Belles-Lettres

The Length of My Skin

It was hard not to see work everywhere, especially when work became death.

Sarah Wambold

“If you were black, you’d be perfect,” Roy* told me as he drove us down I-94 to South Milwaukee. He was fantasizing while I was riding shotgun. The death had occurred at St. John’s Manor. “What exit we looking for?” he asked, “Rawson?” He extended the raw so that my spine shifted in my seat. “Motherfuckas down here,” he continued, giving the surrounding darkness a sideways glance. We rarely went this far south. He quickly started fantasizing again, “I mean, just think if they told us we had to go down to Chicago to get a body. Just think if I had a connection,” he said as he lifted his forefinger triumphantly in the air, “I would take this hearse on one run. That would be it!” and then he repeated it, this time with a gap between each word, “That. Would. Be. It. Cops never stop a hearse. Before we got that body, we’d just drive to the connection there, make a pick up and get that money!”

His fantasies always included me. Or maybe being included was my fantasy. In it, I’d be right there with him in the front seat of that hearse, telling him to be cool as we paid the toll, all the while thinking about how the inside of the cot and the floorboards of the coach were lined with bags of coke. I dreamed of the money that would replace the coke and the body that would disguise us as we drove back to Milwaukee and how fast I would quit working at the funeral home next day.

Once we got on Rawson, we drove toward the lake. It was cool. The darkness in this part of the city was unfamiliar and nowhere near as fun as the darkness in the middle, where we normally stayed. Out here, it was late. People kept a schedule that had them dreaming at this time of night. We played our part and kept a slow pace, turning quietly under a street lamp on 10th and then again onto Marquette.

I was feeling good in my suit. I had on a clean shirt. Roy parked and I gathered the folder that contained the forms for the removal of a body. I opened the back of the hearse and unloaded the cot. The wheels slapped open and hit the ground in a clatter of metal and concrete. Roy shot me a look of severe annoyance and I carefully shut the back of the hearse, keeping the handle pulled so that the latch would not click. I ran to catch up to him, already poised for entrance in front of the doors. I took my place at the back of the cot and we stepped in time over the threshold, the cot held between us like the ultimate single bed. Roy walked in with his shoulders back, his head freshly shaved, his fiancée at home with their newborn son. I walked in alone, towards a quiet room to meet a family.

With a rubber tube, my embalming manager Greg hosed down a scalp of grey hair with cold water, rinsing foam from its locks. 

“Where’d you say you live?”

“50th and North Ave,” I told him through a paper mask, “near where North and Lisbon cross.”

“The Core,” he replied before adding, “Yeah, now they got that police station there.” He was not entirely focused on the conversation. One of his thick hands was thrusting forceps in and out of the jugular vein which had expanded like casing around the pair of metal tongs. His other hand pinched at the body’s limbs, examining their color. He moved between the arms and legs, checking the tenderness of the meat as though they were steaks on the grill. “I wouldn’t go any further east if I were you,” he said.

• • •

Yvonne and I would ride our bikes east through Washington Park on weekends that I wasn’t on call. She lived in my building and we met while doing laundry. She grew up in the neighborhood and had graduated from Washington High School, which housed its decades-old class photos in the cafeteria. “It was all white people back then,” she told me. I never underestimated the truth from Yvonne. She was keen on the fact that a group of bodies left the neighborhood when another group moved in. She knew bodies were currency, their value increased or decreased as they changed urban settings. I knew that value followed them into death.

The funeral home where I worked had a good reputation. Their bodies were the best.

The funeral home where I worked had a good reputation. Their bodies were the best. They took to heart the textbook rationale of embalming: “The embalmed body image permits an open, realistic acceptance of death.” A well-taken-care-of corpse made the family taken care of too. Greg was a master at this, and it paid: his salary supported a golf habit, a Hummer, a Harley, a house in the suburbs, and complete amnesty. While we worked, he told me that the wife of his friend gave him head while her husband was passed out in the same room. Or maybe it was that he fucked her while she gave her husband head. Or maybe… I don’t remember. I was too focused on the way he applied makeup over dead faces to hear the truth. He stood over the bodies, subtly blending a complexion into a recognizable beauty, smoothing the skin and giving back its color. The end result was a screaming success, a silent non-being whose every fold made you wince, every opening gently closed against itself.

At the funeral home, I could never figure out how to manipulate people just right. My inexperience showed. The general manager would often corner me at work, asking if I wanted to take a ride along the lake in his BMW. Or we could hang out at his apartment, there was a pool. I hadn’t yet learned how to turn down a man 40 years my senior in person. I settled for telling him over the phone like a child.

Dean saw how I struggled to come across. He was the super at my apartment, the only person in the building who knew how to fix the 70-year-old elevator when it would stop halfway between two floors. Through the large glass door he would see me stuck, the floor above cutting across the middle of my vision while I hovered over the floor below. I was surprised by how often I found myself in this position, how often I needed help getting up but more often, help getting out.

Dean had cheekbones like knives concealed in an untroubled face and a Corvette in the dilapidated garage behind our apartments, a Corvette he never wanted to reveal. One day he saw me in my work uniform and told me he had no idea I was shaped like that. That was the last time I brought work home with me.

But it was hard not to see work everywhere. When I turned around from facing the ATM machine, I thought I wasn’t supposed to see Roy raise his eyebrows and mouth the word “DAMN” at my ass. We drove to a club outside of Milwaukee, one I would never have expected to see the inside of, but there I was, taking shots of dark liquor with Roy and his friend, dancing listlessly at the end of the night with my head on Roy’s shoulder. If his fiancée would have seen us, it would have been rough. You can’t explain a fantasy without exposing some horrible truth, like the fact that we never fucked.

