where the bad kids go
The inside of the funeral home both looked and smelled like a Holiday Inn. Floral pictures hung on the golden-yellow walls next to vases of plastic flowers. The furniture probably dated back to the eighties and sat on a thin carpet soaked with various stains from clumsy children during services and receptions. It was hardly aesthetic and looked nothing like the funeral homes from the movies with the large, wooden doors, the decoratively carved walls, and the sad, heavy atmosphere.
An older gentleman, Gabriele, sat at the front desk and browsed the Internet. He had almost an accent, but not quite. In his suit, he could’ve passed for someone from The Godfather.
The funeral director arrived from down a hallway. He was a heavyset man with a thick southern accent and a comb over. Pit stains peeked from beneath his arms. A pale, yellow tie slightly constricted his already strained breathing. I stood up to greet him and he extended a sweaty palm.
“Hi there, Mr. Lambert. I’m Richard, but you can call me Rick.”
Fat fuck, my thought surprised me. He feeds off the grieving. I shook the voice away.
“Before we begin, I want to give my condolences. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
I almost wanted to dismiss his scripted greeting and tell him that he shouldn’t be, because I sure wasn’t. Instead, I bit my tongue and I quietly replied, “Thank you.”
Rick looked past me. “Gabriele, what room are we in?”
“Three,” he replied before he centered his attention back to the computer. I was surprised he even knew how to work it.
Rick guided me into a small arrangement room that barely fit the table and four chairs inside of it, and I wondered if he would be able to as well. A shelf of binders constricted the space further, filled with the different types of funeral plans, various caskets, urns, and other merchandise, and information on grieving and counseling.
Rick tossed a manila folder on the table. A legal-sized form was paper clipped on top.
“Take a seat. Can I get you any water or coffee? Maybe a snack?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“Okay, let’s get started.” He pulled out a pen and clicked the tip out in one swift movement. “I’ll have to ask for some information that’ll be going on Helen’s death certificate, and if you don’t know some of the information, you can always call us any time after this appointment once you’ve obtained it. Before we begin, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your mother? What was she like?”
I looked at Rick with almost a glare, and my tongue tingled with negativity. Rick leaned forward an inch and rested his hand on the table.
“I know this may be hard for you.”
Hard for me? It was hard for me to explain to my third grade teacher that my black eye was from when I ran into the corner of a wall while I went to the bathroom during the middle of the night. I had to lie to Marco and his family about my broken arm that I got when ‘I fell off my bike one day,’ when in reality I was pushed down the basement stairs. I endured years of torture from my own mother.
“Oh, spare the theatrics, Rick. My mother was a bitch. I hated her. I still do.”
Rick’s jaw unhinged slightly, and he stared at me, surprised. He cleared his throat uncomfortably and darted his gaze at the form paper clipped to the manila folder. “Okay, I understand. If you don’t mind me asking, how did Helen pass?”
“Suicide. She lit herself on fire.”
“Wow, that’s terrible…” Rick hesitated and shot a quick glance at me to check on my reaction. “What ceremony plans were you thinking?”
“She wanted a burial. I want just the burial.”
“Well, we have plenty of beautiful caskets aesthetically built and specifically for closed-casket funerals. Would you like to go into our showcase room and take a look at what options we provide?”
“No. Give me your cheapest option,” I said. Through gritted teeth, I added, “Put her in the dirt.”
It took an hour to finish the process, and when we were done, Rick walked me back into the foyer. The sun hung behind the funeral home and painted the interior of the building in a gloomy blue.
“You take care of yourself, Jesse. We’ll see you on Thursday,” Rick said as he shook my hand tightly. He walked down the hallway back into the funeral director office, and I turned for the front entrance.
“Hey kid,” Gabriele called out. I stopped and walked up to the front desk. I caught a whiff of his cologne that some people would describe as ‘old man smell.’ “Did everything go okay in there? Rick didn’t say anything to offend you, did he?”
“No?” I responded, confused. “Why?”
Gabriele opened his mouth to speak, but he stopped himself. He rolled to the end of the desk in his chair and peeked around the corner of the hallway to confirm that Rick wasn’t eavesdropping. He rolled back and motioned me in with his index finger.
“When he got up to print off some paperwork, he came out here and he said that you had this look on your face. Like he said something that made you angry, even though he was just following his usual routine, ya know?”
“I don’t remember,” I said.
“Don’t go tellin’ him that I’m rattin’ him out,” Gabriele said quietly in his slight Boston accent. “He said that you looked angry the entire time whenever he mentioned your mom’s name, or asked about her. Like you really hated her.”
“That’s none of your business,” I said.
“Sorry, sorry…Look, honestly, I’d take it as a compliment. Rick thinks he’s a hotshot around here, and sometimes he can be an ass. I’d never seen him look so shocked, or was he nervous? Embarrassed?” Gabriele waved his lingering thoughts away. “Anyway, he was a little freaked out. Are you sure he didn’t say anything to piss you off?”
“I’m sure,” I said flatly. “Everything went fine.”
“Okay, well, you tell me if something went wrong. I just want to make sure that you had a good experience while you were here. I try to make sure everyone here has been taken care of. I mean, I am the first person everyone talks to when they walk in or call!” The phone rang in a typical office tone, and Gabriele’s beady eyes opened wide, and a sly smile stretched across his face and showed off his worn teeth. “Ah! Speak of the devil,” he said with his hand raised, and his index finger pointed upward.
