2022 Pushcart Prize Nominee - Post Mortem by L. Andrew Huffman
L. Andrew Huffman
I lie in the graveyard grass and think about what will happen as I die. Procedurals usually only mention rigor mortis, the stiffening of the body, but that’s third. First is pallor mortis. You lose all the color in your skin. It happens so immediately that it isn’t a factor in determining time of death. Algor mortis is ineffective too, the second stage. The warmth of your body, my body, fades away. Your heart isn’t beating anymore. When I begin to decompose, my temperature will rise again. The breaking down of my body’s tissue creates energy. Heat. Rigor mortis is a better indicator.
Shirley Jackson once wrote, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” She was right. I live in absolute reality. I feel it corrode into me, the bacteria in my gut beginning to break down and bloat. Bloat is when the smell sets in. Putrescine and cadaverine are the chemicals that cause it. The smell. Not the bloat. The death causes the bloat.
I think often about what will be left of me a hundred years from now. A skeleton. When my bones have been consumed, there will be no trace left of me. My body will have re-entered the ecosystem.
The grass is rough against my arms. I’ll get hives. I often have hives. Stress hives, heat hives, grass hives. I had hives when I found out my parents died. I couldn’t cry. I was too busy scratching. Nails biting through skin.
At the funeral, my brother smacked my shoulder, trying to get me to stop, but I couldn’t. My skin roared with it. I kept scratching. My chest, my neck, my arms.
“Juniper, please. You’re upsetting the kids,” he said. In his suit, Rick looked the image of our father, while I was a child suffering from chicken pox, clawing my body raw.
“I’m sorry,” I said, though I wasn’t. Everyone grieves differently. My grief is hives, erupting over my body in volcanos of histamines and anguish.
Even larks and katydids dream, but I haven’t dreamt in a year. A year ago my parents were killed as they sat eating lunch in a park outside my father’s office. I wonder what they were talking about.
If a soap opera had written my parents’ deaths into their script, my mother would have been asking my father for a divorce. Or would have revealed that by some miracle of reversible menopause, at fifty-five, my mother was pregnant with their third child. A girl, so that they would have a complete set. A boy, a girl, me. Having a sister thirty years our junior would be complicated, but we would have loved her. Our baby sister.
My parents were shot and killed, along with six strangers, and I am still the youngest child and my brother and I now do not have living parents. I don’t dream.
Ants crawl on my skin, but do not devour it. There are no maggots digesting me, or butterflies resting on my decomposing neck. Putrefaction is the beginning of decomposition. Death has set in. Your body begins the end. Breaking down back to what it was. Under the grass, my parents lie in caskets.
They are not breaking down the way they were supposed to. They are not swarmed with bugs and rodents. My father is in his best blue suit and the yellow plaid that my niece Deidre gave him for his final Father’s Day. My mother is in a dress covered in beaded frogs. Rick made the decisions on what they would wear. I let him.
“They should be cremated,” I said in our childhood living room.
There was a picture of me on the mantle, next to Rick’s portrait from his senior year of high school. Mine was taken by an ex-girlfriend, right after I came out as nonbinary. I have a mullet. Rick and I are so similar that the picture of me looks like a candid of Rick, as if his blonde curls that he so neatly slicked back were released. I am so happy in my picture. Rick is perfect.
“That’s not what they wanted,” Rick said. He stared out the window, at the house across the street. Ellie Thomas, his girlfriend from high school, had lived there when we were growing up. They were supposed to be childhood sweethearts, but they’d broken up his senior year. Sometime after his senior portrait, but before she took the portrait of me with my new mullet. “Do the Thomases still live across the street?”
He sounded wistful. He considered her the one that got away. Maybe he imagined we could invite the Thomases to the funeral, and he and Ellie would lock eyes, and she would be a shoulder to cry on. I didn’t think he would cheat on Jenny insofar as to sleep around. But I could see him lured in by the comfort of a person who understood his history and would put his grief first. He would go to coffee with her. Hold her hand and not feel guilty, because they were old friends.
“Yes,” I said. “Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, at least. I don’t know where the kids have ended up.” Rick nodded, gazed on the house. I could picture him marching up to the door, charming the Thomases into telling him where Ellie lives now, what she’s up to. They loved him. “I know they had talked about being buried. But it’s bad for the environment, it’s so expensive, and it’s part of nature to decompose. We can put their ashes somewhere beautiful.”
“It wasn’t part of nature for our parents to be murdered, but they were. We are fulfilling their wishes, Juniper,” Rick said. He turned to me, looked at me with my own iced tea eyes and our mother’s eyelashes and our father’s protruding ears. He was all the beauty of our parents. The bloat started in that moment. The putrescine emitting from my gut into my bowels. I couldn’t keep it in.
