Writing is a way of making the writer acceptable to the world—every cheap, dumb, nasty thought, every despicable desire, every noble sentiment, every expensive taste. There isn’t very much satisfaction in getting the world to accept and praise you for things that the world is prepared to…
Some days, the smell is unbearable.
Of course, if the bodies are pretty old—say, eighty years or more—then you hardly have to worry. Most caskets back then were just cheap lumber, wooden boxes, plywood—and the smell isn’t bad once you get in. It smells hardly different than the earth—the soil itself—that’s been settling around the casket for decades. The wood has decayed, is soft, brittle to the touch. And the body itself—nothing but bones.
But if it’s a recent grave, with those new-fangled caskets that are designed to preserve the body—although morticians tend to exaggerate this—the smell is almost unbearable. What morticians fail to explain to their unsuspecting new customers is that embalming only keeps a body fresh until the funeral is over. And while these new “protected” caskets do keep water out—which sounds like a good idea in theory—these caskets do not keep the body from decomposing. Not at all. In fact, if the casket is sealed as well as advertised, it only interferes with the natural dehydration that would otherwise occur. Fluids and gasses are released from the body as it begins to decompose, and the casket is likely to rust out or rot from the inside. The wealthier people tend to buy these protected caskets more, because they cost more and the poor can’t afford them. Apparently, the wealthy takes solace that their loved-one’s body in death won’t fester—no matter how badly they treated the person when she was still alive. It’s strange. Why anybody would care the way his dead relative’s body is stored is beyond me.
It makes much more sense to go into the older caskets than the newer ones. Even though the merchandise you find in the older caskets may not have cost as much when purchased, it might bring in more in the long run. Of course, the antique factor helps, especially for wedding rings. Plus, the quality is usually better—sterling silver, 24 karat gold, quality diamonds. And, as I’ve said, it’s much easier to get into these caskets, and the bodies are usually nothing but skeletons. Easy on the nose.
What many people may not know is that you don’t have to dig up the entire top of the casket to get into it. You really only need to dig a hole about 36 inches in diameter, about where the neck to navel would be on the body. Then you just take your spade or your HoeDag and break through the top of the casket. If the person was wearing jewelry when buried—which I generally already know from my research—the jewelry will almost always be between the neck and navel. Funeral Directors typically fold the hands of the deceased across her chest, which makes my job much easier.
Each day I wear my grief
like metal mesh. I see you
as spirit burdened to speak.
You try to comfort this field
of wounds. You tend the amputees
and bound the screaming with soft song.
But it is hard for you to stay,
to not let go completely into the light.
I let you go. I make this year my bridge.
Though my heart has ruptured and cannot heal,
though forever overcome with this sadness
of our love silenced by brutal, unnamable death,
I will build a new house, dive with both hands
into my yard until the evergreens grow.
I will contain you as more than memory —
in my harvest will bloom many sunflowers
of your great generosity. And your fiery blood
will sprout the roots and flesh of passion fruit.
The maple tree will grow large like you, protecting all
within its strong and tender shadow. And children
will be drawn to this yard, to play there amongst
the tall dramatic grass, and then sit still to watch
with wonder the many shades of sky, reflecting
the warmth of your paternal sun-setting colours.
- Willa Cather
First published in McClure’s, 1905. The story also appeared in Cather’s short story collection, The Troll Garden and Selected Stories.
A group of the townspeople stood on the station siding of a little Kansas town, awaiting the coming of the night train, which was already twenty minutes overdue. The snow had fallen thick over everything; in the pale starlight the line of bluffs across the wide, white meadows south of the town made soft, smoke-colored curves against the clear sky. The men on the siding stood first on one foot and then on the other, their hands thrust deep into their trousers pockets, their overcoats open, their shoulders screwed up with the cold; and they glanced from time to time toward the southeast, where the railroad track wound along the river shore. They conversed in low tones and moved about restlessly, seeming uncertain as to what was expected of them. There was but one of the company who looked as though he knew exactly why he was there; and he kept conspicuously apart; walking to the far end of the platform, returning to the station door, then pacing up the track again, his chin sunk in the high collar of his overcoat, his burly shoulders drooping forward, his gait heavy and dogged. Presently he was approached by a tall, spare, grizzled man clad in a faded Grand Army suit, who shuffled out from the group and advanced with a certain deference, craning his neck forward until his back made the angle of a jackknife three-quarters open.
