Any criticism would be greatly appreciated. Be harsh, please
Ronald reached out and grabbed the elegantly carved wooden handle of the door to Tony’s bar. As the door opened, the subdued bass line that was he heard from outside was immediately accompanied by full-toned swings of a Duke Ellington jazz tune playing on the bar stereo. The room was filled with smoke, and a pair of middle aged men played pool in the corner near the door. In a booth along the wall a woman nestled her head into the well-worn armpit of a man’s leather jacket. An elderly man at the bar was asked for his birth date when he ordered his whisky and water. In the opposing corner to Ronald, Claire sat at a small table with one vacant chair across from her. Ron turned straight for the bar. He ordered a beer. The man behind the bar said “three dollars, please.”
Ron’s hands were shaking and he fumbled in pulling his wallet out. The leather seemed slick. He finally pulled three ones out and placed them on the bar.
“You look a little nervous,” the bartender added. “Meeting somebody?”
“Uh, yeah. Yeah.” Ronald replied.
“Well, just loosen up. If she shows, that means she wanted to see you, right?”
He took a seat on the barstool and turned away from where Claire sat across the room waiting, doodling something on her napkin. He had barely even caught glimpse of her. He had been waiting for this moment, yet now he finally had the chance to see Claire in flesh and blood and he had barely even given her a glance. But he felt safer here, with his back turned. Even though she had no clue that it would be him, the man she had spoken to for the last year, he felt safe with his face hidden from her view. The sweat in his palms mixed with the melting frost of the glass. His palms were soaked.
“Drink up there, bud,” the bartender added. “Nothing like a little liquid courage to calm your nerves. Hell, try this, on the house.” he poured a shot of whisky out of a bottle behind the bar, reached across to pour it into his beer.
“Thanks” Ronald said.
Ron sat and drank the beer for quite some time. Nearing the end, he slugged the rest down and shuddered. The whisky had silently settled at the bottom of the glass. Okay, he thought to himself as the he shook it off. I have to do this. She has to know. He stood up and walked over to her table and sat down. She looked at him curiously. A single canine tooth emerged from the corner of her smile. He seized up.
She turned up one brow. He had never seen any animation in her face before. “Yes?” she asked sardonically.
“Oh, uh, hi,” he stammered. “I’m just, uh, I just…came over because you’ve been sitting here all alone. Figured you might want some company.”
“Ah. Well, you’re in luck. I’m being stood up. Though I do guess it’s bound to happen sometimes. I’m Claire, by the way.” Her hand was practically shoved into his face, expecting a handshake.
“I’m Tim. Tim Barnstein. Nice to meet you.” He said as he shook. She had a strong grip.
“You want a drink, Tim?”
Earlier that day the muffled sounds of the excavator’s motor had growled through Ronald’s foam earplugs. With the sounds of the world outside sealed off, the most prominent sounds were those of his body. The resonant, measured beats of his heart boomed against his eardrums. As he shut down the engine and unplugged his ears, the roar of the machine rolled off, across the green grass that was stretched skintight over the soil, in a way characteristic only of golf courses and graveyards. He grabbed the handle of the excavator’s door with a buckskin-gloved hand as he removed the other glove with his teeth. The frame of the plexi-glass door slammed against the cab somewhere behind him.
He grabbed his brown bag lunch and took a seat in the bucket of the machine. The yellow paint was now dulled from years of dirt and rock, the constant barrage rain and labor. The scent freshly tilled earth hovered. Ronald unwrapped his ham sandwich, his legs hanging over the pit below. He opened his bottle of water, took a drink, and then raised the bottle in a toast to his father’s casket, six feet below.
Hapland Mortuary had been in the family for five generations. The lacquered wood of the casket that now stared up at Ronald was as smooth as his father’s face had been everyday as he left for work. It was as smooth as his talk. The embossed lines that edged the casket were as calculated as the double Windsor knot in his father’s tie as he reached out a hand to a grief-stricken widow. Ronald’s father took business very seriously.
