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Masta of All



I first met Sal Mastapeter when my great-aunt died. A short, round man who slicked back the wisps of his hair tight against his skull, he didn’t wear a suit but a tuxedo—replete with tails and a pocket square but without an accompanying top hat—and kept his tie tucked into the front of his pants. He moved with a pirouetting ballet dancer’s grace: without even a bumping of elbows, he would appear at a mourner’s side with a tissue or a gentle reminder to sign the guestbook. One minute you’d see him, the next he would disappear in a flap of tuxedo tails.

But his voice! He hit his a’s and o’s so hard you’d flinch: “Hey Tony, you like this cedah casket or what?” Plus, the timbre could rattle the fillings in the back of your mouth.

He was our family’s funeral director of choice, having organized several services over the years, and comfortable enough to call my grandmother by name—not Mary but Mare—the moment she arrived.

After the wake, a few of us lingered behind.

“Rough night faw you, Mare?” he asked, it having been her sister we’d been mourning. “Sorry bout that.” He patted her shoulder and, with a sigh, flipped up his tails, collapsing into a chair and slouching down. “So. What’re we gonna do with ma?” His smile was enormous.

In the parking lot minutes later, I turned to my sister, who was preoccupied with wedding plans. “Please, Ally,” I said. “Invite him.”

The scene had begun to play in my mind: Mastapeter flitting across the dance floor as he held a drink aloft. He would put it down to lead the tarantella, shouting “To the right” with glee before walking everyone in, his hands—gripping those of befuddled family members on both sides—raising up.

The old women would love him, then ask: “Who is that energetic Italian man? He seems familiar...”

Ally never did end up inviting him. That’s the weird thing about funeral directors: you know them only in the context of death. They have no business in your life. But why did it have to be that way with Mastapeter? Why should I be deprived of such joy?

On particularly rough days, I picture him sitting in my classroom, legs crossed and hands clasped on his knee. “Yaw doin such a great jawb explainin this gramma!” he shouts. “How do ya find direct awbjects again?” “Excellent question. Would anyone care to explain?”

Hands raise. “Um, Mr. Doerr, who is that strange man? Why does he talk like that?”

“That, Dylan, is Mr. Mastapeter.”

“Can you tell him to stop sighing so loudly?”

“Tell him yourself. It’s Take-Your-Funeral-Director-To-Work Day, and he’s a person like you and me.”

From the back, a massive sigh. “Yaw spot on there!”

With that, Mr. Mastapeter takes his leave in a faint snapping of tuxedo cloth, disappearing before I can offer him even a muted, "Thank you."

This story was written by Ed Doerr. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, teaches middle-school English, and writes. His work appeared most recently in One Teen Story, Water~Stone Review, Tishman Review, Firewords Quarterly, and others. Follow him on Twitter @AuthorEdDoerr and check out his website eddoerr.com.
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