e. v. noechel
Excerpt from Slap
I slap on a suit and take the train to the funeral home where Julian is waiting outside beside the van. It's a home call, he tells me, and by the time we get there, five or six people are milling around the front yard smoking cigarettes. One's slurping scotch out of a fake crystal highball and brushing her hair. Inside, a thin man paces the kitchen, flour on his hands. It smells warm, like gas and something baking. He tells us she was old, she loved the dog more than him, and that there's no sense in wasting good biscuits.
"Don't get me wrong," he says, setting the oven timer, "I didn't do the old girl in, but we knew it was coming a long time. She was tired and so am I. Now I'm hungry, I got supper cooked and everyone's on the goddamn front lawn."
We usually say something consoling at this point, but he seems pretty consoled already. He adds, "They get you in the draft?"
I have no idea what he's talking about.
"Were you in the war, boy?"
I'm twenty-five. I'm not sure what draft he could possibly be referring to, so I just shrug.
I shake my head.
"Lose your voice, too?"
"No, sir, I really wasn't--"
"They send ground troops in the Gulf?"
"I don't know, I just need you to sign some--"
"Okay, anything for a vet." He's signing the forms at least, and seems pleased, so I let him go on. And he does. Never the war scholar, I alternately smile and wince at what I think are the appropriate places as he talks about various battles. It's the scars. They attract them like flypaper. Everyone likes to find someone more damaged than themselves.
Julian gives me a nod and I follow him to the living room. It's dark, paneled, humid like the pink insides of mouths. The cot is a slash of medical white through a box of loam-brown carpet, matted with slow wear. I take a deep breath, unintentionally staring at the loose, heavy flesh sagging off her hand like it could drip off at any moment. She's still in the chair, Julian assessing the best way to move her without bruising her impossibly thin skin. It's like rotted paper, cracks between your fingers. Still warm, the blood has just barely started giving in to gravity and Roxanne will have us for dinner if there's a mark. Julian looks up and gestures with his head for me to turn around. There's a woman watching, pulling the zipper on her stained pink housecoat up and down, up and down. I say something to her about the camellias in the yard and walk her out. It's still easier than the hospital pick ups. Slip, zip, out.
The bag is closed and we lift her. She's lighter than she looks. A stray hair rests atop the bag. It is laundry bluing white. I resist the urge to nod to those watching. Here, we are crystal, icy outlines of people carrying off the shape of a body. They won't remember us, but we were here. At the hospital it's the opposite. We're relegated to back doors and underground morgues. Really invisible though everyone knows we're there, like silent ghosts in the toxic sanitary reek of medical grade detergent. A smell like the wet interiors of lungs. The voices that come out of them, stern and concerned. There was nothing they could do by the time they broke the door down, but they took him there anyway. His parents wanted an autopsy. The empty bottles were enough for the rest of us. They put him, blue, between white sheets in the ambulance, as if they could put him back into his skin like leftovers in a ziploc. Me, I'm easy to reassemble. Durable. Some people are just more connected to their bodies. Stitched in like Peter Pan's shadow.
The wiry strand slips to the ground. Julian steps on it without knowing and we slide her in on the casters.
The old man knocks on the van window, scaring the living hell out of me. He's waving something at me. It looks like a used kleenex.
"Here." he hands me a wadded up napkin. "Shouldn't go to waste."
I free soft warm steam from the greasy paper. He nods at Julian.
"There's two of 'em."
"Thanks." I say, honestly touched. "The Director will be waiting for your call when you're ready.
The card reads "again".
Her hand slides through air with a clean slicing sound, an artful flick of the wrist before landing tells me she's been practicing. Blood rushes to the surface. A prickling sensation slithers over me. I choose. "Tongue"
She blinks twice and I nod the go ahead. She pulls her gloves off, revealing the thin white fingers that open a black satin lined box, a gift from the Heartsville Casket Company, if I recall. Light flickers off the forceps she hides behind her back like stolen candy, though he cannot see. Her fingers crawl over the blindfold, teasing the edge of the fabric, trickling down his nose, sliding surreptitiously between hungry lips sucking at her fingers softly. He thinks this is about worship, that she wants his humility, and he smiles almost imperceptibly, licking at her hand like a puppy. Wet fingers travel across the slick bumps of bone below his gums. Softly jab the inner recesses between jawbone and cheek. Tickle the soft palette, till he convulses with a small series of dry gags. When his mouth opens she grabs it and before he can make that characteristic hollow throated cry, she's got it pinched into metal. He tenses and she tells him not to fight. Pushing him back upright, she leans into him and turns to me.
"Scalpel" the dog-eared square paper demands.
He can hear the clink of metal and feel the jerk of the forceps as she pulls his head closer when she removes the blade from its casing. He tries to talk, but it comes out nonsense and she shushes him. Leaning in close. Letting him feel the blade, dullside down against his bulging flesh. They rarely expect this when they agree to blood. I smile and take a deep drag.
She pushes her cheek into his, her lips brushing his ear as she speaks of muscle, the blood it holds, the helpless strength, the way it feels detached in her hand. Heavier than it looks.
A card hits her bare marble shoulder and glides to the ground. "More."
A flash of silver, then red, she nicks a fleshy red lip. He yelps. The blood wells up. Freezes in time before drawing a marionette line down his chin. My tongue finds the gully in my own and slides over it deliciously. She laughs at me silently, rolling her eyes coquettishly and the blade flashes again. The yelp becomes a squeal. But below, he is purple and stiff as I am. She turns back to him and offers more images. The warm sticky wetness of his shirt. The ghost feeling of a missing familiar. The wet slippery feeling in her cold, damp hand.
One more card. "Now."
A clang and a slice between the teeth. He freezes, blanches as the edge slides across tendon.. My mastercard dripping with his saliva, scalpel clean and quiet on the floor. The searing pain as the clamp is removed, blood flooding the starved flesh. He'll talk with a lisp tomorrow. In a month he'll be calling her daily. She flings the credit card at me and sinks to the ground with him shuddering in her lap. I blow out the candle and extinguish my cigarette. He won't know I was here.