First I check to make sure that she is, in fact, dead. No respiration and pulse. Doll's eye test, negative: eyes roll right along with the head. Around the old woman's fleshy ears and lips the skin is blue, but tonight I'm taking no chances. Last week in Mississippi, some guy woke up in a body bag on the embalming table.
The son hovers outside the door.
"Please. Come in," I say. "It's fine."
He hesitates, then shakes his head. No.
Maybe because he's already been in the room, touching the skin of her earlobe, the waxy wrinkles in her neck, her body growing strangely enormous and at the same time shrinking. Then again, it could be me. I'm the last thing people expect in a funeral director. For this late night house call, I'm wearing a purple dress with heels to match, my nails are painted bright blue. I'm not the dowdy thing in black most folks picture.
After I cocoon the old woman in the flowered bed sheet, I sit down with the family. "I'd be happy to discuss all the options," I say. "But would it be better if I came back in the morning? You've just been through a shock." No, he says. They just want the whole thing over with. So I bring out my brochure, point out the choices, and tell them about my special, which I have to admit I feel pretty proud about.
"For nineteen hundred and ninety-nine dollars," I say, "you get a complete one-day funeral, including a premier velvet-lined mahogany casket for the viewing, all the necessary embalming, cosmetology, and dressing, two silk flower arrangements, and the use of my S&S superior hearse." After that, the body is buried in cardboard. Thick, ecological cardboard. A lot of people like that.
The son slowly nods, then the daughter.
After we finish with the details, I check the woman again—she couldn't be more dead—knot the sheet firmly at both ends, and line up the gurney with the mattress. I go to slide her heavy body, but it doesn't budge. This has never happened to me before, not with family watching.
"Here," one of the sons says. "Let me give you a hand."
"No thank you," I tell him firmly. The last thing I want is to look like I need help. But I can't just yank or shove. The old woman deserves respect. Slow, I tell myself. Take your time. And, of course, there it is. I pull the crumpled sheet from where it's wedged between the bed and gurney. The mother's shoulders move, then one heavy leg, and the other. When the body's firmly on the gurney, I strap her in.
"Sometimes it takes a bit of doing," I say.
In the last fourteen hours, I've arranged three funerals, made two house calls, set up twelve rows of chairs for a wake and broken them down again, and filed more forms with the City and County of San Francisco than I want to think about.
I push the gurney out the apartment door, take the elevator down to my hearse, and drive through the October rain. North Beach is quiet this time of night, the shop windows' black panes shot with light. I drop the body off at my embalmer's and head back to the office. There's still work to do.
When the doorbell rings, I have to pick my head from my desk. It buzzes again. I check in the mirror, wipe away the mascara raccooned under my eyes, and straighten my stockings. I live right upstairs from my funeral parlor. People call at all hours.
"Lena," a man's voice says.
In the window at the top of the door, all I can see is a hat, a stiff gray dome with a red-tipped feather. I know exactly no one with a hat like that.
"Denis?" I say, opening the door. "I don't believe it." We dated a couple years back. Not serious but not not serious either. After my divorce, I'd sworn I'd keep it casual with men.
Only a few silvery strands show in Denis's hair. He combs it back now, making him look more like the financial adviser that he is—or was. We haven't been in touch. He's got the same strong forearms and muscular thighs that I remember loving. But his eyes, a deep sapphire blue, are sad in a way I've never seen.
"Well, hi," I say.
"Lena," he says, taking in my silky dress and heels. "You look good. Wow." He pauses and moves his eyes away. "I'm sorry. It's late, I know. I—it's my mother, Lena. The doctor says she may not have much longer. Mom wants you to handle the arrangements when the time comes. I thought I should tell you." I met Denis's mother at a viewing. I remember her as a small, lively woman with a gigantic smile, someone who loves a good party as much as I do. His mother was the one who introduced us.
He could have called, of course. But that thought doesn't stay in my head because the rain that's turned to mist is glistening along Denis's broad shoulders. I reach out and touch my fingers to his on the doorframe. He doesn't pull away.
Denis and I dated maybe five, six months. He was surprised by my being a mortician, but not in the least put off. Me, I wanted a fling. I talked him into heading across the bridge to Berkeley for a little Zydeco dancing, and he took me to that restaurant in Chinatown where the waiters are so rude all you can do is laugh. I'd show up sometimes at his door in sequins, a white stole, and tiara. Or my face painted with freckles and wearing a babydoll that didn't exactly cover everything. He didn't dress up, but he sure liked how I looked. We took selfies: me glamming it up, him with his face drawn and serious.
