Saving Face

Daniel L. Link

As he looked at the broken face, the crushed skull lopsided and misshapen, the mouth stretched into a grim smile, Ralph Edgerton knew he had his work cut out for him. When the body was first laid out on his table, a stab of pity went through him. He knew that the boy had been seventeen, but in death, he seemed even younger. The ribs, prominent under the wan, hairless chest, gave the appearance of frailty, more like a baby bird than a person.

Jeremy Tisdale had been popular. Athletic, tall, and handsome, he had been quick to make friends. He had been dating Marsha Singer, one of the prettiest girls on Hilldale’s cheer squad. Now, he was reduced to a flattened ruin, the fall from the top of the Tremont building taking away not only his life, but also the good looks and vitality that had made him stand out.

With only four days to work, Ralph set to embalming Jeremy right away. The first steps were routine, but key to preserving the body. First, he would wash Jeremy, although he was relatively clean from his time with the medical examiner. He would pump the blood out, replacing it with numerous chemicals via the arteries. Due to Jeremy’s yellow coloration, he would need to add dye to the formaldehyde, ethanol, glutaraldehyde, and water to restore him to a more normal pallor.

This would take the night, and then Ralph would sleep a few hours. Upon waking, the real work would begin. The damage to Jeremy’s face was so severe, most morticians would insist on a closed casket, but not Ralph, not after he saw Trudy.

“My partner is the best,” he heard Alfredo telling the Tisdales as he peeked through the parted drapes that opened onto the funeral parlor.

“Are you sure?” Scott Tisdale asked. “When they asked me to identify his body...”

He trailed off and silence reigned.

“Yes,” Alfredo said, straightening his tie. “I know, but believe me, I’ve seen Ralph work miracles.”

Scott got a call then and had to rush out, leaving his wife, Trudy, to finalize the arrangements. Ralph watched her from the shadows, keeping his own scarred face hidden. Tears streamed from her eyes as she picked out the casket. Ralph made a silent promise to her that he would have Jeremy looking like she remembered him, if only for one more day. When he turned to leave, she looked his way, and their eyes met just before he ducked behind the large velvet curtain.

“You shouldn’t have guaranteed the open casket," Ralph said when Alfredo came into the embalming room. He couldn’t hear the man enter, but the scent of spearmint gave him away.

“I didn’t guarantee anything,” his partner said, unwrapping a piece of gum and popping it into his mouth. “I just let them know that they’re going to get the best. Why? You don’t think you can do it?”

“What can you tell me about Jeremy?”

The change of subject, or the personal nature of the question, threw Alfredo. A crease formed above his brow, and he moved his gum from one side of his mouth to the other before answering. “Not much. Good home, pretty girlfriend, scholarship to USC.”

“Hardly the type to jump off of a building,” Ralph said, pulling a hose from the coroner’s Y incision and setting it beside Jeremy’s body.

“Rumor has it they were drinking on that roof.”

“Does it, now?” Ralph said, then turned his back to Alfredo and set to work. When he heard his partner’s footsteps moving toward the door, he said, “I’m going to need a picture.”

“I’ll talk to the father.”

“No,” Ralph said. “Get it from the mother.”

“She’s been through enough already—”

“It has to be from her. One of her favorites, one that reminds her of the Jeremy only she knows.”

If Alfredo replied, Ralph never heard. The door shut softly, and he and Jeremy were alone.

The picture sat on the counter as he worked, the beatific smile mocking him, daring him to try and recreate it. Ralph could see why Trudy had chosen it. It had been taken in a moment of pure joy. With his dimpled cheeks, strong chin, deep brown eyes, and unguarded smile, Jeremy had been handsome. Vowing to himself to make the boy smile one last time, he forced out thoughts of what must have driven Jeremy, or of the broken look on Trudy’s face.

Everything went perfectly until the day of the funeral. Ralph made a frame for Jeremy’s head, metal rods and wires hidden under his hair to keep the proper roundness despite the broken skull. He used putty on the cheeks and eye sockets to keep them from caving in and had wired a mesh lining into his mouth to set the lips just so. It wasn’t the beaming smile of the picture, just a slight upturn that gave a peaceful air to Jeremy’s face that, once his eyelids were sewn shut, made him look like he was dreaming pleasantly.

When Jeremy was in his casket, Ralph had checked from every angle, scrutinizing the hairline and behind the ears for telltale signs of the contraption holding Jeremy’s head together. When he was satisfied, the body was moved to the chapel for the service.

Ralph would normally disappear back into his apartment over the mortuary, his work done and things in Alfredo’s capable hands. For reasons he couldn’t explain, though, he stayed with Jeremy, sitting a silent vigil until the family started to arrive.

Voices fell as footsteps grew nearer, the mourners’ talk lowering to a respectful whisper, but giving the impression that the people were simultaneously approaching and receding. Ralph stood, turning for one last look at Jeremy.

He took a sharp breath and had to hold back a cry of anguish when he saw that Jeremy’s right cheek, the one facing the room, had caved in, a sagging shadow the size of a silver dollar prominent under the cheekbone.

Ralph touched his own face in the same spot, where the scars marred him almost to his eye. His mind raced as he fingered the pink tissue, desperate for an idea. His putty and makeup were in the embalming room and the people were coming nearer. He could see shadows of feet in the crack under the door, punctuating the light spilling into the dark parlor.

He opened the door just enough to see Alfredo leading Scott and Trudy Tisdale, followed by close family and friends, toward the parlor. He waited until his partner was reaching for the big brass handle when he shoved an arm through the gap, grabbed Alfredo by his lapel, and pulled him through, shutting the door behind him.

“What the—” Alfredo said.

“Emergency,” Ralph said, patting Alfredo down, reaching into his pockets.

“What are you doing?”

He found it in the inside pocket of Alfredo’s jacket. He pulled out the pack of gum, saw there were eight pieces left, and breathed a sigh.

“Give me five minutes before letting anyone in,” Ralph said and then set to tearing off wrappers and shoving sticks of gum into his mouth.

The funeral was beautiful, the pastor’s words heartfelt, and the eulogy well delivered by Jeremy’s brother, Lucas. Ralph had never stayed to watch a service, so he supposed they could all be just as touching and life affirming. He didn’t think so, though, for he overheard many of the mourners talking and they seemed impressed with the way the affairs were conducted. One even mentioned what a nice touch the minty smell was up on the dais for the viewing of the body.

As nice as it was to have his work well received by the family, the only opinion he cared about was Trudy’s. He studied her face when she went up to view Jeremy, but she showed nothing. She didn’t cry during the service, just sat straight, expressionless, until her only remaining son shared a story about a family fishing trip. Jeremy, at nine, too impatient to use a pole, just ran out into the river with a net until he was almost taken by the current. It was then, reliving that moment, that Trudy was the one swept away.

Ralph stayed in his dark corner, face turned from the mourners until they all cleared out. When he and Jeremy were the last in the parlor, he stood to exit. Heading for a side door, to return to his own personal isolation, the door behind him opened, pouring sunlight into the room and casting a silhouette on the wall.

He knew it was Trudy before he turned to her. She didn’t recoil when she saw the extent of his scars. She walked over, reached out to him, touched his cheek, where the worst of the burns had been. A tear sat suspended in the corner of her eye, and in those dark pools, somewhere in the pain and anguish she was suffering, Ralph saw understanding.

“Thank you,” she said, and the tear fell.


About the Author

Daniel Link lives in Northern California with his wife, who supports him in his obsession with the written word. His work has been featured in The Copperfield Review and The RavensPerch, and he is the assistant editor of the Gold Man Review.