Moriah Erickson, 3/20/2011
Former Occupation: hairdresser at a funeral home
The author would like you to note that this piece is “SemiFiction”.
When I went to beauty school, this was never what I imagined for myself. I was eighteen, straight out of my senior year of high school, and pregnant. It was cosmetology then. I didn’t let anyone refer to it as “beauty school,” mostly because I was still trying to maintain the illusion of having my life together. I would finish school, have my baby, and work in a hip, expensive salon. I would chat with young rich women all day, and most importantly, reap humungous tips.
Upon completing my schooling, the only job I was offered with no experience was at Fantastic Sam’s, home of the eight dollar haircut. Of that eight dollars, I would get three. Plus I would have to spend two hundred dollars a month to rent a chair. Fantastic Sam’s really wants to keep its employees poor, I guess. I refused their job and continued to look in the paper, still convinced that soon Vidal Sassoon would be advertising in Byron. It never happened that way, but one day, I spotted a miniscule ad in the corner of the page, below the real estate listings:
“Hairdresser needed. No experience necessary. $15/hour” followed by a phone number that looked vaguely familiar. I called it.
“Ed Prignani’s” the voice on the other end of the line said. I hung up. The funeral home? I dialed again this time while looking at the ad, thinking I had transposed numbers.
“Ed Prignani’s” the same voice said, this time a little annoyed.
“Do you have an ad in the paper?” I asked, sounding surprisingly sure of myself.
“I will put you through to Ed,” the voice responded. Several clicks and a man’s voice responded, “Ed here.” He sounded like a normal enough man, not like Herman Munster or the Cryptkeeper, like I expected.
“Do you have an ad in the paper?” I repeated. “For a hairdresser?”
“Why?” came out before I could think about it.
“Our last gal is leaving. Moving to Texas, after fourteen years. Are you interested? I am kind of desperate…tomorrow is her last night and we don’t have a replacement.”
I was still baffled as to why a funeral home would employ a hairdresser, but the ad had said fifteen dollars an hour. “I am.”
“Can you come down this afternoon? Just a formality. You are the only one who has called.”
I looked down at my pregnant belly, no disguising that. I hesitated. “Well, okay. But I am pregnant, don’t be too surprised.”
Ed Prignani let out a laugh that rattled my teeth through the phone. “My dear,” he said, “The dead don’t care what you look like. They don’t care how you smell. They don’t care if you have six arms. I just want someone who can make these stiffs look like the pictures their families bring in.”
No place is more depressing than this. The floor is linoleum squares cut from the cheapest asbestos in the ugliest color, pea green. There is a drain in the middle of the floor as big as the manhole cover that used to be there, when this was a real house. Florescent garage lights hang from the ceiling on chains.
Most of my work goes on here in the basement, in the “preparation room.” The corpses are not yet in their coffins. They still lay on the stainless steel tables that Ed uses to embalm them. I worry sometimes about the chemicals used to preserve the dead bodies, but not much. I don’t touch them much.
Tonight my job is to prepare Mrs. Crabtree for her visitation the next morning. She was my third grade teacher. There are two other corpses in the room, Mr. Janusz and Mr. Cox. They are both on the steel tables, but they are covered with the heavy rubber tarps that Ed has positioned just so. Ed positions the sheets so they will not rest on the corpses’ faces and leave indentations, and I am slowly learning how to tent the tarps when I am done preparing a corpse to avoid this too. Mrs. Crabtree is naked, the sheet pulled down to her waist. Her old skin is grey and withered. Her breasts have sunk into her armpits. Her face is pale, and her hair is matted with the paste the hospital uses to perform EEGs.
Before I begin, I go up to the “consultation room” on the second floor. This is the room where Ed sells the mourning families coffins, and there is a display room adjacent to it, where a section of each coffin is laid out for people to see. This area of the funeral home is tastefully decorated with boring pictures of flowers, and the carpet is a plush ruby color. The consultation room is where the control for the piped-in music is hidden, behind a panel of floral wallpaper behind the desk. That is what I am here for. I eject Ed Prignani’s soothing cd of quiet violins and oboes, and twist the dial to 97ZOK. I turn the volume up to 8, so no one passing on the street can hear it, but I don’t have to listen to the vinyl of my gloved fingers against Mrs. Crabtree’s scalp. I leave the panel open and the cd on the desk so Ed knows not to turn the music on in the morning without putting it back. Kansas is droning about dust in the wind, but I figure it will get better, so I leave the station and head back down to the basement.
Kansas is gone from the radio, now the DJ is talking about the weather, which strikes me as odd, since its eleven o’clock at night. It seems like a strange time to be thinking about the weather since most people are going to bed, and nobody is really going out. Especially on a Tuesday. On the radio, House of Pain demands that I “Jump Around,” and I do, a little.
I walk over to Mrs. Crabtree and look at her face. Her eyes are closed; Ed sews them shut before I do their hair. Her nose is still the pointy beak-like protrusion that it was when I was in the third grade. She smells lightly of formaldehyde and rubbing alcohol. The glue in her hair clumps it together in pasty mats, and I begin to wash it. I have a picture from her family of how they would like her to look, still in the envelope, sitting on the tarp where her shins are. There is a garment bag hanging on a rack in the corner and it holds the dress they brought in for her to wear. I wonder briefly if I will recognize it from her third-grade wardrobe.