One Friday night, Denis suggested we go for a drink at the Tonga Room in the Hotel Fairmount. "You put in a long week," he said. "Let's relax." Only he was nervous, fussing with his collar stays and dropping nickels and dimes all over the floor. I leaned back and ordered a Mai Tai, trying not to notice. We watched the Tonga's thunderstorm show, lightning flashing when you least expect it. Afterward, Denis cleared his throat.
"Lena," he began. "What would you say to our moving in together? Plenty of room at my house. You're always saying how you love the view of the Golden Gate."
I should have smiled, reached for his hand, but I didn't. My divorce had hit hard. I'd bought the funeral parlor with my ex and thought, Okay, we're all set. You can count on exactly nothing in this life. As Denis waited for me to respond, my mind filled with all the husbands, brothers, sons, fathers, who families brought to me men who were there one day, then no more.
"Denis," I finally managed. "You know I can't just move my business across town." A flimsy excuse, but the best I could come up with at the moment.
He nodded and took a long drink of wine. We talked about other things, but hell if I know what because all I can remember is Denis's hollow-eyed look of pain.
We never saw each other again. No big blow up, no bitter words. Denis would phone from time to time, and I'd call back—until about a year ago. Why, I'm not sure. I kept meaning to.
"Of course," I say to him now, opening the door wider. "I'd be honored to help." In spite of the late hour, I add, "Why don't you come in?"
After things ended with Denis, I threw myself into work. I found comfort in its routine, the perfect positioning of every flower, the best combination of songs to reflect a life. Putting on a funeral is a huge production, more complicated even than a wedding. I create final memories, ones people never forget. And I have just one shot to get it right.
Of course, I've had a few one night stands, I guess. The guy from the espresso place, the salesman who keeps me in guest registries, a married neighbor. But none of these men have made me feel the way Denis did, like I was the only woman in the world.
I usher him into the softly lit foyer. I've decorated the place to look like a home, thick oriental rugs, plush chairs, and a long couch that a body could sink into without a second thought. I walk Denis downstairs to the office. It's filled with fresh flowers: pumpkin-colored mums, pale lilies, and immense ferns, moist and sweet-smelling.
He sits in the chair next to me and taps a long finger on the glass desktop.
"Forgive me," I say. "Where are my manners? Beer? Wine? I have both." I take two tall glasses from the refrigerator behind the desk and set them before us.
Denis shakes his head. His mother, he says, wants a simple service, the music lively—you know, Tony Bennett, an upbeat Ella—and the food plentiful. Antipasti, ravioli, and cannoli—chocolate and vanilla—from Stella Pastry. He talks faster and faster, looking at me less and less. The desire that filled the air—I'm sure he felt it, too—evaporates.
The old woman comes back to me the next day. They've sutured her mouth shut from the inside and plumped her eyelids with caps to keep the natural shape. Her skin is firm, her body even heavier with the fluids. Getting her into the ruby pantsuit the family dropped off is going to be about as easy as putting a party dress on a pine tree. I lift one fleshy leg, and tug the pants up, careful not to rip the fabric. The other foot sticks and I shake it loose. Finally I get the pants over her hips. I cross her hands over her chest, then tuck them inside the casket. Nothing looks right because all I can think about is Denis.
A lonely silence envelopes us as I color her lips rose and eyelids sable brown. I use real makeup, rather than the mortuary kind, because it's more natural. I want her to look asleep, not dead. I blue her hair to brighten the gray, and tilt her chin down for a peaceful look. The lights overhead buzz.
A week later, I'm downstairs getting ready for the party. Fifteen years ago—right after I bought the business from my ex—I threw my first Halloween bash. Now it's an annual thing. Put a bunch of San Franciscans in costumes and something crazy always happens. Last Halloween I surprised everyone by popping out of a coffin in a leopard miniskirt. This year I plan to top that.
Denis phoned yesterday to say his mother was doing better, still in the hospital but hanging on, at least for now. I invited him to the party. "Come. You can get out for a couple hours, have fun. Your mother would say the same thing."
"I'll try," Denis said. He never was much of a party guy.
I lay out a tuxedo-clad Dracula in a coffin and convert a child's casket into the beer cooler. For a couch, I pull out the longest coffin I have, fit milk crates inside, and stack pillows on top. Screaming ghoul lights get sprinkled around. The band, Mechanical Heart, arrives and sets up.
