Necrokedeia for Children by Mark Hall

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Jon Dawson

Mr. Poteat stood at the front of our fifth-grade class, a wooden yardstick in hand, pointing to a map of South America and calling out its countries by name: “Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile…”

Anne-Elizabeth Tilley raised her hand and interrupted. “Isn’t it pronounced Chee-le, Mr. Poteat?”

Mr. Poteat paused to glare at Anne-Elizabeth for a long moment. “No,” he replied. “It’s Chile. Rhymes with bile.” He droned on: “Columbia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay…”

Anne-Elizabeth looked around the room for support, but no one made eye contact. No one came to her defense. Our classmates didn’t care whether it was Chee-le or Chile, and unlike Anne-Elizabeth Tilley, they knew better than to question Mr. Poteat. As a newcomer, her family recently moved to the Mamie Brosnan Elementary School district, Anne-Elizabeth had not yet learned that strict silence and obedience were the characteristics Mr. Poteat prized most in his students.

Mr. Poteat was a fool, and Anne-Elizabeth Tilley and I knew it, even if our classmates didn’t. Mr. Poteat either droned on about dull facts, like the countries of South America, which we could have read for ourselves from the map, or he assigned what he called “seatwork.” Seatwork meant that we were to remain at our desks, working in silence at some tedious task that might extend for days or even weeks.

Lately, seatwork involved making our own giant maps of all seven continents, fashioned out of tiny bits of torn construction paper glued to posterboard. Each country on each continent was assigned a different color paper, the bits no bigger than my pinky nail, glued just so, so the pieces overlapped, with none of the white poster peeking through. Our classroom was a sweatshop of shredded paper. For days and days, we tore and glued, tore and glued, tore and glued. When a continent was finally finished, Mr. Poteat labeled each country with his own neat hand. Then the map was laminated and hung in our classroom. Seven continents, it seemed, might take us all year.

Unlike our other teachers, who engaged with us, moving about the room and leaning over our desks from time to time to check our progress and to offer guidance, Mr. Poteat remained always apart from us, out of place in school. He sat at a worn oak desk at the head of the class. While we did seatwork, he read the newspaper. When he wasn’t reading the newspaper, he gazed out of the tall window that opened onto the school yard, where a giant Live Oak stood, bearded with Spanish moss, its twisted limbs reaching down, nearly touching the red dirt. Day after day, I longed to escape Mr. Poteat’s somber, unimaginative classroom to climb that tree. I wondered if he wished the same for himself.

At age ten, the world of adults seemed distant and unknowable to me, filled with secrets, shrouded in gauze. Mr. Poteat was especially remote. He was tall and lean, his body all angles, like a praying mantis. That’s what we called him, The Mantis. Unlike our other teachers, who dressed casually, Mr. Poteat wore dark suits to school. He was dour, his mouth a straight line. His wet, green eyes were heavy-lidded, making him appear sleepy, slightly reptilian. His manner was slow and viscous, his voice a low, steady monotone: “Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, Venezuela.”

When we weren’t doing seatwork, we copied notes from the board in silence. The walls of Mr. Poteat’s classroom were hung with long chalkboards on three sides. Even before we arrived, Mr. Poteat, his back to us, would begin in the top-most corner of the board on the left. As the hour ticked by, he worked his way around the room, filling up all three chalkboards, from top to bottom and side to side. Copying Mr. Poteat’s endless lines, we were wretched nineteenth-century child clerks. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, I preferred not to, but the alternative was worse. If we failed to comply, or if Mr. Poteat caught us passing a note or whispering to a classmate, his wrath was swift and wordless. He scribbled our names on a hall pass that directed us to Principal Fite’s office. Mr. Poteat would hand the note to the offender, open the classroom door, then his arm, like a sharp blade, would slice the air and point the culprit down the hall. Copying notes, I grew more bored each day, so much so that, to amuse myself, I gave up cursive and began to mimic Mr. Poteat’s own distinctive blocky print. To this day, decades later, I’m unable to write, except in a perfect imitation of Mr. Poteat’s hand.

