This short story originally appeared in the now-defunct online literary magazine Carbon Culture Review.
Nick has never been to a sad funeral before. He’s been to funerals of course, but they were for old people, people who everyone knew were on their way out. He’s never been to a funeral for someone his age, someone in their twenties. And he’s never been to a funeral for someone who committed suicide.
He’s halfway down the center aisle of the small Baptist church when he realizes that he doesn’t know anyone here. Every other funeral he’s attended was for a family member. Here he doesn’t have anyone to sit with, to talk about Kenzie with. And, damn, his mouth hurts. He’d thought about taking a pain pill, but he doesn’t want to be groggy, so now he’s stuck with a sore jaw and aching gums. At least the swelling is gone.
Nick scans the church, looking for an empty pew. There isn’t one. But there is a pew with only one person, a girl his age, in a nice blue dress and heels. Apparently she’d thought to dress nice, unlike Nick who’d been dumb enough to show up in jeans and a button down. He should have worn a suit.
He doesn’t currently own a suit, but that’s beside the point.
Nick slides into the pew and sits next to the girl. He gives her a half smile, one that says things are sad but manages to convey politeness.
“I’m Claire,” she says. “Mackenzie and I were best friends in high school.”
“I’m Nick,” he tells her, thinking she must not have kept in touch because she doesn’t use Kenzie’s nickname. “I worked with her. At the hair salon.”
Nick can tell the exact moment she recognizes him from the narrative that Kenzie’s mother had created and told over and over again about the day’s leading up to Kenzie’s death.
“Oh,” Claire says. “So you, I mean, you’re—”
“—the last person who talked to her,” Nick says, cutting her off. Everyone seems to think it’s this huge deal, when Nick knows it isn’t. It just is.
“I’m so sorry,” Claire says. “That has to be hard on you.”
Nick gives her the same half-smile from earlier as a response. He wishes people would leave it alone. It was just a phone call. Despite what they’re all assuming, he doesn’t blame himself for anything because he couldn’t have done anything. And he didn’t know her well enough to notice anything before she called. They just worked together.
There’s nothing he could have done. That’s what he keeps telling himself.
* * *
They were all liars. Every person he’d asked about this damn procedure had assured him that getting his wisdom teeth out wouldn’t be a big deal. Nick now realizes that was bullshit.
He’s lying on his couch half-asleep when his cell phone rings. He can’t really talk because his face is so swollen, but he answers anyway. Maybe he can convince whoever it is to bring him soup, or something stronger than hydrocodone.
“Hello?” he says.
“Hey, it’s Kenzie,” comes through the phone. “You don’t sound so good.”
“I had four teeth cut out of my gums this morning,” Nick says, fumbling the words.
“Do you think you’ll feel better in a few hours?” Kenzie says. “I was hoping you could come over and fix my hair.”
“Why do you need your hair done?” Nick asks, trying to focus around his spinning head.
“You remember how I had a falling out with Andrew?” Kenzie says.
Yes, Nick remembers her falling out with Andrew. They have one about once a month. Andrew is a jerk, but no matter how terrible he is, Kenzie goes back. He’d given up trying to talk sense into her a long time ago. Now he just tries to be supportive.
“Well, he called today,” Kenzie continues, “and he said he’d be willing to go to couple’s therapy. You know, I really think things are going to work this time.”
“That’s great, Kenzie,” Nick says. Couple’s therapy is new. Maybe it really will work, but he isn’t too optimistic. “What does that have to do with your hair?”
“He’s taking me out to dinner tonight, somewhere nice,” Kenzie says. “I want to dress up, and you’re better at hair than I am, so I thought I’d ask if you’d come do mine.”
“I’m sorry, Kenzie, I’m just not up for it,” Nick says, really meaning it. “I can’t even sit up without getting dizzy. I can’t fix your hair. I’d probably just burn you with the curling iron.”
“I completely understand,” Kenzie says, though Nick thinks she sounds a little disappointed. “You just feel better, okay?”
“I really am sorry,” Nick says. “And I hope tonight goes well for you.”
“Thanks,” Kenzie says. “You know, I have this potato soup recipe that I keep meaning to try. I’ll make it tomorrow and bring you some.”
They say goodbye and Nick hangs up, sinking back down onto the couch. He falls asleep there, only getting up occasionally to take more medicine. He doesn’t fully wake up until the next morning when his cell phone rings again. It’s one of Kenzie’s friends calling to tell him that Kenzie slit her wrists and bled out. Andrew found her in their apartment.
Nick runs into the bathroom and throws up his pain pills.
* * *
The first job Nick had gotten after graduating beauty school was at the Olmstead Funeral Home, and he’d held on to it even when he’d gotten the job with Kenzie at the one hair salon in town. He’d never really thought about who did the hair on corpses for funerals, but obviously someone had to. His friends think it’s creepy, but Nick doesn’t mind it. He’s figured out how to make it not creepy. Or at least, less creepy.
