By Jennifer Makowsky
Today when I see our weekly list of clients and their pictures, I get excited about a man named Heinrich Garby because he looks like my father. I run down to the morgue to find Mr. Defazio. He’s puttering around, pulling up his pants over his big belly and looking around like he often does when he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. It’s like he’s lost. It’s a sunny Saturday morning, but it could be midnight down here with the florescent lighting and lack of windows. I hold up the list with the guy’s picture, trying to fight the smile forming on my mouth. Adrenalin is zipping around inside me, but I try to ignore it and look serious.
“Mr. Defazio, I would like to do the make up for this man,” I say in my most sincere voice, standing up straight.
Mr. Defazio stops puttering and comes forward, squinting at the photograph. Then he looks at me with a scrunched forehead. “What, do you have something against this guy? You seem awfully excited, Elizabeth.”
He can always read me. I’m sure the look of excitement is all over my face despite trying to look grave. I’ve always had a hard time suppressing my facial expressions.
“No, it’s just,” I pause and then spit it out. “He looks like my father.”
The perplexed look doesn’t leave Mr. Defazio’s face, so I elaborate. “I know it sounds weird, but my dad disappeared ten years ago.”
“Disappeared? You told me he passed away.”
“I just said that because I didn’t want to talk about it. But it’s like he’s dead because he just vanished one day. Poof!” I throw the fingers of both hands out. “Like a magician waved a wand.”
The look Mr. Defazio gives me is one I am expecting. It isn’t one of sympathy. It teeters on disdain. He acts hard and embittered and hates tears and emotion. He says it’s because he’s from Jersey, but I know it’s really because he masks his emotions with other emotions that are easier for him to express. When his wife Mora was living, she had been a crier. Everything made her burst into tears. This made Mr. Defazio mad. I often wonder why he went into the funeral business when he hates tears so much. Sometimes he excuses himself from speaking with the clients of a funeral we are handling and goes down into the morgue and kicks the bottom drawers. There are dent marks from his shoes lining the bottom of one drawer in particular. It’s gotten worse since Mora died.
“Well it felt that way.” I say. “He sent a letter a year later. He took off with some woman he’d been having an affair with. Last I heard, he was in California.”
Mr. Dafazio raises his eyes to the ceiling. “Always with the dramatics,” he says, putting his palms up in exasperation and then slapping them down on his thighs. “I thought you meant he went missing for real. Like the police were involved.”
I shrug. “Doing this guy’s makeup might give me some closure.”
He lets out a grunt and shakes his head, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s not an easy case, Elizabeth. You might be better off letting me do it. Pretty grim, if you ask me.”
“What happened to him?”
“The guy worked for a local nursery. He was moving a Saguaro for the city over on the East Side when it fell on him. The thing weighed close to 3,000 pounds. And you can imagine the way it left him with all those spines in it. Not a pretty sight, Elizabeth.”
I remember seeing a story on the local news about it. Man Crushed by Cactus or something.
Occasionally Mr. Defazio lets me do the make up for the “tough“ cases although he does most of them himself. These are the victims of car accidents and gunshots with open wounds and lacerations that need layers of special makeup and powders. I’ve never seen someone crushed by a cactus.
I make a steeple with my hands as if I’m praying. “It could really help me.”
He sighs. “Fine. But you’re going to need tweezers and a lot of patience.”
He turns and shuffles toward the stairs to leave, but stops and puts his hands on his hips and looks at the floor, his back to me. “You’re a damn good desairologist. The best. Besides me, of course.”
A desairologist is the technical name for what I do. I never use it though. It sounds too formal like I’m a scientist or doctor. When someone asks me what I do for a living, I tell them I give dead people their color back before they bow out of the world for good. Before I did this, I was a hair stylist. One day after my then-client, Louisa, dropped dead of a stroke, her husband walked into the salon where I worked and asked if I’d do Louisa’s hair one last time, and her make-up. Luckily, I’ve always been good with cosmetics. I guess having once been a goth paid off. All those years of using white pancake makeup and layering eye shadow weren’t for nothing. I now know how to blend and spread foundation like paint into a canvas. It isn’t lost on me that my skill at making people look alive comes from trying to make myself look dead years ago. Anyway, I made Louisa look almost better than she looked in life. After that, I signed up for mortuary school and never looked back. Since then I’ve been hanging out in the back of the 90-year-old building downtown six—sometimes seven—days a week, tinting blue lips pink and putting the last curls into women’s hair. When I’m not doing aesthetic work, I’m assisting Mr. Defazio with a bunch of other stuff—ordering caskets, memory cards, and flowers. In a way, I’ve become his partner since Mora died.