Social studies was the last period of the day, and every day, Mr. Poteat’s routine was the same. When he finished posting his notes on the board, he clicked open an iridescent pearl-handled pocketknife. Then, with surgical precision, he scored and peeled a navel orange. With each piece, he took great care to remove the thready pith before he popped it into his mouth. When he had finished his snack, The Mantis unrolled a length of rough brown paper towels from a roll he kept in his desk. He wiped his hands methodically, then his face. Next, he stood before a full-length mirror affixed to the back of the classroom door. From his pocket, Mr. Poteat withdrew a tiny comb and set about grooming his moustache and goatee. Then he applied a pick to the trim, neat Afro that half-ringed his balding head.

On the one hand, this routine was so carefully and predictably choreographed that it seemed prepared for the stage. At the same time, The Mantis did all of this as though he had no audience, as though two dozen ten-year-olds were not sitting before him, observing his every move. If he had taken off his suit coat earlier in the day, Mr. Poteat’s final step was to remove it from the hook where it hung on a wooden hanger. After inspecting and brushing it, Mr. Poteat put on the coat and then gave himself a once-over in front of the mirror, turning and glancing over his shoulder. The conclusion of Mr. Poteat’s meticulously timed actions coincided with the ringing of the final bell. As it sounded, he stepped from behind the door, opened it, and, without a word, he nodded solemnly for us to exit.

What was Mr. Poteat preparing himself for at the end of each school day?, I wondered aloud to Anne-Elizabeth. Where did he go after school all licked into shape? Anne-Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “He’s having an affair. Obviously,” she said. “I bet he’s meeting his girlfriend. Why else would he primp like that?” It was probably another teacher, we speculated. If we had only been able to see into the other classrooms during sixth period, then we might find Mrs. Wingfield, or Mrs. Griffin, or Miss Monroe engaged in a similar afternoon grooming ritual, smoothing her hair, powdering her nose, applying a fresh coat of lipstick for Mr. Poteat’s eager lips. They’d make their way to the parking lot separately, so as not to be seen together. Then they’d meet at a cocktail lounge south of town, the Grenadier Club or the Foxxy Lady Lounge. My big brother Joe serviced cigarette machines and jukeboxes in clubs like these all over southwest Georgia, so I knew them well from his dinner-table stories. Sometimes he’d take me along on a service call on Saturday afternoons. These dives were all the same. They were cool and dark, with high red leather banquettes, the perfect place for a discreet meeting. After a quick drink, Billy Paul on the jukebox, Mr. Poteat and his girlfriend would make their way across the parking lot to the Queen’s Court Motor Lodge or the Cabin in the Pines Inn.

Whatever—or whomever—occupied Mr. Poteat’s mind, it was not on teaching. He was an imposter in the classroom. With the snap of his pocketknife each afternoon, he was a million miles away from Mamie Brosnan Elementary School. Where was he? Though I strained to see past the veil that divided him from us, The Mantis remained opaque to me.

When we weren’t doing seatwork or copying notes, Mr. Poteat drudged across the seven continents, detailing encyclopedic facts about the demographics, governments, and economies of each country. Only in late spring, when he arrived in Africa—Egypt in particular—did Mr. Poteat’s countenance change. His hooded eyes opened wide as he talked with uncharacteristic enthusiasm about the pyramids. The Egyptians were the first to embalm their dead, he told us. Tomorrow, Mr. Poteat concluded, he would show us how this process worked in the modern day.

Huh? Mr. Poteat would show us what? I looked around the room at my classmates. Nothing could have been more interesting to a room full of ten-year-olds. We all wore the same expression. Like dogs with our heads slightly cocked to one side, with expectant eyes and upturned ears, we wondered what Mr. Poteat had in store.

We were disappointed when we arrived to sixth period the next day to find that Mr. Poteat was not there. Then, as we chattered and squirmed in our seats, a stainless steel embalming table glided through the door, heaped with mysterious equipment and bottled potions. Even before he could apply its brake and bring the long table to a halt, the entire class had gone silent, in rapt attention.

“The purpose of embalming,” Mr. Poteat began, “is twofold: preservation and restoration. This procedure involves the injection of chemical solutions, including formaldehyde, into the arteries, tissues, and organs, while draining blood and other fluids to slow decomposition and to restore the physical appearance of the deceased.” Mr. Poteat held up a bottle of bright pink fluid.

