The Closers

by Lorna Garano

I like to treat guilt like an accounting problem. I first understood the value of this when I was in a hotel room in Des Moines shortly after fleeing from the crime. Now, lying in bed in my studio apartment in a city there's no point in naming and waiting for sleep with the TV blaring an infomercial for a hair removal goop I do the math, again. My guilt is undeniable and massive, but it's lessened, if only by fractions, by a few things: Brandon, our victim, was gullible. He could have checked us out, refused to get in the car with us. Did he not realize that with the outdated business clothes (Russ in a sapphire-colored three-piece suit, for God's sake) that we purchased from Goodwill and ruddy complexions we weren't the job-bearing executive team we claimed to be? He asked no questions and when Russ said he would “go like a puppy” he was right.

                  My mother married Russ when I was seven. He was good-looking then—a strong jaw and a full head of chestnut hair. Unlike Mom, Russ hadn't grown up a professional mourner. He joined us on the farm that we had owned as a community since the first group of professional mourners pooled their money and purchased it sometime in the early 1900s. Like so many latecomers, Russ was more fanatical than those who had grown up in the life. Mourning was a dying art, Mom had tried to explain to him. We barely got one request a year, and most of us had long taken on full-time jobs. We had to be entrepreneurial if we were going to survive.

                  This hair removal stuff is algae green and the creator of it says she made it for her daughter who had a hormonal problem that made her grow excess facial hair when she went through puberty. I lowered the volume so I can only barely hear her talk as she digs into it with a spatula and lets it drip down like honey.

With some other women, Mom had started a business making organic soaps for washing the dead for natural, straight-to-the earth burials. Some hippies with money had taken an interest in it. This all made Russ furious. How could professional mourning die? When would the need to make tangible the terrible abstraction of grief with shouts that sounded like animals being slaughtered and dances that could crack bones end? If we wouldn't continue the tradition who would? When Mom died three months later in a car crash on her way home from a meeting with the hippy businessmen Russ mourned for so many days and so loudly that I hid under my bed and there was talk of hospitalization.

                  By then Terry was in control. Terry was a cousin of my mother's who had a vision for what mourning could be in the modern world, one that made Russ shake with anger. Terry had started renting us out for what he called “closing:” lay-offs, divorces, once even to a couple who had torn down an old farmhouse to make way for a new home that they planned to build themselves. That made us performers, clowns, catharsis machines for the newly laid off, the downsized, the jettisoned. Everyone else saw the practicality of this and they tried to reason with Russ, but every time Terry got us another gig or talked about how we were finally finding our place in a new world, Russ became so angry that he lost his ability to form sentences and would just spit curse words until he exhausted himself.

Terry landed our biggest client with Aventa. The tech giant, who did so much that no one actually knew what it was they did anymore, hired us to commemorate a mass layoff. By that time, I was sixteen and I had a spray of acne across my face and breasts that were so big that men either ogled me or laughed at me or sometimes both. I had stopped going to school the year before because I couldn't wake up before noon, and I spent most of time slogging through the Web with our dial-up connection.

When I was twelve two things happened: I got my first period and Russ married Cecily. I always thought those two were related. Cecily wasn't like my mother. She let Russ lead and when he watched TV at night she'd crack pistachios for him in the kitchen so the sound didn't annoy him.

                  On the morning of the Aventa gig Russ was even more sour than normal. He chewed the bacon Cecily had made for breakfast as if he was at war with it and took down the pile of scrambled eggs in nearly one gulp.

The Aventa campus housed twelve restaurants, a bowling alley, a statue garden, three movie theaters, four fitness clubs, and a hotel. Every building had “Aventa: Curing the Impossible” scrawled somewhere on it with each letter of “Aventa” in a different primary color and the slogan in one of the letter's colors. On the fitness clubs it was written in red and when we passed by one Russ pointed to it and said “Everything that's wrong with these people.” Terry and the rest of the eight-person crew pretended they didn't hear him.

