Parlor Tricks

The Coil
The Coil
Oct 7 · 9 min read

Fiction by Brook McClurg

he trick is to apply just enough rouge to contour the cheekbones — then double it. You can’t be subtle, or the lighting will wash them out. It pains me to imagine them, painted up clownlike against the dulled hues of dirt for eternity, but artist discretion isn’t really a term our industry uses. I nudge the woman’s face, first to the left, then right, carefully.

“Whoever said that a person can be whatever they want when they grow up was selling something.”

I reach into my kit for lipstick and a hairbrush, whichever I find first. Fuchsia. Liquid gloss. As requested. I try not to judge the color.

Leaning in, hand to mouth, I whisper: “Just between us girls — I’d have gone darker, hon.”

She stays perfectly still.

“It’s not that they don’t mean it, mind you, just that they mean something patronizing when they say you can be an explorer, or on TV, or something. Sure: Wander outside. Buy a camcorder, even. You’re still not Magellan or Seinfeld — case closed.”

Other than the two of us, the building is empty; the room, windowless. I prefer to work alone through the night. It’s a small family business, so as long as I get the job done by morning, Father’s happy. Tonight, however, I’m running late. Hurrying.

“Nobody tells you that for most people, even if you do the thing you set out to do, the version of the dream you achieve is so compromised, it might as well be something else entirely.”

I don’t talk to dead people expecting a response; I do it because when I go to work, that’s who’s there. Curse of the night shift.

The requests range from the mundane to the bizarre: paint the toenails a funny color, embalm the body with perfume, formaldehyde-engorge the anatomy, bury a man with his mistress’ dress without the wife knowing. Some ask for particular facial expressions, like perky or satisfied. I’m working on smug, but it’s not in the bag yet. As the last one to see the body, it’s my job to make sure any next-of-kin requests are covered. I had a guy once who wanted to be presented on his side, propped up, head resting on his hand, sunglasses on — permanent vacation style. We did it, too.

Growing up in a mortuary family, I’ve seen it all. The trade passes down — even embalming, which you’re not supposed to do yourself anymore on account of the cancer. And since I’m the only one who went to cosmetology school — none of us has any formal desairology training — I get all the hard cases: the sloshers, the leathers, edemas, some burns. Strictly closed-casket work someone’s hoping I can zhuzh. My dad walks in as I’m finishing up.

“Sheesh, turn some lights on. It’s spooky in here.”

I look up over my glasses but don’t respond.

“You almost finished?” he asks, willfully avoiding the body with his eyes. “And put a dress on her, firchrissakes.”

“I need the tableau, Dad. We’ve talked about this. I’m liable to make her Neapolitan if I can’t see her as a whole.”

“Fine,” he says. “You staying for the funeral? See how your work goes over?” My dad’s always been a big guy, but in small spaces, his body seems even more so. He’s a teddy bear, if a little over-stuffed.

“You know I can’t, Pops. I’ve got to be at the salon by ten.”

He gives his normal disapproving look. “Salon. Please. Don’t start. I don’t know why you waste your time in that temple of self-involvement. It’s a losing battle. You could be here, doing serious work.”

Whatever my half of this conversation is, it finishes without me.

I walk out some time near sunrise, as usual. Just enough time to get home and sleep for a few hours before heading to the salon. I love making people pretty — but I really thought I’d be further along, stylist to the stars or something. My dad’s consternation still in my ear, I consider briefly if it’s better to make ugly people pretty, or pretty people ugly, and how both are a matter of highlighting.

few hours later, I’m three customers into the day: “The hair is particularly problematic, if you want to know the truth. The way it keeps growing after you die and all. If you’re cutting a fade, for example, you’ve got to go tighter than you think. The nails, too: do them too soon and you get a reverse French Tip situation.”

It’s clear, by my customer Shanna’s face, that this was one of those anecdotes that died halfway through the telling.

“Wow. That’s . . . something.”

The new girl the next chair over chimes in. “That growing after death stuff is bullshit. My dad’s a cop and says so.” The crowded workplace makes me long for the empty of the night job.

“Well, does your dad spend every night elbow deep in — ?”

Before I can finish, my boss Brent walks over and leaves a note at my station without making eye contact.

See me after.

I finish up with Shanna and head to Brent’s office, where another stylist is perched on his lap, laughing. He quickly shoos her up and out. She clacks to the door in coyish tiny steps and closes it behind her.

Brent stares at me, wide-eyed, the eyeballs an exclamation point stressing how over the repeated conversation he is. I consider how often the eyes get credit for what is really the work of the muscles around them. “You simply have to stop talking to the customers about death. Nobody wants to hear about your undertaker bullshit.”

I imagine the left eyeball falling out, then he’d need my help.

“You know I hate that term,” I say.

