In the summer following their freshman year of high school, Tommy and Iggy were lying out at the Patterson Park pool on their stomachs to hide the boners they got from watching the girls go by. Tommy closed his eyes, the hot sun beating down on his back. He listened to the shouts of children splashing in the water until he heard a funny noise and opened his eyes. Iggy was making armpit farts at a thin blond girl with circles under her eyes. She glared at him, wide-eyed, then gave him the finger and moved on.
“Who was that?” Tommy asked.
“Rosie Gorelski, otherwise known as Rosie the Rosebud. She’s a real slut.”
“A girl who’s easy, who puts out all the time and can’t get enough. Like a nympho. You know what I mean?” Tommy nodded, pretending to know what his friend was talking about. He hated it when Iggy had to explain things to him. The first time he heard the word “pecker” he had to ask what that meant, too. “It’s the same as a boner,” Iggy said, and Tommy wondered where he learned such things.
Rosie Gorelski walked by again after Iggy went to the snack bar. Tommy couldn’t help staring at her bleached blond hair and brightly painted red toenails.
“What are you looking at, you little dick?” she said.
Tommy was mortified and looked away until she left. Barbara Orlinsky came out of the bath house in her bikini. He shut his eyes, pretending to be asleep, until she got closer. Then he opened one eye. There was a mole on the inside of her thigh. As she passed closer, he opened both eyes. Her hips swayed rhythmically above the narrow slit in the crotch of her pink bikini. The hot sun burned right through his body to the boner throbbing beneath him. Before he knew what was happening, Tommy shot his wad.
“What’s wrong?” Iggy asked when he came back.
Without raising his head Tommy said, “I lost it, Igg. I got a boner watching Barbara Orlinsky go by and shot my wad into the towel. What am I going to do?”
Iggy looked at him. “Don’t move. Whatever you do, don’t move. Just lie there until I get back.” Then he ran to the other side of the pool.
Iggy disappeared into the bath house. Tommy didn’t dare move. When he heard bare feet slapping the wet concrete, he looked up to see Iggy standing over him with a bucket full of water. Instinctively, he rolled over to avoid being doused. As he did, Iggy dumped the cold water onto his crotch. Tommy howled, but his trunks were soaking wet and his problem was solved.
They had grown up together in East Baltimore, riding their bikes down to the waterfront in Canton and along Boston Street to Fells Point. They played basketball at the Rec Center and baseball in Patterson Park. In the eighth grade, Tommy was an altar boy at Saint Elizabeth’s while Iggy sang in the church choir. To everyone’s surprise, Iggy sang with a clear soprano voice that sounded like an angel. The choir director always picked him to sing the Ave Maria at funerals and the Panis Angelicus at First Holy Communion. Old ladies cried and young girls swooned when he opened his mouth to sing. They forgot his foul language, his snickering laugh, and his crooked teeth. But the boys teased Iggy about it, saying, “You better watch out. One day your voice will change and they’ll cut your balls off.”
Iggy’s father was an undertaker and the Zeiler family lived on the second floor of a corner row house over top the funeral home. The neighbors said that Mr. Zeiler embalmed corpses down in the basement, and Tommy once asked Iggy if he had ever watched his father work. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “My dad’s stuck his hands into all kinds of things.” With a loud staccato laugh, he added, “Don’t ever go rummaging around in our garbage cans.”
Iggy often got into fights with the other guys who ragged him about his father’s business. One day Eddie Rybcynski said ,”Hey Iggy, your old man ever do it with a corpse?” But Chuck Lancelotta teased him worse. “What’s that stink coming from your chimney? Did your old man cremate someone last night?”
“It’s no worse than the smell from your sister’s snatch,” Iggy yelled and then went after Chuck with fists flying.
In July Tommy celebrated his sixteenth birthday in the alley behind Iggy’s house. They sat on the concrete with their backs against a chain-link fence and drank a six-pack from Mr. Zeiler’s walk-in refrigerator down in the basement. Tommy didn’t ask what else was stored there but after his second beer he confessed to his friend that he still had a crush on Barbara Orlinsky.
