Till Death tells the story of a mortician, who tries to make amends with his brother. In the story he works through past events in their lives, centered on their grandfather, while he is working on a corpse who he is trying to relate to.
As a kid, I thought this job was the stuff of nightmares. Yet there I was, pulling the metal tray from the cooler. On that tray was what Joseph Ramsey left behind when he passed, with my sandwich bag and a little bottle of champagne nestled between his feet. I wheeled the cart to my little operating theatre while whistling Comfortably Numb. It wasn’t a glamorous job. Not the kind of job that would help a recent divorcee get back out there. I entered the trade in part because of the money which gave me status and security, but really I did it to be the better son.
Most of my working hours were spent at the table, working on the slowly
peutrificating bodies that of late were my only company, with Pink Floyd
playing softly in the background.
The way I’d set it up, I worked from home. This was fine after I got used to the idea of sleeping a floor above my work.
Death was a funny business, it came in little bursts. I sometimes went a week or two without having anyone to work on, and at other times I’d have to double-stack them in the coolers. I hope they didn’t mind. I know I hated having roommates. Even as a kid, I always pissed my brother off. I wasn’t an easy person to live with.
As I sprayed and scrubbed his body, I saw that Joseph was quite like me. He too was a middle-aged man, a few years older than I, whose gut said he liked his drink. He had been a plumber -disgusting trade. His distant relatives had given iffy promises about attending the funeral, meaning rows of empty seats. He hadn’t left a legacy that people would come to talk about. He hadn’t inspired kids or taken care of his family. This made him more like me and less like the person I’d wanted to become when I grew up, my Grandpa.
“The difference between us Joe, can I call you Joe?” I said. I took his silence for acquiescence. “-Is that I like to either hold a drink or a steering wheel. Both is just a bit much to manage for me Joe.” I took out my drain tube.
“Now this may pinch,” I said. I put the needle end in his arm and turned the spigot, allowing his dark fluids to drain into the grate on the floor. These were the same fluids that had caused Joe such trouble. “Joe, what were you thinking? You could have killed someone.” He paled at my remark.
I hooked him up to his last cocktail. The opaque and formaldehyde-based mixture, which to me looked like a tank of Pepto Bismol, flowed down into him and filled his veins. It may not have been his best state, but he would stay in it now for just about forever. I massaged the muscles down his front, working the fluid into his tissue. Then I grabbed his hand, feeling for increased pressure under the skin. From where I was, I could see a letter I hadn’t had the strength to open and so looked back to Joe’s sad, stiffening face.
“Joe, do you think a couple guys like us are too old for another chance?” I asked, still holding his hand for comfort. “I’d like to think I could change, and I’m not sure I’ll get by like this for long.” Joe considered this, but did not comment.
I grabbed the champagne bottle and set it in Joe’s hand, wrapping his stiff cold fingers around the bottle. With enough rigor mortis, he might be able to help. I glanced down at my phone, to see 11:55pm. Good enough. I grabbed the cork, and together we opened the bottle. I heard a loud pop, and some champagne flowed down Joe’s hand. I laughed.
“To the New Year,” I said, raising his arm by the wrist so he could toast. “A time of change, and new opportunities and,” I trailed off. For a moment the silence was only filled by Roger Waters singing out of my speaker.
I got out my knife.
Then you cut from hole to hole, echoed the voice of my grandfather from some forty years ago. The first of so many times to come that I saw a recently living thing from the inside.
It was at least a hundred out, but we had the lake; that made the weather good. Grandpa and I had spent the morning out in the boat, which was more or less a chunk of aluminum with ores and an outboard motor that I couldn’t start or drive -yet.
We had been successful beyond my wildest dreams. I managed to catch an astounding two fish. Grandpa had caught more, but that didn’t seem as impressive. We put them in what Grandpa called a “homemade livewell” as he had scooped the bucket off the side of the boat to fill it with lakewater. He hauled the livewell, now jerking from side to side with our fish, up to the deck with me at his heels. Then he went into the house, coming back with a long knife and a cutting board.
“Now we’re gonna cook these because it wouldn’t be right to let them go to waste,” he said. “And I think you’re finally old enough to prepare one by yourself.” I nodded several times. “I’ll do one, then it’s your turn.”
He reached into the bucket and pulled out a still-squirming fish. With his free hand he picked up a rock and hit it hard over the head. It stopped. I felt cold. He put the rock down and picked up the knife, which gleamed in the August sun.
I used my knife to make small holes into Joe’s stomach.
