Closed Casket Calling Hours
I approached the casket to pay my last respects. I was unsettled by the feeling that anyone could have been inside. The undertaker could have switched his body with someone else’s. It wouldn’t have been surprising. He’d messed up already, overlapping our calling hours with someone else’s; he didn’t even realize his mistake until we showed up while the others were still grieving. We stood outside fluctuating between sadness and boredom for an hour, waiting for them to finish sulking so the undertaker could switch the caskets. Maybe it seemed like too much work to do in a matter of minutes and he chose instead to just close the lid on the morning corpse.
It didn’t seem fair. Crying and stroking that mahogany box without knowing if he really lay inside. I waited until calling hours were over. I considered hiding in the bathroom, but worried the undertaker would lock me out of the parlor-like room. Instead, I bent over beside the table full of photos and other tokens of nostalgia. Pretended to tie my shoe even though it had no laces. Then I tipped to the left and rolled under the black tablecloth. No one noticed, likely too caught up wondering how they looked when they cried.
I sat there listening to the sobs and occasional laughs slowly trail off. Finally I heard the last pair of big feet clod out of the room, the door shut and the lock click as the lights went out. I crawled out from under the table. Sat on my butt and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I stood up, flicked the light back on and approached the casket. The lid was heavier than I thought, as though safeguarding against restless cadavers eager to break out.
It was hard to know if it was James. When the dryer lit his hair on fire, he would’ve been fine if he had just calmed down a minute. Paid attention to the fact that he unscrewed the bottle of hairspray, not the spray bottle of water. Flames engulfed his skull and melted his skin, his eyes, his hair. There was nothing I recognized.
The faulty Bon Air 260 had since been recalled, having spewed flames at countless tresses across the country. But none of the accidents compared to the travesty that befell James. It was even on the news. I declined the reporter’s request for an interview, but still they ran the story. I laughed when I turned on the television and saw his old yearbook shot – probably courtesy of an old teacher or classmate hoping to get some screen time. He was unsmiling, trying but failing to look debonair. If anything, he looked like a perp glaring for his obligatory mug shot, morphing the story from a fatal home accident to some sinister crime – a feather-haired twenty-something terrorizing the nation with a defunct hair dryer.
Thank god I didn’t find him. If I had, I might have laughed. And how would that have looked to the police who had arrived shortly after our neighbor’s call reporting James’ screams? They wouldn’t have cared when I explained laughter is the way I naturally react to stressful situations, that I just can’t help it. The story would morph once again, this time to a homicide – envious girlfriend lights boyfriend’s stellar hair on fire.
If only he hadn’t been so vain. In the shower he’d spend several minutes gently massaging and lathering his scalp, slowly working the shampoo up through the tips of his hair, separating it into small spikes to make sure each strand had been properly cleaned and cared for. When he was satisfied, he’d rinse out the soap, tipping his head back and letting the water cascade down his chestnut locks like a goddamn model. Then he’d repeat the whole process with conditioner. “Why do you need to condition your hair,” I’d fume. “It’s not even that long.” “You know it makes my hair softer and fuller. I thought you liked that.” I did, but I’d never admit it. “I don’t care what your hair looks like. I’m not that shallow, Jim.”
It didn’t bother him, though, comfortable with the pride he took in his appearance. When the dryer caught his hair, his first thought was probably how best to disentangle it without splitting the ends. When the first flame caught, he probably panicked about how he’d look with a buzz cut, or worse, bald.
James methodically manicured just about every bit of his body, from tediously cleansing and styling his hair, to skillfully trimming, filing and buffing his nails till they shone. (Don’t get me started on the full-body moisturizing.) I grabbed his hands from the casket but they were marred, too. The idiot must have grabbed his head, still trying to save his precious hair. I lifted his shirt. Coarse black hair traced the smooth olive skin between his bellybutton and slacks. I rubbed his stomach. My belly button was so deep the bottom was indecipherable, but his was wide and shallow. Hardly a button at all. I used to stick my finger in it and wiggle it around. Sometimes I’d find a piece of blue-gray lint in there, caught in the wiry hair. I’d thrust it in front of his face like a small victory. He hated when I did that. I did it right then, hoping I could count on the undertaker’s carelessness to find another piece of lint.
About the author:
Melissa Brooks lives in Boulder, CO where she writes fiction and cultural criticism. Her work has appeared in Subterranean Quarterly and Vannevar.