LIVING WITH THE DEAD

“Lucy, are you dressed yet? 

“Be right there Mom!”

“Hurry or you won’t make it back on time for lunch.  You know how your father hates it when lunch or dinner are served late.”

It is morning, on the eve of Christmas, in Montreal. Lucy’s mother is yelling above all the chatter in the kitchen.  Christmas is a highly charged time of year for an Italian family, immigrated from the south of Italy.  The preparations begin days in advance, with all the matriarchs busy creating their magic in the kitchen.

“How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t run down the stairs, I swear you’ll break your neck one of these days.” 

Lucy enters the kitchen ready to head outdoors into the cold. 

“What did I tell you about having your boots on in the house? Just because we’re at your aunt’s house, the rules don’t change.  Now do what your aunt tells you.”

 Barely eleven years of age, Lucy is the eldest of three sisters. A tall spindly girl with big brown eyes and thick stubborn hair, which drives her neurotic mother crazy, as nothing seems to tame Lucy’s unruly mane.

Her mother is high-strung, chain-smokes, and keeps a tidy house.  “You’re putting too much flour in the mix, it’s gonna bake as hard as your head.” She punctuates her comment with a fake slap across the back of her husband’s head.

The entire family has gathered at Aunt Angelica’s home for the Christmas holidays as is customary.  Aunt Angelica is the closest thing to a grandmother Lucy has since she’s never met her grandparents, who lived and died in Italy.  Her aunt Angelica is dressed in black, from head to toe.  Her widow’s pale skin and tiny frame are misleading, she is far from fragile. Aunt Angelica is a lioness, fierce, loyal and at times scary, or at least this is how Lucy perceives her.

“Lucy, remember,  light 3 large candles, one for uncle Fabio and 2 more for your grandpa and grandma, then 2 smaller ones for the twins, God bless their souls. Don’t forget to say a prayer as well, asking God to let them out of purgatory.”

“What is purgatory like Aunt Angelica?”

“Purgatory is like a waiting room Lucy, a place where you wait your turn, where all sinners go and have to wait their turn.”

“Like going to the Principal’s office at school?”

“Purgatory is not meant to be easy Lucy, it’s a place where we pay for our sins, in order to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the gates of heaven and that can take years.”

“Years?  That is a long time.” Lucy tries to imagine what years must feel like. Time is funny that way. She’s noticed that when she is waiting to see the Principal, for example, or the dentist, it feels like forever and even the clock on the wall moves slower.

“Some people sin more than others, so you see Lucy, the souls in purgatory need our help.” Angelica hands Lucy a pile of change, “Your uncle Fabio he was a good man, bless his soul, but he was no angel either, he could use a little extra help.”  Lucy puts the change in her coat pocket.

“Lucy, Lucy, men are weak when it comes to sins of the flesh, the flesh is weak. One day, when you‘re a woman, you’ll understand what I’m telling you.” Lucy makes a mental note, not to commit any sins of the flesh, as these sound serious.

Lucy understands more than the adults give her credit for.  She has seen some of the boys at school give away their lunch money so they don’t get beat up.  It’s all clear and straightforward to Lucy.   In order to avoid unpleasant circumstances, trade-offs are necessary even for the dead.

“Be careful now and don’t stop,” Lucy interrupts Angelica, “to talk to strangers, I know aunt Angelica.” Lucy gives her aunt a kiss on each cheek and heads out into the cold bright morning.

It had snowed all night, big fluffy flakes. The sun is blinding, as it bounces off the icy blanket of snow, as far as her eyes can see. This is North Montreal in the mid-sixties, flat open fields, ready to dig and start building as soon as the snow melts. Not a single tree left to stop the wind from blowing the powdery snow in swirls and gusts.

As Lucy makes her way towards the Church she ponders upon her uncle Fabio’s predicament.  She tries to put herself in his place or the twins, she imagines it can’t be very pleasant being in-between places, paying for sins.  On occasions, she’d been sent to the  Principal’s office, where she was told to wait outside, in a small adjacent room, and sit on a hard polished wooden bench.  On these occasions Lucy recalls her tummy feeling all knotted up in anticipation and fear of the punishment which might be awaiting her. The Principal is a very serious man,  just like God, he never smiles and whenever the children have done something deemed inappropriate, they are sent to the small room with no windows and the hard wooden bench, where they wait in angst to pay for their wrongdoings.  Similar to purgatory but not as bad, at least she gets to go home after detention.

