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180 Degrees of Dead

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Rayna Hopkins never imagined herself as someone who would wind up working in a mortuary. You and she are similar in that way. You imagine yourself as someone who will be an earth-quaker, a ground-shaker, a heartbreaker. Maybe an obstetrician, or if you like to play with puppies or other docile things you tell your parents’ friends at cocktail parties that you’d like to go into social work. If you’re particularly truculent, you’re convinced you’ll be an actor. Rayna had conviction too, you know. It wasn’t like she woke up one morning at the obstreperous age of twelve and declared her allegiance to dressing the dead. Rayna wanted to be a pediatrician. She was already planning the type of wallpaper that would go in the waiting room, and the ficus that would sit in her office. Her prescription pad would be yellow. Life would be good.

But death proved less costly and more lucrative. Medical school was too pretentious and too expensive and too competitive for scholarships— everybody wants to keep little children alive, it seems. But there is no rivalry for the rotting. And from a purely economic standpoint, if ever the Great Depression reawakened, there would not be a worry. Buildings burn, financiers fail, but beings breathe their last. Death is perpetual, and immortal, and best of all, it will always bring food to the table.

So began Rayna’s employment at Spangler’s Mortuary, which, in spite of its uncouth slogan—“We must be good; people are dying to get in!”—had a sturdy, sound, and altogether solid stream of clients. Which is not to say Rayna was happy to be there. She wasn’t. She wanted her ficus and the prescription pad and children with erasable problems, not the somber inertia of the dying. But Rayna did not get what she wanted, and neither will you. If you think for some reason that Rayna’s desires went unfulfilled as a product of her parents’ absence in her life, or a poor education, or an abusive step-sibling or a dead-end town where the only thing teenagers do on a Saturday night is smoke a joint behind the one and only gas station, you are wrong. Rayna had every opportunity to succeed. Similarly to the six chins that magically matriculated beneath her chin like gay soldiers on parade, there was just nothing to be done about it. She could petition for money and go on a diet, have her parents take out a second mortgage on the house and move her neck up and down like a bobble head doll in the hopes that her multiple chin-wattles would stop quaking, but Rayna’s potential and her jowls both remained static.

There exist two kinds of cold chambers in mortuaries, positive temperature and negative temperature. In the former, bodies are kept between 2°C and 4°C. While this is fantastic for storing death’s hosts good and fresh for several weeks, the low degree does not thwart decomposition, which is to say, the bodies will begin to fester. The negative temperature cold chambers are much more preferred by fatality; the demise is kept toasty between -15°C and -25°C. At these temperatures the body is fully frozen and decay is not a danger. At these temperatures, it is difficult to find a living someone ready willing and able to clothe Eileen G. Chandler in the wedding dress she never got to wear. Rayna worked in a cold chamber mortuary. Her chins kept her warm.

As she was contemplating all of this and feeling sorry for you—which, you should know, she does on a regular basis, as she truly mourns how little you understand, how casually and blasé you seem without realizing what’s to come— Declan Webb came into the back room where she sat. Due to Rayna’s acrimony at what life had denied her and death provided her with, she did not bode well with the bemoaners and bewailers that demise left in its wake. Six chins is an unsightly view, especially after something as traumatizing and tremendous as fatality. Grieving husbands and wives and sons and daughters and friends and lovers need to see an earnest yet empathizing face that lets them know that their dead aunt Poppy or ex-but-still-pervasive boyfriend Ricardo will be dressed to the nines at his funeral. Declan fulfilled the earnest and the empathizing. He ensured cousins and compatriots alike that Alice and Kaeleigh and Alfie and Kenneth and whoever else happened to expire would be given proper care and perfuming and clothing, and of course Spangler’s could accommodate Mrs. Tompkins’ husband Bert so he could be buried in his Navy Seals jacket, in spite of the fact that he’d gained a hefty amount of weight during the final years of his life and the jacket simply couldn’t fit around his amply protruding paunch.

Not that Declan himself would actually do something physical about the jacket in question. Declan was all consolation and compassion to the grief-stricken faces; Declan could secure a deposit and an extra two hundred for special requests to anyone this side of Sunday, but deal with death he could not. Declan did not go near the bodies themselves. He feared demise as though it were some sort of disease he could catch and keep and potentially carry. The deceased he left for Rayna to deal with. It was Rayna who went to the local crafts store after work to find a fabric comparable to that of a Navy Seal’s jacket, and stitched it to Bert Tompkins’ very own coat, and come the time of his funeral, Mrs. Tompkins’ tears would be both of sorrow and exaltation.

“Six hundred,” Declan said by way of greeting. In spite of the sympathy and supposed sincerity put on for the benefit of the mourning, Declan was not in actuality a kind person, and especially not to Rayna. Rayna had six chins, and this was unforgivable to Declan. You are invariably like this as well. When somebody has six chins, you blame them for educational disparity and a global recession and lost kittens and children with cleft lips. You think it’s all her fault. Don’t try to hide it; you’ll look like even more malicious.

“What.” Rayna said, her thoughts of sorrow for you hanging themselves in the rafters.

“We just got six hundred in extra,” Declan said, leaning idly against the counter. “Some old toad just came in and is giving us six hundred to put his wife in her favorite clothe. The hospital dropped her off in the fridge two weeks ago. The funerals’ tomorrow; he just wants us to dress her and put her in a box and he’ll pick her up in the AM.”

