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Linger

Linger

SCENE ONE

Late morning.

Two co-workers are in a small room without natural light. The room is bright, blue-toned fluorescent lights reflect blue/gray colors in their white coats and the white walls. A CD of Bach Cello Suites No. 1, 5, and 6 is playing softly on a continuous loop.

WHITNEY is in her mid-20s, short, with curly brown hair past her shoulders. JEAN in her early 40s, tall, with straight brown hair to her chin.

 

Whitney

Jeanie, you know where I remember him from? I just remembered. He reminds me of that trip I took to Niagara Falls.

Jean is leaning over a table and doesn’t respond.

Whitney

A trip to the Falls, in high school. One of our last family vacations together—thank God! Dad had always wanted to go, he was so cute. It rained – whole time. We wanted to stay in the hotel watching HBO—we didn’t have HBO —Dad wanted to go see things because we were there. He and Mom argued, and the room felt really small and clammy. So we agreed to go if we could go on the boat that goes up to the Falls. The Maid of the Mist. We were already so wet we didn’t care, and we just wanted them to stop fighting. So we agreed, Dad was so happy.

Jean looks over her table at her colleague. Puts her hands down on the table, pulls one foot off the ground, and starts to circle her right ankle. Then shifts legs and circles the left one.

Jean

What are you talking about?

Whitney

Spring break, senior year. Everyone went to Florida but, Mom and Dad were like “We’re driving to the Falls.” When you get on the boat, they give you yellow raincoats, like those fish commercials. Useless because you’re already wet! And then they give you a safety talk. And then you get on the boat. It bounces up and down. They don’t usually go out in the rain for safety, but they did. It didn’t get as close to the Falls as I thought—I thought we went under it, under the water, you know? But you don’t.

Jean

In a tense voice, pointing to Whitney’s table with the paintbrush in her hand.

You have to finish him before you leave today. I’m not sure that hair looks right. You thought a little boat would go under the Niagara Falls? It would destroy it.

Whitney

Guess you’re right. That boat smelled fresh. Water. Water smells like that around here, the Lakes. You know? There was this guy, on the boat. It was on his honeymoon. I saw his wife when we got the raincoats but then not again. I think she was sick. She didn’t go on the top level, although they say that fresh air is better for you. But he was there, excited. He told me and my brother they had just gotten married and came to the falls, even though he knew it was cliché because he had to see it. He kept shouting out, “Isn’t it great? Isn’t this great? I’ve always wanted to do this!”

Jean

Was he talking about the boat or the marriage? Why’d she go on the boat if she knew she’d be sick? Didn’t he care?

Whitney

Oh. You know . . . they didn’t know. I don’t know. He kept going inside to bring her out. I saw her briefly, her face was gray, she looked horrible, but she smiled at me, like she was thanking me for keeping him busy. I talked with him for a bit, even after my brother left.

Starts to laugh.

Jeanie—oh man, it was so wet! We were wet for days after that trip. Everything we owned was wet. We drove home with the heat on, wet clothes covering the seats. We had to get there through Canada, you cross north of Detroit. Not a pretty drive.

Jean

Why are you telling me this?

Whitney

Looking confused.

Huh? Oh! Sorry! Yeah. This is what he smells like.

Jean

What who smells like?

Whitney

Nods to body on the table in front of her.

James here. James smells like that man, or the boat. That day.

Jean

How can you smell anything human in here?

Whitney

You can. Well, I can. The typical smells run together, and then things that are new, they stand out. He smells like water. Cold, fresh water. It comes down from Canada, from glaciers. Or the Hudson Bay. It burned my face. Cold, fresh water mixed with hope and energy. This guy on his honeymoon. I hope he’s having a good marriage.

Jean

Probably not. You’re sentimental, you can’t smell him.

Whitney

Smell is the sense most associated to memory, didn’t you know? Whether or not it’s the same smell, doesn’t matter. But it reminds you. I remember that guy, Greg his name was. Doug. Something like that. I wonder how his marriage is doing.

Continues working but doesn’t say anything for a while.

We went to a mushroom farm once, near Kalamazoo. It smelled so bad. There were crates and crates of mud with little mushrooms growing off them. And flies. I’ll never forget that smell. There is a day in spring that smells like that. Funny, because spring is all about life—but it always makes me think of death.

Jean gets up and walks over to a sink to wash her hands.

Jean

You had weird vacations.

Whitney

That was Dad. He’s such a character. Always wanted to do something weird, but it was fine. He got so excited and wanted us to be too.

Jeans reaches for a paper towel, but the roll is empty.

