Sallyanne Lewis lived alone on the corner of First and Main in a large Victorian style house her father had left her after he hung himself from one of the attic rafters. She was forty years old and had never married and never, to anyone’s knowledge, had a relationship with a man or woman. Her house was a castle compared to the other homes around the area, and it was painted purple—a color I always thought strange for a house. The 19th-Century mansion needed some renovations because the paint was chipping, and there was a large part in the floor underneath the television set that was beginning to sag lower and lower each year. But everyone knew she wouldn’t do it. She didn’t do much of anything but work and go to Big Lou’s Diner on Main Street on Sunday mornings. She worked at the county morgue, which was in Clayton, a fact that added to people’s suspicions about her. Everyone that died in Morrison County would pass by ‘ol Sallyanne and my father always said he was going to go to Greenville County a couple miles south to die because he didn’t want to be handled by a nut-job. It was a small town of 1,200 people and common knowledge that she, and she alone, would be taking care of your cadaver.
There’s always something off about people that work at the morgue. I guess you need to be a little off to work with corpses all day. It’s like playing with life-size dolls. You need to dress them and wash them and all that other jazz, so it really isn’t a whole lot different. But there is always something off about them. I guess it’s because no one really knows what they do with those bodies. I mean, it’s just them and the bodies for hours and hours – it must get a little weird. People around town talked about Sallyanne. They talked about her lack of relationships, about her sexual desires and needs. Every woman has desires and even though Sallyanne seemed a little bit crazy, she had the same desires as everyone else. That fact, doubled with her career dealing with dead bodies, led people to think some interesting things.
My parents and I were in Big Lou’s one Sunday morning, when Sallyanne walked through the door at nine o’clock on the dot. She was always showed up at nine wearing a pink skirt and a navy shirt. On this Sunday she had on sunglasses, even though it was an overcast day, and she sat down in the booth near a window. She was the thinnest women you’d ever seen in your life, and you’d be certain if she turned sideways, she’d disappear. She wasn’t an ugly woman by any means, but she always had the kind of look on her face that you’d see in a serial killer. A blank look, I guess. Her bleached blonde hair was bobbed. She carried a purse that was the size of a backpack, and I always wondered what was in it. I imagined severed human hands, toes, and fingers. You know, anything a serial killer would have. She would sit in the same window booth every Sunday, and if someone else was in the seat, she’d leave. Walk right out the door.
But this Sunday, the booth was open, and she sat down. I watched her the whole time. My mother told me to quit staring, but I couldn’t. She was a mesmerizing woman. My father leaned over and talked low, so no one could hear.
“You know,” he said, “your mother graduated with her.”
“Really?” I asked. This had never come up in conversation.
“Oh yeah, went all through school with her.” My father loved instigating. He knew my mother hated when he made fun of Sallyanne.
“Really mom?” I asked my mom.
“Really what? What are you talking about over there?”
I leaned into my mother. “Did you really go to school with the morgue lady?”
My mother glared at my father. “Ralph!” she said to him. “Enough of that talk!”
“I didn’t say a word,” my father said. He winked at me.
“Well did you Mom?”
My mother looked at the menu. “Yes.”
“Did she ever have a boyfriend?” I asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it. It’s rude when she’s right over there. Someone might hear us.”
“Just tell me, and I’ll quit talking about it,” I said.
“Yeah, did she?” my father asked. “I’m curious now too.”
My mother leaned over the table and talked in a hushed tone.
“Her and Freddy Kimber had a little fling in high school,” my mother said.
“You’re shitting me,” my father said, leaning back in his chair. “I never knew that.”
“Well, why would you? You went to Fairview.”
“Well I know, but you think I would have heard about it.”
“It was just for a couple months, nothing real serious.”
“Why’d it end?” my father asked. He was like a little kid.
“Well, we shouldn’t be talking about this right now,” my mother said.
“C’mon, just tell the story and we’ll shut up.”
“Fine,” she said. She looked around before speaking. “I guess she fell real hard for him. She wrote him poems, songs, everything. It was her first boyfriend, and she went crazy for him.”
“And he didn’t love her?” I asked.
