BY SCHULER BENSON
DEAN FLIPS OFF THAT SWITCH in himself as the mom pulls her dead infant from its casket in the middle of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I grasp at the version of that switch in myself, a lack that is not yet absence. Manning my place in the back right corner of the funeral home’s tent, I’m cut in half by sunlight, standing next to the speakers I usually have on my office desk. We of the death business are the standard-bearers of gallows humor in this life, and Dean joked earlier about me taking a break from being a peckerwood to emcee this party as “DJ Peckerwood.” We never laugh, but recollect it.
This mother coddles a limp baby boy, her hands hooked into claws, squeezed so tight around the corpse that I reckon something’s bound to pop. For the first time in months, I feel my gut twist in prep to retch, and I turn my face away. Methodists in attendance restrain the mom, and Mr. Pierce from the funeral home pulls the baby from her. He places it back in its casket, tucking it in as if he were folding clothes, and shutting the lid like he’d close the cover of a wake registry. I make myself small beneath the bedlam and creep away, cemetery mud like shit icing around the edges of my loafers, to where Dean stands by the backhoe.
“Why you green, nigga?” he says, lighting a cigarette. “Ain’t nevah seen a baby doll?”
The mom is among the last to leave when the service ends, carried wounded-soldier style to a waiting limousine, limp as Christ hung between two human crutches. The car stutters off, and I ease into my walk back to the office across the street, through new November. Behind me, I hear Dean firing up the backhoe to plow through the same slop that clutches at my heels. The mud here is loath to let anything go. It sucks against my soles and sounds like Peter used to when he’d squirt a stream of snotty spit from the gap between his front teeth, before time and braces drew it shut, then slurp it back up just before it touched grass, snapping back like a bad tendon and slathering his mouth with sheen.
I reach the office, go inside. On my desk, Angie’s left a memo that reads “Moslium Smell.” I have no fresh ideas. And I cannot process the problem with the scent of the place. We fill it and fill it with dead folks, and it just keeps smelling like pine oil. People complain about anything.
Sitting down behind my desk, I fold Angie’s note into tinier and tinier squares as I look at my wall calendar. I’ve never had a job with vacation time before this one, and as of next week, I’ll have three days to go upstate to the nursing home and watch Mason while he lies in bed on a vent. I’ll bring pictures of the women, pictures of Mom and Peter, and I’ll post them up around his bed to remind him of them and us and me, and why I keep him there and keep him alive, and I’ll smuggle in his favorite foods in Ziplocs and little Gladware containers and eat them at his bedside. I’ll wipe my hands and mouth on his sheets. I’ll know he’ll know I’m there.
Mason’s been in a vegetative state since a single-car accident eleven months ago. Insurance is incredible — take a dead man and keep him alive. But Mason had no people. No one but me. After nearly a year in a bed, dreaming awake, a brain wired to waste and stranded in life, Mason’s insurance will no longer cover his convalescence. I’m taking vacation to watch him die.
DIGGER DEAN IS A HARDASS. He likes to say, “All my daddy ever gave me was a hard time and some Camel Cash at Christmas.” He smokes, haloed by waning sunlight, as I trudge through 4C to where he leans waiting by the backhoe. The text he sent me read: “kum kwik when u can.” As I approach Dean, the backhoe, and an open grave, he looks at me like he’s the kid who brought his big sister’s dildo to school.
“You ever seen a muthafuckin’ skull?” his words hula-hooping smoke rings.
I light a cigarette of my own.
Before a headstone marked ERWIN, is the grave Dean’s been digging for the last half hour. It is approximately eight feet deep, and the bottom foot is filled with black sludge, punctuated by jutting pieces of rotten wood. What floats in the grave appears to be part of a pinstripe-suited shoulder, the toe of a withered leather shoe, and, indeed, a human skull.
In 1988, the city passed an ordinance mandating all human remains interred in earthen graves within the town limits be placed inside a casket, and that the casket be sealed within a vault made of concrete, steel, or polypropylene. Anyone buried before that was subject to The Shift. The earth has a way of sending things back up. Plant seeds; crops grow. It’s natural for what’s buried to find its way to the surface, or at least to make a move elsewhere. In the business, The Shift is older guys’ name for soil creep: when layers of dirt and clay above bedrock move beneath the landscape. If there’s something foreign down there, it moves, too. Ezra Erwin was interred in 1967. His wife, Magda, died three days ago. Dean came out to dig a hole for Magda, and Ezra saw sunlight for the first time in decades.
“This ever happen before?”
“Naw, not since I been workin’,” Dean says.
