My husband’s got wood. And he wouldn’t mind my saying so; he cannot lie, is immune to nuances, sarcasm, puns, love. At night, lying as close to him as I can, unable to make my legs stop moving, as if I’m performing a slow underwater dance, I whisper to him, Tell me you love me. He moves his head back and forth twice, no. He cannot. I tell him I want to have children with him. He is completely still: he has no idea what the words mean and so he’s unable to formulate a gesture or reply. I say, Parents? We could be parents. Who were your father and mother? I already know the answer but there’s something about the confidence with which he answers me (he knows this one, and he’s repeated it many times), something so close to manhood, that I ask every night. My father was the chisel, he says, and my mother sandpaper stretched over a block of wood.
My eyes fill with tears. I pretend I feel for him—that he has been robbed of something and the robbery reaches me—but in truth I’m crying because he is my husband and I’m so brutalized by desire I can no longer control anything my body does. I climb atop him, I say low and almost choked, Don’t move, and he stares at me. I move him where I want him. I cry; he stares.
At the funeral home where we both work, Merriman and Sons Mortuary, I sit in the office answering the phones and taking care of accounts and generally functioning as office manager, which means I do everything. This includes my going down to the Prep Room to help when there’s a problem, and also attending many funerals where there are dead children, or when the emotions of the grief-stricken are wildly out of control and I have to put myself between them and their Loved One, Who Has Passed. Take for instance the Romanian woman—how she ended up in Parchment, Indiana, I will never know—whose beautiful twenty-one-year-old daughter had, for no reason anyone could discern, come home from a party, locked herself in the family garage, and gassed herself to death. The coroner (who is my boss) ruled it a cut-and-dry suicide, no accident. The girl, Elena, was sober, had no drugs of any kind in her body. She was a champion swimmer at the local college; she was loved by everyone. She was tall and thin and fine-boned and funny and then she was dead.
So the mother, Nadia, who could not account for this death, tried climbing into the open casket. This is strictly forbidden. We do not allow cohabitation in the caskets. Nadia also insisted on rubbing the back of Elena’s hand: again, no. She rubbed the thick, pancake makeup off, leaving a spot of black where the girl had decayed before being found. Nadia sang Romanian folk songs which were frankly nonsensical to all of us, and then began kissing Elena on the lips, tears hitting the face of the Deceased; oh, all of that is very, very bad. For one thing, she kissed away the Vaseline-like adhesive that holds the lips together, revealing the crude black stitches holding the lips shut. Who wants to see a mouth filled with cotton gauze? I didn’t want to say these things to the poor, foreign woman, but then her tears began to do equally awful things to Elena’s facial cosmetizing. At the moment the mother tried to actually hoist her daughter out of the casket I was called in and this is what I said. I said, “Mrs. Petrovasklaskilis, this must cease and cease now. Because you are not doing your precious daughter any favors with your behavior which is frankly self-indulgent and lacking in dignity. You put the Deceased back in her casket, which raises and lowers for the comfort of the Remains, and you allow us to continue this service, and then you may conduct your foreign-type grieving at home with your own kind.” For some reason this worked and the rest continued without incident.
Another time I was called down to the Prep Room when I heard Phil, our embalmer, screaming. Screaming is not tasteful in a funeral home and should not be endured. I ran down the steps, and what did I find? He had Tony MacIntyre on the table, and just as he was getting ready to undress him, one of Tony’s legs slipped off and fell in the toilet into which the funnels at the edge of the steel table run. The leg was wearing its own shoe and sock and everything, just like the one still stuck to the body. I had to step in and pull the leg out of the toilet and say with some fierceness, “Phil Hardaway, everyone from Dan to Bathsheba knows that Tony had a false leg from getting his original caught in a thresher fifteen years ago. Keep up.” Unfortunately I was waving the leg at him, which was splashing him with water and causing him a bit more consternation than was absolutely necessary. I propped the leg in the corner of the room and told him to get on with his business with some decorum and then asked would he like a pizza from the Pizza Hole, and he said yes.
