The Apprentice

by Jan Matthews © 2002

From the setting November sun thick autumn fingers of light made handfuls of gold against the high gloss of the oak desk. Mr. Crouch, seated behind it, thought: sometimes it happens like this.

Somebody dared them or bet them to come in--like the old game they played on the Crouch family as children. Ringing the doorbell of the reputedly haunted house.&nnbsp; Now they entered instead of running away and applied for a job at the Crouch and Sons Funeral Home. They smelled of whiskey and they giggled inappropriately--they often told a long and fragmented story of their uncle’s, grandfather’s, cousin’s illness and death, accident and death, death and death and de--

If only that were the case right now.

The application in front of him was blighted with cross-outs and erasures. The applicant’s pen had gone through the paper in tiny rips like claw marks. The applicant himself sat in a leather chair that matched Crouch’s own. The applicant nibbled a dirty thumbnail. His eyes, hooded as he contemplated his nails--as he was nervously contemplated, Crouch knew them to be the pale blue eyes appearing more human on certain breeds of dogs tthan the human being before him. The name on the application was printed Malcom Tivey.

Next to Previous Employment Mr. Tivey scrawled I WANT TO LEARN.

He wanted to say, to stand up and say something to the disheveled creature in his grandfather’s chair--who watched him furtively from beneath eyebrows so thick and red they stood out an inch from his face.

Are you mad? Are you serious? I will call the police RIGHT NOW if you do not leave at once.

As he wanted to with his local contemporaries--the men who as boys had tormented him with name calling. As if the ever-present odor of embalming and the somber way oof life wasn’t bad enough, nor the fluids separated from flesh in the basement.

Just ignore it, his father advised him, as he had been advised.

Dr. Frankenstein. The Addams Family.

Just ignore it.

“Who taught you?” Tivey asked.

“Beg pardon?”

“Who taught you to do it? Your dad?”

“My Grandfather, Dean Crouch, learned as an apprentice, as was done in those days. My father and I had a more structured education as there are formalities, certificates...”

“I want to learn,” he responded.

Mr.Crouch peered down through his bi-focals again. “I see that. But, Mr. Tivey, if you want to learn, perhaps this is not the place to start. There are Mortuary schools which offer the requirements that need to be acquired before such an...”

Undertaking. God, he’s almost said it. “If it is employment you seek, I could see if I can find some grounds keeping for you until you get back on your feet.”

The disheveled soul actually looked at his shoes, saying, “I am on my feet, sir.”

Tact, he could hear his father say. Tact is required here. Put yourself in his shoes, as you might be, some day. He was the last to care, to touch their loved ones--to straighten a tie, adjust a bow.

To his surprise, then growing dread, Tivey began to fill the office with the details of the embalming process. When he was done, he smiled nervously and said, “But I don’t have any hands-on, Mr. Crouch. That I hoped you would provide.”

“Mr. Tivey, let me be frank. I cannot hire you for the job because you are not qualified.” A ghoulish demeanor does not an embalmer make. “There are laws that require you to attend a Mortuary Science School, to serve an apprenticeship, to take a state test.”

“Why? I can’t hurt them anymore, once they’re dead.”

“Mr. Tivey...” His remark sent a rush of fear into his belly, the oddest chord of all in this discordant conversation.

“Just show me,” the awful man bared his teeth in a semblance of a grin. “I’ll show you what a fast learner I am.”

“Mr. Tivey. Do you have any form of identification?” Shake of the shaggy head. “Social Security card? An address?”

Tivey shook his head and smiled.

Why is it, Mr. Crouch thought, that odd people don’t realize how truly odd they are?

“Who are you then? What do you hope to accomplish?”

Malcom Tivey stood up. “You will show me, Mr. Crouch. A true artist let’s nothing stop him from creating his ideal, expressing himself and preserving that expression. Your wife is upstairs. I’ll let her be if you show me.”

Mr. Crouch was not a physical man. He’d always been husky, but as he aged, he grew larger, as if he never stopped growing. He had never been engaged in a physical fight. He was struck by the image of his wife, placidly knitting in front of the television--recalling with horror and relief he had told her not to wait up for him. She never came down.

“I have no--clients,” Mr Crouch whispered.

“I do! Indeed, I do! Oh, Mr. Crouch,” the awful man extended his hand as if they had a deal.

Why me? A voice mourned in his head. Why me?

Malcom Tivey took his hand and pulled him with a fierce strength to his feet.

Mr. Crouch’s knees, shivering and weak, carried him down the basement stairs, Malcom Tivey’s hand on his back, guiding him. In the basement, he gave Tivey a lecture about the chemical process, the draining tubes, the feeding tubes. Two stainless steel tables gleamed in the florescent light, like twin beds. He showed Tivey (“Call me Malcom, Mr. Crouch.”) Malcom the OSHA regulation chart.

He felt seduced. All the while he carried the picture of his wife in his head. He knew there was no other “client” before Tivey asked him to lay down on one of the tables, grinning all along.

x x x

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