“You Get The Funk After Death”

Benjamin Orr 135 funk after death

 

“You get the funk after death.” Words of wisdom from Peter on my first day on the job. We were digging the latest grave, and I was still pretty skeeved from all the new smells that hit me when I arrived that morning. I never knew about the funk until I started working at Floyd’s Funeral Parlor. I never knew a lot of things until then.

Since I was a kid, I’d wanted to work at Floyd’s. I’d pass the big, old Victorian house twice a day, to and from school. Out front, Floyd’s tuxedoed statue stood a good 15 feet higher than the tallest passerby. He was always tastefully ringed by a bed of fresh lilies. You might think he’d be intimidating, looking down his nose on everyone, but those lilies softened him and reassured bereaved families that their dearly departed would be in good hands at Floyd’s. Floyd seemed like the kind of man I wanted to be.

“Almost like fingerprints, everyone’s funk is different,” Peter continued.

“How so?”

“Well, take the little old lady we’re burying today. She came here from Myrtle’s Nursing Home, where she’d lived for years. You know how nursing homes always have that stale urine, musty kind of smell? Well, when you’ve lived with that stink for years, it becomes part of you. Plus, she lingered for a long time after she got sick, and decay had got a foothold before she passed. Her family brought a bucketful of Tender Violet cologne to try to cover it up. I guess they thought if the perfume matched her name, violet would become the prominent aroma. Now her funk could best be described as decaying violets with a hint of dog piss.”

“She doesn’t smell like that in the viewing room. I think the embalming process must have taken care of it.”

“Nah. It just adds to the mix. You don’t notice it as much because the lilies are overpowering.”

“What about the guy who came in last night? The one who had a heart attack on the 18th green over at Shady Glen Golf? If where you came from becomes part of the funk, he should be smelling like fertilizer, but He doesn’t. He just smells awfully sweaty.”

“There you have it! By the time you get to the 18th hole, everyone smells sweaty.”

“So the funk isn’t quite like a fingerprint, after all?”

“Sure, it is. Didn’t you ever notice everyone’s sweat smells different? Garlicky and fishy, if you just had scampi; boozy if you drank lunch.”

“Hey, Petey! Stop your yammering and just dig! I’m trying to get some sleep here.”

I wasn’t about to wait around to find out who said that. I dropped my shovel and ran. Peter caught me by my overall strap as I ran past. Nearly choked me to death before he brought me to the ground.

“Pfft! When are you not trying to get some sleep, Harvey? You think you got someplace else to be?”

“Peter? Who’s Harvey? Isn’t that the name on the next tombstone?”

“Listen, Petey, even the dead have to rest up to make a good first impression.”

“On the kid? I think you’ve already made your impression, scaring him half to death. It’s his first day. I planned to ease into letting him know what’s what.”

“Not the kid; Violet. We were sweet on each other when we were young. I want to look my best when she sees me.”

I must be cut out for this work. I was already getting over the shock of hearing a dead man talking, because I jumped into the conversation.

“Mr. Harvey, how is she going to see you? I mean, I gather you ARE the Harvey in the next grave. I can hear you but can’t see you. How will she?”

“Don’t know how it works, Kiddo. It just does. She might not see me right away, if she’s not over the trauma of dying yet. But when she does see me, I want to look as good as I can.”

“Harvey, you’ve been dead 15 years already. How good can you possibly look?”

“Listen, Petey. Floyd does an A-1 job of embalming and prepping for burial. He may not be able to get rid of the funk, but he sure can preserve the body. I just wish he hadn’t concentrated only on the parts that would be seen at the viewing.”

“What do you mean, Mr. Harvey? I thought the embalming fluid replaced blood through the whole body.”

“It does, Kiddo. But Floyd does a lot more than just stuff us with that formaldehyde mix. He fixes up our faces, too. Haven’t you ever heard anyone say ‘Aw, he looks just like himself’ when they pay their respects?”

“Yes, but…”

“Listen, Kiddo. When that train hit me, it threw my parts all over the place. Floyd got them all back and reattached what he could.”

“He made you whole again, Harvey. What’s the problem?”

“Well, Petey, let’s just say, he’ll never be a plastic surgeon. Or a tailor.”

Death comes differently for everyone. Sometimes he comes violently, painfully. Other times, he comes peacefully, stealing from morphine dreams. Sometimes he’ll snatch people before they know what hit them. Other times, he’ll wait for months in the shadows, slowly siphoning someone’s life away. Anytime he wants, Death’ll take from a hospital, bedroom, golf course, lake, middle of the street. No matter how, when, or where he comes, when Death takes, his leavings come here to Floyd’s.

