Chaplinesque by Ben Nardolilli

Although he didn't like its current name, Teddy had no idea what to call the Sullivan Brothers’ Funeral Parlor instead. He felt the name inadequate as it currently stood. It was called a funeral parlor, though no one ever talked much there, except the staff who ran it. He felt it was a better name than “funeral home,” like the last one he had worked, because no one lived there, not even the owner. The same was true of his current place of work. The Sullivan brothers lived elsewhere with their families; Frank ran the business side and Connor oversaw the preparation and display of the bodies for their loved ones. It was Conner that Teddy worked under.

Frank didn't bear the financial and social obligations of the business alone; he had Angela, Jackson, and Quincy to help him. They worked in the front of the building while Connor and Teddy stayed to the back. Occasionally, Teddy interacted with them. They told him about what the families’ wanted and what was the best “look” for him to prepare when Connor was not around to receive the instructions himself. For the most part, though, the staff left him alone to do his work with the corpses in the back. It wasn't that anyone regarded Teddy as a misfit or anti-social, the office staff just had little to talk to him about. He was in a different line of work than they; there were no inside jokes, no mutually understood jargon, no shared frustrations to vent over drinks. They would try their best to find a common ground during holiday parties, but most of their conversations only lasted a few minutes.

It would not be an odd situation, except that they worked under the same elongated roof. Doctors stuck to doctors, lawyers to lawyers, and actors to actors because they understood one another better. The Sullivan Brothers Funeral Parlor was unlike most businesses in that it had two separate spheres that needed one another for certain symbioses. Its employees did not do the same kind of work, nor were they completely isolated from one another. Each of the brothers’ subordinates knew one another and what they looked like, which only made them wonder why they were not better friends. However, within each group, there was camaraderie.

Teddy and Connor got along well. When there were breaks in work, they would often go out behind the business to smoke. They were the only two people in the funeral parlor who had the habit. Usually they went out in between bodies. As soon as his cigarette was lit, Connor would always make a remark about the work he was doing and the health risks involved. Compounding the problems of the tar and nicotine was Connor Sullivan’s gut, which seemed ready to burst through his shirt and over his constraining pants at any moment. Teddy admired the man’s mix of regard and disregard for his health; he always reminded Teddy that he was young enough to quit. Connor said he was too old, he didn't know what he would do with the extra time and money that smoking cessation would give him.

When the body of Brice Bennett came in, Connor and Teddy were having one of their cigarette breaks. The corpse was delivered early and it caught the two men off guard. It arrived as Connor was outlining another justification for his smoking, putting it in terms of patronizing the tobacco companies, not just satisfying an addiction.

“Since they give us so much business,” he said, “it’s only fair that I should give them some.”

Teddy nodded as the delivery van came by, carrying the body in its special wrapping. They stubbed out their cigarettes and went to help, escorting Brice inside. Connor tried to fill out the paper work and called Frank to tell him the body had arrived. Frank sent Angela to help with the documents. When her job was done, she exchanged pleasantries with Conner and Teddy, then left. Connor read up on Brice and told Teddy about the recently departed and what had to be done as his assistant put its body on a cold steel table. He was an unusual specimen. Unlike most of the bodies they dealt with, Brice was no victim of age. The man was only a few years younger than Teddy. He had died from poisoning, but also unique for him, the death had not come from smoking or alcohol. Connor did not want to speculate out loud, but Teddy could tell that his boss had ruled the death a suicide. There was a slow, sorrowful pace to his voice, one he only used when the deceased had died from self-inflicted injuries.

Connor and Teddy divided the work as usual: Connor took on the task of preparing the body for display and returning the skin to what he assumed had once been a healthy glow. Teddy was given the job of putting on the last touches for the final presentation. This entailed a suit and tie to put on Brice, who would also have his hair cut, then combed. Teddy also had to clip the young man’s nails and make sure his teeth were in good condition. Bodies put on display were not made to grin, but sometimes the mouth would open of its own accord. When Teddy had started working at the funeral parlor, one of the people at the wake of Phyllis Morrison accidently bumped into her casket; no damage was done, but it opened her mouth, revealing teeth that were stained green.

