When I was a teenager, and that was a very long time ago, I started my life long work in a Funeral Home.
I washed and polished the hearses, sometimes I helped the Funeral Directors with smalls tasks like answering the phones or running errands and sometimes I helped in the embalming room too. And once a week I cleaned the toys out of ( or as we called it around The Home- and never in front of the families – Babyland ) and I stored them in neatly labeled boxes in the basement in of the three rooms that combined were bigger then the Home that sat on top of it.
We call that room The Toy Room, for obvious reason.
The Toy Room is lined with the cherry wood shelves where the boxes of toys collected from Babyland rest on shelves that are regularly polished to a glassy shine by yours truly. The stucco walls and ceiling are painted light blue and the worn tile floor used to be pink.
In a room next to The Toy Room, is a room we call 1105- I don’t know why we call it that, but that’s the room where we keep unclaimed cremains- those too are kept in neatly labeled boxes.
Now and then it’s necessary to replace the boxes holding the Urns as they age and fall apart so that when you walk into 1105- whose stucco walls are a dignified cream color and whose shelves are made of the same wood we store the toys from Babyland- everything in there looks almost new.
There’s a memorial book for the Unclaimed on a lectern outside the door of 1105 that I keep dust free . The pages are blank and never have been written in and the pen is always replaced when the ink in the old pen dries up.
During the holidays I put fresh flowers in a small vase on the lectern with the Memorial Book and the pen. Forget Me Nots. That’ what sits there next to the blank book in the darkned basement.
Those two rooms are the only rooms I don’t go into unless I absolutely have too but that self-imposed rule does not apply to the third room which is crematorium that Mr. Challoner runs with a smooth quiet efficiency.
Once and awhile I drop in when Mr. Challoner is working to see if he needed help.
Sometimes I helped him move – and like the rest of the staff at The Home he always refers to those who have passed by their names- those who have passed from one place to another and he never let me run the board or handle the cremains as they were moved into their urns or boxes.
I do remember the first time he let me do one of those two tasks
” Miss Felonwood” he said and he always called the staff by their surnames- ” I could use your help, if you don’t mind”
I was at his side in a flash, of course, and he gave me a series of small tasks- handing him a small screwdriver to close the urns, making sure his work area was spotless before he worked on the next set of cremains.
One day he looked down ( Mr Challoner was a very tall man- six-foot five or so I’d say) and said in his formal way ” It appears you’ve taken too much sun.”
I touched my nose, which was slightly red. ” I probably got a sunburn. I spent too much time out there today.”
” You should be careful Miss Felonwood. As you know, those burns can leave scars.”
” I know. But. Well. It was so nice outside …. I’ll, I’ll be more careful next time.”
Mr. Challoner looked like he was going to say something but he stopped himself and motioned me towards the Control Panel. ” If you don’t mind Miss Felonwood.”
Of course I didn’t mind.
Mr. Challoner was my friend, after all.
I was walking up the stairs from the basement one night, when I heard one of the three doors from downstairs open and then close.
Mr. Challoner’s door was new- it whispered open and closed. The other two doors had aged locks and old hinges and they complained when you woke them up to work. One of those two doors was complaining louder than usual and when I heard it close I felt a cool breeze wrap itself around my shoulders and settle there.
The weight of that cold stopped me on the dark stairway and as much as I wanted to turn around and see what was standing there behind me I didn’t. I also didn’t scream, which is something I really wanted to do.
” Excuse me.” an old man’s voice asked me. ” Do you know the way out of here?”
I couldn’t move- I’d only been that scared one other time in my life and it wasn’t as bad as how I felt on those stairs because it had been over so quickly.
” I’ve been here for so- sometimes it feels like minutes and other times it feels like years- I don’t understand that. Do you.”
I opened my mouth to answer and it took a few tries before I heard myself say, ” No.”
” I was in the hospital and then I was here. I’ve forgotten my name. I try and try to remember it but I can’t. Why can’t I remember my own name?”
I thought about all those boxes with the names printed neatly on cards sitting in that cream colored room on their polished shelves- forgotten and shut away in a basement and I said to the cool weight ” I don’t think you’re supposed to do that anymore.”
“Please Miss.. please… Do you know the way out of here …”
” Vedda, my name is Vedda Felonwood ” I said knowing how lucky I was to know my own name, to have a home and friends and a job and a place to belong instead of a cherry wood shelf that smelled faintly of lemons. ” I do know the way out of here. But I’ve never gone there… “
I turned around and looked into the sad face of not an old man, but a sort of young man who had aged downstairs in an eternal night ” I got hurt a long time ago- I lifted the hair away from my neck and showed my companion my ruined neck- I looked into his face and parted my lips so he could see my teeth- my horrible pointed and unnaturally white teeth ” I woke up here a long,long time ago and if I stay here. I don’t change, I don’t get- ” I looked for the right words.
And then I thought I knew what I should do.
I ran- no I flew past the man and down the stairs to 1105 and I took the pen out of the penholder and I opened the guest book and I wrote my name down inside of it on the very first line.
I heard the footsteps moving up the stairs. I heard the door at the top of the stairs open and before it closed I heard the man call down to me, ” Have a good evening Miss Felonwood, “
” You too- ” I replied from the darkness
” Cadwell. My name is Calvin Cadwell.”