Henry waited until Mr. Buckler ducked into the storage room hunting for cigarettes before he took a peek at the girl on the table again. A closer peek. My first naked girl, he thought, and she’s dead. Even worse, she was pretty. Very pretty, with a big round reddish Afro and a perfect black body, but she was dead. Henry was a virgin and she was dead.
He noticed that her earlobes were attached (a trait they’d concentrated on in genetics his junior year), and her arms were lightly silky with straight black hairs that barely showed against her very dark skin. Her arms were crossed at the wrists, hands joined like a bird with tapering wings tensed over her stomach. To forestall the inevitable glance at her vagina he concentrated on her navel, the ebonite iris that folded into itself with wasted precision.
She was long and slender and looked weightless-but-durable. Her bush was a copper coil like material out of an old radio and her lips were all-but shut in an eerie smile of endurance; a thin white crescent of clenched teeth exposed where the lip curled back, a sneer at the living.
She had small breasts but big nipples. This shocked the boy, who tried his best not to look, though her nipples were so big it was embarrassing. They were so big and warm-looking, so seemingly capable yet of what they were by design so intended to do…it seemed to him that by their fact alone the dead girl couldn’t really be dead; not with perfectly good parts on her still. The clear-lensed eyes and jointed limbs and elegant fulcrums of jaw and hip. He just didn’t associate nipples with death in general and certainly not big ones like that, though he’d never seen in life a living pair with which to compare them.
He thought he might recognize her, but then again don’t all pretty girls look familiar, at first glance?
When Buckler came back in the morgue with a toothpick stuck in his rubbery mouth, he found Henry with his back to the room, mysteriously facing the radiator by the ramp door, bent forward at the waist with his knees straight and his hands in his pockets, staring down into the spider-webby gap between the radiator and the wall in a non sequitur of concentration.
“Yo,” said Buckler.
Henry responded without turning. “Georgia,” he said, and cleared his throat, “Georgia wants me to paint the wall in here pretty soon and I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to paint the wall here behind the radiator.”
“Oh man,” said Buckler, sauntering over with his hands in his pockets and his hat tilted way back on his head, “It’s a bitch alright.”
Buckler was a man who could stand and stare at the wall behind a radiator all day if he had to. Henry was greatly relieved when Aunt Georgia summoned Buckler over the intercom instead, speaking so softly that this unusual discretion implied the wounded presence of clients. Probably the N.O.K.s of the dead girl herself, to whom they both had their backs at that moment.
“Ed,” reiterated Georgia, just audible over the intercom’s hiss.
Two handsome black ladies under so much foundation that they themselves resembled the resplendent dead were seated in front of Gil’s desk, sniffling at wads of the perfumed tissues Georgia bought in bulk from Newark. In fact the tissues discarded and at their feet were so smudged with dark it was almost as though the ladies were in blackface. Georgia produced documents to sign, knowing exactly when to slide what across the desk towards whom. She must have summoned Buckler in case one of the handsome ladies fainted, though his posture insinuated less a comfort than a deterrent. He stood beside Georgia behind the desk, scratching an elbow and dreaming of lunch.
Later, Henry wondered if it was a trick of the light, or if the girl had contracted somewhat in the five hours since the two of them had first met? Were her knees a little higher, her arms crossed tighter and her elbows tucked in a bit more? Yes, he thought. Bracing herself against a shock that could come any moment.
Her color too. She seemed ashen…grayer…even correcting for the dramatically different lighting he was now seeing her in; the candles that had replaced the sun. There were sunken circles around her eyes and a rough and ugly dullness in the hollows of her cheeks that looked like ghoulish makeup…sparingly applied but noticeable nevertheless. She was beginning to look very much dead, in fact, whereas a large part of the shock he’d experienced when first seeing her was how she didn’t really look dead at all.
In violation of the courtly respect one accords certain chemicals gathered in the embalming room, Henry had placed and lit a few candles along the sink to give the dead girl the benefit of their softer light. Upstairs, safe in a duvet on the hottest night of the year, blasted by the snowless blizzard of air conditioning, his Aunt was watching The Tonight Show with her eyes closed. The chit chat and laughter.
The first candle struggled and guttered in a pool that spread and spilled into a solid down the front of the sink, subtracting light by a fine degree, and Henry aware, suddenly, of the passing of time. Not the years but the hours.