Like any good barber, Teddy’s job was also to shave the faces of the deceased, and if necessary, pluck the eyebrows. Teddy could see that Brice's chin, jaw, neck, and cheeks needed to be shaved; his sideburns needed evening-out as well. Brice had a fine mustache on his upper lip and Teddy would have to cut around it. He had dealt with mustaches before, as well as goatees, mutton chops, and beards. Teddy never touched them unless asked to. Most of the mustaches he had removed had been unintentional ones that grew on the elderly women. For the final part of his inspection, Teddy looked at Brice’s nostrils and decided that his nose hairs would need a trimming.

Teddy was generally clean-shaven, barring the occasional five o’clock shadow. He had never been able to grow out his facial hair in a way that caused him to appear jovial and inviting instead of threatening. Whatever he managed to grow came in patches. Mustaches were especially difficult. There was never enough hair and he always ended up with what looked like a caterpillar crawling above his lip. Brice’s mustache was still in perfect condition even though the rest of him was starting to show signs of his being dead. The hairs had a nice brown color to them and were just the right thickness. They didn't hang over his lips and block his mouth like a dense overgrowth of vines. When Connor was busy with a phone call, Teddy took his hand out of its latex glove in order to feel the hairs. They did not bristle him, forming a soft little mat that absorbed the press of his finger like a pile of leaves accepting a body in autumn.

Connor came back and told Teddy to finish working on Georgia Connolly. Brice needed Connor’s attention to get his skin looking closer to normal. Teddy had been working on Georgia before the break so he went over to her body. She was almost ready to display, except that she needed to have her toenails done. He had to paint all her fingernails, and also her toenails even though the feet would be hidden by the coffin and her shoes. Teddy always made sure to paint them if that was what the family was promised. Connor told him that the family could always tell, he was not sure what gave it away, but there was something about the look on a dead woman’s face when only half her nails were done. Teddy believed him rather than doubt such scrutiny existed.

While he worked on Mrs. Connolly, he thought about the mustache. It was not an obsession, but rather a fascination. There was something soothing about the shape it took as both ends curled over Brice’s lip. How did he get it to stay that way? It was a stamp of manliness and a symbol of dedication. But unlike a tool or a sports car, the mustache was a natural object. It was sculpted in the way that a fountain directed the flow of water. Teddy looked over at Brice’s head resting still and at half of his mustache. It was a dark paisley swirling in a psychedelic design. Teddy felt the space under his nose and wondered what it would take for him to grow a mustache half as good as Brice Bennett's. It not only had to be thick, but it had to look natural, as if he was born with it. Brice was dashing with mustache, and that was the effect Teddy wished he could have. He wanted to be able to turn heads, even in death.

Connor had to spend the rest of the afternoon and part of the evening repairing various damages that the young man had done to himself. He had to be put into storage and then retrieved for Teddy’s work. That night, Teddy looked at himself in the mirror of his apartment bathroom. His face had never seemed so plain. He had brown hair and brown eyes, no color that would make either stand out. The hair on his head was straight as well, and average length. His skin was white without any freckles and there were no blemishes or moles. Teddy’s nose and lips were of a normal size and had a completely functional shape. He could not describe either except by saying what they were not. Teddy wondered what others would say when they had to identify his body.

It was not until the next day that Teddy was able to get closer to Brice and his mustache. He arrived early and was already working on Brice when the rest of the employees came in. Connor found him trimming Brice’s nostril hairs and told him that Brice’s mother Frances, was coming in later to give them further instructions. It was best not to make any major alterations until they met with her. Until she arrived, Teddy worked to clip Brice’s nails, even out his sideburns, brush his teeth, and shave his neck. There was a single hair, the length of an eyelash, growing in the middle of his ear lobe, and Teddy pulled it out, expecting to wake Brice up when he did it.

Frances Bennett came in right before their smoking break. She did not come to the back of the funeral parlor to talk to Connor and Teddy. Instead, Quincy came to retrieve them. They took off their gloves and aprons. Then they covered the son up in a sheet and went to go see the mother. She was sitting in an armchair in the main reception area. She had hair set up in a bun, and a conservative gray suit over her body. Frances introduced herself and the men did the same. They each took a seat and Connor spoke with her about what she wanted for the wake and the subsequent funeral. She handed Teddy a shopping bag that contained a dark suit and white shirt for the corpse to wear. There was a blue tie with red stripes. At the bottom of the bag were a watch, belt, and a pair of socks. Teddy could feel that was something rolling around in the shoes, but he put them back in the bag without examining further.

She told them that she wanted him to look decent for the funeral. “I want him with his bangs cut, sideburns off; I want him clean-shaven,” she said. “Get rid of that mustache. I always hated it.”