“So, what’s the plan?”
“Angie still in Shreveport?”
“Yeah, ’til next week.”
“Arrite, I don’t see why nobody but us gotta know,” he says. Dean flicks the butt of his Salem into the stew with the earthly remains of Ezra Erwin and climbs onto the digger. As I step away from the yawning, muddy rectangle, the arm of Dean’s backhoe moves its shovel over the grave, where it hovers momentarily.
“Liiike a briiiiiidge oh-vaaah tuh-rubbled waahtaaaah,” Dean sings, as he plunges the machine into the ground. The arm shudders, crushing Erwin’s skeleton into the ten- or eleven-foot range, a depth unfamiliar with digesting the dead. We never even knew this man to violate him so. “That’s what they call a ‘essecutive decision.’ They woulda just laid side-buh-side fuh all time,” Dean drawls, shutting off the ignition. “Now she jus’ gon’ be on top. I like to think they like that.”
OUR MOM AND MASON TIED THE KNOT when we were kids. He signed the paperwork on Peter and me not too long after. Mason was a counselor at the mental health and drug rehab center where Mom dried out, and the shelves in his office were filled with little wooden animals he’d carved from cedar blocks. Peter and I could never figure out what kind of animals they were. Pigdogs. Sickly buffalo. An ostrich or the Loch Ness Monster. A two-headed man. Mason dipped three cans of Skoal a day, and he was the ugliest man I’d ever seen. He tried to tell us about what he called the “sunlight of the spirit,” this thing he said guided him, led him to us. Peter and I thought it sounded like something from Heebie Jeebies, that fake Goosebumps series they had at book fairs. A ghost story eaten and thrown back up. What guided Mason didn’t feel like sunlight.
Before he married Mom, Mason took us camping at a scout camp near the Louisiana line, while Mom went to the Tunica boats with the woman who cut her hair. We didn’t think anything of it when he drove his truck through a ditch around the locked gate to the camp. We set up in one of the sites near the main dirt road that ran beside the mess hall and trading post. Mason said we were roughing it, so Peter and I were excited when we found toilet paper left in the site latrine by whoever had camped there earlier in the summer. The second day, cooking in humidity and bored as hell while Mason traded off whittling on little critters and sticks, we took one of the rolls from beside the jagged hole in the latrine’s wooden bench and we pulled pieces of tissue off, threw them at each other, made spitballs. Laughed, fell down, rolled around, got dirty. Neither of us noticed Mason walking over, creeping like he did.
“Why make a mess?” he said.
I didn’t answer. Peter sneezed. Mason folded up his whittling knife and put it in his pocket, then ran his thumb along an oak branch he’d been balding. I felt the sting of it on my cheek before I even knew he’d swung it. I grabbed my mouth, fell down, too shocked to cry.
“Why make a mess?”
Peter’s shot at running was broken by the belt loop Mason hooked with two fingers. He put the cane twice to Peter’s ass, then threw him into the dirt beside me.
“You boys,” Mason said, twirling his stick. “You’re gonna clean up every shred of this. You’re gonna fix it. Every bit.” He wedged the stick beneath his armpit and dropped his hands to his crotch, pulling down his zipper as he sauntered a few feet from us to one of the biggest piles of toilet paper. “Every bit,” he repeated, over the sound of piss hitting dirt with the same thop the hose made when we’d drink from it during halftime in sandlot.
“No,” Peter said.
“No. No. I am not touching that. I’m not touching that after you … after you pissed!”
As Peter pulled his knees beneath him to stand, Mason lurched forward, fly gaping, and brought his stick down again, squarely to the top of Peter’s head.
“Accountability,” he spat over Peter’s sobs. “Accountability and respect, boys. God frames everything we do.” He two-handed the stick and slammed it down over his knee, snapping it in half. Mason walked back to the pile of pissy toilet paper and clutched a dripping gob of it between the two halves. “Use tools,” he said, dropping the sticks between where Peter and I lay. He zipped his fly as he walked back toward where our folding chairs sat around firewood we never lit.
Mom tied the noose when we were seventeen. We didn’t know why then, but we found out later when Mason was fired from the center. Four women came forward and accused Mason of raping them while they were under his care between 1991 and 1998. Then two more. Then another. All those women, all those pointed fingers, and still there wasn’t enough evidence for Mason to have to do any time. I wanted them to come together, to hold each other’s hearts, swarm on him, and pick his bones. But the center just fired him, and he moved. Peter and I lived with our grandmother until we turned eighteen, then got a place of our own. I didn’t hear about Mason again until a cop called to tell me about his wreck. Peter moved off the day before our twenty-first birthday. He never said bye. Just left a note that he was going to do rig work offshore.