My point is there is not a thing I’m not responsible for in this place, as is often the case with “women” and “office managers.” Strange duties are what led me to my precious husband, Alonzo, which while his name sounds foreign is not; he is white as Phil Hardaway. A pure Caucasian. What happened was that the Widow Kanootsen finally passed away after scaring the bejesus out of us for the past ten years by pulling sweaters up over her head and pretending to be a white-tailed deer, then darting out in front of cars. She was one-hundred-years old if she was a day and that woman could scamper. I stopped her once when she tried to kill us both on the intersections of County Road 732 North and 257 East, and asked her about the sweaters and she said with great authority, “They are my shroud. I wear them in honor of my dead husband, Crispus, who did more for this county than any other human alive, and I will wear the shroud until someone finally runs me down or shoots me for wildlife.” I thanked her for the information. Crispus has been dead for forty-five years, but I did not point that out as it seemed unnecessary.
So the Widow Kanootsen Passed and some said, “Thank God,” but not I because I do not take the Lord’s name in vain if I can help it, and besides she was a human soul, or at least she looked like one. However, in the forty-five years since the death of her beloved and the donning of the sweater-shroud, she had left behind no income or savings whatsoever, and as is often the case her one son, a “consultant” somewhere in California, advised us to take her house and land and all its contents in return for our funeral bill. Merriman and Sons has ended up with quite a bit of property that way, which is a fine little investment for a business that never stops being needed and turns a pretty penny anyway, or at least it used to, but you didn’t hear that from me.
Naturally I was called to the house to help clean it out and take an inventory, and determine what was salvageable for an auction and what was not and whether the house should be kept and renovated for renting or sold. I have to say: I have been present for the funerals for four-year-old boys who died suddenly of unknown heart conditions. I have seen the interior of their caskets decorated with their favorite teddy bears and banners from baseball teams and I kept my cool because I am a trained professional and Death will come for us all, alas. But this, the Widow’s house, was sad to me. Everything was in its place, dusted and arranged in a pleasing order, and it seemed nothing had changed since the Passing of Crispus. There was a wedding photograph on the mantle, the silver frame polished to a bright glow. There was a honeymoon photograph, the Widow’s (who was not yet a Widow but a Bride) hair blowing back from her forehead in a strong Italian breeze, revealing her strong bone structure and lovely face. And Crispus himself was the model of manhood, in his dress uniform from the Big War, where he had been a fighter pilot.
The ruby and carnival glass in the cabinets was all clean and arranged in precise rows. The kitchen was old-fashioned and without a speck of dirt. There was not one dish left unwashed or out, as if she had known we were coming. And oh, every room was this way—every bedroom, every handmade quilt and comforter, every embroidered pillowcase and hand-towel, it was a treasure trove of grief and upkeep and sadness and waiting.
Then I went into the attic, where she had stored Crispus’s things. There were his clothes in rubber bags, the rubber brittle and cracking, his shoes in old cardboard boxes turning to dust. And a trunk. The trunk interested me suddenly in a way hardly anything ever has, not since that time I got drunk on strawberry wine at the gravel pit and allowed the worst boy in town, Raymond Perkins, to kiss me on the mouth, but that is another story. I walked toward that trunk as if toward my destiny, which indeed I was doing.
It was locked. I looked around and there, hanging on a raw wooden beam, was a set of keys, and after only a few minutes I found the right one. I opened the lid slowly, a little afraid maybe. There were boxes tied in ribbons, faded pink for the letters the Widow Kanootsen had written to her husband and faded blue for his to her. Many boxes: maybe ten in all. They had originally held a kind of chocolate no longer in existence—a name I didn’t even recognize and I have lived here my whole life. There was a cigar box, and in it a bluebird feather, a ragged wallet, Mr. Kanootsen’s driver’s license and wedding ring. His personal effects, which she would have been given at the funeral home or the hospital on the day of his death. I recognized these things.
I went down further. A box containing the bride and groom figures from their wedding cake top. Photograph albums, her ungrateful son’s birth certificate and early report cards. Their Wedding Ring quilt, sealed in a dry-cleaners box and now worth, oh, $10,000 at the least. And at the very bottom, a long, thin box marked: PRIVATE PROPERTY OF CRISPUS KANOOTSEN NOT TO BE PLAYED WITH THIS IS NOT A TOY! The box was strange; a thick, expensive sort of paper that seemed untouched by time, and bound in twine. Everything on the outside was written in Italian, but the decorations were like those of a faded circus, an old, old circus, the kind that appears in dreams and longings and terrors, where the horses rear up but seem not to come down, and the lions are charging right at you but somehow you want to die. Have Mercy, if anyone at Merriman’s heard me talking this way they’d have me on the third floor of the county hospital, weaving yarn in and out of paper plates and rightly so.