“Fine, mortician. Whatever. People don’t want to know that the hands touching them have been groping dead people all night.”

used to be that I spent most of my time at the salon and only helped the family out on weekends or when a serious unviewable came in; lately, the ratio has slid the other direction. I head back to the mortuary around eleven for my third double-shift this week. A dead child: eight years old. Children are tough. The trocar should be used with a light hand, yet the cavities and organs must puncture and drain all the same. The makeup should appear as no makeup at all.

“Funny you should ask, sweetie,” I say, turning the girl onto her back to tie in a weave of long, blond ringlets. “This funeral prep stuff is just like a day at the salon. A good stylist leaves everybody wanting to look at you. You feel radiant, so you are radiant.”

I grab the clothes from the suitcase the family sent in with her. She must have been cared for — it’s monogrammed. Their belongings arrive in Louis Vuitton trunks and plastic trash bags alike, sometimes dictated by circumstance, sometimes seemingly used to make a point. I close the case, running my fingers across the indentation of its golden lettering. I roll her gently back and forth to pull her clothes into place.

“A freshening-up here does the same. Done poorly it looks fake — like glazed plastic fruit. The skin is too waxy, and people can’t look at you very long at all, even if they can’t place why. But when you do it well, people stare. They wonder if the you is still you, if maybe you’re still in there somewhere.”

I step outside to find Dad whistling as he unloads stuff from his car. An early morning gray gives way to a yellowish hue behind him.

“How’d we do last night?”

“Normal, Dad.”

rent tells me he’s squeezed in a last-minute appointment for me with Victoria. I used to cut her husband’s hair. He was nice. Increasingly, I get her instead. She’s often giddy in a way that feels disingenuous, tragic even, some heavier thing at work.

“Can you keep a secret?” she asks.

I’ve never thought about it, actually, but I keep them all the time. She shifts her body toward me in the chair.

“I have a date — not with my husband.” The last part isn’t spoken so much as conspicuously mouthed, with a hand up for privacy. She’s booked a blowout, but now she wants more. She mentions a need to be, in her words, high-school hot. I think: Fuchsia. Liquid. Gloss.

I lose myself in the process, largely considering my own complicity in her plans. Perhaps her husband isn’t nice at all. I keep applying, well beyond need. Or maybe he’s too nice — one of those doormat types. I tease her hair to the ceiling. I highlight the face, then double it. Maybe this guy she’s going out with is even his friend. I apply makeup from the clavicle down, to make her breasts more pronounced. She may have objected, but I tuned her out. By the time I finish, she’s crying. I can’t be sure for how long.

Brent fired me on the spot.

few days later, I get another one: bullet hole in the head. The hole gapes. About twenty minutes in, I realize I know the guy from high school and recall having been unkind to him. The memory of my own shallowness stings, even if only I see it. I walk around the table a few times in order to reassess the full scope of the wound. I squeeze his hand once as if to say I’m sorry. The skin flaps are mostly there, but half the skull is gone. I’m shamefully excited that his is a restorative job, like showing extra care now might make up for how I’d treated him.

I walk to a back room and grab various supplies that I don’t often use. I’m small-talking out loud to him about family and work wondering if my voice is doing that trailing off thing it does in movies when the person’s making tea in the other room or something. I walk back into the room with the supplies to find him lying there patiently. Waiting.

“It may not matter much to you now, but I did always like you.”

I pause for the space of the answer I think he’d give.

“Yes, really! I was just self-involved. My head was elsewhere. You know I always had plans to get out of this place — guess you beat me to it.”

The lights buzz.

“I guess what I’m saying is sorry. If I wasn’t so concerned with getting somewhere else, I might have enjoyed what’s nice about being right here, you included.”

Using pieces of plastic and denture adhesive, I carefully reform a forehead; mortician’s wax — liberally — for the rest. I absolve myself of my high school transgressions with a care that takes far too long, and finally dress him with only a few minutes to spare. We’ve talked through the night. Me speaking my piece, imagining his.

By mid-morning, the hall is packed. The whole family runs around putting the finishing touches on the building. Dad even calls in a couple of cousins we only use for the larger crowds. When the funeral starts, I sneak into the back. It’s standing-room only, plus a hundred or so outside. The signage bills it as a joy-of-life situation, a revisionist history already underway. I bristle, unsure if the family is being fashionable or just made the decision to refer to it as such before he died in the manner he did.

After, people begin the procession, passing the casket one by one, looking in, stopping. It turns my stomach at first, but I calm when I see prolonged stares. As the spouse approaches, the cumulative grief-hum of the room hushes, waiting. She throws herself on the body, half inside the casket, kissing him. She has to be pulled off by family members.

Nailed it.

I excuse myself, unseen, through a rear door, eager to find the day’s arrivals.

BROOK McCLURG received a BA in Creative Writing (fiction) from Columbia University and an MFA (nonfiction) from Rutgers University-Camden. Originally from Southern California, he currently lives in Lubbock, Texas, where he is a PhD candidate at Texas Tech. His work has appeared in Pidgeonholes, Exposition Review, HeartWood Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. His Spanish language translations have appeared in the Loch Raven Review.

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.