As he spouted his scripted introduction through the receiver, I walked out of the funeral home with nothing but hate pulsing through my body. It was a hate I hadn’t felt in a long time, and it had begun to swell inside of me the moment I had stepped back into my house.
The funeral was held on a rainy Thursday afternoon in a wide cemetery that overlooked the town and the interstate. The officiate, the funeral director, and I were the only people in attendance. The ceremony only lasted ten minutes before they lowered her into the ground, and I left without a word.
On my walk back to my car, I noticed Marco leaning against the driver side of his car parked further down the cemetery road. I assumed he watched from afar, not to intrude on something I barely cared about. I wasn’t interested in talking to him that day, so I waved to him as I got in my car. He waved back and then left as well.
It took a week to finally clean and organize both the kitchen and the living room alone. Even with the windows open every day, the smells lingered. The Febreze air fresheners helped.
The exterminator had arrived and sprayed the house, and stumbled upon a nest of cockroaches located behind the oven, but he didn’t think that he needed to bomb the entire house. He had even mentioned himself that the basement was ‘one creepy place,’ and that I should keep an eye on the burnt ceiling toward the back. Otherwise, apart from the spiders in there, and the occasional cockroach throughout the house, everything seemed to be controllable.
I heard noises every night as the air shifted from hot to cool, and the house groaned as it breathed. Taps in the walls and knocks that echoed from other rooms woke me up throughout the nights.
My dreams woke me up periodically as well, one of which was of my mother as she walked up the basement stairs after she had set herself on fire. I counted twelve steps as she stomped up the wooden planks before she emerged from the basement and into the dark hallway, and she stood over me in the shadows of the living room as I slept on the couch. When I woke up the next morning, the basement door was cracked open even when I remembered shutting it. It was the house shifting.
I cleaned up my mother’s room, though there wasn’t much to actually clean. I washed her sheets and blanket and remade her bed. It made me uncomfortable to think of the idea that her bed was where I would sleep from now on, as opposed to the couch that I had covered with a sheet and would wake every morning with back and neck pain. I imagined the clean sheets as a barrier of purity from the stained past that soaked into her mattress, and it was enough to convince me to move into that room.
For a moment I had seriously considered staying in a motel off the interstate, but I had remembered why I was at the house in the first place. I wasn’t there just to clean it and get it ready to sell, but to overcome my past, a kind of self-therapy that Shirley had suggested. There was nowhere else to sleep in the house except for my old bed, which would have been too small for me to sleep in anyway. I then remembered that my bedroom was still locked.
I washed all of the dirty clothes that my mother had tossed so carelessly on the floor or on the furniture or inside of her closet. They were stained with more vomit, sweat, blood, and something that I only guessed was feces.
I started to wonder if my mother had some other illness to make her act this way. Maybe she was bat-shit crazy and not just an alcoholic, suffering from postpartum psychosis that slowly ate her brain away. I wondered how she managed to afford to live a life such as this. She could’ve drank more than she ate, which in turn made her get drunk faster on an empty stomach. She probably managed to earn money working odd jobs, or hid her alcoholism from her employers until her depression took over, getting her fired or until she had quit. I’m sure she also managed to hide her behavior as well. It wouldn’t be surprising if she also took out multiple mortgages that she doesn’t have to worry about paying back anymore. The state of her house revealed that she had become a hermit in a shell. The house had taken her in.
Her bathroom took about an hour and a half to scrub clean, and another hour to clean the hallway bathroom. I left frequently as the fumes from the cleaning products made me dizzy, but I found it better to smell that than the concoction of smells that she had managed to create throughout the years. I had started to find the cleaning almost meditative, and it took my mind off the stress I initially held on to when I first arrived at the house.
The dryer, located with the washer in the back of the kitchen and tucked in a small closet, tossed her clean clothes inside. Something metal bounced around with the fabric and created a clacking that made me grind my teeth as I sat on the couch. Clack-clack… clack-clack… clack-clack. The crowns of my teeth clenched together harder and harder. I slid them back and forth and side to side, and fingernails against a chalkboard tremored through my skull. Clack-clack. I clenched my fists. Clack-clack. I curled my toes into the carpet. Clack-clack! I snapped to my feet from the couch and stressfully rushed to the dryer. After digging through the damp clothes for a moment, I found a bedroom key from her Kwikset.
After all of my mother’s clothes were washed and dried, I hung them back up in the closet and made a mental note to pick up large boxes this week in order to pack them away. I walked to my locked bedroom door and used the key to pop the lock from the other side.
The walls remained a sky blue, for a boy, and the carpet was still its proper shade of white compared to the rest of the house. As I slowly made my way into my bedroom, I was hit with nostalgia as the air snaked through my nostrils. It carried my smell when I was a kid, and it was almost foreign to me. I noticed that my bedroom had not been touched since I was taken away by CPS.
I walked around my room that didn’t include much. I never got many toys when I was a kid, just a few and never from my mother. A tan, wooden desk sat in the corner. A framed third grade school photo of myself sat on the bare desktop. I had short, dirty blond hair that spiked at the front. My blue eyes were wide because I was always afraid that I would blink just before the photo was taken. My smile was wide, and at first glance I looked happy, but the corners of my mouth seemed strained beneath a weight. It was almost as if they wanted me to frown instead.
I decided to leave the room after I was in there for only a few minutes. I wasn’t ready to relive my childhood yet, and I turned and walked out of the room. I shut the door and contemplated locking it as it were before, but I didn’t. Why would my mother have locked my bedroom? Did she really hate me so much that she never wanted to go into my room ever again?
And then I thought, did she lock it to keep herself out?