Whitney

Here.

Throws her a towel roll.

Jean

I need to put another one on here, where are they? 

Whitney

We’re out. And we need nails.

Jean

Nails? I just bought a bunch.

Whitney

They don’t stick. The adhesive sucks. Mrs. Van Heusen—her thumb and ring finger fell off right before the viewing. I had to shift her hand.

Jean

Did they notice? Are you using the right superglue? You have to use the superglue.

Whitney

No one noticed. We can’t use superglue. It is so smelly. When they lean in, they don’t want to smell that.

Jean

It’s fine. I’ve been using it forever. Not everyone has supernose like you do.

Whitney

I talked to my friend over at Belle—well, my boss now, I guess. She said they use a new kind of nail that has the strongest adhesive she’s ever seen. Clients love it.

Jean

I’m sure they’re expensive.

Whitney

Not so bad. I’ll look into it, OK?

Jean

You’re going to do it in the next hour before you leave? What’s the point? Use the superglue.

Returns to work. Both women are silent for a few minutes.

So, can you smell people?

Whitney

Oh for sure. They are the strongest. The strongest association to memory, I mean. Mrs. Van Heusen, she reminded me of my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Rasmussen. Hmm, I wonder if they were married?

Whitney laughs.

Jean

Your fifth-grade teacher? I bet he’s dead by now.

Whitney

Quietly. Yeah, of course.

Jean

You do this for everyone?

Whitney

I have to get to know them, I can’t just walk by someone in the street. But yeah. Everyone has a smell. You just have to get close to them.

Jean

What if there were two people in the room? Could you tell the difference?

Whitney

Maybe. But it is tough. I don’t know if I could pull them apart.

Jean

What do I smell like?

Whitney

Oh, you really want to know? I’m so glad you asked! I’ve been meaning to tell you forever but didn’t want to creep you out.

Jean

Stands up straight, starts to circle her right ankle.

Yeah. Dying to know.

Whitney

You have a really strong smell. You smell like this babysitter we used to have. A college student. It was a Christian college, Dutch Reform I think. What was John Calvin? It was named Calvin, so it was whatever he was.

Jean

Calvinism.

Whitney

Yeah. OK. Is that a thing still?

Jean

Probably. Religions never die. Just the people in them.

Whitney

She had huge hair. She had a boyfriend—Randy? Darryl? He came over once, but then my sister told Mom, and he didn’t come over again. I hated having her put me to bed because she smelled. It wasn’t bad, just strong. My sister never smelled it, but I did.

Jean

You’re lying.

Whitney

Laughs.

No! I swear. I’m not.

Jean

How do I smell like your babysitter?

Whitney

Maybe you don’t. What matters is that I think you do. Maybe that’s how people stay alive. Their smell. Our brain doesn’t let us forget them, but at the same time, it can’t hold on to all the memories of everybody. So there’s like a code in our smell that helps us. You remind me of her. And now, someone else in my distant, distant future will remind me of you. I’ll keep you alive that wWhay.

Jean

Thanks.

Whitney

Not alive like “alive.” I mean, alive to me. Even after we go different ways.

Jean

You’re just going over to Belle, it’s only a few blocks. What, are you never going to come back here? Was it that bad?

Whitney

Looks down at her table, her face flushes, slightly. 

I’ll come back. You can come to Belle too. I’ll get you a great discount. Freshen it up a bit—oh would you let me? How fun.

Jean

Why? I like my hair.

Whitney

Nothing! I just meant, I could do it for a discount. Save some money.

Jean

Thanks. So, do you go around smelling people all the time?

Whitney

No. Just when I’m close to them. I notice people when I get close to them. Haven’t you ever noticed your . . . well, your parents’ smell?

Jean

They smell like their living room. And age. And anxiety. Anger. Resentment. I’ll have them send you some of her crochet projects, Mom has these awful, awful throws she just won’t get rid of. Then you can tell me I smell like them. Though they smell like old food and cats we used to own.

Whitney

Throws wouldn’t work. Has to be people. I’m sure you have your own smell anyway. Jeannie, I can’t get his hair right, do you mind helping?

Jean

You’ve used too much product. How much mousse did you use?

Whitney

A handful. His hair is pretty thick. But it won’t blend.

Jean

I’ll do it.

Walks around her table over to Whitney and looks down at the body in front of them. She runs her fingers through the thick hair in front of her in a sweeping motion. Then rubs her palms together and sweeps the hair again quickly.

You have to tease it with your hands, warm them first, rub them like this, and then in quick strokes. Mousse needs a lot of heat to blend. Normally, it takes it from the scalp.

