*Image: “Drowning Jester” by Kim J. Gifford, digital collage
By Erin Seaward-Hiatt
The first mortuary gig was a rush thing I’d agreed to after my dream job of designing indie album sleeves stopped panning out. “Well, you get to honor families’ last wishes for their loved ones,” people say. “How honorable is that?” Really, designing headstones is just a lot of convincing people not to opt for the Papyrus heading or the photo-real etching of all thirty-six grandchildren. Doug handles most of that though. I just deal with the layout. The assignments are usually methodical, almost always boring: the middle-crust of Chicago boiling down their lives to a slab of rock that five years down the line only the landscaper will see. Occasionally I get to do a pet memorial, or a pen-and-ink of a Harley dragging a flaming exhaust into the heavens or something, but usually everything’s broken down into name, epitaph, dates, and tacky Bible stock art. A life called out in brevity and then blasted into stone. It’s easy, and one hell of a stretch for that art school diploma my mom’s always bringing up at Thanksgiving. “So artsy, this one!” But these days I need easy. So this is what I do all day long. I make death look good.
People like to ask me—only ever at art parties and only ever if they’ve been drinking—if I’m designing my own headstone. The answer is yes and no. Yes, in that I do have a very picky set of design guidelines in mind, and no in that I’m actually having Jules do it. We’re doing each other’s, death date to be left blank (good energy) or to be set after the impending robot uprising of 2036. On the day we exchanged our first round of digital tombstone mockups from across the Great Lakes, I attached mine: a rendering in dark granite, the weighty art-deco letters filled with gold leaf. Class, it suggested. A fine departed man. A few hours later I took a sip of vanilla rooibos and clicked his incoming attachment, expecting all the gravity I’d poured into his memorial. A literal spit take. I flipped open my working file for Jules1985-2036.PSD, adding “Smug Dick” in Monotype Corsiva. Send.
“Take a joke, Maddie,” he emailed back. But the winky face was there. Jules knew he could joke with me about a lot of things, but never would I tolerate my name set, in stone, in Comic Sans.
She’s the most electric six-year-old in the Chicagoland area, if you talk to her agent, a sixty-eight-year-old pro who drives a silver Caddie and still wears a beehive. Even the grown-ups all hold court with the girl-actor, missing no irony in Karina’s violet princess wardrobe. Dressed for the part and with so many heads whipping her direction, she almost feels like a real one, a tiny regent, ruling her own dynasty after nap time. All the pretty make-up ladies get out of bed early to pin her hair and dust her amber cheeks with powders. We need Karina by six. She’s the most important one in the whole shoot, isn’t that right, sweetie? The assistant director winks and leads her to Sound Stage B, her mother trailing a few steps behind. Karina, doll. We need you to stand right here on this X, please. Thank you, baby! She does her thing, which feels just like playing in her toy room, only with cameras and a bunch of grown-ups watching, asking her to do that again, again, again. Does Karina need anything? Some water? A soda? Felix, get her a straw so she doesn’t smudge the lipstick. At St. Mary’s, some of the girls say she’s stuck up, but Karina doesn’t care. Those are the mean girls, and anyway they’ve never even said hi to her. Other girls like her a lot. It’s Princess Krispy Cone! She’s no child diva, but millions would know her if they saw the video. Have you seen it? Yeah, it went viral after about a day. Just an ice cream commercial, but REAL cute.
I roll the peas around on my plate, poking each little, fleshy marble one at a time before bringing the fork to my teeth. Allie looks past me—through me—to the window. It’s the lunch rush, but it’s all an impressionist smear of light and sound around us. She’s looking for something, anything to change the subject and get this conversation back to sure ground.
“Anyway, the splint is off, so that’s a win,” I say.
“Damn thing was so itchy.” She smiles and wiggles her pinky, enjoying the bite of fresh air against the spot where the splint had rubbed her skin to a childlike smoothness.
“Look…Allie. I just think—”
“It was an accident.” She says it quickly, the matter open and shut just like that. Her smile feels like wardrobe, like something she’s tried on again and again in front of the mirror. She doesn’t want to talk about the stupid pinky or Darrin’s medication or how “a small misunderstanding” doesn’t end in medical bills. But I’ve learned all that before. Back when she said that being a friend meant I could just be happy for her, for the good times. I flag down the server and ask for the dessert menu.
“You have to try their lemon crème brûlée. In-sane.”
“So you’re cool with that? That he treats her like crap?” I’m not exactly yelling into the phone but barking, verbally shoving Jules hard in the sternum. I’m propped rigid in a straight-backed chair instead of lounging on the futon flipping through Bitch. But then, this isn’t a typical catch-up call, and he is off guard. There’s a long pause on the Cleveland end.