Ronald had buried five others that day, and this was his last for the afternoon. Unlike the funeral of Mr. Timothy Turner earlier that day, there was no eulogy to be read. No words to be said in memory of Stephen Hapland. After any other funeral ended, Ronald would wait for the friends and family to slowly dissipate, saving them the grotesque sight of an overall-clad man completing the last and most sacred rite of burial, when from behind the controls of the excavator Ronald would bury the hard-wood face that now stood in for the man’s own flesh. And now he buried just that: a hard-wood face. But there was no grieving crowd to shelter, no illusion to maintain for the sake of the burial ceremony. There was only Ronald. He finished his sandwich and then his work. The raw soil was left exposed, a mount sitting atop the grave.
Ronald’s apartment was clean, simply due to its barrenness. He swept the hardwood floor every morning while his coffee brewed, then he would make his bed as he drank it. The only thing in the place that suggested the character of its inhabitant were the plants and flowers that filled every window and hung in pots from the ceiling. Ronald spent a significant amount of time every day watering and trimming his plants. In the corner of the room were several compost bins where he would throw the scraps of his breakfast every morning. The worm cultures consumed what he consumed, and his plants took root in that soil.
However, as he sat in his house after work, after his father’s funeral, Ronald had only one thought on his mind. His computer sat on a desk along the wall. It held an e-mail from Claire, explaining that she was writing from the Seattle airport. It said she was excited to see him. His palms began to sweat on the keyboard. What will I say, he thought. Will she be comfortable? What if it is too small? He seized a suddenly apparent roll of fat running along his midsection. It had been ten years since he had needed to worry about such things.
At his father’s prodding he had signed up for an online dating service a year ago. Mr. Hapland, in his old age, had become obsessed with his son’s lack of virility. Claire was the result. Ron walked around the house, trying to find any embarrassing objects in various places. He ran a finger across the blinds and concluded that they were clean enough. He arranged the magazines on his coffee table. “What am I doing?” he said out loud, “this should be the least of my worries.” He rubbed the back of his neck, spreading the swampy, sweaty skin over the flesh beneath.
It had seemed like a great idea at the time. He had found, on the internet, a man’s website where he posted his photos. The man, Tim Barnstein, was not a stunningly attractive man, but he was a lot of things that Ronald wasn’t. Claire knew Ronald’s face as the face of Tim Barnstein. Claire had seen pictures of Ronald in exotic places. She had a photo of Tim getting a haircut in a Central American barbershop. Ron had never left the United States. He responded to the email, reaffirming that he would meet her at Tony’s bar on West Farris Ave. Tonight, he told himself, I just have to tell her everything. As he left the house he picked up a folder filled with documents labeled “Hapland Mortuary.” The outside of the folder was adorned with a large red-inked stamp that said “Shawn Turtledove, Attorney at Law”.
At the age of sixteen, when Ronald arrived at a dreary train station with maroon tiled floors, his father hadn’t even made mention of the apparently dismal state of his son’s future. Ron was returning home for the first time in four years, since he had been sent to private school on the coast. Mr. Hapland didn’t mention his son’s failing grades or the incident with the Shepard boy. He acknowledged him silently and shook his hand.
He said, “Let’s find your things.” The boy stood, enraged. He was prepared to curse and scream at his father, to make apparent the rift that had silently grown between them over the hundreds of miles. For four years he had known what he would say to father, the man who cared more about the dead than his living, breathing son. But now he found himself without words, unable to look into his face.
“Learned a lesson, have you? I always knew you would pick something up at that school, lord knows I was paying enough.”
Mr. Hapland sensed the boy’s apprehension, set a heavy hand on his shoulder, and said “there’s always room for you in the family business,” with a veiled cynicism in his breath. The car ride home had been an exercise in morality. His father used the words “a hand to guide them to eternal rest” many times. A grave-digger. His hand reached for the door handle, its polished chrome. He wanted to run. Ronald said nothing, and clutched his thighs.
When the men from the hospital had brought her to Hapland Mortuary they carried her body with relative ease. The bright sunlight from outdoors burst in through the doors they had left open, drawing attention to the usual dim lighting of the mortuary.
“That’s her?” Mr. Hapland inquired.
“Yeah,” one of the men from the hospital said, his appearance as deceivingly clean as his turquoise-green scrubs. “What’s left of her, that is” he continued. “She can’t weigh more than ninety pounds.”
Katie Roberts was 20 years old. She had died from complications stemming from bulimia. As Ron walked through the mortuary he could hear his father talking to the girl’s parents.
