Rosie was stuffing formaldehyde cotton patches into the back of Mr. Zocalo’s head when Jim asked if she would go have coffee with him. He made circles in the concrete floor with the heel of his sneaker, waiting for an answer. Rosie was relieved that Mr. Zocalo’s dead, doughy flesh lay between her and Jim on the steel table.
“I can’t,” she said.
She concentrated on the machine that steadily pumped embalming fluid resembling yellowed artery plaque into Mr. Zocalo. She snapped off her surgical gloves and tossed them in the nearby sink.
Rosie was stuffing formaldehyde cotton patches into the back of Mr. Zocalo’s head when Jim asked if she would go have coffee with him. He made circles in the concrete floor with the heel of his sneaker, waiting for an answer. Rosie was relieved that Mr. Zocalo’s dead, doughy flesh lay between her and Jim on the steel table.Jim reminded Rosie of Mr. Potato Head in a mortician’s bib. It gripped his pudgy middle while his thick black glasses hung at an angle across the edge of his nose. The chunk of black hair he slicked to the side each day failed to cover his receding hairline. But the worst thing was when she found this disheartening appearance endearing at times.
Those moments unsettled her.
She grabbed her clipboard off the counter and began her supply inventory for the week, starting with the cabinets that housed the reconstructive putty. She was halfway through the first cabinet when Jim came up behind her. He reached a sweaty palm over Rose’s hand and squeezed it. She recoiled, slipping her hand away from his.
“What are you doing?” she snapped. She grasped the back of the inventory clipboard, holding it in front of her like protective armor.
“Sorry,” he said, staring downward like a scolded dog.
“Why’d you do that?” she asked.
“Hope, I guess,” he replied.
She looked down at dead Mr. Zocalo, half expecting him to sit up and offer counsel.
“When you’re done, Uncle Marty wants to see you,” Jim said.
Rosie watched him slump forward like a defeated boxer who had lost his final chance at the title.
* * *
Rosie always delayed the death march to Marty’s office until the last possible moment. He owned Cohen Family Funeral Home but rarely prepared the bodies himself anymore. She took slow steps and her breath quickened when she reached his door at the end of the hall.
“Rosie,” Marty said, motioning her to sit. His desk, gargantuan in size, was no match for his girth.
Rosie sat down. She folded one hand over the other; a gesture she thought conveyed professionalism. She’d only been working there for six months. Marty had hired her out of a local beauty school where she had spent a year earning a certificate in cosmetology. She told her mother she needed to learn a trade to support them. Secretly, what she had really needed was an escape: six hours a day, five days a week. After an internship at a salon, she realized having to make small talk with old ladies while she set their hair all day wasn’t much of a reprieve from having to do the same with her mother. She worried her latest plan of escape had turned into yet another trap. Until the temp agency told her Marty was looking for a new makeup artist. The color wheel for hair was the same for makeup and the pay for painting the dead was more than she would ever make setting the hair of the living. And those customers sure won’t talk to me, she thought at the time.
Her mother found him hanging from the attic rafters one hot July morning with a note pinned to his striped pajama top that read “I’ve been summoned back to the heavens by God for an important position. I won’t be home for dinner.” Rosie had just turned 25. She never told anyone how she knew he had stopped taking his meds a month before. Or that he had visited her almost every night since his death.Rosie knew the funeral home well. They had handled her father’s arrangements a year earlier. Her mother found him hanging from the attic rafters one hot July morning with a note pinned to his striped pajama top that read “I’ve been summoned back to the heavens by God for an important position. I won’t be home for dinner.” Rosie had just turned 25. She never told anyone how she knew he had stopped taking his meds a month before. Or that he had visited her almost every night since his death.
“You don’t seem happy,” Marty said. “Jim treating you okay?”
“He’s attentive,” she said.
“Good,” said Marty. “Just because we handle the dead, we don’t have to walk around like them.”
Rosie nodded. She wasn’t sure what was worse, the frequent talks with Marty or the romantic advances of his nephew.
“A smile would be nice, and perhaps pull that hair out of your eyes. Lift your head up once in awhile. I know you’re used to leaning down when working on the bodies. I have to say some people have been complaining that during the viewings you’ve been a bit…sour.”