He’d learned at school that a large part of being good at doing hair is talking. He did it with the live ones, so he might as well do it with the dead ones.
Two days after getting his wisdom teeth out, Nick takes three Advil, showers, puts on real clothes, and drives to the funeral parlor with his bag of hair and makeup supplies. His face is
still a bit swollen, but Murray, the embalmer, doesn’t say anything when he lets Nick in, and he knows Kenzie won’t care. When Murray had called him yesterday, he’d asked if it was okay, offered to try and call someone else even though they both knew that there was no one else to call. Besides, Nick always did Kenzie’s hair, staying late to dye it different colors, having her trim his while her color set. He’s been doing her hair for the past three years. He wasn’t going to let anyone else do it now.
“Well, Kenzie, I finally met your mother,” Nick says as he walks into the room. “She gave me a terrible picture of you to copy. It looks like you’re at an eighties costume party.”
Murray has rolled her close to an outlet and placed a small table nearby for Nick to lay his things out on. He puts his bag down and digs out his curling iron, plugging it in to heat and carefully setting it down on the table.
“I guess I’ll do your makeup while this thing gets hot,” he says, digging a few brushes out of his bag. “Now I know you’re thinking that’s a terrible idea. I promise I told your mother that the drag makeup I do is way different than normal makeup. She didn’t listen.”
He pulls out the makeup bag Kenzie’s mom had left at his door. She’d gotten it out of Kenzie’s bathroom for Nick, so he could make her look like she normally did. Nick didn’t tell her that in the time he’d known her, Kenzie had never really worn makeup.
“What are you doing with blue eyeshadow?” Nick says, digging through the bag. “Honestly, Kenzie, do you have anything in here that’s a normal color?”
He manages to find a broken container of eyeshadow in sparkly neutrals and a little bottle of base makeup. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.
“This is the part that’s difficult,” Nick tells her, getting out two more containers of base from his own bag. “The goal is to make you look like you do when you’re standing, so I have to do some extra work with highlights and shading. That in itself isn’t so bad if you can airbrush it on, but I don’t have an airbrush.”
Nick turns to Kenzie and realizes he hasn’t actually looked at her yet. So he looks. It’s definitely her. Paler, thinner lips, and limp hair, but still her.
“The problem,” Nick says, putting the base he’d found in Kenzie’s bag on a sponge, “is that your skin is too firm. It makes it almost impossible to mix the base in so it doesn’t look streaky.”
Nick looks at Kenzie’s face and hesitates. This is weird. It had never been weird before, even when he was working on little old ladies who used to come to him for perms or old men who he’d seen at one of the local diners.
Nick isn’t sure he can do this anymore. He puts the makeup he’s holding back down on the table and unplugs the curling iron. He gets a chair from the other side of the room and drags it over, sitting down next to Kenzie.
“God, my mouth hurts,” he tells her.
Nick knows Kenzie isn’t going to talk back, but the silence bothers him anyway.
“I’m trying to remember what we talked about before, you know?” Nick runs his hand through his hair, realizing it needs to be cut and now he’ll have to do it himself. “Surely we talked about something. We stood next to each other all day.”
They did talk of course, talked all the time, but Nick’s starting to realize now that none of it is real. He heard all about Kenzie’s failing relationship but he never thought to ask why she wouldn’t leave. She always wanted to know how his parents were doing but never asked him to explain when he told her that he hadn’t been back home in years, that his parents always drove an hour in to town to come see him. The reason, if she’d asked, is that his parents wanted people to think they didn’t have anything to do with him anymore. But she didn’t ask and Nick never thought to tell her and he’s starting to think that those years of working next to each other didn’t actually mean anything.
“I looked up the symptoms of depression yesterday,” Nick says, looking at a spot on the wall because he can’t look at her. “You didn’t have any of them. You came to work, you ate normally, you didn’t talk about dying. You even said you were going to bring me soup.”
The silence is painful. It’s pushing down on him, making him feel claustrophobic.
“I didn’t know,” Nick says, making himself look at her body. “How was I supposed to?”
Kenzie doesn’t answer.
“If I’d known, I would have gone to do your hair,” Nick says. “I promise, Kenzie. But I didn’t know.”
His eyes are starting to itch and he’s starting to feel like he’s going to throw up again which doesn’t make any sense because he hasn’t eaten anything since he got that phone call. Nick can’t do this, he can’t sit here with Kenzie, being expected to fix her up like it’s just a normal job. It’s too quiet, his mouth hurts too much, Kenzie is too young.
“There was nothing I could do, there wasn’t—” Nick’s voice cracks, and he stops talking because what if there was? If there was some sign that he’d missed that could have saved her, if his surgery had been on a different day, if he’d just made himself get up and go fix her damn hair.