"I reckon she’s agoin’ to be pretty late ag’in tonight, Jim," he remarked in a squeaky falsetto. "S’pose it’s the snow?"
"I don’t know," responded the other man with a shade of annoyance, speaking from out an astonishing cataract of red beard that grew fiercely and thickly in all directions.
The spare man shifted the quill toothpick he was chewing to the other side of his mouth. “It ain’t likely that anybody from the East will come with the corpse, I s’pose,” he went on reflectively.
"I don’t know," responded the other, more curtly than before.
"It’s too bad he didn’t belong to some lodge or other. I like an order funeral myself. They seem more appropriate for people of some reputation," the spare man continued, with an ingratiating concession in his shrill voice, as he carefully placed his toothpick in his vest pocket. He always carried the flag at the G. A. R. funerals in the town.
Winslow Homer: watercolor
Darker shades of
grey on black,
thickening into an
encroachment of night,
on River Thames;
rowers bent about
their last diurnal
task, unaware of
There goes Godzilla, destroying the city.
Again. The glassed in poster in Davis Square
mirrors a see-through phantom me, looking
kind of squirrely as lesbians rattle by like
smug bumper cars and the tattooed man
in the sideshow is every other guy.
“In the Valley of the Lost,” the movie should be.
Reefer drifting like sweet exhaust.
Texters on the street who walk like dreamers.
The indoor life bruited about on the cellular sidewalk,
“Ah don’ care what that ho’ said! That bitch
is dead to me! You know I mean it!” As do we all,
young man, as do we all. Oh where are we?
Tokyo should be so crowded and who is
lonelier in a crowd than Godzilla?
I begin to grow. I begin to change. Hipsters
become alarmed as I become engorged, enlarged,
enhanced, happy. I swing my arm and the
fusion restaurant across the street crumbles.
Like Japanese extras, the ice cream strollers
scramble for safety, wherever that may be,
stumbling over each other (and their little dogs, too!)
terrified through their interesting eyewear.
Mike’s Pizza is gone with a back kick. And
the little shops I snuff with a thumb—Magpie,
Davis Squared, Buffalo Exchange,
JP Licks, Comikaze, Blue Shirt Café
Every move I make is a catastrophe.
Every step I take is a disaster movie:
blinding dust, heaping bricks, shattered glass,
the screams of the dying, the stench of the dead.
There goes Godzilla, destroying the city. Again.
Roy worked at the poison factory for twelve years. It actually had a different name but everybody called it the poison factory. He lived in a one room apartment a block from the factory above a Cuban fast food restaurant. The one block walk meant he didn’t have to own a car. He always took his dinner in the fast food restaurant after his eight hour day at the poison factory. He worked in a huge room full of stainless steel vats where most of the chemicals were blended and cooked. The room had cinder block walls and a thirty foot steel ceiling and the vats were lined up in rows which seemed the length of a city block. Alone all day in the vat room, he read gauges and turned valves and swept the floor and polished the vats and wore his stiff blue uniform and steel toed boots with pride. And every Friday afternoon, his supervisor would come and meet him at two next to vat number twelve and ask him how things were.
Great, he said, smiling. Another five days, another five dollars.
Good Roy. Great job. Have a nice weekend.
These nine words were all he said every week. The vat room at the poison factory was under control. And now the weekend faced him, like a great brick wall. There was no way to hammer down or plunge through the wall to get to Monday. The wall was solid; Saturday; Sunday; Sunday night—the wall was solid but brick by brick it began to give way and at last swept past all at once in a rush, and he was back in the vat room at eight on Monday morning with his vats and valves and piping and hoses and gauges and mops and brooms and pails. This was his life, in the poison factory, for twelve years.
Then something changed.