“Sour?” Rosie repeated.
“What concerns me more is that Mr. Rockwell said you were talking to his dead mother in the coffin right before the viewing two days ago. Is that true?”
“He must be confused. His mother just died, he’s upset.”
She didn’t dare explain to Marty that Mr. Rockwell’s dead mother was extremely vocal about the dress her family had chosen to bury her in. She had begged Rosie to replace it with a different one from the garment bag tucked in the backseat corner of Mr. Rockwell’s beat up Corolla. Rosie argued with her that such a request could get her fired and she’d just have to live with being buried in paisley.
“Marty, I really need this job,” Rosie said. “Please don’t make this into a big deal. I
promise he didn’t hear me talking to his dead mother. I’m fine, I swear.”
* * *
When Rosie entered the front door of the beat up Craftsman she shared with her own mother Roberta, dinner was simmering in the Crock-pot the way she’d left it that morning. She and Roberta lived in a ratty, East Los Angeles neighborhood, off a section of Sunset Boulevard that bled into the more destructive areas of Echo Park. This was the part where desiccated lawns resembled withered patches of tumbleweed, where the houses wailed for overdue paint jobs or roof repairs, and sidewalks doubled as dumping grounds for tattered couches and rusted refrigerators. Rosie slumped into one of their kitchen chairs with her coat still on, rubbing the muscles of her lower back. Their own house moaned dirges of the worn down and battered. She grimaced at the kitchen windows, caked with a fading tangerine paint. A few years ago, her mother thought it would brighten the room during a redecorating urge triggered by depression and Scotch.
Roberta emerged from the back bedroom. She was large and loud, with a poof of badly dyed orange hair that formed a halo of fire around her head. Hot roots again, Rosie thought. Shortly after Rosie got her license, she told Roberta how box-coloring her hair red was allowing the gray to grab all her base color. “The secondary tonal color can’t deposit into the cuticle. Let me color your hair professionally,” Rosie had said. Her mother had snapped that she wasn’t going gray and told Rosie to stop showing off. In an act of stubborn disapproval, she had used the box-color red that very night. Rosie was so hurt she never offered to color Roberta’s hair again. But she always made a point to secretly scorn Roberta’s latest dye job.
“Where have you been, Rosie? I’m starving!” Roberta said.
“I got held up at work.”
“I couldn’t make myself anything to eat all day. I could barely move with my back spasms.”
“You seem better now,” Rosie said, checking the food cupboards and verifying her belief that Roberta had indeed managed to eat several meals that day.
“My nerves are shot. Mr. McGreary left that dog out in his yard again. I told him the incessant barking aggravates my migraines. And you’re off at that job all day long, I feel so helpless.”
Rosie closed the cabinet and began setting the table, settling on the white ceramic bowls with tiny pink flowers engraved along the edges. They had been a Christmas present from her father when the local Wal-Mart was having a sale.
“The job helps pay our bills, Mom.”
“My disability and the money your father left is enough.”
“You’re hungry,” Rosie said. “Sit down and I’ll get dinner.”
Roberta shook her head and sighed, slumping into the recliner adjacent to the kitchen.
“Bring me some chamomile tea and the hot compress for my calves. I can barely walk.”
Rosie pulled a fresh towel from the drawer and filled the kettle with water from the kitchen faucet.
A small smile of suspicion curled at the corners of Roberta’s mouth. She eyed Rosie’s movements like a detective from a cop show.
“Nice dishes,” she said. “What’s the grand occasion?”
“Dinnertime,” Rosie said.
Roberta sat down. She began ladling heaping spoonfuls of the chicken stew into her bowl. She slurped heartily, periodically drowning pieces of bread into the mixture while Rosie tried to ignore the inharmonious sights and sounds.
“I started making up Mr. Zocalo this afternoon,” Rosie said. “The sweet old guy who worked at the bank downtown. He slipped and cracked his head on the edge of his bathtub.”
Roberta shook her head and a finger at Rosie as she swallowed a large mouthful of stew.
“No mortuary macabre at the dinner table. When you get a normal job like everyone else you can talk about work.”
