Read an Excerpt
Priscilla soukpun comes in with Will’s mail while he is on the phone with his mother. Priscilla is beautiful: heart-shaped face, a solid curtain of jet-black razor-cut hair down her back—a Laotian girl, Hmong, of the Boat People who arrived in Minnesota in the wake of the Vietnam War. The church groups that had sponsored them welcomed them—and the Hmong settled in, opened restaurants and flower shops, but did not assimilate easily. But Priscilla is different: young, Americanized, modish in her short skirts and bangles. Her quick fingers are delicate, each one circled in a thin gold ring. Will notices this as she sorts envelopes. She is like the girl in “The River Merchant’s Wife,” he thinks. He’s heard the poem read recently, read by a Bereaved lover, with a mixture of depthless sorrow and heroic restraint. Priscilla’s hair is cut straight across her forehead, like the girl’s in the poem, and he can sense in her the timeless passion of the poem’s narrator. If local people resent the Hmong, it is because of their close-knittedness, Will thinks, or their melodious liquid tongue. He thinks of heavy-breathing Swedes playing hockey and smiles gratefully at Priscilla over the receiver. She has come to him from the Pre-Need department, because his mail often gets mixed up with theirs and vice versa. In a business built on euphemism, “Pre-Need” would stand, more or less, for “still breathing.” Priscilla counsels individuals and families on burial versus cremation, purchase of family plots, lawn crypts, or mausoleums, and financing for these various options.
He hangs up, and Priscilla gestures toward the phone. “Your mother.”
“My mother. Absolutely right.”
He makes a face and Priscilla laughs.
“She wants chamber music played all over, not just at wakes. In the casket-selection rooms, the viewing rooms. It’s touchy. Most people don’t want too-serious music, you know. They want a little subdued Catholic doo-wop or elderly Lutheran Shepherd with flute.”
He stands up, mimes playing a flute, swivels his hips. Pris- cilla’s eyes narrow as she checks out his hips.
“Get some respect. Your mother is right. Waxy flowers on the coffin, creepy organ tunes. People need something better at funerals. They don’t need to hear Elton John.”
She turns away, busying herself with the mail. Elton John, he thinks, and he sits down, chastened. He stares at Priscilla’s bent back. He’s running four mortuaries now—all offshoots of his father’s original Highland Park trunk business, where he keeps his office. The branch mortuaries, scattered across the Twin Cities and suburbs, each boast an executive manager: Not one is a woman. He glances at Priscilla again, abruptly envisions a black camisole.
He imagines Priscilla advising her Pre-Need customers in the black camisole, which shimmers, turns to the smoky embroidered silks of her country, veils that drop one by one, revealing her small, golden breasts. She opens the lid of a black lacquer box and waves away red opium smoke, smiles into the faces of the large-boned, sensible folk who have come to talk about the storage or disposal of their enormous dead bodies. She claps her hands and fields of flickering red petals turn to a blue rain of poppy seeds and diamonds—she dances naked against a backdrop of mountains in Lan-Xang, land of a million elephants. But then she vanishes: Will is back in the diminished atmosphere of Pre-Needs. Here, the living hurry to purchase the pay-by-the-month La-Z-Boy death lounger, the faux-Hellenic vault, the Star Trek sepulchre (the lost one is beamed up on a video screen)—padding the threshold to the afterlife.
Much to his dismay, he has just now seen his own future in the death industry right in front of him, on his own desk: a glossy stock brochure and prospectus. Here is a huge conglomerate trying to buy up all the mom-and-pop funeral homes, of which his holdings are an example. How does one repel the advances of these sharks? They blow into town, buy everything up, consolidate the services (no more in-house embalmers), and then raise prices. Astronomically. They’re doing it all over the country and Will feels overtaken, feels the heavy breath of the inevitable on his neck. Take the money and run, a hot voice, the voice of the camisole, cries within him. He thinks of his mother again, how she’s slowly lost touch since his father died, how she hoards food and talks to herself. Take the money and run, he thinks. How much time do any of us have? Let Mega-Death bury the dead.
