The greasy man with the delicate fingers got down on his hands and knees in his hovel – down as far as he could go, with his forehead actually pressed against the floor in a sticky patch that snagged his stringy hair between the broken tiles. He did what he did every morning: he prayed for someone to die.
But would it even matter? Was there anyone around who still advertised his special expertise in the darkness?
It had been so long now -- over a year since he had been banned from working -- and the greasy man with the delicate fingers owed money to every shop along the street where he lived. They started shaking their heads “no” as soon as they saw him coming, and in order to get bread, he had to go to the other side of town and parcel out precious bits from his dwindling savings to buy candy and gum until he could establish credit and come home with a loaf under his arm.
It was an insult! It was murder to his pride and his sense of craft! But there was nothing he could do but appeal to his maker for justice, and hope he would be revenged. There was nothing he could do but hope for a miracle.
So he lay there with his face pressed against the floor and he prayed.
Today, however, after ten minutes of uninterrupted invocation, something happened.
There was an unfamiliar noise. He heard the rattle of an engine on the street.
The greasy man with the delicate fingers stopped muttering his pleas and curses, and he opened his eyes. He raised his head up and looked at his front door. He looked over at the plaster death mask of his wife.
She was still so beautiful. She shamed him. The greasy man with the delicate hands had never been handsome, but he was now wrinkled, gaunt, and toothless.
Would she still know him when it was his turn to stand before his maker and take judgment? Would she stay the hand of God against him, or would she laugh the way she used to – lilting, teasing -- and turn away back to her Heaven?
The death mask hung on the wall, and the serene smile on his wife’s face mocked him for his age and poverty.
“It is not a miracle,” said the man, lowering his head again. “It is someone in a car to see the fat hen next door with the fifteen kids. No one for me.”
But when the man heard footsteps on his walkway, he got to his feet and brushed grit from his chest and leg hair.
He stared at the death mask, now angry and confused.
“It is a person who wants to sell magazines,” said the man, reaching out to touch the stilly visage.
The knocking came; the man shrunk back, cowering in one corner of his cluttered, reeking den. The knocking came again; the man rushed forward to the door and stared at it, breathing heavily. After the third knock, he reached out and threw the door open.
Standing on his stoop were two women in black pantsuits, tight ponytails, and stern expressions. There was a ten-year age difference between them, and the older one wore make-up whereas the younger one went plain. Otherwise, they could have been twins. Neither was beautiful or out of the ordinary, but both wore diamond necklaces and flashing blue earrings.
The two women looked at each other and then back at the greasy man, who was wearing only brown underpants from which his spindly legs protruded like the drones of a bagpipe.
“Are you Ugo Poverelli?” asked the older woman.
“Yes, yes,” said Ugo. “For God’s sake, tell me what you want!”
“We are the Pollywells,” said the older woman. “Frida and Francine.”
“I’m Frida,” said the younger woman.
“And I’m Francine,” said the older.
“Yes, yes,” said Ugo. “I don’t know you! Why are you here?”
The two women looked at one another again.
“Our brother is dead,” said Francine.
Ugo shook his head and hung his face low.
“I have been banned from working,” said Ugo.
“He was the youngest of the three of us,” said Frida. “Our father loved him the best. Our father is devastated. He will not speak. He will not sleep. He sits in his recliner with a blank face, and he stares straight ahead and he will not listen to a thing we say. You have to help him. You have to come with us.”
She stepped forward as if she were going to drag Ugo away by force.
“Our father has gone mad,” said Francine, narrowing her eyes and putting her hand on her younger sister’s arm, restraining her. “And they say you can bring him back to sanity.”
“Who says?” said Ugo. “You would have to bribe everyone in the city to let me practice my craft again.”
“Money is not an issue here,” said Francine. “Name your price, and we will meet it.”
Ugo reached out from the darkness and held up his hands, shaking them in the Pollywells’ faces.
“Can’t you see,” said Ugo. “Can’t you see that I am finished?”
Frida and Francine drew closer together until Ugo dropped his fingers.
“You’ll have everything you need,” said Francine.
“We will wait while you dress,” said Frida. “We must leave immediately. His body was moved from the coroner to the funeral home this morning, and the funeral is scheduled for tonight. I fear Father might hurt himself if we cannot reach him at the funeral.”
“You insult me when you assume that I do not understand the stakes,” said Ugo.
Frida and Francine looked at each other.
“Anyway, we have to hurry,” said Frida, as Ugo turned back inside his house.