“Of course not, but…Maddie, she needs a friend. She doesn’t need you preaching.” He’s right. Still, I put on the voice of a martyred teen who’s been sentenced to babysitting duty while all the cool kids sip on swiped wine coolers at the bonfire.
“But it isn’t fair!” I stomp a heavy boot against the linoleum. Mr. Shepkowsky downstairs waits all of eight seconds before slamming the end of his mop, twice, into his plastered ceiling, sending my one loose floorboard into a violent hiccup. I shoot from the chair and come down hard, twice, with both feet this time.
This isn’t just any clueless acquaintance we’re talking about, it’s Allie. Allie, who in third grade told Trisha Anthony to get bent when she mimicked my CF wheeze. Allie, who brought me stacks of summer reading every time Mom freaked about the pollen outside being too much for me. Allie hanging with me at St. Joe’s when Dr. Chatterjee dropped “end-stage” on me and added my name to the double-lung recipient list. Allie and her daughter, Bunny, whipping my hand-me-down Bulls go-bag into the backseat and speeding to the surgical center, yelling into her iPhone the way a doomed pilot calls for mayday—“She got the call! Come quick!” to my mom on the other end.
Allie. The girl who had been there with a bunch of mums and a regency romance whenever I felt like I was breathing syrup, the one who had maneuvered her apple-green Jetta down Halsted like Earnhardt in a frenzied pursuit of some dead lady’s lungs. The one who smiled at me teary-eyed, next to Mom and Jules, when I woke up, breathing.
It isn’t fair.
Jules sighs hard into his phone. “I know, cupcake. Just be there when she’s ready.”
I toss my jacket over my chair back and roll up to the iMac. A pink sticky note: “See me.” I inch up to Doug and take the rubber band ball from his pen cup.
“Everything okay?” Squeeze.
“Just a new assignment.” He hands me the packet, but he is looking down, scooting the R2-D2 mouse pad parallel to his keyboard. The forms are scribbled in blue where Doug has filled in the family’s specs and design wishes. “Look at the name.” Karina Stone.
“Wait, is this…” That child actor whose step-father went nuts and killed her? The one whose tiny, beaming face is all over the news? The one whose soft-glittered cheeks Jules had lit and focused just before heading to his next gig out in Cleveland? The one from the ice cream video? I picture again the little girl from the news, dressed up like Rapunzel, luring an eight-year-old prince to her posh tower and then making him run errands for her. Dry cleaning, grocery runs, tax returns. In the end, she asks for a Krispy Cone with sprinkles. She’s so excited when he brings it that she shoves him back out the window for more. It’s nothing that out of the ordinary. But it’s an adorable, little princess turning the table on sexism, so the thing went viral. “Oh, you’ll love it,” Jules had said as he conjured up Karina’s video on his phone.
“Yep. Just wanted to give a heads up,” Doug says, lurching me back to life. “It’s going to be very public because of the domestic violence groups. We’re probably looking at a lot of revisions and nit-picking on this one.”
It’s never easy to design a grave marker with two dates that close together. According to the forms, the parents’ names are to be left off, leaving only a space for a short epitaph and photo insert of Karina in the princess wardrobe. Makes sense to leave off the step-father. He’s the one who somehow lost himself, his clinical rage misdirected at this little princess. He’s the one who came home in a mood and left in a cop car—that’s how they’d probably say it in the made-for-TV movie, anyway, in a few years, when everyone has had a chance to calm down.
“Did you hear the mom’s being charged too?” The woman’s voice rises overhead to the front of the grocery line, where I’m waiting with my fifteen items. The self-serve is only taking cash.
“What for? It was him. They know it.” The friend.
“Negligence. There’s some law says that as a mom, she should have protected her kid.”
A pause, thick and sticky, like new tar. “I guess I can see that.”
I think of a petition I signed a year before, when a Chicago inmate named Aminah pled clemency. Nine years earlier, her abusive boyfriend had injured their son, and she took the three-year-old to the hospital. She was charged too, for failing to step in. The jury ruled against her, believing that she should have stood up to her boyfriend no matter how many times he’d threatened her life, no matter how small he made her. It was her duty as a woman and as a mother, the prosecutor had said in a passionate monologue, pounding out each syllable with his thumb and forefinger pinched into a politician’s fist. The bang of the gavel gave the boyfriend two years in prison. Aminah got thirty, and everyone shit.
