by Dylan Boyer
The mourners had been gone for half an hour before Hector climbed down into the open grave. Reaching into the pocket of his dirt-spotted jeans, he retrieved a small screwdriver and set to work. When he was finished, he stood on the coffin and pulled himself up the lip of the grave, with some struggle. Hector stood, brushed the dirt from his clothes. He took a rag from his jeans and wrapped his prizes, then set the bundle in the grass.
He set to work filling the grave.
On the way home, as dusk settled over the corn and tobacco fields along the cracked highway, Hector eyed the fuel gauge nervously, conducting arithmetic in his head. He got paid on Friday. It was Wednesday. If he walked to and from school for the next few days, he should have enough gas to get to the funeral home after the school day. Hector would not touch his paltry savings unless the car broke down, and he told himself he could always siphon gas from his father’s Jeep, if he needed to. He’d never siphoned gas before, but he’d seen it in movies.
At home, he knew there was a paper that needed writing. AP Government. Compare and contrast governmental models in Canada and Angola, respectively. Why Canada? Why Angola? He didn’t know, and he didn’t care. Hector would write it longhand, and then go to school early to type and print it at one of the library computers. By his estimate, the writing should keep him up until midnight or so. Not bad.
He parked on the street in front of the house. Getting out of the car, he saw his mother sitting beneath the porch light, smoking in her wicker chair. Hector could hear the TV mumbling inside. His mother offered him a weak wave as he walked up the driveway. Smoke curled up from her cigarette, a haze hovering about her pale face for a moment before it grew thin, assimilated into the air. She had a bruise on her cheek, and her black hair was tied back in a taut ponytail. As Hector approached, his mother reached to the rotten table beside her chair and retrieved her pack of Camels. She held it out to him. He took one and picked her lighter up from the table. Cigarette glowing, he sat down on the floor of the porch, across from his mother.
“How was work?” she asked him.
“Work,” he said. His mother nodded.
“Got any school stuff?” she asked.
“Paper,” he said.
“It’s about an 8.2 in there,” she said. “So watch yourself.”
“Right,” he said, taking a deep drag. The scale they’d developed when he was a child was still in play.
He only smoked half of the cigarette. He scraped it out, then placed the remaining half on the edge of the table.
“Dinner’s on the counter,” his mother said absently.
“Thanks mom,” Hector said.
As he stepped through the door, the volume of the TV settled around him instantly. Fox. He moved quickly, quietly towards the kitchen, retrieving a plate of chicken breast and vegetables from the counter. Moving with efficiency, he left the kitchen and started across the living room to the hall, towards his room.
“Ey,” he heard his father say. The man was splayed on the couch in a t-shirt, jeans, and work boots. His eyes drooped above their bags, his chest rose and fell slowly, congested. The man coughed. His bottle of whiskey sat on the coffee table in front of the TV, arm’s reach from the couch.
“Take your fucking shoes off,” he said.
Hector walked back to the front door, still holding his plate, and slipped out of his sneakers.
He went down the hall to his room with his dinner.
He did not look at his father.
When he awoke in the morning, it was still dark. He could hear the TV, still on, down the hall. His notebook sat open on his nightstand, the material for his paper written out in small, clean script. Hector rose from his bed like a ghost. In the dark, he felt his movements more vividly, could feel his blood waking with his body. Lean with work, he drew his belt tightly as he dressed. He packed his backpack and left the room, without having turned the light on.
In the living room, his father was still splayed on the couch, now deeply unconscious. Hector did not worry about waking him, but he moved quietly, nonetheless. The TV should mask the sounds he made, in any case. Standing in the living room, he looked at his father. The man’s chest rose and fell slowly as he snored, and he farted noisily in his sleep. He grunted. Hector thought about smothering him, without emotion. Instead, he walked to the coffee table and picked up the whiskey bottle. Going back down the hall, he went into the bathroom and closed the door before turning the light on.
Setting the bottle on the counter, he looked at himself. He’d never been sure if he was attractive or not, and he had decided recently that he didn’t care. His black hair was a hand-me-down from his mother, his eyes a pale grey borrowed from his father. Cheekbones stood out smoothly behind an inexperienced stubble. Looking at himself, he unscrewed the cap of the bottle and raised it to his lips, maintaining eye contact with himself as he counted three large, consecutive gulps. He set the bottle back down, careful not to cough, and took a breath as the warmth spread through his stomach and chest. The bottle was three quarters empty. His father would probably pick up another at some point during the day.