Rosie stared at her bowl, the greasy gloss of stew throwing her reflection back at her in abstract pieces. She was frail and freckled, a tiny frame that seemed in threat of being swallowed up by her environment at any moment. She tucked her hair behind her ears, something she did to keep her hands occupied when she was nervous. Roberta went on in great detail about the minutiae of her day: enduring Mr. McGreary’s dog, watching reruns of Matlock, and cursing at the contestants on Wheel of Fortune for not getting the phrase “it takes two to tango.”
Rosie’s thoughts drifted to Mr. Zocalo stepping out of his porcelain tub, smelling of soap and talcum, never suspecting the ball of his foot would fail him, sending him backward against the side of the tub.
“Rosie, are you listening? Why are you staring at the wall?”
After dinner, Roberta plopped in the recliner to watch the news, and Rosie cleared the table, guiding translucent pieces of chicken stew to the bottom of the trash can with her fork.
“I was thinking how much better you’ve been doing, Mom,” Rosie said, making sure she was still halfway engrossed in the television.
“What’s your point?”
Her mother flipped through channels with the remote until she settled on an old episode of M*A*S*H.
“It’s been a year since Dad died. I think it’s time I lived on my own again. I would stay in the neighborhood and could come check on you every day.”
“You’re fine here.”
“I was thinking about one of those artist studios on Descanso. Maybe do some painting again.”
“The fumes hurt your lungs.”
Her mother pushed herself out of the chair. “This is why we ate off the nice dishes tonight? So you could move out? Who would take care of me?”
A hot flush of anger bled through Rosie’s cheeks. “Forget it. Come on, there’s still dessert.”
Her mother switched off the TV and flung the remote onto the recliner before a dramatic double time march down the hall. Swift for a woman with muscle spasms, Rosie thought.Her mother switched off the TV and flung the remote onto the recliner before a dramatic double time march down the hall. Swift for a woman with muscle spasms, Rosie thought. The bedroom door slammed, indicating the end of their conversation for the night.
Rosie finished the dishes and carefully placed them in the cupboard. Everything was a mishmash of things her mother liked and thought went well together. Rosie hated the chipped, broken objects, mocking her desire for order and symmetry.
When the doctors first diagnosed her father as schizophrenic, Rosie was a toddler. Rosie believed magic fluttered around her father like birthday streamers, not understanding that his eccentric behavior and talks with imaginary friends were not the same as her childhood world of make believe. When he unsuccessfully attempted to sever the mailman’s hand from his wrist, he claimed that God spoke through the electric turkey carver that he had used to try and carry out the job. Roberta developed her own version of madness looking after him. Rosie felt the tides of chaos churning inside her. She imagined ripping all her mother’s precious, delicate objects off the shelves, crashing them like broken waves into the depths of the ocean.
She served herself a slice of the store-bought coconut cake, put the M*A*S*H episode back on with the volume very low and settled into the recliner. She didn’t pull away the loose strands of her hair that landed in the flakes of coconut when quiet sobs overtook her. The M*A*S*H rerun reminded her of her father. He always laughed at Klinger in the dress. She waited for those parts in the episode, where she could hear her father’s booming laugh intermingled with the audience track. She closed her eyes, seeing him in the recliner, his stomach puffing up like a helium balloon with each explosion of laughter. Tiny bursts of white light darted behind her eyelids like shooting stars. She rubbed them, but the light persisted. When she was little, her mother would swing her around while Rosie squealed with laughter, begging for more. “Show me more stars, Mommy!” she’d cry, getting so dizzy that all she saw were those tiny shards of light. She welcomed it back then.
“I still think about you,” Rosie’s father said.
Rosie blinked away tears and her father came into focus, sitting on the couch across from her, dressed as Klinger. He looked down at his attire and nodded reassuringly.
“Halloween costume party,” he explained, turning to the TV. “This is a great episode. Have you seen this one?”
“They have costume parties in Heaven?” Rosie asked.
“You’re assuming that’s where I am,” he said. “I killed myself, you know. Supposedly that’s a big no no.”
“Then where are you?”
“Not sure, but it ain’t too bad, all things considered. Besides, why should the living be the only ones allowed to have costume parties?”
