By Kate Kimball
Ms. Helena Mayes has the largest thighs I have ever seen, and this is one of the problems I have with moving her. Their texture is like the white of a hard-boiled egg left in the pot a minute too long—stiff and rubbery. Their blue veins layout many routes, ones I doubt she has ever taken. Her thighs cling like two stubborn magnets until I operate the lift. Then, they fall apart like a broken wishbone, one pointing to the left, the other falling away to the right, her feet banging on the metal basin underneath.
I stretch my arms out as though I could manage to catch all 342 pounds of her. But, she doesn’t fall. It is 3:16 in the morning and I still have three hours to go before my shift ends. Her funeral is in seven hours, and she needs to look presentable.
I wipe my gloved hands over my dirty white apron and consider all of the many reasons I shouldn’t be here. Ms. Helena Mayes is dead, for one. She is everything to be feared. Her auburn hair is matted from her own sweat at the side of her face. The room smells like urine and feces and blood—aggregates from her soiled clothes.
The room is a swirl of aquamarine. My mother insisted that I go to a doctor, never mind the cost, and take care of my headaches. I squint over Helena, feeling the throb of my blood pulsing underneath my left temple.
I steady her body over the basin, locking in the tray with the levers. It’s strange to do this alone. I can hear the echo of keys as Mr. Hindeman hits them one by one with his index finger. He’s turned down my offer of typing lessons, telling me he is without my writerly aspirations. But, the other day, he had suggested that, while he didn’t care for keyboard lessons, maybe there was something I could teach him.
That is another reason I shouldn’t be here.
Hindeman Mortuary was one of those places I never noticed. It was tucked behind trees, nested in the bellows of a hillside. Hindeman’s building was the color of a desert. It had a curved driveway, a large garage where the body, and later, the casket, could be loaded into the mortuary. Mr. Hindeman met me at the front door. Mr. John D. Hindeman was about fifty-five, or so he said, when he showed me into the parlor, and had been doing this since he was fourteen. He told me that it was getting harder and harder to do the work. “I could be next,” he said, with a laugh. “And who would bury me?”
We walked down to the intake room, which was very similar to an operating room. It could be a refuge or a cell, I would later learn, depending on who was inside. Mr. Hindeman showed me the basins and the lockers where I would store my clothes after changing into scrubs. While all of the rooms were fascinating in their unfamiliarity, all I could notice was Mr. Hindeman.
I had always spent time around men over six feet in height. My brothers were tall and scrawny. Mr. Hindeman had a long, sharp nose, and dark eyebrows that didn’t match the color of his hair. His wedding ring was tarnished. His wife was a huge part of the business, he had told me. But, she didn’t like being around the deceased, and she rarely came downstairs.
“Been together since grade school,” he told me. “Wife runs the books.”
When he stopped to ask me if I had any questions. I just asked him where he was from. Mr. Hindeman’s voice had a muddled accent, something between Georgia and North Carolina. “Fairfax,” he admitted. “Born and raised. Once you’re in Virginia, your only way out is through this building.”
The notes in the medical chart mention how many times Helena asked for her daughter. 203. Or is it 208? I can’t make out the blue pen that looks as though it was hurriedly slashed across the page—not having any medical relevance. In the end, Helena’s hunger remains. Her daughter isn’t interested in assisting with the washing or dressing of her mother’s body.
“Why?” she asked after signing the form.
“It can be a nice thing to do,” I began. “Really, it is the last act of service you will ever be able to do for your mother.”
Her daughter made a face of disgust. “I can’t handle being around dead people. I don’t know how you do it.”
Now I slip a rag over Helena’s body to begin the cleaning process. She is wide like the desert, hollow like the emptiness in the room. She has started to harden from rigor. I wonder what she would think here, now, feeling the tautness of her body that has never been anything other than plush. The solvent is strong, and for a minute, my eyes burn even through the goggles, and I try to trace the steps of how she got here—large and immoveable—alone and cold.
