story a week

Last Rites

Posted in Fiction by clachnit on January 24, 2010

I can’t remember the last time I was in a mortuary chapel for a viewing. Whenever it was, I do know there was no flat-screen television with photos of the deceased streaming and fading and rising in an infinite loop. There might have been was music at my mother’s viewing, probably something ethereal and Catholic. Panis Angelicus, maybe. That was a far cry from this crunchy speed metal, with a chorus that rhymed “motherfucker” with “coked-out trucker.” But this was the deceased’s song, after all. She had a right to have it play her out of this world.

A viewing is a perfect name for this ritual. It seems designed to assure everyone that the dead person is really dead. Or that the body in the coffin really is who everything says it is. When it came to Tricia, I wanted assurance on both counts.

I watched the loop play through a couple times. Baby. Kindergartener. Theater geek (a short phase). Alt-band backup singer. Tortured, mascara-dripping rocker in a Weimar-era bustier that barely covered her nipples as she hung, glowering, over her bass. Someone—presumably Tricia—flinging herself across a stage in what looked like a knitted body bag that sprouted dreadlocks of dryer lint. This from her performance-art phase.

Finally came her last incarnation: a surprisingly unexotic-looking exotic dancer. Topless though she may have been, in her dirndl and white patent-leather platform maryjanes, she reached out to the camera with such innocence that she might have been holding  on to a maypole.

I was in a couple of the high school pictures, and one from a concert. (At Linda’s Doll House. A lifetime ago.) But nothing after that. She lived the last 15 years seeing me–not that she hadn’t tried.

Finally, after hanging around in the back of the chapel, looking for people I knew, and didn’t want to explain anything to, I walked up to the coffin. Tricia. No question. She was in a silky, pale mauve dress. Her hair was long and, for once, blond right to the roots. She had a rosary wrapped around her hands. It was carved coral, and I recognized from the days when–good little shock-rocker that she was–she wore it entwined with another string of glass beads. These she had carefully painted with images of angels and devils engaged in all manner of vile sexual congress.

I knew Tricia was 35. We were born just a few months apart. But in the repose of death, she looked 10 years younger. Tricia had good genes—her mother was unwrinkled and dark-haired until she was well into her 70s–but there was something else going on here.

Tricia wasn’t called Tricia by many people in the last few years. She’d been Patricia, Patrice and probably Patrick, too, if she felt like tweaking her audience. When I came across the story on the Web site of an alternative paper that I didn’t read much anymore, I didn’t actually know the article was about her. It just sounded perversely interesting: “Singer and performance artist found dead in Fullerton motel.” I thought two people had died.

If the story hadn’t shown her picture, it would have taken me longer to figure it out. The deceased—just one person—was someone called Cianna Saturday. A perfect stripper name, actually, and it didn’t surprise me that much to learn that’s what Tricia was doing at the end. Her performance-art gigs apparently had dried up, and she had slipped down a rung. The article speculated that she was working out new material. It was a kinder, but less likely, explanation.

The story had said she was dancing regularly in a bar called the Crank Case. I knew the place. Friends of friends, before they got sober, hung out there. It was perfectly named, too, full of irritable, meth-fueled guys. I thought a few of the very thin, bad-teeth cases in the back pew of the chapel might be customers, or employees. Sober or twitchy, they all looked teary-eyed and glum. For all her shortcomings, Tricia knew how to get people to love her. It certainly worked with me, for a long time.

After that last time, when she took my car and abandoned it between Camarillo and Oxnard with an ex-con rhythm guitarist named Riley O’Reilly asleep in the back seat, I decided I’d had enough. I only kept track of her through the phone calls. Rather, she kept track of me.

She would call me with an apology that turned into a plea for money, sympathy or a place to crash. I was nothing more than her cousin by then, and not even her favorite one anymore. A call meant she was pretty desperate, because she knew there was very little chance I’d help her.

Our mothers were sisters who once loved each other but who’d fought and finally, too exhausted by the past, gave up and lapsed into mutual silence. But they were both dead now. Not even obligation kept me linked to her, by whatever name she was using to shed boyfriends, bills and the occasional warrant.

I usually knew when it was her. The calls came late, from numbers that weren’t in my phone and from area codes I didn’t recognize. I didn’t even answer after the I got the hang of her method. She was using other people’s phones, hoping to catch me off guard. And she didn’t leave messages. She knew when I was avoiding her, and that if I did call back later, she probably would have pissed off the phone’s owner by then. So what would be the point?

Looking down at her—an angle that made my heart contract for a moment–I don’t think it was mortuary skill that had freshened her. This wasn’t just the work of someone painting a canvas that only had to look good for a few hours. She looked—normal. Not starved and breakable. Her hair was thick again, with the wave that she didn’t like, because she couldn’t control it. Her hands were smooth, the cuticles neat and unbitten—a first. The skin of her face and throat was as fine-grained and translucent as it had been when she was healthy and clean.

The cause of death wasn’t clear, the story had said. The body portrayed no signs of violence, nothing to make the police suspect foul play. I’d smiled when I read that. She wanted to call her first band Foul Play, for about 20 minutes one day, before an early gig. Her band mates didn’t like that so much. They picked something else—it might have been Angel Food. That had been the name for a while, before they briefly settled on Llorona. Later bands were Medea and Euridice. She had Dido, for a while, until that led to confusion with a better-known artist. Then finally, Gash, the band of the bustiers and angry lyrics. The  CD sold well enough and the band had some club success, but Tricia never liked the name. She preferred a little more subtlety, along with her myths and legends and wordplay. Another good thing about her.

And then the mortuary manager was hovering at my side. I don’t know how long I’d been standing there. They had turned down the music and people were filing out. I signed the book and walked out into the night, where the eucalyptus were rustling in the first gusts of a Santa Ana wind.

On the way to the car, I checked my cell phone. I saw that there was a missed call, something I hadn’t noticed before. It was a week old, from a number I didn’t recognize. I thought about calling back, but what would have been the point?

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