“Dad, am I becoming like you?”
“What do you think?”
“That it sucked you hanged yourself with a note that basically said God called you up for a staff meeting. What the hell?”
“I know. It wasn’t fair. And you feel I left you alone with her.”
“Trapped with her,” Rosie said.
“Yeah,” her father replied, adjusting the string of pearls around his neck. “What are you going to do about that?”
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be talking to you, Dad. I need to say goodnight.” Rosie flicked off the television and watched her father evaporate.
* * *
The next afternoon, when Rosie went into the basement to work on a new body, Jim was reading a Highlights Magazine and eating a bologna sandwich. Ten feet away, a dead woman lay on the steel medical table, translucent pink rivers of blood moving out of one stomach tube, embalming fluid flowing through another.The next afternoon, when Rosie went into the basement to work on a new body, Jim was reading a Highlights Magazine and eating a bologna sandwich. Ten feet away, a dead woman lay on the steel medical table, translucent pink rivers of blood moving out of one stomach tube, embalming fluid flowing through another.
“How can you eat here?” Rosie asked. “The chemicals alone are enough to make a person gag.”
“It’s peaceful,” Jim said. “Uncle Marty’s a lot worse for my gag reflex.”
Rosie laughed. The look of surprised pleasure on Jim’s face mirrored hers, so she pulled her expression neutral again.
“Aren’t you old for Highlights?” she asked.
“I was looking at Goofus and Gallant. The lines are so simple.” He held up the folded section of the magazine, showing sketches of the two boys. “I draw,” he said.
“Me too,” Rosie said. “My dad used to paint. He taught me.”
Jim nodded, turning back to his sandwich. Rosie picked up the paperwork attached to the steel table. Mrs. Morgenstern, 68, congestive heart failure. The tiny slices of light began to spin and spiral behind her eyelids again.
“I need to concentrate on Mrs. Morgenstern, and I can’t with you eating,” she said. “Can you please finish lunch upstairs?”
Jim shoved the sandwich into the paper bag before leaving.
On days when the voices were so loud that Rosie felt her skin would melt off her bones, she’d play some of her father’s old records on Marty’s antique player. Her mother hated those old albums. She’d thrown most of them out, but Rosie had managed to rescue a few, keeping them safely hidden between the eaves of the crawlspace, only listening to them when she worked. A brief flicker of relief passed over her as the mellow rhythms of Louis Armstrong swirled around her and Mrs. Morgenstern.
“Playing hard to get?” Mrs. Morgenstern said. She sat up on the table, rubbing her abdomen where the tubes were inserted.
“That young man,” Mrs. Morgenstern continued, “he seems nice enough. Doesn’t have much of a delicate touch, though. Jammed these things in there good. My daughter wants to cremate me, you know.”
Her father had been the first one. It wasn’t until she started working at the funeral home that the other dead, even strangers, began to speak. She wondered if she were sensitive like the mediums she watched on TLC. She kept lists of what they felt, saw and heard, matching them against her personal list to see if there was overlap. She always burned the lists, though. If she could communicate with the dead like those mediums, then what she had was a gift, not the result of a mental illness. It was not a death sentence that would tether Rosie to her mother. As long as police might use her skills, maybe she had a future. Forensic science seemed like a natural next step for her.
She noticed Mrs. Morgenstern watching her with amusement.
“Bet you wanna know why my own flesh and blood wants to cremate me. She knows I don’t want to be cremated.”
“Mrs. Morgenstern, I need you to lie back down please so we can finish embalming you.”
“Couldn’t be bothered, my daughter,” she said, reclining back down. “Even my death is an inconvenience. Didn’t want a viewing because she thinks I’m too fat. That’s what she was telling that wimp husband of hers last night at dinner.”
“Well, you seemed to have won that battle,” Rosie said. “We’re preparing you for your viewing.”
“You’re preparing me for my barbecue roast, darling. Thank God for the cousins. They won their viewing, but she’ll get to Joan of Arc me after that.”
“I’m sorry,” Rosie said. She wondered if she would do the same with her own mother someday.