Ugo sat between the Polywell sisters in the back seat of their long sedan. The driver picked his way through the city without seeming to rush, but avoided both traffic congestion and long lights with last-minute turns down hidden streets, keeping their pace swift and sure.
“How did your brother die?” asked Ugo. He had changed into a black corduroy suit and a wide-brimmed floppy hat that came down low over his eyes.
“It was suicide,” said Francine. “But Father doesn’t know.”
“He thinks it was an accident,” said Frida.
“And we aren’t going to tell him any differently,” said Francine.
“But how did he do it?” asked Ugo. “Gun? Wrists? Pills?”
“He died in his Renault,” said Francine. “He filled the garage with fumes and died in his sleep.”
“So the corpse is intact,” said Ugo. “The canvas is pristine.”
“We told Father that Junior had an undiagnosed heart condition. We were going to tell him the truth, but then we saw how he took the initial news, and we couldn’t bear to hurt him further. Not that it matters much now. Father is practically catatonic. I think he knows we lied. Junior was in perfect health.”
“He died by his breath,” said Ugo. “And so I shall use my famous breathing technique for the funeral.”
“What is your famous breathing technique?” asked Francine.
The car came to a stop and the driver set the brake.
“We are here,” said the driver.
The sedan was parked in front of a long, sloping green lawn that led up to a clean, white one-story building with a drooping porch, held up by five Doric columns. There were cubes of shrubbery along the path to the building’s front door, and mildew was starting to creep up the sides of the columns like handprints.
“Tell me why your brother killed himself,” said Ugo. “The truth of it.”
“He was in love…” Francine began.
“He THOUGHT he was in love,” said Frida. “With a very nice young man who wanted nothing to do with him.”
“Nice?” said Francine.
“Yes,” said Frida. “Imagine if he had led him on and let Junior give him money. That would have been worse.”
“Worse than Junior being dead,” said Francine.
“Junior made a choice,” said Frida. “Anyway, he thought he was in love, and he couldn’t buy his way into his object’s heart, and so he decided life wasn’t worth living anymore.”
“Junior was always hasty and dramatic,” said Francine.
“Junior was always utterly stupid,” said Frida.
“Anyway, now he’s dead,” said Francine.
Ugo reached across Francine’s lap and opened the car door. He crawled out over her with a nimble contortion of his attenuated frame. He left the door open behind him, and walked up the path to the funeral home, hands behind his back, eyes half-closed, hat slung low.
“We’ll be back for the funeral at 6,” shouted Francine. “It will be very small. Just family.”
Ugo did not turn around, and the car drove on.
The body of Franklin Polywell, Jr. lay on a cold slab above seven sloping valleculae that drained his fluids. The funeral director stood in one corner and watched every move that Ugo made.
“They paid me ten thousand dollars to do nothing, on top of my fees,” said the mortician, a man named Colcester. “I am supposed to help you do whatever you want.”
“I need you to go to the hardware store for me,” said Ugo. “I have a list of things for you to buy, and you must buy them immediately with absolutely no substitutions. If you can’t find something on the list, then you will need to go to a different hardware store until you’ve got everything.”
“Can you imagine that?” said Colcester. “Not even allowed to touch the body in my OWN funeral home. What kind of deal did I make?”
“Don’t you know who I am?” asked Ugo. His eyes flashed, and he sized Colcester up. A weak man, and a poor artist. He could be intimidated. Ugo needed help and he was the only one around.
“Sure, I know who you are,” said Colcester. “There are legends about you. Only, if you are so great, then how come you can’t practice anymore? If you are so great, how come you are at MY funeral home using MY equipment, instead of the other way round?”
“I can’t practice anymore because I broke too many stupid laws,” said Ugo. “They thought they could make me change my funeral philosophy. Tonight I am vindicated.”
“I heard you got banned because you let some mother hold her dead baby and she went crazy because of it,” said Colcester.
Ugo lowered his eyes.
“I also heard you got banned because you didn’t stop some woman from climbing into the cremation chamber with her husband,” said Colcester. “That you just calmly sat there and watched a grown woman burn herself alive.”
Ugo reached out to the embalming table to steady himself. His hand hit a scalpel as he groped, and it went skittering across the cold concrete floor, turning around in a slow circle until it came to a stop. Colcester picked it up and brandished it at Ugo.
“Be careful,” said Colcester.
“Get out of here,” said Ugo. “Bring me the things on the list. I will call you when I need you.”
“Crazy maniac,” whispered Colcester, slipping out of the room and leaving him alone with the dead man.
Ugo blew out a deep sigh and sat for a few moments in silence. Finally, he put his hands on the dead man’s face. He pinched and prodded.
