“Not so bad. I think I can handle it.”
“Well whatever you do, don’t drop it. They’ll have yer ass on a stick.”
“I can handle it, I said.
“Yeah. We’ll see.”
The afternoon sun was plunging into a bright orange churn and the clouds overhead dipped low and sopped up the color and wrung it into variations on the hue while the peeling heat clung with crooked, bloated fingers to the underbelly of the day.
The two men stepped in time, cautiously now that they were reaching the muddy slope, supporting their burden between them, keeping their gloved hands well away from any uncovered parts of their unwanted prize. Both were bone tired and dehydrated from the long day’s repetitive trekking from the storage sheds to the bayou, out back of the main buildings. Sweat layered their sun burnt skin, mixing with the day’s grime, oil, muck and other things their skin had come into contact with over the past twelve hours. But they kept up their banter—a lifeline to normalcy—in the face of their unpleasant chore.
“You know what happened to the last man dropped his load. He took its place in the swamp.”
“I heard the last man dropped his load in yer mama.”
“Take it easy son. You don’t wanna be talkin’ faster’n you kin run. All hike my boot so far up yer ass you’d need a flashlight ta find it.”
“Like you could find my ass with yer head so far up yer own.” The younger man snickered at his own joke. Then turned inquisitive, “Hey, I’s thinkin’. Shouldn’t we be wearin’ them Haz Man suits for this kind o’ work? I mean these things can’t be good fer yer health, drippin’ shit all over the place. How long’s the ol’ man been storin’ these things, anyway?”
“Far as I know, he’s bin tossin’ em in the swamp fer near twenny years. An’ as fer yer personal safety, it’s a HAZMAT suit, ya dick wad. Not Haz Man.” It was his turn to snicker. “An’ why you think yer wearing them hip waders an’ weldin’ gloves, Slick? Safety boy, safety. Yer damn near a science fiction novel, dressed like that.”
“I s’pose. But why don’t he jess burn em up in his crematorium? Ain’t that what he’s s’posed to be doin’ instead o’ feedin em’ to the gators an catfish? I mean, county’s payin’ him to cremate em, not spread em all through the bayou.”
“Don’t you never stop talkin’?” The bigger, older man’s voice held an edge of menace.
“I’s jess askin’. Don’t get all Freddie Krueger on me, Hoss.”
“Who the hell’s that?”
“Monster guy from the movies.”
“You mean like Frankenstein?”
“Who, the doctor or the monster?”
“Ain’t no fuckin’ doctor, asshole. He was a monster walked like a robot an’ scared gypsies.”
“Doctor Frankenstein built the monster, Einstein. Then the monster took his name after he killed him.”
“Einstein, Frankenstein, who fuckin’ cares, he was a monster’s all I know.”
“I only been workin’ here fer a week an’ I can’t see no end to it, is all. How come they’s so many of em?”
“I been working fer the ol’ man the last ten years an’ there don’t seem to be any less now than when I started,” the older man explained. “They keep sendin’ the stiffs an’ we keep stackin’ em in the bayou. No way to burn em an’ no more room to bury em if we had a mind to, anyway.”
“Can this be legal? I mean it don’t seem right, somehow, treatin’ ‘em like this.”
“The ol’ man once tole me it may not be strictly moral, but as far as he knows, it ain’t altogether ill-legal. An’ hell, boy, the money’s good. You can’t git fiddy dollars a day pickin‘ peaches down around here, can ya?”
“Guess not. But peaches don’t shit on ya either.”
“That ain’t shit, son. You don’t wanna know what that is. Jess breathe through yer mouth an’ let’s get ‘er done.”
And so they parried in the lowering sun, in the still air, in the buzzing heat. Back and forth from the large shed to the swamp with their innumerable burdens in varying states; some lighter than others, some older than others, but all of the same scummy cloth, as it were.
By eight o’clock the sun was a distant memory and the men were toiling by Klieg light. The night was thick with insects, and the throaty croak of a thousand frogs forced the night heat to vibrate as it pushed into their faces, sluicing the sweat from their eyes and down their cheeks. One more trip back and they could quit for the day, wash up and fall to supper.
Standing beneath the old water tower, running a tepid shower of bug saturated rainwater over their exhausted bodies, the two men nodded at the other two crews, (one loaded the corpses onto the truck from the carpentry shed and one drove it to the swamp road for the final leg,) as they too stepped beneath the sad trickle and used pumice soap on their aches and kinks, trying to scrub away another distasteful day. It was a dull and silent exercise repeated every night in preparation for a full hearty meal and then, inevitably, a direct flop onto a welcoming cot on the back porch of MacNealy’s Funeral Home and Crematorium.
