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Playing Dead

First published in The Brooklyn Review, Fall 2011.

     Even now, I think of the house as having more hallways than rooms. Mourning is best done standing up, so I suppose this floor plan was intentional by my grandfather, Louis Maronelli Sr., who, I have been told, went by the name Poppy for most of his adult life. Poppy died before I was born. My oldest brother, Louis III, who we all just called “Three,” is the only one of us boys that remembers him, and he only seems to recall Poppy’s dog, Virgil, a drooping Basset hound, who also died before I was born.

     When Poppy died, Louis Maronelli Jr., our dad, inherited the family business and moved my mother—then pregnant with my other older brother, Mark—and Three, who was a toddler, into the house. Our family lived in the two floors above Maronelli’s Funeral Home, on Jefferson Avenue in Carbondale, Pennsylvania. Dad was the mortician for everyone who died from St. Luke’s, St. Sebastian’s, and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. All three parishes used us; the only business we didn’t have was the Greeks, who were orthodox and used their own place. We washed our hands with cobalt-colored bars of Neko, the germicidal soap used for embalming. It smelled like chemical lemonade. Our mother set the dinner table with flowers left over from the services that took place on the first floor. We all learned to drive by the time we were thirteen, because the most important part about running a funeral parlor is making sure no one who attends your services gets a parking ticket. Even though our mother let us drive cars to help Dad out, none of us ever owned a bicycle. To this day, Mark still can’t ride a bike. Mom thought we’d get hit by a car or something, so in the summer months, on the days when she wasn’t around to transport us to baseball practice or the pool, we didn’t have many options other than to play in the house. Our house was “a bitch to heat,” according to our father, because structurally-speaking, it was massive. Hide-and-seek gets old fast, even in a big house of hallways.

     We came up with “Playing Dead” the summer that a girl named Laura Velasco moved in across the street from us. Since she arrived in the middle of June, she hadn't made friends at school yet, so she played with us. She was the only girl who ever played with my brothers and me. Three and Mark thought that the death of a little girl was better than the death of a boy, so she was always the one who had to get into the coffin and play dead. In addition to always being "the deceased," Laura was sometimes "the greedy sister" or "the hysterical mother" during the reading of the will. I think we might have asked too much of her. The service itself was always closed casket, because the causes of death were the most horrific things we could think up. Laura and Mark were good at coming up with things to put on the death certificate, which was a yellow index card stolen from Mom's desk upstairs. The only limitation to our game had to do with the oven: there was only one key to it, and Dad kept it in a place where we never found it. So it became an unwritten rule for those in mourning to never ask for their loved one to be cremated.

     One afternoon, Laura wasn't in the mood to suffocate, so she broke the cremation rule on purpose. She knew it would aggravate my brothers so much that they would be forced to kindly "refuse services" and not let her participate. Laura always wrote her last will and testament in gel pen and would alternate colors every other line. Three never liked that she did this, because he wanted everything to be as real as possible, so I’m sure dismissing her was a bit of a catharsis for him. She had written in green, “and furthermore, it is my last wish and desire to be” and then on the next line and in the far left corner of the ruled page, in baby blue, “cremated.” Laura was out. What she'd done was irrevocable. “Fine,” she said, and flip-flopped off. Three, who always played Dad, tore up the will and said that luckily people die everyday. Hallelujah!

      You never know when you’ll get to die for the first time. I didn’t know Laura would quit that day, but it meant that I got to be “the corpse.” I was ecstatic. Usually, all I got to do was close the lid on Laura or maybe say a few words, and that was only after Three gave the eulogy and Father Mark gave his blessing. I wanted more time to write up a better will. But, given the circumstances, all I could do was sign a very generic contract, which ended with:

       …and furthermore, I bequeath all of my earthly possessions to my sons who will grant me, their loving father, a Christian burial.

       —General Robert S. Bright

      Mark wrote it out in black ink on a legal pad. My cause of death took full advantage of my sex: I was a Green Beret who had been trapped in a foxhole behind enemy lines and had jumped on a grenade to save his men. I received a Medal of Honor for my courage, which was actually Three’s medal from the Physical Fitness test. I folded it neatly and placed it next to a picture of me in my scout uniform near the coffin.

