by Sarah-Jane Lehoux
Roy owned the only drive-thru funeral business in Maine. It was a revolution in mourning, he claimed. There was no time to spare bidding farewell to aged relations or casual acquaintances. Not when the boss was demanding tomorrow’s figures today, the kids needed to be at their violin lessons for six and soccer practice at six-thirty, and the family mutt had to be dropped off at his sitter’s before the Fergusons arrived at nine for cocktails and gossip. Society was evolving, accelerating. Death rites should start keeping pace.
Roy got the idea getting a Big Mac on his way to Aunt Mary’s funeral.
“It’s genius! You drive up to a window covered by a curtain. And there’s a keypad or something. Like a vending machine.”
“A vending machine?” Todd asked, aghast.
“Yeah. You decide how many minutes you want, if you want the eulogy or not, and so on. Then the curtain comes up and presto! There’s the stiff ready for you to, you know, give your last regards or whatever.”
“The stiff. The body. The deceased. Whatever. The point is that instead of having to sit through the wake, service and interment, people get their goodbyes over with without having to get out of their car. No time wasted. No guilt. Onward and upward. This’ll be the next big thing,” Roy proclaimed, leaning back with his hands hooked behind his head. “Trust me.”
Trust him. Just like Todd trusted him about the emu ranch, house flipping and selling sex toys. Never mind that most people would rather see an emu at the zoo than in their burger, that flipping a house required more than a bucket of bargain paint, and that housewives did not want to discuss personal lubrication with men who carried around briefcases full of buzzing, often sinister-looking latex phalluses. Roy was positive his brainchildren would guarantee him a spread in Forbes. And for help with start-up fees, Todd could get a piece of that lucrative action.
Ten years later and three hundred thousand in the hole, Todd had finally learned his lesson. When Roy finished his spiel about his latest venture, Todd said the first thing that came to mind.
“You haven’t even thought it through,” Roy whined.
Todd squeezed his hands until his knuckles ached. This time he would not be swayed by Roy’s puppy-dog eyes. He had already lost his house, his car and Loraine. Enough was enough.
“I don’t need to. The answer is no.”
“Just sleep on it, okay? Don’t say no until you sleep on it. We’re brothers, aren’t we? Brothers help each other out, right?”
A stronger man would have decked Roy right then and there. But all Todd did was flinch as Roy reached over to ruffle his thinning hair.
“I’ll think about it,” he mumbled. “But that’s it! I don’t even know why you’re asking me. I don’t have any money.”
“You’ve got Aunt Mary’s inheritance. I saw the letter from the lawyer. Sweet Aunt Mary. Didn’t leave me a cent, but she sure plopped a pretty penny into your lap. Didn’t she?”
Todd looked at Roy. They shared the same mother, but took after their respective fathers. Todd was short and squat, with pock-marked cheeks and crooked teeth. Loraine used to call him her trusty choo-choo train. Outdated and outclassed, but reliable as hell. She said that’s why she loved him even though he had a face that made small children cringe. Funny how quickly she grew to hate those same qualities.
If Todd was a train, then Roy was a jet plane. Tall, slender, polished and poised. The pinnacle of metrosexual perfection. His sparkling veneers and expertly tousled, just-got-laid hair secured his place among the city’s most sought-after bachelors. But Todd doubted the ladies would find Roy so appealing if they knew about the negative balance in his chequebook.
Aw, who was he kidding? They were as easily conned into funding his schemes as Todd was. The poor things were screwed over figuratively and literally but kept coming back for more. And all because Roy was so convincing whenever he smiled and said, “Trust me.”
That’s why, despite his attempts to grow a backbone, Todd eventually gave Roy the money he asked for. A few months later, Royal Stephens Funeral Home opened for business. A grand name for an establishment altogether lacking in propriety and tact.
“To give it a feel of class,” Roy said. “It’ll make people more comfortable until they get used to the idea.”
Used to the idea? How would anyone ever get used to the idea of seeing their loved ones on display like Halloween decorations in a storefront? How could they get used to the sound of Roy’s pre-recorded, cut-and-paste eulogy? It was an affront to the deceased as well as the living.
If Todd hadn’t invested what little savings he had left, he would have happily watched it go under as all of Roy’s businesses eventually did. But he couldn’t afford for that to happen. Not this time. He resolved to do his best to ensure its survival.
“Maybe I should handle the deposits,” he said, nervously watching Roy finger through the profits earned from their first client.
“Nah, I got it. You okay to close up here?”
Roy’s dreams for a fully automated system ended when they realized how much the installation would cost. Everything had to be done by hand, which meant someone had to be present during set viewing times.
Todd glanced at what Roy called the staging room. It was long and narrow with six windows on either side, all covered by tacky purple velvet. Each window had a corresponding rack that would keep the caskets in an upright position.
Todd shuddered, and not just from the air conditioning needed to keep the room cool. Tonight would be the first night that one of those racks was in use.
Mr. Ian Murphy was a seventy-three year old widower and had spent the last decade in a seniors’ home. His children were out west and couldn’t afford a traditional funeral. They paid for a day of viewing in case anyone cared to stop by, and then he was supposed to receive an unceremonious burial.