The last of a once grand, antebellum estate, MacNealy’s was bought at auction in the early fifties and became the first in a chain of lucrative funeral establishments serving the better part of the southeast. Florida, Georgia and eastern Louisiana sent its dead to MacNealy’s for cremation since it had by far the newest and best equipment within a three hundred mile radius. Rather it did have up until 1995, when the business descended to the eldest son, Royce.
It was just about that time that the business began recording losses, too. Few at first, but soon the deficits mounted and the company’s Board of Directors voted to hire an outside accountant to investigate the books. And it was just about that time that Royce fired the Board of Directors and reverted the business to a sole proprietorship. Immoral, perhaps, but maybe not entirely illegal as Royce viewed it, since his family members were the de facto stockholding body. In fact, the only ones hurt by the action were the unemployed members of the defunct board. But soon the other family members would also be stung by the tightening cash flow caused by Royce’s vices.
Soon the satellite crematoria in other cities were closed to shore up the survivors, until Royce had gambled away everything but the flagship enterprise itself, and that was looking pretty iffy by the early nineties. It got so that even maintenance became a problem with the Old Girl, as Royce’s daddy used to call the furnace. And that nearly closed the whole thing down in 1998.
It was spring and time for the biannual inspection of the facilities by the state and Royce was seeing difficulty in keeping the furnace running more than an hour at a time. Parts were worn or cobbled together, air to gas mixture was never to be trusted and the conveyor farted like an old dog, jigging and jagging and finally stopping at the worst of times. Naturally none of that bothered Royce, since he could always count on next of kin leaving well before the flames touched their dear departed. But this was an inspection.
Truth was that Royce had lately taken to conveying the dearly departed to the huge carpentry shed a quarter mile down the way and stacking them in plywood boxes till he could decently dispose of them. Most he buried in the selfsame plywood crates, while their relatives thought they were going to their various rewards in one of the five floor models Royce displayed in the front of the funeral home. Five of the most expensive and most beautifully crafted vessels one could hope to buy anywhere, let alone the best in the tri-state area. But those corpses just stacked in their funeral duds were heaved on the stacks as they were—box-less, careless and lifeless.
So Royce had to hustle to clear the stiffs out of the shed and air out the stink before the inspectors arrived, and he also had to pray that the Old Girl had one more blast left in her.
As it turns out, two miracles happened that day. The first was that he conned the inspectors into passing the funeral business for two more years and the second was that Royce discovered he didn’t have to worry about anything, he could go right on making money without fixing the crematorium and still keep his customers happy. Which meant that he made even more money.
Another little thing happened that day, too, or rather that night. Royce and his last two loyal employees went down to the part of the bayou they’d piled the corpses the night before, and found nearly half already gone into the swamp. Carried away, they thought, by big old gators, like as not. But the ones still stacked neatly, in three rows of six high, showed no signs of predator or scavenger markings. None that you’d expect at any rate—no missing limbs or heads and such. No, they were largely undisturbed, just stacked and waiting.
And this interested Royce, so he stayed long after the two swamp rats went off to home or wherever they went when they weren’t working for Royce. Along around three in the morning, or close to it, Royce was awakened by a deep thrumming and a hollow rumbling over the rhythmic crashing of enormous footsteps splashing in the watery byways of the swamp.
He jolted his back from against the bole of an old oak and reached inside his coat for his Smith & Wesson .38 Police Special. But he never did use it that night. No, instead he struck a bargain. And that bargain profited him nicely. Never again did he have to face an inspection, nor did he have to worry about getting the Old Girl up and running to spec. All Royce had to do was hold up his end and make money, hand over fist.
That was way back then. But tonight them boys were talking quiet over the last pieces of gravy-sopped cornbread and the last dregs from the coffee pots—no beer tonight, it wasn’t Friday night yet.
And like it always happened, one of the newer hands started wondering out loud.
“Can we go to hell for what we doing?”
It was the Mexican who’d started work just that morning. He was Catholic and despite his years in various jails for using a blade to settle arguments, he was still comically religious.
“Spic English, greaser,” said his skinny, pimple-scarred, twang-talking partner, who was probably tired of hearing him complain all day about spooks and demons and God damning them to hell, and doing it all in a thick accent he, himself, couldn’t hear.
“I am speak Eeng-glish, asshole. Better than you, too, trailer trach.”
The older man, the one with MacNealy the longest, said, “Why you think we’d go anywhere but maybe county lockup?”
The young man who was his own partner spoke up, “That’s jess what I was thinkin’ today, wasn’ it? An’ you said yerself it prob’ly ain’t illegal but it sure as Christ ain’t moral, neither.”