Priscilla smiles at him again as she leaves. A flower grows up inside him, its perfect blossom her naked body, but it hasn’t the same power over him now. His thoughtful assessing gaze wraps about many breasts, many legs, but his heart is not engaged. Will is weeks away from forty, unmarried, though he has come close.
He comes close to people, swerves away. Perhaps it’s because of the false intimacy of his job. He’s not close to anyone, really, though he has many friends. He doesn’t call to mind the spooky cliché of a funeral director—he’s tall, athletic-looking, was a hockey player in college. His boyish face has stayed boyish, his longish hair in its gentleman’s ponytail is darker now, his blond mustache combed neatly. His slightly unexpected appearance endears him to people. Of course he’s been told that he has a haunted look—meaning, he supposes, that no matter how unthreatening his aspect, he could suddenly turn, reveal a pair of fangs, red-laser eyes. Will pushes aside the stock brochures impatiently. Haunted? Of course I’m haunted, I bury the dead. I sell eternal resting compartments to the dead. The dead come to me to get out of this world with a little dignity. I shake hands with the dead every day.
People offer their suffering to him and he orchestrates it. “Don’t cry,” he whispers, and hands them tissues. “Try to forget,” he murmurs, and produces a Memory Book. He signals for his salesmen, never shadowy—attractive, rather, and transcendentally attentive, capable of producing everything from monogrammed pillows to musical caskets to audio-video–screen grave markers to Aladdin urns for ashes. Will appears at the right moment to shake the hands of the Bereaved. He knows who has sustained the real injury here (not the dead; never the noncommittal dead!), and when he shakes the hands of the survivors, the left-behinds, he meets their stricken, inquiring eyes head-on.
Loosening his tie, he glances into the mirror over the wet bar. He might be a young husband in a framed portrait, a photo set on a mantel above a fire. He wants, he thinks, nothing less than the love of all time, a River Merchant’s Wife kind of love: dust mingled together forever and forever. But his life is Pre-Need: expectation, then nothing.
The outer office buzzes him. The female head of the Schaeffer family is on the phone. Their youngest son dropped dead very early this morning on the tennis court. Heart attack, forty-two years old. Will had heard it on the car radio, driving to work. He had been expecting this call.
The voice is cultured, controlled. Gerda Schaeffer is a woman in her seventies but very much in charge of the Schaeffer family fortune, which was made in real estate by her late husband. Now the family owns everything from a chicken-and-biscuit chain to property-management companies; they are a mini- conglomerate. Will detects a slight crack in the façade of her voice, but then she recovers. Will has gotten to know Gerda a little over these last years. As a wealthy young bachelor, a desirable guest, he’s often invited now to black-tie fund-raisers and chic dinner parties.
He keeps his tone reserved but concerned as they discuss arrangements to deliver the body, the death certificate, the date and size of the wake, the funeral, who will officiate, problems with the press. Mrs. Schaeffer tells Will that her newly widowed daughter-in-law will visit him soon to go over some “readings” for the funeral ceremony.
“It’s not necessary,” says Will firmly. “Not at a time like this. I’ll send someone to her when you feel it’s the right moment.”
“It’s probably better if Boyd comes to you, if you could help guide her in her selection. Do you know what I mean? Give her a couple of days, and she’ll be there.” “Certainly.” Will grimaces, glancing at his calendar. “Whatever you think makes sense.”
Two days later, Boyd Schaeffer sits across from him in one of the four overstuffed parlor chairs he keeps rearranging, trying to anticipate the seating preferences of his visitors. She is saying nothing at all. She is around his age, maybe younger, or a little older; he can’t tell. She wears her dark red hair, the color of cinnamon, pulled back and held by a silver clip, a bird in flight, and she is dressed in a pale summer-weight tailored suit. Will waits for any acknowledgment of his presence, but there is none. She appears lost in thought, her eyes on her feet.