Working nights made the job easier. Folks in town appreciated it too. Joe Gosser had a business to run. People understood that, but even 10 miles away they could spy the oily smoke of his crematorium. If the wind was right, they could smell it. Death was hard enough for most without the reminder.
Joe sat on the stoop and smoked. The car was late, but he didn’t mind the break. A hard week waited inside. If Bill’s call was right, tonight would only get harder. Joe’s gut rumbled, but the thought of food made him grimace. The fridge was packed with good salami and cheese along with some dinner rolls. Two wakes in a week made for a lot of leftovers. The Prescott boy and Salary’s oldest son, both gone with a flash of gunfire in some valley most couldn’t pronounce. Joe and the mothers and fathers got used to it fighting Germany the second time. Others got used to it with Korea. This one was different. No one had an appetite.
He shook out a fresh Chesterfield and blew smoke rings. Anyone else might have enjoyed the night sky, but that part of Joe died nearly 25 years ago in a farm town in France. In exchange he picked up smoking. It made time to think.
If the car were late, it was possible they’d been stopped. It would mean trouble if some country cop, an outsider, snooped around. More work on top of work. This side business never bothered his father, and Joe tried to feel the same. The first time bagmen brought his father a problem, the remains resembled ground beef. Not much skill needed to burn that. Only those late-night phone calls never sounded like this. Bill never sounded good, but there was something else in his voice tonight.
“One stiff, top of the list, need-to-know only.”
Old-timers in town swore the solid walls of Gosser Funeral Home could withstand a cannon blast. If that were true, Bill might have called again from another payphone without Joe ever hearing. Just as he got up to go inside for the phone, yellow lights crept over the horizon. Joe watched them come. The Studebaker rolled into the drive, gravel whispering beneath its wheels. Joe’s stomach growled again.
Bill hopped out of the passenger seat quickly as his bum leg and hefty gut allowed. He gave a salutary wave instead of speaking. Joe’s pulse quickened at the Old Man’s son in the backseat. He looked so much like the boss. Joe last saw the Kid on a trip to Chicago for a face-to-face with the Old Man. While the Old Man gave sincere regrets for Joe’s father and promised business would continue, the Kid sat on the office floor in diapers and played with blocks. Joe got a fat envelope, a single pat on the shoulder for his loss, and was sent on his way. He hadn’t seen the Old Man or the Kid since.
“Hey,” Bill wheezed, shuffling forward to shake Joe’s hand. Joe took it despite the bagman’s clammy grip. It felt like handling raw meat, but Bill had come to his father’s funeral. Joe supposed that made a difference. It was more than the Old Man had done.
“Late night,” Joe observed.
Bill gave his best laugh and only produced a wet burble.
“Yeah, a long one too.” His beady eyes jittered like grease on a hot skillet. “Old Man said we ought to bring the Kid down. Getting to be that age.”
“Everybody’s getting that age, Bill.”
Another wet bout of laughter turned to coughing.
“What am I dealing with?”
“Yeah, uh, just one tonight. Probably around, I don’t know...” He looked at the Kid, “120 and some change?” The Kid shrugged. Bill turned back to Joe and nodded.
“Give me about two hours?” Father’s funeral or not, Joe never minded lying to Bill. Joe guessed the man lost a lot of poker games.
“What’s the holdup? Got a line waiting for you?”
“Something like that, yeah.” Joe silently calculated how long he needed to reduce the body to ash. “Had two ceremonies today. Already burning.”
“Oh boy, that stinks.” Bill’s sentiment sounded thin as his breath. He turned back to the car and shouted, “Get your ass in gear, Kid. Ernie! Lend a goddamned hand!”
The Kid took his time getting out of the car. Ernie stepped out of the driver’s seat without a sound. In his long black coat, black driver’s cap, and black gloves he seemed more wraith than flesh. Joe went to help him. Bill placed a sweaty hand on his shoulder. Joe wanted to snap it at the wrist.
“It’s okay. They can handle it. Kid’s gotta get his hands dirty eventually.”
Joe remembered the first time. Eight years old, Bill not even one of the Old Man’s bagmen then. The men who brought the first body were all probably dead now. Dead like Joe’s father, who took the corpse with no argument and burned it to ash in the basement. The ashes went in a barrel, and the barrel went out to the graves, mixed with so much fertilizer. Bill was right: all the kids eventually got their hands dirty.
“Jesus Kee-Rist, Kid. Thank God your Old Man ain’t here to see this.” Bill hobbled closer to the car. The Kid could barely hold onto the crumpled, wrapped plastic. The round end slammed against the rear door.