Peter and I played this game when we were little. At the house Mom moved us into when she married Mason, was a round coffee table with a glass top. We’d sit across that table from each other and run our tongues along the glass edge, crawling, hands and knees, around the circle. Friction sliced a wet notch in the tip of my tongue, but I kept going. Around and around, the taste of my blood. Peter’s spit. Peter’s blood. From the open window, we could hear the trailer girls singing while they swung jump-ropes and scratched nubs of chalk on broken concrete:
The widow in the field
Got a fortune, I’m told
Off a brine pit ’n forty foot’a copper she sold
Fly me away
Pretty silver and gold
To a beach down south where it never gets cold.
We did it to see each other. Seeing Peter was always the same as looking in a mirror, but this way we were across from each other, eye to eye, with our own reflections haunting the periphery, swimming on smoky glass and warping into one another at the center of the table’s concave bowl. Two copied heads fading into one at the hairline. A two-bodied boy.
JEB IS THE OWNER, and he’s in town the day the Winstons come to talk about a plot for Allen, their newly dead patriarch. Jeb owns this land from two thousand miles away. Today, he’s here inspecting the grounds, and decides he’ll show me how it’s done with the Winstons. My numbers are low lately. People have to buy plots, but I’m failing on selling stones. They’re going to Anson Monuments down the road. In the business of eternity, there’s a quota to meet.
“Well, he had insurance, but it don’t pay out for what he done,” Charlie Winston says. “Don’t know what to do ’bout a coffin or sprays or nothin’. We still got a lot to work through on Daddy’s affairs.”
“I see,” Jeb says.
He sits at my desk. I stand behind him. The placard in front of my PC monitor is engraved with my name, and “Funeral Services Counselor” beneath it. When I ordered it, I requested the trophy shop use Papyrus font.
“Typically, these arrangements are made with the funeral homes, and we just handle the interment,” Jeb states. Tendons, or wires, as the man may be a goddamn robot, shimmy between his jaw and neck as he speaks and thinks. He is a man who talks to things, who is here to deal with his property and scores of numbers that represent money and customers and the dead.
“Right,” Charlie mutters. His mother grunts in her Rascal chair next to him. “Well. I got Daddy’s checkbook right here. Mr. Pierce can’t sit down with us ’til Monday. Since insurance don’t pay out, we just rather cut a check now for the plot before a buncha bills come due.”
“Section G is prime real estate,” Jeb says, no hesitation.
The mother whinnies, clicks her teeth, chews the inside of her cheek. Her eyes roll like rounded dice. Her wheelchair whines a mosquito tone probably only I can hear.
“Y’all got any kinda specials or sump’m? Like a three-fer-one or twofers or nothin’?” Charlie says.
“You’d like a three-space plot in Section G?”
“Yeah, all together.”
“In purchases of two spaces or more, rates per space drop to twenty-four hundred,” Jeb calculates.
I cough. The mother smells a fart.
“Godamighty,” Charlie sighs. “All right, what’s the math on that?”
“Altogether, for the three-space plot in Section G, the going total is seven thousand, two hundred dollars.”
“Christ Jesus,” Charlie spits as he scribbles on his daddy’s last check.
Jeb takes the check and places it in an envelope inside the family’s new file. Charlie stands, his mother fiddles with her joystick, and they leave our building in staggers and hums. No handshakes.
“Plots are twenty-two hundred one at a time in G,” I tell Jeb.
“This isn’t a potter’s field,” he counters. “He pulled out a dead man’s checkbook.” Jeb rearranges the shit on my desk, and then gets up to go inspect the mausoleum. “You guys’ digger talks like he’s black.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Don’t let him talk to anyone who matters,” he trails, as he exits.
Apart from the neck wires, most of the rest of Jeb is unassuming, except for his forearms. Those fucking forearms make him even more of a caricature. Massive, illusory, beneath the static of swarming, salt-and-pepper yeti arm hair that coats them like shredded fiberglass insulation. I hate Jeb. I hope he dies on his own property so we can feed him to it. I leave my office and walk out the back way, through the garage, to smoke.
We are the worst people, providers in reverse. I cut on the light in the garage and survey my hands, thinking of the store I worked at before I came to the cemetery. Stocking shelves laid my cuticles to shreds every day from full shifts of tearing cardboard, blood drying brown, muddying with glue and tiny paper splinters. By the end of each day, my fingers were filthy little medusas, and I couldn’t tell what was me and what was packaging. At night when I come home from the cemetery now, I miss digging the grime out from under my nails. It hurt. I miss cleaning that squalor of money pulled from beneath a flopped tit, bathroom keys attached to broken wooden rulers, handed back to me wet. When I was done with my hands, they were ugly, but they were clean.