Shivering once, briefly, he unzipped his pants and stepped over to the toilet. Taking his penis out, he reached over and grabbed the bottle from the counter. Hector held it by the neck, at an angle, as he placed the tip of his dick just inside the lip and began to urinate. Clenching himself to steady the flow, careful not to fill it too high, he listened to the gurgle of his piss hitting the whiskey. When he was satisfied with the distribution of piss to liquor, he stopped his flow, set the bottle back on the counter, and finished in the toilet. When he was done, Hector screwed the cap back on, and placed the bottle where it had been on the coffee table before leaving the house.
Outside, the street was quiet. The houses on the avenue were dark, save a few porchlights. The moon was a pale coin in the air, spreading a ghostly light down on the early spring earth. Hector could hear crickets. A few birds who’d come back early. The ground was dry, and he listened to the rhythm of his own footsteps as he began to walk.
“Hector, c’mere,” Len said.
“What,” Hector said.
Len gestured towards the door with his head.
“You should see this one,” he said.
They were seated in a little room in the basement of the funeral home, taking a break. Len was a year older than Hector, though he’d dropped out of school two years before he would have finished. The young man was scrawny, with tobacco teeth and glasses standing out on his narrow face. He was working on his GED while apprenticing as a mortician’s assistant. It seemed, to Hector, that working with bodies was his sole ambition. Hector couldn’t knock it, really; Len seemed to know what he wanted.
They stood from the little table in the back room and walked down the dim hall of the basement until they arrived at the room where they prepared bodies for viewing. Len opened the door.
“What’s so special about this one?” Hector asked.
“Carl did a…well he did the best he could with this one,” Len said.
Inside, on a table, was a closed casket, ready to be brought upstairs to the parlor. Hector expected that they would be instructed to bring it up later that day. Len closed the door behind them, then walked up to the coffin.
“Just take a look,” he said, and lifted the upper portion of the lid.
Inside was an old woman.
She rested lightly on the satin lined cushioning of the casket, in a blue dress with frills on the sleeves. Her arms were placed across her stomach, hands over one another in the typical style. The mortician, Carl, had done her hair, which bloomed in gray curls from her scalp. Her face was wide and almost flat, the tip of her nose almost meeting her upper lip, and her eyes were oddly apart from one another. Hector thought that if she’d really looked like that in life, well, that was unfortunate.
Len held the lid open. He had a satisfied grin on his face.
“Even Carl can’t make the poor lady look decent.”
Hector looked at Len. He wanted to ask what was wrong with him. He didn’t. So, she was ugly. So what? So, she was dead. So what?
Len took a flask from his back pocket and unscrewed the cap, looking at the corpse. He took a few pulls, then offered it to Hector.
“What’s in it?” Hector asked.
“Gin,” Len said.
Hector accepted the flask and counted out three gulps. He passed the flask back to Len, who pocketed it.
Hector imagined himself there, in the casket, eyes closed and hands folded.
Len closed the lid.
“I swear,” he said. “I love this job.”
Hector motioned towards the door with a nod, and they left to finish their break.
He waited his customary half-hour before climbing down into the grave, onto the coffin. Hector withdrew the screwdriver from his belt and set to work, moving with speed and precision, focused only on getting done with what he was doing before he could be spotted. From his perch atop the coffin, he bent and began to unscrew the handle from the top of the coffin. The handles on the sides were too long to remove and successfully conceal, so to be on the safe side, he only removed the ones on the top and bottom. After the handle at the top was removed, he repeated the process at the other end. With some satisfaction, he noted that he was getting quicker at doing this. When both handles were removed, he took a dirt stained cloth from his back pocket and wrapped it around them. He then tossed them up to the surface before scrambling up out of the grave.
Once on the surface, he cast his vision around the graveyard, making sure he’d not been spotted. This was his third time today, and he had the feeling that he was pushing his luck. Nobody was to be seen, but he told himself that three sets were enough of a haul for one day.
Hector set to filling the grave.
He felt more worn out than usual, driving home that day. There had been five burials, more than usual. It wasn’t the most burials he’d done in a day, but usually it was one or two. Two of them had been old women joining their husbands in the earth; these always left him with a kind of satisfaction one gets when something matches. Now, driving home, he felt his arms and back ache while he sped along the dusk. Some days, he felt satisfied with the ache of his body, a kind of pride in having worked hard and well. Today, the ache matched the strain of his feelings. At home, certainly, was his drunk father whom he’d have to gingerly sidestep. At home sat his nerves, his faint hopes, and his frustrated ambitions.
Hector cast a glance to the coffin handles, wrapped in cloth on the passenger seat. He wanted something. He wanted everything. He wanted absolutely nothing.
Life isn’t supposed to be a fucking Springsteen song, he thought, and watched the clouds shifting from purple to black the way his mother’s bruises did.
