John Martin was hired by a funeral home. Retired, poor, he was to be night watchman. Alone in the former mansion, a Victorian, all he had to do was wear his uniform, walk around the four stories, including the attic and the basement, and make sure nobody had broken in.
John made his rounds. It was 3 a.m. and he was on until 8 a.m. when the regular staff appeared. The casket room was cold, and the lighting low. He had already picked out his, a mahogany box with a top carved with flowers. He also liked the optional satin ruffled interior. It looked comfortable. He could imagine slipping into that and smiling. The temptation was for him to try it out now, when nobody was there, but so far he had avoided it. Might be fired. Then on to the embalming room.
The embalming room was in the basement. Bare, antiseptic. The long table took up the middle. A box with tubes ending in needles and a toilet was mounted on the wall. A silver refrigerator occupied the corner . John opened the door. On the cot this night lay a naked woman. She was old, fat, and he had a hard time looking at her. Embalming, he had read, used to be the procedure for kings and queens, those who would be on display for a time after death. Now everybody was embalmed. This woman hadn’t been so far, but the technician would do the job tomorrow before she started rotting and turning black. John just wished they had put a sheet over her or something.
Hi, he said. Hope you enjoy being dead?
He said it out loud. Nobody would hear. Then he laughed. He half expected the woman to sit up and give him hell, as all women had given him hell. But no. Not this night. He would have nightmares the next morning, as he had had nightmares every morning after he started the job.
See you in my dreams, he said.
Next was the security station in the lobby, a podium. This had been the living room, and was beautiful. Victorian wallpaper, Victorian chandelier, Victorian rug. John had been a service station attendant most of his life, and his house was a two-bedroom, rundown, clapboard square on a street of such squares. His wife, a high school sweetheart, left him when he was 30, exactly. On his birthday.
I don’t want to waste the rest of my life with an old fool, no money, dumb fool. Adios, she had said. She stuffed her clothes into a couple of grocery bags, and that’s all she took. For months he didn’t touch her cosmetics in the bathroom, hoping she would come back. But she didn’t. A big belly, jowls, hair touched with gray even in his forties, John tried but didn’t attract another wife now. He lived alone.
At the station he sat on the stool reading a car magazine, his. The hours ticked second by second. He liked that. Made him feel relaxed, in a pool, drifting. The funeral home was silent, except for the air conditioner. Literally he could hear the pages as he turned them.
Time for another round. He walked down the hall past the visitation rooms. The woman in the basement was the only one there yet, and the other two rooms were empty. Not a good sign for the business, John thought. Another body was to be delivered the next day, a car accident victim. A funeral cosmetician—what a title—would fix up the woman so that she didn’t look damaged. He had seen her work, that too artificial look like the dead was a painting. The dead’s mouth always popped open and had to be wired shut. There had been complaints from relatives that the dead didn’t look like the living. So what?
Upstairs in the attic was a model train set. A doctor with a nearby office had installed a huge world including a model village and a station. There was even a railroad engineer’s hat near the controls. The manager told him the doctor’s wife wouldn’t let him keep the set up at their house, so he paid rent on the attic. Several times John had turned on the switch. The village lights lit. The station man moved back and forth on the platform. The trains ran. One even had smoke that came out the chimney. He felt guilty playing with the trains because he didn’t have permission. But nobody knew. He was alone. This night he just checked the attic, and the model world, complete with mountains and a lake, stood perfect in the gloom. Only one bare bulb hung from the unfinished rafters. The doctor only came during breaks in his day.
Down the stairs into the basement. In the refrigerator the naked woman still lay there on the cot, bare, open, obscene. He liked that. He pulled out the wheeled cot. She didn’t have much of a bosom, just nipples, but the triangle of hair at the bottom of her fat stomach was wild, still dark, a jungle. Blue veins popped out in her legs and in fact all over. Warts, liver spots, even crusty moles dotted her. Her lips were thin and dry. Her eyes whitish, rheumy. Her hair was dark gray, short. Even her hands were crinkled and scaly. He touched her thigh with his palm, and she was ice cold.
John fought the urge to take off his pants, and assault her. He hadn’t had sex except with himself in decades. He fought the urge, but it was strong, really strong. He pushed the cot back in, closed the refrigerator door and turned away in disgust with himself. Quickly he went back to the lobby.
But the thought kept after him. He started crying. He put his head down on the station counter and pounded the wood with his fist. Alone, maybe twenty years left, in that rotting house, maybe in pain, no money, no nothing. Damn. Nightwatchman at a funeral home seemed the right end for him. He realized he was ready to go.
And then he thought about suicide. He didn’t have a gun, because he’d have to have training and a license for that. But there were other ways. Suicide was so warm, like arms open for him. At the same time he pushed off from the thought. Death. A funeral. A grave, somewhere. He was scared. Still, surrounded by death in the funeral home, death seemed more like a friend.
He sat up, and screamed. He couldn’t decide anything. In a way that had been his problem all along. Couldn’t decide on a career, couldn’t decide on a job, couldn’t decide on a second wife. He’d just taken life as it was given to him. Sex with the corpse, suicide, he couldn’t decide on those either. He sat at the station feeling torn up, repulsive, ugly.
By the next night when he started his shift the woman’s body would be gone, but there would be other bodies, maybe a new one every night, not counting the male ones. There was always the possibility. He didn’t think he’d be caught, but didn’t care. Then suicide. It was possible every night. Just a second to die. Maybe use the scalpels and other sharp objects in the embalming room. Maybe hook himself up to the embalming machine. Maybe put on that railroad engineer’s hat, and slit his own cud, bleeding all over that model village, lights in the windows. Warm, model families. Anything was possible.
The funeral home was silent. It creaked though, still settling after all those years. He wiped his tears. He straightened his blue uniform. He opened his magazine. Not this night, he thought, but maybe some other night. He felt better.