I was drawn to the Private Box; I was drawn as if by forces or strong magnets or when you really, really have to go to the bathroom and there’s one in front of you. That has happened to me before; don’t say it isn’t common. I carefully pulled one end of the twine and the whole complicated knot fell away. It just fell on the floor like a dead snake. I put my fingernails under the edges of the lid, and it came off as if it had been shut airtight, with a sort of sucking sound, the kind that happens when you open good Tupperware. I was so nervous I closed my eyes as I moved the lid aside, and I sat there a good ten seconds or so, sweating in the attic heat, my heart pounding to beat the band, and then I opened them, and there he was. My husband. The man I had waited my entire life for, and then some. Alonzo. His eyes were open and cobalt blue. His lips were painted red; he was half-smiling and he had only one dimple, in his right cheek. His nose was upturned just like my granddad’s had been, a sweet little nose, and his hair, all of a carved piece of course, was coal black and shaped into a wave. He was wearing a beautiful, finely-woven black wool suit that showed no wear or moth bites, a white shirt, a red bow tie. The lines of his smile led all the way back to his ears, like those of a pit bull. His hands were astonishing—each nail perfect and groomed, the fingers relaxed but powerful. He wore black dress shoes with laces, and he was lying in a bed of pale blue silk, a pillow under his head.
He was staring right at me. “Alonzo,” I said. My husband, I thought.
“Mary Jo,” he answered, although his mouth creaked a bit, as if he had not spoken or loved anyone in a long, long time.
When I told my mother Eulah that we were getting married she continued to move around the kitchen, periodically stopping to sift flour in a violent way that scattered it all over the formica and the linoleum. Her aged cocker spaniel came in and licked it up, then choked and had to be given water out of a baby bottle. Mother’s connection to that dog is not right, and I fear not even Godly, but she doesn’t listen to me.
Alonzo was sitting on my knee and he said, “I ask your daughter’s hand in marriage with the utmost respect, Mrs. Chute.”
Mother turned and said, “What kind of voice is that, anyway? How could you marry someone who has a voice like that?”
“Well for the sake of sense! He has been locked in a box for nigh on half a century; he’s a little rusty! His voice is getting deeper every day, and he’s losing that accent which I find troubling. I have had his suit cleaned, and I’ve polished him with butcher block oil, and anyway this is final, I am marrying him so take it graceful and plan a wedding or else we’ll go to the magistrate.”
Mother Eulah began to cry, making all the fattest places on her, her hips and the undersides of her arms, plus her chins, shake in a way I could not stand. “How could you, Mary Jo, when we have saved you and saved you, we have preserved your most precious gift, your lady flower, for forty years, and now you are going to marry . . . that. Oh, if your father were here to see this.”
I looked at her with a feeling that wasn’t Christian and I stroked the hard wooden head of my beloved, and I didn’t care about my dead daddy or anything else, or what the town of Parchment would think: I had found him. I had found my true love, and nothing, absolutely nothing would get in the way of my becoming his lawfully-wedded wife.
Alonzo said, “Oh, if your father were here to see this,” and he sounded so much like my mother she turned, pale as the flour she was spilling on the floor, and I thought her heart would give out.
Alonzo works with me in the office now. On Wednesdays we do accounts, which means we go through the card file and we call all the people who are behind on their funeral bills or else who have never paid one thin dime to begin with. I take one phone and Alonzo takes another. This is a fabulous plan for me because it doubles the number of people I can call, although it is taking me time to teach Alonzo the delicacy of the situation, given that what we are talking about are Loved Ones In Vaults Covered By Dirt.
I have given him my honey-voiced example many times. “Mr. Clevenger? This is Mary Jo down at Merriman and Sons Mortuary, how are y’all today? That is so good to hear. How’s the wife and kids? Oh, I am sorry to hear that about the diabetes. It sure is going around, isn’t it? Now you know I hate to bring up such a delicate topic, but we find ourselves six months in arrears on your mother’s funeral bill and you know I hate like that old Devil himself to bring it up but Mr. Merriman has expenses to pay just like all the rest of us and I’m wondering if we couldn’t get just one of those payments from you, just a single one.
