Sunday, July 5, 2020

Issue # 65 -- July 2020


By Jay Butkowski

Ephraim Walker—everyone called him “Ray,” but his momma had a biblical streak to her—stood silent vigil, watching through the fireproof glass of the old cremator door as the cardboard glowed hot orange before disintegrating into ash, emitting a plume of acrid gray smoke into the ether. He leaned on the four-foot steel pole they used to shut the red-hot metal door of the incinerator. Jimmy could swear he saw the solid steel pipe flexing and bowing under Ray’s massive muscled frame.

Jimmy for his part took the opportunity afforded by Ray’s solemnity to rest against a stack of cardboard boxes piled on the mortuary floor. Ray had insisted that each body was “owed their due,” and no matter how many bodies came in, Ray gave each one a moment of silent respect after they pushed them into the fire. Jimmy didn’t care much about silent respect, but he figured he could use a breather from trying to keep pace with the big man.

Jimmy Rossi couldn’t remember a time when Ray Walker wasn’t working for his dad at Rossi’s Funeral Home. It just seemed like he was always there, from time immemorial, like he came with the building—some dark, menacing golem that they had inherited with the janky mortuary tables and the dilapidated hearse and the aging and temperamental cremator when they moved here from upstate.

Despite his near constant presence in his home and in his life, Jimmy knew next to nothing about Ray. He was big. He was quiet—but not in a gentle kind of way. More like a volcano before it blows its top. Ray didn’t suffer fools and slackers, which meant that Ray and Jimmy didn’t get along, because Jimmy was both a fool and a slacker. The fact he was the boss’s kid was probably the only thing that spared Jimmy from a good, old-fashioned ass-kicking.

With the other guys working there, Jimmy could joke around between stiffs, maybe take a swig of something from a brown-bag-clad bottle, maybe at least listen to the radio. When Jimmy was on shift with Ray, he knew it was going to be a long, hard day of loading bodies into the cremator in near silence. At least he didn’t have to do too much of the heavy lifting. Ray was plenty capable of handling the bodies by himself if he had to, so Jimmy just kind of phoned it in on the light end of the body whenever they had to lift the next one up onto the rollers.

Even slacking off, though, Jimmy knew he was going to wind up with a sore back by the end of the day. The sheer number of bodies coming into Rossi’s Funeral Home was staggering—people were dropping like flies because of the ‘rona. Big Jim, the funeral parlor owner, never looked a gift plague in the mouth—money was coming in hand over fist to dispose of the bodies from three nearby medical centers. Big Jim magnanimously dipped into his newly flush coffers to hand out a couple extra flimsy bandanas and some second-hand work gloves to his staff—his own kid included—as his version of distributing life-saving personal protective equipment.

The bodies would arrive from the hospitals in nondescript matching cardboard, a carbon-copy slip taped to the side of the box to identify who was inside. No one came to mourn the dead. No one was allowed.

Ray started to stir from his mourner’s post, meaning break time was about over for Jimmy. As the two men wordlessly bent down to pick up the next cardboard coffin to lift onto the rollers, a tricked-out Honda with a whiny, after-market exhaust and a bass-thumping sound system pulled into the loading bay.

“Hey… You guys do cremations or some shit here?” asked the oblivious driver through a white bandana, barely audible over the thumping beats channeled through his car stereo.

“We doin’ ‘em right now,” said Ray as he stood and stretched his massive frame.

“Jeez, man, someone ate their Wheaties growing up,” marveled the driver as he shut down the car and stepped out. “What’re you, like six-five? Six-six?”

Ray grunted in response.

Undaunted, the man continued. “So, I… like I got this problem, and I’m hoping maybe you guys can help me out?”

“What kind of a problem?” Jimmy asked.

“We ain’t interested,” Ray interjected.

The Honda driver, stepped forward and spoke directly to Jimmy, ignoring Ray. “See, I got this issue that I kinda want to handle quietly, and I figured, you guys are already doin’ the cremations, right? So, what’s one more?”

“I told you we ain’t interested,” growled Ray.

“Who?” asked Jimmy.