Lucy and her sisters often spent the holidays at their aunt’s house, their aunt being the eldest Matriarch in the family who had immigrated to Canada. Lucy gets to sleep in her aunt’s bed, now that her uncle is in purgatory.  Placed on the dresser, in her aunt’s bedroom,  is a small oval picture frame with a black and white photograph of her dead uncle Fabio’s head.  His picture is lit by a tiny bulb, which is encased at the base of the frame. In order to avoid her uncle’s floating head and unmoving stare in the dark, every night, Lucy turns on her side, her knees curled up to her chin and pulls the blanket over her head.

Lucy has reached the Romanesque church with its two steeples.  She is playing with the loose change in her pocket.  She feels very small once she finds herself reaching for the immense bronze cast doors.  She steps into the cold, echoey interior, her boots make clickety-clack sounds that reverberate throughout the church. 

There is no one, it is empty at this hour. For the Christmas midnight mass, only a few hours away, there would be standing room only.

Lucy removes her mittens and dips the fingers of her right hand in the holy water recipient, a marble carved vessel, framed by three winged chubby cherubs.  She executes a quick sign of the cross, realizes she crossed over to her right shoulder instead of her left.   She immediately corrects this, then heads towards the bank of votive candles on the far left wall.

The morning light spills through the stained glass windows depicting the Sixth Station of Christ when Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. There is a strong scent of amber and frankincense in the church.  Lucy twitches her nose, she does not care for the smell.

She is debating whether to follow her aunt’s instructions entirely or make slight adjustments, as she did on previous occasions.  Lucy retrieves the coins with which she has been entrusted, to save the souls of unknown dead relatives. 

The church offers 3 different-sized candles, for different budgets, which clearly indicates, God is not one to judge the dead by the size of their candles.

Lucy lights 3 medium votive candles for the dead adults, they cost less than the large ones and one medium-sized candle for the twins to share, leaving her some spare change. 

She performs a rapid sign of the cross, accompanied by a clumsy curtsy in place of saying a prayer, as she had been asked to by her aunt Angelica.  Lucy doesn’t feel comfortable asking God for favors or anyone for that matter, she prefers to keep her transactions with God simple and detached as she does with the Principal. She finds it’s best not to get noticed at times.

She doesn’t exactly like churches either and the only time she goes is when her Aunt Angelica is around and during the holidays. Lucy is grateful that her parents are not churchgoers. They never pray at home, not before dinner, nor before bedtime. One last sign of the cross and Lucy hurriedly dashes for the doors without looking back.

Once Lucy is out on the street, she feels relief rushing through her.  She crosses over to the other side of the street, where she walks into a shop. The sweet scent of chocolate and vanilla brings an instant smile to her face, it is a nice respite after the amber and frankincense that still clung to her clothes and nose.

“The usual young lady?” Asks a friendly face, from behind the counter, at the pastry shop where Lucy has practically become a regular client.

“I will have two chocolate eclairs today please, thank you.”

“Two eclairs! That deserves a nice box with a pink ribbon then.” The man behind the counter places two eclairs in a small pink box with fancy gold script on the lid and a pink ribbon to match.  “There you go Miss, two chocolate eclairs, that will be 50 cents.  He hands over the box to Lucy and she places the change in the small plate provided on the counter.

On her way home, Lucy stops at a nearby park, where she brushes the snow off one of the swings and sits down, placing the box of pastries on her lap. She slowly unties the ribbon and opens it. She picks up one of the two eclairs and takes her first bite.  Her eyes close as she sinks her teeth into the crisp coating of dark chocolate, followed by the velvety cream filling flowing into her tiny mouth.  She saves the second eclair for later and heads back to her aunt’s for Christmas Eve preparations.

That night, as soon as her mother has folded Lucy into her aunt’s bed and turned off the lights, Lucy finds herself alone with her dead uncle’s floating head, again.  She has been practicing staring back at her uncle Fabio in the dark and she can now manage several seconds before shutting her eyes.  In the dark Lucy pulls out the pink box, from the night table next to the bed, slowly and quietly opens it.  Thoughts of purgatory and chocolate eclairs are colliding in her little girl’s mind, as her uncle’s severed head watches her biting into the pastry shell, savoring the cream and chocolate mix.

