by Heather Webb
read by The Attic Clown
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Jack had never been inside a funeral home before, although he’d seen them in movies.
He’d expected a dim, timeless, hushed elegance, redolent of chrysanthemums, roses and despair.
Seated on a scarred wooden chair in Mr. Broussard’s cramped and cheaply-paneled office, he reflected that the aura here was more used-car-lot than funeral parlor, although he might’ve guessed that from the squat, cinder-block exterior of the building, with its peeling gold letters: “Broussard’s Funeral Home and Memorial Park”.
From Broussard’s office window, there was an excellent view of the cemetery: a dozen acres of tilting tombstones and plump leering concrete cupids, the back half overgrown with kudzu and weeds, littered with trampled silk flowers, small soiled American flags, deflated balloons like washed-up jellyfish, ribbon tentacles trailing: the detrius of the dead.
Although this was Jack’s first time inside Broussard’s, he was familiar with the cemetery; he and his friends used to skip school and smoke pot there, lounging against the cool canted headstones. He’d lost his virginity there, in the mossy graveyard dirt, with a grim-faced statue of the Blessed Mother of God overseeing the proceedings.
Now, the unchanged headstones seemed to mock him, just as his youthful high spirits and exuberance must have once mocked them.
Jack felt a twinge of nostalgia for those innocent times, when life stretched out before him, an endless and compelling vista of possibilities.
It had only been an illusion, of course. But he longed for the illusion.
Mr Broussard leaned across his desk, entwining his long, pale fingers beneath his chin.
“Mr Driggers,” his voice was dry, thin, and bloodless. It matched the rest of him.
“Jack.” Jack put in quickly. He was not yet thirty. Mr Driggers was his father. He hated his father.
“Jack.” Broussard pronounced, with a chill, dessicated smile which, Jack reflected, couldn’t possibly offer much solace to mourners. “I appreciate you coming in so late, and on such short notice. I’ve had a busy few days, and haven’t been able to close the shop until after eight. Typically, our hours of operation are ten to six. Now, when we spoke on the phone, you indicated that you were interested in the undertaker’s assistant position… the ad in the Penny Saver, correct?”
“No, the Help Wanted sign.” Jack replied. “On the cemetery gate. I was walking by and I saw it. I thought it was kind of funny.”
“Funny.” Broussard pronounced the word as if it were foreign, rolling it around in his mouth as if it were an unknown food he was considering spitting out. “Kind of funny.”
Idiot, why did you say that? Jack berated himself.
“Well, you know,” he mumbled, “Just… a Help Wanted sign on the cemetery gate. It was like the dead were hiring.”
“Ah.” said Broussard. He turned to the window, which overlooked the cemetery, and gazed out into the night, across the darkened necropolis of tombstones. Then he looked back at Jack.
“I didn’t put any Help Wanted sign on the gate.” he said. He gestured toward the window, raising an eyebrow. “You see? No sign.”
Jack didn’t know how to respond to that. He swallowed and said nothing. There had been a sign. A piece of cardboard, hand-lettered, ragged-edged.
“I will assume you were joking.” Broussard stated dismissively. “So. You saw the ad in the Penny Saver. I am looking for an assistant. My nephew served in this capacity for several years, but now he’s left for college out of state, and I find myself once again short-handed.”
Jack stared at Broussard’s undertaker’s hands: smooth and hairless, with abnormally long, pale fingers and scrubbed nails.
No one could ever accuse Broussard of being short-handed, he thought.
He felt crazy laughter burbling up in his throat, but he managed to squelch it and nod earnestly. He needed a job, any job. Badly.
Broussard leaned forward, resting his sharp elbows on his desk, and for a moment Jack did catch the faintest whiff of funeral flowers, dusty and stale, and an undertone of something sharper, antiseptic; it was the smell of formaldehyde, or some similar preserving agent. He remembered it from when they’d dissected frogs in high school.