“You’ve got to cut right here, just behind the gill,” Grandpa said, indicating a place on the body with the tip. “Then you cut from hole to hole.” He stuck the knife into the fish’s butt and began to saw to his gills. As he did this the fish shook in a pale imitation of his earlier struggle.
“I know it’s a sad thing, but we’ve got to do it all the same,” he said, from under a bushy brow his eyes caught mine. He then, with deft embalmer’s hands, performed a maneuver that pushed the fish’s guts out through the slit he’d made. I began to cry.
This wasn’t so different from the next thing I needed to do to Joe. I hooked the pointed hollow end onto the aspirator. I prefer to call it the gut vacuum. Most of the things that need to be taken out are fluid gone clumpy, or more solid waste. I spared no expense on this aspirator. I never would again after my last one had jammed, spraying its contents about my working space and over my person. These were the problems of working on people, not on fish.
“Take a minute, if you need it,” Grandpa had said. “Just remember that death is a part of life, it isn’t something any of us can outrun forever. Besides your grandma cooks em’ up darn tasty.”
My fish had mercifully already died. That helped me, when I put the knife to it and made the same saw pattern as my grandpa. When I was done, we took the fish inside to Grandma and my brother Mitch. Grandma was making pancakes for Mitch, who was still disheveled and in his PJ’s, despite it being past noon. Grandpa sauntered right to her planting a huge smooch, she nuzzled against his chest. Their display was so tender, I forgot to feign disgust.
“You will never believe the master fisherman that our grandson Danny is. ” he said beaming at me, and making wrinkles around his eyes. I blushed and looked away from his face, and in so doing looked at Mitch’s, which has half hiding in his matted hair. His brow was furrowed and his mouth hung slightly open, as if this thing grandpa was doing should be reserved for him. As if he was owed it. Feeling what I saw as my well deserved turn in the spotlight, with the way Mitch looked at me, gave me a feeling I was unfamiliar with. Pride.
As we grew I did everything I could to keep that pride. To be better, more reliable, and more loved than Mitchell; who never had to work to and so never had to struggle to make people like him. I worked hard to compensate for what I lacked. I excelled as a student, but what really made the difference was that he didn’t go into the trade, and so grandpa’s proud smile stayed on me.
Or at least it did until I was twenty-two years old. It was on April 14th, and though he lived for another year to the date my grandfather was lost to us then. That morning he woke up to find the other half of his bed occupied, but cold all the same.
She went of a heart attack, quick and painless in her sleep. People cooed that it was the best way to go. Some even had the audacity to tell him that it’s how she would’ve wanted it.
When I saw the unreality on his face and the way he couldn’t finish a sentence, I decided to spend some time living with him. My brother and I agreed that it would be best if Grandpa didn’t go through this alone, and I was the logical pick. Mitch and I carried the unspoken knowledge that I was his favorite.
I was sleeping on their floral pull-out couch, on the floor below their room when I heard him.
“Wilma? Wilma?” he called, while he shuffled around the house, bumping into things. Something glass broke, and I scrambled up the stairs into the hallway. Grandpa was standing over the shards of a vase and its wasted brown flowers. His little remaining hair was standing up in all directions, over eyes that were now sunken and afraid.
“Grandpa, what are you doing?” I asked. I grabbed him by the shoulder and made him look at me, I thought it would make him register reality.
“Where’s your grandmother? She didn’t come to bed,” he said.
“Don’t you remember?” I asked. We’d all laughed off the things he’d forgotten so far, car keys, appointments, and a few names. This had allowed us to whisper, but never say or address what was happening.
“Why Grandpa, she’s visiting my mom in Rochester,” A tear slid down my cheek. “Oh, of course. Silly me, I’d forgotten…” said Grandpa. He visibly relaxed. “I had this terrible dream-”
“Well you know what they say, dreams are like assholes. Everyone has them.” I said.
“Well some are bigger than others,” he mused. “Some dreams?” I asked.
“Some assholes,” he said, reaching up and placing his hand on my shoulder and fighting to hide his mischievous smile. “I’ll see you in the morning,” he said, walking back towards his bedroom. When he reached his door, he held the knob for a moment before turning back to me. “How long did your grandma say she’d be gone for?”
“Who knows. She never did have a sense of timing,” I said, and went back down the stairs, ignoring his single raised brow and his mouth opening to ask for clarity.
I lied to him three times before I could no longer bear it. I couldn’t reduce him to this. His once proud and quick speech was now disjointed and muddled. Neither would I break his heart every day, knowing that I’d just have to do it again tomorrow.