 

Inspired by a lyric from The Cars’ “I’m In Touch With Your World.” Photo of Benjamin Orr (credit unknown)

 

The Parade

Watching the slow procession shambling past, he suspected that he had not been sent to the post he requested when he volunteered. He listened to the speakers touting each ones’ performance under duress. Apparently, there was nary a weak link in that chain. Not much life in them now, but they got the job done.

The distinct tinkling of a thousand little bells preceded the second group coming ever closer on the parade grounds. The jingling stopped periodically as the bunch stepped lively and gained on the first section. When they finally made their way past the reviewing stand, he could see their uniforms were festooned with tiny bells hanging from striped ceremonial ribbons, the kind that usually held war medals. According to the speakers, this platoon hadn’t seen the action the first group had. In fact they hadn’t seen any action at all, but leadership had decided that everyone who participated should get a token of their willingness to play along.

He shuddered when he realized the third group, his section, was the next to gambol along the parade route. The major had begun marking time. The first line was already moving, their uniforms swishing to the rhythm set by the major’s maracas. Although he had no idea how or why he had been assigned here, when his line stepped forth, he managed to shimmy with the best of them, hoping he didn’t look too much like a flapper girl.

 

The underlined words are prompts for today’s Story A Day May 2019.

Love, Actually

1. Kim met Kim at Marjorie’s New Year’s Eve party, two strangers across a room, eyes locked, a single thought between them: Soul-mate.

2. They almost lost each other on Memorial Day, when Kim dashed across the street seconds before the parade marched by, stranding Kim on the other side.

3. The intense Fourth of July sun shimmered across the waves unnoticed by the sunbathing lovers, giggling at the parade sounds floating from Main Street.

4. Fairy lights twinkled in the soft Christmas Eve snowfall outside the chapel, mirroring Kim’s starry-eyed gaze inside, seeing only Kim’s joyful approach down the aisle.

5. Skipping their traditional celebration at Marjorie’s New Year’s Eve party for the first time six years later, they conked out at 9:00, exhausted by their newborn’s constant crying.

6. They renewed their vows on their tenth anniversary, a raging snowstorm outside the chapel mirroring the chaos of their kids escorting them down the aisle with faces twisted, at first, by fearful sobs because Santa wouldn’t be able to find them and, later, by anger when the oldest revealed the truth about Santa.

7. Kim smiled while updating their Facebook cover photo, admiring their handsome family yet blind to the irony of the balanced composition with the college-graduate twins in their caps and gowns in the middle, each flanked by an older sibling, anchored by a parent at each end.

8. To keep up appearances, they marked their twenty-fifth anniversary at a neutral restaurant, a few days early so it wouldn’t disrupt either Christmas or their oldest’s birthday.

9. The surgeon explained the upcoming procedure as Kim trotted alongside, Marjorie’s thirty-fourth New Year’s Eve party forgotten, overwhelmed by conflicting emotions, their subterranean growth hidden by so many sullen, silent years.

10. Alarmed by Kim’s incoherent text, the children bustled into the waiting room within the hour, pausing only for a quick overview from the nurse at the reception desk.

11. Minutes and hours dragged on with no word from the OR, as Kim stared, unseeing, at the TV, watching the internal movie of their life.

12. When the surgeon pushed through the door at last, the children arose expectantly; Kim, seated, needed only one look at his face to know this New Year’s Eve was their last.

13. The cloying smell of lilies and stale cologne gave Kim a headache and created a cover for tears that dimmed the polite, sad smile greeting everyone who air-kissed after signing the guestbook.

14. On the thirty-fifth anniversary of Marjorie’s New Year’s Eve party, Kim stood alone amid the swirling snowflakes, tears streaming while fingers traced cut patterns on the granite.

The Ascent

In this desolate place, oppressive heat stifled nature’s workings. Barren rubble offered no sheltering shadows under overhanging slabs or leafy boughs. No breeze to brush the remains of life. Vultures floated overhead, effortlessly circling ever closer. The still silence was broken only by the scraping boots of the woman unsteadily climbing the steep craggy path. Unimpeded by clouds, the merciless sun beating down relentlessly caused shimmering waves to shape-shift the trail before her.

The woman staggered on the rugged terrain, her falling prevented only by her well-worn walking staff. Taller and stronger than she, its sturdiness lent her strength on her ascent. As she climbed she increasingly relied on its force to inch herself forward. Panting from the exertion, she paused and leaned heavily into the staff for support. Her eyes traced the myriad shades of green and copper in the wood’s grain. Her mouth hung open as she desperately gasped for breath.

Gradually, her wheezing rasp and panting subsided. Her head still resting on the shaft, she inhaled deeply of its sweet green essence. She stood straighter. No longer grasping, her fingers gently caressed the sleek recesses of the staff’s handholds, gliding over the roughness of the intricate patterns incised between the smoothness. She looked up at the carved raven atop the staff and said, “Lignum vitae, you are well-named.”