“Broussard’s is a traditional, full-service funeral home.” Broussard announced, peering across the desk at Jack. “That means that we do our own embalming. Downstairs. We collect the deceased from the hospital; we embalm the deceased and take care of all the burial preparations. We support the grieving family. We assist with the selection of a coffin and a marker. We conduct the memorial service in our chapel. And afterward…”
He nodded curtly toward the window.
“So you can see that I need help.” He continued. “As an undertaker’s assistant, your duties would be varied. You’d collect the deceased from the hospital in the van, assist me with burial preparations, place the deceased in the coffin. You’d set up the chapel- chairs, floral arrangements, tribute cards, attendance book. You’d greet mourners and escort them to the chapel. You’d arrange the burial equipment- the mats and lowering straps- and store it away in the shed afterward. You’d sometimes be called upon to serve as a pallbearer. You’d be in charge of cleaning the lobby, the parlor, and the chapel, as well as maintaining the van and the hearse.”
“When you say, assist in burial preparations,” Jack put in nervously, “Do you mean I’d actually have to help with the, um… I forgot what you called it. Downstairs?”
“The embalming?” Broussard supplied, offering again his chill cresent of a smile. The smile seemed almost painful, as if it stretched the scant flesh of his cheeks unnaturally. “Embalming requires a state license. I hold that license. But, yes. You will assist me with every aspect of my work here.”
Again, Jack caught a whiff of that formaldehyde-frog odor, stronger this time. A wave of nausea rolled over him.
I need this job. Any job, he reminded himself. I’ll get used to it. I can do this.
“That is,” Broussard said archly, “if I decide to hire you.”
He picked up Jack’s application from the desk and rattled it slightly in his long fingers.
“Now, you are 28 years old,” Broussard examined the paper, “and you grew up here in Richmond. You graduated from Canton High, right across the street.”
“Go, Tigers.” Jack joked feebly.
“Indeed.” replied Broussard. “You worked for a number of years at the Kroger store on Kitterick Avenue. Then you went to work for Shackleford, out at the Red River Mine.”
“My girlfriend was pregnant.” Jack put in. “My dad worked for Red River for fifteen years. I never wanted to work there, but it paid good, and I needed the money. It’s really not… my thing, though. I have asthma.”
“It says here that you were laid off in ’06…. that would’ve been the first round of lay-offs. I assume you collected unemployment for awhile. But… I guess my question would be, Mr Driggers,” Broussard set the application down on his desktop and smoothed it thoughfully with the palm of his hand, “Where have you been for the past three years?”
Here we go, Jack thought. He could lie, and Broussard might hire him; maybe he’d even work here long enough to collect a paycheck or two. But sooner or later, Broussard would find out the truth- Richmond wasn’t that big a town- and then he’d be out on his ass, unemployed again.
Jack took a deep breath. “Mr Broussard, I was up at Lawrenceville, in the correctional center there, for eighteen months. Before that I was in county for nearly a year. I got sent up for possession of meth… methamphetamine… when I was 25. That was nearly three years ago, and I’ve done my time, and I’m clean now. I want a chance to start over and live a decent life. I thought about… going somewhere else besides Richmond, but it’s the only home I’ve ever known. So here I am, I’ve rented a room down on Augusta and Parkway, and I need a job. I’m a hard worker, I’ve put the bad stuff behind me, and I hope you’ll give me a chance.”
Broussard looked at Jack for a long time. His face was still as stone, and his unblinking gray eyes appeared glazed over, as if with some sort of film.
Jack felt his cheeks grow hot, and stared down at his hands.
“Eighteen months for possession.” Broussard mused presently. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“Well, sir, it’s because of the amount. They said…. possession with intent to distribute. But I wasn’t. Selling, I mean. It was all mine.”
“I see.” Broussard rubbed his fingers together contemplatively. They made a raspy, unpleasant sound. “Boy or girl?”
“Beg pardon, sir?”