* * *
At end of the day, Rosie collected her things from the basement. She snapped off the lights and was at the bottom of the stairs when an intense knocking started from inside the refrigeration unit where Mrs. Morgenstern was being housed for the night. Rosie looked around, hoping she had misheard the direction of the sound and that it was only from a window left open or someone arriving at the front door upstairs. But when she cautiously moved to the refrigerator and pulled steadily on the weighted steel door, Mrs. Morgenstern sighed with relief.
“Listen, do you mind leaving a small light on?” she asked.
Rosie snapped her eyes shut and took three sharp breaths, inhaling a mixture of perfume and chlorinated embalming chemicals that felt like crushed glass piercing her lungs. She slowly began mouthing one, two, three…
“I know you’re not deaf, darling,” Mrs. Morgenstern said.
“Why would you need a light?” Rosie asked, opening her eyes. “Isn’t it all just one big blackout for you now?”
Mrs. Morgenstern rolled her eyes. “Everyone thinks they know what dead looks like. I want a nightlight. It’s for comfort.”
“I leave a light on out here; you’re not going to see it once I shut this door again.”
“I’ll know it’s on,” she said. “I’ll know there’s light out there.”
Rosie shut the refrigerator door and gathered up her things. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she switched off the light. A moment later, she shook her head and switched it back on again, ignoring the grateful, muffled thank yous from Mrs. Morgenstern behind the refrigerator door as she hurried up the stairs, two at a time.
* * *
Roberta was waiting on the porch when Rosie arrived home. She was flapping her arms like a frenzied bird and Rosie wondered if she might leap off the porch and attack.
“I have a surprise, come see,” she shouted, waving Rosie over to the detached garage behind the house. “It’s not perfect, but with my migraines and the back spasms acting up again, it’s the best I could do on short notice. Anyway…ta da!”
Roberta pointed to the door and Rosie pulled it back. It had been cleared out and several painting easels were set up with canvas. A collection of various paints and brushes, none of which were right for Rosie’s needs, lay on the workman’s table. Several lights had been attached with heavy tongs to the scaffolding above, bouncing thick rectangles of light off the walls.
“How did you do this in one day?”
“Mr. McGreary helped clear it out. God knows he owes me for my headaches. And Betty drove me to the art supply store. I don’t know if I got the right stuff, but I kept the receipt.” She fumbled in her dress for the crumpled piece of paper, finally producing it. She handed it to Rosie with a hopeful smile. “This way you have your own studio out here where you can draw anytime. And the fumes won’t bother me at all.”
Rosie felt tears surfacing, but wouldn’t allow herself to cry in front of her mother. Instead, she summoned troops of anger and rage that marched from her stomach to her chest and throat. This was kindness in handcuffs. She avoided her mother’s embrace. A hug at that moment would feel like razor blades slicing Rosie open.
“Well? What do you think?” she asked.
“I’m speechless,” Rosie said, unable to erase the image of the art studio as a prison cell and her mother as its warden.
After her mother had gone to bed, Rosie sat alone out in the new studio. She stared at the easels and the brushes in jelly glasses, all the wrong supplies that her mother had so earnestly put together. It made her heart hurt, to have people want her more than she wanted them.After her mother had gone to bed, Rosie sat alone out in the new studio. She stared at the easels and the brushes in jelly glasses, all the wrong supplies that her mother had so earnestly put together. It made her heart hurt, to have people want her more than she wanted them.
“What am I going to do, Dad?” she asked. She stared at her father, sitting solemnly in the corner, holding a sketch book in his lap.
“You could paint,” he said.
“Anywhere, really. Stop holding yourself back.”
“From everything. Stop being a damn victim.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“I gotta go. Art therapy.”
He walked into the night, the stars twinkling like backlit raindrops suspended in the sky.
* * *
“I never got to ride in a convertible at night,” Mrs. Morgenstern said. “My one deep regret. Always meant to, it never happened. Would love to have the top down, a big ‘ol scarf tied around my head like Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. All dolled up for a night on the town. If I could, I’d drive right up past the Hollywood sign under the dark sky and just let the stars rain down into the seat next to me.”
