Hey again, folks! Can you believe it? Two things in two months! This is incredible. Right here’s a story heavily inspired by the show Six Feet Under. Hopefully there are people that read this thing, as I’m more sporadic about posting than anyone I know. Much more sporadic than this site called (shameless plug) The Rooster Illusion! You should check it out, as I may or may not have a column on there starting last week. It’s a movie site, and it’s really damn good. The head honcho is a fantastic reviewer and has some great things to say about movies, and there’s another column about cheesy sci-fi flicks by another great human being (and if her reviews are even half as good as her artwork, you’re all in for pleasant reading). Cheers to you all and may this story not bring you boredom but a sense of fulfillment.
Mr. Thompson committed suicide thirteen years ago on December 24th, 1984. He was in his 50s or 60s and he left his wife a widow. I was eleven. He was already on my mind last year when my girlfriend and I had a fight a week before Christmas, the same day my father called for the first time in years.
I always remember Mr. Thompson around the holidays, even now that so much time has passed. The three days that led up to and included his suicide are better remembered than any moments from my childhood, even better than most recent memories. Most moments are like a movie for me; the important bits are recorded with certain details highlighted. But those days are like a full-length documentary. Cameras rolled at all times. My girlfriend Maya saw my glossed-over eyes as the movie played on the old television that lay on our large black table. We sat in a faded green loveseat and she snapped her fingers in front of my face.
“Are you even paying attention?” she asked in frustration. Her pale eyebrows pointed down toward her nose.
“Oh, yeah, sorry. What happened?”
“You’d know if you were watching. You zone out and now you want me to explain what happened?”
“Uhm…no? I mean, I am watching. I just—“
“You just don’t care enough to pay attention to my favorite movie.” Petty arguments like this kept popping up, with what she perceived as my “apathy” on target. Despite three years of dating, only in the past couple months had this become an issue. I sat in silence.
“You just…ugh!” She annunciated her footsteps and slammed our bedroom door as she left me alone in the living room. I sat staring out the window, noting the ridged wall of the house next door.
* * *
On December 22nd, two days before Mr. Thompson’s death, I kneeled on a leftover wooden chair from a ceremony held earlier and stared out the large windows in our funeral room. The room’s windows, both clear and stained glass, ran from a few feet above the ground to the ceiling that was high above even my father’s head. My attention was focused on the house next door, the Thompsons’. I could see one side that had three windows: the left showed part of Ms. Thompson’s room, the right a dresser and mirror in Mr. Thompson’s, and the middle their living room. It was there that Mr. Thompson sat, staring out toward my house with a blank look in his eyes, like he were staring straight through me. In the left window I could see Ms. Thompson walking in and out of the frame. Her face looked red, but it was hard for me to be certain with the sun setting. The setup reminded me of a stage play, like the ones I sometimes saw on our small television. This was the first time I noticed something strange going on at the Thompson’s, and only the first of two strange things that would happen that day.
I wanted to keep watching but my father came into the room to finish cleaning up. He walked behind me to see what I was so interested in and saw his friend and neighbor.
“What are you doing?”
“I was just trying to see what Mr. Thompson was doing.”
“It’s wrong to spy on people. You shouldn’t be watching the Thompsons.”
“I just wanted to find out why—“
“Go to your room.” I looked at him with intent to argue. “Now.” I decided to leave without saying anything, as I’d become accustomed to the routine of being sent to my room when I’d interrupt my father talking to customers—grieving families was what he called them. I didn’t understand what grieving meant back then. I don’t think he did either.
A chill came in through the front door, which made me shiver as I turned right out of the funeral room and walked down the halls until I was upstairs and outside of my bedroom. Resisting the urge to peek through the wooden posts that blocked off our balcony, which overlooked the front of the house where the funeral room, parlor, and front door were, I went into my room and grabbed one of the many books that I’d read over and over. There was little to do with no schoolwork during the holidays and no friends to call. No one wanted to play with me because I lived in the “Dead People House” or the “Freaky Fisher Home,” referring to the name we inherited when we bought the place from a family named the Fishers.
