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Look at the Dead Person

Fred McGavran's "Look at the Dead Person" took first place in the Horror category of the 2008 Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. To read the grand-prize winning entry and other first-place finishers, click here.

You have to look at the dead person to say goodbye,” Mother said.

Standing on my tiptoes, I could barely see Grandpa’s thin white nose poking over the edge of the coffin.

“That’s a good boy,” she said, fixing me with her piercing blue eyes. “Now you won’t have to look at him again.”

She was so elegant in her ankle length gray suit and Betty Grable permed hair that I wanted to be sure I had done the right thing. Old men in double-breasted suits and ladies in pillbox hats were lining up to say nice things to her about poor dead Grandpa.

“Should I look again to be sure?” I asked.

I hadn’t liked looking at Grandpa while he was alive, shut up in a tiny room in the sanitarium at the end of long halls with sliding barred gates. He always wore a nightshirt, and his room smelled like an unvented bathroom.

“No, dear,” she said, with that expression that meant this was just for me. “If you go back and look at them again, they will never leave you.”

“What happens if you don’t look at the dead person?” I wondered.

“Hush,” she said, turning her gaze on an old man, who could only say, “Dorothy, I’m terribly sorry.”

So I didn’t look at Grandpa again. I stood beside Mother and looked at the floor, except when the old men said, “Is this Charlie’s grandson?” and Mother said, “Yes.” They’d rumple my hair and say, “Good boy.” Then they’d ask Mother what she’d heard from my Dad. He was somewhere in Korea with the Army.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” she said.

When we got home, she ran to the mailbox to look for a letter from Daddy. He hadn’t written to us since before Thanksgiving. There were sympathy cards and the gas bill but no letter. She sat down in her big Chippendale chair in the living room and stared at his photograph so long I thought she must be saying goodbye. A week latter two Army officers drove up in a big brown car and told her that Daddy was missing in action and presumed dead. So we never got to see him to say goodbye.

Mother was very good at saying goodbye to other people. After Daddy disappeared, some of his friends would take her out to dinner or to a movie. It was summer, and I could peek down at them on the porch through the screen in my bedroom. When the man would try to kiss her, she would turn her cheek to him and say, “Goodbye.” Then she would go inside and tell Aunt Louise, who always stayed with me, that she was so glad to be home. After Aunt Louise moved to Florida with her money from Grandpa, Mother stopped going out.

“There’s just no one to leave you with, dear,” she said when I asked why.

I always came right home from school for my snack, so I would not become light headed. Other kids were able to play softball in the street, or join the Boy Scouts, or try out for the band, but not me. After my snack I spent the afternoon doing homework and the evening reading the books that Mother selected for me at the library. We only went out on Sunday afternoon to see the wing Grandpa had given to the art museum in his will.

“We have so much fun together,” Mother would say with a look that assured me that we really did. “Why do we need anyone else?”

The people at the art museum seemed to need her, because she was the trustee of Grandpa’s money. She passed it out slowly, so people would know whom they had to thank. Even the guards knew our names. Once I spent a whole afternoon looking at Grandpa’s Egyptian scarab collection while she was in Renaissance costumes. It was the first time we had been separated in a public place. When I asked her about it, Mother said, “I always have my eyes on you.”

I looked around and saw an old guard, stomach hanging down over his stool, watching us.

“You look after him for me, don’t you?” she asked, her eyes holding his like a marionette on a string.

“Indeed I do, Mrs. Lytle,” he replied.

After that, whenever I went off by myself at the museum, I felt like her eyes were watching me from other people’s sockets.

The one time I took a girl out, Mother drove.

“I like to see you have fun,” she said.

It was the Junior-Senior prom. I wore a white tuxedo and Mother wore the same gray suit that she had worn to Grandpa’s funeral. The girl wore a frothy blue dress that let her jiggle when we danced. Walking her back to her porch, she put her arm on my neck and leaned forward. Mother blinked the lights. I said goodbye. That was my last date, at least the last one Mother knew about, until Trish and I met twenty years later.

Mother kept her clothes and that expression of resigned contempt for everyone except me until her figure started to change. We still lived in the old house with just two bedrooms and one bathroom with white porcelain handles on the washstand. I went to the city university, so we wouldn’t have to be separated, and studied design. Mother said that it would make me more interesting when we went to the museum. Sometimes, when I walked across the campus, I would see her driving slowly around the quadrangle watching me.