“Your child. You said your girlfriend was pregnant. Do you have a son, or a daughter?”
Jack blinked, as if slapped.
“She didn’t… she decided not to have it, after all.” His voice broke stupidly on the last syllable, and he felt a familiar prickling behind his eyes.
Why was Broussard asking him these things? He’d better get the job, after being put through this dog-and-pony show.
Jack hurried ahead to the conclusion of the story, “I don’t know where she is now. I heard she moved to Nashville. My mom and dad are still here in Richmond, but they don’t want nothing to do with me since I’ve been out, so… I’m on my own, looking for a job, trying to find a way to have a decent life. But it seems like no one’s hiring right now. The economy, I guess. I was putting in applications when I passed by here and saw your sign.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Jack wished he could retrieve them; he didn’t want to offend Broussard again by mentioning the sign when Broussard insisted there wasn’t one. But Broussard seemed not to notice. He was staring out the window, as if deep in thought.
“Well, my boy,” he said finally, clasping his slender hands together, “Let’s go downstairs, shall we? I’ll introduce you to some of our clients.”
He laughed his dry laugh when he took in Jack’s bewildered expression.
“The deceased.” explained Broussard. “I have two bodies down there right now, awaiting preparation.”
He unfolded himself, like a stick insect, rose to his full height, and came around the desk, placing a bony hand on Jack’s shoulder as he passed.
“I think you’ll do.” said Broussard. “But I want to make sure. Follow me, please.”
Wordlessly, Jack trailed behind as Broussard pointed out the chapel, the various storage closets. Everything was old, cheap, and very clean.
The dusty smell of dead flowers prevailed here.
“The basement is through here,” Broussard said, indicating a white-painted metal door. “I keep it locked, for obvious reasons. Now, where is that key?”
After rummaging through his pockets, Broussard decided that he’d left the key in his office.
“Walk back there with me, this won’t take a minute.”
As they headed back toward the office, Broussard turned suddenly to Jack and said, “How do you feel about the dead?”
Caught off-guard, Jack stammered, “The… the dead? I mean, I feel fine about them, I guess. I’ve never really known anybody that died. My grandma died, but it was before I was born. But… I’m fine with them.”
“Not afraid of them, are you?” asked Broussard, plucking a ring of keys out of his desk drawer and leading Jack back down the hall.
“You know, all these movies. Dawn of the Dead. Night of the Living Dead. Undead. Zombies. So many young people these days don’t treat the deceased with the proper… reverence.”
Broussard unlocked the white door, and ushered Jack down a dim concrete stairway.
The formaldehyde smell was strong here, almost overpowering. Beneath it was another smell, darker and more earthy. Death. A tiny pilot light of fear ignited in Jack’s sternum. He clutched the cold metal rail, suddenly unable to catch his breath. At the top of the stairs, the metal door swung shut with a dull, final clap.
“The dead, ” Broussard said, smiling at him through the gloom, “are like dogs.”
Something wasn’t right here. His face. Not right. Jack struggled for breath, glancing up at the door at the top of the stairs.
Mustn’t let Broussard know anything was wrong.
“Like.. like dogs?” Jack wheezed, through narrowed bronchial tubes. He reached toward his back pocket for his inhaler. Didn’t feel it. He’d left it in Broussard’s office, in his jacket.
“Yes.” Broussard said. “They sense fear.”
Broussard’s mouth opened in a soundless laugh, exposing dirt-stained teeth. His eyeballs had shriveled and fallen back in his head, leaving only dark, hollow sockets. The smell of formaldehyde and death, which had been eminating from him all along, suddenly overwhelmed Jack. Panicked and unable to catch his breath, he made a dash for the door, but he lost his footing on the stairs.
The last thing Jack heard was the dead croak of an answering laugh, and a soft, secretive shuffling- like the rustling of dry leaves- from the foot of the stairs, and then he didn’t hear anything else because the floor was coming up so fast and hard to meet him.