“This is a difficult and complicated time for a family, especially with Katie passing so…young. Plucked directly from the prime of life, she was”
The stern, stubble-faced father nodded in approval. His wife clutched to his arm.
“But,” Ronald’s father continued, “we will make certain that she is well taken care of until we put her to rest. Now, we have a wide selection of caskets. I’ll allow you some time to browse…” The voice drifted off as Ronald headed back through the office doors to prepare for his first day of work.
In the back offices of the mortuary the corpses were placed in bunk beds like children sharing a bedroom. Ronald walked between the bunks as his father assisted the family. He came to Katie’s body. Her eyes rested heavily on their lower lids, peeking out of the body bag that lay on the bed. The smell of embalming fluid stung his eyes. Her face was attractive. It came to a sharp point at her chin. Ronald unzipped the body bag.
Her ribcage was nothing more than a bulbous area that sat above her stomach, several inches wider and deeper than her midsection. He counted each individual rib that sat under the pale, drained flesh. Her breasts seemed to have receded into her chest. He stared for some time, entranced by her body slowly folding in upon itself. He reached a hand out, nearly touching her face. Suddenly a door opened somewhere far behind him. Ronald zipped up the bag and left the girl just as he had found her. Shortly after, his father walked up beside him.
“So, let’s see what we’ve got here.” His father ripped the zipper down the bag, almost violently. Something felt wrong about the way he had done it. “My, my,” Mr. Hapland said under his breath. He grabbed a clipboard at the foot of the bunk and his eyes scanned over it. His face slowly grew contorted the further he got down the page. He turned to Ronald and scoffed, his eyes suggesting a deep-rooted disgust.
“These girls,” he forcefully exhaled. He seemed to be searching for the words as he walked over to the countertop behind him, washed his hands, and then put on a pair of latex gloves from a cardboard box above the faucet. He opened up a small black pouch and returned with a bottle in his hand. He began, from the face downward, to spray disinfectant to her skin. He turned to Ronald, who sat hovering above her body, gaping. “Wash up, son. We’ve got work to do.”
Ron writhed his hands together under the rushing water, the slight acidic burn of the soap seeming to fail in cleansing his hands. “First rule back here, kid,” his father said nonchalantly over his shoulder while he worked, “is that you never, by any circumstances, touch a stiff. Always wash your hands, always wear gloves. Their bodies doesn’t fight off infection and bacteria anymore.” Ronald felt a nagging tumble in his stomach. He wanted to tell his father that she was right there, that she could hear them. He wanted to tell her that they didn’t need to talk about her like she wasn’t here anymore.
When he returned his father had finished coating the front of her body in disinfectant. He looked up at Ronald. “What?”
“Nothing, it’s just…”
“It’s nothing, son, she’s not going to bite you. Now help me flip her over.” Ronald studder-stepped around to the other side of the bed and placed one hand under her shoulder, the other under her thigh. The latex felt no different between his hand and her flesh than if he were handling her without the gloves. He winced, and his father looked up at him over his glasses.
“Cold feet? That’s not what the man who phoned me from school said. Said you were straight-right cold hearted about it. How about that? I’d taken you as just the man for the job.” He said it as he applied the disinfectant up and down the girl’s back. It had been the first time his father had mentioned anything about Jon Shepard.
“Dad, no, it wasn’t—“
“No. We aren’t going to discuss it, Ronald. It’s done.”
His father then walked across the room and rolled in a machine similar to an I.V. and left it at the head of the bed. “Okay Ron,” his father said. “This is the major disinfectant. It’ll travel through the veins and then to the rest of the body. I’ll make the incision here,” he pointed to an area several inches below her just below her ear, “and then you’ll place the arterial tube.” As he watched the motorized injector pump the disinfectant fluid, Ronald couldn’t help but feel as if he were forcing the fluid into her veins in some odd reverse-vampiric bite.
Hours later, only the last dredges of work still remained. As they put her into the clothes her family had supplied, Ronald and his father forced the girl’s arms out of the lock of rigamortis. His father flashed a savage smile towards Ronald as he forced an arm straight and into the sleeve of a shirt. Ron’s eyes stung and he clenched his teeth.
