I never thought I’d work with dead bodies. When I went through beauty school, I pictured working in a salon with big windows and lots of gossip. I thought I’d sweep floors until I could afford to rent my own chair. Then the fancy cemetery opened. Fancy isn’t the right word. Different, yes. Expensive, definitely. People from all over the country pay to have their corpses shipped to our town, Penn Hills, Pennsylvania to be buried at Green Eternity. Before that Penn Hills was only known for coal. Then we got famous for having the first ever natural burial ground: no caskets, no pesticides, no chemicals, no headstones. Only acres of wildflower fields.
Green Eternity pays good money to the half of the town who work as gardeners, pest management, gravediggers, publicists, gift shop workers, morticians, ministers, and refrigeration experts. Then there’s me. The cemetery recruited me from beauty school to cut their clients’ hair, trim their nails, shave their faces. Hair grows even after you’re dead. Well, not exactly. When you die, your body gets all dehydrated, so it shrivels and more hair becomes visible.
It used to make me feel weird that I groomed people who couldn’t tell me how they wanted to look. But I got used to it. I had to if I wanted to keep my salary. With a dad who got crushed in a collapsed shaft the summer before I left for college, and a mom who died of a heart attack from diabetes, I was the only person who could take care of me.
Before I worked at Green Eternity, I could barely pay my bills, on account of having spent all of my dad’s life insurance on two years at Penn State—his dream for me. But one night of partying at the wrong fraternity house and I couldn’t stay there. When I saw the brothers in my classes and in the dining halls, all I could do was shiver. So I moved back to Penn Hills and enrolled in beauty school. It was a practical way to make money. Except that I had to pay my tuition and buy scissors, rollers, makeup brushes, blow dryers, combs, cleaning solution—the works. And then, flipping through catalogues for classes, I would see things I needed. Like a fast-heating straightener to tame the unruly waves coming out of my head, a heat-resistant mat to lay it on so I wouldn’t burn my trailer down, and miracle repair cream for the damage it would do to my hair. The only way I could afford it all was with credit cards, so that’s what I did. Taking a job with a good salary would help keep the creditors off my back. So that’s how I ended up working with dead people in a windowless basement.
At least I had Deb, my only friend at Green Eternity. She was the only female gravedigger and could make a grave in half an hour, twice as fast as the guys. She got into construction young; she had to make money after her parents disowned her after she burned all of her church dresses on the front lawn and chopped off her waist-length hair. She still wears it short. We met at my beauty school when she came in to get a cheap cut. After we bonded over being orphans, we became friends who watched three or four movies in a row and ate bags of chips and frozen pizzas and pints of ice cream and candy bars and finished those off with Kahlua milkshakes and brandy. Then she started dieting, so we stopping seeing each other outside of her monthly hair appointments. It also could have something to do with the fact that she would always put her arm around me and I’d fold into her, but as soon as she tried to do more, I’d freeze and make excuses to leave. But ever since we started working together, we were friendly again.
She almost died from laughing when I told her about a body I prepared last week. The guy was 40, one of those big shot financial guys in New York City who had a soft spot for the country. After he made more money than god, he planned to retire young and move somewhere without any asphalt, or so his sister said during his service. But then he had Chinese takeout one too many times and his arteries couldn’t handle it. That’s how he ended up on my table. He was pretty okay-looking: blue eyes, high cheekbones, pretty pink lips. Except that he had an awful, scraggly beard. I needed to get rid of it. I took my straight razor and zip, nip, clip—it was gone. He went from a five to a seven, just like that.
Then I noticed Charly, the assistant director, watching me from the stairs—she never came all the way down. She was a dumpy woman who never wore makeup or brushed her hair, all because she was too busy taking care of her geriatric mother and reporting to Green Eternity’s real director, who lived in New York City. When she saw my shave job, she gasped and put her hand on her chest like I had been the one that killed him:
“Temperance, did you consult his sheet?”
“I looked at it, but I didn’t read it. Didn’t need to. I knew how he’d look the best.”