      Given the fact that I was a veteran, certain props, like Three’s gold medal, had to be retrieved for my burial. Mark climbed out of the window of our parent’s bedroom on the third floor and took the American flag off the brass pole sticking out over the "Maronelli’s" sign. When he came back downstairs with it folded up like a paper football, Three shook his head and told him that he needed to go put it back up at half-mast. Didn’t Mark remember how a military service went? Dad always had the flag taken down at the beginning of the ceremony, then folded, then put on top of the casket. Mark pretended to remember and apologized, and then Three yanked the stars-and-stripes out of his hands and went back upstairs to do it himself. As much as Three enjoyed bossing us around, no one else ever did anything the right way, so he ended up doing almost everything himself.

      Mark and I entered the preparation room, so that I would be embalmed by the time Three rehung the flag. The blue bar of Neko felt rough against my skin. Even though the bar was wet, it wasn’t slippery. It felt like falling on pavement. Three came in and insisted that he finish, saying that men of the cloth never did the embalming. Mark nodded and left the room. Three wrapped me in toilet paper, because Dad yelled at him when he used the real gauze to embalm Laura last time. My brothers never asked me if I wanted to die or if I was nervous, but when I was all wrapped up and looking like a poor kid on Halloween, I remembered how scared of the dark I was and started to sweat through the toilet paper. Three found the cassette tape with the bagpipes on it—'All Time Bagpipe Favorites of the 48th Highlanders'—and waited for Mark to help lift me into the coffin before pressing play.

     The Charmin ripped when I climbed into the coffin, but I was sweating so much that it stayed stuck to me. I was still adjusting my arms when Mark closed the lid. Having both arms at my side wasn’t that uncomfortable. I could faintly hear the opening bars of 'Amazing Grace', as the lid slammed down. The padding on the lid of the coffin touched my nose if I looked straight up, so I turned my head to one side. But then my whole face was covered by the padding on the side of the coffin and I couldn’t breathe out of my mouth. I turned back and just dealt with the sensation of breathing through a pillow. The coffin that I was in was the one that Dad and uncle Mike used to show the recently embalmed person to their immediate family. It was a temporary place to put them, kind of like a display case. It didn’t smell from the outside, but when I was in there, every breath I took smelled of old newspaper and limes.

      I swallowed a hair and told myself it was Laura’s and not some dead person’s. My eyes were open the whole time, but of course, I couldn’t see anything. I don’t know why, but I had anticipated a small line of orange light coming through the hinges, but there was nothing except thickened darkness. The toilet paper around my neck all of a sudden felt tighter. My wiggling and shifting had braided it into a noose. I needed to get it off, but was panicking because I couldn’t move my arms. I managed to free my right arm so that my hand was on top of my leg, but the lid of the coffin was too close to hinge my arm up to my face. I waited for nothing to happen and then, finally, I screamed. The padding absorbed my voice. I could feel the heat and dampness as it left my mouth and got trapped in the lid of the coffin. I knew that whatever sound I could make would be smothered by the sound of the 48th Highlander’s pipes, but I screamed anyway. I yelled both of my brother’s names. First Mark, then Three. When I started to cry, I yelled for Laura, even though I knew she wasn’t at my funeral.

      Eventually, I stopped screaming. I never calmed down. I just stopped, because I became obsessed with the idea that there wasn’t enough air. I started holding my breath. Exhaling, feeling pink, inhaling again, and holding until explosion. I thought about the way we always did this driving through the Lehigh Tunnel on trips to see aunt Mary in Pottstown. I kept doing it over and over again, like a nervous blowfish. This was all mid-tantrum, of course. Eventually, I passed out hot and scared.

      I woke up: still in the coffin, still in the dark. My nose wasn’t touching the padding on the lid anymore. When I passed out, my neck relaxed and my head fell limply against the pillow, carving out a little well for me to suffer in more comfortably. I considered screaming again, but didn’t. I thought of attempting to hold my breath again, but instead I cried silently, convinced that I was doomed.

      Eventually, the lid opened. Laura had come to my rescue! Because she had rosacea, Laura always looked like she'd been crying. Her cheeks were permanently blotched pink. But this time I could tell that she had really been crying, because her face and neck were brick red. When I propped myself up, I noticed that my brothers weren’t around. My funeral had never happened. Laura was there because Mark fell off the roof when he was getting the flag down. She'd been watching TV in the front parlor of her house. There was a big window, the drapes weren’t drawn, and she saw him fall. “He looked bigger when he was in the air like that,” was all she said.