Todd felt sorry for Mr. Murphy, but not sorry enough to keep him company for any longer than necessary. Todd stared at the clock, willing the hands to move. Eight-thirty. He really should just call it quits now. It was only a half hour until closing, and Mr. Murphy hadn’t had a single visitor all day.
Todd was a simple man. He liked baseball, beer and breasts. When he happened to read the newspaper, his eyes glossed over anything thought-provoking. He was not one prone to existential musings, but being stuck so close to a dead body brought out the philosopher in him.
Loraine had left him before they had any children. At Aunt Mary’s funeral, his cousins barely remembered his name. It was an easy thing to imagine himself propped up in that window, waiting all day for loved ones who never came. There was Roy, of course, but Todd doubted he’d stay longer than it took to see if he was willed anything. Todd would pass on to the next life as forgotten and ignored as he was passing through this one.
Completely depressed, Todd decided to leave. He didn’t think that Mr. Murphy’s window would get a sudden rush of business. But then the buzzer rang.
Todd was so startled that he spilled his lukewarm cup of coffee over his slacks. The buzzer rang a second time, then a third, and Todd pressed the button for the intercom while reaching for a paper towel.
“Thanks... thank you for visiting Royal Stephens Funeral Home,” he stuttered. He had written a script for this moment, words of professional condolence to assuage a visitor’s grief. He had rehearsed it until he could say it in as smooth and comforting a tone as possible. But the words flew from his head so he blurted out, “Can I help you?”
“Hello? Is this thing on?” The voice dissolved into mad laughter.
“Wait, Steve! Let me do it!”
Todd frowned. “Can I help you?”
There was a pause and then more laughter. Sounded like a bunch of frat boys, but there was one girl as well. Her high-pitched giggles echoed into the intercom.
“Um, yeah. We’re here to see a body.”
“Can you believe it?” Todd asked, as he related the tale to Roy the next day. “They didn’t even know his name. Just wanted to gawk at him like they were at a carnival freak show.”
“Freak show, eh?”
“Yeah. I tell you, kids these days have no respect. Did you know there are sites on the Internet where they put up pictures of dead people? Celebrity autopsies, crime scene photos, the grosser the better. What is wrong with people?”
“Sick in the head. But these websites, people pay for them?”
“I think so. Some of them anyway. People will pay to see a lady getting buggered by a donkey, so I guess anything is possible.”
Roy grinned. “And how would you know about donkey shows, hmm?”
“Shut up! I’m serious here.”
“Hey, come to think of it... the real reason Loraine left you... is it because you used to bray when you banged her?”
Todd sputtered with rage, which just spurred Roy on.
“Hee-haw, hee-haw! Wait! That was low. Sorry. Come on, sit back down.”
“Geez, why do you have to be such a prick?”
“I apologize from the bottom of my heart, bro. Listen, I’m pretty good at dealing with punks. How’s about you look after the banking? I’ll handle the viewing from now on.”
“I won’t let any snot-nosed thrill seekers push me around.”
“It’s not just that. You’ll have to be respectful with the real visitors. You gotta be compassionate.”
“Right. Compassionate. I can do that. Trust me,” he added when Todd gave him an incredulous look. “This is my baby, remember? I can handle it.”
Well, it would keep him away from the money anyway. Todd wasn’t a financial wizard himself, but at least he could ensure that their profits wouldn’t end up at the race track.
Business trickled in over the next few weeks. Their clientele was primarily made up by Mr. Murphy’s contemporaries: elderly folks with no families to speak of. Occasionally R.S. Funeral Home hosted other demographics, but these were just younger versions of the same story. They rarely had more than a handful of visitors, and most chose the minimum of five minutes viewing time. But, Todd reflected, maybe that was five minutes longer than they would have got from more conventional funeral homes.
Todd grew accustomed to the bodies. He started talking to them, calling them by name. Even if they didn’t have a friend in life, he figured he could be their friend in death. At least for a little while. And in a weird way, he started to feel better about himself. Maybe this was his calling. Maybe he was here to ensure that even the loneliest soul received their duly deserved bit of consideration.
His shift was done. Whistling, he gathered up the deposit bag and his coat, and went into the staging room to say goodbye to Roy.
“Okay, see you next we...”
He stopped short, mouth gaping, sentence left hanging. There was poor Mrs. Charlebois, her casket wide open, and there was Roy pulling the drawstring on her curtains.
“Jesus Christ, Roy! What the hell are you doing? Close her up! Quick!”
Roy stared back at Todd, a look of obvious annoyance on his face. He rolled his eyes when Todd rushed over to shut the lower half of the casket. Mrs. Charlebois had been the victim of a drunk driver, and although the coroner had done his best putting her back together, her lower torso was what Todd referred to as ‘not fit for viewing.’
“Mrs. Charlebois is supposed to be face-only viewing. For God’s sake, you could have given someone a heart attack!”
“Relax? She’s not decent!”
Roy gave the corpse a critical eye. “But she’s got her panties on.”
“That’s not what I mean! No one wants to see their loved one mangled like that. Be more careful! Last thing we need is a lawsuit for emotional damage.”