The water dribbles down her neck, but gets soaked into the towel I have rolled behind her neck. I stop, realizing the water is not warm enough to cut through the EEG glue. I pick up the tub, go to the big stainless sink in the corner of the preparation room and dump it out. As the cloudy water is swirling down the drain, I hear a faint sound, or think I do. Its like a moan, but more guttural. I listen closely, but all I can hear is the water sucking down the drain.
I turn the faucet on to hot, then back it off a little. I add a squirt of the soap, which is green and smells mildly of oranges. Ed keeps it in a Dawn Dish Detergent bottle, his weird idea of humor. The water in the tub lathers up, and the bubbles only have a slightly greenish hue. Just as I am about to turn the faucet off, I think I hear the noise again, only this time not so loud.
My hand flies to the faucet, shuts it off fast. The copper pipes that lead to the back of the sink protest with a loud metallic “bong” that does not resound. I listen closer. Nothing. Just Britney Spears singing “Hit me baby, one more time” in her Mickey Mouse Club voice over the speakers. I realize then that I am holding my breath. I let it out, chastise myself for being so jumpy. I carry the tub by its lip back to the table where Mrs. Crabtree is waiting.
“Did you get cold, dear?” I ask her. I talk to the dead folks, or maybe to myself, a lot while I am working. It makes my job seem less gruesome and boring, and more like working at Vidal Sassoon. Mrs. Crabtree doesn’t answer.
I can feel the heat of the water through my gloves as I dip the washcloth in the tub and begin to scrub her hairline. The glue is coming off, but its slow going. Mrs. Crabtree’s hair is wiry, salt-and-pepper colored. When she was my teacher, she dyed it jet black, which made her appear severe. I scrub away at her, careful not to disturb the integrity of her scalp. The water grows cooler, and I use it until it won’t penetrate the glue at all any more. I have about a third of her head left, and the rest of it looks pretty clean.
“I’m gonna hafta get you new water,” I say. I drop the washcloth in the tub, splashing cloudy water out onto the linoleum. I pick up the tub, sloshing more water over the edge. It splatters on my arm and leaves a gritty white film there.
I start toward the sink, and then hear, very distinctly, a moan. Over the sound of The Eagles on the speakers, so it was loud. Shocked, my gloved fingers release the tub and the chalky water goes everywhere. My tennis shoes and the bottoms of my jeans are soaked. Splatters soak in up to my knees. I am unable to move. I stand in the puddle, watch the bulk of it trickle towards the drain in the middle of the room. I hear it again, low and stuttering, but definitely a moan.
I turn at the hip, my feet still frozen in place. The room looks the same. Mrs. Crabtree is still half-washed, and I notice that her hair is drying in the front, limp along her forehead. Beyond her, Mr. Janusz and Mr. Cox lay under the yellow rubberized sheets. Seeing that everything appears normal, my feet release from the tiles and though my legs feel slightly weak, I am able to bend to pick up the tub and washcloth. I carry them to the sink and turn on the hot water.
I rinse out the tub. I rinse the washcloth and wring it several times. I rinse it again. The hot water on the outside of my gloves feels slippery. I am nervous now. I know that this was not my imagination, that the sound was real and that I am not crazy. I fill the tub with hot water again, slosh the washcloth back and forth to build the suds. I pick up the tub, careful not to dump any more of it than I have to. I turn to return to Mrs. Crabtree, to finish her half-washed head and get her set in rollers. Only I drop the tub again in amazement.
This time I scream. As if anyone could hear me or is even awake at one-thirty in the morning. I scream and I feel dizzy and sick with fear. Mr. Cox is slowly sitting up on the table. The careful tenting of the sheet over his face has collapsed, I am sure it is sliding over his nose. I hear the groan again, and I am sure it is coming from Mr. Cox. The tarp slithers off his head in slow-motion, revealing first his greasy grey hair that is sticking up and then his waxy grey face. His eyes were sewn closed as well, but his mouth was open in a horrid gasp. My scream died out somewhere before the sheet started to fall off his face, and I suck in sharply. The room begins to waver, and I scream again, too afraid to faint. I bolt for the stairs, wet shoes squishing on the pea green floor. Mr. Cox is sitting fully upright now, and the groan has stopped. The sheet is bunched on his naked belly, his droopy old-man boobs resting on top of it. His mouth is still open.
I make it half way up the stairs at full-bore before I slow down. My scream has ended, but I feel like it could start again at any time. I turn back and look at the preparation room. Mr. Cox is a perfect ninety degree angle, mouth open. Everything else is just as I left it. I stop. I sit down on the step, watching the room. I watch for twenty minutes at least, but it feels like eternity. Nothing changes. My hands shake, the adrenaline rush wearing off through my fingertips.
I go upstairs, sit in the last row of the visitation room, on one of the folding chairs. Mrs. Crabtree’s family has selected Maple Destiny as her coffin, and it is waiting, empty at the back of the room. In the morning, Ed will wheel it onto the elevator and go to the basement, expecting her to be ready for her showing. I imagine his surprise when he finds her half-washed, Mr. Cox sitting upright, and the spilled tub of water. I suppose he will figure out what happened. I can’t give two weeks’ notice, not for this.