For the rest of the hour, we peppered him with questions. “Isn’t it gross, handling dead people, Mr. Poteat?”

“No,” Mr. Poteat assured us. “It’s an honor to prepare the deceased for their final rest. It’s an art. I even embalmed my own mother,” he told us. “It was the best last gift I could give her.”

“How does the blood come out?”

Mr. Poteat laid his hand atop a device he explained was a centrifugal pump, the Porti-Boy Mark IV Embalming Machine. “First, an incision is made, here,” he said. Our eyes widened as Mr. Poteat took Jimmy Lee Chambers by the arm and raised him from his desk to demonstrate. He laid two fingers on our classmate’s neck to show how to find the right common carotid artery. Jimmy Lee’s mouth formed a perfect O.

“But let’s back up a few steps,” Mr. Poteat said. “Before embalming, we pose the features of the deceased. Family or friends provide a photograph, which we use to set the eyes and mouth. The eyes are posed using an eye-cap.” Mr. Poteat passed around several small spiked spheres. “These are placed under the eyelids. The spikes grab and hold them shut.”

When the eye caps reached me, I took two and pressed them to my own eyes, peeking through the holes created by the raised spikes. I shuddered and passed them on.

“Is it true that you sew the lips shut?”

“Not exactly,” said Mr. Poteat. “We set the mouth by wiring the jaw shut, suturing the lips and gums. If worse comes to worse, we use a little Super Glue to make the expression appear relaxed and natural.”

A collective “Oooo” rose from the class. We handled our own faces and imagined them glued into this or that expression. Mr. Poteat held up an angry-looking steel needle injector and showed us how to load what looked like a long twist-tie to hold the mouth shut.

“But if you tie the mouth shut,” how do you get the embalming fluid inside, Mr. Poteat?”

“Once the expression is set,” Mr. Poteat explained, “then arterial embalming begins. This is the process of draining the blood vessels while injecting embalming chemicals into the arteries.”

We were transfixed, as, again, Mr. Poteat demonstrated on Jimmy Lee’s neck. “First, we cut the right carotid artery and slip in this arterial tube.” Mr. Poteat laid an L-shaped device in position against Jimmy Lee’s neck. Jimmy Lee gulped and squinched his eyes shut. “We use the jugular vein to drain the blood.” Mr. Poteat patted the Porti-Boy Embalming Machine. “The centrifugal pump mimics the beating of a human heart. As embalming fluid is pumped in, blood is forced out.”

“What do you do with the blood?”

“You see this trough in the table here?”  We craned our necks. “Come close. Take a good look.” We left our seats to file past the embalming table, moving slowly, as though it held a corpse, lingering over each mysterious object. “The blood collects in this trough, then it’s washed down the drain.”

“When do you remove the organs, like the Egyptians did, Mr. Poteat?”

From the embalming table, Mr. Poteat took up a long hollow skewer he called a trocar. I swallowed hard. The sight of its razor tip was terrifying. I thought of the Mantis, flashing his pocket knife, deftly peeling an orange each afternoon. “We don’t remove the organs,” Mr. Poteat said. “Arterial embalming only reaches the circulatory system. The stomach, intestines, lungs, and other organs are left relatively unaffected. So the next step is cavity embalming. This involves removing any gas and fluids built up in the organs with an aspirator and then, instead of taking the organs out, we break them up, or rupture them, then fill the cavity with concentrated embalming chemicals, using the trocar.” Mr. Poteat demonstrated how to connect a rubber tube to the blunt end of the trocar and pointed to a spot above Jimmy Lee’s belly button where the device would puncture the torso.

“But if you put a hole in him, how do you keep the embalming chemicals from spilling out?”

Mr. Poteat gathered a handful of fat plastic screws from the embalming table and passed them around. He held one up between his thumb and forefinger. “This is called a trocar button,” he explained. “It caps the hole created by the trocar.”

We’d all lost track of time when the last bell rang and Mr. Poteat concluded his remarks on the final steps of preservation and restoration, what he referred to as “cosmetizing” the deceased. We were all abuzz as we streamed into the hall, mesmerized by the secret world of necrokedeia, as Mr. Poteat had called it: “the art of embalming.”

