by Alden Mudge
I wasn’t usually doubtful or skeptical as a child. Like most of the people in the village where I grew up I was a small-town fatalist. The world was what the world was, and there was no use thinking about it. A barn was a barn. A cow was a cow. And Karschner’s was Karschner’s.
It wasn’t until many, many years after my father died and we moved away from the place where my family had planted itself for five generations that I realized what an odd amalgam Karschner’s really was.
On one side of the building, fronting Main Street, was Minerva’s, a lady’s dress shop named for its proprietor, Minerva Karschner. She was a petite, fashionable woman who walked with canes and whose legs were supported by jointed steel braces, a result, I think, of an automobile accident when she was a newly-wed. Minerva was a close friend of my grandmother who drove her green Cadillac sedan uptown, from her house three blocks away, almost every day to visit her friend. When she was sitting me, my grandmother brought me along on these visits to Minerva.
The shop was the most modern store in town. It had large plate glass show windows in the front, a luxurious carpet on the floor, and bright fluorescent lights above. Most of the fixtures were low and circular with glass tops and curved steel tubing that supported hangars for blouses and sweaters. I still remember the unsettling screak of the hangers moving over steel as my grandmother sorted among the displays. Longer dresses were hung in open cabinets along the wall. At the rear was a long service counter and a cash register. Behind that was a doorway leading into the storeroom and, I imagined, the mortuary at the rear of the building. I did not like the shop at all, and not just because it was filled with women’s fashions, which were of absolutely no interest to me. Minerva’s always felt cold to me. It was probably because of the glass and steel and the shop’s vague gesture to chic modernism, but at the time I imagined the cold came seeping in off the frigid dead bodies stored in the back rooms.
Those back rooms were a great mystery to me and my boyhood friends. None of us had ever been inside but we knew that you entered the funeral parlor through a somber glass doorway in the alley behind the dress shop. Surrounding the door were smooth glazed bricks that gave way to white clapboard siding farther up the outside wall. Deeper into the alley was a loading dock, angled so that caskets on gurneys could be rolled in and out of the hearse. My friend Tommy Holdridge and I patrolled the back alleys of the town almost every day after school looking for thCings to do and mysteries to solve. We always walked more slowly when we passed by Karschner’s, partly out of dread and partly in hopes of seeing a casket – or better yet, an actual body – being rolled into the mortuary.
We never did see one. There were only 950 people in our village and maybe another 500 on farms in the hills surrounding town. Not a lot of people died every year and not a lot of farm and village woman bought fashionable clothes either. The Karschners probably maintained a barely respectable living.
Tommy and I of course gave no thought to those realities. Instead we let our imaginations run away with us. I had somewhere seen a picture of a steel autopsy table and I described it in great, gory detail to Tommy. Tommy, a better engineer than I, convinced me that there was a pipe that ran directly from the embalming table in the basement out of the mortuary, under the alley and down the embankment to the river, where it disgorged blood and guts to be carried downstream. The detail that convinced me was that according to Tommy the pipe was set two feet below the surface of the water, so the gore would disperse almost unseen. We often inspected the river bank looking for evidence of the mortuary pipe but never found it. Tommy finally solved that mystery to my satisfaction. Embalming, he said, was only done in the dead of night. By dawn the river flowed clean and clear.
I was much concerned, one might say obsessed, with death at that time. I had turned nine the summer before and I used to lie in bed and imagine an infinite universe going on for eternity but at some point without me in it. The thought was so big and unimaginable that my body could not contain it. A huge desperate emptiness opened within me. Rubbing my feet together helped some. So did imagining the money I would earn from the paper route I planned to start as soon as I was old enough. But the idea of death – of non-existence really – was not a problem I could solve or rationalize. It was a thought I had to turn off.
About once a week I would get up at night and go downstairs to confront one of my parents about dying. My mother usually told me that by the time I was old enough to die, I would be ready to die and want to die. This was cold comfort to me; I could not imagine there would ever come such a time. My father had been in the war and had seen people die on the battlefield and in the buzz bomb attacks on London. Not only that, he had won a medal for saving a French general’s life by shooting and killing a German sniper. He was gentle and serious in his responses but like my mother he suggested that I would grow into acceptance because, in so many words, there was nothing else to do.
My friends were curious about death but not in the intense way that I was. Their families, like my family, were devout Christians. At a certain point in our young philosophizing about death, my friends would turn the conversation to heaven and the afterlife. I couldn’t really follow them there. I hoped there was a heaven and more than half believed it, but at the same time I wanted to remain right here on earth, conscious and aware of the sensations of life blooming and booming around me. Forever. Thinking about it today it is a mystery to me that my parents didn’t retreat into the safety of the afterlife when I asked them constantly about death. We were regular churchgoers, my mother prayed daily, and my father was a lay church leader. Maybe they understood better than I did that I was asking something different about the nature of existence.
Eventually, my friends tired of talking with me so often about death. But at least Tommy Holdridge, like me, really hoped to see a dead body soon. I had already missed two opportunities when my grandfathers died. My parents felt I was too young to attend their funerals, especially since one of them would be an open-casket ceremony, which my father believed to be barbaric. Tommy too had been prevented from going to his grandparents’ funerals and felt as cheated as I did.
So when we learned that Carlton J.H. Hayes had died, we decided to sneak in and take a look at his body. Dr. Hayes had been a history professor at Columbia University and for a year or so President Roosevelt’s ambassador to Franco’s Spain. He and his wife spent summers in our town and moved there permanently after he retired. The Hayes’ were close friends of my grandparents and parents. They lived in a big colonial mansion across the river that had actual secret passages. Knowing my budding interest in history Dr. Hayes took a liking to me and gave me imaginative tours through the secret passages, which I now surmise were just servant passageways. I had liked Dr. Hayes a lot and I was sad about his death and I was curious about what it would feel like to see him dead.
On the appointed day, Tommy and I lingered in the back alley after school, wandering down to the riverbank and then back up to the loading area, waiting for Fran Karschner to leave and for the funeral parlor to be empty. Fran Karschner was a tall, lean man with a lantern jaw and wire rimmed glasses. He and Minerva used to play cards with my grandparents every Thursday night. People in town often called him “the nicest guy around.” But Tommy and I wondered just how nice he could be, given what he did in the dead of night. We didn’t really want to find out.
Finally we saw his Dodge pull away from his parking spot out front, and after a few slow passes back and forth in front of the funeral parlor door we decided the place was empty and we stepped in.
The room was as gloomy as I’d hoped. Sconces on the walls cast a dim upward light through which I saw the casket far across the room, ringed by empty chairs. Mr. Karschner must have snuffed out some candles just before he left because the scent of smoke and wax lingered in the air. The casket was open and I could make out the linen lining on the inside of the lid. Dr. Hayes’ head was propped up just enough that we could see his forehead, nose and lips. I took a couple more steps in and stood on my tiptoes so I could see his suit jacket and tie. It felt like looking at an old-time photograph, and I did not like it. Tommy walked all the way up to the casket and touched Dr. Hayes on the forehead. I stood where I was afraid to move. Tommy came back and said “It felt like sandpaper.”
Alden Mudge was laid off after a long career with the California Council for the Humanities. He is now a freelance book reviewer and the president of the board of Bike East Bay, the bicycle advocacy group in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. He lives in Berkeley with his wife.
Copyright 2016 Alden Mudge. All Rights Reserved.