I’m jamming out to some old school 90s R&B while painting the final touch of rose onto Mrs. Thibodaux’s lips when Prissy barges into the prep room, her mouth running a mile a minute—the way it tends to when she’s overexcited.
My little girl drops her black Jansport bag near the door before dragging a stool over to the table and climbing up beside me. The metal screeches as it scrapes along the cement, making my shoulders tense and my teeth clench tight. “Before you look in my folder,” she announces, reaching to brush an errant strand of hair from the cheek of the old woman, “lemme tell you what happened.”
Oh, Lord. Here we go… “Well hello there, daughter of mine.” I plant a kiss to the apple of her cheek, noting the actual rat’s nest that sits atop her own head. I swear she’s presentable when she leaves the house. What happens after that is beyond me. “I can’t wait to hear what havoc you’ve wreaked on your fellow first-graders today.”
She gives me a heavy dose of side eye. “It wasn’t me. It was Jenny Boudreaux.” Her lips pucker like the poor girl’s name tastes sour on her tongue.
I nod. Of course, it was.
“Which one?” I hold the pallet of nude eye shadows out for her to choose.
She points to the one in the middle—beige with a hint of gold. “That one.” Her blue eyes wander to the outfit hanging from the hook across the room. “It’ll look nice with her dress.”
She’s right. The gold will be gorgeous paired with the deep plum hue. My little girl possesses all the attributes to make a great mortician someday. Her attention to detail is astonishing for a six-year-old, and her comfort around the deceased is borderline scary, but crucial in our line of work.
After coating the brush with color, I urge her on. “Well, what did Jenny do to make you move your clip?”
“Can you believe she asked me who’s funeral I was going to?” Her little finger points straight up and wags as she cocks her head. “Just because I was wearing my black pants and my new boots.” Which also happen to be black, and of the combat variety—along with her charcoal T-shirt and black leather jacket.
Long gone are the days when I could dress her up in pinks, lavenders, and ruffles… I miss it.
“Uh-huh.” I lean in closer to the body to get a good look, making sure the application is even on both eyes. “And what did you say?”
“I said”—I have to bite down on my lips to keep from laughing when her head whips side to side—“I don’t know yet… and then I looked at her like this…” Her strawberry blonde brows dart toward the ceiling and she widens her eyes. “And then she sucked in some air really loud and I told her it might be a good idea to get her affairs in order.”
“Priscilla Louise Daigle!”
“What?” Her little button nose scrunches, and it has nothing to do with the stench of formaldehyde lingering in the air.
“Dammit, child! You’re gonna get yourself kicked outta that school before long.”
She shrugs. “She’s so dumb, Momma. Jenny didn’t even know what that meant. Only Mrs. Bourque heard what I said, and she made me move my clip.”
I’m gearing up for a nice long rant when the door once again flies open, nearly popping off its hinges—only this time the body filling the doorway is that of my mother. The sound of the metal knob slamming into the wall forewarns that she ain’t happy. “They’re gone!” she shrieks, grabbing two fists full of her auburn bob and tugging. “Just took the money and ran.”
My heart starts beating double-time. The makeup falls from my hand, clanking against the metal tray. “Wh—who’s gone?” I ask, afraid I already know the answer.
“Those con artists you hired to renovate the chapel!”
A bitter taste forms in my mouth. “Ma…I’m sure they just had something come up. I’ll try to get in tou—”
“They. Are. Gone.” Her tone is one that bodes no argument as she begins pacing back and forth in the small room.
“Oh, shit,” Prissy hisses, wanting no part of the epic blowup about to ensue. “I’m going find Paw-Paw.” She snatches up her school bag and runs out before I can swat her little bottom for cursing.
It’s a good thing that our clients are mostly dead, because my family can be downright embarrassing. Oh, we can turn on the charm and professionalism when needed, but one look at this crazy clan behind the scenes would send our customers running for the hills.
Suddenly feeling lightheaded, I take the seat my child just vacated. “You’re sure?”
