My fiction has appeared in The Bryant Literary Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, The Driftless Review, Crack the Spine, The Broadkill Review, Happy Magazine, and The Cynic Online Magazine, with a forthcoming publication in Infernal Ink Magazine. I have also published a collection of short stories, Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong (Outskirts Press). I have previously published two short stories in the IVJ, "Dairy Queen" in February 2015, and
"The Witch of Malibu" in September 2015.
Gales of Inappropriate Laughter
Megan sat down on the cool stone steps outside O’Halloran’s Funeral Home and lit a cigarette. The sharp, sweet scent of American Spirit helped burn away the stench of embalming chemicals, nail polish, and decomp, the last of which was definitely killing a small part of her soul. Her young soul. She had never thought much about souls before she started working as a mortuary beautician. Ten years ago, in high school, she had just assumed that the soul was some abstract thing that drifted away when you died, like in television cartoons. Now twenty-seven, dropout of the State Art Institute and graduate of the Clare Le Fay Cosmetology Certificate Program, Megan knew that the soul was the part of you that perished by degrees as you realized that everything you’d been told or promised in high school was untrue.
Cars passed by the funeral home in the evening dark. Megan watched them enviously, imagining their drivers heading home from work. A young couple passed her on the sidewalk pushing a stroller. She shot twin jets of smoke out her nostrils.
The funeral home’s front door opened and old man O’Halloran lurched out on his club foot like Uncle Fester.
“Megan, what are you doing?”
“Taking my break.”
“You left Mrs. Cummins right there on the table.”
“I just started. I’m letting the nail polish dry.”
“Nail polish? You left the curtains wide open!”
She turned and saw where his trembling finger pointed. Mrs. Cummins lay stretched out on the dressing table in full view of the street, like a stale torte in a bakery window.
“I like to work by the window,” said Megan. “I can see people and cars and stuff.”
“Accord the dead some dignity, Megan.”
“I’m going home. Lock up after yourself. I’ll draw the goddamn curtains.”
Megan knew when she took a job at the funeral home in her hometown that eventually she would run into someone she knew. Tonight she was being paid to dress and make up the corpse of her high school art teacher, resurrecting a long-dormant enmity.
Megan and Mrs. Cummins got off on the wrong foot on the first day of sophomore year’s Drawing and Painting course, when Mrs. Cummins introduced herself to the class, and Megan laughed at her name.
Their relationship devolved from there. One morning, assuming the casual art-teacher-class rapport not typically afforded in other classrooms, Mrs. Cummins informed the class that she was in a testy mood because her cat had thrown up on her pillow, and also in both of her shoes. Megan spewed forth an eruption of laughter, then doubled down on her insensitivity by drawing a picture of Mrs. Cummins’ golden tabby horking all over the counterpane bedspread.
More transgressions ensued as Megan took more of Mrs. Cummins’ art courses. Junior year, during an intensive study of the human skeleton, the art department’s model skeleton collapsed suddenly from its standing position on the center table. The skull landed, jaw gaping, in Lyndsay Bauer’s lap, and Lyndsay leapt out of her chair, screaming. Megan had cramps from laughing so hard.
That same year the class sketched live models, which Mrs. Cummins assured them was a privilege afforded few public school art students. Bored with the pudgy man they were sketching, Megan took the liberty of augmenting his body in the final piece to show cartoonishly enlarged and personified genitalia: the man’s penis, thick as a firehose, coiled away from his body like a python, its penile head grinning with a serpent’s forked tongue. This interpretation of the male form was not supposed to be a statement of any kind, nor a representation of any repressed traumatic feelings Megan was harboring. She just thought it would be funny when everyone’s work was hanging on the wall for the in-class critique and one image (hers) was conspicuously and shamelessly vulgar.
Mrs. Cummins took objection to Megan’s snake-penis sketch, and unfortunately, so did a few of the class’ humorless students. Parents complained, the administration got involved, and live modeling was cancelled. Mrs. Cummins asked Megan how it felt to be the person who ruined it for everyone, and Megan, truthfully, felt pretty shitty.
On Megan’s report card that semester, beneath a list of generic comments, Mrs. Cummins added: “Megan is prone to gales of inappropriate laughter, and may benefit from psychological counseling.” Megan tacked that gem to the refrigerator, before her parents took it down, and sent her to a therapist.
Now Mrs. Cummins was headed to the Great Gallery in the Sky, with her official send-off coming at the funeral service tomorrow. Megan finished her cigarette, checked to confirm that there were no new text messages on her phone (as usual), then walked calmly back into the funeral home to desecrate Mrs. Cummins’ corpse.