“They’re dead, Rick. We have to make the best decisions we can, even if they aren’t the decisions they would make,” I said. The odor wafted out of me and surrounded Rick. He clenched his jaw, then turned back to the window.
He didn’t respond for three, four breaths. He faced the window, watching his past play out different. Saw a world where he and Ellie went to college together, where he didn’t break up with her for a football scholarship and she didn’t move on, right into my arms. They would have gotten married right out of school, had kids quickly. Their oldest kid could have been ten, and at least one of Rick’s kids would remember our parents.
“I’m going to go say hi to the Thomases. It’s been forever,” Rick said, and walked to the door. Before he stepped out, he turned back to me. “We have to bury them.”
“We don’t,” I said. I looked at him with his face. Everyone we met thought we were twins. It bothered him. I loved that I was so inextricably part of this family that everyone who saw us knew we belonged together.
“We do,” he said, and he walked towards a memory.
The graveyard sky has clouds wandering through it. Wondering at me. Each morning I come before work, each evening I come after. I lay in the grass above my parents’ formaldehyded bodies and fantasize of decomposing. At night, alone in my apartment, I do not dream. I wish I could. Today, it has been exactly one year since they were killed, and I’ve gotten worse at picturing them.
If I could close my eyes and fall asleep and see them again, even if by the afternoon the dream was a haze that I couldn’t recapture, it would be worth it.
I have family. I have Rick and Jenny and their kids and Jenny’s parents. But that is a rationalization. I don’t have a family. All I have is the grass. The hives. One tombstone labeled Carrie Michaels, beloved wife, mother, and grandmother, and one labeled Richard “Dick” Michaels, loyal husband, father, and grandfather. My poor dad. My mom gets to be known for being beloved, and my dad is loyal.
Rick is beloved, I’m loyal. It’s nothing to emblazon on a tombstone.
Livor mortis is the fourth stage of death. It helps determine the body’s position at the time of death. Blood, no longer obeying your heart’s impulses, submits to gravity, settling wherever is down. Your skin will first tinge red, and when oxygen is gone from your body, purple. Once livor mortis is complete, that’s that. The blood stays. Coagulates.
If I die sitting down, and am left there for at least twenty minutes, livor mortis will begin, though it isn’t in full effect until two to four hours. If I were dragged into the forest and dropped out of a tree to mask my cause of death and found lying prone on the forest floor, my ass and legs will be full of coagulated blood that broadcasts that I died elsewhere.
Since they died, I have begun to decompose. Though I go to meetings at work and respond to emails in a timely fashion, the blood has coagulated. I died a year ago, and the blood settled, and everyone can see it.
A fly lands on my cheek and I don’t swat it away. My arms begin to itch, and I rake my nails over them. No blood. I can’t bleed.
It’s loud in the graveyard this morning. It’s only six a.m., and someone is out mowing. A couple pairs of women have powerwalked past me, not meeting my eyes and pumping their arms as they flee. They’re used to me. After a year, we’ve all adjusted to each other. I come in the morning in clothes one or two steps above pajamas and lay in the grass, and in the evening I lay in the grass with my suit jacket as a pillow. I used to talk to my parents, but I don’t anymore. At the beginning, I imagined they were listening, but I stopped dreaming this year. Now we lay together, me above, them below.
The Thomases came to the funeral. Mrs. Thomas kissed me on the cheek and said she was so sorry for my loss. I didn’t respond. I was busy scratching. Ellie wasn’t there. I don’t know what I would have said if I’d seen her.
I graduated from high school and stayed nearby, going to community college and working. I should have fled, but it didn’t occur to me. Ellie had gone off to some fancy liberal arts school, but she came back every summer, unlike Rick. Rick had football, Rick had Jenny and Jenny’s family. After Rick left, I rarely saw him. At least once or twice a year, but never three times. Less since the funeral. Jenny says he needs time.
When Ellie and I started dating, our holidays combined, the Thomases hosting Thanksgiving, us hosting Christmas. She was the most beautiful person I had ever met. For every morbid question I asked she asked two back, and we dreamt of a life together, in a house with a sprawling garden.
We broke up when she got into medical school. She wanted me to follow her, and I wanted to stay. I picked the family that is now dead. I don’t regret it. What if I’d gone? I would have missed those precious years, years Rick never got. Now I am alone in the loud cemetery. I don’t dream of the house we could have had, and I don’t dream of Ellie’s dimples and straight brown hair and the curves of her body and I don’t dream of my parents.
