The tinny sound of my instruments clatter on the rolling metal table before me. They evoke memories too painful to address in this moment. I take a deep breath as I calm myself and focus my energy on keeping a steady hand.
Despite the waves of grief that threaten to crash over my consciousness, I persist and thread the curved needle that spins in my hand, now perspiring ever so slightly.
Thick black chord runs through the eye and in no time, my hands are deftly sewing together the lips of an elderly man lying on my table.
The serenity in his closed eyes, the lifeless chest, neither rising nor falling to relate life to my hopeful eyes, the pallid skin and stiffened limbs all remind me that the man I once trusted with my life has life, himself, no longer. I know it was only moment ago that I excavated his organs and pumped formaldehyde through his arterial system, yet the kind eyes that had looked on me as a daughter, with pride, with joy, with love, were now lidded and glued shut. I rolled back on a small stool across the linoleum floor to inspect the body one last time before stopping my preparation for the night.
The body, that of an old man in his late 70’s, lie on this cold metal table with no more than a thin sheet to cover the nakedness that lie beneath. My heart ached within my chest to see Joe like this. Only weeks ago had he been praising me for the deftness with which I executed my tasks one by one in the preparation of another elderly member of the community. He shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be doing this, I shouldn’t have to find out, after all this time, that he’s just like the rest of us on the inside. But there are no others, I was his only apprentice. We both knew this day would come.
Reluctantly, I left the room, after staying for longer than I should have to comb his hair and assure that he would be ready for his services the next day. As I wandered through the medicinal hallways and turned off lights as I went, I thought of the outfit his family had dropped off this morning; a black suit, light blue dress shirt, and his trademark purple paisley tie. He would look dapper as ever on his final day.
I climbed a short set of wooden steps that led to the more antiquated portion of the funeral home. Thick wooden boards creaked beneath my sneakers under a haggard carpet runner. Light shone in from warped glass panes too tall and too strange to cover with curtains. Dust particles suspended in the air through a beam of mid-day light too bright and too cheerful to have graced the halls of this place on such a day. Worn wooden benches and furniture lined the walls adorned with décor to soften the cold stone walls behind them.
I searched my purse for my keys and made my way towards the front door to lock up, but as I did, passing the front viewing room, I spied a black mass interrupting the symmetry of the neat rows of chairs. In my 10 years of working under Joe’s tutelage at this funeral home, I had never once seen an apparition or even heard the inkling of something more than what was physically present. Even with the age of this old building that once housed a convent in the early 1800’s.
Although I had never seen a spirit, it certainly didn’t mean they weren’t there. Case in point, this black, misty mass that now sat, hunched over in a seat on the right side of chairs, beside the main aisle and in the second row.
I dare not approach or call out to it, for fear it could retaliate in some evil way, so I simply stood there, in awe of my experience. The keys in my hands shifted, and the attention of the thing did as well. A set of eyes and large nose peered over the shoulder of the mass and looked in my direction.
I froze, afraid to have upset the specter. It placed its hands on its knees and rose from its seat, stretching its arms out to its sides before turning to walk down the aisle and towards me. Though the outline of the mass itself was a whirling, misty, transparent shape, the purple paisley tie was unmistakable.
An alleviating sigh passed through me and my breath hitched. My heart lifted and for the first time since his fatal heart attack only three days ago, I saw Joe, walking without his cane, no oxygen tank to speak of, not hunched over and waddling back and forth thanks to stiff joints. He carried a half-smile on his face that became more apparent as he neared me. In a black suit with his purple tie, he strolled down the aisle as if he had never felt pain a day in his life. The tears that I had been saving for the ice cream I planned to drown in once I returned home flowed freely from my eyes in a heaving display of sheer joy and relief.
As the misty mass passed by, he met my eyes without turning his head. I smelled Joe’s favorite brand of cigars and the cologne he’d used so sparingly since his late wife had gifted it to him on their last anniversary nearly a decade ago.
I had half expected him to hug me, call my name, or even say hello, but he walked past me, sending a cool breeze against my face, still stinging with tears and hot with emotion. I turned to follow him down the short hallway behind me, but he dissipated into air as he cleared my right shoulder.
For a moment, I waited, standing still in the same position. I wasn’t sure I would see him again, and wanted to make sure that, if this was the only time he could manifest, I didn’t miss it happening again. I waited for another 20 minutes before moving my creaking limbs to open the door and lock the place up.
A flutter of giddy excitement passed through me and I closed the heavy walnut doors and locked them, already chuckling at the thought that Joe might appear again at the funeral tomorrow.
[End of Part 1]
Last Story: Giving Thanks
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