“I like to keep my eyes on you,” she explained when she picked me up to take me home. I didn’t have my own car until I was thirty.

At graduation I was one of the few who was looking forward to being drafted. Mother took me to the draft board and told them I had a deferment because of Daddy. I felt the same panicky sense of being caught up in something I couldn’t escape as the draftees boarding the bus for Fort Knox.

In my whole life I never designed anything. Mother did, however, allow me to see the statements from the bank trust department, and I learned that Grandpa had left us very rich. Someday, she confided, it might all be mine, if I demonstrated the responsibility to care for it. Our fortunes were augmented by Aunt Louise’s death in an automobile accident in Fort Lauderdale. Alcohol was said to be involved, Mother whispered. If it got in the papers, she would just die. It didn’t get in the papers. By the time I was forty, I was waiting for Mother to die so that I could start to live. I was disappointed for nearly another decade.

I could not have survived without Trish. We met at the art museum on one of the Sunday afternoons when I was a docent. Since Grandpa had given so much money to the museum, Mother allowed me to oversee its expenditure. Trish was in her mid thirties, with a quick smile and a laugh that only stopped when she talked about her ex husband. She had two teenage boys to raise while her lawyer ex husband was starting over in the suburbs with his paralegal. Maybe she was just looking for a way to augment her salary at the design center, or maybe she was really fascinated by my talks about the clothing on the portraits in the Renaissance section.

At first we met in the museum tea room, then drinks in a bar overlooking the city, then suddenly we were in her bed while the boys were with their father. How could I have lived so long without this, I wondered?

“I don’t believe you,” she laughed. “You know what you’re doing.”

I would just stare at her the rest of the afternoon, until I had to go home for dinner with Mother. Because of my position on the board, I did not think the guards would tell her that I only worked two Sundays a month as a docent.

Shared custody is a blessing and a curse. For two Sundays in a row, I could go to her duplex for an afternoon of paradise. For two Sundays I was doomed to walk the dreary galleries of the museum, shepherding sightseers past the sediment of centuries. To have an excuse to be together, I trained Trish as a docent for the Sundays the boys were with her. She could leave them at home watching television, and no one could say anything if they saw us.

Mother’s only condescension to age was to get contact lenses. They allowed her to maintain that hypnotic stare without admitting any fallibility in herself. The one time I tried to introduce her to Trish, Mother was domineering a reception for large donors in the sculpture garden at the museum.

“This is Trish Alloway,” I said. “One of the docents.”

“So I see,” Mother said, looking at her as coldly as a paramecium on a slide.

Then Mother turned to carry on her conversation with the director of development.

On the way home, Mother told me that she had heard Mrs. Alloway was a divorcee.

“I see very well with my contacts,” she said.

That was the last time I ever mentioned her to Mother. She became something that was between us like an old argument that we both were very careful to avoid. So our lives went on around Trish, or so I thought. Like many men, I never understood what a woman would do to cut out a rival until it was too late.

Her surveillance was very subtle. After I had access to some of the money, I arranged to pay for Trish’s sons to go to college. Mother never said a thing about it to me, but I noticed her watching me with renewed intensity. Suddenly my account was closed. I had to take out a loan so the younger boy could graduate.

Her final illness was long in coming but very swift to act. The only time I ever saw her disconcerted was when she came home from the doctor after her annual physical and said we had to talk. Very matter of factly she told me she was going to die. I was stunned, like a long-term prisoner who learns that he has been pardoned, and had to repress a little shudder of joy. When I went to bed that night in my little room, I wondered how many more nights until I would be free.

She did not want Hospice. She only wanted me to slave and minister to her those last horrible weeks, carrying trays of tea and toast to her bedroom and leading her by the arm to the bathroom. As her features tightened from the pain, her eyes became even more intense, burning into me like an unrelenting sun. What can she see in me now, I wondered? She hadn’t been able to put in her contacts for days. When she went into her final agony, I trembled with anticipation.

Her breathing was so soft I thought she was gone. Standing up I started for the door to call the doctor, when I saw her staring at me.

“Come here, dear,” she whispered.

I sat down on the side of her bed. She never took her eyes off mine.

“There is one last thing you must do for me. Will you promise?”

“Yes, Mother,” I said, thinking for a terrible moment that she was about to swear me to a life of chastity.

“When you look at me the last time, just before they close the coffin lid, put my contact lenses in my eyes.”