Rosie listened patiently as she applied makeup to Mrs. Morgenstern. “Did you get a load of what she decided to have me wear?” Mrs. Morgenstern asked, switching gears without warning. “I think it’s because she knows she’s burning me after. Don’t tell me that wasn’t deliberate.”
Rosie made a “shhh” sign with her finger to her lips. Mrs. Morgenstern plopped back down on the table.
“At least you’ll make me all up real pretty. Don’t be shy with the makeup, baby. I like a lot of color.”
“Way up by the Observatory,” she said, shutting her eyes. “I bet that’s where you could see the stars the best. What a view that would be from a convertible.”
When Mrs. Morgenstern had been laid out for viewing a few hours later, Rosie had dressed her in a bright pink muumuu, as instructed by Mrs. Morgenstern’s daughter. Rosie had done her best against the florescent tone of the dress. It did seem deliberate, she thought. The makeup was heavy, but that’s how Mrs. Morgenstern said she always wore it. It was one thing that could be her choice.
Mrs. Morgenstern’s daughter Louise had been texting furiously on her Blackberry when Rosie caught her attention. She was a brassy blonde put together like a broken piece of gaudy china. Rosie noticed that her highlights were six weeks past needing a touch up and didn’t quite blend with the lacquered red nails that mismatched the pink heels.
“Are you the girl who worked on my mother?” she asked, still texting.
“I am,” Rosie replied. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“I’ll bet,” Louise said. “Listen, honey, I know my mother loved to look like something out of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. The woman had a heavy hand with just about everything, and the makeup brush wasn’t an exception. But I got relatives here from all parts who don’t want to see a circus clown lying in the casket; you know what I’m saying? So get some makeup remover and clean up that mess on her face before everyone else arrives. Something more natural. You know?”
Marty caught Rosie’s eye. He kept making urgent smile gestures at her while she talked to Louise. She tried to smile, but felt another lecture on her sour appearance coming on.
They moved Mrs. Morgenstern downstairs for the makeup adjustment ordered by her daughter. Rosie felt she was violating Mrs. Morgenstern when she began to remove the layers of makeup.
“Please don’t,” Mrs. Morgenstern begged. Her tears mixed the makeup into a kind of oil paint that coagulated into colorful blobs across her face.
“I’m sorry,” Rosie said, leaving Mrs. Morgenstern with a bare, stripped down look. Rosie absorbed Mrs. Morgenstern’s sobs as if each were a cement block dropping onto her own chest.
* * *
After the viewing, Rosie took an early lunch break to walk around the Reservoir and try to forget about Mrs. Morgenstern. She took frequent walks whenever she could, imagining families and the daily soap operas that went on behind the window of the houses that spoke to her. She often felt like all the world had enough air to breathe except her. This was the only place where she didn’t feel that way.
She decided to phone her mother to tell her she would have to work late so she could come back to wander some more after her shift in peace.
“I really need you home, Rosie,” Roberta said through the phone, her voice close to panic. “I need you to pick up my inhaler from the pharmacy.”
“I’ll get it on the way home.”
“Last on the food chain again. I made you a creative space. Doesn’t that move me up the ranks?”
“I didn’t know it came with a set of strings,” Rosie said.
“I feel like I’m all alone out here.”
“Don’t be so dramatic. It’s not like I have anyone either.”
“I’m just trying to keep what we have,” Roberta said.
“That feels like too much pressure for me,” Rosie said.
“How is loving someone putting pressure on them?”
“I’ll come straight home after work with the inhaler, Mom,” she said, hanging up the phone before Roberta could hear her break into sobs.
* * *
When she returned to work, Rosie found Jim crouched by the backdoor in the basement with several wads of paper towels. She watched his movements for several minutes until he noticed her.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“You go first,” Rosie said, motioning to the paper towels.
Jim pulled himself up and Rosie could see he had been crying.
“I can’t get them all. I’m trying to help them, but they keep jumping away.”
“Uncle Marty told me to get rid of them.”
Jim held up a clear jar full of crickets. He walked out back and Rosie followed. She watched Jim open the jar and set the crickets free in the bushes behind the mortuary.
“He could hear them chirping through the walls and called the exterminator. They’re just singing, but the sound bothers Marty. I sent the exterminator home, told Marty I took care of the bill.”