In retrospect, Megan thought that being sent to a therapist as a teenager was probably something she deserved. But at the time it seemed like one more joke. Her comeuppance did not arrive until senior year, when she applied to various art colleges, including her top choice, Bennington, and realized that she would need good teacher recommendations in order to get in. Shit. Though she was coming fresh off the heels of another disastrous prank, the deliberate sabotage of a self-portrait, Megan swallowed her shallow pride and asked Mrs. Cummins to write her a letter of recommendation. She figured that even though she was an incorrigible cad, anyone could see that she possessed superior artistic talent, worthy of entry into the nation’s finest programs.
Megan did not get into Bennington. She did not get into the Museum of Fine Arts School. Her options, upon graduation, were limited. Later she was able to obtain a copy of Mrs. Cummins’ recommendation letter. The letter, which did grant one or two concessions to Megan’s talent, primarily underscored the assertion that Megan’s maturity level was sorely incommensurate with serious art study. The letter basically “recommended” that any art program with any integrity keep its distance from her.
The self-portrait had been perhaps the nadir of Megan’s personal blue period. At the time of the assignment she was six months into therapy, where she had revealed/discovered a lifetime of inexplicable self-hatred and general lack of identification with the world she inhabited. “I’m a lonely jackass,” she told her therapist. “That’s basically what I am.”
So for the self-portrait assignment Megan decided to distort her facial features to resemble a donkey. She gave herself a fleshy muzzle with brown, fury lips, grinning to reveal a mouth of crooked, buck teeth. She pushed her eyes to the sides of her head- one wide open and alert, the other half-closed and askew. The image looked like a donkey-girl with pretty hair who was perhaps significantly challenged. Hanging on the wall in art class, it appalled or offended almost everyone, including Mrs. Cummins.
“You look like a donkey on crack,” said her friend Vickrum, and the two of them burst out laughing, even as Megan’s stomach began to flutter with self-loathing and regret.
Now, hunched over Mrs. Cummins’ corpse in the cold, sterile prep room of the funeral home, the curtains freshly opened to the outside world, Megan opened her box of cosmetics and began to meticulously recreate the crack donkey on Mrs. Cummins’ face. Around Mrs. Cummins’ mouth she drew a muzzle, and colored it with foundation. She added tiny donkey facial hairs with an eyebrow pencil. She applied shadows to the nose to accentuate the nostrils.
The mouth was tricky; it had to be open. Sometimes at the mortuary they used a thin film of hardened wax to fix a particular facial expression. Nobody ever requested that their departed loved one appear at the funeral with a great, toothy grin, but Megan was able to keep Mrs. Cummins’ mouth open by fixing it with two sturdy prongs of clear wax, placed just inside the cheeks. Next she painted enamel whitener on all of Mrs. Cummins’ front teeth, and smoked another cigarette while it dried.
Re-creating the crack donkey’s cross-eyes was a challenge. Megan peeled back Mrs. Cummins’ left eye to reveal the milky bare eyeball, but she could not keep the eye open, even with wax. For emergencies she kept a thin tube of clear wood glue in the back of her cosmetics box. After applying a little dab to the eyelid, she was able to successfully glue the lid open. Wax, luckily, was enough to achieve the half-mast look of the other eye. There was nothing Megan could do to point the eyes in different directions, and anyway the eyeballs had clouded over, which terrified her, and she took a moment to retreat the bathroom. There she vomited up the cold bile of regret and horror, knowing she had to change the face back to normal. What she had done was an abomination. Even if the woman had sabotaged Megan’s chances of getting into college, nobody deserved to face the great hereafter with the mug of a crack donkey.
But then she changed her mind again. We all get what we deserve, she thought. Mrs. Cummins could never take a joke, and now the last eternal joke was on her.
Or was the joke on Megan? And hadn’t it always been? Hadn’t each successive foray into deviance and mockery only resulted in another degree of collapse? Wasn’t she eternally her own worst enemy, doomed to laugh loudest at herself?
These questions went unanswered as Megan was instantly and guiltily sobered by a soft knock on the front door of the funeral home. She hurried to the entrance, pausing only to throw a cover over the travesty of Mrs. Cummins.
Cautiously opening the door, she found a teenaged girl standing in the entranceway. The girl was short, with dark hair, wearing a black jacket. Her face was somber, eyes resolute but shy. Megan wondered how much of her soul had not yet been kicked away.