By nine, the party is coming to life. Marie, my neighbor and part-time bookkeeper, shows up as Marilyn, with more voluptuous cleavage than even the star had in real life. Her caveman husband wears a cowhide slung over his shoulder and a bone stuck through his ponytail. This leads to predictable jokes about boners. It's true, I tell them, the dead do get them. Everybody laughs and shots of tequila go around.
The band is deep into their second set—Derek and the Dominos, The Dead, U2—playing so hard that people can't help but dance. I replenish the cocktail hot dogs and refill the Skittles bowl, and finally get out there myself. I dance with a handsome skeleton, but my usual verve is missing. Where's Denis?
At eleven forty-five, I signal the band, and Marie and I sneak upstairs. It was her idea—the low-cut black leather vest and micro skirt, the studded boots—she discovered the whole outfit in Fantasy on Folsom. All I did was add the whip. Denis has got to show up. I can't wait to see his face.
Marie laces me in and zips me up. We tiptoe down the backstairs and I tuck myself into the casket we'd propped up on wheels. She rolls me toward the band who gets a loud countdown started. I jump out at exactly midnight.
"Can't get no—" I sing, "satisfaction—" The last syllable comes out like a low growl and everybody cheers. "'Cause I try and I try and I try—"
Under the lights, I feel people's eyes staring at me, and as if someone threw a switch, I freeze. Here I am surrounded by friends, but none of them really knows me: the exhausted me, the lonely me. I scan the crowd for Denis. He's not here. I go to sing the next word, but nothing comes out.
A guy tosses candy corn into the air. Someone else, M&M's. Everything starts zinging—oranges, blues, yellows flying past. A gangly orangutan catches Kit Kats in his hairy palms. A French maid holds out her gauze skirt for Starbursts. People laugh.
The switch flips back on and I snap my whip high over everyone's heads. They scream and applaud. I grab a fistful of candy from the stage and pitch it back at the crowd.
That's when I see Denis, standing alone in the back. He's wearing a retro bowling shirt with CHAZ stitched on the pocket, patched Madras shorts, and sloppy brown sandals, something that doesn't look like a costume, but is. Denis is an impeccable dresser, tailored suits, polished wingtips, vests. I've always liked that about him. But you know, the shorts look good. I flash him a smile.
Denis doesn't smile back. He isn't scooping up candy and tossing it. He just stands there, his legs planted stiffly under him. I finish the song and make my way back.
"Hi," I say, still out of breath. "You made it. Great."
"Hello." Denis's eyes shift to my leather vest.
"How is your mother?"
"Fine." His gaze lowers to my boots.
"Is everything okay?"
"Yes," he lies. Because when he looks up, I see the same expression of pain he had after he'd asked me to move in. "Do you mind telling me, Lena? Is that a costume?"
"Sure," I say, surprised. Could Denis have gone strait-laced? Or be jealous? I'd only ever dressed up for him. I act as if nothing's wrong. "You know Fantasy over on Folsom? Well, Marie—"
"Lena!" someone shouts over the roar of the party. I spin around. The married guy down the street—whatever we had is long over—shoots me a grin.
Denis frowns. "Look, I've got an early morning meeting tomorrow."
"You were terrific!" the guy yells, lifting his beer. I wave and smile back. When I turn around, Denis isn't there.
She has this strange half-smile on her face, Denis's mother. Her mouth's partly open as if she wants me to lean closer, so she can tell a joke. Or some secret about what comes after. The nurse has wheeled the IV out of the room so it's just the two of us. The air conditioning hums. After all these years in the business, of course, I have opinions about the afterlife. Not heaven or hell, but infinite blank space, a soft nothingness that stretches on forever. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we all are, whatever we believe.
I put my ear to Denis's mother's mouth. Just an all-too-familiar silence. Then, a sound I don't recognize. It comes again. Yes, my own breath. I feel air sliding through my throat, filling my chest and ribs. It feels good, all this air.
Denis called at four in the morning to tell me his mother had died. "It's late. I'm sorry. My timing's always off." His voice dropped. We hadn't spoken since he abruptly left the party a week and a half ago.
"Stop. This is what I do." Even under these circumstances, it was good to hear his voice. "How are you, Denis?"
"About the arrangements," he went on. "Let's go with what we discussed. A short service, lively music, tons of food. You know my mother." Then he wanted off the phone.