“So you’re trying to free them all?”
“I’ve been gathering them up all afternoon,” Jim said, a crack of defeat breaking through his voice. “I know you think I’m stupid, but I don’t care. They deserve a chance.”
Rosie smiled and held her arm out. “Give me a handful of towels.”
They worked in silence for over an hour, listening only to the chirping of crickets, periodically echoing into the basement. Finally, Rosie looked at her watch and remembered her mother’s prescription.
“Hey Jim,” she said, “You wanna get something to eat?”
* * *
Rosie and Jim entered The Brite Spot on Sunset. It had become her favorite diner because of the bizarre décor: cuckoo clocks of various shapes and sizes glued to the wall, a deer head, paintings of little girls with misshapen bodies and oversized eyes, and German Shepherds staring off into the distance in deep philosophical thought.Rosie and Jim entered The Brite Spot on Sunset. It had become her favorite diner because of the bizarre décor: cuckoo clocks of various shapes and sizes glued to the wall, a deer head, paintings of little girls with misshapen bodies and oversized eyes, and German Shepherds staring off into the distance in deep philosophical thought. The plush red booths and retro energy made her feel transported to another dimension.
Jim smiled with approval at all the dysfunction on the walls and followed her into her favorite booth. The waiter came over and took Rosie’s order of chicken noodle soup, saltines and ice water with lemon. Jim ordered a slice of cherry pie with extra whipped cream. While they waited for their order, Jim pulled out his sketchbook and leaned over the table towards Rosie. She took his sketchbook and began thumbing through the pages.
“These are good,” Rosie said, flipping through comic book renderings. She smiled when she came across a drawing of one of her favorite Silver Lake homes. “I pass this on my walks. It’s my favorite.”
“It’s a cross between a French Chateau and Old Mother Hubbard’s shoe,” Jim said.
“That’s it! I could never put my finger on why I liked it so much. But it reminds me of something out of a fairy tale.”
Their food arrived and Jim immediately offered her a bite of his cherry pie, which she refused. She crumbled crackers in her soup while Jim ate forkfuls of the pie. They sat in silence as he sketched in between, carefully drawing her hand curled around the spoon that dipped into the cup of chicken noodle soup.
She looked up and hesitated before finally asking, “Do you ever feel like you’re not going anywhere?”
“We work in a funeral home,” he said. “We’re constantly reminded of the last
stop on the train.”
“I’m hearing voices,” Rosie whispered. “I’m afraid to tell Marty or my Mom.”
“I hear myself talking all the time, telling me to stop being so awkward, brush my teeth, not to forget to pay the rent again this month,” he said.
“I talk to the dead,” Rosie said.
“Oh,” Jim said. “That’s different.”
“My Dad heard voices,” she said.
Jim didn’t say anything for a long while.
“Some people,” he said finally, “would come into this place and find it creepy.”
“I find it comforting,” Rosie said.
“What is dark and depressing to some can be put through a different filter and suddenly it’s The Brite Spot.”
Rosie smiled. “What does that have to do with my craziness?”
“What you find to be potential illness is charming through my filter. Creative, even. Not crazy, though.”
“How do you know?”
“Crazy people never question whether or not they are. They’re just crazy. Maybe you need to paint again.”
He held up his sketchbook and she stared at the care and attention with which he drew the fragile curves of her hand and the shadows around it that the fading sun now filtered through the window of their booth. Rosie lifted her face towards the warm light and smiled. When she opened them again, Jim was looking at her.
“My mom’s had a hard time since my dad died. Before he died, too. I think she sees me as a life jacket. She’s so sad and angry.”
“Sounds like she got a raw deal,” he said.
“It’s like the game was over for her before she even played a hand,” she said.
Rosie didn’t recoil when he wrapped an arm around her shoulders as they walked. In that moment, she closed her eyes and imagined them a normal couple, free of angry mothers, mental illness, funeral homes and dead people.Rosie learned that Jim’s parents called him “slow” all the time before they were killed in a car crash. Marty kept the label intact, calling him slow at least twice a day for various breaches of protocol. They discovered a common love of warm climates, Vincent Price movies, and Saturday morning cartoons. And Jim told her it was his dream to live in New Mexico one day. Rosie found herself wondering what it would be like to go with him. She felt a stabbing in her chest, as if Jim would be able to rip open her ribcage and see through to all her darkness and all the lies she told to keep her life glued together, to try and appear normal. She was suddenly nervous in his presence and wanted him to disappear.