Franklin Polywell, Jr. did not look peaceful in death. He looked sad and scared. His eyebrows curled downward at his temples, and there were worry lines across his flat, pale brow. His blue lips were thin and cruel. He was young -- only in his early twenties -- but he looked ancient, wise, and corrupt.
“You do not look like your sisters,” said Ugo.
Franklin Polywell, Jr. said nothing.
“How would you like to breathe again?” asked Ugo.
Ugo hummed to himself as he cut into Franklin Polywell, Jr.’s back with a power saw. Colecester watched, mesmerized, furiously scratching notes into a marble composition book.
“Why are you cutting through the back?” asked Colcester.
Ugo turned the power saw off and raised the safety goggles to his forehead.
“Why aren’t you cutting into his lungs from the front?”
“I have to go in through the back so we can get the tubes in without bunching,” said Ugo. “If we go in through the front, we will ruin the lines of his suit, and you will see the wires.”
“Genius,” said Colcester.
“The compressor will be radio controlled,” said Ugo. “It is easy enough to do, and we have no budget restrictions. But the compressor could be operated with a manual bellows or a hand crank, if money was tight. With enough hose, you could do the pumping from the other room so no one would see.”
“Slow down, slow down,” said Colcester, writing so fast that blobs of ink matted the page and darkened the sides of his hand.
“We simulate inhalation with the compressor, and then we provide actual exhalation with the clamps and canvas bags, you see?” said Ugo, squeezing a pink bag that said “Hammerschmidt Chemicals” on the side. “He breathes! If we used Franklin Jr.’s actual lungs, we would risk a puncture at a critical moment. The lungs must be replaced with these synthetics. We are creating an illusion, and it must be perfect to be effective. Every human being can tell the difference between life and death by instinct. To make a dead man appear alive to his own father is the height of human artifice and the apex of funeral craft.”
“It is a scandal!” shrieked Colcester. “It changes everything! You will be a millionaire!”
“No,” said Ugo. “But I will eat, I will have clothes, and I will look in a mirror and not see failure.”
At precisely 6 PM, Colcester opened the doors to the viewing parlor.
The Polywell family was only six people deep. There were Frida and Francine, three weeping maiden aunts, and Franklin Senior, a thin and haunted man in a wrinkled black suit with big, deep black eyes and a thin wisp of white hair made pink by his inflamed scalp.
Franklin Senior limped into the viewing room and made his way to the front pew with a daughter on either side of him. He collapsed onto the hard wooden bench with his legs stiff in front of him, obscenely suspending his black dress shoes in the air. Francine and Frida looked at each other, and then each grabbed one of his ankles and pushed down, tucking his legs under the pew and resting his feet on the thick red carpet.
The three maiden aunts followed the Polywells, each one weeping louder than the next. They spread out in the pews and looked at each other out of the corners of their eyes before bursting into fresh peals of tears at thirty second intervals.
Colcester and Ugo stood at the back of the room and waited, but no one else came. Finally, Colcester shut the doors and sat down at the pipe organ. Ugo stood next to him and peered at the corpse across the room, waiting for the moment of crisis when the fever soars highest before breaking.
Franklin Polywell, Jr. lay in quiet repose in his black oak coffin, dressed in a clean white suit, rouged and coiffed, and no longer looking as corrupt or as wise. The coffin was varnished to a bright shine, and there was a red spray of roses across the trunk.
Franklin Senior stared at his son without seeing him, as his two daughters nervously clutched each of his arms. Finally, Francine turned around in her seat and narrowed her eyes at Ugo. Ugo shook his head slightly, and Francine turned back around, glaring and muttering.
“Not yet,” whispered Ugo. But he removed the radio control from his pocket. There were three buttons: a blue button, a green button, and a black button.
Colcester began to play the pipe organ. After fifteen minutes of somber music, Franklin Polywell, Sr. stood up and smacked his lips.
“I hate funerals,” said Franklin Polywell, Sr. “Let’s all go get some hamburgers. Junior loves hamburgers, don’t he?”
“Junior is dead, Dad,” said Francine. “Can’t you see that? Can’t you understand?”
“Nonsense,” said Franklin Senior. “He’s just hungry, aren’t you Junior?”
Franklin Senior stepped closer to the casket and ran his hand along his brow. Both Frida and Francine turned around to look at Ugo now. Ugo considered, and then pushed the blue button.
Franklin Polywell, Jr.’s left arm flopped out of the coffin and began to twitch, hanging loosely over the side.
“That’s a good, stiff piece of wire,” said Colcester. “Look at it. Perfectly realistic.”