After reading so long that the words didn’t stick in my head, I heard the doorbell chime and crawled out to look through the balcony posts. I knew neither of my parents would be in their room that was a couple doors down from mine because my father worked in the parlor all day and my mother was usually downstairs working on what she would tell me was a “dead body.” She told me about what kind of things her and my father did early on, and I never thought of the dead bodies as having once been real people because I never saw them. They were explained to me as what was left of people that died, but I never thought of them as actual human beings. It happened to characters in my books and the people my parents helped. My parents took large precautions to keep me from actually seeing the bodies, like making sure I stayed in my room when they transported them in the house, or always keeping the basement door shut. I was allowed to know that they took the bodies from the hospitals and cleaned them up for other people to see, but I wasn’t allowed to see them myself.
When I looked toward the front door, which sat between the funeral room and parlor, I saw my father open it for Mr. Thompson. The doorframe looked like a cage around his frail, short body. His nose was sharp and his eyes sunken. My heart pounded as I wondered if he caught me looking at him, emphasized by the fact that Mr. Thompson almost never came over after the sun went down. He and my father were decent friends, best friends in the sense that my father seemed to have no others, but their visits usually consisted of lunches or coffee in our kitchen.
“Oh, hi Tom. How’re you?” My father attempted to sound inviting.
“Well, I was hoping we could talk if you had a few minutes? I’d hate to interrupt anything…”
“No, no, of course not. Let me take your coat.”
“You weren’t eating?”
“Nope, the missus is working downstairs.”
They walked into the kitchen, so I stepped on light feet down the wooden stairs, wincing at every creak for fear that my father might hear me. I placed myself against the wall, next to the ajar kitchen door.
“I don’t really understand,” my father said. “What happened? Why’s she so upset this time?”
“I don’t know! That’s the problem.” Mr. Thompson’s voice was scratchy. “We’re watching a movie one minute, and she’s crying the next. It wasn’t even a sad scene, just a family having dinner. Nothing remotely special.”
“That is a bit strange,” my father admitted. I held my breath during the moments of silence. “I mean, I know you haven’t mentioned any, but do you guys have kids?”
“No.” Mr. Thompson’s answer didn’t close the thought, though. His tone was closer to enlightenment than negation.
“Right, okay. I thought so. I was just wond—“
“Nope. No kids.” The interruption was unintentional. He sounded like he was running the thought over. My stare remained on the dark and splintered hardwood floor, my concentration focused on hearing the conversation over my heartbeat.
“Maybe you should talk to her a bit more?” my father suggested, trying to break the silence. In hindsight, he was terribly uncomfortable with silence for someone who was around dead people so often.
“Hmm. Listen, thanks for everything, but I should get back,” said Mr. Thompson. I’m sure it’s all blown over by now.”
“Let me know how things go. You know our door’s always open.” My father said this with some rigidity, something he couldn’t help when using lines similar to ones often said when dealing with customers.
When I heard their chairs push back, I ran down the hall and up the stairs to hide behind the balcony posts. My father walked Mr. Thompson out, but instead of returning to the parlor, he walked past the base of the stairs and toward the basement. The sounds of his footsteps quieted, common for walking down the basement steps, and were followed by the always-paired sounds of the door opening and closing.
I seized the opportunity. Some stairs creaked in response to my footsteps, as did the door to the funeral room when I opened it. Grabbing an old, green-padded decorative chair from the corner to kneel on, I looked out the window toward the Thompson home. No lights were on except for in the room to the right, Mr. Thompson’s. He entered the reflection of the mirror, grabbed a bottle from the dresser, poured some of its contents into his cupped hand, and tipped the hand toward his mouth. When the lights went off, I returned to my room before my father could find me. I sat awake in my bed for several hours after that, my thoughts unable to be deterred.
* * *
I woke up far too early for the little sleep I got that night. I had a routine and not following it left me exhausted. I don’t remember what I did to annoy my father, but he made me put on my mittens, snow pants, boots, and jacket—all black—so I could play outside in the snow. I tried to entertain myself by building forts, given I was unable to read with the amount of snowfall. I had no one else to play with, so after a few hours I was both tired and bored, returning inside too exhausted to make myself something to eat. I peeled off my snow stuff and plodded up to my room where I fell fast asleep despite the sun still shining in through the window.