We came to a four-way intersection and in the middle stood a crisscross of signs pointing to the various campus locations, which I then realized also included a dry cleaner, a childcare facility, and a tennis court. Additional signs reading “Inspiration” pointed in every direction and embedded in the pavement beneath them was a ring of mirrors the size of coasters. The words “genius,” “innovator,” and “dreamer,” encircled them in carefree cursive. 

We headed to the Campus East Auditorium. The slogan there was painted in blue and ran across the sliding glass entrance doors. Cecily and Russ grasped hands as they parted the doors and cleared the lobby. In the room where we'd perform vinyl stretched across the wall to the immediate right of the auditorium entrance and a basket of multi-colored markers the size of a planter sat next to it. On the top of the wall was written, “What is your greatness?” When Russ saw this he laughed and said, “Nah, these people aren't being shit-canned, they're being handed an opportunity to remember their personal strengths.” 

The HR director who had hired us was in the room and heard Russ. She narrowed her eyes at him. Terry, who had witnessed all this, approached her with his perfect crescent of a smile and his hands out. He sandwiched her hand between both of his. Terry had charmed her, as he had charmed everyone, and they locked eyes as they talked. “Final rehearsal time, Terry” Russ said and clapped his hands.

Backstage, we changed into the long tunics and leotards that reminded me of animal skin. Soon, Terry joined us and had us run through another dress rehearsal. We had gotten better, our movement more fluid and confident. We were perfecting our craft, which, of course, infuriated Russ.  When Terry suggested a second rehearsal he screamed “Enough.”

We waited backstage listening to the low chatter of the dispossessed workers as they filled up the auditorium. The HR director tapped on the mic, asked the crowd if they could hear her, and an affirmative mumbling followed. She introduced us and for the first time I realized we weren't called “mourners” anymore, but “closers.”

The music, which Terry, had helped compose, began. It was all swooshes and swirls with no peaks or crescendos. Our movements were loose and swirling. “Rebirth, transition, flux: that's what I want you to think as you perform,” Terry had said, and it's what sailed through my head as I twirled around and, fish-like, we moved in shoals and then spun off and swam between each other. It was a gentle performance and we were a few minutes into it when the HR director started ushering the crowd to the vinyl wall and handing out markers.

Every time the dance had me facing the vinyl wall, I squinted to see what was being written on it. I read “creativity” and I had just seen what I thought was “resourcefulness” when a man approached. He was thin and his hair so black and dull that it looked like someone had poured ink on his head. We lined up and came together to windmill around. As I turned toward the wall, I saw him write the first massive “0” on the board, like a screaming mouth. It was an arm-swing wide and when he brought his arm down it was on the shoulder of the man nearest his right, who jumped back. When we turned again toward the wall I saw that the crowd had separated into two clumps around him, still clutching their markers. His swinging, pen-wielding arm drew ‘0” over and over on top of all the other writing.

Russ stopped suddenly when he saw what was happening, making a blip in our performance. He picked up again and the next time he passed Cecily they smiled and brushed their hands against each together. The man ran out of the auditorium and the HR director yelled, “Brandon, wait.”

Russ was happier on the way home. He seemed lighter, and even thanked Terry when we were let out in front of our house. That night he took Cecily and me out to a steakhouse, ordered a lemon meringue pie for dessert that the three of us devoured, and paid for it all with his own money. When Cecily flicked out a piece of meringue from his beard Russ kissed her the way he had kissed Mom.

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Russ and Cecily became secretive. One day when I heard murmurings coming from behind the closed bedroom door I took off my shoes, walked softly to the bedroom, and pressed my ear against the door. I could only make out a few words: “refrigerator,” “staffing,” “lonely.” They were planning: maybe it was a takeover, maybe something way more than that. That night as I lay in a bath looking at my body was the first time I though Russ might be right about us, mourning still mattered. My body was soft, prematurely old. I heaved for breath when I climbed up a flight of stairs. We had drifted too far from our mission, made a joke of our heritage. I was a mourner deprived of her purpose. That's why sloth had taken over. My body understood before my mind what had happened and it staged its own slovenly revolt.

I let it be known I was on their side. I drew a Hitler mustache on a photo of Terry

that was in the new brochure he'd created for the business and began peppering Russ with questions about certain technicalities regarding professional mourning: Did you talk directly to the bereaved at the ceremony? What happened if someone asked who you were? How did you decide which mourning chants to use?

