When I was a junior in high school, I got a job at a flower shop. I worked there for almost five years, scraping money together for SATs and prom dresses. On the weekends I roamed South Jersey roadways and highways in the shop vans. Both vans, big or little, had filthy cupholders full of pennies, center consoles stuffed with fast food trash and business cards, broken starters, funky brakes, and were my chosen form of escaping home.
Being on the road was addictive. The vans were high above the pavement, where the echoes of my father’s death, the debt he left my family, and its strain on my mother, couldn’t reach me. I was secure in the way roller coasters feel secure when you’re strapped in, just before the drop.
Big Bertha was my favorite van. From its height, I could see down into any car below. Maybe it was the feeling of control or maybe it was the feeling of breathlessness, that as high as I was, as far as I was from my problems below, I was still moving. As a restless teenager, this was a peaceful feeling.
The first time I drove Bertha was a few weeks after I got my license. I was 17. I grabbed the key from the shop and trekked across the street towards the parking lot. I didn’t think I could handle a vehicle of her size, even if only to drive her across the street to the shop-front. I was used to smaller vehicles, and looking into other drivers’ eyes, not the tops of their heads. Climbing upwards to reach the driver’s seat was new territory for me. The seat was so far from the pedals I had to sit on the edge of the cushion to reach both gas and brakes. It would be months before I learned to move the seat forward.
The next time I drove her was also my first time delivering funeral flowers. I knew the location well. It was where my father’s funeral was held ten or so years prior. My boss did the flowers for my father’s service too, which meant they were delivered in the same van, Big Bertha.
I pulled into the driveway, set far back from the road by a hill jutting awkwardly above the street below. I braced myself for the flashbacks to come: four vases with a blue flower to represent my brothers, one vase with a pink flower for me. My mother crying. Sitting in the front row, the cremated remains of a former half of me resting in a box at the front of the room.
Before I entered the funeral home, I sat in the van, counting off arrangements, matching flowers to delivery slips, making sure none were forgotten.
I opened the side door, arms full with a funeral basket so large I couldn’t see over it. I watched my feet, making sure to avoid tripping on any steps and destroying the flowers of mourning. After setting the arrangement down, I stood up to find myself facing the casket.
It was open and the corpse inside looked puffy and waxen. I averted my eyes though they kept gravitating towards his body. I couldn’t look at him, yet I couldn’t look away. His gray hair was slicked back perfectly atop his balding head. Years of living well had carved smile lines deep into his skin. His mouth had permanently set into a smirk.
I shifted my focus and found the carpet and wallpaper matched that of my memories. Dark floral patterns on the walls clashed, or perhaps meshed, with the deep green of the carpet. Behind me, the rows of chairs matched my memory too. I turned to see the chair I sat in the last time I was in the room, fifth from the left, front row.
My mother had been seated closest to the wall, first in line to receive guests, my brothers and I following her, positioned chronologically. Before us, instead of a coffin stood a table bearing the box of my father’s ashes, and the five tiny vases.
Everyone had worn black as they huddled around pictures of a man no one would see again. I had smiled at them, awkwardly attempting to offer joy, failing entirely in that attempt.
That day ushered in an era of silence, of quiet tears spilt alone late at night. I don’t remember much of what happened immediately afterwards. My mom finally finished the kitchen renovation they’d begun long ago. We went to Florida for our first vacation without our father. Eventually, money became tighter. My brothers and I became closer, conscious then of the ease at which a person goes from being there, to never being anywhere other than in the past tense. We were deeply connected to my mom too. As a unit, we spent no time looking back.
Maybe it had been too easy to walk out of that room. Maybe I had never really left it.
I left and came back with more flowers. Trip after trip, van to funeral home and back again, until finally it was over. I brought the final arrangement in and set it gently on the carpet in front of the casket. I looked at the silent and peaceful man and wondered how he would feel if he knew I was looking at him. I imagined his laughter and his hugs during the stories he would tell his grandchildren during the holidays.
I ran from the room without shutting the door. Bertha started on the first turn in the ignition, a rare feat, and I drove off so quickly I almost tipped her on her side.
Away from the room and the man and the memories, I wanted to go back to sit with him for a while but I had other deliveries to make. Birthday balloons, bridal flowers, “I’m Sorry” bouquets awaited.
Soon, I would learn how common it is to see corpses in the flower industry, how often it is not the flowers of the living, but rather casket decorations and peace lilies. How, more often than not, I would carry flowers whose recipients are in the process of being forgotten: silent arrangements, ones no one calls the sender about, as opposed to the flowers of the living.
In the hours before the services would begin, funeral home directors accepted the flower deliveries. After a while, these deliveries became quiet, peaceful places for me to be with the dead. Knowing I was one of the last people to share their private time with them, I began reading the obituaries, not just glancing at delivery dates and times, to glimpse who they were: veterans, nurses, teachers, students. I could learn how they died based on the wording, Passed Suddenly usually meant overdose or suicide, while Is Now At Peace usually translated into cancer or some other illness.
They were sometimes young, oftentimes old, and their loved ones were always listed at the end of the obituary. There, I learned how these people lived and who they left behind. People who were losing life partners, children, grandparents, mothers, and fathers. Then I would bring in the flowers ordered by those loved ones, and set them at the base of the caskets.
Quick and clean, in and out, bouncing around South Jersey, leaving a trail of ghosts behind, I’d strap myself into the safety of the van after each delivery. I’d blast NPR, or music, or both as I drove.
At the end of the night, I would park the van at the shop, hang the keys on the wall, then lock the door and leave, forgetting the names of the bodies I’d seen that day. I would trade their faces for those of the living and abandon the dead until my next shift.
I still notice when I’m near one of the funeral homes I used to deliver to. The familiarity of the routes have ingrained into my subconscious, next to the wallpaper patterns and obituaries, and ghosts of those whose funerals I’d crashed.
Devon James is pursuing an accelerated BA/MA in Writing Arts and Writing respectively from Rowan University in Glassboro New Jersey. She grew up in Southern New Jersey where she spent time exploring the surrounding area’s diverse landscape. From forests to farms to Philadelphia, she is grateful to have grown up in an area with such unique offerings. When she is not writing, she enjoys hiking, needlework, and tending to her many plants.