My short story, “Ruby Slippers,” was published last summer in DESCANT magazine. The offbeat story made it into their “Summer Subversions” edition—enough said about what to expect when you read it.
I set “Ruby Slippers” in an embalming room, so I thought it would make good Hallowe’en reading. Enjoy.
© Arlene Somerton Smith
Dead women really should wear ruby slippers. Kirk Brady learned that lesson on opening night of his Little Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz.
When the show wrapped at 10:12 p.m. to whistling applause, I lay on the embalming table at the Brady & Son Funeral Home. While the cast and crew warmed the bar stools at Finnegan’s Pub for hours after, Kirk’s father, Sean, prepared my body for my casket. I watched Sean touch me. Fingertips I had longed for in life found my tender, private places in death. Fluorescent light flickered beside me, around me, through me, in rhythm with Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major—Sean’s favourite embalming music. He fastened the last cream silk button on my blouse, perched on a stool and held my hand. “Mary, I’m getting old,” he said. He smoothed my hair with a trembling hand that lingered in a gentle stroke of my cheek. His thumb caressed my lips. The living touch the dead in mysterious ways.
But the crowd at Finnegan’s was oblivious to all that. Everyone in the place was either part of the show or part of the audience. The Tin Man watched highlights of the Toronto Maple Leafs on CBC, the Cowardly Lion sank the 8-ball into a corner pocket, and Dorothy sat beside Kirk and their friend, Maggie, at the bar.
“Kirk, there’s no one else who could play Scarecrow like you. When you dance, straw flying everywhere, I can hardly keep a straight face.” Dorothy’s real-life persona, Brooke, hoisted her beer. “Here’s to the most . . . elastic . . . person in town.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Maggie said. “You do the full splits and then just rise up again. How do you do that?”
Kirk shrugged. “All my years as a goalie pay off at times like this, I guess.” He poured the dregs from the pitcher of Labatt Blue into his glass, drained it and set the empty on the bar. “I have to get going. I need my Scarecrow beauty sleep.” He gave the girls a half-salute/half-wave then turned to Ed Duncan, who stood behind the bar drawing a pitcher of Canadian for the Lollipop Guild. “I’ll be in at 11:00 for the lunch shift tomorrow,” Kirk said. Ed nodded and continued pouring without looking up.
The Wicked Witch of the West, her glass of vodka and cranberry half way to her mouth, watched Kirk all the way to the door. The Cowardly Lion leaned on his pool cue and savoured the view of Kirk’s firm buttocks weaving through the tables. Brooke shook her head. “There goes the best-looking, most confused scarecrow you’ll ever meet.”
“Yep.” Maggie nodded.
The clock in the town hall tower struck 1:00 a.m. as Kirk jaywalked across Conroy Street. He paused at the corner of Main Street in front of the new sign for Knox Presbyterian Church. Plastic letters slotted crookedly into place read: SOMETHING WE CANNOT SEE IS SOMETHING WE NEED MOST. “Well,” he said. He tilted his head to one side and then the other. “I see the sign, so I guess I don’t need it.” He chortled to himself and sauntered toward the bridge.
His steps slowed and his smile faded as he crested the rise of the bridge. On the far river shore floodlights emblazoned the gold letters on the sign his father installed the month after Kirk was born: Brady & Son Funeral Home. Kirk sagged against the railing and looked down at the dark rapids. The river surged and frothed over jagged rocks then hurried downstream past the old flour mill that had been renovated to accommodate viewing rooms and a chapel.
Light shone through a small window beside the abandoned mill wheel. Kirk clenched his jaw, as I had seen him do many times in his life when this light told him his father was working late in the embalming room, or his father forgot about his game, or his father missed opening night.
Kirk pushed off from the railing and ambled toward the blazing Brady & Son. When he reached the old mill, he paused at a fork in the front walk. The glow of the sign lit up the left side of his face; darkness shadowed his right side. “There’s no place like home,” he said.
If he slipped in the front door, his father would not hear him, but Harry McLeod was laid out in Room 2 and Kirk shuddered at the thought of the darkened visitation room, Harry’s coffin and those creepy hands. “Bastard,” he muttered. But if he used the private residence side door by the embalming room, his father would hear him. Kirk considered his options: Harry McLeod, or his father. A dark room with a coffin, or his father. Those hands, or his father. Finally, he closed his eyes, sighed and walked to the side door.