The fridge. A box. Such was the coarseness of Declan Webb. Rayna thought many a time of the mortuary that would eventually wind up with his own body, and knew she herself would do a thing or two if his bereavement were in her hands. Still. He had a point. Six hundred dollars was an exorbitant amount for such a request. There had to be a catch.

“Dress her in what.” Had this woman been some sort of prostitute-burlesque dancing waitress in her day, and was Rayna going to have to shovel her back into a prostitute-burlesque dancing outfit?

“I don’t know, the guy brought some pantsuit thing; I put it by the door. Now I’m going to lunch.” Satisfied with his dealings of the dead, Declan left.

Rayna rose. She, too, was hungry— yes, you’re right; her six chins were getting hungry, as merely quivering all day was hard work— and eager to take her break. If she needed to dress the departed, she was going to do so efficiently. She squatted to pick up the bag of clothes, causing her chins to quibble under the force of gravity, and sure enough, there it was, some pasty pink contraption that had perhaps once upon a time been en vogue.

She grabbed her parka by the door and entered the “fridge”, in Declan-jargon. The death immediately grabbed her, the frosty, gloved fingers of the deceased and disappeared. If it was loutish to walk among the lines of the dead, elevated on sterile metal slabs with only sheets to preserve their fleeting and finite identities, Rayna tried not to focus on it.

A single white placard taped to the side of the gleaming block identified the woman: Hollie Charlton. Rayna pulled the sheet back, and was hit with the smell of death, the meaty and quiet odor of indolence. You think dead people look different than live ones. You’re audacious. They don’t.

Hollie Charlton looked like the type of sweet-cheeked grandmother that would offer you a slice of rhubarb-cherry pie, the woman who knitted woolen hats in the wintertime. A librarian, maybe, or a volunteer at the community garden. Hollie Charlton looked like she could very well be asleep on a bed in an assisted living center, or her daughter’s couch, or a park bench. Except for the fact that she was naked.

Mortuaries are required to keep their clients unclothed until the time of their respective funerals or wakes or cremations or ceremonies, as decay and insects are more prone to permeating the body through clothing. So there lay a very saggy Hollie Charlton, arms, legs, and all else akimbo.

Rayna took out some disposable gloves beneath the metal table and went to work. Underwear, white silk stockings, the puce- pink pants. Matronly-brass-buckled shoes invariably from some Ann Taylor shopping outlet. Bra— although, truth be told, when breasts become that slack there really is no need for such a thing—, button-up shirt, puce-pink jacket. A spritz of one of those penetratingly, heart-achingly scented perfumes, which would stick to the skin due to the frosty temperature and remain through the funeral the following day, and Hollie Charlton was ready for the largest and last event of her life.

Rayna uncreased the pants around the old woman’s frail legs and pulled the jacket taut. She was straightening the breast pocket of the suit, and her fingers caught on something. A scrap of paper. Could it be Hollie Charlton’s real will and testament, decreeing that all her prized belongings go to Moby Dick, her Himalayan cat, instead of her husband? Perhaps a tell-all secret note revealing that her death hadn’t simply been a product of too much life, a knee-surgery gone wrong, and some old age, but in actuality she had been poisoned with arsenic by her daughter? Maybe a love letter from some man at her prostitute-burlesque dancing club?

But in very flowery, frail, feather-light handwriting was the phrase: Bring me the sunset in a cup. Below that, the in the same careful penmanship, was a name, presumably the owner of the quote: Emily Dickinson. Hollie Charlton had clearly written the excerpt on a piece of paper to carry with her always, in her very favorite puce-pink pantsuit. Hollie Charlton had clearly found the words poetic and comforting. Hollie Charlton had clearly appreciated beauty. Had. Which is to say, no longer did. Or could. Or would, ever.

Rayna put the scrap of paper back into the woman’s pocket and recovered her— this time with a black sheet, signaling that the other workers at Spangler’s should put her into a coffin in preparation for the funeral. As she walked back through the strips of the soundless and sightless, Rayna felt very small.

She took her keys out of her purse and drove to the little sandwich shop two rights and a left away from Spangler’s, and after she ordered a grilled cheese and a cup of black coffee and wedged herself at a back table, her chin began to tremble more than usual. It vibrated and shook and quaked and soon fat globs of liquid leaked from her eyes and danced between the grooves of her jowls, one two three four five six, and splattered onto the table and into the cup in front of her. Rayna looked down at the mug. There was simply darkness there, coffee grounds, blackness. There was no sunset in her cup, and there wasn’t a request for one.

This wouldn’t have happened, any of this, if she could have her yellow prescription pad and a ficus and a pediatrician’s degree and a life, and lives to save and living of her own to be done. But there were none of those things. There were 180 degrees of life; there was death. You don’t realize it yet, but Rayna had. She sat and ate her grilled cheese and as she did so, she cried. She cried for the job that would never be hers; she cried for the children and their mundane maladies. She cried for her death-denying devotee Declan and pieces of poetry pocketed in puce-pink pantsuits, but as her tears wobbled and dribbled down, down, down her chins and into their demise, Rayna cried hardest for you.




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