Something stirred in me for Russ when he told me about the plan that I later realized was affection.

                  My first task was research, which I did on the local library computer with its fast hookup. Brandon Riccartello was the name of the man who melted down at Aventa. He was a 32-year-old programmer with a specialty in database communication. He had probably never had a girlfriend and he played an online game that simulated a US taken over by androgynous space aliens who made us all work on communal farms and blinded anyone who showed any individuality. Once or twice I felt like I had fleshed out Brandon so much that I got a little queasy thinking about what we were going to do to him, but then I got back to the task at hand. I enjoyed the self-discipline and direction that came with the sense of mission. I was like one of those kids who went to school and then studied eight hours a day for the SATs and took Mandarin lessons on the weekends. I got so good at digging up information I found out that Brandon drank copious quantities of chocolate milk and was opposed to voting. When I was done with him I tracked down the top high-tech recruiters in our general area. That was for Cecily.

                  We went over all the information I'd collected several times before we planned the call.

                  “I'm Della Donahue, with Staffing Circle,” Cecily said in a voice that was a little deeper than her usual one.

                  “Just talk normal,” Russ said.

                  She repeated it in a voice that was a little higher.

“Take some slow, deep breaths,” Russ instructed her.

Cecily breathed in and then made an “S” sound when she exhaled. This was a relaxation technique Terry had taught us that was finally being put to good use.

“I'm Della Donahue, with Staffing Circle,” Cecily said again.

Russ nodded and looked at me. I nodded back and Cecily picked up the phone.

“Brandon Riccartello please …” she began.

                  She read from the script she'd prepared about how she was looking for a top database engineer for a high-tech company that was on the verge of going public. They only want the best and he was one of a short list they would even talk to. Would he like to meet? Great. Then how about she pick him up in her car? She was based out of town, but she'd happily drive in for the meeting. No trouble at all. What's easy for you? Great. Great. She would meet him at the train station and they'd head over to the hotel meeting room she'd rented.

                  When she hung up Cecily grabbed the hand vacuum we had bought with the refrigerator, the bags of ice, and other supplies. We used a credit card that Cecily had taken out in my mother's name.  

                  I looked out at the window and watched Cecily clean the SUV she had inherited from her father. It was navy blue with rounded corners and still had snow tires on in May. Cecily brought the garden hose over and started spraying down the car. As I watched her I tried to imagine the aftermath, force myself to describe what we would be like after all this. What if we just looped back to normal, except with this thing between us? Terry would keep renting us out; Russ would still be furious; I'd still be aimless; and Cecily would still be an unpaid house servant. What then?

                  When I returned to the living room Russ had turned the refrigerator on its back and taken out the shelves so that it was just a box. I asked him what we would do if Brandon got suspicious and didn't get in the car.  Had we thought this through enough? “Don't worry. He'll be a moron away from the computer, like the rest of those codeheads.”

“Wouldn't it be better to wait until the fall when it would get dark earlier?” I said. A late afternoon appointment would have us traveling by night, instead of in broad daylight.

                  Russ rolled his eyes.

                  “He'll go like a puppy.”

                  When we pulled up to the curb that Brandon waited at I knew Russ was right. He was taller than I remembered but maybe that was because the straps of backpack pinched his shoulders back. He gave us a big smile and for a moment I thought maybe he recognized us, although that was unlikely given that we were all out of costume and makeup and in the business clothes we'd bought at the Goodwill.

                  Cecily opened the door for him and said, “This is George LaPort, the CEO of Nextronics and his assistant, Deborah.” Russ stepped out of the car and shook Brandon's hand. “Good to meet you. Della tells me you may be the answer to our problems,” he said as he ushered Brandon into the back seat. I sat in the passenger side and when Cecily started the car and maneuvered on to the road I turned to the backseat, noticed Brandon and Russ didn't have his seatbelt on, and said, “seatbelts everyone.”