“No shit?” Iggy said, rolling his eyes.
Tommy looked at the sealed trash cans in the Zeiler’s back yard. “Does your old man really embalm corpses?”
Iggy nodded. “Absolutely. When I saw him do it the first time, I ran into the john and puked. But by the time we were in the eighth grade I was helping out.”
Tommy had suspected as much but was still surprised. “What do you do?”
“Simple stuff, like stripping the body and moving the stretcher into place. Then I hand him the tools when he’s ready to start. I could probably do it by myself now, except that would be illegal.” He glanced at Tommy. “Sure you want to hear this, sport?”
“First thing we do is slide the naked corpse from the stretcher onto a stainless steel table.”
Tommy raised his hand. “The first time you did it, was it a man or a woman?”
Iggy blinked. “The first time was a woman.”
“So you got to see her naked body?”
“She was dead, for Christ’s sake. It ain’t the same as what you see in Playboy. Besides, they’re mostly old and shriveled up. Especially when we’re done with them.” Iggy let out his loud staccato laugh.
Tommy took another swig of beer. “What next?” He was dying to know but afraid to hear the gory details.
“We drain all the blood out from an artery. We do that at the same time we inject chemicals into another artery.” Iggy took a swig of beer. “My old man does all the injection stuff. Sometimes I have to hold an arm or a leg down so the blood drains out properly.” He looked at Tommy. “You all right, sport?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. Then what?”
“Then we do the cavity. That’s the fun part. My old man cuts a hole in the stomach and inserts this long metal tube with a suction hose attached to it. That sucks out all the gas and fluids and stuff from the organs so we can pump the chemicals in.”
Tommy was starting to feel queasy. “What do you do with all the stuff that comes out?”
“If it’s liquid, it goes down the drain into the sewer. If it’s solid, it goes into a special tank that gets emptied once a month. ” He paused. “You ready for the last part?”
Tommy finished his beer. Everything was looking green. “Sure, why not?”
“My old man sews up the holes he made in the body while I massage the face and hands with a special cream to make them soft. Then he puts cotton in the nose and mouth and eyelids. Sometimes up the ass and in the vagina, too. For some really bad cases, he has to stuff cotton down the throat and then wire the mouth shut.”
Tommy eyes grew wide and his stomach was churning. “Does the body, like, move at all while you’re doing this?”
“Nah. The rigor mortis has taken over by then. Sometimes, if they had arthritis really bad, he has to cut through a muscle or tendon so the hands and arms look natural in the casket.”
Memories of his grandmother’s viewing ran through Tommy’s head. He had been afraid to look at her face, so he stared at the white satin lining inside the coffin instead, at the gnarled fingers with a rosary wrapped around them.
“The last thing we do is put the clothes on and apply make-up. That’s my favorite part. It’s what my old man let me do first and it’s really cool, except when you have to glue the fingers together. Everything has to look perfect, you know, like the person was just sleeping and not really dead. Like they’re still alive in the same room with you.”
Tommy was starting to feel woozy. He wanted to ask something else, but had trouble remembering what. “How? How do you…?”
Iggy smiled, as if he knew what Tommy was thinking. “I just pretend they’re mummies. That’s all. Just friggin’ mummies. That’s how I get through it.”
“Thanks, Igg’. I really ’ppreciate your tellin’ me this.”
But Iggy wasn’t finished. “My old man explained to me once how embalming started with the Egyptians. Before they could be mummified all the internal organs had to be removed, just like we do. Except for one big difference.” He glanced at Tommy. “You okay, sport? You gonna pass out on me?”
Bleary eyed, Tommy shook his head.
“The Egyptians removed the dead person’s brain. Know how they did that?”
Tommy didn’t answer. His head was spinning.
“They pulled it out with a long hook through the nose.”
Tommy heard his friend’s loud staccato laugh as the chain link fence pressed sharply into his back. His mouth filled up with bile and he puked down the front of his shirt. He keeled over into Iggy’s lap.
