Monday, March 23, 2020

Grave Concerns, Part 1

An attempt to write a darkly comedic short story that feels almost like a farce, based on where my mind wandered once during a real funeral, while my psyche attempted to reject thoughts of my own mortality. 

*

Dead people creep me out.

In a fascinated kind of way. Like a car wreck? You don’t want to look but you can’t help it? Like that.

I’ve only seen two dead bodies in my life. My grandmother, and now, my husband’s great grandmother. Both times, it gave me the heebie jeebies.

I mean, the whole thing is weird. Do you have any idea what morticians do to the human body to get it ready for a “viewing”? I won’t go into the details, but there are a lot of chemicals involved with names like “Lyf-Lik Tint” and “Flextone” and semi-surgical procedures that give me a stomachache to think about. They do all sorts of crazy stuff to the body to make it look like it’s still alive.** Which is weird.

Anyway, I was thinking about all of this at the funeral of my husband’s great grandmother. Everyone was in the viewing room, but I was sort of milling around the hallway outside, along with my 15-year-old sister-in-law Lula. We weren’t really milling around with one another, so I’m not sure if she shared my repulsion at the idea of looking at a 5-day-old body pumped full of formaldehyde, but that’s what my problem was. That, and all of this grief that I didn’t particularly feel a part of.

My 11-year-old sister-in-law Audrey came out of the viewing room. She walked over to me and said, “Hey. They did a great job. Grandma looks great.”

Which terrified me. Not necessarily because my husband’s great grandmother’s dead body looked great, but because my 11-year-old sister-in-law said so. And it was the way she said it. Like she was an adult talking about centerpieces at a wedding reception. Like we were discussing a dress that’s been re-tailored. Like she was aware of the embalming process.

But I didn’t want to offend anyone with my treatises on the flaws of Western Culture burials, so I took Audrey’s hand and we walked into the room.

There she was. “Great Grandma Wynn.” She didn’t look like a person at all, really. She had eyes (closed), a mouth (painted a loud red), and hands (folded neatly on her chest). She had all of the other defining features of a human being. But something was so off that it made me shiver.

Maybe I’m just struggling to confront my own mortality, I thought to myself. My intellectualism is just masking my own fear of death.

Well, fine then, I thought. I’ll just confront my mortality. Just gonna walk right up to that corpse there and say hi. She’s just…a dead body. Won’t kill me. Death is not contagious. In this case.

I waited until everyone else was talking in small groups and the coffin was temporarily abandoned. Then I walked over and stared into her face.

When she was alive, I had met her once. She was in a rest home then, only a few months ago. She kept getting confused…not sure who any of us were. But she told us about going to nursing school at Stanford, about seeing The Jazz Singer in theatres, about paying her roommate to share her clothes. I remember thinking how small she was that day. She seemed to flatten and spread into the bed like fabric, and if you picked her up, you would have had to fold her in half to keep her from slipping to the floor.

She looked fuller in death than she did in life. Her cheeks were plump and rosy. Her hair was shiny and perfect. Her hands looked strong and able, with two gold rings on one hand.

I leaned in to look at the rings further. It’s a little morbid, but I started wondering if they put the rings on before or after the embalming. People tend to think of embalming as an external process, but it’s very much internal. You’ve got to drain everything out and replace it with something more lasting. (Thanks, ancient Egypt!) I wondered if they only made the parts that showed look life-like. It would make sense, financially. I mean, why waste embalming fluid on the feet if they’re never shown? I’m sure that stuff isn’t cheap.

What if they really only embalmed the parts that showed? I mean, what if the palms of her hands weren’t…treated? Just the tops?

I have a curious mind. I am a believer in the scientific process, in testing hypotheses. Even if I don’t think through them completely. Because right then, I did something a little crazy. I gingerly lifted Grandma Wynn’s hand to look underneath it.

I’m not sure why I did it, but the next moment it ceased to matter, because I found myself holding Grandma Wynn’s index finger.

And nothing else.

Her cold and waxy finger was no longer attached at the knuckle, but was now separated from her hand entirely. I was holding a dead woman’s disembodied finger.

I glanced around quickly. Everyone was still deep in conversation. No one had noticed. Oh my God. OH MY GOD.

Could I lay the finger back on the body, making it look like nothing had happened? I glanced down at Grandma Wynn’s hands. It was pretty obvious that she was missing a finger. I wished briefly that it was a thumb I was holding, or some other finger that was less noticeable. Something that could just look like it was tucked under.

Tucked under! I could tuck her de-fingered hand underneath the other one! Just switch them! Put the finger underneath! I reached into the coffin.

