Don’t Burn My Body While I’m Gone
Gail Louise Siegel

Claire and David were meeting at the Art Institute again. Not because they were cultured, but because it was midway between her South Loop office at LKS and his North Michigan condominium. They would ramble around a gallery or two, more absorbed in conversation than artwork, maybe grab lunch, and casually flirt. He was not a serious prospect, but Claire liked that he paid her admission, held the door, brought her water. He complimented her new tan pumps with the black heels. She thought of these as Chicago manners. They were new to Claire. Her drop-out crowd back in Spokane wasn’t big on chivalry.

Over the last three months she and David had studied the miniature period rooms of the Thorne Collection. They saw colorful photographs of India, with naked yogis bathing in the Ganges at dawn, which left her depressed.

A few weeks back was the Gustave Moreau exhibit, with an unsettling rendition of a woman carrying a dead man’s head. The last paintings were monstrous—mythic heroes battling hydras and snakes. As they said farewell in the final gallery, David drew her close and planted an unexpected kiss on her mouth. Claire was startled; they had never kissed before. Her eyes widened, catching a sudden glimpse of oily blood dripping from a serpent’s neck as David’s lips left hers.

Today, while she waited for David on the long wooden bench in the lobby, Claire watched a troop of high school students cluster around a wary docent. They were only five or six years behind her, but were worlds away from Claire at seventeen, a year into her sentence at the Brooks Juvenile Home, and already a felon. The matronly guide shushed them while a tall adolescent goon made evil faces behind her steely bun. Embarrassed, Claire studied the pamphlet for the Taoist exhibit. The pages were punctuated with circular yin-yang symbols, like the black and white studs in her earlobes. It quickened her interest.

She expected David to straggle in late. He sold antiques and fixed clocks out of his apartment, which had the strange effect of muddling his sense of time. He often apologized and said he had too many timepieces vying for his attention. He generally got moving after three or four had chimed the hour.

Claire was punctual. She kept a strict noon-to-one lunch to dispel coworker gossip. She knew that bored office drones were prone to speculating about each other’s lovers, second guessing intentions and assuming malfeasance. She felt better about her museum visits if they conformed to a schedule.

She wasn’t sure what the LKS crowd might suspect. She had only a vague sense of LKS. She wasn’t even certain of the CEO’s name, whether it was Byers or Meyers or Bayer. She met him, an unseasonably tan man wearing a gray buzz cut and a European suit, during her orientation at the Sears Tower six months ago. She had a terrible cold, but knew she couldn’t call in sick. It wouldn’t make the right first impression. She didn’t want to risk losing a position where they were too lazy to check out the references she’d made up.

So, Claire arrived at LKS’s South Loop address on time, along with two other new employees. Margaret, the office manager, ferried them around for introductions. The veterans were indifferently cheery. Claire was just a new telephone extension.

Then Margaret tucked the rookie trio into a cab and sent them to the Sears Tower. They endured a cursory wanding by security guards, passed a lobby exhibit proclaiming it the world’s tallest building, and entered an elevator which launched them to a top floor conference room. As the car accelerated, Claire heard her ears pop. That was the last thing she heard clearly for hours. Throughout the orientation, her clogged ears failed her. She smiled and nodded, shaking hands as she was introduced to Meyers or Byers, and tried to read his lips.

Luckily, Claire gleaned the gist of the corporate culture from a brief film with foreign subtitles, glad for the first time for two years of high school French. LKS had a glassy headquarters in Switzerland, with branches in Paris, Toledo, Chicago, and Albuquerque. The film showcased dark-suited executives studying files at gleaming wooden tables flanked by efficient secretaries and serious clients. There were shots of trade shows with mathematical charts.

But she couldn’t quite place the product. LKS seemed to provide a medical or insurance or financial service. If they manufactured any actual thing, it was invisible, or at least not filmable.

Not that it mattered to Claire. It was her job to sit at a swivel chair behind a glass counter and direct phone calls to the right line. She’d type and file an occasional form. The originals were filled out in smudged lead and dropped into her mailbox. The penciled words and numbers tracked cryptic projects, labeled “K500 Campaign,” or “Alternate Plan S47-B.” They were official, in an indecipherable sort of way.

She rarely ventured past the reception area into the carpeted warrens behind her, except to use the ladies’ room. LKS could have been bagging crack or interrogating political prisoners in a back office. It seemed better to keep her ignorance to herself, and type carefully. As long as she didn’t snoop around, maybe nobody would bother her.

Still, she liked to peek in the offices as she walked by. Back where there were walls, doors, and corkboards, the employees had compiled evidence of real lives beyond LKS. There were five-by-seven school photos of freckled girls and gap-tooth boys. Claire knew that she and her stepbrother Graham had never looked wholesome enough to post over a public desk.

