You Have the Body
So this is what a dead guy looks like after decomposition, Vin thinks as he cocks the Glock, takes aim.
Voices behind him: “Ho, shit, man, he’s gonna shoot.”
“I can’t believe, he’s gonna –.”
The Glock blast silences these voices, silences everything, except the shot’s own echo in the crisp night air. Then, silences itself like an equation canceling itself out. One plus minus one equals zero.
Vinnie empties the cartridge, and then looks at his handiwork. He’s just blown a hole clear through the skull of an exhumed corpse. Proof? Skull fragments fizzle into powdery dust in the dark air before them. The metallic smell of bullets piercing through fiberglass and bone wafts like a deadly stilled breeze, mingling with the haze of death from the casket. All he can think about, besides the juice, is that it’s great to feel alive, even if there’d been a lot of work involved.
It took them four hours, the three of them, digging through the dirt to find a coffin without a sealer. Four bloody hours, with all the drinking breaks. In comparison, it probably took four seconds to fire the shot. All that work for a few seconds of pleasure. Ah, but such is life, isn’t it? Vinnie wonders. Everything worth doing only lasts a few seconds. Shooting. Fucking. Name your vice. All the same.
“Should take care of that zombie,” Vin says, lowering the gun. He snickers, as do Ched-da and Izzo. Then, he gives the Glock over to Ched-da in exchange for the Mason jar full of rum and Coke. He drinks the last bit down greedily.
“Ho, shit,” says Ched-da. “I wanted the last of the juice.”
Vin wipes his mouth with his mud-caked arm, and then looks to Ched-da in the dim light of the approaching dawn. Ched-da is stone drunk, having trouble standing upright. Maybe they could put him in the coffin. Just for kicks. But then he glances up at the tattered skeleton, feels the heebie-jeebies coming on. Damn thing looks spookier somehow with half a head, Vin figures. No real reason for feeling this way, if only because that’s the way his father went. But he doesn’t think about that. He doesn’t like thinking about that.
“C’mon,” he says. “Time to get the hell outta here.”
“Yeah,” agrees Izzo. “Time to beat it ‘fore the five-oh show.”
Vin spits on the ground and tosses the Mason jar at him. He barely catches it in the near dark.
“Hey!” says Izzo.
“Won’t be no cops,” says Vin. “We’re 16. What they gonna do? Call our parents?”
Ched-da chuckles at this, even if it’s more twisted than funny. Vin figures he probably has laughed because he has no parents. Ched-da lost his mom and dad in a car accident. Guy behind the wheel was a seventeen-year-old getting a blowjob from his girlfriend. Everyone died, except for the driver. Lucky he didn’t lose his pecker, Vin figures. Then, he shakes the thought, understanding that life, sometimes, has a funny way of biting you on the ass for thinking such things.
“Hey, whaddabout the coffin,” says Izzo, pointing to the dead body.
Vin just rolls his eyes and starts walking.
“Worry about the shovels and crowbars, instead,” says Vin with a sigh. “Guy’s dead. What the hell’s he going to do?”
Vin opens an eye, cracked with sleep and dust. Sunlight floods into his eyes. His retinas focus on his Skull Bonez poster, black man striking a pose.
He hears the voice, again, now coming from the vents below, coming from downstairs. Vinnie curses. Goddamn woman, he thinks. He gets up and puts one leg into his track pants, but footsteps hurriedly creak up the staircase. Fat footsteps. He’s losing the race already. Shit. He’s about to put the other leg in, when there’s a sharp knock on the door.
“For Christsakes, Ma. It’s Saturday, ain’t it?”
“There’s some guy to see you at the front door. Says he’s from the City.”
Vinnie curses. Slips his feet into his unlaced runners. This can’t be good. He knows this can’t be fucking good. He looks to the window. Is it too late to take a runner?
“Jesus fucking Christ, Ma,” yells Vin. “I’m coming.”