The ancient hinges creaked as he stepped inside. Ahead of him, grooved wooden stairs climbed to their apartment. To his right, linoleum-covered steps led down to a door labelled “Preparation Room.”
He winced. “Yeah, it’s me.”
“Come on down. I want to see you.”
“I’m beat. Can it wait`til morning?”
“It’ll only take a minute.”
Kirk rubbed his temples and took a deep breath. “Okay, Dad.”
He tip-toed down the stairs, pushed open the door and stood outside the threshold. He knew my body lay on the steel table, but he could not look at me. Instead he examined the bottles of pink, purple and orange fluids. Dodge Inr-seel. Dodge Poze.
Sean Brady bent over the head of the table. He wasn’t as tall as his son—he didn’t quite crack six feet—but he had the same dark curls and green eyes. Silver highlights crept up his temples. He dabbed lotion onto gloved fingers and tenderly massaged my forehead and my cheeks, smoothed out lines, instilled peace.
The irritating odour of formaldehyde reached Kirk outside the door, and he screwed up his face and started to breathe through his mouth.
The irritating odour of stale beer reached Sean, and he wrinkled his nose. “God, you smell like the pub floor. You were at Finnegan’s?”
“Yeah. We were so wired after the show we went there to wind down.”
“Sorry I had to miss opening night. But, unfortunately, people don’t die conveniently.” He added another dab of cream to his hand and massaged my throat.
Kirk was poised to bolt, but after this direct reference to me and my condition he risked a quick glance at me. He opened his mouth to say something but stopped. He leaned against the door frame and watched his father’s fingers trace the line of my jaw. “Dad?”
“Yes?” Sean’s fingers moved up to circle my temples.
“I don’t think I can do this.”
His father straightened. “Do what?”
“This.” He nodded his head in my direction. “This.” He waved an arm to include the whole room. “This.” He waved both arms to include the building, the business, the entirety of it all. “I don’t know how you can do this. I mean, you knew her, really well. How can you do this?”
“All the more reason for me to do it. I can’t think of a more loving tribute.”
“I couldn’t do it. I need . . . I need . . .” Kirk searched the shelves of pink jars for answers. “I need people to smile when I’m around. I need people to be happy to see me.” He leaned into the room. “Like tonight,” he continued. “Tonight was amazing. Everything just clicked. The music was perfect. The voices were perfect. There was such an incredible feeling in the room. It was like we were all—the cast, the crew, the audience, everyone—all one.” He relaxed against the door frame again and grinned. “Even Toto hit his marks.”
Sean walked to a cabinet against the wall and brought back a large fishing tackle box. He lifted the lid on a collection of heavy makeup and selected a beige cream foundation. “So, people were happy to see you tonight? You made people smile?”
“Everyone just fell apart when I did ‘If I Only Had a Brain.’”
Sean removed a clean makeup sponge from a glass jar and scooped a small amount of foundation onto it. “Show me.”
“Show me. I’d like to see it.”
“Dad, that’s just a little too weird. There’s a . . . I mean . . . with the body and everything.”
“Mary won’t mind. She likes the theatre.”
“Come on. I’d like to see it on opening night.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Come on. I’d love it. There’s lots of room over there. And good acoustics.” His father crossed the room to turn down the volume on Mozart.
“I think I might find it hard to get into character down here.”
“For a character with no brain, you sure do think a lot.”
Kirk stared at his father. Finally, he shrugged. “All right.” He crossed over to the far side of the room, between the jars of fluids and a large stainless steel sink, assumed a scarecrow stance and sang. His father sat on the stool beside me and enjoyed the singing-in-the-shower quality of Kirk’s voice in the embalming room acoustics. Kirk sang tentatively at first and then with more confidence, wrapping up his performance with the same full splits and rebound that had impressed Maggie.
Sean’s applause echoed. “Ah, that’s a goalie stretch if ever I’ve seen one.”
Kirk bowed deeply then moved to a stool on the other side of the embalming table. “So, what do you think?”