“Cashed the check three days ago and they haven’t been back since.” Mom’s hand goes to her chest, rising and falling with her labored breaths. “I tried Phillip’s cell phone and it’s no longer in service. Went by the hotel they was stayin’ at and they’re gone. Just gone, Whitney!”
“Fuck.” I smooth a thumb over the vein pulsating in the center of my forehead.
“Fuck is right,” the tiny, explosive woman shouts. “I knew. I knew that deal you struck with them people was just too damn good to be true. Now they done hauled off with our money and we got ourselves a mess, Whitney Jean. Just a big ol’ mess!” She’s gonna work herself into a coronary one of these days.
“I’ll fix it,” I promise, without a single clue how the hell I’ll manage such a feat. “Don’t worry.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” she shouts back. “It’s only our livelihoods at stake.”
“Nothing about this is easy!” I counter, leaping to my feet. I’m a perfectionist by nature—having to admit I screwed up is about the hardest thing in the world for me, and she knows it. “Just give me a few minutes to figure out how to make this right before you start jumping down my throat.”
She sends me a hard look as she heads back toward the door, muttering a string of profanity along the way before slamming it behind her.
With no clue where to even begin, I do what I always do and call my bestie, Kate. She’s the most level-headed person in my life. Surely she’ll know where to start.
“Hey,” she answers on the second ring. The sound of my goddaughter Lucy babbling brings a brief smile to my face. “What’s up, Morticia?”
“I fucked up.” Vomit climbs in the back of my throat.
“Wait,” she says, before hollering at her husband Beau to lower the music. “Can you say that for me one more time? I thought I just heard you say—”
“Cut the shit.” My voice cracks. “I’m in real trouble this time.”
“I’m listenin’,” she drawls.
“Okay, so you know those guys I hired to redo the chapel a few weeks ago?”
“Uh-huh… The ones I warned you not to pay until the job was complete?” I hear her pass the baby off to her husband. “Those ones?”
“Yeah… those ones.”
“Uh-huh. What about ’em?”
I gulp hard. “They uh—they finished the demo a couple days ago, and I gave them the final payment.”
“Made out to cash, right?” she inquires. Her condescending tone has me feeling even more ridiculous.
A lone tear trickles out from the corner of my eye, scorching a path of shame along my cheek. “They said it had to be cash for the cash price…so they didn’t have to claim it on their taxes.” It sounded totally reasonable at the time.
I can practically see the “I told ya so” fighting to escape her lips through the phone. “Well…what are you gonna do?”
“I don’t know,” I cry. “Why do you think I called you? It’s a complete disaster. All the old woodwork is in pieces in the back yard. We only have the one tiny makeshift chapel set up in the smaller viewing area. This is gonna kill our business.” I don’t have to tell her that the upcoming holiday season is always our busiest. It’s a sad reality that suicides and car accidents spike this time of year, and she’s been in my life since kindergarten—long enough to know the ins and outs.
“Wait a second…” she muses, an idea already taking shape. Kate is a problem solver and has saved my ass more times than I can count. “You remember Beau’s cousin, Wyatt?”
“From your wedding?” I ask—as if there’s any way I could forget him fucking me up against a dumpster in an alley on Bourbon Street the night of her and Beau’s joint bachelor/bachelorette party.
“Mmmhmm,” she singsongs. “That’s the one. Well, he’s actually just moved to town and is lookin’ to get his construction business started here. I bet he’d be willing to—”
“No,” I blurt, cutting her off. “Absolutely not.”
“Oh, come on, Whit, that was years ago. He probably doesn’t even remember you.”
“Good! And we’re gonna keep it that way.” My cheeks radiate enough heat to melt the makeup I just applied to poor Mrs. Thibodaux’s face. I’ve been so careful not to introduce any of the guys I’ve hooked up with to my daughter. It’s bad enough her father chose not to be a part of her life. She deserves better than a revolving door of men. The last thing I need is one lurking around for heaven knows how long.
“No buts,” I argue. “There has to be another solution.”
Any other solution.