Monday morning, after Mr. Garby’s family gives the okay, Mr. Defazio embalms Mr. Garby’s body and then finds me in the front office.
“He’s all yours, Elizabeth. Good luck with all that.” He shakes his head and makes a dismissive gesture with his hand as if he’s tossed out a dirty Kleenex. I nod resolutely, standing up and wiping the palms of my hands on my jeans. I am excited to give Mr. Garby his last coat of shine, but a little nervous as I take Mr. Garby’s photograph from the desk and head downstairs to the morgue.
Mr. Garby is waiting for me on the metal table, dressed in a pair of Levis and a blue and black cowboy shirt. The outfit is fitting, so to speak, because my father wore Levis religiously and had a couple cowboy shirts in his wardrobe. Mr. Garby doesn’t look bad for being killed by a 3,000-pound Saguaro. As I step closer to him, I see his face is rosy from the embalming, but is perforated with dozens of thick cactus spines. His blondish gray hair has been combed out by Mr. Defazio, but there are still spines twisted through it and little clumps of dirt.
Before I get to his face, I cut Mr. Garby’s nails. It’s a myth that your hair and nails keep growing after you die. Your skin retracts, so they appear longer. But Mr. Garby’s are a little long to start with and there’s dirt beneath some of them. With his hand in mine, I start to talk to him. This is not unusual. I talk to the dead when I’m working on them.
“Hi, it’ me, Elizabeth,” I say, looking at the embroidery in his shirt—red flowers stitched into navy fabric. My father had one with a similar pattern but the flowers were green. I take a breath and just launch in, mid-story. ”I no longer have roommates. I bought a house,” I switch hands and begin cutting the nails of Mr. Garby’s other hand. My heart has sped up and feels like a throbbing fist in my throat. “And no, I’m not married. I haven’t met the one.“ I pause and click my tongue. “Remember how you were always telling me to dump Mike Tinnerson because you thought I was too good for him? Well I did it. Finally.”
I begin to scoop the dirt out of Mr. Garby’s nails with the end of the nail scissors and think of Mike Tinnerson who I dated when I was nineteen and going to cosmetology school. He was the last guy I dated before my father cut town. When I was with Mike, he would call me fat and openly check out other women. But when I wasn’t with him, he would whine when I stayed home to study instead of hang out with him in his father’s basement watching The Price is Right and getting stoned. My father used to call him “The Tin Man.” When are you going to dump that rusty Tin Man? he used to say with an exasperated huff. You’re far too good for him, Beth.
After my father left, I fell into a depression and pulled the plug on that relationship. In a way, my father leaving opened up my world. I began cutting assholes out of my life right and left. Like an asshole-swiping ninja. It wasn’t lost on me that my father was acting like an asshole himself.
“Anyway, mom really lost it after you left. She must have used half her settlement from the divorce to get plastic surgery. I can’t say I blame her. Men can just go off and find a younger woman if they want. Any woman, really. Women her age are limited as to what they have left to pick from. Unless they look young.” I stop as a shot of panic ripples through my chest. For a moment I hear my mother telling me to get out there and find someone before all the good ones are gone. I shake the thought almost as quickly as it crosses my mind and continue. “Anyway, she had a facelift and breast implants put in.”
I take the tweezers and begin plucking the large Saguaro spines out of Mr. Garby’s face, but there are smaller ones that require the magnifying loupe glasses we use when we need to see every last detail of something. “It’s been years since we heard anything from you. Did you ever marry what’s-her-name? Actually I know her name because I did some cyber stalking. I know Erica’s a makeup artist. Like me,” I pause and let out a tight laugh. “Well not like me. She works on living people in Hollywood or some shallow bullshit like that.”
