Black Kettle Excerpt: Chances

My great-great grandfather founded this funeral home in 1903. Formaldehyde and ethanol course my veins. Death, to me, is a state as important as the state of New York; death houses more souls. Although I am not spiritual, I do have a strong respect for the departed. In addition to my financial and generational connection with death, I also have a tangible connection with the bodies that pass through here. You might say death is my life, my personal metropolis, my Big Apple.

People call me lucky. Statistically, I have found myself in the outer extremities of the bell curve more than a couple times. First off, I am lucky to have been born into a family business that keeps me comfortable and my needs supplied. That is, perhaps, the most normal thing about me. I am, on both sides of the family tree, descended from the stateless nation of Armenia. My grandfather’s father came to America and was stalled in Ellis Island because he could not prove his origins: “Where are my papers?”

Eventually, for an unspeakable favor my grandmother performed for the paper-keeper, they were both granted entrance to America and its gold-paved avenues.

Long used to wandering, they did not settle in New York City as many of their contemporary immigrants did. Instead they migrated south until they landed in this large city that would, eventually, by the end of my father’s generation, become a small metropolis. South of what the natives knew was the Mason-Dixon Line, they found they could achieve instant social status just above the negroes whose own mobility was constrained by grotesque generational tethers to a land that grew strong by their labor and warped by the guilt that came along with it.

Free to take advantage of their European ancestry–gypsies though they may have been–they accepted the assistance of a locally confirmed bachelor who asked his own special favors of our Armenian-turned-American patriarch. In exchange for a few acts that, in light of what he allowed his wife to perform to secure their entrance to America’s teeming shore–in the shadow of Miss Liberty– he acquiesced and performed admirably; he bought stability and favor. His suitor-benefactor provided the training and skills to assume what would eventually become the family business: bequeathed upon the beneficent lecher’s death.

Generations passed; the memory of this sacrifice–neutered by success–became unaffectedly institutionalized in the family mythology. Despite the family line, we all know that one does not succeed by hard work alone. Thus, we continue in this business-of-death and thank the stars for shooting luck our way. Of course, we take every opportunity to pull fortune in our direction.

As if being born wasn’t enough to confirm the luck in my genes, I have been blessed over and over again. If the luck didn’t start three generations ago, it at least started in the womb. I was conceived as one of three. My overly fertile mother released three eggs. My overly fertile father fertilized us all. Only I survived the trauma of a double ectopic pregnancy. While my short-term womb mates did not make the full trip into life, the luck that they might otherwise have brought into the world seems heaped upon me. I am lucky enough for three people.

I have been struck by lightning and survived it. At the age of eighteen, I hit a patch of ice and slid off a bridge into a nearly frozen river. Plane crash? Yes, here I am.

By right, I should have been my own client more than a few times.

I have been a million-dollar lottery winner not once but twice. My first trip to Las Vegas, I dropped ten dollars into a dollar slot machine and, on my third spin, hit the three-times-pay triple-red-Pharaoh progressive. When the bells stopped ringing, I was signing a 1099 form for two-hundred-sixty-thousand dollars.

In my senior year of high school, I–a goofy, pimply, sousaphone-player in the marching band–took the prom queen’s virginity on a casket. “I’ve never done that before,” she protested. I thought she meant the part about having sex on a walnut box with a dead body in it. Because it was my first time, I missed all of the telltale signs of her burst hymen. I never spoke to her again. She never spoke to me again. She is now a nurse-orderly, aged beyond her years and severely underemployed at an Alzheimer’s home. Our paths still cross in awkward silence. When removing her former patients–my new clients–from her facility, I sometimes catch her staring weirdly at me. I’m the undertaker, and she’s the one who creeps me out.

I have a freakishly large yet amazingly muscular–from what I have been told and seen–member. I have confirmed this with research in medical journals, random pornography, and based on my own experience working with hundreds of corpses. I have never seen a penis as big as mine. Though I have yet to marry, or find a life-partner, I find many opportunities–often centered on the need to assuage the emptiness brought about by sudden loss and bereavement–to flex my tool without any of the complications or strings that might otherwise accompany sex. Making love to a woman who has not been penetrated since the her husband’s demise is like re-taking her virginity. Giving by nature, I receive intense pleasure from providing it.

Statistically, I am one in approximately ninety-six billion. The earth’s population will have to turn another sixteen times before fate shines the same collection of achievements upon a single person. Likely, by that time, such a person will be a robot or Martian.

When word spread that the asteroid would hurtle into our area and that some chunks would not wholly disintegrate, I looked forward to the event with the macabre joy that only those in the business of death would understand.

While nobody should wish death on anyone, especially an untimely one, death is, nonetheless, a most natural part of life. I sleep well at night knowing that the treatment my firm provides to the newly departed is beyond expectations. We provide the most dignified and comfortable eternal slumber possible.

I always get the high-profile cases. When a falling boulder crushed a bus filled with high-school football players, when a bear mauled a family of campers, when the mayor died, when the mayor’s wife passed, and when the mayor’s mistress mysteriously fell over a loose rail at a ski lodge, the services I provided were both thorough and perfectly appropriate to the situation. I am as recognized for my discretion as I am sympathetic artistry. Sometimes the bodies–corpses–are mangled or burned or crushed beyond recognition and I offer a refined and peaceful memory to the family who will only have one last chance–often a chance that they would kill to recapture in life–to kiss their loved one’s forehead.

Although we have four locations spread across the metro area, I still take an active part in at least eighty percent of the preparations. I am not an absent owner; I am a hands-on partner in much of the work that bears the name of my family’s funeral home. We actually took on a re-branding four years ago, when my father retired, in which the old “funeral home” became “eternal preparations.”

I recently began considering my legacy: my lack of an heir. Meanwhile, I impart my wisdom and experience upon my employees, treating each like a son or daughter and instilling healthy respect for the artistry of our trade. In addition to the earlier-noted calm that I like to share with bereaving women, I am highly attuned to building and preserving the brand. It is important to me that our family name is the go-to in the death business.

I knew that there would be loss of life involved in today’s calamitous events. We received no warning. How long the cosmologists and politicians knew about this will be a matter of speculation for quite some time. I am certain that, when the dust clears, heads will roll. Meanwhile, I will do what I do. I will prepare the victims. I will console the heavy-hearted. I will thank luck for keeping me in business. Likely, I will comp a few preparations for those whose family cannot afford our–frankly, more expensive than all competitors–superior services.

I happened to catch the local news report while I worked in the basement. Sometimes, I just get into a cleaning mode. I keep a sixty-inch television in the main prep area. I awoke this morning and just wanted everything to shine. While much of the new generation has moved to plastic and ceramic tools, I insist that we still use stainless steel: one of the legacy items that the families never see but that is a matter of quality and pride for us. Incisions are finer, sutures are tighter, the looks of repose more reposed.

Usually, I leave QVC on for white noise, but even QVC was interrupted by “official news and information.” I began switching channels until I found what seemed to be the best signal. “Meteors, some the size of grapefruit, will hit the ground today.” At first, I thought that this was isolated to our area, but then conflicting reports made it seem as though the incident was more widespread than initially reported. Broadcasters briefly cut to a reporter in the field but then the screen went to snow. I clicked through the stations and found no signal. I picked up my phone and discovered the same thing. No communication–in or out.

I heard explosions and decided to investigate. I climbed the stairwell toward the first-floor lobby to see flames. Fire engulfed my building and I heard more explosions, nearer, louder, more ground shaking. Without compunction, I charged into the open air where once an anteroom stood. The bravery, fueled by a charmed life, raised the question that the most eminent statistician in the world, were he still alive, might well have wondered.

“What. Are. The.”

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