Nick didn’t cry when his parents kicked him out for being gay, and he didn’t cry when they took him back the next day. He didn’t cry when his first boyfriend broke up with him so he could go to conversion therapy. But he lets himself cry now because this time someone died and it’s normal to cry when people die. It’s not because he thinks he could have done something. It’s just because she’s dead.
* * *
Nick doesn’t go up to see her body. He spent three hours agonizing over every detail of her appearance. He doesn’t need to see her again.
People slowly start filing out of the church, likely heading to the reception that Kenzie’s mom is hosting at her house. Nick realizes it would be polite to go, but he doesn’t want to.
“Are you going to the reception?”
It takes Nick a moment to register that someone has asked him a question, and even longer to realize that someone is Claire. She’s standing in the aisle looking lost. It occurs to Nick that she probably doesn’t know anyone at this funeral either.
“No, I’m not going,” Nick says, standing up and walking over to her. “You?”
“I don’t think so,” Claire says. “You did a great job with Mackenzie. She looked beautiful.”
“Oh, uh, thanks,” Nick says, not sure how to respond. People don’t typically compliment him for the work he does on dead people.
“Look, I’m sorry about earlier,” Claire says. “I shouldn’t have acted like it’s such a big deal, you know? The phone call.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Nick says, hoping she’ll change the subject.
“Still,” Claire says, apparently set on the phone call. “It’s just, I haven’t talked to Mackenzie in a couple years, but I still feel like I should have done something. I wonder if she had called me, if I could have stopped her.”
Nick doesn’t say anything, waiting for her to realize what she’s just implied.
“Oh my gosh, I didn’t mean that,” she says, her eyes wide. “I am so sorry.”
“It’s fine, I know what you were trying to say,” Nick says, attempting to smile at her.
“That doesn’t make it any less terrible,” Claire says. She looks like she’s about to cry.
“I think about it, too,” Nick tells her. He’s not sure why he admits it. He just doesn’t want her to cry. “I mean, I realize there isn’t actually anything I could have done. But I wonder.”
A few moments go by before Claire gets brave enough to ask, “What did you talk about?”
Nick had told Kenzie’s mom that she had sounded completely normal. He said he’d been shocked to hear the news because Kenzie had been her same old self on the phone. Her mom had accepted that, not wanting to hear details. Claire won’t be satisfied with that version.
“I was really doped up on pain pills from getting my wisdom teeth out, so I don’t remember it all that well,” Nick explains. “But I do remember she asked me to come over, and I said I couldn’t. Then she said she would see me the next day.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Claire says, a bit of a smile on her face. “How are you supposed to get ‘suicidal’ from ‘see you tomorrow?’”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out,” Nick says, running a hand through his hair.
“It’s impossible,” Claire says, her tone definitive. “And I was so terrible about it earlier. No one would have been able to tell there was a problem from that.”
“I don’t know about that,” Nick says. “I think someone might have been able to figure it out. Just not one of us.”
They stand there for a few moments in silence, avoiding making eye contact with each other. Nick doesn’t know what to do now that they’ve admitted that their only part in all of this is not knowing Kenzie well enough. Sure, Nick might have worked with her, but in the end seeing her every day hadn’t done anything more for her than if he hadn’t seen her in years.
“Well, it was nice to meet you, sort of,” Claire says, startling Nick out of his thoughts. “I’m gonna go.”
“It was sort of nice to meet you, too,” Nick says, smiling at her as best he can.
She hurries off and Nick sits back down in the pew, the only one left in the small church. The only one aside from Kenzie. He’s sure that someone from Olmstead’s will be there to take her away to the cemetery soon. Her mother hadn’t wanted to do a graveside service because she thought they were too depressing. Nick doesn’t really see how that could be any more depressing than what’s already happened.
“It was a good funeral,” Nick says, not sure if he’s talking to himself or to the casket at the front of the room. “I think everyone was the proper amount of sad.”
His voice echoes back to him, bouncing off the walls of the sanctuary. Nick looks at the casket and thinks maybe he should go up there, to pay his respects. But for whatever reason, it doesn’t seem right. So he gets up and walks off and refuses to look back no matter how much he wants to. He keeps his eyes forward, focused on the paintings on the back wall of the sanctuary, Jesus surrounded by children, angels playing harps and trumpets, flying between streams of light that cut through the clouds. Paintings that are supposed to be comforting, meant to depict a happy ending for the woman in a casket at the front of the church with expertly curled hair and perfect eyeliner.
Nick sits in the parking lot and watches as the cars pull out after the hearse, watches the people driving down the road pull off to the side and stop, waiting for the funeral procession to pass before starting to drive again. Of all the things that happened for Kenzie that day, the scriptures and the songs, he thinks this might be the best tribute to her. Strangers stopping, waiting, then driving away once the last car has passed. Taking a moment then moving on with their day. Nick waits until every car that had stopped is out of his line of sight and the funeral procession has been gone for several minutes before pulling out of the parking lot himself and driving off, leaving the church behind.