“Yes?” Megan asked.
“Um. Hi. I have a question.”
“I’m coming to Angela Cummins’ funeral tomorrow,” said the girl. “I’m her grand-daughter.”
Megan’s heart lurched upward, clawing to escape through her mouth. “How can I help you?” she stammered.
The girl stared at the floor. Her lips were dry. She rubbed her hands.
“I was wondering if I could see her.”
“She’s being prepared right now,” Megan said.
“I know I’ll see her tomorrow,” said the girl. “But… I don’t know what she’ll look like. I’ve never seen a dead person before.” Her eyes flickered up to Megan’s. “I don’t want to cry in front of everyone.”
Megan’s own lips were sandpaper dry. The shame of her transgression burned in weird places, like the back of her neck, and in her fingertips. She had no obligation to let the girl in. She could tell her that it was the funeral home’s policy not to show the corpse while it was being made up. But it had taken courage, Megan knew, for the girl to come down here tonight. In the dark. To confront the ghoul of death, and the demon of a teenager’s inherent self-doubt. Probably this girl had loved her grandmother.
“Give me a few minutes,” Megan said. “You can wait in here. Okay?”
She showed the girl to the plush chairs of the lobby area. There was a gas fireplace, but the gas was turned off. The girl slumped into a chair and Megan retreated into the prep room.
Frantically she wiped the make-up clean from Mrs. Cummins’ face. It smeared a little, but that was acceptable- she’d be redoing the whole job anyway. She plucked the wax from inside Mrs. Cummins’ cheeks. The slack, rubbery lips slowly fused back over the pearly teeth. Megan peeled the wax from the lazy eye, and shuddered as the eyelid drooped shut.
But the other eye, wood-glued open, would not close. Megan tried to peel the glue away, tried massaging it with hot water. The adhesive held firm.
“Shit, shit, shit.”
She knew she could not rip the eye lid off. She rifled through her cosmetics box. Almost without realizing it she found a nail file, one end sharpened to a point. She placed the pointy end to Mrs. Cummins’ eye lid and pressed. The flesh resisted. Megan leaned. Sweat broke out on her forehead. Her tongue was a scratchy wool sock filling her mouth. She pressed harder.
The eyelid snapped free and Megan’s hand shot forward, burying the nail file an inch into Mrs. Cummins’ milky eye.
“Oh my dear Jesus God!” Megan gasped. Her stomach dropped like a flat tire. This had to be punishment for every horrid sin she’d ever committed.
She closed her eyes and pressed her fingers against the eyeball, which felt like the dry, veiny bulb of a peeled tangerine. She pulled the file out of the eyeball and opened her eyes, terrified that a geyser of black blood and yellow pus might shoot out of the wound. But the dead did not bleed. The eye lid slunk back over the eyeball, and except for a little pink blemish where the glue had torn away dead skin, the eye looked normal. She could fix it with make-up.
Returning to the lobby, Megan cynically expected the girl to be staring at her phone, or playing with some other electronic device. But the girl just sat still, hands in her lap, eyes fixed on nothing. Taking the occasion seriously. Megan respected her.
“Okay,” Megan said. “You can see her. We don’t normally allow people into the prep room, so I have to ask you not to touch anything. I’ll give you a few minutes.”
She spoke softly, as she had heard Mr. O’Halloran do with the bereaved, and directed the girl into the prep room.
Megan stood outside and smoked a cigarette, then smoked another one immediately afterward, sucking in long drags until her eye sockets tingled. By the end of the second butt she found that she was crying, and hastily she rubbed the tears from her cheeks. She stepped back inside, found the girl standing in the lobby.
“All set?” Megan asked quietly.
The girl nodded.
“How did she look?”
“I dunno,” the girl said. “Different. Not like I remember.”
“That’s normal,” said Megan. “What we do is apply make-up and coloring to make the person look more like they did when they were- well, to make them look more like themselves. So she’ll look more like you remember. We try not to make people look like Frankenstein.”
The girl shook a chill from her shoulders. “Thank you,” she said. “I guess I’ll go home now.”
“Okay,” Megan said.
The girl smiled on her way out. Megan locked the door behind her. Slowly she walked back into the prep room. Stood over Mrs. Cummins’ corpse. Her hands were shaking from fear, shame, and nicotine, as she picked up a case of foundation and a brush. She could make Mrs. Cummins look good. She may have botched her own self-portrait years ago, but most of life seemed to be a work-in-progress.