She's so light, Denis's mother, so easy to lift, her legs and arms neatly folding in. I drive the hearse through the gray first light of morning to the embalmers. Forty-eight hours later, she returns, firmer and pink. The sparkling, pleated dress that Denis left at the office when I wasn't here slips on without a struggle. I tuck the shimmering fabric around her small body and gently spray her white, white hair. Her lashes are long like Denis's and need very little mascara. I gently smooth the wrinkles from her forehead and lift the half-smile back on her face. She looks the way I want her to, a mysterious sad-happy.
The wake isn't crowded. At eighty-three, Denis' mother has outlived most of her friends. A few cousins—I think they're cousins—stroll in and gather around the casket. I expected Denis to arrive early and want to go over everything, but he shows up right before the service. He nods briefly at me and stays at the door, shaking people's hands. They trickle in, one or two at a time, but enough to keep him there.
I make sure the candles stay lit and pick up stray rose petals on the carpet. Conversations swirl. "The energy that woman had. Every morning, a huge breakfast, fried eggs, pancakes," someone says. "That must have been her secret." The minister goes to the lectern and everyone sits.
"I'm sorry," I say afterward to Denis, who's back is flat against the door. "Your mother was a fine woman."
"Thank you." He looks away. "She lived a long life. It was time."
The room fills with a jazzy version of "Anything Goes."
"You know," I say, "I do something crazy every year. For Halloween."
"You want to talk about this now?" Denis whispers.
"Well—yes. For a moment. You've been avoiding me."
"All right," he says, sucking in a breath. "I'll tell you, Lena. I was embarrassed. For you more than me. I mean, the comments. One guy kept saying, 'Is that hot or what?' Another started in with the hand movements. I'm sorry, I just had to leave."
So he was jealous. "Oh those guys," I say, touching his arm. "They didn't mean anything. I know them. They come every year."
"I'll bet," he says loudly.
A woman reaches out a delicate hand with neat, unpolished nails. She leans close to Denis and their shoulders touch. "Hello," she says, looking right at me.
Her ash-colored hair—neither blonde nor brown—is perfectly coiffed and she's wearing a black dress with a silver ballerina pinned to the collar. She has been standing next to Denis this whole time only I never saw her. It never crossed my busy mind Denis might bring a woman.
Her cheekbones are high and faintly rouged. "You must be Lena," she says, her voice cool. "I've heard so much about you. Everything looks lovely. Truly. Lovely."
"So what did you say back?" Marie asks me. All morning I'd circled my apartment in sweats and bare feet, trying to stop thinking about that woman. Finally I phoned Marie and asked if I could drop off some receipts for her to tally. "Of course," she said, "Stay for coffee." Now we're sitting by her kitchen window overlooking Washington Square. Benjamin Franklin's metallic head glitters in the distance.
"I don't know. Mumbled something, maybe, and walked away."
"Mumbled? I've never heard you do anything close to mumble."
"Okay, she intimidated me. That appropriately black dress, her lack of nail polish for the funeral. I never go without polish. In fact for a wake, I often brighten it." I spread my fingers on top of the table to show Marie. Fiesta, a brilliant coral I've been wearing for years.
Marie pours me another cup of coffee and pushes the creamer closer. "Lena, I can't say I blame the man. First, you don't want him. Then you do. Does he even know how you feel? Denis always struck me as a nice guy. What happened?"
"What happened? We had fun. He was nice. I don't know what happened. His teeth, maybe. You could see spinach stuck in them sometimes."
"You ditched Denis because he had spinach sometimes in his teeth? You who likes to live life big."
That stops me. I didn't think of myself as living big, but just flat-out living. My eyes squeeze together.
I don't tell Marie this, but something scared me about Denis. Something I sensed before, but now hits me full on. Sex. Okay, more than sex, but that's what got it started.
One night we were sitting on Denis's cut-velvet couch drinking a little Chivas and ended up in his bedroom. It was May, the windows wide open. Denis's white cat lay on his Persian rug. We sprawled out naked on his bed. Denis ran his tongue along my neck, shoulder, the tip of my collarbone, then kissed me hard, big open-mouth kisses that sent sparks down my veins as never before. When his body was on mine, inside mine—immense and warm and slick—I came more times than I could count. And still I didn't want to stop.
I woke the next morning from a good, hard sleep. I heard Denis downstairs, the sounds of coffee percolating and plates being laid out. I imagined him setting aside the breakfast tray he'd brought up, burying his face between my legs, the sigh in my throat turning to an ecstatic moan. Then, a long, lazy afternoon together.