Connor nodded and looked over to Teddy. “You heard her, right?”

“Yes. Are you sure you want to do all that though, his friends might not recognize him.”

“Friends?” she asked half-jokingly. “If he had them he never introduced me to them. When he lived here, he was clean-shaven with short hair. He looked clean. He looked decent. Then he went off and went wild, and look what happened to him. I liked him better anyway when he looked like you.” She pointed at Teddy.

“I do my best,” was all he could manage to think of saying.

“I don’t want his friends to recognize him. He’s come back to me. He’s mine.”

“Of course, Mrs. Bennett,” He looked at Teddy and nodded towards the back. Teddy took the hint and left the room with the bag for Brice. “We will do our best.”

Teddy looked back at Brice’s mother and his boss. He heard her reiterate everything she had previously said and Connor nodded after every detail. She then added a new request: said she wanted Brice to have a rosary in his hands at the funeral.

“We have several that we can provide.”

“No problem, I put one in one of the shoes. Use that one.”

“It was his?”

“I think so, from his Holy Communion. I found it buried in his room. He never was a churchgoer and he wouldn’t even go on Christmas. He called the Church all sorts of names whenever I tried to make him go. Just the same, I would like it in his hands. People should see him with it.”

“Right. He’ll be clean shaven just like Teddy and have the rosary in his hands.”

She put her hand on the bend of his arm. “Thank you.” Teddy turned away and walked over to the back of the funeral parlor to finish his job. He took everything out of the bag and emptied the shoe he had heard rattling before. Mrs. Bennett was right, there was a rosary hidden inside. It was made of polished red beads held together with shiny pieces of brass, which the crucifix at the end was made of as well. Teddy looked at the figure welded to it and saw that it had a beard attached to its face. While he was staring at it and Brice’s mustache, Connor came in.

“You heard her right? Cut the ‘stache and put the cross in his hands.”

“He wasn’t religious was he?”

“Not anymore than he was clean-shaven.”

“I’ll get on it then.”

Teddy stood over Brice with his razor and thought about how to cut off the deceased’s mustache. He tried starting on the right side, on the left, from the top, and then from the bottom. Each time he found himself unable to begin cutting away. Teddy could bring the razor up to the frontier where the skin and hairs met, but he could not go any further. If he cut a single follicle off he felt bad for it. Connor was busy taking care of a recent arrival, but he occasionally looked over his shoulder at Teddy to see his progress. Teddy he was aware he was being watched, so he took his time with Teddy’s sideburns. These he had no attachment to.

With his razor he gradually worked up the sides of his face, cutting away each hair with the blade. For an hour he worked on the sideburns and when they were gone he took a brief break to pass more time. Teddy got the mail for the parlor, handed it out to the right people, talked as much as he could to the office staff, polished Brice’s coffin, and then went out back to smoke. He was almost finished when Connor came out to join him. Teddy decided to light up another cigarette and share the moment with his boss. He checked his watch when he went back in and saw that he had let another hour pass.

Back at the body, Teddy tried to shave the mustache again. He tried all the directions once more but was unsuccessful. Teddy brought his scissors out and cut Brice’s hair, shortening it until it was as long as his own. Brice looked uneven with such a large mustache and no sideburns to balance it out. His cheeks seemed bigger now that there was less hair framing them in. Teddy stepped back and looked at Brice’s face to see what it would look like to the mourners. The cheeks were even larger and it appeared as if Brice had stuffed them with nuts like a rodent awaiting hibernation.

The mustache remained in good condition and was the only thing on his face that had any sense of proportion and design to it. Teddy wondered if the rest of the face looked bad because of the mustache attached to it. Perhaps the maternal order to shave the sideburns and cut the hair was given to make cutting the facial hair easier. Instead, Teddy could not hold the razor anywhere near it. He imagined the mustache gaining magnetic powers and repelling whatever charge was in the blade. There was a force around the hairs that protected them and Teddy wanted to leave them where they were.

The end of work was nearing and Connor was preparing to leave. Teddy told his boss he would continue working and set up the body for the wake and funeral. Connor said he should not stay up too late, and left a few minutes later. Teddy clothed the body and adjusted the tie around Brice’s neck. He put the shoes on the deceased’s feet and placed the rosary in his hand. Teddy examined his work. This was more or less how Brice would appear in the coffin. The suit fit him well, but the rosary looked out of place. Teddy adjusted it, but the hands acted as if they knew what was being put over and inside them. Whatever arrangement of beads and crucifix he attempted, the result was sloppy.