“Watch it!” Bill cried and cleared his throat before a coughing fit could take hold.
The Kid smirked. “Afraid I’m gonna hurt her?”
Bill’s jittering gaze fell back on Joe for a moment. The Kid’s class ring, a golden, gaudy thing inset with a sparkling blue stone, winked on his finger. The Old Man never struck Joe as the flashy gangster. The ring was bold, a new era.
Ernie took the body from the Kid and swung it over one shoulder. Joe opened the cellar entrance and led the way. Bill and the Kid spoke freely all the while. Maybe they weren’t used to the quiet countryside, maybe they thought Joe’s hearing was going along with his vision, or maybe they just saw a tired, overfed, and complacent old man.
“-never should’ve gotten this far, you little bastard.”
“-you work for-”
“-work for the Old Man, Kid. You got a lot coming. Now get this mess-”
Joe followed Ernie into the dark.
Two empty gurneys waited in the corner. The Retort stood silent, empty, and cold. If Ernie saw or cared, he gave no sign. Joe guessed he lied to Bill a few times too. He brought a third gurney forward without a word. They worked the body onto it, and long strands of bleached hair dangled from the torn tarp. Joe froze. At that, Ernie smiled, raised a long finger to his lips, and headed upstairs.
The front door creaked as the visitors made themselves at home. Joe reminded himself the front door needed oil; he’d let it slip for a little too long. On top of that, the screen was almost falling off. The staples holding it in were nearly old as him. He’d been halfway done replacing it when Bill called. Now, it would have to wait.
Lists. Joe’s whole life could be stretched out as one long list. Everybody started with the same to-do list: Born and Die. Only sometimes their final rest came with a gunpowder sendoff and one-way trip to the furnace. Sometimes a body got mourned. Sometimes people drank and made speeches. Sometimes they were just meat. An ache grew in his throat. Joe choked it down and got working.
As the Retort heated up, Joe looked over at his desk. A Silver Star shone behind its glass frame. Next to it, a photo of his unit. He doubted the young men in the picture would recognize him now. Joe spared only a glance to the scuffed and battered footlocker. He went to the desk, thinking he really ought to clean up all the clutter. Dead flowers, dried to nothing, littered the surface beside faded cardstock. He tried not to read the words as he filed them away, but he couldn’t ignore them any better than he could ignore the long, blonde hair falling from the body bag. Or the weight, “120 pounds.” Someone’s sister. Someone’s daughter.
His hands, rough and worn like his father’s, wavered over the lone photograph of a younger Joe at the lakeshore. A grinning, drooling toddler bounced on his knee. Carol stood behind them, fine and pretty in her floral dress, laughing at her two boys. Soot smudged their faces now, forever staining the memory.
Joe rubbed his fingers, but the ash stayed put. Suddenly the darkness wore into the grooves of his hands and burnt like hot wax. Some pumice soap ought to have done the job, but the burning remained. The Retort rang, ready for its third meal of the day — the fourth for the week. The chime brought Joe back to Earth. He needed this done. That thing in the plastic, it was just another item on his list.
A gust of wind blew through the cellar door and shook the plastic completely free. He sighed. Sleeplessness and bad vision were certainly Gosser family crosses to bear, but so was being bullheaded.
Joe stared into the girl’s face. Only face was a stretch, and he reflexively ran an estimate how long it would take to make her presentable. Only this girl’s family would never get the bill. Her service would just have four attendees: her gravedigger and her executioners upstairs. The skin shone porcelain-white but shattered partway up her face. Half the left eye was gone; some of her tangled, greasy hair was scraped away in a shallow divot. Joe bet if he looked close enough, he could make out the imprint from the Kid’s class ring. Her right arm flopped from the bag like a dead fish, bits of broken elbow grinding in the joint. Track marks wound up the inner side.
Whistling mortars and the screams of the dying had never left Joe, and they always grew worse at night. But now, they were replaced with something else, something like the steady, shrill cry from a boiling kettle. Muffled laughter came from upstairs.
He laid the girl’s arm back beside her, closed the remaining eye. No prayers came. Joe believed the funeral director had no say in the preacher’s business. Then came heat as he pushed the girl into the flames. Joe never watched them burn. His father did. He always sat on a worn barstool, fiddling with his glasses, as the Retort consumed its next meal. The stool remained nearby, coated in dust. Joe passed it without a second’s thought. He went and opened the footlocker.
“What’s his deal anyway?”
“Talking shit about our man helping you out?”
“Yeah, old guy’s weird.”
“Jesus, leave it, Kid.”
“Come on, the guy hangs around dead people all day.”
“It’s his family business, something you ought to take notes on, you uppity, little shit.”