I feel my throat tighten with anger and stop. At the same time, the door at the top of the morgue stairs opens, followed by the sound of Mr. DeFazio’s heels banging down the stairs. I pause with the tweezers in my hand. I know that angry descent. He walks by me without looking, around to the other side of the wall where most of the morgue drawers are. In a few seconds I can almost hear him kicking the bottom drawers before it actually happens.
When he settles down, I yell over the wall, “I take it your last client was a crier?”
The shuffle of Mr. Defazio’s shoes gets louder as he rounds the wall with an exasperated look like he’s just run a marathon. There are beads of sweat dripping down his forehead that he’s dabbing with a white handkerchief.
“What is it with people and all the emotion, all the drama?”
I laugh and say in a sarcastic tone. “You’re never dramatic, are you?”
“Well I’m not emotional!” he yells, giving the closest bottom drawer a swift kick.
“Not at all,” I say.
He groans and puts his hands on his hips, looks at Mr. Garby, and shakes his head wearily. “I don’t understand it, Elizabeth. This guy’s just moving a cactus on the East Side, doing his job, and then goes kerplunk, killed by a cactus of all things. I was just talking to a woman upstairs whose husband went kerplunk—just like that—working on the job. Mora went kerplunk doing her job—God rest her soul. Who’s next? Are you gonna find me down here one day kerplunked?” He walks towards the stairs again, looking up at the door, shaking his head. “I don’t know how God sleeps at night.”
After he leaves, I turn back to my father, I mean Mr. Garby, and get close to his forehead where there are still several larger Saguaro spines that need plucking. “His wife, Mora,” I say, “was upstairs with a local florist placing an order when she suffered a massive heart attack and died instantly at the front desk. I wasn’t there, thank god, but Mr. Defazio has mentioned her going kerplunk upstairs almost weekly for the past few weeks. I think because the anniversary of her death is tomorrow. If Mr. Defazio ever keels over on the job it will because all that rage will take hold of him and give him a coronary.” I sigh a long sigh that feels like it’s been sitting inside me all stuffed up for years. “I was angry for a while. Angry at you, which made me angry at a lot of things. But I’ve been feeling better lately. Maybe because I started seeing a good therapist. And I’ve been venting—telling all the other dead people down here about how pissed I am at you.”
The door at the top of the stairs opens again and the sound of footsteps clomping down the stairs makes me stop in mid-pluck and look up. Mr. Defazio is standing at the bottom of the stairs looking at me like he has something he wants to say. But he remains quiet, rubbing his belly like a pregnant woman.
“Back so soon? Did you forget something?”
He looks beyond me for a moment and then snaps to. “Yeah, yeah, I think I forgot my phone down here. I can’t find it.”
He putters around.
“I haven’t seen it,” I call over my shoulder.
I shrug as if I’m telling Mr. Garby What the heck is up with him? Mr. Defazio rarely forgets anything. As he’s walking around, half-poking around the drawers, he begins to whistle. That’s something he does a lot. He whistles the theme to The Andy Griffith Show and Colombo, the theme to The X Files, the love theme to The Godfather, which was his and Mora’s song. Right now, that’s what he’s whistling as he’s pacing back and forth, not really looking for anything anymore.
“I wonder what God does this,” he finally says. “That woman up there was pretty broken up. Her husband was operating a forklift and had a heart attack. Only forty years old. What kind of God, Elizabeth? What kind of God?”
I put the tweezers down. “You got me, Mr. Defazio. What kind of God lets a lot of the shit happen that happens in the world?”
I’ve never seen him like this. He’s rubbing the back of his neck and looking at the floor. Normally, he would have come down and kicked the bottom row of drawers while shouting some cuss words in Italian before going upstairs again.
“Have you ever thought of therapy?” I ask.
“Thought of it?” He wrinkles his heavy, dark brow. “Like how?”
“I mean thought of going to therapy? It might help you sort some things out. It’s helped me a lot.”
“Come on, Elizabeth. I’m not crazy.”
“I know you’re not crazy. I’m not crazy either.”
He walks over to the table where I’m standing above Mr. Garby. “Well, you’re down here talking to this man like he’s your father.”
“Ha ha ha,” I say in a deadpan tone. “Try it. The dead are great listeners and you don’t have to pay them. It might help.”
He looks down at Mr. Garby for a beat longer than he normally would. He holds his hand out and gestures to the tweezers in my hand. “Give me those.”