In some cubicles, tiny stuffed animals, still wearing their tags, migrated across book shelves. Valentine cards and bouquets blossomed on table tops. Margaret had a clutch of melamine balloons proclaiming “Happy Anniversary” anchored to her desk.

Instead of decorating, Claire concentrated on her work. Since the CEO’s name didn’t appear on any forms, she developed an aggressive strategy for handling his phone calls. If the CEO’s secretary called for Bill Carson while Carson was gone, she didn’t scribble out a message on a pink slip. Instead, she left a polite voice mail for Carson. It was nothing fancy, just “The CEO’s office called. Please get in touch at your earliest convenience.” That’s how Claire inadvertently earned a quick reputation for efficiency and promptness.

Yet, after ten minutes on the wide wooden bench, she didn’t begrudge David his tardiness. She admired him for being his own boss. When he appeared, dusting water from his lapels, it was drizzling. He grinned from behind misty spectacles and offered Claire his hand.

“Sorry I’m late,” he blushed and shrugged his shoulders. “Anything special on tap?”

“No problem.” Claire stood. “There’s a Taoist exhibit.”

They found it beyond the armor collection, past the Chagall windows and up a flight of stairs. It was a kaleidoscope of red and black. There were banners and twenty-foot scrolls with a procession of angry Chinese gods captured under glass. There were astrological charts and wooden carvings of mountains. There were sculptures reminiscent of bodhisattvas, harkening to Buddhist culture as its influence spread out of India, like an ink stain on a wet napkin.

The statues reminded Claire of a self-proclaimed Buddhist named Jurgen at the halfway house in Seattle, where she lived after doing her time in the Brooks Juvenile Home. Jurgen had accidentally shoved her older sister down the stairs and killed her. Unlike Claire, who’d shot Graham on purpose. Unlike Jurgen’s sister, Graham had lived.

Jurgen would lift a corner of institutional lemon meringue pie onto her fork and examine it. Then she would say, “A metal pot is the stage where water dances to the music of fire.”

“Right,” Claire would say. “Pass the milk.”

Farther on, a side room arranged like a darkened temple was crowded with black lacquer tables, red bowls, and a small cluster of delicately etched brass incense burners. They glistened, even in the low light. Claire had to stop herself from reaching out to trace the burnished designs with her fingertip.

On the wall opposite, Claire and David examined a pen drawing of a monk whose soul lived in a broken body. The caption explained that one day Li Tengwei was meditating for so long that his followers thought he had died and they cremated his purported corpse. When his soul returned, his flesh was gone, so he took up residence in a cripple’s limbs.

A Taoist halfway house, Claire thought.

“Just like the clock business,” David said. “You need to follow precise instructions or the machinery gets ruined. He should have left a note: Don’t burn my body while I’m gone.

Claire imagined the halfway house bursting into flames.

They made their way to the gift shop, where Claire found a postcard of Li Tengwei. While she paid, David waited on the bench. Then they darted through the rain across Michigan Avenue and huddled under the canopy of a poster shop. David cleared his throat.

“Can I make you dinner Friday night?”

Claire stared at his neck, considering who she was to him. He knew nothing about her. She was just a girl he’d wooed on her lunch hour, at the museum—a place to go when there was no place to go. She watched him swallow.

David fumbled nervously in his pocket and brought out a swollen fist. “Did I show you what I got in the gift shop?” He uncurled his fingers, revealing a brass incense pot identical to a burner in the little shrine.

Claire let her eyes linger on the incense pot. “Yes, I’d love to have dinner. Dinner’s a great idea.”

* * *

Afternoons at LKS were often hushed. Suited men dispersed for meetings and sales calls. Rumor was, the CEO took a lengthy siesta, which Margaret called a “power nap.” When Claire opened the glass doors at 1 p.m., the creak of hinges and the whoosh of her leather soles along the Berber carpet broke the silence. She arranged herself in her chair and waited for the phone to bleat.

Sometimes, if work was quiet too long, she’d lapse into a daydream that transported her back to the cellblock in the King County Jail, those long weeks before Graham pulled through, when the D.A. was threatening to charge her as an adult. There was something interchangeable about vacant surroundings, where you’re left with no possessions to tell you who you are. In jail, every prisoner had the same tiny bar of soap, ate the same incarcerated food: chickens bred in pens, barnyard inmates. In jail, scoring a real epicurean delight meant bartering Sweet’N Low packets for ramen noodles. As for decor, only the lucky few had gray photo-booth pictures of a boyfriend or child.