The reason we know so much about decomposition is research often conducted at what they call a body farm. It’s fascinating, the idea of a facility devoted to cadavers, to watching cadavers break down, and training people to decipher what decomposition is communicating. Death is a metaphor, and decomposition is the nuances in the language. The word choice, the emphasis. Whether the writing is languid and poetic or short and sharp.
It is getting late now. It’s a quarter past six. I have to get up, go home and change. I could change in my car. I keep a spare suit in there. If I use the spare, I can get a few more minutes. A shadow moves over me, darkening my view, and I can’t see who or what has moved over me. For a moment, for a single desperate moment, I am a lark.
I shut my eyes and I dream.
I want to open my eyes and see my parents. See my dad in his suit and yellow plaid tie, his smile that made his whole face scrunch away to make room for his joy. See my mom, and she would have missed me as desperately as I’ve missed her, tears rolling down rosy cheeks. I would be so relieved I would laugh, and she would laugh too, through the tears, and my dad would laugh and we would all embrace and it would be the best day of my life.
I don’t open my eyes right away. I let the hope and excitement and the perfect images of my parents wash over and through me until they’ve been replaced with a tidal wave of grief. The shadow hasn’t moved, and I have to open my eyes and face reality.
“Juni?” the shadow says, and I open my eyes to the only family I have left.
“What are you doing here?” I say. I have come to the graveyard twice a day, every day, for a year, and I have never seen Rick here. Not on our parents’ birthdays, not on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, not Christmas. I don’t stand up. I stay lying down, staring at the sky.
“It’s the anniversary of their death,” Rick says. He’s hovering over me, his shoulders set in tension. His fingers are twiddling with the hem of his shirt. “I had to come.”
“I guess,” I say. I should be gentler to him. Our parents were murdered. The person who fired the gun was arrested, but the trial hasn’t happened yet. There’s no comfort in any of it. What good is putting him in prison, in sentencing him to twenty years or to life or to death. All I want is for my parents to be alive. That would be the only justice.
My arms start to throb, but I don’t scratch them. The weight of gravity against me is too strong.
“Can I sit with you?” Rick says.
I shrug my shoulders through the grass.
He sits down next to me, his shadow shrinking. He lets out a tremendous sigh, loud enough to rise above the noisy graveyard, as if he has been holding his breath for the entire year, and can only now, in this moment, let it out. He wavers for a moment, then collapses into the grass next to me.
“I miss them,” he says.
“Me too,” I say. My jaw trembles as I say it, and I take a deep breath. I don’t want to cry in front of him.
We lie there without speaking for an eternity. I check the time. It’s half past six. I have to get going. But I don’t want to be the first to leave. This is my place. Rick is only a visitor.
“I called Ellie Thomas,” Rick says. His face is red with the effort of not crying, his nose running. He is the least perfect he’s ever looked, with snot bubbled at his nostril and grass stuck in his hair. “I thought she might need someone to talk to.”
I look at him, and for the first time, I see someone as lonely as I am. He has a family, he has a wife, but he doesn’t have our parents either.
“Did she?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “She was torn up about it. Was worried about you.”
“Oh,” I say. It should make my heart skip a beat. But instead the loneliness crushes me further. Another person I’ve lost. I’m too far decomposed, now.
Rick rolls onto his side to face me. He’s in a suit. He shouldn’t have laid down. He’s going to have to change before going anywhere.
“You should come to my house for dinner tonight,” he says.
I stare back at him. He speaks how I think. Fragmented thoughts, the connections in between both tentative and obvious.
“You are all I have left. Come to dinner. You have to,” he says, and I first only hear the order, but in the silence that lingers afterwards, I hear the hidden plea, shrill and inconsolable.
“Okay,” I say. He smiles, and it’s not Dad’s smile, but it’s beautiful too. I don’t cry, but relief settles in me anyway. For the first time in a year, the rot eases.
He stands, and I stand too, and we look as if we rolled down a recently mowed hill.
He pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket shoves it into my hand. The paper is damp and crumpled, and I’d know the phone number on it even if Ellie’s name wasn’t scrawled above it.
“Why are you giving this to me?” I say.
“I feel like you need it,” Rick says.
“Okay,” I say.
“I’ll see you tonight? For dinner?” he asks, and I nod. “Good.”
He takes a step away. “Bye Mom, bye Dad,” he says, and he sounds gutted. A five year old left on their first day of kindergarten.
I take a deep breath and stop dying. I stop dying and I grab my brother’s arm and I hug him. He bows his head into my shoulder and I can feel him cry and I cry too. Nothing is fixed between us, but our hearts are beating. In my hand, I clench the piece of paper, and wonder what the next year of our lives will be.
I close my eyes, and I start to dream.