“Did you ever get to meet her?”

I jumped. My husband’s aunt was standing at my side. In my panic, I stuffed the finger and my own hand into my pocket.

“Once,” I said. Don’t look at her hands, don’t look at her hands, don’t look at her hands! I silently begged. “She seemed like a really special woman.”

Aunt Ann nodded. “She was. She had a great sense of humor. She—”

“Brothers and sisters,” a voice said.

Ann smiled at me and held out her hand. “I’ll talk to you later,” she whispered. “It’s great to see you.” I looked at her hand, extended, waiting for me to shake it, or squeeze it, or something.

Except the hand that should be shaking hers was curled around a dead woman’s finger in my pocket.

I removed my hand. For a moment, I had the urge to wipe it off on my shirt or something first. But that would have been a little too suspicious. Aunt Ann shook my hand and turned to listen to the funeral home director.

“Brothers and sisters, now that each of you have had a chance to say your good-byes, we’ll be closing the casket and moving it out to the chapel where services will be held. Would the pall-bearers please step forward to assist in closing the casket.”

And then, in the next few moments, I watched as the casket was closed. And sealed. While the cold and waxy finger of the deceased sat in my pocket.


* * * * * TO BE CONTINUED * * * * *


*I got this image from an Amazon.com listing for a casket. This is entirely true.

**When my mom was in high school, they showed a video presentation on embalming. But it was considered too graphic to show teenagers, so instead they showed it in NEGATIVE. So like, 800 times more terrifying. (This is also entirely true.)

Monday, March 9, 2020

A Handful of Potential Topics

Time for my bi-weekly 750 words of writing practice. It’s good to have a writing habit. Even if you have no idea what to write about.

In my defense, I HAVE been writing.

It’s just that I’ve been writing OTHER things. Which are either not complete or not for public eyes. I could probably put the finishing touches on that draft of an essay about lying, or the one about how to help when someone is in crisis, or the one about the lessons I’ve learned from love or whatever. It’s just that...

Schitt’s Creek is so good and it just feels like watching eighteen episodes is the right thing for me to be doing tonight?

I don’t know. Maybe I could write something about dog-sitting, about the strange intimacy of living in someone else’s house for a few days. I’m at a new client’s house tonight, with their cuddly chihuahua, their energetic golden lab, and their extremely mercurial cat. (I’m allergic to the cat, but there are meds for that. I’m more concerned about the fact that an hour ago, the cat climbed affectionately onto my computer keyboard and did that cute thing that cats do when they bump their head against something all nuzzly-like, and then ten minutes later, clawed at my ankles and hissed angrily when I walked by it on my way to the kitchen. The owners warned me that the cat was a bit mean, but this unpredictability is alarming.)

Or maybe I could write something about intimacy direction. About how I’m passionate about the strange and fulfilling task of blocking everything from kissing to simulated sex acts onstage in ways that honor actor boundaries. But I’ve already been writing about it endlessly the last few weeks, in everything from resumes and website content to guest blog posts. Is this sounding too much like a shameless plug? Probably. It’s a bit of a shameless plug.

(Yes, Netflix, I’m still watching Schitt’s Creek. You don’t need to automatically pause to ask me that. Again.)

I could write about BYU and the Honor Code, but I’m so tired. I don’t have anything in me to say about it anymore. I hope people already know my stance on this. I hope I’ve spoken enough about this that people know I will stand with my queer brothers and sisters and siblings.

I could write about coronavirus? Maybe? I don’t have much to say except DON’T PANIC. Wash your hands. Be careful if you’re immunocompromised, elderly, or pregnant/nursing. But I promise you don’t need all this bottled water and toilet paper. Why is it bottled water and toilet paper? Hand sanitizer I kind of understand. (Although it should be noted that it should have 60% alcohol in order to be effective against things like coronavirus.) All of this apocalyptic panic IS making me realize that I don’t have good emergency preparedness, but I refuse to address that now. It will only fuel the hysteria.

I could tell the “harrowing” tale of my wrist surgery? Except it isn’t actually harrowing. “I had wrist surgery.” That’s the whole tale. My De Quervain’s tenosynovitis should be completely resolved within 6-8 weeks. The end.

(The cat just came downstairs and is staring at me. I’m feeling deeply uncertain about this…I welcome snuggles, if that’s what is going to happen. And black cats are so cute! I just have no idea if this cat is about to attempt to eat my face, and I’d like to avoid that if at all possible. Okay, the cat is wandering away now.)

