by David Zerby
hen the commander-in-chief dies the mortician forgets about the corpse
until the widow calls the night before the funeral. "How is everything?"
she says. "What?" he says. "My husband. How is he?" "Fine," he says.
"He's well," he says as he whips the sheets from his skin and his skin from
the mattress. "Goodnight."
The mortician retrieves the litter from the back patio where the orderlies
abandoned the corpse that rode it, posed semi-supine on a column of pillows,
like a palanquin. Some days earlier one orderly slouched before the bell,
impatient, while the other slouched holding one end of the litter. The
first orderly gave the bell one more ring. The second dropped his poles.
Now the mortician grips the litter and drags the corpse into the mortuary.
He turns on the overheads and recognizes immediately the beginnings of
putrefaction. He begins the embalming process by replacing the head that
reminds him of a pumpkin. But he has no pumpkins. He produces a butternut
squash from the adjoining kitchen. It is the wrong shape and distorts the
face he draws in permanent marker. The mortician tries other roughly
head-shaped objects—watermelon, cantaloupe, kasava, clay—before deciding.
Papier-mâché is the material most suitable for a head.
He gathers a bundle of twine-bound newspapers memorializing the commander's
death. He dumps some flour into a bowl, and some water. The newspapers
contain transcripts of the commander's speeches. They contain editorials on
his life. He cuts them into long strips he dips in the paste. He balls
some up. He makes an egg. The egg is lopsided.
The mortician sleeps while the egg dries. When he wakes he takes up his
marker and walks to the table on which the egg rests. The mortician imposes
a face upon the papier-mâché egg. Over the newsprint he draws ears and
lips, nostrils and septum. He lights a fire in the hearth and holds the
papier-mâché head over it in a wire basket. The fire turns the paper
sallow, the living color of the commander's own sun-anointed skin. The
mortician draws wrinkles in the forehead.
He scrapes a casket across the mortuary floor. He strains to raise the
litter but is able to slide the soft remains of the corpse in laterally. He
douses it with disinfectant, the odor of which he covers by strewing a
mirepoix over the body. The satin-lined coffin cradles the egg he places
above the torso's mantle. The funeral is open-casket to the shoulders. The
mortician cuts eye slits for the viewing. He sleeps again.
In the morning he positions a ramp and shoves the coffin onto a table
covered by white linen that he wheels into the parlor for the viewing. He
is in his suit, sweating, when the widow appears. She enters at the door
and crosses the room to kneel before the corpse. The mortician shrinks
behind the coffin. They are opposite one another, separated by the coffin
containing the corpse and the papier-mâché head. The widow sniffs the air.
She traces the lines of newsprint, the words of his speeches and the texts
of editorials, with a finger. Her voluptuous lips move.
"Oh," she says. "He looks so natural."
David Zerby recently graduated from law school. Two of his
poems appeared in the 2005 issue of The William & Mary Review.
In addition Madlab Theater, an experimental theater group, produced his
play Noise as part of its annual short play festival.
Back to the Top
story copyright by author 2006 all rights reserved