After the whole procedure his father walked over to the countertop once more and returned with a small black leather case with a disproportionately large zipper running along the edge. His father unzipped the case and brought out a brush and a small make-up kit. He handed them to Ronald. “Have at it, kid. She died for vanity and she’ll get buried in vanity.” His father slowly walked away and let out a long sigh, then muttered under his breath “whore.” Ronald would bury her the next day.
Shawn Turtledove’s office was up town, and Ronald stopped in on his way home. It was a law firm, but the building looked like it had been silently transplanted from suburbia to a relatively spacious lot on a city block, right between two small hardware stores. Ronald opened the white picket fence and crossed a five-foot strip of uniform, 1 ¼ inch grass. The building’s “lawn.” The door had a piece of paper posted on the inside of the window. It said “Come on in!” in a cutesy font. The color of the letters matched the trim of the building. The whole place was designed to keep housewives and average joe’s from feeling intimidated by the legal jargon inside.
Turtledove himself sat across a large oak desk from Ron, with the kind of smile pasted on his face that only a lawyer’s wages can buy.
“Now Ron,” he said empathetically “I’m very sorry for your loss.” He clutched both hands to his heart. He belonged on the stage. “Your father was…a great man. We worked together for many years.”
“Thank you,” Ronald replied, his face pallid. He pulled himself up in his chair to sit up straight. Ron wanted to ask Turtledove where, if he thought his father was such a great man, he had been this afternoon. He didn’t say a thing.
The lawyer picked up a pen from the desk and slowly spun it between fingers. He inhaled, and changed his tone. “Now, Ron. I’m not sure how to say this…Your father didn’t really run the best finances, or very detailed finances by any means. I’m honestly puzzled as to how he kept the mortuary running all these years. He must have—“
“Wait, what do you mean?” He felt his face flush with blood, gaining pressure in preparation for a blow of unfortunate knowledge.
“—Well, lets just say he hadn’t turned a profit in a couple years.” He paused for a moment, and then looked back up at Ronald. “The coroner didn’t happen to think that maybe…maybe he had done something to…well, get the ball rolling? Turtledove pronounced the last bit like it was a dirty word.
“You’re asking if he killed himself?” he quickly snapped back. Ronald hadn’t felt an anger like this in fifteen years. Not since the Shepard boy at school, when he broke the camel’s back, fracturing any chance of getting out of his father’s life. “No. He didn’t mention anything like that at all.”
“Well, the only reason why I ask is because he—“ he opened up a file folder sitting on the corner of his desk “—apparently had received a lot of visits from debt collectors in the years preceding his untimely passing. It’s often enough to drive men to such things. But that’s neither here nor there. Now, I’ve started drawing up some preliminary documents to get you, now the sole proprietor of Hapland Mortuary, out of this mess." Turtledove was right. Ron was neither here nor there.
Afterward Ron visited his mother. Even while residing in the same town, Ron’s father had never tried to seek her out. He walked in without knocking, as she had always told him to do, and bells chimed somewhere above his head. It was as if he were walking in to an Asian grocery store. His mother sat in a rocking chair in the living room, watching television. The place was dimly lit and smelled of incense. Decorative rugs and pieces of art from all corners of the world covered the walls and floors. Most of the objects had been made in a small factory in China, mass-produced, and then sold to large American retailers. She knew this, but liked them anyways. Her face was obscured in the dark of the room. All Ron could see was a red ember kiss, held by roach clips, where her real lips should have been.
As he closed the door behind him, she registered his presence. It was 6 PM. The sun had set during Ron’s cab ride over. “Hey there, Ronnie,” she remarked in a low tone, as a bulb of smoke was released from her lungs. She walked over and hugged him, roach still in hand, and then offered it to him in the way that other mothers might offer a large breakfast.
He shook his head no. “Thanks anyways though, Mom.”
“Still uptight as ever, eh?” She sighed as she put the roach in a nearby ashtray. “Its really a shame, too,” she continued, “You used to be such a curious child. What that father of yours did, I’ll never know. How is he?”
Ron didn’t wince, didn’t break out in a cold sweat. She still had no clue. She drew her eyes up to his in a way that suggested that the inquiry found it’s purpose somewhere between common courtesy and familial obligation. In the living room a mountain of spiritual reference books sat next to several packs of tarot cards and a crystal ball that looked more like a snow globe.