He scans the room, grabs a shirt from the dirty laundry basket. Not the one he wore last night, one covered in dirt and grit. He looks around again. His head is cloudy, his Ma is screaming. Shit! Nothing to do but pull the dirty shirt on over his head, figuring it’s all the rage anyway. Everything in hi-hop fashion looks like shit, looks like it’s been coated in grease and grit.
Vin steps out the door. Gives his Ma the twice over and then steps past her. She looks like a ghost, all pasty-face and in curlers.
“Where were you last night?”
“Who’s out front?” he says, answering question with a question, beating her at her own game. He chases the banister to the bottom, lands in no time flat, smirking.
“Some guy from the City,” says Ma. “You’re not in trouble again, are you?”
Vin sighs and shakes his head, gliding to the partially opened door. Pulls it back. Reveals.
Some guy with ’80s sunglasses is at the door, wearing a gray suit one size too big. There’s a patch with his name on it. It says Bob and City Bylaw Enforcement.
“You Vin?” the guy asks.
“So what if I am?” Vin replies.
“Come here,” the guy says, and then beckons him with a finger to a van parked on the sidewalk.
“What the hell’s your problem, anyway?” Vin asks, following him to the wheels. “Goddamn Saturday morning, ain’t it?”
Bob says nothing, just keeps walking to the van. Arrives. Opens the back door the van, pulls out something in a bag. Unzips it. Vin tries not to retch from the smell.
It’s the same goddamn corpse he was shooting at last night. He can already tell. The top half of his head is shot clear off. Just a little bit of the eye sockets left. Now, in the light, he sees the tattered flesh that hangs off the lower face like a fashion accessory.
Vin takes two steps back.
“The hell you mean?” asks Vin, wondering if Bob might be referring to the corpse.
Bob pulls something leathery out of his front suit pocket. Shakes it at Vin, who feels a tense kind of anxiety work its way through his bowels. Vin realizes that this wallet implicates him.
“Left your wallet at the graveyard. Lying right in the coffin.”
Vin takes it, looks at it dumbstruck. Unbelievable. How could he have been so stupid? Then again, he realizes he’d been drinking. Stupid things happen when you drink.
Bob whips out a black book with the words City Bylaws stenciled on it.
“Old woman Hagarty who lives next to the graveyard says she was up all night, watching you and your friend digging up graves, looking for a few to cap. That true?”
“So what if it were?” says Vin. Answers question with question, cancels both questions out. An equation that works with authority figures, like Ma.
Bob shakes his head, flips through the book to the page he’s looking for. Stops. Taps his finger on the page.
“Says here that anyone who molests or disturbs a dead person is liable for their well being thereon in,” says Bob. “Right here, it says. Bylaw number 2,909.”
“It doesn’t say that,” says Vin incredulously.
Bob shows him the page. Vin shuffles uneasily on the spot. It’s some kind of law, but it’s all Latin to Vin. He’s responsible for the body and its condition. It’s so goddamn unreal. He sucks in air, mouth like an O, just like the Skull Bonez’s bitch posse does to lollipops in their videos.
“Um, you gonna call the cops or somethin’?” Vinnie asks.
Bob shakes his head, pulls the body bag forward, just as Ma waddles up beside Vin.
“No need to get the police involved. See this guy here?
Bob points to the bag, and then thumps his book with his finger once again. He points to Bylaw 2,909.
“Yours to keep,” says Bob.
“Jesus, Vinnie, who’d you kill?” Vinnie’s Ma asks, trying not to eyeball the sleeping skeleton on the kitchen floor.
“Who’d you shoot for this to happen?”
Vin rolls his eyes, gets a leftover Orange Julius out of the fridge.
“Didn’t shoot no one,” says Vin. “This guy was already dead. Can’t you tell?”
Vin takes a swig of the juice. It coats his throat, his stomach, quickly. Makes friends with the alcohol from the night before. Vin tries not to retch. Not with that smell, that smell of death and the dirt and the bullet. The memory of all the things he did the night before. He looks to the body.
“Who is he?” she cries.
“I didn’t look at the grave marker.”