I begin by scrubbing the remnants of the hospital tape from her forearms. It has wrapped itself around her hairs. I scrub her collarbone, following tradition to leave the head and neck for last. Her breasts resemble fried eggs. Perhaps a man had once been here, moved his palm over them. She has a daughter, I remind myself. And yet, her body doesn’t have the fingerprints love would have left behind. All she has is the thorn bush of stretch marks running down her sides.
After the cleaning and dressing was finished, Mr. Hindeman and I would spend hours talking in the basement. He talked about Aristotle and how he set the standards for surgery. He tied car crash victims in with Van Gogh and he talked about the philosophy of resurrection, though he had left many of his Baptist roots behind. He was interested in what I had grown up with in Utah and wanted to know about The Book of Mormon, though he admitted he would probably never read it.
After work on Wednesday, we sat and talked for three hours. It was four-thirty, and I still had a story to finish and another to critique. My head had started to swim. I had been working for almost four months and had become quite efficient at the morgue. But, I had the usual headaches that began with school.
“Are you all right?” Mr. Hindeman asked. “You look white as a ghost.”
I nodded, trying to resume the conversation where we left off—there was something about Machiavelli. But, my head pulsed with pain and I thought it must resemble a neon sign. I felt shaky and had started to sweat. And then, I closed my eyes and rolled back, feeling my head hit the floor.
My mom wanted me to quit school, quit writing, and marry the first decent man I met. She talked for long hours about all the reasons I shouldn’t be in Virginia while I laid in bed at the Radford Hospital. “There are perfectly good writing schools in Utah,” she told me. “I don’t know why you wanted to go all the way out there.” Out there. In the hospital—dressed in a paper gown and awaiting the results of an MRI with no one in the room.
My advisor in college had come to say the same thing. She told me that I shouldn’t be working while I was in school. Over the years, she had cautioned me constantly in a way that reminded me of a mother, not mine exactly, but someone who could fill that role. She was polished and sophisticated and used perfect diction and wore four hundred dollar shoes that belonged in a metropolitan city, not in the grassy pastures of a small town.
She said that writers needed to have experiences. All I had was the conundrum of Salt Lake City with its Mormons and rigid belief systems, and I wasn’t sure that was the sort of thing anyone would want to read about. I had a few small travels, some foreign exchange experience in Japan. My advisor told me I needed to take risks, but then told me to not exhibit so much risky behavior, such as working graveyard shifts and being alone with an older man. When I sat down in front of a blank page, all I could see was the openness of life and the certainty of death.
Write about something more than pain, my advisor said. Why does someone always have to die?
I wonder what kind of conversations Helena had with her mother. Did she feel that she could be something more? Did she feel as though she was bound to disappoint everyone? Her mother may have made snide comments when she went for a second helping of butter-slathered collard greens.
Helena’s daughter, now thirty-two with three children of her own, dropped off a garbage bag with her mother’s clothes in it that morning. Inside, I find a dark wrinkled skirt, square-toed shoes, a white knit shirt with rings of yellow sweat stained into the armpits, a light purple button-down cardigan with balls of wool. The purple will look horrific against the white of Helena’s skin. For a moment, I think there must be more for Helena.
When Mr. Hindeman came to pick me up from the hospital, he told me he was so relieved that I was well enough to go back home. “You don’t know how hard it is to find someone to fill a job like this,” he said.
I moved slowly, assuring him I was fine and that I needed to rest. I didn’t tell him about the small mass they found, the tumor inside my head. The doctor told me not to panic. But, he told me to go see a specialist. Be decisive. As though I could take away the curse. “Tell everyone you know for support,” he said. My mother reacted with fear, blaming the convoluted road of the past. My advisor told me to talk to someone—someone not like her—a real professional. No one should handle this alone, she said. I thought about blurting out the obvious. Instead, I told Mr. Hindeman that it was nothing more than an episode of dehydration.