Before I knew it, I was huddled in his bathroom and setting off my own ringtone. "Yes, of course," I said in a loud voice. "I can be right there."
It scared the hell out of me, wanting Denis like that. I had to walk myself around my car three times before I finally drove off to work. That next Friday, Denis asked me to move in.
I hand the expenses from Denis's mother's funeral to Marie to process. When she gives me back the bill to sign, I wonder about adding a note at the top: Dear Denis? Hey D? Thinking of you? I settle on a neutral Thanks. Call anytime with questions, and sign it with a flourishy L.
Days go by. Through my office window, I hear people walking outside, their shoes heavy sounding: boots, lace-ups, clogs. North Beach is busy this time of year. Voices talk about gravy recipes and what pound turkey to buy. Everyone's getting ready for Thanksgiving. Marie invited me over again this year. I told her I'd try. The holidays are my busiest time. Deaths build from Thanksgiving to New Year's. Christmas Day, in fact, is often the worst. Nobody knows why, not even the experts. My personal theory is holiday stress. High expectations, no downtime.
In the afternoon, I'm talking with a couple whose uncle's in hospice when the phone rings. I let the call click over to voicemail. Money's no object with these people and we've lots to decide. When I check the messages, I hear Denis's voice.
"Hello Lena," he says. Then he goes silent as if I'm about to pick up. "I have your bill here," he finally says. "But it doesn't seem right to just mail you a check. The funeral was—" here comes another pause, shorter than the first, "—stunning." I've never heard Denis use that word before. "How about I stop by?" he goes on. "I mean, if you're not too busy." Another pause. "This is Denis. You've probably guessed that. I just wanted to—make sure. Call me, okay? Bye. Either way. Okay? Bye."
I don't phone Denis right away. It's not just that word—stunning—that has me wondering. It's his whole voice. Faster, and more energetic.
"Sure," I tell Denis later, trying to sound casual, which is much easier over the phone. "Come by." We bat around times and end up with Saturday morning. "I have two funerals that day, but how about nine o'clock?"
"Terrific," Denis says in that new voice of his.
Saturday morning, I'm up before seven fussing with my hair. My bangs stick together and the whole left side won't lie straight. I can't decide what to wear. There's no time to get dressed twice. Finally I pick out a robin's egg blue A-line, more traditional than my usual, but this one shows off my legs. I add a strand of silvery pearls.
I walk into the mortuary. At ten-thirty, we have Dr. Guffano, a surgeon who had a busy practice on Green Street for forty-odd years, someone I'd heard of but never met. He's a narrow-chinned man with thin arms that rest peacefully inside the casket. A man with a remarkably unwrinkled face that doesn't require much. A little powder, pink blusher, tawny lipstick, that's it. I trim a few nose hairs, smooth a graying eyebrow, and straighten his red tie. I move the flowers near the casket to make room for the wreath his widow had me special order. But the Stargazer lilies and orange chrysanthemums haven't arrived yet. The doctor has a big family coming for the last viewing, a loving family, who want to honor a life well lived.
Nine o'clock comes and goes. Nine forty-five. No Denis. I pick a speck of lint off the coffin, tilt the lid open a fraction more. Just stopping by, I think. Dropping off a check. What kind of life have I lived? I stare at the empty chairs.
The wreath is still missing. And that's what the widow will want to see the split second she's in the door.
"You've got to be kidding," I say to Michael at The Secret Garden when he tells me the arrangement isn't quite finished yet. After all the business I've thrown their way.
"Please see that the flowers are ready," I tell him. "I'll be right over." I can drive there faster than they'll deliver them.
I phone Marie and ask if she will hold down the fort. Just a few minutes, I tell her, so I can get to the flower place on Columbus and back. Sure, she says. She's done this before. I take my Cadillac hearse. No one dares ticket a hearse.
But Columbus Avenue is jammed, and the side streets, worse. All of San Francisco is out, people streaming by holding pie-shaped boxes, and trying to balance two, three shopping bags. A Porsche, SUV, and Chevy pickup fight for the only parking space in sight and a Mercedes sits on the sidewalk in front of Peet's Coffee, its emergency lights flashing.
As I inch by, people stare at me in the hearse. The morning started out cool—cold, really—but now it's warm, a Bay Area Thanksgiving warm. I smile, roll down the window and roll it up again. The brake lights ahead stay bright red. A horn blares. Shit. There are only forty-five minutes until Dr. Guffano's funeral. "I haven't even hit Jackson Street yet," I say when I phone Marie. "Can you greet any early birds?" She agrees. The light turns red, green, red again.