Vinnie’s Ma slumps into a nearby chair, trying to stay composed. Keep from falling apart into tiny little bone fragments.
Vinnie pokes at the body with a foot.
“Guy still looks a little fresh, doesn’t he?” he says, joking.
Ma doesn’t get the joke. She starts wailing and pacing around the kitchen.
“What do we do now?” Ma wails. “What are we gonna do?”
Vin knows what he was going to do. It was all a matter of following the stupid bylaw. Not because he wants to, but because it’s an easy way to remain a pain in everyone’s ass.
Vin puts the juice bottle back in the fridge. Wipes his mouth with his bare arm. Looks to the body again.
“Gonna keep him with me at all times. Might get time off for good behavior.”
Ma’s eyes widen. Vin knows she’s going to start in with the yelling again. The trick is with Ma, he knows, is to talk before she even gets the chance. It’s the KO punch to her sternum. Takes the wind right out of her.
“Time to get yo’ ass out of that chair, Ma,” says Vinnie, grabbing an end of the body bag. “Got make room for this guy in the freezer.”
Ma suddenly falls ashen.
“Not in the freezer! What about all the meat, the frozen peas! Our food, Vinnie!”
Vin shrugs, looks at Ma vacantly.
“Bylaw says we gotta keep him frozen daily. Only way he’ll keep in public, keeping him frozen.”
Vin smirks as he picks up his end of the bag. Ma’s eyes start to bug out of his head, and she begins waving her arms frantically. She suddenly feels like she’s drowning in understanding, her son’s serious implications.
“Guess the food’s got some company for awhile,” says Vin, all nonchalant-like. “C’mon. Lift your end. The one that belongs to you.”
Vinnie learns the hard way about the red tape involved bringing a dead body into the school. First, he’s got to check in the body with the principal’s office. This involves standing in line and waiting. He finally gets clearance, but, because he waited in a particularly long line-up, he misses most of homeroom. Thus, Vin has to go back to the principal’s office and hand in a truancy slip, one accounting for his whereabouts during those 15 minutes. This takes a great deal of haggling with the homeroom teacher, Mr. Bates, who seems to have something against Vinnie.
Then, he finds himself standing in line in the office yet again. Other students begin eyeing him strangely, eyeing the body bag nervously. Vin smiles, his burgeoning reputation as a thug being, yet again, re-cemented thanks to the presence of the body. I’m one big bad-ass now, he thinks. He looks to the closed body bag, silently thanks the body for landing in his life when he did.
Finally, he gets to the front of the line but now encounters a student volunteer acting as a receptionist’s assistant. He’d looks her up and down, looks at her mosquito-like tits. Not ripe enough yet, he thinks. There are other complications preventing a hook-up — namely, this chick doesn’t even know what she’s doing. She’s got to talk to three different supervisors to get his slip signed. Vin rolls his eyes. This costs him two or three minutes of his oh-so precious time, and he needs a girl like that he needs a fish on a fucking bicycle.
This screw-up makes Vin late for math class, and the process just will begin anew — back to the office for a new slip. This will involve having to get a slip signed by Mr. Hitchcock, the math teacher, who, just like Mr. Bates, seems to have something against him. Detention starts to look like a good option. Might make him tougher, except it’d mean that someone would be making in on his time. And he can’t have that. No shit.
Thus, Vin sits at his seat with the body propped up in a formerly vacant desk in front of him, wondering what on earth he’s still doing in school. He could drop out, put some connections together. Deal in dope, do that kind of shit. Maybe pimp. Problem is, this is the suburbs and nobody he knows in the ‘burbs has any clue how to get these things.
Maybe I should try harder, Vin thinks. Or maybe I should have just thrown the body in the bedroom closet.
And then Mr. Hitchcock is standing above him like a looming vulture.
“Vin,” the teacher says. “Care to go to the board and solve the problem?”
Vin rolls his eyes, readjusts his cap, which Mr. Hitchcock gently plucks off his head. Someone titters in the background. He walks up to the board, watching the swath of bodies and desks pushing over out of his way as he passes by.