“I do understand, I do. These are tough times for everyone. Why don’t you think about what you can send, and we’ll go from there? That’s just fine. And I’ll call you next week. My best to your family.”
Alonzo’s method is more like this: “Mr. Clevenger? This is Alonzo Petroclus at Merriman and Sons Mortuary. I have noticed a new Dodge Dakota in your driveway, and I took the liberty of pricing your particular model. I discovered that selling it would cover your mother’s funeral expenses and give you plenty of money left over to buy yourself a Chevrolet Cavalier, should they still make them. Now, if we don’t come to an agreement today about the disposition of this debt, I will be digging your mother up and depositing her on your front lawn, and you may take care of her remains as you see fit. Perhaps you could prop her up in a rocker in the bed of your expensive truck.”
All the while I am waving, “No, no, no, Alonzo, that is most assuredly not the way to talk to a customer,” but I can’t actually say it out loud, and then he hangs up and within two days Mr. Clevenger’s bill is paid off but I don’t think the feelings between him and us are what you would call so neighborly.
Also sometimes Alonzo disappears and I find him in the casket display room, all caskets from the Batesville Casket Company of Batesville, Indiana, meaning they are of the finest quality 24 gauge steel, or mahogany or what have you. I will not be able to find my husband until I hear a little voice coming from one of the caskets, the high voice he uses that makes my heart tumble a bit out of fear, and when I open the lid he is lying there, eyes wide open, saying, “This handle raises and lowers the mattress for the comfort of the Remains. This handle raises and lowers the mattress for the comfort of the Remains.” Again and again in that squeaky fake voice. I pick him up and take him out and slam that casket lid closed and he says, in the deeper voice he’s acquiring, “What’s the matter, Mary Jo? None of us should forget our origins.”
Our wedding was performed in my Mother Eulah’s scrappy back yard, for which she had a young man come in and at least remove the poison ivy and saw grass, I believe he was a Honduran or an Incan, I can never tell them apart, forgive me. We were not able to secure a proper minister or even the magistrate, if that is even believable, and so I hired a woman named Moon Zipper who had achieved her religious education and ordination at a first-rate Internet Superhighway institute and was more than happy to join us in Holy Wedlock.
We had all the traditions: the white runner in the backyard, a little cassette player set up to play the Bridal March, a rented archway (with Kleenex flowers as I was not able to get one with a vine or any real roses) to stand under. Only my mother and a couple women from Merriman’s were there, everyone else having plans that weekend. Rosetta the janitor was there, as well as Sandy who keeps the fish tanks clean. This is a bigger job than it sounds, as the tanks are large and the fish exotic and expensive, and once a quite ill-behaved child found a bottle of bleach while tearing through the supply closet and poured the whole thing in the tank, killing everything and very quickly as well. His parents said nary a word, as they were grief-stricken over the shotgun death of their meth-addicted brother (and brother-in-law) and in general seemed the type not to care so much about their son’s behavior nor fish either one.
I carried Alzonzo down the aisle. I had found him a beautiful tuxedo on the World Wide Web, and I was wearing Mother’s dress from when she married Daddy, even though it was three sizes too large and I didn’t have time to have it taken in. The more difficult thing was finding him a wedding ring of the right size, and one which would slip over his finger, which was bent in a permanent position, probably from lying in that box so long. Eventually I found a flexible gold band made of something similar to chain mail, if you can believe it, and that worked fine.
The other moment of . . . discomfort came during the exchange of the vows themselves. Of course all he had to do was repeat what Moon Hippie told him to, but he chose to use his particular voice, which has a certain mocking quality, and even though I gave him a hard squeeze he kept his eyes fixed somewhere over the minister’s shoulder. He can blink periodically but often chooses not to, as he prefers to stare.
“I, Mary Jo, take you, Alonzo, . . .” I said.
“To be my wedded husband.” Moon completed the sentence.
But when it came Alonzo’s turn he said, “I, Alonzo, take you, what’s your name again?” in a mocking tone that set my teeth on edge and for a moment scared me.
Moonie said, “Alonzo, are you repeating these vows in full acknowledgement of their import and meaning?”