Eventually, Claire would look down and catch sight of a pencil. So she knew she was back at LKS, with pencils galore, and even a silvery company pen that someone had left in the ladies’ room. In jail, they were stingy with pencils. Sharp objects could get lodged in someone’s arm, or throat, while they slept.

Other than her phone and pencils, Claire’s glass counter was vacant, monastic. She longed for a trinket to prop in the corner, to give her some definition beyond receptionist. But what could she display? A mug shot? A bullet shell?

She ran her finger along the edge of her new postcard of Li Tengwei, debating whether propping it on her desk would spruce it up. The card had bent in her pocketbook and kept tipping over. Besides, it seemed fraudulent to show off something she’d bought herself. Claire tucked Li Tengwei into her file cabinet and slammed it shut, satisfied at the noise of the metal wheels racing along their tracks, the drawer crashing into its frame.

David had mentioned that his building was undergoing condominium conversion. Entering the lobby on Friday night, Claire figured that so far, there weren’t enough converts to underwrite new elevators. They were the slow, old-fashioned kind with interior bars like a jailhouse cell. It didn’t move fast enough to pop your ears, but her heart nearly stopped as the car lurched from floor to floor.

To her relief, Claire didn’t have to go far. David’s apartment was on 8. When he cracked the door, she was greeted by a chorus of ticking. The hearts of wall clocks, railroad clocks, grandfather clocks, pocket watches, mantle clocks, and wind-up clocks were beating away.

“Pre-digital, I’m afraid.” David’s arm swept the room. “I’m an old fashioned kind of guy.”

Claire thought the ticking was uplifting, a primitive symphony. But then, when David took her coat and kissed her check, a familiar sensation welled up—a Graham-based mixture of rage and desire.

She let it fade as David waited on her. He hung her coat, pulled out her chair, and set the table with cloth napkins. He cooked an elegant meal. There were several courses; there was wine. It was a far cry from macaroni and tuna at the Brooks Home. While David fumbled with the swordfish in the kitchen she smiled at reaching civilization, a half continent’s distance from Spokane. Then she fingered a small cellophane envelope of a powdered opiate in her pocket, the habitual protection she carried when alone with a man. It was a prison trick—drugs work better than condoms.

She scrutinized David as he sprinkled a pinch of paprika on the fish. Maybe she wouldn’t use the whole envelope. She considered tapping a small pinch into his Pinot Grigio, enough to make him sleepy, enough to feel safe. But then he was brandishing a bowlful of dessert—a homemade brandy creme. She realized she was happy, even giddy, and lifted her hand out of her pocket without breaking the seal on the cellophane.

They ate heaps of the brandy creme with yet more wine. Then, as Claire swabbed the sweet remnants from her lips, David stood and extended his right hand, palm up. For an instant, it hit her as an accusing gesture, not a beckoning one. She stared at his hand.

“Would you care to dance?” David asked, with mock formality.

“Dance?” Claire’s last dance had ended in Graham’s smoky bedroom, his torso pummeling her against the wall as an incessant bass pulsed out of his speakers, shaking the floor and drowning her protests.

“Yes, dance,” David said, nodding. He bent closer and reached out with both his hands for Claire’s, which were clutching the napkin in her lap. She willed her fists to relax, to unbend from wary claws. She concentrated, finger by finger.

“Come on,” he said. “Marvin Gaye.” He tilted his head at the music and tugged her upright. Claire heard the wooden chair legs scrape the floor as the chair moved behind her knees, like the world falling away.

“I don’t know how to dance,” she hesitated. “Not really.”

The apology was a fib. Distinct memories argued against her excuse: gliding across a girlfriend’s basement linoleum on a cushion of music; twirling around a ballet studio, legs lifted along a makeshift bar.

David wasn’t deterred. “I’ll show you,” he said.

Claire straightened, resisting the urge to fall like a dead weight and topple backward. Standing, she registered each subtle sound: the faint scratch in Marvin Gaye’s voice which said, Record, not CD. The competing tocks and ticks of the clocks, punctuating the Motown rhythm. Against the music they were comic, not ominous.

“You’re cold.” David’s hands were warm against hers, clammy with nerves. He closed them inside his palms and Claire’s heart fluttered. She pictured her hands, small birds inside an incubator. Something about that worked, her hands nesting inside his, creating a small safety zone between their bodies while they rocked and swayed—not quite dancing, but inhabiting the music.

David hummed, eyes half-shut, and Claire watched herself not fleeing, not lumping him with Graham, so that when the song ended with a brush’s flourish across a cymbal, she felt a flush of pride.

“A bit wobbly, are we?” David raised an eyebrow. “Too much brandy with your wine?”