“See,” the Mexican added, “ees no moral, an thass what gets you in Hell. I’m leavin' this fockin circus tomorrow. Fifty dollars is all I need to keep goin’. Fock these chit.”
“Go on then, ya greasy bastard. Get the hell gone if yer goin’. I ain’t workin’ with ya again—ya piss me off all day with yer fuckin’ ghoul talk an’ yer wetback stories a demons an’ greaser monsters. Like ta make me shit mini-bricks half the day, freak me out so bad,” answered his partner who was easily persuaded and highly imaginative.
The members of the third crew slipped quietly off to their cots, leaving the situation to fend for itself.
The Mexican’s brown face turned blood red in the light washing down from the porch into the screened picnic tables used for meals. He dropped his tin cup onto his plate and bolted to his feet with a butterfly knife snicking open in the blink of an eye, baring an evil looking stiletto blade in the palm of his right hand.
“Is there somethin’ goin’ on I should know about, Jeff?”
The voice came from up on the porch, deep and gravelly, but with a hint of whisky humor in the tone. Royce MacNealy stepped down the stairs into the mess tent and hefted the empty coffee pot. A smiled touched his eyes as he shrugged his shoulders and dug into his inside coat pocket for a silver flask. He unscrewed the cap and before taking a sip he offered;
“Can I stand you to a drink, Pedro?”
“My name is Luis,” said Luis his knife steady and his anger evident.
“Sure it is. You want this drink or don’t you?”
Royce didn’t wait for an answer. He took a generous swallow, recapped his flask and shoved it back into the inside pocket of his linen jacket while he sat himself down at the picnic table with the men.
Jeff’s young partner stared in disbelief at the man across from him. He should be well into his sixties, to hear Jeff tell it. Taking over the business when he was already near the end of his forties, but he looked younger than Jeff, who was forty-something himself.
“So you’re thinkin’ of leavin’ us, are ya Pedro?”
“These ain’t good work for nobody. I din’ know it was like these.”
“Whyn’t you put away the knife an’ we’ll just get your day’s pay and you can be on your way. You don’t have to make a thing out of this,” said Royce, just as quiet as you please.
“I can wait for mornin’,” said Luis flipping his knife closed and slipping into his chinos.
“No you can’t,” answered Royce with steel in his eyes. “If you’re set on leaving I’d rather get her done right away. Jeff, go up to the office and get fifty crisp dollars for Pedro here, then you can give him a lift to the end of the road.”
“But is dark out now,” said Luis in a surprised voice. “You can’ kick me out in the night. Thass not right.”
“I ain’t kicking you out, Pedro, you quit. Remember?
“But, bullshit. Pack your sack and be outta here when I get back.” Royce MacNealy stood up from the table, turned and faded into the shadows beyond the harsh porch light.
The men left at the picnic table sat stunned, Jeff having left to do Royce’s bidding, Luis stood frozen in shocked silence, like a man condemned to hang at dawn, and did nothing to obey MacNealy’s order to vacate.
“What the hell,” asked Jeff’s young partner, finally. “Guess it don’t do to complain around here, huh? But there weren’t no call fer the boss ta take on so.”
“There weren’t no call fer Hayseus here ta pull that pussy knife, neither,” said pockmark.
“These is fockin’ bullchit, man. I ain’ goin nowhere. I stayin’ right here till it gess light out.”
“Well, you might could do that, but I’d have to shoot you a little.” It was Jeff, back from the office and he was carrying an AR-15 Mini with a thirty round clip. The rifle looked small in his hands but it was an ugly thing to see in the dark, in anybody’s hands.
“Go on, move it, Manuel.”
“My fockin’ name is Luis,” said Luis as he went to his cot and grabbed his sack. He hadn’t even had time to unpack.
He walked away into the dark, looking back once to give the finger to his pimple scarred antagonist, and was gone.
The next day was hotter than the last and until they could fill Luis’s spot, Mr. MacNealy had Pockmark switch between crews to lend a hand, while he drove the truck himself. But it was more cumbersome than helpful, what with being the odd man out, so to speak. It was always easier to carry the corpses one at the head and one at the legs. Then again, there always was that one obese deceased that could use extra muscle and then Pockmark, whose real name was Alvin, did come in handy.
Come around six that evening Alvin was back with Jeff’s crew, and they were all bone tired, but of course there was still more to stack before they would call it quits. While they took five, midway down the bayou, Jeff received a call on his cell. When he punched off, he told Alvin and the young man they had a special stop to make, in the pickup, personally—a special stop at the mortuary’s embalming room.