His head turned toward her until that cobalt gaze was fixed on her. “Oh sure,” he said, casually. So we went ahead with it, and it was just a gorgeous service, and the cake was quite good for store-bought. Eulah was finally happy when she realized we didn’t have to share the Cold Duck with the groom, and so we drank away and even danced some to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a favorite song of mine, and one which I feel applies in a mysterious way to my wedding and my future.
Alonzo is extremely helpful to me at work, what with the phones and all, but he has another problem which is that he says things out loud that other people (me, for instance) might prefer to just think and maybe keep to my own self. Take Phil for instance. Now Phil can scream and cry like a little girl when a leg slips off and falls in the toilet but most of the time he’s a loudmouth and a know-it-all who actually knows zero about everything and he can be a bully even with that disastrous comb-over of his peachy-colored hair which turns my stomach, forgive me for admitting it. So yesterday he arrives in the office in the freight elevator and the doors open and Alonzo says, clear as you please, “Why look. It’s the maggot man. Maggots are all mouth, you know, but at least their life span is relatively short.”
I gasped. Phil stood stock-still and looked right at me rather than Alonzo, who seems to scare him a bit. Then in a quiet voice, which he doesn’t use very often (being: see above), Phil said, “Keep your puppet quiet, Mary Jo, or I’ll be having a talk with Mr. Merriman.” Then he strode past me with a mad walk like a two-year-old, leaving behind his particular scent of mothballs and baby powder; again, this turns my stomach but who am I to say. I’ve seen the man open body bags where there was hardly nothing left but liquid, and he hardly flinched, although once in a while I catch him throwing up just a touch in the sink. That happened once when he opened the bag of a suicide and there just happened to be a possum in there, too. The possum being alive, excuse me.
Speaking of Mr. Merriman and Sons (there are no sons; I mean, there was a son once but he left to join a more lucrative full-service funeral operation in another town, breaking his poor father’s heart), Mr. Merriman pays little mind to Alonzo or our work together. I have noticed that we do not receive two checks at the end of the pay period, and I’ve thought to bring that up but thought better of it, as there is something on Mr. Merriman’s mind. I can see it clear as sunshine. His face is either flushed or too pale and he’s gained so much weight from eating three meals a day at the Sit and Chew that his belly precedes him by a good six inches everywhere he goes. I fear for a stroke, frankly. Being the person who does the books, I know exactly what his problem is: he has been too kind to all the folks who simply don’t think you should have to pay for Death, any more than you pay for oxygen. I want to say, “Well, someone sure paid for your Birth, didn’t they?” But who knows, maybe everyone in this county squatted amidst the pole beans and then went back to weeding.
We have been receiving calls from Larry Darken, that is his real official name, just as there is a Dark County, Ohio, the site of a truly gruesome Indian massacre back in the day. Larry Darken, I happen to know, is the snake in the grass from MortCorp, which is like agribusiness only for funeral homes. They sweep through a small city like Parchment, they take over all debts and assets, they say they’ll keep on the staff, but they never do. Alonzo has zero compunction about listening in on the conversations between Mr. Merriman and Mr. Darken, and he says deals are being made and also he can hear Mr. Merriman wiping his brow quite frequently, but perhaps his ears are more attuned than mine.
I don’t know what has happened to me; I was a pure Christian woman my entire life and I still attend the Foursquare Church every Sunday, Alonzo at my side. He whispers harsh criticisms about Pastor and also about the fashion choices of some of the parishioners, and I shush him. But I am filled with a horrible, nearly Devilish desire for my husband that never goes away. I feel it even when I am eating my tuna salad sandwich at lunch, or watching my stories on television at night, which I have taped during the day. I want him to look at me. I want him to look at me and blink. I want him to take my hand, instead of me always taking his and then it just lying there passive in my palm. Most of all I want him to turn to me in the night and say the words I so desperately long to hear, “I love you. I want you like the corn seed wants the rain,” but he does not, and when I say those words to him he shakes his head back and forth, once each way, No. This is something difficult for me to admit, but he does have the important . . . and there is even a string to control it, and it has not been beyond me to take advantage which I pray for forgiveness for those instances but we are wed. I say to him, “Please, please tell me where you came from, tell me who your parents were, if you have any brothers or sisters,” but I always get the same answer. And so I hold him to the bed, I am at least three times his size, and I roll atop him, and I wrap the cord that controls his mouth around my fist and I pull it tight, not to punish him but because I cannot help myself.