When I woke up the sun had set and my clock told me it was around eleven at night. I was now over-rested and hungry, which led me to sneak out of my room and walk to the kitchen. I looked through the refrigerator and pantry and had finally settled on making something, a sandwich probably, when the doorbell rang. I was used to visitors at most hours given the nature of my parents’ professions, but I was rarely awake to know whether people came this late. I was too heavy a sleeper to be woken by the doorbell. Leaving the kitchen, I walked toward the corner before the turn to the doors leading to the funeral room, parlor, and outside. My dad walked out of the parlor and opened the door to a familiar, scratchy voice.
“I’m so sorry. I know it’s late.” Mr. Thompson had a shiver in his voice that could have been from nerves or the cold.
“Are you alright?”
“It’s Nancy. God, I don’t know what to do.”
“Come in, come in. Let’s get you some coffee or something. You look freezing.”
Knowing I couldn’t dart across to go up the stairs, I doubled back into the kitchen and hid in the closet pantry. I closed the shutter doors and peered through the open spaces.
“Do you want tea or coffee? We have decaf.” My heart raced; I was unsure if either of those were in the pantry.
“Neither, thanks. I just need someone to talk to. I know you wanted to know how things went.”
“Right, right.” My father probably didn’t mean that he needed to know immediately. “So what happened?”
“Well, you know we’ve been arguing. It’s been over such little things….” My father nodded. “She’s been hinting that she wishes we had kids.”
“Didn’t you decide on that a while ago? I feel like that’s something that must’ve come up at some point.”
“She was the one that really didn’t want to when we were a little younger. She said she didn’t want to pass on ‘our bad genes.’ In all those years she never told me that ‘our bad genes’ were my bad genes.”
“What do you mean?”
“I—I suffer from depression, like a lot of my family.” Mr. Thompson held up a hand when my father went to say something, most likely sympathetic. “The Elavil mostly keeps it under control, but it worried her so much back then. The heart disease that runs through the family tree doesn’t help either.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s my fault. I didn’t tell her about any of it before we got married. I feel awful, but she blames me for all of it.”
“I don’t really think you should feel bad….”
A silence started to envelop the room and my father looked toward the pantry. “Let me make you tea or something. It’ll just take a moment.”
“No, really, it’s fine. I just need to sit for a moment.” Mr. Thompson rubbed his forehead with his palm. “If that’s no trouble.”
“Of course not. Stay here as long as you need.”
They sat in silence for what felt like hours, and I eventually drifted off, asleep on the floor until the sun came up the next morning.
My parents didn’t usually make breakfast and thus didn’t find me the next morning. I walked toward my room but was caught by my father, who insisted I go outside. My snow clothes felt like chainmail and I wished they were blankets. The snow bed I made with patted down powder wasn’t comfortable, but it was sufficient and I lay with the flakes covering more and more of me as the time passed. After what could have been a half hour or a lot longer, I was stirred from my half-awake rest by a door hitting a guardrail as it crashed open. I sat up in my snow bed.
Ms. Thompson was walking with an emotionless face toward her car as Mr. Thompson followed, his thinness making him seem weak compared to his rounder wife. She paid him no mind as he attempted to talk to her, not angry but pleading. When her car left the driveway, he ran to his red Bug and attempted to back out as well. He made it halfway before he lost control and skidded into a fire hydrant, which shot water into the air and doused his car. As he walked back to his house, waving a hand at my father who had run outside, his face was more devoid of anything than it had been even the last couple of days. It didn’t look sorrowful or hurt, but empty. He looked like a man who just had the worst of him displayed to the entire world. I looked at my father for some kind of explanation, but he ordered me to my room.
There I picked up another book, but reading with a restless mind was futile. Where did Ms. Thompson go? What was Elavil or Depression and why did it matter that they didn’t have kids? I lacked the fundamental maturity to combine any of the information I had. I hoped to see more of Mr. Thompson but only somewhat got my wish later that night, once again way past my bedtime.
I’d sat in my room for some time until I heard the front door open and close around midnight. When it opened again thirty minutes later, I knew one of my parents had done a pickup at the local hospital, a new body to keep my mother busy for Christmas. But this time no one came up to keep me in my room. They most likely assumed I was asleep. I opened the door with extreme caution and crawled over to the balcony, looking through the posts at my parents moving a bed on wheels toward the basement. The shape of a person lay under the thin covers and I wanted to see it in full, as I knew it must’ve been one of the Dead Bodies I was able to hear about but never see. This body would enter the basement and be forever hidden from me, and seeing this enlightenment just escape me was worse than only knowing that it happened. My parents disappeared down the stairs as the door opened and the sound of the screeching wheels followed suit. I waited for the door to close, the sound that always followed it opening, but it didn’t come. My mother and father walked back up the basement stairs and into the parlor, leaving me what I knew would be a unique chance.
