Everyone knew the story of how Popper died. A big fat celebrity like that. Word spread through the media like a leper whore with conjunctivitis (appalling, disturbing, then a bit satisfying, amusing) and even those who'd never heard his music now knew his name. Popper. Big Dead Popper. Struck down by a heart attack while masturbating to televised pornography; surrounded by Popeye's chicken bones and so very alone. Poor Dead Popper. His Behind The Music was in the can before his fist even clutched its last.
We anticipated a crowd at the funeral home, but we'd done celebrity funerals before. As long as they kept dying we'd do more.
We'd do more.
In the ten months since I'd hired on as Assistant Director we'd handled a famous dancer's suicide; a famous young situation comedy star's overdose; the waning-but-still-sort-of-famous actor of stage and screen's methadrine-aneurysm; and a few other notables and less notables. And now we were doing Popper.
Poor Dead Popper.
Everyone loves a dead celebrity though. That's no secret. However what Oral Odetta loved much more than dead celebrities were live Funeral Directors. Even live Assistant Directors were good, assuming they had a nice selection of black suits and maintained a somber tone in public while still able to share a convivial glass of Southern Comfort over the bodies in the basement.
Don't get me wrong, she wasn't a sicky or anything: it's not the corpses that turned Odetta on. When I met her, Odetta had been doing freelance make-up jobs for over thirty-five years and a corpse was a corpse was a corpse. A corpse was a sandwich. A corpse was a migrating dust bunny. A corpse was a milk jug. A corpse was a corpse was a corpse. Now very fat corpses like Popper can take many hours to turn into ash. And with cremation so popular nowadays the ovens were always working overtime, so a big job like Popper - we had to charge a little extra. For the girth. A normal weight body we can turn into ash and 3/4 inch bits of bone and such in a few hours. But a big guy like Popper: his corpse could take as many as ten to twelve hours to burn away. Maybe more.
Now around the parlor we all have our jobs. There's always something to do and the days go very fast. Oral Odetta did make-up for all the local parlors - thick base, too heavy blush, a slick of rouge on the lips, etc. - and she loved giving blow-jobs to funeral directors. I don't know which came first - the job or the fixation - but it worked out well: just try locating a female funeral director. You ask me, I'm sure if she'd wound up a teacher she'd be blowing principals; a post office clerk and she'd be blowing mail carriers; an IRS agent and she'd be blowing accountants, and so forth. But Odetta worked in funeral parlors, and she had been doing this - all of this - since 1968. She was in her early sixties now, but she hadn't slowed down any. She was still Oral Odetta: in for a dollar, in for a dime.
I met Oral Odetta my first day at the parlor. The gang joked about her before she got there, asking if I was wearing clean underwear and all that. The answer was no, but that didn't matter. The laundry overflowed a lot after the baby was born, and I wasn't playing around on my marriage anyway.
But she tried.
Oh did she try.
Oral Odetta licked her lips and asked the boys if I knew her nickname. Orbited my body three times slowly, lingering wherever she wanted. And she was a good-looking woman for her age: a little scary and repellent - lots of make-up, big lumpy boobs pushed up and off-kilter - but well preserved. The other guys were known to take her up on her ubiquitous offer, but I crossed paths with her almost every day and never gave it much thought. Like I say, we were busy. And the days go fast.
I don't really have any good excuse for why I broke down over Popper's corpse.
There are reasons, but there are always reasons.
Popper's body was taking forever to melt into ash and bone and I was a little high from the Southern Comfort. I was lonely. I was disgusted. I was jaded, human, surrounded by death. Horny. Insecure. Weak. Dull.
I was curious: thirty years and thousands of blow-jobs have to teach you something.
Oh do they.
Getting a blow-job from Oral Odetta while a famous overweight musician's corpse melts beside you and corpses all around you wait to be prepped, mourned, and destroyed will you teach you one major thing.
You were stupid to do it.
Make that two major things.
You were stupid to do it. And your life as you knew it is now done.
My daughter always says the cutest things. When you live with your children you hear them say the cutest things all the time. Bears live in darkness. Navy helicopters look like angry wasps. The President lives in Alaska. Mirrors are stupid because you already know what you look like so why do you have to look in the mirror to know what you look like when you already know what you look like.
I was standing over my second child, the baby, watching him sleep in his crib when my wife placed The Star between us. Now I was looking at a blurry picture of myself getting head from Oral Odetta. I was tired. There had been three consecutive funerals, and I'd been on my feet all day. I sighed. On either side of the blurry photo were our clean oval portraits and the caption: From Norway To Necrophilia: Popper's Long Perverted Life… And Death! I felt it all condensing as I stood there at the crib, compacting, crushing deep until my entire life felt like a pile of useless confetti waiting to be gathered and tossed away. I slipped out of my shoes, loosened my tie, and walked on the carpet past my wife. It was too late to deal with it now anyway. All I needed was some sleep. Peace. It would all be there in the morning.