A muse in the corner just whispered that I should write about the election, but I DEFINITELY do not have the energy for that. I barely have the energy to experience it. Your suggestion is respectfully declined, muse. Maybe I have some ideas listed in a note on my phone somewhere…

“Documentaries That Changed My Life.” That’s a good one. I used to do way more documentary recommendations on this blog. But my deadline is in two and a half hours and I’m pretty sure I don’t have enough time or energy to go through my huge list of favorite documentaries and write up stuff about each one tonight. I mean, maybe I do, I just don’t want to, because Schitt’s Creek is really good and I have to keep an eye on this volatile cat.

I suppose I could write about how I don’t know what to write about. Or write very briefly and vaguely about a handful of potential blog topics and call it good.

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Crypt, Part II

Part 2 of the tale of Dominique and Tricia, and their attempt to release the spirit of Dominique's sister Sarah, before being interrupted by a terrifying creature called The Carrier. Read Part 1 here.


Then a growl echoed through the empty chapel. Tricia leapt through the air and knocked into the Carrier, pushing it away from Dominique. Dominique had just enough time to scramble backwards and stand up before the Carrier turned towards her again. It swiped at her again with its chain, and she ducked as the chain shattered the wood of the pew in front of her.

Suddenly it let out a long shriek. Tricia had leapt onto its back and was about to sink her teeth into its shoulder when the Carrier’s chain knocked her onto the cold stone floor, where she lay, not moving.

Dominique glanced around quickly. With her dagger in pieces on the floor, she had no weapon, and she couldn’t imagine fighting the Carrier off with her bare hands. As if it had heard her thoughts, the Carrier looked up at her again and began to advance, its chain swinging.

Dominique thought fast and turned to dash up the steps of the platform where the priest’s body lay. That conversation she had with Tricia about not eating people seemed like it happened ages ago. The Carrier swung its chain again, but she was out of its reach. She grabbed the crucifix off a nearby table and got into a fighting stance.

I’m getting too old for this, Dominique thought, as she used the crucifix to block another swing of the Carrier’s chain. Maybe she could have kept this up 20 years ago, when she was Tricia’s age, but fighting off dark creatures in a church at midnight was not how she had envisioned spending her retirement.

The Carrier swung again and again, the sound of rattling chains reverberated off the chapel walls. Dominique blocked every blow, but the Carrier was advancing. She was having to take a step backwards every time the chains came near.

All at once, her foot met with something and she slipped and pitched backwards. It was the vial of holy water Tricia had filled. As it rolled away, Dominique looked up just in time to see the Carrier’s chain whip towards her. She closed her eyes and threw her arm up to protect her face, and the metal wrapped around her wrist once, then twice.

But…it didn’t hurt. Dominique expected a bone-shattering pain, a cold grip, but the metal felt warm against her skin. She opened her eyes and looked at the links wrapped around her arm. They didn’t bite into her flesh. She was so surprised that she reached up with her other hand to touch the metal. It was as soft as a flower petal. It was like a vine had grown around her arm, with the appearance of a rusted metal chain.

A small cry made Dominique look up. The Carrier was gone. And in its place, holding the other end of the chain, about fifteen feet away, was Sarah.

Dominique was too shocked to do anything for a moment. She simply sat, staring up at the sister she had come to release. It couldn’t be Sarah. Could it?

“Sarah,” she said. “Is that you?”

Sarah didn’t answer. Instead she looked up at the ceiling and let out a mournful wail. But it wasn’t a human sound. Her keening seemed to multiply in the room around them, and it went on and on and on. Dominique stood, the chain still tight around her arm, and took one cautious step forward.

“Sarah?” she said again. “Sarah, it’s me! Sarah, are you okay?”

Sarah tilted her head forward and looked at Dominique. The two stared at one another for a moment, and then suddenly, Sarah’s face contorted in fury. She yanked on the chain she was holding and Dominique stumbled forward. Suddenly, it was no longer the caress of a vine on Dominique’s arm, but the cold shock of metal. Whatever magic had made it feel harmless before had dissipated.

“Sarah!” Dominique cried out. She tried to brace herself but Sarah yanked on the chain again, closing the distance between the two of them once more. Sarah’s mouth opened and she began shriek. Another yank of the chain, with a strength so far beyond human, Dominique couldn’t fight it.

“I’m sorry!” Dominique yelled. “I’m sorry!”

But her voice was drowned out by Sarah’s angry cries. Dominique didn’t know what would happen when she reached Sarah, but she knew she wouldn’t survive it. She was only five feet away now. Three feet. Sarah’s screams were deafening. Dominique closed her eyes and tensed against the pull of the chain, when suddenly she felt it go slack.