Pussies, he mouths to his classmates, shaking his head. He reaches the board, stares at the problem. Grabs the chalk tentatively, as though it were a slug, a bullet. Picks it up. Places white against black, starts putting in numbers. Begins rearranging equations that seem to blur.
Vin eventually puts the chalk down.
“That’s incomplete, Vin,” Hitchcock says with a moan.
“So? Someone else’ll finish it.”
“You can’t go through life solving incomplete problems. Or expecting others to do it for you.”
“Spare me the lecture,” he mutters walking back to his seat, suddenly noticing for the first time that nobody sits near him, not even Izzo. Everyone seems nudged up against the window. Then, he understands. Not everyone is used to the smell, the tinge of decay, the smell of embalming fluid, a smell that’s all over his hands and clothes, impregnated in his brain.
Another student head to the front of the board as Vin passes the body, his half-head peeking out of the bag like it were a parka wrapped around him.
The body. His baby. His albatross.
“Fucker,” Vin says to the dead man.
He says it loud enough to be heard by Mr. Hitchcock, who, thinking the curse was directed at him, kicks Vin out of class and sends him back down at the Office. Didn’t really matter, Vin thinks on his way out with the body on his back.
“Yo’ know I was going down there anyway,” he says, leaving the classroom, slamming the door, feeling the weight of truth in his own words, an additional burden.
The pounding on the door, it’s there again. Even louder than the jeep-rockin’ beats on the stereo. Track two, album three of Skull Bonez’ I Always Wannbe A Dead Gangsta’.
“Vinnnniiiiiiieeeeeee,” shrieks Ma. “Open up. There’s something I gotta show ya.”
Vin rolls his eyes, then hides the Glock under the rag he’d been polishing it with. The gun, his most prized possession, even still. Banished, under the bed sheets with it. Takes the CD’s remote, points it at the stereo like a Glock.
Ma takes him down the stairs, then down the other set of stairs and into the basement. She opens the freezer and it glows. The body is nestled there in his bag, among the meat and bags of peas. Except, now, the meat and the pea packages have all been ripped open, placed erratically on top of his bag.
The half-headed body smiles from his position. Vin’s mouth curls. He just wants to shake the body. Shake him and shake him until he rattles.
“You see?” Ma cries. “This … this thing, it’s eating us out of a house and home.”
Vin winces and waves his hand in front of his face. That smell, there again. He should be used to it by now.
“That’s impossible, Ma. He’s dead.”
Ma’s face turns red and cheeks puff up. She erupts.
“Impossible? Look here,” she says, picking up an empty Styrofoam package that contained a half-pound of red, raw, frozen hamburger meat. There are teeth marks on the Styrofoam, and just the odd red worms of meat sticking to the carton.
“Can you tell me who did this?”
“Whoa, don’t look at me, Ma,” Vin exclaims, waving his hands frantically. “Wasn’t me.”
“Wasn’t me, either,” says Ma, putting the package back into the freezer in disgust. She closes the freezer door. “So who was it? Wasn’t me, and it wasn’t you. There’s only one other person in this house, and he lives in the freezer.”
“It, Ma,” sighs Vin. “It.”
“Whatever,” says Ma. “So, Vinnie, what are we gonna do? I can’t afford this. Just can’t afford this on one salary.”
Vin has an idea. It involves the Glock and a bank, lots of ammo and screaming people.
“You gotta get a job, Vinnie. You just have to.”
“Yeah, sure. Whatever. Lots of fry cook jobs at the KFC and Mickey D’s.”
“Better get one,” warns Ma. “Better get one.”
Then, as an afterthought, she says, “This is not my problem.”
And leaves him at the freezer, goes upstairs, to contemplate the message, have a heart-to-heart with his skeleton.
Vin looks at the body, smiling contentedly. Vin shuts the freezer door, so he doesn’t have to see that grinning face of his.
“Gonna have to try harder now,” he says to himself, feeling horribly nauseated from the weight of impending responsibility, wondering if this is how Ma felt just before giving birth to him.