At first, I didn’t think I’d heard that right. But Google and even Bing said I had, so I signed the petition. I collected squares for a freedom quilt the size of a rugby field. I raged through a bedazzled cardboard megaphone at the courthouse. “Doesn’t that piss you off?” I shouted with fellow protestors to the walking traffic, rousing only a homeless guy’s geriatric golden retriever, who cocked his graying head a little as if to make sure he’d heard the thirty years right too. It was bullshit, oppressors shaming the victim, and all that. There had been a fair amount of us on Team Aminah. Still, she’d stayed in prison, well after her boyfriend got parole. And now, Karina’s mom, a mousy ex–grade school librarian whose voice had barely registered on the newscasters’ microphones, is an official person of interest in the nation’s latest shit show.
It’s weird how funerals never really look how they do on TV. There, some on-set designer makes it all happen. Jules says that behind every on-screen funeral there’s a defected interior design major running all over town on five hours’ sleep buying up all the synthetic irises and black wool she can find. “Film people hate that shit. That whole drab stereotype that’s written into every damn death scene.” This person spends hours, maybe, giving shape and order to grief. By the time the extras are blocked and the camera rolls on Take 1, we pan across a canopy of soot-black umbrellas that shield the beautiful throng, who stand dressed for a dignitary, dabbing at saline tears and poised, strong and photogenic, over a box of nothing.
This is TV magic.
TV never shows the real umbrellas that dress a graveside service, the ones bought from the Art Institute gift shop or Navy Pier. Who really thinks about the versatility of Munch’s Scream before the rain starts to fall? The camera always misses the half dozen bored children playing tag in the margins and the wiggly toddler lunging from his father’s lap to pluck a rose from the arrangement marked “In Loving Memory.” It doesn’t show the too-large stomachs baking out over the rims of too-old dress pants, or the middle-aged man standing at the end of row three, tugging at his slack legs to hide the snowy cotton of his Nike ankle socks. And TV doesn’t typically catch the footage before the funeral either, long stretches of B-roll that show the living as they dig their musty finery from the backs of closets and the bottoms of dark drawers. Inconvenienced people, who pull the moth-eaten burdens on and off again, study their waxy but living reflections, and head costumed back into the daylight to witness together this symbolic end of everything.
That’s what the last six years of my job has me thinking as I edge up to Karina’s memorial, anyway. Call me macabre. She has drawn a messy crowd—real. Everyone from all over wants to pay respects, and even her graveside service is a community event. Purple doubled-over ribbons flutter on shirt fronts and lapels, like tiny butterflies skewered onto foam blocks. Low-chattering mourners take their ginger steps, mindful always of the dead underfoot. The mayor is here. Through a break in the crowd I see the grave marker—mine—now hers. It’s weird, seeing your work set in stone like that, even though for now the etching is just a clear sticker fixed to a faux-marble sign, its wire legs stabbed into the ground at the head of a dark pit with fishing boat carpet all around it. Temporary. I ache a little at the sloppy kerning between the K and the A—a newbie mistake—but the real stone is already out for etching. My face grows hot at the regret, but then again, what’s Typography 1 next to that small, still box?
When the speakers have said everything that can be said when burying a little girl, the mourners break their solidarity and bleed back to the office or lunch on Halsted or a podiatry appointment—anywhere but this three-acre monument to impermanence. I flick my phone to life: three missed calls. Allie.
Voice Message received at 1:36 PM: “Mad! [unintelligible] in the ER! [unintelligible] collar bone. That son of a bitch! Please, call when you get this!”
Voice Message received at 1:52 PM: “Hey, Mad. They gave me somethigg for th’ pain. Could you picccckhup—pick—up buh- Bunny formee? I can’ drive now.”
Voice Message received at 2:11 PM: “…fuck.”
A new text chimes.
“Hey, Mad. Sry about the VMs. My goofy ass fell into the porch rail. Plz pick up Bunny from the bus on Cornelia and Bell? Darrin’s home but idk he still might be mad. Plz?”
My quavering finger stabs the Call Back button. She doesn’t need the lecture right now. I haven’t said anything yet, but she can already hear an echo of me calling bullshit on her clichéd excuse about falling into a doorknob or the porch rail or whatever, with enough force to snap a grown woman’s collar bone. It’s the fractured pinky all over again, only worse this time. She can practically describe my wide eyes and rising pitch as I tell her to file a police report, to collect her little girl and come to Wicker Park to stay in my guest room, the one with the plum fretwork duvet and the only sheets I keep washed. She hasn’t picked up yet, but she hears me judging. It’s all love—sincere, familial—but it comes off something like superiority. All she hears is “Leave that stupid asshole, babe. Seriously.”