She opened her eyes to see Tricia on Sarah’s back, biting and snarling. Sarah’s cries of anger turned to cries of fear as she struggled to fight the beast behind her. The two stumbled down the steps and into the aisle below.

“Tricia!” Dominique yelled. But Tricia was relentless, and a moment later, Sarah went limp and collapsed onto the stone floor. Dominique ran and knelt beside her. Sarah was staring wild-eyed at the ceiling above her, her breathing labored.

Dominique fought back tears. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "Sarah, I'm sorry." She was about to reach down and touch her face when the sound of a thousand rattling chains filled the church. There was a mournful cry, and a shadowy figure slowly rose from where Sarah lay. Dominique recognized the shape of a Carrier. It circled above them for a moment, keening, and then disappeared. Tricia, still panting from her fight, watched the ceiling with a frown.

Dominique looked back down at Sarah. Her labored breathing had stopped. But her wild eyes had closed, and her lips were formed into a soft smile.

“Sarah?” Dominique said quietly. She reached down to touch Sarah’s face once more, but before she could, Sarah’s form disappeared, and Dominique and Tricia were left alone on the floor of the old church.

Dominique looked up. Tricia had resumed her human form. She stood and smiled. Dominique smiled back. And they strode out into the sunrise.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Crypt

Beckah and I are in the same place this week! So we decided to write in tandem, like we did for this entry about a year ago. In two weeks, each of us will continue/conclude this story individually, in our own ways. Here was the prompt we started with: "A woman in her late twenties, who is very selfish. A woman in her late forties, who can be quite idealistic. The story begins in a church crypt. Someone is tormented by the memory of a dead family member. It's a story about freedom. Your character has to do some quick thinking to keep ahead."


Tricia ran her finger along the arm of the statue, then brought the finger to her mouth, wiping the blood from the edge of her lips. She felt the angel was a tad sentimental, but it wasn’t her family she was laying to rest. She hoped Dominique would come soon. She was growing bored.

“Tricia.” A voice echoed through the chapel, and Dominique strode out of the shadows near the distant front doors. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. She wiped the blade of her dagger clean as she walked, and sheathed it at her side. She frowned at the blood on the angel statue. “Did you have some trouble, too?” she asked.

Tricia smirked, and Dominique scowled.

“We had an arrangement,” Dominique said, pouting. Tricia shrugged.

“No, you asked me to not eat people, and I said I would try.”

Dominique glanced down at the body lying at the statue’s feet and frowned.

“Trish…”

Trish crossed her arms as Dominique stepped closer, lowering her voice, as though there was anyone else within earshot.

“Trish, is that the priest?”

Tricia shrugged again and made a non-commital sound. Dominique’s face filled with worry. Tricia lowered her arms and rolled her eyes.

Dominique closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Well, at least you didn’t eat...all of him.” She began rummaging in her bag. “Let’s just...do this and get out of here. I brought sage and the candles. And chalk to draw a pentagram. Could you fill this up?”

Tricia looked blankly at the small vial Dominique handed her.

“Holy water, Trish. From the bowl over there.”

While Tricia wandered over to the silver dish a few steps above them, Dominique pulled a lock of hair from her bag and laid it gently down on the cold stones. “It’s got to work this time, Sarah,” she whispered to herself. “I can’t keep doing this.”

A clatter came from behind one of the pews and both women spun around.

The church was empty, but Dominique drew her dagger. Trish’s nails grew and she bared her sharpened teeth. They moved forward together, each eyeing the space between the pews as they advanced. The light was dim--the sun had just set and there were only a few candles lit at the altar.
The clatter came again. This time it sounded like something metal falling to the stone floor. It rang loudly in the small chapel, and Tricia suddenly brought her hands to her ears.

“Dominique…” she said through gritted teeth.

Dominique heard it too, but it didn’t affect her as it did Trish. The ringing went on, far too long for a normal object, and suddenly Dominique knew what was in the church with them.

It was the Carrier.

“Dammit.”

Dominique crouched to the ground, squeezing herself in between a row of pews. She was lucky. She hadn’t begun the ritual that would allow her to save Sarah’s spirit, or the Carrier would sense the magic in her. Tricia, on the other hand, was exposed and reeked of the magic that had caused her transformation.

“DAMMIT,” Dominique whispered again. She brought her dagger up to her lips and whispered a few words into it, until it began to glow a faint blue. It was a risk but she didn’t see what choice she had. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and stood.