Vin was right, of course. Getting a job as a fry cook was easy. The problem was, all he ever did was cook fries. He was a Fry Specialist, that’s what they called him. Marty down the grill did the burgers. Mel did the chicken. Judith did cash. Vin did the fries. Every day after school for four hours, Vin cooked to feed the body’s freezer habit. Day in, day out.
The body sits propped up against the wall nearby, his supervisor. Vin eyes him, then watches fries dip into grease. All fizzle, no shizzle.
“Faster!” Judith, the fat 17-year-old bitch on the till yells at him. “Faster, Vin! Faster! I need fries super fast fast!”
But it’s all just a losing battle. Vin can barely put the frozen fries into their drop basket before they need to be pulled out again. This was a job that required two people, and he could barely keep up. Then, there was the fact that he had to practically work two hours to earn a decent hour’s salary. It was the way it worked if you were underage. Vin now realizes he might be better off making Nikes in Thailand, and has started to give it some thought. He thinks about it, realizes he hasn’t worked this hard since his dad died. Vin’s been used to Ma doing all the work, the way it should be.
Someone taps him on the shoulder. Some pimply-faced kid named Bob Edwards, not much older than him, the manager of the joint. He is everything you could aspire to in this place. If you stayed long enough, well.
“Uh, I guess it’s break time,” says Bob. “Don’t need the union — .”
“Yeah, thanks,” interrupts Vin, already feeling the metal bar that pushes open the back door of the joint, dragging the body behind him. Pieces of bone jiggle harshly in the bag. Sounds like twigs breaking. Already, The body has disintegrated into four pieces. Ma has even started yelling at Vin about that: “Better take mo’ care of your baby!”
Outside, Vin breathes the fresh air, thankful for the break. He wanders around, clears his head, and sees nothing but empty parking spaces in the car lot. Doesn’t know why Judith needs him to work so fast, unless it has something to do with her own goddamn insecurity. Sure as hell weren’t any customers, probably because the joint wasn’t offering Atkins low-carb food or something.
Vin spots a pay phone, drags his bag over. Reaches in his pocket, finds a little jingle-jangle. Puts it in the slot. Calls Izzo, who was always good for company. He recalls a time, playing b-ball pick-up after school in the courts behind the portables. Days that are now seemingly gone, ever since the body here came on the scene. Phone rings three times before the answering machine kicks in and the pay phone greedily gobbles down all his money with a ka-chug!
“Damn you,” he says, looking down at the body bag. Wishes he had a cell. Wishes he could afford a cell, except the body here keeps eating into his bottom line.
Vin rings up Ched-da. Someone picks up on the second ring.
Vin = relieved. Relived to hear another voice, one he knows.
“Ched, man. Anything happening?”
The voice on the other end sounds muffled, like it has been stuffed under a bed sheet or something.
“Vin. That you?”
“Who’d you think?”
There’s an uncomfortable pause on the other end. Vin thinks he hears a giggle. A female giggle.
“Now’s not really a good time — .”
“Fine,” says Vin breathlessly. Fast talking jive, now. “Just wondering if you were willing to hang this weekend. Like we used to. Pop a few rounds, you know.”
Vin means b-ball. He knows as soon as he says it that Ched-da probably thinks it has something to do with the gun, instead. The things you wish you could take back.
Another pause. The receiver on the other end covered to muffle a conversation Vin is not meant to hear. Then a moan. One Vin equates to the pleasure that comes with sucking sweet lollipops, just like in the video when the bitch goes down … .
“Shit, I gotta go, Vin. Sorry.”
A metal door creaks somewhere behind Vin. Bob yells from a distance into the night air, “Vin? Break’s done!” He yells this, even though it felt like break just began two minutes ago.
The phone line goes dead in Vin’s hand, just a single monotone. No life, no pulse.
Vin slams down the phone, dragging the body back to the restaurant behind him. It’s his only consolation. Already 16, and already feeling left behind. Vin looks to the body, skull fragments bashing against the pavement as he goes along, a constant reminder of all his trouble.