This turned out to be one of the really heavy ones, zipped into a makeshift body bag, and the three of them struggled, even as practiced as they were, to get it balanced between them and out onto the truck. When they stopped and offloaded, they had at least half a mile to go before they reached the location of the latest collection stack. It was a burden for the men. The corpse was denser than most and definitely more solid. And strangely, there was no overpowering odor to burn their nostrils.
They were all out of breath and gasping to suck air when the young man’s grip slipped and he dropped the corpse’s shoulders and they all faltered and the corpse twisted and flopped out of their hands, crunching heavily off the bole of a big old Cyprus and rolled a few feet down slope from where it hit. Jeff was the first to react and got to the body before the rest and quickly closed the tear in the cheap bag near the head. But the young man caught a heart-freezing glimpse of the contents before Jeff’s fist had the opening all the way closed.
Luis’s surprised stare cut into the young man’s eyes, and the confusion on the ashen face, caught in the moment of death, stopped the young man’s heart for a beat and sent it up into his tightening throat. And then it was over; the body bag was gripped closed and the young man refused to look again as the three men hefted the corpse back to the carry position and finished their walk to the drop off. Alvin didn’t let on he’d seen anything, and likely as not he hadn’t.
After an unusually quiet evening meal, Mr. MacNealy brought two new men down to the tents and introduced them, not by name of course, but by pointing his finger at each and announcing they were joining the work crews. Then he told Jeff and his young partner to follow him to the big building when they were finished their beer—it was Friday night.
It was the first time the young man had been inside the office. It was old; old wood, old paintings on the walls, old wallpaper and old air pressing down on him from the history of the house. Mr. MacNealy was speaking quietly to Jeff over at the old desk, and after a while Jeff straightened up and nodded, then motioned to the young man that the meeting was over.
“We got some overtime, son. Gotta do a little thing fer Mr. MacNealy, but there’s an extra twenny in it fer both of us,” Jeff spoke as they walked out the door.
“I already got the most part of a six-pack in me Jeff, I ain’t good fer much right now. Hope this little thing don’t take no thinkin’,” warned the young man with a sly grin.
“Hell, boy, we gonna git us another six-pack fer the drive. This is overtime, son, not real work,” laughed Jeff.
Jeff made sure the young man downed the lion’s share of the quickly warming beer before they arrived at their destination, deep in the bayou. It was well past ten o’clock when Jeff pulled the Jeep up to a stop at a spot the young man didn’t recognize.
Here, the voice of the swamp was loud and insistent and raw and the night heat was cloying, and the voice of the swamp was rhythmic and droning and buzzing and soothing to the young man as he sat in the front seat and listened, sipping from his can and waiting for instructions from Jeff. And they waited, listening and not talking and soon the young man was asleep.
A huge, heavy, gushing, guttural, throaty voice filled the young man’s senses and he slowly came awake in the grip of panic. He instantly found himself in the literal grip of something else, as well. A monstrous fist held him tightly, crushing his ribs, as the voice rumbled on into clarity for his confused ears.
“The last one was fresh and now this! I like them aged! I cannot digest the souls,” boomed the voice in the swamp as the gripping fist shook. The young man’s head rolled like a rag doll’s and he heard his neck crack. In his fading vision he saw Mr. MacNealy and Jeff standing at the edge of an enormous bog pond. As his head rolled in the grip of the creature that held his body, the young man caught a fleeting, blurred glance. A mass of glistening black flesh, covered by the essence of the bayou, vibrating and thrumming the surrounding waters, with a face, coming now and then into focus, that resembled nothing less than a demon from one of the painting books he’d seen as a kid in grade school.
“Then set it free to haunt the swamp like the others,” said Mr. MacNealy. I can’t see the difference.”
“I am bound by stricture,” growled the voice in the young man’s ears. “I cannot deviate, and nor shall you!”
There was chilling menace in the last words, and Mr. MacNealy seemed to know he’d crossed a line. He turned and nodded to Jeff who held the AR-15. Jeff raised the rifle and aimed at the young man’s lolling head.
“I didn’t mean to drop Luis, Jeff. Honest,” he whimpered.
“I ain’t mad at you, son. It’s more’n jess that.” And he fired.
The night filled with the crunch of wet bones as the two men retreated from the heart of the bayou.
“Not so bad. I think I can handle it.”
“Well whatever you do, don’t drop it. They’ll have yer ass on a stick.”
“I can handle it, I said.”
“Yeah. We’ll see,” said Jeff to one of the new men.
The morning sun was rising into a bright yellow blaze and the clouds overhead rose up and reflected the light and spread it over the face of the day. It was going to be another hot one.