The driver looked cautiously at Ray over the top of his sunglasses before turning his attention back to Jimmy. “My cousin’s husband. Asshole gets sick, and he’s watching Fox News, and he hears the president say, ‘Inject bleach.’ And so, what does this asshole do? He injects bleach!

“Anyway, it’s kind of an embarrassing situation for my family, and my cousin’s grieving, and so I says to her that I’ll take care of it. We would just prefer to handle it quietly and just have the whole fucking thing go away, right?” The driver paused to let his sales pitch sink in before he continued. “I can pay…”

He stuck his hand in his pants pocket and produced a wad of large denomination bills. He started counting them off.

“Two hundred each? Three hundred? What’s a fair price? You tell me.”

Jimmy started reaching for the cash when Ray barked an order.

“Put your monkey, cracker-ass hand down! I told you already, we ain’t interested.”

“Money’s not an issue here…” pleaded the driver.

Jimmy looked past the driver and into the back seat of the car. A large, human-shaped figure was wrapped in a stained and bloody white sheet.

“That don’t look like no bleach injection,” said Jimmy, not sure what exactly a bleach injection was supposed to look like.

“I don’t really got time for this shit,” said the driver. “Look, take the cash, take the body, I wasn’t here, okay? We can either do this the easy way or the hard way. The easy way, maybe you make a couple bucks.”

“Maybe this ain’t such a good idea…” realized Jimmy.

“Fine. You picked the hard way.” The driver shoved the cash back in his pocket and whipped a handgun out of the back of his pants. He took a couple steps toward Jimmy and held the gun menacingly to the side. “Good idea or not, you’re gonna fucking do this and you’re not gonna say shit to no one, or I’m gonna come back here, and I’m gonna waste both of you fuckers.”

And that’s when Ray’s volcano top blew.

The gunman didn’t realize he was in range of Ray’s steel pole, leaning against the rollers they used to slide the bodies into the cremator furnace. The big man grabbed it and swung down hard on the driver’s hand. A wet snap announced that his trigger finger and several other bones were now useless mush. A brief, painful yelp emitted from behind the white bandana. Ray had swung so hard through the man’s hand that his entire body lurched forward, and in a fluid, almost practiced maneuver, Ray swung the pole back up.

Ray connected with the driver’s face. His head snapped back. His sunglasses went flying. The driver stood, bolt upright for a moment in a confused, zombie-like daze, the very embodiment of the phrase, the lights are on, but nobody’s home. The space between heartbeats felt like an eternity as the man stood there in front of the two mortuary workers, unnaturally still.

Then his body gave up.

Crimson crept in from the edges to eclipse the milky white sclera of the gunman’s eyes as hemorrhages began to burst in his brain. Deep, dark red, almost black, spread quickly across the white cloth covering the man’s face. He coughed once—an involuntary spasm—and sprayed droplets of blood all over Jimmy’s face, before collapsing in a heap on the mortuary floor next to his discarded handgun.

“Jesus Christ, I think you killed him!” croaked Jimmy. He sprung forward and frantically searched for a nonexistent pulse.

Ray let the pole clang to the floor, and stepped forward, placing a heavy hand on the younger man’s shocked shoulder.

“Hadta be done. Besides, you heard him: what’s one more? Or two? Or even three?”

Ray bent forward, and reached into the man’s pocket, pulling out the wad of cash. He slipped the money into his own pants pocket and didn’t offer to share any with the boss’s son.

“Lift the heavy end this time, asshole,” he said gruffly to Jimmy before getting ready to heft the gunman onto the cremator’s squeaky rollers.

They worked the rest of the day loading bodies and cleaning up the mess without a word between them.

Jay Butkowski is a writer of crime fiction and an eater of tacos who lives in central New Jersey. His short fiction has appeared online in Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, Near to the Knuckle, Yellow Mama and Story and Grit. He’s a co-host of the Asbury Park Noir at the Bar reading series, and serves as Managing Editor at Rock and a Hard Place Magazine a lit-noir journal chronicling bad decisions and desperate people. He has two children who threatened him at knifepoint to be included in this bio, and a loving, supportive girlfriend who’s slightly less violent.

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