“His sister specifically requested that we leave his face alone. It’s all in the notes. He’s had that beard for twenty years. It was a slice of the countryside he had with him every day in the city. He’s having an open-casket funeral in two days. If he doesn’t have a beard by then, you won’t have a job,” she said and mounted the stairs back to her fifth-floor office that gets more natural light in one day than I see in a week.
By “open-casket” she meant that the lid wouldn’t have been put on his cardboard box. At Green Eternity, our clients pay top dollar for a “casket” that biodegrades into a million pieces as fast as possible. They’re not afraid of maggots devouring their flesh or earthworms crawling through their eye sockets. The thought of that kills me—it’s my rationale for being cremated. Then I can bypass the whole decomposition thing and have my ashes thrown into the ocean. I can only imagine how vast and blue it its. The only body of water I’ve spent time around is the Allegheny River that winds through Penn Hills. Only a fool would swim in its murky, strange-smelling waters. Not even fish will touch it. It’s nothing like an ocean full of majestic creatures. I’ve seen TV shows about whales as big as three school busses and dolphins that sing. I’d rather have bits of me explode out of their blowholes than be chomped on by creepy crawlies with too many legs—or no legs at all.
Before the financial guy could meet this fate, I had to figure out a way to bring his beard back to life. That got me thinking about using some of his other hair to replace what I’d chopped. I took the cover off of his lower half and shuttered. Then I did what I had to do: I shaved him bald and found some super glue.
I spent the next couple hours dabbing bits of glue as small as pores onto this guy’s face and sticking his pubes to it. When I was done, all of the shiny bits of glue were hidden and the guy looked like he had a real beard. In fact, my beard was more aesthetically pleasing than his original one: it didn’t climb toward his eyes or scraggle down his neck. I ranked him a six.
I used to date a six—a quiet guy named Barry with a lot more going on in his noggin than you would ever think judging by his droopy eyes and the way he shuffled his feet. When we started going out, he was sick all the time; his lungs were so damaged from the mines that black came out each time he coughed. It was miserable to watch. Then, his mama found out she was dying because her tits were rotting off—his words, not mine. He had the option of leaving the mines to take care of her. None of his older brothers wanted to hold her hand while she watched Jeopardy, go to church with her, or to upkeep her garden. So I pushed him to do it. Hard. I thought that seeing the sunshine and breathing fresh air might heal him. And it did. After caring for his mama for a month, his cough went away.
Every summer morning, Barry went out to tend her garden. She said she made her own tropical oasis, because she never made it down to Florida. Her garden was the only splotch of color in the whole “mobile home community.” All the trailers were splotched with brown, their white paint having been too hard to keep up with. The whole park was covered in gravel, so at any time a family could plop down a new unit without having to worry about it sinking into the grass.
Barry’s mama pilfered dirt and flowers from the side of the highway and plopped them down outside of her bedroom window. Each year, the black-eyed susans, purple coneflowers, and orange lilies came back. She taught Barry how to deadhead the lilies. At first he felt bad. Why would you cut the heads off of flowers? But then he saw that the lilies liked it. The more he chopped, the fatter and more orange the blossoms were. He practically skipped out to the garden every morning and sometimes even found himself telling the purple coneflowers to stop being so selfish and to leave room for the lilies.
But after a few more months of spending time with his mother all day, his eyes got dull and he barely spoke. Our relationship fizzled. He stopped asking me how I was doing and chose to cuddle with the remote rather than with me. When I told him things weren’t working between us, he nodded and left, without ever meeting my eyes. It made me mad that he didn’t try to fight for me. I would’ve tried real hard to keep me in my life if I were him—especially because I’m an eight point five.
The summer his mama was on her last legs was my first month of work at Green Eternity, not long after Barry and I broke up. He walked down to my basement and looked at his scuffed, brown boots. His wavy hair fell into his eyes and stuck up toward the heavens—it looked like he hadn’t touched it since we split. I already knew what he was going to ask, but I decided to pull it out of him anyway, on account of the fact I was still bitter that he picked Duck Dynasty over touching me.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Well, my mama’s dying and I, uh, she wants…but…but, we can’t afford it,” Barry said, looking down.