Lucy gasps as she sees her uncle break into a smile.  She shyly smiles back and as she does, the tiny bulb flickers and dies, her uncle vanishes, swallowed by the darkness.

The following morning, Christmas morning, Lucy is eager to tell her Aunt Angelica the good news.

“Uncle Fabio is out of purgatory Aunt Angelica, You don’t need to worry anymore.”

Angelica is moved by the child’s statement. “Sweet sweet child, it is true then, God does speak out of the mouths of babes,” she hugs Lucy, “the best Christmas gift I could ask for.”

Everyone is happy just as Lucy intended. The wait is over for Uncle Fabio.  Aunt Angelica no longer needs to worry about his soul.  There is one less soul to rescue, which means one less candle to light at church. One could say Lucy has found her own way of living with the dead.

LAVATORIUM

Leo’s shiny black patent leather loafers pitter-patter down the hall of the 31st floor, which is off limits to employees. Leo’s Secretary, Greta, sits at the end of the hall, in a padded shell shaped cubicle, strategically positioned by the elevators, where she can greet, interrogate and deliberate on whether people are deserving or not of Leo’s time.  She has diplomatic immunity by sheer association to Leo, and the only person allowed into his quarters. Greta has the personality and the girth to make any man shake in his trousers.

She has been by Leo’s side since the startup of the company. She has grown old, getting underpaid for the privilege of looking after his affairs and being one of the few operatives granted close encounters with him. 

Greta was quite the looker as a young woman. Athletic build, swimmer’s shoulders, 19 inch waist, generous breasts, high cheekbones, full lips, fair skin and dark blue eyes. She never married. She has been secretly in love with Leo since the startup. Not only have her youth and beauty slipped away, her weight gain has slowed her down and turned her breathing shallow and heavy.  Her neck is now the size her waist used to be as a young girl and the only dark blue that stands out now, is the blue in the circles around her puffy eyes.

Leo has also aged, although his pace is still sprite compared to Greta’s.  With age Leo has shrunk, except for his midsection which has increased in girth and now makes his shoulders look oddly narrow.  He still sports a full head of hair which has gone from jet black to snow white.  

 “Yes Mrs Leo, I’ll take care of the reservations for you. No, no it’s no bother, that’s what I’m here for, ok, will do. Good bye then.” Greta secretly disapproves of the new Mrs. Leo.  She opens the top drawer of her desk where there are several chocolate bars, all neatly lined up and picks one out.

Greta knows beyond a grain of doubt that Leo has been played by this woman, who conveniently got pregnant with twins!  There had been no children in Leo’s previous marriages.  She is much younger than Leo, forty years younger. She wants her to make reservations for a ski lodge. Leo can’t possibly keep up with her. She will take him to an early grave, Greta can feel it, as real as she can feel her arthritis kicking up. 

Her diet isn’t going very well and she’s only managed to lose two Kilos in 4 months. She knows it’s nerves, she eats because she’s nervous or anxious, although about what, she’s not certain. 

Leo has made his way to his personalized washroom facilities. The door opens up onto an anti chamber, four finely carved original Louis XV gilt-wood armchairs come to life. Curvy Rococo pieces, with a carefully pierced crest, chaotic and intricately carved rocaille over asymmetrical scattered hanging foliage and floral motifs.  These had been revamped with plush Royal Blue velvet. The wall scones flicker on and off and stay off, leaving Leo in the dark.  He makes a u turn heading straight down the hall towards Greta’s cushioned cubicle.

One could say that for a man, such as Leo, who has reached his apex, there is a propensity towards the eclectic, which increases in proportion to the accumulation of wealth and power. Leo’s advertising company occupies and entire glass tower located on the most expensive piece of lakefront property in the city of Toronto. Leo no longer desires for much. He has his own plane, helicopter and landing pad, properties worldwide, two ex wives and a new young wife, recently added to his portfolio.  He has been featured in all the important trade magazines. He could have run for politics had he wished. 

Greta hears Leo heading towards reception, before she can see him. He looks tired. She can tell the twins are too much for a man Leo’s age. He should have been a grandfather at his age and certainly not a father to newborn twins.

“How are the Twins doing, Leo?

“The twins? Yes they’re fine, they’re a handful, mind you, thankfully we seem to have finally found a suitable nanny.”

“That’s great news, now you’ll both rest better, you look like you could use it Leo. At our age we need to be more vigilant about our health.”