“Thanks, this was nice, but I need to get going,” she said. “My mom needs a prescription and I’m already late.”
She started to pick her cuticles, something else she always did when she was really nervous. Jim reached for her hand.
“Please don’t pick,” he said.
Rosie instinctively dropped her hands into her lap.
“So what happened?” he asked. “We were having a nice conversation.”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Does your Mom need the prescription right this second?”
“She found him hanging from the rafters,” Rosie said. “I’m all she has left.”
He inhaled deeply, his belly spilling slightly over the booth table that failed miserably to hold all of him back. He was 42, but looked ten years older. She wondered how he saw the baggage written across her own face.
“Here,” he said, ripping the sketch of her hand out of his book. “Take this. I want you to have it. Remind yourself to do something creative.”
“Okay,” Rosie said.
She fumbled with the zipper on her coat as they both slid out of the booth. They stood awkwardly facing each other.
“I kinda don’t know what to say,” Jim said. “I want to talk to you, but I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, maybe I’ll go see someone next week. About being crazy, I mean.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” he said.
“You may change your mind by next week.”
“Okay,” Rosie said.
“Do they seem happy after they’ve gone?” he asked. “The dead people you talk to, I mean.”
“Some of them,” she said. “I think most of them are just lonely and confused. Or tying up loose ends before they move on. That’s how I see it, anyway.”
Rosie and Jim walked to their cars in the parking lot of the diner. Rosie didn’t recoil when he wrapped an arm around her shoulders as they walked. In that moment, she closed her eyes and imagined them a normal couple, free of angry mothers, mental illness, funeral homes and dead people. When they broke their embrace, Rosie looked at Jim’s car.
“I didn’t know you drove a convertible,” she said, studying the beat up silver Ford.
“I thought it would land me a couple of dates,” Jim said.
“Did it work?” Rosie asked.
“Let’s just say I can see why you would only want to talk to the dead,” Jim said.
Rosie’s eyes widened and she stood on her toes so she could grip Jim by the shoulders.
“Jim, can you do something for me?”
* * *
Back at the funeral home, Rosie watched as Jim shoved Mrs. Morgenstern into the plus size dress they picked at a nearby Sears on the way back. It was a cobalt blue sequined dress that fish-tailed out across the floor, giving her the appearance of a full figured Rita Hayworth.
While Jim went to lower the top on his convertible in the driveway of the mortuary, Rosie worked on Mrs. Morgenstern, applying elaborate makeup just the way she liked it. When she was finished, she topped the look off with big Jackie O sunglasses and tied a silk head scarf firmly around Mrs. Morgenstern’s chin.
Rosie smiled as she looked out the open back door behind the mortuary. The sun had set and Jim’s crickets sang their arias into the darkening sky. An audience of blooming stars started to emerge above them all.
“No more regrets,” Rosie whispered to Mrs. Morgenstern. “Not deep, not ever again.”
Rosie and Jim cruised down Sunset Boulevard around the Reservoir, past Jim and Rosie’s favorite Mother Hubbard house and up through the hills past Griffith Park. They soared with full speed towards the Observatory, with Mrs. Morgenstern strapped firmly in the back seat.
Jim reached over and stroked the side of Rosie’s face and when she turned to him, she could see that he forgot to remove his mortician’s bib. It had been poking through his heavy winter coat. His glasses still slipped down the bridge of his nose. As they drove against the sting of winter on their faces, Rosie started laughing. Jim asked her what was so funny, but she was laughing too hard to answer. She tilted her head back to get a better view of Mrs. Morgenstern. She looked better than Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, inhaling the crisp night air as streams of stars showered her in light.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Morgenstern said. “Thank you, Rosie.”
* * *
This short story originally appeared in The Oklahoma Review, Volume 13: Issue 2, Fall 2012.