“What do you want?” I asked again, tapping my foot.
“Wild flowers and, uh…” Barry bit his cuticles. “We can’t afford a normal burial, so, uh…”
I took a long, deep breath. When I expelled the last dregs of air in my lungs, he still hadn’t spoken. I couldn’t wait for him any longer: “If you want me to risk my job and help you bury your mother at Green Eternity then there better be something in it for me.”
“Tempy, I’m sorry. My mama’s got a mean streak…I couldn’t cook her cornbread right, read her the bible right, or even drive right. And she let me know it. Every day. After a while, I started to believe it. So, uh, I didn’t think I could do you right either. Now that she’s so sick that she can’t talk, I’m starting to feel a whole lot better.”
My shoulders slumped. Oh shit.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea she was so nasty. No one from this town can afford to be buried here anyway, so we might as well make a heist out of it.”
Barry looked up at me. He almost smiled. “Two fifty for you and two fifty for Deb?”
I nodded. Barry wrapped his arms around me: gasoline, clean linens, and wet earth. His smell didn’t make me giddy the way it used to, but it still felt good. Then, Barry pulled away.
“There’s something else I wanted to ask… After my mama goes, the last place I’d like to be is underground—even though all my brothers are there—and I, uh… Are there any open gardener positions?”
“I’ll talk to Charly. But she doesn’t like me.”
“Really? I thought women always did,” Barry said and looked up at me. Then he turned and climbed back up the stairs three at a time.
Later that day, during lunch, I walked toward the flower fields, sneezing from all the pollen. They were bursting with daisies, purple asters, and firewheels. From afar, I loved looking at Green Eternity’s grounds. But up close was another story. I couldn’t stand the feeling of bumblebees bumping my legs, the needy sound of crickets, or the way my ergonomic clogs flicked up mud that caked to the backs of my legs. Unfortunately, I had to brave it to find Deb.
She was on her lunch break on the opposite side of the field from the other guys. She sat in her dirty, yellow backhoe and picked at a salad. I hoisted myself into the machine and sat on the cracked leather. I looked at her round face and admired how clean it was. She never had to worry about scrubbing off eyeliner, or getting mascara stuck in her contacts like I did. Ever since I moved back to Penn Hills, I haven’t left the house without black lines around my eyes and red on my lips.
“That doesn’t look like much fun,” I said, motioning toward her lunch.
“I’ve been trying this diet: no carbs, no sugar, no alcohol. If I can stick with it for a few more weeks, it’s supposed to make all my cravings go away,” she said, and put a piece of lettuce into her mouth.
“Then I guess I shouldn’t have brought this for you,” I said, taking peanut butter cups out of my pocket—her favorite.
She eyed the candy and reached her hand out. I flinched it away.
“First, I have a proposition for you,” I said.
“Is it sex?” She looked at me and batted her stubby lashes.
“No, but you’d make two fifty for digging a grave after hours.”
“You want me to risk my job to bury your ex-boyfriend’s mom?” Deb picked up her fork, looked at the candy in my hand, then put her fork down. “I guess I could use the extra cash. The queer youth shelter in Pittsburgh always needs help… Now gimme those cups.”
I handed them over. She ripped the packaging with her teeth, peeled back the wrapper, and popped the whole cup into her mouth. She closed her eyes and moaned. It didn’t matter if she was in a gas station, sitting on a bench on the side of the street, or on the bus—if she liked what was in her mouth, she moaned. When she opened her eyes and saw that I was staring at her, she smiled.
“I missed watching that,” I said and climbed out of the backhoe.
The next morning, on my way into Green Eternity, I saw Charly leaving. The bags under her eyes looked like they could explode with ink at any moment.
“My mom fell again last night. I need to get home and change her bandages. Make sure to read all of the notes I left with the bodies. Please. Your last few haircuts have been sloppy, so you better fix that, too,” she said and disappeared outside.
“A-plus for encouragement,” I said and went into my basement.