“You can get through that,” he told me. “That’s simple.”
Helena is not one of those that it is easy to talk to. Tell me about yourself, I say. What were you like? Helena says nothing. For a minute, I think about shaking her. Tell me something! I look at how exhausted she seems—worn out even in death. You must want something, I tell her again. All I can hear is the raucous sound of silence, the water dripping from the tap as I wet her legs to make them pliable.
I nod a little, understanding then. I go to the radio and turn it on the most popular country station. “I Wanna Be Loved Like That” sounds through the room, and I turn the dial down a little, as I work in silence, listening to the guitar.
“Aren’t people from Utah married at sixteen?” Mr. Hindeman asked me one night. I was finishing up with Mrs. Ramona Reed, a huge fan of my idea for my poem for my form and theory class. I wanted to write about playing the violin in the sonnet form, but when I recited the verses, all that came out was the tumor.
“Some are,” I said. “And some aren’t.”
“It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Don’t you crave to be with anyone? Don’t you get lonely?”
I shrugged. I wrote to get outside of loneliness.
“You can’t force love,” I told him.
“But the hunger will always be there. Don’t you want someone to touch you? How long has it been?”
I felt Mr. Hindeman press his hands against me, trace my hips then. His touch was sharp and his breath felt hot against my ear. I tried to resist him.
Who has hurt you? He whispered. Why are you so afraid? Let me help you. You’re hungry for it.
I closed my eyes, panicked. I wanted Ramona to spring up, bash him in the head with her cane that I laid over the basin. Instead, I feel the emptiness around me, the disappointment again. Perhaps he always wanted me in this way, a voice sounded in my head. Perhaps it was wrong to think of him as a father or even a friend.
Then, I pushed against the basin, prying his fingers from my side, stepping away and holding my hand up. Where is the tumor now? I wondered why it didn’t activate, causing me to crash. Maybe this was all the future held—a limited escape from endless hunger.
Mr. Hindeman flushed a little, and then shrugged. “My mistake. I’d be with you—if you get desperate—I’m here. Think about it. You’re running out of time.”
Helena’s make-up looks cakey underneath the light. But, I must admit that I did a good job on her eyes. Helena, though not beautiful or even serene, does look like she is resting. The wear has been washed away from her eyes and the tissue-enhancer got rid of the bags.
Her pastor, his wife, and I attend her funeral. Mr. Hindeman lurks in the background. We barely speak. Gone are the days of Derrida and Quintilian. We now focus on funeral arrangements and burials.
Helena’s pastor waits for twenty minutes until he gets up and starts speaking. I expect to see Helena’s daughter come in with her three children, the smell of cigarettes and tanning lotion in the air. Instead, there is no one and Mrs. Hindeman eventually comes into the room and takes her place at the back, nodding at me. In the end, I listen to the pastor’s rote prayer.
“It’s so sad that this is what it comes to for some people,” Mrs. Hindeman says after. We stand outside, looking at the leaves of late fall.
I nod absently, focusing on the lines of my sestina that I have been rolling over in my head. Later, I leave knowing that I will never go back. For a second, I wonder what Mr. Hindeman will think. I feel the weight of once again causing disappointment.
I go home and open the page, throwing my six end words on the screen—empty, wide, lonely, filled, bruised, hunger—and call it “For Helena: A Sestina.” My advisor praises the poem, though she tells me that I really need to find something more in life than pain. Over Helena’s gravesite, I read it one wintery day. I wipe the flakes from her stone and whisper the lines. I close my eyes and listen. There is so much silence, but for a minute, I can swear that Helena whispers her approval.
*Author’s Note: Names have been changed.
KATE KIMBALL received her MFA from Virginia Tech. Her work has appeared in Ellipsis, Weber, Kestrel and The Chaffey Review, among others. She resides in Salt Lake City, UT.