Alonzo says the deal is done and he does not lie, he does not understand nuance or sarcasm or humor or love, and so I know he is right even before the men from MortCorp arrive like a swarm of locusts through the towering, majestic front doors of Merriman and Sons, announcing the sale and calling for a meeting.
They start out smiling and oily, like what I drain off my tuna fish in the morning, but within thirty minutes they are down to brass tacks. They own this building and all property therein, and they own every other asset Mr. Merriman held prior to the sale, including the home and lovely, heartsick contents of the Widow Kanootsen. They begin reading off a list of what they own and imagine my horror when they include Alonzo, who I happened to mention in the inventory before I realized he was my soul mate. I say to them, “No, no, there’s been a mistake. Alonzo isn’t property, and not of Mr. Merriman, he is my husband.” They stare at me six long beats, and then the biggest and most terrible of the Oily Men walks over and takes Alonzo off my lap, saying they will also be requiring his antique box, and even the twine that held it closed. My grief is so complete I faint, and Phil has to help me to my feet, and for once I am grateful to him, even though the smell of him gets in my nostrils and will not come out all day, regardless of how I run to Mother’s and weep like a baby on her sofa until my eyes are so puffy I can’t see out of them and she has to apply Preparation H pads which help some.
After only one night without him I know what I have to do. After the doors have closed on the second night, I decide to break in and find him. I don’t really have to break in, as between the fainting and the vomiting (I may have forgotten to mention the vomiting), no one thought to ask for my keys.
I drive by and see that Phil’s apartment above the mortuary is dark, meaning there are no bodies tonight. I let myself in the back door and using the flashlight on my key ring, I make my way to where I can hear Alonzo’s voice.
“The mattress raises and lowers for the comfort of the Remains. The mattress raises and lowers for the comfort of the Remains.”
I stalk into the showroom and find him right away; he’s in his favorite walnut display, the one carved with the figures of the Last Supper. He loves it because the interior is light blue, like his old box. I pull the lid open fast and say to him, “Alonzo, get out of that Batesville; you are going home with your wife.”
Without looking at me or blinking he says, “I am the property of MortCorp now.”
I say, “You legally wedded me in front of God and witnesses. Alonzo Petroclus, you are going home with me.”
“I am the property of MortCorp now,” he says, in an even more mocking way.
I reach under the armpits of his suit and jerk him up a bit roughly maybe, as he continues to repeat his refrain. I slam the lid shut on the Lord’s Last Meal and stalk out the back door, remembering to lock it behind me, Mr. Merriman has been good to me, heaven knows.
I strap Alonzo in his car seat and he slumps a bit to the side.
“I am the property of MortCorp now.” He uses his deep voice, which sets up an ache and longing in me I can’t bear for him to perceive.
“I’ll tell you whose property you are, Mister. You are the property of Corinthians 13:1–7. ‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not love, I am a noise gonging or a clanging cymbal.’ I’ll skip some. ‘If I give away all my possessions and hand over my body so that I may boast, I gain nothing.’”
“I am the property of MortCorp now.” His voice is even deeper, and he’s sitting up straighter.
I begin to shout, “‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.’ I’ll skip a little more. ‘It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.’” And then, because I know, somewhere in my deepest heart, that he is right—his Father is the chisel and his Mother a square of sandpaper stretched over a block of wood—I also know he hasn’t got diddly squat for Scripture and so I just make up my own.
“Did you hear me, Alonzo? ‘Love never ends. For Death cannot end it, nor grief, nor even the pyre.’’’
There is a long silence between us, and then for the first time he turns his head very slowly toward me. I hear it creak on its finely-crafted, steel-and-socket joint. He looks directly at me. He blinks. I feel something in the air, the way one feels the ghost of one’s dead daddy, or the uncle you loved the best even though he had problems, and I turn and look and he is holding out his hand, his chain mail wedding ring glinting in the light from the street lamps.
“I. Love. You,” he says, and while he cannot lie, there is no truth in it.
“I love you, too,” I say, “I love you with all my heart.” I take his wooden hand.
Photo: Matt Davis