Sunday Pages: "The Flicker of Old Dreams"

An excerpt from the novel by Susan Henderson

Dear Reader,

The country is on fire, literally and figuratively. The indefatigable Heather Cox Richardson has summed up the goings-on beautifully, as she always does; I defer to the historian for a summation. But Sunday is for rest, for solace, for literature.

In addition to being a lovely human being—always ready to lend a hand to her fellow novelists, always willing to provide wisdom and guidance via her Lit Park blog—Susan Henderson is, full stop, one of the finest writers I know. Her first novel, Up from the Blue, came out not long after my own debut, published also by HarperCollins (although hers bore the more literary Harper Perennial imprint). I read it and was blown away by how good it was.

Here’s what the novelist and book critic Caroline Leavitt says about the new one, The Flicker of Old Dreams:

This novel is so breathtakingly good, so exquisitely written. About a female mortician, about a childhood tragedy that still haunts a damaged young man, about the endless landscape and about those tiny sparks of possibility. Oh my God. Trust me. This book. This book. This Book.

Here is an excerpt (which made me tear up, I’m not ashamed to say) from “this book, this book, This Book:”

Excerpt from The Flicker of Old Dreams

In this scene, the embalmer, Mary Crampton, returns to the funeral home to meet with a guest.

The sound of pedaling and the rattle of bicycle chains draws nearer. I’m used to the nicknames: Scary Mary, Bloody Mary.

The first boy rides past. Two more follow, rocks spitting beneath the tires. The one in front circles around me, so close I feel the handlebars brush my sleeve. I hear his gruff breathing and then the word “Freak!” said in a joyous whisper.

I don’t even turn my head as he speeds off. The other two pedal after him, laughing as they go.

I remember every name I’ve been called. Sometimes they are shouted, but most often they’re said in a whisper. Words to be remembered even when you’re apart, lying alone in the dark. My first instinct is to hate the person who has whispered the insult and to think, It’s not true! But then I ask, Is it?

By the time I get home, the words have settled inside like stones. Like I’ve ingested them and they’ve become a part of me—freak, weirdo, spinster—clacking together with each step. I cross my yellow lawn. Crampton Funeral Home, like all the other buildings, leans to the south. Its steps are chipped, its gray clapboard faded, and the flooring on the porch squeaks so much, you can hear people at the front door before they ring the bell.

My fingers grab the knob, and I am glad to be inside the foyer, barely lit with a small lamp on the table. I toss the mail beside our vase of plastic flowers and stacks of bereavement pamphlets, then turn around quickly, thinking I hear more laughter. I shut the door hard enough to cause the lamp to flicker.

“Mary, is that you?”

“I’m home, Pop.”

He’s got the TV turned way up.

“Mr. Mosley’s downstairs,” he shouts.

This is the sound of my father in his pajamas. When he takes off his suit at the end of the day—earlier, if he can get away with it—it’s as if the role he’s been playing falls away with the costume. The energetic businessman rumpled on the floor. And beneath that suit: a sweaty, slouched man, so exhausted he can’t even make it to his bed.

This time of the evening, he sits in his recliner with a whiskey. He likes to choose a show that’ll rile him up, shouting at someone on the screen who can assume the blame for everything that’s not going right in his life. All day he is polite, even-keeled. But now he can let go. Rage. Fall apart. Things he won’t do in public.

I hang my coat in the hall closet, gloves tucked in the pockets. On my way downstairs, I pass the door to my father’s office, his desk covered with invoices, the carpet strewn with more pages, snack wrappers, and discarded clothes, including the suit he wore today. How tired he gets just living his life. I turn off his desk lamp and head to the basement workroom, where I’ll spend the evening with Mr. Mosley.

I like my world in the basement with its alphabetized shelves and sharpened instruments, every surface wiped clean, every bottle lined up with sides touching, labels facing forward, the temperature a perpetual sixty-five degrees.

The dead come to me vulnerable, sharing their stories and secrets. Here is my scar. Touch it. Here is the roll of fat I always hid under that big sweater, and now you see. This is the person I’ve kept private, afraid of what people would think. Here I am, all of me. Scarred, flabby, covered in bedsores. Please be kind.

When a body comes to our funeral home, it comes draped in a white sheet. The sheets begin clean, but soon, they carry the essence of the one who died, first in silhouette, the contour of the nose, a valley or mountain at the stomach, the feet turned slightly in or out, the bumps of shoulders, breasts, chin. Before I move the sheet aside, I study this landscape. At first glance, it is like a field covered in fresh snow. Then the details become more visible. Just as a field of snow, upon closer inspection, shows signs of the life that has tramped through it, so will the sheet show something beyond its surface. There are smears and drips, a spot of blood from where the IV was removed, a stain from loose bowels not thoroughly wiped, the sticky smear of saliva, the gray shadow of one final sweat.

I pull back the sheet and welcome Mr. Mosley to the bright white silence of my workroom, take his cold hand and hold it gently in my own. His face, neck, and hands are red and toughened from years of working in sun and cold and wind. The rest of him is quite pale, soft. I don’t often get to know my neighbors until we meet this way, and that is the case with Mr. Mosley. His wrecked body lies on the stainless steel table—a faucet near his head, a drain near his feet—and there is much to do. But first this. His hand.

Here is the man, nothing to hide behind. No sheet or uniform or name tag. This is the man without his possessions, with chores left undone, with mistakes he can’t make right, with nothing more he can prove.

I’m right here, I tell him.

It is what I have longed for my whole life. Perhaps everyone longs for this. Just to be and to have someone stay near. He does not complain that my hands are clammy. There is no pressure to be charming or clever. We are simply here, together in this quiet.

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Susan Henderson is a Hawthornden International Fellow, a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Award. She is the author of the novels Up from the Blue and The Flicker of Old Dreams, both published by HarperCollins, and was on the judging committee for the 2019 John Leonard Prize. Susan is a lifetime member of the National Book Critics Circle and the NAACP. She lives in New York and blogs at the writer support group, LitPark.com.