Whitney

Got it, thank you. He looks good, right? Real? Poor guy.

Jean

He is real. He’s just dead. They don’t smell like anything.

Whitney

If James hadn’t died, I might not have ever remembered this other man.

Jean

The man in the mist. He had a wife, right? James, I mean.

Looks back to the body on the table.

The ones with nice hair always have wives.

Whitney

Yeah. And kids. She wants all sorts of color for the flowers. Not white. Look, I have only a few more hours, I’d like to take you to lunch today? Over at Carlos, apps are half price ’til 2.

Jean

Fine. Are you done with James?

Whitney

Yeah. Just final touches when I get back. Let’s go. I’m starving.

They remove their gloves and wash their hands in warm water. They turn off the lights and leave, locking the door behind them.

 

Story Break

SCENE TWO

JEAN and WHITNEY are seated across from each other in a booth with tall leather sides. Red baskets of greasy wax paper and half-finished fried food are on the table. A couple dark beer bottles stand empty.

Jean

Thanks for lunch. Cheers to your last day.

Whitney

Ah, thanks. I’m glad you could come. I’ve had a good time working at the Home. I’ve learned a lot. I like making people beautiful.

Jean

So you’re starting Monday? You have a few days off first?

Whitney

Just the weekend. I have to get my equipment. Combs, blow-dryer. I have to own my stuff.

Jean

Every time I go into a salon, they try to sell me overpriced products. Will you do that?

Whitney

Depends if you come in! This place isn’t that fancy. It’s nice and all. I think they have a few products, but it’s not snobby. So are you going to come in?

Jean

I’ll come visit. You have to give me your email, your new one. Here, let me write it down.

She takes out her phone.

You know, live clients will be more difficult. You’ll get attitude, complaints. And they move too. It won’t be so easy.

Whitney

Yeah. I think I can handle that. Complaints. Look, I’m on Facebook, just find me that way.

Silence. Then Whitney says quietly:

It’s the lack of complaints that bothers me. The silence. The acceptance.

Jean

They aren’t accepting anything. They aren’t anything. Just a body.

Whitney

Yeah.

Jean

You never accepted that they’re dead. Like you think if you’re nice enough to them they’ll jump up and decide not to be dead. That’s why this job wasn’t for you. That’s the difference between good morticians and OK ones. You can’t keep the bodies alive. Dead people will linger as long as you let them. You can’t let them.

Whitney

Yeah. But to be forgotten . . .

Jean

You’re not forgetting them. You never knew them! James wasn’t the guy in Niagara, just like I’m not your old babysitter. You’re like all of those spouses we get who want to see the body, have to see the body of the person they loved so much. Why? Because they have to keep them alive one more day. One more hour. It’s selfish. Humans are so selfish, so upset that someone died without permission. Everyone wants to be in charge and solve everything for everyone and keep everyone alive as long as possible.

But it’s not really about death or power. What it’s really about, when you get right down to it, is everyone is afraid of being left behind. Being alone.

Whitney

That makes sense, no?

Jean

It’s nothing but selfish. I know, I see it. I’ve been dealing with other people’s death and fears for 2o years. It’s the living ones that kill me. Our job is 99% about the living. Us fixing James’ hair, it isn’t about James. He’s not anything. It’s about his wife and kids. Making them happy. If they want colored flowers, we get colored flowers. If they want minimal, natural face, we do a minimal. Although not really—people never get how gray faces are without blood circulating. They say “Don’t use make-up,” but they don’t mean it. It’s about the living, and they are needy. The dead are dead. I told you that on your first day.

Whitney nods silently and takes another sip of beer. A silence falls on the table. Jean gets up to use the restroom. She returns a few minutes later.

Jean

So, what are you doing after work? Your friends taking you out?

Whitney

Adam is taking me out for drinks. I don’t know what else he has planned. You’re welcome to0. . .”

Jean

Jean waves her hand and sits back in the booth.

No, no. My feet are killing me. I’m going home. Probably won’t eat dinner after this. I have to finish cleaning my mattress. Do you know how much dead skin piles up over the years? I got one of those deep cleaners for carpets, the ones with water. So much dirt, I can’t sleep on it until it’s clean. Get rid of all that dead stuff. Anyway, I rented the machine, have to return it tomorrow.

What is the best way to get in touch with you?

A waitress comes to the table with the check. WHITNEY pulls out her wallet, counts a few bills, and leaves them in the tray.

Whitney

Just Facebook. Let me know when you hire someone—I can train them, or whatever.

