I’d only been working as an intern at the funeral home for three months when Johnny Morgan killed himself. Nothing could’ve prepared me for that. You could’ve been telling me my whole life that it would happen and I still wouldn’t have been ready. We got the call first; Young Caucasian male, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The family was requesting we do everything we could. Then they wheeled the body in.
If you work in a funeral home, especially on body restorations like I do, you have to get used to death fast. It isn’t neat and romantic life they’ll show you in those bullshit Lifetime movies. Corpses only look like that when we’re done with them. The truth is that the human body is a big bag of blood and bones that isn’t as durable as we’d like to think. With suicides, especially gunshot suicides, you learn to expect the worst. You teach yourself to enjoy the process of putting people back together, making them presentable to their families. So it wasn’t the fact that half of the corpse’s face was blown away that made me gag. It was that it the face was familiar. My supervisor, Don, glanced over and shook his head.
“Can’t do it.” He said. “Closed casket. Tell ‘em we’re sorry.”
I only managed a few steps toward the body before my knees buckle."
“Jesus, what’s wrong with you, Eric?”
“I know that guy.”
“You know this poor SOB? Not family, I hope."
“Just...had a few classes together in high school.” I said, trying to focus on my shoes.
Don nodded solemnly.
“Well, I’m sorry you had to see him like this, kiddo. Tell you what, why don’t you take the day off? I’ll have someone else handle this.”
As I stepped outside, a rush of dizziness overwhelmed me. I clung to the wall of the big grey funeral home and let it wash over me, just breathing, trying not to pass out. Johnny Morgan is not dead, I kept telling myself. He is alive and well somewhere and not lying dead on gurney in that huge, awful building. When I was steady enough to stand I walked to the nearest curb and hailed a taxi to take me home.
There’s this photo of Johnny that hangs above the desk in my study. It’s a candid. Someone snapped from the side while he was laughing. I can still remember the joke, something incredibly stupid about a blonde and a Brazilian. I remember almost everything about Johnny. I don’t really have a choice, now.
Johnny was the only other gay kid at my high school. The only other one in the world, I used to think. It was just us. We couldn’t tell anyone else. Our school wasn’t the kind of place where it was safe to be out. Johnny ran track and competed on the wrestling team to deflect any suspicion. I kept my head down and never spoke in class for the same reason. He was outgoing and loud, always saying something stupid, but you could never hold it against him because he was so goddamn beautiful. Like a king. Like a titan. He had these gunmetal blue eyes, this perfect square jawline, a nose like you’d find on a Roman statue. I used to go to his stupid wrestling matches just to see him in his singlet, sweating and pinning other guys to the floor of the ring. Later, after he’d won and the crowd had dispersed, we’d drive up to this one deserted street in my car and stay there for hours. The events of those nights bonded us irrevocably together, the guardians of each others’ darkest secrets. We were never boyfriends or anything. There were no promises of undying love. Just a frantic clinging to him because he was the only thing that I had.
After high school we went down different paths. I came out to my parents, who took it about as well as expected, got into a decent college with a major in Sculpture, and had a rebirth of sorts. The internship at the funeral home was courtesy of Don, who had been a friend of my mothers from way back when, and had framed it as a way to get familiar with the contours of the human body. As for Johnny, he never stopped pretending. We used to write back and forth a lot, him always telling me that he was going to come out to his parents, soon, so soon, and me promising to wait for him. But that day never came, and I eventually got involded with a someone from my sculpting class and wrote Johnny less and less frequently, until the letters stopped altogether. The last thing I’d heard from him was that he had gotten some poor girl pregnant and was getting married. He’d sent me a handwritten invite to his wedding, the first piece of mail from him in three years. I didn’t go, of course, but the card was still sitting on my desk now, apart from the clutter of sketches and tools. I picked it up, ran my thumb over his tight, neat handwriting scrawled on the plain white card.
It’s been a long time. Really wish I could talk to you again. Wedding is Sunday, May 17th, in the New Fellowship church starting at 2 p.m. Look forward to seeing you there,
I dragged my sleeve across my eyes and put the card back on the desk. Stood up and paced around the room. That picture of Johnny kept catching my eye. He looked so incredible, like you could tell just from his expression what kind of guy he was. My best friend. He was my best friend and now he was lying on a gurney looking like a prop for a B horror movie. It wasn’t right. I knew what I had to do even before I reached for my phone and dialed my work number.
“You’re insane.” Don said when I came into his office to plead my case. “Crazy. I know you’re upset, but it can’t be done. We already have him marked for closed casket.”
“Please.” I begged. “Give me a few hours. If I fuck up...well, like you said, closed casket. You have nothing to lose.”
Don threw his hands up in resignation.
“Alright, Eric, it’s your time to waste. You’ve got one night.”
I made my way down to the work room slowly, gathering courage with each step. I wasn’t any more ready to see Johnny’s body than I had been that morning, but at least now I had a purpose. In the small, harshly lit room I took several steadying breaths and approached the body on the gurney, now covered by a white sheet. In one quick motion I pulled the sheet back. It was awful, but not unfixable. I lifted him, shockingly light in death, and laid him gently on the embalming table. I forced myself to focus on the parts of his face that remained untouched. The bridge of his nose. His forehead. His closed eyes. I thought of his wife and his kid, the poor little girl. Five years old now? Johnny wasn’t just mine anymore, as he had been in high school. I owed it to them to try my best.
It was a slow, painstaking process. Every now and then I closed my eyes and pictured Johnny as he was three years ago, trying to recall the curve of his jaw, the slope of his cheeks. At some point I realized that I was going over the same spot again and again, my thumbprint forming in the freshly molded clay on his chin.
“I’m sorry.” I whispered, smoothing it away. Then I was just chanting it over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” not even sure what I meant by it.
I don’t know how long I worked. The shadows in the little room lengthened and shortened again before I was close to being finished. When Don came in to check on me, I was asleep on the floor. He woke me up, shaking his head.
“I didn’t think you could do it, kid. I still think you’re crazy. But he looks great.”
I smiled. My entire body ached and my eyes felt like they were being pried open. It had taken almost everything I had, but Johnny finally looked like the boy I knew in high school.
That all happened about a month ago. I wasn’t invited to attend the funeral, but Johnny’s wife called me a few nights after. It took me by surprise, hearing her soft, tired voice on the other line. She thanked me over and over again. When I told her it was the least I could do, she broke down. I held the phone to my ear, just listening to her sobs, and then I began to cry too, both of us mourning for some lost part of ourselves that was never coming back.
Sophie Mazoschek is 16 years old and attends the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. She both works on and has been published in her school's literary journal, Umläut. Her fiction has won the SFUSD arts award for Best High School Short Story. She loves languages and hopes to pursue a career in translation.