“The Judge” by Michael Ryan
From the back of the room, David watches Ms. Thaxton swerve down the aisle, black dress flowing in pleats and crevices, shaking hands with the diamond-crusted people offering used-up condolences and kisses on both cheeks for her dead daughter.
David hears their murmurs. “Tragic.” “Simply dreadful.” “Lost control.” “Crashed into a tree.” He can’t imagine how his funeral home will survive this decision he had to make. There’s nothing left to do but wait for Ms. Thaxton’s reaction.
Sweet-scented flower arrangements outline the room—heart-shaped red and white roses, and carnations spelling “Rest in Peace.” On top of a glass table, David’s assistant arranges tissues in the shape of a four-point star.
Ms. Thaxton’s friends and family can’t provide her enough comfort. She dabs her leaky eyes with her kerchief. They steer her towards her daughter, Abby.
It was only five days ago, after the beauty pageant, that David stayed up late, finding clips of Abby practicing her talent, twirling her baton on You Tube with a smile and grace belonging only to the young and pure of heart. He frequented her facebook page, even at work, restraining the urge to comment on her always-cheerful status, but he never friended her for fear his wife, Marge, would find out. His fantasies included posh dinners to discuss her boundless future, watching romantic comedies snuggled on a couch, eating ice cream sundaes, kissing (only kissing) for hours on the beach. This blurring between professional and personal, after more than fifteen years as funeral home owner and pageant judge, never happened to him before.
Now this—watching Abby’s mother put on a show, as though she’s on stage, twirling her sadness for a new audience of well-wishers, avoiding even the quickest glance at her daughter.
David couldn’t easily squash his grief over Abby, like the thousands of other deaths he has witnessed. He spent his nights in front of the TV with Marge’s head on his lap, peering up at him with dark blue eyes, asking the same tired questions about his lunch or his day or the dry cleaning or his heartburn, that she’d asked for thirteen years.
Ms. Thaxton is surprised to find herself at the front of the line. She turns around, happy to see an elderly lady leaning on her walker. David senses the beginnings of discomfort, but he clenches his toes, then stretches them out, repeating this until he feels calm again. He has no regrets.
The lady whispers in Ms. Thaxton’s ear. Ms. Thaxton smiles, pinches the woman’s wrinkled cheeks. Ms. Thaxton has the high cheekbones of the surgically-enhanced, unlike Abby, whose cherubic face, despite the accident, is still smooth and round.
The lady puts a hand on Ms. Thaxton’s shoulder, faces her forward. David moves to the corner to get a better view.
Marge liked David’s idea about a Caribbean vacation without their two kids. They could lie on the beach, Marge on her blanket, toes digging in the white sand, drinking Sex on the Beach because she’d think it was funny. David would tell her it was time to sell Leary Funeral Homes. He was burned out. She could help him decide what to do next with his life.
Ms. Thaxton approaches the casket, cradling her sequined purse, pausing before her knees touch the cushioned bench. She holds the exquisite mahogany casket with one hand, the other covering her mouth. Abby’s dress is clearly not the white one she asked for. She stands, shuffles towards Abby’s head, where her sobs eventually reach David.
He should feel guilty. He would’ve revealed Abby’s simple but charming chestnut-colored dress privately, but Ms. Thaxton was too busy preparing her house for her guests after the funeral. This morning, he should’ve felt guilty too, as he massaged Abby’s tight muscles, rubbing the tiny gatherings of cellulite on her thighs, hips, and stomach, up her cone-shaped breasts, and through her thick brown hair, before putting on the dress he purchased. Ms. Thaxton wanted to bury Abby in her hideous wedding-gown of a pageant dress.
Ms. Thaxton ignores the outpouring of condolences as she walks towards David. “I’d like a word,” she says under her black lace glove.
She follows him to his office, walking over the holes in the carpet David meant to replace last year, past black and white pictures of the funeral home his father started sixty years ago. If only Ms. Thaxton followed Abby after the results were announced, instead of storming out of the auditorium, leaving her daughter to drive alone.
David stands behind his desk, folds his arms on his protruding stomach, bends his head slightly to the right, a stance he has perfected in this business, the antithesis of melodrama.
Ms. Thaxton crosses her arms. “I watched you at that silly little Miss Apple Blossom Pageant,” she says with a faux British accent, desperately trying to hide the intensity of her anger and sadness. “You seemed to think highly of my Abby. She’s more than your average customer. Isn’t she, Mr. Leary?”
David doesn’t let his eyes stray from hers, consciously avoiding her flat chest that is the opposite of Abby’s. He wonders why Ms. Thaxton didn’t enhance hers.
She gestures towards the hutch filled with his collection of totems used by mourners from around the world. “It’s an odd profession you’ve chosen for yourself.”
He looks at his two prized-possessions, locked behind glass—a molimo, the flute-like instrument the BaMbuti Pygmies blow to calm their forest deity, and the jade beads used to capture the last breath of cremated Aztecs. They give him strength and guidance. He doesn’t know what happens after death, but he has studied it extensively.
David bounces his fingertips in front of him. “Throughout history, the reverence for death is the only standard shared by all human cultures. Not taboos against incest and cannibalism. Not love and marriage. Your dress was made for a bride. Not the deceased.”
Ms. Thaxton grabs the back of a chair, leans forward. Abby didn’t have Ms. Thaxton’s hawkish nose, but Ms. Thaxton didn’t have Abby’s protruding chin. “I raised my daughter by myself since she was two. We picked that dress together and, although it’s none of your business, it was not sold for a wedding.” She hides her face behind her hand. “How she didn’t win, I will never comprehend.”
Brides don’t have sex appeal. During the swimwear portion of the competition, Abby wore a yellow bikini. She was slightly plump but natural, not hidden behind make-up like the winner, the blonde bombshell who, in years past, David would’ve voted for. Abby had something else, a winning quality he couldn’t encapsulate within a single word.
David clasps his hands behind his back. “This is about Abby’s peace of mind in the afterlife. Not your peace of mind today.”
David’s dress was made for a third-place beauty queen preparing to unite body with Earth—bacteria and maggots and mites and dirt. His dress will travel with Abby’s spirit, respectfully asking the gods of the afterlife for an escort.
Ms. Thaxton stands up straight. “I can take both your licenses away!” A pulsing vein juts out of her elongated neck.
David wanted to get to know Abby better after her interview. She was asked to recite the alphabet backwards in less than ten seconds. Dumbfounded, she stumbled through thirty-four awkward tics of David’s watch, but she never stopped smiling. When she finished, amid the scattering of applause, an assistant whispered into the emcee’s ear that Abby was asked the wrong question. Abby chuckled, said with a slight Southern accent, “I can do better if you ask me again.”
Ms. Thaxton’s face shakes. “How does anyone know what happens after death?”
David closes his eyes.
This morning, it was dark when David arrived. He descended the creaky wooden stairs, flipped on the lights. Abby was the only one there. It was cold. David whipped off her white sheet, looked around the shiny metallic room one last time, taking a deep breath of formaldehyde, bending slowly, putting his hand on Abby’s forehead as he kissed her cold hard lipstick-red lips.
“You had too many years to judge your daughter.” He licks his lips. “Now you need my perspective. That’s why you chose me. Isn’t it, Ms. Thaxton?”