For the past two years she had started every conversation by asking about his father. Ronald’s father. To her, the man had become a phantom entity. She worked as a medium, helping people speak to the dead, solving mysteries of the soul. To her, Ron’s father, even in a state of apparent non-existence, was still an overbearing presence in her life by way of her son. He was referenced, but never seen. He was the shadow of her absent god. Ronald didn’t know if those feelings were his mother’s or his own.
“He’s doing fine,” Ron responded, matching his mother’s gaze. “He finally took that cruise he’s always talking about. I’m almost afraid he’ll like it so much he’ll never come back.” They both chuckled.
She filled him in on her life. “Business is good. I told you I’d been contracted through that telephone service, right? Well, it’s really great because I can still do live sessions. They’re very flexible, I can take a break to see my face-to-face customers anytime.
“That’s really great. And how is Mrs. Pierce?”
“Oh, not good, honey. We’ve tried time and time again to find poor old Mr. Pierce, but he just doesn’t seem to want to be found. I honestly thing living alone is starting to get to her. She comes over here to borrow spices and butter and milk all day. She thinks she’s fooling me, but if she needed all that stuff she’d be feeding a family of eight. She’s just lonely. We’ll find the Mr. though, soon enough. The spiritual word is a murky place.”
She honestly does believe in this stuff, Ron thought, just as shocked as he was each visit. “You haven’t been charging her though, right?”
“Well…not always. But this isn’t really an easy way to make money, Ronnie. I have to charge her sometimes.”
There was a long silence. The refrigerator hummed. The television murmured in the other room.
“Let me read you, you look stressed.”
“Mom, no. I’m not really up for it.”
“Come on, Ronnie. I just want to help you, but this is all I’ve got to give.”
Ron sighed, twisted his face into a grimace, and then released it. “Okay, fine”
She took his arms and put them, palms up, on the kitchen table. His pudgey forearms shifted to a position of rest. He felt his belly turn to folds as he leaned closer to the table. She placed two fingers on the inside of either wrist. He looked his mother in the eyes. Her heavy makeup was caked on and cracking everywhere. She looked as if she had just awoken, not from bed, but from the grave.
“Now, breathe deeply. Don’t say anything. Listen to the reading, and remember every word.”
Before she was done speaking his mind was already in another place, knowing quite familiarly the minutes of nonsense that would follow. This was hardly his mother, nor had she really ever been. Twenty years prior she had walked out on a bright summer afternoon while Mr. Hapland was at work and while Ronald was mowing the grass in the back yard. He had worn his white sneakers and the cut grass had stained the shoes green in patches. She left with a single box whose contents, as far as Ron could tell, consisted of this: One toaster-over, several cans of soup, Ronald’s B+ spelling test from the fridge, and a VCR. She forgot the remote. She might as well have been donating to the homeless shelter.
Ronald came back to attention. His mother was staring at him, just finishing a sentence.
“Yeah, Mom. Thanks.”
“You know, Ronnie, you wouldn’t be so stressed if your father didn’t work you so hard. I’ve always thought you’d be better off working somewhere else. You’ll be fine if you just loosen up sometimes.” His mother’s wrinkled hands writhed on his wrists. Each finger was adorned with a jewel that looked like hard candy. The clock on the stove’s invisible second hand pressed onward. The minute snapped; the rollo-dex number inside changed to nine.
She continued, “Want to watch some T.V. with me?”
“Uh, no, I’ve actually really got to run Mom. I’ve got a few things to wrap up tonight and then I’ve got to be up early tomorrow. Some other time.” He had to meet with Claire. He didn’t want to think about it. Outside, the orange glow of the sun from just beyond the horizon mixed with the orange glow of the streetlights that were slowly flickering on throughout the town.
Walking along the sidewalk, his hands in his coat pockets and a knit hat over his balding scalp, Ronald headed towards Tony’s bar. His pulse beat in ¾ time. A group of young men were headed the opposite way, about twenty yards down the sidewalk. He could hear their drunken yells from a distance.
“And then I, yeah, then I told her, ‘Who the hell is this ****ing *******?’”
“Yeah, so what they hell did you do?”
