Featured Story for the week of 04/22/2015

The Dead Must Make Way for the Living

by Karen Munro

It took me more than a month to figure out why the new apartment was so dusty. The sign on the building across the street says Braverman Funeral Services in big type, and then John Lucas Braverman, Prop., in middle-sized type below that, and you only see the little type if you look closely. It says Funeral Home and Crematorium. Crematorium! They made it look like a drive-through bank.

I got resentful, thinking about the Braverman outfit. Every day I had to sweep and run a damp cloth along the shelves, or the dust would build up faster than you’d believe. If I walked barefoot to bed at night, I tracked it in over the sheets. Too much dust in the air! It was unhealthy.

For a while I didn’t say anything, because how do you complain about that? Excuse me, Mr. Braverman. Excuse me grieving widow, orphaned son. Your clients, your relatives, they’re dirtying my sheets. I thought, what kind of a person am I? I tried to change my attitude by thinking of it as company. I told myself, look on the bright side. You’re never alone, living here.

But when I woke up in the morning the dust was already on the windowsills and counters, waiting to be wiped off. It drove me crazy. I thought, if John Lucas Braverman ran a refinery, he’d have to clean up his act. There was no reason for me to breathe ashes all day just because they used to be people. The dead have to make way for the living, and not the other way around.

I got up my nerve and went across the street to talk to Mr. Braverman. I did it on a Tuesday, because it seemed like a day when nobody would be having a funeral. I didn’t want to go in there and be surrounded by grieving widows and orphaned sons. I’d never be able to go back after something like that.

Inside was a red carpet and a white wreath on a stand. There was a paper card propped on a desk — it said Reception, but nobody was there.

I was just looking for a bell to ring when somebody touched my elbow. A man was standing there, he was only about this tall, and a little toothbrush moustache.

He said, “Can I help you?”

“I need to talk to Mr. Braverman,” I said.

“I’m sorry, he’s out of the country. I’m Mr. Head. Can I help you?”

It seemed like this Mr. Head was looking at me strange, and I wondered if I should have dressed up more. I told him that I lived across the street. I pointed out my apartment. He looked out, then back.

“I just moved in,” I said. “I’ve been living there just over a month. And I’ve noticed it’s kind of…”

“Yes?”

“Well,” I said, “I was just wondering what kind of features you people use. Whether you have safety features. And monitors.” I didn’t want to go in there talking ashes off the bat. I was trying to be polite.

“Monitors?”

“Whether you monitor your output.”

He said: “We’re inspected and approved by the American Funerary Association, sir. If you can be more specific about your concerns…”

I just stood there, wishing I could hate him. But why should I hate him? He was just doing his job. “Dust,” I said at last.

“Pardon me?”

“Dust,” I said, louder. “I’ve got more dust in my place than I’ve ever seen. The floor needs sweeping twice a day. My nose blows black. It’s everywhere. I don’t want to be disrespectful, but — ”

He drew up, his neck got puffy.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean that I’ve never seen this much dust in a place before. It’s like a coal mine. I have to wipe the TV screen in between shows. I was wondering how careful you people are.”

“Careful, sir?”

“Well, do you have some kind of filtering system, or some screens, or some way of keeping your dust from getting all over? Because my apartment, understand, is dusty.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “But your housekeeping is not our affair.

I started to dislike him right then.

“Mr. Head,” I said. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful. My own grandmother was cremated in St. Louis, and we were all very happy with the process. But you have to understand my position.”

“I’m afraid, sir, that I don’t.”

“Mr. Head, look. I’m over there living in my apartment, and there’s an inch of dust on the floor when I get up every morning. And here you are, right across the street, running a crematorium. Are you telling me you don’t see any connection?”

“If there’s nothing else I can help you with, sir…”

At this point I could see I was going to have to go over his head.

“I need to talk to Mr. Braverman.”

“As I said, Mr. Braverman is out of the country.”

“When will he be back?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I’m afraid I can’t say.”

He kept looking at me with that little moustache smirk, and I’m not a pugilist, but I wanted to clock him. Mr. Head! What kind of a name is that?