“Of course I promise,” I said, so relieved I never asked her why.

“Now you can go and call the doctor.”

When the doctor arrived, the only thing he could do for her was to make out her death certificate.

The days before the funeral were the happiest in my life. Mother had planned everything: the coffin, the hymns, even the museum’s board as pallbearers. All I had to do was stand beside her at the visitation and accept the sympathies of all the people dependent on her and now on me. The night before the funeral, I took Trish to the best restaurant in town to plan our future. We decided we should wait at least six months before getting married, so it wouldn’t look as if I had been waiting for mother to die. Then we went to my house and acted out every fantasy I had ever imagined while trapped in that room for fifty-eight years.

In the morning I put on my best suit, picked up the contacts from the washstand where Mother always left them and drove to the church. Out of deference to Mother, Trish was not going.

“Drive carefully,” she called from my bedroom.

There had been an ice storm that night, and the streets were slick.

Before the service, the funeral home director led me behind the screen around the coffin for a last moment with the deceased. She looked so delicate I hesitated to touch her eyes. Holding my breath, I lifted her right lid, then her left. That piercing blue that had terrified me for so many years had faded. Quickly I took out the contacts and carefully placed them in her eyes. I caught my breath. The lenses made them look as if she were alive again, watching my every move. I closed the lids and called the funeral director. I had said my last goodbye.

I couldn’t tell you what went on at the service. Hymns, a touching remembrance by the chairman of the board, more hymns, and I was following the casket out to the hearse. It was so cold my ears were numb. After loading the coffin into the hearse, the pallbearers stepped aside, leaving the priest and me by the open door. Just as the priest raised his hand to make the sign of the cross over the coffin, I slipped on the ice and bumped him.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He never completed the gesture. I returned to the church to shake hands with the mourners, thinking all the time I couldn’t be happier. Then it was time for the two-hour drive to the cemetery in the country town Grandpa had left ninety years earlier to make the fortune that was now mine. I had excused everyone from the internment, preferring to be alone with my thoughts. And what happy thoughts they were.

The statue of the Civil War soldier seemed to welcome us to the cemetery, and the gravestones marked “Father” and “Mother”, Grandpa’s parents, gave me a feeling of family I had never experienced before. I was not even upset when we discovered the grave had not been dug.

“Too cold to dig,” an old man in a plaid coat told us. “Best we can do is put her in the work shed ‘til things warm up.”

The funeral director looked at me.

“I don’t think Mother will mind,” I said.

I helped carry the coffin into the shed and place it on a worktable. The old man put a padlock on the door and promised to finish the job as soon as the ground would let him.

The drive home seemed even shorter than the drive down. The ice storm had coated the trees with silver, so the whole world seemed to be shimmering with new life. When I reached the house, I could hardly wait to see Trish.

“Have you seen my contacts?” she asked. “I left them on the wash stand.”

A cold hand gripped my chest. I had not completed my exorcism.

“Let me look,” I whispered and ran upstairs.

Mother’s contacts were in a pink case just like Trish’s on the table beside her bed.

“There’s still time,” I said glancing at my watch.

The hardware store would be open another half-hour.

“Aren’t we going to dinner?” Trish cried after me.

“It’s something I promised Mother,” I called from beside the car. “I’ll be back.”

I bought a bolt cutter at the hardware store and turned onto the highway. The ice had refrozen into deadly black patches. I saw cars spun off into the fields and semis jack knifed into the berm. But I had to go on, damn her! I had to keep my promise to be free. When I stopped for gas, the pump handle was so cold my hand went numb. And all the way, the hand in my chest twisted tighter and tighter.

I turned off my lights as I approached the gate to the cemetery. It was easy to open, but the car slid and slipped so much on the icy gravel I thought I would never reach the shed. When I finally got out of the car, I thought I felt someone watching. Squinting into the icy darkness, I saw the Civil War soldier, rifle half raised, challenging me.

“I have to do it,” I said. “I promised her.”

So I cut the lock, entered the shed and closed the metal door behind me. The light over the worktable illuminated a casket as magnificent as any that held Pharaoh in his tomb. But how do you open it, I asked myself desperately. There were tools on a pegboard on the wall, a round handled plane with a six-inch blade, perfect to pry open a casket. To my surprise the lid opened easily, and under the hanging light, mother’s bright blue eyes stared up as if she had been expecting me. My fingers were so cold that they ached.