After raising the garage door, I hear voices. Charlie and Dean talk, while some woman who stayed in the van helps Mrs. Winston and her wheels onto a lift. I lean against the garage door track, smoking, and I listen to Dean and Charlie.
“Too goddamn broke to die,” Charlie swears.
“Mmm hmm,” Dean mumbles.
“You go to March Hill?”
“Yeah,” Dean says. “We people. You was ninety-five, right?”
“Ninety-nine,” Dean says.
“This ’boutcho daddy?”
“Yeah. Blew ’is goddamn head off.”
“Give ’emm troubles to the Man,” Dean says. I hear the butt of his cigarette smack against the decorative plastic flower pot we use as an ashtray, parking lot gravel chuckling beneath his feet as he heads toward the backhoe.
“Uh, Mr. Winston,” I fumble, moving too fast, popping out like a jack-in-the-box. He spins around.
“I, uh. I just wanted to apologize for my boss,” I stutter, rubbery, talking with my hands. “He’s a numbers guy, you know? He’s not good at this part.”
“Look. Can I, uh … I’m sorry, can I ask you something?”
He looks over to the lady helping his mother. The two women are wrapped in an awkward dance. On the platform, off the platform, whirring, buzzing. Grunts and clicks. Charlie lights a new cigarette with the butt of the one he just finished.
“You say,” I hesitate, “you say he shot himself?”
“What, uh … what — ”
“It don’t matter,” he cuts me short. “I seen it comin’, and I let it happen. He was a sad ole fuck, and it was either that or just keep livin’ and let cancer do it. Woulda ended up in hell, either way.”
I burn another nail, pause, and watch the women. “You believe in hell?” I ask, looking at the tip of my smoke.
“I wanted to when I thought I had somebody to send there.” He pauses. “Now, I think it’s just, uh … endings.”
“Daddy got his,” he says, blowing smoke and words. “Standin’ here now, though, I don’t think it woulda mattered how he got that end. All I care is he got it. Now, I can live ’til I get mine.”
“What’ll you do?”
“Just wait, I s’pose.” He puffs, throwing his mostly unsmoked cigarette into the ashtray. He shoves his hands into his pockets, keeps watching his mother and the woman. “We found ’im out back the house. He’d been fuckin’ around out there last three, four months, doin’ we didn’t know what. I seen when I found ’im. He’d been fixin’ up this old johnboat.”
I put out my cigarette. His mother finally situated in the van, Charlie makes his way toward the passenger side door as the woman cranks the ignition.
“Maybe I’ll work on the boat while I wait,” he says. “Only thing he ever tried to fix.”
WHEN WE WERE TWENTY-TWO, Peter faced me from across the round, glass-top table in the den of my apartment. I hadn’t seen him in a year. His face was some kind of soft death mask that looked like mine, but he didn’t look grim at all. We got frown lines early, and his looked shallow. I thought maybe it was relief.
His head lay on its side by the tray where my remotes sat, lips blue, eyes glassy and glazed over but still fixed on the rig and baggie in front of him. He did it while I was at work. I got home to find him in my den, blue and white as a flag, body draped limp like one. I walked up slowly, sliding out of my loafers and dropping my blazer to the ground behind me. I knelt on my side of the table, eyes level with his. Leaned forward, stuck my tongue out. I pulled back, dug out my phone. Called 911. Waited, cried, and tried to unsee what I’d look like dead. My table reflected nothing.
PIERCE’S CALLS ME AT WORK the day before I plan to head up north, and they say to expect a family for a service Tuesday. They’re on their way to me now. Mr. Pierce tells me he put in a good word for me on our marker rates. I thank him and hang up the cordless, which slips out of its dock and rolls beneath my desk. I chase the phone down there and don’t want to get up. On the underside of the center drawer, I notice “lol this is hell lol” carved into the aluminum.
At the back of the cemetery is a section we don’t use. It’s a geological anomaly. A bottomless pit. The place became a cemetery when the owner had this plot of land consecrated in the late 1800s after he realized there was nothing else he could do with it. The pine that grew on the south side was diseased. It still is. They didn’t look for oil after sounding the pit and finding out they had no idea how far back it reached underneath them. Various owners of the cemetery have had plenty of trouble from it over the years, running off kids who come to drink or fuck, people who ask if they can throw trash in it, rednecks who kill deer out of season and come in through the woods on four-wheelers to dispose of the carcasses someplace secret. Some drunk fell into it in the eighties. They never recovered his body. I heard once that a local Indian tribe believed the first people crawled out of the ground at the beginning of time, born of mud by a loving mother. They came from beneath the earth. I wonder if this is their hole. Why they’d climb out of it. Why they’d leave the womb.