“Be quiet,” said Ugo.
“Look!” said Franklin Senior. “His arm’s moving! He’s not dead! It’s a mistake, you see!”
“Don’t be crazy, Dad,” said Francine, nervously. “He’s already been embalmed. He’s dead, and you have to move on.”
“His arm’s twitching!” said Franklin Senior, laughing. “Can’t you see? You’re the one who can’t accept it! He’s fine! He’ll just need some physical therapy, and some extra love and attention! He’ll be fine! He’s twitching away like a junkie in the snow, ain’t he!”
Indeed, Franklin Jr.’s cold grey arm goosed beside the casket like an elephant’s trunk searching for peanuts. Franklin Senior cackled and fell to his knees, pointing at it.
“You see? You see?” he shouted.
The maiden aunts were each swooning in a different way: one was screaming to the lord Jesus to come and take her away, another was belching out graceless sobs, and the third was rolling around in her pew as if buffeted by winds.
Franklin Senior got up off his knees and walked to the casket’s edge. He peered into his son’s dead face.
“Wake up!” he shouted.
He poked Franklin, Jr. in the chest.
“Wake up!” he shouted again.
Ugo pushed the green button.
Franklin Polywell, Jr. began to breathe.
It was a trick; a ruse; a conflation of taxidermy, pneumatics, and legerdemain. But anyone looking on couldn’t help but believe. Junior’s chest began to rise and fall, and he began to expel cold puffs of air from his lipsticked, lifeless lips. His breath smelled like camphor and it rustled Franklin Senior’s hair in quiet waves.
With the twitching in his left arm and the breathing, it looked as if Junior was moments away from sitting up and asking for coffee and hot donuts.
“He’s breathing!” shouted Franklin Senior. “He IS alive! Can you not see him breathe? We made a mistake! He didn’t kill himself! He’s alive, alive as grass, alive as bees, alive as you, alive as me!”
Two of the maiden aunts fainted dead away, and the third stood up and stared, her mouth open in numb surprise.
“Dad,” said Francine patiently. “So you admit he killed himself and he’s gone.”
“He DID,” said Franklin Senior. “He HAD. But not anymore! Look at him! Breathing and moving his arm around! It’s all gonna be fine! It’s all gonna be okay! We didn’t do anything wrong. Get up, son! Get up for hamburgers!”
Franklin Senior climbed on top of the coffin and grabbed his son by the lapels. Colcester looked at Ugo, but Ugo bared his teeth and held steady.
“Getup, son! Getup and love your dear old Daddy!”
Ugo raised the radio remote and pressed the black button.
Immediately, Franklin Junior stopped breathing. His arm stopped twitching, and there was a loud snapping noise.
Ugo had relieved himself inside a plastic bag and had placed it in Franklin Junior’s hollow chest. When Ugo pressed the button, the bag was popped in three places by pins on tracks. Also, the circuits were severed to the compressor in his lungs and the wire was cut that wrapped around his arm.
Now Franklin Jr. merely lay there like the corpse he was: reeking, lifeless, inert, dead, and gone.
“Junior?” whispered Franklin Senior. “Junior? What happened? Wake up.”
Franklin Senior dropped his son back into the coffin, where he landed with a dull thud. Franklin Senior slid back to the floor, his hand over his nose and mouth.
“What have you done?” said Colcester with a false note from the organ. “He won’t be able to take it.”
“Shut up and keep playing,” said Ugo, staring at Franklin Senior intently. Francine and Frida tried to comfort their father, but Franklin Senior threw them both aside.
“He’s dead!” shrieked Franklin Senior. “He’s dead! Can’t you smell him? He’s dead forever, and it’s all my fault!”
Franklin Senior stood beside the casket with his fists curled at his side. His hands gripped the air like he was going to take a swing. Then he fell against the side of the casket and began to sob.
His sobs were genuine. His sobs were -- to Ugo’s carefully trained ear -- the sobs of a healthy man who would live.
Francine turned around and gave Ugo a thumbs up. Frida hugged her sister, and wiped away the tears that were streaming from her own eyes.
“Ten thousand dollars is not enough to keep me silent about this,” said Colcester.
“Then why not let me work here instead?” said Ugo.
“They’d catch us,” said Colcester. “They’d catch us eventually, and then I'd lose my license, too.”
“But until then, think of the funerals!” said Ugo. “The beautiful things we’d do.”
“Yes,” said Colcester, turning the page on his sheet music. “It is something to consider.”
Ugo smiled under his low hat as he watched the old man weep. Death was in the air, but it was being done right, for once.