While most of my classmates were bused to and from school, I lived near enough to walk, though it was a long trek. If I had money in my pocket, I took the long way home, past Dupree Drugs, where I stopped to buy candy. Otherwise, I took a shorter route, around the backside of the sprawling hospital complex that bordered the school. I’d never paid the hospital much attention, until a few days after Mr. Poteat wheeled his embalming table into our classroom. On that afternoon, I saw a gleaming black hearse parked in the loading dock, “Poteat Funeral Home” drawn in elegant script along the side. I now understood where Mr. Poteat went after school each day.

From a distance, I saw Mr. Poteat facing a small, bald man in a seersucker suit and bowtie. The man removed his glasses and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief withdrawn from his pocket. He blew his nose. I slowed my pace to take in the scene, hoping to witness Mr. Poteat load up a dead body. The two men talked for a moment. When the man reached out to shake his hand, Mr. Poteat clasped it firmly between both of his for a long time. He looked into the man’s eyes as he spoke. Just then, a small window opened and I glimpsed Mr. Poteat for the first time.

Watching him now, gripping this man’s hand so gently, it occurred to me that this might be what Mr. Poteat had on his mind each day before he set out after school to collect the dead. I thought of him, gazing out of the classroom window, his attention fixed, not on social studies, not on the students in front of him, but on the great Live Oak that shaded the playground. Maybe Mr. Poteat contemplated what small solace he might offer to the grieving loved ones he met.

When the two men parted and Mr. Poteat slid into his hearse, I walked on. In a moment, I could feel the hearse glide up behind me, then slow to match my pace. The engine purred. The passenger-side window powered down, and Mr. Poteat called to me. “Can I offer you a lift, Mr. Hall?”

Reluctantly, I stepped up to the window. I looked down the length of the hearse. Mr. Poteat understood my hesitation. “I’ve never had a passenger refuse,” he smiled. “You can sit up front. I’ve already got one in the back.” I considered my backpack, loaded with books, my dented baritone, and the long walk home in the afternoon heat. I could feel the cool air blowing from inside the car.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Thank you, Mr. Poteat.” I put my gear on the floorboard and arranged myself around it. As I settled into the rich leather seat, I couldn’t help but glance to the rear.

Mr. Poteat’s eyes followed mine. “Say hello to Mrs. Myrtis,” Mr. Poteat said. “I’m going to get her fixed up this afternoon.”

“Hello . . . Mrs. Myrtis,” I said, looking back again.

“Where you headed?”

“Rawson Circle, just off Madison.”

“I know right where that is. I’m going by that way.”

“Thank you,” I said, nodding toward the bulky baritone case. “I should’ve taken up the flute instead, or maybe the piccolo.”

Mr. Poteat laughed. “Rawson Circle’s a pretty far piece to haul all that,” he said. “That baritone’s ‘bout big as you are.” He eased the hearse away from the curb. Ensconced in Mr. Poteat’s hearse, I had been invited into his private world. No longer merely tantalized by the macabre, I could feel the seriousness—indeed, the sacredness—of his errand.

Too shy to make small talk, I sensed that Mr. Poteat was well accustomed to a wordless passenger, comfortable in his own thoughts, so we rode on in silence. A gospel song played low on the stereo:

If anybody ask you
Where I’m going
Where I’m going soon

I’m goin’ up yonder
I’m goin’ up yonder
I’m goin’ up yonder
To be with my Lord

I considered Mrs. Myrtis laid out in the back of the hearse and imagined how Mr. Poteat would spend the afternoon with her. He’d bathe her with great care, and then massage her limbs to ensure that the embalming chemicals were properly distributed. He’d study a photo of Mrs. Myrtis, and then take his time to get her hair and makeup just right. While I practiced my baritone and finished my long division, Mr. Poteat would restore and preserve Mrs. Myrtis. While her spirit may have gone up yonder, her body would remain, at least for a time, in Mr. Poteat’s capable hands.

Meet the Contributor

Mark HallMark Hall is a professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Flashquake, JMWW: A Quarterly Journal of Writing, Chelsea Station, The Timberline Review, Lunch Ticket, The Sandhills Literary Magazine, Passengers Journal, and others. He can be reached at

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Jon Dawson

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