Stan had never seen a funeral parlor before, let alone a dead body. As his parents whispered to a line of sniffling visitors, he wandered over to the coffin. It wasn’t a coffin, as the funeral director had corrected him earlier but a casket. The funeral director was tall and slender and had a mustache that tapered into points like sharpened pencils.
Stan ran his hands along the side of the casket. He studied its wood grain, glossy varnish, and shining brass handles. He then used the step stool the funeral director had set out so that, whenever Stan is ready, he could look into the casket, to see what lay upon the satin-pearl interior. It was a dusty-looking version of Grandfather, lips drawn unnaturally tight, speckled hands folded upon his chest like sleeping toads. Stan understood that Grandfather had died, that his soul had gone on. Still, it troubled him to see him lying there, unmoving. Stan wanted Grandfather to sit up and smile, to say that this was all some sort of trick. Grandfather loved tricks.
The lower half of the casket was closed, and this made Stan think of the time Grandfather had taken him to a magic show, to see the famous act called The Amazing Halved-Man. The magician had pulled Stan from the audience, had him touch the biting teeth of the saw, knock upon the lacquered finish of the box to verify its strength, tickle the toes of the man trapped inside. The magician then whispered in Stan’s ear the enchanted words which, when spoken, would set the trick in motion. “Alakazam!” Stan shouted. The man was then sawed in two, whirled about for the stunned audience, and Stan sent back to his seat amid a storm of cheers.
Now, as he continued to look upon the illusion of Grandfather sleeping, in repose, as the funeral director had said, Stan felt the same deep feeling he’d had while at the magic show, as if he were taking part not in a trick but in some unholy secret. And as the visitors gathered behind him, coughing and murmuring—a restless audience—Stan wished he could remember the magic words which had brought the halved-man back together again. The words that made the man sit up in the lacquered box; throw his arms in the air, and yell, “TA-DA!”