“Yeah, family business. You got to listen to me-”
“The hell I do. We could’ve just given your dad a call. We’re doing you a favor. If you even make it someday, you’re better off remembering- The hell was that?”
Joe stopped halfway up the stairs. His foot wavered above the next rise. He reconsidered and took the left side up to the door.
“You hear it too?”
“And the purple one?”
“Jesus Kee-Rist. The purple one is a Purple Heart, moron.”
“Some kind of G.I. Joe-”
“Ain’t mine.” The Kid shrieked in surprise before he knew better. Bill started from his spot on the couch. Ernie just went back to looking out the window.
“What?” The Kid sat on a side table and strained to be casual.
Joe leaned in the basement doorway. “Off.”
“What?” The Kid said again, dumbly.
“Sorry, Joe.” Bill rolled forward, “Kid’s got mud in his ears. Get off the man’s furniture!” Joe remained in the doorway, his right side obscured.
Bill leaned back and took a bite of sandwich, mustard dribbling out the sides and onto the carpet. In between smacks, he asked, “So uh, you take care of it? It’s taken care of, right?”
Bill titlted his head. “That question for us, Joe?”
Joe shrugged. “Curious, maybe.”
Bill nodded, but the Kid spoke up first. “My dad says you aren’t the questions type of guy. What gives?” This time, Bill refused to rein the Kid in or yank on his invisible leash. His eyes went dead as Joe’s.
“Purple Heart and Silver Star ain’t mine. My medal’s downstairs.” The Kid nearly gave himself whiplash glancing between the mantle and the man in the doorway. “My boy, David’s. He’s dead.” Flat and plain as a paper plate.
Bill set the sandwich down, his eyes going wide. “David’s dead?”
Bill wiped a sudden sheen of sweat off his face. “Jesus, Joe. I’m sorry. Truly.”
“Who was she?”
Bill shook his head, “You looked inside? That’s not good, Joe. Old Man was always real clear about that.”
“Kid ripped the tarp, Bill.” Joe locked eyes with the Kid. The oily smirk was like a stain. “Who was she?”
Bill sighed, weak breath rattling in his broken lungs.
“Old Man said we ought to bring the Kid and make the rounds, you know, get his head in the game for once.” The Kid stood up straight as possible, his smirk now a full-blown grin. The only one who seemed indifferent to this new bump in the road was Ernie. The driver stood still and dead-faced as a cigar store Indian.
Bill resumed eating, “We were at the Mills, and things got a little nuttier than usual. Things got said. Kid got a little too carried away, but I mean, come on, Joe. Kid’s got spirit, you know? Anyway, there was a little…mix-up with the girl, and things got out of hand.”
“Who was she?”
“Hey!” The Kid burst forward, smile gone, “None of your business! You deaf? You talk like a busted record!”
Silence suffocated the whole room.
“Joe,” Bill started and sighed, “Joe, I’m sorry about your boy. We hadn’t heard. Never should’ve brought this to you.”
“Where’s it stop, Bill?”
“The killing. My boy, I told him what we do here. For you. For the Old Man. For your family. Figured it was time he get his hands dirty.” The Kid sat back down on the end table. Bill said nothing this time. Joe went on:
“He asked if Carol had known. I couldn’t tell him. So you know what my boy did? Stormed right out and went to Vietnam. So, Bill, when’s this stop?”
Bill shrugged, “We all got orders from the Old Man, you know? Nothing stops this.”
Joe wasn’t sure if he imagined it, or if maybe the other killers failed to hear: a final click as the door swung shut.
Joe asked, “You going to serve, son?”
“Nah, man, I ain’t doing shit.” The Kid crossed his arms. “Got a deferment. My feet hurt.”
“You ever serve, Bill?”
“No, I mean, you know that. Polio kept me out-”
“So just Ernie then?” The driver acknowledged the funeral director with a steel gaze. “Korea, right? Unsan?”
Joe brought up the 1911 and shot him in the face. The quiet world shattered. Ernie fell back through a red cloud. Then came the inevitable Joe counted on. The other two men’s wide eyes were the same as Joe had seen in countless foxholes and blasted buildings. Eyes that couldn’t comprehend the violence erupting around them. In Joe’s experience, it only lasted a second. He took the second.
Bill pulled the revolver from his coat pocket pretty quick. Joe’s second bullet smacked into the wall as the big man dove for cover. The third took his target in the shoulder as he fell. Bill screamed but kept crawling for the kitchen. The Kid came off the table and wrestled Joe to the floor. He was small but strong. Joe probed for an eye. The Kid bit down and ground Joe’s thumb like a tough steak. He tried bucking the Kid off him, eyes rolling back.