Leo has momentarily forgotten what he needed Greta for until his bladder reminds him. “Greta, please call maintenance and have them send an electrician up at once. There is something going on with the lights in the washroom, it’s pitch black in there.

“Use my washroom Leo, you don’t want to end up like Walter.”

“Walter?”

“Yes, Walter had to have his entire jaw wired for six months after he fell and landed chin first on a piece of furniture. Had him on a liquid diet for six months, he lost all the extra weight he used to carry.”

“I see, well I best be  moving along, have a goodnight Greta and don’t forget to call maintenance.”

“Right away, Leo. Goodnight and drive safely.” 

Leo has his own elevator as he prefers not to consort with his employees. He never personally attends the meetings held for upper management or his shareholders.  Leo handles all his affairs with remote video conferences, which Greta presides over.

On his way down Leo realizes he should have taken Greta up on her offer, but he’s not about to turn back now. His prostate is acting up and his frequent need to urinate has become a compulsion.

The elevator doors open up onto the main lobby where there is a security guard sitting at reception.  There is a security room behind reception where the CCTV monitors are under watch by 2 guards 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  The hallways are empty, as Leo follows the signs, leading to the men’s washroom.

This particular washroom serves the main floor of the main building. An estimated 80 employees, and visitors use it. There are four stalls. On this particular day two of the four stalls are out of order. 

Leo enters the grimly lit washroom, the mirror above the sink is reflecting back a version of Leo, which looks like he has been stricken by Greenman’s Syndrome. He turns around to carefully peruse the four stalls facing him. He takes a handkerchief from his pocket, careful not to make contact with any of the surfaces, he checks each stall individually, none seem to pass his inspection. After careful deliberation he enters the last stall, which appears to be the cleanest. 

He needs to sit to urinate alas. “Sitting creates a more favorable urodynamic profile, which helps ward off prostate problems.” This is what his doctor had told him. 

He wraps the kerchief around his left hand, so he may hold the door shut without touching it and lowers his pants with his other hand. Leo is well aware the building is empty and the chances of someone walking in are scarce, still habits are difficult to change. He is a terribly private man and had it not been such an urgent situation, he would never have found himself in such a position, literally and figuratively. 

He crouches, painfully attempting not to touch the toilet seat.  His cell phone rings.  As Leo reaches for his phone in his pants, now heaped around his ankles, he lets go of the door, which bounces open and slams him hard in the forehead.  He reaches out and shuts the door with his left hand. The call gets transferred to his answering service. He then shuts his eyes as if to remember where he was when he got interrupted.  Very similar to when you fall asleep reading a book and the next time you open it, it goes without saying that you need to back up a few paragraphs or pages, in order to get back on track. The moment had been ruined.  Leo is finding it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand in the squalor and bacteria infested washroom.  When he opens his eyes, he spots something on the door which makes him squint and curl his nose as if a very strong and vile odor had permeated the washroom stall.

Taped to the door there is a group photograph of the company cleaning staff, with brooms, mops and buckets, posing as musicians. The message in big bold letters on the bottom of the picture says “LEAVE THE WASHROOM AS YOU FOUND IT!  

Leo practically leaps off the toilet seat, rapidly and clumsily, pulls up his pants as though the people in the picture were actually in the washroom stall spying on him. He rushes out of the washroom. He’ll have Greta investigate the washroom situation tomorrow. In fact he would have maintenance do a check on all washrooms in both buildings. This was unacceptable.

Leo enters the parking lot, which is empty except for a few cars and a white van. He crosses over to the white van and does something which he would personally condemn. He stands behind the van and unzips to relieve himself. Unannounced, the sliding door to the van opens and a young man with a toolbox steps out.  Leo’s heart skips a couple of beats as he stuffs his penis back into his pants, while stumbling towards his car.  

The young man with the tool box, is talking on his cell phone, but he still could not have missed Leo as he made his wobbly exit. The young man’s name is Max, he’s the fix it man around the company.  Max is young and easygoing. One could say he is a B type personality, whereas Leo is most certainly an A type, competitive, highly organized, control freak, ambitious, impatient, highly aware of time management as opposed to the Type B which is generally more relaxed, less neurotic & frantic, with no particular need to be in control all the time. 

Max drops by his work station where he picks up a ladder. He heads up to the 31st floor where he has an urgent maintenance request from the CEO’s office.