Two weeks after that I left. I dumped all kinds of money into getting
grandpa into a home without clearing it with anyone. The place was nice, well
staffed, the food wasn’t shit, and
the geriatric stink should have been perfume to a man who’d spent thirty-five years embalming. Mitchell had seen things differently.
To him, I had committed an act of betrayal. He thought it was cruel to put grandpa there all by himself. To lock him up, and throw away the key. To leave him to rot in a strange setting, mere weeks after the death of his wife, and when he’d trusted me. I can still see the veins standing out on his neck, which was at my eye level.
“Mitch, do you really think we’re what he needs right now?” I said looking out through the front door of my apartment complex, to where my brother stood on the front step.
“Just because you’re perfectly content to live like some morbid hermit, that doesn’t mean that he is,” he shouted. At this point he’d been twenty five, and the twin beer guts we would grow were but a whisper clinging to the fronts of our bodies.
“I know, which is exactly why I picked a place in town. We can both go visit him any day of the week,” I said.
“That’s not good enough. He’s going to keep slipping, and there won’t be anyone he knows there to help him.”
“But he will be surrounded by trained professionals and old biddies. Plus I hear the Viagra flows like wine there,” I said, and used my right forearm to mime a shaky lever rising between my legs. Grandpa would’ve laughed, but Mitch clenched his jaw and balled his fist.
At this he’d turned and left, getting in his dumpy little car which made
a gunshot noise whenever it started up. He’d pulled grandpa out. The strain I
felt when going to Mitch’s place, meant I only visited twice before Grandpa
passed. I’d disgusted Mitch, and he’d switched from infrequent phone calls to
polite copy-paste letters around holidays, the most recent of which was
sitting unopened on the counter. These letters were pretty much the same year to year. They had a picture of his family; a wife I barely knew, two kids whose names I couldn’t remember, and an invitation to his New Year parties 9pm-2am.
I set my knife down, and pulled up a chair next to Joe.
“Joe, I feel like I can tell you anything,” I said. “One of them -his little ones- looks just like me.” I got out some cotton balls and a needle and thread. I began to put the cotton balls into Joe’s mouth. “I thought Mitch would forget about me. That he’d stop his obligatory Christmas card, and let me slide out of memory. I bet he sees that little boy’s face each year and remembers.” I said. Joe gaped at me. “Now don’t make a fuss, but can you imagine the look on his face if I actually went?”
I started to sew his mouth shut, one stitch at a time. When I was done, I looked down at his gray face, and to Joe’s new suit. I washed my hands and checked my phone again: 12:30am.
I set the photo of a younger and happier Joseph Ramsey next to his face, and put my makeup kit to work revitalizing him. I had a knack for this, always had. Once I was done blending all my highlights and shadows, Joe really looked like the man he had been years ago, before he’d made his biggest mistake.
“Gotta say, you clean up nice,” I smiled down at him, proud of my work
and my skill. Though as I looked I realized I’d made mistakes here and there,
making him look just a bit like me. My pride soured. “I’ve gotta go.” I put the
now made-up Joe back in the cooler, and cleaned myself up. The time was 1:15am.
I ditched my embalming mask, gloves, and apron and threw on street clothes
I backed out of the three-car garage I had to myself, and headed towards the opposite side of town. It was snowing hard enough to make my high beams blind me, and it was the powdery stuff that made the roads unpredictable and fun. I allowed my lead foot to inch the speedometer to sixy and then sixty five. As I went I saw a few cars in the ditch, but nothing I’d get a phone call about.
I checked my phone, it was now 1:45am. I made the turn to his driveway, and saw a few cars still parked, though one left as I arrived. I smiled and waved as it passed me, to which it accelerated. I walked past another nice middle-aged sweater-wearing couple, who were the last ones on their way to the car, and to the front door. I didn’t waste any time being polite, I grunted at the couple, and walked in like I owned the place.
I stepped into warmth, onto a “Season’s Greetings” welcome mat, and next to four sets of boots on a little rack. Lights came on upstairs at the sound of the door allowing, me to see a set of kids on the stairs in front of me. One of them had a sullen face with angles I knew too well, especially as they were softened by a little pudge. My brother emerged from his kitchen on my right.
“Rob?” he asked.
“I want to say I’m sorry,” I said, in a low voice. “I’ve been a bad brother.” He smiled on his now wider and softer face.
“Come have a drink with me,” he said, and led me into his living room.
Andrew Tiede is currently in his senior year at Luther College in Decorah, IA. He first got into horror when he was in the 8th grade, and his school’s library opened its restricted section to him. Inside he found Christine, by Stephen King, and it rocked his world.