I went down the stairs with a balance of speed and stealth, walking down the hall until I stared down the steps leading to the basement door. It was open, something I had never seen before. The light that poured through made it look like an entry into a new world. My steps were soundless as my feet sank slightly into the old wood. When I reached the bottom step I realized that even the interior of the room seemed like a new place, one of shiny tile floors and metal furniture. A shower curtain hung from the high ceiling in the nearest corner. Across the room I could see stainless steel tables and what I’d thought of as the moving beds: gurneys. Bottles filled with dark liquids lined the sinks. I saw the gurney my parents had brought in, recognizable by the human shape under the sheet. The sheet had been pulled down, so I grabbed the nearest chair.
When I looked down at the body I saw familiar features, but the sunken eyes seemed deeper than usual. Mr. Thompson—or what used to be Mr. Thompson—looked disheveled. His skin was pale even for him. I thought about what my parents had told me about their work, about cleaning dead bodies, and was perplexed by the idea that Mr. Thompson, someone I’d seen earlier that day, was now just a body. More questions came to mind: would he ever come back? Why did this happen? I gave these thoughts and others consideration, but was taken out of my head by my mother. I didn’t hear her walk down the stairs, but I did hear her scream.
“What’re you doing down here? You know you’re not supposed to be down here.”
“Mom, is this Mr. Thompson?”
She paused. “Y—yes.”
“Is he dead?”
“Yes. Honey, we’ve told you not to come down here.”
“What’s wrong with him?” My mother looked torn between anger and worry.
“Nothing, he’s just…dead. He’s a body now. I’ve told you about this kind of thing before.”
“But you didn’t tell me it would happen to Mr. Thompson.”
“It happens to everyone.”
“That depends.” I didn’t change my skeptical expression. “Mr. Thompson took too many pills and it made him sick.”
This really confused me, given I only knew medication as something that helped. I had so many questions, and I thought about how to formulate all the things going around in my head. Instead, I ended up with a furrowed brow and lips that moved without forming words.
“You should go upstairs and go to sleep. It’s past your bedtime.” Her eyes looked sorrowful and I didn’t know if it was for Mr. Thompson or the stress of this situation. I decided to leave her be as I considered where else to find answers.
The parlor door was cracked open when I came to it, and I looked in to see my father sitting in his chair. He must’ve known something, I figured. What happened to Mr. Thompson must’ve been the kind of thing he talked about with all the people that came in.
My father turned his head and looked at me as I stood in the doorway. His features were soft; his face, red and wet.
“Why are you still awake?”
“I was downstairs and I saw Mr. Thompson and I—“
“You were downstairs? Like in the basement?” My father stood and looked down at me.
“Yes. I just wanna ask you about—“
“What the hell was your mother doing? I can’t believe she let you down there.”
“What happened to Mr. Thompson?”
My father forgot his anger with my mother and seemed fixated on my question.
“Go to bed. Right now.”
“But I wanna know what happened….”
I walked up to my room and sat in my bed as occasional tears fell down my cheeks from frustration. The next week felt like a series of small events strung together by me sitting in my room. On occasion my parents would argue, their voices carrying through my door, and at some point I went to Mr. Thompson’s funeral. No one went besides my family and I. My parents never discussed what had happened with me after the funeral; my father refused to respond and my mother deflected the questions with remarks about how my father didn’t want to think about it. My father must have known what happened, I thought, and if I could only find out what happened between the Thompsons, I’d know what could make a married couple just split. Weren’t they supposed to love and know each other better than anyone else in the entire world?
* * *
All these thoughts led to a hundred more after that argument with Maya. After a half hour, the row made no sense to me. Something about not paying attention to a movie. I would have stared out the window for much longer had the phone not rang, surprising me not only because it was night, but because I recognized the caller ID.
“Hello?” I asked, unsure which parent was on the other end.
“Adam?” asked a deep voice.
“It’s your father.”
“I know. Is everything all right?”
“Well, here’s the thing. I know it’s been a while, but your mother left and I can’t take care of both ends of this business. I could really use someone to help deal with the people that come in so I can work on the bodies. It’s busy.”