Max exits the elevator and walks out into the lobby of the 31st floor, where he spots Greta. She looks like a giant snail inside a shell to Max, who’s imagination often gets the best of him.  It could be all the weed he smokes, he’s not sure himself.

Greta spots Max, gets up from her overstuffed chair and shuffles her way around the crescent shaped desk. 

Max notices her feet look incredibly small to be carrying such a load.

“Hello Max, that was fast!

“I was already on call, so I thought I’d drop by here first.”

“Good thing you did, because Leo’s washroom needs tending to, he said the lights won’t turn on. It’s dangerous for a man his age to be moving around in the dark.”

“That explains why I thought I saw the CEO taking a leak in the parking lot, behind my van.”

Greta is incredulous, “that’s so not like Leo, it must have been an emergency. Now I trust this information will stay between us?” Greta is very protective of Leo.

“Sure, no problem.”

“Good, here you’ll need this to get into the Executive Washroom, down the hall, turn right, first door to the left. Leave the card on my desk when you’re done. I’m leaving now.” 

Max heads down the hall with his ladder hanging on his right shoulder and his toolbox swinging in his left arm.

He reaches the main door of the Executive washroom, where an antique sign which reads LAVATORIUM is attached to the door. He uses the card Greta gave him and enters the washroom. The lights should have turned on with the sensor as soon as the doors opened. He fetches a flashlight from his pocket and finds the main light switch. The lights flicker for a few seconds before turning on. Probably one of the bulbs needed replacing, or a loose contact.  

Max is frozen in awe, he sets the ladder and toolbox down as he takes in his surroundings.  

The washroom is larger than his entire apartment. Over 150 sqm. lavishly boasting all the amenities one might expect to find in a 10 star hotel.  Flat screen TV, wifi, speakers, music, shelves lined with books and trade magazines, shower, sauna, jacuzzi for 4 and a designer bidet from Italy. 

He spots a set of sliding doors that lead to the relax area, pushes the button which slides them open and little miniature led lights on the ceiling turn on. They look like stars against the dark background. A waterfall is gently flowing into a pool. The sound of the running water makes Max want to pee. 

He heads back into the lavatory where he spots a remote, resting on a ‘Boca do Lobo’ designer side table, although Max doesn’t know what a Boca do Lobo is.  This extremely expensive table is strategically positioned next to a NEOREST 600. The Neorest 600, is a toilet with a wide range of digital features. 

He picks up the remote, pushes a button and a small built in monitor, mounted on the wall above the toilet, lights up with a menu displaying a variety of customizations.  Max proceeds to customize and enhance his washroom experience. 

First the lid pops open with a sound suggesting it is vacuum sealed. A padded back rest with neck support slides into place.  

“So this is a lavatorium. Well allow me.”

Max is impressed, as he sets the temperature for the toilet seat to 27° Celsius, lastly he sets the toilet to perform a ‘Cyclone Flush’.  

He grabs a magazine from one of the shelves, the remote for the TV and makes himself comfortable. The look on Max’ face says it all, as he sits himself down on the throne to shame all thrones.

Once he’s done relieving himself, Max stands up, the NEOREST 600 immediately seals itself before performing the programmed cyclone flush. He’s getting hungry, it’s way past his dinner time. He grabs his cell phone and orders a pizza and beer, then proceeds to check out the rest of the amenities.

The following morning, Max awakens to the sound of whispering voices. He opens his eyes finding himself under an umbrella of vaguely familiar faces . They are all leaning around him, heads bent and obviously concerned. There are sounds of relief as they see the Max stirring awake. 

“He’s not dead,” screams one of the cleaning staff.  “He’s not dead,” the others repeat in relief. They all look genuinely happy to see Max waking up.

Greta has come to investigate what all the noise is about just in time to see Max as he leaps out of the jacuzzi, dripping wet and naked. He leaps across an almost empty pizza box and more than a few beer cans strewn on the floor when he spots a slice of cold pizza still untouched, grabs it and places it between his teeth.

“Max what on earth are you doing here and this mess. What happened?”  Asks Greta, her voice shaken by the sight of the naked maintenance man and Leo’s Lavatorium, which is in total disarray.

“The lights are fixed, it was more complicated than expected and took all night, I must have dozed off.

“Sorry about the mess and don’t worry about the parking lot incident, my lips are sealed.” Max grabs his clothes which are scattered here and there, then silently tippy toes out, as if this somehow makes him invisible.