She picks up, and I picture the shaky, mauve smile that doesn’t fool me. It was all just out of hand. To be fair, she’d just told him about Max—the guy she met down home that time we went to Boodler’s. She wanted to do the right thing, even though it only amounted to a texting fling and some bent-up cornstalks out by Route 113, and plus she never even fucked him. Who wouldn’t get a little possessive in that situation? Darrin did seem a smidge off though—noticed he hasn’t been refilling his prescriptions. It’s probably not worth worrying about, but please get Bunny? Take her to that custard place again, maybe. Seriously, don’t worry. I bet there’ll be flowers and one hell of an apology cake on the table when I get home. Allie stops her rattling a minute.
Of course—absolutely—I will get Bunny. Allie acts like it’s just an errand, and that makes it even worse. I’m already in the car, a race against time and panic and maybe Darrin. I kick off my stiff, funereal pumps to negotiate the grid of roads to Cornelia and Bell. It’s a grassy corner with a purplish swath of bleeding hearts and a chipped-nosed Virgin Mary in front of a sawed-off shell of an old claw foot tub. I spot the school bus creeping away just in time to reveal Bunny, frowning tip-toed at the curb, looking for her mother’s fiery hair and coming up short.
The next thing I remember clearly is whipping around to the back seat to check Bunny’s belt and then flooring it down Bell. The rearview shows Darrin jogging to a stop, framed dead center, yelling. Kidnapper, maybe? Are those the sounds that matched the shape of his mouth? Or am I just imagining that word in the wake of his “bitches” and bellows to bring his fucking daughter back?
I’m a familiar face to Bunny, so when I’d told her that Mommy had asked me to take Bun-Bun to ice cream, she didn’t hesitate. I drive, hoping that Bunny hasn’t noticed her father in a dead sprint behind us as I peel off. “Where’s Mommy?” she asks, gazing nonchalantly at the passing trees.
There had been something naked in Allie’s initial panic, that honest flicker that had told her to get her daughter out of there right after school, the thing that had made me grab someone else’s kid like a crazy lady and just floor it. But this new moment—the one starring a placid first grader waving out the window at a gray-haired lady reigning a bouquet of terriers—calls for damage control, not transparency. For now. I say that Mommy’s had a little accident. She’d like Bunny to come with Auntie for some ice cream until Mommy’s done at the doctor’s. Would Bunny like that?
I see the little head nod in the rearview. I say “Call Allie” into my phone, and Bunny takes the lifeline in both hands. So small, I think.
I idle to Bunny’s favorite after-school ice cream place. We have a favorite—this isn’t the first time I’ve been asked to tie up Bunny after school. We’re safe now, far enough away from whatever made Allie tell us to run. We inch forward in line, me going over the repercussions in my mind. Has he called the police? Am I the good guy, or am I just his wife’s overprotective, nosey friend who’s absconded with a kid without an explanation? At what point is all of this my problem, the same as Allie’s or Bunny’s or Darrin’s? Then again, we crossed that bridge a long time ago, and the boards on the damn thing are all creaky and starting to splinter. This time, more than ever.
When it’s our turn Bunny traces a splotch on the tile with her toe, mumbling into my waist her order for mint chip with gummy worms. I get myself a bottled water and on second thought a double fudge. We pay and slide into a tufted vinyl booth.
“That’s the girl, Auntie,” Bunny says after the second bite, pointing with her plastic spoon to the wall at my back.
“The one from the princess video.” I crane my neck and spot Karina smiling down at us from a video screen. She is dreamlike in lilac, tipping her admirer back through his window. More mix-ins, please! She beams her opal baby teeth into the camera, adored and empowered and still alive. A banner at the bottom reads “Sleep well, Princess.” Channel 13 has this thing on a loop today.
“I like her sparkly dress,” Bunny says. “And her hair is pretty. And I like how she’s in charge.”
I laugh, then remember the small box blanketed in loose dirt just a few blocks away. My gut knots, releases. I stifle a hot film of tears but only because it won’t help. Bunny is too small for this moment. So am I.
On screen, Karina the Princess climbs under her gossamer canopy. On camera she is carefree royalty, the kind of little star that grown-ups fawn over and every little girl wants to have over for pizza and cake. Bunny slurps and chews up a half-frozen gummy worm without tearing her gaze from Karina’s regal figure. Stretching her tiny arms in a feigned yawn, the little viral princess settles down in her high tower, tries on a little smile, and sleeps.