      I climbed out of the coffin. The toilet paper rolled on me and off of me. The damp clumps covering my body made me look like the victim of target practice at a spitball firing range. Laura and I walked out to the front of the house where Three was sitting on the steps with the flag in his hands. Our dad was one of the first people in our neighborhood to have a cellphone. It was massive, like all the early models, and dad made it a point to always be reachable, usually picking up after the first ring with a loud hello. Mr. Velasco called him, when Laura told him what she saw. She said that her step-dad hated blood, so instead of walking over, he just stared at us from their parlor window across the street, as we watched Mark suffer in the sun on our front lawn. If it wasn’t ninety degrees outside, if it had been December, someone driving by might have thought my brother, Mark, was making snow angels. There was nothing we could do, but watch and wait. I felt weak and sat down next to Three. Eventually, one of the maroon Maronelli hearses pulled up to the curb, and Dad stepped out. When my Dad waved at Mr. Velasco, he nodded and drew the curtains closed, but I could see him still watching from a gap in the curtains.

      Dad wore his jet-black hair in a ponytail—kind of like Steven Seagal (It was the nineties). He always wore gray suits. When we got older, this sartorial trademark was something that everyone would come to know and expect from our father. Whenever Dad attended our basketball games, he would show up in one of his gray suits and bring a newspaper with him, so he could do the crossword puzzle at halftime. Unlike the other fathers sitting in the bleachers in jeans, Dad always stood and watched near the exit. He’d enter the gym midway through the first period and stand near the police officer at the door. My mother would walk over from the bake sale table, receive a kiss from him on her cheek, then walk back to her post. He’d usually duck out early to monitor a wake, but you felt his presence when he was there. His gaze pierced through the defense, across the foul-line, and into your chest. If you made a bad pass and looked over at him, his reaction was always the same: he’d close his eyes and tilt his head up at the ceiling while squeezing the rolled up newspaper in his hand. The only time he ever reacted positively was if you made both of your foul shots—to this, he’d slap the newspaper against his leg, put the paper under his arm, and clap. Dad was big on converting those “easy” points. We had a hoop behind the house with a white line painted exactly thirteen feet from the front of the rim. He thought that measuring fifteen feet from the backboard was inaccurate. To measure the distance from the rim to the foul-line, my brothers and I had to borrow a ladder from one of our neighbors.

      When he walked up towards the house the day that Mark fell off the roof, he crossed the foul-line and yelled for Three to come over. I knew that meant he wanted to scream at both of us, so I went over too. He had already put a red carnation in his lapel, because Mr. Thompson’s funeral was scheduled for later that afternoon. As he leaned over Mark, his boutonnière dangled from his chest. I thought it might fall out and land on Mark, so I stared at it, willing it to stay looped in place.  The thought of it falling made me imagine a mushroom cloud blooming over Dad's head. I feared anything that would make him explode.

      I looked down at my brother, breaking my incantation on the boutonnière. Every part of Mark was breathing heavily, except his right arm, which sat limply in the grass, as if it wanted nothing to do with the rest of his body. Before Dad even asked, Three started to explain what had happened. I never said a word, because the blood and the bruises around the blood made me nauseous and silent. Mark’s bone was sticking out. His skin, tan from half a summer of Little League, was a rainbow against the grass on the front lawn. Purple stained red. Three was talking, but I didn’t hear a thing. I just stared at Mark’s arm with everything leaking out of it, and tried not to pass out. I didn't. Instead, I threw up. Mark looked at my vomit, then at his arm, and then he passed out. Dad ordered me to get the snow shovel from the garage and get rid of my upchuck, which was going to screw up the nitrogen in the grass if I didn’t hustle. When I came back from the garage with the orange plastic shovel, the hearse and everyone had already left, even Laura. I looked over at the Velasco’s window, and saw her step-dad peeking out from his post behind the curtain. When he saw me turn towards him, he vanished.

      I have no idea what that car-ride to the emergency room was like. Three and Mark never talked about it. When anyone asked Mark how he got the scar that ran from his elbow halfway to his shoulder, he always made something up. That day was the last day I ever died, and it was one of the worst in my life.