The Carrier was only a few rows away, its eyeless face turned toward Tricia, who stood stock still near the altar. It took one gliding step, and the long chain it carried clanged against the stones. The chain was long--Dominique had seen grown men strangled by Carriers with chains of only ten or twelve links, but this one was made of at least fifty. The Carrier took one ragged breath in and then let out a wet growl. Dominique heard Tricia snarl in return.

Dominique stepped into the aisle with her dagger raised towards the Carrier.

With horrifying speed the Carrier turned toward her, its chain whipping through the air toward her neck. Dominique quickly dropped to the ground and felt the whoosh of air over her head as the chain swung past, narrowly missing her scalp. Taking advantage of the few seconds she had, she scrambled forward on her hands and knees and lunged forward, burying the dagger with its magical augmentation deep into the Carrier’s flesh.

To her horror, the dagger froze and shattered, falling to the floor in pieces. Had she used the wrong spell? She had felled only two Carriers in her past, but they had been much smaller, much weaker.
She heard Tricia shout. The Carrier leaned down over her, its putrid breath poisoning the air around her. She stared up into the blank face, silently pleading forgiveness from her sister, prepared to be borne away into the darkness.

To be continued...

Monday, January 27, 2020

It's Gonna Be Okay

There are so many things I want to write about. Kathleen and her memorial, opening night of Safe, thoughts on loneliness and friendship and love and illness and grief and self-esteem and romance. But every time I try, my psyche is like NOPE. So I’ll just have to let those things out slowly I think—just let them grow until they’re ready to be set down fully formed, or else put them down a little bit at a time.

So instead, I’m going to write a bit of encouragement to myself. A short imagined letter from the future Liz. If I’m continuing the growth metaphor from above, consider this the Miracle-Gro. (Or maybe this is an oblique way to write about some of those things I listed after all.)

Dear Liz,

It’s okay to feel grief. It’s okay to not “handle it well” and to accidentally fall short while you’re trying to process your sadness and fear. Grief creates a fog that sometimes you simply must walk through. You’re doing your best, and it’s going to be okay.

I know you’ve got the blues lately. It’s partly just January. Keep going on walks—I know you never feel like it, but you can handle the cold for 20 minutes, and those 20 minutes of walking make all the difference in the world to your mental health. You’re always glad you went, even if you never feel like going. Take naps if you need to. Be compassionate to yourself.

I know you may feel lonely lately. In your efforts to be professional as a director, you’ve put up a few walls between you and the cast and crew. In your efforts to protect Patrick from your own sadness, you’ve put some distance between you. And after Kathleen’s memorial, it was hard to leave Medford and Beckah and everyone behind—all of that love felt blinding and you still ache with it. But it will be okay. You are loved and loveable, even in your grief and sadness and confusion.

I know you haven’t felt very pretty lately. That’s okay. We all have those phases. So you’re fatter than you used to be and your hair is kind of at an in-between stage and your body hair is doing weird things lately. You still rock those curves, girl. Your eyes still sparkle, you beautiful soul. Give yourself a pedicure and a face mask just because it feels good. Stand in a hot shower with your beautiful body just because it feels good. “Pretty” isn’t objective. You’ll find it in yourself again eventually.

I know you’re dreading that audition on Wednesday. But I promise, it will be fine. You dread every single audition you ever do, and then you survive it and sometimes you even get to do a show afterwards. You have nothing to lose in doing this audition. The worst that could happen is they could say no, and if you do get cast and are overwhelmed by scheduling conflicts and other challenges, you can decline. It’s good to just practice auditioning, if anything.

I know that there are a lot of things that just feel uncertain right now. And you can look for guidance in tarot cards and universe splitter apps and self-help books, but sometimes you have to just embrace the uncertainty. You can embrace the age-old wisdom of that damned Serenity Prayer, which is so trite as to be cloying but is nevertheless one of the truest prayers ever written. You can accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, and be wise enough to know the difference. Trust your intuition. It hasn’t failed you yet. You are a divine being navigating a beautiful world where you can grow and learn and give and heal. Trust that your journey is perfect exactly as it is. Let yourself be carried where you need to be carried.

And to give you some perspective on the goodness you do get to experience, here are a few things to give you hope and happiness. Between your tax return and your savings, you’ll be able to make a down payment on a car in the next few weeks…one that gets better than 18 mpg. Aaaaand you’ll be able to start saving for a bike soon too, which for short distances will be better for your wallet, your body, and the earth. In two weeks, you’ll be in Disneyland with Beckah and Mom and Ray. You have wonderful roommates and a wonderful boyfriend and a wonderful family and wonderful friends.

It’s gonna be okay. Better than that…it’s gonna be beautiful. It already is.