My phone rings. A second later, pounding starts on the back window of the hearse. It gets louder. What the hell? I answer the phone and suddenly Denis is outside my door. He taps on the window, his cell pressed to the side of head. "Lena," he says in my ear. "Could you please let me in? Marie said you were stuck in traffic on Columbus."
"What happened?" I say, opening the window. We put our phones down. "You weren't there."
"Yes I—" He's a bit out of breath. I wonder how he found me.
A horn shrieks.
"You'd better get in." Denis settles into the passenger seat, blinking and looking around the dark interior. "I've never been inside one of these before. Huge, isn't it? Curtains and everything." He stares through the sheer cotton panels into the empty space behind us.
I stare at his legs. He's wearing shorts, not Madras, but smooth beige khakis, and the loose brown sandals I remember from the party. His calves look strangely familiar. They're lightly covered with hair that emphasize his delicate looking ankles.
"What happened?" I say. "Tell me."
"Lena, I was there. I swear. Ten, right on the dot."
"Denis, we agreed on nine o'clock. Remember?"
"No. Definitely, ten." Sweat is beading on Denis's forehead and he smoothes his hair back with the flat of his hand. "Oh—what does it matter. Here I am. Here you are. That's what counts." His eyes flash.
"Right," I say, irritated. "Great morning. No flowers. Terrible traffic. You."
Denis stretches out a long leg. "So," he says, ignoring what I've just said, "I wanted to thank you, Lena. You know, in person. You did a wonderful job with the funeral. Everything was stunning." There's that word again, as if he practiced it, as if he practiced all these words.
"You're welcome," I say. "Your mother was a good woman." All this urgency for a thank you? But we talk on—Thanksgiving, the warm weather—until abruptly Denis is silent.
"You're probably wondering," he says after what seems like forever.
This time I don't hold back. "You're right. Who is she?"
"The woman at the funeral."
"Alta, you mean? A friend."
"I'll bet," I say. My reflection crawls by in a bookstore window—my head looks warped in the glass, one pearl is stretched big. "I know it's none of my business."
"That's the whole point. It is your business." He talks quickly, telling me how Alta was a girlfriend, of sorts, but that's over. He's dated other women, too, in the past couple years, but nothing worked out. None of them was any fun. He looks right at me. "Then my mother—"
"I know." I slide my foot off the brake and the hearse slips forward. "I really am sorry."
"No—I mean, thank you. He pauses a moment. "You two were alike, I think. More than I realized. But that's not what I wanted to say." He pulls in a shaky breath. "When I asked you to move in, Lena, suddenly like that, I knew it was wrong from the second I saw the change in your eyes. We could have kept going. I mean, the—everything was amazing. But I couldn't take the words back, could I? Not without making things worse."
My mind zings back and forth: Dr. Guffano's widow probably walking through the door this very minute, the empty place where the wreath's supposed be, what Denis is talking about.
"I blew it, Lena."
In the silence that follows, a strange moment holds me. The brake lights blur and horns blast, but I barely hear them.
It's this moment I'd remember decades later, after our long marriage, and Denis's death, which is not sudden but lingering, full of remissions and on-and-off hope. How bright blue his eyes look, unblinking now as they would be later when I'd bend over his body, my tears staining his rouged cheeks. Because I would dress Denis, too, put him in a soft green shirt open at the collar and slip brown sandals on his feet, the ones he'd worn to the party, is wearing today. No one would know they were there but me.
Denis lets out a long, half-whistle of a breath. "Guess I just blew it again." He reaches for the door handle.
"No. It wasn't just you..." I say. When he looks confused, I finally admit "...who made mistakes."
Denis smiles a small—infuriatingly small—smile and catches my fingers in his. Now he's taking my hand, arm, shoulder, pulling me in close. His mouth tastes sweet-salty, and his sweaty smell, I love it.
A horn screams. Two more join in. I quickly drive forward to fill the gap that's opened ahead of us. If anything, the traffic's worse. Maybe Denis and I should get out and walk. The flower shop's not far. I imagine petals, coolness, dark green.
But I can't just leave the hearse.
I veer suddenly toward the sidewalk. "What are you doing?" Denis yells.
People part like we're a silver tidal wave coming. A few don't look surprised. This is San Francisco. I slowly edge the tires up and over the curb. But as soon as we've cleared the concrete, I stop, slip it into neutral, and gun the engine of the hearse. Just for the hell of it.
Title image "Studded" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2021.