I hand over the tweezers. He swiftly plucks the cactus spines out of Mr. Garby’s face. Each spine leaves behind a little gray circle as he plucks it. “You’re taking too long, Elizabeth. How long can a man be so humiliated?”
“I know that. I’m just sayin’,” He pauses and doesn’t finish his sentence like he doesn’t know where he’s going with it. Then he looks down at Mr. Garby. “Anyway, this guy whose wife I was just talking to upstairs had a daughter. Maybe five years old. Cute little thing. Now she’ll grow up without a father. And you,” he says addressing Mr. Garby now. “wherever you are. . . “ He raises his eyes to the ceiling, “heaven, the afterlife, wherever,” he turns his eyes back to Mr. Garby, “You’re without your kids. Without your wife. Totally alone.”
I get the feeling he’s really talking about himself. He’s unloading in a way I’ve never seen, like he’s a different person.
“Mora and I never had kids,” he says as he continues to pluck the spines out of Mr. Garby—behind his right ear now. “I told her I didn’t want any.” He pulls with more effort than is necessary. “It’s bizarre. I come from a big Italian family. You’d think I’d want a big family myself, right?”
He pauses, looking down at Mr. Garby. Is he waiting for him to answer?
“Why didn’t you want kids?” I ask, hoping not to break the spell.
“I lost two brothers when I was ten years old,” he says, still looking down at Mr. Garby. “They were babies. Twins. Had some kind of genetic thing.” His bald patch catches the overhead light, which is so bright it could burn a hole in the floor if we left it on too long. “I never really knew them.” He exhales then straightens up and continues, not looking at me. “I saw what it did to my mother. She was never the same after that. I think that had something to do with my decision to deny Mora kids. Now I’m paying for it.”
“In what way?”
He hands me the tweezers. “I’m alone,” he says, still not looking at me. “I’m totally alone, Elizabeth.”
I swallow hard. It’s like seeing one of your parents cry. I want to ask him if he’d rather kick a drawer or something.
I take a shallow breath. “So not true,” I say, turning to pluck the spines behind Mr. Garby’s left ear where a cluster of what looks like dead grass is caught in the back of his hair. I snatch it out. “You have your brother in Newark.”
“Yeah, 3,000 miles away. And he’s got his own problems. His wife has a pill problem and his daughter’s flunking out of school.”
I sighed. “Wow, that sucks.”
There’s a beat of silence before I say, “You have me.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve got you,” he says waving my words away like they’re bees buzzing around his head.
I almost smile as he says it. It’s the reaction I was expecting. His vulnerable lets-talk-about-it attitude was odd, even if it was nice to see his human side. It was making me feel like we had switched bodies since I‘m the one always spouting about feelings and trying to draw his out, much to his annoyance. Now I’m almost regretting ever doing that.
“But you got your own life,” he says, looking down with his hands on his hips.
“You know my life is pretty low-key, right?” I roll the clump of dead grass between my thumb and middle finger. I’m always talking about how my job is my life and I practically live here. “I promise that I won’t let you go kerplunk down here alone. Cuz I’m always here. And not just here here,” I point to the ground to indicate the building. “I mean I’m here if you need me—that kind of here.”
He gives a long exhale and straightens the collar on Mr. Garby’s cowboy shirt then buttons the top button where the top of the scar from his embalming surgery is visible. “Honestly, let the man have some decency, Elizabeth.”
He begins to back away, then stops and looks up at the ceiling again. “Your father was a numbskull to leave, Elizabeth. I hope you know that.”
I sigh. “Yeah, I know.”
He’s heading back upstairs when I call out. “Thanks, Mr. Defazio. Just remember you’re not alone, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
He sounds like himself again. I can’t help grinning. I can only see him on the stairs from the knees down. I’m wondering why he’s just standing there when he says, “Call me Frank, Elizabeth.”
Then he continues back up the stairs, whistling the love theme to The Godfather.
Jennifer Makowsky is a writer from the Northeast who moved out west to attend the University of Arizona and earn her MFA in Creative Writing. Her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Gargoyle, The Portland Review, 2 Bridges Review, Matador Review, Heavy Feather Review, Blue Earth Review, and others. She lives in Tucson where she teaches English to adults.