I plunge my thumb between the folds of the incision, then hook my forefinger deep into her neck. Unlike most of the bloodlines, which offer perfunctory resistance, the carotid artery doesn’t surrender itself willingly. Tethered between the heart and head, the sinewy tube is often weighted with years of plaque, thickening its resolve to stay. More so now that rigor mortis has settled deep within the old woman.
Each time I tug on that vessel, I think of my mother. I imagine other daughters are reminded of their dead parents whenever they hear the refrain from an old song, or feel the heft of a treasured bedtime story resting on their own child’s nightstand. My trigger is the transformation of a battered corpse back to someone familiar. I was too young when she died to remember her scent, and I have no memory of her voice. But her wake–like the accident–plays in my head like a movie reel, some frames taut and crisp, others brittle, fluttery things. Though always her face is clear: before, after, and then after again at the funeral.
I remember my grandmother’s friends clustered near the Easter lilies, whispering their doubts about my mother’s eternal salvation. My grandmother, her frayed black slip hanging just beyond the hem of her dress, bringing me to kneel on road-burned knees before the casket (don’t look!) and then hurrying me along, leaving me alone in the family room. I remember holding fast to my doll, a gift from one of my mother’s many boyfriends. He said he chose her because she resembled me. Even then I knew better. The doll was elegant and slight, with porcelain cheeks and delicate lashes, lips like my mother’s and eyes that clicked shut when I laid her beside me at night. She wore a red flamenco dress, gold earrings I once tried to pierce through my own lobes, and a parchment calling card tied to her wrist, her name in curvy script: Patrice. But what I remember best of all from that day was Mr. Mulrey, the undertaker. The mourners huddled in an adjoining room, their fingers clinging to rosary beads, their souls lashed to prayers, their drumbeat-chants vibrating within me. I ran from that room, desperate to escape, and rushed headlong into Mr. Mulrey. He was standing in the doorway of my mother’s room, filling it, appearing as bewildered as I felt. I clutched at his suit coat and he turned to me, hands worrying at his own set of beads. All of him stooped as if to avoid a raised hand: shoulders sunk, chin nearly resting on his chest, eyes buried deep beneath a low, dark brow meeting mine.
“I want to go home,” I said. I told him about my grandmother’s house, a place much like the funeral parlor with its heavy drapes and multitude of crucifixes, with long silences interrupted only by longer prayers. The way she pressed me to her bosom, suffocating with her old lady smell, vowing to protect me from my mother’s fate. I fingered the thick gauze that bound my head and asked if he’d take me to where my mother was.
He pocketed his beads then and folded my hand inside his enormous one. We walked away from the hum of mourners and stopped within a few feet of where my mother lay tucked in a lit alcove at the far end of the room. She appeared pink and rested. Her usual red lips were softened with the palest shade of coral, her pillowy bosom hidden beneath a lace collar. But there she was. With candles casting hypnotic shadows against my mother’s face, the room seemed kinder than the one I’d left earlier.
“Don’t be afraid,” said Mr. Mulrey, ushering me over to the coffin.
He allowed me to touch my mother for the first time since the accident. I stroked her hand, but it was hard and cold. So instead my fingers sought the fabric of her dress, knitting through her lace cuff as I spoke.
“I was sleeping when we crashed,” I said. “Then I was shaking her and shaking her, but she wouldn’t wake up.”
He let me go on like that; at least I don’t recall him telling me to hush. He simply knelt beside me, alongside my mother, listening. When I finished, he remained quiet.
“Mommy,” I whined, poking her arm, clutching Patrice to me, her doll’s eyes fluttering with each jostle. “I want to go home.” I wanted to sleep in my own bed, not in Grandma’s with her musty blankets and sharp toenails, with bedtime stories about mothers passing on to eternal damnation.
That’s when Mr. Mulrey again took my hand in his. “She’s dead.” He brushed aside a lovely curl that flipped over my mother’s brow where the worst gash had been to reveal the precise row of stitches he’d made with thread to match her flesh.
“Where’s all the blood?” I asked, but he misunderstood. I’d meant the blood that concealed her face in our final moments together as we lay in the street. He tugged open her collar to expose three neat stitches in her neck, telling me how he drained her blood from the carotid artery and replaced it with formaldehyde that then hardened inside of her. In spite of myself, I was awed by his ability to erase the wounds, to help me see my mother again.
I kissed my doll’s cheek and settled her against my mother, watching until Patrice’s eyes trembled closed. I almost snatched her back. I wanted to. Instead, I unraveled the calling card twined to her tiny wrist and hid it at the very bottom of my dress pocket. It would be the only memento I had of my mother. When I started to cry, fingering the three stitches (onetwo-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, breathe), Mr. Mulrey placed a hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Never mind what the others say. We’re all sinners and all sinners are welcomed by God.”
But I wasn’t comforted by a god who couldn’t give me back my mother; I found salvation in the undertaker who could. I suppose that’s why I became one.