Beneath the desk, I feel like I’m back in the womb, but alone this time, and I am both comforted and horrified. For the first time since I saw him dead, I think I miss Peter, and dread rises in me, quick and pure, and I can’t shake the thought of whether or not there’s anything left in this life that he fixed.
I scramble out from beneath my desk, out of the womb, out of the office and into my car, ducking out on the Pierce referral. Half an hour later, I exit the storage unit where I put Mason’s shit. I leave the unit key in its lock, and just before the door slams shut, I flick in Angie’s mausoleum memo, the only piece of paper I could find in my blazer pocket. On the back of her note, I’d written: “TO AUCTION.” Then, I go home and think and eat and sleep. The next morning, I drive to the place where Mason waits.
“YOU’RE THE STEPSON, right?”
“Yes,” I say.
“In Mr. Becker’s file, it says Nancy spoke with you last week, that you’ve been made aware of the full prognosis, lack of progress, the possibilities — ”
“Yes. I spoke with Nancy. I understand.”
“I see. Pastor Holland, our chaplain, has made himself available — ”
“I don’t need a pastor; thank you.”
“I, uh,” she falters.
I try to smile at her.
“The doctor will be down shortly. As per guidelines, everything is documented. It’s very clean. Very peaceful. If you’d like, you can have a seat here in the lobby.”
“Would you mind — ” I start. “Can I see him?”
Mason doesn’t look evil anymore. He doesn’t look scary. He’s small and feeble, gnarled and frail. Bones, cords, and tubes beneath a sheet, an accordion in a ribcage. A carcass disposed of someplace secret. He’s still so ugly. I feel my gut twist in prep to retch and start to turn my face away, but I stop. I stop and look, look at him. Across his room, the shades are drawn. I am cut in half by sunlight.
“It’s clear now, Mason,” I say. “It’s all clear. Can you see it? God frames everything I do, Mason. With tools. Can you see?”
I pull his old whittling knife from my pocket, click it open slowly. The skin of my face shakes as my skull vibrates.
“You’re a dried-up piece of shit before me, and I’ve been given by God the tools for your disposal. I won’t even have to touch you. I won’t have to get your shit on me.”
I drag the blade beneath my nails.
“You’re human shit. You’re shit, Mason. See? You’re shit, and I stay clean.”
Get all that dirt out.
“Bright and clean in the sunlight of the spirit.”
I close the knife and lay it longways on his chest. Rise. Fall.
“Mason,” I choke, clear my throat. “Mason. Mason. You can go now.”
The administration woman from the lobby sees me leaving Mason’s room.
“Sir, the doctor’s headed this way. Sir. Sir?”
I walk and keep walking, down the hall, through the lobby. Out the front door. Into the light.
BACK AT WORK, my face in December wind, I look out across the cemetery. I straighten my tie, button the cuffs that will collar the hands that will shake the hands of the bereaved and take their money and bury their dead. Sway in the shoes that will carry me over dirt for sale, through this life that may, or may not, be a wet bathroom key. While I wait with men on hollow earth, wait to fill it. While I wait and wonder what, if anything, I can fix. From my inside coat pocket, I produce a new lock-blade. From my slacks, a small, rounded knob of cedar. I cut at the stem that tapers down from its end, a knotty nub slowly beginning to take the shape of a hoof. Breeze picks up, moves me, and my blazer billows out behind me like a flag. This ground is loath to let anything go, but it feels like a strong enough gust could pry me loose. Fly me away. Somewhere further south. Somewhere offshore.
The 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
We are pleased to announce this story as a Notable Mention for The 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of 12 finalists from hundreds of entries. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final. Notable Mentions receive publication on The Coil and publication in the forthcoming Luminaire Award print anthology.
SCHULER BENSON’s work has been featured in Hobart, The Lit Pub, Kudzu House, The Pinch, and elsewhere. His first book, a collection of short fiction titled The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide, was released in 2014 by Alternating Current. He currently lives by the ocean with his wife and animals in South Carolina, and has an MA in Writing from Coastal Carolina University. He tweets from @schulerbenson.
This story was originally published on 4/15/15, and is available in The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide.