My parents, they own a dying parlor. They operate it out of our house. A dying parlor is like a funeral parlor, only instead of people coming here already dead, people come here to die. Then they go to the funeral parlor.
My room is upstairs. The dying happens downstairs.
Tutti, that’s my mother, thinks she’s a great listener. What she doesn’t realize is she only listens for an opening so she can talk. I’ve tried to tell her this but when you’re screaming through a shut door things get lost in translation.
Right now Tutti is listening for a yes. But she is getting a no. Tutti says, just for a bit. One hour, tops, for Mr. Wendt.
Mr. Wendt, she tells my shut door, is not cranky in the least, he’s a special case.
She says it would be a comfort for Mr. Wendt to have a young person there.
My eyes are rolling.
Tutti has a perfect rectangular mouth full of white teeth. I started calling her and Rick, my father, by their first names three years ago when I got my first period. Tutti is Tutti’s real name. Rick is Rick’s real name too, but he also answers to G. Rick Moneysack. Rick’s a retired hip-hop sensation.
Please, Tutti is saying. I don’t know why you have to put up such a fight. Honestly, honey.
In the years leading up to my fifteen-year mark Tutti made gingham dresses in pairs, one big and one small, and we dressed alike for clients. With the leftover fabric she made Rick matching ties.
Clients at the dying parlor are gray and wrinkled. Well known fact: gray-hairs love little kids. I used to charm the pants off them. I’d smile and dimple and jig across the parlor, my curls bouncing to the sound of their claps. I made Shirley Temple look like dogfood. The clients ate me up. They always said death was a lot less scary with a cute kid in the room. And she’s so like you, they would tell Tutti. Back then it was a compliment to us both.
The clients though, the dying people, they stopped smiling when my growth spurts happened. I shot up tall and lanky. My chest now has two lumps that look like rude jokes pinned on my skinny frame.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out dying people like to have a kid around to remind them of happier times. A teenager though, that’s something they’ll skip for their last two hours on earth. No one looks back on their life and says, remind me again of what it was like to be fifteen. Yeah, those were the days.
Tutti tries her best to keep me babyish. Things were easier when I could be bought off with a lollipop. Back then I wouldn’t have minded an evening with Mr. Wendt. It would have meant staying up past bedtime, for one thing. I used to like watching the funny men on the late night shows tell jokes I didn’t understand.
Now I understand the jokes and they’re no longer interesting.
Tutti and Rick call me Little Red, or Red for short, on account of my red hair. My Christian first name is Michelle. I’m still not okay with the fact that I carry both Rick’s and Tutti’s family names, hyphenated: Riding-Hood. They say it’s unique, I say I can’t wait to change it when I’m eighteen. Smith, anydamnthing.
I read that women in concentration camps used to cut themselves and rub blood on their cheeks like rouge. They did it to look healthier, in hopes of getting shuffled to a labor camp instead of the gas chambers. I did it because Tutti wouldn’t spring for Candy Cane Blusher Number Seven in Cupie Doll Rose. Rick called me dramatical. I called him an asshole.
Tutti sighs on the other side of the door. Fine, she says. But Mr. Wendt is going to be very disappointed. Her voice goes up a notch when she adds, this is his last day on this earth, Red.
When I don’t answer she whispers, we could really use a nice review from Mr. Wendt. Especially after the Mrs. Perkins fiasco.
Tutti and Rick spend zilch dollars on advertising because they’re cheapo-s. Their business comes strictly from word-of-mouth-referrals. You have to believe in ghosts to understand.
Mr. Wendt, I’m sure, is expecting what I was seven years ago because that’s how he heard it from someone else. He’s probably got this image in his head of corkscrew curls and a gap-toothed smile. He probably has a story about his first bicycle all queued up and ready to go. Mr. Wendt, I know, will expect me to be seen and not heard. He won’t be interested in any of the things I want to talk about. For example, how hard it is to meet boys when your parents run a dying parlor.
When a dying person rings us up, Rick takes the appointment down. He has a funny voice and people say he’s easy to talk to. Rick asks their favorite meal, their favorite music, and if they have any special requests. The dying person always shows up early. I don’t know why.
Tutti is the greeter on account of her nice smile, and she does have a nice one. Rick has a mouth of gold teeth like nuggets in a mineshaft. Tutti greets the client, takes their coat, and hands it to me if I’m around. I take it upstairs and put it in a cardboard box. The box is preaddressed to a family member or charity. That’s part of what Rick asks during the appointment call, where they want their personal effects sent.
Clients like to have tea in the front room before dinner. Tea is something the elderly really zero in on, like punctuality. After tea we move into the kitchen and eat whatever they requested in the phone call. If it’s something simple, like baked ham or barbequed chicken, the food will have been made by Tutti. If it’s something hard like sushi or buffalo steak, Tutti will have ordered in before the client showed up. When she orders in she takes the food out of the to-go containers and puts them in her own dishes so it looks like she cooked everything. She even fake-dirties pots and pans to leave in the sink.
After dinner we go back to the front room. No one ever chooses to die in the morning so it’s always dark outside by this time. Rick puts a fire together. Sometimes the client wants to talk or play cards or sing a song. Rick creams his jeans over the musical ones. He has a record player he drags out just for them. Then he scratches. That’s the thing where you take vinyl records and move them back and forth at different speeds under the record player needle. He learned to do it when he was a rapper. Sorry, hip hop sensation. It’s nauseating.
We let the client tell us when the evening’s over. We’ve had them kick the bucket as early as dessert. Most stick around until conversation gets thin. I’ve heard death rattles, mid-sentence mumbles, and frightened sudden-death screams. They all scare the shit out of me.
Tutti takes care of phoning the coroner. She and the coroner have what I would call a flirty relationship. Tutti touches his arm when she talks to him and laughs too loud at his stupid jokes (I thought about buying a sports car but there just wasn’t enough room in the back, har har har.)
Rick thinks the coroner is a fruit.
I’m thinking about how I never want to hear the coroner tell another cheesy joke when Tutti tells me I can leave before Mr. Wendt dies, if I’d rather not be around for that part.
She doesn’t get it.
I don’t want to be around for any part of it.
Tutti is 25% Swedish, 25% Pixie, 25% Cherokee Indian, and 25% Sea Nymph. What this adds up to, Rick says, is an ass that won’t quit. I got Tutti’s smile and Rick’s big ass. When I was small Tutti used to pat my behind. Now that I’m older it’s big enough to be the elephant in the room. When I stomp up the stairs it moves like a waterbed.
Tutti’s voice has this lilt when she gets really desperate, like when she wants to watch the world cheerleading championships on TV and can’t figure out how to work the satellite. Everything starts to sound like a question.
Rick? The satellite isn’t working? I’ll put a pie in the oven if you’ll give it a look?
Tutti’s lilting like crazy now.
Red? she says. It would mean so much to us if you’d just come down?
I’m tired of listening to the shut door and she won’t give up. I tell her I’m game so long as there’s a gift card to the cosmetics store in it for me. I try to take her for a hundred bucks.
We settle on twenty-five. Enough for Candy Cane Blusher Number Seven in Cupie Doll Rose, a tube of Lip Shimmers in Summer Sequin, and one pair of stick-on eyelashes guaranteed to glamorize my life.
I follow her down the stairs. Pictures of me from aged kindergarten on up clutter the walls. Youngest first. Oval frames. The last one is from this year. I have acne in the picture.
We go to the front room. Rick’s there but the fireplace sits dark. The kitchen doesn’t smell like food. There’s no tea. No coat to take. Tutti puts her hand on my shoulder. Her hand has the weight of a bird.
Red, she tells me, this is Mr. Wendt.
Mr. Wendt isn’t a Mr. at all. He’s just a boy. My age. Sixteen maybe. He sits on the edge of the sofa in a white t-shirt. His thin arms poke out of the sleeves. He’s just a boy.
I tell him hello.
I tell him I don’t know him from school and he says he doesn’t go.
Mr. Wendt scratches at a set of animal ears he’s wearing on his head. They’re made of felt.
I ask him if they’re supposed to be cat ears and he says, no, wolf.
He points to a tail clipped to the waistband of his jeans. Real wolf tail, he says, but the ears are just pretend.
Tutti still has her hand on my shoulder and says Mr. Wendt only requested one thing for his appointment – a walk in the woods with someone. She says she and Rick thought Mr. Wendt might prefer to be with someone his own age.
Tutti could be a beauty queen with that smile. I think how good it would feel to slap it off her face.
Instead of slapping her I say, oh?
I wonder if that desperate lilt is hereditary.
The boy is cute. He says his name is William. He tells me it’s raining outside and I might need an umbrella. Rick gets my coat from the closet before I can say boo, hi, or shit. I fantasize about strangling Rick with the arms of my coat.
I’ve nevernevernever seen a client walk through the door who wasn’t old. Withered mummies with yellow skin. One foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel. That’s who comes here. William is neither.
He’s just a boy. There’s no way he can know that Tutti paid me off with twenty five make-up bucks. Like that’s all his last day on earth means. I wonder if he can smell the guilt on me like a real wolf sniffs out blood and marrow.
Tutti’s smile is tight.
You two have a nice walk then?
I go to the window and pull back the curtains. They’re gingham. I look out the window for a long minute. I can see Tutti, Rick, and William in the reflection behind me. The night is already black and the woods are too. The tree trunks stand close together like soldiers.
I have a flashlight, William says from the sofa. If that’s what you’re worried about.
Andrea Joyce retells fairy tales in the Pacific Northwest. She has recently completed a novel on Snow White’s family life. She writes with the help of a magical horse, cat, newt, and husband. You can visit her at www.andrea-joyce.com.