The staple gun lay beneath the couch. Joe squirmed one knee beneath the Kid and drove it hard into his stomach. Air rushed out of the Kid in a sharp gulp. Joe pulled free before his thumb was bit clean through, took up the staple gun, and squeezed it against the Kid’s ear and temple.
The wind knocked out of the Kid came back in a strangled squeak. Joe bolted up and met Bill standing by the front stairs, revolver raised. He shouted something; Joe guessed it wasn’t surrendering. He leaped behind the nearest wall, but not before a bullet caught him in the calf. Adrenaline surged, and he returned fire. Bill hunkered down by the door, firing wildly like his revolver would never run dry.
The Kid still struggled and screamed between the firefight raging around him. Joe wanted to pop him just to shut him up. Bill clicked onto an empty chamber. Joe breathed, turned the corner, and fired twice before retaking cover again. The wood banister by Bill’s head exploded into splinters. The hallway filled with more screams.
The old thrill of it all rushed back through Joe, stuck to his ribs like a good meal. His heart beat faster. There was sweat on his brow but nowhere near his palms. He smoothly ejected the first magazine and loaded his second, racking the slide without thinking. He took aim. The Kid could go first.
Ernie slammed into Joe from behind and hurled him towards the basement door. They cleared it without even touching the first few steps and crashed down hard. Joe struck the side of his head on the wall, stars blazing across his eyes. Something cracked in his hand and the 1911 disappeared behind the stairs. Then Ernie was on him, hands around Joe’s throat.
Half the man’s scalp peeled away, one eye gone entirely red and bulging with hideous pressure. Joe saw a lot of bodies, on and off the battlefield, but never anything like this. Blood and spit flew from Ernie’s feral face as he tightened his grip on Joe’s neck.
Ernie howls and screams belonged to a madman. “Kill you! Kill you! Killyoukillyou!”
Each time Ernie tightened his hands, the basement grew darker and wider. Joe floated away from the pain into the void. Then the Retort rang out, finished with the girl’s body. Weak flames danced through the dark. Joe looked up into Ernie’s ruined face. Something glinted in the firelight, something metal behind the dangling flesh that used to be Ernie’s ear. Joe shot up, found Ernie’s weak point, and yanked. The loose scalp ripped away from Ernie’s skull.
Joe struggled to his feet, gasping for breath, head ringing like a fire alarm. Ernie forgot all about him and knelt, trying to hold the rest of his skull together. Joe slammed the driver face-first into Retort’s side. There came the crackle and spit of frying meat as Ernie fused with the searing metal. Joe tore back the driver’s head and wrenched it to the side. A gristly pop, and there was silence again. Joe blinked, clearing stars from his eyes. The 1911 was lost, but luckily he found his glasses in one piece. The footlocker still stood open. He took the Garand and charged back upstairs.
Two pools of blood sat in the hallway. A set of footprints led from each. Joe paused, listened. No sirens on the horizon. It seemed the old-timers in town were right about the house after all. Good, old-fashioned masonry could silence anything.
Joe followed one set of bloody footprints into the kitchen. The Kid jumped out from behind the table, something flashing in his hand. The knife whirled through the air and clunked uselessly into the wall. Fear blanched the Kid’s face as he stared down the Garand’s barrel and those flinty eyes behind it.
Bill fired from the front door. This time he aimed better and grazed off a chunk of Joe’s left shoulder. Joe’s glasses fell away as he went down. Bill took the spooked Kid by his collar and hauled him outside. Ernie wasn’t going to be joining them, that was clear, and now was time to beat a hasty retreat. Joe respected that. It’s what he would have done.
He picked up his glasses and winced. One lens gone, the other cracked. It would have to do. The screen door clung to one hinge now; Joe added it to his to-do list and drew a bead on the roaring Studebaker. He fired twice into the windshield before giving two more at the engine block. Bill and the Kid scrambled out from the car, using the erupting steam as cover. The Kid sprinted down the road, and Bill went for the plots outback. Now it was every man for himself.
The Kid wove and ducked as he sprinted towards town. Joe bet he picked up the idea watching too many war movies. At least the Kid’s feet weren’t giving him much trouble now. Joe’s shoulder burned, his leg felt cold, each heartbeat warned him of his probably fractured skull, and he was near-sighted. He aimed through the broken glasses, breathed, fired, and planted one bullet square into the Kid’s back. He dropped into the dirt and lay still. Joe came off the porch and went around the house.