“Apparently not,” my mother said. “He broke up with her after a couple months. She got terribly depressed. Quit coming to school, quit talking, and everything.”
“Why the hell haven’t you told me this before?” My father asked.
“Well, I didn’t think it was that important. And it’s not!”
“Well, I would have been nice to know why she was so strange.”
I looked over at Sallyanne as she drank from her coffee cup, and read a newspaper with her sunglasses still on. “That explains it,” I said.
“Well I don’t want to assume things,” my mother said. “It’s not right. But all I’m saying, is that she was perfectly fine before he broke up with her.”
“Well, then it was him that did it,” I said.
“I just said I don’t want to assume things. She could have had a rough childhood. Or something tragic might have happened around the same time.”
“Unlikely,” my father said.
“No, not unlikely. Maybe her parents were bad to her.”
“Her father used to come into the hardware store when I worked there in high school, he was a nice man. Shy, but nice.”
“Well you don’t know how he treated her!”
“He was a small man, she probably could have kicked his ass.”
“Well, you know he hung himself.”
“Yes, I know that,” my father said. “But not when she was in high school.”
Some years went by, and everything went on as usual. Nothing changes much in a small town, not like in the cities. Things stay the same for five, ten, fifteen years or more. Sallyanne continued to work at the county morgue and people kept on whispering about her when she walked in to Big Lou’s. Bodies continued to come past her – car accidents, suicides, cancer, old age, hunting accidents, you name it, ol’ Sallyanne saw it. Then Freddy Kimber died. He had throat cancer that spread and, after about a year or so of trying to fight it, he lost the battle. Everyone knew he’d be stopping by Sallyanne before going six feet under, and the whispering really began. There was whispering before, but I mean, now it was all anyone talked about. I was standing in line at the grocery store in town one day, when I heard two ladies ahead of me talking. I just caught the tail end of the conversation.
“You watch,” one of the ladies said.
“Now c’mon Shirley, no one would do it. What a thing to even be talking about.”
“I’ll bet my house on it.”
“This isn’t no movie. People don’t do that kind stuff. You need to be professional in that field.”
“You’re supposed to be professional, not everyone is.”
“I’ve read in the papers of it happening. I guess it’s not all that uncommon.”
The two ladies noticed me behind them and changed the subject. But I knew what they were talking about. It was the same conversation everyone in town was having. My father and mother had it, right when they heard Freddy Kimber died. Everyone was going around town, just waiting for something to happen. People drove by Sallyanne’s house and waited for her to leave for work, just to get a glimpse of her. The kids at school were talking about it. A few months went by and nothing happened, and life went on. Sallyanne had quit coming to Big Lou’s, and no one saw her for a good four or five months.
My parents and I were eating at Big Lou’s one Sunday after church, when my father asked the waitress: “Have you seen Sallyanne recently? She used to come in here every Sunday, but every time we’re here, we never see her anymore.”
My mother gave my father a striking glare, but my father didn’t really care. He had come to the point where he would talk about Sallyanne openly because he knew everyone else was.
“Nope,” the waitress said. “She quit coming here months ago, no one has really seen her much. I guess she even quit going to work.”
“Really?” my father asked.
“Yep, I have a girlfriend that works over at the morgue, and she said that Sallyanne doesn’t even go in anymore.”
“Did she move?”
“I don’t think so. I think she probably got tired of all the rumblings around here.”
“Makes sense,” my father said.
As my father finished up his conversation with the waitress, the glass door at the front of Big Lou’s opened and in walked Sallyanne. She was wearing the same pink skirt and navy top she did every Sunday, but now the navy top was stretched over her pregnant stomach. Everyone in the diner stopped what they were doing, and stared at Sallyanne, as she walked over to the booth she always sat at and sat down. No one cared if she saw them staring, everyone stared. The restaurant was completely quiet, and even the cook behind the small window leading to the kitchen stopped what he was doing and stared. My father looked at my mother, and my mother looked at him. The waitress was the first to move, and she walked over to Sallyanne and asked her if she wanted coffee.
Andrew Manzoline lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Emily and a kitten named Oliver. He is originally from Ishpeming, MI. He has written many short stories, and hopes to publish a volume of short stories. He enjoys writing, reading, and traveling.