Unlike the mustache, Teddy realized that the rosary would never lay over his skin in a natural and even way. It would always appear quickly stuffed into the palm like a magician’s handkerchief. Teddy felt bad about forcing such symbols onto Brice, but it was what his mother wanted. He had realized that funerals were for the living, and most importantly, for those living survivors who paid for them. If anyone attended their own, they would be repelled by the sight, how their bodies were contorted to look. Right now, the body that lay on the table was a work of compromise, the sideburns were gone and the cross and suit had been added, but the mustache remained. He wanted to be able to leave Brice as he was.

But Teddy knew he had a job to do and a mustache to eliminate. He got his razor once more and leaned over Brice, ready to cut, slash, slice, and burn away the hairs if necessary. The blade came down to the skin and started moving up. It made a scratching sound and Teddy watched in muted disgust as the first hairs were separated from the body. After cutting away an inch on one side, Teddy worked on the other. Then he picked the debris off the face to throw away. However, the traces of the mustache could be seen even though the hair was gone. Brice had worn the mustache for so long that the skin on his upper lip was noticeably paler than the rest of his face. Fresh doubts over the project came to Teddy.

What right did he have to alter Brice’s appearance and make him unrecognizable? Teddy realized that he was not simply preparing Brice for a wake, funeral, and burial, he was creating the son his mother wished she could have had, even if only present for a few moments and lying still the whole time. What harm did the mustache really pose? It was no recent addition. It had been a part of Brice Bennett’s body for many years and was known to his closet friends. Teddy could not put a body out for display so different from the personality that had inhabited it. Why should he view a mustache as so superficial? It was important to Brice and had to be preserved. Would he shave the long hair off someone and leave them completely bald? Would he fatten up the body of an athlete? Would it be right to make a blonde a new brunette or redhead? What if he changed the gender of a body to be mourned? What kind of person would he be if he allowed such alterations to occur? Teddy could not see how the mustache was any different. He would leave what he had not shaved off.

He continued with the rest of the funerary preparations and laid Brice in his casket. He then put him in storage and cleaned up his work. Teddy came back the next day and took control of putting Brice in the room for his viewing. He kept the casket closed, and delegated tasks to the office staff who were usually the ones in charge of overseeing events. They believed Teddy had a close connection to the deceased and decided to do what was necessary. They did not ask if it was okay to open the casket because they had heard Connor describing the young man as a suicide. Teddy was only protecting the family from seeing the remains, which they assumed had become remains because of a bullet gone straight to the head.

Flowers and chairs were arranged and a guest organist was brought in to supply music. At ten o’clock the family arrived and afterwards a few other guests staggered in. The Sullivan Brothers staff guided people through the building and helped them in their time of need. After the expected guests had arrived, Frances Bennett went up to Frank and asked him to open the casket. Brice was supposed to be already revealed. Frank Sullivan apologized and then asked his brother where Teddy was so that he could open the casket. It was Teddy’s job, he told the grieving mother, to prepare the coffins. He knew best how the locks on the newer models worked. Connor left to go look for his protégé and the Bennett family and associates waited impatiently to see Brice.

Connor checked every room and came back, unable to find Teddy. Frank apologized to Mrs. Bennett and took his brother aside. They went over to the coffin and after a few minutes the two of them managed to jiggle the lock loose. The brothers congratulated each other in a somber, serious manner, and opened the lid to look at Brice. As soon as his face was available for viewing, Frances went over to look at him; though the Sullivan brothers tried to block off access as soon as they saw him. She screamed and asked what had happened to her son. The brothers tried to calm her as she sobbed. Mr. Bennett went over and looked at his son. Most of the mustache had been shaved off as his wife had requested; unfortunately the part that Teddy had left under Brice’s nose was dark and square-shaped, reminiscent of that of great comedians and dictators.

Ben Nardolilli is a twenty five year-old writer currently living in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in Perigee MagazineRed FezOne Ghana One VoiceCaper Literary JournalQuail Bell MagazineElimaeSuper ArrowGrey Sparrow JournalPear NoirRabbit Catastrophe Review, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Recently, a chapbook of his, Common Symptoms of an Enduring Chill Explained, was published by the Folded Word Press. He maintains a blog at and is looking to publish his first novel.