“Now look here,” I said, even though I didn’t know what I was going to say next. Luckily, the door opened and a woman walked in holding an urn. She was wearing a full fur coat and she had white hair snarled up over the top of her head. She was even shorter than Mr. Head. Her face looked like it had been sucked on from the inside.

“Mrs. Villier,” said Mr. Head, bright now. “We’ve been expecting you.”

“Head,” said the woman, tottering up. “Where’s Braverman?”

“He’s out of the country,” I said, and Mr. Head gave me a vicious look.

“Right this way, Mrs. Villier,” he said. “He’ll be with you shortly.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible,” I said. “Since he’s out of the country.”

“Who are you?” the woman said, looking at me. Her eyes were bright and black like an animal’s.

“This gentleman — ” said Mr. Head.

“Take him,” she said, pushing the urn at me. “Hang onto him until I get back.”

The urn was heavy, maybe ten pounds, and I almost dropped it.

“Butterfingers,” she said. “Head, tell your man to find himself a suit.”

“Mrs. Villier — ” Mr. Head tried to take the urn from me, but I was too fast for him. When he came at me, I put my hand on the lid and tipped the urn a little. He backed off.

“I don’t — ” he said, but she was tottering on.

“Head,” she snapped. “Come here, man. Give me a hand.”

Mr. Head went to the reception desk. He picked up a phone and dialed.

“Mr. Braverman,” he said. “I’m sorry, sir. I need Saul out here right away.”

Then he hung up and ran over to give the woman his arm. She grabbed it without looking at him, and he kept his eyes on me. I just stood there, watching them creep away.

A door opened and Saul came out. He was over six feet tall, with a head shaped like a bullet.

“Take Mr. Villier to the back,” Mr. Head said. “That gentleman is holding him right now.” Then they came to another door and he had to open it for the woman. They went out together, with Mr. Head still staring back at me, his little moustache going like this.

Saul walked around the reception desk. I fixed my hold on the urn.

“I only came to see Mr. Braverman,” I said. “I need to talk to him about the dust.”

“Tell me about it,” said Saul. “I have asthma like you wouldn’t believe.”

It was true, I could hear him breathing. He sounded like a seal, poor guy.

“So what am I supposed to do?” I said. “I can’t go on like this.”

Saul smiled sadly. At that moment he reminded me of my cousin Archie, a man who never drank more than one glass of wine at parties, because his father was a suicide.

“Life is suffering,” Saul said. “There’s no legal way around it.”

“Well I don’t know about the law,” I said. “But I don’t see why we can’t come to an understanding here, the two of us.”

“Neither do I,” he said, “but somehow it never works out that way.”

And then the next thing I know, I’m flat on my back with his foot on my neck. Needless to say, he’s got the urn. I’ve got a big knot on my jaw, it was there for almost a week after.

“I’m sorry about this,” he said. “I really am.” He looked about twenty feet tall, and it was like he came to a point at the top.

He leaned over, and the pressure on my neck started to make everything go black.

“Remember,” he said. “Everyone’s struggling. Everyone’s in pain. You should be tolerant. Even the ashes, you should be tolerant of them.”

I tried to nod. He said something else, but my ears were roaring and my eyes had gone to red and all I could hear was his sad, seal-like wheeze.

+

I woke up in my own bed, my own apartment, with the covers folded over me as if my own mother had done it. I had a splitting headache. When I got up I saw that the entire apartment had been cleaned, top to bottom, cleaner than I could have done it in a week. No dust anywhere. Even the little grooves in the woodwork were clean.

I lived in that apartment for four more months. Then they closed the branch plant and I had to move. They think it’s no big deal, if you don’t have a family. They push you around like a chess piece, wherever they need you most. It never occurs to them that you might be attached to a place, that it might be important for you to stay.

+++

Karen Munro’s work has appeared in Glimmer Train, PANK, Redivider, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and she works as a librarian in Portland, OR. You can find more of her work at http://munrovian.tumblr.com/.