The office of JKB Funerals was a majestic orange-brick addition to a modest orange-brick house. It had the boxy gabled ends of an old chapel with tall narrow eyes of stained glass to suit. There were concrete urns on either side of the entry door, spilling with white flowers. I checked my front for breakfast crumbs and then rapped on the door.
It opened with the smoothness of automation, but there was a man at the handle, a round man with half a smile on his easy, ruddy face. He looked me up and down, then shielded his eyes as if my head were at the top of a distant mountain.
“You must be Aaron,” he said. “Please, come in.”
I wiped my feet more than necessary, and stepped past the man into the cool silence of the building. The door hushed shut, and he held out his hand.
We shook. It was a strange sensation. I’d never shaken hands with anybody.
“Please, come through. Have a seat.”
The chairs were deep, lugubrious leather—more comfortable than anything I’d ever sat in.
“Thank you for coming in, Aaron. Your school counselor speaks very highly of you. I’m proposing a three-month trial period, at the end of which we’ll sit here again and assess how we’ve gone. The work you’ll be doing will be varied. There’ll be some fetching, heavy lifting, and cleaning. Is your back okay? Need a good back in this line of work.”
“Good. Now . . . appearance. Do you have a black suit?”
I shook my head.
He snatched a pen from a plastic holder and made notes on a pad. “No matter. I’ll have Mrs. Barton measure you up, and we’ll get something tailored.”
“I have a black tracksuit,” I said.
John Barton looked up, startled. “Tracksuit? No, I mean dress suit. What size shirt are you?”
I shrugged. “XL?”
He wrote some more. “You have an accent, Aaron. Where are you from? America?”
I shrugged again. “I grew up here.”
“Is that so? What are your parents’ names? I may know them.”
“I doubt it,” I said.
The words hung in the air like a balled fist. John Barton dug no deeper.
“Right,” he said. “First things first. How would you feel about getting a haircut?”
One more shrug. “Fine.”
“The first one is my treat.”
John Barton gave me a fleeting tour—office; chapel and viewing room with visitors’ bathrooms between them; display room; storeroom full of plastic-wrapped coffins standing on their ends; cool-room door—on our way to the garage at the rear of the establishment. There was a quietness and studied neatness to the whole place. The service areas smelled of flowery air freshener, with a metallic underscore of disinfectant. The garage, on the other hand, smelled of cool oiled dust. There were three vehicles parked inside—a fine silver Mercedes sedan, a white van that looked like an unmarked ambulance, and the hearse. The hearse’s chrome and black luster rendered it catlike and serious in the glow from the skylight. There was a discreet crest painted on the driver’s door containing three curlicue letters: JKB. The customized number plates echoed the starkness of the hearse’s exterior—THEEND. If I’d been alone, I might have smiled at that.
“We’ll take the Merc. Do you have a license?”
I shook my head.
“We’ll have to do something about that.”
It was a smooth ride, scented with leather and more air-freshener flowers. John Barton drove with an easy poise, as if he operated at a more precise speed than the rest of the world. He double-parked on Chatswood, in front of the barber’s red and white spiral pole.
“The proprietor is Tony Henderson. Tell him I’ll be paying. I’ll be back in twenty minutes.”
I nodded once and slipped out of the car. The door shut with a quiet huff of air, and I felt . . . something. Hard to say what it was—some gray wake of a distant emotion, perhaps.
It was early in a barber’s day, but the floor already boasted small piles of gray and brown hair. Tony Henderson nodded a greeting.
“John Barton will pay,” I said.
He ushered me to a chair.
“How would you like it?”
He chuckled. “Enough said.”
He touched my head and I flinched.
“Sorry,” he said, and then looked at his hand. “Okay?” I nodded and clenched my jaw. I hadn’t planned to flinch. I noticed his aftershave and the dark hair on his knuckles. I avoided the mirror by staring at my cloaked knees as great long hanks of hair skidded over the smock and onto the floor. I tried to remember my last haircut and could think only of a time in fifth grade when I had been forced to remove a wad of gum from my hair with scissors. It was Westy—one of the drunks now living in caravan fifty-seven—who put it there, and he’d squealed with laughter when it stuck.
Tony Henderson shifted my head this way and that. He lifted my chin, but stood between the mirror and me as he did so.
“A shave?” he asked.
Foam and a brush that had seen better days. Sharp steel in a practiced hand. I could see my shape in the mirror, but I didn’t let my eyes focus.
Tony Henderson stood back and admired his handiwork. “I think you’ll pass.”
As if on cue, the bell on the door tinkled, and John Barton entered.
“Morning, Tony. I sent my new lad in here earlier. Did you see . . .”
Tony Henderson spun my chair, unclipped my smock, and dusted my neck and face with a soft brush. I waded through the clippings on the floor. I avoided the mirror and, in doing so, looked straight at my new employer.
He was smiling and shaking his head. “Are you sure it’s the same fellow?”
Tony Henderson seemed pleased with himself. “Who’d have thought, hey? Tall, dark, and handsome.”
“With the emphasis on dark,” John Barton added, not unkindly.
“True,” Tony Henderson said. “That’s a bonus in your industry, isn’t it?”
John Barton drew his wallet from his pocket and laid a fresh fifty on the counter. He patted it and turned...