Eloise liked to photograph the dead. She would hide in funeral home bathrooms until they were locked up for the night. She used a Polaroid camera because she could watch the faces reappear as if she were bringing them back from the dead. Life fading in instead of out.
This particular Tuesday evening, she fell asleep waiting in the bathroom closet and things were quiet when she awoke. No last footsteps, no doors closing. Just silence. She padded down the hall, slippered feet on thin, floral carpeting. Sallow lights clinging to the paneled walls, glowed faintly. Shadows followed Eloise, sliding along the floor behind her. She moved into the first room. Oh, the sweet scent of fresh sorrow. Carnations and roses, lillies and daisies, condolences and compassion in the shape of hearts and sprays and wreaths of grief. It made her dizzy. Eloise pressed her nose into a large snow white display of Gladiolas. This is what people did when you were loved. They filled the last space they would see you in with beautiful things, fragile things that would die, too. A reminder to press up against color and scent while it remained. Or maybe they just mask the smell of decay?
Eloise ran her hand along the casket. Pine maybe or walnut. Anyway, some tree was chopped up and reshaped, separated from its own life to serve as a last container for ours. Her fingers caressed the casket lining and then she peered in.
Only the top half of the casket was opened so she could see down to the woman’s folded hands with freshly polished nails. She wore a melon colored polyester suit and pearls, a cloud of white hair lost in the white silk lining. Her wrinkles were hardened, powdered and rouged; her lips painted coral. Eloise lifted her camera. The click and whirl of the photo being birthed interrupted the silence. She sat down on the floor, intermittently shaking the wet paper and checking it for signs of life.
The woman reappeared slowly in her hand—over-exposed from the close flash, glowing and blurred a bit, as if she had moved. Of course, Eloise knew it was only her hand that moved, but no one else knew that. In the photo, the woman was an angel taking flight. She could just see her picture now on the cover of the Statesville Times with the headline “Local Photographer Captures Soul of Dead Woman”. Satisfied, she slipped the photo into a leather pouch around her waist, thanked her politely and moved into the next room.
This one smelled like disinfectant and damp air conditioning. Where were the flowers? The white marble casket was set up against velvet drapes, open and empty. Eloise looked around the dark room and then climbed up into the casket. Her head pressed into a tiny square pillow, the white quilting cocooning her as she placed her camera on her chest and folded her hands. It was quite comfortable. She lifted her camera, positioned it above her own face and took a picture. As she sat there shaking the photo and waiting, a series of beeps caught her attention. Someone had just turned off the security alarm. She froze. Was it morning already?
The door opened and the lights flickered on. The sound of a vacuum suddenly filled the room. Well, Eloise thought, she would just lay there until the cleaning lady moved on to the next room and then slip out. Being dead was not as peaceful as she thought it would be.
The in and out roar of the vacuum, coming closer and moving away, was a bit soothing. She began to relax, closing her eyes and holding her breath. She wondered if she could make her face as white as the lady’s in her last picture. She realized the vacuum was still running very close to her, but it was no longer moving. She opened her eyes. The cleaning lady was staring down at her and—when Eloise opened her eyes—she screamed and stumbled backwards, tripping over the vacuum and landing with a thump on her back. The plug had been pulled from the wall so they were now silent—the vacuum and the cleaning lady. Though, both the roaring and the screaming were still ringing in her ears.
Eloise climbed down carefully from the casket. She held her finger under the woman’s nose. No breath. She pressed an ear against her gray buttoned uniform. No heartbeat. The smell of outside air still clung to her skin. Eloise could almost see the sunshine in her hair. She lifted her camera and clicked. As the photo spit out, the woman suddenly gasped for air. Eloise jumped back, falling on her butt and then scrambling quickly to her feet. The woman coughed and then lay there, breathing. Just breathing, which sometimes is enough. Eloise shook the wet photo and watched it develop. She shook it harder to dry. Nothing. Just a bright white spot. Useless. She dropped it on the floor beside the woman and tiptoed out.
Two days later, she saw that photo again. It was on the front page of the Statesville Times with the headline “Maid Captures Ghost at Yates Funeral Home”.
Eloise shook her head in disbelief. “People will believe anything.”