“This is all your fault,” Vin mumbles, needing a scapegoat. “They think I’m some retard because of you.”
The body just crumbles some more: crack, crack, crack against the pavement. Not even smiling. Just busy being dead like his old man.
Judith yells at him all night, “Faster, Vin, faster!” Digits pound the till. For once, it doesn’t mean a thing to Vin.
It’s all numbers, anyway.
Ma stands over the open freezer. Alien light beaming out of the open lid provides the room’s only light.
“Ma, I’m sorry,” says Vin, his eyes cracked with sleeps in his eyes.
“It’s four a.m. and this is the third night in a row! I think you should sleep with him.”
Vin’s eyebrows fly skyward at this. “You’re not suggesting … ?”
Ma looks at him sternly.
“Ain’t no way I’m going to be dealing with a crying corpse all night,” she says. “It’s obvious he’s lonely and needs some TLC. So why don’t you show him Vinnie? Why can’t you love him?”
He’s not my son, if that’s what you mean, Vin nearly says, but bites his tongue. It’s four a.m., and he doesn’t want to argue. He’s barely had any sleep these past few days, not with school and the night job and all. The damn body just won’t shut up. Always ratting like a rattlesnake. Vin actually thinks it has something to do with the body missing the only comfort available to him, a luxurious sealed coffin.
“Fine, Ma,” says Vin. “Just this once.”
And this seems to placate her. She walks upstairs, back up to her room. Vin just looks at the quickly disintegrating bag of bones, reaches in and grabs him.
“I’ve got an idea for you,” says Vin, saying the speech he’s rehearsed for this, the breaking point. “Something I shoulda done a long time ago. What you do think of that?”
But Vin knows the body has nothing to say. Dead men are like that. Dead men have no tales left to tell. And, right about now, Vin is starting to understand what it must be like to be the body because he, too, has nothing left to say. Not to Ma. Not to it.
Well, maybe except one thing.
“Fuckin’ crybaby,” says Vin under his breath, bringing the body that belongs to him upstairs, aping words once told to him by his old man years ago without even realizing it.
A few nights later, Vin covers the hole with a pile of dirt, the hole he’d dug deep with the help of his friends. He is alone, covering up the hole that he dug. The body finally rests in peace somewhere beneath him. It was such an easy decision to make, this reversal of responsibility.
The casket was exactly as he found it, beside the hole. All it’d taken was a shovel to undo the mess he’d gotten himself into: a shovel, and a mound of dirt almost as big as his head. Strangely, it was taking him half the time to redo all that he’d done.
“Thought having you around would make things better,” says Vin to no one in particular, patting the dirt onto the ground. “Thought you’d be my mark upon the world. But you know what? Things didn’t get any better. They just stayed the same.”
Vin wipes sweat off his brow, shakes his head, and continues digging. Tries to keep coming up with more reasons, even there are no reasons.
“What the hell had I’d been thinking? What the hell?”
Then, the hole is all filled up. Nothing left to do but pat the earth with a shovel, stand back and marvel the job. One he’d never be paid for, but one he was happy with all the same. After a moment of this, Vin does the last thing. He reaches into the waistband of his pants, pulls out the Glock and fires some of the remaining bullets in the clip right into the ground. Finishes the job, he does.
Bam! Bam! Bam-de-da-Bam! Just like the rhythm of a good song. One he hopes other ears are not listening to.
“Just for good measure,” says Vin, and then fires one last bullet.
Without another word, he walks away. Leaves the graveyard with no further traces of his passing, no hope of another resurrection. Vin exits gracefully on his feet, which is more than what he can say of that goddamn, no good father — .
About the author:
Zachary Houle is a 2004 Pushcart Prize nominee for a novella that appeared in Midnight Mind magazine (RIP) last year. His fiction has appeared recently in Pindeldyboz’s online edition, Broken Pencil magazine and ThievesJargon.com, among others. Additionally, he is a regular book reviewer for Popmatters.com.
© 2011 Word Riot
Originally published at www.wordriot.org.