“I think people will remember that performance for a long time,” he said, turning back to me to apply foundation. “But there are lots of different ways to make people remember you. And lots of different ways to make people smile.” He passed the sponge over my eyelids and worked the colour into the crow’s feet in the corners. “And, sometimes, something we need the most is right there, but we just can’t see it.”
Kirk narrowed his eyes. “Hey, did you see the new sign at the church?”
Sean tossed the used sponge in the garbage beside the table and reached for the tackle box. He tested a pink blush against my face, but shook his head. His hand hovered over the other shades, finally choosing a wine colour. He selected the proper brush and applied shading to my cheekbones.
Kirk studied the professional ease of his father’s hand. “I’ve never seen you do this before, Dad. You’re good at it. You could do my stage make-up.”
“Oh, no. Do your own. You’ll need the practice,” his father said.
Kirk didn’t reply.
Sean replaced the blush and chose brown/black eyeliner. He moved in close and drew it across my left eyelid and then my right. The eyeliner brought the canvas of my face to life.
“Eyeliner,” Kirk said, “makes such a difference.” He ran a finger along his lower lid that still held a trace of liner missed in his hurried clean-up. “It’s hard to believe she’s dead.”
His father picked out a cedar-coloured eye shadow. “Well, her body is.” He loaded the brush and started on my left eye. “And I need to make Mary look her best because Mary always likes to look good.”
“But if she’s dead, why do you talk like she’s still here?”
“Come on, Dad. You can’t seriously believe that. You, of all people. The master of . . . of . . . decomposition.”
Kirk nodded in the direction of the embalming machine. “We’re all just . . . bodies and molecules. And when we’re dead we’re just food for other bodies and molecules.”
Sean Brady sat back. My left eye was professionally shadowed. My right eye was bare. “Really?” he said.
His father put down the shadow and the brush and put both hands on the edge of the table. He drummed his fingers on the metal. “Well, okay then. Think about this. Do you remember when we went fishing for the first time and you caught a three-pound bass?”
“Do you have that picture in your head?”
“Okay, hand it to me.”
“Hand the picture to me.”
“I can’t do that. It’s just in my head.”
“Exactly. I have lots of pictures of Mary,” Sean tapped his head with a forefinger, “in my head. We went to school together. One year, when we were maybe nine or ten, we had a school picnic. We did three-legged races and potato sack races and all the usual. At the end, the teachers handed out containers of ice cream. You know the ones that came with a little wooden stick?”
“Well, Mary and I were the last two kids in line and there was only one container left. The teacher was about to give it to Mary because she was the girl and that’s what you did in those days, but Mary told the teacher that I could have it. That’s one picture that I have of Mary. I have plenty more. Plenty.” He paused, looked down and cleared his throat. “And you know, you could cut me up into a trillion little pieces, separate all my protons and electrons and chemicals and you would never be able to find evidence of those pictures. But they’re there.”
He picked up the eye shadow and the brush from the table. “Something doesn’t have to be present to be here.”
He bent low and blended shadow over the lid of my right eye up into the brow. “That’s why I do this. When people come to see Mary they’ll make a memory picture of her. They’ll carry that with them and that way Mary will still be here. And they’ll lean on me for comfort—something solid and reliable at a time when their world is turned upside down. They’ll smile at me, through their tears. They’ll be happy to see me. They’ll carry that with them, too. People remember comfort long after they’ve forgotten laughter.” He straightened and leaned toward Kirk. “People remember my performances for a long time too, you know.”
As Kirk and Sean stared into each other’s eyes over my dead body, an intangible flash of energy crackled out of my solar plexus and radiated through the embalming room. A cone of gentle humming and buzzing settled around Kirk. The hair on his arms stood on end. A knowing, a new consciousness of exactly what he needed to do permeated his being. The dead touch the living in mysterious ways.
Sean shook his head. “OK, right.” He gave his head another little shake. “Yes, right.” He reached into the make-up case. “Now for lipstick.” He picked up two tubes. “What do you think? Café Grande?” He turned the second tube around in his hand. “Or . . .” He cocked his head. “Ruby Slippers?”
Their eyes met.
“Ruby Slippers,” Kirk said.