Standing on tiptoe, I reached out to remove the contacts. They were so cold I stepped back. When I tried again, I realized that they were frozen to her eyes.

I tried to pry the right contact off with the plane. It was like trying to cut a billiard ball. The knot in my chest exploded into rage.

“Damn you!” I cried. “I’ll keep my promise!”

I gouged the plane under her eye, and it came out like a frozen melon ball. Then the other one. Then to the car, an eye in each hand, to warm them up. There were crystals of blood on my fingers when I turned on the ignition.

“See how I’ve kept my promise, Mother!” I shouted.

I held her eyes in front of the heater and watched little lines of blood run down them onto my hands. As feeling returned to my fingers, it looked as if each eye had an enormous tear. I removed the contacts and placed them in Trish’s case on the dashboard. No mistake this time. Then I took the eyes into the shed and put them back in the corpse.

“Goodbye again, Mother,” I said, placing her contact lenses on her still warm eyes.

I slammed down the coffin lid and turned out the light. It was a victory greater than death. Back in the car I placed Trish’s contact case in my pocket and turned back onto the gravel road. I had to get out at the entrance to close the gate. No more second looks. This time she was really dead. How warm, how full of life the heater was. Out on the highway, I felt something pressing my side. I had forgotten the plane in my pocket. I rolled down the window and threw it out into the freezing night.

“Where have you been?” Trish demanded when I returned. “Oh, my God! Did you hurt yourself?”

My hands were stained with blood. I went upstairs to the bathroom.

“Look,” I said when I came downstairs. “I found your contacts!”

“Where were they?” she exclaimed. “I looked everywhere for them.”

“Sometimes you have to really know a house to find things,” I said.

She was so happy that she went right upstairs to the bathroom to put them in. Somehow she made dinner from what was left in the refrigerator. All I wanted to do was to take a shower and go to bed. When I was finished, she said she had to use the bathroom.

“I have to take my contacts out,” she said.

I lay naked on the bed waiting for her.

“Carl, I can’t get them out,” she called.

I put on my pajamas and went to her.

“Here,” she said, handing me a tiny rubber plunger. “You try.”

She held her eye open under the light, while I pressed the little plunger against the lens and pulled.

“Ow!” she exclaimed. “That hurt.”

“It’s probably the weather,” I said to calm her. “Maybe we should try again tomorrow.”

“They’re hurting me.”

I had never seen her afraid.

“Take me to the hospital.”

So for the second time that night I drove those icy streets. They gave her a painkiller in the emergency room and told her to come back in the morning when a specialist would be there.

“It’s not helping,” she said. “Carl, do something!”

So I told them to call the specialist at home. I would pay whatever it cost.

“Did you hurt yourself, too?” the emergency room doctor asked, looking at my blood stained hands.

Blood from the steering wheel had melted while I was driving to the hospital.

“Just take care of her!” I shouted.

For two hours I sat beside her, while she held her hands over her eyes and moaned. When the surgeon finally arrived, he said he would have to remove the corneas.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “Where did you get those contacts?”

So they gave her an anesthetic and wheeled her into the operating room.

Corneas, where do you get corneas, I kept asking myself. From corpses, I remembered. The surgeon came out of the operating room to talk to me.

“We’re going to have to remove her lenses, too,” he said. “I hope we don’t have to go into the vitreous. “Are you her husband.”

“No,” I replied. “I’ll pay for it.”

“It’s not a matter of paying for it,” the doctor snapped. “It’s a matter of saving her sight. I’m not sure I can reconstruct those eyes.”

Now Trish is at home on medical leave, waiting for corneal transplants. If the right person would just die, everything would be fine. But the right person never dies. When she gets her new corneas, she doesn’t want to see me. I couldn’t tell her where I found her contacts, and she can’t live with a man who won’t talk to her.

The old man from the cemetery called to say someone had broken into the shed, probably looking for jewelry.

“I opened the coffin to be sure she was all right. Hope you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” I said.

“Her eyes were open like she was waiting for somebody,” he said. “I tried to close them, but the lids were frozen.”

Sometimes, when I wander through the museum on Sunday afternoons, I feel like the guards are still watching me as they did when I was a child. They wear red blazers now, but they still spend most of their shifts sitting on their stools.

“Are you watching me?” I asked one old man, whose stomach hung over the edge of his stool.

“I promised your mother I’d keep an eye on you,” he said and winked.

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