Patricia Gomes: poetry, fiction, freelancing

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1st Place winner (Short Story Catagory) of the iVillage Poet's Workshop Annual Halloween Writing Contest 2005:

(un) Settling Accounts

 

Celeste's hands began to shake before she'd even made the turn into the parking lot of the Sawyer-Smith Funeral Home.  The fearsome place was an imposing enough structure when driving by, let alone creeping up its wide steps to the massive oak front doors.  The building frowned down on you, hushing any urge you may have mustered to crack a lame death joke.

 

With a knot in her stomach, Celeste rang the lighted buzzer under a tiny bronze plaque cautioning potential mourners to Ring once, please in green-splotched raised Copperplate.  She didn't want to be here, shouldn't be here, and if it wasn't for her family trying to shave a few bucks off Uncle Lucian's economy burial package, she wouldn't be.  Some other lucky aesthetician would be collecting their third-party fee today.  Celeste shifted her weight to balance the sturdy bin she carried.  Throwing caution to the wind, she rang again just as the doors swung open.

 

A dark-suited man stood in the entrance.  "Ms. Racine?  Come in — come in.  Here, let me help you with that," he said, relieving her of the big plastic tote.  "This is quite a load, dear.  Trust me, you won't need half of what you've brought."

 

The funeral director was exactly as Celeste envisioned on the drive over:  tall, middle-aged, neither too thin or too thick, distinguished looking with an expensive haircut, grey at the temples.

 

"Really?"  Her cheeks flushed.  "I wasn't sure . . .  I've never done this before."

 

"Excuse me?"  He tilted his head, confused.

 

"Oh!  No . . . I mean, I've done this before, " she said, pointing to the totes  "I've just never, um, you know — worked on a dead body.  This is my first."

 

"Ah.  That's explains why Mr. Sawyer brought the deceased upstairs for you to work on."  He placed the bin on the floor, extending his hand.  "I'm Robert Smith, by the way."

 

Celeste reached haltingly.  She was afraid his grip would be cold — deathly cold.  It was not and she allowed herself to exhale fully.

 

"Celeste Toolin," she said, pumping his hand as confidently as her nerves allowed.  "Not Racine . . . I got married three months ago."

 

"How lovely — still a newlywed.  Follow me, Mrs. Toolin, and we'll get you started immediately.  The sooner begun, the sooner done, right?"  He walked soundlessly down the thickly carpeted hall, stopping abruptly at the third grand archway on the right.

 

"Here we are." 
 

Celeste froze before the closed double doors.  He's in there.  Who wants to go for what's behind the third door? 

 

She jumped when Mr. Smith slid the pocket doors open.  Reaching for the light switch, he flicked on the two pink spotlights directly over the coffin.  Celeste did not look at the coffin.  Her pale blue eyes scanned the room, taking in the gold-flocked Colonial patterned wallpaper; the endless rows of wooden folding chairs: heavy, dark, and polished to a mirrored sheen.  She smelled lemon oil, a nose-pinch of ammonia, and the sweet, cloying scents of the floral arrangements placed artfully behind the casket.   She sniffed, trying to separate gladioli from mums, mums from carnations, all the while praying she would not smell what she most feared —the body beginning to rot. 

"Mrs. Toolin?  Are you all right?  You look a little pale."

 

"Hmm?  Oh, I'm fine, thank you."  There he is — in the flesh.

 

"Good.  I was worried you might be the superstitious type, this being Halloween and all."

 

"Halloween?"

"October 31st.  The day the dead are allowed to rise."  He said with a raised eyebrow.

"Is it?  I guess with all that's going on it slipped my mind," she replied with a nervous titter. 

Celeste willed herself to look at the coffin.  Surprised to discover that she felt nothing, none of the old terrors her uncle inspired, she tiptoed towards him.  In death, Lucian Racine had lost the ability to terrorize.  No longer would his long, hairy fingers fumble with the tiny pearl buttons of a little girl's favorite Sunday dress.