If his fiancée would have seen us, it would have been rough.

Not even a kiss. We worked on a lot of bodies together but ours stayed separate. We spent hours together in the embalming room, observing each other’s reactions to desiccated beauty. Walking out of the building was like walking into the courtyard of a museum, the natural light leading our thoughts in different paths around whatever form of reality was on view.

We picked up more bodies. Each time, Roy would ask me what I was doing when I got the call.

“Were you in the bed,” he would ask very specifically, as though he wanted his imagination to be accurate. “Were you asleep or were you waiting to get this call?”

• • •

I don’t think I slept the entire time I lived in Milwaukee. I was anxious and I wondered if I was trusted. After months of exposure to the process of embalming, I still felt unsure of my technique. I could set up a body on blocks and set its features, wash it and put a gown on it. Occasionally, I could place it on a table by myself, but if Roy was around I would ask for his help, and we’d make some kind of stupid game about it.

“I fucked her,” Roy told me. This wasn’t the first time he claimed he had fucked one of our managers, but it was the only time he went into detail. I stared at him, and then laughed like Iris in Taxi Driver.

“No, you didn’t,” I said. He was nodding.

“I did,” he said, side-eyeing me. “One of her friends was dating a black guy and she said she wanted to try it for herself.” He had insisted she was cool once before but I wasn’t interested in her, even as a friend.

My lack of participation in work sex doubled my value. Outfitted in a Tyvek suit, standing at the head of the embalming table, Greg handed me the aspirator. One of the funeral directors, a big-titted coworker he was fucking, walked in the door past Roy and I to get a better look at the face.

“Is this my lady?” she asked.

A wide smile slapped across Greg’s face. Someone turned the switch on the embalming machine to suck instead of spew. I heard Roy laugh and then watched the director exit the room. Later Roy told me that as she left, Greg pantomimed breasts with large nipples.

I had placed my full attention on using the aspirator, a tool with a drum and siphon that looks a little like you could smoke weed out of it. I made a tough push past the soft tissue of the stomach right above the navel, until the sharp tip pricked into the fleshy back along either side of the spine. Then, I stretched it up just beneath the breastbone, piercing any internal organs with its black tip. It was like waving a magic wand inside someone's belly, removing all the latent liquids. I was careful to use pressure for the initial thrust and then pull back into a slight tapping and scraping along the bottom of the body cavity. I knew not to push too hard or the tool would poke through.

My lack of participation in work sex doubled my value.

I learned to keep the secrets Roy shared with me held tightly behind liquid eyeliner and nude lips. Black plastic and peach metal were always left unquestioned. I felt frozen in time. To embalm was to learn an archaic task that defied growth and forced me to feel competitive about my illusions. The strange confidence of achieving the ideal life image through the medium of the dead body felt overwhelming. On the face of it, I didn’t trust my own eye to recognize my skill.

When I asked Dean how he learned to fix the elevator’s ancient gears he said it was by being in the fire. He told me this when I was standing in his apartment, watching him teach me to roll the perfect joint. You could be stuck in there for an hour until he let you out. I got used to waiting. He practiced a method of no expectations to a degree that I found incomprehensible.

By spring, Roy had been fired for being too real, and I was longing for a chance to be exposed. I was unrecognizable in the presence of a dead body, a silent pair of uncertain hands. Without Roy, I had to search for a new way to pretend that I was alive at work. I tried with a different coworker but they couldn’t even pretend to know anyone to sell drugs to and I knew I had to get out soon.

• • •

I sat in a hearse on 91st Street somewhere between Silver Spring and Capitol Drive. I know this only because Yvonne told me her two nieces had seen me sitting there at a stop light while they rode home in a school bus. How I’m recognized when my body is on view, I’ll never know.

I had finally learned how to embalm. Greg was no longer speaking to me. He’d chosen Roy’s side in an argument we had the last time we tried to make believe.

Roy was meeting Greg at a dive up on 60th and Good Hope Road, where they carried on affairs with our coworkers (even though Roy was no longer on payroll, he still enjoyed some benefits of the job). I went along, acquiescent as long as Roy was happy. Except that Roy wasn’t happy. When he picked me up and told me where we were headed and why, he wouldn’t even humor me with a story about getting away with it. The only words we had in that car were Kanye’s, and there was nowhere to turn around.

How I’m recognized when my body is on view, I’ll never know.

When we got to the bar I saw kitten heels, cropped hair, jewelry from Boston Store. The bodies looked to me how death had come to look to me by now, something open and realistic, dressed in current regional styles. The bodies looked entirely different from me, but exactly the same as each other. I said so to the women. I said I knew what position the men liked them in. I saw that they were horrified, the same way people are horrified to admit it when a body looks better as a corpse. Roy grabbed my arm and we were gone. 

In the passenger seat of his car, there was nothing to see. Be cool. Get out. Careful with the door. At work I felt anxious and didn’t know who I was keeping secrets from, although I made efforts to look the same. It helped that I kept on not sleeping. My work was good. I could recognize it sometimes as beauty. One day I noticed that no one at work told me about fucking anyone else anymore, not even about who gave them head. 

But after work, if I still felt anxious, I had Dean's cool evenness for that. When my car was towed and he took his Corvette out of the garage, I realized I could trust him to do right by me, even when he didn’t really want to. He showed me that the length of my skin was hard to measure in a system that thinks it’s endless. I listened when he told me that one day I was going to find someone and they would be true to me. I believed him and I never forgot it.

 

*All names have been changed. 

Sarah Wambold is a freelance writer and former funeral home director. She lives in Austin, Texas, and tweets at @Sah_Raw.

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