The graveyard made for better cover. Bill scuttled from one tombstone to another. It was a smart idea, but his wheezing didn’t help. It might have just been Bill’s ill health, but Joe thought he might’ve clipped a lung. He walked, rifle at half-ready, and trailed Bill to the Vauntwood plot near the property’s far right corner. It was a good spot. The Vauntwoods picked it for the shade in the summertime. Bill bled over one of their graves and watched Joe come for him.
Bill struggled for breath and finally choked out, “Why?”
Joe sat atop a grave opposite his old associate.
Bill repeated, “Why?”
“Psycho. Dead as that whore.”
“Guess so.” Joe cradled the Garand in an easy rest across his leg. The injury to his calf felt far away now. “Can I use your belt?”
“Fuck yourself,” Bill burbled but handed over his belt anyway. Joe nodded thanks and tied off his wound.
“What was her name?” A middle finger for his answer. Joe prodded Bill’s wound with the barrel.
“Jesus! I don’t know.” Bill shook his head, wheezed. “You know the Mills. The girls don’t got names there. Just dollar signs.”
Joe took in the starry sky. “People tell me David died fighting for something right. But he didn’t. He went because of me. Because of you. To get away from this. Maybe he thought it could change him the way it did me. But I think I was always like this. Me and dad both.” A mosquito buzzed in Joe’s ear. He let it bite. “Why’d she die? Tell the Kid his prick didn’t work?”
Spasms racked Bill’s body. “Mistake.”
“Yeah.” Joe looked at the ground, “Guess so.” Bill lurched forward. Joe caught him by the other shoulder; let him down easy. Bill hauled himself up with one hand on the Garand’s barrel so he could look Joe in the eyes.
“Sorry,” he managed.
Joe’s finger left the trigger and rested against the guard. He counted, waited for the death rattle. Bill let go and crumpled to the ground, leaving a bloody smear on the Vauntwood tombstone.
Joe sighed. “Sorry.”
The girl’s ashes went in a small, green box like Prescott and Salary. Ernie, Bill, and the Kid waited on a plastic tarp beside the fertilizer spreader. Joe calculated, set a goal for nine, and got to work. He brewed coffee and set about repairing the house. The Studebaker went into the garage. He filled buckets with Lysol and hot water, scrubbed the hallways and walls. The hinge and broken screen were an easy fix. By then, Ernie and the Kid were gone. Bill got his own turn.
While they burned, Joe made himself a sandwich, brewed more coffee. Plaster did for the bullet holes. He couldn’t do much for the paint or the ruined banister. Halfway through this chore, he discovered the Silver Star and Purple Heart on the floor. Joe picked through the broken glass and put the medals in his breast pocket.
By quarter past nine, the three men were spread with the fertilizer among the graves. The gears of the spreader jammed over the Snyder plot. Joe pulled a misshapen metal lump from between the plastic blades. The words “Class of ‘66” glinted in the morning sun. He pitched it towards the trees, the golden band winking one last time before dropping from sight.
The girl’s green box waited on the porch. Joe sat beside it and afforded himself a few moments of rest. The sun stayed cool in the early morning. But there was still too much to do. He walked to the Gosser plot, box in hands. He stopped at David’s marker.
“I don’t think,” Joe sighed to the green box, “I don’t think they’d mind.” The remains scattered on the wind and were gone. Joe shook the box a few more times to be sure. The box sat evenly between David’s marker and Carol’s tombstone. Fit just about perfectly.
Joe limped back to the house. The kitchen floor shone, the hallway was absent of blood. The Retort cooled in the dark, its work done. Joe wasn’t sure if it would ever fire up again. He checked the wound on his leg. If he still served in the Army, it would have earned him a Purple Heart like his son. Only David took a mortar along with the rest of his squad. Joe’s bullet went through and through. Worst outcome: he wouldn’t be doing wind sprints any day soon.
He took a seat on the couch where Bill sat hours ago before their night took a real nosedive. The medals burned in Joe’s pocket like another wound while the kitchen clock counted down the time. The burning traveled from his pocket outward to the rest of him.
Joe went to the hearse. Chicago would be a bit of a drive, but his fighting spirit felt up to it. In a way, Joe knew it was the only outcome. He had always cleaned the guns out of habit, but a habit for what? The Garand sat across the backseat with four extra clips, a blanket thrown across it. The 1911 went on the passenger seat; Bill’s revolver was tucked within easy reach in the glove compartment. The road beckoned.
Somewhere beyond the trees and sunshine awaited the Old Man, no doubt wondering where his driver, right-hand man, and son ran off to. Joe could give him the full story. He pinned David’s medals on the visor. They looked good there, swaying with the movement of the car —Chicago in an hour.