Jean

I don’t know, I might not need an assistant. Every time I train them, they leave, and I have to train another one. No offense. Let’s go back.

Both women slide out of the booth, put on their coats, and leave the restaurant.

 

Story Break

 SCENE THREE

JEAN and WHITNEY return to the room they were in previously. Bach keeps playing. In a small supply closet with metal shelves, Whitney busies herself counting supplies and writing in a tab. Jean calls out to her from the main room.

Jean

I don’t think you got his face right. He looks a bit chalky.

Whitney

James? How so?

Jean

He needs more red tones. It’s too blue. Which powder did you use?

Whitney

The green one. He was looking really yellow.

Jean

Sallow, the word is sallow. No, see you got it on his hair here, where it joins. The product in the hair picked up the powder—did you powder last? Do you have his suit?

Whitney

Sort of. It’s hanging over here. Do you want it?

Jean

Well, he’s not going out naked. Let’s get him in it. What do you mean, “sort of”?

Whitney puts down her notepad and pen, washes her hands, and walks over to the clothing hanging in the closet. She takes off the plastic wrap and the small tag that has “James” written on it. Inside hangs a tattered flannel shirt, red and blue with small green lines. Khaki pants are folded over the hanger. Everything smells clean but also faintly musty. The shoes are worn hiking boots, cleaned as much as possible.

Whitney

Here.

Jean

What the hell is that? That’s not a suit.

Whitney

It’s what his wife brought. It is what he wore, I guess.

Jean

There is no dignity. Let’s get him dressed.

Whitney unrolls socks and puts them on James’ feet. Jean lifts up his torso while Whitney puts his arms into the shirt and buttons it upfront. They slip the pants on over his feet and then roll him side to side, pulling them up to his waist.

Jean

God he’s light. One nice thing about chemo victims. I guess his hair came back before the weight did. Does he have a belt or anything?

Whitney

No, he stopped chemo a while ago. His hair grew back, but his body didn’t. That’s what she said. No belt. I think the pants have a string. There are a few bracelets, though—his wife was adamant—on his left wrist. They were cut off at the hospital, so we’ll have to sew them back together. One of his kids made them.

Jean

Fine. I’ll get the shoes. You do those.

Jean sniffs the shoes and decides to spray them with air freshener. Whitney tries to tie the bracelets around James’ wrist, but they are too short. She grabs a tube of superglue and dots it on each end and then connects the thread, holding it together.

You’re using superglue? Thought you said it smelled.

Whitney

Have to. They are too short to tie, and there’s no other way to connect them. Doesn’t matter, he smells so much like the outdoors you can’t even smell it.

Jean

Well, his clothes smell, that’s for sure.

Whitney

He smells like the outdoors. I think his family will remember him. I think he smells like what they will remember.

Whitney takes off her gloves and washes her hands at the sink. She walks over to the supply closet and grabs her coat from behind the door.

Jean

So you’re off.

Whitney

Yeah, if that’s OK. If you don’t need anything. I have to meet Adam. I updated the stock list, it’s all accurate. I added the low counts to the shopping.

Jean

’S fine. I’ll finish James. Good luck. I’ll see you though.

Jean walks over to Whitney, who grabs her and hugs her tightly.

Jean

Calm down, I have to get my gloves off. Just wait a second.

Jean pulls off her gloves and allows herself to be hugged once again by her colleague, though not as tightly as the first time. They separate, and Jean grabs a box of hygienic gloves and pulls out a new pair.

Well, good luck. I hope you like it there.

Whitney

Thanks. You too. Come into the shop once in a while. I’ll give you a cut. Bye, Jean, thanks for everything. Teaching me, here. Talk soon.

Whitney walks through the door to the lab, closes it. Walks out through the main hallway of the old Victorian building and through the front door. Adam is sitting in his car texting, waiting for her.

Jean returns to James, places tissue paper over his hair, and starts, very gently, to powder his face with a small, fine brush.

  • So glad that you made the edit to the ending of the “Linger” short. Reading it again, it feels a lot better!

    Congratulations on the website! It’s gorgeous in its simplicity. As always, I’m looking forward to reading more of the meanderings that bounce around that brain of yours. =)

    – Mike

    • Thanks Mike! I really like it better this way too. Thanks for the suggestion and the compliments. hugs, Ellen

    • Hi Mike, well as great as the website is, I don’t get comment notices so I missed this one. I’m so sorry! Thank you for the comment on Linger, yeah, it works better this way, doesn’t it? Less of surprise and more about story, character. Glad you commented and hope you keep coming back! Ellen

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