“Maybe that’s it,” Claire agreed. “The brandy.”

“We can sit,” he said. “And listen, I mean.”

It’s code, she thought. For not pushing, or not too far.

She let him change the record to an old jazz vocalist, and steer her to the couch. When he kissed her, she kissed back. Even as he slid open her zipper, she saw no visions of Graham. No bloody hydras hovered in the background while she let David lure her into sweaty pleasure, nor when they tangled up together and slept.

* * *

It was past midnight when Claire started awake in David’s arms, adrenaline zinging through her veins.

She slipped out of his embrace and hunted for a blanket to keep him drowsy and warm. She found the bedroom down the hall. That’s when she saw it, lording over an antique inlaid wooden desk—the incense burner. She approached it carefully, reverently, and opened the pointed top. A soft scent wafted out. He’d already used it; there was an ashen cone of incense resting inside.

She snatched the brass pot and took note of the polished desk. It might be stolen, she thought, slipping into a jailhouse habit of suspicion. What did she know about David, anyway—where he got his clocks and mahogany settees. She didn’t see any file cabinets storing clock owners’ receipts. She knew this much: a thief’s his own boss; he wouldn’t need to track his transactions.

Claire jerked an afghan off the bottom of the bed, its hand-knit wool soft as cashmere. It seemed to be evidence of someone in his real life, outside of Claire, her gift reaching into David’s apartment like a tentacle. She dragged it into the living room with her free hand, and swaddled David’s unconscious form. Tucking it under his side she caught a whiff of incense.

She flashed on the Chinese scroll with Li Tengwei’s body on its pyre. She blinked away the image and brushed her lips against David’s forehead. He seemed to shiver and her heart tightened. She stroked the incense burner in her pocket.

“I’m just borrowing it,” she murmured at his sleeping form. “I promise.”

She refrigerated the fish. Polishing off the brandy creme, she noticed the dishes, stacked askew. She worried they could topple over and clatter to the floor, carpeting the tile in porcelain shards.

Claire was a veteran of kitchen duty—it was the halfway house’s standard punishment for resident spats and curfew violations. She spent countless nights scrubbing old cake pans and yellowed china, letting her mind drift away from captivity like a stray kite. It was like meditating. Distracted, she wouldn’t notice the water blanching her skin raw or a bread knife slicing deep into her palm until she saw a little rivulet of blood drying on a plate in the drainer.

She filled David’s sink, thinking this was escape, not punishment. Soaping up the pots felt like submerging her troubles in a warm bath. Washing away sins. She fished a meat cleaver out of the water and considered her face in the blade. Her nose was distorted beneath a film of moisture.

When she dried off, Claire spied a jar of fancy hand cream on the counter, a luxury David might have arranged just for her. She massaged it into her hands until they were saturated. She thought it might not be bad, to come another night, maybe to rest in the curve of David’s body or maybe just to bury her arms up to the elbows in a sink full of suds, drowning the past. That’s when she would return the incense burner, she decided.

Then she noticed a bowl of change on the Formica and counted it out: $7.41.

She put it back.

In the elevator cage, rattling earthward, Claire hardly noticed the bumpy ride. She was thinking ahead to Monday. She would place the small brass pot on the smooth glass ledge above her swivel chair. She imagined Margaret stopping to admire it.

“Where’d you get that pretty thing?” Margaret would ask.

“It’s a gift,” Claire would say. “It’s a present from my boyfriend.”

She snapped out of her reverie. There was a shiny red crease between her forefinger and thumb. It stung. She dug into her pocket for a tissue, and quickly stanched the blood.

I can’t remember if I started “Don’t Burn My Body While I’m Gone” just before or just after the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999. I do remember coming back to my office from the Art Institute one day to see the shootings unfold on the news online. The way in which violence can impinge on teenagers swirled through my thoughts whenever I revised this piece. And I definitely knew, all along, that Claire’s soul would still be scarred at the end of the story. She is a character who cannot obtain complete redemption, however much I love her. But in her case, merely intersecting with tenderness, even briefly, is a balm.

As an aside, I do find that artwork sometimes affects me to the point where I want to prolong my experience of it by writing about it. “Don’t Burn My Body While I’m Gone” is a beneficiary of that impulse.

I revised this story, now and then, for years. Years passed when I didn’t even look at it. September 11, 2001, came and went, prompting me to increase security at its fictive version of the Sears Tower. My MFA studies started and ended, allowing me to benefit from Amy Hempel’s perusal.

I remembered to send it out again in 2005. “Don’t Burn My Body While I’m Gone” finally appeared in print in Ascent Literary Journal, which is published by Concordia College, in January 2006.

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