“What do you mean she left? Like for a weekend?”
“No, no. She’s gone indefinitely as of today. She packed up her stuff and left.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I think it would just be easier if you came up to help. I know we haven’t talked in a few years but I figured you’d be free.” He did have a reason to think this. I didn’t hang out with people much in high school. When I moved to the town where my college was located for good, I didn’t stay in touch for the rest of my years studying Mortuary Science there and the following year spent interning at a funeral home. After I somehow found myself dating Maya for a couple years, we moved into an apartment together. We didn’t talk too much but worked well as housemates, given she didn’t care—at least until recently—that we both worked a lot and I didn’t like to talk much. I was never good at understanding other people, so I had trouble finding things to talk about.
“Actually, I’m seeing someone.”
“Well bring her, whatever.”
Maya had come out of the room at this point and stared at me.
“I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”
After another argument, I told Maya I would be back soon, hopefully before Christmas. My father didn’t really need to sell me on coming to see him; with what happened to Mr. Thompson on my mind, I worried when I heard that my mother had left. Plus, I had a chance to ask my father what he knew about those strange three days that happened over a decade ago. I wanted enlightenment; I knew, or at least thought I knew, that if I could understand what happened to Mr. Thompson, know what my father knew as his friend and as a funeral director, I could figure out why I didn’t understand Maya. I could figure out why I didn’t understand anyone.
When I arrived at my old home after a six-hour drive, my father came from the parlor to open the door. After searching the pantry for something easy to make—I wasn’t good at much besides boiling water and cooking pasta—I made a spaghetti dinner. My father waited at the kitchen table as I boiled the water and cooked the noodles.
“So, uh, dad,” I said, trying to fill the silence. “What happened? Where’s mom?”
“I don’t know what happened. She left.”
“You must have some idea why….”
“She just decided to leave. I mean, we haven’t talked too much, not for a while. I don’t know exactly why.” I looked at my father. His hair was greyer than I remembered.
The buzzer went off. I put some pasta on two plates and set the table with my father across from me at the square table.
“Dad.” My father looked up from his food. “You remember Mr. Thompson?”
“Of course I do. I’m surprised you do, actually.”
“Well, I do. Really well. I wanted to know if you know what happened to him.”
“Well, uh, he committed suicide. He swallowed a bunch of his medication at once.”
“I have no idea. I mean, I know him and his wife had issues, but what drove him to do that? I can’t even imagine.” I felt a bit better about my father’s safety, but now more curious concerning what he knew about Mr. Thompson.
“Don’t you know what happened with him and Ms. Thompson? I mean you were his friend, and you’re a funeral director….”
“What does being a funeral director have to do with it?”
I felt the answers I’d waited a long time for vanishing. “You work with people when they’re vulnerable. Don’t you have to understand something about others to be a funeral director, to help them?”
“I help people pick out a casket and clean up the bodies, or at least I did when your mother wasn’t up to it. I offered my condolences to families for dead people I never knew. Being a funeral director doesn’t mean I know why my neighbor’s marriage dissolved.”
“But why’d you refuse to talk to me about it when I was younger?” I asked.
“Because I didn’t want to talk about it.”
I looked at my father and couldn’t hide the disappointment I felt at the lack of answers.
“The only way you can know why someone leaves you is if you know them. And that takes work. You can’t just understand someone by looking at them. You need to care about them. And you need to work with them.” My father’s eyes were fixated on his food as he moved the spaghetti around his plate.
“So what happened with mom?” As soon as I said this I realized it came off as rude rather than curious. My father looked at me with narrowed eyes and confirmed that he didn’t like the question.
“I said I don’t know what happened. We haven’t been close for a while and I have no goddamn idea what happened.” I looked at my dad and for the first time saw him not as an enigmatic man with answers I needed, but someone who just didn’t know how to connect to people. My father was probably furious with me, but I felt closer to him at that moment than ever before.
“Dad,” I said, trying to sound apologetic. Some of his anger subsided. “How long did you want me to stay?”
“I didn’t really think about it. I understand if you have to go back.”
“Actually, I was wondering if I could stay, well, indefinitely. I could use some more time interning and I’ll stay until you find some people to help you out.”
His eyebrows moved up and down as he considered the thought, and then he nodded.
“Yes, yes, I think that would be fine. Just fine.”