“Yo, let me bum a smoke, man,” another voice butted in.
“Well so I took the little ****in’ worm’s arm behind his back and gave him something to remember me by!” They all broke out into laughter.
“You know, you’re a real dick man, but I guess the dude deserved it.” They all glared at Ronald as he walked by.
As soon as they passed Ronald removed his hands from his pockets. He rubbed a hand up and down his forearm. He would be meeting Claire in a matter of minutes. ****, he thought. Ronald hardly ever swore. ****. I should just go back. She won’t even be looking for me, she’ll be looking for that ******* Tim Barnstein.
Now with the murmurs of the passing men close behind him he remembered the Shepard boy on the prep school’s bathroom floor, how he writhed with his arm pressed to his back, the other pressed beneath Ronald’s knee. How he had pressed the ember of his cigarette to the back of the boy’s neck. Ronald squeezed the filter in the way he wished he could do to Shepard’s neck. He remembered how he loved to see the boy’s face contort to the grout between each tile on the floor. The arm had gone further up than Ron expected. He remembered how it snapped at the forearm. He remembered Katie Roberts, his hand reaching towards her face, the incisions, the preparation. He remembered the burial, and the grossness of it all.
Ron felt laughter roll out of his chest. It was the first time he had laughed in what seemed like years. The feeling felt foreign to him. The punchline of Claire’s joke seemed to resonate in ever chuckle he let loose. Claire grabbed the pitcher of beer from the center of the table and as she went to top off his glass with the last remnants of the dark, oil-tinged porter he began to protest.
“No, no. No more for me.”
“Aw, come on Tim, live a little!”
He liked the way it sounded. The harsh point of the “T”, the smooth transition of the vowel, the warmth of the “m”.
“Well,” he started saying hesitantly, “sure, what the hell.” As she walked back to the bar to refill the pitcher Ron sat at the table silently mouthing the sound of it: “Tim”. He discovered that he was quite drunk when he realized what he was doing. She returned the table, a small amount of ale slopping over the sides of the pitcher as she set it down.
“So, what do you do for a living?” She looked up at him with wide eyes.
“Oh, nothing exiciting.”
“That’s probably not true. What is it?”
He had to think quickly, but his beer-soaked brain was slow to process an answer. Finally he spit out “I work at a retirement home, mostly just doing clerical work, but I also spend a lot of time just visiting with the people. How about you?” He already knew the answer.
I’m a teller at a bank, Ronald thought. “I’m a bank teller,” she said abrasively as she wiped the ale foam from her lips. Spend all my time counting other people’s money and never make any of my own he thought. “Counting other people’s money while I’m making nothing but dirt” she continued. He already knew, he had already spoken to her about her job at length over the past year. It was funny, Ronald thought, how frequently people used the same phrases to define their lives. He felt a strange feeling of courage, knowing that he didn’t have to use the same means to define himself. He finally mustered up the courage to ask her.
“So, you’re being stood up, huh?”
She sighed. “Yeah,” she let out a self-pitying chuckle. “I haven’t ever actually met him, but I’ve known him for the last year or so. It’s going to sound really depressing but I met him through uh…Actually, nevermind, this is going to get embarrassing really fast. ‘Suppose I’m lucky you showed up, otherwise I’d be stuck here entertaining myself all night.”
“Well, who knows. Maybe he’ll still show. Any number of things could have happened.” He wouldn’t, but Ronald wanted to comfort her a little bit.
An hour later Ronald walked with a stagger in his step through the smoke filled bar, out the door, and on to the street. He walked up the sidewalk towards his house as Tim Barnstein. Claire hung off of his arm heavily enough to set him off balance. She conversed with him in long, labored breaths. Ronald’s eyelids hung heavily; the drinks Claire had given him had brought him to a stupor. His eyes swam as lackadaisically as his brain, absorbing the small talk Claire was making. He would take her to his apartment; she would inevitably figure it out. She would probably be mad. When they reached his door, he turned to face her.
“I…I would invite you up. But I can’t. Thanks though,” his mind trailed off for a second. “Thanks, I haven’t had that much fun in a while.”
She looked up at him, confused, and then let go of his arm. He didn’t hear what she said as she turned to leave, but Ronald was content with the way she slurred the name she thought was his: “Tim.”