                  The seatbelts clicked, the locks clicked, and then Brandon screamed. Russ had stabbed him with a syringe of Blexinalcholine, right through his beige gabardine dress pants that still had creases from being folded in thirds and stuffed into a retail cubicle. For an instant, Brandon's mouth was frozen in a circle that looked like he was blowing an invisible smoke ring.

                  Cecily tapped the brake and the car jerked.

                  “Drive,” Russ screamed.

                  She did. A steady three miles below the speed limit until we returned to the farm.

                  The car wreaked by the time we got there. Brandon had voided his bowels. Cecily had tried to cover the smell with a lavender mist, but it barely registered, and she threw up as soon as she stepped out of the car. I felt dizzy and barely made it up the stairs. 

                  Russ and Cecily hoisted Brandon up and brought him into the house.

They began filling the refrigerator with ice. They worked with equal diligence and efficiency, each slashing the blue five-pound bags of ice with a box cutter and then pouring the cubes into the wide maw of the refrigerator, making a sound like amplifier feedback. Slash, pour, slash, pour until the fridge was halfway full. Once when Russ brought the cutter down he nicked the thumb on his other hand. I started, but he didn't seem to notice, even when a tiny rivulet of blood split off and started to form a red web in the ice.

They lowered Brandon in the refrigerator. It was when I looked at his legs hanging over its edge, lifeless, stiffening, and set off at weird angles that I couldn't watch anymore and ran into my room.

I was only there for a minute when Cecily pounded on my door and yelled, “We're starting. C'mon.” I didn't answer and she repeated herself at least twice until Russ yelled, “Fuck her. Let's go.”

The mourning began. It was the explosive, pre-choreographed mourning that Russ had yearned for. The walls shook as they ricocheted off them. I heard burbling and retching. Then the screaming started and soon it turned to a kind of chanting that Russ and Cecily did together. An acidic taste bloomed in my mouth and I started to heave. Something that lived in me as quietly as sinew or cartilage was repelled, aghast at what we had done. It may have been roused late—too late—but it was triggered all the same.  In the guilt accounting this too must count for something.  

I started franticly packing up. I grabbed things like the leotard I'd worn at Aventa, but nothing so useful as socks. I ran down the hall, down the basement stairs, and fled.

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I was in a motel bar in a city half a country away when the story broke. “Cult Killed So They Could Mourn,” splashed across the screen of the TV mounted on the wall. We weren't a cult, but then what right did I have to correct anyone anymore? Then the stills of Russ and Cecily in prison jumpsuits; the unearthing of Brandon's body on the farm surrounded by cops who circled around pointing down into the deep hole. The shrouded body elevated from the ground with a quick cut to Terry saying “We had no idea they would do something like this.” The news announcer said Terry was in the process of evicting the “renegade sect” from the farm—another lie I had no business challenging.  

In the year after our story broke cold cases were reopened across the country based on wild speculation that we had lured others to their deaths for the purpose of mourning. Sometimes a missing person was brought under new scrutiny the media hacked up old footage of previously aired shows about us and repackaged it into a new segment. Earnest detectives and desperate family members stretched loose connections with Brandon's case. Another Aventa employee had gone missing twelve years ago; a local woman went for a run and disappeared around the time Brandon had vanished; three towns over a teenage couple had left for prom night and hadn't been heard from in a decade. For a while we were the answer to virtually every criminal mystery that still embarrassed the police and haunted victims' families.

Russ and Cecily refuse all interviews. Cecily has reportedly been assaulted in prison, and I suspect that there is something in her unquenchable industriousness that angers other inmates. Russ is now nearly bald and walks with a cane. On one of the cable network shows I saw him hobble into the prison from the rec yard. He no longer has a beard so I can see just how old he's gotten.

I watch every TV and Web segment on us. I don't allow any distance to creep in between me and my past. I don't let Brandon's killing gain purchase only in memory where it can be diluted and obscured, become a mental artifact that I can live alongside. When I watch these shows I hear the sound of Russ and Cecily mourning Brandon and then I'm dragged into it, caught up in the unending moment that doesn't distinguish between that day twenty years ago when I orchestrated a man's death and the present that I've keep as sparse and unpopulated as I can.