“Jesus fuck, Len.”
“This one’s neat, come on.” Len stood in the doorway, beckoning with his hands.
“What’s so special about this one?” Hector asked, chewing the sandwich he’d packed for lunch.
“You’ll see,” Len grinned, still beckoning. Hector put his sandwich down on the cellophane he’d had it wrapped in. He stood, rolling his eyes, and followed Len into the hallway.
“Carl and I worked on her for hours before I had to go up and help with a service,” Len said. “Wait till you see.”
Hector only ever went into the room where the bodies were if someone summoned him there. He had no particular feelings about working with corpses, but he had no reason to go in there, either. When he started, he’d been curious, but that curiosity soon waned. Corpses were, to him, just like the living. Once you’ve seen enough, they all blur together in a crowd of vaguely familiar faces. The only thing about corpses, Hector thought, was that you can stare at them without their minding it; that way, you can notice all sorts of details about a body that you can’t on a passing stranger. The subtleties of their shape, the texture of their flesh, how faintly or boldly their veins showed through their skin. That’s why, though he gave Len shit for it, he continued to follow him.
The coffin sat on the table, ready to be brought upstairs for viewing. Len approached it.
“Wait till you see this,” he said.
Hector stepped to the coffin alongside Len, growing frustrated with him.
Len opened the coffin, and as he did, the woman inside reached out at them. The pale, manicured hand with its robin-egg-blue nails jutted suddenly from the coffin as though it were going to grab Len, who shrieked as he dropped the lid and staggered back, collapsing in a faint.
Hector stood, his heart racing, staring at the hand that was now crushed beneath the lid, immobile, the painted fingers sticking out. Len lay unconscious on the floor, but Hector couldn’t move to see if he was alright.
Then Hector heard footsteps behind him.
Carl, the mortician, stood beside Len. He was a large man, imposing in his bulk, but gentle and tender in how he handled his business. His eyes were kind and tired.
He sighed and looked at Hector.
“It’s okay,” Carl said.
Hector pointed to the fingers peeking from the coffin.
“The…it…she…” he stammered.
“She’s dead. Very dead,” Carl said, approaching the coffin and lifting the lid. When he did, the arm rose again, as though it were reaching, and Hector watched as Carl opened the lid all the way, and the arm rose with it. Carl seemed unbothered by this, but the woman was very clearly dead. Hector remained confused until Carl reached out and plucked the transparent string which bound the woman’s wrist to the lid of the coffin.
“You shouldn’t be fucking around with the bodies,” Carl said.
For a moment, Hector felt a pang of anxiety in the middle of his chest, thinking of the coffin handles, wrapped in a bundle in his backpack.
“I been seeing you two come and go in here,” Carl said. “You, I’m not so worried about.”
Carl turned towards Len, who was still unconscious.
“But him,” he said, pointing, “I’m pretty sure he’s been feeling up the women. I caught him once, all handsy. Who knows, the freak could very well be fucking them.”
Carl went over to one of the cabinets in which he stored his equipment, and retrieved a pair of scissors. He went back to the coffin and snipped the wire that held the woman’s wrist to the lid, then gingerly placed her hand back across her torso, atop her other hand.
“You go on,” Carl said, and pointed at Len. “I’ve gotta have a talk with this fucker when he wakes up.”
Hector nodded and looked over to where Len sprawled on the floor.
He left and went to go finish his lunch.
The sky was overcast, nearly black, as Hector drove home. He cast a glance at the coffin handles wrapped in cloth on the seat beside him and choked something back; he wasn’t sure what. There was a feeling of distance within him, from a part of himself that he thought too vulnerable to access. Instead, he eyed the fuel gauge and tried to think practically.
When he arrived home, his mother was out on the porch, smoking. Hector parked on the street and got out of the car, leaving the coffin handles in the passenger seat. Waving limply, his mother sat in her old wicker chair, and as he approached the porch he could see that she now had a black eye.
He opened his mouth, but she spoke before he could.
“I know, honey, I know,” she said, waving her hand dismissively.
Hector was silent.
His mother reached to the rotten table beside her chair and retrieved her pack of Camels. She held it out to him. He took one and picked her lighter up from the table. Lighting the cigarette, he sat down on the floor of the porch, across from her.
“How was work?” she asked him.
“Work,” he said. His mother nodded.
“Got any school to work on?” she asked.
“Paper,” he said.
Hector took a deep drag from the cigarette and held it for a moment.
His mother regarded him wearily.
“When are you going to quit?” she asked.
Hector looked at her.
He didn’t say anything.
Neither did she.
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