The first person on my table was an old woman with firetruck-red hair and tattoos peeking out from the white sheet over her body, which definitely was not the 600-thread count she was used to. I recognized her immediately from the tabloids. She was a fashion designer-activist who spoke out against fur and leather. Her shtick were garments made from sustainable bamboo colored with dyes made from lichens. I bet she didn’t want to pollute the earth in a traditional cemetery. I also bet that she had no idea about the many years of toxins from the mines that had leached into the soil all over Penn Hills.
When I pulled her sheet down, I saw an ornate phoenix curve from under one breast, down her side, and around to her back. On her thigh, a topless mermaid posed underwater, hair flowing behind her. I wanted to be her. I wanted to be free to swim wherever I pleased and be uninhibited by everything happening above the surface. I stripped off my sweaty gloves. Before I could type tropical vacation into Google, my phone rang. It was Barry. His mama hadn’t woken up to see her flowers.
That night, the peepers went crazy with their songs like they knew something exciting was about to happen. When I got to Barry’s, he smelled like whiskey. His mama was still in her bed right where she died. Her lips and fingertips were blue. There was a puddle of vomit on the floor from when Barry must’ve realized she was gone. I wrapped her up in a sheet. He only came into the room when I called for him. I picked up her feet. He flinched before taking her head. She was much lighter than I expected. She made a smack when she hit the bed of his rusty truck.
When he couldn’t get the key into the ignition, I traded seats with him.
It was dark, but the big moon shed its silver light over us. Even though I wore long pants and bug spray, I kept slapping mosquitoes as we walked through the fields. When we got to the plot, we laid the body down on the long edge of the grave. The grass and flowers were so tall that Barry’s mama disappeared. Deb got out of the backhoe and stood with us in front of the hole. It was twelve feet deep, two times deep as regulation so she could put a client on top in the morning and no one would know there was someone underneath.
Barry swayed to the left, then overcorrected and swayed to the right. “I know you guys wanna kiss each other. Why won’t ya just do it?”
Barry turned and looked at us. I was great at buying things on Amazon I didn’t need like a shower curtain with a tropical underwater scene and neon fish, but I’d always been too afraid of following that impulse. I felt Deb’s warmth next to mine and wanted to grab her hand, but we both stayed silent and forward-facing.
Then Barry shrugged and said, “It’s time for a prayer.”
“Religious mumbo jumbo’s not for me,” Deb said. “I’ma go sit in the backhoe. Wave to me when it’s time.”
I stayed with Barry and watched Deb walk away. Her jeans fit real nice.
“God bless this earth where my mother lies. Let it forgive her bad breath and her ill temper and the way she used to beat us. I’m supposed to be sad, but, uh, really, I’m glad. Hey that rhymed,” Barry said and started to laugh.
He laughed until his body shook and he was speaking in tongues; the sounds coming out of him were half animal and half god. His face was all twisted and red and his cheeks were wet and his arms flailed. He gave a mighty roar from the back of his throat and bent his knee and shot out his foot and sent his mama flying into the hole like a soccer ball. Her body made a soft plop when it landed at the bottom. Then he waved like a maniac at Deb. The backhoe grumbled before its long appendage scooped up dirt from the large pile next to the grave and released it over the hole. Barry stood dangerously close to the edge as he watched his mama disappear. My hand made circles on his back, but he didn’t feel them.
On the way back to the parking lot, Deb and I linked our arms with Barry’s to keep him upright. He was catatonic when we loaded him into the back of Deb’s jalopy. Then we walked around to the front. Piles of wrappers littered the passenger seat. It smelled like chocolate. Even though it was dark, I knew Deb turned red before she pushed the candy carcasses to the floor. Her face looked soft in the moonlight. She was normally a seven, but right now she looked like a nine. I put my hand on her thigh:
“Will you teach me how to swim?”
Raina K. Puels is the Nonfiction Editor for Redivider. She leaves a trail of glitter, cat hair, and small purple objects everywhere she goes. You can read her in The Rumpus, PANK, The American Literary Review, and many other places. See her full list of pubs: rainakpuels.com Tweet her: @rainakpuels.