Two weeks later they were following a skirt on their way to Matthew’s Pizza. A short blond skirt in flip flops. Tommy stared at her tan legs and the tight denim skirt moving rhythmically over her ass as she walked. Flip flop. Flip flop. He imagined what the golden palace between her thighs looked like and felt himself getting hard. Flip flop. Flip flop.
“Now that’s a nice piece of ass,” Iggy said. “You got a boner yet, sport? You gonna cream in your jeans?”
“Shut up, Iggy. All you think about is sex and corpses.”
Iggy smiled. “What else is there?” Ever since he claimed to have gone all the way with a girl, Iggy annoyed Tommy with his constant teasing about sex. But when Tommy asked who the girl was, Iggy clammed up. “You don’t know her. She’s not from around here.” Now he said, “Are you still hung up on Barbara Orlinsky?”
Tommy winced. He dreamt about seeing Barbara’s tits and feeling her up, but the most he ever managed was to kiss her. Once, at a party. They were standing alone in a corner after slow dancing together and she smiled at him with her lips slightly parted. He smiled back but she kept staring at him, waiting for him to do something. He felt his boner throbbing, swallowed hard, and put his lips to hers. She opened her mouth and he put his tongue inside but felt nothing, just a big hollow cavity. When he told Iggy that he couldn’t find her tongue, his friend had laughed. “Maybe that’s why she’s called Barbara O.”
Iggy’s voice brought him back to the present. “You need to stop jerking off so much and get laid, pal. Forget about Barbara. She’s just a cock tease. Want me to fix you up with someone?”
Tommy stopped dead in his tracks, startled by what his friend said, but Iggy kept walking. At the corner he glanced back with a smirk on his face and yelled, “Come on, asshole.” Tommy wanted to follow, but couldn’t. When Iggy cocked his head and held his middle finger in the air, Tommy turned around and went home.
In the fall of that year Iggy flunked out of Calvert Hall. He was poor at math and science and had been in danger of flunking ever since they started. After he went to public high school, they drifted apart. Tommy graduated from Calvert Hall with a full scholarship to college in Philadelphia. Iggy was drafted and sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for basic training.
Tommy finally got laid during his first semester of college. He met a girl named Angela who introduced him to her friends and invited him to drink beer with them in the woods behind campus. One night, after consuming too many six-packs, Angela rested her head on Tommy’s lap while they listened to a rambling discussion about the word horny and whether or not it applied to girls. “Horny comes from the satyrs,” someone said. “Those funny creatures with horns and tails and the legs of a goat. They stood for the male sex drive, so how can it apply to girls?” Tommy thought that maybe having horns was like having a boner and wondered if Angela could feel his beneath her lovely blond hair. After the others left she looked up at him.
“Girls get horny, too, and I can prove it.”
The next morning Tommy wanted to call Iggy and tell him what had happened but by then Iggy was in Vietnam, where his unit fought furiously but hopelessly to defend a remote mountain village.
When Tommy’s mother called his college dorm with the news she said, “I’m sorry you missed his funeral. I just read about it in the parish bulletin.”
Tommy was so shaken that all he could say was “I wonder who embalmed him.”
There was a brief silence on the other end. “I think they’re sent home in a sealed coffin already embalmed.”
Tommy was relieved despite the numbing sadness he felt. There was a time when he thought they would be friends forever.
That night, after drowning his grief with Angela and her friends, he walked back to the dorm alone. He heard a loud staccato laugh and whirled around, but no one was there. Gazing up into the black sky filled with stars, he imagined Iggy’s flag draped casket at his father’s funeral parlor, heard the angelic voice singing Ave Maria at the Requiem Mass, and recalled the last words uttered at the cemetery. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. His heart surged and he suppressed a sob. He turned back toward the dorm. He wished he had kept in touch. He wished that Iggy had never been sent to Vietnam. But most of all he wished his friend had been cremated.
Iggy would have liked it that way.