The torso was lighter than Alberto expected; the heft of a bag of cornmeal. He felt the subtle ridges of the ribs, the soft curvature of the abdomen as he centered it on the embalming table. He pulled the legs, arms and head from the body bag, and then, with his index finger, scratched off a piece of dried blood from the chin in the same way he might brush a crumb from his son Joshua’s chin at the breakfast table.
He went about his work as calmly as he could, setting the body parts in the correct anatomical places with the same care and reverence he’d used to set altars before he left the priesthood seven years ago. His nerves hummed as he looked at the pieces of the eight-year-old body.
This was a boy, once. He wished he could light a candle for him.
Theodore Ellis, or Teddy, as his mother called him this morning, would be cremated, but she wanted to see him one last time. Photographs to help with the reconstruction lay scattered like playing cards on the adjacent embalming table. Alberto studied a snapshot of Teddy in his wheelchair, white plastic spoon in one hand, cupcake in the other. His mother stood behind him, rusty brown hair dancing in her face, pale hands gently resting on the push handles. The sky was bright, cerulean. Sun played at Teddy’s eyes. The hint of a smile tugged at his lips. He didn’t seem to notice the camera. Too caught up in the cupcake.
Cerebral palsy had twisted Teddy’s arms and legs at impossible angles, his hand clutching the spoon like a claw. But the photograph showed his face up close, the sharp green eyes and red freckled nose, and Alberto knew he would use it.
But who had taken the photo? The father? Would Teddy’s mother have included a photograph taken by the murderer?
Alberto sprayed each body part with disinfectant. Water tumbled down the table legs, pooled on the tiled floor at his feet. In his seven years as a mortician, he’d seen terrible things. Six months into the job, a body nearly sawed in half during an industrial accident came in, the man’s guts hanging like bloody rags from his abdomen. Two years later, Alberto prepared a teenage girl who’d been raped, murdered, and dumped in a car wash. Bruises so thick and blue they resembled electrical cord ran around her neck. It took three coats of makeup to cover them.
But he’d never worked on a child this young, this broken.
Both as a priest and an embalmer, he’d learned to stifle the overwhelming emotion with the nomenclature of his job. It didn’t work perfectly, but it allowed him to press beyond tragedy to accomplish his tasks.
In the priesthood, the words had wooden sounds, like sacrament, forgiveness, and grace.
Now the words were metallic; but they had the same anchoring effect.
They would guide him, and so he said them aloud.
Aneurysm hooks, he said, and the word rattled around the tiled room like a coin in a can.
He lifted the implements from the embalming table and dissected the quadriceps.
Trocar, he whispered, and it sliced the air as he pierced each organ to aspirate.
Drainage tube, and the remaining blood leaked out so that the embalming fluid could take its place.
When he was finished, Alberto began massaging the boy’s skin. Porcelain, but as he kneaded the flesh with his finger tips, color rose like a blush.
He rubbed the biceps, moved his way down to the wrists and hands. He stroked each finger, then lingered at the pinky. The tip was a half inch long at most. The length of his wife’s eyelashes. She’d be picking up Joshua from preschool about now. She’d ask him if he wanted a vanilla shake from Wendy’s and he’d say, Yes.
Alberto recorded each of his 724 embalmings in the little black notebook he kept in the breast pocket of his houndstooth coat, but he was still amazed at the intricacies of the human body; everything in some way depended on everything else. Once the heart stopped, the body seemed in a headlong rush to return to dust.
The church had been high ceilings, stained glass; the spirit ethereal, removed from the transitory. When he resigned from the priesthood to marry and start a family, the Cardinal warned him about the dangers of a life of the flesh. But embalming offered ritual, routine, and connection to the spirit.
Preparing the body for burial was the Eucharist.
Now, with this severed boy in front of him, he wondered about his choice. He longed for something pure and acute, something that couldn’t be ripped apart and confused in its reordering.
He took needle and thread from his bag and stitched Teddy’s arms and legs back on his torso. Weaving the needle in and out with rhythmic precision, each figure-eight of the groove allowed Alberto solace.
He stepped back from the table and caught his breath. He’d been working five hours, but it seemed like one. The mother would inevitably study Teddy’s face, search for any trace of her son. It had to be perfect. He double-checked the photo and then went to work.
Alberto didn’t have dowel rods to reattach the head, never imagined he’d need them. He’d have to improvise. A mop stood in the corner of the room. It might work.
With a handsaw, he cut off a two foot section, sharpened each side. He burrowed it into the torso, twisting it like a beach umbrella. The flesh sighed, wet, airy.
Alberto took a deep breath, drove the stick further.
He thought of Nero impaling Christians’ heads, setting them on fire to light the streets.
He stepped back from the table, tried to clear his mind. He paced the floor, lifted his hand before his face; his fingers twitched.
Anuerisym hooks, trocar, drainage tube.
Coins rattling in a can.
He stepped back to the embalming table, lifted Teddy’s head. As Alberto secured it to the mop handle, he clenched his teeth, tried not to weep.
After, he sutured the neck and bent so close he thought he felt Teddy’s breath.
He placed eye caps under the eyelids, stitched the mouth closed. He took out the makeup bag, waxed the face and hands, and worked the sponge across the forehead.
A few times after he’d prepared a body, he felt something like a spiritual departure from the corpse. Tonight he was simply alone with the boy he stitched together at the broken places.
He ran his finger tips over Teddy’s waxy cheeks, then lay his hand softly on the boy’s shoulder.
Before turning out the lights, he curled Teddy’s eyelashes with his thumb and index finger so they lifted off the cheeks.
Home late, Alberto eased the front door open.
His wife was watching television.
“You okay?” she asked.
He was grateful she’d waited up, but he only wanted to sit next to her for a while without talking and feel the warmth of her body.
“He asleep?” he asked.
He walked down the hall to Joshua’s room. He’d splayed himself across the mattress, one leg tied up in the bed sheet. Alberto freed the leg and scooted him to the center.
Joshua stirred, but didn’t wake.
Mornings before work, Alberto occasionally stood over his son like this. His smallness and vulnerability amazed him, filled him with dark imaginings—car crashes, fires, pedophiles and kidnappers. Leaving Joshua those mornings took a kind of courage Alberto didn’t know he possessed; faith he’d encouraged his congregation to practice, but never understood until moments like these.
He leaned further over his son. He put his hand on the sleeping chest, felt the beating heart, warm and steady as a church bell.
He left his hand there until his own heart fell in sync with his son’s.
Dennis Fulgoni lives in Los Angeles with his wife, son, and daughter. He is a Title I and Bilingual Coordinator at Irving Middle School in Glassell Park. His work has appeared in Quarterly West, The Colorado Review, Parting Gifts, The Hawai’i Review, New Stories from the Southwest, The Citron Review, and is forthcoming from Literary Pasadena. He is the recipient of a Kirkwood Award for Fiction through the UCLA Writers Program and an Intro Journals Award. He received Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize in 2008. He holds an MFA from Antioch University, and is furiously rewriting his first novel.