What do you get when you cross a Hindu “untouchable” with an unsung hero? Me. Yes, that’s me, just a regular walking joke. I work behind the scenes at the Renner-McCallum funeral home. I’m the guy you never see, but without me, Renner and McCallum both would be miserable men, having to do all the dirty work themselves. I’m the guy who has to go to the nursing homes and the hospitals, the dork toting a body down the halls in a stretcher, the body zipped up in a body bag looking like some awkward black vinyl cello case, trying to get to the exit as quickly and inconspicuous as possible. The idea of a dead body in proximity always has an effect on one’s spirits. I generally do okay, although there was that time I stopped for lunch at Sonic on the way back from a body run. There I was feasting on a Number One Cheeseburger with large fries, a body in the back of the Suburban, and when it came time to leave, the freakin’ Suburban wouldn’t start. Of all places for a vehicle battery to give up the ghost. And it was a hot day for this part of the country. I had to sit there for over two hours waiting for a mobile mechanic, not to mention the number of times the carhop kept walking back and forth asking if I was still enjoying my meal. Good thing the ride had tinted windows.
I got the call at 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I just happened to be in the funeral home because I couldn’t sleep. Mr. Renner had suggested I place an order to Batesville for more caskets. Actually, he’d mentioned it a few times in the past week before he went off to his annual “meeting” of the USA Mortician’s Society down in Fort Myers, Florida. I could see him and Mr. McCallum down there, both of them looking like the vultures in Disney’s Jungle Book movie asking each other, “whatcha wanna do now, Mac?” “I don’t know, Ren, what you wanna do?” Senior bachelors who smoked and drank like fish, gaping at anything that had two legs on the beach. And here I was stuck in Indiana with my cell phone set to auto alert me to calls the funeral home got. I got the call before it hit my cell phone.
“Renner-McCallum, what may I do for you?” I asked, hoping it was a wrong number.
“Yeah, I got a body for you. My uncle died in the night. Coroner’s here already,” a hoarse chilly voice said on the other end. I had no idea why, but my skin crawled with goose pimples.
“Okay, well, I’m sorry, sir. Did your funeral have a pre-planned arrangement with us?”
I could hear heavy breathing on the other end. Hey, people mourn in different ways. “Uh, no, I don’t think so. All the guy ever did was drink Budweiser and watch television. He never left the house. But when you come down here we can sort that out,” the man said.
I began to sense an odd sort of familiarity about the man. It was something extrasensory. I knew this man. I got the particulars. The residence was only a few miles away. I perked some coffee, a full pot because I knew I’d be busy until at least noon when I got back, a hell of a way to spend a Saturday. I could at least have the body prepped for Tuesday when Renner and McCallum came back. I savored a cup of the black rich coffee before slipping my windbreaker on and stepping out into the pre morning autumn wet. It wasn’t cold, but fall was definitely in the air. It had rained most of the night. Amber leaves were stuck on the pavement like wet sheets of paper. A pole lamp behind the funeral home parking lot highlighted the glistening raindrops and offered an artificial sense of sunshine warmth.
I started up the white hearse and let the engine warm for a bit before darting into the local McDonald’s drive thru for an Egg McMuffin and a hash brown which ended up crumbling in my lap as I navigated the gigantic hearse through the wet slicked streets. I found the house on the other side of town, a somber saggy wooden house painted red which looked black in the pre-dawn light. The yellow bulb that made up the porch light gave a sinister air of Halloween, a hastily fashioned haunted house hosted by a family of hill jacks.
When I clomped onto the porch, I saw a form at the window. The door opened and I still didn’t recognize the silhouette until I was invited in and I saw the occupant under his living room light. Bobby Kravenewski. I felt a twinge of guilt shoot through me. We had made his life a living hell in school, everything from dunking his head in the toilet to turning his ass cheeks blood red by snapping gym towels at him. And now here he was with a dead uncle on his hands. He didn’t seem to recognize me, and I was glad. I glanced at the talking head on his TV screen pronouncing some get rich real estate scheme.
"My uncle’s in his bedroom there,” he pointed. It occurred to me the coroner was nowhere around. I wondered if he’d even been there. He seemed to read my mind. “Coroner’s on his way. I already called the police,” he said.
“Hmmmm, well, okay then,” I said. He had lied to me saying over the phone the coroner was already here. His house was hot and I started to take my windbreaker off. “Here ya, go. I hope you like it black.” He proffered me a ceramic mug of coffee, filled to the brim. Had he asked me, I would have refused, but I thought I should take a sip or two to be polite.
“So, what happened . . . with your uncle?” I asked.
“Not sure, really, I think he just up and died in his sleep. I went in there and he just looked, I don’t know . . . different, I guess.”
“How old is . . . was, your uncle?” I asked.
“Oh, jeeze, pushing seventy I suppose,” he said.
This guy was clueless. Wasn’t he aware the coroner could request an autopsy? If any kind of foul play were suspected the police or sheriff’s department would be involved.
“Come on, I’ll let you have a look,” he gestured toward his uncle’s room. I debated about waiting for the coroner, but thought I’d be polite and at least follow him. He opened his uncle’s room, and the room had no light on. Then it hit me like a kick to the crotch. My head swam, and the talking face droning in the background on the television began to echo. I looked at Bobby, and could feel my mouth going numb and my jaw hanging slack.
“What’s a matter?” he asked. Then he smiled and I knew I was in deep trouble. “I’ll bet you didn’t think I knew who you was. How could I forget?” He grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “You made my life such fun back in school, I’m just going to pay you back a little, that’s all.” He threw his head back and laughed. I was feeling dizzy. My eyes had adjusted to the dark. I glanced at the bed. There was no body there.
When I felt my legs go he grabbed me and dragged me down to his basement. He continued talking, describing how he was going to take care of me real good. I listened until even my hearing became buzzed. He dropped me into a shallow dirt floor grave and began shoveling cold damp earth on top of me. I wondered what he could have put into the coffee to make me lose all control. I thought of the X-Files episode in which the spooky guy from Haiti blew zombie powder into people’s faces and gave them the semblance of being dead. I had the episode in a box set on my living room shelf. That thought almost made me smile although I couldn’t even feel my lips. Then I realized I would never see the episode again, nor would I ever again watch an episode of anything. I watched him pour the dirt on me and I was oblivious to the weight of it on me. I could feel nothing. How in the hell did he know I would have been alone? Had he been staking me out? I pondered these things clear up until the dirt closed over my face. And when he brought the shovel up over his head and slammed it down packing the dirt in and smashing my nasal cavity I didn’t even feel it.
BIO: Edward Burton is an avid PC gamer, and has had essays published in Computer Games Magazine. He has written dozens of short stories and has been published in Children, Churches, and Daddies Magazine. He currently has two novel manuscripts floating through the NYC publishing house circuit.