Mr. Smith touched her elbow.  "You did bring a cutting cape to protect his suit, I assume.  We took the liberty of dressing him, hoping to relieve some of this burden for you.  It's a rarity to have a family member attend to the cosmetics," he paused.  "Well then, I'll leave you to your work —I'll be upstairs in my office if you need anything,"

 

As soon as Mr. Smith's legs disappeared up the stairwell, Celeste closed the doors and began assembling her tray.  'The sooner begun, the sooner done' works for me.

Moving the rosary beads aside, she poked his crossed hands.  They were hard and waxy.

 

She lifted a finger.  It felt like the thinnest of twigs on a dead tree limb, fragile, so very fragile.  Celeste bent his middle finger back, half-expecting Uncle Lucian to scream. 

"What did you call this little piggy, do you remember?  No?  Well, I do." 

And with that, she bent the finger back until it nearly touched his wrist, jumping a bit when the bone finally snapped.


*  *  *  *  *

 

Lucian came awake at the sound.  Where am I?  Someone was muttering, a familiar voice.  Celeste.  "Always was a fraidy-cat, that one," he thought.  He had some fond memories of her tender flesh and — what?  Something about a yellow dress, but he couldn't quite focus properly.  He felt waterlogged, groggy.  He tried to open his eyes.  What —what the hell's going on?  His eyes stayed shut as if glued.

He could hear her clearly, humming softly.  She was busily opening bottles and bags; he heard crinkling plastic.  Something soft touched his face, giving off a dry perfumed scent.  Powder?  Wha'  the fu— ?   And all around, another smell — thicker, sweet to the point of nausea like too many

Flowers?

"I hate you, do you know that?  I've hated you since I was nine years old."

Shut up!  Lucian roared.  But the sound of his voice rang only in his mind; his mouth was as unresponsive to his command as his eyes.  And his hands — he tried to grab for the little bitch, but his body would not obey; he was paralyzed.  Accident?  Am I in a coma?  

 

"Tomorrow we put you in the ground.  No more Uncle Lucian hanging 'round."  Celeste sing-sung, lulled into a near trance by the sheer silence of the corpse hall.  "Do you remember Nicole's tenth birthday?  You gave her a present; she told me all about your present, and it only took sixteen years for her to get it out.  This one's for Nicole."  Celeste snapped another of Lucian's fingers.  It flopped back in place.

Lucian screeched soundlessly again.  Pain — he could not move, but he could feel.  The pain in his hand was excruciating.  Whadda you mean 'in the ground,' you little shit?  I'm not dead! 

 

He fought to sit up.  Nothing — as if he were sewn in place.  Sewn?  Growing angrier, he tried again to speak.  He pushed his tongue against his lips, his effort rewarded by a small movement — just enough to feel the undertaker's stitching.  ARRRRGH!

The movement of his tongue was so slight it went unnoticed.  Celeste continued her administrations unafraid, breaking one finger after another until none was left.  "Oh, Lucian, you poor deluded son-of-a-bitch.  You really thought you were doing us all a favor, didn't you?  'Breaking us in' like that … getting us ready for the big boys.  Well, this puts paid to you, you miserable fuck."

 

Powerless, Lucian heard Celeste unzip his trousers.  NOOOOOOOO!

Celeste, using her sharpest scissors, did exactly what she (and Nicole and Pam and Theresa and Cindy and God knows how many other cousins) had always dreamed of doing.  With a little less pressure than she'd imagined, it came off in one clean cut.

 

Holding it up to the light by just the tips of her fingernails, Celeste snickered and shook her head.  She took a fresh white towel from the tote and wrapping the flaccid treasure carefully, she placed it in her purse.

"Well, there's one stiff that won’t be rising tonight."  Celeste gave a final pat to Lucian's neatly brushed hair and zipped his fly.  She left the Sawyer-Smith Funeral Home as quietly as she'd entered, but far more satisfied.
 

And down the hall, in the third viewing room on the right, behind the utter and unforgiving blackness of his glued eyelids, Uncle Lucian screamed and screamed.

 

2005 

 

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