...”
As soon as she was old enough, Mrs. Larson—Rachel—had walked the two miles to the tiny ballet studio in town for lessons three days a week after school and on most Saturdays. She wore out toe shoes, practicing the five positions at the bus stop, in the grocery store, in her bedroom, perfecting every move. Her teacher said she had promise, helped her get into more advanced classes and a scholarship to IU. Then came a summer internship in Indianapolis. A favorable review in the Chicago Tribune. A role off-Broadway. A walk-up on East 13th Street. New York! But then came the doldrums. No call-backs, no job, no money, no boyfriend. Then her mother died. Then the car accident, the move home, the long recuperation. By the time she was well, New York seemed distant, alien, her dream foolish. There was always a job at the bank working with her father. From there it was easy to go numb.
“...I’m supposed to dance. I was anyway. Isn’t that silly?”
This gave Sally an idea. “I’ll be right back,” she said, and hurried off to the jukebox, quarters in hand. A moment later, the bar was filled with the opening strains of Ricky Martin’s “La Vida Loca.” Sally happily sashayed her way back across the room, made a little bow and extended her hand. “Care to dance?”
“Why not?” The older woman took her hand and joined Sally on the tiny dance floor. The Spot’s denizens—bored farmers sidelined by winter, unemployed factory workers—turned to watch the two women in a dance that grew wilder and more ecstatic with every chorus.
They danced separately—Sally’s hips grinding, Mrs. Larson leaping, undulating exotically. They danced together, holding each other’s hands tightly and spinning like children. When the first song ended and the next one started, Mrs. Larson stayed on the dance floor. She shouted to Sally, “Let’s do it again.”
Around 4:30, Sally’s dance music mix ended. There was no applause. Just silence until one of the barflies asked the bartender to turn the television back on. Mrs. Larson and Sally caught their breaths, remembered their problems, and decided it was time to go home. The sun was an ugly red blotch in a cold gray sky, hanging at the horizon. Mrs. Larson said she’d had too much to drink, so they left her Lexus in the parking lot and Sally drove her home.
It was dark when they parked in front of the Larson’s Tudor-style home with its symmetrical topiary and sloping lawn. Mrs. Larson sat in the passenger seat and stared out the windshield for a long time before she turned to Sally and said, “You should go to school. You should leave that asshole Richard.” She touched Sally’s cheek. “Safe is no way to live. It’s too expensive. You can’t afford it.” Then she got out and made her way up the brick-paved walkway to her side door, and Sally drove home.
When she finally found Richard, he was taking up the whole couch, watching the game, three-quarters of the way through a 12-pack of Old Mil. She asked him, “Who are you supposed to be? What are you supposed to be doing?”
“What kind of a stupid fucking question is that? I’m supposed to be the king of the house. And I’m supposed to be eating dinner and receiving blowjobs. Chop chop!” He laughed but didn’t even look at her when he said it.
“I think you should leave,” was what she was supposed to say, and leave was what he was supposed to do. When his truck peels out of the driveway for the last time, she will watch with relief instead of dread. Her footsteps across the floor of the empty house will be the sound of that relief, and she’ll know a new kind of alone where the terrifying silence of it does not drive her into bed with another lout like Richard.
But these things take time.
Instead, she stood in the kitchen in the dark, just breathing, looking out the window watching the falling night and the falling snow, thinking about Mrs. Larson.
That was only last month, though it seems like ages ago. She stopped drinking—at least during the week. She sent in an application to Vincennes University Mortuary Sciences program. A few times, when she was alone in the house, Sally could feel the presence of her big self.
When she passed by the bank, she thought of going in to say hello to Mrs. Larson. She wanted to tell her about Vincennes. And that Richard was too stupid to have a big self and that she was working up the courage to ask him to leave. She wanted to say how nice it was to have a friend, even if it was just that one time. But she never made it into the bank.
Now, Mrs. Larson is dead, asphyxiated while warming up her Lexus in her closed garage yesterday morning. “A terrible accident,” was the lie Mr. Larson told himself and will tell friends and family on Saturday during visitation hours in the chapel.
Now, Mrs. Larson’s corpse is on Sally’s table. Sally’s hand shakes a little while she applies the first coat of honey bronze base to the cheeks, forehead, nose, eyelids, and down the throat onto the chest. Soon the face is prepped and ready to receive whatever expression Sally wants to give it. Sally brushes a wisp of hair from the cheek and pulls the sheet up to the chin, like she is tucking in a child.
What would this woman look like if she’d been the person she was supposed to be? What if she had gone back to New York, instead of marrying a sensible Charlie and staying in Indiana? What if she’d used her Lexus to leave this one-horse town by way of Route 9 instead of carbon monoxide poisoning?
Sally chooses a cosmetic pencil of just the right shade and gives one of Mrs. Larson’s eyebrows a slightly higher arch than the other, an effect that somehow makes the tiny wrinkles around her eyes look like laugh lines. With another shade, she works the corners of the mouth, deepening small crevices, giving the face a bemused look, as if the woman knew the punch line of some great cosmic joke. She fills the frown lines between the eyes with a soft wax and gently blends the seam with her thumb.
Sally stands back to admire her handiwork and catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror that hangs above a small sink in the cubicle. She looks back and forth between Mrs. Larson’s face and her reflection, trying to match the expression, lifting an eyebrow, curling in the corners of her mouth.
She finds herself mugging in the mirror with ever more outlandish expressions. If Mrs. Larson were here, they would be laughing about this, thinks Sally. If Mrs. Larson were here... Grief catches in her throat. Tears well up in her eyes.
Jesse walks into her cubicle just then and says, “Hey, nice job. The old sourpuss looks almost happy. We’ll need to dress her and box her up right after lunch.”
“You know she was a dancer,” says Sally.
“That’s weird,” says Jesse. “Wanna come over to my house for lunch? Maybe we could do some dancing...” He spins her around, pulls her close and says, “What do you say, baby girl?”
You are not a baby girl. You are a grown woman. Mrs. Larson’s expression seems to speak as clearly as a voice in Sally’s head.
“Maybe another time, Jesse,” says Sally. “Today, I think I’ll just hang here with Mrs. Larson for a while.”
“Have it your way,” says Jesse.
As soon as he is gone, the first full wave of Sally’s grief crests and she begins to sob.
“I tried to tell Richard to leave that night when I got home, but I couldn’t do it,” Sally tells the empty room. “But I’m going to do it. Soon. I promise.”
Make that happen, Sally.
A few of Sally’s tears land on Mrs. Larson’s face and roll down her cheek. Sally grabs a tissue and starts to dab them away, but decides to leave them there just like they are.
grew up on Normal Avenue in Normal, Illinois, came of age in Chicago, was chewed up and spit out by New York, licked her wounds in Los Angeles, and now lives a quiet life with her husband and a pack of dogs in rural Fallbrook, California. To support her writing habit, she manages her Southern California-based design and communications firm, and markets the family cacti and succulent nursery.