“I doubt Chuckie’s family would bother. If they cared that much, she wouldn’t be here, would she?” Roy drawled.
“Her name is Mrs. Charlebois and would it kill you to show some respect?” Todd said, coming as close to screaming as he ever had in his soft-spoken life.
He was still fuming as he boarded the bus. Roy could be such a flake. Self-absorbed, selfish brat! Todd really needed to stop bailing him out whenever he got into a fix. Maybe then he’d grow up.
It wasn’t until the bus passed the bank that Todd realized that he had forgotten the deposit bag. He loathed to think what Roy would do if he happened to pick it up. Todd took the next bus back.
His keys were in his coat, which was lying alongside the deposit bag on the staging room floor, so he hurried to the intercom. Before he could reach it, a car pulled in.
The driver buzzed. Todd heard Roy’s voice, chipper despite the mechanical muffle. “Confirmation number, please.”
Confirmation number? What kind of greeting was that?
But the driver didn’t seem perturbed. “One-zero-four.”
“Thanks,” Roy answered. “Window five. Enjoy!”
Window five. Mrs. Charlebois’ window. Todd suddenly had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He crept up behind the car.
Flashes of light blinded him. When his vision cleared, he saw the driver holding a small camera. The passenger door popped open and another man ran to pose in front of the window with his thumbs up. Then with noses crinkled in disgust, they leaned in to examine Mrs. Charlebois as a child would a crushed beetle.
“Roy!” Todd screamed. “You sick son of a bitch, open up right this minute! Roy!”
When he heard the lock click, he pushed the door open, knocking Roy over as he stormed inside.
“Hey!” Roy moaned, picking himself up.
Before Todd said a word, he raced into the staging room as fast as his stout legs would allow. Glaring at the sightseers, he yanked the curtain shut.
“What are you doing, Roy? This isn’t a flipping tourist attraction!”
“Simmer down, bro. Don’t blow this out of proportion.”
“She’s a human being!” Todd yelled, bumping his chest into Roy’s.
“No, she’s not!” Roy said, bumping back into Todd. Without that charming smile plastered on his lips, he actually looked rather ugly. “Not anymore. She’s dead. She’s nothing.”
“Nothing but a paycheque, you mean. Who are those people? How long has this been going on?”
Roy turned from Todd, waving his hand as if to dismiss him. “We can’t do things your way and expect to stay in business.”
“Answer my question!”
“Since you told me about those kids. I set up my own site, and it’s gotten tons of hits. At first I was just posting pictures, but some people wanted to see up close. They Paypal me, I email them a password so I know who they are. They take a peeky-boo and that’s that.”
All this time, Todd thought he had been making a contribution, that he had been helping these poor lonely souls. And now he realized that he had been exploiting them, making a mockery of them. He cradled his head and sobbed.
“Will you calm down?” Roy sneered. “I’m helping people satisfy a natural curiosity. I’m not hurting anyone. It’s not like anyone cares.”
“I bloody well care!”
Roy snorted. Todd punched him. It felt great. He punched him again. A couple more hits and Pretty Boy wouldn’t be so damned pretty anymore, would he?
“Bastard,” Roy wheezed, spitting out a mouthful of blood. “You just don’t understand business. You never did. You’re a loser, Todd. No wonder that whore Loraine dumped your ass.”
“You shut up!”
“Loser! Useless fat slob. You’re pathetic.”
Roy gave a red-toothed grin. “Just like Chuckie there. Only good for a couple bucks and a cheap laugh.”
“Shut your goddamn mouth!”
Todd swung again. A punch for Mrs. Charlebois. Another for Mr. Murphy. One for each abandoned corpse that had passed through Royal Stephens Funeral Home. One for the all the women Roy had ever conned.
And one final blow for Todd.
* * *
Todd sat at the desk, slurping day-old coffee. Sweat beaded across his brow. He grabbed an old receipt, used it to mop his face dry and then threw it onto the pile of similar papers used to finish wiping his hands once he ran out of paper towels.
When the buzzer rang, Todd calmly pressed down on the intercom button and slurred, “Welcome Royal Stephens Funeral. Sorry for your loss, what do you want?”
“Hello?” Todd recognized the voice as belonging to Steve, the moronic, giggling frat boy. “Hey, I got a number this time.”
“Say it, Steve!” the girl shrieked.
“It? Oh yeah. Show me the body!”
Feedback flared into the intercom thanks to the explosion of laughter.
Todd winced then asked, “You sure you wanna see it?”
“It’s not very pretty. You might regret it.”
They blasted their horn in reply.
“It’s the sort of thing that stays with you, you know. Death is funny that way.”
“Show me the body, show me the body!” they chanted.
“Fine. Drive through to window nine.”
“Cool! Hey, one more thing. It’s real, right? Like really real? Your website says it’s real.”
“And fresh?” the girl asked. “Like really fresh? We want our money’s worth!”
Todd stared at the crimson smudges his fingertips left on the intercom. “Yeah, it’s real,” he said, chuckling softly. “Trust me.”
Copyright © 2009 by Sarah-Jane Lehoux